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2009.12 =>

[NOVEMBER 2009.]




Outside, Inside





They done occupied the building!

An undetermined number of protesters barricaded themselves at about 6 a.m. inside Wheeler Hall, which houses the English department.

Several demonstrators wearing bandannas opened a window, displayed a sign reading “32% Hike, 900 layoffs” with the word “Class” crossed out in red. They used a bullhorn to denounce the regents’ decision and to rally support from a group of students chanting outside.

University and Berkeley police cordoned off the building, located just north of Sather Gate, with yellow police tape.

Authority sent us an email:

The campus police are working to resolve a protest action that is occurring in Wheeler Hall. Staff, faculty and students who would normally be working in Wheeler Hall are asked to remain out of the building until further notice. Employees who can contact their supervisors should talk to them if possible to determine whether telecommuting or relocation to another work area is an option. Those in the building right now are advised to leave until the situation has been resolved.

Can’t trust those kids with bullhorns!


Boswell for J.

“The sense I get from the strike at Berkeley is that everyone is incredibly depressed about it. Stanford at least has no illusions about being a business, and a temple to the idea of business.... their alumni magazine article about financial troubles reads like everyone is thrilled to implement the cuts, like people are joyfully racing across the campus to offer up a hand or a foot. Our topflight scientists at the medical center will make you new hands and feet faster than you can say, ‘Ow, motherfucker! That hurt!’”


How can you get too old to write about deserts?

There was a bit from Goethe in Italy that rang the alarm bells:

Täglich wird mir’s deutlicher, daß ich eigentlich zur Dichtkunst geboren bin, und daß ich die nächsten zehen Jahre, die ich höchstens noch arbeiten darf, dieses Talent exkolieren und noch etwas Gutes machen sollte, da mir das Feuer der Jugend manches ohne großes Studium gelingen ließ.

This is the W.H. Auden/Elizabeth Mayer translation:

I realize more clearly every day that I was really born to be a poet, and that in the next ten year, which are all, at most, that I shall be allowed to work in, I must cultivate this talent and produce something good. The time when the fire of youth enabled me to accomplish things without much study is now over.

And here is the newer translation by Robert R. Heitner:

It becomes clearer to me daily that I was really born for literature, and that for the next ten years, which is as long as I still expect to work, I should develop this talent and still produce something good, inasmuch as, thanks to the fire of youth, I once had some success even without great effort.

Explaining that fire of youth hinges in part on rendering the compact German da. Heitner bloats it out to “inasmuch as” and suggests that Goethe sees future work as some kind of recompense for his early success; Auden and Mayer lose the subordinate construction and make explicit Goethe’s implication that the time of easy accomplishment is over. He’s wrong on the timeline—he’ll have forty-four more years to work—but what’s on his mind?

He’s thirty-eight years old. Prior to leaving for Italy he’s spent eleven years working for the Duke of Weimar and gotten cash and prestige out of it; he’s also seen the fount of inspiration stopped up. He can do a lot of things and he’s being paid for the wrong ones. The fire of youth is what allowed him to dash off Werther between workdays at the Imperial Chamber Court; he doesn’t have that any more. He can’t do so many things at once. He gets tired, he loses the thread. A complicated life is built around him and he can’t hold it at arms’ length. On his birthday he vaguely asks his boss for an indefinite leave, slips away in the middle of the night and doesn’t come back for two years. To avoid discovery he pretends, ludicrously, that his name is “Filippo Miller.”

I didn’t conduct my twenties with foresight, and I suppose if I’d gone early enough to work for a duke I too could be retired in style. But that isn’t the usual way of things, where you get no terminus and the reward for doing five things at once is a list of five other things to do. I used to handle it better. Now I feel tired and slow; the devil wants me to put the drafts away, have a glass of wine and go to bed. The fire is probably steadier these days, but it needs tending, and I don’t trust the lackey I’ve hired to watch it while I’m away.

“I didn't conduct my twenties with foresight” is a nice piece of poetry, though...



I was a kid when I first read The Waste Land, and I was living in a waste land, and it can still surprise me to recall that Eliot wasn’t, that he wrote his poem between Switzerland lakes and London fog. His beating sun and dry rock come from the Hebrew prophets. His empty cisterns and exhausted wells thirst for something other than common water. It’s an advantage, I think, that I met actual sun and crickets and trees every time I stepped outdoors; as a kid you want a correspondence between world and soul.

Borders can be helpful, and so can language barriers; because at the same time Eliot was becoming stifling high culture in Anglo-America, he was turning into a tutelary spirit elsewhere. We blink and scratch our heads at his idea of a Christian society, but that wasn’t what mattered in the real waste lands of Greece and Spain, the desert corners where fascism was allowed to linger while the rest of the world wrote morality plays about driving a stake through its heart in 1945. Here is Yannis Ritsos in 1947, a few years after seeing his work publicly burned at the foot of the Acropolis and shortly before starting five years’ service in a prison camp:

This landscape is as harsh as silence,
it hugs to its breath the scorching stones,
clasps in the light its orphaned olive trees and vineyards,
clenches its teeth. There is no water. Light only.
Roads vanish in light and the shadow of the sheepfold is made of iron.

Trees, rivers, and voices have turned to stone in the sun’s quicklime.
Roots trip on marble. Dust-laden lentisk shrubs.
Mules and rocks. All panting. There is no water.
All are parched. For years now. All chew a morsel of sky to choke down their bitterness.

This is Eliot’s landscape, but now someone lives here. He knows what kind of plants grow at the roadside, and he’s seen what the sun does to the earth between dawn and dusk. Here is Salvador Espriu in 1958, writing in what is nearly a banned language:

Burning mouths have drunk,
Nostalgic for water in streaming jugs.

Rain-water in scattered gardens,
Murmur of a fountain now silenced.

The language of thirst keeps
Licking at this mockery, this treacherous belief
That there is moisture deep down in a hell of salt.

His job is to tell us that this land remains real, that someone is still walking the dry shores of the Hebrew prophets and someone else is still sitting in Pharaoh’s and Nebuchadnezzar’s and Caesar’s chair, putting his face on the currency and directing the migration of captives with his finger. There are tyrants in forests and massacres in jungles, but the desert has always offered this particular exercise of focusing the moral vision, projecting the clearest possible background on which to draw a diagram of insufficiency. I’ve written things with deserts in them, but I haven’t written about deserts in this way, and I have to do it before I get too old.

Here is Mahmoud Darwish in 2008:

A river was here
and it had two banks
and a heavenly mother who nursed it on drops from the clouds
A small river moving slowly
descending from the mountain peaks
visiting villages and tents like a charming lively guest
bringing oleander trees and date palms to the valley
and laughing to the nocturnal revellers on its banks:
‘Drink the milk of the clouds
and water the horses
and fly to Jerusalem and Damascus’
Sometimes it sang heroically
at others passionately
It was a river with two banks
and a heavenly mother who nursed it on drops from the clouds
But they kidnapped its mother
so it ran short of water
and died, slowly, of thirst.


Means of Production

NewNovelist seems to be one of the more popular creative writing software titles available on the PC. I’m not a big fan of it myself... although it keeps a list of your documents over on the left and allows you to create the text and edit on the right, it is very rigid and formulaic. It forces you to divide your writing into twelve parts, which are based (through various annoying onscreen prompts) on Christopher Vogler’s twelve-step interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s work on the hero’s journey. So if you want to write anything that doesn’t fit that particular structure, you are out of luck.”


I walked away from the wretched dissertation for a minute and when I came back the stuffed coyote had been placed at the laptop and made to opine:


i want a copy of THAT dissertation!

it IS fascinating how the universe lets the right one in, innit?

working title: "i like my dissertation and my dissertation likes me." - J.


Autumn comes to Nevada as a scatter plot - after a hundred miles of sage, you’ll cross water and a moment’s patch of trees sprouting ochre. I remembered that Interstate 50 passed some alkali flats that would be excellent for shooting a music video, but this time I couldn’t find them, or not in the configuration I remembered.

Continental breakfast at the Best Western in Eureka. Tiny containers of chilled milk branded “Cream o’ Weber.” I can’t stop giggling. Cream o’ Weber, it’s skimmed off your labor! Later I meet the Nevada license plate “CLASSIE,” with gilt trim. Arf! What’s that, Classie? Arf arf! Timmy’s trapped in the workforce??!

Everyone’s talking up the new Mexican place in Eureka - now the town has two restaurants! - but no one’s there to meet me except a sign: “we will be close for fire safety.” So it’s back once more to the Owl Club. Server brings me a menu, server’s husband (the proprietor?) looks at me, bellows “What’s he doing in my seat?”, then sits down and shakes my hand. He goes to Reno every couple of weeks, he says; it’s the closest place to shop. The parking lot at Sam’s Club downtown is too crowded, he likes the other Sam’s Club. He got a great deal at the car wash I hadn’t heard of. After looking at the menu, I ask if there’s any way I can just get a grilled cheese, a salad and a beer. Of course I can. “Cheap date!” howls the proprietor.

The men’s rooms on the Berkeley campus deal with homosexual panic by scrawling a cock and balls on every available surface; at the Owl Club’s facilities things are more decorous. There’s one small-scale attempt at the female form, and someone has written “Frands you can kiss” as a release for who knows what longing. The acrostic “One Big Ass Mistake America” is proposed; someone counters with a joke about Rush Limbaugh’s prescription drug habit. “Fuck my life” offers itself in a looped adolescent scrawl, and now we have found a native informant on being a teen in Eureka.

A lot of the mining claims I work with are owned by local arms of huge Canadian companies, but sometimes you get more interesting properties that were staked by old-timers in the thirties or forties. The annual filing requirements on mining claims originate with the federal government and are thus obnoxious to the Western mind; in the files you find a lot of handwritten notes that may or may not comply with the rules. A special fee waiver exists for small miners who own ten or fewer claims, so many of the old-timers, today’s included, decide to pull a Lear and divide their kingdom among their daughters. This is legally questionable, especially if you have people living in the same household, and my report ends up spinning a full page of legal prose from the ramifications.


There are more things in heaven and earth, and surprise, I am becoming part of a startup. Spirit of ’99! says J. A bit of venture capital landed on us (in 2009! someone knew someone!) so I am getting at least a month’s wages and a small new computer out of it, and maybe more. There is a tiny office behind a frosted glass door six stories up from Market Street; the buses and cable cars squeak by out the window and I am in a Bogart film, though it’s not Bogart who has my speaking part. I stay up late with green tea, trying to learn MySQL syntax at age 31 like a displaced person forced abroad. It’s interesting, as most things are interesting, though the moment of final rest with pipe, slippers, fireplace has fallen off the horizon for good.

That I’m still a registered graduate student, and still have a lot of literary criticism left to write, is a weird joke perpetrated by one of those poker-faced Euro directors whose humor you can’t always follow.

Everything is easier than writing fiction. The rock is at the bottom of the hill and I can’t spare a finger to nudge it up. Between functions I pick up a guitar: chords, mere chords, sound better all time.


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