A Kind of Peace: Sestina for 2017

17 Jan

In China, during the Tang Dynasty, over 2,000 poets wrote almost 50,000 poems.

The Tang was, for a time, a golden age for poets, full of inspiration and solace.

One emperor, Li Longji, believed the arts could be a kind of justice

uniting all society for a brief, creative moment.

Most citizens, and most poets, lived without fear of the future.

The name of the capital, Chang’ an, meant “Perpetual Peace.”


One of the most famous poets was Li Po, who arrived in Chang’ an

in the year 730, carousing, giving away money, and joyfully shouting his poetry.

He wrote of the beauty of plum blossoms and drunkenness, and cared little for the future,

finding, instead, inspiration and solace

in the freshness of the present moment.

To go rowing in the rain with wet hair, hatless, was, to Li Po, a simple, joyous “just this.”


When the emperor read Li Po’s work, he was struck by the power of “just this.”

The line “The peach blossom follows the moving water” spoke of a deep peacefulness,

and a way to live fully alive in any circumstance: by finding beauty moment by moment.

He summoned Li Po to the palace, and watched him compose and then launch his poems,

like little boats, into a stream — the poet’s wild joy gave him solace

for he had fears for his and his country’s future.


By the year 755 Li Po’s wild joy was a feeling few shared.

A rebellion brought a man with an utter lack of justness

to power, a man considered by many to be arrogant and soulless.

He banished Li Po from Chang’ an,

sentenced him to death — and yet Li Po continued to write: ten poems,

nine of which are lost, but the one that remains speaks of his torment


at being exiled, separated from his wife . . . but then, at the same moment,

a flock of wild geese fly south across the sky: their beauty obliterates the future.

Last year, in early November, I read that poem

when I was anxious and fearful, and needing of the wisdom of “just this.”

Poetry always provides me with peace,

inspiration and solace


whenever I’m faced with the uncertain, the soulless.

It was four in the morning, I reached for his book next to my bed, and in that moment

my sadness, anger and fears for the future

were transformed into feelings of companionship and peace.

The past was a dream, the present all there could ever be, and “just this”

the voice of a long-dead Chinese poet.


And so, in the future, I’ll turn again to Li Po, because his words hold more than inspiration

and solace — poetry is a long conversation with wise friends over time,

a kind of justice, a kind of peace.


They Hate Your Freedom

10 Nov


You always knew they were there. Close. Sometimes, you feared, right in your neighborhood.


You could tell who they were by their accents, the way they dressed. They didn’t look like you. They didn’t act like you. Their backgrounds — so different from yours. But you weren’t interested in learning about them. They were low-life scum. Cockroaches.


They kind of scared you. They gave you dirty looks. They probably talked shit about you.


You were afraid that if someday they had access to power, that would be it — your familiar way of life would be over. You were glad they were a “marginalized population” because the last thing you wanted was for them to get their hands on power.


You knew how much they hated the president. It was kind of pathological, how much they hated the president. Another reason to hate them.


On the other hand, you knew they would have access to power, and soon. You could see it coming: the newly visible confederate flags, the stockpiling of automatic weapons, the Facebook posts about how Black Lives Matter was a conspiracy against the police. Finally, their incomprehensible support of a racist, sexist, demagogic presidential candidate. You found all that anti-immigrant talk disturbing and disgusting, but you laughed at the Facebook post by someone from your old neighborhood: “Respect are country, speak English.”


But yesterday you stopped laughing.


You wondered: Were there really that many of them? How had you not seen them? You’d grown up with them, after all. Your old neighborhood was a famous working class area on the South Side of Chicago, behind the sprawling Union Stockyards. They were your family, your grammar school friends. And your bullies. When you remember this, when you remember how they ridiculed you for being different, you see how it’s possible that they would fight with their last ounce of strength against anything that feels “different.” How, because of their lack of imagination and experience (because they weren’t exactly encouraged to be curious), they would feel threatened by anything “different.”


Being okay with being different means you have a kind of freedom. And why should you have the freedom to do whatever you want? They never could.


When you read about gay teens being tormented in school, the faces that greeted you whenever you walked into a classroom come to mind. When you read about a teenage girl killing herself because of constant bullying, you think: That could’ve been me.


You had wondered, for a minute, why they were being such assholes about gay marriage, unisex public toilets, transgender teens wanting to be called “they.” But you know why. You want to tell those teens: They hate your freedom because they never felt free.


That’s why you never knew they were there. They never felt free enough to speak up.


And then they did.


And it was too late.


You thought they were on the margins, in their white trash trailer homes, on their couches, watching reality TV and shoving Walmart snacks down their throats. Turns out they were right in the middle. And you, with your post-graduate degree and your refrigerator full of organic eggs and almond milk, and your self-satisfaction about having escaped the working class abyss, were prowling the perimeter.


Turns out they had aspirations. Maybe not to go to college — they’d never been encouraged to do that — but they’d definitely had dreams. A decent job is a dream. But how were you supposed to know? They seemed content with their Walmart jobs, their TVs, their guns. But the guns had become part of the dreams, because the dreams had changed.


And so when you heard the news yesterday, you remembered that Langston Hughes poem about a dream deferred, even though you know it wasn’t written with them in mind. What happens to a dream deferred?


It sags like a heavy load.


And then it explodes.


“Bessarabian Stamps” by Oleg Woolf, Phoneme Media, 2015

17 Sep


Imagine a novel, written as a series of vignettes, where thirty-three characters come to life over the course of sixteen chapters. Not so out of the ordinary? It’s only eighty-five pages long.

Bessarabian Stamps, written by the late Oleg Woolf (1954-2011), a Russian writer born in a former shtetl in Moldova, and translated by Boris Dralyuk, is a kind of tiny miracle. Set in the fictional Central European town of Sanduleni, each vignette/chapter is a vivid, postage stamp-sized stage upon which characters appear, disappear and reappear, escorted off finally by the author via a portal called “entry zero.” Among the cast are Feodasi, the village clairvoyant, who is “carefully reading and rereading an old book on the role of birds in Odessan seafaring;” Mariuta Dumbrava, wife of Julian Florescu, whose fatal beauty “was more akin to fate than to the random bullet which shattered the Union’s window and struck the water pitcher placed before her grandfather thirty years ago by a cloakroom attendant”; and Ivan Markov, “an unfettered Gypsy scribe who has penned two or three grandiose abandoned volumes on love.” Each character seems to come with his or her own trail of Woolf-esque language that begins in one place and ends in quite another:

“A conversation between a man and a woman is a conspiracy of rich men at midnight. Day begins with a man extending his hand to another, and a woman — to another woman.”

“ . . . they were looking at each other so intently, ad infinitum, that their heads began to spin — until they saw the vague contours of their fates emerge, like the corners of their lips in the darkness.”

Despite being set in the named town of Sanduleni, this extraordinarily economical book is never tethered to any one place or time. Place/space and time, in fact, are elusive. This mutability may have been encoded in Woolf’s psyche through his experiences on geophysical expeditions: trained as a physicist, he had participated in projects led by the Institute of Earth Physics throughout the former Soviet Union. In fact, the penultimate chapter of the book, “Thirteen Billion Years Since Speed-of-Light Day,” seems to address particular landscape features:

“’Entry zero’s somewhere around here, that’s already clear,’ the girl Efrosina suddenly said. ‘There have always been limestone boulders, here. The whole place is pitted with abandoned mine shafts. Two of them lead to a monastery. The other — zero speed. Everyone knows that.’

“’All in a land align along a line. That’s all we know of the world and of ourselves,”’ said the philosopher Gogeni.”

I had a lot of ideas about this tiny book, and was especially curious about “entry zero.” So I contacted Woolf’s translator, Boris Dralyuk, and his widow, Irina Mashinski, about how “entry zero” might relate to Woolf’s concept of time/space. I wondered whether the movements of the characters through the vignettes toward this point were a nod to (or a recapitulation of) the motion of matter through time and space.

“In the last year of his life,” Dralyuk and Mashinski said in an email, “Oleg was very interested in [Russian mathematician] Grigory Perelman’s work on the Poincaré conjecture. According to Henri Poincaré [19th century French theoretical physicist and mathematician], the theorem concerns a space that looks like ordinary three-dimensional space but is connected, finite in size, and lacks any boundary (a closed 3-manifold). These ideas are very close to the world of Bessarabian Stamps: topology and its connection to continuous deformation, convergence, continuity, and the whole concept of a manifold . . . In Bessarabian Stamps, the characters follow the trajectories of elementary particles, disappearing in one dimension only to reappear in another.”

Like a black hole? I wondered.

“’Entry zero’ is one of the warped passages of the universe, and of memory. It is also the wormhole of creation, the tunnel between the creator and his characters; in the end, Oleg’s characters return into the literary ‘clay’ of pre-creation. There are infinitely many other projections of the same memory, of the same soul’s experience. That is why there are so many stars in Bessarabian Stamps. The characters are recyclable, like star matter.”

Mashinksi extended the connection to the act of translation itself:

“In one of his first letters to Boris, Oleg used a term borrowed from physics: resetting — [in Russian] perezagruzka: the system changes because the witness (i.e. translator) becomes a part of it.”

To me, there was also a feeling accretion/accumulation as the characters appear, reappear and disappear again. This “action” reminded me of the tell settlements of Old Europe, specifically the Cucuteni-Tripol’ye culture (roughly fifth to third millennia BCE) that grew up where present-day Moldova is. In those tells, people lived in the same place as their ancestors and built huge mounds with the remains of torn down and rebuilt houses and old household goods – an accretion/accumulation of histories, objects, stories, energies. I asked Mashinski and Dralyuk if Woolf had ever embedded any archeological ideas in his these characters, and the village of Sanduleni?

“As far as I know, the connection is indirect, but — in some mysterious way — it must be there! The world of Bessarabian Stamps, and of literature itself, is like the alluvium of a river that flows in the same valley for millions of years. But Oleg’s book is not anchored in the region in which it is set any more than it is in any other place on Earth. As Oleg says in one of the Stamps, writing is finding the general in the unique, not the other way around.”

In this fantastic little book, even the archangel Gabriel has a say about life’s minutiae, and the mystery of existence:

“What need have you of desires . . . ? Don’t be clever with me. This isn’t a desire, but a stamp, a mark, a scar on the heart . . . Much of what can be is not, and will never be.”

“This Is Belgian Chocolate” by Philip Meersman, Three Rooms Press 2014

8 Aug


(This review originally ran in the Brooklyn Rail. And yes, that is a Magritte on the cover.)

As I began composing this review, I typed the word “language” incorrectly as “linguate”: tongue-shaped. According to the glossary of orchid terms — a lexicon based on the taxonomic works of Linnaeus, which I found, of course, online — the word refers to the shape of certain orchids.  My “mistake” then seemed serendipitously appropriate to a discussion of Philip Meersman’s extraordinary (indeed, multi-linguate) concrete, visual and sound poetry: his work is tongue-shaped, and shaped by tongues.

Meersman is a Belgian-born poet and performer with an international reputation.  His oracular work, often written in several languages, both partakes of and reinvents the languages with which he has come into contact via a personal touchstone of radical openness that grants readers access as co-creators/-translators.  Instead of a Table of Contents, Meersman supplies a “Writer’s Cut” with no page numbers, suggesting that one meander around for a while.  The piece that opens the book, “Declaration of Art Entering Into Force On the Date of Publication,” is a contract between the poet and readers/listeners:

Philip Meersman, Poet-Performer; [etc.] Considering that it is important, in

order to ensure the maintenance of artistic relations, that performances

should not commence without previous warning; That it is equally important

that the existence of a state of art should be notified without delay to other

Artists; Being desirous of concluding a Convention to this effect, have agreed

upon the following provisions:

Article 1: The Contracting Artists recognize that the performances must not

commence without previous and explicit warning, in the form either of a

reasoned declaration of art or of an ultimatum with conditional declaration

of art.

A footnote explains that the audience, as signatories, comprise the “[etc.]” of the first line.  The contract contains eight articles, and is both a written and visual conceptual performance located in the desire to explore (and to gently pillory) ideas of permission: what is or is not acceptable in a “state of art?”  (The reader/potential signatory is also invited to imagine what that “state of art” is, and what the experience of living inside of it might be.) There is even a place for the ambivalent in Article 2:

Neutral Artists, nevertheless, cannot rely on the absence of notification if it is clearly established that they were in fact aware of the existence of a state of art.

The idea of artists relying on an absence of something to confirm what they were, to begin with, cognizant of, is wholly charming.   

The first section of the collection playfully deconstructs the elements of Belgian chocolate in French, English and product code. “This is Belgian Chocolate/Ceci c’est du chocolat belge” is a list poem of codes for all manufactured Belgian chocolate, and “Chocopromo (Belcolade)” is a lyric chant, in English, of the products of the Belgian chocolate manufacturer Belcolade.  The collection’s next section, “L’Origine du Monde: Genesis 11:1-9,” refers to the Tower of Babel story, where humanity’s common tongue was confounded by an insecure Jehovah — the real original sin, perhaps.  The first poem in that section, “Message To a Past (For Voice, Morse and Wailing),” is a fascinating piece that incorporates Morse Code:



Ah-bout-you ou-ou youwouwauwwawau


have I IyayaI IyayaI lyayal lyayaI I have


never ever ever eve ever ever never




written wrote wrung never ever written not knot no

To “read” a piece like this requires that the reader hear and incorporate sounds which seem like opposites on the spectrum of expressive communication.  In this context, though, the visual sense of the poem interpolates those two ends and imparts information, especially after you do a little Googling and find out that the first two lines are “SOS.”

Meersman’s style and thematics suggest Khlebnikov and Marinetti, with a bit of Yevtushenko’s “The City of Yes and the City of No” and Voznesensky’s “New York Bird” thrown in.  Visually, the concrete poetry of Khlebnikov and Belgian poet Paul van Ostaijen also come to mind.  Meersman is a visual artist as well, so the look of the poems on the page — the balance between white space and text — is important to the reading/hearing.  The book’s design recalls the work of Lazar Lissitzky (El Lissitzky), the Russian artist, designer and architect who influenced the Bauhaus and Constructivist movements.  One poem, Multzumess (a pun on the Romanian word “mulțumesc”/thank you), “a simultaneous poetry writing experiment,” was composed with several other poets at a literary conference in Romania in 2009. Essentially, it is a “heard poem,” transcribed from mishearings, comments, jokes and jibes written in a notebook by Meersman and other attendees at the conference while panelists were speaking on a dais.  Massively playful, the poem sprawls anarchically across fifteen pages and utilizes at least four known languages and several more fonts.  Such fluid play recalls Zaum, the linguistic experiments of Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh (who declared in his Declaration of Transrational Language [1921], that zaum could “provide a universal poetic language”).

I’m mindful that I’ve been mainly comparing Meersman’s work to that of long ago poets, schools and movements, and I’m mindful also of the end-games, rooted in historical circumstance, of those schools and movements.  I agree with critic and scholar Brian Reed who wrote, in a Jacket piece of April 2005 (about Elizaveta Mnatsakanova’s 1983 article, “Khlebnikov: Limit and the Unlimited Music of the Word”): “Khlebnikov’s arguments . . . suggest that once freed of limiting particulars people will at long last recognize that they are ‘continuous links in the universal soul’ and part of ‘a single entity.’ This liquidation of historical memory and individual difference in the name of communal uniformity might have appealed to an avant-gardist in the thick of a civil war, but it looks very different today, in the wake of nearly a century of mass murders carried out by totalitarian regimes . . .”

True.  But might not striving to be free of limiting particulars via a universal communication — shaped by tongues describing a radical openness — be a worthy intention of poets once again? If this is Meersman’s goal, he has both quietly and loudly succeeded.

I Miss(ed) Roger Ebert

31 Jul


When I was coming of age as a poet in Chicago, Roger Ebert was just the chubby-faced guy whose photo sat at the top of his film review column. I couldn’t have cared less about any iteration of his dumb movie review show with . . . that other guy, the skinny one. My opinion: Ebert wrote about the work of other artists; he wasn’t one himself. To me, in my teens and 20s, that was cause for dismissal. But after watching Steve James’s documentary, “Life Itself,” based on Ebert’s 2012 autobiography of the same name, I now realize that his life was art, and that I miss(ed) Roger Ebert.

I watched the James documentary last weekend on Netflix. I truly wasn’t looking to get interested — I was looking for something to background a nap on the couch — but I got interested when I heard these words, uttered by Ebert at the beginning of the film:

“The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And, for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

That was unexpected. And then a colleague read the beginning of his column for the Daily Illini newspaper, written in 1963 when he was 21 and co-editor of the paper, in the wake of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. He started out his article by quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words to George Wallace: “The blood of these innocent children is on your hands.” Following that, Ebert’s own words were:

“That is not entirely the truth. The blood is on so many hands that history will weep in the telling. And it is not new blood. It is old, very old. And as Lady Macbeth discovered, it will not ever wash away.”

How prescient he was. And how young he was: 21 and already a co-editor of a newspaper (albeit the student newspaper of U of I at Champaign-Urbana, where he was attending college). And that was another thing: he had wanted to go to Harvard, and there’s no doubt he would’ve gotten in, but his father told him in no uncertain terms that he was not going to Harvard — where would they get the money? Mom was a bookkeeper, dad an electrician. U of I, his hometown school, was where he was headed. (His bitchy TV buddy, the skinny one, went to Yale.) After college, after going to work at the Sun-Times reviewing movies — not a gold-standard position back in the ‘60s — he became one of those tough, hard-drinking newspaper types that just don’t exist anymore. James uses quotes from the autobio in the film, and this is what Ebert wrote about the bar wherein he drank hard, O’Rourke’s:

“It was a shabby street-corner tavern on a dicey stretch of North Avenue, a block after Chicago’s Old Town stopped being a tourist haven. In its early days it was heated by a wood-burning pot-bellied stove, and ice formed on the insides of the windows . . . When a roomer who lived upstairs died, his body was discovered when maggots started to drop through the ceiling.”

Not that it matters, but my feeling is: if you weren’t born in the actual city o’ Chicago — Ebert was born in Urbana, Illinois — and you end up drinking in a place like that, you’re okay. A colleague of Ebert’s pointed out in the film that of all the well-known, hard-drinkin’ guy-writers associated with Chicago — radio personality Studs Terkel, Simone de Beauvoir’s other boyfriend Nelson Algren, and Nobel-winning Saul Bellow — only Ebert was born anywhere near Chicago. (I’m leaving out Mike Royko because you probably need to have lived in Chicago to know who he was, and that his Polish family owned a tavern on the northwest side.) So, there Ebert was, getting shit-faced in a dive every night and writing film reviews during the day. Interesting. I never woulda thought.

Then there was a montage of his columns from the ‘60s, clipped from the paper, and among them I saw “Early Godard.” I actually got up off the couch and hit pause, to see exactly when that paper came out: October 29, 1969. He wrote about “Le Petit Soldat” — made just after “Breathless” — and “Six in Paris.” So, he knew his stuff, and his stuff could be read in the pages of the Sun-Times, the working-class person’s paper. Oh — his 1979 “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” script credit. One of the funniest moments in the James documentary was Martin Scorcese saying, of the title: “Beyond the valley. It was beyond it!” (Get it? It was beyond!) I knew Ebert had written the script, but I guess I’d forgotten, because when it came up in the documentary I laughed out loud. Donna LaPietra, an executive producer of “Siskel & Ebert” in the 80’s, said, in the movie, “How on Earth did Roger Ebert write ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’?” Well, he was offered the job by Russ Meyer himself. Apparently, Twentieth Century Fox had owned the rights to the title, and was willing give it to any director who could come up with a script. As Ebert tells it, “The movie [Meyer explained] . . . would simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violet exploitation picture, a skin flick, and a moralistic expose of the oft-times nightmarish world of show business.” Go, Roger.

Then there was his — fake, I had supposed — rivalry with the skinny guy, Gene Siskel, movie critic for the more effete Tribune. (Wait . . . how effete? Embedded in the Tribune Tower’s neo-Gothic façade are pieces of the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, the Great Pyramid, Notre Dame, the Great Wall of China, and Angkor Wat —to name a few.) Turns out the rivalry — the pure enmity — wasn’t fake. Here’s their banter, transcribed by me from the documentary, as they try to record a commercial for their TV show. After Siskel flubs a line, Ebert says, to someone off-camera:

“Did you know that for Gene speech is a second language?”

Gene: “Roger’s first language is, ‘Yes, I’ll have an apple pie with my order.’ He asks the McDonald’s girls if he can have apple pie with his order before they ask him!”

Roger: “And you know what Gene says when he goes into McDonalds? ‘Can I haf a athel eye wif my orther?’”

Another take ends with Siskel calling Ebert an asshole. It seems, however, that as the years went by, they came to agree on some things:

GS: “You know, they don’t get enough shit, basically, the WASPS.”

RE: “They don’t, they don’t.”

GS: “They run the goddamn country, and all of us . . . all of us . . . and I‘m speaking to anyone who’s eavesdropping right now: Come on, band together people, let’s overthrow the country!”

RE: “Protestants: people who sort of want a religion. The goddamn Catholics and the fucking Jews: we go back a few years together!”

GS: “Come on! We’re real! We’re real! We get down and dirty!”

RE: “We were banding together when Martin Luther was only a gleam in his mother’s eye!”

Then, there’s his relationship with his wife Chaz, who says in the film, “Roger weighed three hundred pounds when we first started dating. He didn’t care that he was fat. He thought he was just great. And that was so sexy!”

Chaz is black and Roger, of course, was white. “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, interviewed in the film, makes note of this in relation to her own connection with Roger:

“It’s dangerous, as a black woman, to give something that you’ve made, from your point of view . . . to a white man, whose gaze is usually the exact opposite, and say ‘You are the carrier of this film to the publc. You’re the one who’s going to dictate whether it has value.’ And I had a lot less fears around that with Roger. ‘Cause you knew here was someone who was going to take it seriously, and come with some historical context, some cultural nuance. I mean, everybody knows Roger had a black wife. You know what I mean? It’s like an honorary brother. I mean: he lived with a sister? That’s a whole different understanding of black women!”

If you want to have yourself a good, cathartic cry (like I did), look at this, from Roger’s blog in 2011. Yes, that is DuVernay, as a little girl, in the photo, also posted at the top of this entry:


His relationships with two other filmmakers, Errol Morris and Ramin Bahrani are also explored in the film (Bahrani visits him shortly before his death) but the DuVernay friendship is especially touching.

Then there was his diagnosis, and the progress of his cancer. And that was where, for me, he became an artist, and where everything he did before became part of, and redefined, that art: he lived out his death in public, in front of Steve James’s camera — filming began five months before Roger’s death — and chronicled it himself, on his blog. We learn that in 2002 he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. In 2003, he had surgery for cancer in his salivary gland. In 2006 he was diagnosed with cancer in his jaw, and had another surgery. A week after that surgery his carotid artery burst near the surgery site. In 2007 he lost his voice and began “talking” via a computerized voice system. He had surgery in early 2008 to restore his voice and reverse complications from previous surgeries, but the procedure was not successful. In the spring of 2008 he fell and fractured his hip, and in 2012 he had another surgery, to repair the hip. He went through rehab seven times. All of this, including various hospital procedures, is included in the film and is painful to watch. Through all of this, he writes on his blog, not only of his death but about his many interests. His blog is fascinating. I certainly don’t agree with everything he wrote there (and of course, I didn’t read it before this weekend), but reading it now I see a living spirit, a working class guy, a smart-ass, a too-big-for-his-britches (literally) jerk, a lover of art, a husband, a white stepfather and step-uncle to black children and adults, and supporter of up-and-coming filmmakers. Perhaps most importantly, an educator in the lessons of death. His last blog post, written — unbelievably — two days before his death is cogent and full of life:

“It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.” (Roger Ebert’s Journal)

Pondering all this, I can’t help but wonder if, back then, I wasted my time on avant-garde poetry when I could’ve been learning some truly interesting stuff about life itself — through the prism of film — from this chubby-ass guy who was really living it.

Acquaintance Rape

28 Jul

In the last two days I’ve heard discussions of this subject on two different radio programs. Earlier today the discussion was with the editor of New York Magazine about the Bill Cosby cover story (on Brian Lehrer’s WNYC show), and yesterday it was an interview with comedians Barry Crimmins and Bobcat Goldthwait (on Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air”). Crimmins’s rape at age 4 or 5 by a man who knew his babysitter has been documented by Goldthwait in his new film about Crimmins, “Call Me Lucky”; I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with Cosby’s history. One thing that connects these rapes is how predators identify exploitable opportunities, either by just showing up (in the case of Crimmins’s abuser) or actively setting up (as Cosby did). What really strikes me is the creating/narrating of these opportunities: even if the rapists are not writers or story-tellers, or even literate, they fully understand, as a writer would, the nuances of opportunity — how one plot point will dovetail successfully with another to produce the desired outcome — especially the dead-end issue (for victims) of believability. The end-game can be a dark and unnavigable landscape, yet how well rapists know the terrain, and how their victims’ feelings of guilt/personal responsibility can be exploited to obscure the path out of darkness, make the going impossible. I once sat at a bar in Greenwich Village and listened as a lawyer who defended a pedophile priest actually said to me, “No one can tell me that those kids don’t, in some way, want the attention. They have a role. If I were a twelve year old, and someone paid that kind of attention to me . . . you know what I’m talking about.” In Cosby’s case, some women did come forward over the years, while others did not, having been assured it would be futile (or career-damaging) to do so. And after 30+ years of being able to freely exploit the “nuances of opportunity,” why did it come down to a 1 minute, 42 second call-out by a man, Hannibal Buress, during his October 2014 stand-up routine, to finally bring Cosby to account? There have been incidents in the literary community over the past few years that exist alongside the ones I’m talking about here, and my own willingness to believe/disbelieve was tested in the most recent one. Oddly, I never felt equipped to comment on those incidents, even though I harbor my own story (which I wrote about, a little obliquely, in a poem for Delirious Hem last year). I don’t know what steps to take, really. I don’t know if there’s a map. I do know the path is not well-marked, and wherever you walk you’re in alien territory, surrounded by the alien’s friends, neighbors, and fellow aliens. And you don’t speak Alien.

I also don’t know why, but seeing the face of Beverly Johnson among those on that New York Magazine cover, and re-reading what she wrote for Vanity Fair in December 2014, made me want to say something about those perceived and managed “nuances of opportunity.” When I was younger, and wanted to be a model, I greatly admired Johnson, and followed her career. Now it feels like she’s communicating that even strong, smart, successful women don’t know sometimes. That’s comforting, and horrifying.

The story I harbor is this. All names have been changed.

Tony and I been introduced at a pleasant, backyard party in the summer of 1982. I was 21 (and wanting to be a model — maybe this is the Johnson connection), and he was 36. Our mutual friends, Marion and James McAlden, told me Tony was a talented illustrator who’d risen from poverty and a tough biker gang past to become a highly-paid Gold Coast architect in James’ firm. A well-known Chicago radio personality had even done a show about Tony. The McAldens wanted us to meet because both Tony and I had recently been through traumatic break-ups: his heart had been broken when his long-time girlfriend dumped him a few months earlier; around the same time I’d called off my engagement to an abusive fiancé. The McAldens weren’t looking to match-make, just friend-make.

Tony and I talked for a long time that night, in lawn chairs after the party was over, about our heartbreaks, our working class roots, our love of music and art. He showed me a well-worn wallet photo of his ex-girlfriend, Lilly: small and delicate and shy-looking, with long, straight brown hair, arms around the two daughters she’d had with her ex-husband. Not a girl you’d normally see on the back of a Harley. I had no photos of my former fiancé, having burned anything I still had of his in a ritualistic fire in my yard. Tony and I made vague plans to meet at some point for lunch, a movie, whatever.

We did whatever a few times. Very casual outings to see a movie and have dinner. At that point, I was sort of obsessed with my own break-up and really needed to get out of the house and not think about it (though I still thought about it all the time). One thing I did to refocus my disordered life was resume college that summer, after having taken the spring semester off to plan the wedding and work a full-time job. Tony would sometimes pick me up after class and we’d catch a “foreign film” at the Fine Arts Theater, down the street from my school. It was fun to ride down Michigan Avenue with him on his Harley. Like Lilly, I was also not the kind of girl one often saw on the back of a Harley, unless one saw a lot of punk girls with white, spiked hair and Patti Smith t-shirts on the backs of Harleys in the Midwest. That was more of a New York thing. And I was excited to be doing it precisely because it was a New York thing, and I hated backward, beef-tongued Chicago. Even when riding on the back of some guy’s Harley, idiots would still yell things at me like “Hey, punk rock sucks!” But it was easier to give those idiots the finger when riding on the back of some guy’s Harley than it was when they were walking right behind me, or taking a seat behind me on the bus. On the Harley I could just tear off laughing while they yelled, “Hey, fuck, you too, bitch!” at a cloud of noise.

A couple of years before meeting Tony I’d gone out with a guy who was a film major at my school.  We’d broken up but were still good friends, and when he had a big party that summer he invited me, and I invited Tony. At the party, people were showing their old Super 8 family movies on a big sheet strung up in the backyard, accompanied by random music playing on a boombox — first it was the Supremes, then it was the Buzzcocks, then it was Andy Williams singing “Ave Maria.” It was all about the juxtapositions. I thought Tony would find this amusing. He may have, but what he didn’t find amusing was the way some of the guys at the party were dressed. This was 1982 and New Wave was a big thing, and some people, guys included, dressed in Sixties and Fifties fashions (if they were into Rockabilly, say) — the suits, the shoes, the ties, the haircuts. No one was being ironic; they just liked the music.

Two hours into the party, Tony was standing by the liquor bottles on the kitchen table, scowling. When I asked him what was up he said something like, “I wore those clothes when I was a kid, and now these artsy-fartsy jagoffs are wearing them?” I could see why he was pissed: guys younger than him were co-opting an unlived experience — his lived experience — via fashion, that most vacuous of art forms. He wanted to leave, and that meant I had to leave, too, and this is where things got complicated.  At the time I lived on the south side of Chicago, and this party was on the north side. Tony was my ride, and if he left and I stayed I would have to shell out about $20 that I didn’t have for a cab home. Half the time when I tried to cab it home from the north side the drivers would refuse to take me there, unless they were black, because my family lived on the “Black South Side.” And I couldn’t really ask someone at the party for a ride because it was a really long way back to the south side — a two-hour trip to get there and back involving (if I remember this correctly) taking Lake Shore Drive to either 55 or the Dan Ryan, and then some additional local driving. If you’re a New Yorker, imagine traveling from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Astoria, Queens and back (or asking someone, after a party, to drive you). An added complication was my recent estrangement from my best friend; I couldn’t call her up to ask if I could stay with her, which is what I often did when we were on speaking terms. Yes, I could’ve just crashed at the party, but then I would’ve had to contend with calling my parents — with whom I was living again after breaking off the engagement — to tell them I wasn’t coming home. My mother, may she rest in peace, was a bit of an hysteric. (In 1986, when I was 25, I called her from Heathrow Airport to let her know I’d gotten back from India, and she said, “Heathrow Airport? Isn’t that in England? You get your ass back here immediately, Sharon Marie!”)

So, I had to leave with Tony.

He drove the van (he’d picked me up in his van, rather than on his bike, because he was scared of my neighborhood) in petulant, pissed-off silence. After a while, I noticed we were on the Kennedy Expressway traveling away from the city. I asked him where we were going, but he didn’t answer. I understood he was pissed — but still? I thought about jumping out of the van and trying to hitch-hike in the other direction, but how could I get to the city-bound lanes without getting run over? And what if I got myself into a weirder situation? When we exited the expressway into some suburb I thought again about jumping out when we stopped at a light, but there was no one around and I was dressed in punk clothes and makeup, and pretty much all men in the Midwest, except the ones on the north side, seemed to equate punk rock girls with hookers. At least Tony knew the difference, being an architect and all.

Our destination turned out to be his aunt’s house, located somewhere in the Land Beyond O’Hare. I’d figured he had his own Near North apartment, being an architect and all, but he actually lived in her basement because he was caring for her. We never made it into the house; he said she was old and he didn’t want to wake her up (it was after 1 a.m., maybe close to 2). Turned out he had two twin mattresses in the back of the van, for when he and Lilly went on vacations with her kids (whose pictures were still dangling from the rear-view mirror).  Instead of getting into his own bed, though, he crawled into mine and started kissing me. I told him I didn’t feel like it, but by then he already had his hand under my shirt and was saying something like “I think we both need this.” Looking out the small window at a glaring streetlight, I thought again about jumping out and trying to get help, and get home, but if Tony could turn from a relatively okay guy to . . . whatever this was, he could turn from whatever this was into . . . something else. He might punch me, and what kind of a feminist punk would I be if I’d gotten hit by a second guy? Tony might even knock me unconscious so at least this way, I figured, I’d remain aware and just never speak to him again if he called.  And, of course, I would write about him. That would be my statement. By the time I reached that conclusion, the whole thing was over, and he was saying, “I’m sorry I lost my cool at the party. It wasn’t directed at you. Good night, Pumpkin.”

“Pumpkin” had been his nickname for Lilly, I later found out. Had he been fantasizing he was having sex with her while he was having sex with me? Was the whole “fashion-anger” thing a way to get out of the party? Why does Beverly Johnson’s story make me think of this incident of thirty-three years ago? I wasn’t drugged, I wasn’t abused . . . why didn’t I put a stop to it? Was it because I’d just left a physically and emotionally abusive relationship, and I just couldn’t fight anymore? A few years earlier, before I got engaged, I’d kicked an undercover Chicago law enforcement officer in the balls because he called me a cunt in front of my boyfriend. Where was that bad-ass girl that night in the van with Tony? I have no answers, and I still feel stupid.

I haven’t written about this in any real way until today.


2 Apr

Daniel Nester’s College of St. Rose students reading from my book, Annoying Diabetic Bitch:


My Name In Hebrew

26 Feb

My Name In Hebrew

My Hebrew-speaking friends
tell me that my name in Hebrew
means “poet or lyricist.”
Also “poet or lyricist with insomnia,”
sometimes “psalmist with insomnia,”
and at other times “one who feeds her cats insomnia today
and tomorrow pills made from dead babies
and insomnia.”
One particular Hebrew-speaking friend
(whose own name means “eat Al Gore and you’ll get anorexia”)
tells me that my name in Hebrew might also mean
“your portly psychiatrist is unnerved by your project involving
all the baldness of Hollywood’s insomnia.”
In fact, in a recent episode of
“My Revenant Mama Eats Your Mama’s Insomnia,”
starring three of my Hebrew-speaking friends,
all with Hollywood insomnia,
both the donkey cart and the donkey
are related to the King of Trainee Retinas
and afflicted with insomnia.
And in order to lull him into
Breathing New Life Into The Zombie Apocalypse
they use the Jewish revenge fantasy aspect of
“Inglourious Basterds” — thousands of Tel Aviv children singing
a doo-wop version of “The Binding of Isaac” from Genesis 22,
in which God falls ill in February 1603
and commands Isaac’s father in Pig Latin to
“ab-stay your un-say and then am-scray.”
But “God’s insomnia” can also be Hebrew code for
“full of rage in one of NYU’s mole tunnels
with a goatee full of toxic angora.”
So what am I supposed to believe?
Especially when scientists at Purdue’s Hebrew University in Mahwah, Jerusalem
are breathing new life into the menacing running zombie
that is not merely a revenant but a rageful, rabid
cab-driving mime hobbit with eczema,
drunk on sixteen Insomnia-bin-Ladens
every day before lunch.
I have no choice but believe that,
like the New Zealand volcano in “Lord of the Rings,”
I should be taking the marijuana pills
supplied by my greengrocer
to beat insomnia.
And then maybe my Hebrew name will be
“your orgy gooks are ruining my community musical about
Fall Out Boy’s archival Daewoo with their kebab acne
(and insomnia).”

Haji, nee Barbarella Catton, January 24, 1946 – August 9, 2013

19 Aug



Assemblage, Moiety, Propinquity

9 Aug

A note about this poem: I was recently accused of writing “ugly” poetry.  This poem contains a selection of the “fifty most beautiful words in the English language” (according to, you know … someone).


A boy and a girl, both violet-eyed, insouciant, with incipient wings, sitting by a chimney.



The girl with violet eyes and incipient wings, in love with a beleaguered, brooding boy with carved-rock cheekbones.



The brooding boy with carved-rock cheekbones — lissome, sweet, summery — in love with a girl penumbral in color, mellow and super happy in a bungalow.



The mellow girl penumbral in color, in love with a bucolic boy who lithely jumped off a bus after a young gazelle and got hit with a tranq bullet.



The bucolic boy who, after recovering from getting hit with the tranq bullet, fell in love with a fetching ingenue — umbrella haircut, eyes chatoyant — who strode unhindered in opulence toward a perfect good.



The fetching ingenue who strode in opulence toward a perfect good because she was in reality moving in unison with a furtive, comely boy twerking it to the future between two moonlit lagoons.



The comely boy who, while twerking it to the future between the two lagoons, became inured to an imbroglio involving alien cyborgs in the offing and his life-long nemesis: a boy sporting a gossamer ‘fro of mysterious abilities and cheeks efflorescent with joy  — his secret cynosure.



The boy whose cheeks are efflorescent with joy because he is beside his beloved girl-cousin Dalliance as she chooses, with forbearance, from a plethora of magical tools and talismans, one of which — The Shield of Desuetude — she must use to dissemble an evil, ineffable destiny.



The girl named Dalliance who experiences an epiphany and chooses correctly The Shield of Desuetude and so produces a boon for humanity, and then, as part of the panacea, asks a demure boy named Halcyon (his burlap-y dreadlocks wafting an evocative petrichor and swinging like rope around his shoulders), “What is the felicity of this harbinger Earth, this redolent green seraglio moored in the stars, and of the Moon which lilts the air like a sussurous evanescence, so soon to unravel, and with what stars has God imbued this night, and why?”



The demure boy with dreadlocks who trails a length of diaphanous petunias tucked into his underpants, at the end of which sits his pet fungal onion Susquehanna, in love with a tiny pony with a vestigial head hanging languorously from its neck, a head that is, in reality the woebegone ghost of some erstwhile Surrealist.



And the woebegone ghost of this erstwhile Surrealist, in a previous life one ingredient in a bitter elixir but in this one nothing more than a fugacious mote, the least scintilla of a long-lost palimpsest, but whose mote-love is the emollient ripple in the ether that suspires a wish in the heart of all things to bring the violet-eyed boy and a girl, insouciant, with incipient wings, to configure in miraculous imbrication by a chimney.