Author: Vince Passaro

Writer of many short stories and personal and critical essays, and a staggering number of book reviews (an assessment I make now that I'm old enough to be staggered by the number), as well as VIOLENCE, NUDITY, ADULT CONTENT: A Novel, published by S&S in 2003. Two other novels are in the works, one a crime story and one a confused, serious, endless literary effort tentatively titled CRAZY SORROW.

Return postage guaranteed: Rudy’s, Ninth Ave, Hell’s Kitchen, NY

It wasn’t good for me but it was fairly good for my journal, spending too many afternoons, running into more than a few evenings and a smattering of very late nights, in 2007 and 2008, sitting in Rudy’s Bar, writing in my notebook and drinking Jameson and lager. It’s on Ninth Ave: red exterior, a five-foot pink pig next to the door outside (as if announcing how tall you have to be to enter the place–which opened as a speakeasy in 1931, according to my notes), and inside free hotdogs, darkness the eye adjusts to, an excellent jukebox, and red stools and banquet benches more cloth tape than original leatherette. Ten years ago now, I’m not sure these people can really exist anymore. I’m surprised they still existed then. It’s all almost-guaranteed verbatim. I might have made one or two things up, but no more. And don’t steal any of it, I intend to use it all…..

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The first entry is 18 Mar 08:  

The old woman — it turns out she is a year younger than [the writer], but as clearly as life has not been terribly helpful to him, with the booze, the cigarettes, etc., it has really not been a boon for her. She looks 70, and not a good 70. She is telling the other guy with her about all the people who’d died in her building — apartments 41, 52, 57, all dead. Apartment numbers, not years of life. She cries: I grew up in this neighborhood, you can’t hustle me. It’ll be young people coming. That’s it. Young people!

 

Guy says to an over-affectionate, drunken woman: That’s not my wallet honey, don’t squeeze it.

 

A man eating from a take-out container. Another man, slightly drunk:

—What is that? I like to learn things. It looks like seaweed.

—This? This is collard greens. I was married to a black girl. I learned to like the soul food.

 

I come in to take a piss one day, seven, eight years ago, I come in to take a piss. I been coming here ever since. I was living on East 28th street and was going home and I said let me stop in here to take a piss. Cause I’ll never make it home. Been coming here ever since.

 

I like hats. I don’t wear them often. But.

 

She said to me, Jimmy, if a guy like you can’t find a girlfriend, I don’t want to date you. That was about a year ago. A year ago. Now she’s dead.

 

On the jukebox Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison”, then “Walk the Line”. The man is cutting up salami and smoked gouda cheese. Johnny Cash sings: I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. I keep the ends out for the tie that binds. Because you’re mine… I come here for the first time, a few drinks, I had like eight dollars. I says Gary I says let me tell you. He lent me five hundred dollar bills. I paid him back. I paid him back in a month. It’s all coming back to me that was my first night here at Rudy’s.

 

The woman the writer called Selma Diamond because of the voice, and the old half-Chinese guy with no front teeth:

Selma D: She had an air conditioner.

Chinese guy: Yeah. She had an air conditioner.

Selma D: She was rich.

Chinese guy: nods, drinks.

Selma D: (as statement of fact) You got an air conditioner.

Chinese guy: Nah.

Selma D: You don’t got an air conditioner? And you live in Brooklyn?

Chinese guy: Nah.

Selma D: Where do you live?

Chinese guy: I live in Westchester now.

Selma D: Oh! Oh! you got all that fresh air up there!

 

She looked like Natalie Merchant. She played twelve Dylan songs. It’s a form of ecstasy, she said. She was clearly insane. Arthur wanted to ask her if she was even just marginally sane then he realized who he was asking, that this was not a good idea. She was pressing her breast up against him—not, it turns out, knowledgeably, she was just nuts. She said: His career is unimpeachable. His personal life is redeemable. Plus, he held Woodstock. That was really great. That’s as close as the Jews are gonna get to a Messiah in this generation.

 

A certain woman, regal, African smock, large and pretty. Arthur asked her the time. It’s about ten to, she says. I’m a little fast. He’d forgotten these constructions: Ten to. I’m a little fast.

 

Arthur wrote: The stories tonight. Horror stories—of food in the ghetto. The string beans, covered in mold; the flies in the meat fridge; the un-owned cat in the meat fridge. Mice, etc. And white Americans are outraged that black Americans think maybe there was a conspiracy to give them AIDS. You live in the poor parts of this country and you cannot for the life of you figure out where they’re hiding the things that would help you live a strong, healthy, confident life. And then you realize this is a terribly effective system at work here, the aim of which is the retention of power in certain hands, and the denial of it to other hands, your hands and the hands of people like you.

 

Commie John. Commie John is reading the entirety of Ezra Pound’s Cantos with accompanying explanatory texts. He carries this stuff around with him in the kind of legal briefcase Arthur had used in the Catholic schools, with flap over the top and the latch down the side, the hard rectangular handle.

 

That’s when I heard her say, Oh my god we killed the gringo.

 

Every alcoholic is extremely healthy. Oh certainly.  

 

Cachaça—national drink of Brazil.

 

M11 bus—the smell of tyranny in the man’s possession of the outside seat. The loud woman sat up front, self-appointed greeter and narrator. Hi! Hi! Hola! ¿como está? Her voice was gruff with illness, age, and fat. I’m ninety-one years old! she said. I’m ninety-one years old. The driver tried to quiet her. Outside on the avenue, girls in tight gym clothes walked their small dogs. The sun shone with a certain summer kindness.

 

A sexy woman, perhaps forty: I’ve had a lot of mistakes running down my leg.

 

—Have you seen Jeff around?

 —He was here, baby. He went I think to sell the cigarettes to the gypsies. He’ll be back later.

 

Stanley says: Let me tell you about Marvin. He did the album Ecology. They didn’t want to record it. They didn’t want to record it. It was too … ecoLOgical—you see what I’m saying? Motown, that guy what’s his name, he decided to record it. And—Stanley leans in close, to tell the secret—psst, guess what? It’s the best seller they ever had. Better than Smokey Robinson’s stuff. That’s Marvin. WHO IS TO BLAME FOR THE CHILDREN man? You gotta save the children. That’s Marvin.

 

More frisée! she cried. The nineties were the frisée decade.

 

Oh my fuckin’ leg. Old Irish guy, stubbly & punch drunk, shouting. Frankie, that meal was good. That meal was very good. He’s wearing a black T-shirt that says, in large white capital letters, WEB. But if there’s one man in the place who has never made use of the WEB, it is he.

 

I am from Romania. But I’m Hungarian. I’m a big fan of the movie Back to the Future.

 

Him: You’re pretty as a picture.

Her: I ain’t got all my teeth.

Him: No matter.

 

The news. He would rather spend two hours on the phone with the electric company than listen to this shit. What was his generation producing? He could feel the fatigue of the culture; he could taste the exhaustion. Such moments put him into a quiet, impotent rage.

 

The girl walked through the daytime, middle-aged, all-male grunge of the bar, looking for the owner, who was also her super. Her purpose insulated her, at least partially, from nervousness.

 

Young woman on subway says, to friend: People just want unequivocal adoration.

 

So he said to me I heard you say it and I said to him Well then you’re a fucking liar… The man the speaker is talking to has a blinking watch, like an alarm he’s been ignoring for decades.

 

—Hey Joyce.

—Hey, what are you doing?

—Waiting for Jimmy.

—Oh, is he comin’, the fuckin’ bum?

 

Another guy. Bus driver maybe? They’re all full of complaints:

—Then he stopped answering my fucking phone calls. You know how long I’ve been waiting for a fucking transfer, put in a grievance every day you don’t get the transfer… They got two provisionals up there… I was number 27 on that test.

—That’s the civil service, fuck that.

—Yeah this guy wanted me fired. I had a couple of DWIs and I was a provisional. This guy Levi wanted me fired. He didn’t like my father either…. He said you call me Mr. Levi, so I said you call me Mr. Kelly.

 

Guy down the bar hears mention of palimony, calls out: They don’t have that shit in Jersey.

 

Imagine a future—TV screens everywhere—monitors—cameras—apathy—titillation in the form of news. Special laws to keep black people from voting. A multi-layered test for white prosperity that allows you to vote.

 

Re: the pill he takes (to get it up):

—That was not salmon. That was dusty rose.

—You’re dating yourself, dusty rose, Jesus Christ.

 

Men with their heads down. Muttered terrors, vaguely imagined struggles. Alcohol. They looked like hideously ruined versions of Salinger’s Franny, whispering the Jesus prayer.

 

His son called, he didn’t pick up. His girlfriend called, he didn’t pick up. This is bar life. Everyone goes on hold.

 

The sagging shoulders and concave chest of the alcoholic — his look of fatigue and irritation.

 

No, no, my father was put away. He was a vicious man, actually. But very intelligent.

 

Regarding the Long Island Iced Tea: There is no honor in such a drink, the old man said. He looked grave. No honor.

 

Fuck’s that about? You trying to irritate me, or you just stupid?

 

Final entry Nov 19 2008:

Two MTA guys mock-arguing at the 96th Street platform. One is a motorman, the other a conductor. The latter is big, black, long-legged, wearing a Knicks cap. The former is short, bald, white, head bumpy. Their amusement with each other.

My abrupt departure

For those who know to look for me here, a word explaining my disappearance from Facebook. I deactivated my account today because I cannot stand the corporation that owns it (and, in the dynamic of its possession of our ‘content’, us). I do not believe that corporation has the best interests of its clients in mind, i is duplicitous and exploitative, I think it colludes with governments and other corporations for purposes of surreptitious influence and control, etc etc etc. I took the leap without preliminaries because I knew that if I tried to make some speech about it I’d never do it. So here I am. You can find me here, and on Twitter @passerpiccolo, and via my email which is widely available. If you reverse my names and attach that info to the name of a giant corporation that has PROMISED not be evil, but now clearly is, you’ll have it. Apologies to anyone–I really mean it–who might have been inconvenienced or upset by my departure or the disappearance of stuff I might have written in threads you are involved in. Love and peace and, when we’re ready for it, a little joy as well. Because what could it hurt.

In Memoriam: Isabel Quintanilla 1938-2017

In the summer of 1985 I happened upon an exhibition of little note at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, called “Representation Abroad”. The idea of “representation” was hardly a presence in major art circles in the United States (though it would become so later) and it has never been clear to me why this exhibition even took place—-recognition of a frail new figurative movement in Europe that seemed to have no influence here whatsoever. But in it I discovered a small group of artists from Spain who constituted a movement called “Realismo Español” —-Spanish Realism. The papa bear of this group was Antonio López-García but the artist whose work froze me in place was a disciple of his, named Isabel Quintanilla.

I don’t know that Quintanilla’s work was shown in the United States again; not in any major show that I was ever aware of. Intermittently I have searched for it—-longed for it, nearly—-wishing I could see roomsful of her simple moments, her carefully framed domestic scenes, with their gorgeous, perfect light. None of the art people I knew at the time considered this to be important work. But it was important to me. And seeking her out yet one more time, just yesterday, online, I discovered that she died in October, at the age of 79. So, first, doña Isabel: Requiascat in pace.

I looked at web images of her work for a good while yesterday (there aren’t that many of them posted to look at, see links below), and all these years later, encountering these images once again, I think I finally have some idea why they mattered so much to me. I knew even then that what she was doing with oil on canvas was something I wanted to do as  writer of fiction, a vocation I was just beginning to undertake; I wanted, as she did, to get common things so exactly right that you—-the viewer, the reader, either or both—-see them completely anew, see them as redefined and, more than that, glorified, glorified in the exactness of the loyalty the artist has given to their truth. Such work is a form of prayer, I think. What moved me in Quintanilla’s work, I can now see, was the force of an artist’s love for the physical world. The real force of the love it revealed: as in, I love this moment, this normal, mundane, kitchen-reality, this life, so much I will dedicate hours, and every bit of craft I have painfully acquired, to its representation. To see the paintings, especially live, as I got to see four or five of them, allows you to feel Quintanilla’s devotion to reality as she labored to perceive it. The paintings are—-some would say to a fault, I suppose—-flawless.

Sometime in my undergraduate years I read an essay by Lionel Trilling, an introduction he’d written for a particular edition of Anna Karenina. I was very affected by this piece: indeed, as with Quintanilla’s work, I never forgot it and long associated it with my own inclinations and development. In it Trilling wrote that Tolstoy’s great strength as a writer, his unmatchable achievement, resided in his love for his characters. I came to think, eventually, that there is no way to do ‘realism’ in fiction of any importance without something close to this Tolstoyan love. For more modern approaches, that relationship of author to created persons, scenes, circumstances is not a necessity, but in realism it is. Otherwise, why bother? This is why, for instance, I have never been a fan of the longer fiction of John Updike or any that I’ve found so far of Saul Bellow: I don’t think they like people much. I think they like their own sentences, their own ability to describe reality, but the people in those sentences, those realities, not so much. Updike has a humanity (by which I mean a tenderness) in his short stories sometimes that is not to be found in any of his novels that I’ve tried. I’d go so far as to say, Tolstoy aside, the kind of precision of effect that Quintanilla’s work suggests can better be matched in short fiction than in long. In long fiction there is so much furniture to move around, so many bills to pay, one loses touch with the quality of the light, as it were.

This love and devotion for a perceived reality is an idiosyncratic critical principle. I don’t mean to claim it as comprehensive or even, for anyone but me, useful. It’s not easy to resist infusing it with one or another unnatural form of style, and too much style applied to such subject matter, to the essence of lived reality, to felt life, would lead quickly to sentimentality and myth (think, everything that Hemingway wrote after 1930 or so…). Of course the realism itself you might call a ‘style’ but you’d be hard pressed in Quintanilla’s case to attach it to any but the most pious and selfless kind of artist. It is suffused with humility, and the pleasure to be discovered in the basic truth of this vision is overwhelming. I still remember standing there, thirty-odd years ago, galvanized. /#

http://www.artelibre.net/autor/5772 (Linked here with gratitude: that’s the site from which I lifted the images shown above…)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabel_Quintanilla

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_L%C3%B3pez_Garc%C3%ADa

Kill Your Acknowledgements Page

Just yesterday I was recollecting how my agent chided me, after my first book came out, that I hadn’t expressed in it my gratitude to my editor, who had waited a long time for me to finish the book, it’s true, but who, I assume, found other things to occupy himself in that interim of years. Didn’t he get paid to do this work? I said. He makes more in a year than I’ll ever make from this book. I’ll happily take my thanks in cash, won’t he? She just shook her head. Of course implicit in the conversation was the fact that I should have thanked her too, another matter altogether, in that having left a big agency and gone indie during those years, she did not in fact get paid for whatever she later did for the book. Anyway the memory brought back to me a matter that’s been caught up among the graying hairs on my breastbone for years and years now, and that finally I wish to remove therefrom (see under “My chest, getting things off of” ).

I wish to speak of the “Acknowledgements” page that frequently appears in literary works, in works of the imagination, i.e., fiction, poetry, etc* — please, fellow writers, drop it. Do any of our actually great novelists/poets do these pages? Can you imagine Philip Roth doing one? Don DeLillo? Louise Erdrich? (Actually I should check Erdrich; I haven’t read enough of her books to feel I really know her.) The acknowledgements page as current fashion presents it to us essentially is a display of the author’s social life or social network as such has touched on her working life; it’s a not very subtle form of bragging, in other words, and, even when such a page manages against all odds to avoid seeming so, it still shouldn’t be in the book, especially at the outset, where the author is thanking his lineup of connections before (in the reader’s mind) he’s actually accomplished anything.

What’s at stake here is the reader’s connection to the text — her intimacy with the voice of the work should not be broken or burdened with this material, this alien ‘Saturday voice’ of the writer, whether at front or back. After you make love to someone you’ve much desired — or, if you prefer, fucked that person, we hope very well — you don’t sit up and declare, “First, I’d like to thank my father and mother — from your pain, I sought respite here. To Bobby Durrell — you know why. My first wife Laura taught me so much, thank you, Laura. To my kids: you also were here with me tonight but fortunately for you, you didn’t know it. Finally, to all the women and men who’ve played a part, all the way back to the days of stolen cans of Schlitz turned half-warm in Cicely’s basement, you will never know what my heart owes to all of you, and how large it has grown so that it can joyfully hold you in it.” 

The chirpy claptrap of most acknowledgement pages practically erases the hard won authority of the text.  This authority resides, from the opening lines of the book to its final word, in our acquiescence to the necessity of the existence of this language, this story, this voice speaking low and urgent in our ear. The kind of necessity I’m speaking of is, for me, the indisputable measure, or almost indisputable measure, of greatness in art.

Yes, it’s true, other people do help us. Often, they love us and, boy, do we need it. Send each of them a NOTE. Make it beautiful and true. The reader should not be involved. It doesn’t matter to him and it shouldn’t matter to the people who’ve helped us that we have or have not blared their names at said reader, who will in any case almost instantly forget them.

 

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* Please note I do not mean to include in this denunciation those works of nonfiction to which so many people professionally contribute and in which such people should indeed be named. I also don’t mind when I get to the end of a crime novel, say, to see thanked the specialists who (again, as a professional act of generosity) assisted the author on technical matters. But in a work of art? All the readers of my Wednesday writing group? My agent’s assistant? The publicist? My dad? My spouse? My dog? My cousin Elroy? Clara the robot? No.

MORE POLICE! to protect us from all the cowards

First of all, to rent a van and drive it into pedestrians and bike riders and collide with a school bus and run out of the van into the street waving a pellet and a paintball gun so you get shot by the police, likely to be killed but miraculously not, is a horrifying and cruel and insane action and you can accurately characterize it in many, many other negative ways — but to call it “cowardly” is idiotic. Every politician marches this word out when there’s an attack and every one of them knows he or she is lying. If you think it’s so cowardly go try it. I’m baffled why we think this word is necessary — I don’t understand how it actually makes people feel better. Somebody mugs me, shoots me, knifes me, runs me down, I don’t think, well, he’s a coward. He should have what? Argued with me? Challenged me to a duel?

Second: I’m listening to the press conference in NYC now; the Mayor and Governor, after deploying their “coward” and “cowardly” charges, are sanctifying, as with a Lenten litany, the MANY agencies of security and police that were called in to action yesterday to deal with the emergency and to investigate it in its aftermath. This is a core ritual of the Holy Church of Security; each invocation increases the power of these agencies, makes them unassailable politically and thereby solidifies the power of the state.

Meanwhile, in related world news, the French yesterday rendered as permanent the powers of policing that were instituted temporarily two years ago there, in the form of measures taken to address “a state of emergency”. We did this, in the US, with Patriot Act renewals (carrying huge majorities in both houses) in 2006, 2011, and 2015, creating permanent security apparatuses out of a host of measures taken and authorized originally, and in a high emotional state, as TEMPORARY. So remember, always remember — these powers are NEVER TEMPORARY. The modern state, granted a new licit power, will NEVER relinquish it. What has happened in the United States since 9/11 is the relentless creation of a police state– at the local level, where the number of homicides by police have risen exponentially, killing few enemies of the United States but many poor people; at the state level where large state police forces (and many urban ones too) have been provided weapons of war by the Department of Defense, weapons which in such hands can ONLY be deployed against our own citizens; and nationally, where no form of surveillance seems to be outside the authority of the national security agencies, and where we have essentially invisible and unregulated prisons from which people can never be released as well as dozens more “high security” prisons in which people are routinely brutalized and isolated, which is another way of saying tortured.

So — did those cowardly terrorists of 9/11 fail to destroy us? It appears not.

To a dear friend burdened with regret

It made me so happy today, if happy is a word that can be applied to how one feels walking out of the funeral service of a friend, who died too young, a beautiful man, to find you, to see your face after all these years, another beautiful man. How often I have thought of you, remembered you, remembered your kindness to me during the period when my mother was dying and then died, what a total pain in the ass I was. You were amazingly patient, more patient than almost anyone else could have been. I clung to you, I clung to your life, I clung to your living of your life, because yours looked so much better than mine, so much more to be desired, and because whatever mine was I certainly did not know how to occupy it with any grace or ease, as you did yours.

But now it is clear you are sad about your own life. You had no children, never married, said you’d partied through the main years when you were working. You had—in facing all these old school friends I suppose—an air of embarrassment and sadness about your life. You said, when we were joking about hair (we noticed your head had no bald spot) you said, well, you might have a lot of stuff on the outside of your head but not enough stuff on the inside. That particularly was a blade to the heart: you realize, of course you must, that anyone who actually had little going on inside his head, anyone who had no sense of language, metaphor, and wit, would have been incapable of making the joke.

Perhaps you fucked up in life. I have no idea. What constitutes fucking up, really? To the degree I know what fucking up is I know I did plenty of it—in a number of ways that have me dreaming guilty dreams at night (last night, in fact). But I can assert this much, for certain, though I haven’t seen you in nearly four decades—there is nothing more miserable than a miserable old age and our regrets will drown us. Drown us. To get rid of the regret is like ploughing the sea, a seemingly hopeless task. But we have to do it. It’s time to drive back the regrets. I do battle with them every day, and I’ve come to see them as a form of vanity: as if our lives were so important in the scheme of the cosmos that our supposed failures at them actually mattered. We still have bodies to live in, relatively healthy ones, thank God, or thank whatever forces of the universe see to these matters. Because what is left for us now but the joy of others and the joy of the moments we recognize, moments of beauty and truth and life, such as the funeral today, with 150 firefighters in full dress uniform there to honor a man, and with his wife, his daughter, his friends expressing not only their grief but their pride in sharing their lives with that man; those moments of authentic experience in which the world, gorgeous and uncaring, turns no matter what we do, no matter how we might have fucked up, and people continue to love each other, and continue to love us. These years we have left, these days, these hours, are beautiful and they are small miracles. What makes them so pleasurable in a way is that we know so much more than we once did; we can see so much more, we understand so much more. And we accept so much more, fighting off so much less. This acceptance, and this seeing and understanding, fill the moments as they pass, make them larger, make them last longer, if we allow it to happen.

It requires great bravery to forgive oneself: it’s an outlandish act—for who are we, to declare ourselves forgiven? But we must insist on it. I’m trying to do it, I’m trying to make myself stronger physically and more capable of simple joy. I’m trying to let go of years and years of stress and self-punishment and self-neglect. I don’t see anything else that will redeem these last decades that we might be given—that we hope we’re given. (I mean, money would help, if only a little; but that’s apparently not (so far) part of the universe’s plans for me and I’m pretty clear on why. It’s something I chose and I shall have to live with, and just smile at my foolish ways. I wanted to believe in a different kind of world than the one I was living in.)

You are a beautiful human being. You always have been. When we were young, you were full of mischief at times; also incredibly hard working and in my experience always noticeably good at whatever you were doing, often the best. You had from early on a sense of pleasure, physical pleasure, in work and in play and in other realms, a sense of pleasure denied to many of us Catholic boys, your brethren. God didn’t invent such feelings for nothing. I will always think of you as one of the people who contributed, mightily and blessedly, to my survival; for that I am grateful beyond what I can say. I am sure there are others like me. I am certain of it. Love yourself. It’s the hardest thing we’re asked to do, finally, to love ourselves, we know ourselves too well, know our weaknesses and failures to the point of illness. But that’s the request. I am saying all of this more for me—in truth, much more—as I am saying it for you. If I can say it and mean it as I do mean it, for your sake, then how can I deny it for mine? Indeed it occurs to me that seeing you today has given me the opportunity to write these thoughts down so that they will live in me, and I will better remember them. So look—there—you’ve done it again, by being yourself, honestly, authentically yourself, you’ve helped me to save myself. There are some ugly, nasty, hurtful, vile people out in the world. Celebrate how well you’ve done—how spectacularly well—at not being one of them. Enjoy the future, imagine some days at the beach, imagine some days in the mountains. Take deep, deep breaths of the present. The past sits in each of our houses like a large book—we all get our special edition—full of colorful tales; concentrate when looking through it at the beauty of your presence and the power of your endurance.

Know that you are loved, and not for no reason.

Abbreviated thoughts on John Ashbery, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy and the influence of Henry James.

Recently I became a subscriber to The Library of America, which I was once before, long ago in a different life; and as a result three new “free gift” books arrived the other day. John Ashbury’s Collected Poems, 1956-1987; James Baldwin’s Collected Essays; and Mary McCarthy’s early fiction, Novels & Stories 1942-1963.  Having been woken up, by my nervous child, shortly after getting to sleep, I end up sitting at the dining room table with the new books, peeling from them their shrink wrap, jiggling them out of their white slipcases (subscribers get the books not in their paper jackets but in this sturdy white cardboard boxes, which I love and which played some role in my re-subscribing).

Two of them, Baldwin and McCarthy, I opened and read from at random. The Ashbury I went searching through, seeking a particular set of lines I remember hearing him read almost forty years ago. Which set of lines eventually I found. So here are the three passages I read — first the Ashbury, then Baldwin, then McCarthy:

From “The System”, Three Poems, 1972—

These ample digressions of yours have carried you ahead to a distant and seemingly remote place, and it is here that you stop to give emphasis to all the way you have traveled and to your present silence. And it is here that I am quite ready to admit that I am alone, that the film I have been watching all this time may be only a mirror, with all the characters including that of the old aunt played by me in different disguises. If you need a certain vitality you can only supply it yourself, or there comes a point, anyway, when no one’s actions but your own seem dramatically convincing and justifiable in the plot that the number of your days concocts.

 

From “Stranger in the Village”, Notes of a Native Son, 1955—

 And this [strangeness, separateness] is so despite everything I may do to feel differently, despite my friendly conversations with the bistro owner’s wife, despite their three-year-old son who has at last become my friend, despite the saluts and bonsoirs which I exchange with people as I walk, despite the fact that I know that no individual can be taken to task for what history is doing, or has done. I say that the culture of these people controls me — but they can scarcely be held responsible for European culture. America comes out of Europe, but these people have never seen America, nor have most of them seen more of Europe than the hamlet at the foot of their mountain. Yet they move with an authority that I shall never have; and they regard me, quite rightly, not only as a stranger in their village but as a suspect latecomer, bearing no credentials, to everything they have — however unconsciously — inherited.

 For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory — but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.

 

From Groves of Academe, 1952 — (The Mulcaheys chaperone a student dance.)

[Catherine Mulcahey] wore her wedding-dress, a white satin and net concoction with a short train; crystal drops sparkled at her ears; lipstick outlined her thin lips; and the pale, somewhat watery blue of her eyes, the sharp cut of her nose, which ordinarily had a secretarial quiver, were lustered and softened with excitement and a heightened sexual aplomb. “Doesn’t Mrs. Mulcahey look beautiful?” the girls cried to their escorts, identifying Catherine’s triumph over four children, housekeeping, and poverty with their own trepidant emergence from the chrysalis of slacks and blue jeans, with the innocent magic of parties, rouge, low dresses, music, with everything silky, shining, glossy, transfigured, and yet everyday and serviceable, like a spool of mercerized cotton or a pair of transparent nylons reinforced at heel and toe.

So I’m dwelling on these three quotes, actually loving these two randomly and one almost randomly arrived-at quotes, when I start doing that thing readers of my generation were taught by our philologically-inclined college faculty to do: comparing, weighing, placing into boxes and labeling. And what then do I see — I see Henry James. I hear Henry James, more accurately; his voice is detectable in all three passages: “ … it is here that you stop to give emphasis to all the way you have traveled and to your present silence”; “…this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted”; “… identifying Catherine’s triumph over four children, housekeeping, and poverty with their own trepidant emergence from the chrysalis of slacks and blue jeans, with the innocent magic of parties, rouge. low dresses, music, with everything silky, shining, glossy, transfigured …”. They resemble James in that order, too: Ashbury the least, Baldwin considerably more, McCarthy, by a hair over Baldwin, the most. McCarthy was close to a number of critics who were key figures in the Henry James ‘revival’, a kind of James mania among literary figures of the mid-twentieth century in the U.S. — a smaller phenomenon than the Roman Catholic mania among writers and intellectuals of that time but with longer lasting effects on our literature, I suspect.

 

 

 

A prose-poem memorandum on depression

Among the lingering emotions, there are three that for me are almost certain to induce depression: anger, fear, and longing.

Grief is different, grief is an agony, it pulses like a wet wound. I’ve only experienced it once, a long delayed kind of omni-grief, a hospital gown that I wore after the towers fell, and every loss and every long-endured trauma of my life gathered to have its due; it took me years to recover. Years.

But depression I know; I know it like pajamas, like socks, and it is death, nothing about it alive except a knowledge of truth that grows in the hidden stone of the mind. It is a cocoon of selfhood, in which one can read, sleep, listen to the radio, sleep, and refuse to answer calls. And sleep. One enjoys the freedom of the prisoner. A silence one drinks. As in church.

(It is important, I feel compelled to mention, to have a negligent landlord, as the rent is beyond one’s agency.)

Never, fortunately, have I been attracted to suicide, an unimaginable effort — I can’t even take a shower. I concluded, regarding this paradox, that I too much enjoy my own thoughts, my language, even what comes on dirty sheets, to want to leave them. My shrink confirmed (this years ago now) that there are many kinds of depression but he noted that they all have in common one thing, just one, at least so far as he had up to then been able to detect.

What’s that, I said.

He said, refusal to deal with the mail.

I haven’t opened the mail in years, I said.

 

 

 

Metro North Haibun*

New Haven line red trains

 

(* Haibun: “… literary form originating in Japan, combining prose and haiku. The range of haibun is broad and frequently includes autobiographydiaryessayprose poemshort story and travel journal.” From Wikipedia.)

Metro North, bent old father of the tired rail lines that run out of NYC’s Grand Central Terminal and climb the Hill of Long Forgotten Dreams into Harlem — its trains take world-gathering riders to points north — along the Hudson River, through central Westchester, and along the coast of the Sound into Connecticut. It is quite unlike the raucous Long Island Railroad across town, which like an old horse, teeth exposed, has to endure so many more Italian-Americans on its weary cars. The northern train, though — that is a place for old poets, offering rich quiet and contemplation. And when we journey the other way, leaving home to enter the bustling city, more giant and frightening than Edo, Grand Central stands waiting like Mt Tsukuba, or Fuji, the place at the end of roads, the floating world waiting at the Gateless Gate. I cannot keep my ancient legs in my windswept home, I must travel there, without provisions or plans. Plus, I have a doctor’s appointment.

Summer at Grand Central
That new deli might be good
But no — no, it sucks.

I walk in the city, marveling at the beauty of the people and their hungry faces.  I have planned well and am early at the doctor’s office. I noticed along the way at one establishment they serve a variety of grilled cheese sandwiches — but no eating before the blood work! I will come back later, and have the grilled gouda and mushrooms on sourdough.  And I do this, after my probings; and then, lunch-satedk, I walk to the wide way. All this for tourists! Stephen Colbert! Nine NYC tee-shirts for $50!

Once Letterman had
our keeper kick roof to roof
Across the broad way

They stop’d the traffic and held
back the people — boom it!

One arrives back to the terminal shaking the dust of Lexington Avenue from one’s pant legs, having just missed one’s train. Everywhere are teenage tourists and their parents, with looks of wonder on their faces. I am seeking a deeper fulfillment:

Train in half an hour,
a warm day, you might buy books —
look! Posman’s is gone

(Warby fucking Parker now?
Who buys glasses waiting for a train?)

Coming home, always an inevitable sadness: especially after the prostate exam under the wintry fluorescent lights. Old men are offered the vaccine for shingles: a first for me. If I am going to test the insurance company’s largesse, I tell my cheerful doctor, I think we should  go for the chlamydia / gonorrhea test instead, just to be on the safe side. She, who writes the scripts for the Cialis, agrees: shingles demand no stressful explanations she says. My blood pressure is beautiful. So is my heartrate. Plus I’ve lost 16 pounds. I will go home as if again a colt, bucking under the saddle!

The suit’d man riding
Summer Friday’s early train
listens to his phone

I returned to the dead streets and abandoned gardens of my town, which is a pointless place even the most ardent travelers wouldn’t wish to walk through. The staff I use for wandering on old limbs in the city is here a convenient instrument for hailing a cab.  At home, I put some yogurt and cherries into a bowl.

Long long days of June —
they dim, then close like flowers,
and what have I done?

Basquiat: Poignant My Ass

19 May 2017*

When the world of art collectors creates a price of $110 million for a Basquiat painting, something he’d just as soon have painted on a broken wall, it deforms the meaning of what a painter does, why he does it, how he does it. (Or she, yes, but not in this case; and indeed are any of the $50+ million painters women?**) In the end the underlying, unconscious impulse is to subdue art, to disempower it, to turn Aphrodite into a gaudy hooker. I’m sure the collectors believe they love art but what they love are themselves owning art, and their money alters everyone’s relationship to art, in the largest sense of that word. Thus you go to the Metropolitan Museum, already something of a robber baron mausoleum, and wander in the modern painting sections, from one room to the next, each named after some thuggish billionaire and his wife, truly awful humans: it poisons you to see their names and to some detectable degree it poisons for you every work in the space. Art has always had rich patrons, yes; and the artists that the rich patrons chose to support delivered not merely artistic talent but social cachet. The ones that didn’t have that cachet to deliver tended to suffer, underfed and under recognized  — in this context I think of Andrea del Sarto, in Browning’s poem of that name, whence comes the line, ‘less is more’. Less is never more for these guys, only more is more. Rich patronage is one thing; one hundred million dollars is something else altogether, enough money that the earnings on it as an investment alone could feed the poor of a small country for years and years, theoretically forever. Basquiat sold the painting in ’84 for $19,000; that’s rich patronage. One hundred million is an assault. Satan comes to a fasting, delirious Jesus, takes him to a mountaintop and shows him the glories and riches of the world, sweetness, comfort and beauty: all this is yours, Satan says, if you but bow down and worship me. Would Basquiat bow? Would Van Gogh? Cezanne? (Picasso, you never know: he might just do it for the laugh.) Of course it doesn’t take long to figure out what Satan does when you bend over. The NY Times reports today that Basquiat’s price “perhaps poignantly” exceeds the highest price paid for an Andy Warhol’s work (only $105 million don’t you know) . Poignant my ass. I think of Basquiat, whose work I loved when I began seeing it on those broken walls downtown, and I think of the kind of angry drive to express, in terms native to the downtown New York City streets of the late 70s and early 80s, expressions that even in their anger frequently evoked certain deep traditions, particularly of classical sub-Saharan African art — the masks, the heads, warding off evil while depicting it. The Japanese billionaire who bragged out his buy, on Instagram, minutes after completing it, plans to house the painting in a museum he’s building for his collection, in Chiba. He should call the place Ozymandias House.**

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*The painting shown here is “Dustheads”, 1982. It is not the untitled head that brought $110 million last night. I couldn’t bear to add to its newly-acquired, falsely iconic status by reproducing it here but you can find it all over the ‘net.  Indeed, currently, if you google “Basquiat”, that’s what shows in the images. The photograph of the two figures are from Malawi, this century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Photo by moi.

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**Answer: no. Not by a long shot. As you’d expect.  Since the whole enterprise is about commodity and not art, of course the men are worth ten times more. See https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-highest-price-ever-paid-for-a-work-of-art-by-a-woman-artist . As of 2013, says that  site, it was Berthe Morisot’s Aprés le déjeuner, 1881, which at $10.9 million was top among women painters, followed by Natalia Goncharova (Les fleurs, 1912).  Louise Bourgeois was very close to Morisot, also over $10 million, but for a large iron sculpture. I’d pay a lot more for the huge spider than for the picture of the window and flowerbox and l’ingénue insipide digesting her café au lait et croissant avec confiture de fraise, but that’s just me.

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***Just for fun, the Shelly poem, thanks to the Poetry Foundation website:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”