31 December, 2014

Random Insane Dream Journal Excerpts

I began keeping a dream journal back in July, hoping to cultivate a more active dream life and maybe spur some lucid dreams in the process. On the first point I’ve been successful, recording an average of one page per night of my subconscious adventurings. On the latter point, not so much. But something I realize is that the contents of a person’s dream journal, read out of context, have the potential to be equal parts terrifying and hilarious. To wit:

26 July 2014, 1:36 AM — I am a mid-level Pokemon-style dragon in an RPG come to life. On the busy streets of a major city, I am on the hunt for a specific car. What my intentions are with the car, I’m not certain. All I know is that when I spot it, a late-model oxblood Mustang, it’s driving very slowly through a hospital zone clogged with idling green-and-white ambulances. It spontaneously explodes in that moment, flipping forward in slow motion as the fireball erupts like the car’s passed over an enormous landmine. I hear the word scrubs from nowhere in particular and am filled with profound disappointment.

29 July 2014, 7:23 AM — Have I attended a convention? It seems so.

8 August 2014, 7:20 AM — Just the vague notion of inconsequence.

20 August 2014, 5:01 AM — I ride into a federal prison that bears an uncanny resemblance to Walmart. My transportation is a Winnebago. The other prisoners predictably test me in their various ways, for sex, for extortion. They all fail. Instead of succumbing to their wills, I go browse the aisles. Someone is with me, at least through the books section, but I don’t pay enough attention to him to recall who he is, or what he says to me there. I find myself suddenly back at the front of the prison/store, sitting in a wide wheelchair, awkwardly propelling my way past the checkouts, where some of the Crossroads square cooks seem to be comparing their answers to a quiz in a ladies magazine. Another prisoner tells me I can get around faster in my chair. The next thing I know, I’m rocketing through the sky, a bullet-shaped medieval French helmet on my head, out of control but at least headed in a straight line. When I land at last, in spite of all the distance I ought to have covered, I’m still in the prison.

21 September 2014, 2:24 AM — Pulling up to the 51st Street Muddy’s, I see old friends seated outside as if it’s the late-’90s all over again. There’s Shira, Tara, Mike, Brahm, Haven — even Ashley, waving. I’m on my way into the coffeehouse when Francisco bounces out, excitable and as over-the-top as ever. There’s no feeling of reunion; it’s as if no time at all has passed. All I feel is the warmth of friendship. When Francisco breaks away, I see that the Plaza lights are dead. All power has simply gone out. I take off the tie I’ve been wearing and rebutton my collar points. A couple of fat black flies land on my hand and bite me, stinging sharply. I shoo them and they dance wildly in the air a moment before lighting on my face and biting again. I swipe at them and catch both in my hand (my left!); however, not wanting to crush them and get bug guts all over my bare palm, I release the irritating bastards only to have them land and bite me a third time. It’s at this point that the dream decoheres. A mangy gray-and-brown cat claws its way onto a horse’s back and clings to its mane as the two animals ride off into some stunted vegetation.

6 October 2014, 5:45 AM — I’m on a walking tour of Paris, the first portion of which finds me swimming with a few other tourists in the Seine. The river is filthy, of course, and practically alive with snakes. One, a ropy one with scales like polished onyx, writhes on the water’s surface near my face, threatening in its ease of motion. I swim away, only to come up against a bobbing turd. A girl I’m with shrieks. We all clamber up the bank via a set of slick stone steps and head off to explore more of the city. At a fruit stand run by a man wearing a handlebar mustache and greengrocer apron, we sample what are marked as $5 apiece blueberries yet are clearly green apples. Then we buy up the huckster’s entire stock, because we’re ugly Americans who are too worried about appearing cultured not to buy them (and if these are what the French call blueberries, well…).

27 October 2014, 6:00 AM — I’m sharpening pencils that keep breaking off. The sharpener itself is mounted inside a small safe, and as I pull each pencil out to inspect its point, a woman seated right in front of the safe door gets shavings in her hair. She acts put-out by this but won’t move.

7 November 2014, 1:46 AM — Trying to fold a big, ripped bag of Doritos in a house full of sleeping war veterans who are crashed out in easy chairs and on fold-out surfaces, I can’t find any room in which I won’t wake someone. Eventually I give up and just crumple the thing, making one hell of a racket. Nobody stirs. The elderly sleep more soundly than I thought. But morning comes on quickly. All the aging soldiers, pilots, sailors, and marines gathering their bags for a planned reunion. I board a single-prop airplane to join them, and end up flying over the gorgeous African veldt at sunup. Rivers coil into the distance. Green trees reach up from vast grassy plains. The early morning fog swirls away to reveal that I’m actually just watching a fundraiser for the World Wildlife Fund, the greasy, dark-haired host of which makes me mutter, “This is such bullshit.”

15 November 2014, 3:18 AM — Following what seems at first like a video game shootout with a deranged hag and her bald, apparently inbred son, I meet up with a large-framed black guy who, for whatever reason, wants me traveling with him to Texas in his vintage pastel pink Cadillac. He believes his children are in Houston, and he claims to need me to help him secure the paternity test. Good times.

5 December 2014, 5:00 AM — I’m building a Lego spaceship, a mostly black one. Kelly is with me and we’re floating bodily above the houses that line Ward Parkway. I’m pulling random pieces from the ether, clicking each in place as I think it fits on the ship in my hand. While I’m busy with this, Kelly makes a deal with her mother for some drugs behind one of the houses, where I can’t see her, emerging with two pieces I neither need nor particularly want, as though they compensate for her bad behavior. The spaceship I finally build lands on a verdant planet that looks like true paradise: bubbling springs, mossy rocks, thick willows, fallen oaks, and other idyllic woodsy stuff. One of the astronauts disembarks and goes down on all fours to drink from a fresh-looking brook trickling over round white stones. No sooner than he’s taken a sip, he begins to choke. Eyes wide and panicked, he gurgles a warning to his crewmates: “You’re all going to die!” His lifeless body collapses at the edge of a gorgeous, shimmering pool and is immediately seized in the enormous hand of a being that looks like the Abominable Snowman from those awful old stop-motion Christmas programs, only with a greenish masklike marking over its eyes. The astronaut’s head fits neatly in its maw as it crunches down and decapitates the man. Garish red blood goes everywhere, and Kelly laughs at the grainy 1950s horror-movie vibe of it all.

25 December, 2014

A Poem from the Vaults, on the Anniversary of My Father’s Death

Sylvan Elegy
For Dale

Silence owl-heavy in branches,
a requiem for the long ago
when yours fingered skyward.

Now wind whips bitter, your foliage
fallen. It’s just the way of things. Making way.
Old growth unobstructs the sky for saplings.

I stood beside you at that winter’s front.
Bark’s enfolded the letters, but some boy with a knife
carved your name on this oaken heart.

* * * * *

The poet strives to make sense of the world through words, a Herculean (if not Sisyphean) endeavor. Elegy wrestles with the many-headed beast we call grief. I penned the earliest draft of this poem, “Sylvan Elegy,” in January of 1998, about a week after my father’s death from sudden illness. I was barely nineteen and only slightly better versed in poetry than in loss, and the poem’s first incarnation was a melodramatic mess several times as long. I pruned it back and sculpted it the way one might trim a bonsai. Now, on the seventeenth anniversary of my father’s untimely demise (and, weirdly, his fiftieth birthday), I find it unexpectedly finished. Strange, how things come to their end.

03 December, 2014

Prison Shit’s Got Me Edgy

A mass transfer was announced last week. A slew of lower-level inmates here are about to be shipped to other prisons around the state. While this wouldn’t normally make a bit of difference to me, labeled a maximum-security prisoner by the Missouri Department of Corrections, my cellmate of the last seven months is one of those being put out. Unfamiliarity is always a little scary, but not knowing who I might get stuck cohabitating with, in this place full of bad habits and questionable ethics, is more unnerving than everyday change.

Not that my current cellmate is by any means easy to get along with. He’s impulsive, emotionally unstable, selfish, hyperactive, and lacking the ability to keep his interior monologue inside. He hates silence, which basically puts us at diametrically opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Still, he’s friendly, clean, and has all his own stuff (a plus, since prison life is absent much luxury), and these few high points make the difference between a tolerable arrangement and an impossible one. A fellow can’t be too picky — literally: it isn’t possible.

But now he’s leaving. I’m trying to find the needle in this haystack of misfits — the one guy in a position to move, whom I suspect would make for an acceptable long-term cohabitator. My criteria might appear minimal but are actually hard to meet:
  • Nonsmoker
  • Won’t skim from my canteen or postage stamp stashes
  • Washes hands after using the toilet
  • Doesn’t sleep later than 9 AM
I would prefer that he also have a job that takes him out of the housing unit in the mornings, since I peak, creatively, between 9 AM and noon. On this point, however, I’m flexible. As long as I get time to type what I need to type, and a little peace in which to read in the evening, I’m golden.

Moves are a pain in the ass. They can’t just be asked for, by policy. A guy generally needs to fill out a set of forms and have them signed by all parties affected by said proposed move. Since this process is traditionally on a “body-for-body” basis (a phrasing that speaks to prisoners’ warehoused status, as though we’re all cordwood or already in caskets), that means fours signed assents. Tricky business, that. Almost inevitably, some fickle soul will back out by telling a caseworker, after signing, that he’s changed his mind, that he was coerced, or that the signature is a forgery. The illusion of order imposed on the process by bureaucratic sleight of hand belies the willy-nilly truth.

I have to try, though. I have to. The alternative is just too sketchy. Better the devil you know, and after my current cellmate boards that bus so affectionately dubbed the Gray Goose, his place will go to whatever random convict the system pulls up — cellmate roulette — unless I act early. It’s that terrible game that landed me such odious personalities as Bruce, Ray, Hoss, Bob, Tracy, Snake, and Blake. I’d just as soon not have to add to that list an eighth character study. So I search.

And the search takes time — time I’d rather use to write, to read, to make phone calls to friends, to do pretty much anything except wait around in the library, or in the ridiculous, frigid cold of the prison yard, for a particular acquaintance to happen by. (It figures that the top candidate on my list is the hardest man to run into, a loner, a fellow who minds his own business, a house mouse.) If I don’t find him, or a suitable analog, soon, I may quickly regret it. Roulette’s not my game.

24 November, 2014

A Poem I’d Like to Have Written
but Haven’t Been Drunk Enough To

Obscenity Prayer
By Mary Karr

Our falter, whose art is Heavy,
Halloween be thy name.
Your kingdom’s numb
your children dumb on earth
moldy bread unleavened.
Give us this day our
wayward dead.
And give us our
asses as we forgive those
who ass against us.
And speed us not
into wimp nation
nor bequiver us
with needles, for thine
is the flimflam and the sour,
and the same fucking
story in leather
for never and ever.
Ah: gin.

* * * * *

I don’t share enough poetry by other writers here, which I can blame equally on reluctance to use others’ work without permission (even though most poets are happy to see their pieces reaching a wider readership) and the feeling that by doing so I’m cheating. It’s “Unbound Notes from an Innocent Man,” after all, not “Stuff Byron Case Likes and Wants to Show You.” But what the hell. The fact is, I’m feeling very put-upon of late and wouldn’t mind a gin and tonic or two, even though it’s hardly the right time of year for one (or two). Some sherry would do the job equally well. Or cognac. Or just an Irish coffee, heavy on the Irish.

05 November, 2014

Some Bizarre Eating Habits of the Midwestern US Prisoner

I’ll leave to culture experts and behavioral psychologists the whys and wherefores. The following are simply some things I’ve observed in the dining halls and around the prison, which are related to eating. The commonality that all of these things share is being exhibited by multiple people, leading me to wonder how widespread they are, and whether they’re products of this environment or of the minds that inhabit it.

* * * * *

The Steamshovel. This seemingly awkward method of holding an eating utensil looks like a sideways Facebook “Like” icon with a safety-orange spork jammed into the curl of the fist. The thumb protrudes uselessly, parallel with the spork, in a way I’d think too awkward not to make a guy wonder if he was going about this eating thing all wrong. The Steamshovel’s popularity is widespread and inexplicable.

The Rinse. The clear plastic tumblers offered in the dining hall are a hit-and-miss affair, frequently speckled with dried particulates that have adhered so strongly to the cups’ sides that nothing short of a good scrubbing with a hard-bristled brush under scalding water will extricate them. Approximately one in five prisoners who come through the chow line, even when the cup they take appears clean, run their tumbler under the slow, cool flow from the water dispenser, slosh their half-full cup around once or twice, then dump the rinse water into the dispenser’s drain trough, as if this cleanses the cup of impurities.

The Grill. This relatively uncommon cooking technique is typically reserved for when one illicitly acquires ground beef from the prison kitchen and wants to put it to its most straightforward use: hamburgers. An area of paint must be stripped from the surface of a desk or bunk bed, and heat from either a modified “stinger” (a plug-in immersion heater) or a small fire below must be applied. Perhaps coupled with a pat of stolen margarine, this provides one with all the functionality of a real grill, minus the convenience of a spatula for flipping.

The Grown Man. This is something my current cellmate does, and it is from him that the practice acquires a name. The Grown Man involves heaping a large bowl with potato or corn chips, then encircling the rim with the contents of an entire box of Little Debbie snack cakes. The bowl is then placed atop one’s belly and emptied, one bite at a time, while lying in front of the TV.

The Conveyor Belt. Another act of wanton gluttony, this is the arrangement of assorted snack cakes in a row along the flat surface nearest one’s preferred place of repose. There is an apparent art to selecting the precise order in which the different cake types are to be eaten, and laying them down accordingly so that the actual act of eating is a fluid experience. Eight to ten snack cakes later, noisy finger-licking seems inevitable. I have had two cellmates who practiced the Conveyor Belt, leading me to believe that the practice is more prevalent than any of us might hope.

The Loaf. Prisoners wanting to indulge in an ostensibly more nutritionally balanced fashion will sometimes pool their foodstuffs to create this unappetizingly named product. It involves the creation of a doughy crust from pulverized saltines, graham crackers, and ramen noodles. Patted flat, the crust is then covered with a variety of canteen-purchased meats and processed cheese food products, rolled into a cylinder, and sliced into serving-size portions. No cooking required.

The Slurry Sandwich. Many prisoners slop the contents of their plastic meal trays (e.g., spaghetti, lima beans, and peas; or turkey alfredo, cooked carrots, and cole slaw) all into the largest depression, then blend them together. They then fold a piece of white bread in half, laterally, and pile the mixture into the fold, thereby making a sort of bread taco, which they eat from the side, accordingly. This operation is repeated with a second slice of bread. Presumably the Slurry Sandwich makes up in convenience what it lacks in good flavor and decorum.

The Prison Eclair. Similar in structure to the Slurry Sandwich, this consists of dollops of pudding in a folded slice of bread (rather than a questionable mixture of entrée and sides). I have personally sampled this and found it alternately agreeable and shameful.

30 October, 2014

Some Thoughts on Last Week’s On the Case with Paula Zahn

The last couple of weeks have been strange ones. At first I thought it was just Octoberfeast — my annual candy-and-treat binge — coupled with the pre-Halloween lineup of holiday favorites on ABC Family. Last week, though, when I heard that On the Case with Paula Zahn announced their show about Anastasia WitbolsFeugen’s murder, I suddenly had something to point at and go, “Yeah, that’s what’s distracting me.” It’s as if I’d been pre-empting my regular schedule in favor of the absent-mindedness to come.

I had no idea the show was being filmed. You’d think a producer worth his or her salt would make at least a perfunctory effort to include the condemned man’s words, if for no other reason than to proclaim, like a carnival barker, Ladies and gentlemen: evil in the flesh! Thrill and gape, viewers, at the sinister visage of the Soulless Man! The perfect seasonal freak show, seventeen years (nearly to the day) of Anastasia’s grisly death. But they needed no interview, not really. Old photographs of the man as a boy, togged out in all his black-and-silver goth finery, were far more superficially tantalizing.

The outcome was predictable. Or so I’m told. The cable package to which Crossroads subscribes doesn’t include Investigation Discovery, and that might be just as well. A lot of my friends speculated that sitting through all the old talking heads — Anastasia’s emotional wreck of a father, the histrionic prosecutor, the ex-girlfriend whose vengeful lies cost me the rest of my life — more than by the surreal feeling of being talked about on TV, I’d be bothered by the sense of déjà vu harking back to my four-day trial, when the things that I thought most crucial to my defense were silenced by a misguided arbiter. At best, Paula Zahn’s show might’ve made me laugh for all its egregious faults and inaccuracies. (Since an ability to laugh at the badness of a thing is what carries me through the worst.)

Do I want to watch the show? Not especially. Would I, if it came on a different channel? Almost certainly. How might I respond if, hypothetically, I did watch the episode in question? By focusing renewed energy on my fight for justice... but only after another brief candy binge. I’m only human, after all.

23 October, 2014

An Explanatory Poem (of Sorts)

My Eyes, the World

I cannot really listen to Sgt. Pepper’s.
I don’t know how to start a conversation.
How, to me, means how.
No, I can’t imagine another way.

Notwithstanding preconceptions
About cognition, I think that shirt
Is awful. And fMRI would affirm,
By rainbow butterfly Rorschachs,

That things work differently in here.
Everything hidden is a palimpsest for beauty.
Forget the garden, the dance, your manners —
We’ll hide together under large sculptures,

Caressing the delicate flowers
Of our ears, and think
At each other, How lucky I am!
How terribly, terribly lucky.

* * * * *

Poetry as self-justification. And why not? It’s tempting to offer you an anecdote about the creation of this poem, the way I do for all the others that get posted here, but I’m not going to because I’m stubborn and, in this case, I think it would detract from, rather than add to, what I’ve written.

13 October, 2014

The List: Reading July Through September 2014

Quint Buchholz, Eines Morgens im November

There are several people I have to thank for sending me books this quarter: Ben T., Jersey, the good Lady Val, and my dearest Mum. I’ve been feeling especially in need of some escape lately, and as the Buchholz image above suggests, the books I mention here were a pleasant freedom from the day-to-day.

* * * * *

Julie Roorda and Elana Wolff (editors), Poet to Poet: Poems Written to Poets and the Stories That Inspired Them
The concept is a good one: get poets to submit their poems about, to, and inspired by the works of others, then provide readers with backstories that explain how and why each piece came into being. What hobbles this anthology is that its contributors are all Canadian. I’ve got no beef with the US’s neighbors to the north, mind you, but I also didn’t recognize more than a couple of names from the table of contents. Notoriety aside (because I know I’m not as well-read as I should be), Poet to Poet constitutes a mixed bag. There’s some rigorous, beautiful, erudite, and even funny work here. There’s also some superlatively mediocre stuff. A prime example of the latter is only made worse by what its backstory reveals: its creator was trying to pay tribute, simultaneously, to John Ashberry, Leonard Cohen, an unnamed poet friend, and basketball legend Michael “Air” Jordan.

Marcus Aurelius (J. Johnson, translator), Meditations
Can there be any wonder about the appeal of stoic philosophy to a man imprisoned? Its emphasis on self-reliance, on happiness from the inner life alone, on freeing oneself from the bonds that are passions, angers, and jealousies makes it an ideal system of thought for someone whose external freedoms have been stolen from him. I’ve trod such a road for a good part of my life — by my own nature, not in concerted practice of Stoicism — so when this work of Stoic-influenced thought came my way, I dived right in. Even though I found much of Meditations onerous and repetitive, passages such as this one from Book Seven, chapter XXXI, yielded some benefit:
As one who had lived, and were now to die by right, whatsoever is yet remaining, bestow that wholly as a gracious overplus upon a virtuous life. Love and affect that only, whatsoever it be that happeneth, and is by the fates appointed unto thee. For what can be more reasonable? And as anything doth happen unto thee by way of cross of calamity, call to mind presently and set before thine eyes, the examples of some other men, to whom the self-same thing did once happen likewise. Well, what did they? They grieved; they wondered; they complained. And where are they now? All dead and gone. Wilt thou also be like one of them? Or rather leaving to men of the world (whose life both in regard of themselves, and them that they converse with, is nothing but mere mutability) or men of as fickle minds, as fickle bodies; ever changing and soon changed themselves: let it be thine only care and study, how to make a right use of all such accidents. For there is good use to be made of them, and they will prove fit matter for thee to work upon, if it shall be both thy care and thy desire, that whatsoever thou doest, thou thyself mayst like and approve thyself for it. And both these, see, that thou remember well, according as the diversity of the matter of the action that thou are about shall require. Look within; within is the fountain of all good. Such a fountain, where springing waters can never fail, so thou dig still deeper and deeper.
That’s just what I do: I dig, then dig some more.

Dylan Tuccillo, Jared Zeizel, and Thomas Peisel, A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming: Mastering the Art of Oneironautics
It shouldn’t take much imagination to understand why lucid dreaming — being conscious and in control of one’s mental nighttime adventures — would particularly appeal to someone in prison. I don’t get out much, so there’s the obvious benefit of seeing some sights, but I also really like the notion of making use of the hours I lose to sleep. Dreams as productivity tools. With lucid dreaming, because it involves full awareness during one’s REM cycles, the dreamer is free to engage in creative and introspective thoughts.

As if that wasn’t enough incentive, the authors offer this tantalizing bit of neuroscience trivia:
Brain waves are simply the measure of the brain’s electrical activity. When we’re going about our normal, day-today lives, our brain waves are in beta, measured at 12 to 30 Hz. Theta waves (4 to 6 Hz) take over our brains while we’re slipping into twilight, and they continue pulsing as we dream. Recently scientists have been looking at a rare kind of brain wave, gamma, which is measured at 25 to 100 Hz. In a 2004 study, scientist Richard Davidson studied the brains of nearly a dozen monks, generously referred to him by the Dalai Lama. Davidson hooked these monks up to an EEG and, when he asked them to meditate on “compassion,” they produced brain waves in the 25 to 30 Hz range — gamma waves! Fast-forward to 2009, Frankfurt University. Six participants were monitored as they slept. The six had recently been trained in a four-month course on how to lucid dream. As they became conscious in their dreams, the machines lit up: The novice lucid dreamers reached gamma, their brains peaking at 40 Hz cycles per minute, higher than the Dalai Lama’s best meditators!

I used to be a prolific lucid dreamer as a little boy. It shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve that again. As this book, full of practical advice, recommends, I’ve been keeping a dream journal for a couple of months and have been practicing techniques for “incubation” and for triggering lucidity. My dream recall improved substantially after just one week of practice. So far, so good. It’s a process, though. I’ve yet to experience lucidity since I finished the Field Guide. Fortunately, I have time between head counts, seven hours a night, to practice.

Christopher Priest, The Islanders
Although a novel, The Islanders takes the form of a gazetteer of someplace called the Dream Archipelago — a scattering of islands indeterminate (possibly indeterminable) in number, located between the world’s warring northern and southern continents — the entries in which lock together like pieces of the puzzle that is the book’s plot. Actually, I should say plots, plural: a murder mystery, a dark fantasy, several love stories. Many entries read as you’d expect, presenting ordinary facts about the islands they report on, facts about topography, climate, industry, history, and currency. These entries are more than they seem to be. The entries consisting of anecdotes, journalism pieces, or personal narratives are also possessed of deeper import than a reader initially suspects. I love this complexity and the way the book winds around and through itself more and more, the further through The Islanders I read. Equal parts earnest and playful, sweeping and intimate, Priest’s tapestry is rich and lovely and makes me badly wish to read his previous novels set in this world.

Karen Russell, Swamplandia!
I delight in Russell’s haunting stories but took years to get around to this, her near-flawless debut novel, the sometimes humorous, sometimes harrowing, sometimes horrific tale of the Bigtree family — fake Indians who run an alligator theme park on one of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands. Once I finally did, I was blown away. What a masterpiece of magical realism!

Albert Cossery (William Goyen, translator), Laziness in the Fertile Valley
Lots of people call me a go-getter now, so it might come as a surprise to find that I used to be a practitioner of profound laziness. Slacking is one thing; the type and degree of indolence that I’m referring to is an art requiring dedication. To live one’s life in such a way as to cast out any semblance of work or strenuous exertion — fucking off, in other words — takes a lot of effort.

Consider sleep. Fully embraced as a pastime, not just as a necessary biological process, sleep is exhausting. If you don’t believe me, try spending a languorous twelve to fifteen hours sleeping. How do you feel when you finally wake? Tired! Too much sleep will make you groggy, wanting nothing so much as to lie around in bed even longer, eyes closed, stretching now and again in spectacular catlike arcs over the sheets and yawning operatically. Some will cringe at the thought of squandering precious time this way; some will nod appreciatively and go, Yeah, that pretty much sums up my weekend. This novel is the satirical tale of a whole family of the latter sort, set in pre-nationalist Egypt.

Egyptian-born Albert Cossery wasn’t someone I’d heard of before. Apparently he wasn’t big in the west. The notorious Henry Miller was a staunch supporter of his work, though, championing it at every opportunity, and during Cossery’s epic sixty-year stay at a Paris hotel the man was regarded as part of a literary elite that included Giacometti, Genet, Tzara, Sartre, Queneau, and Camus. Quite the pedigree. He hung out a lot in cafés. He was also an acolyte of sleep. He and his first wife may even have divorced over irreconcilable sleep differences: he often complained that she awoke too early, and in a short, semiautobiographical story he wrote, about a man and his lover, that the man “had wanted to teach her to sleep, to respect slumber, that brother to death which he himself loved so, but alas! she understood nothing of it.”

In Laziness in the Fertile Valley, Galal has been sleeping for seven years. His brother, Serag, romanticizes work without fully understanding the concept of it, work being anathema to their wealthy family. Their uncle Mustapha and their father, old Hafez, are quite content to idle through their remaining days, never venturing outside their home or thinking about events in the distant city. Melodrama finds them regardless, in such amusing fashion that I read the book (which practically demands a stage adaptation) in two days. I could’ve been doing more important things during that time, of course, but Laziness is a tough thing to put aside.

Fred Chappell, Midquest: A Poem
The poet of Dante’s Inferno finds himself in a dark wood, in the middle of his life, and embarks on a journey through not only hell but through himself. Echoing that epic, Chappell, an acolyte of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Rilke, composed this intricate four-part narrative cycle that concerns itself with one day — the thirty-fifth birthday, to be precise — in the life of its narrator, Old Fred, an Appalachian poet whose hardscrabble existence in the mountains was traded for spartan country life, thanks to parents with the sense to emigrate to a rural home. “Book proud” and “second generation respectable” by his grandmother’s standards, Old Fred is erudite but born of earth — just like Dante’s narrator, a proxy for the everyman. Chappell did well to choose him for the telling of this lyrical story. In doing so, he wrote a life (surely not altogether a fictional one) that is believable and even relatable. He found the universal, which is no mean feat.

There’s too much symbolism at work in Midquest, too many references and sly allusions to other works, too many delightful turns of phrase for me to tell you about in a mere blog post. Trying to do so would be like attempting a how-to on making your own pocket watch using items found around your home. And Chappell’s structure, too, is a finely wrought thing, with portions of the poem answering others in a systematic manner, employing a multitude of poetic forms in pursuit of the narrative’s aims. This is damned impressive stuff for a thirty-five-year-old to have written (even though I suspect the book’s copyright suggests he was a bit older than that). I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t fill me, being thirty-five years old myself, with some trepidation about my own poetic abilities.

Pablo Neruda (Ilan Stavans, editor), I Explain a Few Things
The Poet’s Obligation

To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell,
to him I come, and without speaking or looking
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a long rumble of thunder adds itself
to the weight of the planet and the foam,
the groaning rivers of the ocean rise,
the star vibrates quickly in its corona
and the sea beats, dies, and goes on beating.

So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea’s lamenting in my consciousness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the sentence of the autumn,
I may be present with an errant wave,
I may move in and out of windows,
and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves,
asking “How can I reach the sea?”
And I will pass to them, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing itself,
the gray cry of sea birds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.
(Alastair Reid, translator)
And we thank you, Pablo.

Paulo Coelho (Alan R. Clarke, translator), The Alchemist
I’m wary of any book purporting to have answers to life’s great quandaries. Too often they bludgeon readers over the head with heavy morals when all that’s called for is a decent story. More than that, though, you might say that I like my wisdom the way I like my beaches: rocky and hard to get to. Epiphanies are better when they come the old-fashioned way, organically, through inquiry and experience.

So, The Alchemist. More than twenty million copies sold worldwide. Translation into fifty-six languages. Celebrity endorsements by no less than Julia Roberts, Laurence Fishburne, and Pharrell Williams. Just what is all the fuss about? It’s a simple tale, simply told — a fable, really — about learning to interpret omens, follow your heart, and ultimately find what Coelho calls “your Personal Legend.” Language like that, most of which front-loads the book, at the outset of the protagonist’s journey, gives the undeniable sense you’re reading a self-help book. Inner Fulfillment for Dummies could be The Alchemist’s nonfiction companion title (I imagine the two sold together in an attractive slipcase). Not that the Dummies series isn’t a valuable one with lots of solid information on offer — it’s just unfortunately titled and, for a soul plumbed to such depths and breadths as mine (refer to my comments on Meditations, above), remedial material. At least the message conveyed by The Alchemist is, minus the metaphysical trappings, one I wholeheartedly endorse.

Haruki Murakami (Philip Gabriel, translator), Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
This newest Murakami book is one of his quietest, and perhaps his least fantastical, but it offers the author's enraptured fans (like me) everything they love about his novels. I agree with the Atlantic reviewer who said that Murakami’s plots tend to be formulaic and that some of his sentences are awful yet his books never cease to mesmerize. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is tragic and lovely, and I recommend it highly.

02 October, 2014

A Poem of Everyday Longing

In Descending Order






























* * * * *

I wrote “Descending Order” some years ago — a format experiment I was quite pleased with — and, after receiving a stack of editors’ rejection letters, decided that its unorthodox orientation might’ve played a part in the difficulty of getting it published. That’s the comfortable excuse, anyway. There’s always the possibility that it’s simply not a successful poem. I prefer to think that its four (vertical) lines impart something of the wide language of desire, even if the voice speaking isn’t one that the reader already knows.

28 September, 2014

The Accident Report: A Playlet in One Act


BYRON, a prisoner
MS. R, a prison kitchen supervisor
MS. D, a prison kitchen’s office secretary
The scene is an office in a state of barely controlled chaos, cramped with faux-woodgrain fiberboard desks and cheap green swiveling chairs. A small plastic clock hangs on the cinder block wall, reading 3:42. BYRON, dressed in prison grays, sits facing it. He is flanked by the seated MS. R and MS. D, obese middle-aged state employees whose shared attitude is one of total apathy. MS. R, in a white shirt and blue uniform pants, is filling out a form.

MS. R. Okay, what’s your name?

BYRON (stares blankly). Um….

MS. R. I mean, I know your last name, obviously. What’s your first name?

BYRON. It’s Byron — B-Y-R-O-N.

MS. R. Okay, and (She searches over the form, then makes a mark.) you’re a male.

BYRON. Last time I checked.

MS. R (distractedly searches the form again). Oh, here we go: how long ago was this?

BYRON. What, since I checked?

MS. R. No! Since — I mean — ugh! When did you cut yourself?

BYRON. Oh, just a minute or two ago. (He looks at the clock.) Let’s say three forty.

MS. R. And where did the accident occur?

BYRON. In the CRD room.

MS. R (stops writing for a moment). How long has it been since you checked?

BYRON. That’s personal. I don’t think I should share that with you.

MS. R. Hmm. Okay, tell me what happened. For your statement. It needs to be in your own words.

BYRON. Let’s say, “I cut my right index finger on a staple —”

MS. D (swivels her chair in BYRONs direction). On a staple?

BYRON. “— while tearing open a bag.”

MS. D (incredulously). A staple.

BYRON. That’s enough for the form, right?

MS. R. Yeah.

BYRON. Because I’d be happy to embellish and make it sound less ridiculous.

MS. R (slides the form toward BYRON). Which hand do you write with?

BYRON. My right.

MS. R. Please don’t bleed on my pen. Sign right there.

BYRON (signs, then scrutinizes his signature with a scowl). That looks terrible. No one would ever believe that’s actually my signature. And now I have to go to medical — for this? (He brandishes the pinprick on his finger.)

MS. R. Mmm-hmm. Go find an officer to escort you up there.

BYRON stands and goes for the door.

MS. D (shakes her head). A staple.


04 September, 2014

The Unsolved Mystery of Room 309

The first came five years ago. With the early-morning circulation of everyone’s passes to see the nurse, doctor, lab technician, dentist, or caseworker there arrived in my door one pass indicating I was scheduled to report to room 309, in the programs hallway. I hadn’t signed up for any programs, nor did I have any inkling of what room 309 was. Passes, though, are nonnegotiable. At the appointed time, I went to the housing unit’s control module where a guard signed me out.

At the far end of the hallway where prisoners report for religious services, canteen pickup, haircuts, and the filing of grievances, room 309 turned out to be a dinky office, a small window in the door of which afforded a view of just a desk, two chairs, a filing cabinet, and a withering potted plant. A paper sign on the door read PSYCHIATRIST. I have never needed the psychiatric services of a prison shrink, it should be pointed out.

“I have this pass for room 309,” I told the guard working the hallway that day, but no one’s there.”

He evaluated my pass as though it was a foreign object. “Wait around a little while. I’m sure he’ll be back in a few minutes,” the guard said, manifestly disinterested in my confusion.

I waited, then waited some more. Eventually the guard, probably just wanting me out of his hallway, placed a call to the main psychiatrists’ offices, adjacent to the infirmary in another part of the building. As it happens, the psyciatrist who occupied room 309 had relocated his practice for the day, so the guard sent me in search of a different office, in a separate hallway. It was a sweltering summer afternoon and I was already irritable from the runaround I was being given. The brief walk outside, from one entrance to another, stoked my fire.

Following another period of waiting, this time in the much cooler lobby of the mental health department, I was seen by one of the prison psychiatrists, a big man at a big desk. My name, though, was not on his list of appointments, and neither of us knew why I was there. He apologized for the inconvenience, as if he had anything to do with it, and I thanked him for his time, as if I’d taken more than a few moments of it.

I returned to my cell and promptly put out of my thoughts the wild goose chase I’d just participated in.

Months and months passed. Then one morning I awoke to find another pass for room 309 in my door — for the same time as the last had been. Again I journeyed across the yard to the programs hallway. Again I walked to the last door on the right and found the office empty. Again I told the guard, “Hey, I have this pass....” Again I was told to wait. Again no one showed. I decided to take a calculated risk and skip the trek to other offices. No one reprimanded me for missing an appointment, so I made the right decision.

My next pass to room 309 came the following summer; my attitude was by then one of mild amusement — more Here we go again than Oh no, not again. I toyed with the idea of not even leaving for the appointment but figured that, with my luck, this would be the one time the mystery pass was legitimate, resulting in me getting a conduct violation for not reporting to my assigned location. It could happen. So I went.

The office had changed hands since the last time. It now belonged to the institution’s investigator — the house detective, so to speak. The switchover threw me, momentarily. A sense of foreboding grew as my mind raced to think of how I could have become embroiled in whatever matter she might have been looking into. But no, the investigator was as surprised at my appearance there as I was apprehensive about it.

With admirable professional thoroughness, she attempted then and there to track down why I kept receiving passes there, going so far as to photocopy my current one, call the prison’s control center, and promise me that a memo would be sent to the admin building regarding the ghost passes. I have no doubt that there’s now a copy of her memo in my institutional file.

None of her efforts had the slightest effect.

One year after the investigator’s valiant attempt to stop them, another pass showed up. I ignored it, filing it away beside the previous year’s pass, in a folder reserved for my institutional paperwork. I decided to start collecting them — always to room 309, always for the same date and time — as curios of a sort. This year’s phantom pass brought my collection up to three. I have a little fantasy of accumulating a bunch of them and taking them with me to the admin building on the day I’m released from this place (which, despite my sentence of life without parole, I believe will come). I’d like to present the paper bouquet to someone there — a sort of parting gift, a symbolic giving back of the time lost to this purgatory, a token bespeaking no hard feelings, a kiss-off, a sign that I haven’t lost my sense of humor. I doubt it would be appreciated.

11 August, 2014

A Prison Poem About a Bygone Habit

A Quitter

Smoke curls first then clouds, having nowhere else to go
but everywhere, as in sparsely patronized barrooms,
boredom-packed, midafternoons in small towns.
I pull up my shirt as a filter against my cellmate’s cigarette.
Three o’clock light slants in and I watch its hazy crawl
through this shared space, every centimeter’s shift
a forever. The sunbeam swirls with particulates
as he exhales and asks, “Why don’t you just move out
of the light?’’ His face is straight.

I used to smoke, of course, too. Lovely little boxes, paper, foil, and
sugared ends to make lip-licking, as I pulled the cigarette away,

a sweet absence.

The ritual. The lighter. The special way I had for holding
that was how I took and kissed my lovers’ fingertips.

The smell clung to my coat like a jealous paramour.
When I visited, my mother hung the thing outside so that,
diminished by the hours’ separation, it was returned foreign.

To divide the inseparable means what?

The whiff of a personality like to pollute any party.
I gave it up in time. Doctor’s orders. Scores
each day, of Turkish Specials and Djarum Blacks,
were too rich for my lungs. And in the end all he
had to say was “Stop.” Did I stay smoke-free
so long only to wonder when I became what
my cellmate says is “such a pussy”?

The smell clings to my prison grays.
When I lick my lips beneath my shirt,
the taste is skin.

* * * * *

This poem arose from some unfortunate living arrangements I endured more than a decade ago. Reflecting on it, more recently, brought to mind my own noxious predilection for smoking — a decidedly over-the-top addiction, even by most smokers’ standards — and my continued romanticization thereof, which I recognize as ludicrous, since I can’t stand to be around smokers today. “A Quitter” is about that tenacious push-pull of overcoming addiction, as well as the slant memory puts on the past.

06 August, 2014

Ghost Story

The son of the sister of my teenage best friend died in a car wreck at twelve. All over the news I never watch because my hometown is a pale memory, pictures of the little guy, blond and smiley, came up against mugshots of his killer. Then there was video of the man’s family crying for mercy. It was the PCP, they said; he had a problem. That, plus (somehow) four prior DUI convictions for which he never did time.

I saw this and recalled 1998, making fun of the boy’s enormous baby head, and his mother’s face contorting with indignance at such sidelong allusions to her vagina as we sat around their living room, eating pizza. Her expression outside the courthouse, ten years after my own sentencing there, was stoic: I know how ineffective our system is (I’m paraphrasing, but she was eloquent); I wish he could get treatment instead of time.

Her son was dead. Dead. The man pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter for a somewhat lighter sentence. Just like that, it was over. I sent her a pretty card expressing profound condolences. Four years on, she still teaches grade-school English and he picks up the dirty sheets set outside my cell door every Wednesday — empirical proof for all who doubt that specters haunt the living.

21 July, 2014

The List: Reading April Through June 2014

Carl Spitzweg, Der Bücherwurm

Lots of poetry reading this quarter. I also squeezed in some classic literature. Then there was some research for my novel-in-progress, and, although you won’t find a review of it below, playing manuscript doctor with a friend’s nonfiction work concerning the Sherlock Holmes mysteries…. And to think I’d actually worried that this reading list wouldn’t amount to much.

Thanks yet again to Tom Wayne at Prospero’s and John A., both of whom seem to fret as much about my stock of reading material as I do.

* * * * *

Jesse Ball, Samedi the Deafness
One of my many favorite novels (see my “Forty Favorite Fictions” post for others), Samedi the Deafness made a shocking appearance on the Hole’s abysmally stocked book cart during my March-to-April stay there. Even though I’m not usually given to rereading even the best books, I snatched this one up with lightning quickness.

Jesse Ball’s dreamlike debut novel, described, may leave the impression of a run-of-the-mill thriller — James Sim, a mnemonist by trade, falls into a terrorist’s scheme after finding a dying man in the park, then falls in love with the terrorist’s daughter, a pathological liar — but it’s a book that revels in poetic ambiguities and gorgeous non sequiturs, and reading it again after many years was like visiting with a very old, very odd friend.

Marguerite Duras (Barbara Bray, translator), The Lover
Duras was fifteen and a half years old and fetching, living with her French family in prewar Indochina, when she met a sophisticated Chinese financier on a ferry crossing the Mekong. He offered her a cigarette and a ride to Saigon in his limousine.
From the first moment she knows more or less, knows he’s at her mercy. And therefore that others besides him may be at her mercy too if the occasion arises. She knows something else too, that the time has now probably come when she can no longer escape certain duties toward herself. And that her mother will know nothing of this, nor her brothers. She knows this now too. As soon as she got into the black car she knew: she’s excluded from the family for the first time and forever. From now on they will no longer know what becomes of her.
What ensues is Duras’s telling of the affair with the nameless millionaire, a short memoir written with the sensual languor befitting its setting’s sweltering heat, at once reticent and shockingly forthright. It’s one of the finest examples of the form that I’ve yet read.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization
In the quest to deepen my understanding of Islam I found this book, a succinct but comprehensive overview of the world’s fastest-growing faith. As with any good educational work, I concluded my reading with more questions than when I began, which can only be of benefit as I set out to write a believable, sympathetic Muslim character into my novel.

Chuck Klosterman, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)
What does it mean to be bad? Philosophers have wrestled with this question since antiquity, yet we’re still examining the matter in literature, classrooms, and bars — with limited progress. Still, it’s the journey, not the destination, that offers the most interesting scenery, and Chuck Klosterman, one of my favorite funny-because-he’s-right essayists, understands this. I Wear the Black Hat may read as humor, but it’s trenchant cultural analysis through and through — a look at bad guys major and minor, and the factors contributing to their villainy. Klosterman’s conclusions are as surprising as they are spot-on: Bernhard Goetz and Batman occupy identical moral ground, yet only the Dark Knight can be heroic; the future will retire undefeated but always makes a terrible argument for its own success; and, as much as it seems like they do, the Eagles don’t deserve to be hated.

Rebecca Lindenberg, Love, an Index
What a daunting task for a poet to set before herself, writing a collection of poems memorializing a lover — also a poet of some renown — lost to circumstances so bizarre that they risk eclipsing the work they later inspired. Daunting, yes, but also courageous.

Craig Arnold was traveling in Japan, hiking a volcano, when he disappeared without a trace. I read what I believe was his last poem published while he was still alive, “Meditation on a Grapefruit,” before learning of the fate he met — an awkward place to meet an artist, like arriving at a dinner party just as its most interesting guest utters a scintillating bon mot and exits.

Arnold’s partner of several years, Rebecca Lindenberg, gives voice to the yearning, frustration, sadness, anger, and occasional absurdity of personal loss in this collection, always walking the tightrope strung over the canyon of melancholy and, to my mind, never faltering. Her poems move from plainspoken narrative to abstract lyricism and back again, boldy unbound to traditional form (the title poem is a heartbreaking thirty-page A-to-Z index of her and Arnold’s relationship) or anyone’s expectation of how a “widow” ought to grieve. “Circus Animal” illustrates this perfectly:
My mind is a tough sinew.

You can be so hard.

This sackcloth heart
holds a mad animal.

Hush, spleeny goblin.

We will rig up a house-machine

with paperclips and lipstick, oven-mitts
and lengths of garden hose.

We’ll gild it to distraction.

You can be so hard.

I wish it didn’t have to be

a box that fastens, I wish
for a gentle robber
who can pick locks with his tongue.

Hush, hush, heart-monster —

I’m varnishing
the bone-ladder.

Don’t worry, he’ll be back

any minute now.
James Burke, Connections
Television wasn’t much a part of my childhood. For a lot of kids, growing up in the ’80s meant hours on the couch, watching He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and scarfing bowlfuls of Cocoa Puffs. For me, not so much. My family TV was a portable black-and-white GE with a wire-coathanger antenna and broken-off UHF knob (for which we kept a dedicated pair of pliers nearby). It migrated from room to room (as did the pliers) to suit our viewing whims. However, we rarely strayed far from PBS: Nova, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Nature. We were big on documentaries. James Burke’s series, Connections, was a history program focused on the evolution of technology, with the uncommon perspective that nothing comes from nothing, that the lone inventor is a myth, and that innovation occurs primarily because of a nonlinear confluence of events. It was, for a brainy boy like me, a pretty cool show.

Connections, the book, is basically a print adaptation of Burke’s show, as rollicking and scattershot as chance, tracing the history of technological developments — how the common mosquito prompted the development of air conditioning, how chimneys led to modern air travel, how the thirteenth-century sea trade made possible the discovery of oxygen — in all its happenstantial glory.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Jessie Coulson, translator), Notes from Underground / The Double
Because the prison’s property rules limit how many books I can have at a given time, this 1988 Penguin Classics printing of Notes from Underground and The Double in a single volume was like paying ten bucks for a thrift-store coat and finding a fiver in the pocket.

Notes from Underground is another of the semiautobiographical novels without plots I’ve developed such a taste for, a study of one man’s manufacture of a life purely to the purpose of self-degradation, self-torment.
I imagined happenings, I invented a life, so that I should at any rate live. How many times have I — well — taken offence, for example, just like that, deliberately, for no reason at all? And, you know, one always knew that one was taking offence at nothing at all, putting on an act, but one went to such lengths that at last one really and truly felt affronted. I’ve had a tendency all my life to play that kind of trick, so much so that, in the end, I really lost all control over myself. There was one time, or even two, when I simply longed to fall in love. I really suffered, gentlemen, I assure you. At the bottom of my heart I can’t believe in my own suffering, I feel a stirring of derision, but all the same I do suffer, and in a real, definite fashion; I am jealous, I fly into rages…. And all out of boredom, gentlemen, all out of boredom; I am crushed with tedium
The short novel’s first part lays the groundwork this way so that its second, in which a plot emerges involving the forty-year-old narrator’s offense taken (at the hands of old schoolmates) and given (to a young prostitute) fifteen years prior. The bare personal conflict in both of the novel’s parts exposes the man’s nature, as well as mankind’s.

As for The Double, Dostoyevsky’s second novel, published in 1846 and subtitled A Poem of St. Petersburg, this edition’s translator’s notes indicate that the book was initially received by the literary public with a mixture of hostility and profound indifference, and I understand why. Its premise, a man’s life being overtaken by an exact doppelgänger, is often an effective device but was, even in The Double’s day, something of a clichéd formula, and Dostoyevsky used it to plumb the depths of his own self-loathing by way of a proxy, the book’s meek, servile, generally abhorrent troll of a protagonist, Titular Counselor Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, whose honest assessment of himself becomes possible only after the appearance of his double. But, despite its shortcomings, it makes sense for this book to be read alongside Dostoyevsky’s superior Notes from Underground, since both books deal in the process of witheringly honest self-examination.

Thomas Bernhard (Jack Dawson, translator), The Loser
Consistently violating narrative space and mixing tenses, Bernhard’s ironic novel uses its unnamed narrator’s monologue to drive deep into memory, into three pianists’ history, together at an Austrian conservatory, then solo in the world. From the outset two are dead — one of them the fictional Wertheimer; the other the (real) world-famous virtuoso Glenn Gould, whose nickname for Wertheimer gives the novel its title. And so we have a relentless stream-of-consciousness examination of the men’s lives and untimely deaths, which flubs biographical details (Gould’s and the author’s alike) in pursuit of a different truth — Bernhard’s — embodied by all three characters. It’s a fascinating literary effort, and it puts Bernhard near the top of my list of writers whose work to further explore.

Jess Walter, We Live in Water
A conversation with my friend Lefty Two Apples (not his actual name, obviously) led me to this short-story collection, a prison library find, based on its inclusion of Walter’s quasi-zombie story, “Don’t Eat Cat.” Lefty knows I’m writing a novel set in a zombie apocalypse and thought it would behoove me to read yet another take on the subject — you know, to become even more annoyingly conscientious about my work being derivative.

A few years ago I read Walter’s September-eleventh novel, The Zero, a National Book Award finalist. It wasn’t great but kept me reading — more than I can say for other National Book Award finalists I’ve sampled. We Live in Water is similarly unremarkable. Frankly, I don’t understand why McSweeney’s and Playboy are so keen on Walter’s work, but both originally published multiple stories in this collection. Why does the Boston Globe say he’s “in the first rank of American authors”? What qualities enabled his writing to be anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, a generally reliable selector of the amazing? I think of Walter as competent, but “ridiculously talented” and “prodigiously gifted” (the labels bestowed by the New York Times and Los Angeles Review of Books, respectively) seem like overstatements. So tell me, O Arbiters of Literary Taste, what is it I’m missing?

C.K. Williams, Repair
The poem as meditation. The poem as inquiry. The poem as intellectual gadding about. Williams employs, in this collection from 1999, all three of these, in combination with multifarious subjects, to bring into being a kind of microcosm of poetics. His wandering thought lends itself to a style verging on (appropriately enough) essayistic, with lines that often stretch so widely that they nearly defy poetic form altogether, yet maintain what the poet Alan Williamson called (thereby pinning it down better than I could) “the poetry of the sentence.”

My favorite from Repair perfectly encapsulates Williams’s approach. This in its entirety, is “Shoe”:
A pair of battered white shoes have been left out all night on a sill across the way.
One, the right, has its toe propped against the pane so that it tilts oddly upward,
and there’s an abandon in its attitude, an elevation, that reminds me of a satyr on a vase. 
A fleece of summer ivy casts the scene into deep relief, and I see the creature perfectly:
surrounded by his tribe of admiring women, he glances coolly down at his own lifted foot,
caught exactly at the outset of the frenzied leaping which will lift all of them to rapture. 
The erotic will diffused directly into matter: you can sense his menacing lasciviousness,
his sensual glaze, his delight in being flagrant, so confidently more than merely mortal,
separate from though hypercritically aware of earthly care, of our so amusing earthly woe. 
All that carnal scorn which in his dimension is a fitting emblem for his energy and grace,
but which in our meager world would be hubris, arrogance, compensation for some lack or loss,
or for that passion to be other than we are that with a shock of longing takes me once again.
Parse that final stanza. Parse it if you dare, Williams challenges. It’s his linguistic somersaults and agile leaping from banality — the image of shoes on a windowsill, in this case — to a classical representation of human desire that leaves little wonder as to why he’s won, and been repeatedly nominated for, the Pulitzer Prize.

27 June, 2014

Yet Another Too-Personal Poem from the Vaults


I laid down private lines
On pages long since brittle,
About touching, later being touched,
And the air being hot and still both times,
About the girl’s chapped lips on my own,
About the man’s callused hands.

In the unfurling of one week, first kisses,
Sweet then sour. It’s turnabout so like the rest:
The stately sight of French Quarter streets
Corrupted by seeing that stranger fed a busted bottle;
The love of three youthful friends buried
In the rococo gilt chill of too-soon caskets;
And, despite the once-frantic quest for life among
Fellow Homo sapiens, no admittance for the damaged.
Sterling equations get so often tarnished
By countervailing aftermathematics. Such is life;

So too death (which is, let’s face it,
Life again). And these dreary themes so long explored
By sensitive boys with their blank hardcover books
Waste paper, ink, and precious time,
And do no favors for us dead and dying.

* * * * *

I think writer John Berryman summed it up perfectly when he said, “Certain great artists can make out without it; Titian and others, but mostly you need ordeal. My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.” Yet the blade cuts both ways. I still reproach myself for using my own ordeals within my writing, or as fuel for it. This is the dilemma that I think the above poem speaks to.

23 June, 2014

At the Lazy Sunday Prison Writers Conference

The sun dawned brightly on Sunday and fast-moving clouds promised that any rainfall would be scant enough not to disrupt the scheduled meeting of literary minds, for which an astonishing two writers turned out to confab on the wide, glistening concrete yard of Crossroads Correctional Center.

I arrived promptly at 8:20 AM and was greeted by Lefty Two Apples, a pioneering member of the group formerly not known by anyone as Sub Rosa Writers, dressed for the weather in khaki shorts and a state-issued gray shirt.

“Greetings, Lefty,” I said from behind my dollar fifty-six wayfarers.

“Greetings, Skullface,” he replied.

Each of us clasped manila envelopes filled with sundry literary candy — a copy of Reality Hunger for discussion, handwritten and typed sheets of recent poems, annotations of interest — in addition to a CD of environmental sounds I carried for another acquaintance, yet to appear. There were also, glinting in the light like the sword hilts of assembled soldiers, pocketed black- and red-ink pens.

The conference commenced with a perambulation of the prison’s paved walkway. Pedestrians paid little mind as Lefty held forth on the benefits of out-loud recitation in poem composition, a presentation that met with widespread head-nodding among its audience of one, who deemed its subject “tremendously important.”

Entertainment followed. The improvisational stand-up comedian brought everyone to the ground in hysterics (as did the mounting heat). Afterward the comic mingled and glad-handed with attendees in the crisscrossed shade of a chain-link fence where they’d seated themselves.

More jocularity ensued as the comic turned his wit to more edgy fare — morning constitutionals, the questionable existence of jackalopes, and (an obvious point of mockery) the aforementioned thunderstorm CD. “Oh, look, this says there’s one with a dolphin song on it — like the soundtrack to Flipper!”

Getting into the spirit, Lefty contributed the priceless non sequitur, “If I had a large building with an elevator in it, that would be what I played instead of Muzak.”

The comedian at last made his exit, at which point began the event’s poetry workshop. Lefty’s planned submissions to a themed literary journal were our focus.

A cogent — and perfectly inoffensive — two-man panel discussion on the matter of racial poetics served to cap off the morning.

As we disbanded and wended our respective ways off the yard, this attendee was already eager for the next conference, tentatively planned for the Saturday after next, or whenever Lefty’s housing unit spends another morning recreation period with mine.

20 June, 2014

When Will Missouri Let Its Prisoners Join the Electronic Conversation?

Washington, North Dakota, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana — all states that now sell mini-tablet computers to their prisoners for personal use. For around fifty dollars, vendors such as JPay and Keefe Group offer the devices to penitentiaries, preloaded with (administratively limited) software for music downloads, gaming, and e-mail, thereby affording the incarcerated another, much-needed connection to the distant world.

Of course victims’ rights groups are terrified of what the National Organization for Victim Assistance’s mouthpiece described last year as “unrestricted and unsupervised outreach where inmates can revictimize or continue to intimidate victims.” However, because e-mail is even easier to monitor than the already-permitted (and well-policed) telephone conversations prisoners are having (think: filters and automated keyword monitoring, plus ease of storage and of live-human retrieval), NOVA’s argument is a little silly. The frequently extreme perspective of victims’ rights groups should be taken into consideration when weighing what privileges prisoners ought to be granted. Many would have convicts of every stripe sentenced to hard labor and bread-and-water diets.

To be fair, there are prisoners who might try to use electronic means to commit their nefarious deeds, but no more than are currently doing so with cell phones smuggled in by guards and other prison staff. (It’s interesting to point out here that illicit cell phone use in Texas prisons plummeted when the Lone Star State installed telephones in its facilities’ housing units, a statistic one Texas prison official attributed, on record with techno-culture magazine Wired, to most prisoners simply wanting to call home.) For public and institutional safety, the channels for contraband need to be closed. Until staff members are caught red-handed, breaking rules, it’s an unfortunate fact that prison administrators tend to treat their staff as being beyond reproach. This would have to change before truly effective security measures could be enacted. Maybe victims’ rights groups should recalibrate their sights to aim at greater institutional scrutiny of prison employees.

Prisoners with a supportive social structure beyond the facility walls have been shown, in study after study, more likely to rehabilitate and less likely to reoffend, and there can be little doubt that being able to send and receive e-mail will improve prisoners’ feelings of connectedness to loved ones and society as a whole. I’ve personally bemoaned the inconvenience of snail mail for years. Not only would my contacts appreciate not having to fold, seal, and stamp everything they send my way, the editors, scholars, and businesses I sometimes reach out to would be more apt to reply (you might be amazed by the number of people for whom an enclosed SASE is not sufficient motivation).

Yes, mine is a biased opinion. I’m ready to get back to Information Age communication methods. This ubergeek struggled mightily, while awaiting trial in the county detention center, with symptoms of Internet withdrawal — disconnectedness from always-on friendships, mainly — and the thirteen-year interim hasn’t done anything to mitigate my frustration. Being able to tap out e-mails from my bunk and view pics in my inbox of my mother’s trips abroad, my godson’s childhood milestones, my friends’ #humblebrag Instagram posts (I’m far less interested in games, or even MP3s) would do so much to reduce the isolation that is my normal. Loath as I am to entertain thoughts of things to make my prison stay more comfortable, it seems as though, as long as I have to be sequestered by injustice, buying a gadget to ease the pangs of separation seems like a worthy consideration.

It took until 2004 before the Missouri Department of Corrections gave its prisoners the go-ahead to buy CD players. It started selling us flat-screen TVs a few years later. Devices are one matter, social betterment is quite another. So is money. States that offer prisoners the mini-tablet computers I mentioned earlier don’t only profit from markups on the hardware. When Keefe Group introduced its MP3 player and penitentiary approved music-download service in 2009, it netted more than a million song downloads, each of which deposited a percentage into the state’s coffers, too — and that’s solely music, a luxury. E-mail satisfies a deeper craving — that for human contact — and is self-perpetuating, since nearly every click of Send leads to another click of Read, which, in turn, leads to a click of Reply. There’s money to be made here, broke Missouri, and I’m willing to let you have mine.

12 June, 2014

From My Courtside Seat

Watch him dribble, the kid in the white stocking cap and brown gloves, all by himself on the half court. Watch him switch which hand he uses, simply trying to keep the ball from getting away. Even I can tell that his technique’s all wrong. Maybe it’s the gloves. He hits the ball open-handed, the way a baby smacks a toy it doesn’t want. He’s too rigid, and that’s why, every third or fourth bounce, his dribbling arm has to apply more force, spend a longer time traveling downward. There’s no fluidity to his movements; he stands mostly still, letting the angle the ball takes determine when and where he steps.

Just as he doesn’t know what he’s doing with that basketball, he probably doesn’t know what he’s doing here — that is, how to spend his time. He undoubtedly sleeps late, past eleven, and reads bad novels from the library into the afternoon. If he owns one, or if his cellmate does, he stays up late watching TV. He might draw, or write letters, but nothing more. What else is there? The gambling, drugs, games, and tattoos aren’t pastimes for newbies, they take connections, which take a while to forge. The kid almost certainly finds himself in a daily battle against boredom and depression. I doubt he’s been here a month yet.

What do you suppose he’s in for — burglary, drugs, robbery? Could just as well be kidnapping, child molestation, manslaughter. Rape. Murder. No, I don’t actually care, it’s just the natural question that comes to mind, particularly with the young, whose apparent naïveté is at odds with these hard surroundings.

The kid dribbles and dribbles. He attempts a fake left, then right, and they’re terrible, spasmodic and flailing — about as bad as I would do if I ever felt like failing at something abysmally. He’s so awful at it yet keeps going, as though he’s up against a bet that he can’t bounce a ball 500 times, or for a straight thirty minutes.

Dark eyebrows, slender face, clean-shaven — from a distance he looks a little like I did when I first got here. Of course, you know well about appearances. I’ve fought my way, with determination if not confidence, through every one of the procedural appeals available. It’s taken a long time. People I meet are still reliably shocked when they find out how old I am, how many years I’ve been locked up in prison, but I spend less and less time looking at my reflection, and it isn’t because I’m growing less self-conscious with age.

27 May, 2014

A Poem Drawn from an Everyday Moment of Suspense

A Watched Pot

Observing the un-
Observable molecules en masse —
Excitable itty-bitty
Frotteurs all
Hot and bothered
Beyond mere Brownian
How-do-you-dos —
As steamy liaisons
Befog the air.
Their collective
Breath of pleasure
Titillates the
Voyeur’s neglected tympana,
Just as their
S h i v e r i n g
Always seems to him
Tantalizing seconds
From a raging boil
And sanitizing release.

* * * * *

Watching water in anticipation one late-afternoon, I started thinking all manner of things — about the value people place on patience and its corresponding trait, self-restraint; about the languages of desire and romance (of which I’m told French is among the latter); about what, empirically, was going on in the cup of water into which I had dropped an immersion heater to make ramen soup, and how scientific terminology often lends itself well to poetry; about what manifold meanings I might squeeze out of the simple act of heating up some H2O. The resulting poem could be criticized for lacking cohesion, for being too scattered, but I think it accomplishes what I intended for it to. Plus I like how it rolls off my tongue.

17 May, 2014

Minor-Disaster Recovery and the Cracker Epilogue

Because lunch in the dining hall had been unsatisfying, I was eating some crackers, dipping each directly into the mouth of a jar of off-brand peanut butter and scooping up its smooth, calorific goodness with the crackers’ ridged edges, the furrows made by which made me think of swoops raked in the sand of Japanese rock gardens. I was off in thought, dipping and munching. Then the guard came for me. There was one cracker left in the plastic sleeve, which I knew I didn’t have time to eat, so I stuck it in the jar — just shoved it down there, miring it in peanut butter — and closed the lid, thinking I’d be back to claim it momentarily.

I was not back to claim it momentarily.

Guards inventory and pack everyone’s property who goes to the Hole, throwing out or confiscating anything that may be contraband — plus some things that may not be. Going to segregation is almost always an exercise in loss management. I personally expected to be released and find many of my meager possessions gone, lost in the shuffle of packing and repacking. I came to terms with the notion surprisingly easily.

Thirty-one days after the beginning of my lockup experience, I walked from my new housing unit, in shower shoes and segregation-orange pants, to the prison’s property room, unsure how much I’d be bringing back with me, thinking about what it meant that I wouldn’t be upset if a lot of my things were broken or missing.

Astonishment! It was all intact, all accounted for. My canteen items had been dumped into the red mesh bag they’d been issued in, my books and folders and clean clothes had been packed back in my footlocker more or less where I’d left them (one benefit to keeping my ducks in a row, lockstep), and my miscellanea had been placed into a cardboard box. I signed for it all, pleased at not having to ask where this or that item was, the way the two other prisoners with me did.

Unpacking after a move can take a lot out of a guy. Settled into my new digs with an unfamiliar, thus-far agreeable cellmate, having shaved the month of itchy beard growth off my cheeks, chin, and upper lip, revealing that there is, in fact, still a familiar face there, I felt a little peckish. One sealed sleeve of crackers awaited, its box having been thrown away by parties unknown. The plastic had taken on the perfumy scent of the laundry detergent it had been packed alongside a month earlier. I tore it open along its seams. When I opened the peanut-butter jar, I discovered that lone cracker still standing there. Feeling a strangely satisfied sense of completion, of having passed, relatively unscathed, through travails, I pulled it out and ate it without hesitation.

06 May, 2014

The (Belated) List: Reading January Through March 2014

Unidentified Photographer, Student, c. 1960

Friends and strangers sent me so many books to read this quarter that I barely kept from running into the wall that is the prison’s personal-property limit. I consistently had a stock of books in my cell, waiting patiently for my attention. It was a great two and a half months of reading. Then I went to the Hole for thirty days, a circumstance that cut me off all but entirely and kept me from posting this list in the usual timely fashion. But now I’m back on track and need to thank the people who generously supplied most of the titles below: John A., Sarah L., Chris Steadman and the Freethought Books Project, my dearest Mum, and Tom Wayne at Prospero’s, hands down the best bookstore in Kansas City, Missouri.

* * * * *

Umberto Eco, (Alastair McEwen, translator), The Infinity of Lists
I get so few opportunities for intellectual stimulation and aesthetic pleasure. This anthology, companion to a 2009 exhibit of the same title at the Louvre, provided both. It’s a gorgeous collection of artwork and literary excerpts from throughout the history of Western civilization, curated by Eco in a thoughtful essay on the myriad forms of that deceptively humble tool, the list.

Every glossy page of this startlingly hefty book is a feast for the eyes and brain, accounting for all kinds of lists, from visual lists (Heironymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans) to lists of things of innumerable quantity (the gods in Hesiod’s Theogeny, the Greek armies in Homer’s Iliad, the moon’s fantastic sights in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso), to sacred lists (the Catholic litanies, the begets in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the Song of Solomon) and profane ones (Paradise Lost’s demonic hierarchy, slaughterhouse atrocities in Berlin Alexanderplatz, sixteenth-century bum-wiping options in Five Books of the Lives, Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Gargantua and His Son Pantagruel), to fantastical lists (Aristotle’s De Mirabilibus), to practical lists (the Ten Commandments), to lists of treasures (the holy-relic inventory of the Saint Vitus Cathedral in Prague), to lists of curiosities (the Wunderkammern — cabinets of wonders), to chaotic hodgepodges that don’t even resemble lists at a glance but resolve into them when considered in a greater context. What a marvel!

Albert Camus (Justin O’Brien, translator), The Fall
A novel replete with irony and mordant wit, in which, strictly speaking, nothing happens. Yet The Fall moves swiftly through the monologue that forms it, to a calculated conclusion that doesn’t leave an impression so much as apply a red-hot brand to the reader’s mind — the sentence for its verdict on modern man. Even more so than The Stranger, the infamous novel Camus published eleven years earlier, The Fall is a stunning piece of literature.

Bill Henderson (editor), 2013 Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses
The Pushcart Prize is the high water mark for small, independent literary magazines and presses. Nominations come in from many hundreds of editors each year and the competition is stiff. I admit to entertaining a little fantasy of winning one myself someday. Meanwhile, I was happy to have this 500-page collection of last year’s winners — essayists, writers of short stories, and poets alike, including such personal favorites as Karen Russell and Joyce Carol Oates. The creativity and intelligence on display in this anthology is impressive. I’m going to have to start reading these every year.

Howell D. Chickering Jr. (translator), Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition
Probably originating from the eighth century CE, Beowulf is the oldest of all the great English poems. Even those who haven’t read it have encountered some form of the legend of Beowulf, the Scandinavian warrior prince. The tale of his heroic battles with fell creatures is one with enduring appeal. Demons, dragons, and death make for good story elements in any century — if you want proof, check the numbers for that CGI-animated Hollywood version of Beowulf that was released several years ago. I knew the basics from a prose retelling I read in elementary school, but it’s one thing to get the CliffsNotes version of a masterpiece, another altogether to dive into the sprawling bombast of this poem in something close to its intended form. (I say close because the poem was meant to be recited aloud by a bard. Me, I’m fresh out of bards at the moment, so this translation had to do.)

What adds so much value to this particular edition of Beowulf is Professor Chickering’s extensive annotation, before and after the poem itself, which gives historic, syntactic, and semiotic information that aids the contemporary reader’s understanding. One tidbit I picked from these was the connection and influence Beowulf had on J.R.R. Tolkien’s renowned tales of Middle Earth. Greatness begetting greatness.

Christopher Steadman, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious
What was I doing watching The O’Reilly Factor? The host’s an antagonistic blowhard, less interested in meaningful exchanges with guests than with promulgating the Fox News narrative as stridently as possible, and I think the reason viewers tune in to his show is the same as draws people to boxing and martial arts events: to watch some poor sod get beaten down. But when I saw the caption ATHEISTS ATTACK! in that angry red of which Fox News is so fond, I had to stick around to root for O’Reilly’s guest, Christopher Steadman, the Assistant Secular Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, and hope against a verbal beating.

Faitheist is Steadman’s memoir about his journey from Christian Evangelist to atheist, and about the interfaith work he subsequently undertook, bringing people together, no matter their religious beliefs or disbeliefs, in the spirit of greater good. It wasn’t quite what I expected when I wrote my letter to him, congratulating the young man for holding his own against Angry Bill. Not only is this fairly intimate glimpse into Steadman’s struggles with religion, it’s arguably more candid on the subject of his homosexuality. A confounding pair of issues for a youth to grapple with, and so an interesting read that adds a fresh, much-needed Millennial voice to the religious-conversion memoir genre (into which my initiation, nearly twenty years ago, was Dan Barker’s very good Losing Faith in Faith).

I do wish his final chapter had included more ideas for forging quality interfaith relations; although, most of the book’s readers, unlike me, will have access to the Internet and be able to visit Faitheist’s website for lists of those, if they’re interested.

George W.S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context
”Look at the girl smile!” writes Trow in this ruthlessly truthful essay on the Media Age. “The more she smiles, the more certain it is that she represents something trivial, something shocking, or something failed.”

Falsity, pseudo-intimacy, indiscretion, agglomeration, schadenfreude, impermanence — all qualities that Trow attributes to contemporary culture, and even though the latter half of this books was first published in 1980, when TV was still the dominant fixture of empty lives, it continues to resonate, maybe more powerfully than ever.

Writing about the “I like Ike” slogan used in the 1952 presidential campaign, Trow isolates the empty language that a nation embraced: “From ‘like,’ all you could see was other Americans engaged in the processes of intimacy. This was a comfort.” But he might as well be referring to Facebook, where like has been rendered meaningless by users’ implicit agreement that it means anything at all.

Roland Barthes (Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, translators), Writing Degree Zero
My friend and occasional student in the insane, indecent pursuit of writing, Zach (whose blog can be read here), slumped in the doorway of my cell, hands shoved deeply in the pocket of his worn navy blue hoodie. I sat, my back to the desk. We were talking books. When he asked what I was reading just then, I pivoted to pull from inside a narrow cubbyhole the slim volume that is Writing Degree Zero. I held it up for him to read the cover.

“What is it?” he asked.

I held up a finger and turned to a page I’d read shortly before he showed up to converse. “Just listen: ‘It may be said that the whole movement of mathematical flow derives from an explicit reading of its relations. The language of classicism is animated by an analogous, although of course less rigid, movement: its “words,” neutralized, made absent by rigorous recourse to a tradition which dessicates their freshness, avoid the phonetic or semantic accident which would concentrate the flavor of language at one point and halt its intellectual momentum in the interest of an unequally distributed enjoyment. The classical flow is a succession of elements whose density is even; it is exposed to the same emotional pressure, and relieves those elements of any tendency towards an individual meaning appearing at all invented.’ I mean, why do I read this stuff? Semiotics is such tedious bullshit, and yet I keep subjecting myself to books like this.”

“That gave me a headache,” Zach said, pushing his glasses up to massage the left side of his head.

I laughed. “So I see.”

“It just came out of nowhere,” he said, still rubbing his temple. “Damn.”

“You’re serious?”

“Hell yes, I’m serious. This shit hurts!” He took the glasses off altogether and started knuckling the aggrieved spot. After a moment, when he quipped that he was having an aneurysm, I knew that he was fine. I also knew how I would review my experience reading Writing Degree Zero.

“Well,” I said, “there’s my review for the blog: This book made my friend’s head hurt. I’ll just recreate this little scene — you at my door, me sitting here, reading aloud from an almost fifty-year-old book on modern French literature.”

“Do that,” said Zach, recovered from his neurological event. “It won’t be helpful for your readers, but —”

I finished his sentence. “But neither will this book.”

Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine
A lunchtime trip up an office building’s lobby escalator — sure, why wouldn’t that work as the entire plot of a riveting novel? And yes, The Mezzanine is a difficult book to set down. Specifically because Nicholson Baker centers this novel (a thinly veiled memoir, I’m sure) around such a mundane setpiece, he’s able to engage in page upon page of brilliant, complex associations, in which his musings on shoelaces, brands of shampoo, LPs, shirt buttoning, milk, footnotes, paper towel dispensers, the number of times each year people rethink specific thoughts, workplace etiquette, and drinking straws go far beyond the point you’d think they, as subjects of deep contemplation, could possibly withstand. Baker has a keen eye, and his unrelenting inquisitiveness brings forth insights about the modern world that generally sit right under people’s noses. I’m not surprised that his name isn’t more widely recognized; it takes guts to look at things this closely and report honestly about what you see, because truth never sells very well.

Umberto Eco (Alastair McEwen, translator), The Book of Legendary Lands
In 1899, an American named Cyrus Reed Teed put forth a theory that the sun, moon, and stars are not heavenly bodies as we believe, but are in fact visual effects caused by our living inside the Earth, on its concave crust, like standing on the interior of an enormous beach ball. Hollow Earth theories were relatively common in Teed’s day, but his evolved into a sect that claimed to have scientifically verified the concavity of Earth’s surface using an instrument they called a “rectilineator.” Teed’s followers called themselves Koreshan Unitarians, and they were serious about this stuff. When their founder died in 1908, they believed (presumably because he told them so) that Teed’s body was imbued with certain properties that would prevent it from rotting, so they left it laying out on display for a while, until it became obvious that at least one portion of their belief system was in error.

Florida was where the Koreshans “proved” the inside-outness of our planet, and, regardless of how wrong the sect was, Florida instituted the Koreshan State Park in 1967, nearly sixty years after Teed’s death, in the city of Estero. I’ve been there. Today it’s called the Koreshan State Historic Site — a nice stretch of lush greenery, one part of which is occupied by a little building overseen by a docent who’s only too happy to tell you all about the Koreshans and show you the cutaway model of our hollow world, its continents curling up at their edges as if someone spilled water on them and left them out to dry without weighting them down flat.

The social and psychological factors of why people believe weird things interest me to no end. The Book of Legendary Lands is a tour of places once widely believed to exist: Atlantis, the islands of Homer’s Odyssey, the realm of Prester John, the Antipodes, Ophir, Taprobane, Utopia, the Austral Lands, Shambhala, Saint Brendan’s Isle, Camelot, the Earthly Paradise, Ultima Thule, Montsalvat, Mu, Schlaraffenland, Christianopolis, Hyperborea, and others that I’d never heard of before, plus our hollow Earth — all of which lived in the wishful thoughts and dreams of countless of our forebears. Of a kind with Eco’s previous literary cornucopia, The Infinity of Lists (see my review above), The Book of Legendary Lands offers hundreds of glorious full-color plates of artwork, maps, film stills, and photographs distributed among its nearly 500 pages — more than enough to stroll through and get delightfully lost in.

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Hats off to Pirsig, a schizophrenic who underwent electroshock treatment, for writing about his philosophical journey into madness in such a way as to capture the attention of tens of thousands of inquiring, questing readers. This book was recommended to me, with great enthusiasm, many times over many years. I didn’t even know until last year that it’s a novel. But as a novel I find it thin. And although it’s thought-provoking, the philosophy it seeks to forward is hit-and-miss. The most pressing question Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance leaves me asking is anything but profound: how an essay about one man’s East-meets-West philosophy, tacked on to the framework of a lackluster father-son bike trip, became a bestseller not merely raved about but profoundly loved.

W.S. Di Piero, Tombo
The fifth title in McSweeney's poetry series, this volume’s slimness belies its beautiful content. Di Piero’s poems sparkle with lexicographical gems, like rhinestones on a hard-luck nightclub singer’s slinky dress, and they sing the same songs of yearning.

Jean François Arouet de Voltaire (Richard Aldington, translator), Candide
Tragicomic melodrama wasn’t what I expected from a vaunted philosopher like Voltaire. His classic naïf-in-the-world adventure of vicissitudes piled atop ill fortune is a highly recommended weekend read. The coincidence of this being the last book I read before everything went sideways for me is noteworthy.

Larry McMurtry, Boone’s Lick
Neither an erroneous conclusion to this quarter’s reading nor a book I wanted to read, this blah western passed a few hours of time in the very bad place I had the displeasure of occupying for the latter half of March and first half of April. If you read my previous post you’ll understand the draw of this terribly un-Byronic book.