The Review of Arts, Literature,
Philosophy and the Humanities
The Best of
[Issues 226 - 237]
(Twelve)In Christopher Hitchens' final days in the hospital, one of the staff asked him, "Have you met with our 'pain management' team yet?" Hitchens found the phrase startling. "Once you have heard it the wrong way," he writes, "this can seem like an echo of the torturer's practice, of showing to the victim the instruments that will be used on him."
There was a reason for Hitchens' unease. The old curmudgeon had been waterboarded before. No, it wasn't under direct orders from Dick Cheney. On his own, Hitchens had tracked down some experienced professionals, presumably fresh from the back rooms at Guantánamo, so he could experience the process directly. He wanted to report to readers of Vanity Fair just what waterboarding felt like, whether it was a legitimate tool to use against these presumed Enemies of the Republic.
What happens, you may have been told, is a 'simulation' of the sensation of drowning. Wrong. What happens is that you are slowly but inexorably drowned. And if at any point you manage to evade the deadly drip of water, your torturer will know. He or she will then make a minute but effective adjustment.
In the hospital, in his last days, Hitchens got to experience waterboarding again, albeit of a slightly different form. This was the exquisitely deadly drip of dying over eighteen months "with the banal, quotidian hospital and medical practices that remind people of state-sponsored torture." Mortality is a journal of his final days of torture.
Hitchens had come down with cancer of the esophagas, lymph nodes, and lungs, and here we find him looking at the cancer and his pending death with a practiced, critical eye, managing all the while to win our hearts with his lack of honeyed sentiment, avoiding the usual soppiness that most of us call up when we or those close to us are dying.
The book takes us on the journey from June of 2010 (when Hitchens was diagnosed) to December of 2011 (when he died). What a beautiful, awful journey it was. Samuel Johnson said that "The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully." Hitchens was not being hanged, unless you mean that metaphorically, but his literate mind stayed focused and articulate. He goes into the rich detail of his body becoming a "reservoir of pain," meditates on the old wheeze that pain makes us better people, offers thoughts on whether the phrase "the war on cancer" is appropriate, and reveals that near the end he became a willing morphine junky: "How happily I measured off my day as I saw the injection being readied."
Did those 18 months turn Hitchens into some kind of a hero? "I love the imagery of struggle," he tells us, "but when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring in a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don't read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into you system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water."
In less than 100 words, he not only is able to defuse the fake heroic image ("battling cancer") but manages to leave us with a delicate and elegant irony: "kindly people" delivering "a huge transparent bag of poison ... a venom sack."
The volume is encapsulated by two contributions from those who may have known Hitchens best: his wife, Carol Blue, and his old editor, Graydon Carter. Blue's words are charming and sad and wry and blue, telling of a man who was probably --- I am guessing now --- a pain to know intimately and to live with and to love. Despite this, her obituary is graced with a generosity, even a sense of fun, which is more than touching.
Then there is Carter. His words seem more pro forma, include a sentence that a good editor would have strangled in the crib. "Christopher," he tells us, "was not just brave in facing the illness that took him but brave in word and thought." I am wondering if he read Mortality before he dug up this old wheeze-bag. Right there in Hitchen's last chapter we find the elegant and direct statement: "Brave? Hah! Save it for a fight you can't run away from."
In college, one of my best teachers, Dr. Quinn, had us read Harry Levin's great study The Question of Hamlet. Levin emphasizes the game element of Hamlet --- for it is a game, although a deadly one, taking place there in the palace. But it was also, Levin insisted, wasteful. That such a person as the good prince should be forced to set a state's disorder back to rights; and that he should have to die in the process of so doing.
I thought of this waste as I was getting to the end of Mortality. Many of us fans had felt that Hitchens was sent here by the gods to try to help piece our disordered world back together again. Even when he came up with some of his weirdest theories, such as supporting the initial entry into Iraq, we excused him because he was being pure Hitchens. We never contemplated that he would leave us behind before things had come to be set to rights again.This review also appeared in Reason Magazine
Carol Ann Duffy
(Faber & Faber)The author of Rapture was appointed English Poet Laureate in May of 2009. This volume of poems was published a couple of years before her appointment.
Ms. Duffy's poetic ways may cause the casual reader heartburn, if not angina. She is fond of repeating words, a versifying stutter that I suppose is meant to emphasize the message: "so I went to bed, dreaming you hard, hard..." and "We knelt in the leaves, / kissed, kissed, new words rustled nearby and we swooned," and "Then the fruit from the cherry tree falling on grass / is your kiss, your kiss..." There are even a couple of triple headers: "We text, text, text / our significant words" and "I hear your name / rhyming, rhyming, / rhyming with everything."
Rhymes and kisses aside, Ms. Duffy has some strange images that may give some readers not only heartburn but chilblains. Several of the more scenic include "the olive trees ripening their tears in our pale fields," "the Oscar-winning movie in your heart," and the winner buy a landslide, "Two juggling butterflies are your smile..." In order to come up with an image, Ms. Duffy seems not only willing to lean out of the catamaran but is ready to go overboard to join the minnows.
In this, she brings to mind that old rascal Joyce Kilmer who displayed a similar case of poetry abuse:
I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree./ A tree whose hungry mouth is prest / Against the earth's sweet flowing breast.
Since poems are meant to be read and not seen, the parallelism doesn't exactly work. Likewise Ms. Duffy writes "Learn from the winter trees, the way / they kiss and throw away their leaves, / then hold their stricken faces in their hands / and turn to ice."
§ § §
There are other phrases here that, like noisy Halloween urchins, jump out of the bushes to say "Boo!" Such as: the river "consoling and fondling itself;" or Canada geese "crowded the other bank, happy as wedding guests;" or lines where Ms. Duffy's love object is told that "no jewel [will] hold a candle to the cuckoo spit / hung from the blade of grass at your ear..." Finally, there is an image that certainly could be sold off for a pretty penny to the Las Vegas Tourist and Visitors Bureau: "Your silver smile, your jackpot laugh."
Rapture has received rapturous praise from The Times, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, and The Financial Times leading us to wonder if their so-called acid-free paper is really free of acid. A Laureate who can write in all good seriousness there is a garden in her face and not be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail suggests that something may be seriously awry in the country that gave us Kit Marlowe, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, John Keats, Wilfred Owen and Ted Hughes.--- Mary Beth Childers, MATo: Editor, RALPH
From: Caroline Criswell, MA.
Re: Carol Ann Duffy
To Whom It May Concern
I've occasionally dropped in to look over your rag mostly out of curiosity to see who you will be trashing next. Evidently smarm is held in high regard there in the RALPH editorial offices.
You sneering review Carol Ann Duffy's Rapture certainly fills the bill, ranking favorably with a book further down your home page having to do with garbage. Your suggestion that the writers The Guardian or The Times were on drugs when writing praise of our Poet Laureate reminds us of an earlier letter sent you by a professor at Harvard. She said, with incisive wit, that your writer "was far more interested in her own cleverness and ability to dash off a few zingers than in forming a thoughtful, careful, and mature opinion of the poetry."
You might consider the fact that Duffy has won the T S Eliot Prize (for Rapture), the Costa Book Awards for The Bees, and, most recently, in 2012, the PEN/Pinter Prize. Is your reviewer now going to suggest that these prestigious awards were handed out by street-corner acid heads?
As another correspondent wrote you some time back: Grow Up.--- C. Criswell
Recherche du Temps PerduI officially retired from the academic faculty over eight years ago, after which my department really took off into the academic stratosphere. Once they were unburdened of me, hardly a year went by without one or another of my former colleagues setting new records in grant support, receiving a Nobel Prize, or being elected to the Papal Academy. Were I still a regular faculty member, I would belong in the steadily diminishing bottom tier who have never received any of these badges of success. You know, that semi-delinquent gang of dimwits who sit at the back of the department carving our initials into the desks and sneakily trying to smoke a cigarette while chewing gum at the same time.
When I retired from the regular faculty, some observed that I had been rather on the irregular side all along. But Emeritus status confers special rewards, the most important of which is free parking anywhere on campus, something perhaps even more precious than a Nobel. Had I known about the free parking privilege when I arrived in Seattle some aeons ago, I would have retired immediately upon my appointment.
Back in those simpler, pre-historic times, long before telephones became pocket-sized and squids became calamari, life here was colourful. Seattle was the most remote city in the continental USA, and our east coast relatives all thought we had moved to Alaska. The houseboats of Lake Union, equipped with plumbing that emptied directly into the lake, were so cheap that an assistant professor like me could easily buy one for cash. I rode an old BMW R-50 motorcycle in those days, which made me feel rather dashing. Life seemed new, exciting, and on the threshold of great things.
Louis Pasteur had just shown that germs are nothing but little people, so biological research was not all that different from a game of seven-card stud poker. I was the youngest member of a new academic department, and was widely regarded as "promising." I did a few promising bits of research, continued to be promising for years, and then for more years, and then one day discovered that I had progressed from promising to over-the-hill. I seem to have missed the intermediate stage, if there was one. So this, I began to realize, is what the musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky meant when he described himself as "a failed prodigy."
In the meantime, my department became steadily more high-powered, while I continued to do low-powered studies in an eccentric sub-field. Finally, I started using recombinant DNA methods, and we constructed new life-forms and monsters in the lab, just like everybody else. One day, early in what I eventually noticed was the 21st century, the monster lying on my lab bench twitched into life and asked me for a cigarette. "Nobody smokes any more," I told it, "It's bad for you." "Well then, just light my nose on fire, will you?" the creature responded, and added: "Incidentally, isn't it about time you retired?" I reflected on this idea, while the monster pulled the electrodes out of its head and went shambling off to look for a seminar to disrupt. The next year I took its advice.
Seattle has changed a lot during my time here. When I first arrived, downtown was focused on the County Jail and Pioneer Square, which housed a mixture of alcoholics and derelicts together with, during the summer months, a sprinkling of tourists. North of Pioneer Square, there was nothing but a long avenue filled with pawn shops, followed by the produce stands and fish markets of the public market. The sole cultural institutions were the Lusty Lady strip joint on 1st Avenue, the Elephant Car Wash, and the Embassy Theater, which specialized in Japanese sci-fi movies like "Mothra Versus Godzilla." There were all of two good restaurants in town, one Swedish and one French, until the French one was closed down by order of the Board of Health. The population density in those days was so low that we thought nothing of zipping across Lake Washington to the eastern suburbs to go to dinner, requiring no more than a 20-25 minute drive through light traffic.
But today, Seattle has turned into what they call a "world class" city: the downtown is filled with featureless glass and steel skyscrapers, the squids are calamari, and packs of 27-year-old software millionaires roam the streets, searching for new club or culinary experiences. The car traffic makes Manhattan look rural. The last time I tried to get on the bridge across Lake Washington, the traffic was so gridlocked that drivers hired street-people to sit in their cars while they walked home to take a shower. The Embassy Theater is long gone, but the Elephant Car Wash and the public market are still in place. The latter remains an oasis of fresh produce and fish, now surrounded by endless knick-knack stalls where one can buy napkin rings made of recycled hemp and scrimshaw toilet-paper-holders. The craftpersons who run the stalls are the grandchildren of hippies who didn't quite make it from California to the Elysian fields of Canada.
Downtown now boasts a cultural district which contains art galleries, an enormous concert venue, and an art museum marked, at its entrance, by a 30 foot statue of a human figure that slowly raises and lowers a hammer. It is called "Hammering Man." Four miles to the north, on the fringe of the University district, there is the Blue Moon Tavern marked, at its entrance, by a smaller statue of a human figure which slowly raises and lowers a can of beer; it is called "Hammered Man."
The dim, cool interior of the Blue Moon Tavern is a diorama of ex-graduate students, slumped unmoving over their drinks. These figures, who are almost life-like, can be roused to something approaching sentience by mentioning the distant past, when they dedicated themselves to protesting the Spanish-American War and flunking out of graduate school. The figures stir slowly and raise their drinks, rather like the Hammered Man automaton outside.
I noticed that one of them looked hauntingly familiar. It may have been its unusual size, or the marks on its head left by electrodes. "How is the Seattle scene going for you?" I asked it. "Not so good," my former monster replied. "I tried working at Microsoft, but they said I wasn't a recent enough model." "I'm sorry to hear that," I said, "but couldn't they upgrade you?" The monster shook its head ruefully. "I'm just not fast enough to be upgradeable," he said, "and by the way, have you got a cigarette?"--- Dr. Phage
The White House
An illustrated Architectural History
(McFarland & Co.)The White House is ambivalent about the specific facts of size and shape and dimensions because every one of the presidents or their wives that came down the pike seemed to want to put their own imprint on it. Some closed off rooms, or took down walls; others added walls, built swimming pools (FDR, Ford) while others covered over swimming pools (Truman), stuck in ice-houses (Jefferson), put in a billiard room (Grant), and tried to find a back-room or out-building where he could hide his slaves (Washington).
Then there was the usual vanity and jealousy when the place changed hands. Jackie Kennedy spent the two-and-a-half months before moving in making plans for "restoring antique decor." She even dug up a board of experts to help her. But then Pat Nixon came along and with the help of a cluck by the name of Clement Conger implemented what the author calls "heavy, fussy redecorations:"
One by one the tasteful historic chic of the Boudin-Dupont interiors [of Jackie Kennedy] vanished to be replaced with an ultra museum-like setting of high-quality antiques and elaborate hangings and placements.
Better defined, we would guess, as Modern California Gauche. Someone should have taken out a restraining order against Pat Nixon and Conger. Gerald Ford's wife was no better at preserving the tasteful changes wrought in the early 1960s ... and what is now called the "Congerization" of the place continues to this day, with the exception of a room known as the Queen's Sitting Room.
This reference made me scratch my poll to try to recall when we had a queen sitting there in Washington. Perhaps it was Edith White Bolling Galt Wilson who, without being voted into office, managed to run the country for over two years after Wilson's stroke in October of 1919. No one could get beyond the iron lady which, considering the foreign policy of our most recent presidents, might be something we might consider reconstituting ... to get a sitting queen to sit in the Queen's Sitting Room to run the show again. I'd vote for Michelle in a trice.
Galt was a funny one. Wags in Washington said that when Wilson proposed to her in 1915, "she nearly fell out of bed" ... and the august Washington Post reported that --- on the night of his proposal, they were watching a play together --- Wilson "rather than paying attention to the play the President spent the evening entering Mrs. Galt." Woodrow was such a roué.
§ § §
There are a bunch of rooms here I've never heard of, which is making me reconsider the impossibility of there being so many of them, There is the Ante Room next to the President's Office which I guess is where Bush played Texas Hold 'Em. There is Mrs. Polk's Room, named after Sarah Childress Polk. Wikipedia tells us that Polk had "prominent" teeth and was of "sallow coloring," and she didn't approve of drinking, which resulted in her nickname, "Sahara Sarah."
She may have been an official "Washington Woman" --- she moved there in 1825 --- of which Martin Van Buren said, "I [would] rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation."
There is also the Wash Room for washing up after a hearty campaign, a Mean Kitchen (!) where you could roast your political rivals, a "Circular Room" for fabricating political scandal, the "Usher's Room" for fans of E. A. Poe, the Blue Room, the Red Room, the Rose Room, the Turquoise Room, the Umber Room, the Burnt Sienna Room and the Alizarin Crimson Room. I just made up some of these.
The Queen's Bedroom, with or without Edith, is quite nice if you are into beds with heavy cupolas on them. I've never been able to sleep in a bed like that since I figure that during one of my more violent dreams the canopy would drop down and brain me. You can have the other rooms in the White House: the Yellow Oval Room looks like a whorehouse in pre-WWI New Orleans, and the Blue Room like one during WWII. The author refers to this last as having "distractingly heavy valances and bobbin fringe with contrasting drapery."
There are a passel of color plates here, and one of the most alarming is a picture of the walls of the Oval Room (I almost wrote the "Oral Room" which I guess, depending on your point of view, might be more correct: since the decor might bring a person of some aesthetics to the edge of nausea.)
If Pat Nixon's add-ons are especially tacky, you should get a load of the furniture they brought in. A presidential chair, "an original gilt beechwood fauteuil," has the same affect as the Oval Room, and the design and fretwork of a rosewood center table that came down from Mary Todd Lincoln is about as dotty as she was.
One of the best wall hangings by far is the "key to the Bastille," sent along to Washington by the Marquis de LaFayette in 1790. The way it is hung in its bronze box makes it appear like something you would use to put out a five-alarm fire. Fire, it seems, did play a decisive role in the history of the White House, and after looking at all the hooliganism inflicted on the building by most of the presidential wives and their consultants got us to thinking that maybe the British had the right idea when they tried to burn the wretched place down in 1814.--- Roberta Wicker, MA
FROM: Patrick Phillips-Schrock
RE: La Maison Blanche
Thanks so much for taking a look at my book, THE WHITE HOUSE: AN ILLUSTRATED ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY. It was fun reading your thoughts and I found them right on target.
I'm afraid so many of my best bitchy lines about decor were watered down by the editors ... so I was delighted to see you picked up on the vibe and spoke from the heart ... eg: "Modern California Gauche." Perfect.
I'm afraid the White House Historical Association was NOT amused by my efforts. Tant pis! It will take a strong First Voice to overcome The Committee for the Preservation and get rid of the dreadful and pervasive Nixon era dismantling of Camelot.--- Best regards,
The Complete Poems
Archie Burnett, Editor
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)We have here a 700 page book that collects all of Larkin's available poems, those that had been published before his death in 1985 (150 or so) along with those that had not been published in his lifetime (another 150). He appears here on the cover, standing on a dock at, presumably, Hull or wherever it was that he hung out, scowling at the camera, scowling at me and you and the world, all the while, looking prim like the librarian that he was, reminding us how the keeper of the books (and the silence) would stare at you if you did anything noisy or fun. It was shut up and work, and that guy there behind the desk was there to make sure that you minded your p's and q's. And stop giggling.
But, I must say, Larkin did revamp our view of the clogged-up librarian. I've often thought that the English and American Library Associations should join together to strike a medal for this old reprobate. He freed so many of his brothers and sisters of that ancient and hoary curse --- that librarians are all old passionless prisses. Instead, he shows us that they ... or at least one of them ... had another side. This old fuss-budget, bald as a hoot-owl, hectors us, "I work all day, and get half-drunk at night." Our very own nanny, scowling at the world, thinking about mum (safely upstairs) and dad (safely in the grave), and thereby thinking grave thoughts on the both of them:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
§ § §
Today I went to a typical poetry blog, one called "Poetry Connection," and found that in their "Top Thirty Poems," the number one poet was Pablo Neruda, with eight entries. Number two --- ahead of Wilde and Yeats and Dylan Thomas and Swinburne --- was Larkin, with four poems. Which includes the delightfully misnamed "This Be The Verse" [see above], "High Windows" (kids and sex, "I know this is paradise"), "The Trees" ("Their greenness is a kind of grief"), and "Annus Mirabilis,"
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) ---
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
These four, like so many of the three hundred in this collection, contain a breathtaking overload of irony, agony, and woe: precisely what was needed for the world they brought us up in. This fusty old librarian, his upper lip so stiff with disdain, growing up amidst the atomic bombs, the Cuban Missile Crises, Vietnam, the Profumo Affair, Suez, Hungary ... trailing off only with the Iron Lady, who was so bent on screwing up his country as he lay dying. He did not go gentle into that good night.
I've spent the better part of two days wandering about in Larkiniana, poems known and famous, poems unknown and until recently, unknown and unpublished. Outside the aching bitterness, cynicism, the ocasional luridness, and the virulent loneliness --- this last a key theme --- we find something missing. What is it? Humanity? Love? Passion?
He often let it be known that one of his great inspirations was William Butler Yeats, but Yeats, at the end of his life, after years of dry and formal compositions, penned a few funny, non-sentimental, lusty Crazy Jane poems. In Larkin we get none of that: there might be ribaldry, but it is a dispassionate ribaldry ... flirting with the vulgar. His last few years were a wasting away (he wrote almost no poems of note in the ultimate decade of his life), but, even, before that, there was a passionless passion, a passion deep in irony and anger, yes; but little in the way of pleasure --- carnal or otherwise. Terror, yes. Tenderness, no.
He was an Eliot, but an Eliot with a difference. That is, Larkin showed his fear ... and showed it fearlessly. In one of the great poems of the English language he wrote of our mutual common horror, the one that the rest of us try so hard to hide from: "Unresting death a whole day nearer now, / Making all thought impossible but how / And where and when I shall myself die. / And interrogation: yet the dread / Of dying, and being dead, / Flashes afresh to hold and horrify."
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse ...
...But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
§ § §
There's been a lot of specious nonsense written about Larkin. People digging about, trying to figure out who or what he was, obviously miffed because he seems to try to reveal so little of himself, and because he was notoriously --- like Salinger and Nabokov --- offended by would-be biographers fishing about in his past and his writings for something scandalous (or even personal). One critic even had him pegged as "a lesbian," because when he was at Oxford, he wrote a silly, bottom-paddling romance, titled Trouble at Willow Gables, which one writer described as scenes of "frisky young ladies in hockey skirts and black stockings, hairbrushes in hand as they prowl their dorms."
Perhaps he was, but who cares? For there are, in this collection, and now for the world to know, perhaps a half-dozen poems that stand with the greatest in the modern English oeuvre: Yeats without the Gaelic nonsense, Eliot without the distancing frostbite, Auden without the simpering, Owens without the war. "Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel," "Money," "This Be the Verse," perhaps "Toads," "The Trees" --- but above all
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear --- no sight, no sound
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
--- A . W. AllworthyThis elegant boxed set consists of what we believe to be the best of the best drawn from the on-line magazine and its immediate predecessor, the late-lamented Fessenden Review. These are articles, reviews, readings and poems that have consistently garnered the most praise, attracted the most hits --- or, in a few cases, sparked the most noisome complaints.
(Coffee House Press)Patricia Smith is able to fit into her poems almost everything that ever happened to her. The death of her father and grandfather in Aliceville, Alabama, her mother moving north (a copy of Jet under her arm ... complete with the story of the murder of Emmett Till); growing up in the Chicago black district, her first doll, falling in love with her teacher, falling in love with words, falling in love with a white guy, learning to be sexy ("your body a marquee"), being beaten by her mother, fighting her mother, the death of her step-father, learning to sneak around:
getting turned around in the subway, flinging all them
curse words, inhaling a quick supper before supper
fried up in hot Crisco and granulated sugar,
sneaking out though open windows when the night goes dark,
calling mamas bitches under their breath, staying up
till dawn to see what hides.
There are over fifty poems in this volume, and --- as you would suspect in an autobiography treating with the reality of being black in the deep South (for her mother), being black in Chicago (for the two of them) --- it can be grim. Her mother says to her "Always treat white folks right," because they give you things.
compliments, passing grades, government jobs, direction,
extra S&H stamps, produce painted to look fresh,
But Shoulda Been Jim Savannah is not just another screed on prejudice in the south and in the north; there's room for fun and silliness and being thirteen and falling in love along with a stupendous portrait of her mother taking classes to rid herself of her "afflicted black tongue," where her teacher guides her patiently "through lazy ings and ers, slowly scraping / her throat clean of the moist and raging infection of / Aliceville, Alabama."
This is a generous collection of memories of growing up, learning to lie (to get out at night), learning to be sexy, learning to walk just so, learning to hide ... and then, finally, learning to be proud of who and what she is.
The star of this whole brew is Annie Pearl Smith. She comes to life on these pages, comes to life right or wrong. Scrubbing Patricia with Lysol ... trying to lighten her skin ("Mama can't you read it? ... I can't help being my color!") Then Patricia being forced to care for Aunt Mary, old and mad with Alzheimer's, and "It was weeks before I noticed that my mother / wasn't part of the reluctant rotation of caregivers."
Then there are those funny classes to get rid of "ain't gots" and "I done beens" and "he be's" and most of all, Annie Pearl Smith's cagey, stolid reaction to the walk on the moon:
No man gon' reach
down, just scoop up moon, even if Mr. Cronkite say he did.
Them white men way out in a desert somewhere, stumbling
round in them blowed-up suits with movie stuff back a' them
laughing inside those glass heads. And colored folks aahing
and oohing like the number's in and they got money comin.'
Chile, I sho' didn't raise you to be this much fool this fast.
People got to pray they way up. One small step ain't enough.--- Maria Washington
Lysol & RaidBack then, my mother thought it a modern miracle,
this new living in a box stacked upon other boxes,
where every flat surface reeked of Lysol and effort,
and chubby roaches, cross-eyed with Raid,
dragged themselves across freshly washed dishes
and dropped dizzy from the ceiling into our Murphy beds,
our washtubs, our open steaming pots of collards.
Of course, there was a factory just two bus rides close,
a job that didn't involve white babies or bluing laundry
where she worked in tense line with other dreamers:
Repeatedly. Repeatedly. Repeatedly. Repeatedly,
all those oily hotcombed heads drooping, no talking
as scarred brown hands romanced machines, just
the sound of doin' it right, and Juicy Fruit crackling.
A mere mindset away, there had to be a corner tavern
where dead bluesmen begged second chances from the juke,
and where my mama, perched man-wary on a comfortable stool
by the door, could look like a Christian who was just leaving.
And on Sunday, at Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church,
she would pull on the pure white gloves of service
and wail to the rafters when the Holy Ghost's hot hand
grew itchy and insistent at the small of her back.
She was His child, finally loosed of that damnable Delta,
building herself anew in this land of sidewalks,
blue jukes, and sizzling fried perch in virgin-white boxes.
See her: all nap burned from her crown, one gold tooth
winking, soft hair riding her lip, blouses starched hard,
orlon sweaters with smatterings of stitched roses,
A-line skirts the color of unleashed winter.--- Patricia Smith
A Review That Is Disparaging
To Rural and Urban Texans Alike
Subject: Removal of review of James Riely Gordon
You may remember a recent email discussion regarding the unauthorized use of a photo in RALPH's review of James Riely Gordon: His Courthouses and Other Public Architecture, published by Texas Tech University Press. Jan P. Wilkinson contacted you to inform you a photo of the Lowry House in San Antonio was used from her blog without her permission. You responded that the photo in question actually came from the book. The author, Chris Meister, confirmed that not only was the photo not from his book, he had never seen it before the RALPH review. Additionally, the review itself is disparaging to rural and urban Texans alike. Considering the circumstances, TTU Press requests that you remove the review completely. Please let me know when this will be done. Feel free to contact me if you have any comments or questions.--- Best, Jada
Jada Rankin Marketing Coordinator
Texas Tech University Press Media and Communication
Lubbock, Texas 79409
Find us on Facebook and Twitter!Hi, Jada Rankin:
The moment that we learned the photo of the Lowry House in your volume on James Riely Gordon was not a part of that book, and that it was not authorized by its owner, we took it down. We apologize for that error.
As you may show in your records, we sent you a hard-copy of this review sometime in March of 2012, more than a year ago. We received no complaint at that time. If there had been any, we would have corrected it immediately.
The review, as it stands, is, we think, fair: complimentary to James Riely Gordon's architecture and to Texas Tech University Press for putting out such a fine book honoring his memory and works. There is even the suggestion that readers should call up Texas Tech University Press to buy a copy.
You say that our review is "disparaging to rural and urban Texans alike." At the same time it is an honest expression of the honest feelings of a talented and honored writer. Indeed, it might possibly be a view of many people who do not live in Texas, nor relate to its colorful history and politics.
Further, I feel we would be doing a disservice to the ideals of free speech if we were to delete a review because it offended a reader. The same applies to your operation: I imagine that Texas Tech University, not to say your editors, would be insulted if outsiders demanded the censorship of a book because they found the contents "disparaging." It would be even more grievous if TTUP were to withdraw a title because it was considered offensive.
As we look back at the years of RALPH online, we find that we have reviewed seven titles from Texas Tech University Press. We gave high marks to most of them, including Monte Aker's terrific Accidental Historian and Bogener and Tydeman's stark Llano Estacada. There is --- too --- the haunting Dachau: April 1945 that we reviewed (and praised highly) almost fifteen years ago.
With this contretemps over Chris Meister's book, perhaps you'll be demanding that we censor these reviews as well.--- L. Lark
[Original Review]James Riely Gordon
His Courthouses and
Other Public Architecture
(Texas Tech University Press)"Man if you ever go to Texas
You better watch out
Sheriff Sloan will arrest you
He will take you right out..."
--- LeadbellyThere are a lot of reasons to stay out of Texas other than Sheriff Sloan. You know some of them. They breed angry redneck country folk there. They are busy sticking poisons and spent fossil fuels where they don't belong. They send their mad politicians to Washington instead of leaving them in Austin where they belong.
And then there is your typical big Texas city. Hot as a griddle, ugly as hell. To be in downtown Dallas is to be mirrored in a cheesy penny arcade. You are there in July baking in the midday dusty sun and you're surrounded by three dozen buildings that reflect the sun back in your face, as if you weren't sweating enough, anyway.
If you have an insatiable need to suffer, you can go ... and there can be some rewards. There is always the rich cultural pot of Mexicans, Latinos, Germans, Blacks and country folk. Good music. Good chili. Noisy parties. People shooting at each other as if it were good clean fun.
It might be worthwhile just to go and visit these stupendous courthouses, twenty-one built by James Riely Gordon in the halcyon years of Romanesque civic construction that popped up at the end of the 19th Century. Stay out of the blow-dry atmosphere of Houston or Dallas or Galveston or Waco or New Braunfels or Dimmitt ... and instead go to La Grange, or Stephenville, or Gonzales, or Giddings or, top of the list, Waxahachie or Victoria. To look at, be amazed by the elaborate and often very funny architecture of James Riely Gordon.
§ § §
There are 254 counties in Texas which you might agree are just too damn many. Most of these can be left in the bin, especially those like Bee (county seat: Beeville), Matagorda (means "kill the fat lady," no kidding), Real (governed from the damp seat of Leakey), Jim Hogg County (governor, rancher, two daughters, "Ira" and "Ura"), Deaf Smith (named for Erastus "Deaf" Smith --- the best scout during the Texas war against the Mexicans: he couldn't hear the bullets whizzing around him). Then there's County Perdido (which actually did get lost during the "upheavals of 1840") ... and my personal favorite, Loving County: capital, Menton --- the source of the Goodnight-Loving cattle trail and I didn't make that one up either.
Forget the dimwits who make Texas their home: go see Gordon's Romanesque courthouses. A plump man he was, with the steady gaze of one who came out on top in the eye-gouging knee-in-the-groin in-fighting with old-fashioned Texas back county back-stabbing favors and commissions and outright thievery that constituted the backpocket plumtree of small town governance.
Gordon was in the middle of it during the great building boom of these astonishing wedding-cake courthouses with their hip roofs, pink granite columns, clock towers (each clock face, from Seth Thomas, giving out with a different time), the checkered friezes along roof tops, the stone filials, the gable voussoirs and tourelles in the corners, the gable points, the recessed bays, the decorations on the spandrels, the horseshoe arched porches, the balustrades.Look for faces tucked away in the capitals, the heavy detail, the ridiculous mix of facades, dark stonework, ashlar blue sandstone, all of it heaving up in such a mountain with, atop it all, the single standing figure there at the peak with her stone flowing robes and her ridiculous scales ... knowing as we all do that the supposed balance to be held out to the common folk is not to be found in Yoakum or Swisher or Nacogdoches or Scurry Counties --- nor Rains County (where it never rains), Orange County (where there are no oranges), Motley County (where there are no clowns), Maverick County (where everyone does what they are told), Montague County (where there are no Capulets), and Loving County --- do I have to report to you what they don't do there? --- or my own personal love, Milam County --- where there are no Milams --- at least not this one [see below].
And certainly no justice, peace, nor order except for the belly-pooched, heavy-joweled, gallus-snapping crackers who run the whole steamy cracker-whipped show there in Bay City, Eldorado, San Saba, or Sweetwater. Justice and beauty not to be had there, certainly never in Pecos. You remember the law west of the Pecos?
There are twenty-one Romanesque beauties left out there in the tules out of the forty-one that Gordon originally designed. Go to Victoria, Gonzales, Sulphur Springs, Decater, Giddings, or New Braunfels. Or hell, call up Texas Tech University Press and get a copy of James Riely Gordon. Saves you a hot muggy trip in your hot muggy car through the hot muggery that they call the Lone Star. Spare us.
§ § §
And why did they do it? Why did the pinch-penny country folk of Baird and Waco and Stephenville and La Grange put themselves in debt so many years to build these structures?
Why did they do it? Because if they didn't go at it, the people in the podunk village next door would steal it out from under them. A big courthouse in your back yard was a pot of gold, a gift that kept on giving. Think of the fees, the baksheesh, the driblets of gelt here and there. The good people of Marshall knew that if they didn't grab onto this sucker, this deluxe Romanesque Gordon cathedral of power rising high there in the flat dust country, why the hillbillies of Elysian Fields or Jonesville or Nesbitt or Uncertain (Uncertain, Texas? Why not?) would steal it out from them. So they had to jump on this baby, which they did by hiring Gordon to be their designing angel.
For the hundreds of thousands they spent on this pile set there in the center of town was their ticket to survive in the bleak, bleached, blighted patch-work that is that dry, half-baked Texas farm country.--- L. W. Milam
Spark in My HeartFrom: rachelbashan
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Yours with love & hugs,--- Rachel Bashan
Field Guide to Moths
Of Northeastern America
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)Years ago, cooking was my life and love, and I used to keep a stock pot bubbling away at the back of the stove. I did it just like Craig Claiborne said in The New York Times Cookbook. I would have the butcher crack the beef bones, and I would put them in the oven and bake them on high for a half hour, and then drop them in the stock pot with water, onion, parsley, carrots, peppercorns, clove, bay leaf and celery.
I'd leave the whole thing on the lowest flame at the back of the stove and over the week, while I was fixing various dishes, would throw in the leaves, scrapings, carrot greens, potato peels, parsley stems, odds and ends ... constantly replenishing the water, making sure it didn't cook too low.
Whenever I made rice or sauces or soups, I would take a few cups of the richly bubbling stock, and use it to add flavor and body. It always perked up a dish.
One evening, I was absently stirring the brew, I pulled up what I thought was the leaf of a turnip and I thought, I haven't eaten any turnips lately, so I pulled the 'leaf' all the way out and there it was: a big fat moth, a regular condor of the moth set, highly seasoned in the broth in which he had drowned his fool head and been simmering all week.
I said nothing to those who had shared meals with me over the previous few days. but I tell you it finally cured me. After that, I no longer did stock pots.
§ § §
What's the difference between a moth and a butterfly? For one, moths are those drab dark creepy things that fly in your face at night, immolate their little pea-brains in the candle, and clog up the mesh screen on the porch light (and drown in your stock).
Butterflies? Sun flowers color beautiful flitting by spring perfume in air singing about love through the shadows and basking on the cedar, touching down on the azalea, or button-throat, the lily-of-the-valley.
Moths, unlike butterflies, we are told, have a frenulum. It sounds vulgar ("Did you see what he did with his frenulum?") but it's just a little strut hooking the wings together. You think that sounds funny? Some moths have a lobe on the forewing called a "jugum" that helps in coupling with the hindwing. Get your hands off my jugum, she whispered.
Butterflies usually have brightly colored wings. Moths on the other hand look like your Aunt Maud: they dress in plain brown, grey, or black --- often with obscuring patterns of zigzags or swirls which help to camouflage them from predators as they rest during the day. Apparently moths aren't out there to win any beauty contests. They just want to survive.
They also have furry bodies, somewhat like a rat with wings; while butterflies have slender, smoother abdomens. Sleek they are; romantic --- although if you squash either of them ugh the same bilious juice oozes out.
Moths usually rest with their wings spread out. Butterflies will fold their wings above their backs when they are perched. Most moths are nocturnal or crepuscular while butterflies are diurnal. Diurnal is one of those lovely words that should be found in a poem, along with "cellar door." And "Ulalume:"
And I said: "What is written, sweet sister,
On the door of this legended tomb?"
She replied: "Ulalume --- Ulalume ---
'Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!"
Moths have existed about 100 million years longer than butterflies, so they tend to be more laconic. Don't expect them to be spouting poetry, even as they commit suicide in your candle-flame at the dinner table or faint in the open crock-pot.
§ § §
The editors have included 1,500 "of the most common or the most eye-catching," but they warn us that "more than 11,000 species of moths are currently recognized in North America." The editors also seem to be lunatics who spend an otherwise wonderful night out trapping these creeps ... using lightbulbs, lightsheets and sugar bait. They seem to think I too want to be traipsing about on a hot Florida night among the chiggers and mosquitoes to catch a couple of Leaf Blotches or Snouts or Loopers or Dicymolmia.
My take on the 500 or so pages of pictures here is enough to make me swear off moths for the rest of my days. These critturs are as ugly as sin, and some of the few worth even thinking about were nabbed by Beadle & Leckie in the frontispiece: the long Yellow collard Scrape, the Eastern Pambea (she looks like a floating pillow), and the Burdock Seedhead (quite dashing in her long gown, see Fig. 1 above).
These are the kings and queens of the whole sordid fraternity. The rest of them you can stuff. The only thing I can find lovely about most of them are their names: the Bog Bibarrambla, the Omnivorous Leafroller, the Delightful Donacaula (Delightful!), the Abrupt Brother, the Sweetfern Underwing, the Tawny Pug. Then there's the Pink-Washed Looper, the False Hemlock Looper, the Juniper-twig Geometer, and the holy of holies, The Visitation Moth.
Finally, there is the Penitent, the Betrothed, and the Pleasant Dagger. I ask you: who has time to name all these suckers, much less, name, describe and photograph them?
Just like the rest of us, every one of them has a number, called a Hodge number. I thought it was a tribute to Samuel Johnson's cat Hodge who liked to play with the occasional visiting moths and, after enough play, eat them. But no: turns out there was a lepidopterist named Ronald Hodges who thought so much of these flying dumb-bells that he gave them each their own personal social security number.
If for some perverse reason you still want to learn about the care and feeding of the common moth, this is your baby. It has two or three thousand individual moth shots (in color), along with habitant, common name, scientific name, favorite plants, size and color.--- Wilma Rich, M.A.
From Coal Miners to Cowbys,
An Extraordinary Exploration of
The Unseen People Who Make
This Country Work
Jeanne Marie Laskas
(Putnam)It is, as the subtitle says, an "extraordinary exploration" of those who keep our American Way of Consumption ticking along: the cowboys who grow our beef, the coal miners who make our power, the truckdrivers who move our stuff for us, and those who work landfill where we dump it all when we're done with it.
Ms. Laskas is a fine writer, and she brings all these laborers (and labors) to life: the blueberry pickers in Maine --- migrants all --- the oil riggers in Alaska, the air traffic controllers at LaGuardia Airport, the high-ballers in the middle west and the others who work so hard so we can eat our Cheerios for breakfast, fry our Black Angus steaks at supper, fly home for Thanksgiving, light our Santa Claus at Christmas and --- if need be --- purchase a Glock to protect ourselves from the enemies supposedly festering just outside.
There are some strange and wonderful facts mixed in with this collection of stories of the Hidden Americans:
But Hidden America is not only a bunch of interesting facts about service workers that keep us glued together in America. Laskas is a seriously nimble writer and her nine stories come to life because of her ability to pull a character out of the narrative and bring him or her into full relief. She also ingratiates herself into the story so that she becomes an extra character, one that often irritates the others.
- The first municipal dump in the Western world was near Athens, 500 B. C. "Citizens were required to dispose of their waste at least one mile from city walls."
- "Taxpayers pour their own dollars into making sure football happens --- ten of the nation's new $1 billion NFL stadiums are 100 percent government-financed, while another nineteen are at least 75 percent government-financed."
- Iowa 80 is the "world's largest truck stop" and it "goes through fifty-five miles of toilet paper each month."
- A coal mine is all white. The walls are painted with "rock dust" --- powdered limestone, a fire retardant. Without it, mines would be "spontaneous combustion waiting to happen."
- Our biggest export to China (besides debt) is wastepaper.
- The price for a top breeding bull in today's bull market: $100,000.
- There are 3,500,000 truckers in America, and they transport 69% "of the stuff we buy."
- No alcohol of any form is allowed on the oil-producing North Slope of Alaska. "A person getting caught with it will be run off for life, no questions asked, no second chance. The reason: Everything is flammable. One mistake and you could blow the place up."
When she asks Joe ("the high priest of trash") why more people don't know about landfill gas (methane being piped from dumps to generate electricity),
He looks at me, weary: "What do you think I've been busting my ass at this for thirty years, lady?"
Sputter is a truck driver, a black truck driver. She and Laskas have been together on the road for days. When they arrive at a Travel America truck stop, they are ready to shower, but Laskas worries that it will be a group shower. "We're not in prison, girl!" Sputter says.
When Laskas pumps Billy Cermak's wife about the danger of his being a coal miner, he takes her aside later and says, "Look, I don't talk about the bad stuff in front of my wife, okay?"
And at Sprague's Gun Shop in Yuma, she expresses some reservation about their selling assault rifles to almost anyone who pops in the store ... until a salesman says in exasperation, "Have any of these rifles ever assaulted anyone?"
§ § §
Persistence is her middle name, especially when she tells us of what was needed to get access to air traffic control at LaGuardia or an oil rig on Ooguruk Island, Alaska:
It took nearly a year for me to gain access to the Slope. The corporate giants who control the fields --- BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil --- are famously private about what goes on up here.
"Famously private." Nice understatement. Schizophrenically and obnoxiously closed-mouthed might be a better one.
The pleasure is being alongside Laskas as she goes about penetrating, the mines, for example, seeing the pits as she now sees them during her weeks and months there: "A coal miner doesn't have time to sit around and ponder all of this: methane, bad top, no light, no standing, no bathroom, no water fountain, no phone, no radio, no windows, five hundred feet down, a couple of miles in."
If I found that I could, in fact, mentally handle being inside a coal mine, it was only because I knew I was leaving.
And yet, when it is her time to leave, why is it that she does so reluctantly? Perhaps she's one of those people who get so tangled up in other people's problems and fears (and joys) that she becomes part of them, and, in this case, part of their jobs. Which is just what we want when we are getting the real skinny. One of the coal miners says to her in another case of terminal exasperation, "Isn't it about time you got back to your life? I can't take baby-sitting you anymore." Laskas explains, "I told him I wanted to leave, but I didn't want to leave."
On one of the coldest places on earth, the North Slope of Alaska, her guide orders her to get out because the drill has gone screwy and they are going to have to blast it. (It's something that might blast away all of them.) Again, she says, "I don't want to leave," and then, back in the dining hall reports that she feels "surprisingly sad about getting off the rig. It's hard to leave the place, hard to miss out on the unfolding mystery of what the earth is hiding."
And in one of the unlikeliest of places, in Yuma, in Sprague's, she ends up in the shooting range, testing a Ruger .22. She shoots, and asks for more bullets, and shoots, and asks for more bullets, and shoots, and asks for more bullets ... and when she leaves, she buys a Glock and an assault rifle. At home, the rifle goes in the basement, but she, one who would never say casually to anyone "I have a Glock in my handbag," keeps a Glock in her handbag and "it was heavy."
It was inside a little nylon holster and it bounced around the bottom of my purse, where I got spearmint gum on it. I worried constantly about losing it or someone stealing it from me.
Leading us to believe ... no, leading us to know that Laskas has an addictive personality She gets addicted to the people or things she is supposed to be studying and coolly writing about, whether it's a black truck driver or a coal miner or a testy roughneck on the North Slope or some cowboy out in the Texas hill country or a guy who does garbage for crumb's sakes. Or even getting involved in a love affair with a Glock 9mm semiauto.
Laskas is an addict, and I guarantee you that after you spend some time with her you'll be an addict too ... an addict to one who can write about an air traffic controller passing off an airplane "with a bit of love;" or a coal miner in "a dance with all the machines;" or observing a bull named Revelation, who was expected to become "a superstar" to semen collectors; or explaining to us that February in the Arctic is "mid-death;" or who can write of workers who speak of a landfill garbage dump in terms of "pride and admiration and even thanks."
Laskas is a writer's writer, building into a throwaway passage a paean to all those people whom she should be writing about, who deserve our love and respect ... and can and will never get it; the people who fall so easily into the pool of invisible Americans:
When I think about the women of hidden America, all the labor that traditionally falls on the shoulders of women, I think they are an enormous army of soldiers hidden in camouflage. The caretakers, the nannies, the maids, the sisters and the surrogate sisters, the mothers and the surrogate mothers, all those people tending hearts.--- Lolita Lark
§ § §
Of LandfillsUnlike most of the haulers who come here --- the guys who drive for the conglomerates like Waste Management with their continuous fleet of shiny green packers --- Herman works for the Sanitation Districts itself, moving trash from a central dumping station in the nearby town of Southgate. Thus, his priority status. He will make five trips in a day, stopping only once to eat Oodles of Noodles and cheese crackers and a cookie. On the ride home, he eats a green apple. "I've got my routine," he says. "Every day I do it all exactly the same." He talks to me about his philosophy of slowing down, not making mistakes, same way every day, the power of ritual. Peaceful. Using this method, he worked his way up from paper picker, day laborer, traffic director, water truck diver, on and on until he found his niche. There is honor, he says, in being first each day, all those other trucks parking at the gate so Herman can get through. He is careful to note that he is the only one of his entire eighth-grade graduating class of 1954 who has nor yet retired. "Why would anyone retire from a place like this?" he asks. "Why would you?"
Having spent more than a week at the landfill, by now I am getting used to hearing workers here, from the highest to the lowest ranks, speak like this. Concerning the landfill, they are all pride and admiration and even thanks. It seemed, at first, like crazy talk.
A landfill, after all, is a disgusting place. It is not a place anyone should have to work in, or see, or smell. This is a 100-million-ton solid soup of diapers, Doritos bags, phone books, shoes, carrots, watermelon rinds, boats, shredded tires, coats, stoves, couches, Biggie fries, piled up right here off the I-605 freeway. It's a place that smells like every dumpster you ever walked by --- times a few hundred thousand. It's a place that brings to mind the hell of civilization, a heap of waste and ugliness and everything denial is designed for. We throw stuff out. The stuff is supposed to ... go away. Disappear. We tend not to think about the fact that every time we throw a moist towelette or an empty Splenda packet or a Little Debbie snack cake wrapper into the trash can, there are people involved, a whole chain of people charged with the preposterously complicated task of making that thing vanish --- which it never really does. A landfill is not something we want to bother thinking about, and if we do, we tend to blame the landfill itself for sitting there stinking like that, for marring the landscape, for offending a sanitized aesthetic. We are human, highly evolved creatures impatient with all things stinky and gooey and gross --- remarkably adept at forgetting that a landfill would be nothing, literally nothing, without us.
In America, we produce more garbage than any other country in the world: four pounds per person each day, for a total of 250 million tons a year. In urban areas, we are running out of places to put all that trash. Right now, the cost of getting rid of it is dirt cheap --- maybe $15 a month on a bill most people never even see, all of it wrapped into some mysterious business about municipal tax revenue. So why think about it?
Electricity used to be cheap too. We went for a long time not thinking about the true cost of that. Same with gas for our cars.
The problem of trash (and sewage, its even more offensive cousin) is the upside-down version of the problem of fossil fuel: too much of one thing, not enough of the other. Either way, it's a matter of managing resources. Either way, a few centuries of gorging and not thinking ahead has the people of the 21st Century standing here scratching our heads. Now what?
The problem of trash, fortunately, is a wondrously provocative puzzle to scientists and engineers, some of whom lean, because of the inexorability of trash, toward the philosophical. The intrinsic conundrum --- the disconnect between human waste and the human himself --- becomes grand, even glorious, to the people at the dump. "I brought my wife up here once to show her," Herman tells me. "I said, 'Look, that's trash.' She couldn't believe it. Then she couldn't understand it. I told her, I said, 'This is the Rolls-Royce of landfills.'"--- From Hidden America
Jeanne Marie Laskas
©2012 Putnam Books
Mercer StreetElizabeth, called Betty, took to her bed in 1952.
She had five daughters: Gale, Mary, Jean, Roberta, and Fran.
Geraniums in the window box, dahlias at the fence.
Albert lived three houses down.
Betty had a dog named Fuzzy, who roamed free.
At 5:00, when Fuzzy followed Albert home, she'd say
There goes a very smart man and a very smart dog.
Albert published the General Theory of Relativity in 1916.
After sleeping beneath the bed, refusing to eat,
Fuzzy limped in front of a moving car.
Time tells matter to move, matter tells time to curve.
Stewart, son of Fran, who lives at 1608,
Told me these stories, all of which are true.
To prove I liked solitude, which I didn't, never did,
I built my study in the basement when we moved to 1685.
Today, I see myself not as an older man
But as the man I might have been.
I wear his clothes, I look each morning to the sky.
Barberry, a locust chewing on a leaf,
Fran still drives downtown but once she gets
There can't remember why.---James Longenbach
From The Iron Key
©2010 W. W. Norton
On Writing LettersLook, they say. These black signs on white paper, they are me. My blood ran with this ink; here, where I turned the page, it was pain to stem the flow, even for an instant, so strongly the current ran toward you. This is me, here I am. This is what I feel, what I think, what I do.This is the lizard I am seeing, this is the lunch I ate. The sun is shining on me, now it has gone in and I feel the cold. I have put on the painted shawl. To-night what is left of me after I have finished this letter will be unhappy and alone; but I am happy with you, and what I am now is here, is in your hand as you read.--- Sylvia Townsend Warner
As quoted in the TLS
5 October 2012
The Privileged CatIf one imagines the barnyard as a hierarchy of privilege to live according to one's animal impulses, the clear winner is the household cat. Through millennia of living with humans, cats have made the fewest compromises. We provide them a barnyard of mice, protection from predators, and regular bonus meals --- in return for which, they lead their lives as they would anyway: sleeping eighty percent of the time and playing with their food.
Roosters and hens occupy the next step down the list. They get the cat's protection from predators, but with the disadvantage of occasionally becoming soup.
Then come the sheep. They too get to live their lives much like natural flocks, led by their able shepherds in place of competitive rams. In winter they're coddled against privation by being fed hay They fall below chickens because of statistics: most lambs are eaten in childhood, whereas every chick is encouraged to survive.
Next down would be a family's horse. Bred to be docile, their eyes fool them into thinking we are larger than we are. Though they spend the majority of days inside the barn waiting to be fed, they accompany their masters several times a week for gainful employment. They're never saddled with mouth bits or tight harnesses or any other harsh clothing of control. Instead, peasants train them from colthood to understand horse words for left and right, forward and stop, and faster and slower. On weddings they even dress up.
It is this freedom to be about in the world that puts horses above cows, though cows are a family's most important animal. Without a cow, a family is truly poor. In every village, a family's surplus milk is sold at the Laptaria (luhp-tuh-'ree'ah) or milk house, thereby exchanging the field labor of haymaking into hard currency. However most cows spend their lives imprisoned in the barn, for it makes the milk taste richer.
One up from rock bottom is the pig. In some households, they're allowed to go out a few times to the garden and root around. But even the most permissive family keeps this to a minimum to preserve their sod. A pig is a powerful animal, so strong a full-grown man shoving on it must seem like a gentle tap. Therefore their nose is likely to be pierced with a rough ring for control. After a single uneventful year, pigs become protein.
Absolute bottom of the pile is the creature that first joined humanity as a partner in civilization. It is our devoted companion and man's best friend: the dog. Shackled to a five foot chain and condemned from a puppy to rub his neck raw fighting his bond, he has a meager role in the barnyard caste system. His purpose is to bark at anything that moves so that if a wolf might venture near, it would shy away for fear of domestication.
And what do the Maramuresenii say to defend their canine care taking? "It's sad. He's man's best friend. But look --- he's mad."--- H. Woods McLaughlin
From The Color of Hay
©2010 H L Books
What I Did Not Tell AnyoneThat I loved nursing.
That I nursed each baby
Whether they were hungry or not.
That they were always hungry.
That milk flowed like tears.
That my blouses were always damp.
That one night, I lay on my side,
baby nursing from midnight
until 2 in the morning.
That he finally took me
while the child nursed. That I felt my whole family
greedily feeding off me.
That my body felt stolen.
That I felt like Russia during all the wars
troops tramping over me on their way to Moscow.
That he didn't say anything
That the baby fell asleep.
That I wanted to sleep alone.
That the sky was still very dark.
That I left the house in my bathrobe.
That the streetlights begged me to go back.
That the streetlights said,
men and babies are waiting for you.
That the streetlights were traitors.--- From Fishers of Men
©2000 Red Hen Press
To a Friend About to Enter Hospital
For Major Surgery for the First TimeYou too have to be an operator when you are being operated on ... devious, even. I've had four stays in the hospital this last summer, so I am now an expert.
Demand pain killers. Demand them. When my bladder went out to lunch (the feel of a bladder on strike is unique in the agony world) I demanded strong medicine. I was offered morphine and took it and was subsequently able to enjoy some of the finest journeys to Renaissance France in the history of time travel. We went to war, held courtly dances, visited luxurious flag-draped receptions, the nurses and I. Do not miss the show. It's something you and I wouldn't probably do if we were out in the world, but the hospital has its own strange rules, and if you want to have a night or two of bliss, perhaps for the first and last time in your life, they'll let you do it. They will allow you few other pleasures ... but this is now one that the modern American hospital can and will permit.
If you can dig up a laptop, it can be a life-saver in this wheeled and sterile environment. All the hospitals have wifi, but usually only for low level activities. Maybe yours has a higher level. The Internet BBC3 is a must, especially with their all night six-hour shot of elegant musics. And YouTube has more Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Chamber music than you can shake a stick at. Jordi Savall is a major miner of ancient musics here, and, along with your morphine, may keep you in peace while they are committing unspeakable acts with drill, hacksaw and jackhammer in the deep recesses of your inner plumbing.
If you have to have a roommate beg for one who is deaf, dumb and blind. In my ultimate visit, they put me in the room with an old alky who wheezed and mumbled far more than he should have, more than this old alky (me!) ever did. I somehow convinced the nurse (at 3 am) that I would die rather than share space with such a rumbly old beast, and somehow she found me a spare single room.
Visitors drain a lot of your time and demand that you entertain them. I gently but firmly refused all visitors until the very last night when two of my best friends appeared and magically bailed me out. The price I had to pay for it was a bit high: since the nursing staff was convinced I would not be able to pee on my own --- pissers often go on strike after they have been gang-banged by a Foley Catheter for more than a day --- the nurse insisted that the two of them attend a class on how to catheterize me. My first time in strip tease!
Me (and my little playmate) were in full attendance, although he was a little bewildered because of all the ministrations that has been made on his behalf (I had been admitted with severe bleeding of the prostate) during my time there. The nurse was professional and when she grabbed him I neither screamed nor sighed. If you have ever been hooked up to a Foley, you will understand why.
My friends got to see me in the buff, ready for the onslaught of (what looked to be) another garden hose. That's what friends are for, I told them. Poor old Dobbin secretly promised me that when we arrived home again, he would do what he is supposed to do henceforth forever more without hesitation until death do us part.
Each hospital has a troll who erupts from the sub-basement to do strange things to you, or to make you do strange things, at strange hours. In hospital number one he emerged from the "Speech" Department ... but not teach me how to speak. He sat at my bedside and had me eat a cracker, a bit of cheese, and a cookie. Evidently I ate all wrong, because they only food they would give me over the next few days was --- for breakfast --- canned grapefruit, canned pineapple, and canned pear. Lunch was rice and three-day-old lettuce. I swear. One supper was a half of an old wrinkled English muffin and cottage cheese left over from the Crimean War.
Evidently it was determined that if I ate something normal I would choke to death and sue the hospital. I suggested to the Charge Nurse that they were trying to drive me out (or nuts) by starvation, and if the situation didn't change, I was a goner. No matter how many calls I made to see if I could get Speech to reverse the Canned Fruit Manifesto, I was unsuccessful: he was hidden under the troll-bridge there in the basement, unavailable for further communication. The only reason I survived long enough to escape was by having two friends smuggle in a huge fat, rich, juicy turkey sandwich on rye toast which I hid under the covers to nibble on when no one was looking.
There was one other troll working on my case. He appeared late the third night. While I was plotting my escape, Troll Two appeared at my bedside, perched his belly on the side of my bed, and thrust a inhaler at me and told me that I should suck on it. I pointed out to him that I had come into the hospital on this particular visit to addressing areas below the belly-button, not above, and he was apparently looking at orders from last month's pneumonia.
He wasn't interested in my excuses and delivered a directive which took me back to my first years on the wards sixty years ago. "Look," he said, "you're in the hospital now. We make the rules here, you don't. The orders are that you are going to use this now." I hoped that if I blinked my eyes, he would disappear ... like all trolls must, like those pushy nurses and trusties from fifty years ago when they ran hospitals like prisons and no one was ever to permitted to say "no" to anything. No soap.
I trust you know you are not in the hospital to rest. They'll be on your case day and night, at least every two hours. Taking blood, looking in your ears, in your mouth, taking your pulse, sticking needles in awkward places, sticking awkward devices in your mouth or in other private places, coupling you to noisy wired beeping electronic machines and turning on bright lights just when you've managed to settle in. They own you and all your organs for the time you are under their insistent care. Just pray that you have better trolls than I did. And remember that sometimes you can say no and they'll listen.
That's the big change, I guess. For instance, since I have a stent, there are standing orders to stick a needle-full of Plavix in my gut every six hours. But as they are preparing to do this, pulling up my smock, I tell them "No." I don't do blood-thinners, I explain, since they contain the exact same chemicals as rat poison. The nurses shake their heads, knowing I am going to get a blood clot and up and die and besmirch the name of their good hospital. But I defy them; you can do the same.
Recovery, as you know, can be slow (and a pain), for we've lived in charmed times. We are not permitted to grow old in stately and dignified fashion as our parents did, and we were not required to pop off so suddenly ... as they often did. We get the full treatment now: being an up-to-date society that is set up to keep us alive as long as possible. We will live on and on and on in bodies that can be truly and disgustedly fed up with living, supported by an astounding band of doctors and nurses and hospitals and blinking machines and scanners and support systems that are determined to keep us going on damn near forever, if not, indeed, forever.--- C. A. Amantea
GrandfatherThe TV washes the house in blue light
needling out through the blinds
over the dead tomato plants, over the frozen roses.
They want us to take erection pills,
though our women have all passed
menopause, they want us to dye the gray
from our hair, they want us to go back
to high school. You don't see any TV cameras
following you along Queens Boulevard
and you don't care who you bump into
going to meet your new grandson,
aged thirteen days, the flesh of his face,
the palm of his hand moist and wrinkled
gripping the end of your finger, the pulp
of his scalp turning red as he cries
and you hold him against your chest.
Grandfather of time with no money,
grandfather of trash bins and hardboiled eggs,
sweeping the leaves from the driveway,
washing the iron pan.
You stroke his back hoping he'll burp for you,
hoping he'll puke on your shirt.--- From Blue Rust
©2012 Carnegie Mellon University Press
I am always hungry
& wanting to have
sex. This is a fact.
If you get right
down to it the new
butter is no damn
good & you should
buy it in a jar as
always in the
you know. And
I am an enemy
of change, as
you know. All
the things I
embrace as new
fact old things,
the sensation of
being dirty in
body and mind
summer as a
time to do
nothing and make
no money. Prayer
as a last re-
as a means,
and then a
with no ends
in sight. I am
absolutely in opposition
to all kinds of
goals. I have
no desire to know
where this, anything
is getting me.
When the water
boils I get
a cup of tea.
read all the
works of Proust.
It was summer
I was there
so was he. I
I would like
to be used for
my death. Not
only my body
will be compost
but the thoughts
I left during
my life. During
my life I was
a woman with
hazel eyes. Out
is a crooked
body I think
of as stripes
which I have
love along. We
in ponds &
I write be-
back. My thoughts
about you are
they are useless,
to get you
because I have
you & you love
me. It's more
like a playground
where I play
with my reflection
of you until
you come back
and into the
real you I
get to sink
my teeth. With
you I know how
to relax. &
so I work
is out of control
you tell me &
that's what is so
it. I'm immoderately
in love with you,
knocked out by
all your new
I have always
known be the
very best there
is. I love
you from my
one day was
just like the
love, a sand-
wich in the
a tiny step
in the vastly
the Sun. I
ride.--- From Not Me
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