Sunday, February 28, 2010


Church, Sprott, 1971

William Christenberry, Kudzu with Storm Cloud, near Akron, Alabama, 1981

K House, 1998-2000

James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Familes (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1941)

William Christenberry, Foreword by Elizabeth Broun, with Essays by Walter Hopps, Andy
Grundberg, and Howard N. Fox (New York: Aperture/with the Smithsonian American Art
Museum, 2006)

Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry, Smithsonian American Art Museum, July 4,
2006-July 4, 2007

William Christenberry: Photographs, 1961-2007, Aperture Gallery, July 6-August 17, 2006

Howard N. Fox, lecture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, July 22, 2006

Richard B. Woodward, “Country Roads,” New York Times Book Review, September 3, 2006

William Christenberry, lecture, UCLA Hammer Museum, November 30, 2006

On July 22, 2006—during a trip to Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 90th birthday of his father—my companion Howard lectured on the occasion of “Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Howard had also contributed an essay to the recent Aperture publication, William Christenberry. Although we intended to arrive early to meet the Christenberrys for a tour beforehand, D.C. traffic prevented him from joining them—he had to preview the sound and projection systems before his lecture—and I toured the show with Bill and Sandy without him.

We had known Bill and Sandy for some years going back to our life in that city. Howard reminds me that our first dinner of spaghetti alla carbonara was shared with them at Pettitos on Connecticut Avenue. I also recall an afternoon in their home and a visit to his studio with Howard, which I will discuss later in this brief essay.

The tour of his new show was fascinating to me not only because I enjoy Christenberry’s art, of which this show presented a good selection, but also because of the artist’s own observations about his art. I recognize that most critics detest just such heavily “guided” viewings; but I love them, if only because it is at these times when one can truly get to know the artist—or at least get to know what the artist feels is most important about his art. Bill is a laconic southerner, and I don’t believe that he offered much information about his work that hasn’t previously been published, but the tone of his comments and the focus of his observations were significant, if only in his reiteration of his major concerns. What a pleasant afternoon: a guided tour by the artist followed by my friend’s lecture!

It may appear, accordingly, that I might have little to observe other than sharing these pleasant memories. Given that one of Christenberry’s major concerns is the role of memory, that may not be a bad way to approach the assemblage of paintings, photographs, sculptures and mixed-media works collected in “Passing Time.” What do we remember, and why? The numerous old houses, sheds, barns, roads, churches, road signs, graves and grave-markers, and other representations of his native Hale County, Alabama—a region also explored in the photographs of Walker Evans and writings of James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—seem to call up Christenberry’s youth or a time before his youth, when these same buildings and objects, many now in decay, actively housed the activities of living beings. And in that sense, there is a bit of nostalgia in the beautiful world he presents, a beauty that, perhaps, illuminates the lives once involved with these places and things. As Walter Hopps writes in his short essay to the Aperture book: “Without its ever being maudlin or sentimental, there is a belief in human goodness and redemption—in virtue and hard work and effort, however tattered.”
Howard Fox reiterates these concerns in his essay, “An Elegiac Vision”:

He characteristically depicts in all of his art—photographs, paintings,
sculptures, drawings—the most intimate aspects of people’s daily
human existence: the doorways through which they enter and leave
in the course of their workaday routines; the windows through which
they gaze out or peer in; their front and back yards; the sheds where
they store their tools, their forgotten belongings, and maybe their
secret things; the calendars and diaries wherein they mark the passage
of time; even the humble objects used to mark their graves.

Christenberry’s depiction of this everyday Alabama world, however, often appears to be one of complete objectivity. As Fox points out, these places and objects, particularly in the mature work, are nearly all bereft of people. It is as if they are sensed only “by their absence.” The riotous force of nature, indeed, has taken over, and, in that sense—and despite the “goodness and redemption” that once existed in these places and was represented by the objects—there is a sense of total objectivity in his work. As Richard B. Woodward observed in his New York Times Book Review essay on the book, William Christenberry:

The kudzu devouring a vacant cabin in a 2004 photograph is a science
fiction monster that can turn anything into a Chia Pet. Neither good
nor evil, the vine is simply a nuisance of life in this part of the country.
Christenberry’s focus on the habitats and hangouts of the poor, blacks
and whites, is similarly nonjudgmental. These places weren’t constructed
to last for the ages and aren’t likely to be missed, except by those
who filled them for a few years or decades. Still, he treats them with
respect, charting their alterations and passings. Paying careful attention
to surroundings that would otherwise be forgotten or unremarked upon
can be its own political statement.

Accordingly, it appears, it is the attention to these places and things, the importance the artist himself has put upon them and the memories through which he has viewed them that awards any value to his subjects.

Indeed, Christenberry further extends these issues of memory with his own reconstructions of various places and objects, most notably the 1974-75 sculpture of Sprott Church (surrounded on its pedestal by “real” Alabama clay)—a “reconstruction” of the 1971 photograph, an image presented again in photographs of 1981 and 1990 (the last of which reveals the removal of the church’s two steeples) and the 2005 “memory” reconstruction (titled “Sprott Church [Memory]”) that in its ghostlike white wax-covered rendition appears like something out of a dream. Similarly, the “Green Warehouse,” photographed 18 times over a period from 1973-2004, is remembered in his 1978-79 sculptural reconstruction of the 1998 painting “Green Warehouse.” Combined with his several “Southern Monuments,” which read almost like surrealistic dreamscapes, his patchwork house, and various “dream buildings,” these works call up issues surrounding memory and the dreams memories invoke. His “Alabama Box” contains works by the artist depicting his native landscape as well as objects and even soil from that state, a work which may remind one—in the art historical context—of the dream boxes of Joseph Cornell, while recalling—from a more populist perspective—Jem Finch’s treasure box (in To Kill a Mockingbird by fellow Alabamian Harper Lee) filled with hand-carved objects found in the knot of a tree. Christenberry’s art carries with it, accordingly, a sense of totemism, an almost mystical kinship with the group of southern individuals whose structures and objects these works of art symbolize.

What has generally been described as the “dark side” or the “underbelly” of this world is Christenberry’s obsession with The Klan. Some photographs call up Christenberry’s personal encounters with the Klan. “The Klub” for example is a photograph of a small bar in Uniontown where, so Bill described the incident to me, he had stopped for a drink. But upon entering the building he’d gotten a strange feeling about its inhabitants, and he quickly turned to leave, observing several individuals gathering near the doorway. “It dawned on me, suddenly, the existence of the K in the word Klub. It’s a good thing I left as quickly as I’d entered the place, and my car was tagged with Tennessee license plates.” Fox relates Cristenberry’s first engagement with the Klan in 1960, when he attended, “out of curiosity,” a Klan meeting in the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse. “Or at least he planned to: ascending the stairs, Christenberry was stopped dead in his tracks by the presence of a Klansman in full regalia, whose menacing eyes glaring through the slits frightened him off in a rush down the stairs.”

Howard also recounts his first viewing of the mysterious “Klan Room” in Christenberry’s studio, a room separated from the rest of his studio that looked like a padlocked storage area, a room revealed to very few individuals. I was with Howard on that day in 1979:

For the few to whom Christenberry did reveal this secret place,
the experience was eerie, disturbing, and spellbinding. It was pure
theater. The door opened into a claustrophobic space flooded with
blood-red light and as crowded as an Egyptian tomb, stacked floor-
to-ceiling with hundreds of Klan-robed dolls and effigies of all
the Klan represented: torchlight parades, strange rituals, lynchings.
A neon cross high up on the wall presided impassively over the
silent mayhem of the room.

I recall he also had a photograph taken of a Klan march in Washington, D.C. in 1928.

As Andy Grundberg reminds us in his essay in the William Christenberry volume the contents of this Klan Room were stolen, under mysterious circumstances, soon after we had seen it. I recall Bill telling Howard and me about the robbery, and him describing his distress in now having to suspect everyone to whom he’d shown it, a chosen few friends.

At a recent lecture in Los Angeles Bill revealed that during the robbery the doors to the storeroom had evidently been taken off their hinges and then replaced before the thief’s or thieves’ escape, which suggests a highly focused robbery by a very professional group or individual. It is no wonder that among the suspects were pro- or anti-Klan sympathizers.

For Christenberry this more frightening side of Alabama life is presented as another aspect of his memory, dark and horrifying memories as they are. And, although no works from the Klan Room appear in the Smithsonian American Museum Show, one eerily recognizes the same terrifying images in the reverse V-shaped images of the “Dream Building Ensemble,” a suite of eleven sculptural forms that may appear first as images similar to the Washington Monument in D.C., but quickly transform themselves before one’s eyes into terrifying all-white emblems of futurist-like cities akin to those of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or even of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Christenberry’s drawing “Study for a Dream Building,” his variously colored sculptures “Variations on a Theme, Eight Dream Buildings,” and his 2000 “Dream Building (Blue)” all reiterate the same images, thus incorporating the Klan figures into his totemistic memory as well.

A few years ago, I would have stopped this essay here, agreeing with all of the observations—observations which include comments by the artist himself—I’ve reiterated above. But this time, as I observed the various photographs, paintings, sculptures and combines while discussing with the artist and his wife the writings of James Agee and Eudora Welty (the latter with whom Bill had a long conversation in her Jackson, Mississippi house), I suddenly was struck by the fact that despite the great beauty and longing of this work, it is not representative of what one might describe as a confirmation of life. Indeed, except for a couple of early works (“Fruitstand, Sidewalk, Memphis, Tennessee” of 1966 and the beautifully formally-constructed [by accident Christenberry told me] photograph “Horses and Black Buildings, Newbern, Alabama,”), Christenberry’s art was not only “bereft of human beings” but conveys little sign of the lives connected with his subjects. Change, yes change is expressed everywhere: in image after image one witnesses the transformation of buildings through time. But in most cases, these buildings had already lost their original purposes and were left in a state of decay or, as with the iconic Sprott Church, were transformed beyond recognition before being caught in the shutter of Christenberry’s camera.

When Christenberry personally describes several of the images, he is delighted to share the stories involved with them, revealing often anecdotal and emotionally moving incidents that relate to the houses, barns, warehouses, and even signs which his art has embodied. We discover, for example, that the seemingly impenetrable “Red Building in Forest” was, in fact, originally a small, back country schoolhouse and, later, a polling location for people living in this removed location.

But without the background information, his images seem to have little to do with human use, and even the artist, before his encounters with owners and neighbors, often pondered some of these buildings’ purposes. Even without the obvious images of graves and the most recent crypt-like constructions of “Black Memory Form” of 1998, “Memory Form with Coffin” of 2003, and “Memory For (Dark Doorway)” of 2004, much of this art consists almost entirely of images of the dead. Far from being objective, “nonjudgmental” presentations of nature, the photographs of kudzu for example (such as “Kudzu Devouring Building, near Greensboro, Alabama”) are quite emotionally-charged even in their titles. This world, the world we cannot help but recognize as one with which the artist is nearly-obsessed, is literally falling apart, being destroyed not only by nature but by the forces—social and individual—that once controlled it. One need only compare the various photo-graphs and reconstructions of Sprott Church with Agee’s description of an Alabama church to recognize that the vision with which Agee imbues buildings and objects is not that of Christenberry’s:

It was a good enough church from the moment the curve opened and we
saw it that I slowed a little and we kept our eyes on it. But as we came
even with it the light so held it that it shocked us with its goodness straight
through the body, so that at the same instant we said Jesus. I put on the
brakes and backed the car slowly, watching the light on the building,
until we were at the same apex, and we sat still for a couple of minutes
at least before getting out, studying in arrest what had hit us so hard as
we slowed past its perpendicular. (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men).

If Agee’s church—not far away, according to Christenberry, from Sprott Church—is all aglow with “goodness,” Christenberry’s 1981 photo is set against a dark stand of woods. No doubt, if Christenberry had photographed only that image, it might also be said to represent “goodness straight through the body”; but in the repeated images—whether reconstructed as sculpture or revisited as in the truncated 1990 photograph—we ultimately see this structure as a strangely lonely and isolated thing. In the 1974-75 sculpture, wherein the church is represented as being set up on blocks and the stairway is presented without railings so that one might almost fear to enter—particularly in its photographic reproduction in the book, but also in its actual dramatically lit position of isolation in the show—Christenberry’s memory church resembles less a site which might elicit a cry of “Jesus” than an image out of a lonely Edward Hopper landscape. Whereas Agee’s church seems to call up “God’s mask and wooden skull and home” standing “empty in the meditation of the sun,” Christenberry’s “house of God” calls up something like a burial tomb, topped with majesty of two Klan like reverse V-shaped figures. The later truncated version looks more like the “Red Building in Forest” hut, the latter with a door so uninviting to entry that it matches the bricklike surface of the rest of the structure. It is no accident that the most recent “Sprott Church” is covered, like Poe’s famed house, in wax.

Again and again, not only are Christenberry’s structures devoured by kudzu but are destroyed by time and nature (such as “Fallen House, near Marion, Alabama” or the “Remains of Boys’ Room, near Stewart, Alabama”). The transformation of “Wood’s Radio-TV Service” to “The Bar-B-Q Inn” ends in the vacancy of Martin Luther King Road. Christenberry’s Alabama represents not only a world out of the past, but a world destroyed, dead, lost.

Within this context, The Klan Room and the associated images of its undeniable evil do not appear to be so much in opposition or even in juxtaposition to these other images, as they are at home in it, perhaps even partially explaining why and how that Eden fell. Here, for the first time in the artist’s oeuvre, are human beings—and grandly dressed beings at that—but instead of bringing life to this now empty world, they symbolize the brutal hate and death that were at the heart of its destruction.

Christenberry’s is a world fallen, lost, yes, but also a world once loved. And in that respect, we perceive in his obsession with his Alabama childhood—depicted not only in his own works but in some carved wooden tools from the museum’s vast folk-art collection, crafted by his own father—a sort of homespun American Proust who is bent on not simply representing his own Edenic past, but portraying a life now lost to all, an Eden wherein man was Satan himself. Perhaps such a world was destined to be destroyed and can only now be represented in the remnants that still exist or might be imagined in monuments of one’s own making, the only possibility left for redemption.

Los Angeles, September 4, 2006
December 1, 2006
Reprinted from
The Green Integer Review, No. 7 (January 2007).

Friday, February 26, 2010


Charles Bernstein Controlling Interests (New York: Roof Books, 1980)

In the past few years, Charles Bernstein has gained national reputation for his involvement with what he and others have described and defined as “Language” poetry. But that reputation has accrued more as a result of his theories than of his poetic output (amazingly, nine books to date); and, invariably, his critics and admirers write more on his poetic practices than on specific poems. Much of this focus has been inculcated by Bernstein himself; like Ezra Pound earlier in this century, Bernstein (as well as other “Language” poets) has felt the need to write about writing almost as actively as to write poetry. Indeed, for this author, as for many contemporary writers, there has been a purposeful equivocation of the linguistic activity of creating a poetics by which to live and that of creating an artifact. That Bernstein’s particular poetics, moreover, has been perceived as a kind of “warrior” movement—that it has enraged as many readers as it has engaged–has helped to divert attention from the his poems to his allegiances.

Concomitantly, it is clear that many critics of contemporary poetry find it terribly difficult to discuss a particular poem that is not about something, but is something “fixed” in perpetual process. Reflecting this, obviously, is the conversion from New Critical practices to phenomenologist, structuralist, semiotic, and other methodologies: all shifts from a reading of the poem to an exploration of what causes and determines the poetic act. But although this has been a healthy antidote to the textual stupor into which American critics of previous decades had fallen, for younger poets it has resulted in a radical disregard of their writings. This is particularly unfortunate in this instance, for not only have Bernstein’s ideas stirred and stimulated the literary community, but his poems are some of the most original and imaginative of American lyric verse. Those of his recent collection, Controlling Interests, especially lie in wait for a contextual reading, if not for an old-fashioned textual one.

Certainly, these poems represent a great many of the “Language” strategies. Passages from “The Next Available Place” and “Standing Target” can almost be read as paradigms for the extensive use of alliteration, onomatopoeia, aural and visual punning, syntactic fragmentariness, enjambment, and outright glossolalia that characterize much of “Language” writing. In such passages–

Dread, scuzzy. Perhaps Polish (polish). I
feel rearranged, mandate a macaroon. Cuba,
Taiwan. Indubitable dauntress fraudulent as ever
attempting a view: binary, bisected, by the seaside,
beside myself. ... (“The Next Available Place, p. 32)––

Bernstein evinces his commitment to a poetry of thinking in process and demonstrates the “controlling interests” of a literary mode that permits the “leaps, jumps, fissures, repetitions, bridges, schisms, colloquialisms, trains of associations, and memory” that are integral to the music and rhythm of contemplation “as it is being lived in a body” (see Bernstein’s essay, “Thought’s Measure,” collected in Content’s Dream). In these poems, there is an enigmatic, charm-like effect, an almost cabalistic quality which is alien and even frightening to a society that still believes that reading a poem is related to an explication de texte.

What Bernstein’s poetry demands of us is that we be as intuitive as we are analytic, that we use the right side of our craniums as much as the left. Reading a poem, Bernstein’s writing implies, is an act that permits the reader to bring the irrational into touch with reason, that allows the reader to hear the unspoken self in the voice of its hegemonic sister. Meaning, accordingly, is not a closed system; the author does not declare ideas cloaked in poetic language, but rather, through his language explores a range of ideas and experience.

The first few lines of “Sentences My Father Used,” for example, seemingly abandon the reader to a landscape of uninterruptible fragments:

Casts across otherwise unavailable fields.
Makes plain. Ruffled. Is trying to
alleviate his false: invalidate. Yet all is
“to live out”, by shut belief, the
various, simply succeeds which. Roofs that
retain irksomeness. Points at
slopes. Buzz over misuses of reflection
(tendon). Gets sweeps, entails complete
sympathy, mists. I realize slowly,
which blurting reminds, or how you, intricate
in its. .... (p. 21)

Who or what is “casting” in the first line of this passage? Of what “fields” is the poet speaking, and why are they “otherwise unavailable?” Who or what “Makes plain” in the second line, and what is being “made plain” or “explained?” Who or what is “ruffled,” and does the word here mean “irritated,” “undulated,” or “gathered along one edge?” Who is trying to “alleviate his false,” and where is the object? What is “false?” These and dozens of such questions understandably may discourage the uninitiated reader. Yet he who would turn away would miss the point and experience of reading this remarkable work. The meaning does not lie in answers, but in the very questions which the poem generates. The “indeterminacy” of this sort of poetry, as Marjorie Perloff argued in her Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981), permits us to receive its images as “living phenomena,” as words that exist in a fluid and plastic relationship.

It doesn’t really matter that we cannot determine immediately who or what “casts across” the “fields,” for the action occurs even without its subject, an action that not only “reveals” or “manifests” itself (“makes plain”), but also “begets” (another meaning of “makes”) a “plain,” a flat or level field. Similarly, it isn’t important to know who or what is “ruffled,” for the word alone serves to signify simultaneously a “vexation” or “irritation” (perhaps because the fields are “otherwise unavailable?”), a sudden “undulation” (of the flat “plain?”), and a “gathering [of people] along one edge” (of the now available “fields?”) The following phrase introduces a male subject through the pronoun, and the reader cannot help but connect him with the previous actions and with the title of the poem. But even this new information is framed in aposiopesis, is cut off in mid-sentence, so that the reader must continue the process of relating word to word, line to line in order to discern the object of the father’s “false” (“faults?”). Like a detective, the reader must (re)construct the details, must (re)build the poem to its meaning. As the author implies in the first lines, one comes to “realize” the poem “slowly,” “through surprising details that hide more than announce” (p. 21).

In saying this, Bernstein is not arguing for obscurantism, but for a poetry in which the reader must use all of his or her faculties, in which he must “listen” for meaning as well as look for it. The reader of this poem cannot read merely at the level of the denotation or connotation of the words, but must experience their rhythms, sounds, and patterns the way one might read a score for orchestra. As any musician knows, a successful interpretation of a symphony depends not only upon reading notes, but upon playing with the nuances of phrase, rhythm, volume, pitch, and timbre; similarly, Bernstein requires that the performer of his poem attend to all the nuances of language.

That is not to suggest that in a poem such as “Sentences My Father Used,” style outweighs content. The attentive reader soon discovers that the poems do have denotative/connotative meanings. As we (re)construct the poem, we encounter the poet’s father, a man who has gone through life in “shut belief,” with “a sense of purpose divorced from meaning.” Having put “everything....into the business,” he is isolated from family, friends, and life itself. The concerns of the poem–“Could life have been different?” “Is there hope for change, a possibility to ‘recover what was in your pocket, the watch your / parent gave you if you would only mind / the hour’” (p. 27)–are issues that might have been raised by any Modernist poem.

But it is here that Bernstein’s reader is rewarded. In the hands of a lesser poet, such questions would be answered with an image, symbol, or statement of reconciliation (or perhaps irreconcilableness) introduced into the poem by the author, or, at most, generated by a series of authorial devices which inherently would exclude the reader from involvement. In Bernstein’s poem, however, the answers derive directly from the language and the reader’s commitment to it. For the sensitive performer of the poem, I suggest, the “field” of the poem’s beginning is gradually perceived to be not merely a field to the edge of which the poet’s father has come to alleviate his “false” or “faults,” to be not only a “canvas of trumped up excuses” for the father’s evasion of “the chain of connections,” but also to be a field through which the reader must journey, a terrain of pain and missed opportunities through which the reader must search with the poet (and through the poet, with his father) to bring meaning back into touch with purpose. If the reader is successful in the linguistic (re)construction, he eventually comes to view the “field” or “plain” of the poem from a new perspective. By the end of the poem, things are, indeed, “made plain,” as from the windows of a “plane” the reader glimpses the “gleaming lights” which “waken the passengers to the possibilities of the terrain” (p. 26), lights which enlighten us to new ways of seeing and signify the potentiality of reuniting that individual vision with society.

Depending as they do on each of our interpretations, upon the consciousness which each reader brings to the poem, these new ways of seeing, these “possibilities” are “dreadfully private”; not everything can be spoken. But, if we have followed the flux and reflux of the language, with the poet we share a breakthrough at poem’s end, as the pain and isolation which the poem has recounted is transformed into the “pane” of the “plane” window, which “gives way, transparent, / to a possibility of rectitude” (p. 27).

It is this “possibility of rectitude,” the potential for righting or correcting the individual’s and society’s refusals to participate in the act of making meaning which Bernstein offers in nearly all the poems of this collection. The first poem of the book, in fact, focuses on that very problem. In “Matters of Policy,” the reader is asked to participate with the poet in an exploration of the failures and successes of contemporary American culture, a culture that has assimilated and now presumes the great technological advancements of this century, a society that, through “electricity” and “Speed,” has seemingly been given more time for amusement and, thus, has achieved a greater worldliness than any society in history. As the poet somewhat cynically observes:

....Electricity hyperventilates even the
most tired veins. Books strew the streets.
Bicycles are stored beneath every other staircase.
The Metropolitan Opera fills up every night as the
great masses of the people thrill to Pavarotti,
Scotto, Plishka, & Caballe. The halls of the
museums are clogged with commerce. Metroliners
speed us here & there with a graciousness
only imagined in earlier times. Tempers are
not lost since the bosses no longer order about
their workers. Guacamole has replaced turkey as
the national dish of most favor. .....(“Matters of Policy,” p. 4)

In such a post-Mauberlian world, guacamole may have cast out turkey (as “croissants” have replaced “absinthe” [p. 1], but, along with the poet, what we “most care about / is another sip of....Pepsi-Cola” (p. 1). For, the benefits of change have engendered not only extreme eclecticisms, but an insatiable desire for change itself, as if it, too, were a consumer product; “Even nostalgia has been used up” (p. 4). Our perspective has shifted from despair for what we have lost to impatience for what the future is about to bring. The “wasteland” has metamorphosed into “a broad plain in a universe of / anterooms” (p. 1), into one boundless waiting place.

But what is most disturbing, Bernstein hints, is not that we wait, but how we wait. There is a “spirit / of the place–a certain je ne sais quoi that / lurks, like the miles of subway tunnels, electrical / conduits, & sewage ducts, far below the surface” (p. 3); there is a passive acceptance of the future that is of far greater import than the customs and values we have surrendered. As we (like our reporters) “sit around talking over Pelican Punch tea about the underlying issues” (p. 5), there is a danger that we will fail to note our own demise, there is a possibility that we may become the “matters of policy” – the subjects of a course of action. Will we be determined by or will we determine our future technology? The poet fears that, although there’s now “plenty of time,” there are few individuals “with enough integrity or intensity to / fill it with the measure we’ve / begun to crave” (p. 7).

Indirectly, these are issues raised by John Ashbery’s early poem, “The Instruction Manual,” a work which, at moments, Bernstein’s poem seems to parody in its search for answers. Both poets seek to revitalize the technological society in which they find themselves through the creative act of thinking/making a new world out of language, and in pursuit of that, both interweave the technical language of the work-day world with more lyrical evocations of exotic landscapes. But Ashbery’s dream-tour of Guadalajara, “City of rose-colored flowers,” reappears in Bernstein’s poem as a farcical journey to a

....relaxing change
the sofa, Alexandria, Trujillo. You looked
into my eyes & I felt the deep exotic textures
of your otherworldliness. A tangle of thorns bearing
trees, extensive areas in Asia, Australia, South
America. Rye, oats, &c. The tall grass
Prairie of the pampas of Madagascar, Paraguay
& the Green Chaco. ..... (“Matters of Policy,” pp. 5-6)

While Ashbery fantasizes paradisiacal scenes that reaffirm the imagination, Bernstein hallucinates in a series of associations that disintegrate into a mere listing (“Lobsters, oysters, / clams, crabs, tuna fisheries, shrimps,” p. 6), and immediately relapses into the surrounding technological structures:

(1) The use
of easy & fair surfaces along the general paths
followed by the after flow. (2) At & near
the surface of the wave profile. (3) Proof
of good design. (4) Submerged
bulbs. .... (p. 6)

Similarly, both Ashbery and Bernstein look for a resolution between the languages of the visionary and the technocrat in the vernacular of the tour guide, who, if unable to express the full meaning of such voyages, at least can summarize events. And for Ashbery, in fact, this is the best we can hope for, a kind of poetic jargon, half-way between the dreamer and the society in which he lives:

How limited, but how complete withal, has been our
experience of Guadalajara!
And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered
old tower, I turn my gaze
Back to the instruction manual which has made me
dream of Guadalajara.
(“The Instruction Manual,” Some Trees. p. 18)

For Bernstein, however, twenty-five years later, there is an inherent ridiculousness in such a compromise, and the poet and reader are mildly mocked for believing in such simplistic solutions:

At last, the
cabin cruise is over & the captain gently
chides farewell to us with a luminous laugh.
(“Matters of Policy,” p. 8)

For, while Ashbery’s vision derives from a basic juxtaposition of antithetical positions, for an aesthetic of collage with roots in the Hegelian dialectic, Bernstein’s poetics, with its traces of American Romanticism, functions in terms of the simultaneity of object and experience. Any “answers” that “Matters of Policy” proffers to the questions it has raised result from the synchronism of reality–which I have expressed in my own poetry as the “seams in seems”–rather than from accommodation. Everywhere in Bernstein’s poetry there is an immediate, nonsymbolic simultaneousness of meaning. Language for Bernstein is both creator and agent of ideation, and it is in the words as objects, accordingly, that the potential solutions of our culture’s dilemmas lie. Although along with the poet we may fear that our society is more interested in buying and selling art than in creating or experiencing it (“our museums are clogged with commerce”), there is a possibility that the museums can become places of social intercourse (another meaning of “commerce”). The cause of the constantly changing colors of the sky of which the poet writes is probably pollution, but the shifts of the hour and the season can also produce dazzling changes of color. Although “hyperventilation” usually results in a “black out,” an intake of extra oxygen can be temporarily invigorating, and, as applied to medical technology such as breathing apparatuses, it can save lives.

It is our capacity to understand this simultaneity of things in and through language that will determine whether, as individuals or a society, we can “fill” our cravings. We must understand that the “measure” with which we fulfill our desires is not simply a “capacity,” but also is both “a course of action” (a “matter of policy”) and a “standard” by which our future can be constructed. Like the poet, who, upon completing the voyage, takes out his “harmonica” and “bang[s] out some scales,” we must create our own “measure,” we must devise our own means of survival through the language, music, rhythm, and beat of life. If we can accomplish such measures, like the bongo player in the candy store with whom the poem closes, our meaning will penetrate the silent inaction of the world around us.

In nearly all of the poems of Controlling Interests, Bernstein reveals his desire for an fascination with the concomitance of the individual and the world, of all language and experience. But simultaneity, as I suggested earlier, functions in his work not merely in terms of meaning, but in terms of nearly all the senses, in terms of the actual texture and sounds of the words and sentences he uses. It is this texture, this entangled density and richness of syntax, which is the meat of his poetry, but which, in its very impenetrability, is lost in any standardized reading. Yet, it is this maze of seemingly superfluous matter that is the most important aspect of his work; for it is in his “forensic bouts with the subterranean,” as he puts it in the last poem of the book, that he “hears the way the world hears,” permitting him to allow readers with radically different experiences and sensibilities to draw simultaneously upon the poem for their range of private associations and understandings. It is this attempt to “portray a / version of that timeless time, ...that our nostalgia clings to and our reason discounts” (“Island Life,” p. 77), I argue, that is Bernstein’s most original contribution. For this reason I have described my couple of readings as contextual, readings with the text, as opposed to readings of the text. No one reading of a Bernstein poem could ever be complete, and that is the wonder of each. My readings, thus, must not be seen as “fixes” on these poems, but should be understood as one reader’s attempts to bring his unspoken feelings about Bernstein’s writing into touch with a more analytic critic. It is this kind of synchronism, this act of making the mind whole, which Bernstein ultimately asks of his readers and fellow poets in his poetry and criticism both.

Philadelphia, 1982
Reprinted from
Paper Air, III, no. 1 (1982).

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Stacey Levine Frances Johnson: A Novel (Astoria, Oregon: Clear Cut Press, 2005)

About a third of the way through reading Stacey Levine’s new novel, Frances Johnson, I commented to a friend that, unlike so many American fictions which seem to plow through plot and character like a thresher moving down rows of corn (if rows might be understood as chapters), this was a wonderfully lazy narrative, a story that seemed to have no particular place to go and all the time in the world to take you there.

The jacket cover of this Green Integer-size paperback compares Levine’s writing to that of Jane Bowles, and there is a certain truth to that observation, particularly in the eccentricity of Bowles’s characters who act less out of determination than from whim and behave with an almost passive acceptance of forces beyond their control. Behind Bowles’s writing, however, there are generally exotic, strange worlds (Panama, Guatemala, Morocco, etc) that transform or at least inform both characters and text. Although Levine has set her new fiction in Florida with a nearby volcano to possibly stir things up, the small town of Munson —despite the daily rumblings of the natural forces around it — is a drab world of dirt and mud. Buildings, streets, homes, and general landscape are rarely described, and when they are it merely confirms the feeling that the town and its citizens are perpetually in a fog, enervated, unable to act. Accordingly, the fiction, unlike more normative realist presentations with emphasis on place, centers itself on character —particularly upon the thinking processes of its central figure, Frances Johnson. And it is the languid revealing of this figure that seems to slow the story down and to allow it to move in the multiple directions in which Frances feels driven and pulled.

Midway through the book, as Frances arrives at the house of her close friend Nancy (a house, incidentally, which the author does describe and observes it as being “lovelier than any dwelling in Munson, and perhaps for this reason folks bore her [Nancy] grudges”), Levine admits to the very method of storytelling I had noted:

“Frances, you recently told me you had several
dreams about chopped onions,” and Frances nodded
rhythmically, smiling happily as the two women
found the thread of a familiar, meandering dialogue
that proceeded in the halting yet serene manner of a
snail crossing a road over hours, unaware of time; and
forgetting the time indeed, not interested in turning
back, the friends talked, less in a conversation with
a point than in a kind of unstoppable practice that
neither woman wished to end.

Faced with such a linguistic construction it would be almost pointless to describe the fiction’s “plot.” The story —for those who must have one —is about a few days in Frances’ life in which she suddenly takes stock of herself and feels drawn to make decisions about her life: should she leave the small and grungy town of Munson and enter the world; should she abandon her sexless relationship with Ray Mars, who the rest of the townspeople, including Ray’s brother Kenny, feel is not good enough for Frances; should she attend the annual town dance and be swept away
in the arms of the new town doctor Mark Carol?

These are the issues, along with others, that suddenly face our hero, and are posed, along with questions with which the author directly confronts the reader in her own series of interrogations such as “To which places would Frances Johnson go?”

In search of answers, Frances goes many places: to visit her friend and doctor Palmer, to speak to the owner of the local diner, Mal, and, as previously mentioned, to visit Nancy. Yet none of these people can answer for her, and each helps only to instill yet more confusion as to what she should do. Mal insists she is sick and will die of some dread disease; Palmer encourages her to leave town in search of vast oil deposits that he needs for a balm he has concocted; and Nancy, who Frances suddenly perceives is more ordinary that she imagined, asks her to help out in cleaning and cooking for the impending visit of her children.

In the end none of these choices seem to matter. Frances’s mother, a determined small-town woman who in her dominance of her daughter has obviously helped to generate the young woman’s passivity, insists that she attend the dance, where Frances is, so to speak, swept away into the arms of Doctor Carol. But even this event has little significance as the author hilariously pulls the rug out from under character and reader by sending the mother back to the clearing where she has left her daughter lying beside both Mark and Ray, to announce that the community has suddenly determined Mark Carol is a no-good “crumb-bum!” “There are others, though, Frances: you’ll see.” The story, accordingly, has the potential to start over. And the reader —like Frances and Nancy in their conversations — has taken so much pleasure in the telling of the story that, indeed, he is willing to read the book —and experience these few days of her life —again.

Los Angeles, October 25, 2005
Reprinted from
The New Review of Literature, Vol. 3, no. 2 (April 2006).
Reprinted in Douglas Messerli,
My Year 2005: Terrifying Times (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006).

Friday, February 19, 2010


Donald Ogden Stewart Aunt Polly's Story of Mankind (New York: George H. Doran, 1923)

An early friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald's, Donald Ogden Stewart lived, for most of his life, in a charmed world. After graduating from Yale University, Stewart began writing satires in the manner of Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker and others, and, while writing for Broadway, become a member of the renowned Algonquin Round Table. After a stint in Paris, where he developed close friendships with Hemingway (he was the model for Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises), Dos Passos, Tristan Tzara and numerous others, he returned to write screenplays for Hollywood, winning an Oscar for his adaptation of his friend Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story.

Previously he had also adapted Barry's Holiday, and wrote the screenplays of That Uncertain Feeling and Life with Father, among others. Djuna Barnes' interview with him in 1930 was brimming with sarcasm of his enormous successes. At interview's end Barnes finally comes full out with her disdain for him:

We said: "Do you want to die?"
"No," he answered lightly, "do you?"
"We don't mind," we answered, stepping into the night.

One of Stewart's most noted satirical works, Aunt Polly's Story of Mankind, a seemingly gentle riff on WASP culture and values, sat for years in my library until I recently aired it out.

Aunt Polly, concerned about the education and behavior of her sister's three children, takes it upon herself over a period of a few weeks to share with them her version of the history of mankind, a delightfully Panglossian tale of the endless progress of man from caveman to the present day, culminating in the perfect family of herself, her husband Frederick, a banker, and her sweetly behaved son, David.

Sweeping them up into her limousine after school, Polly skims over various historical periods, "Egypt and Mesopotamia," "Greece," "Rome and the Christian Crusaders," and "European Monarchies and the American Revolution," portraying them each as a "step forward" to "The Glorious Present," a post World War I paradise of her family's wealth and privilege in a world where there will never again be war.

The perfect David is, contrarily shown by the author, to be an absolute monster who poisons his dog, begins fights from which he runs, and financially takes advantage of his classmates.
Meanwhile, his cousin Samuel and his two sisters, who have obviously grown up in a more liberal atmosphere, are naturally curious and pepper Polly with numerous questions that she determines are certain signs of their impoliteness, discouraging, accordingly, any deeper entry into her bumbling recounting of the past.

"Egyptians did build up a certain form of civilization although of course
the wrong form and did not last."
"How long did it last, Aunt Polly?" asked Samuel.
"Why—I think about five or six thousand years," replied Polly.
"That's longer than America, isn't it?" said Mary.
"Why, yes, dear," replied Aunt Polly, 'but, children, you must remember that all that happened a long, long time ago when time didn't really matter so much. ...An Egyptian didn't have anything to do all day compared to a person to-day. He had no magazines, no books, no shopping, no church work, no lectures, no social duties, so, don't you see, time didn't really matter."

Had Stewart kept his entire tale at this level, however, we might consider this a slightly humorous piece, without any serious satirical bite. But Polly's bland musings on "the best of all possible worlds," are constantly undercut by the series of good deeds she, the church, and the school inflict upon the children, with David as the centerpiece.

After being told about the Crusaders and visited soon after by a War veteran, her husband and her son cook up the idea of creating a crusader group of young boys, with David as their leader.

The boys proudly march for a while, but David's dog gets in the way and the boys soon lose their patience with the child's pointless commands. A day later, the dog is found dead, and David insists it is the work of another school class. Now with an enemy on the horizon, most of the boys return to their marching. Frederick buys them uniforms, and, with his father's help, David purchases air-rifles at a discount, selling them back to the boys at the regular price. The crusader company is formed, and the other class develops its own competing group. When the church gets involved, they change their name to the Christian Scouts.

David's cousin, Samuel, however, refuses to join, and is labeled a "slacker" by David and the other boys, who refuse to speak to him. Joining up with the only Black and Jewish boys in the school, Samuel begins a newspaper. Insisting that he intends to investigate the poisoned dog episode, David and others begin to fear what he might say, ultimately dressing, like Klu Klux Klan members, in white robes, beating up Samuel, destroying his printing press, and frightening his partners off.

The two competing Christian Scout troupes, meanwhile, plan to march in the Armistice Day Parade, to show themselves ready to fight. All the Allies are represented by flags the boys carry, but as they meet one another upon the stage, the two groups cannot resist a all-out battle; only David escapes unharmed. The book ends with him safely ensconced in his bed counting out the money he has earned from his rifle sales.

Stewart's parody, accordingly, has some tooth: not only does he comically predict World War II, but unknowingly points to his own end. During the McCarthy era, Stewart was named as a Communist and was blacklisted in 1950. A year later he immigrated to England where lived out his life. He died in 1980 at the age of 86, Barnes outliving him by four years.

Los Angeles, February 19, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010


David Antin, I Never Knew What Time it Was (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

I told my friend David Antin the other day that I had a bone of contention with his new book, i never knew what time it was. For the several days I was reading it, whenever I went into the room where I had last left his book and glimpsed the cover, I immediately began singing the Rodgers and Hart song. That song began to haunt me, in fact. I couldn’t remember the actual lyrics, so I would begin with “I never knew what time it was / Till there was you…” and make up the rest… “What a strange time it was / so long without you,” each time creating new lyrics. For those who have a memory for lyrics, of course, the song actually begins with the phrase “I didn’t know what time it was / Till I met you.” and continues, “Oh, what a lovely time it was, / How sublime it was too!” So both David (perhaps intentionally) and I had gotten the lyrics wrong. How appropriate for a book that is very much about memory, about what one thinks one remembers in relationship to whatever the actual “reality” may be.

Reading David’s book, moreover, called up my own memories of David and his readings. I witnessed two of these pieces in their oral performances: “california — the nervous camel” at one of Paul Holdengräber’s cultural forums at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — where I also served as unofficial photographer of the event — and “time on my hands,” performed at CalArts.

Accordingly, I spent some time, after reading these works, attempting to remember them in their oral manifestations — which seemed to me quite different from the written documents. This is inevitable, I suspect, when attempting to remember what was said during a hour-long event. In short, I experienced a sort of fracture between event and document, a sort “crack in time,” if you will, which my memory had to bridge. I have known David and his wife Eleanor now for about 25 years, moreover, and during that long period my personal memories of these and numerous other performances I’ve witnessed have become intertwined with their personal lives and the several events I shared with them.

For example, after reading “california — the nervous camel”— the title of which arose, apparently, from the travels of a San Diego couple to Egypt, where the couple’s camera had captured the fall of a woman from a camel who’d been given contrary orders (“get up,” “go down”) by the camel driver — I could not quite comprehend this image within the context of what David was saying about the region. It was a wonderful image and sounded perfect as a metaphor for the desert lands of Southern California, but I grew uncertain whether California was like the camel because of the rolling earthquake-like temblors, the indecisiveness of its citizens or leaders, the quick rise and fall of its cultural interests and/or economy, or the constant shifts in its values. The metaphor presented a series of possibilities, all of which were of interest. Just as I had reinvented the lyrics of the standard ballad, I made a new meaning of David’s image. I chose a much more personal meaning for the metaphor, picturing the author himself as the “the nervous camel”— albeit with one hump, that marvelously domed head that anyone who’s seen him cannot forget.

When I first visited California, I stayed with the Antins, who lived, as they do today, near San Diego. I remember them picking me up at the train station and the three of us beginning a series of conversations that would continue seemingly nonstop during the two days of my visit. As he drove up the sandy paths to their then somewhat isolated home, David, speaking, seldom seemed to attend to the road, which terrified me! Between the continued movement of his hands and the almost complete inattention of his eyes upon the road, I was amazed we reached their house safely.

Later he took me to the beach — as he reminds me it must have been the more isolated Solana Beach rather than the popular La Jolla beach — where I recall, with fondness, our remarkable discussion as we walked along the Pacific (in what must be one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world), the bald pate of his head glistening in the afternoon sun. We returned to the house and friends stopped by, friends who were introduced not just by name or vocation, but through extensive descriptions of their intellectual achievements and their current subjects of research. Such intense conversation is highly exciting, but also exhausting, and I was almost relieved to hit the bed. From my room across the way from their bedroom, however, I could hear David and Eleanor continuing the day’s discussions long into the night. I realized that, in a sense, language never quite stopped in the Antin’s house. Just as Eudora Welty had described the constant rhythm of the cotton gins as defining the life of the Fairchilds in Delta Wedding, so did the sound of voices define the Antins. It is easy for me, accordingly, to project the image of David as the nervous, one-humped camel of California, attempting to display the beauty of the landscape while discussing the narrative theory of my PhD dissertation which I was currently writing as we shuffled across the sand in a constant state of indecision between the enjoyment of space (sitting down to rest) and intellectual pleasure (moving forward with our ideas).

One might note that David was born into just such a world. As he describes his early life in his
recent book-length conversation with Charles Bernstein: “My earliest family memories were living with my grandmother and my aunts — all beautiful women — living in a great old house in Boro Park. …People kept coming from all over the world to visit, to play cards or chess and to tell stories and argue in a handful of European languages about people and facts and politics. …And my grandmother presided over the entire household in a droll, mischievous manner. This is the household I most remember. It was noisy, cheerful and gay, and a world away from the austere prison of living with my mother, which happened only once in a while.”

It is no wonder that Antin has spent a lifetime now “talking,” talking in public about the past and family, the present and ideas, philosophy and reminiscences. Although Antin has long been determined to separate his “talking” from fiction or story, and has doggedly argued that his work, with its intense use of poetic devices, is poetry, one must admit—as David does finally in this new volume — that his is a life of storytelling as intense—if not as encyclopedic — as Scheherazade. Indeed, it is the life-saving necessity of Scheherazade’s Thousand and One Nights, a necessity growing out of desire — in her case the desire to survive — that most distinguishes Antin’s storytelling from other, more normative, patterns.

These, in fact, are the very subjects of this new book: How does one remember? How does one understand life within the constant flux of time? How does one frame meaning when it constantly shifts? Or, to put it in the context of “the nervous camel,” how does one live in a place that is simultaneously rising and falling, beginning always anew by destroying the old? Naturally, one cannot help tumbling from time to time.

In exploring these ideas, however, Antin does not simply weave fictions — at least the kind of fiction most people understand by the word. For Antin’s talking is as interesting for what it leaves out as for what it presents.

The long California piece, for example, is a strange kind of love story. Well — it might be seen as a love story, although we have no evidence, no plot details that allow us any certainty. “california — the nervous camel” is about many things, but at its heart is a narrative about two couples, friends of the Antins, who seemingly do everything — except travel on vacation — together: Jack and Melissa, Richard and Alexandra. When Jack is killed in a car accident, Richard’s behavior radically changes:

Richard never seemed to recover from jacks untimely accident
his life changed completely after that he moved out of his house
and into the servants quarters behind it he stopped going to concerts
and openings where alexandra appeared alone he started spending
more time at the clinic in mexico and even that wasnt enough for
a while he literally disappeared …but when he came back to
san diego he gave up his practice left the house to Alexandra and
took up an entirely new career….

In Antin’s “story,” in which the characters are not overtly psychological, the reader/listener has no way of knowing what Richard is really feeling. Perhaps the death simply reminded him, as many men are reminded at his age, of his own mortality; perhaps he merely suffered a kind of mid-life crisis. Yet we feel, given the extensiveness of his withdrawal from his previous life, that the two men may have had a deeper relationship than the narrative itself presents, that perhaps their friendship might have been a gay one.

As with living beings, however, there is no discernable “plot,” we have no clear motivating action, just the events, the narrative of his acts. Antin has presented us with a story that, just as in my confusion of the work of art and the person, creates a sort of “crack in time” which the individual perceiver must fill with a significance of his own imagination. For Richard the face of the “nervous” camel, as it settled back into its relaxed state, appeared as a sphinx, an inscrutable beast demanding an answer to its impossible riddle, which is perhaps what Antin really means by his comparison of California to the camel. Clearly it is an image that might also help to describe Antin’s art. For what the cracks or hollow spaces of Antin’s “stories” force the reader to encounter is precisely that: the riddles of life.

In the title piece, Antin’s father-in-law undergoes a stroke and is able to speak only one word that sounds as if it might be from his native language, Hungarian: zaha. “zaha zaha he said zaha shaking his head and repeating it over and over zaha zaha to anything we had to say.” The Hungarian dictionary has no word remotely like it, and David is puzzled by the repeated word: is it a command? a desire? a person? something or someone he loved?

A Hungarian friend, a violinist, suggests it’s an inverted word, haza, which means homeland. But even this “answer,” if it is one, explains little. What does a dying man who has spent most of his life as a displaced Hungarian painter and poet in La Jolla mean by repeating “homeland?” As Antin notes:

…he was thinking of his homeland and of course budapest
is no longer his budapest and keckemet is no longer the little
town where his father painted the interiors of churches but
he was looking for this one place that he was sure never ever
to find again

The reader/listener can only imagine, can only fill in this “crack in time” with his own imaginative responses.

Something similar to the riddles at the heart of David’s “stories” occurs also on their larger structural level. In the more constrained form of commercial fiction it is plot that carries forward the events. In other words, it is a pattern of narrative continuity that allows the specific events of a tale to occur at regular intervals to this: Unhappy with her life, Jane takes a vacation to a small village to visit her friend Sally. There she meets an old friend Richard, a handsome man, who is still in love with her. Jane refuses the old friend’s advances, but as she finds herself growing fond of him once again, she discovers that Sally, who has always hated Jane’s husband, has secretly invited Richard to the town. At first she feels betrayed, but gradually comes to understand just how mistaken she has been in marrying her husband, a man whose affections she accepted just to goad her mother and father. Suddenly, comprehending that her life has been lived in emptiness, she seeks out her old friend’s love. But having been spurned twice, he has left the little country village. She follows him to the mountains, but he has moved on, and she is forced to return to her husband and family with the realization that true love will never be possible again. (If you don’t like my hastily constructed plot, substitute the plot of almost
any Henry James novel).

What Jane does in the little tourist town, the beautiful coat she wears as she again encounters Richard, what the town looks like, what she says to her acquaintances, the memories that overcome Jane in the little village — these are pearls on the string of the previous paragraph’s somewhat banal story-line, that, apparently, retain the attention of certain kinds of passive readers.

In Antin’s writing the strings have all been cut; his “tales” have no true beginning, no middle, no necessary end. Rather, they are structured by a sense of rhythm, most often linked by philosophical meditations or ideas, closing only when a literary narrative presents a parallel image of the ideas about which he has been talking.

For example, in “the noise of time” Antin begins with a discussion of an essay he’d read in The Nation on Robert Morris, an essay that disappoints the author and happens to mention the Hegelian aphorism that “an artwork is the embodiment of some truth.” Antin finds it difficult to perceive something as tangible as a piece of art or an artwork as a receptacle for abstract concepts, propositions or ideas. Perhaps the closest an art work can come to the embodiment of an idea, he suggests, is in the form of a machine, as an example of which he drolly proposes a mousetrap, a killing machine set up to act in a certain way when the mouse licks the peanut-butter. But what if the mouse prefers jelly, or the spring on the trap was not properly wound, or a whole myriad of other events intervene? Will the machine-of-art still hold its truths? Perhaps the “truths” only work under certain conditions.

Abandoning this possibility, Antin humorously explores another, slightly violent image: perhaps making art is more like bowling. The ideas are the pins toward which one propels the work of art, the ball of art hitting some of them, leaning against others. But the author admits he is a terrible bowler and most of his balls reach only the gutter. How does one then get at ideas through art? How does something mean?

Ultimately Antin argues that, for him, a work of art is something in which ideas go running in all directions, sometimes to be lost, sometimes accidentally crossing paths with others. He presents two narratives to prove his point about how ideas are lost or are transformed into other things. Having just purchased a copy of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s essays, The Noise of Time, he is struck with the translator’s use of the word “noise” in the title, since in Russian shum is used to evoke the sound of repetitive or abrasive events, “the rustle of leaves,” “the roar of the sea,” “the pounding of the surf,” “the clamor of a crowd,” etc. Translating Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Vladimir Nabokov renders the word as “hubbub.” Why has this translator, Clarence Brown, translated the word as “noise?” Perhaps, argues Antin, Brown was influenced by the period in which he was translating, when “noise” came to be understood as entropy, “the growing disorder that affects all ordered systems over time the frictional forces that reduce all directed energies to forms of disorder sooner or later as we go from more orderly universes to more disorderly universes given enough time.” I am personally somewhat skeptical about this explanation for the translator’s choice, but certainly anyone aware of the association of the word “noise” with “entropy,” would find the title much richer, as Antin argues, than Mandelstam might ever have imagined in his use of shum. And that is Antin’s point. Time and its myriad changes alter the way in which we interpret things, even how we interpret.

A more convincing example is a discussion he has with the critic Leo Steinberg about a passage of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Steinberg uses the passage as a proof of Shakespeare’s genius: “His head sat so tickle on his shoulders that a milkmaid might sigh it off an she had been in love.” For Steinberg, the choice of the word “tickle” so close to a dark moment when the hero is in danger of losing his life, is proof of the bard’s monumentality. Antin, however, is suspicious. Perhaps the word “tickle” meant something other in Shakespeare’s day than the light rubbing under the arms, something we have forgotten. Looking it up later in the OED, Antin finds that indeed it had been used in a fifteenth century text to describe rocks “that stood tickle in a stream,” rendering passage perilous. His inclination is to write Steinberg, telling him of the discovery, that the older meaning has simply been lost in “the noise of time.” But he resists doing so, knowing that he would simply take away Steinberg’s great delight in the “strange” usage of the word. In short, the “truth” of the meaning is of less interest than the reinterpretation of it.

This “story’s” final narrative event concerns the same father-in-law he describes in his title piece. Antin’s then teenage son Blaise and the poet from Hungary enjoyed one another’s company, played tennis together, discussed literature and even, apparently, the older man’s “Schnitzlerian” love life in the old days of Budapest and Vienna, which must have reflected his present sexual loneliness, with which Blaise could probably sympathize, coming as he was into his full adolescence. But Blaise was about to go away to college, and desiring to give his grandfather a special gift, he and a friend came up with the idea of setting him up with a hooker, which they planned to do with what they perceived to be the quite generous sum of $150. All the hooker had to do is to pretend to accidentally encounter the gentleman and seduce him. “you don’t have to say a lot,” the boys explained, he may just show you his paintings and “recite some poetry to you.” They tried several street girls but found no hooker willing to take on the job, not if they had to listen to poetry!

What Antin reveals in this wonderful narrative is the absolute worthlessness of poetry and art as a container for good ideas. The gap between generations has been bridged by his son’s and his father-in-law’s friendship, but what I have called “the cut in time” has irreparably severed the art from its would-be perceivers, for the art — and whatever truths it may bear — has no currency in the world of these women of the street.

In this “talk,” as in almost all of Antin’s “stories,” there is no true plot, but a series of events or narrative incidents that can only be comprehended — if they can truly be comprehended — through the reader’s/listener’s imagination, his desire to make meaning and determination to answer the sphinx.

Isn’t that, of course, what all great art, all great poetry and fiction depends upon — the willingness of the author to invite the reader into the text and the reader’s reciprocation? After all, Scheherazade would not have been able to relate her remarkable stories if the Caliph had refused to listen.

Los Angeles, July 25, 2005
Reprinted from
The New Review of Literature, Vol. 3, no. 2 (April 2006)
and from
My Year 2005: Terrifying Times (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006).

Friday, February 12, 2010


John O’Keefe Reapers / Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, Los Angeles, opened July 16, 2005

In the program notes for his new play, Reapers, playwright and director John O’Keefe describes the work as a “memory of a fantasy,” “What in Greece was the island, in Iowa is the farm. The farmer is the king, his wife, the queen, his daughter, the princess, and his son, the prince. Joey Beam is the chorus. The storm has already happened. The play is being performed by ghosts.”

Indeed, life down on the farm as presented by O’Keefe has as much in common with the Furies as it does with any Norman Rockwell portrait of a country family at table. For the Fox family, working a hardscrabble plot with nothing to farm but hay, everything has gone rotten before the play begins. Hulda, the mother, is catatonic, a wheelchair bound manikin her son describes as having been stuffed, but who from time to time awakens to terrorize all. Mildred Fox, the matriarch of this Orestesian brood, is a brutalized housewife longing to kill either her husband or her son, it doesn’t seem to matter which. Her daughter Deirdre is a sometimes innocent but more often flirtatious young woman on the prowl. Son Bruce, whose major activities include raping the sleeping daughters of nearby families, nightly dueling with his father, and ultimately killing his best friend, characterizes his behavior as one of “startlement,” an activity which consists mainly of popping out from beneath the bed of a young man, Tom O’Brien, whom the family has obtained from the state juvenile home to help with the three-day endurance test described as reaping. Locked in the basement between long stretches of hard work, Tom is subjected to homoerotic “startlements” by Bruce as well as the love-starved blandishments of Deirdre. The father is the kind of farmer my own Iowa grandfathers were, men who did little but work themselves into death.

As we observe this loving quintet at their evening chowdown (“dinner” is too polite a word), we witness their simple home-bound pleasures: washing their hands, chewing slices of white bread, and verbally abusing one other. Other than the nightly father-son fights in the barn, temporary escapes — the son’s “running” with his friend Dickie, the daughter’s quick forays into the local town for fresh admirers, the father’s insistent consumption of alcohol, and the mother’s brooding day and night-time visions — are the only possible “pleasures” available to them. But there is no escape, obviously, for young Tom. He is their temporary prisoner, and as an outside agent caught in this spinning web of horror, is called upon to witness their unspeakable deeds and unwillingly participate in their disgusting visions and acts. At moments, O’Keefe brilliantly crystallizes the absurd but utterly logical political conclusions of right-wing America: it’s time to stop allowing foreigners to come here and take over our jobs, and to start sending Americans overseas to destroy the foreigners’ homes and cities and take over their jobs, their oil wells, their manufacturing plants.

The satire of this play, however, is at other times too broad. Religious fervor, racial prejudice, violent political values — the author has perhaps created too many vectors for this wacky, ultra-dysfunctional family to successfully embrace; and the final furor of nature, madness, and personal hate take the play to a mountaintop of hysteria that the wide-eyed audience can merely endure — all belief in and sympathy for its characters having long been erased.

The “hero” of this fantasy is nature itself, the forces that every farmer knows are at the center of his existence. Like O’Keefe, I grew up in Iowa. Even living in a city, as I did, the constant subject of daily life was the weather — there was never enough rain and there was always too much; it was always too hot, too cold. Every farm family had tales of relatives being killed by or surviving tornadoes.

The single-man chorus of this play, Joey Beam, poetically conjures up a world of just such forces—clouds that shout, winds that whisper, earth that cries out from its daily abuse. And at the center of the horrible fury of this play are characters desperate themselves to sing out for the joy of living and the praise of nature’s gifts. Deirdre and Tom both sing lovingly at moments in the play, and in one short scene, hidden away in her upstairs bedroom, the two remind one almost of another young couple, George Gibbs and Emily Webb of Our Town, discussing their lives and futures. We quickly realize, however, that, unlike the world facing the Thornton Wilder figures, the couple of this current-day fantasy have no real lives, no real future to embrace. Tom attempts to describe his family as a “broken” one, with a dead father and a mother who “forgets” him for long stretches in state orphanages and juvenile centers.

Deirdre decries his metaphors as mere euphemisms. What is “broken” about a relationship where a mother refuses to retrieve him? The “relationship” is one of hostility, not a “break,” which might suggest a possible mending. For, as she knows from her own insufferable life, there is no longer any hope for love.

It may be that, given the “relationships” these would-be dreamers have had to endure, there is no longer even a possibility of hope. As the author describes the changing forces of nature in our real global-warmed world: “Diseases spread, spring arrives earlier, plant and animal range shift, the coral reefs bleach. There are downpours, heavy snowfalls, flooding, droughts
and fires.”

Let us hope, O’Keefe seems to argue, that we awaken before the Apocalypse arrives.

Los Angeles, August 1, 2005
Reprinted from
My Year 2005: Terrifying Times (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006).

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Jack Smith Flaming Creatures / 1963 / The screening I saw was presented with a talk by J. Hoberman at The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatrer (Redcat) at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on November 9, 2009.

For years I'd been hearing about the sensational film Flaming Creatures which seemingly influenced filmmakers and dramatists from Andy Warhol, John Waters, and Federico Fellini to Cindy Sherman and Richard Foreman.

From the beginning, after its New Bowery Theater showing in 1964, screenings were rare, and in the late 1960s Smith took the film out of circulation. For all these years, accordingly, I had been seeking an opportunity to attend a rare showing, and despite the fact that I was scheduled to teach a literature course on November 9th, I arranged from the first day of class that we would skip the week in question.

Listening to J. Hoberman's historical recounting of the film, which was deemed pornographic on its release and was denounced in the media and even in the halls of congress (one congressman being outraged that it was not even good pornography (evidently he couldn't get an erection), it is difficult not to let out a hoot of laughter.

Indeed, in today's world, Smith's orgiastic figures of mostly gays and transvestites seems almost innocent. Yes, from time to time, one or another shakes a flaccid penis in the camera's face, but, for the most part, the figures of this pastiche of scenes and music reminiscing from Maria Montez to Josef Von Sternberg's films and numerous other popular cultural references, seems utterly innocent. Hoberman himself describes the film in those terms:

Flaming Creatures' forty-five washed out, dated minutes depict a place where a cast of tacky transvestites and other terminal types (some costumed as recognizable genre faves—a Spanish dancer, a vampire, an exotic temptress), accompanied by recordings of popular music, shrieks, and snatches of Hollywood soundtracks ("Ali Baba is coming! Ali Baba is coming!") dance, grope, stare, posture, and wave their penises with childlike joy. The marriage of Heaven and Hell presented with playful depravity.

The creatures in Smith's film are aflame with buried desires—blindingly bright passions to show off, to love, to dance, to cry out, perhaps even to die—the creatures burning up before our eyes. What makes this film so troubling to some I believe is that it is almost a screed simultaneously to life and to extinction, a kind of mad portrayal of Heaven and Hell: not St. Peter's Heaven paved with good acts nor Lucifer's burning inferno but internal heavens and hells within each of us, often so potent that coherent language and expression cannot be reached. Smith himself described the work as "a comedy set in a haunted movie studio," which at first, given the very ludicrousness of the actor's portrayals, I dismissed.

Clearly, however, there is something comical about the full throttle simmering of this heap of human flesh at the center of the short film. And yet, it is a haunted, ghostly world left behind by the cheap and gaudy reality that Hollywood directors have awarded us as alternative spaces in which to exist. And in that sense Flaming Creatures is an inevitable product of filmmaking itself. In a strange way this silly, tawdry, outrageous depiction of a hopped-up bacchanalia is no more or less unbelievable than hundreds of scenes from Cecil De Mille epics such as his 1949 Samson and Delilah, Bible-tales turned into fantasylands for a world of displaced souls.

Los Angeles, November 13, 2009

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Marianne Hauser Dark Dominion (New York: Random House, 1947)
Marianne Hauser The Choir Invisible (New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1958)
Marianne Hauser Prince Ishmael (New York: Stein and Day, 1963); reprinted by (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1989)
Marianne Hauser A Lesson in Music (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964)
Marianne Hauser The Talking Room (New York: The Fiction Collective, 1976)
Marianne Hauser The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986)
Marianne Hauser Me & My Mom (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1993)
Marianne Hauser Shootout with Father (Normal, Illinois/Tallahassee, Florida: Fiction Collective
2, 2002)
Marianne Hauser The Collected Short Fiction (Normal, Illinois/Tallahassee, Florida: Fiction
Collective 2, 2004)

All year long I’d promising myself to read Marianne Hauser’s Collected Short Fiction, and here it was nearly the end of June and I’d still not picked up the book. I loved Hauser’s writing as much the woman herself, and anticipated the reading as a pleasurable experience; but other more pressing commitments kept me from attending to the 2004 collection. I had hoped when I finished the book and had written something about it, to send it to Marianne as a kind of apologia—my Sun & Moon Press had published three of her fictions, The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley (1986), Prince Ishmael (originally published by Stein and Day in 1963, and reprinted by Sun & Moon in 1989), and Me & My Mom (1993), books, except for the latter, now out of print on account of the press’s demise—and a simultaneous testament to her literary contributions. I knew she was aging, and her silence haunted me, but when I’d last seen her in her late 80s she was spryer than a 60-year-old—which I will become in another year—with an athletically wiry body that promised to house her comfortably for decades to come.

What a shock, accordingly, to receive an e-mail from Marianne’s son, Michael Kirchberger, about her death at the age of 96 on June 21. “We knew she was quite ill,” Michael wrote, “but we thought she was recovering and doing well.” Even her family, apparently, had been misled by Marianne’s seeming robustness.

I remember her sitting upon her couch in her tiny New York apartment (apartments that at one time at least were—and perhaps still are—leased primarily to faculty and staff at New York University), dressed entirely in black, long before it became fashionable to dress that way, both legs hiked up under her buttocks like a new kind of Buddha, lithe and, with those glittering eyes (were they green?), ready to spring up, panther-like and embrace any new task.

Ray Federman recalls her smoking pot—I am sure he is correct, although she never did so in front of me—her joints stashed away in “an antique silver cigarette box.” I have never seen such a box, nor can I imagine Marianne owning the object. For she was stunningly sleek, all moderne, in the old meaning of that word, a kind of ur-beatnik (whose mirror-opposite was the slim, well-groomed early 1960s executive, epitomized by young president Kennedy) dressed in a turtle-neck sweater and leotards. Later she might wear a brown or white silk blouse, but her taste in dress could never have diminished into the garish colors, loopy beads, and granny gowns of the hippies or the later shoulder-padded blazers that characterize the costumes worn by powerful women like Hilary Clinton today. I believe she was a vegetarian—although I can’t swear to that fact; in any case she clearly ate healthfully.

Federman also calls her an “outrageous lesbian,” but I was somehow oblivious to that possibility. She had after all been married to the great German-born pianist and music teacher, Frederic Kirchberger, whose books, including Let Them Sing in English! (a compilation of “over 200 German Lieder with singable English translations”) is still advertised on the internet. Truman State University in Missouri notes with pride, moreover, the Kirchberger scholarship for the study of piano “established by Dr. Frederic Kirchberger and friends” in 1983, the year of his retirement from the institution where he had come in 1951. I knew only that she had long ago divorced him—understandable, I felt, given the restrictions that must have been placed upon her as a faculty wife (who, not to mention, was a sophisticated Alsatian who had traveled to Egypt, India and China as a journalist before settling in 1937 in the United States) ensconced in the small, Midwestern town of Kirksville, a community brilliantly and often satirically portrayed in her 1958 novel, The Choir Invisible. I also knew that she had some years before been part of a circle centered around Anais Nin and that she had met, if I remember correctly, Djuna Barnes—although, given Barnes’s hatred of Nin, it would have had to have been apart from that circle of friends. By the time I met Marianne, she had already written four English-language novels and one collection of stories. The fact that one of them, The Talking Room, had been a work about lesbian life seemed to me beside the point. Her major characters were always outsiders battling the dominant culture, class values, and sexual mores. These, indeed, were the major issues of most great European fiction, to which, despite her intimate understanding of contemporary American life, Hauser would throughout life have close ties. The first book of Hauser’s I published, The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley, moreover, was written from the viewpoint of a married, New England man, a closet homosexual, whose relationship with an American-Hispanic hustler is shockingly revealed to his family and friends with his sudden death. Despite the distance in manner and time from own experiences with gay life (I was the first of generation of new gay openness), I found the work totally believable. Marianne was clearly a writer who wrote less from experience than from her brilliant imagination.

I might rather have called Marianne “omnisexual,” particularly given her statements in the introduction to her stories, where she describes her new lover as a vibrator. “Touch is the key. When I make love and come to the perfect climax, it may well be the key to paradise. Now in my nineties, arthritic joints easily hurt, I feel safest to be my own lover, alone in bed. The paradisiacal orgasms have become rarer. But they still happen. And when they do, their intensity and beauty are beyond words.” Marianne glorified “eros,” and that included not only the enjoyment of every part of body, but of being itself. She was in love with life!

Her Collected Stories, accordingly, meant far more to me than just another book. Sun & Moon was to have published that collection, along with her other recent title, Shootout with Father, both scuttled in the closing of the press. Nine of these stories appeared in her 1964 collection, A Lesson in Music, a book I remember from my high school days sitting for several months on the “New Books” shelves of the Marion (Iowa) City Carnegie Public Library, my home away from home for much of my young life. Its dark blue cover beckoned to me for months—although I never read it nor Prince Ishmael, which also temporarily appeared upon those shelves. In those days, I loved books but seldom read them; I was in awe of them, I suspect, for the potential experiences that awaited me between their covers. It was not until my senior year in Norway that I began to read with any regularity and only in college did I begin reading in way that would come to define my daily life. Now, once more, I was faced with that childhood potential, the older collection interleaved with newer tales by the same author. With Marianne’s death that potential joy seemed to come crashing down upon me, representing a failure on my part; I had missed my opportunity to return a favor, to send Marianne a personal response in return for the great imaginative journeys she had provided me throughout my life.

These stories, like her novels, witness a life lived at war with ignorance, complacency, stupidity. One didn’t need to have a long afternoon conversation with Marianne—as I had—to know that she was impatient with many of society’s most beloved values. “A Lesson in Music,” like the novel The Choir Invisible recounts a frightening encounter with death. But the story’s young heroine is not as aware or as expressive as the young wife of the novel. This story’s narrator tells of her piano lessons with an elderly spinster, Miss Stoltz; as time progresses, and the young girl’s abilities regress, the teacher becomes more and more distressed. The student arrives early each week, listening to the near-perfect renditions by a young boy, Manfred, before her inadequate performances. The girl practices arduously, but without being able to convey any improvement. One day, in a near hysterical frenzy of laughter, the girl admits that her behavior is in response, in part, to the way Miss Stoltz nods in time to the music, the result, probably, as Manfred later perceives, of “nerves” or what today we might describe as Parkinson’s Disease. The lesson is cancelled, and on her way home, her young pianist friend reveals that Miss Stolz will soon stop teaching, that she is too old to go on with the lessons. This surprising and now painful information helps the young girl to pinpoint the real problem of her piano playing, that what most troubled her was not the nods but what those nods perhaps symbolized.

There was the whistle of the evening train. A red glare hit the clouds
and vanished. “Maybe she’s too sick to go on teaching. Or maybe she’s
just too old,” he said in his clear, untroubled voice.

His footfall resounded evenly from the wet pavement. I did not dare
touch his hand. “Old,” I said. “Yes, very old.” And unthinkingly, as though
some other person whom I had never seen was making me say the words,
I added, “She reminds me of death.”

While “A Lesson in Music” shares the psychological intensity of stories by Eudora Welty, other psychologically framed works in this volume such as “Allons Enfants” and “My Uncle’s Magic Machine”—works that recount childhood experiences during World War I (Marianne was just six years of age by the end of the war)—seem, understandably, much more embedded in European literature, with slight nods to Mann, Gide, Céline, and particularly the European-aligned American writer Henry James.

In some senses, it is difficult to reconcile the Hauser of these psychological portrayals—her greatest effort in that direction being the remarkably epic-like story of Casper Hauser (the young boy who mysteriously appeared at the gates of Nuremberg in the early part of the 19th century) presented in Prince Ishmael—with her more postmodern fiction (what I’d prefer to call “nonmodern,” if by “modern” one means the kind of psychological realism practiced by James, Conrad, Woolf, Proust, Faulkner, and the early Joyce) particularly given her jabs at Freudian psychoanalytical studies in Dark Dominion, wherein the characters are hilariously forced each morning to recount over breakfast their night-time dreams. As early as “The Sheep” of 1945, Hauser had shifted her concerns from psychological perceptions to social and class interactions that betray the absurdity of situations and characters. “The Sheep” of the title are a mother and her daughters caught up in the courting of the eldest, Elizabeth, by a charmingly intelligent, knowledgeable, and solicitous Greek named Alcibiades. The imperiously bourgeois mother is horrified by the intrusion of this exotic outsider into her waspishly organized home, but his conversations prove so amusing and his manners so polite that he charms all three women—against the increasing objections and resulting ostracism of the father. When the Greek suddenly disappears for an entire season, the women become as despondent as if the couple had been married and divorced, and the mother gives up her artful reorganization of her furniture and careful tending of her house. Like Odysseus, this Greek one day returns, but is now rejected; soon after the mother discovers that he is married with children, merely an everyday shopkeeper living in the nearby town.

“The Cruel Brother” of the same year has important psychological implications, but is more evocative and absurd in its assumptions. A respectable salesman refuses to pick up a woman hitchhiker, observing that the car behind him has taken her in. The car soon passes him, the girl waving in apparent spite. Several miles later, however, the woman reappears sitting on her suitcase in the middle of the highway. The other man apparently made a pass, and she is determined to catch a new ride. Once again on the road, she begins to endlessly chatter about anything and everything that crosses her mind. The salesman suffers her until they reach a small town, where the two have a long and increasingly drunken lunch, while she flirtatiously praises his silent sensitivity, perceiving he must have a mean older brother. Returning to their journey, she has no perception that they are traveling in the direction from which they have just come. Stopping before a small, decaying corncrib he had previously spotted, he points out the hut which she willingly enters as he pulls the fragile walls down over her body. He turns the car around and speeds off in the original direction of his voyage. The cruel brother is, obviously, himself.

The New Jersey housewife of “The Other Side of the River” (1948) is happily married with a child, while secretly in love with an adventurer named Brooks, whose photographs and stories recounted in a travel magazine have been her solace for years. In her youth she had known the world-renowned traveler and temporarily lived a bohemian life with him, before leaving for a more conventional and safer existence. Now that he is returning to New York, she is determined to cross the river into Manhattan and regain the link to the world of adventures she had regretfully forsaken. Terrified, she travels into the city to reencounter the life she has left behind, only to discover that her Brooks is not the same as the one in the magazine, but is a photographer of babies, living for all these years in a squalid home in Greenwich Village. As in the previous two stories, Hauser suggests that these women are deluded not so much by their men as by their own romanticized desires. The comedy—and nearly all of her tales are ironic comedies—is primarily a social one, not a tale centered upon psychological insights.

“Peter Plazke, Poet,” originally published in 1955, is a hilarious study in cultural pretension. A petty pickpocket seeking to outrun the police joins a group of people filing into an Manhattan apartment; once inside he discovers himself among a strange, incoherent party of individuals who, after scooping up drinks and appetizers, gather into groups speaking a language he can hardly comprehend. A somewhat elderly but beautiful woman explains that they are all writers and this is a weekly salon where they gather to steal each other's plots for new stories and subjects for poems. The thief is described by the woman as a poet, and given his disinterest in and naiveté of the scene around him, he quickly becomes the subject of deep gossip in several conversations. Itching to find out how much money the wallet he has stolen contains, he retreats to the bathroom, after which he is ready to return to the party and accept their adulation. The party-goers, however, have all suddenly disappeared, taking his legendary status with them. He has no choice, if he wishes to regain his new-found identity, but to return the next Thursday, when, presumably, he will shift his activities from stealing wallets to stealing ideas.

The dominating mother of “The Dreaming Poseidan” of 1961 somewhat foretells the mother-daughter relationship of Hauser’s 1993 novella, Me & My Mom. Only in the short story the daughter speaks through a letter that infuriates the nouveau riche mother, whose offspring is determined to remarry, this time to an “underpaid research professor” from Missouri. Despite her wealth and pretensions, we gradually discover the course and nefarious background of the mother who has used men sexually before suing them through her lawyer/now lover.

The father appears to be at the center of Hauser’s story, “The Island,” in which Homan Waterlow Hatchetson Boman the Fifth has inherited a booming construction business to which he now is slave. As in Hauser’s 2002 novella Shootout with Father, the father is both hated and beloved. In the story, however, the mother’s love for her son and their time away from the father in summer vacations on a remote island far outweigh the son’s relationship with his father. Upon the mother’s death, he determines to place her ashes on their beloved retreat, only to discover that it, like the city from which has escaped, has been transformed by his business’s cheap constructions, and, that despite his futile attempts to destroy the new cottages and break his ties with his father and company, his efforts will be futile. He is too weak to control his own destiny, because, Hauser hints, corporate worlds control even those seemingly in charge.

In the most recent of Hauser’s stories, such as “The Seeksucker Suit,” first collected in the 1986 Fiction Collective anthology, American Made, Hauser has nearly abandoned any psychological realist conventions. Caught up in a clearly abusive and criminal life with a man identified as R, his wife suffers his fits of temper, beatings, and long disappearances, feeling herself blessed by the gift of a fur stole, which quickly transforms into a dog dressed in a seersucker suit, whom she suddenly recognizes as her son, Karl. Entertained by the “talking dog,” she attempts to raise money for herself, R, and their new son by offering the scientific wonder to the local university, which at first dismisses the tongue-tied animal, but then takes him away for further studies. Days later—and only after her insistent entreaties—the laboratory delivers up his dead body. Here the satire, cloaked in the guise of an absurd fable, is broad, aimed at once at various institutions—marriage, the subservience of women, and the university. But in its absurd, Ionesco-like transformations of human and beast, is one of Hauser’s best short works.

Each of these stories, in retrospect, presents us with individuals wounded, if not yet destroyed, by their own inability to relinquish absurd social conventions as well as by the corrupt society at large. Almost all of Hauser’s characters, in both her short fictions and longer works, are trapped by dominating figures and their own ready subservience. Nowhere is that more apparent, in fact, than in “Conflict of Legalities,” wherein a lawyer—formerly a grammar-school student of his client—attempts to engage his former teacher in her own defense against a murder by poisoning to which she has admitted. After years of rape and other abuses by a local farmer to whom she consigned her life in return for financial protection, the teacher is just “too dead tired” to go on, and placidly slathers a dose of rat poison on the ham sandwiches she prepares for his picnic lunch. The woman, however, refuses to participate in her own defense, knowing that she has been a victim, but perceiving that in the murder she has freed herself from further victimization. She conceives of her imprisonment not as punishment, but as a strange reward—for she now has a room (however humble) and sufficient food without having to serve as a slave to a cruel master. Now, she can peaceably sleep.

The characters of “Heartlands Beat” cannot comprehend why their son, lover, friend Johnny Upjohn, Jr. has, on the night of the prom, committed suicide. But through their revealed conversations, diary entries, and letters we quickly discern that not only is the small town in which he lived without any cultural or social diversions, but that his life has already been determined by the various battles between his unexpressive, insensitive father and his near-incestuously doting mother. In his death, he has finally escaped a more horrifying living death the others keep within themselves:

What can I say? It’s been a bad, bad trip….Yes, I could use a shot.
But first scoot over, willya, honey? I’m so godawful dead inside. Hold

(Mary-Sue May [Johnny’s girlfriend] tells it “like it is” to Eddy,
chance acquaintance, instant confidant & psych major at
Munich U.)

If the young girl of “A Lesson in Music” is terrified in her subconscious realization that, despite the transformative power of art, death ultimately rules, by the end of Marianne Hauser’s writing career, her characters have come to comprehend that life itself is a war against that death we all carry within ourselves. Hauser herself demonstrated that tenacious will, not only to survive, but to prevail (as Faulkner put it) against all the enemies of living life to its fullest, whether those forces come from within or outside of oneself.

If Hauser has a grave—I presume, however, like the dead narrator of her The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley she willed herself to the fire*—the words upon Casper Hauser’s tombstone, the hero of her great Prince Ishmael, might equally serve her:

You call me what you will, angel or liar, I may yet live forever, mark my word.

*Hauser’s body, I was later told by her son, was cremated.

Los Angeles, August 13, 2006