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[APRIL 2005.]

found gerunds

Using the restroom
Sneezing or coughing
Handling raw food
Eating or drinking
Touching face or hair
Mopping the floor
Taking out the garbage
Any chance of contamination


the catechism

sounds like an e e cummings version of armageddon. do you seriously like it?

Seriously. De gustibus, etc.

How warm the morning, how good the coffee. How cheery the whine of the circular saw from the building they're putting up across the street.
What shall you do?
Write about Wallace Stevens!
But the day is so bright, the BART station is so close, the bus is closer. All could be yours.
Write about Wallace Stevens!
Not going to keep mixing your album?
I'm a good grad student!
Not going to San Francisco to take pictures of ships?
Stop it.
Not going to download German newspapers, or start reading Proust, or drink beer and play chess against the computer?


Second Summer


What comes dropping down are
figments of the earlier parts
of the year. An orange tank passes through flames, the deep
ice of uncertain, Octobered air—: red automobiles
push used leaves out their blue
          Comes dropping down, greener
parts of the year: cracked zephyrs gusting away
from themselves... down through ochre
jeeps and tanks, the red cars. October wind
sometimes a sunset made mild with falling
freight, as if much that was so is now
once more.
          Dropping down through hanging maple
tolls come hotter parts and their priors, their futures. Ice's
hold on, relent of, earlier designs. October sometimes
a bland return to revving through the same
never-had-as-lover clear spaces, to growth ruses,
madder banks of cloud flitting westerly
with blues.
          Down through which are the last parts
of earlier plans: clemencies among the silver
warplanes of building cold, écru tents of last
heats, in an ebb of strategy. Each in sunset's camouflage—sunset's
mutations of intention—bruised tiers, darker cars, big new clouds of breath,—
October wind in which some burdened guesses
as to how


          the year will take itself apart and you.
Last night I felt I could die.
I felt strong.
There was heat around me.
I had no friends I wanted.

—Geoffrey G. O'Brien


ship of state

—Isn't Ratzinger, like, really old?
—I think that was part of the point. The last Pope was so popular that they didn't want anyone to have to spend too long in his shadow.
—Ah. So he's a palate-cleanser Pope.

A great link from (Tucson) Matt; a video from a Berkeley biology class closing with a professor's heartfelt message to the student who stole his laptop. If this has been making the rounds through campus, I haven't caught wind of it yet.


defense from poetry

The desire to write a long poem or two is not obseqiousness to the judgment of people. On the contrary, I find that prolonged attention to a single subject has the same result that prolonged attention to a senora has, according to the authorities. All manner of favors drop from it. Only it requires a skill in the varying of the serenade that occasionally makes me feel like a Guatemalan when one particularly wants to feel like an Italian.

—Wallace Stevens to Harriet Monroe, 1922

And some days you are backed into the maze and find yourself facing an essay so distasteful that your distaste becomes apparent in every sentence; it soaks the page like spilled ink and you tell yourself, this is where the mind goes to die—

But it's kept running this long, I suppose it can't help but continue. I never claimed to understand poetry especially well, and the only things I can say about it are glib and obvious. I hope glib and obvious is good enough for this institution. Sure, I still get the whooshy feelings, which are all that has kept me from hating poetry in the face of this class, but you don't get graded on the whooshy feelings. Next week I am giving a presentation on a mediocre contemporary poet whose inclusion in the course I didn't understand until I tracked down a journal article by my professor about the contemporary poet. The professor explains that a few years ago he found himself at an impasse in teaching contemporary poetry because he didn't know anything about younger poets, but—

I did know that my colleague X had a very bright son who was a poet, so I borrowed his book from her, found out he lived in Berkeley, taught the book, invited him to speak to my class, got none of the rock allusions over which he and the class bonded, and felt virtuous that I had made so noble a gesture to attach myself to the times.

So this poet is the professor's idea of "what all the kids are listening to." It seems so silly to be addressing this in a serious academic context because I knew a bunch of Hot Young Poets—I went to school with them for two years and watched them get drunk and have nervous breakdowns and fight over each other's wives and so on. God knows there are fine individuals among them, and fine poets too, but I haven't forgotten the pettiness and clubbiness. It's even worse than the world of fiction writers. The contemporary poets we've been given in this course seem to all be pals—they review each other's books, and so on—and because of our professor's circumstantial introduction to this particular circle, we're now trying to treat them as the successors to Moore and Ashbery. None of this ought to surprise anyone, and I should get over it; but this is why I never wanted to be an exegete.



Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. It seems clear by now that Ishiguro has permanently abandoned his idiosyncratic take on historical realism for stranger, and deeply rewarding, gambits. I think Louis Menand's review in The New Yorker slightly missed the point—he sees it as eventually turning into a sci-fi dystopian novel, which for him is a problem, since that clearly isn't where its heart lies. I would say that Ishiguro is purposely using dystopian conventions as a backdrop for a quite different story—his aim is certainly not the dystopian-novel project of showing what our society could become. (I take this to be the point of setting it in the late 1990s; the novel's world is counterfactual, not potential.) Its enormous force lies in its strategy of allowing the nightmarish social conditions to resolve very gradually out of the background while the small and familiar details of everyday life continue in the foreground, rendered with the pitch-perfect, deliberately overprecise tone that we're familiar with in Ishiguro. Though the characters' fates come to seem inhuman to us, they themselves discuss their destinies exactly as we discuss the inescapable tragedies of our lives—falling out of love, old age, death—without any sense of an alternative being possible. The novel thus delivers the truly terrifying news of how easily the monstrous can come to see mundane, how monstrous our own lives might look from a different vantage point.

Ishiguro's prior books, both the slim historical-realist volumes and the more recent allegorical dreamscapes, have tangled in one way or another with the problem of solipsism; either the narrator refuses to confront certain facts about his or her life and world, or his self-interest blinds him to suffering of others. Never Let Me Go employs Ishiguro's usual tactic of presenting a first-person narrator whose omissions we have to read around, but this time we confront not an individual blindness but a societal refusal to call a nightmare a nightmare. We mourn with the narrator at the book's end, but want to say she is mourning for the wrong reasons; and yet what else could she possibly do? The closing scenes merge utter bleakness with deep sympathy for a rare and devastating effect. This isn't the crude sort of "dark" literature that relies on shock value to substantiate its picture of the world. Its hopelessness is human.


el filósofo de moda

As a child I spent a lot of summers with relatives in Reno, and was often stuck reading whatever books happened to be lying around my grandparents' place. On one occasion this was a strange book from the fifties or sixties that explained the human body to children by a house metaphor: the stomach was the kitchen, the mouth the front door, the nose the ventilation system, and so forth. There was a lot of health advice: you should breathe through your nose rather than your mouth, because if you let in the unfiltered air through the front door, who knows what might come drifting in. The section on nutrition closed with the note that pound for pound, human flesh was clearly the most nutritious food available, with just the right balance of nutrients and proteins. "However, all civilized societies have long agreed that eating people is wrong."

Thanks to The Valve, I can give you some priceless pictures from an Argentinian gossip magazine of Slavoj Žižek's wedding to an underwear model half his age ("De Lacan a la marcha nupcial"). Yes, that's him looking haggard and miserable in the white suit. The new Mrs. Žižek is the daughter of two Lacanian psychologists and has apparently decided to pursue a career in philosophy.


in pacem

It's been a big week for Iowa news. Marilynne Robinson got the Pulitzer on Monday and Frank Conroy died yesterday. He'd had the colon cancer for a while, off and on, but last I knew his health was improving. If you live long enough (and are a man), I'm told, that or the prostate will get you in the end. It's difficult to know how to deal with the impulse to eulogize. None of us thought that he wrote any exceptional fiction after Stop-Time, but Stop-Time was perfectly capable of standing on its own, and his standing as a teacher was unquestioned. We lived in fear of his censure, not so much because it was harshly expressed (though that certainly could be true), but because no matter how you tried to respond in your own mind—that he didn't see the point of the story or that all taste was relative or whatever—in the end you'd always realize that he was right. And his praise, when it came, was truly a mark of grace; you knew you'd earned it.

I really did want to publish a book while he was alive. It wouldn't have been a great event for him—hundreds of his students have appeared in print by now—and the Workshop is largely interested in the success of its graduates to the extent that it benefits the Workshop. All the same, his recognition and approval of the unwieldy thing I'm writing would have meant a great deal to me. There are some virtues that I know the manuscript posesses, but there are others—if not exactly moral virtues, something closely allied—that I can't be sure of. Frank would have known.


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