Friday, April 9, 2010

NOTHING DOING how it begins


For in that she poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial.
(Matthew 26/12)

Writer: …I’m called the Writer.
Professor: And what do you write about?
Writer: Readers.
Professor: There’s obviously no point in writing about anything else…
Writer: There’s no point in writing, full stop. About anything.
(STALKER dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)

Looking for a house to die in and a place to have a hole dug for my corpse which shall no longer be mine.

Gone west echoing what was said of the dead in World War One but knowing, I suppose, is a way of saying I knew it was getting closer. Once you pictured yourself flung into a tree or bridge abutment when something didn’t work out with her or him or anything else and the thought of the resulting tears is sufficient consolation for leaving the party earlier than expected.

If anything, back then I thought I would have ended up somewhere in North Dakota as I had long ago been thinking of those little towns slowly closing up shop and occasionally getting written up as examples of how things are changing with the passage of shriveling time: the school closing, the shops going.

But that was not what happened.

Somewhere in Arizona between Douglas and Apache or it could have been between McNeil and Elfrida or between Ajo and Sells I turned off the radio or turned off the CD player--- I forget what was playing--- and pulled to the side of the road.

It came down on me… which probably echoes too many songs…

-----------Does it go on to this-----------

In the National Gallery in London there is a painting by Nicholas Poussin. Landscape with Travelers Resting. Three men wearing Roman looking tunics are shown. At the bottom of the painting a man is resting and looking. In the center right a man is adjusting a sandal. In the upper left part of the painting a man is walking. The men are distinguished by the colour of their clothing: yellow, blue and red.

Remember, when Marina was saying as we walked in the Louvre, Look for the yellow as it is often at the center of the painting about which the eye is to turn. But she was not there in the National Gallery that afternoon.

What if the three men are the same man?

Can that be imposed upon this canvas?

And then in the catalogue there is another painting mentioned as being painted at the same time--- Landscape with a Man scooping Water from a Stream --- like this one, there is no reference to classical sources. But it was not meant to be shown as a pendant, the writer of the catalogue asserts.

Three men together.

The men in the painting are about the same age. That has always been a problem for them. They know and do not know the same things. Of course they do not look out at the world with the same eyes, though they are being looked at with

eyes connected to a central nervous system. The difference in their ages is minimal. They come from the same town. They have had the same schooling. They are on the same road. At the moment they are going in the same direction. They have come from the same place though because of the way they are being seen that is possibly a mistake, an assumption easily made and for the moment without consequence.

Nothing is being hidden. A person has to start from some place and three men had to have started from some place. They are stuck into those funny clothes which to the viewers in the early 17th Century were as remote from their own day as they are from a viewer today, almost four centuries later though it is possible this is the costume many viewers would have expected these men to have been caught in, at this moment, in oil on canvas.

-----------Or does it go on to this-----

Could it be believed that on another afternoon I was leaning against my car at the Sandspit dock in Patchogue in late summer waiting for Pete Phlite to show up?

Could it be believed that Pete Phlite and I were sitting on the bench in front of our cars parked on the Sandspit dock watching the boats enter and leave the Patchogue River between two jetties made out of great boulders with those small light houses at the end of each of them?

Could it be believed that Karolin and I had been waiting at the Sandspit dock for Pete Phlite to show up after he said, be right over and Karolin then listening, I would often come down here and watch the boats enter and leave the Patchogue River when I was a kid in high school or back from college.

Could it be believed Pete Phlite asked me why I wanted to meet him at the Sandspit dock in Patchogue?

Could it be believed I had asked to meet Pete Phlite down at the Sandspit dock--- you know where--- at the end there, where we can watch the boats enter and leave the Patchogue River?

Could it be believed Pete Phlite and I were talking about Al Wells, Sean Patrick Bradford and George Kamenov while sitting up on the back of the bench in front of our parked cars down there on the Sandspit dock?

---- jarring transitions?-----

The sun made me shield my eyes as we watched boats enter and leave the Patchogue River. I had wanted to talk about Karolin's stepsister coming unwelcomed by her now many years ago from Estonia to Edison, New Jersey to see their father a week after he had died unbeknownst to this woman who had been traveling many days by way of Tartu, Leningrad, Moscow...

Could it be believed I was telling Pete Phlite about meeting Al Wells, Sean Patrick Bradford and George Kamenov and how their lives had intersected mine as did Karolin's life and the memory she had of her stepsister coming from Estonia many years ago to see their father a week after he had died.

So, three men described by saying their names. It would be a mistake to assume the men whose names have now been revealed are wearing the costumes that might now only be worn in a high school Latin end of the school year celebration if the teacher had been trying to inspire the students to the lively nature of what most people think of as a dead language, morbid and gone, really gone. Existing only in books and possibly in some Vatican documents, written in the dilemma of finding Latin words that can be applied to helicopter and ballpoint pen.

------all these names?-----

If you blink you miss Apache, as they could say. A closed up gas-station and some other buildings. A u-turn to go back through the place (a line of cow skulls in front of that building to be photographed) and another u-turn and pulling off to the side of the road. Nothing to pick up as a significant souvenir. Flattened grass and types of cactii I could not begin to name. No garbage or broken bottles…the constant wind on the face but no waving trees… a 360 degree turn, a low water tank across there in a far field… barbed wire fencing on either side of the road… not a house to be seen… wanting to say, nothing to be seen… but then I would have to describe how I could be standing by the side of the road… the sharp incline down from the edge of the shoulder…

Realizing that in all of this movement not a single car has passed by.

----Arizona to Patchogue and Arizona and Patchogue…----

Could it be believed that I was telling Pete Phlite down there on the Sandspit dock I had come back from the desert in Arizona and wanted to tell him about it and about meeting Al Wells who had been in our class at Patchogue High School and about this guy Sean Patrick Bradford who I had met again in Paris last year and more recently I had been and was still mourning the death of George Kamenov who had been a Bulgarian psychoanalyst who had spend much of his life outside of Bulgaria and when he had gone back to Bulgaria it was to study the curious behavior of the guards and the prisoners in the Communist concentration camps which had continued to exist in Bulgaria up into the early 1980s which is hard to believe but it was not hard for Karolin to believe in any of this as she had met her stepsister when that now middle aged woman had come to Edison, New Jersey from Estonia a week after their father had died and who smelled of someplace where… she did not have the words for the… but wanted this woman to go away as soon as possible while at the same time…

Could it be believed I had wanted to talk with Pete Phlite about a lot of such things as I was still wondering if it was possible to talk and hope my interlocutor who maybe did not even know where Bulgaria or Estonia were on the map but knew that Paris at least was in France and could he be found to have an interest in this telling while I was also interested in talking about someone who had gone to high school with Al Wells and me at Patchogue High School and who had not really been back to Patchogue after our parents had died?

----too much being asked?---

Could it be believed that by being down there on the Sandspit dock I was trying to understand the goings off to Europe which I had always thought about doing while I lived in Patchogue and as being a place somewhere out there beyond Fire Island that ran parallel to the shore on which Pete Phlite and I were now standing between our cars, turning our backs to the sun to allow Karolin to take a picture of us, but in fact Europe was actually off to the left, somewhere, in the direction where the sun came up, while of late I had come back from the desert, from Arizona, from America really, as was often said, and it lay out there where the sun was now setting to our right when we turn away from the camera while suddenly a modified cigarette boat was speeding by hurling up a vicious wake?

Could it be believed as Karolin and I were driving out on the Long Island Expressway from The City and had made the turn for the Veterans Memorial Highway that arrived at an angle into the heart of Patchogue after passing the Pepsi Cola bottling plant as I had called Pete Phlite: he being the only person I still knew who lived in the village and was likely to be free since he didn’t work on days without an r in them and thus was likely to be free to meet us down there on the Sandspit dock where I could talk with him about Sean Patrick Bradford, George Kamenov and Al Wells who had been in our class but left Patchogue not to go away to college but to enlist in the Marines as he was tired and fed up with school?

Could it believed as I was standing there between our cars with Pete Phlite, shielding my eyes from the sun and looking into his eyes shielded by aviator sunglasses and pulled down baseball cap, there on Sandspit dock, I had said my friend George--- you haven't met him but I do think you have heard me talk about him--- was once sitting in the Grassroots bar on St Mark's Place in The City hunched a little towards his glass of scotch in front of him on the bar with his right hand about the glass and saying just before lifting the glass: what I have difficulty with is the great ignorance now: men think the sun rises and falls like some sort of fiery balloon for the benefit of the likes of us sitting here in this bar?

Could it be believed I then had to tell Pete Phlite as the time really had worn on down there on the Sandspit dock that George had been the best man at my wedding to Karolin in the Estonian church in The City and he had given us an oil painting depicting that church by a former patient of his who was an artist who had a series of small shows in bars around Gramercy Park and other places in The City but I couldn’t remember her name and in fact the painting wasn't very good and stayed out in New Jersey which tells you nothing really about George's taste in art or in fact anything about him other than: I did have this friend, now missed very much, which as you really do know, Pete, even if I have never ever heard you say you had missed any of the people we used to know who have died, been killed or passed as is said by more and more people?

Could it be believed Pete Phlite and I standing, sitting and the getting back into our cars to head out where we had to be getting to had moved right along from the start to the end yet it seemed so much had been left out so surely we had to get together again real soon and this was as good as any place though Pete did like to go to the Blue Point Diner in particular if you come out during the winter when the Sandspit dock as you should remember can get biting cold and you have to sit in the car with heater really going full blast because the wind can whip like a sledgehammer off the bay?

---to be going places?---

…for thy mind is very opal. I would have men of such constancy put to sea, that their business might be everything, and their intent everywhere; for that's it that makes A GOOD VOYAGE OF NOTHING Twelfth Night: II iv 75-79
---a little misplaced overture---

The other night, I was asked what is the connection in having been to Arizona, having been to London, having been to Paris and talking with Sean while George had died before the year had begun and before the going to visit with Al Wells for the first time in Delaware and being able to drive again after thirty years and this going out to Patchogue into which you put so many words while at the end of the evening you were mis-quoting < I wanted to rescue from forgetfulness > from a blurb Peter Handke wrote for: BEAUTIFUL DAYS by Franz Innerhofer: a book which by means of his language has torn not only Innerhofer and his youth from forgetfulness…

----keep all this in mind?----

Where is the plot?

You got to go to the Bible, an easy reach as you remember the story of Cain and Abel--- And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering But onto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.

---- why ----

No one has gone to jail or even brought to trial and I don’t expect given the world we are in that any of that will come to pass but over the years all of these men--- George, Sean and Al--- have been in various courts both in the United States and Europe. All of them have lived out their lives in the latter half of the Twentieth Century.

One went to the Marines because he didn’t know what to do after high school and so ended up in Vietnam.

Two of these men spent most of their lives outside the country of their birth. One of these had to flee that country.

Their lives braid themselves through my life as my own bumped against them. Place yourself once again in front of Poussin's Landscape with Travelers Resting there in the National Gallery in London those three men… look through their eyes at the funny looking clothes these viewers from the late Twentieth Century are wearing--- what is strange: no matter where you come from in Europe or America the men all dress alike


and no longer are there identifying signs revealing where a person might be coming from.

Here is Al Wells, Sean Patrick Bradford and George Kamenov. Gradually their voices will be revealed and the road will be seen.

The man in red is caught--- it could be said--- walking. His left hand holds some sort of plant or a slightly come apart wreath. A blue blanket or possibly a piece of clothing is wrapped around the stick which he carries resting on his right shoulder and held it seems firmly by his right hand. He walks very erect and is seen in profile. His head is small resting on a long neck. He seems to be too perfect in his composure… or at least, that is what my eyes tell me today. How could he ever have been… or maybe that is just an impression…

The fellow in blue is fixing or tying his sandal. His stick is leaning against an outcropping of rock and on the ground some sort of pack. His left foot is bare. Where is the other sandal? The guy walking is barefoot as is the…

The fellow in yellow is sitting on the ground or better it is a slight rise from the pathway given the angle of his body. His weight is supported by a very muscular right arm on which he is leaning so the arm becomes a striking study of musculature made visible. He is looking, on this day, in the direction of the man fixing his sandal. Of course “he” is formed by paint…

My eyes are aware of being controlled by a voyeuristic apprehension of these three men and in particular the man sitting and turning… and I wanted to add, turning and looking as I am now doing again by way of words, noticing how the man in yellow has his stick leaning against the front of his left shoulder and the stick is positioned between his legs and could be touching the inner thigh of his left leg which is bent in an acute angle backwards.

---let’s get to one of these guy, okay!---

George said he came to America with only a suitcase stuffed with neckties.

Yes, stuffed with neckties, he said, but couldn’t begin to tell anyone how many ties were in the brown suitcase because both the number, three, seemed so insubstantial when it came to trying to see how three ties could fill up a suitcase and how could anyone who hadn’t come to America with only one suitcase stuffed with ties, begin to understand how a suitcase--- even a large brown fake leather suitcase from Bulgaria--- could be stuffed with three neckties, two of which he never wore after he began to live in America, which is not to say he had ever worn those three neckties as he and his wife moved about the United States during the year and nine months before establishing themselves in Brooklyn, on the edge of Greenpoint, to be exact, a street over from McCarren Park--- though there was a moment before that when they lived at another address in Brooklyn, in a street given over to as a topical description might: light industry, in a building stuffed, George later said, with Bulgarians and you can imagine what that was like, I am sure, stuffed with Bulgarians but we are not talking of that time…

No, he wore only one of the three ties as it was hard to unpack a suitcase stuffed with three ties and he was not trying to be thought philosophical because he and his wife had flown TWA from Frankfurt, that most factual of German cities, where they had been in residence immediately before receiving the notification that their application for a visa to the United States of America had been approved after having lived--- for how many years had it been--- in Hamburg where George was an attending psychiatrist in a clinic where fresh-cut flowers were placed in each patient's room reminding visitors of the complex glimmer of a possible recovery or funeral.

And it was not that he had always ever worn those three neckties in Germany or even before in Bulgaria. He was sure of having worn one of the ties and it was that tie he was wearing as he arrived in the United States of America and which appears around his neck and under the collar of the white shirt in the photograph his wife took of him as he walked down the steps from the plane.

Later, he learned that both actions: the walking down the steps from the plane and the picture talking were very rare actions, events almost, it could be said. Katya was standing on the runway, smelling the kerosene fuel he was sure, having paused, turning telling George STOP as he was about to continue his walking down the steps having been separated from Katya by a very large man and two women who had pushed their ways in front of George, who gave way as was his wont.

Never again in all the times they were to come back from journeys abroad did any of these now three actions re-occur: the walking down the steps, the picture taking, the being separated by pushy large people.

There must have been some sort of renovation of the terminal going on and while they did not have to board a bus for a short ride to the ARRIVALS as they were familiar with in Sofia, George does not remember any obvious signs of construction but he was hardly looking out for it on this, his first arrival in The United States of America, wearing one of the three ties which he always said later filled up his suitcase.

Katya some time later must have had the snapshot enlarged into a framed 8x10 photograph. It was installed on the wall just before the bathroom door next to a drawing by Christo of an aspect of his plan to wrap the Reichstag in Berlin. One of the children had typed on faded slip of lined school notebook paper: DAD'S ARRIVAL and inserted it in front of the glass but behind the wood of the lower right corner of the frame,

The tie, at the moment of the picture being taken, was blown by the wind up to George's right in the form of an abstract representation of the letter J in the Latin alphabet.

Indeed, it was this same narrow woven wool black tie which he constantly wore all those months as they traveled about in the United States and to be scrupulous, something George did not advocate, as it only led to the dreariest of consequences, though he was not making any real argument for lying, if someone might jump on his claim. There is however a difference between lying and being scrupulous and it might be supposed in some way he did not have three ties in his suitcase if he was wearing one of them both arriving and then while traveling in the country by train, plane, bus and rented, borrowed or private automobile.

George did not have an epiphany while traveling, as had Powys, in Houston. George was not given to any sort of religious enthusiasm. The very word epiphany frightened him because of its religious overtone and while he did not think very highly of the anti-religion campaigns of the communists in Bulgaria, there was still a residual materialist component to his life as a psychiatrist and now he did believe, if he could use that word, that there was really nothing much beyond the room in which he and his patient sat, right now, pretending of course all the while, there was something beyond the room, a dire necessity for many reasons: his patients were so lacking in imagination! If only they had imagination and the ability to forget! His patients were too often gripped by memories as tenacious as a terminal cancer and held by fantasies occasionally nailing them to the floor as in the famous joke much repeated with curious variations in the cafes in Sofia when he had been a medical student and still repeated to this day, Tomov told him only recently even with the fall of the communism now more than ten years ago.

George did wonder, when he thought about it so many years later, why Powys could use a word like epiphany when describing his discovery of the absence of sewers in Houston. Powys had ended up in that city while on his own journey around the United States, a journey which turned out to be both his first and final trip around the country. It was there in Houston Powys knew why he was moving to France with his family.

At the very least in France, Powys believed then, the French would not refuse to build a sewer system when there was only a need for one every three or four years, if even then, because how could a person look forward to living in a country, living out the years remaining in a country where there was a city with many millions of people that could be built without a sewer.

However, when you arrive in a country with only a suitcase stuffed with neckties, you have only your own intelligence, George would say. You arrive with only what you have already put into your head. They could take everything away from you and they did that as far as they were able when you left a country like Bulgaria, back then, and it is hard to explain this, now, after the fall of the communism but then: you are suddenly in this country, in The United States of America, where you have to always remember you arrived with only a suitcase stuffed with neckties and you have to be always prepared to survive, once again, as you did then, as you stepped down from that plane--- it was a TWA plane, an airline long gone from the skies and how it seemed then that TWA, Trans World Airways, along with PANAM, Pan American World Airlines, were symbols of the country George was coming to and this observation, one of so many, came back to him when he came to think about his curiosity about this Powys and his being able to decide on such a radical move as he had after his trip by railroad around the United States and from that moment in Houston as Powys tried to get across a main highway now under a foot of water because that was the year of the one flood every three years or was it four years and Powys wanted to get across the highway to have a drink which he needed and when he got back to St. Marks Place couldn't get it out of his mind that there were people in this country, in the United States of America, in a rich and powerful city of the United States of America who could make such a decision that prevented him on that day from getting across that highway to have a drink after a hard day... no, it was more like days which seemed like months of traveling on the so-called Amtrak where you didn't know what would break next, which part of the train would fall silent, dark, stop working and again Powys thought there had to be some better way to live and while he was prepared to think traveling by railroad was maybe not the best way to see America and he was prepared to make allowances for all the things that didn't work on the train

he had learned to be tolerant, though that wasn't exactly the word he wanted, but anyway, he learned, somehow, as a grave digger for the Archdiocese of Brooklyn, when he was in the last years of high school, to over-look, to be prepared for nasty surprises, to the finding of things that they didn't expect to find when they went digging into these graves where surprisingly things move about which are not supposed to move about and really most of the time no one knew what was just a shovelful of earth away and later after both of the decisions were done into the past: when Powys had moved to France and when George and Katya had left Germany for The United States of America eventually finding themselves living in Brooklyn, Powys on a brief visit from Paris for the fortieth anniversary of his brother's ordination, asked George: did you think you would end up here in this bar on St. Marks Place--- or where you are living in Brooklyn?--- when you stepped down from that plane out there at Kennedy? and found yourself in a country where even the white people didn't have brains because by now I am sure you have discovered: white people in America are prepared to put up with the most awful situations if they think they are bound to get better--- which of course they are not really--- but there is no way to ever convince anyone in this country of that and you learn to be an American within an hour of landing in the United States of America, if not earlier as the world is full up of people who are destined to be Americans and are saturated with the idea life is going to get better and better no matter what either the life or experience teaches them:

isn't it a wonderful country where people in their eighties are thinking about, as they put it, career changes, though so much energy goes into not seeing what is going on as when I was on that train where at first the air conditioning broke and when that was fixed the toilets blocked up and then the kitchen no longer served food in the dining car and then they were able to serve hot food but the drinks could not longer be either heated or cooled while all the while the voice on the intercom was both apologizing for the temporary inconvenience and pointing out, you could now if you wanted telephone loved ones from the special booth in the dining room and next year Amtrak was planning to introduce on-train shopping: it went on like this for the whole journey. Every train was being run into the ground and about the only thing you could say in its favor was for the most part the trains were empty except for these clumps of negroes and they were exactly that, clumps of negroes with fixed hair, from God knows where, going God knows where and then old white couples:

is there anything uglier than an old white couple who have a sporty look to themselves?: couples, mostly two women traveling together, having chopped off the balls of the dead husbands long before they were dead and now as the husbands were really dead the women were free to do, as they said, exactly what they wanted to do and Powys listened to the one couple, a man and a woman:

the man was dressed in yellow and she had clipped off his balls--- carrying them around in a sack and he had probably even forgotten she had done this--- and the man had long ago forgotten he had ever had balls and both of them were pulling his and her carts along behind them on which oxygen bottles were strapped and they said together in almost one voice, they were on the way to some sort of special Olympics for older people not that we are that old and Papa here has a lot of pep--- and you get to compete to see who will not die this year and it could go on like all those days and yet it was in Houston when Powys tried to get across that highway, a highway that was probably not meant to be walked across in the first or second place--- there are a lot of places like that in America: when you go out to the suburbs there are all those streets without sidewalks and that tells you how you are supposed to get around in a way that is not subtle at all, Powys told George in the bar on St. Marks Place in New York City and George heard it and George was thinking as he stepped down from the Trans World Airlines plane in New York City that day, here I am, as had so many people before me--- he really did think those words to himself:
here I am, as so many of course before, I guess, he thought though wondering, a little, if they had consciously thought those words: here I am and there would be room enough for him and Katya, he was sure, it was a big country, The United States of America, and coming from a small country George knew very well what it was like to travel to a large country as when he went to Germany from Bulgaria and even earlier when he went to what was then called the Soviet Union--- that was a big country, but in some way--- he had to think about it more--- the Soviet Union seemed to be a very small country even though he knew from the maps how large the Soviet Union was but it still felt like a tiny place and surely there would be room enough for their daughter who would be born in New York and would be an American: you can tell your teacher, George told his daughter in second grade upon the announcement of an ethnic festival to be held at the local elementary school: you do not have any ethnic foods, any ethnic costumes, because you are American even though your parents were born in Bulgaria, you are an American--- even though your father arrived in this country with a suitcase stuffed with ties.

No, you don't have to tell her and you are wondering why the teacher wants you to lie about what you are supposed to be when in fact she knows it as a fact that you were born here in New York City in Brooklyn Hospital and both of your parents were speaking English you are an American and if she wants to call me I would only be too happy to tell her this but I doubt she has the time or the inclination to call anyone who questions this sort of nonsense because it seems so strange anyone would question the idea of celebrating all the wonderful contributions... but Katya is saying George should remember their daughter is only in second grade and no second grade teacher wants to think about anything beyond getting through the day without having to listen to parents who want to remind her of the world beyond the teacher's desire to get home ahead of the traffic tie-ups on the LIE and of course plenty of room even for their son because it would be unfair to the daughter to be their only child, a one child who would have no society into which to be born but with a brother she would never be allowed to just think of herself, like so many only children, but maybe, George was saying, an only child spends all of its time thinking of being an only child so it has no time for thinking about how it will get on in the world while their daughter, with a brother now a year or so later, would have to think maybe a little about someone other than herself and George was getting ahead of himself by a long way and he still had to face the ordeal of going about The United States of America during their first year--- at least not, as they say, cap in hand since he did not have a cap: hats, caps, berets, all such head coverings were a complicated business in Bulgaria and it all seemed so remote though he did notice the negroes of America had a great love for head coverings of all sorts and have always had the most peculiar desire to cover their heads though such a ramification would be a welcome respite from having to deal with people coming up to them, later, asking were they happy in New York? and hadn't they thought maybe it would have been better to have lived and been in other places in the United States of America before settling in New York City and George was trying to tell this to Powys who was still talking about the highway covered with water and how he was finally able to find a liquor store on the side of the highway where he was walking and he was lucky to get back to the train on time with his package from the package store because he didn't want to have to look for a hotel in Houston.

A few hours was enough time to see everything that was worth seeing in Houston and Powys did think it was fortunate the train was delayed for five hours in Houston for some reason though by then he no longer cared to know what was the source of the delay and he didn't have to be anywhere really on time. That was the best way to travel though he did find he was somehow absorbed by what other people were feeling about the delays and strange as it might seem some of the old people even thought they had to be someplace on time or their lives would have real problems though he did have to say it for the clumps of negroes: they just sat on their seats
like bumps on the logs they must have carried with them as a sort of Platonic resting spot because there was an art in the way they just waited, just sitting there and they did not complain, did not move a muscle of care but it could have been because we were Down South and they knew what was out there in Texas.

But what could be out there? as you say, in Texas that was not in every other state in The United States of America? George was asking and I am sure you had to hide the bottle of liquor when you got back on the train. I noticed a young man once when we were flying somewhere in the United States of America who was drinking from his own bottle and suddenly this very large man was there pointing a gun at his head and demanding that he not do that anymore to which the young man asked if he was objecting to the humming or the way I get my mouth wet?

Katya and I were in the row behind this young man who I had not noticed for most of the flight as he was stretched out across four seats. The plane was pretty empty and this was back a long time ago just after we got here in as I said 1980 and I just didn't understand what it was all about and what the young man was really saying and the man put away his gun and went and sat in the row behind us. He had been drinking because I could smell the whiskey, I think it was on his breath, like he had been drinking all day and all night and he was there I guess to protect us, a man of the law, one of those, what do you call them, sky marshals?--- we had read about sky marshals in Germany but the title seemed like something from a Karl May novel--- people in America, I know, don't read Karl May novels but I had read them in Bulgaria and in Germany but not that he was really approved of in Bulgaria because he was disapproved of by all the communists who had read him years ago when they were learning German but I had that aunt who I once told you all about who was the reason why my father wanted me to learn German and she gave me a Karl May novel: yes, I do know they are trash but trash is still readable sometimes and I wanted to look at the museum that was somewhere in Germany but I never went there because that is too much like wondering why my father knew this woman and maybe it was part of the family romance a child has that she was my real mother and since my father never ever told me she was not my mother and I am sure I asked him who she was and now of course: how did this German woman come to live in Bulgaria and live in the street where I lived? But if I had not been there on the plane I would not believe anyone who told me a story like this...

Well, I don't doubt you, Powys said. But many people would try to explain what happened to you and how you didn't understand and maybe you made a mistake or are you really sure you saw this man put a gun to the young man's head for humming and drinking from his own bottle on a plane flying or are you sure you aren't exaggerating or maybe you are making it up to make a point about something you think should have happened--- where did you say you were flying from?

It was during that year before we settled down in Brooklyn and having to make money and once you start at making money you have to continue at making money but there is a moment before you start at making money when you worry about making money and you don't have a lot of money and we didn't have a lot of money but once you stop this short part of your life and then you are making some money and worrying about paying the Petes, as Americans like to say, paying the Petes: I used to make lists of idioms so I would know how people wanted me to talk... so you start making money and you are paying your Petes and you don't have the time anymore to just travel because all your time goes to making money in order to pay the Petes that making money forces you to do.

To settle down is one of those phrases that must have been on your list of idioms, Powys is saying. I don't know Bulgarian but I know you could not say something like that in Russian or in French. You are here now in the so-called New World and that is what people do in the New World: they settle it, settle down in it like a dog going round and round squashing the grass down making a nest into which to flop and then it sticks its nose up its rear-end to sleep, making the perfect circle, the perfect example of what Americans mean when they say they have settled down and are now making something of their lives: that constant remaining frustration because the back is not flexible enough to shove the nose as far up the arsehole, pardon my English, as they would really like and that is why Americans are a people that likes to move around a lot. They might think their shit smells sweet, as Edward once said, but they just can't get their noses as far up their own arseholes as they would like.

It's always possible, George is saying to Powys, now on St. Marks Place, but it must have still been dangerous to drink on the train from your own bottle unless you had one of those little rooms they have...

No, I didn't have a couchette. I thought I'd rough it and that was a mistake--- another one of your idioms--- it is hard enough to live with your wife's snoring but to listen to a car full of snoring people as it crosses the so-called Great Plains and you are thinking where are the Indians now that we really need them, armed with hand held missiles. Just put these people out of their miseries and no matter how much one drank the train just kept going on and on--- I should have known better, I was always telling myself--- and stopping for no reason at all though once in some spot the train stopped and this family was by the side of the train at a station that some senator forced the train to stick there for who knows why and this father was shaking his kid's hand and the kid was standing tall and looking like he was going off to take it like a man and get away from that awful place and find himself naturally in some other place that was even worse--- it was all so moving: it would make you shit or throw up and so not able to make up my mind I just fell asleep thinking of a father shaking hands with a son he will never see again because the father will die in a car accident and the mother will get raped and strangled by some marauding Mexicans having a good time for the Cinco de Mayo and then they will burn the house down with all the other kids inside just for the hell of it because Spanish speaking people have a thing for fire.

I always told my brother, the priest there in Brooklyn, nothing disappeared in Brooklyn until the Puerto Ricans got there and then whole streets started to burn. The negroes like to squat. They don't like to burn--- you can say that for the negro: they do not burn each other out while the Spanish have a thing for fire and for some reason, well, the Jews do too and it is no accident that in Brooklyn they talk about Jewish lightning--- I wish I knew how to say it in Spanish as I am sure the Spanish give credit where credit is due and you know the joke about the two Jews who get together and are talking about business and one Jew talks about The Fire and losing all the stock that had just come in and other Jew is talking about the flood and all the stock that had just come in and the first Jew asks in a rare gesture of politeness, I can tell you, might I ask you a question: how do you cause a flood?

Growing up in Brooklyn you learn about these distinctions and no matter what they tell you--- you know--- they are true and the newspapers never ever are going to tell you the truth and no one will ever draw out any conclusion, in public, because if you do it in public the shit hits the fan and the resulting shit storm is of such giant proportions: everyone ends up covered in merde and while people like to play with shit they like to do it in the privacy of their own homes where they can let out their belts and really dig in, if you follow what I am getting at?

Maybe, George said wondering how he had gotten so far from that moment as he stepped down from the plane at JFK, as he was thinking, falling really, he should have said, off the plane and into this country that was to become his home or at the least the place where my children would be born and the place they could call home.

Where he came from didn't matter, really, he hoped, George would say sometimes and even now with Powys in front of him he wanted to say: yes, we do come from some place but what does it matter? you have only this moment in which you are sitting here in this bar talking with me and we are both accidents of what has happened to us and never is there any way of ever understanding, and don't think I can tell you what to understand means even in German as I could add letters and words to words building the precision for which the German language is known but it would still be unclear what anyone means when they say, I understand what you are saying.

Well... Powys is again on his train, his Amtrak train, as it made for New Orleans--- no, not his train: the train he was riding on, in, with--- while he is thinking and not happy to just be thinking, he thinks, the negroes are growing agitated. They are back in the promised land of their ancestors stirred with the thoughts that got them out of this place to the streets of Chicago and New York: you know the negroes of Louisiana ended up in Chicago and we got the negroes from North Carolina in Brooklyn: isn't it wonderful when you hear a negro in New York going on about home to North Carolina so full of pride of where they come from, back home down there, as they like to say--- not like here in Brooklyn--- you can leave your back door open and no one is going to walk in and strip the house bare but even in North Carolina, they slyly admit, things are changing and are not the way they used to be and it has something to do with all those people from Up North moving down here bringing with them... and I am thinking, Powys is saying, of the forgetfulness involved, more so than in any Irish person though no one has ever measured the ability of the Irish to either remember or forget though it is said the Irish never forget or learn anything from what they have remembered, so what's the point? but that is to expect too much of any people: no one really learns anything from history or from what is remembered, just words repeated over and over again becoming a glob of tasteless bubble gum you can't even stick under the desk.

While Powys was sitting on the train measuring heads, it could well have been--- like that Greenwich Village character who wrote a story for Ezra Pound about being sent out to North Dakota to measure heads of Indians for Harvard University--- but all that was before all of your times, Powys says quickly, I mean, the Greenwich Village stuff which I only saw the end of before the tourists and the kids set up permanent homes on the streets of the Village repeating that old song: the Village was a’changing while the only people who ever referred to Greenwich Village were--- God, who knows?--- and there was no room in the inn for any of us and while it would be easy to steal everyone's present by going on and on about the good old days there were still some characters left about in the Village, when I got here and had those rooms over on First Avenue.

One of those guys was drunk most of the time and he was always talking about measuring the heads of Indians with that other drunk who got himself killed by some sort of drifter back in the summer of love or what passed for it in New York City: boy, that was a brief season... Bergen told me this, I didn't know him myself but sitting on the train I thought it might have been interesting to get out the measuring tape and start measuring the heads of the negroes and see if Harvard University might be interested in some primary research... like when that man Carleton Coon was at Harvard--- you can't make up names like that--- sending out young men to measure the heads of Indians in North Dakota.

They don't measure heads anymore, George is saying, even in Bulgaria where the communists held on to certain theories of development of the new man, the new Socialist man who was going to run the world if only they could get the social system exactly established and then the brain would follow and you would have men who would walk naturally with chin on high, eyes looking to the future, hearts beating to a drummer that never let up the beat of the necessary production goals for whatever month we are talking about.

But in The Unites States of America I have noticed people talked about other sorts of the future and I could never figure out the American sense of time and still can't figure it out. Little children here I notice were already in mourning for what they had experienced in their childhoods, they told me, when I tried to talk to these children when I went to pick up Nikolas from his school. These little children, maybe eight or nine years old, and were already talking as if half their lives had been lived and they were wondering what had happened to the years gone by: of course I had to get used to the rituals of American life, as they told us to call them: how children graduate, is that the word, from their pre-kindergarten class and then they graduate from their kindergarten and then they are ready to enter first grade and they graduate from that class and then there is a little break and by then what can come along: everything is commemorated--- even in the sports club Nikolas joined, because his mother thought he should, there was a graduation ceremony of some sort and that was made a big deal of and you wonder when something really big comes along and there is no celebration for it--- has it really happened?

Maybe I should have read American poetry or something but I don't like poetry and people are always giving me poetry books to read. I can never really read it because I think you have to read poetry in your mother language as that is the only poetry you can really understand.

In Bulgaria there was no poetry coming from my mother and of course I had two mothers as I told you or thought I did have two mothers which is the same as having two mothers which can complicate a life but my father did not allow it to be complicated. Instead, my father, he provided shadows and shade into which I could find my own life and when I went to Sofia I did not think of these things--- even at the Medical Academy--- and when I came to The United States of America I had other things to think about which was a good thing and soon enough after Katya and I traveled about in The United States of America we had too many things to wonder and worry about that there was no time to think again and again about my two mothers or the thought I might have two mothers--- but that is more a strange sort of poetry wanting to take up a place within my memory because for the longest time nothing much happens in my life until I too took a little journey in these United States of the Americans but I didn't go to Texas, to Houston, Texas, like Powys did but to Washington for a conference on what I had been thinking about and what I talked about in Bulgaria after I went back there after the fall of the communism--- but all of that is far in the future from the moment when walking down the steps from the plane at JFK and all of The Unites States of America was before our steps, you could say if you chose to, I suppose, though there was just a little hint of that, I guess, but in the afternoon as we made our way to the customs and before, the passport office where they were to look at our papers surely as if we were criminals, I thought, as we walked through curving corridor after corridor--- of course we were criminals: that is the point of such a suspense before the presentation of our passports--- with all the people from the plane, and at each bend of the corridor large uniformed men who were always smiling for some reason and then halted where we were separated from returning citizens of The United States of America and being told, one by one to go to this sort of booth where I placed my passport on the counter but suddenly this officer looked up, from what he was reading, looking at my picture and then he walked out of his booth and I thought something truly had gone wrong and he reached out and I understood I was to shake his hand and he was saying, Welcome to The United States of America.

As quickly as the officer walked out of the booth he had returned to the booth and was pushing my passport back across the counter and was turning to the next person coming along behind me. I was looking for Katya who was stuck behind this I forget who it might be and eventually she came along, though no one had welcomed her with a handshake and she didn't really believe me and it must have been a mistake, she was saying, as we went to look for the luggage: my suitcase with the ties as I said.

I again told Katya of the officer who shook my hand with no explanation and she couldn't believe it had happened to me, though she thought she saw him do it and she thought it was probably a way they had to make sure I was of the right height as it stated in the passport and also it was a way to really intimidate people when they came to The United States of America: what better way to do this than to shake your hand but I had to tell her I didn't think it was like she was saying--- maybe the officer really did feel like welcoming me to The United States of America and there are some things you can't explain and any way it had happened and it was just one of those things, sometimes, that happen to you which maybe means something and maybe does not mean something though in this case I thought it interesting that Katya suddenly became suspicious and sounded like sentences from a newspaper in Sofia where a journalist would describe how hard it was to come to The United States of America and how Americans didn't really want anyone to come to their country and they were always suspicious of people who came from the Socialist Countries because we were bringing our ideals of how there was a better way to live and no American was eager to talk and be with people from our country because of the fear of the police and all the questions that would have to be endured if such a conversation was held.

Of course such articles were rare because they reminded people that they were not able to travel to find out for themselves what it was like to arrive in The United States of America.

Katya understood it was maybe foolish on her part but George was never ever really sure of knowing this and allowed it to pass as they gathered their suitcases: well, George gathered his suitcase and together they found themselves before another man who just looked at the form they had filled out: they declared they were not bringing any animal or plant materials, had no gifts for friends or family, had not bought anything while abroad.

The form stamped and they were waved ever so slightly with a sweep of hand to the exit.

Dutifully they found the Carey bus into the city as a German colleague of George's has instructed them to do and when they were deposited on the street perpendicular to the front of Grand Central Station they were told to walk two or was it three avenues to the west and found themselves in a large hotel which is no longer there now in the present of this writing. They had been warned that the hotel was not as bad as it looked and they would surely find it interesting as a place to look back upon when they were more established in The United States of America. It would be a good place to begin the stay in the country because you will see all the different sorts of people who make up the country and there will be many people from Europe also in the hotel--- the sort who are looking for the authentic American hotel--- so it will be a transition and you will see there are some people who live in the hotel and you can shop with them in the store next to the hotel where you can buy all the things you will need and you will not have to eat in the restaurant in the hotel which will not be appealing to you and might even remind you of Bulgaria, though this friend who said it was as sure as George would be after he looked into the restaurant on the second day of their stay. It was a very large room with a very high ceiling and tables seemed to hug the floor and everyone for some reason was huddled over their food not looking up even as the waiter placed or removed plates or when there might be a sudden scream from one of the many corners, it seemed, of the room… no one looked up because to look up was to be engaged and possibly… George was sure of this from his reading and his experience in the hospitals in both Germany and in Bulgaria: if you look in the direction of a scream you will eventually or suddenly become caught up in the life of the screamer and there is no escaping then because the look will fasten on the person replying even with only a look and no matter what you later do it was the wrong step to have taken.

So, George well understood why no one looked up when a scream went out from one of the corners and no one answered it though by holding his napkin to the side of his head as if scratching his earlobe he saw that the loud scream, belonged to a tiny well-dressed woman who was sitting by herself at a round table and on each of the three chairs about the table she had placed a yellow chicken doll that he had noticed a man selling on Times Square last night and which it seemed ugly fat girls demanded from their boyfriends as part of the down payment for what might happen later in the evening. These chicken dolls, the size of a child, were covered with rows of filmy cloth to represent feathers and the chicken's beak was bright orange and its mouth open in an appalling gesture of affection. The eyes were of a startling blue and a tiny tear was represented as falling from each of these characteristics.

The woman was at lunch with three of these objects and George, you might say, as he did to himself: surely this woman might be thought eccentric and it would all be too easy to caricature The United States of America through her as a lonely place where people were so desperate for companionship that they... but no reflection was really possibly, he had to admit, when it came to the mad: he noted this woman, went back to the possibility of staying in the restaurant but decided that he could wait to dine later.

George would remember the woman but refuse to limit his memory to such an example. The world is packed with the mad, with all those we would not want to live with though in so many cases we were already living with them and choosing not to really see who they were. If we look too closely, if we discriminate with too much scrupulosity among those who we come into contact with, if we as they say in the villages: keep pulling up the roses to see if they are doing well you end up with a fist full of dead weeds to be stuffed into your own mouth when they dump you into your final hole.

George went exploring--- self-consciously even saying: let's explore the streets--- with Katya in those first days in New York. The movies in Germany, he had to admit, had prepared him a little for his walking about the streets. He knew not to look up at the skyscrapers (he did call them that, rather saying the tall buildings--- skyscraper seemed a word you read but never spoke) and not to always be wondering about how straight the streets and avenues were and how quickly people walked, how everyone walked with an air of knowing where they were going.

However, he was not prepared for the silence of the New York streets. Never did he hear human voices. He noted this as a fact and either it meant something or it was a something for further investigation.

He did not like the process--- even then before the years had convinced him of the truth of it--- by which an experience could be turned into a word like epiphany, that same word that Powys had used so freely. The very word epiphany frightened George a little because of it religious over-tone and while he did not think very highly of the anti-religion campaigns of the communists in Bulgaria and his own children would be baptized into the Bulgarian Orthodox Church when that time came, there is still a deep--- he was aware of it--- anti-religious component to his life as a psychiatrist and now he did believe there was really nothing much beyond the room in which he and the patient sat, pretending of course, there was something beyond the room which was necessary for so many reasons.

His patients were so lacking in imagination or they had imaginations so totally un-connected to any sense of what George for lack of words, thankfully, simply described as being in the real world without worrying about how to go about defining any of those words: the real world--- if only his patients had the ability to forget: wasn't that the first hallmark of a genuine imagination… to forget and then invent… so gripped they were by in-action or often action so frantic as to be a sort of in-action wearing away the earth from under their moving feet , down so deep, they could be said to be digging their own graves.


But George is demanding more attention and Caphart is nudging himself into the tale and wants to get on with the lash across the backs of those recalcitrant obstreperous sacks of work who thought they could escape their fate * and George is saying the lash never leaves the world --------------- and even in the camp in Bulgaria the superintendent would initiate his son into the routine and place him in such a way that his coat would be speckled with the clubbed flung blood…

To have a grown son who for years had been going on about how I had abandoned him to his mother who did not want to be a mother, who so quickly tired of the tedium yet somehow she had raised him as best she could with no help from you which even if it was her addled decision to keep me in the world should have demanded of you some sort of human response.

Nothing is what he got and nothing I gave.

That is one version but no worse than my telling the mother of two children…

----is this foreshadowing or personal indulgence of a voice wanting to be heard----

Quickly, George was a book buyer. I would see him sometimes after he had come from The Strand with a new edition of the stories of Tolstoy or a classic history of Rome or a complete Shakespeare that was actually well printed and readable: he bought these for his children and while I do not know if they will ever read them I have bought them and they are on the shelf. That is what a father is supposed to do even if he knows they will never read the books. I didn't read the books my father had bought for me. That did not prevent me from buying books for the children.

The books would be on the table in the kitchen until Katya came home if George had returned early that day from his patients. She would notice the little pile of books when she came home, why have you bought even more books for the children who have no interest in them and have never opened a single one of them. You pile them on the shelve and I noticed you bought a second copy of The Three Musketeers as if a second copy would have a different effect on…

George did not argue. There was nothing to be said and while he knew, silence is the most awful weapon, there were times when he simply did not know what to say and even after listening for so many years and this is what people found strange: he did not remember what people said. He was not supposed to remember what people said. That is what fiction writers do and then do something with those memories. His patients said things and the saying was in their own interests. If he missed something, he knew, from all the years, whatever it was would be said again and if for some tiny reason it was not said again it was of no importance.

People repeated themselves. They certainly did not realize how frequently they repeated themselves.

However George resisted as well as he was able the temptation to give into totally forgetting what people said. He did know what people were saying and while he did not keep notes, and that was a failure on his part, a Balkan sort of laziness, he might even say---it was not a Turkish form of laziness.

Powerful people were always forgetting things. The powerless forgot and forgot and then were suddenly beaten over the head by what they had forgotten and turned on their tormentor with great claims to having remembered every single slight, ever slip of the tongue, twist of the blade.

The children had their busy lives and he would not insist upon the books. The books would be available and just this availability seemed such a pathetic reason he used it only once and Katya looked at him with that look--- how well he knew it--- reminding him, she was the one who made the bigger income in spite of having no education.


George wanted to see me at the Grass Roots. On Tuesday not like the usual Wednesday. He had called, was I planning to be there on Wednesday? Are you sure you will be there? Can you be there on Tuesday? Will the others be there? I have something to ask you, both.

Being of sound mind. I qualify, do you think?

Here, right now in the Grassroots?

Never did George ask questions he didn’t have the answers for. He was polite in that way. To ask a question was to show either some sort of respect or just simple trust. He would never ask a question with no possibility of an answer. What is the point of asking such questions?

Why do children die?

The perfect way to end the possibility of talking.

What is going to happen?

I am going into the hospital. They are going to replace my heart valves with pig valves. A routine operation, the doctor says. For you I said and the doctor said yes for me and you know the consequences and the risks and what will happen if we don’t do the operation and I told the doctor I knew what would happen if he did the operation and I know what will happen eventually to me, of course, and he said that is for everyone and you are no different except you know it more clearly.

I can die right now or right then on the operating table or after the operation or in three weeks or in eight months or in ten years…

Like everyone, the doctor said.

Except I am the one who is going to be opened up.

That is true.
The operation didn’t kill George.


Pages of …

It is the futility, George was saying, a patient comes to me and tells me his story, no, that is not exactly right because it is better to say, a patient comes to me and tells me and tells me.

I listen to him and it is in what I can not tell him there is the possibility of his life.

Think, George says, if I had said, a patient comes to me and tells me his story and tells me his story again and again or he tells me again and again his story.

Of course it is obvious, is it not obvious? a patient tells the story and he tells his story over and over again for years in the most ideal circumstances.

(You have heard this, George says with his two hands in front of him as if forming a parenthesis, all your life. It so common that: to suggest otherwise is to be thought obvious and stupid and even patients will perform so faithfully their assigned role)

Naturally, George would pause, drink from the Scotch in front of him, finding it empty puts the glass down on the bar top and with a shy sort of gesture involving the slightest movement of the second finger of his right hand begins to try to catch the easily distracted eyes of Bobby and while it is not possible as in the 55 Bar in desperation to call from the payphone in the back to the phone behind the bar in order to speed the movement of bartender from one end of the bar to the other…

It is the futility, George is saying, again to me, a patient brings to me what he thinks is his story and it is in the telling of it---

However, can I say that? he has to come to realize

if it is only a story there is probably no hope for him, the futility of the story--- the storying of his life is such a powerful and ever thickening shell encasing him in the miserable situation that has found him:

but at least it is his story, but at least it is his story, his sole possession: he is adamant in this--- this man has in his possession all that the world has to offer otherwise he would not be able to afford to come to see me.

I have never had a patient who has ever missed a meal in his life even if he is dressed in rags or verbally proclaims his poverty or a financial situation becoming impossible: how they do like to say that all too often as they write out the check or say that the check will be coming from a parent, a lawyer ---and I listen, I listen and if I ever indicate any of this, I might as well shove him into a hole in the ground, off a tall buildings, cut his throat, wrist.

Occasionally a crack might develop in the story so, the tiniest sliver of hope appears…

Oh, please don’t remind me of how contaminated hope has become: a steel jaw in Svabodna Park pointed to the sky.

---so where are we?---

That would seem to be so obvious?: near Apache, near Ajo, near Douglas, near Hermosa Beach, near East First Street in New York, on the way to the Salton Sea: had we been to Sofia? Or Dublin… how peculiar the expectations of travel books: going from place A to place B and then there are those mixing everything up and those sorting out everything and pretending to have you going along with the guys travelling and suspending your belief as to who is doing the writing down while fending off the lions, beggars, nasty cops out for a payoff or the old man renting a twelve year old boy for the pleasures…

Who is this we?

Near Nogales, near Barstow, near Twenty-nine Palms, near Patchogue, near Bellport, near Tombstone, near Sells…

Not looking for fire. Not looking for fire.

---that’s a pretty good allusion--- if I say so myself---

At first I thought I would like to have my body end up in the Tombstone city cemetery, not to be confused with Boot Hill, which is no longer receiving the dead.

Then I thought of the cemetery on the road from Ajo to Sells, but that is within the Tohono O’odham Nation and they have not made up their mind as to whether they are interested in the world beyond the reservation or even in wanting that world to come visiting let alone as serving as a place for the foreign dead.

Far from Arizona I had been visiting Wodehouse and she took me walking in the woods and fields out behind her parent’s house in Vermont. We stopped in a shady spot and she said this is where my sister is buried. A slight depression in the ground now that she had said this.

Because my family has lived for so long on this land they had permission to continue to use it as a cemetery…

When Joan killed herself…

Not like most women, she used a gun

Our unrelenting father

People said was the reason

No cremation

Just into the ground

No box

And Wodehouse said--- as she always did--- I will outlive you. You were born with those rotting genes about which you can do nothing: genes that will hollow out your life, unlike mine which will keep me in the world.

Joan decided otherwise.

…although cardinal directionality is ritually and pragmatically of paramount importance in Navajo culture, almost no native place names known to me include designations as to east, south, west or north--- the exceptions being application of ‘eastward’ and ‘westward’…
BY Stephen C. Jett

If the sandal strap had not broken, if I had not lost the other sandal, maybe I never lost it and it is just over there out of sight, and I will not give into what that guy is wanting, is the phrase badly translated::: as I was looking at him from under my eyebrows:::: as if your eyes can be somewhere else, who does he think he is, who is this I, this your, this… maybe the strap did not break but had become loosened with my walking.

copywrited 2010 THOMAS MCGONIGLE

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Fifteen years ago---August 9, 1995--- I published the following review in the daily edition of the Chicago Tribune. It had been trimmed for length and was over-looked by Carson’s publishers, and probably by the public at large. I am reprinting it for two reasons: Anne Carson is publishing through New Directions a new work equal to the power of her first, this month, entitled NOX and as a little reminder of what was lost when Larry Kart was dismissed as book editor of the Chicago Tribune, some time after this review was published. He was replace by a female friend of either the wife or the mistress of the man who ran the Tribune, a woman whose sole qualification was that she “was interested in books.” Kart was one of the great editors who while covering the trivial books of the day allowed me and certainly others to write in addition to this review one of the very first reviews of Sebald’s The Emigrants. Kart’s taste could be summed up in his enthusiasm for the work of Anthony Powell, Jack Kerouac and Douglas Woolf and in that selection you can detect the value of such an editor.

Anne Carson is a classicist formerly teaching at Princeton, now at McGill, who some years ago published “Bittersweet,” a short magisterial study of the concept of the bittersweet in Greek and Roman love poetry. From her study of the classical languages Carson now has taken up the challenge to write in a way that can be favorably compared to those works that have endured for more than 2,000 years.

There are five parts to “Plainwater,” and the first, “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings,” is composed of purported fragments by a Classical Greek poet, complete with scholarly commentary and imaginary interviews. One is reminded of the imaginary schools of French poetry that Samuel Beckett lectured on in Dublin in his youth: the unwary were easily taken in.

Part Two, “Short Talks,” consists of snatches of prose with titles such as “On Defloration,” “On the Youth at Night,” “On Waterproofing” (about Kafka and his sister Ottla) and “On Reading,” which begins, “Some children hate trips but love to read. Funny how often these find themselves passengers in the same automobile…”

The third part, “Canicula di Anna,” looks like poetry but reads like well written prose. It is concerned with an artist Pietri Vannucci (c. 1445-1523), called Perugino, “a contemporary of Michelangelo and teacher if Raphael,” who “is not a happy man” because of a woman named Anna.

“The Life of Towns,” the fourth part, probably owes some of it playfulness to Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” and seems a little forced. In any chase it leaves one unprepared for the grandeur of “The Anthropology of Water,” which opens, “Water is something you cannot hold. Like men. I have tried. Father, brother, lover, true friends, hungry ghosts, and God, one by one all took themselves out of my hands.”

The language is startling in its clarity: “Morning is cutting open its blue eyes.” “The moon makes a traveler hungry for something bitter in the world, what is it? I will vanish; others will come here, what is that? An old question.” “What is it that men want? They talk of pleasure. They go wild, then limp, then fall asleep. Is there something I’m not getting?”

The tale--- of an older woman and her young Oriental lover on a journey through Indiana to the West Coast--- is told in a diary-like form and is remarkable in its inventiveness as in Ray Charles’ remark heard by the woman on the radio: “When I do song, I like to make it stink in my own way.”

Taking what might be regarded as a rather ordinary situation, Carson proceeds to give us a text whose meaning seems to increase each time one reads it. For example: “Men are always in pain, aren’t they in some sense. The mischief of desire is vital to them. How women avoid this suffering is a question I have, without conclusion but not without interest, long entertained.

Read Anne Carson now, before the crowd rushes in.


The crowd did discover Carson and she has been very productive with many books that were always necessary and essential books to be read as they appeared. She was a MacArthur fellow but sadly she has recently become poet in residence at NYU. Such a fate should befall no one. How she could forgo the teaching of the classics for such a trivial appointment is beyond me. To give up a socially useful position in order to become a freak on display in the monster’s mouth is simply sad. But didn’t Renoir say, Everyone has their reasons… so even sideshow freaks… and that is how NYU thinks of such people…

A wonderful by-product of Carson’s fame is that New Directions has ventured NOX… a long fold out scroll-like work of writing and assemblage--- packaged in an elegant box--- which is concerned with the disappearance and death of the poet’s brother, twined with a commentary on Catullus’ poem 101 which begin, ”Multas per gentes et multa per aequora uectus. (“A journey across many seas and through many nations” in the translation by Peter Green whose commentary includes” “For (M.B.) Skinner its position in the connection suggests closure “involving the failure of art to bridge the chasm between life and death, the illusory nature of Callimachean poet immortality.”

Of course, the brother was present in her first book as I quoted from Plainwater… the very best writers do not grow as if they are some sort of plant but rather their work seems to radiate out from a stone dropped into a pool of water… which I am sure is some sort of worn cliché.

I would add: to be alive is to be necessarily in mourning.

And for the writer today mourning is both for what he or she has lost and also now for probability that their own work will not be published given the calamity which has befallen the so-called publishing industry.