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A Celebration of
The Grand Canyon State
(Gibbs Smith)We've always found it passing strange that some of our brothers and sisters were so intent on dismantling that gothic American code known as "Don't Ask/Don't Tell." DADT was an excellent excuse not to have to go trundling about in the preposterous if not pestiferous wastes of Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East. When asked to join a strange, dusty war in some vile country, one could always say "I'm gay," thus be instantly excused from the fray.
By the same token, we are puzzled with the demand that gay couples be allowed to marry. Sheesh: I couldn't think of a more dangerous way to trash a relationship. Sleep together, beat each other, go to Vegas together .... but please, avoid the tying of the bonds. What finer excuse to stay with your honey without all the glue and mess. "Sorry, it's illegal for gays to marry." Thus you are forever free from having to face each other over the breakfast table, the hum-drum argument, berating each other for losing the car keys. Thank your lucky stars that well over half the American states forbid you to take the pledge.
Finally, we are vexed by our friends in the Mexican-American community who are annoyed at the recent laws of Arizona, one that allow search, seizure and expulsion of any and all denizens who, when questioned by the police, turn out to be not 100% American. In Arizona, all men, women, children, dogs, cats, and other living beings must provide rigorous proof of citizenship; when it's not forthcoming --- they are banished forever. What more laudable reason for sane people of Mexican descent to vacate the premises PDQ --- to get the hell out, to relocate to benign California, or gentle New Mexico, even uptight Utah. Arizona is a state better known for its dust-storms, saguaros, lizards and charivari than its hospitality, so one should welcome SB 1070 because it forces the good and the gentle to get the hell out. Only a masochist, we think, would choose to continue to live in a place so antediluvian that the governor can proclaim (and these are her exact words),
And you know, I said yesterday, you know, you know, if they're not going to ... if the feds aren't going to do their job, well, then, I'm up to suing the feds to make them do their job! I mean, they sued Arizona, you know, we can sue them back! I mean, they're not --- they're not enforcing the laws!
§ § §
Jim Turner, author of Arizona, and presumably still a proud citizen of that state, wants us to forget these facts, along with the open-pit mines, dude ranches, the Nochaydelklinne, and governors who, when not railing about "the illegals" are mostly concerned with getting their fingers into the state cookie-jar. Arizona's weather may be great for frying iguanas and giving basal-cell carcinoma to the snowbirds, but it also presses in on drab little towns with drab little names like Bisbee, Morenci, Tuba City, Yuma, and Snaketown. Even Phoenix, the city that was supposed to rise from the desert sun to recreate itself, had once been called Punkinville, and before that, Hohokam. This last may be more a suitable symbol than the beast that rises from the ashes.
Romanticists such as the author of this book prefer to tell about the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, and even that most garish home to jukejoints and sleazy motels in America --- old Route 66 --- but he also reminds us that some of the chief gifts of Arizona to the world have been earth fissures (from overdrawing the aquifers), Gila Bend (home of the Gila Monster), Percival Lowell (the first and last astronomer to have claimed to see the "canals" on Mars), Alcoa, Phelps Dodge and Freeport McMoRan (look up their environmental records), and several thousand Tarahumara, Yaqui and O'odham Indians murdered because they presumed to live innocently and quietly before our white brothers came along to disembowel them.
And, if you need no other signs of the state in a state of perpetual travesty, Turner reminds us --- towards the end of this plush book --- that Parker and Pinal County were home to some 31,000 Japanese-Americans between 1942 and 1945, law-abiding people who would have much rather been at home in San Francisco or Los Angeles, tending their gardens, minding their p's and q's, instead of being herded off by train to enforced living in a dustbowl of the blighted desert for the next four years.
§ § §
Arizona is called "A Celebration," but it would better be known as "hernia-inducing." Drop it on your toe and you're a goner. It contains over three hundred pages of heavy stock with hundreds of photographs (the old ones being absolutely gorgeous) with a text that strives valiantly to paint a grobian culture as if it were somewhat more civilized.
But rather than seeing Arizona as a monument to a state stuffed to the brim with plutocrats and nitwits, we might better view it as a repository of collective amnesia. For someday, Americans will acknowledge the terrible mistake we made back in 1912 when we admitted this last of the original forty-eight to the union. Let us admit now, in all honesty, that it was a deed better to have been left undone.
It was heinous, akin to letting Dick Cheney within 1,000 miles of Washington; or, perhaps, letting ourselves get blinkered into on-going adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan (and, upcoming, Syria); or even the current national urge to murder people in far-off lands with an object that sounds so bland: a drone.
There is one hope for Arizona (and us) ... although it is a slim one. We would ask --- no, we would beg --- that its original owners from the nineteenth century let us return it, in all its inglorious glory ... return it postage paid. God knows if our friendly neighbors to the south would accept it, with all its bile and bluster, but, for our own national sanity as well as our continuing peace-of-mind, let's beg their indulgence. We could ask no less.--- Richard Saturday
When Birds Sing at NightInteresting fact about Melospiza Melodia, and it's that if it is well fed, the bird, and hasn't had to worry too much about finding food, it actually produces offspring that sing less than the offspring it produces if the parent bird had been hungrier.
And the other thing about songbirds I was remembering to tell you is that it's now thought by some experts that they sing in their sleep as well as sing while they're awake. As if their sleeping selves are a kind of being awake, or their wakened selves are a kind of being asleep.--- From There But for the
©2011 Pantheon Books
A Personal Letter from Timothy GeithnerFrom: "Mr.Timothy Geithner."
I am Timothy Geithner, Secretary of the United States National Treasury.The United Nations has given me an Instruction also with the World Bank to release the sum of $5miilion into your Bank Account in a Legal way hence the below documents are provided. That is why I have contacted you. The United States Department of Justice, The Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr will get some documents for you which will be necessary and required during the Cost of transfer of funds into your bank account.
Please provide me with the needed information which will be used for the processing of the paper works by the Attorney in charge.
Complete Residential Address & Age...........
Direct Telephone No & Fax.............................
Legal Occupation and Position..........................
Address of Occupation............................
Please get back to me as soon as possible the president has been on Tour ensuring that all treasury's beneficiaries receives their legal payment been issued to them, so try as much as you can and make sure you get the legal papers ready so that it can be signed on his arrival to Your state so you can be paid on time.--- Thanks and God Bless you
Executive Secretary United States Treasury
Department Main Treasury
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20220
§ § §Dear Mr. Geithner:
I am as pleased as punch that you will --- after all these years --- rewarding me so generously for my many many contributions to your Treasury Department. May I say, without any rancor whatsoever, that it is about time that you came to the aid of us geezers who have been contributing so faithfully to your Department and our country right or wrong.
In my own case, as your records will show, you began receiving payments from me when I took my first job as a "soda jerk" in a Rexall drugstore just up from my house in the old part of Muncie, Indiana. Between the banana splits and chocolate creme pies, I was in love with Marcie Goosling, a sweet and tender red-head who I'm sure you would have liked bussing (if not bustling) as much as I did in those heady days of 1950.
Alas, I didn't marry my sweetheart as I was supposed to but instead went off to protect my country from the Communists of Korea where (again as your records will show) I served faithfully for three years and came back more or less in one piece.
Fortunately when I returned to Muncie, I was taken hand by my uncle Hermann who ran an auto repair shop and soon I was a mechanic and could fix anything that came down the pike. Still can for that matter, if you have a 1956 Plymouth coupe with whitewalls if you'd like me to look over I'd do it just for the joy of doing it and getting my hands dirty if you know what I mean.
I figure if I added up all I contributed to you and your treasury department in withholdings --- starting with $9.57/wk when I was working for Uncle Hermann, getting up to over $3,500/year when I finally retired, it would show something like $100,000+ of withholdings from me over the past fifty years. Money that might have stayed with me has been sent off to help you keep Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Citibank, and American International Group from going bust in the last few years. I hope they appreciate what you did for them. I am sure that Bank of America, especially, would be put out if you had let it disappear from the face of the earth like Lehmanns.
For one thing, if B of A was no longer here who would there be to badger me every week if not every couple of days, reminding me that I am so far behind on my credit card payments to them that it grieves them mightily to have to stiff me with another $45 late fee on my account
. Just blame it in my wife Joellen who thinks we have to still help our four grown kids and our thirteen noisy grandchildren. For your information, three of our children have houses that are in the language of the times underwater, waterboarded no doubt by those self-same people who ran Citibank et al into the ground as they got bonuses for their good works. You really did us a service by bailing out those idiots, Tim. Welfare for the rich, I say. Thanks, Tim.
Well, that is about all there is to tell you. I await with bated breath the $5,000,000 you promised me today although I hope it comes sooner rather than later. One of the distractions of a house underwater filled with children is that the children eventually come to live with you so they don't drown. (Or rather, 'live with me:' I don't see them arriving on your doorstep anytime soon). There are several of them underfoot even as we speak: one of them (Michael, I think, or is it Bobby?) is letting me have the use of a half an old orange slice by trying to shove it up my nose.
Hurry with that check, Tim. We are getting older faster than we ever thought possible.--- C. A. Amantea
(Louisiana State University Press)Abbott lives with his wife and two-year-old daughter and dog and cat in a ranch-style house in Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts ("Ethan Frome's hometown.") We get to visit with him (and his thoughts) (and his delusions) (and the family fights) (and the family loves) for several months ... until daughter #2 is born.
Not exactly Sense and Sensibility or War and Peace or Bleak House. Then why, as I got towards the end, was I slowing down so it would last longer? And why, when I got to the last page, page 180, did I want to pick the fool thing up, start it all over again?
The one outsider who visits this menagerie, the refrigerator man, reports,
He comes to the door holding his daughter. "How old is she?" "I don't know, I can't tell anymore. Two?" His arm is completely covered with butterfly stickers, and he's wearing all this costume jewelry ... Three or four bracelets and probably ten necklaces this guy's wearing. His daughter is just in a diaper, and she has magic-marker streaks all over her chest and legs. They're listening to Tom Perry's Damn the Torpedoes.
Oh my god, you think, this guy's going to report them to Child Services and they're going to come in and take her away and they don't understand, won't get it: that Abbott is the kind of father you and I would have killed for, the father that would get right down on the floor with you, let you decorate yourself with magic-marker and then you get to decorate him and he goes along with all that stupid jewelry, being dandled with his wife's bracelets and necklaces --- all ten of them --- because he's that kind of father.
But, no, refrigerator man doesn't report them to Child Services and the family doesn't get ruined there in Pioneer Valley ... where Abbott can go off with daughter to the Big Y grocery store, and "He needs to leave in the car the snack he lovingly prepared so that his ravenous daughter, who is somehow never hungry at home, will have to eat food from the grocery store, which means that Abbott will end up purchasing an empty box and an empty bottle in the checkout line for $5.58." And when he gets home he will find a note from his wife, that has to do with installing a "plastic locking device on the toilet seat lid to prevent his daughter from dropping pennies in the bowl and laughing."
Moreover, the veterinarian needs a urine sample from the dog and, if Abbott is reading his wife's note correctly, the cat.
But it is not all joy and perfection there in Ethan Frome's hometown. There is, too, an existentialist malaise, perhaps a deconstructionist one --- that makes Abbott wonder if he is in his right mind, is in the right marriage, is in the right world, even. "Regretfully, Abbott must also, throughout the day, construct and then dismantle the grandiose conviction that he is unappreciated, and this cycle of self-pity and self-reproach tends to be arduous and time-intensive." Abbott has been invited to a party somewhere, but he cannot attend, because
he has to rise early with his daughter to play in the family room with buttons and beads for two or three hours. Some of the smaller buttons fit inside some of the larger ones, and quite a few of the beads are sparkly. It's just not something he can miss.
Even later in the day, he cannot swing by to visit the on-going party "because the afternoon and evening are completely booked."
He needs to go outside to play with pinecones, which always ends up taking way longer than you anticipate. Then it will be time to go inside to get some maple syrup rubbed in his hair, at which point he'll be busy clenching his jaw and reminding himself over and over that stewardship is a privilege, that he lives an enviable life, that by any important measure he is a profoundly fortunate man.
This is one of those books that has me thinking that I shouldn't be writing a review, I should just be culling long passages. Or, better, wait until you read it and then you will know what a small, unpretentious masterpiece it is, reminding me, somehow, of Winnie the Pooh...
...which I remember when I read it at age ten years or so I wished I had been Christopher Robin because, obviously, he had someone who doted on him, appreciated him just as he was, got such a blast out of being father to such an original, with such a way about him, what with the bears and the honey and going up and down the steps, dragging this bear behind him. A real character.
It's like Abbott's daughter who knows better than anyone in the world what you do with animal stickers that the kind librarian has given to her:
The girl sits on a bench and begins to put the stickers on her neck and throat. She peels off one after another and presses them onto her skin. "Shouldn't she at least save some of them?" he says, but nobody answers. When the girl's neck and throat are covered, she begins putting stickers on her chin and cheeks. She uses every single animal sticker, probably two dozen. She is delighted. She smiles as she touches her face lightly with the tips of her fingers.--- Lolita Lark
The Woman in the Row Behind
(Other Press)Roger and Nina run a news kiosk in Paris. You may think that running a news kiosk, even in Paris, would be a bummer, and might even make for a boring novel. You're right.My sophomore English teacher Dr. Sargent said that when reading a novel critically, one should always look for the "watershed." Everything leads up to it, he said: and once passed, everything leads (naturally) away from it.I guess the watershed in this poop-pile is when plainly-dressed Nina suddenly dolls herself up in raincoat, black wig, stiletto heels, and "orchid scent" and follows her husband about the arrondissement. She proclaims,
This girl wasn't really me. I didn't recognize myself. She didn't look like the girl I would have liked to be. She didn't mean anything to me.
Roger evidently doesn't recognize her either. She follows him into a movie theatre, sits behind him, exuding orchid perfume and hot-pants. Roger is the guy who turns over and snores the moment she crawls in bed. But, under the influence of her new styling, he stretches back like a cat. She nibbles his ear and "he melts with pleasure," not unlike, we assume, processed American cheese. Or, better, pure Camembert.
And what does he do? He starts babbling in Mandarin. "Wo aí ni" he says. It means "I love you," she relates. He speaks, she tells us, in "flawless Chinese." (Evidently Nina has been sneaking off to classes at Le Berlitz Paris while Roger --- and the reader --- weren't looking. How else could she know it was "flawless?")
The watershed in The Woman in the Row Behind thus flashes through the theatre, floods the orchestra ... and then disappears, leaving behind the aroma of orchids and a few Chinese characters (and maybe even the scent of Chop Suey). All this makes me wonder if there wasn't another possible career choice --- even at this late point in life --- for a bellicose, post-menopausal reviewer.
Ms. Corner does have a few moments here and there. We get to watch one of Nina's friend's mothers die. And when she isn't doing the Chinese lady act in the theatre or working her way through the laundry in the apartment, Nina meets up with a politician who takes her away to his "red and gold room" where she brings him to a frenzy of arousal. Then, pause, she "threw him backward, straddled him, and ran the rough-edged belt from my raincoat around his neck. I tightened it sharply and watched him orgasm. Then we had a drink together."
With or without drinks, according to my ancient --- I'm talking 1986 --- Merriam-Webster, "orgasm" is a noun. It comes from the Sanskrit "urga" which sounds just like you-know-what but has less to do with an acte à comptè and more to do with the rising sap of a tree.
No matter how you cut it, even with a rain-coat belt, orgasm ain't no verb. Not in Sanskrit. Nor English. Nor, we would like to hope, Chinese.--- Susie Mountjoy, PhD
(University of Iowa)Hiroshi Higata was from Hawai'i. When he went into the army at the beginning of World War Two he changed his name to "Lester." "A lot of the boys in the army chose haole names," he tells his father. "It made us more American. It was kind of dicey for us since we were fighting the Japanese." (His grandparents were from Japan.) But his father wants to know why: why "Lester?" "Oh," he says, "Lester Young was a hero of mine .... I used to listen to his records at my friend Tak's house."
Lester served in Italy, France and Germany. He was wounded and the army sent him back home to recuperate. He met Katharine in the hospital --- she was a nurse from Ohio --- and they married and had two kids and we get to follow them through twelve stories until he sickens and dies (at the beginning: everything is told backwards ... as it should be).
And there you have the bare bones of it and as I am sketching out this stuff I am thinking that it is --- as Tom Robbins used to say --- all in the wrist. For Hamby is a hell of a story-teller, got to me on page one, right at the beginning (there at the end), and scarcely let me go until we got to the end ... which was the beginning.
In keeping with her art and craft, which is considerable, she tells her story in reverse, starting with the death of dear Lester, his growing up in Hawai'i. She takes him back to the moment when he first meets Katharine: she the nurse, he the patient, him telling her about being wounded in Germany, the jeep in front of him blown up, "Two men just disappeared."
"So you were lucky again."
"I was lucky again," Lester said, not feeling lucky, because it happened right after they got to Dachau. He couldn't tell her about all those starving people in their filthy rags.
Dear reader: I think you are lucky because you haven't read Lester Higata's 20th Century yet and now you can do something that I can't do again, that is, open the book up, start it fresh and clean, be as captivated by it as I was ... get so fond of Lester that you maybe want to go off to Hawai'i as I did to see if you can't find someone just like him who lives his life as a good man lives his life, in a story wonderfully told, taking on with him the wretchedness represented by those haoles moving onto his beloved island "with their boatloads of blue eyes and syphilis," paving over Honolulu so they can drive their cars where there were once hills of flowers, that sweet smelling plumeria, which comes in when "the trade winds were blowing, the scent of its creamy blossoms filled the room."
§ § §
Lester joined the army in 1942. He and his friends "were Americans, but they looked like the enemy. So the Army sent them to Italy."
The blue of the Mediterranean was paler than the blue of the Pacific, as if the Romans and Greeks had diluted the color with the white of their bones.
We trail through the lives of Lester and Katherine and their inlaws and children until Lester meets with his father, who "looked pretty good for someone who'd been dead almost sixty years." This was Lester's clue, and ours, too, that his time was drawing nigh, "his life was about to end when he walked out on the lanai behind his house in Makiki and saw his long-dead father sitting in a lawn chair near his little greenhouse where Lester kept his orchids."
In the time I have been working on Lester Higata's 20th Century, I have not only fallen in love with Lester and Katherine and even his pruny old mother who never liked Katherine or anyone for that matter partly because of this reason: for the first time in my life I have been given the chance to live in the mix culture and life and beauty of Hawai'i and especially the language, a language with a hundred words for rain: "The rain was coming now in a fine mist. What was the word for this rain? What was the word for the sky of scudding clouds with stars glittering behind? What was the word for the rumbling that was coming across the ocean from Asia, a dark drumming that no one could hear but soon would tear holes in the sky and the earth?"
§ § §
There at the beginning, Lester is leaving us, leaving his family, leaving as he follows his father through the door, "into the rain, the house disappeared along with the roads and all the buildings."
He was moving through the jungle that had covered O'ahu before it had that name, when wild boar roamed the underbrush, and red and yellow plumed birds glided in the treetops ... He felt the music of the universe vibrating in him, the rain washing over him, washing the years away ... It was all gone, and he moved through the green land with its fishing pools, kheiau, and taro fields, the world opening up, timeless and relaxed as a saxophone solo by a broken man, whose voice was too sweet for this world.
--- Akira Irun
from unwritten histories
H. L. Hix, Translator
(Host)Whoever translates poetry must have the soul of a poet. Wooden, rote reworking of the words just don't do it. H. L. Hix must have the right stuff because from unwritten histories is a lulu. The Lithuanian original is there face-en-face, but trying to read Lithuanian is no easier for most of us I would imagine than getting the baby to shut up his noise. Even if Hix is making it up whole-cloth, whatever it is is a kick in the pants. The run-ons, and the images ... often like little haikus:
Sometimes I see the gap
between your life and my death
where there is room enough for both
especially in january...
so much space for the wind tears dry before you start crying trees
are naked already the end of october
the warm day just as exceptional
chernobyl's sharp sun seeps into
the calves of young girls...
This last with the understated ghostliness of it all, the horror of Chernobyl just barely touched on.
Even the titles in from unwritten histories turn out to be mini-verse. One of them goes, "it's no secret that I have good friends in latvia sometimes I write them letters but I always forget to mail them like this time." The poems float about like that, balloons filled with helium (and sometimes exquisite fragrances) ... floating about as our thoughts float about.
But there is also here --- as with those sinuous inner dialogues out of Joyce and Donleavy and Faulkner --- an anchor that keeps the reader from going off to the moon or Venus (or Mars), giving us enough connections to keep us (and the poems) like astronauts from floating off into space.
The anchor may be some place in Europe ... a train-station, a link to Greek mythology, an author like the great novelist: "in the words of josé saramago the portuguese have experience conquering new lands." This in a poem that comes complete with the sage words of yet another Portuguese, Fernando Pessoa:
We have conquered the world before we even get out of bed
but when we awaken the world is unknowable.
We rise and it is gone.Much of the fun of Ališanka lies in the spacey references from somewhere in the mountains of Lithuania, from the Greek classics, one from Uldis Berzin (who he?) or Karl Valentine (quoted as saying, "Before the future was better...")
And, despite the occasional references to places and things we could never even dream of --- "dauguva," "kalvariju street," "bloze" --- there are the constants: granny smith apples, "boys wearing hen's feathers," a poet who claims that "at the station I look like rasputin."
Hix writes in his introduction that Ališanka's poems are "ravings" which is a good call: but they constitute a rave that we can all join, rants that pull us into the heart of a poet who can get the summer's nightfall and the dogs joined together on the telephone:
summer's end at eight it's getting dark already
dogs communicate by telephone barks at
night the connection is better distant neighbors
bark to each other about women and bones.--- Lolita Lark
A Winter in Arabia
A Journey through Yemen
(Tauris Parke)In our loving review of her first book, Baghdad Sketches, I wrote that "Freya Stark was famous for her unwillingness to be a shrinking violet, her willingness to travel alone through sites that the colonials had decided were altogether too beastly ... places, they thought, that no sane woman should visit either with others, or, worse, alone."
I think she was able to get by in such solitary journeys because she had an extra sensitivity to the cultures she was visiting ... was careful not to jog the prejudices that prevailed then (that prevail now) in the Middle East: most certainly with regards to the solitary woman.
We suggested that she was sturdy, opinionated, fearless, and witty, though she was certainly not going to describe herself as that. She was traveling through one of the blighted areas of Arabia, in a time of world-wide depression, in an area filled with suspicion of the colonials.
She was certainly indefatigable, and in the present volume, we again come across a valiant but at the same time charming lady who must have seemed indestructible. If she was told that the only way to make it to her goal was by camel, she had them heist her up there and she was off. If it was by donkey, she dutifully mounted it, even if it was a sulky beast (one appears here that we would gladly have strangled; she didn't.)
But she was human, at the ends of the earth (Southern Yemen of eight decades ago). She got ill, came down with what she called "the Arabian microbe," despite her best effort not to do so: "pouring iodine on cuts, inhaling menthol before going to sleep, and swallowing things like kaolin and charcoal after a more than usually picturesque meal."
Her microbe hangs in there for so long that it is almost midway through Winter in Arabia before she can leave her bed there in Hureidha and take off (by camel) for the city of Bal Hal on the northern coast, and then on to Aden. So it is only partially a travel book. But Stark being a lively sort, and a great writer, even her time in convalescence engages us --- and those about her (the children refuse to leave her alone).
She speaks the language (ours too). She's willing to have her hands painted with henna (a local custom). She can gossip with all, can turn a simple encounter with one of the locals into a funny tale of dealing with customs, outlined with a crucial delicacy.
Once, Fatima came to visit, and she chances on an old issue of Vogue. Stark had not "had the time to tear out two naked ladies advertising bath salts:"
I hastened to say that it is a paper exclusively circulated in harems.
"Are they real?" said she.
"Oh no," I said with relative truth: they have the improbable silhouette invented by advertisers. "They are just Jinn."
"Fatima was overcome by the female beauty of Europe," Stark concludes. "She kissed her forefinger and pressed it on the prettiest of the mannequins and said, "May Allah shower good on them."
It is her ability to sketch out the situation for us, along with her affection and sensitivity to this distant culture --- so far from the Europe in which she grew up --- that makes her such an affecting companion on this new journey of hers. When she finally gets underway, she wonders why she is doing it at all. As we all do, especially when we go through the Badlands, the Travail of Travel, she wonders why we bother at all. But she explains it away by quoting a local prophet, Sayyid Abdulla, the watch-maker: "To leave one's troubles behind one; to earn a living; to acquire learning; to practice good manners; and to meet honorable men."
§ § §
One of Stark's greatest virtues --- at least to this reader --- is her ability with the language, her keen turn of phrase. This on meeting with a local dignitary: "The Mansab comes out from his carved doorway in a green turban and cloak, green jacket gold-buttoned beneath it, the men of his family behind him; he is so holy, people do not kiss his hand, they bend over and sniff at it audibly, so as to breathe up a whiff of the sanctity as if it were snuff."
She is obviously fearless. I don't know if that word is capable of conveying what she goes through (the purpose of her journey, we gather, is mostly with collecting plant species and searching out ancient inscriptions). She not only comes down with a pernicious sickness, she then passes through civil war, slave raids, destitution, shootings, and has always to deal with attempted blackmail and constant besiegings by crowds of the curious, "cheerful and determined to get money if they could."
The bodyguard of 'Azzan had turned out behind me, indistinguishable to all outward appearance from the enemies they were supposed to deal with: in these bedouin crowds it was always difficult to tell one's own protectors from one's foes.
She's tough, wily, resourceful, and well informed (she hopes) by her bedouin companions. But at one point, all seems in vain. Her guard 'Ali turns obtuse, leaves her just outside the village of Lamater. The crowds press in on her, cutting her off. She thinks of turning back, just getting out.
The thought of more trouble with him, and the fatigue of twenty-two hours of camel in two days with a saddle that rubbed, together with the nagging of the bedouin renewed by fresh reserves in an unending stream, all so acted, that I suddenly felt tears rolling down my cheeks, a spectacle which sobered 'Ali in one instant.
The one time in her journey when she shows her fear, a fear that would have haunted the rest of us nonstop, is the moment that saves her; it is the moment when she lets down her disguise of almost knight-like bravery.
Finally, when she arrives in her resting place for the night, she finds her friends waiting for her, "rejoicing over the success of our adventure at Kadur."
To them in their day-to-day fight, it was a victory over the bedouin; prestige, it appeared, had been maintained. "If you had turned back," they said, "no one in this country would have believed you when you said that you belong to the nation of the English."--- Nancy Willard
You Can't Chop Your Mama Up in Massachusetts
Not Even If You're tired of Her Cuisine
Michael BrownYesterday in old Fall River, Mr. Andrew Borden died
And they got his daughter Lizzie on a charge of homicide,
Some folks say she didn't do it, and others say of course she did
But they all agree Miss Lizzie B. was a problem kind of kid.
'Cause you can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts.
Not even if it's planned as a surprise.
No, you can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts.
You know how neighbors love to criticize.
She got him on the sofa where he'd gone to take a snooze
And I hope he went to heaven 'cause he wasn't wearing shoes,
Lizzie kinda rearranged him with a hatchet so they say
Then she got her mother in that same old-fashioned way!
But you can't chop your mama up in Massachusetts
Not even if you're tired of her cuisine,
No, you can't chop your mama up in Massachusetts
You know it's almost sure to cause a scene.
Well, they really kept her hoppin' on that busy afternoon
With both down- and up-stairs chopping while she hummed a ragtime tune,
They really made her hustle and when all was said and done
She'd removed her mother's bustle when she wasn't wearing one.
Oh, you can't chop your mama up in Massachusetts
And then blame all the damage on the mice,
No, you can't chop your mama up in Massachusetts
That kind of thing just isn't very nice.
Now, it wasn't done for pleasure and it wasn't done for spite,
And it wasn't done because the lady wasn't very bright...
She'd always done the slightest thing that mom and papa bid,
They said, "Lizzie, cut it out," so that's exactly what she did.
But you can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts
And then get dressed and go out for a walk,
No, you can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts
Massachusetts is a far cry from New York.
No, you can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts;
Shut the door, and lock and latch it, here comes Lizzie with a brand new hatchet...
Can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts,
Such a snob, I've heard it said, she met her pa and cut him dead.
You can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts,
Jump like a fish, jump like a porpoise, all join hands and habeas corpus;
Can't chop your papa up in Massachusetts,
Massachusetts is a far cry from New York--- ©1951, Michael Brown
From New Faces of 1952
Cream of Kohlrabi
(Tupelo Press)During the war my father started a Victory Garden. Originally it was small and simple, but my father was an ambitious dreamer, so before you knew it we had pole beans and Bibb lettuce and Romaine and carrots, beets, summer squash and kohlrabi.
Freshness probably didn't make much difference in those days for when they were brought into the kitchen they were cooked to death (squash mush, runny carrots) or, if lettuce, served with a cream dressing which overwhelmed any flavors the lettuces might have had for their garden-to-you quality.
Dad also brought in the kohlrabi for my mother to cook. Kohlrabi is a big boll that grows an inch or two above the ground, with little dabbly leaves growing out of it. As she had no idea what a kohlrabi was and she hated cooking anyway (boiled beef, mashed potatoes with lumps, Brown Betty for dessert) she ripped off the leaves to boil and threw away the boll. My father was fit to be tied. When she finally got it right, we wondered what the fuss was all about. Kohlrabi has the flavor of wash and the consistency of boiled moosh.
The first of Skloot's seven stories are about geezers and Alzheimer's and memory loss and thinking you're there instead of here and aches and pains and forgetting words and thinking the social worker is your daughter, the janitor your nephew. And eating kohlrabi soup there in the nursing home.
All this could be pretty depressing but Skloot has a knack for making it interesting, different, sad at times, maddening at times, beautiful --- in a wistful sort of way. In "The Wanderer" Norman Hertz wanders out of that place "where they had been confining him" and right off into the hills there in Portland. The social worker figures out it had to be the fault of the back door (they had been meaning to fix it); Sonia, the aide who was supposed to be watching over that part of the nursing home, bursts into tears.
And for Hertz being in the woody areas is so much like it was back in Poland when the Nazis were hunting him: he even finds a hut on the trail to hide in because he knows the Einsatzgruppen is somewhere on his trail.
Meantime, back at the old folk's home (do they still call them that?) Norm's son --- "looks enough like the old man to confuse them at first. He's back!" --- but it's not him.
They saw soon enough that it was the developer Aaron Hertz and he seemed to be expanding as they watched, reddening, trembling.
"How the fuck do you lose a demented old man?"
A good short story writer like old Hertz has to take a lot of short cuts, with some agility. Skloot is so good that you could just buy this for the first seven stories and their wonderful take on old age, dementia, being stuck away from the family.
Thus we get to follow Norman through the streets of Portland hoping he will elude the APB that's gone out on radio and television. We even hope that Norman's son Aaron will pop Dan the administrator once in the kisser for being such a worm and doing so little to care for his charges. Kohlrabi soup!
The title story is one of the best of the lot. Ike Rubin calls the soup "Purée of Vomit Chowder." He's a crabby old bastard, but he has learned to get by, at eighty-nine, "on a combination of memory (fading), guile (holding steady), and patience (decreasing)." Ike learns from his brother-in-law Morris Weiss's law firm that he is eligible to collect money from the Humanitarian Fund for the Victims of the Holocaust, and they have sent Morris to Switzerland to negotiate. Ike thinks,
They send an octogenarian to Switzerland to talk to Nazi collaborators? They send a pussycat like Morris Weiss to deal with wolves and jackal-asses?
"Cream of Kohlrabi" turns sad ... brilliantly sad ... at the very end, the kind of woe that makes one set down the book for awhile to let it sink in. And like all good short stories, this one has moments of telling detail (Ike has trouble remembering what a door-knob is called; he calls "jackasses" "jackal-asses; after all he has gone through, he tells Rosa Martinez who works at the nursing home that when he looks out the window, "You know what I see, Rosa? I see a haze, mostly. The color of bones, or maybe ashes. Some movement here and there, but mostly haze."
These stories of half-crazed old geezers waiting to die stay with you. They are often not sure of their words, not sure who they are, not even who they were. But, as Ike has it, when he asks lovely Rosa to sit next to him, and she actually does it, he thinks that he must really look bad. "The pretty ones never sit beside you unless you're on death's door."--- Lolita Lark
Kohlrabi Soup"Maybe it was your lunch, eh? Something didn't agree with you."
"Rosa, the cream of kohlrabi nearly killed me, but I'm dandy now. Just tired."
Rosa came over and actually sat next to him. Ike knew he must look bad. The pretty ones never sit beside you unless you're on death's door. She patted his hand. "I'm going inside to tell Mr. Shapiro you're not feeling too well, okay? Maybe he'll want to call the doctor for you."
As Rosa started to get up, Ike reached for her hand. He pulled her gently back and she sat again. He didn't want management getting involved in this one, thank you very much. But he wouldn't mind trying to get something clear in his mind, now that he had an objective observer to work with.
"Let me ask you something, Rosa." He pointed toward the ocean. "'What do you see out there?"
"You mean the water?"
"That, and beyond."
She studied lke's face for a moment and then came to a decision. What a sweet woman, Ike thought.
"'Well, starting here, I see people on the boardwalk, and bicycles, and a girl running. Mrs. Astroth is by the rail feeding the gulls her leftovers from lunch. Then I see the beach, the empty lifeguard stand, the jetties. How am I doing, Ike?"
"Great. What else?"
"Then the waves, and out a ways the water gets smooth. A boat going by. Then the sky, a few clouds that look like maybe cauliflower." She turned to look at lke. "l've got to go back inside, okay?"
He nodded. "You know what I see, Rosa? I see a haze, mostly. The color of bones, or maybe ashes. Some movement here and there, but mostly haze."
"Well, l know that sometimes happens when you get on in years."
Ike nodded again. "Except everything looked more or less like that to me for the last sixty-some years. Ashes and bones. All right, you go back to your desk, Rosa dear. I'm sorry I kept you away. But listen, don't say anything to Mr. Shapiro. I'm all right."
Rosa shook her head and Ike didn't know if that meant she wouldn't mention his little spell or she didn't think he was all right. But then she was gone. He had overstated things there, but not by much. Couldn't see squat anymore. What, he should go for some of this Nazi money and get his eyes fixed? A kind of reverse Nazi medical procedure. That would be ironic, use their money to clear up his vision as though it could correct what he saw in memory now? What did Ike want with money anyway? He had all he needed to continue living at The Golden Sands; Sheldon was fine, and childless; there was nothing Ike wanted to do anymore. Well, maybe he could finance two or three years worth of lunches here so he didn't have to look at any more cream of kohlrabi. Or get in touch with Cantor Bloom's people.
Were the camps just about money, then? Was this some kind of absurd tort settlement? A little moral lapse, we apologize, here's the money we confiscated, with interest, and now we're even, goodbye. It hurt Ike's head to think about this. Right between the eyes, as a matter of fact, and he hated that. But if he didn't go ahead and claim his money, and with most of the survivors dying off now, everybody half-dead all over again, suppose the money just sat there in Switzerland?
Ike sensed a sudden darkening and figured that the cauliflower clouds had thickened to cover the sun. Time to go inside and see what was happening in the Red Room. Or go upstairs and lie down for a while. It was good to have the freedom to decide things like this. Ike would at least acknowledge that much. He still had his wits about him, unlike what's-her-name.
He entered the lobby and headed for the elevator. When he passed the garbage can near Rosa's desk, he reached into his pocket for the letter. Then he stopped. He remembered the look on his brother-in-law's face that time lke told him about being an alien in England. Or Molly when she asked about the camps and he refused to talk to her. It was the source of their only real conflict in all those golden fifty years together. Then he remembered, in a terrible rush, face after gaunt face: Mordecai Solly Moishe David Max Zvi Abie Charles Bella Kate Howard, and the sight of bones and ashes, and he took his hands from his pockets, walked to the elevator and pressed the button. He would think of something to do with the money. Even if all he could imagine now was to burn it.--- From Cream of Kohlrabi
©2011 Tupelo Press
Of BoobsOur magazine, The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities has had its share of miseries over its eighteen-year history. But none of them matched our presumed loss of over a hundred thousand boobs several years ago.
One of the most onerous items of our early history was confusion of our sincere literary effort with those of a bust-and-fondle magazine out of Australia --- also named RALPH --- funded, in part, if you will believe it, by Bill Gates.
Readers would go online seeking a recent volume of Buddhist 16th Century poetry or a history of English seafaring or a study of 17th Century Anti-Reformation Purges and often found themselves confronted with shots of ladies in dishabille lounging naughtily back in a hot-tub somewhere in the outskirts of Perth.
Our complaints to the management of this other RALPH had little effect ... although they were kind enough to feature us in one issue ... sans lace, stockings and those topless do-dads so favored by the twenty to thirty-five-year-old booze-and-lust gang. Our hits quintupled during that particular week.
Fortunately, this other RALPH went bust. An item that contributed to their demise was a loss of what they explained to the press as "130,000 boobs," afloat somewhere in the vasty reaches of the Pacific Ocean.
This was the news item that we recently discovered online, with this headline:
Ralph's 130 Thousand Inflatable Boobs Lost at Sea
The story went on:
More than 130,000 inflatable boobs have been lost at sea on their way to Australia. The missing booby booty is estimated to be worth about $200,000.
Men's magazine Ralph was planning to include the boobs as a free gift with its January issue.
The cargo is worth about $200,000, which is another blow for publisher ACP's parent company PBL, which is already in $4.3 billion of debt.
The shipment of plastic boobs from China had been missing for more than a week after Chinese officials lost the paperwork and put them on the wrong boat, a Ralph magazine spokeswoman said.
She said the container left a dock in Beijing two weeks ago but turned up empty in Sydney this week.
The magazine has put out an all-points bulletin to shipping authorities to see if they have the container, but if they don't turn up in the next 48 hours it will be too late for the next issue, she said.
Ralph editor Santi Pintado urged anyone who has any information to contact the magazine.
"Unless Somali pirates have stolen them its difficult to explain where they are," Pintado told AAP.
"If anyone finds any washed up on a beach, please let us know."
There was, as there always is in Fondlelandia, a happy if somewhat moist ending.
The shipment of plastic boobs from China had been missing for more than a week after Chinese officials lost the paperwork and put them on the wrong boat, a Ralph magazine spokeswoman said.
They had been due to dock in Sydney last week, but have since turned up at a Melbourne dock, where they've been sitting for a week.
Workers are now frantically working to put them in bags to go out with the December 15 issue.
Ralph editor Santi Pintado said the incident had cost the magazine $30,000.
"If we'd found them a day later, it'd have been too late to get them on the next issue," Pintado said.
"You'd think the Chinese economy was in enough trouble without misplacing 130,000 pairs of boobs."--- Lolita Lark
50th Anniversary Edition
Kyle Gann, Editor
(Wesleyan)John Cage was much taken with silence. And noise, too. According to Gann, he was able to mix the two with no effort. His apartment once had a malfunctioning fire alarm "that beeped all night." No one slept but Cage.
I remained in bed, listened carefully to its pattern, and worked it into my thoughts and dreams; and I slept very well.
He told Gann that a baby crying in a concert hall --- especially during a concert of modern music --- was there to be enjoyed.
It reminds us of Joseph Goldstein's story, about studying in India. Some workmen were making considerable noise with their hammerings and yelling right next to his meditation space. When he went to complain, his master asked him, "Did you note it?" Of course, how could I miss it, he thought. The question was repeated: "But did you note it?"
For fans of Cage, this book is all she wrote of note. Also, because it is by Cage, much of it makes no sense whatsoever, but then again, there is still a fair distance between Silence and Dada. Dada is a babble; Cage's presentations seem to be a babble with purpose ... so much so that it often irritated his audiences. A recent article by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker tells us that "Sometimes I thought that if I heard Cage or one of his followers banging a stick on a stick or blasting static on a sound system one more time I would run screaming from the theatre..." And earlier on, one of the parts of Cage's Lecture on Nothing was "the repetition, some fourteen times, of a page in which the refrain, If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep." Cage reports that
Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way though, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, "John, I dearly love you, but I can't bear another minute." She then walked out.
Anyone who has studied the techniques of Milton Erickson knows that a sentence, with the word "relax" or "sleep," repeated enough times, will put people in a trance (or to sleep). Or, alternatively, out the door.
§ § §
Many years ago, Folkways issued Cage's Indeterminacy --- a two-disc record being a series of koans, all delivered by Cage, each one lasting a minute. If the story was short, he would slow down the telling so that it fit exactly into a sixty-second track. If it was, long, he speeded up his delivery, racing through it.
This one would be rather slow:
George Mantor had an iris garden, which he improved each year by throwing out the commoner varieties. One day his attention was called to another very fine iris garden. Jealously he made some inquiries. The garden, it turned out, belonged to the man who collected his garbage.
This one runs about the same:
An Indian woman who lived in the islands was required to come to Juneau to testify in a trial. After she had solemnly sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, she was asked whether she had been subpoenaed. She said, "Yes. Once on the boat coming over, and once in the hotel here in Juneau."Cage had a melodious voice, and appeared to be unflappable. He also had a slow and infectious laugh. I once interviewed him on KRAB radio, in 1968, in Seattle. I asked him the usual dunce-like question about 4'33" --- his concert piece where the musician sits silently before the keyboard of a piano for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. I suggested that it wasn't much in the way of art, but rather a good joke. He got a fine belly laugh out of that one (as did I).
In all, Cage comes off as a sweet, soothing, absurdly funny person. That his presentations goad people to outbursts of rage says less about him and more about them, I suppose.
§ § §
Silence is infinitely quotable, mostly because of the koans. All are a bit floaty, so Cage sticks in names and places and details that leave one befuddled, but you have all the facts you need to befuddle you somewhat less. "Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains."
After telling this, Dr. Suzuki was asked, "What's the difference between before and after?" He said, "No difference, only the feet are a little bit off the ground."
There's a lot of music stuff going here which doesn't interest me very much, because when I am listening, for example, to a good performance of a Bach cantata, or to Schubert's Winterreise, words of explanation are furtherest from my mind.
It's not that they have no place, or that criticism isn't important ... but it becomes as attention-grabbing as the baby crying during Stockhausen's Pierrot lunaire or an errant fire-alarm in the bedroom. It depends on the person involved.
Cage doesn't seem to have much use for the Romantics, but in his Lecture on Nothing, he does relate that "Somebody asked Debussy how he wrote music, and the composer said: I take all the tones there are, leave out the ones I don't want, and use all the others." If you read this mot on page 118 of Silence, you will find that the spacing is a bit zany. When Cage wasn't driving people bonkers by repeating the same line over and over, or playing fourteen radios at once, or trying to put people --- or himself --- to sleep, he would attack a few pages of his writings with spaces, breaking up sentences and paragraphs into random hunks. In this one, you'll find four vertical lines --- blocks of words and em and en spaces, all of which have to be a typesetter's nightmare. I couldn't figure out how to reproduce them here even if I tried, so I didn't. He would have wanted it that way.
John Cage and I grew up on Cracker Jacks: we knew that there was always a prize at the bottom of the box after you got through the glazed popcorn. Prizes in Silence include charming thoughts on mushroom and wild plant collecting ... including an account of the time he almost killed himself and several friends. He made a mistake on the identity of skunk cabbage, cooked it and served it up to some buddies. "I was removed to the Spring Valley hospital. There during the night I was kept supplied with adrenaline and I was thoroughly cleaned out. In the morning I felt like a million dollars."
There are also charming stories of people who passed though his life: D. T. Suzuki, Harry Partch, David Tudor, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Henry Jacobs, and the artist Morris Graves who attended one of his percussion concerts and created "such a disturbance that he was thrown out."
Cage can't speak about his friends without sticking in yet another koan. This on Morton Feldman: "We were driving back from some place in New England where a concert had been given. He's a large man and falls asleep easily."
Out of a sound sleep, he awoke to say, "Now that things are so simple, there's so much to do." And then he went back to sleep.
I was smitten by Cage before I met him for interview because he carried such a strange admixture of common sense and plain old madness, neither of which seemed to bother him (like almost killing himself and his friends one night, and, the next day, feeling "like a million dollars.")
I was even more entranced by Cage after meeting him and experiencing his good-humored response to my rather testy questions. After his visit to KRAB we started using selections from the recording of Indeterminacy as fillers between programs. If we had an extra minute, we'd play one. If seven, seven. Or at times, in homage to him, we would turn off the machines entirely and listen to the sound of our transmitter beating out silence for awhile.
One of my favorite koans, repeated here, was "When asked why, God being good, there was evil in the world, Sri Ramakrishna said: To thicken the plot." I swear to you that when I heard the koan on Indeterminacy so long ago the final line came out "To thicken the broth."
I can assure you it would make no difference to Cage. I've always liked food, and think about it a lot, though I am not all that smitten with edible wild plants. Perhaps that's why I heard it as "the broth" and not "the plot."--- L. W. Milam
Children in Reindeer Woods
Lytton Smith, Translator
(Open Letter)It seems like quite an idyllic life there on the farm for Rafael and Billie. He's a retired soldier, she has just turned eleven --- although a very astute eleven (she can discourse on the fifth article of the declaration of human rights).
There is a cow to milk, a cat to cuddle with, chickens to feed, eggs to gather, crops to grow. The ground is fertile, the farm is isolated, there in Reindeer Woods.
In the time we are with them, there are only four visitors, including a nun who promptly falls in love with Rafael, spends the night with him, and just as promptly goes away.
Only there's something a little fishy here. Well, maybe a lot. Because Raphael first appeared on the farm with two other soldiers. Of the people living there, "Four children, an older woman, and a young man head out from the house with their hands clasped behind their backs." Another woman appears with a tray with coffee, bread, butter, boiled eggs for them to eat.
The soldiers immediately shoot and kill them all --- except one of the children (Billie). The three soldiers go into the house, and one of them shoots and kills the other two. Billie hides in the bushes, "wets herself."
When Rafael digs a trench outside to bury all the bodies --- including his two former comrades --- she comes out of the bushes and stands behind him. He turns.
"Good evening, I am Rafael," said the man in the blue turtle-neck sweater, holding out his hand.
"Good evening, I am Billie," said the girl; she curtsied and shook his hand. The chicken tripped over to them. It didn't want to let itself get separated from its new friend ...
If you think that Rafael let the eleven-year-old Billie survive the mass killing because he has some devious plans for her then you don't know Kristín Ómarsdóttir. I didn't either.
Now I do, and am not so sure I want to. For this is one of the whackiest books I have come across in many years of whacky books. A soldier more or less immune to murder (although he does shoot off a few of his toes to try to break himself of the habit of murdering people.) A girl who seems unimpressed by his murderous history; in fact, seems to find him a quite pleasant companion (he will often play Barbie dolls with her).
He only turns a little menacing when she starts ragging on him about the nun who appeared one day, then disappeared:
Did she ask you about me?...
She asked whether I was your brother.
And what did you say?
Yes, that I was your brother. Then she asked me countless questions which I couldn't answer without giving myself away.
Why didn't you tell her the truth?
Then I would have had to kill her. You don't kill nuns. I could never justify that before a court of law, let alone myself.
Why don't you try to tell the truth to those around you and then not kill people?
If you meet her again?
Then I'll tell her the truth.
Why didn't you rape her?
Don't behave like that, child.
As you may have gathered, Children in Reindeer Woods is as zany as they come. We learn nothing about Rafael's past: he certainly isn't volunteering any information to Billie (nor the reader). We learn a little about the people who have been knocked off but Billie is obviously not impressed by their bloody end (which she witnessed) nor their mass burial.
What we learn about her parents --- off someplace else --- isn't much help. She is convinced that her father is a puppet (strings and all) and her memories of him and her talky mother --- a doctor by trade --- are scattered. And weird.
She keeps asking Rafael if she is retarded, but what with her lists, her brainy ideas and insights, and her strange interests lead us to believe that she is not so much retarded as slightly autistic.
A monologue that she gives to the chickens while she is cleaning their hut is right out of Alice in Wonderland:
Good day, little chickens. I am the spring-man. I suppose I should vacuum, in here. Today's Saturday, and that's when people clean their residences and also the hen houses, though less frequently since animal-kind has fewer requirements. Perhaps because nature is expected to see to cleaning itself. But how are you going to get swept? God's natural brush, storms, never reach in here, do they? Poor you. In your shitty beds. But I still envy you. A little. Not much. A little.
§ § §
The tension here is two-fold. Is Rafael going to take it into his head to wake up and shoot Billie dead? Or is he going to show that he spared her life so he can ravish her? Let me just hint at the answers to these questions so you will get this one and find out for yourself. Because, despite all its alarums and diversions, Children in Reindeer Woods is quite wonderful.
The main tension set in place by this author is: how weird can a story get before finally getting overloaded and top-heavy and skittering off the road and crashing into a gully and setting the world on fire?
Ómarsdóttir is a poet and painter, lives in Iceland. Maybe it's all those dark winters amid the Arctic massifs that turn one's ideas on plotting and character into oatmeal mush. Or Þorrablót with hangikjöt, the favored eats there in Iceland.
The closest I can come to paralleling this mayhem would be the play Der Besuch der alten Dame, from the Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt. It was produced to much horror and alarm fifty years ago in staid Zurich. The first scene is rich Claire coming to town to reclaim her old lover Alfred Ill. Claire expounds on her ex-husbands Moby, Hoby, and Zoby, then talks the villagers into helping her extinguish poor Alfred. One of her first acts as she gets off the train is to reach down and unscrew her hand. (In perhaps unconscious tribute, Ómarsdóttir offers a scene set in a nearby gas station with a collection of disjointed right and left arms, where one of the locals sticks his disjointed head in a waste basket).
Children in Reindeer Woods has that same dada feel to it. It's a place where Tristan Tzara meets Kafka meets Catch-22 meets Edgar Allen Poe meets a bewildered audience (me). But despite all these screwy side-trips, I think Ómarsdóttir's latest won't leave you alone. The translation is perfect (although in reading the original, I found my Icelandic to be a little rusty, so I may have missed some of the subtleties).
For there are times, despite all the by-play, where you get swept up by these two children on their classically perfect pastoral retreat ... talking to the chickens and making jam and donning their winter garb and murdering stray visitors and playing dolls together and you think, with all the madness, well, this is just another side of our regular old contemporary 21st Century life, no?--- Anna Tørless Përt
The Vagabond's Breakfast
(Alcemi)The Vagabond's Breakfast is ostensibly about bumming around Europe, but it's more like that famous journey of Susan Sontag's between land of the ill and the land of the well. Gwyn lives in the former: has hepatic encephalopathy --- Hepatitis C --- and it's killing him.
We get to trail after him through the places where he may have picked up this disease. He takes us on a whirlwind series of drunken journeys though France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Crete --- and perhaps into some of the hidden harbors of the soul.
He is a dyed-in-the-wool abuser of mind and body, one of those guys that wander around the cities smelling of bad whiskey, old vomit, and last year's BO, eyes glazed with some unimaginable combination of drink and drug ... a charter member of that shambling mob of bums that live in the seedy streets of Barcelona or Paris or Milan or Athens ... demanding that you hand over your francs or lira or pesetas or drachma. Or a drink; or a toot.
In brief, he's a general blight on the human race.
Gwyn is not your typical vago, however. This guy studied anthropology at the London School of Economics, writes poetry, can play the piano, the violin, the accordion. He's able to pick up a language in no time, has written studies of modalities of patients (and staff) in hospitals. "I have a PhD in the narrative construction of illness experience," he tells us, improbably. He worships at the shrine of Bach and of Glenn Gould, gives poetry readings and goes to literary conferences and uses big words. too. Although not here.
He reads voraciously, "has an attic full of books," speaks knowingly of the writings of Javier Marías, Susan Sontag, Baudelaire, DeLillo, Kazantzakis, Céline, Villon, Montaigne, Borges ... as well as some of the more obscure writers, including Howdy Doody's sister, Margaret Anne Doody. And Roberto Bolaño.
Gwyn claims to have (drunkenly) spent an evening with the latter arguing avant-garde literature in a dive in south-west France, which may elevate him from being your common on (or off) the wall throw-up and fight-you-in-the-alley drunk. If he pals around with Bolaño, he's a man with class, and maybe even smarts.
His spasms of bummery come and go (in his life, in this book). One minute he's tending gardens in Zakinthos, the next day he's out on a bender in Splanzia. From our reading here, we probably would not want to know him during those reprobate times, the times when booze and drugs run his life. As a literary character, however, he's someone you might want to hang out with. I just spent three days hanging out with him, because this is a won't-leave-you-alone-until-you're-done-with-it book. And I am (reluctantly) done with it. It is now all yours.
Even when he's being disgusting, he's fascinating. For example, Gwyn lists eight important rivers he swam in, under, or across in France ... and then adds, "I have jumped or fallen inebriated from a great height into the Lot, another of the great rivers of France."
On a rare visit to England I fell, or rather rolled into the River Severn at Shrewsbury, whereupon I was taken to the psychiatric hospital and shut up in a locked ward on suspicion of being an attempted suicide, in spite of my protestations that suicide was not an option since, like Prometheus, I could not die --- an argument which failed to convince the duty psychiatrist.
It is obvious that there is an element of the drunken braggart here, with tales common to that ilk. But Gwyn is better than that, for he spaces out the sleep-in-the-gutter stories with genuinely penetrating and at times beautiful riffs on various elegant subjects. Like:
- Drinking and self-esteem. "My self-esteem had sunk so low that I couldn't bear to cadge a bed for the night off any of the friends who were still speaking to me, and had been evicted from the local soup kitchen for trying to stop a fight, or starting one, I forget."
- Addiction. "I became living evidence of the axiom that addicts don't have relationships --- they take hostages."
- Holes in the memory, fade-outs: He was once in Burgos, but he cannot remember arriving or departing, which "make me question whether I was ever there at all, or if indeed, I went there once, and died from some species of forlorn heroism, and therefore never left, and am a ghost perpetually circling the grandiose and idiotic statue of El Cid." (His failing liver also causes him to black out, making it impossible for him to drive.)
- Liver transplants. Towards the end of The Vagabond's Breakfast, we get to go with him through a liver transplant operation. His doctor tells him it was an unusually large liver, and we have a picture of his surgeon manfully stuffing a giant beast of a liver into a tiny cavity somewhere around the middle of Gwyn's body.
- Getting someone else's vital organ put in your body, he advises us, creates what might be seen as an off-shoot of post-partum depression. After the transplant, Gwyn says, "I feel at a remove from my own physical person, this immovable object to which I am attached and which now contains a large element of the not-me."
- Datura, or jimson weed. During one of his meanderings around various Greek islands, he and some friends ended up in a secluded valley where they brewed up the seeds of the datura (also known as "the thorn-apple, or devil's weed.") It is "a dangerous sort of plant," he says, which, after reading his account of it, I believe. He quotes a Spanish encyclopedia article that says that the plant "grows freely in most areas, especially scrubland, backyards and at roadsides, and is easily found, except by those who are specifically looking for it."
- Insomnia. He shares that malady with Dickens and Bonaparte --- and his personal bug-a-boo, Margaret Thatcher. And he is, along with Emil Ciordan and Vladimir Nabokov and S. J. Perelman, one of the great chroniclers of that state:
Let me make it clear that insomnia is not a question of simply not being able to get sleep --- it is, cumulatively, a massive derangement of the senses, a perpendicular longing, a lacuna within narrative time, a backsliding acceleration into the entrails of the night ... I have discovered that my average daily consumption of sleep is around two hours ... If I manage to get three hours in one uninterrupted session I wake up with the gratification of a small triumph, as if I had gorged myself on sleep, outwitting the phantoms of sleeplessness, who plot against me, and I imagine to be my enemies. I know I am deranged, but the ghosts are real.
It is a double whammy, as we part-time insomniacs can attest. Not only do we lose hours of being out-of-it at night ... the days afterwards can be a wasteland: "My brain is not functioning as it should. It hurts me to think. I earn my living principally by thinking, and it hurts me to think." It hurts to think. And he adds, with melancholia, "That cannot be good."
I was charmed to death by Gwyn's writing, and his life, and his astonishing journeys. It is like the best on-the-road of Henry Miller, or Lawrence Durrell, or --- even better --- it reminded me, in the sheer abandon and the poetry of it, of the time that Jean Genet spent down out in Spain and France, which he reported so poetically in The Thief's Journal.--- Carlos Amantea
On Being MayorI've heard what they are saying about my not running again. I want to give you the real story. I have not told it to anyone but you. This is a nice job. Every morning I get up and there is a limousine waiting outside my house, heated in winter, cooled in summer. I get in and there is a newspaper for me, and a cup of coffee. I arrive here and everyone is nice to me as I come in --- "Hello, Mr. Mayor. How are you, Mr. Mayor?" I come into my office and sit down behind this big desk, and my secretary comes in with a big silver tray.
It is piled high with shit, and she asks, "Will you please eat this, Mr. Mayor?" It takes all day, but I get it down by the time I have to leave. And the next day she has another tray ready. Why should I want to keep doing this?--- Thomas D'Alessandro III
Quoted in Outside Looking In
The Highway of the Atom
Peter C. van Wyck
(McGill-Queen's University Press)The Dene tribe of Canada had the singular misfortune of sitting atop a fortune. Next to Great Bear Lake in the North-West Territories there was (and presumably still is) a large outcrop of pitchblende.
Pitchblende is the mother of radium, what author van Wyck identifies as "the most valuable commodity on earth" (during his narrative, the price topped out at $25,000/gram). It is also the half-brother of uranium.
The Dene, being a sensible folk, were not interested in building bombs to flay innocent citizens, so the pitchblende was ignored; indeed, they stayed away from it. According to a report in Macleans magazine, it was to be avoided mostly because it smelled bad: "Indians of the area traditionally insisted that there was a peculiar smell to the atmosphere at LaBine Point."
Naturally, "this caused some merriment especially since our white man could not spot the alleged scent at all," reported Macleans.
The Déline had another problem with LaBine Point: "They believed it was bad medicine to pass in front of this rock: it was said that loud noises came from within it." A medicine man reported having a vision of white people going there to make a hole in the ground, with boats going back and forth on Great Bear Lake, then making something long "like a stick."
I saw what harm it would do with the big bird dropped this thing on people --- they all died from this long stick, which burned everyone. The people they dropped this long thing on looked like us, like Dene ... but it isn't for now; it's a long time in the future. It will come after we are all dead.
This vision came from an elder of the Dene, Ehtseo Ayah, who died in 1940.
§ § §
The Highway of the Atom isn't your typical tale of wise primitives coming in contact with greedy white folk ... although there are elements of that. It is not even primarily a discourse on radioactivity and an indigenous community now suffering with far more bodily ills as a result of that greed. Better, it is an exploration of responsibility ... such as, for example, who among us who is responsible for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It also treats the art of telling a story (there is a fine story here) and the place of accidents and the hazards of chance in our world. Also, there are elements of history: how history does (and doesn't) work; how to rewrite the past; what is to be done with leakage (of water; of cold; of radioactive materials).
There is the proper place of North in the mythology of those of us who live to the south; too, there is imagination, and the place of tales in the life of the Dene ... indeed, in all our lives.
There is Freud's notion: that the whole of mankind is potty. And, if the world is mad, what can we use as a bellwether to measure this madness? If we live in a world full of nut-cases, who is to define sanity? It is similar, says the writer, to the concept of "body count:" who is to do the counting?
Then there is the matter of "archival absence" --- especially in reference to bombs and governments and innocent citizens (of the U.S., of Canada, of the world) exposed to bombs without their specific knowledge, anticipation, and permission.
Finally, in the passage of people and certain resources, we must ask how one seeks (and later reinvents) a path, the way, a highway. How do you reconstruct such a way long after people think ... they may be wrong, especially with regards to radioactive material ... that the path has ceased to exist.
There are several long disquisitions here on deconstructionism and Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. Most of these went way over my head. But that's OK, I've always been a half-assed deconstructionist myself since I was a kid, when I learned to take apart watches and cars and never figured how to put them back together.
In (or on) The Highway of the Atom, these matters are relatively unimportant, because the book itself is a glorious, a glorious work of art. Here I was expecting the usual screed about how the honkies ripped off the natives who then got radiation sickness and died because they weren't informed, even though clinical cases of the dangers of radiation were well-documented more than three-quarters of a century ago (mostly in the case of the "Radium Girls," those who made a living painting the dials of watches, moistening the tips of their paint brushes with their tongues ... and then, subsequently, dying of acute radiation sickness.)
That's all included here, but there is so much more because van Wyck is one of those historians who keeps going off the well-worn path to ask himself (and the reader) about, for instance, the unconscious ("the dysfunctional entity par excellence"), or telling us how he, as an demi-historian, tried to get the surviving members of the Dene to tell the story of what befell them, but "it is clear to me that an adequate account of the function of story for the Dene is far beyond my abilities to present there, or anywhere." Or anywhere. What historian ... William Shirer, William White, Arthur Schlesinger ... would throw in an aside like that?
Then listen to van Wyck's story (another great story) about fishing the NWT ... not unlike fishing stories I have heard in other settings, other times: "Fishing in Great Bear Lake is an embarrassment. And exhausting. One must work very hard to catch fish small enough to eat. This of course cannot be repeated elsewhere --- apocryphal it sounds. But it isn't."
I have apologized to a lot of fish in the last few days, as I send them back into the deep. All too big, by any reasonable standard. What do we need 16 pounds of meat for? This evening, fishing for dinner. One hour, everything too big. Sorry. A caribou and her calf are surprised to see me apologizing to (another) fish and divert their path from the beach where I am standing, to the lake.
And so we must ask: Where did this one come from? The Highway of the Atom comes in the mail as a complete surprise. I'm opening yet another review copy and I am overwhelmed by, for example, the willingness of van Wyck to detour from the way at any juncture whatsoever to explore yet another question about writing, and history, and stories; about Port Hope ... The Town that Radiates Friendliness! ... and his own involvement that came from seeing a video documentary,
In 1998, on the anniversary of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Dene did something exemplary, unthinkable: they organized a formal expedition to Japan to apologize to the Japanese and the Korean hibakusha (bomb survivors) for the Dene role, their complicity (unknowing as it was), and foremost, the complicity of their land ... a territorial archive that was now indelibly stained with the record of their collusion.
This video, by Peter Blow --- the Village of Widows showed how
the Dene find themselves in a hospital for Korean hibakusha. Much like the Dene experience in Canada, the story of the Korean laborers in Japan (some 40,000 died in the detonations or aftermath of the atom bombs) is absent from the official histories of the time.
A story unfinished. Like many stories told in this volume --- stories of the Dene, for example, that aren't stories, ones that just goes on, wandering about, from here, over to the next hill, across the lake, somewhere to the south, maybe to Toronto, maybe to Winnepeg, maybe to Medicine Hat, or to Hiroshima ... where the story just blows up.
But this is the point: the stories themselves are not all that important after all. They are just us making up people who, perhaps, have just made us up as well; people who may be telling stories, or what we think of as stories, but, in the end, people who learn that they cannot tell the difference between the story, and the story-teller ... or, most of all, the listener.--- Willa Samsun
Distributions of Death, Mayhem and Dress
in Four Episodes of Rambo
I II III IV Number of bad guys killed by Rambo with his shirt on 1 12 33 83 Number of bad guys killed by Rambo with his shirt off 0 46 45 0 Total number of bad guys killed by Rambo no matter how attired 1 58 78 83 Number of bad guys killed by accomplices of Rambo 0 10 17 40 Number of good guys killed by bad guys 0 1 37 113 Total number of people killed 1 69 132 236 Number of people killed per minute 0.01 0.72 1.30 2.59 Time at which the first person is killed 29'31" 33'34" 41'9" 3'22" Number of people killed per minute
from that point until the end of the flm
(not including the ending credits)
0.02 1.18 2.39 3.04 Sequences in which Rambo is shot at without significant result 12 24 38 2 Number of sequences in which good guys are tortured by bad guys 2 5 7 3 Number of sex scenes 0 0 0 0--- From War and Ideas
© 2011 Routledge
Call Me When You Land
(The Permanent Press)Katie is trying to raise her fifteen-year-old son and you know how easy that is. She is also an alky ... probably ... although she denies it (don't we all?) preferring Grand Marnier straight to something simple like bourbon on the rocks. When her sister calls her about this drunk-every-night business, Katie replies that "AA isn't happening until I rape the cat or drive over a mother and her baby carriage."
Katie's father left her an ocean-front house in New England and she works in a bar there in nearby Gunnerside. She also paints, only the people in her pictures have no faces ... even though her galleries have told her they don't want no more no-faces in the paintings. Katie seems to have gotten pregnant by her present boyfriend appropriately named Peter.
Peter feels an abortion is in order but she explains that her son wants to be in a real family. "C. J used to beg me for a little brother or sister. He absolutely ached for a sibling," she explains. She doesn't reveal that that was back when he was but five-years-old.
§ § §
If you are planning to have a fifteen-year-old son, don't. And if you have any doubts, read this at once. "No man will ever crush you like your son," says Megan, who runs the place where Katie works. No wonder Katie hides her booze (and her boozing) from young C. J. As if she could. Our children, no matter how hard we work to deceive them, know everything. She decides he needs a job to get some spending money. She says, "I see a lot of kids your age working at Star Market."
"I'm not bagging groceries."
Katie's phone rings. "Who calls now?" she asks, pressing the ignore button.
"Probably Mother's Against Drunk Driving," he says.
This refers to her recent brush with the law where she might have gotten run in and a hefty fine if she hadn't charmed Officer Rollins with her lies. Did I mention the dialogue in Call Me When You Land is a kick-in-the-pants? When she gets on C. J.'s case for his new earring, she says, "It really looks awful. I'd rather you get a tattoo that no one can see."
"Fine, whatever you want." He removes the stud from his ear. "I'll get a MOM heart tattoo on my shoulder first thing tomorrow."
Call Me When You Land is presumably about juggling a job and a lover or two, being an artist, raising a hockey-loving, wise-acre son, and dealing with the fact that his father --- her ex Craig --- was recently found defunct in a motel in Carson City. He was a wanderer, on a Harley, and when he does himself in with his "habit," (turns out he had a hankering for heroin), he leaves his Harley to Katie and C. J. It appears early on in the book and in their driveway, spooking Katie, enthralling C. J.
That's presumably the plot, but there are dozens of other stories running around on these pages, enough to be squashed into a story by Dickens or, worse, John Cheever. For instance, what's it like to have a mother and a father who were, to all intents and purposes, AWOL. Mum wrote bad poetry: one of her death-bed presents to Katie is one "about two handicapped cows discussing Schopenhauer's philosophy."
How do you deal with your teen-aged son, the father of whom was never there, even when they were conceiving him in some motel? And how do you handle a sister (who too may be among the walking dead) as she hauls in a small fortune in consulting, even sending you small checks to pay the property tax.
Then there is boyfriend Peter who doesn't ask but demands that she get an abortion: "'We can't get close. And that's fine for you and me, but not that,' he says grimly, pointing at her stomach." Katie's life is a shipwreck, but she makes do. Long before she does, the reader comes to see her as a great mother, despite daily wranglings with her dope-hating, vegan, ice-hockey nut for a son. (I had heard about mayhem in the rink, but here it is demonstrated with verve.)
I can attest to the fact that being a single mother is a bitch, but I've never had it shown so graphically. I mean let's get real: having to hide a joint from your own son. "Why are your eyes so red?" he asks.
"Allergies," she says, rubbing her nose. "Maybe you can go downstairs and get me a Claritin."
"More like Visine," he mumbles.
"What was that?"
"I didn't say anything," he says.--- Lolita Lark
Heathen Bible PicturesSinner!
I have wittenessed youre heathens picture of our Savior. When the LORD comes down in Rapture He will make a desolation of youre abode and the inhabitants thereof. I should make thee a desolation, and the inhabitants thereof an hissing (Micah 6:16) You must rise from this deseart of idolotry to find the hope in the LORD who will rise up with you too to flee Satan. Thy crowns are as the locusts, and thy captains as the great grasshoppers, which camp in the hedges in the cold day, but when the sun ariseth they flee away, and their place is not known where they are. (Nahum 3:17) The LORD will come to smite thee to make of a DESOLATION upon you and your kith and kin in sin for you have been warned Sinner how is become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in! every one that passeth by her shall hiss, and wag his hand. (Zephaniah 2:15). There you shall know the end is and you and your foresworn rise when the fowls of the earth on the Day of Judgement and the beasts of the mountains and the fish of the sea and the angels of heaven shall come togeather on high I saw by night, and behold a man riding upon a red horse, and he stood among the myrtle trees that were in the bottom; and behind him were there red horses, speckled, and white (Zechariah 1:8). Beware as all see you descend as the shepherds of the field gather in their flocks and the night falls like a fallen spendor on children of LORD GOD who know not the sinner nor the sin for those who have been silenced shall be those who rise from the light of CHRIST to rejoice! cast off the nights without a risen member to witness the fallen staves and the beasts of the forest He will make my feet like hinds' feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places. To the chief singer on my stringed instruments (Habbakuk 3:19)--- (Mrs.) Louisa A Traylor
The Foursquare Gospel Hope Chapel in Christ
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