Mont Blanc casts its shadows on the heavens. I never knew that mountains eclipse one another, eager to steal the sun. They all do it; even the smallest, most bullied peak throws its weight on the lowly clouds. Nothing is sovereign; everything in this heavy landscape leans on everything else.
Alpine clouds carry the chill of mountains on their blue backs. They float so low I could shepherd them with the hook of my arm. I could tie a flock to our van and float across the Alps into France.
Each cliffside switchback disorients the clock; it is light, it is dark, it is light again, all in twenty minutes. Day breaks and mends twenty times in five square miles, it seems. There is no dawn here, no gradual rising of the sun from east to west. Daylight comes in a blink as the sun rolls over a crest from east to west. At noon a mountain’s twin vales, like open palms, fill with warmth and the clouds shrug their shadows. Just as quickly the sun rolls into western valleys; a stuck stone, and eastern clouds assume the blue.
Daylight strobes but the mountains are steadfast and predictable in their terrors. On these sublime and chilling spines I need to weigh my importance against small things. To the cosmos in my purse I am a mountain casting shadows. My lip gloss, the post card from Pompeii of a nude statue about to fuck a headless woman carved from a mountain’s shoulder. My purse is their whole world. Their whole safe world. This van is our whole world when I avert my gaze from the window. This notebook. This pen is all that exists. This thought.
My thought is a mandala, a mantra. A round thing turning over and over in my mind. A focus for my eyes and my breath. It’s as close as I come to prayer. All around, steeples rise from peaks as if the mountain were sharpened to a single point of consciousness. Even the chill feels sacred, tastes sacred, and winds its wind around the heart. This is where people climb peaks, stand on their toes, and nudge god. There must be a church for every villager. They must inhabit the sacred space like a second body, a carapace, and feel closer, louder, stronger. Church bells hold conversations with god and mountains shudder.
We veer on a slip of switchback and I clutch my comforts closer; a sprig of rosemary from Provence, mother of pearl spoon, a whole candied nectarine from the Italian Riviera like a translucent sun with syrupy skin. Petrarch’s Canzoniere, splayed as if to balance itself. Petrarch who had trouble ascending Mount Ventoux, who held his “sweet little volume” of St. Augustine’s Confessions ever tighter.
Sweet little comforts.
Like the bird’s nest on the dashboard spiraling ever into itself, and stronger for it. Warm things, like this coffee cup and this journal I just spilled it on as we bumped over a crag of ice. The coffee’s small pool of warmth in my lap. The warmth reminds me of southern Italy, of ripe figs hanging at mouth-level. Of olive oil sprinkled on my hands, arms, and legs, and over my bread; liquid gold squeezed form trees not much taller than I am. Trees I lorded myself over. A dinner table lit on fire wick by wick, to illumine our feasting. I can comprehend a universe of fruit and fire, a life measured in mouthfuls and handfuls. I can weave my soul around it and throw my magnificent shadow over all else.
even though I remember clearly the blossoms
on the crooked apple tree each spring, and how I
finally was tall enough my eighth year to reach the low
branch and swing myself up into the crook next to the trunk,
the rough bark chilly, rough, and damp against my backbone, white
petals edged with pink that worked their way into the spine
of my new book, Little House on the Prairie, how the leaves couldn’t
hide me from your gaze out the kitchen window, and that meant
I would be called down and into the house before the book
All of this a lie, because you can’t remember the apple tree,
so it was never there, and I was never there, and
and I am just like my father, a liar who remembers things
that never happened, never were, in those spans of years
that were as unremarkable to you as the pressed apple blossoms
that tumbled from the pages of that yellowed, musty book
when I pulled it off the shelf.
We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try, those origins which contain the key—could we but find it—to all that we later become.
“There will be people who’ll cross the street to avoid you because you’re black,” my mother would tell me when I was younger, in every conversation or argument about race we ever had.
“Don’t be a nigger,” my older sister once told me, as she sat with a friend doing high school Sociology homework. If she was in high school then I must have been five at the youngest, nine at the oldest—I think I had asked her whether or not I should be wearing a du-rag.
“Nigger,” writes H.G. Bissinger in Friday Night Lights, a book about a high school football team in a small Texas town. “The word poured out in Odessa as easily as the torrents of rain that ran down the streets after an occasional storm, as common a part of the vernacular as ‘ol’ boy’ or ‘bless his ‘ittle’ biddy heart’ or ‘awl bidness’ or ‘I sure did enjoy visitin’ with you’ or ‘God dang.’”
Bissinger, having just left an editorial position at the Philadelphia Inquirer, decided he would follow alongside Permian High School’s Panthers throughout their 1988 season. We learn that the team goes undefeated, then loses the state championship. Bissinger gives the book the subtitle “A Town, A Team, and A Dream.”
On “nigger,” he later writes: “People who used the word didn’t seem troubled by it. They didn’t whisper it, or look chagrined after they said it. In their minds it didn’t imply anything, didn’t indicate they were racist, didn’t necessarily mean that they disliked blacks at all. Instead, as several in Odessa explained it, there were actually two races of blacks. There were the hardworking ones who were easy to get along with and didn’t try to cut corners and melded in quite nicely. They deserved the title black. They deserved the respect of fellow whites.
“And then there were the loud ones, the lazy ones, the ones who stole or lived off welfare or spent their whole lives trying to get by without a lick of work, who every time they were challenged to do something claimed that they were the helpless victims of white racism. They didn’t deserve to be called black, because they weren’t.”
Though Bissinger’s book takes place in Texas, 1988, I never saw much of a difference growing up in the eighties and nineties between Odessa and my hometown of Normal, Illinois. The word “nigger” wasn’t a part of the vernacular in Normal, but I could feel the difference between “the hardworking ones” and “the lazy ones,” “the quiet ones” and “the loud ones,” and the way that everyone saw them. I knew my sister and my parents didn’t want me to be one of the loud ones. And they surely didn’t want me to be lazy.
“One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer,” writes James Baldwin, “is that the Negro problem is written about so widely. The bookshelves groan under the weight of information, and everyone therefore considers himself informed.”
But Baldwin, much like my parents, couldn’t foresee the change in eras. I’ll never know what it’s like to fear bombings at my church or to be the parent of an Emmett Till. I’ll never have the exact same fears my parents projected because I am a baby of a post-whatever generation. And while Baldwin acquainted himself with the Negro “problem,” he never saw it evolve into an Oreo phenomenon.
When my parents met, in 1969, Blacks had only been allowed to live in Illinois State University’s dorms for twenty years.
I’ve asked my mother what it was like to be black, in Normal, in 1969. “Well,” she said, “when you went to the store they followed you around all the time thinking you were gonna steal something. And the police would follow you around. It was hard to get a job, but it was harder for men to get a job than it was women. And they wouldn’t want to rent an apartment to a man but they’d rent one to a woman. But, I mean, overall it wasn’t that bad.”
I interpret “it wasn’t that bad” as meaning it wasn’t Mississippi. Wasn’t Alabama. It wasn’t Texas or even Louisiana, where my grandparents had come from. My mother herself wasn’t born and raised in the South—she was born in Waukegan, Illinois, to a family of stragglers from the Great Migration. She moved to Normal to study Physical Education at Illinois State University. There she met my father. Started a family. Raised the four of us in a town of 129,000 people. My father was studying Political Science and Communications, and when my oldest sister was born my parents decided not to finish college.
“Most black people at ISU,” my mother says, “their major was Communications. I think because. . . . Well, for the black men, if you were an athlete you took Communications—I don’t know if it was because it was easy or not. Almost all of them had Communications majors.”
“You had to carry a B-average to be a Communications major,” my father contends. “I thought most of them had Sociology majors. It was the most popular major for black people. Unwed mothers and stuff. I mean, that’s the culture we came from. That’s why most of them were Sociology majors.”
“The culture we came from” being one of unwed mothers does stir a curiosity in me, makes me wonder about my grandparents’ generation and the children they bore without present fathers. This is supposed to make sense to me, I think. That black fathers are not present. That they flee.
My mother eventually switched her major from P.E. to English. She said it was easier, that it required fewer credits to graduate. But after she and my father had my sister it didn’t matter anymore, because she just needed a job.
My parents met while pursuing their education, in a program for Blacks and Hispanics called the High Potential Students Program. My mother worked for the program, kept records and was a typist, and my father was a student.
They met at the same university on whose campus I spent my time growing up, riding my bike and rollerblading through the Quad as I got to know my town on my own throughout junior high and high school. Looking back, I understand it must have been strange for college students to see children on campus while walking from class to class, but this place was a part of my town, I thought, and they were only visitors. I had as much a right to this campus as they did, reinforced by my love for the environment. I’d fallen for the campus architecture—the music building built like a miniature castle, the enormous five or so story library—and for the professors with their ties and briefcases (so different from my parents wearing blouses and khakis and sweaters to work), and I know that a part of my development began right there, within an idyllic portrait of my childhood filled with patches of grass and students much older than myself.
This environment more than any other probably formed a worldview for me. Different from my father’s Chicago streets and my mother’s suburban parks, the college campus was a bubble, a place engineered for superficial equality. I would learn that the campus wasn’t like my junior high school, where too-cheap jeans meant pauperized parentage or where a faction of Hip-Hop fans, mostly black, sat at one lunch table while another table of students, myself included, talked about rock and Top 40 songs. I first observed a real division in my life in junior high, where two types of black children split themselves up in the lunchroom and I was clearly the type to sit with my white friends. There was no rap music for me, no after-school basketball. I was accused of being an Oreo.
The education of a Black American on how to be a Black American begins in the home, then spreads itself through experience and literature and misfortune and luck. Whether it was my parents’ intention or not, my home education left me without a sense of Black Pride and instead instilled only fear. Until my twenties I grew up thinking I didn’t want to be black—I just wanted to be a person, someone color-neutral. As a boy I understood that people were different but couldn’t understand why anyone made a big deal of it: I had found it strange, still find it strange the way race can be created simply by recognizing it.
My reluctance comes, I think, from the fact that I am black and that I’ll always be perceived as black. I can’t fight this with anyone, nor would I want to—the visible recognition of myself as a minority is already ever-present, and it would be a futile fight. But I suppose it’s also true that I’m an Oreo, harnessing a kind of white sentimentality within my black body; I used to wonder when I was younger if this was how I made friends—because I didn’t fit a stereotype I wondered if the other children fought or shed their own reluctance in befriending me. The children I grew up with were mostly white, a few of them some kind of Asian or Hispanic, and only the children of my parents’ friends black. And what of my friends’ parents, I wondered—how many of them cared that their daughter or son had a black friend? Why would people cross the street to avoid an identity that wasn’t my choice? Would someone sitting next to me on a bus move their seat because I’m black? As a child, was I supposed to cry when someone called me nigger (or sometimes Micah McNigger)? And if I didn’t cry, if I wasn’t upset, would that make me a bad black person? What does it mean to be a good black person? Is it the same as being a good Russian or a good American, loving vodka or baseball signs of loyalty? “The American image of the Negro lives also in the Negro’s heart; and when he has surrendered to this image life has no other possible reality” (Baldwin).
These questions and more were all I could think about as a child and as a teen, struggling to find something to define in myself in a town where the only clear definitions of race looked like a picture of 1988′s Odessa, where there were two very clear distinctions of Black people. Had I grown up somewhere other than Normal, or had I grown up poor, perhaps I would have come to understand in a much different manner the ways race and class work. But these things are sometimes subtle to a child, and though I knew how my town viewed and talked about class I was only just figuring out where to begin with race.
My education in the classroom has been a different story. The most seminal racial texts I can remember encountering are Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school, and both in college and in graduate school James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.
Baldwin called America a “country devoted to the death of the paradox.” Here I am, his paradox, my own American Psychology combining the politics, aspirations, and convictions of those whites around me as a child with this Black paranoia—a potential riff on Du Bois’s “two warring ideals in one dark body.” My ideals have been at war. Adulthood has had me concede, Tipping the King in my childhood and teenage ambition to be raceless.
I react, mostly, to Baldwin’s essays “Many Thousands Gone” and “The Harlem Ghetto.” His critical breakdown of the Negro in America in contrast to Richard Wright’s Native Son (in “Many Thousands Gone”) and to the New York Jew (in “The Harlem Ghetto”) helps explain some of the plights of those of us in marginalia; but overall, the pieces are temporal failures.
“Many Thousands Gone” itself, on the surface, is not a failure, as it was written with all the knowledge one can have of one’s own era; however the writing (the our and us and we presumably belonging to the white American) should have essayed to predict, from Baldwin’s Afro-American-European vantage the possible trajectories of the Black American. “He is a social and not a personal or human problem,” Baldwin writes, and our goal with social problems should be to anticipate their solutions throughout the hours.
If the Black American were a social problem, are people like me the solution? Because we—the blacks who’ve railed against stereotype—exist, I wonder if we’re looking at the end of Baldwin’s thesis:
“. . . the Negro in America can only acquiesce in the obliteration of his own personality, the distortion and debasement of his own experience, surrendering those forces which reduce the person to anonymity and which make themselves manifest all over the darkening world.”
We are not solely talking here about the Educated Black, the presumed outlier of our history containing the faces of those like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., but rather those more like Will Smith or Bill Cosby, trailblazers for what Baldwin seemed not to foresee: a new black whiteness.
In Grantland‘s 2011 article “The Rise of the NBA Nerd,” Wesley Morris writes that “21st-century blackness has lost its rigid center, and irony permeates the cultural membrane.” Families on television like the Bankses in the nineties’ The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the Huxtables in the earlier The Cosby Show gave the country a new kind of Black American: educated, well-off, and far distanced from any inkling of culture-perceived niggerness, from the qualities of the Black American we’re mostly wary of confronting. These characters were almost everything I wanted to become when I was younger, their erasure from conventional blackness a beacon for those of us not fitting in with convention in the first place.
“The Negro in America can only acquiesce in the obliteration of his own personality.”
There is nothing in this world that I’m more afraid of being than a man who is testicular, aggressive, and black. And in fact, all of my performances are the result of either my Black or my masculinity-related paranoia, and my acquiescence isn’t so much a way of “passing” in America but rather in avoiding a fear of my potential self. “Black people are unnerving,” writes video essayist John Bresland, “because they’re paranoid. They see racism everywhere, even where it isn’t.” I’d like to raise my hand here, to own up to this paranoia, to worrying out of some infantile fear about where racism actually exists, even though I believe racism is sometimes much less about the process of othering than it is a compulsion to love those like ourselves—isn’t hatred, after all, usually in defense of something we love? And “although the two can be confused,” writes Bresland’s wife, the essayist Eula Biss, “our urge to love our own, or those we have come to understand as our own, is, it seems, much more powerful than our urge to segregate ourselves.”
But I haven’t even loved “my own.” Outside of my family I’ve managed to remain close to no other black people, and I have no excuse aside from my hometown being Normal, IL. Which is not to say that this is a real excuse: it’s more of a reason spurned by my discomfit towards the subtleties of race in my hometown.
I can’t confess to obliterating anything black about myself, either, because I never saw it as being there in the first place. Race wasn’t an issue in daycare, where I was the only black child in my class; nor in Kindergarten where I was the only black yet again and, I think, things remained this way until second grade or so. By the time I was meeting other black children in my classrooms, I had already come to understand that I was different. And that my parents and my sisters were different—we acted differently and spoke differently. I remember noting how the other black kids at school sounded when they spoke. I can remember asking my father once when I was about five how, when I answered the phone, I could tell whether or not the person on the other end was black. I wish I could remember his answer.
I wonder what he means when Baldwin uses a word as strong as “obliteration.” It implies a scale, implies that when there is a scale for whiteness it is only applied to minorities and that being less black or less Asian or less Hispanic means becoming more white and not option C or D. To obliterate seems, to me, as if it should mean getting rid of the -ness altogether, becoming instead something unidentifiable. Baldwin did write, later in “The Harlem Ghetto,” that “the American ideal, after all, is that everyone should be as much alike as possible.” And that Americanness rather than Blackness or Asianness or Whiteness means anonymity. But perhaps I come up short of understanding. If this is what it means to be an American, it doesn’t seem that Baldwin thinks this a bad thing.
“. . . the distortion and debasement of his own experience.”
In “The Harlem Ghetto,” Baldwin writes: “It is part of the price the Negro pays for his position in this society that, as Richard Wright points out, he is almost always acting. A Negro learns to gauge precisely what reaction the alien person facing him desires, and he produces it with disarming alertness.” He maintains consistency in his theses—he seems to believe, through and through, that the Black American can never really be himself if he wishes to get along in the white world, but shares no specifics of how he should “be himself,” as a part of a unified blackness. I don’t believe that I, myself, have so much performed anti-blackness as I have had to learn, from a young age, about the qualities of blackness from family, friends, and other schoolchildren, and then adapt to this learning. These things are socially learned, aren’t they? We’re natural in our actions and expressions until someone guides us in another direction, saying things like don’t be a nigger or discretion is the better part of valor.
Once, my younger sister, Morgan, and I were swimming at a Four Seasons and asked my father if we could stay longer. I was in the hallway next to my father, and I could see the pool from the other side of a looking glass while I pleaded with him to give us more time. He gave me the OK and I rushed through the hallway, through the locker room, and back out onto the pool deck to let Morgan know we could stay. Censoring my excitement and obeying the safety rules, I stopped running once I reached the pool deck. To make up for this I yelled across the entire pool to Morgan, who was floating in the shallow end of the water in perfect view of my father. We can stay! Dad says we can stay! And merely seconds later, before I could even jump back in, I saw my father motion with his index finger to come to him, out of the pool, immediately. A cold face had said all he’d needed to say.
After we dried off and grabbed our things we walked out to the truck, myself immensely sad and confused at my father’s seemingly mercurial decision-making. He remained silent until we began the drive back, and at this I quivered. I always quivered at his silence. He told us, shortly after the truck left the parking lot, that had I not let the entire pool know our business we would have been able to stay. That I needed to learn discretion.
Now, I can sometimes see the looks on people’s faces when black children are loud in public. It’s a sure look of disapproval, perhaps not toward the children themselves but toward the assumed negligence of the parent(s). Children yell, yes, and they play and scream and laugh gutturally, but it’s the heightened volume of children talking that gets adults’ ears perked. Where did he learn that? Why do they talk about such things?
When a child speaks loudly everyone in range listens, and one can only hope the child has something delightful to say.
The problem with the social decorum of black children playing is that their loudness comes off as a shortcoming—as a thing all right for only non-black children to display. Adults cringe, I cringe, at some of the things these children say and we probably therefore do degrade the image of this child (and on this point, Baldwin and I agree). Perhaps, in public, this was always on my father’s mind—perhaps he was always worried about playground talk of sex or money or the things we saw on television, a clear reflection of his sentiments as a parent.
“. . . surrendering to those forces which reduce the person to anonymity.”
What if I’ve desired anonymity? What if it wasn’t a forced thing? There’s been a lot said in history about the forced anonymity of women and the forced anonymity of gays, while the other side of the coin suggests a desired anonymity of peoples like Jews and Blacks and those of biracial ethnicity. And if Baldwin is right about America’s melting-potness, then I want to know more about this desired anonymity.
Desired anonymity, I think, is not necessarily a point of surrender. In October 2011, The Harvard Crimson ran Zoe Weinberg’s “Raceless Like Me,” an article laying out a spectrum for students at Harvard University who wish to push the boundaries of racial identity to do so. At one end: the raceless, at the other, the racially transcendent, and somewhere in the middle the aracial. The difference is that “racial transcendence,” coined by Harvard’s Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, comes off as both lofty and naïve, in danger of being confused with color-blindness, which “advocates ignoring race without confronting the inequality and discrimination it breeds. Color-blindness implies that racism can be solved passively.”
“Racelessness,” Weinberg writes, “is far more complex, because people who transcend race ‘are actually aware of how race negatively affects the daily existence of people of color. They have very likely experienced discrimination, yet they respond by understanding those situations as part of a broad societal problem: one in which they are deeply embedded, but not one that leads to their subscription to racial identity,’” according to Rockquemore.
If I see black as a description and not as an identity, then I believe I spoke aptly earlier when talking about my youthful wish to be raceless. Though aracial may fit for someone with more than one concretized heritage, raceless seems to be the word for those of us making thought-out decisions about our identities. But the potential roadblock with this is that I don’t have more than one concretized heritage: I could speak to you about the variety of my family names or my Creole great-grandfather or my half-German great-grandmother, but it’s not something I can grasp the way one can grasp having one black and one white parent. In essence, at the bottom of this issue is my jealousy toward the bi- and multiracial, as the status quo affords them the allowance of checking the raceless box.
A lot was unearthed in the Crimson‘s interviews with students, ranging from from biracial students literally checking the black box because they wanted to bring statistical awareness to inequalities, to those who check it because “it is so overwhelmingly in your favor to identify by race if you’re a minority,” as stated by student Anjali R. Itzkowitz. “You would be a fool to say you’re raceless if you’re black.”
The boldest question it poses: “if we know race is a social construct, at what point do we begin the process of deconstruction?” This is the question Baldwin didn’t ask and should have. My answer, at least at this point, is within our personal relationships. And I’m a hypocrite, because I let my friends talk about how “white” I am without correcting them—but if I did things right I would start with them. Just like talking about romantic attraction began with them and talks about our parents’ money began with them. In my social development and snowballing realizations, everyday talk, not haute scholarship, is where the deconstruction should have begun.
Writing about a subject like race is difficult not because the topic is hefty, but because I have so many biases toward it. I’d very much like not to be lumped in with writers considered to have made notable contributions to Black and African-American Literature because I’m not writing about a Black experience—I’m not writing as a black man. Please remove me from the discourse, because I don’t represent anyone but myself.
However, the other hurdle in representing myself within marginalia is that some readers, inevitably, will feel I represent them as well. It always seems a danger to write about the othered group without fear of misrepresentation, which makes me even further want to avoid labels. What I want is a slight inverse of one of James Baldwin’s own wishes: I want to be a good man and an honest writer.
Being an honest writer means to me that I cover all my bases, that I stick to the facts as I know them and, when necessary, scrutinize the little things. As writers it isn’t our job to worry about fact-checking our memories, but there are certainly other things that need to be corroborated—the clinically biographical facts I want to extract in my writing, the names of streets on which I’ve lived, the things that, without showing my research, would have me admit to laziness—here, I’m doing my damnedest to be sure I’ve checked up on the crucial bits.
It’s necessary for me to make sense of the ways I’ve read the world throughout my experiences, and to ensure that as I’ve moved through life I haven’t brushed the wrong experiences off. “An author is not to write all he can,” writes John Dryden, “but only all he ought.” And I ought—need—for the sake of my own sanity, to begin evaluating my decisions and my experiences.
One day at recess, Hermann, a boy with a dark mullet who licked his lips beet-red, called me a nigger. It was the first time I had ever been called a nigger. I told on him not because I was hurt or upset, but because I wanted to see what would happen to him. I enjoyed the eye-widening of the recess supervisor when I told him what had happened, and I knew he’d move quickly to find this boy and bring him to justice.
I don’t know, nor do I think I ever knew what happened to Hermann that day, as he was dragged away by the arm by one of our lead supervisors near the end of recess. But I discovered power in a word—power that, at seven or eight, I knew I was using the way he had wanted to. I had turned his dominance back onto him.
I still wonder about that power. I wonder whether, had I felt less racially neutral, I would’ve made far different decisions, far different observations. I wonder if, had I felt a little blacker, whatever that might mean, recess would have ended the same way.
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
Fall has risen from the earth
like Lazarus. The dogwood in the backyard
remembers its flowers. The sky’s throat is raw
with wood smoke and small regrets.
I have slept beneath quilts in third floor
apartments. I have scribbled endings
on tables with chopsticks and pretended
there is still time for funerals and baptisms.
Let winter come. Let the water freeze
dark and opaque. I will find
new reasons to wait
in the persistent whiteness of snow.
He undresses the apple’s heart
with a knife. His hands
are knowledgeable, palming the meat
without slipping. Slowly
a pile of red skin grows on the table,
like snow or eyelashes unattached
to a wish. I watch, scraping
a thumb along my own knife idly
as if trying to peel the whorls from it cell
by cell. He finishes
and cubes what is left, then
gathers it into the pot with the rest of the apple chunks
browning with oxidation. I
am not used to seeing him
so gentle, his fingers so careful.
I am used to seeing these fingers grip shovels
and beer bottles, hammers and leather belts.
Now he adds water, sugar, a pinch
of cinnamon, takes the pot
to the stove. In an hour, we
will eat applesauce with silver
spoons, slurp it too hot in the backyard
until it cools with the setting sun. We will stand
beneath the trees whose swollen fruit
we coaxed into sweetness, and he
will charge his hands with a new
task, cradling his bowl like
a bird’s nest, his tongue licking sugar from his knuckles
until they are slick and shining.
This is the little island where I crashed my bike in the moonlight outside of a WWII bunker by the Thames. It didn’t look like this when we were there, of course – it was night already so I couldn’t take pictures. I couldn’t even see with my own eyes. From 8 pm until after midnight we rode along footpaths - torches in hand - from pasture to pasture, through forest paths, through dozens of ”kissing” gates, cycling past sheep-fleecing fences and branches claimed with woolen flags. My bicycle chain blurred beneath me like prayer beads. We rumbled over roots, ducked under branches, and threw moon-long shadows on our laughter.
We followed a path toward the river, surprised by an abandoned cement bunker from WWII. Anyone could be living in there, hiding in there. I sped up past its black windows and rode blind over a fallen tree, lurched, and landed in a bed of stinging nettles with my bike on top of me tangled in my legs. Everything fell from my pockets: my ID, my wallet, my phone, everything. I spread the nettle, feeling for familiar shapes with my eyes closed.
I was certain the malevolent presence in the bunker would be looming over me when I stumbled to my feet but luckily my friend was standing sentry. Pockets full again, we flew from the forest in shock, the bikes’ shocks delightful from ditches to hills to corrugations of dried mud – we flew so fast, we might’ve lost our bodies, might’ve spilled from their empty pockets – back to the field, the middle of the field, far from the forest’s hem, so we could see anything approaching us from my leafy imagination.
I didn’t notice till then the thousand nettle stings rising like pearls on my wrists; burning bracelets that he kissed and rubbed dock leaves, folk remedies and wives’ tales on. The island was ours; each kissing gate and the kisses inside of them, each water trough, every animal call, root, rock, dock leaf and bunker. Even the moon.
Back at the cottage we began exploring the topography of my body, another adventure: twigs in my hair, calves striped red and skirt smudged in tones of meadows and earths, juice of healing greens along my blistered wrists. The forest underlined me, accentuated me, painted me. I feel alive in this little village at 1 am, this unknown village whose dark places left their signatures all over my body, whose kisses still hum around my wrists.
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Noah Cicero is the author of several novels, including The Human War (2003), The Condemned (2006), Burning Babies (2006), Treatise (2008), The Insurgent (2010), Best Behavior (2011), and most recently Go to Work and Do Your Job. Care for Your Children. Pay Your Bills. Obey the Law. Buy Products. (2013). His stories have appeared in many journals, including Identity Theory (read “Waiting for Coffee”). A native of Youngstown, Ohio, he now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he may or may not be snowed in on a mountain.
In what way do you think literature has the ability to change the way people live their lives?
Literature changes the way you perceive reality, it gives multiple meanings to every situation. If you just read one book, say the Bible or Koran, or if you just watch sitcom television, your reality is very limited, you have very few ways to interpret situations. But I believe if you read a lot, your mind learns the ability to play different games or see different options in every situation that non-readers might not see. The funniest moments I’ve had with literature, have been not understanding a book, but then like five years later entering into a new experience and then it hits you, “Oh, that was what the author was talking about.” The delayed epiphanies are the best.
What was the last book you gave as a present?
The Elephant Vanishes by Murakami.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
A professor told me when I was 20 that I needed to make concrete images. That I needed to focus on language that lacked abstractions, something the reader could create in their own minds. This, for me, has always been interesting, because there is a duality in creating an image every author must contend with, especially when someone reads it from a foreign country. For example, my first novel The Human War had people living in a trailer park. In Ohio there are very nice trailer parks and very shitty ones, but it doesn’t mean you are terribly poor, which I think a lot of Americans know. But some people in England imagined Pikeys living in caravans, and had a completely different image of my characters.
Which author do you reread most frequently?
To be honest, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. But I don’t think I read it for its writing, because I don’t think my style resembles his, I view it as my personal bible or work of philosophy. I’ve traveled to 40 states and crisscrossed America over 10 times in a car, and been to five other countries. Traveling to me and living an isolated kind of dreamy life, is very relevant to me. And it is almost like I read it, to remind myself of who I am and what made me start writing in the first place.
What is the best sentence you’ve ever read?
“Something is taking its course” from Beckett’s Endgame.
Describe your writing routine.
I wake up, shower, dress, go to the local coffee shop and buy a large coffee. Then I go home and write till the coffee is done, which takes an hour an half to two hours. I usually can write five pages in that time. Which adds up over the course of several months. I usually only write in the morning.
Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what’s on your playlist?
I like to listen to long songs with little focus on the lyrics, so I don’t have to flip to YouTube a lot and the words don’t interrupt my thoughts. My playlist probably sounds really uncool: Achilles Last Stand by Led Zeppelin. Master of Puppets, Orion, One by Metallica. Shine On You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd.
Best bookstore you’ve ever been to?
A used bookstore in Moab, Utah. All along the coast of Maine there are like twenty awesome used bookstores.
If you were standing in line at a bookstore and noticed the person in front of you was holding your latest book, what would you say to them?
That has never happened to me, but when I was working at The Grand Canyon at the ice cream parlor someone asked me if I was Noah Cicero, I said yes, and then I had a small panic attack. The line at the ice cream parlor was really long, so we only talked for a minute.
What literary landmark would you most like to visit?
I think running with the bulls thing in Spain, so I could pretend I was in The Sun Also Rises.Best Behavior)" width="307" height="475" class="aligncenter size-full wp-image-11907" title="Author Q&A;: Noah Cicero (Best Behavior)">/em>)">
Is Facebook good for you?
Facebook is good to sell books and keep fans updated. But on a personal IRL level, no, it fucks up my life. Here are some reasons, I think most people who have some micro internet fame can agree with:
1. You post something about your book or an article you like: people from the lit world get into a small debate about it, which is cool, then somebody you went to high school with who you never interact with comments something about ‘jews’ destroying America. So you have to patrol that.
2. Somebody sees your name in an article, they friend you, then you write something and they troll you. THEY wanted to be your friend, not the other way around. So they ask to be your friend and then they troll you. What?
3. Your break up with someone, and even if you defriend them, all their friends are now your friend, and they tag your ex, and omg. Currently, I’m in the middle of the Oregon forest, and I still can’t get out of Ohio.
4. People on a weekly basis ask me to read their novels or blurb their books. I don’t sell more than a thousand copies a year, I can’t help anyone.
What about Amazon?
Amazon is the only thing that saves me.
What job have you held that was most helpful for your writing?
What is one of your vices?
What is one of your prejudices?
That all Republican males are secretly homosexual.
Favorite books you’ve read in the past year?
Lives of the Saints, 1Q84, Zen Koans
“Binoculars” pronounced with a British accent.
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“Loneliness is a state of lack, a longing, and though that can be acutely painful it’s also interesting. I do think that reading helps, maybe more than any other art form, in that it gives you this extraordinarily privileged access to the interior. It shows the reader other people also experience shameful, difficult feelings, which in itself makes one less lonely.” – The Myth Of The Alcoholic Writer: An Interview With Olivia Laing by Michele Filgate at Buzzfeed
“Everything is possible for the writer. There isn’t anything anyone can tell you that you can’t do, and there is no such thing as ‘getting away with’ anything. There’s no one to tell you what you can or can’t do. You’re only limited by the fences you allow yourself to build around yourself, for whatever reason, including fidelity to some idea about literature someone else imposed upon you some time long ago or five minutes ago.” – TO RAGE AGAINST MEANINGLESSNESS: Praying Drunk author Kyle Minor interviewed by Matt Bell at The Believer
We’re currently reading Chris Abani’s new novel The Secret History of Las Vegas. Mark Athitakis reviews the thriller for The Washington Post: “It’s a grim book, but one that contains the giddy, sour pleasures of the bleakest crime fiction, and the Nigerian-born Abani cannily makes his Sin City a signifier of the larger world’s degradations.”
Abandoned liquor store photo by Joseph Novak.
The birds (of paradise) are chittering
which seems insufficient
for a poem, because it does not match
the intensity—or is it pain?—
I feel and want to strike out with
like a pack of Diamond matches
or a baseball bat, waived
before the curve or fastball
pitch of history, and insufficient
also because I don’t know the names
of the birds to call their bluff
of meaning with my own.
But I am wrong.
They are more than enough.
They might in fact be too much.
Like some green or mauve
swath laid down on a canvas
that would devastate me
if I were as light
as I would be if I had eyes
and yet no life. This poem
is like a watercolor day/date
spread open on the sky’s table
like a diamond encrusted
skillset, skull, or skivvies, words
on display, legs lasered, the latest
like the New York World Trade’s
Fair in 1939, long awaited, is sense
necessary, as long as there’s
latex and leather, weather, windex
to wear, as long as there’s a voice
in the diamond encrusted
hills of thunder saying I and you
while we wait on hold with beauty
and are transferred to loss
who redirects us to surprise and elation
as a bus shifts by with all colored kinds
of thirsty flowers, though it’s much
on hold, no face time, and little voice,
and when we speak to people
or purple, or pillows,
they mostly seem to imitate
the pliant, pallid pallets
we would be speaking to
if we had reached the people,
or the paisley parsley, that once lived here,
in this cloud encrusted garden,
if we had reached the phone
with our swim fins half-intact—
matte board, bleached coral, broken spoke—
calling as we are
from our compromised positions
third to last row of the Greyhound.
Things keep floating up
and there’s no appropriate person
to tell, so silence descends
like diamond encrusted dust
over our mouths and over the storied
pines, whose spires the churches
have been ripping off for years
in their Grand Ole Opry conspiracy
to take us nowhere first-class
and now we have officially arrived
scientists say, and the birds in the void
where the spires once were—forgive me
for this long detour of, or out of,
meaning—pig iron, fig leaf, Farrah Fawcett—
are chittering, which seems
sufficient for a pomme.
What Changes Everything: 5 Questions with Masha Hamilton" src="http://www.identitytheory.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/MashaHamilton-credit-S.E.-McKee-200.jpg" width="200" height="300" title="What Changes Everything: 5 Questions with Masha Hamilton" />Masha Hamilton is the author of five novels: 31 Hours, Staircase of a Thousand Steps, The Distance Between Us, The Camel Bookmobile, and most recently What Changes Everything (Unbridled Books, 2013). She has also founded two world literacy projects: the Camel Book Drive and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. She recently served sixteen months as Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the US Embassy in Afghanistan and now works as Communications Director for Concern Worldwide in New York.
For every digital copy of What Changes Everything sold, your publisher Unbridled Books is gifting $1 to your nonprofit Afghan Women’s Writing Project. What is the AWWP and how did you come to start it?
The Afghan Women’s Writing Project pairs Afghan women with published authors in the United States for online writing classes in three secure classrooms and then publishes the writing on awwproject.org. The idea developed after I saw a videotape smuggled out of Afghanistan in 1999 that showed the execution of Zarmeena, a mother of seven, killed by the Taliban in Kabul’s Ghazni Stadium in front of a crowd for allegedly murdering her husband.
Watching the videotape of Zarmeena kneeling on the soccer stadium and then being shot repeatedly was heart-stopping. Without knowing any particulars, I wondered if in fact her act hadn’t been criminal, but instead one of enormous courage. I was determined to find out about her.
But few details were available, and this made me realize not only were Afghan women hidden beneath burqas, but their stories were silenced. After many years as a journalist, I had come to believe that telling one’s own story is as important to a certain kind of survival as food and shelter. In response, I began to learn what I could about Afghanistan, reading books and articles, attending lectures. This interest led to my visits to Afghanistan and, in May 2009, the founding of AWWP.
What Changes Everything: 5 Questions with Masha Hamilton" width="200" height="300" class="alignright size-full wp-image-11890" title="What Changes Everything: 5 Questions with Masha Hamilton" />A graffiti artist plays a prominent role in your novel. Have you ever done graffiti? What would your graffiti tag be?
Danil is a street artist, and as I discovered while working on the book, there is a big difference between graffiti writers and street artists—both in style and in motivation. Graffiti writers often don’t think all that highly of street artists, I found (too commercialized, too artsy for their taste; street artists are more mainstream while graffiti writers are sub-culture). Danil does “sign” his work, though not all street artists do; the style and content of their work often becomes recognizable (consider, for example, Bansky or Swoon, to mention two who are well-known.) Graffiti writers often chose their tags based on how certain letters look together visually, or which letters they like to write, and usually tags are short, so you can throw them up and get away before police come. One graffiti tag I like is by a writer referred to as “the Booker,” who writes “Read” or “Read More” or “Read Up” or similar. Because my novels explore the tension between hope and horror, maybe that would be my tag: Hope 4 Horror, switching it around with Horror 4 Hope, or one large H as the first letter of both Hope and Horror. I would want a partner, so we could look out for each other, and so one could write Hope while the other wrote Horror, on a rotating basis. Did I overthink this one, or what?
You include a real-life character, Mohammad Najibullah, in your story. What were the challenges involved in inserting him into the story? How did you research him and what were your goals for his character?
I knew I wanted Najibullah to be part of this story because he was a larger-than-life and a complex character, just as many Afghans are. I thought, from a story-telling standpoint, that the ending to his portion of the story would add texture and a dual nature to the novel’s conclusion. I also wanted to include him because so many Afghans in Kabul remember him well. They remember his manner and his speeches and they recall, on September 27, 1996, seeing his tortured body hanging from a Kabul traffic light. I still wasn’t sure he would fit into my story, but when Amin appeared, elbowing his way into the draft, I saw the links clearly.
I managed through the Internet to connect with one of his daughters and exchange a couple emails, which helped me write the letters. I also asked Afghans about him whenever I had the chance. History is tightly interwoven with the present in Afghanistan. I met a number of men who had been boys at that time and recalled riding their bicycle to see him in death. “It was a horrible sight. That’s when I understood the Taliban were not our saviors; they were just brutal,” one told me.
What appeals to you about letter writing in fiction?
I liked using the technique with Stela because it was her way of reaching out beyond her immediate circle in her search for comprehension, and one of the themes the novel explores is how war connects us in the most unexpected of ways. I own a bed and breakfast in Brooklyn, and I’ve just returned from 16 months working in Afghanistan as Director of Communications at the US Embassy. Over breakfast two mornings ago, I started talking with some people from West Virginia whose son had served in Iraq and is now living in Brooklyn. Immediately we—strangers of different backgrounds and political beliefs—were in a space of shared language. Many people are quiet about the impact of war on their daily lives because it is unpopular and often unwelcome in the public consciousness, but for them individually, it dances right below the surface, and has changed their lives. Stela doesn’t run a B&B; she runs a used bookstore in Ohio. So writing letters was her way of trying to break through the boundary of space to find answers.
If I want to read accurate, detailed news stories about Afghanistan on the Internet while drinking my morning coffee, where should I go?
Photo by S.E. McKee
I always put that at the top of each page. Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Dei, which means That In All Things God May Be Glorified.
This week I learned that every other year the Holy Ghost plants a baby seed in a married mom’s tummy. Nine months later a slit opens up underneath across the bottom and the baby slides out. It’s not like a zipper. It doesn’t go up and down but across like a smile, all at once. It just appears when the baby is ready. Baby slits are minor miracles, not major enough ones for the mom to be named a saint. Most moms are way way too busy for that. You can’t be named a saint unless you perform thousands of good deeds for the poor and cause at least two major miracles after you die that aren’t proved fraudulent by the Devil’s advocate appointed by the Holy See. The Holy See is the pope. See in Latin means sitting in his papal chair. While sitting there, he is infallible. If he says you’re a saint then you are, ipso facto. A few days later the slit heals back together without any help from the doctor who delivered the baby. That storks deliver babies is mere superstition, of course.
The mom is the actual mother, of course. She carried the baby around all that time, eating for two until it grew big enough to come out and start crying. To make it stop crying she nurses it, sometimes with a bottle, sometimes with one of her breasts, which are a sin to look at unless you’re her husband, or unless it’s honestly by accident and only for a couple of seconds. Four or five at the most. Especially nipples, which you shouldn’t even think about, ever. Just long enough to know what you’re looking at and decide of your own volition to look away. The same for any girl’s who is old enough, the same for any woman’s unless she is old.
The main difference is, God the Father is the father of Jesus. St. Joseph was Mary’s husband, but still. In all other families the mom’s husband is the actual father of the baby.
Baby Jesus was born when the Holy Ghost helped God the Father by planting the seed inside Mary via the immaculate conception. Via in Latin means “by,” and im means “the opposite of.” Maculate means “stained,” because immaculate is the opposite. Maculations are stains on the soul that cause birth defects and other bad things. Conception means “idea made flesh.” It makes perfect sense. Jesus was flesh of her flesh, so Mary was exempt from all stain of original sin. In case there’s any doubt, Gramma Grace has holy cards showing it. The Holy Ghost rains down on Mary, but the Holy Ghost isn’t a rain cloud. It’s a white dove glowing in a bright golden light above Mary, or sometimes just the light beams, no Mary. Light beams rain down on her immaculate heart, just like the holy cards show. Most moms and girls keep them as bookmarks in their missals or purses. Most grammas too, and of course all the nuns. But so how many kids do nuns have? They have none. They’re not married, so no baby seeds ever get planted in them.
Everyone knows the difference between homophones like “nun” and “none,” but some people still mix up “apostles” and “epistles” because they’re near-homophones, but not homonyms. You just have to remember that epistles are letters the apostles wrote to their flocks after Jesus ascended unto Heaven. It was like He rained up.
I’m 27 years old and I’ve been writing – or have written – the same story again and again. Many have told me this. Sometimes they say it calmly, benignly, meaning it as a compliment. They say that I reveal different aspects of the same story. They even use the word ‘kaleidoscopic’. At other times they say it as a question: You are writing the same story again and again? When they do that, they don’t mean to be rhetorical. Of course not. They’re asking me something deeper. They’re asking me if I’m stuck. They’re asking me if this is all that I’ve got to tell. And they are insinuating that they are uninterested. Because they have had it all before. From me. They are thinking: Of course he has nothing more, he is only 27.
I looked for the definition of a kaleidoscope, and this is what I found: A toy consisting of a tube containing mirrors and pieces of colored glass or paper, whose reflections produce changing patterns that are visible through an eyehole when the tube is rotated.
So what are the limits of a kaleidoscope? Does a kaleidoscope produce the same images again and again, or does it not? After each complete rotation of the glassy tube, do the images repeat themselves? Likely they do. And, well, even if any two images of a kaleidoscope are at least minutely different, why should anyone bother about the minutiae? In other words, conversely, if a kaleidoscope exhausts, it is boring. And boring is bad.
What can kaleidoscopes do to avert this fate? Perhaps the only way kaleidoscopes can forever renew themselves is by not asking you to look into them, but by asking you to look out from them. Why not?
And so, the three conditions of an ever-entertaining kaleidoscope are the following:
That it be expansive enough to let you in
That it gaze at distinct sights of the world, in order to forever change what is outside
That its tunnel of vision be intricate, meaning that it be both cinematic and novelistic
So now: LOOK!
Look at him inside the cubicle on the seventh floor of a large building. Look how he struggles with the project plan on his office laptop. Look how in the project plan there are forty-seven interrelated tasks under six interconnected categories, all with varying timelines that are all intricately related to each other. Look how some tasks appear green, some amber, some red. Look how he cannot make any sense of the colors, how he cannot establish any dependencies between the tasks, how he cannot make any action plans. He is set for miserable failure. Look how, even with the few tasks that he has absolute clarity of, he cannot move forward. Moving forward, acting, doing, is for him a problem, even when he is paid for it. Look how he is avoiding meeting the only person in the organization who could help him. It is clear that he is dysfunctional, impotent in contributing to the machinery of his metropolitan world. Look at The Bachelor.
Far, far away from the metropolis, in a small, small town…
Look into the squat bungalow. Look into the bedroom that hasn’t seen a whitewash in years. Look at her lying on the bed. Look how her face slackens when she listens to her heartbeat. Look how there is little similarity between what she is today and what she is in the photograph on the wall, the one in which her 24-year-old self is draped in a blue sari, her gaze averted. Look into the sharp eyes in the photograph, the sharp nose, the coy demeanor made still for an eternity, the graceful sari draping elegantly over the left arm. And now, look at the 25 odd years in between, settled on the body, on the face. Look at her gaze moving about the room. She can look at that photograph on the wall and not pine for anything, as if she were looking at a stone, or as if the photograph’s way of capturing time was as unremarkable as that of a stone’s. Look at The Mother.
Not more than a kilometer from the squat bungalow…
Look into a squat office compound with flat roofs. Enter an office cabin, where a man is signing useless documents behind a large desk. Look at his signature in Hindi, at how the bars and accents of his name shoot up like ferns on the near-brown paper. Like the top third of a thicket of sugarcane. Look how the cabin is full of preserved specimens of diseased sugar cane stems. Count and marvel at the number of diseases that can ruin a sugarcane crop. Now look at the man’s thick-rimmed cheap spectacles, and behind them his long eyelashes that are – yes, if you look closely – beautiful. Look at the wooden table that he has been sitting behind for the past 15 years, a heavy wooden table, immovable. Look at the archaic-looking office cabin, with no computer, no gadgets. This scene could very well be from the seventies, but is not. Look at him sighing after signing the documents. Look at his thoughts, it is possible. Look at him thinking of the day of his retirement, a day that is not very far away. Look how he counts the days remaining, just to keep himself occupied. Look how he calculates all his savings in his mind, and then shakes his head. And hey! Hey! Look, look, there, at that external thought or metaphor inside the room, hovering near the ceiling. There, just below the lethargic ceiling fan, hovering like a cloud, a cloud that you can see. Try to read the cloud. Look how the cloud says something about the spectacled old man behind the table: Like Mr. Biswas from A House for Mr. Biswas. Look at the man with your hyper-novelistic gaze now, and impart a meaning to the dull scene. Know that this man here, this old spectacled man with long eyelashes, has no house to go to after retirement. Look, now, at his anxiety regarding the future, the future when his younger son will go to college, and when he and his wife will have to quit the government bungalow they have always stayed in. Look at The Father.
Three kilometers away from the office compound, on the main road in the small small town…
Look at the speed of the gear-free scooter. Look at the whiskery beard and the Adam’s apple. Look at the cheap, large-dial watch on the thin wrist. Look at the red Adidas shoes below the tight blue jeans. Look at the mouth, the mouth inside which the tongue seems to be sorting a chewing gum, repeatedly. Look at the mouth inside which no chewing gum really exists. Look at the style. Look at the premonition of a smile. Look at the promise of a man. Look at The Brother.
Ten hours later, when The Bachelor is home, you look inside the screen of his desktop. There is the moving image of a woman. The woman and the Bachelor are in a video conversation. Look at the woman’s tangled blonde hair. Look at the large space between her nose and her upper lip. Look at the suggestion of unmade eyebrows. Don’t complain about the quality of the image, it is because of the bad internet connection at the woman’s end. Below the large rectangle of the woman’s image is the small rectangle where The Bachelor’s own moving image is visible to him and you. To him, his own image is darker, unattractive. For some strange reason he looks more at himself in this small rectangle than at her in her large rectangle. It bothers him that the small image that he sees in the small rectangle is visible at the woman’s end as a large rectangle, possibly magnifying the unattractiveness of the visual content inside it. He keeps his palm across his chin, covering his lips, in a gesture that is only partly voluntary. You can outright assume that he is shy.
Now look at the yellowish wall against which the woman is sitting, and on that wall look at the quarter of a painting that is faintly visible, all inside the large rectangle inside The Bachelor’s monitor. You do not notice any forms in the painting, and are bound to assume that it is a work of abstract art. It may or may not be one, but what you’ve just seen is perhaps the rationale for abstract art. All that is abstract is nothing but the limit to the sense-seeking gaze.
Now the video conversation is nearing an end. Look at the woman kiss the fingers of her right hand and then cover the large rectangle on the screen with those fingers. Look at The Bachelor wave in response. He cannot kiss and cover his camera, he is shy. The rectangles switch off.
Now let us travel a thousand or so miles, westward. And let us do that instantaneously…
The woman we had moments before seen in a rectangle within a rectangle is here, in genuine three dimensions. Look at her looking at the full painting we had earlier looked at a quarter of, electronically, from very very far. Look at the painting. It is truly abstract, but you can notice the form of a brown mountain in it. Look at the woman look at the painting and look at her thoughts. As you know, it is possible. Look how she is thinking of the afternoon five years ago when she had bought this painting for 120 Canadian Dollars in a high-art shop in Toronto. Look how she remembers the seller tell her that the artist held great promise, and was likely to see a major appreciation in appreciation, and therefore an appreciation in demand. It’s been five years and there has been no appreciation. Suddenly, for no particular reason, the nature of this woman’s gaze changes. She looks at the painting. Look at her trying to trace the contours of the colors now. All dark…darkened…darkening. She thinks of The Bachelor. You can see that. She touches the grain of the canvas of the painting, at exactly the outlines of what we have earlier called a mountain. How do you climb an abstract mountain? she thinks, novelistically. Look at her sigh. Look at the sighing de La Belle Femme. Regarde La Belle Femme.
Allow me, me who is outside, to offer an interlude to the gazing. No point in looking at me, I’m only a semblance.
First, I want to comment on the third condition of the ever-entertaining kaleidoscope, as you are seeing it manifest here. I hope you have noticed how this condition plays. Intricacy is all, one has to go beneath the surface. Merely seeing cannot suffice. But there is something more to this third condition, and that something is difficult to pinpoint.
Second, I want to posit that there exist in the real world kaleidoscopes that very nearly meet the three conditions. Facebook is one. The only condition it misses is the third one, which is to say that Facebook is not novelistic. That makes a lot of difference.
Look at The Father and The Mother and The Brother watching TV. They are watching a football match between two English clubs. The score is 0-0. The Brother is the most excited. His excitement at watching the football game is natural, almost like an instinctual excitement, the kind that one is born with. But The Brother is not an excited person in general. It is tough to place his passions, simply because he is of an age when one both realizes one’s passions and also begins to lose them one by one. As of now The Brother is supporting one of the two teams, but his support for that team is not unshakable. It will vanish if the other team starts losing very badly.
Second in excitement is The Father. He has had a short day but he feels that he has had a long day. Just as he has had a long life but feels that it has passed by too soon. It is only the vague, perhaps fabricated, memory of enjoying watching football in his youth that makes him watch football now. He does not know either team and for him the distinction between the two teams is simply the colors of their jerseys – red and blue. Now and then he makes a vague comment about the red team playing better than the blue one, something that The Brother registers absent-mindedly. The remote control is in The Father’s hand, and since the game is approaching halftime he is pondering which news channel to switch to in the intervening ten minutes. The Father is also conscious of the fact that The Brother would want to watch the half-time analysis as well. He realizes he does not have the energy to argue with The Brother, and so, perfunctorily, after rotating the remote control twice or thrice in his right hand, he places it on the table before them and nudges it toward The Brother.
The least in excitement is The Mother. She has been in the house all day, like everyday, and she is currently cutting vegetables for dinner. For her the men inside the TV are too small, like varicolored flies flitting across a green dish, and she can make no head no tail of the kinetic images. She is expected to have watched all the TV she wanted in the day, when The Father and The Brother were away, and she has half a mind to tell both of them that she did not do so, that she in fact never watches TV when they are away, that she just lies on the bed and thinks of her elder son (The Bachelor) and thinks of her younger son (The Brother) and thinks of her youth and thinks of the places she could have been to had she not been stuck with someone (The Father) whose only expertise was in the diseases of sugarcane. She thinks of The Bachelor because she is the only one who knows that he is a failure at work, and has the sense to sense that he will, in all likelihood, be as much a failure in the world as his father is, and she thinks of The Bachelor because she is the only one who understands just how much he loves La Belle Femme and how this love of his is going to destroy him because this, this ardency in love, is what The Bachelor has inherited from her, and she thinks of The Bachelor because she understands him as a combination of two hollow halves, both defective, whose culmination in a single personality has calamitous outcomes. She worries about The Brother as well, because he too is from the same grain, and he too may tread a similar path.
The Mother is silent, although there is a hum of anxiety in her head. The dim light of the living room accentuates this hum. The light lends a soft shadow to everything inside the room, shadows that go unnoticed by the three persons in the room but are bound to make you scared. The Mother’s cutting of the vegetables is automatic. The two men around her don’t notice a thing.
Look at the kitchen knife in The Mother’s hand. Her grip is tight, tightening. Look at the hardening of her eyeballs. Look at her stare into chopped vegetables as if chopped vegetables were some kind of a symbol, a terminal symbol. Look at her desires, the innermost. The ones that haven’t taken a form, the ones that are abstract. Is it possible to look at them? Yes, concentrate. You can. You will see the desire to kill. You will see her rage and her sadness, and the desire to kill.
Look away. Look at the knife. It is an old knife, perhaps as old as the marriage. Over the years, it has had to be sharpened many times. If only you could see underneath The Mother’s grip, you would see how the knife’s handle has an imprint of the fingers of her right hand.
A dozen items from the news feed of The Bachelor’s Facebook account. The time is close to 9 P.M. This is going to be like two kaleidoscopes in series.
Shared by a male friend: A picture of a half-consumed pint of Tuborg beer on a glassy, watery, seemingly endless surface that seems to extend right till the horizon. The sky above this horizon is luminous, annotated by an unusually bright and yellow setting sun. It is tough to make out whether this is a crafted advertisement for the beer or a picturesque moment from the friend’s vacation.
Shared by a male friend: A picture of the friend flanked by two elderly people on either side. The elderly people are most likely the friend’s parents. The caption above the photo says: ‘A week of bliss.’
Shared by a female friend: A link to a website that promises to proffer some action plan to all those who feel utterly frustrated by the Indian political situation.
Shared by a female friend: A link to an article about the legacy of A. K. Ramanujan, the poet and scholar and translator. The Bachelor likes the post without really intending to read the article any time soon.
Shared by the ‘English Premier League’ page: A picture that seems to be, vaguely, about the varicolored football jerseys that the clubs are donning this season. The Bachelor realizes that he had liked this ‘English Premier League’ page a couple of years ago and that he does not like it anymore, and yet he does not unlike the page now because of a minor apprehension regarding losing out on information about the football league in case he were to become interested in it again.
Shared by a male presence that The Bachelor cannot really identify as a friend: A link to a website accompanied by a picture from that website. The picture is of Michael Jordan in a black suit next to an extremely potently cathartically hot woman. The breasts of the woman mark perfectly tightly spherical shapes on her ochre dress. The text accompanying this picture is about the second novel of an extremely talented writer. The Bachelor, of course, finds it funny that the picture and the text have absolutely no relation to each other. For that reason alone he ponders liking this post, but then decides against it, because if anyone notices that he has liked this post, they will not be able to decipher the complex thought behind his liking the post and will most likely assume that he has liked the post because he has liked the breasts of the awesomely incredible woman.
Shared by a male friend: A simply textual announcement, a status message, that the friend has finished reading a book of poetry and that it was awesome. The Bachelor likes the post, immediately, as if there were some danger in not liking it.
Shared by ‘The Hindu’ page: A news item mentioning something about the toxicity of the bleach content in common white flour, and how it may be a major cause of pancreatic cancer.
Shared by a female friend: A smug picture of the friend’s pair of legs, one on top of the other, besides a male’s pair of legs, again one on top of the other. The picture has these four legs and nothing else. The setting, from the little there is of it, seems to be that of an airport. The tips of her shoes and the tips of the man’s shoes point towards each other, in a gesture that signifies connection, but is to The Bachelor neither cute nor romantic nor erotic, but altogether disgusting.
Shared by a female friend: A picture of M. S. Dhoni, the Indian cricket captain, holding a street dog in his arms, apparently in his capacity as a brand ambassador for a program that aims to convince people to adopt street dogs in greater quantities. For some outlandish reason, The Bachelor is disgusted by this post as well.
Shared by a male friend: A change in profile picture: A picture of the friend and his wife, full body shot, although the camera is bizarrely tilted by almost 45 degrees to the left, making the couple appear as if they are falling. The couple is glitteringly dressed. The wife is beautiful. The Bachelor is disgusted.
Shared by a male friend: A link to a Youtube music video of some obscure American band. He has peppered the post with the introductory text, “Sometimes it takes me too much to discover a ‘new’ artist. What a terrific singer and band!!” The Bachelor is indifferent to this post.
The Bachelor is from here on indifferent to all further posts.
Then he receives a message from The Brother.
STOP looking. Exit! This is it.
Hope you liked the experience. Of course there is no denying the fact that the putative kaleidoscope may still be criticized. Some among you might feel cheated by the fact that it was tied to views of four persons that were in some way connected. You are right when you ask: Why should we see persons or objects in a deterministic fashion, as if the gaze was ordained by some narrative power?
Well, this is the story I’m stuck to.
The fallacy of the putative kaleidoscope may lie in the fact that the second condition presupposes a grander hand that moves the kaleidoscope. Basically, when you enter the grand kaleidoscope, you let an Other direct your gaze. The whims of this Other determine the quality of your experience. If this Other is stuck at some things, so are you.
The second fallacy, and the more important one, may lie in the simple fact that even the novelistic gaze is only a gaze. It makes you look at feelings, knowing that the best it can offer are mere abstractions. In effect, it makes you look at the semblances of feelings in the hope that you will try to reach out to the subliminal. But in this flurry of looking, cinematic or novelistic, you glide over the true nature of feelings. Feelings are those that can only be felt.
So feel the story beyond the kaleidoscope, if you can.
Close your eyes.
Drinking from a Bitter Cup" src="http://www.identitytheory.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Angela-Author-1-375x500.jpg" width="225" height="300" title="Interview: Angela Jackson Brown, Author of Drinking from a Bitter Cup">/em>">Angela Jackson-Brown is a writer and poet who teaches Creative Writing and English at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. She is a graduate of Troy State University, Auburn University and Spalding University. Her work has appeared in literary journals, such as: Pet Milk, Uptown Mosaic Magazine, New Southerner Literary Magazine, The Louisville Review, Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal, Blue Lake Review, Identity Theory, Toe Good Poetry, and 94 Creations. Her short story, “Something in the Wash,” was awarded the 2009 fiction prize by New Southerner Literary Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in Fiction. Her debut novel, Drinking from a Bitter Cup, was published by WiDo Publishing January 7, 2014. Angela is currently working on her second novel.
Drinking from a Bitter Cup starts in Louisville, Kentucky and then shifts, by loss of the main character Sylvia’s mother, to Ozark, Alabama. How did you decide on where this story would start and how each place would shape Sylvia’s identity?
So often as writers, our first instinct is to write about some far off distant place that we know nothing about because we think where we came from is not interesting enough. Sadly, that was me for many years, until I realized the writing I loved the best was from writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison who wrote about the familiar. So setting my novel in Ozark, AL and Louisville, KY made the most sense to me because I grew up in one and I lived my best life in the other and I knew I wanted the same to be true for Sylvia. I wanted to show that home, as in a location, can constitute safety and love for some people, which it did for Sylvia.
This novel is a moving account of how the issues of race, class and gender intersect, as seen through the innocent eyes of the fifteen-year-old female narrator. Could you talk about how you first started to conceive of the book in relation to point of view?
When I first started writing Drinking from a Bitter Cup, I wrote it in third person. My writing mentor, Kenny L. Cook, who was one of the first to read my novel in its infancy stage, suggested two things. First, he said I should think about writing the novel from the POV of the young protagonist, Sylvia, and second he suggested I figure out how old she is when she tells her story. Once I did those two things, the story came to life. It would not have been the same story if I had kept the narration in third person or if I had made Sylvia older. There is a rawness in the story because of the young age of the narrator that would have been lost if, say, thirty year old Sylvia had told the story.
This novel largely seems to be about survival. If we borrowed Didion’s dictum, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” what story or stories is Sylvia, a girl who has lost her mother at the age of ten, telling herself to stay alive?
When I wrote this story, part of my goal was to “untell” my own story of abuse and hurt. I wanted to write a fictional story that would show a young girl who has been to hell and back, yet, she is not broken. She has battle scars, but she is still intact. Because many of us have grown up believing in a fairytale ending, we often get blindsided when the fairytale goes awry. I knew my young heroine needed to understand early on that happily ever after is impossible, but happy right now is possible for us all. Because she believes strongly in that mindset, she is able to endure whatever life throws at her.
Drinking from a Bitter Cup" src="http://www.identitytheory.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Angela-Image-2-281x500.jpg" width="169" height="300" title="Interview: Angela Jackson Brown, Author of Drinking from a Bitter Cup">/em>">As an avid reader, Sylvia reads a wide range of books that influence her view of the world. By the same token, what books do you see as helping you to shape this novel?
To be honest, I endowed upon Sylvia my own love of books and the books that bring her strength are also the books that did the same for me. When I was in the third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Kennedy, gave me the book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Up until that moment when I turned over the book cover and saw a black face like mine, it never dawned on me that black people wrote books. I mean, all I ever knew were books for and about white people. I read Little House on The Prairie, the Nancy Drew series, and a whole host of other books for and about young, white girls and boys, and I became scarred by the “absence of me” in those books. At some point in my young life, I accepted the fact that people like me did not exist “between the margins.” But Maya Angelou and her book set me free from that mindset, because her Stamps, Arkansa was my Ariton, Alabama. Her rural south, black people were my rural south, black people. So, I stopped writing in secret and I recommitted myself to my secret dream of becoming a writer. I knew if Maya Angelou could do it, then just maybe, I could too.
This book, with a great deal of finesse, makes one question our definition of family. At one point, Sylvia makes a comparison to The Waltons, a television show based on a large white, nuclear family, as representing a real family. If this story was set in today’s environment, do you think Sylvia’s definition of family would be more inclusive?
Well, let’s see. I haven’t really thought about Sylvia beyond the age of fifteen. As I said in another interview, Sylvia stopped talking to me. By that I mean, I no longer felt like this restless spirit was pushing and prodding me to tell her truth. So, it is not easy for me to place her in a contemporary setting, but my best guess is, Sylvia, would continue to define her family as those people who she feels the greatest love for and from. She would not feel as if blood ties define family, so for her, family could just as easily be the elderly grandmother figure down the street who sends her a hot plate when she’s hungry as well as the homeless guy by the street corner who waves at her as she heads to the grocery story. For Sylvia, family creates itself.
As a poet and writer, your storytelling often seems effortless. Is poetry and novel writing as equally gratifying to you or do you find one more laborious?
For me, poetry feeds my prose. The two are so intrinsically connected, it is difficult for me to write a story without thinking about how the language can become more lyrical in nature. Novel writing is more laborious for me because I have a short attention span when it comes to writing the first draft. I have the idea in my head and I just want it to appear on the page. Now revision – revision is my favorite part of writing. During the revision process, I can linger there forever. I like seeing the characters become multi-dimensional. I love seeing the landscape of the piece become rich and full.
Not every novel has a lesson to be learned or a moral to take away. However, if you were pressed to suggest such a thing, is there a particular theme or element of the novel you hope readers will give more thought to?
My character, Sylvia, says: “I don’t believe in happily ever after, but I do believe in happy right now.” For me, that is the “theme” or “moral to the story.” This young protagonist goes through a lot – both mentally and physically. But somehow, she has figured out how to live in the moment. So, if readers don’t take anything else from the novel, I hope they take that.
Drinking from a Bitter Cup" src="http://www.identitytheory.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/BitterCup_CVR-333x500.jpg" width="200" height="300" title="Interview: Angela Jackson Brown, Author of Drinking from a Bitter Cup">/em>">This book, I think, has the ability to give readers hope in humanity, a sense of equilibrium in what can be a crazy time. When Angela Jackson-Brown isn’t penning stories, what does she take comfort in?
Teaching. I love being a teacher. I love it when I see a look in the eye of a student who finally “gets it.” Whatever it is. I love it when a student tells me at the beginning of the semester “I hate English” or “I hate writing” and then, by the end of the semester, that same student says, “English isn’t so bad” or “I want to be a writer someday.” Some people go their entire life without know what their calling is. I have been blessed to find out that one of mine is teaching and sharing what I know with others.
Finally, similar to my character, Sylvia, I try to take comfort in the moment. Right now, I am working on my second novel, but I am trying to tell myself, “Don’t miss out on enjoying this moment, Angela.” There will never be another first novel, so I don’t want to spend so much time stressing over the second or third or tenth novel, that I lose out on celebrating this time in my life. Carpe Diem.
2013 marks the year that even die hard music collectors (like myself) bought only a handful of albums on vinyl or cd. But these top ten were ones I wanted to have and hold. The National dominated with one of the best albums of the decade, let alone year. I sat on the couch and read all of the lyrics in the booklet for the first time in ages. Song of the year: The National’s ”Pink Rabbits” from Trouble Will Find Me.
1. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
2. Phosphorescent – Muchacho
3. Washed Out – Paracosm
4. Widower – Fool Moon
5. Sigur Ros – Kviekur
6. James Blake – Overgrown
7. Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
8. Atoms for Peace – Amok
9. Kevin Long – Buena Vista
10. Iron & Wine – Ghost on Ghost
(selected by music editor Anna-Lynne Williams)
“Weightless” by Washed Out is our song of the month for December 2013, selected by music editor Anna-Lynne Williams. Listen above and/or sample the lyrics below:
Keep rising up
You’re racing towards the stars
You’ve waited all your life
To leave it all behind
Forget about your suffering
Forget about the pain
Leave it all and start again
Jillian Weise’s recent collection, The Book of Goodbyes, won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and the Isabella Gardner Award from BOA Editions. Her other books include The Amputee’s Guide to Sex and The Colony. She is a cyborg and writes about that in Drunken Boat, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics and The New York Times.
Congratulations on recently winning the James Laughlin Award for The Book of Goodbyes. What has receiving the award meant for you? One assumes the formal note of praise and exposure would invigorate one’s work, but I also wonder if there comes a sense of pressure or urgency with it.
Thank you! I admire the poetry of Jeffrey McDaniel, Brenda Shaughnessy and Susan Wheeler, so it’s an honor to be selected by them. It was invigorating to read “Café Loop” at the Awards Ceremony. I almost read a quieter, less disabled poem. I had to invoke my heroes to work up the nerve.
“Incision” is an exquisite poem, which was rendered into an equally stunning animated video featured on The Poetry Foundation’s website. Could you talk about how the video came about, the experience of working with an animator, and your thoughts on pairing videos and poems together?
I got a call from the Poetry Foundation. They picked the poem and the animator, John Roberts. He did a fantastic job. The dominatrix-goth vibe suits the tone.
Known as a playwright and poet, The Book of Goodbyes might also add the distinction as fabulist. One of my favorite parts of The Book of Goodbyes was the whimsical segment called “Intermission” wherein finches consider topics such as surrealism and the desire for an anthology of their species. How did the idea for the intermission start to take shape in your mind?
The idea took shape while I was in Buenos Aires. Each day I would write emails to one poet and never send them. They began, “Dear Scop: you stink,” and “Dear sweet nuts: what are you doing.” Then I would go to Confiteria London City where there’s a table set for Julio Cortázar and I would sit across from his ghost and write. “Tiny and Courageous Finches” happened there. Surely, I was still writing to the one poet. But I was also writing to Cortázar’s “Carta a una senorita en Paris” and Porchia’s Voces. I thought: This is stupid. This is very silly. Back home, I took the finches to a poetry salon. Kristi Maxwell was there. Dana Ward was there. Matt Hart was there. I love their work and they were into the finches and that meant a lot to me.
If not posed with employment obligations or geographical restriction, where in the world would you like to write your next book of poems?
I would go to San Miguel de Allende or Barcelona. Or back to Buenos Aires. I really like their poetry readings. Lights off. Poet sits at a desk. I like the routine, too. Dinner at 11 or midnight. Milonga at 2 or 3 am.
The term black comedy has been used to describe your poetry. There are moments of Larkin-like remorse paralleled with a buoyant irony. For instance, I’m thinking of the estranged lover who keeps leaving phones messages. While despair and desperation fuel many of the lover’s actions, we also laugh at the many voices he takes on, such as Catullus –maybe we are all speaking as Catallus in damaged love affairs. When speaking of contemporary poetry, black comedy is a rare, if not mystifying, appellation. Do you embrace this superlative of noir?
I’m all for noir. What is a cyborg poet to do? If I’m comic, then I play into the carnival show. If I’m tragic, then I reinforce centuries of pity for the disabled figure in literature. Noir warps the comic and the tragic.
Do you have a favorite play or a play that inspired your own work?
Sarah Kane was a lightning bolt to me. Her play Phaedra’s Love ends with Hippolytus spying a vulture above him, and saying, “Vultures. If there could have been more moments like this.”
In 1958, Freud wrote Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work, an essay that analyzed Shakespeare’s Richard III in order to cite a correlation between physical disabilities and “deformities of character.” Freud argued individuals with debilitating injuries often feel they have been wronged by nature and therefore feel they are owed reparations. While many representations of disability in literature seem as reductive as Freud’s analysis, The Book of Goodbyes feels refreshingly indifferent to convenient archetypes. There is either no victim in this book or every character is as equally a victim in the quest for love and intimacy. When writing the book, was there a conscious resistance to the trajectory of what we read in so many canonical books?
J. — This is such a great question. How much is conscious? How much subconscious? I was aware of the scripts for disability: Be good. Behave. Teach us. Be weak. Be vulnerable. Teach us. Be sorry. Be afraid. I was aware, am still aware, of bad writing. All the blind moons, deaf skies, phantom limbs, lame excuses. And the standard media representations. Here is a disabled hero! Inspiration porn, as we call it. For relief, I read Rosmarie Garland-Thomson and Paul Longmore. I read the rebels of literature, writers like Kathy Acker and Judy Grahn and Ishmael Reed. And thankfully we now have Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (Eds. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen). I believe they’re working on a companion anthology in fiction. Can’t wait for that.
The Book of Goodbyes reads as though the poems were written with the intention of assemblage, each poem lends significance to the next poem. Did an overall sense of narrative expedite the process?
The narrative emerged after many, many revisions. Originally, the manuscript was called “Semi Semi Dash” and the finches were scattered throughout. The poet John Drury suggested they nest together. The last poem I wrote for the book was “Poem for His Girl.”
Poets are often asked who their favorite poets are. Instead, who is your favorite prose writer and why?
Julio Cortázar for the magic.
What lines of poetry would you like to fall asleep to?
“listen: there’s a hell / of a good universe next door; let’s go”
John McTiernan’s Die Hard opened twenty-five years ago to a mixed reception, receiving both popular praise and critical loathing. Most critics enjoyed the film’s production design but dismissed the film’s excessive qualities, particularly its cheerful stupidity. However, the film did go on to earn four Academy Award nominations and garner several technical awards, serving as a template for many other films, including four sequels.
Over the years, revisionist critics, industry insiders, and popular audiences have lauded the film as one of the best American-made action films. Because of this sanctifying context, the film neither needs defending from the critical dismissives nor rescuing from revisionist valentines, but there are a few thematic points that Die Hard raises that are worth exploring as a basis for examining its value as a comic (at times, mock), heroic narrative.
To its credit, Die Hard has but a few motives and tasks. Because the narrative generates easy comprehension, there wasn’t a viewer who didn’t notice the conflictual differences between the film’s hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis), and the sartorial leader of the robbers cum “terrorists,” Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). On its surface, the film gleefully pits two identities that are antithetical in every aspect—the extraordinary, extemporaneous quasi-every man and the cultivated heist leader who has lethal resources at-the-ready and a well-made plan.
One could argue that the ensuing cat-and-mouse game was really about the conflictive differences between Americans and Europeans—and that McClane’s triumph over the band of not so merry Euro-thieves helped explain the film’s mass appeal to American audiences.
On one interpretive level, this critical approach seems justified. The story does make contrastive distinctions between Americans and Europeans by using the disparate identity models often associated with these different groups of Westerners—the individual-collective distinction—to craft a bloody scrimmage. However, using this distinction alone to interpret Die Hard would be unsatisfying because merely filtering the film through these ideas would obscure many of the film’s ironic statements about these identity models, statements that mock the very individual-collective distinctions the film works to create.
Interestingly, Die Hard argues that the individual-collective taxonomies are categorically too narrow to be serious because they obscure the simple truths about actual human relationships. Die Hard does this? Really. It does.
Looking for sociological analysis and thematic irony in a meta-action film may seem unpromising, particularly because Die Hard seems to shun nuance in favor of illustrating mere contrasts. The film does engage these identity models, but it does so by mocking its artificial boundaries and by undercutting the mythologizing of heroes and villains. More importantly, the narrative both uses and satirizes the Old-New World binary embodied in the Degeneracy Thesis to comic effect.
On a sun-burnished Christmas Eve, an armed gang crashes a Christmas party thrown by the Nakatomi Corporation in its nearly completed high rise. The gang, led by Gruber, corrals their corporate captives in the conveniently large lobby and works to crack the vault holding hundreds of millions of dollars in Barrow Bonds (shouldn’t bondholders put $640 million worth of bonds in a real bank?). Soon, Gruber discovers that one person is on the prowl, and what follows is an extended and confined chase, one in which the criminals pursue the evasive lawman through the high rise. The film focuses on this obvious irony, and McTiernan and writers Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza (based on a novel by Roderick Thorp) build a trap to see how people act when they are confined, isolated, and squeezed. In a glass tower full of hazards looming around every jagged corner, the hostages, criminals, and cop vie to stay in control of their emotions.
There are several reasons why Die Hard still compels. The individual-collective clash is interesting, and part of the film’s appeal is the verbal jousting between the plain-speaking McClane and the heavily-accented Gruber. Their walkie-talkie dueling is a combat of self-justification, with one trying to outwit the other. But their jousts also function as performative stratagems. Their rhetorical references to their identities are full of misinformation and half-truths, references that willfully mislead, insult, and confuse.
Though these antagonistic exchanges are meant to demonstrate Gruber’s superior intellect and McClane’s practical wisdom, the film’s point is that Gruber’s supremacy is wrongful, and his knowledge of American culture is too superficial for his insults to really hurt, for he’s guilty of the very thing of which he accuses McClane—of being a consumer of pop culture, particularly the mass media, rather than being a true beneficiary of a classical education. In a film textured with ironies, it’s no surprise that the revolutionary Gruber unmasks himself as a bona fide tyrant, a leader who assumes temporary power but has no legitimate claims to authority.
The parry between the cop and heist leader is part of several thematic strands that play on the idea that America, for Europeans, was (is) a place to colonize and plunder. Die Hard fixes itself within the broader European narratives from the 18th-19th centuries that illustrated America as a swamp full of wild natives and lowly immigrants, a place where life degenerates and devolves. Interestingly, these ethnocentric narratives often framed the discovery of the Americas as a disaster for Eurasia.
Die Hard plays on these attitudes in a more modern context (anti-Americanism vs. Euro-trash binaries) when Gruber mocks American culture in comic fashion and manipulates American law enforcement with practiced ease. As Gruber’s Euro-centric gang holds the corporate crowd captive while trying to plunder its wealth, the film frames the European loathing of America as part of its criminal attitudes. This juxtaposition is, perhaps, one reason why Die Hard resonated with Americans in the late 1980s, but, I argue, the film’s implicit and explicit ironies are far more appealing and substantive as an explanation for the film’s rather long legs.
The film purposely composes the individual-collective identity models in a less delineated manner. For example, although Gruber’s phalanx is overwhelmingly European, his gang has American allies. In fact, the chief safe cracker is, by accent and cultural references, an African-American. The security guard who stations the entrance is, again, by accent, an American. And what do we make of Al Leong’s character? Hard to say, but his presence probably is meant to contrast with the captive Asian executives. No doubt, this varied group has its American allies, but we learn quickly that Gruber’s revolutionary ethos is a cover for his criminal activities, for this gang is composed for deceptive purposes, one in which Gruber forsakes social revolution for personal profit.
In a broader context, this thematic distinction between individualism and collectivism has played an important role in American narratives. Whether the conflict be the gentleman confronting the mob or an individual opposing the conformist will of the majority, American films often illustrate the relentless struggle of the individual to define and perpetuate him or herself. This struggle is often for survival but, more importantly, this struggle is an expression of the individual’s moral identity, an identity often formed in opposition to the hegemony of the group (Stalag 17, High Noon, 12 Angry Men, Norma Rae, for instance). But, as this film makes clear, McClane, although separated from the hostages, isn’t totally alone.
His identity, as well, isn’t conceived absent of group formations. The film makes clear that McClane is part of the fraternal order of police, and he is married with two kids. When the heist is enacted, he is, for the most part, cut-off from both. Though Gruber’s gang is governed by greed and martial stratagems, McClane fights neither for country nor his own city; rather, he is staying alive to rescue his wife. Despite their separation, McClane’s loyalties are to his family, and, secondarily, his job. This kind of fidelity, the film argues, one built on love and respect (despite their marital discord), is stronger than a social unit composed by political, corporate, or criminal alliances. After all, Nakatomi is executed. Gruber’s gang is destroyed. McClane and his wife survive.
The story digs deeper into the individual-collective distinction to illustrate the American pre-occupation with how people are connected yet disconnected from each other. This duality is seen in McClane’s relationship with his wife, Holly Generro (Bonnie Bedelia). At the beginning of the film, they spend their reunion rekindling their feelings, feelings that devolve quickly into acrimony. We can tell that each is important to the other, but different ambitions keep them apart. Clearly, this relationship has suffered the consequences of this together-apart duality. This motif is further illustrated by the empathic relationship developed between McClane and Sgt. Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), the officer who strives to assist McClane with information and guidance from the outside.
One interpretation of Powell is that he is McClane’s unsolicited aide-de-camp, but this reading alone doesn’t suffice. Powell maintains a self-contradictory view of the relationship between servitude (as a police officer) and distrust for higher authority (contempt for his inept superiors, too). Powell, as an exemplar of instinct, engages in his own sparring with the bull-headed Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (yes, Paul Gleason, who willfully mocks this caricature). Robinson eventually relieves Powell, but the officer stays put because he understands that he must work within the chain of command to properly help McClane. His fraternal union with McClane illustrates their strong bond despite their spatial separation. In this respect, the film argues that a responsible individual has strong loyalties beyond the self because individuals have responsibilities to each other.
The Powell-McClane relationship also forces the audience to understand that McClane’s success is based on the help of others. This thematic point becomes clearer when the police and FBI inadvertently help McClane when Gruber has to spend resources rebuffing their attempt to penetrate the Nakatomi building. As the film concludes, McClane reunites with his wife, meets Powell in a cathartic embrace, and watches Powell kill the gang’s final member. Die Hard idolizes the American desire to rescue innocence from evil, where the flawed but righteous individual dissembles the evil found in groups and punishes (with great consequence) those who warrant punishment.
Clearly, the film is not in love with evil, but it is in love with movie heroes and villains. At the time, Gruber represented a fresher kind of villain—one who uses his intellect and wit to gain power and money, one who defends neither borders nor bloodlines. The perfect literary antithesis may have been the character of Takagi (James Shigeta), but, for all of his academic and corporate brilliance, he misreads Gruber and pays dearly for his gamble.
Thus, Die Hard doesn’t embrace the social supremacy of male power, for bosses like Takagi represent the failures of corporate leadership to properly control their mission (note the excesses of his “deal-making” employees), so he is executed trying to protect Nakatomi’s wealth. Rather, the narrative infuses heroism with a kind of vulnerability where the hero isn’t just involved in action. In a Henry Miller-esque sense, the hero acts. And McClane acts to defend others because he embodies older American values, the kind that embraces brotherhood and communion—not just individuality.
No doubt, not every literary hero is an offspring of Achilles, but there is a bit of Achilles in every masculine hero who picks up a weapon and confronts his enemies. Western life gravitates toward this literary figure, the flawed figure who not only tries to resolve issues but often does so by using violence, and when he does, he puts himself at great risk. Like Achilles, McClane is vulnerable, but his Achilles’ heel isn’t his bloodied feet. Rather, his vulnerability is his love for his wife. Die Hard uses simple sociological models to frame its story, but the film’s ironic comments about the pluralism related to individualism offers some reality underneath its semi-caricaturized portraits of heroes and villains. For the film, the individual possesses a pluralistic nature rather than a single definition because individuals, in reality, have composite identities.
In casting the relatively unknown (at the time) Rickman, the film played on the traditional filmic conceit of British actors playing German villains. Because Gruber is a masterwork of profit-mongering, Rickman plays this catalytic, carefully stitched fabulist major as an alloyed killer who is comfortable only in tailor-made suits and working within his criminal plans. In Willis, McTiernan found a serviceable blend of youth and experience for McClane, a character who is both loving and violent, calculating and swift, a smart ass and a knight. Unlike Achilles and more like Odysseus, McClane is a family man who wants to reunite his family, so his improvised heroism isn’t to glorify war or battle; rather, his glory is in rescuing innocence from criminality.
Die Hard’s persistent moral argument is that the real work of men is using their powers to protect innocence–not merely accumulating material wealth. This story does well enough by embracing the vitality of the hero, one whose character is nurtured by the Achillean desire for personal righteousness but whose more modern purpose is to safeguard the innocent. What makes McClane more American than Hellenic is his desire to alter the circumstances to benefit others, a man who cares more about commitment than consensus, a man who willingly risks his safety for the sake of others.
This kind of morality still resonates with American audiences, for literary figures who warn against the mob, fight the demagogues, and protect the innocent are important moral voices in our democratic culture because these characters act on our behalf by proxy. And, if these figures fail, we all feel jeopardized, but when they succeed, we earn a catharsis.
1. Gruber’s characterization of McClane as “John Wayne” is, of course, pejorative. In another brief comic moment, Gruber concedes that his knowledge of one terrorist group is gleaned from a Time article. The film argues that Gruber’s Romanesque classicism is far more merciless than the traditional education Nakatomi earns because his boldness is no match for Gruber’s greedy gamesmanship. Interestingly, the meeting between the men poses a problem. As Gruber walks among the corralled hostages searching for the executive while rattling off his biography, Gruber doesn’t know what this high-powered, highly-profiled corporate executive looks like. Really?
2. One could argue that Europe has been plundering the Americas ever since America’s discovery. But since the film’s debut twenty-five years ago, there have been political critiques and sociological studies about Euro-American distinctions, some of which contrast decaying European social models with America’s pursuit of wealth. Others have compared the lengthy vacations brokered by European unions to America’s quasi-puritanical work ethic.
3. It might be convenient to overlook the Americans in this criminal group because their Americanization contradicts the neatly defined crookery of European villainy. We know that Gruber isn’t very interested in supporting his revolutionary brothers despite his demands that governments free some of its terrorist captives. On the surface, his ruse makes some thematic sense because the Nakatomi Corporation is portrayed with some excess. We glimpse their immense and costly project in Indonesia, but the film focuses on what takes place at the party: an amalgam of sex, drinking, and drug-taking amid the high-priced decor adorning their offices. The film portrays corporate culture as a diversity of reckless pleasures and industrial hegemony—the enemy of proletarian revolutionaries.
4. There is a moment when Karl (Alexander Godunov) wants to break off and kill McClane for killing his brother, but Gruber compels him to seek vengeance later and stick with the plan. Here, group cohesion is more important than individual justice. On another note, contributing to the mock heroic-ness of the film is its linguistic problems (intentional?) with German.
5. The film seems to argue that relationships based on mutual experiences and beliefs—the kind of relationships that have great personal and social value—are ones based on choice. When people are forced to form alliances based on a common political enterprise (such as sharing power), these group formations tend to be less successful. Thus, alliances (be they criminal or civic) often fail to meet their intended goals. However, those relationships based on admiration, trust, love and respect (however chaotic they may seem) have a better chance of enduring because such relationships are more authentic, resilient.
6. Other critics have made this point about American films.
7. If McClane, for all of his Irish-Americaness, is Greek in his inheritance, then one can see the German Gruber as an offspring of a corrupt class of Roman officers who sold off or plundered part of the empire for personal profit.
8. Embedded within the narrative are several references to Christian symbolism, from gift-giving, holiday consumerism, prayer and to Vaughn Monroe’s version of “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow”; then, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy closes the film (a piece that also serves as the frame for the Christian hymn, “Hymn to Joy”).
At first there was one god. As far as it knew, it was entirely alone in an endless expanse of nothingness.
This first god set the universe in motion, and planted the seeds of life in a few promising solar systems. Eventually, on a small, damp planet, living cells appeared. The first god used them as toys, molding some into fixed, flowering shapes, and others into mobile creatures.
It released some of the creatures into the ocean. Others it placed on land. It launched some into the sky: “Fly,” it commanded, and they did. Watching the animals move and grow helped pass the time.
Soon, the first god noticed that some plants and animals died quickly, before reproducing. This was worrisome, but the god comforted itself: if this experiment failed, it could try again on a different planet. Observing closely, it realized that the strongest specimens of each generation not only survived, but also tended to pass on their advantages to their descendents. In this way the life forms gradually changed, becoming ever more resilient.
The test came when a meteor hit the planet, stirring up great clouds of choking dust. The climate changed. Many plants and animals perished. Soon enough, new species replaced those that had become extinct. The first god saw that life could recover even from large-scale devastation. There was no need, it decided, for further tinkering. It rested.
At this point, a second god appeared. “I’d like to try something,” it said.
“Where did you come from?” the first god asked.
Like the first god, the second one was without form, and it communicated its thoughts soundlessly, as the first god did. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m from the same place you are.” There was silence in the universe. Neither god knew where it had come from. And so the second god said, “Some things are a mystery even to us. Still, we have so many powers, and so much time to do whatever we wish. The life forms you’ve created… I like them. Even so, I have an idea for new little creature.”
A wave of distress rolled over the first god. “Whatever animal you might introduce, it would eventually transform into something else. In any case, since all the plants and animals are constantly changing, every possible life form will eventually appear. I see no need to attempt anything new.”
“Let me just try this one thing,” the second god persisted. “Shouldn’t I, like you, get a chance to play with the building blocks of life?”
The first god gazed upon the planet–upon its planet, as it thought of it. It admired the velvety patches of vegetation and glinting flows of water. “Maybe you’d better start your own bioregion.”
“This place has the only decent atmosphere in the area. The next suitable planet might be many light years away. I’d rather stick around here, with you.”
The first god felt its distress replaced by a surge of affection. “I guess I’d like that, too.”
“But you expect me to just float around here, watching? That wouldn’t be enough for me, not from now until forever. Well, think it over.”
The first god did. As it deliberated, the planet revolved many times around its glowing star. Finally, the first god announced its decision. “I might let you make one animal. Maybe you’d like to design a new form of camouflage? Or a new mating ritual, perhaps?”
“What I want,” the second god said, “is to endow one creature with advanced intelligence. I want to create an animal that could create things of its own—in a limited, un-godlike manner, of course.”
The first god objected. “What might such a powerful being do? You don’t know, and neither do I.”
“I’m only asking for one favor,” the second god said. “A teeny favor, a nothing. If that’s too much to ask, then I’ll leave.”
Again the first god gazed down on its creation. The animals were amusing and beautiful, but so feeble in comparison to its fellow god, an invisible mass of random ideas and unfathomable abilities. “Go ahead, then. Build your thingie. But make it compatible with the other creatures.”
“Of course,” the second god said. It fiddled with an existing species of warm-blooded, furry animals, seeding them with the rudiments of self-awareness. With every generation, these animals became better at communicating, and quicker at solving problems. As the gods watched, one branch of the species evolved into a tribe of gibbering bipeds. These animals used their flexible appendages to make simple tools of wood and stone.
“Very nice,” the first god said.
The second god paused before responding. “You don’t suppose,” it said, “that I’ve given this creature are too many advantages? What if it depletes resources other animals need?”
“It’s possible. Unlikely, I’d say.” By this time the first god had glimpsed a thrilling possibility: the new animals might, it thought, begin to intuit their creators’ presence.
Before long, the unarticulated wish came to fruition. “Glory, glory unto the Lord,” the creatures prayed. They spoke different languages, and their rituals varied, but their pleas were similar. “Help us, Beloved Gods,” they cried.
“Listen,” the first god said, “they’re talking to us!”
“Okay, but look: they burn the plants for no reason. They kill too many of the other animals. They even kill each other. They ask us for help, but much of what they want is idiotic. Instead of helping them destroy their enemies in battle, or acquire new lovers, or live longer, we should figure out how to tamp down their destructive tendencies.”
“Nothing to worry about,” the first god responded. “The other life forms will become stronger and sneakier. The Inventors can’t win every time.” This was what the gods had decided to call the new animals: the Inventors. “Anyway, for their own good, the Inventors will outgrow their worst habits.”
“I don’t know. I think they’ve stopped mutating. Instead, they manipulate their environment to suit themselves,” the second god said.
“Wait and see.”
The Inventors made tools that constructed, and weapons that destroyed. They built machines that sent information swarming around the planet. The first god was fascinated: these animals, so short-lived, so fragile, spent much of their time contriving intricate schemes. The first god watched them as they watched their media. It eavesdropped on their endless cacophony.
Meanwhile, the second god was losing its patience. “They grow noisier by the instant. For every insight they attain, at the same time they come up with ten new forms of cruelty.”
“They’re getting smarter all the time,” the first god said. “One day, maybe, they’ll leave their weak forms behind, and join us on the ethereal plane.”
“That seems unlikely. I’m so sorry; I’ve ruined your marvelous experiment. Let’s wipe everything out, and start over from scratch.”
“I won’t destroy,” the first god said, “what I have built—what you and I have built together.”
“I see,” the second god said. “You still wish to decide everything on your own.” With that, the second god withdrew into a state of seclusion.
The first god waited. As it lingered, it reminded itself: we are gods, both of us. We are enormously intelligent. Certainly the second god would realize it was being stubborn and selfish; of course it would be foolish to destroy all life on the planet after all the effort the first god had taken to establish it. As the second god’s withdrawal continued, however, the first god began to wonder if, perhaps, it should have been more tactful.
Soon after the first god suffered this thought, the second god returned. “Hello, again, my friend.”
“Welcome back!” the first god said.
“I’ve decided to start my own experiment in a new quadrant.”
The first god felt its irritation return. “You’d abandon me now? For the sake of our friendship, I allowed you to interfere in my project. Have you no gratitude?”
“Just come with me! Let this place go on as it is, and join me in a new venture.”
The first god paused, contemplating the beautiful, empty spaces that surrounded them, so empty and silent. Then it glanced at its planet, so busy and interesting. “I won’t leave. Not yet. But as for you…as for us, I do hope we’ll meet again.”
“Perhaps we will, perhaps not. Farewell, old friend.”
Now, once again, the first god was alone. It missed the second god. I should seek out my dear companion, it kept thinking. But then it would remember how stubborn the second god was. Wherever it might be, the second god would already have begun building its new world. Even if the first god were to able to track that place down, in any case the second god would make sure to maintain control of the creative process at all times. This, the first god thought, would be unbearable.
Meanwhile, at every moment on the little planet, the Inventors built tricky new gadgets. At every second, some of them praised the god, even as others cursed it. The first god knew these animals would never grow into the demigods it had once hoped for. It realized they were, for the most part, narrow-minded and impulsive, and that as a result, they probably wouldn’t be around for much longer. But try as it might, it couldn’t turn away from their senseless, fascinating chatter.
Charles Frail is a young Dutch songwriter who sings of the heart, the body, and the beauties of nature surrounding us in a violently lilting voice over soft nylon strings.
Charles… so we met a couple of years ago in the Netherlands when we were both on tour. Since then you’ve moved to Germany and started work on a novel. How did all of that come about?
Well, I always wanted to write but got more serious about it in the last four years or so. For the first three of these four years this meant reading, reading, and more reading. Not reading as I had read before, but to see how it was done, to feed my unconsciousness with as many words as possible. About a year ago I felt I was ready to start writing. I thought it would help to demarcate this new vocation with new surroundings. Someone told me there was a lot of good stuff going on in Leipzig so I decided to try my luck here.
Is the music scene significantly different in Leipzig from what you’re used to?
I’m not sure if I really know the Leipzig scene yet. Because I’ve been trying to focus on writing, I haven’t really played a lot of shows. Also, the good stuff can be hard to find here. Leipzig is quite a bit cheaper than Amsterdam in pretty much anything you can think of. So that changes the scene here a bit. In Amsterdam there is a tendency to suck the money out of every single square meter, but in Leipzig there are a lot of empty buildings still, because so many Leipziger moved to the west for jobs during the great Depression of the ’30s and again after East Germany and West Germany were reunited in 1990. A lot of young people open galleries at these places or start a bar or a vokü (similar to a soup kitchen, open for one or two days a week, often functioning as a bar and venue as well). It’s a special place.
Have you ever had a chance to come over to the United States?
I have been in the United States three times now, but would love to spend some more time there. I think what a lot of people from the US find fascinating about Europe, that you can travel three hours and hear a different language, is what I find fascinating about the US; you can travel for days and people will speak the same language. I think both the situation in Europe and the US allows for great art. Bach used to work in Leipzig, for example, and so did Mendelssohn, and they are part of a greater European tradition, but I don’t think Sharon van Etten, Damien Jurado, Bill Callahan, or the Dirty Projectors would be doing what they do so well if they were raised in Europe.
I have not performed in the US yet but I’d love to do a little tour there someday. I did some impromptu shows when I was in Canada and that seemed to go very well. In Montreal I was even offered to come and live with someone’s family and pay my rent with songs. So I was very close to moving there and probably will some day.
Do you feel that songwriting eased you into novel writing, or is it a completely different process for you?
The first-ever Nobel Laureate in literature, Sully Prudhomme, writes in one of his diaries that music is the noblest of the arts because she does not express thought, but is its source. I think this makes sense; music has an immediacy that words will always lack. This is probably why music without words can be utterly beautiful but words need a certain musicality to be beautiful. I think writing music helps to find the musicality in words.
So, yes, I think the songwriting has helped. And my voice as a writer would definitely have been a different one if I had never written a song in my life.
But at the same time, it is a completely different process. Because words can try to have the immediacy of music, but they are destined to fail. And because novels aren’t just about beautiful words. There is a story to tell as well. Also, the novel is about 70% in Dutch, 30% in English. And for my music all the words are in English, so that changes the process quite a bit as well.
How long have you been writing music? Did you start with guitar or with singing? Were your first songs also in English?
I had guitar lessons when I was younger, but although it must have helped, it feels like I had to start from scratch when I picked up the guitar again to start writing songs when I was sixteen. Likewise, I have been fond of singing all my life, but once I started writing songs…well, there is nothing that compares to singing your own songs, really.
My songwriting is all in English. The last couple of years before I moved to Amsterdam, we had exchange students from the United Stated living at our house. This was when the concept of expressing your thoughts in a different language got a hold on me. I started thinking in English when I was alone. I fell in love. I think writing songs has been a way to woo the language. And I think wooing a language is in some ways easier when it is not the language you grew up with. You can decide to learn it only through reading poetry or listening to songs. You can leave out the ugly parts.
Are your influences as a musician different than they are for your writing?
My first songs were Emily Dickinson poems I had put to music, and the music I make now is probably best described as stream-of-consciousness folk, which stems from a literary term. So some influences are apparent in both. I think the opposite of what I said previously, that the songwriting in a way has shaped my voice as a writer, is also true. That I’ve been thinking as a novelist when writing music, and that this is why I ended up with these long stretches of interwoven songs.
What drew you particularly to Emily Dickinson?
I was reading a collection of American poetry one of the exchange students had left when she moved back to the US. I think it was the poem that starts with the line “I died for beauty” that made me look her up on the internet. Her work is so concise, so rhythmical. I tried to do the same for some Oscar Wilde and Byron poems, but would always return to Dickinson. I would not be surprised if she had some melodies of her own for them. Nor was I surprised when I found out Josephine Foster did an entire record of Emily Dickinson songs.
Do you feel akin to any particular place or decade in terms of your inspiration?
Not really. It is more a topic I’m interested in, identity and authorship. So I can read Fernando Pessoa and all the different voices he brought into being; and Plato talking about Socrates; and Robert Zimmerman saying [Bob Dylan] is still Bob Dylan no matter how much his music has changed. I can read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and his “knit of identity”; and think about why Phil Elverum went from being the Microphones to being Mount Eerie; or Smog becoming Bill Callahan; and the use of the chorus in both Japanese Noh theater and early Greek theater, and forget these things are not happening here and now. Because they still make as much sense as they did back then.
How independent is your music? Do you do your own recordings, booking, packaging?
I’m not the best businessman, so I’m not really good at booking my own shows. Which, unfortunately, has become somewhat of an imperative these days. Sometimes people book shows for me. I’ll play shows when asked, but rather don’t beg for them. As for the packaging, for my first record Morning it Breathes the sleeves were handmade/machine sewn. I think with all the technological possibilities we have these days music has become less and less physical. I’m not saying technology is a bad thing. But it would be a shame if we didn’t also try to use technology to find other ways, new ways, to make music ‘physical’ again. Packaging is one way to do this. It turned out it took about the same time to make one of the sleeves for Morning as it takes to listen to the record. For me that makes up for the fact that the musicians I used for the record were never in the same room together. So for the new record the sleeves will probably also be handmade, and I really want the musicians in one room, looking at each other. I’ve chosen this stream-of-consciousness approach because when you play the guitar for 35 minutes without pausing it might slightly get out of tune, and when you sing for 35 minutes your voice may start to break, and these things are real. It is physical. Every recording will be slightly different. Of course, every recording of every song is slightly different. But here it makes more sense to keep all of them. I’m thinking about recording a series of variations on Mirror River and release these as limited editions with one copy each. So that both the packaging and the recording it contains are unique.
I remember you injuring your hand around the same time I did. Can you talk a little about that experience and how it either held you back or inspired you?
It took me about a month to find out it was broken. There were just a few things that I couldn’t do, so I thought it would get better eventually. But after five weeks I could still only play the first twenty minutes of Mirror River and then my thumb would just go numb. In the hospital they said it would have to be in a cast for at least 8 weeks! Fortunately, it turned out there was an operation as well, and because I was a guitar player I qualified for the procedure. After this operation I would be able to play the guitar the next day. Unfortunately, the operation didn’t really go as planned. A screw got stuck in a joint, and they couldn’t get it out. About a week later, they had come up with a plan to get the screw out, and this time nothing went wrong.
There were moments I got really paranoid during that week between the two operations, thinking I’d never be able to play the guitar again. I guess this prompted me to record every rendition I played of Mirror River; they all seemed so valuable now. I started to appreciate the little differences between the recordings and the whole idea that these were inevitable, and tried to think of ways to create an environment where this could keep happening.
I’m still searching for new ways to play River. Now that basic recording is available to pretty much every one, and the internet makes it so easy to stay in touch with people that live so far apart from you, I’m thinking about inviting some of the people I admire to work with me on one rendition. This could be an entire reworking or just changing one part, singing some of the words, adding an instrument somewhere. And then naming these renditions after the river they live nearby.
Recommended listening: “Nothing Will Outlive This Glory” and “Are You Dead or Are You Sleeping” by Charles Frail
Photo by Constant van Panhuys
Sorry I hurt you, but
They say love is a virtue
Our music editor Anna-Lynne is in love with “Sea of Love” by The National so hard that she selected it to be our song of the month for November. The track comes from the band’s 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me.
Buy “Sea of Love” on Amazon.
- for the man who was Pier Paolo Pasolini
for your cadaverous jaw and thin lips, for your meticulous fingers lighting cigarette after cigarette, for your body bone sleek and for speed, one hand on the wheel of a Fiat, for your films and your poems filled with criminals, liars, gluttons, and hypocrites, for the martyrs you made of them and their corpses, for the hell where you sent them, for the hell that you scorned, for the way I covered my eyes and my ears, for the way you forced them open to street after street fenced in by inarticulate buildings, for the whore, her youth spent, her face at one window imagining the city as somehow still hers, for the hell that is hers, for the boys, for the beautiful boys, for the illiterate boys, for the obscenities they screamed and for the way you clutched them and kissed them wide-mouthed, for the graffiti you sprayed in black and in blood on your body, on theirs and on mine in black ink and blood, for the hell that you sounded, and for your God, deaf and used up, for your devouring soul-crushing God, for the God you erased and the one to whom you lit candles, for your God, Pier, he lies alone in a small room on the outskirts of Rome, and he weeps, for those weeping, for those who were weeping still weep, for the woman’s face, which is my face, still at the window.