25 September, 2017

Twelve Books I Spent My Summer Reading

Never one to shy from an intimidating text, I'd had James Joyce's Ulysses on my wish list forever, until my friend Zach ordered a copy and loaned it to me. After slogging through those 800 pages of intermittent coherence, I handed it back to him with the pride of a wounded soldier returning from a decisive battle: I had faced the enemy and survived. PUSD ought to be declared a real thing, though, because I definitely needed a little talk therapy to work through my post-Ulysses stress.

Then there was a major fight and Crossroads was locked down for the better part of a week. By an astonishing stroke of luck, the prison library had just shelved a Virginia Woolf volume that included Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando — arguably her three best-known novels — and I'd checked it out a couple of days before my cell confinement began. A lot of guys deplore lockdowns, but I relished those days of silence, having every meal delivered to my door (although, cheese sandwiches do turn tedious pretty quickly), and being temporarily released from all obligation. It felt like a four-day hotel stay, except for the part where I had to bathe in the sink every night. At least the entertainment was top-notch: Woolf wrote gorgeously.

Some research for my eternal work-in-regress, the novel I seem incapable of writing, then led me through The Book of Hadith — sayings attributed to Muhammad in the Mishkat al-Masabih, selected by Charles le Gai Eaton. And because that was such a heady thing, I followed it with Marion Herbert's German translation of The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry. I almost never read anything in German, so it's reassuring that my second-language literacy is still intact. Thanks to John A., for surprising me with the gift of this modern fable.

John also ordered me Umberto Eco's sinister quasi-historical fiction The Prague Cemetery (as translated by Richard Dixon), because he and I are both so taken with Eco's genius. The Prague Cemetery turned out to be my least favorite of his novels, but even Eco at his worst is better than many writers at their best, so thank you, John, for that.

A couple of fantastical reads followed — Jennifer Egan's vaguely Gothic novel The Keep and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Doctor Jeckyll and Mister Hyde and Other Stories. Neither struck me as exceptional, but Stevenson's Scottish-dialect ghost story, "Thrawn Janet," succeeded on numerous levels and is highly recommended late-night reading for fans of supernatural tales.

My first experience with William Faulkner ended very well. I shut the cover of As I Lay Dying with a contented sigh. What a masterpiece! Faulkner surprised me by flirting with magical realism in this novel of poor Southerners' hardship. I'd supposed that his was a more terse, factual style of writing. In reality, Faulkner seems to me quite dreamily impressionistic. Marvelous stuff!

Switching gears, I moved on to a memoir. Missouri's governor, Eric Greitens, is the author of four books, including The Heart and the Fist, which details his extensive humanitarian aid work, training as a Golden Gloves boxer, Oxford University attendance as a Rhodes scholar, agonizing conditioning to become a Navy SEAL, and cofounding the nonprofit The Mission Continues with a friend. I came away with an affinity for the man I wouldn't have thought possible after seeing last year's campaign ads on TV — proof that politics exists in a different sphere of reality than the one where people actually live.

Then Nicholson Baker's novel Traveling Sprinkler proved an offbeat delight. (I'd expect nothing less from an author who once used for a novel's entire plot a businessman's trip up an office-building escalator. That book, The Mezzanine, was also a joy to read.) Thomas McCormack's thick-tongued advice, in The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, counterbalanced it. My mother gifted me the latter because, well, you just don't know where fresh knowledge is going to come from. At least she got it for cheap.

Gearing up for a slog through serious work in October, I didn't want to commit to any long-form fiction. The Best American Short Fiction 2014, despite being three years old, showed up on the library's New Books shelf and was just the thing. Jennifer Egan and Heidi Pitlor edited these phenomenal pieces from the usual assortment of magazines — Meridian to The New Yorker, and everything in between. The Best American series have yet to let me down, but the short-story collections are perennial sources of excellence.

There's also something to be said about having my morning coffee with RED MEAT, the collection of Max Cannon comic strips that makes up in flavor what it lacks in taste. Emily C. surprised me with this, and it was more fun than a mouthful of crickets. I did what I could to savor the strips, reading no more than two each day. I failed at restraining myself. RED MEAT is addictive. In the end, I binged, not even bothering with excuses. My nerves are a wreck from all that caffeine, but at least I had some good laughs.

19 September, 2017

A Freshly Scribbled Personal Poem with Nowhere Else to Go

"When I Was Young…"

The words slipped out before their import struck.
Further utterance obstructed, I clutched my face and slumped.
A low groan deeper than any half-assed laugh
Rose as camouflage.

There it is, I thought, cradling my skull.
Embodied gray in one point five kilograms,
Almost four decades a little more tattered
By every peek, reconfigured subtly by the act of reference.

Mutti, did you really used to call me Kleiner Mann,
Or was it someone else who aged me prematurely?
To a lover, once, who declared that mine
Was an old soul, it's true I offered a bag of prunes.

The boy with his slippers and robe, and his
Antiquarian collection of fossils and rocks,
Used to shred bread for ducks at the park.
He had in mind a future as an Egyptologist.

In mummification the brain was the first thing to go
Because ancient Egyptians believed it served no purpose.
Other organs were preserved in jars for the soul's journey.
Anubis, jackal-headed assayist, weighed one's vital baggage.

Immortal at sixteen, I dressed and rimmed my eyes in black,
I kept, as a pet, a rat. Rattus rattus was once deified,
Symbolic to the Egyptians as representing wise judgment and,
Further reading in adulthood reveals, also utter destruction.

* * * * *

The seed from which this poem grew was a conversation I had, sitting at the Old-Man Table. The topic that day is irrelevant. What matters is that I began a sentence with the four words that became this poem's title. There was no turning back; once you acknowledge that you're no longer young, it's all downhill. And so this poetic tumble through weedy memory, flowery patches of erstwhile interests, and past-life brambles, ending in the discovery, at the bottom, of a happenstantial connection that won't completely make sense unless you understand how I was wrongfully convicted of murder.

Predicting the future is largely impossible, but scouring the past for signs of a now-inevitable present can be all too tempting. There is nothing to stem our sense that we're onto the true reasons for everything that came to pass. As if we humans need something else to think we've got all figured out!

08 September, 2017

A Call for Inaction, Following Robert WitbolsFeugen's Indictment

According to MissouriCaseNet, Anastasia WitbolsFeugen's father, Robert WitbolsFeugen, is facing charges for statutory sodomy in Jackson County, Missouri. The incident these charges stem from allegedly took place in 2015. A lot of people in the Free Byron Case camp have believed for a long time that he has a history of child sexual abuse and are now relieved that "he finally got caught." My own opinion is different, and because it concerns a relevant, topical issue I'm dispensing with my usual policy of avoiding legal matters in blog posts. I want my supporters, the general public, and those "Keep Byron Case in Prison" people to know where I stand.

A friend recently called me the least angry person he knew, with the best reason to be angry. Of course this referred to my wrongful conviction for murder and how I move through life without the caustic bitterness that might eat a less levelheaded person alive. Kelly Moffett, the ex-girlfriend whose lie let prosecutors close a pesky three-and-a-half-year-old case, may deserve my hatred for the damage she's done, but I have (I might as well be blunt) nobler ideals. Kelly is mentally ill. The extent of her illness isn't for me to diagnose or discuss here, but it's an irrefutable fact, based on documentation and anecdotal evidence, that she's a sick woman. My belief is that Kelly should have intensive psychiatric treatment on an inpatient basis, as she's a danger to those around her and, as her behavior over the past decades has shown, to herself.

But what's Kelly Moffett got to do with Robert WitbolsFeugen's criminal charges? you ask.

Robert is unquestionably one of the reasons that I'm typing this post in a prison cell. It was Robert who harassed the Jackson County Sheriff's Department to close the case, then, when no immediate results materialized, started pointing the finger at me and my friends, whose goth mien — black clothes and hair, pale skin, makeup, and piercings — made us seem like potential subjects of interest in a case whose principals hung out in cemeteries, coffeehouses, and (maybe most pernicious) video rental stores. It was Robert who invented theories of cultish goings-on, to pique investigators' interest. It was Robert who hounded county and state officials well beyond a job offer from the Jackson County Legislature and the passage of Interim Senate Resolution Number CL3777, which begins, "WHEREAS it is with heavy hearts that the members of the Missouri Senate pause to recognize the life and lifetime achievements of a remarkable young woman, Anastasia Elizabeth WitbolsFeugen of Independence, Missouri." It was Robert who forced authorities into an apparent ethical bind over the case and engineered the political pressure to close the fucking thing ASAP.

I have every reason to want both Kelly Moffett and Robert WitbolsFeugen to suffer the kind of torture that's been inflicted on me because of their actions…but I don't.

I especially don't share the notion that Robert's criminal charges are anything more than a curiosity at this point. There was a lot of scuttlebutt about allegations of child sexual abuse — of neighbor kids, of Robert's own daughters — sparked by statements made during the Sheriff's Department investigation. Any truth in these allegations would slightly bolster the already-established belief that Anastasia was suicidal, the whole week before her death, in that breaking up with Justin Bruton forced her to move back in with the man who may have molested her for years — but this is speculative at best. Besides, the man hasn't even had his pretrial hearing yet, at which the admissible evidence will be discussed in court. With what I'm big enough to admit is my own smug piety, I want everyone who reads this to know that I believe Robert deserves the benefit of the doubt. He crusaded against it for me, but our criminal justice system is based on certain principles, one of which is the presumption of innocence. A person who stands accused of a crime must be considered innocent of that crime unless sufficient evidence is presented by the prosecution to eliminate all reasonable doubt. I believe in this right even more fervently because it was denied me and led to my being imprisoned for the rest of my life simply because I befriended two kids my own age whose problems were beyond their abilities to grow beyond.

Robert WitbolsFeugen is a profoundly damaged human being who's done despicable things. He's also, presumably, innocent. Please, everyone, let the justice system grind its way to a conclusion in this matter without interference. Overemotional activism has led to enough injustice already.

01 September, 2017

An Autoerotic Poem… of Sorts

The Boy Racer

The leather shift knob in his feverish palm
Grows hot, having once itself lived (though, never
This much). Last month he installed a dual exhaust
And an intercooler — thrills and chills. The turbocharger's whine
Is his ecstasy given voice, as the two clutches in a single year
Worn out, the three torn tires, and that rubbed-raw shifter
He's so fond of jerking before punching hard through
Corners — that rush of gravity! — can all attest.
The boy fills with only premium.
He spends Saturdays massaging
Mink oil into the black fleshy seats
To keep them supple, tender as a lover.
And lovers, his ladies, titter at first, then take offense
When he doesn't let them light their cigarettes
And dust up the ashtray, maybe burn a little circle.
The girls are soon enough replaced; the car's his true darling,
Responsive recipient of his ministrations. Her specs are
To his fine-tuned ears poetic: octane rating, degrees
Fahrenheit, revolutions per minute, foot-pounds….
And he's thinking into the distance, half-fantasy,
About running with a sexy ten-speed tranny,
Because he's fueled with a lust, adrenaline combusting,
And will go until the wheels come off.

* * * * *

"The two are mutually exclusive," a friend responded to my rhetorical question, but why should there be such incompatibility between an interest in motorsports and an interest in literature? A guy who takes his car to the track, on weekends, can spend Monday through Friday writing novels. Surely there exists a crossover demographic (tiny niche though it must be) of NASCAR fans conversant with the works of Baudelaire. I can't accept that my own appreciation for the written word, combined with the fact that the exhaust note of a well-tuned V-8 can give me gooseflesh, makes me some kind of unicorn. And yet, I have never met anyone else who shares such a love.

Whether or not my friend's notion of exclusivity holds true has, obviously, nothing to do with "The Boy Racer." This just seemed as good a time as any to revisit the subject. The poem's about a young man's monomaniacal, fetishistic fixation on his car. That is all it's about. Well, that and giving me an excuse to conflate the shared slang term for transmission and transvestite — how could I pass that up?