R A L P H
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RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature,
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It comes out every month or so, and contains what we believe to be some of our best on-line reviews and articles.
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The Art of
War on Land
David G. Chandler
(Penguin)Wars were much more easy-going in the past. The Assyrians (1380 BC) had two operating strategies: their soldiers were required to be monsters, and their main purpose was to get loot. On the other hand, Napoleon said that "The Channel is a mere ditch, and will be crossed as soon as someone has the courage to attempt." He never made it to England, but he did get to Moscow and, in the process, brought war home to the people by introducing universal conscription and by having his soldiers "live off the land" (robbing the poor peasants).
He divided his army into "large self-contained formations" which moved quickly to surprise the enemy. Instead of marching as a disciplined mass to the next encounter, his soldiers would be dispersed, go off, lollygag about, forage some wine and truffles, and then, at the appropriate time, would come together for the attack. This made for speed, and the famous French military stomach, on which, according to him, they traveled.
In attack, Napoleon was fond of massed batteries, and favored envelopment when attacking a weaker opponent. He also had massed, all-enveloping piles, which tormented him to distraction at Waterloo. You cannot develop grand strategy on the battlefield if you can barely stand to stay on your horse for more than a couple of hours. Thus, he may not have been all that able ere Elba because he forgot his daily dose of docusate sodium.
§ § §
Chandler tells us that there are Seven Classical Manoeuvres of Warfare, including "Envelopment of Both Flanks," "Feigned Withdrawal," "Attack from the Defensive Position" and "Penetration of the Centre." This latter was used during World War I at the Battle of the Somme. It caused almost a million casualties for a net gain of fifteen miles in eleven months. In other words, it didn't work. Lord Kitchener, England's Minister of War, was baffled. He said, "I don't know what is to be done. This isn't war."
It probably was war, since during the course of four and a half years, England, Germany and France managed to destroy --- physically or emotionally --- a majority of their young males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. And WWI did give us a few new gifts --- gifts that kept on giving: tanks, flame-throwers, aerial bombardment, phosgene gas, and a new model of confrontation known as trench-warfare --- the modus operandi not only in Western Europe, but in Turkey, the Balkans, the Middle East, in the Alps and, to a lesser degree, on the Eastern Front. It also gave us a Peace Treaty guaranteed to generate another war within years, with almost the same cast of characters.
Chandler has made an exhaustive inventory of humans wreaking carnage on other humans on land, if not the sea and air --- taking us from the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BC) to El Alamein (1942), while stopping off in Hastings, Agincourt, Austerlitz, and Gettysburg on the way. Unfortunately, his text looks to be set in massed 3-point Bodoni which is a pain to those of us teetering into our dotage, and the pictures --- of which there are a mountain --- turn up in very strange juxtapositions. The chapter on the Battle of France 1940 is interrupted by a two-page photograph of the damage at Hiroshima, and the narrative of the Battle of the Marne includes a picture of the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava, a painting of Napoleon at Polotsk, and a drawing from the Zulu War of 1879.--- Richard D. FrieseBeautiful Summer
In New JerseyBack in my youth, families on the East Coast would board out their children while they sailed to Europe.
It sounds funny to say "sail to Europe," when you consider the throb of the Normandie or the Queen Mary in those years before our late lamented Second World War. But that is what they called it: "Sailing to Europe."
Now, I want you to remember Europe in 1938. I never did see it myself, but my family's 16mm. Kodak saw it and reported it to me. Switzerland and Italy and England and France and Holland. Didn't catch Germany. Not that year. Too much ranting and raving. Too many uniforms for a quiet vacation. But did get to see (later, in the colder winter) tulips and wooden shoes and dikes and windmills. Just like in the travel posters.
So the family boarded the towering hulk called the Normandie, and my sister and I were boarded out for the summer somewhere in New Jersey, with the Andersons.
I wish I could remember what they looked like, the Andersons. You would too, after you hear what I am going to tell you. But, bless me, all I can remember about Mr. Anderson is the rimless glasses, much like the ones I'm wearing. As for Mrs. Anderson, it was the false teeth. And me, in the bathroom, fascinated, mesmerized by the uppers in a jelly-glass of water, on the shelf. (If you want to symbolize the mystery of the adult world for a seven-year-old child, use a pair of false teeth, resting securely, just a half-a-bite, just out of reach, on the downstairs bathroom shelf. You and your giantism are a mystery to the five- or seven- or nine-year-old. We don't comprehend. That's why we passed off the mystery of the Andersons for so long.)
One day in a bright-hot, sun-washed summer in New Jersey, the lunch bell was rung for the fifteen summer-orphans. Only Robbie, black-haired and having too much fun, didn't hear it, didn't come. He wanted to hang, feet just missing the ground, another minute or so on the Jungle Gym.
So Mr. Anderson went out to where Robbie was hanging by his hands another minute on the Jungle Gym and told him something and Robbie continued to hang by his hands from the Jungle Gym for the whole lunch period with tears streaming from his large brown eyes. Robbie paid singular attention to the lunch-bell after that.
One morning, in that bright-washed summer in New Jersey, Ralph (taller than most) complained about the toast at breakfast. Claimed that Mrs. Anderson had burned the toast. Claimed that he didn't like burned toast. Every morning thereafter, Ralph ate breakfast standing up behind the pantry door, ate his breakfast of unbuttered burned toast. We heard no more complaints about burned toast from Ralph.
One noon, in that bright sun-rinsed sky-beautiful New Jersey summer, Mary climbed the stairs to the attic to study her math with Mrs. Anderson. In fact, Mary, a very bad student in math, climbed the stairs every noon to study math in the attic with Mrs. Anderson. And every day, we heard the impact of Mrs. Anderson's teaching, in the form of an old, hard, red slipper. "Ow, ow, ow," Mary would cry, resisting her math. And every afternoon, in that bright summer, Mary would come back from her hard math lesson, and we would gather around her to tell her how she sounded, as the words were being pounded in. "Ow, ow, ow," that's what we heard, we would tell her. She didn't say very much, didn't seem to hear us very much.
One day, in that beautiful sun-dashed summer in New Jersey...
One day... Oh, there's more, too much more. And sometimes, when you and I are sitting together in the Athenian Cafe, looking at the ferries squandering in and out of the bay, the sun fixed to die on the far mountains, I will tell you of all the strange deeds of that strange Anderson family on that strange far-away hill called my youth.
But I will tell you the one last story, which my sister and I told our parents, long after that long hot summer: told them so regularly and so consistently, that along about November, they looked at each other, and decided that child's imagination was child's imagination, but there are limits and...
...for two months, the Andersons were investigated quietly, and then for two months, very noisily, in a scandal that must have rocked the blue sky beautiful country of Central New Jersey...long after Mr. and Mrs. Anderson retired to jail, to mull over the various disciplines they had imposed on the various summer children, over a period of twenty years or so.
The last one I have, the one I can least forget, is the tale of the new boy, Paul, who arrived in mid-summer. If I can't remember anything else, I can remember that Paul --- shorter than anyone else --- was a fighter. He fought with his lungs, and his body, lustily and hard. Mr. Anderson put up with it for a week, long after Paul's mother had sailed away first class on the beautiful Queen Mary, for a beautiful summer in the Lake Country.
It was night. Dark night in New Jersey. Bedtime. Mary and I were brushing our teeth. Comparing the rapid spread of white tooth-paste foam from out our mouths into the metal of our water bowls. Next door, Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, in concert, were trying to convince Paul to take some castor oil. Seems that living with the Andersons had affected his digestion.
Paul wasn't very interested, and opened his mouth to let us know of his lack of interest. Next thing we heard were some rather stiff noises which indicated to us in the know that Mr. Anderson had gotten his famous temper up. Then --- klunk, klunk, klunk --- we heard the suddenly terror-silent Paul being dragged down the hall. By the feet. To be thrown face-down in the bathtub.
I think --- although I am singularly reluctant to admit this --- that Mary and I, mouths still ringed with white tooth-paste, giggled at each other, because of the fact that we knew that Paul was learning a new and somewhat hard lesson about his summer parents.
But I could never forget, can never forget, will never forget you, Paul --- the smears of blood down the hallway, and on the edges of the white porcelain tub. And despite your battered face the next day, I kept thinking: "How strange, that Paul should have such a bad nose-bleed. How strange..."
How strange, that summer in the black-white heat of 1938. Families off taking pictures of wooden shoes and tulips. A frenetic man in uniform ranting through Germany. And fifteen children learning something new about the adult world in a beautiful sun-split summer in New Jersey.--- L. W. Milam
I don't know who the person was that wrote the review on Richie Havens new book, but they must be under 20 and not able to read. His story is fantastic, his insites into politics and the feeling we all shared during the 60's was "right on". The lyrics of the songs were a step to the past. I guess you would have to live it to understand it.---David Blatt
The Seven Ages
It came to us very late:
perception of beauty, desire of knowledge.
And in the great minds, the two often configured as one.
To perceive, to speak, even on subjects inherently cruel ---
to speak boldly even when the facts were, in themselves, painful or dire ---
seemed to introduce among us some new action,
having to do with human obsession, human passion.
Louise Glück writes poetry, poetry that appears regularly in all the right places: The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, The American Poetry Review. This is her eleventh book. She's won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the New Yorker readers award. She teaches at Williams College.
It's facile enough, this versification --- and quite intellectual. But we suspect that a hundred years from now, Glück will not be the stuff of anthologies.
When we read,
And I think in the end this was the question
that destroyed Agamemnon, there on the beach...
we want to take our Marks-A-Lot and write, for the benefit of those who ain't up on their Homer, that famous Harold Ross question, the one he stuck in the margins of manuscripts sent in by professional obscurantists,
And when we read,
After one of those nights, a day:
the mind dutiful, waking, putting on its slippers...
We think, "Wait a minute, Louise. The mind putting on its slippers?" And we want to mark the page, right under the "C+," with a big
No. § § §
Our thought is that Ms. Glück is probably a gentle person, raised in a too too gentle world. None of this Tennyson calling up the troops, Ferlingetti doing it to Congressman Doyle, the Byronic stilettos, sticking it --- in verse, frozen, forever --- to poor old Bob Southey. Rather, Glück is composing what one of our friends called New Yorker/Kenyon Review panty-waist stuff. For instance, when Ms. Glück writes about Civilization,
It came to us very late:
perception of beauty, desire for knowledge.
And in the great minds, the two often configured as one,
we find ourselves humming along, a contented bee, feeling like we're in the middle of a course on the History of Civilization, there in Williamstown --- Civilization, without any of its discontents.
We've often contended that poetry worth writing home about has to be wrapped up in a whoosh of words --- maybe like Donne's wonderful strange lines,
I long to talk with some old lover's ghost
Who died before the god of love was born...
Busy old fool, unruly sonne
Why dost thou thus...
Perhaps (we're thinking), it's time for Ms. Glück to take a year off --- to do the sabbatical in Vail, or Virginia City, or Vancouver --- wherever the hell tired-out poets go to get back in touch with the world, or with themselves. Perhaps, out of the hubble-
bubble of the college life she could spend some time observing, at close hand, the world that she may be missing there amidst the dark winters and the soporific backbiting of the Ivy League.
Perhaps in Venice, or Victoria, or Vienna, she could have a chance to renew acquaintance with some of the language masters: e e cummings, Edward Thomas, the Bard himself, say --- all those who are in it for sheer hypnotic music, music we don't find much of in
Time was passing. Time was carrying us
faster and faster toward the door of the laboratory,
and then beyond the door into the abyss, the darkness.
My mother stirred the soup. The onions,
by a miracle, became part of the potatoes.
The onions! The potatoes!
Perhaps it would help if some of us looney-cakes came along with her while she is out charging her batteries, help her get rid of what the blues singers call her "usta'-be" --- teach her how to be a bit more daft (contained lunacy always helps verse: see T. S. Eliot, John Ashbery, William Collins, Christopher Smart, Emily Dickinson).
Or, how about pumping up some good old-fashioned ire and bitterness --- like Keats or Larkin or Plath: Keats with his profound loathing of aging, sickness, dying,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan...
I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
From long French windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.
Plath? Well, maybe Glück could pick up a bit of spare change from Plath...and her old black shoe.
Louise Glück writes poetry, poetry that appears regularly in all the right places: The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, The American Poetry Review. This is her eleventh book. She's won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the New Yorker readers award. She teaches at Williams College.
Despite all that, at this point, the best thing we can find in The Seven Ages might be the name. No, not of the book --- the seven ages of, presumably, man. No, we're talking about Glück. As in Christoph Willibald. Makes us hope that, at the very least, someday she could stir up some inspiration from her great-
great- great grandfather.
Now there was someone who knew what to do with words, words and music.--- A. W. Allworthy
Rides HorsesFor cousin-brother Mandisblue cloud rides horses behind the wheel
of his chevy el camino with the burst
blue cloud rides psychedelic horses
and some made of remembered pain
blue cloud rides horses that leave hoof trails
up and down his atrophic veins
blue cloud rides cellblock horses
made of steel bars and thick walls
and when he gets out he rides horses again
blue cloud rides his baby's horse
and it makes him cry and it makes him cry
and it makes him want to forget
and makes him want and want and nearly die of want
blue cloud rides horses he thinks he hates
named officer custer john smith
de soto jefferson jackson lincoln
columbus cortez and BIA
blue cloud rides horses he remembers he loved
named gin for the father he loved
named wild irish rose for the mother he loved
blue cloud rides ephemeral horses
sewn from dreamskin and old chants
named blue cloud and red cloud and white cloud
and grey clouds that rain faded dreams
blue cloud rides wind war-horses
on the ghost breezes
of the little big horn's plains
and he always wins and he always wins
blue cloud rides horses that ride him
harder and faster to the vanishing haze--- Edgar Gabriel Silex
From Poetry Like Bread
©2000, Curbstone Press
POPSThe twelve most popular book reviews, essays and readings from Ralph's first seven years --- being those that have received the most number of hits over the last few weeks.
- Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy In America, by Laura Kipnis (Duke University Press). Ms. Kipnis has put together an astounding thesis. She has evidently immersed herself in no small amount of lurid literature in order to deliver the message that the reaction of most of us (sneering, shutting our eyes, calling the police) means that we are missing the vital truths that pornography can give us.
- Heart of Spain: Robert Capa's Photographs of the Spanish Civil War, Leslie A. Martin, Editor (Aperture). Was it Pete Seeger --- one of the "International Brigade" --- singing Los Cuatro Generales, a scratchy 78 rpm record, recorded in the hills of Córdoba? Or is it the photographs of Robert Capa, that now, sixty-five years later --- can still stop the heart...the thousands of bleak pictures, of which he once said, "No tricks are necessary to take pictures in Spain. You don't have to pose your camera. The pictures are there, and you just take them. The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda."
- A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by David Eggers (Simon & Schuster). Eggers is full of a kind of perverse quasi-Puritan, 19th Century thinking, heavy with insight, but also heavy with punishment --- often self-
punishment. Above all, his words are jam- packed with attention to process, to thinking about thinking. http://www.ralphmag.org/AC/heartbreaking.html
- The Goslings: A Study of the American Schools, by Upton Sinclair (Upton Sinclair Publishing). "The theory behind the public schools, which cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions every year, is that they manufacture hordes of enlightened and incorruptible voters, and so safeguard and mellow democracy. The fact is that they are mainly manned by half-wits and bossed by shysters, and that their actual tendency is to reduce all their pupils to the level of Kiwanis."
- "Handicap as a Social Construction" from The Unexpected Minority: Handicapped Children in America, by John Gliedman & Wm. Roth (Harcourt Brace 1980). They tell of the fascination of the ancient Chinese with certain parts of women's bodies. According to one writer, merely seeing it produced in the male an indescribable degree of voluptuous feeling. It was not rare, [the correspondent continued], to find Chinese Christians accusing themselves at confession of having had evil thoughts on looking at it. We are not talking about buttocks or breasts or private parts. No. We're talking about feet.
- Victorian Painting, by Christopher Wood (Bulfinch). Mr. Wood defines the Victorian period as lasting, as did the good queen, from 1837 to 1901. Wood also tells us that his Dictionary of Victorian Painters lists 11,000 artists --- indicating that the era was 'hugely prolific.' You can say that again. For those of us who are softies for this lush, garish, tearful, almost pornographic style of art, Victorian Painting is a treasure-pot. There are 500 illustrations which means that for sixty bucks, you get a lush, garish, tearful collection of watercolors, line drawings, and paintings --- some in color --- at 8.33 cents a shot.
- Family Kaleidoscope: Images of Violence and Healing, by Salvador Minuchin (Harvard University Press). Salvador Minuchin sounds like a refugee from a New York salsa band --- but is, in reality, an Argentine/
Jewish family therapist practicing in Philadelphia. And his therapy technique is a doozy, outside the mainstream, culling the best of Fritz Perls, Freud, Alice Miller, Milton Erickson. http://www.ralphmag.org/minuchinZB.html
- Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, by Marya Hornbacher (Harper). For those of us who are concerned with somewhat greater issues --- ecological destruction, the New Violence of America, disease and famine in the Other Half of the world --- a girl's rather Pollyanna self-destruct, her delighted description of the process (from refrigerator to vomitoriumand then back to refrigerator again) tends to make us a bit impatient.
- A Fly for the Prosecution: How Insect Evidence Helps Solve Crimes, by M. Lee Goff (Harvard University Press). "Most people do not share my enthusiasm for maggots, and I have to present the subject very carefully to avoid repelling the jurors --- and others in the courtroom...At this point in the trial, the jury and I both get a break while the judge and attorneys argue over the repulsion factors of the various exhibits."
- "Hitler's First Photograph, by Wislawa Szymborska.
A little pacifier, diaper, rattle, bib,
our bouncing boy, thank God and knock on wood, is well,
looks just like his folks, like a kitten in a basket,
like the tots in every other family album.
Shush, let's not start crying, sugar,
the camera will click from under that black hood.
- "Three Poems," from The Teachers and Writers Collaborative.
Reality is a cupcake
with no icing
I hate oranges
do I hate
--- Daniel Cohen, Second Grade
- "Letter from Uppland #3," by Dr. Phage. "One cannot discuss Swedish cuisine without some mention of herring, which is the national bird. There is a particularly refined type in the Baltic called strömming, which swim in gymnasia rather than ordinary schools, and speak French among themselves. A special delicacy is created from these strömming by burying them in the backyard and allowing them to ferment. After a year or two, they are dug up to produce a fish sauce which was used as a secret weapon during the days when Sweden's army was the terror of Northern Europe."
The reviewer of Malignant Self Love is either a Narcissist himself (intimated by his inability to give credibikltiy to Dr. Sam bwecause he is not a health professionalo) or as is mor elikely simply totally ignorant of the subject matter at hand namely DSM IV CLuster B Personality Disorders. The book Malignat Self Love and his site by the same name are SPOT-ON and INVALUABLE to people like me who have been vicitmized by intimate relationship with a sufferer of Narcissistic Persoanlity Disorders.---Sincerely,
Our reviewer responds:
Or as they used to sing in the shampoo commercials on the radio when I was a boy,
Halo, everybody, Halo!
Halo is the shampoo that glorifies your hair,
So Halo, everybody, Halo!
I note that the letter comes from Austria. Could it be....
Vienna? Could it be.... Berggasse 19? Bist du Siggie?--- email@example.comThe Little Ice Age
How Climate Made History
(Basic Books)The Little Ice Age ran from 1300 until the middle of the 19th Century, and was scarcely a hit with the volkenheimer. Before that period, because of the warm weather, the Norse were able to colonize Greenland and Iceland, and reach down as far as the present Long Island, where they were finally drummed out of town by the denizens of East Hampton who didn't care for their silly horned helmets nor their B. O. Most of Europe was temperate, perfect for growing B. O. and the other principal crop of the times: mildew, ragweed, liverwort, and scotch-berries, which were fermented to produce mead for the famous mead-halls.
The cold cycle began in earnest the 14th Century, which was followed by the 15th Century and then the 16th Century, although accounts differ. The cycle was at its worst during the 18th Century where you could find your granny's false teeth in the glass, at the side of the bed, chattering away to no one in particular and finally freezing over. In some places, a new diversity in agriculture developed with the cultivation of cereals, legumes, flax, and hemp.
These improvements brought prosperity, merriment, and what in Britain came to be called the Sunday joint, as well as a new diversion for the younger ice-agers called Ice-Pak-Man. The people of Holland not only excelled in this game but may have forged "the first modern economy in Europe" with planned cities, urban renewal, and Dutch Elm Disease. They also invented the wooden boot.
§ § §
The Little Ice Age suffers from a pedestrian style of writing, possibly because Professor Fagan lives near a pedestrian area in Santa Barbara, California. This means he is as far as possible from the freezing mistrals and impossible pronunciations of place names in Greenland like Uummannaq, Qaanaaq and Nuuk. We found ourselves drifting off into dreamland with descriptions of yet another storm sweeping in "on November 26-27, 1703, where a low pressure system with a center of 950 millibars passed about 200 kilometers north of London."
However, it isn't all Sturm und Drang out there in Medieval and Renaissance-vile. Fagan manages to spark some interest with his occasional asides, claiming, for instance, that the "golden years" of cathedral building --- Notre Dame, Rheims, Canterbury Cathedral, Lincoln, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and the Crystal Cathedral of Burbank --- were a result of a Medieval Warm Period of unparalleled prosperity and an abundance of toaster ovens. He also suggests that large storms of the 16th century where "crops failed and cattle perished by diseases caused by abnormal weather" caused some of the Delft Valley Girls to be dubbed witches with the result that they were rotisseried for their sins.
Professor Fagan even hints that the French Revolution came about because of the "bitterly cold winter of 1788/1789," where "heavy snowfall blocked roads, major rivers froze over, and much commerce came to a standstill." However, he leaves it to the reader to imagine the details of this climatic determinism. This reviewer has a picture of a Paris mob storming the Bastille because of ice in their vichyssoise, and Robespierre's chilly smile becoming even chillier when he couldn't start his Deux Cheveux in the morning.
The Little Ice Age describes to a fare-
thee- well the harshness of life for 90% of the people of Europe, namely, the pleasantry, who found day-to-day living very unpleasant:
Even in the best of times, rural life was unrelentingly harsh...A Winchester farm worker who survived childhood diseases had an average life expectancy of twenty-four years. Excavations in medieval cemeteries paint a horrifying picture of health problems resulting from brutal work regimes. Spinal deformations from the hard labor of plowing, hefting heavy grain bags, and scything the harvest are commonplace. Arthritis affected nearly all adults. Most adult fisherfolk suffered agonizing osteoarthritis of the spine from years of heavy boatwork and hard work ashore...the human cost in constant, slow-moving toil was enormous. Yet despite the unending work, village diets were never quite adequate, and malnutrition was commonplace.
All, however, comes out well in the end. Weather control was instituted and carried into high art by Renoir, Braque, Arp, Tanguy, and Yanni. Hail, wind, and freakish storms were banished to another era, and the Europeans could relax into a new era, the 20th Century --- one that gave them World War I, phosgene gas, the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, atomic and hydrogen bombs, speed, smack, and crack, and a brand new variety of global warming, brought to us courtesy ofYOU
ME!--- F. S. J. Wurner and
D. W. Phage
Beauty and Violence in
The Desert Southwest
(Arizona)I don't know. Maybe desert living does something funny to the head. Everyone I've known who lived far off in those parched lands was a bit strange. Like the old bastard that lived behind us in a trailer in the place they called No Mirage.
He had a collection of ugly mastiffs that would go on and on, keeping us and our one or two neighbors awake most of the night. He was quite surly about it. When we went to complain about the noise, he met us near the accordion-
spiral eight- foot cut- 'em- dead metal fence. His fly was open and he had spilled ketchup (or blood) down the front of his tee-shirt. He snarled at us like one of his dogs and told us to get the goddamn hell off his goddamn land.
A couple of winters ago, he had a heart-
attack. They say you could see him through the window clutching his chest and gagging and falling down and trying to unlock the door with its three bolts. By the time the medics brought in the animal control people to wrestle the eight dogs to the ground and into their truck, the old bastard was dead on the floor. Must've been the sun, or those hot winds that come and stir up the dust and the dust-devils for twenty- four or forty- eight hours straight.
So we figure that this woman Meloy who wrote The Last Cheater's Waltz has been fried with this self-same non-stop overdose of sunshine and wind, something to make her such a wonder with words. Either that, or the strontium-90 in her milk. These are what she has to say about the locale of Trinity, that government operation that brought the world the first atomic bomb almost sixty years ago:
This haunted real estate is neither beautiful nor terrifying. It is beautifully terrible. It conflates the ultimate with the intimate, poises a strange equanimity between near pristine lands and proving grounds for the extermination of life --- a self-canceling proposition. It evokes a conflict of the psyche, a collision of dispassion and vulnerability, that may bear more veracity about our century's troublesome relationship to the western deserts than the most sublime nature photograph.
Monuments and artifacts carry the news of history in a kind of code of remembrance. Here at Trinity the land itself is the carrier --- austere, at times bleak, a space so vast it absorbs all silences but its own. If no one tells you what happened here, nothing in the desert itself would give it away. The land appears to have no meaning that which I bring to it with my own knowledge. Yet if who I am is geography as well as blood, if living were I do matters, then this place, too, is blood and bone.
She takes a naturalist's world view, mixes it with geology, history, psychology, humanity, and blends into a lyric whole that is sweet, sharp, and sometimes very poignant. The desert is where she lives --- in Utah, near Four corners --- but it is also where she travels and thinks and wonders about, for example, the United States creating and testing and developing the most secret awful weapons, and doing it in her homeland.
For example, she tells us about Los Alamos: besides being the locale for the brains behind the bomb, it was a place that had,
churches, schools, a theater, a symphony orchestra, teas, cocktail parties, alcoholics, and a mystique --- in the words of Freeman Dyson, "a brilliant group of city slickers suddenly dumped into the remotest corner of the Wild West and having the time of their lives building bombs." Los Alamos had punch served in chemical reagent jars and seven thousand fire extinguishers. It had no unemployment, no jail, no parking, and no in-laws.
Those of us who grew up with the bomb at first thought nothing strange of cooking up several hundred thousand Japanese in order to end a war, but then, with onset of sword-
rattling (or bomb- rattling) from the likes of Curtis LeMay, John Foster Dulles, Josef Stalin, John Kennedy, Nikita Khruschev. Then, after looking at the photographs of Ground Zero and reading John Hersey's "Hiroshima" and seeing those those pictures in Hiroshima Mon Amor --- ghastly shots of flesh literally dripping off the bone --- it finally came home to us that those things we were reading about and looking at some day might well
In her writing, Meloy recreates those years, the funny words that became part of our vocabulary: Manhattan Project and heavy water and mushroom cloud and Trinity and Fat Boy and H-Bomb and Bikini and radiation sickness and strontium-90:
In the midfifties strontium-90 from nuclear fallout began to show up in wheat, soil, and cow's milk...Scientists referred to measures of strontium-90 euphemistically as "sunshine units." The breasts of nursing mothers, too, carried sunshine units. Bonded to milk, the most primary of life-giving substances, this formerly obscure radioactive isotope entered the household lexicon (every fifties kid could pronounce strontium-90), the public consciousness (protests against the health hazards of global fallout gathered momentum), and the pop culture (out of the petri dish of nuclear contaminants rose unhappy reptilian and insectiod mutations.)
§ § §
Meloy is a desert person, and while Trinity and Los Alamos and our militarism turn up in almost every chapter like a bad dream (Americans have devoted more acreage of public domain to military reserves than to all national parks combined she tells us), she is also alive to the life and the wonder and the beauty and the sexiness of the desert. "When the rains do come, nearly everything in the desert around you is probably having sex," she tells us:
If you are a toad in the Chihuahuan Desert, nature has designed a simple strategy for reproducing yourself. It rains. You sing. You copulate. Very quickly. Water, the desert's most limited and unpredictable element, cues amphibian lust, and when it does, the toads must emerge from their burrows and find the precise location of potential mates normally scattered across the land like long-lost golf-balls. For this they need robust voices. Indeed, when you reduce these squat creatures to quintessential toadness, you find vocal cords and skin.
Ms. Meloy has written a profound and sad and wondering and sometimes very funny account of one person in her element, which is the Southwest Desert, not only the hiding place for the sins of America's warlike character, but, too, those who have died or gone mad somewhere in its depths, dying for lack of the most basic stuffs of life --- food, shelter, water.
And when she and her husband hire in a team to drill for water on their eight-acre plot in Utah, it comes out red:
I stared grimly at the world's most expensive subterranean vegetable drink...I did not sleep well. Several times I left out bed and visited the wellhead, tempted to shut off the valve. Never did my desert bones allow me to take water for granted. Running it this way seemed profligate and insane. I sat under the Milky Way's broken necklace and watched the pipe spew artesian ketchup. I pictured Mark and me forever dressed in a sad, tomato-colored wardrobe, our clothes laundered in red water.--- R. S. Risley
The Collected Works of
William Howard Taft
David H. Burton,
A. E. Cambell, Editors
(Ohio)Ohio University Press plans to put out eight volumes of The Collected Works of William Howard Taft, a project whose bulk may only be matched by that of its progenitor. Taft was a big feller --- big as all outdoors --- but he was no pantywaist in the brain department, as proved by the contents of this volume.
Volume I consists of nineteen speeches given between 1895 and 1908, ranging from subjects as abstruse as Writs of Injunction and a close study of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, to broad public issues such as Self-Rule for the Philippines, the rights of unions to strike, and abuses by large corporations and railroads.
In all these, Taft proves himself to be articulate, wordy, serious, even --- dare we say it? --- a man of heavy thoughts. He was one of those smart cookies who today we would relegate to teaching torts at some state university. Certainly, in the age of Weight-
Watchers, a Big Daddy like Taft could never hope to make it much beyond a municipal water district in the election sweepstakes.
Which is more the pity. These speeches were given before Taft was elected President in 1908. A hundred years later, we can only envy a time when we could have a would-be president who could speak, knowingly, on, say, Roman (Civil) Law vs. Anglo-Saxon (Common) Law.
Further, as we read through "The Duties of Citizenship as Viewed from the Standpoint of Colonial Administration," Taft's 1907 address to the Philippine Assembly, or as we review, with him, his accomplishments as Civilian Governor in areas of sanitation, transportation, postal and telephone development and the creation of a Civil Service, we find ourselves wondering if English/
American colonialism was really so ghastly as we had been led to believe over the years. From what we have read of American contributions to the then primitive infrastructure of the Philippines, Panama and even Mississippi in the early part of the century, we come more to understand Hugh Thomas' conclusion near the end of his excellent history of Cuba: that Cuba and the United States would have both been much better if we had just taken over that country at the end of the Spanish-American War, rather than casting it adrift.
If you are even mildly interested it what it would be like to have an incoming president who could parse a whole sentence complete with modifiers and appropriate verb forms, you might look into some of these speeches by Taft. The photograph on the cover [See Fig. 3, below] is a definite knee-slapper.--- Walter Fenley, PhDWhiter than the
Whitewash on the WallOur one local supermarket, the Ahora, comes to life mainly on Wednesdays and Saturdays. That's when the fruits and vegetables arrive.
They're nothing to write home about even though I'm writing home to you about them because in the United States you'd mostly find Ahora's fruits and vegetables in the dumpster behind your local Safeway, A&P, or Piggly-Wiggly. Broccoli with the mange, tomatoes with hemorrhoids and lettuce with anorexia.
Mind you, I'm not complaining. First because they are all we have: mange, hemorrhoids and all. Second, if I wanted Safeway, A&P, and Piggly-Wiggly vegetables, I wouldn't be living some 2000 miles and five days drive south of the U. S. Border. I'm complaining, but merely and merrily.
The other days of the week there's little life in the vegetable section at our local Super. Yesterday, I swear to you, all I found were a couple of forlorn onions and potatoes. The onions are trying to grow other onions. The potatoes are blighted with age but don't show it because they have been painted red. There is, apparently, an army of Mexican ladies sitting around somewhere with brushes, turning the Idaho potatoes into the New variety. Seems the colored ones are more valuable. And you get a bonus when you buy them: Agent Orange in your lentil-potato stew.
In the fruit bin one sole Bell Pepper with crows' feet under the eyes. There were some chilies, but there are always chiles --- ten or twelve varities, most of them hot as hell. There was some jícama, too, but those bastards live forever. I think that if they found some jícama at Pompeii, you and I could enjoy some now peeled and sliced, served with the juice of limón.
And as always, if there's nothing else, there are always tortillas. Tortillas! Forty cents a kilo, which contains (I just counted) fifty-three of them. Where would we be without tortillas? There is nothing more sensual for us Mexicophiles than the first hot tortilla of the day. Biting into it is not unlike biting into the skin of a sweet young thing. Your teeth meet a very slight resistance, and as you rip off a piece, there floats up a heady flowery smell --- protein-rich, fecund, filled with warm lust. If you crumble up a piece of Oaxacan bitter cheese, slice up an avocado, stuff them in your plump hot tortilla, why it's a complete meal.
Tortilla, by the way, is fabricated with whitewash, that stuff that we used to paint the outhouse walls (we also threw a handful down the hole to make the place a little less ripe). In those days, it was called lime. To make tortillas with it, you mix a pinch or so with water, and boil the maize in it for a short time. Drain and wash the corn, grind it up and you have tortilla flour.
Lime --- known here as "cal" --- turns up everywhere: not only in tortillas, but in cement, and that white stuff painted on the base of trees --- presumably to keep the ants from carrying off the whole thing. It's also used to make piggy banks --- figuras --- for storing your change, and even to paint lines on the soccer fields. But mostly, it's tortillas. It turns out cal provides just enough minerals to make it possible for people to survive on them alone, which many do in this area. You can't say the same for Hostess Twinkies and Coke, our preferred poisons to the north.
Every time I think of cal, I think of tortillas --- but I also think of whitewash, and Tom Sawyer, and that great song from World War I, sung by the "limeys" immersed in the gook of the front-line trenches. Can you hear them now --- lying in their cold and filthy, rat-infested dugouts, bodies and uniforms black with mud and ooze, singing:
Whiter than the whitewash on the wall,
Whiter than the whitewash on the wall,
Wash me in your water
That you wash your dirty daughter
And I shall be whiter than the whitewash on the wall.
--- Carlos Amantea
Writers on Depression
Nell Casey, Editor
(Morrow)Throughout Unholy Ghost, there are some wonderful one-liners. Martha Manning, herself a psychotherapist, tells us that melancholia flows from one generation to the next. She says, of her grandmother, "The sheer exhaustion she conveyed in the act of stirring her tea made it look like she was mixing cement." On the other hand, Maud Casey's mother told her, If you commit suicide, I'll kill you. And William Styron quotes Baudelaire: I have felt the wind of the wing of madness.
Depression is one of those gifts that keeps on giving --- affecting family and friends alike. Nell Casey, the editor of this volume, tells about trying to keep her sister Maud from destroying herself all the while feeling herself being pulled down into the "black hole of doubt." She goes through the daily temporizing that's required to help someone else who is living at rock bottom --- all the while being at risk of be sucked down herself. She learns the rare truth that all of us melancholics must learn --- that we will never be done with it: this thing that gets hold of us will never let go.
Slowly it dawned on me that Maud's sadness wasn't ever going away --- it was right there in every swell and turn of my consciousness, smuggled always into our everyday lives.
There were times as I was going through Unholy Ghost that I found myself getting the blues, sucked in by the heartache of it all. Many humans go through life on a frail keel, and when we lose our balance (as one out of ten of us are going to do), we might end up spending the next year or ten years or even the rest of our lives at the edge getting our brains zapped with bolts of electricity or swallowing those little round things that Jane Kenyon took the trouble to make into a poem,
Elevil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.
Depression, melancholia, the blues, black bile --- for most of us it involves being unable to move, or to write, or to (at times) even get out of bed, much less get out of the house. It does make for compelling story-
telling, and I found myself hard-pressed to lay the book down. It has to do, I'm sure, with my own story. (All of us depressives have stories to tell --- sometimes gripping, often funny, always sad.)
I remember the whole summer of 1977 when I sat in the kitchen of a communal house in California staring at the wall, absently shooing flies out the kitchen window. For those of us who have been there, it is not only the freezing up of the machinery of our days, it is, too, not being able to get away from it and, most of all, the inability to sleep.
We are dying of tristesse, and it gives us no exit, morning, noon, night. 3:15 A.M. is the worst --- a dark and lonely and panic-
inducing place. The babbler within won't leave you alone and you realize, with dread, that your own mind is not only no help at all, or worse, it's the source of it all.
I recall those friends who tried to help me, for better or for worse. The best were those who offered no judgment, who were there, day and night, when I needed them, who were willing to be woken from a sound sleep in the early hours and listen to my broken record: "I'm so scared --- and I can't figure out why," and "Are you still there? Don't you dare fade out on me!"
Those are the ones I will never forget, will always care for --- those who put up with me, helped me get dressed, helped get me to the store, get me to the doctors. The only mood-changers, back in those days, were pain pills (that would often leave one in a ditch the next day) and Valium (which turned us depressives into little cows).
§ § §
It strikes me as passing strange that a book devoted to melancholia has so little to say about the old Freudian theory that depression is the mind at battle with itself. There comes a time --- the theory goes --- when the subconscious calls a halt to everything, says, "Until you pay attention to me I'm not giving you an out. You won't be able to work, you won't be able to read, you won't be able to sleep --- you won't be able to run around and do your usual busywork until we get this thing out of the way."
In those pre-Prozac days, the way we took care of such an internal freeze job was talk therapy --- sitting with a non-judgmental someone for an hour or two a week, trying to find, somewhere in the sea of experiences the words to ferret out exactly what it was that was calling such an inconvenient halt to the whole movie of our days.
The writers who worked with Freudians or Jungians or co-counselors or everyday psychologists seem mostly dissatisfied; only a very few seem to have been helped at all.
Joshua Wolf Shenk is one of them. He remembers his therapist defining the problem, correctly, as "a soundtrack of negative thoughts in your head --- the volume rising or falling, but never going silent." And Martha Manning, herself a psychotherapist, says that through her sessions she learned ways "to manage my anxiety and set limits in the many areas in which I felt overwhelmed." Outside of those two, Unholy Ghost doesn't do much to commend the 100,000 professionals in the United States who make it their business to listen.
In my own case, an irreverent and decidedly atypical therapist helped me stop being at sixes and sevens, helped me to put me back together again. Someday, when you and I have the time, and it's just after sunset, out there in the garden, under the plane tree, with, perhaps, a bit of wine --- I'll tell you how she and I slowly and patiently brought me to the point where I could go through the trauma all over again, in the vast free space that was her office. It's a classic cure story (at least to me) but I just don't have time to go through it right now. You understand: I've got this book review to finish.
When people write about something as traumatizing as melancholia, they have to be good --- for they are defining the indefinable. I would suggest that for the majority of these writers, we might be seeing them at their best. They are telling us something highly personal, something that meant or still means a great deal to them, their families, and their friends. These twenty-three are exposing themselves, letting us know that whatever it was that they went through turns the world upside down, that it wrings you out, leaves you wasted and --- sometimes --- feeling apologetic to yourself and to those you almost brought down with you.
And all along, after you are done with it, done talking about it, just to fool you, it comes flooding back all over again.
Some of the writing is as artful as can be found in contemporary literature. In a few short crisp pages Larry McMurtry takes us deeply into the two years where he could barely function. Lauren Slater's thirty or so pages give us a slow drop into despair, so subtle that we don't know we are there until suddenly it is all around us (exactly like the very condition it portrays). At times, her words turn poetry. She wants to have a baby, or rather husband Ben does, so a doctor checks her out, and they find she is in good shape to be a mother: "My piping is clear and open, my ovaries stuffed with human caviar, my uterus pear-shaped and warm." But then, as she drops her anti-
depressants, her mad, sad fantasies begins to work on her, and this is what comes up:
Inside me now is a coiled thing going from parasite to personhood, and as it does it emits horrid toxins. I am awash in stinking hormones. The little embryo ejaculates human chorionic gonadotropin. All day long the embryo sits in my stomach and jerks off in spurts' sex steroids.
Meri Nana-Dama Danquah says, "There are times when I feel like I've known depression longer than I've known myself." She sees "the mask of depression" being "not all that different from the mask of race:"
It, too, barrages its prey with groundless images; it concerns itself more with the fiction of a prescribed identity than with the notion of any true individuality. It too, seeks to blur a person's vision of herself, and her place in the world.
And the editor's own tale, and the co-responding essay from her sister, shows that it left both of them overwhelmed --- something familiar to those of us who have gone through such journey.
Professional writers have to be a bit daft anyway, and the terror comes from the fact that what one so depends on --- the brain --- suddenly goes screwy. There's something going on within, and we can't control it. We become scared not only for ourselves, but of ourselves.
And since no one can see our pain, we sometimes have to use extraordinary means to make it visible. An overdose of pills, perhaps. A slash at the wrists. Leaning out, too far, out of the open window of a high building.
§ § §
It's not all pointed insight here in Miseryville, however. Of the twenty-three writers, there are three or four that sound like the off-key tubas in your typical Mexican mariachi band. Someone by the name of Susanna Kaysen tells us that she thinks that "depressive people have more fun." Hunh?
Human nature being what it is, we enjoy more whatever is hard to get and in short supply. Happiness is certainly both, and nobody knows that better than someone who spends half the time sunk in gloom.
Then there's one Anne Beatty. We're not so sure how she wormed her way into this anthology, because in her brief essay she doesn't convey dread or grief or anything more than complaining about the downside of being a Famous Writer, carping about her mailman who insists on delivering manuscripts to her --- not from strangers, or friends --- but his own. That's it for the black bile department. When I was a kid, we had a saying. "Crazy? Who me crazy? I'm not crazy, I'm a teapot." Maybe Beatty has turned into a teapot.
Equally off-putting is Nancy Mairs. Ms. Mairs was the premier literary Gloomy-Gus of her day. Whenever it was time to review a book on disability or depression for the New York Times, she was the critic of choice. Her writing was and is very depressing, largely because she tends to give out with a huge number of words which go 'round and 'round (and 'round) but don't seem to reach wherever it is that she's trying to get us to.
She lets us know repeatedly that she was sad, that her childhood was miserable, that she has had electro-shock more than twenty times for her depression,. She frets that she will never be a great writer and we suspect that if she keeps carping about it, we'll definitely have to agree.
Finally, there's William Styron. For some reason, he has become Mr. Melancholia Expert for the New York Literary Set. Anytime the subject of depression comes up, someone will inevitably invoke his autobiographical novel, Darkness Visible. It has been made the defining volume on personal woe. References to it turn up repeatedly in Unholy Ghost, as well as in magazines like Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker.
It may have something to do with Styron's world-
renowned siege of depression, but --- equally as possible, the East Coast Smart Set being what it is --- it may have to do with his owning a house at Martha's Vineyard, mixing a mean Martini, and hanging out with all those other world- class depressives.
He and his wife (she appears in this volume too) go on and on about their friends Mike Wallace, Art Buchwald, Peter Matthiesson, George Plimpton, John Marquand, and Truman Capote (with a mynah bird on his shoulder). It's a regular fun-house of names of those who believe they run the American Literary Fraternity.
However, despite all the names, as soon as Styron starts in on his version of The Miseries, we get the feeling that there's something screwy. He is capable, without even trying hard, to come up with some howlers, making him a modern-
day neo-psychological Polonius. "I shall never learn what 'caused' my depression," he tells us, "as no one will ever learn about their own." No one? This ignores many of the perceptive writers (such as Larry McMurtry) in Unholy Ghost. Most have a damn good idea of the source of the blues and have consequently acquired a fair amount of personal insight from it.
"A vast majority of survivors of Auschwitz," Styron reports, "have borne up fairly well." Now where did that one come from? One of my psychotherapists was actively involved in treating older survivors of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. He told me that for many of them there was a conscious decision, on a daily basis, as to whether they were going to continue living or not.
"Depression is not the soul's annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease --- and they are countless --- bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable." Right. Here we are in the trenches of life, gathered in dawn's breaking light, our Mausers in hand, knowing that when we race over the top, guns blazing, we'll conquer all. We know we'll win, because The General told us so.
And, finally, there's this astonishing solecism, contradicted not only by the other essays in Unholy Ghost, but by the writings of thousands of psychologists, psychotherapists, and other care-givers:
"Save for the awfulness of certain memories it leaves, acute depression inflicts few permanent wounds..."
This guy is not only a teapot, he's a menace to the trade, the Archie Bunker of the Psychotropic Set. Those of us in the depression fraternity should band together --- if we can ever make it out of our various Sloughs of Despond --- and take up a collection to get a restraining order against Styron, get him banned from ever writing about bipolar disorder ever again. Otherwise, those --- like David Karp --- who turn into "mental health detectives," seeking help in the current literature, may well find themselves stuck in a dismal hole of ignorance from which they'll never be able to escape.
Which would be very depressing.--- L. W. MilamWall-to-Wall
Post Office Murals in
The Great Depression
Karal Ann Marling
(Minnesota)For nine years, from 1934 to 1943, the Federal Government, under the Public Buildings Administration, commissioned murals for a variety of newly constructed post-offices around the United States. Life magazine, phrase-makers for the western world, named it "Mural America for Rural America."
Ms. Marling has researched the workings of what, at the time, was referred to as "WPA art," a program designed to get starving artists out of the garrets and into suitable work that would decorate bare walls, edify the public, and put some spare change in their pockets.
There is a passel of factual material --- descriptions of the murals, how they were conceived, how the artists were chosen, the subjects chosen, how they were monitored, and --- in several instances --- tales of some very juicy controversies that erupted when pictures appeared in their local post office, in some cases, body parts that the locals considered to be obscene or inappropriate to their communities. It was, they usually said, another stupid something dictated by the bureaucrats somewhere off there in Washington.
Professor Marling says that her book is "about taste in the Depression decade." There is some focus on appropriate or inappropriate artistry in selected murals, and there are some wonderful stories of lurid body parts that were changed to meet local taste --- a retouching of a naked bottom here, a breast there --- and in one case, a complete cover up.
Then too, there were some silly changes made because of the whims of the overseers. An artist by the name of Doris Lee prepared sketches for the Post Office Building in Washington that the writer (an art historian by trade) describes as "whimsical." In one case, Lee was told by the Section that
the heads of the figures were too large for their bodies, and...the element of caricature discernible in their faces and postures was unduly blatant.
She was forced to modify them so that the final figures would appear, as Ms. Marling describes it, "vapidly pretty and wholly static."
Frank Mechau's controversial "Dangers of the Mail" in the same building represented
Indians taking special delight in scalping two naked women crawling on their hands and knees across the foreground of the scene...while a third woman, also nude, was being strangled with exquisite deliberation by no fewer than two savages.
This created no little hub-bub and certainly brought up the question --- still much in the air with the NEA --- as to whether the federal government ought to be sponsoring what some saw as paintings that were just a bit too viewer-
In her choice words on such controversies, we find Professor Marling at her best, but there are times when she seems to be stretching it: for example, her thesis that a Walt Disney cartoon sequence with Mickey Mouse leading a brass band might have some relationship to a mural in Corning, Iowa, called "Band Concert."
Naked bodies, attacks on "local values," implied bi-racial tolerance, and antagonism towards what some saw as bizarre --- read "modern" --- art are the themes of this fine book, and on the whole, it is a delight. For instance, the folk in Aiken, South Carolina went bananas over Stefan Hirsch's Justice as Protector and Avenger, because the figure of justice appeared to be a "mulatto" (not to be idolized in the deep south) and because to the right of the lady was a representation of
a burning house, a "shyster" lawyer freeing a prisoner from jail and a burglar pursuing his trade.
A local judge questioned whether the mural was "a work of art" or a "monstrosity." An official of the PBA went to Aiken, took a gander, and subsequently authorized
the purchase of a tan velvet curtain on a drawstring...
to be placed over the mural --- so that it can be covered through court sessions and opened to the public on request.
Ms. Marling opines that the wall offended the people of Aiken because they much preferred Hollywood reality, or perhaps Mickey Mouse. It was "a phantom mural for a phantom people who didn't live in Aiken, South Carolina," she concludes.
The most entertaining story of them all concerns a somewhat giddy modernist named Lloyd Ney who came up with a bizarre mural called New London Facets. The service rejected it out-
of- hand because of the very strangeness of it, but Ney took himself off to New London, Ohio, where the work was to be mounted in the local P.O., and by sheer enthusiasm, got the citizens --- including the local Chamber of Commerce --- so worked up in favor of his mural that it came into being. It's a doozey. In abstract fashion, it shows not only floating postcards and bottles and scissors and an Uncle Sam figure in a fedora, but a local lunatic named "Belle Fontaine," two area physicians who were known to wear shawls in preference to topcoats, and a hippopotamus. Why the beast? Because the first hippopotamus sighted in America had apparently turned up in New London.
The whole Ney story is a wonderful sequence in a wonderful book. In fact, Professor Marling's writing is good enough that her tale of the pitfalls of digging through the National Archives in Washington D.C. for the research for Wall-to-Wall America is in itself worthy reading. She reports that some essential parts of material she needed --- photographic records, for example --- could only be found in other offices or other buildings, and once located, may have been useless since some artists
hired professional photographers to record the work in situ; some had the mural photographed as it hung on stretchers in the studio; some took dreadful pictures with Brownies.
We can empathize with the frustration at this last because despite the fine writing of the author, the hundred or so reproductions in the book are minuscule --- mostly squeezed into a third of a page --- and are entirely in black-and-white. To represent a thirty or sixty foot color mural in such a fashion is painfully inadequate and may force some of us who wouldn't be caught dead in Aiken, South Carolina to go there nonetheless to see what the hell lies behind that tan curtain.--- L. J. Waters, PhDMy Father
Before the Nazis
Could Break His HeartI remember the room in which he held
a kitchen match and with his thumbnail
commanded it to flame: a brown sofa,
two easy chairs, one covered with flowers,
a black piano no one ever played half
covered by a long-fringed ornamental scarf
Ray Estrada brought back from Mexico
in 1931. How new the world is, you say.
In that room someone is speaking about money,
asking why it matters, and my father exhales
the blue smoke, and says a million dollars
even in large bills would be impossible.
He's telling me because, I see now, I'm
the one who asked, for I dream of money,
always coins and bills that run through my hands,
money I find in the corners of unknown rooms
or in metal boxes I dig up in the backyard
flower-beds of houses I've never seen.
My father rises now and goes to the closet.
It's as though someone were directing a play
and my father's part called for him to stand
so that the audience, which must be you,
could see him in white shirt, dark trousers,
held up by suspenders, a sign of the times,
and conclude he is taller than his son
will ever be, and as he dips into his jacket,
you'll know his role calls for him to exit
by the front door, leaving something
unfinished, the closet light still on,
the cigarette still burning dangerously,
a Yiddish paper folded to the right place
so that a photograph of Hindenburg
in full military regalia swims up
to you out of all the details we lived.
I remember the way the match flared
blue and yellow in the deepening light
of a cool afternoon in early September,
and the sound, part iron, part animal,
part music, as the air rushed toward it
out of my mouth, and his intake of breath
through the Lucky Strike, and the smoke
hanging on after the door closed and the play
ran out of acts and actors, and the audience ---
which must be you --- grew tired of these lives
that finally come to nothing or no more
than the furniture and the cotton drapes
left open so the darkening sky can seem
to have the last word, with half a moon
and a showering of fake stars to say what
the stars always say about the ordinary.
Oh, you're still here, 60 years later,
you wonder what became of us, why
someone put it in a book, and left
the book open to a page no one reads.
Everything tells you he never came back,
though he did before he didn't, everything
suggests the year Hitler came
to power, the year my grandmother learned
to read English novels and fell in love
with David Copperfield and Oliver Twist
which she read to me seated on a stool
beside my bed until I fell asleep.
Everything tells you this is a preface
to something important, the Second World War,
the news that leaked back from Poland
that the villages were gone. The truth is ---
if there is a truth --- I remember the room,
I remember the flame, the blue smoke,
how bright and how slippery were the secret coins,
how David Copperfield doubted his own name,
how sweet the stars seemed, peeping and blinking,
how close the moon, how utterly silent the piano.--- Philip Levine
From How Much Earth
©2001 The Roundhouse Press
San Diego CA 92167
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