Category Archives: Writing

Henrik Ibsen — At Home and At Work

We went to see Henrik Ibsen’s home on Friday. In Oslo. We were in Oslo! It was cold for a summer day, quite rainy, never did really stop raining the whole time. So all my photos have a tremendous background of grey skies and water. Still, Oslo is a lovely place.

Reading Ibsen again was good too — I confess I read him too young. I read The Doll House I think, long long ago. Didn’t really understand it, what could I know of bourgeois emptiness and the disfigurement of women under hypocritical middle-class moralities? Like another planet, and a fairly boring, if not downright nasty one. I remember not liking it.

I like Ibsen so much better now — I worry, perhaps, that I know too much now about bourgeois emptiness. But still only from the outside. I can see, though, why Eleanor Marx would work so hard to translate them into English, why she wrote of seeing Hedda Gabler (1890) in the theatre and emerging transfixed. It was my favourite of these three. There are women here who save, and women who destroy, but all of them feel like real women. Rounded. Fighting their boundaries and the customs that hem them in, even if like Hedda, they don’t have the self-awareness to fight well. This is the tragedy of women who have not found meaning in life, but know that it is missing. Know that the narrow role allotted them is not enough. Hedda wasn’t brave enough to strike through to the centre of things — maybe she wouldn’t have been a nasty bully if she had. I wonder. But she was too brave to live constrained under the power of a man.

The there is The Pillars of the Community (1877). Here Lona has returned from the New World to the Old to shake out the stuffiness and the hypocrisy. She knows just what she wants, is comfortable in her own skin. The New World continues to be a place for Europeans to reinvent themselves, escaping the constraints and disfigurings of middle-class society. Here, the possibilities it offered and the woman who has grasped them, win a happy ending for everyone.

It felt a bit didactic, but I quite loved it as exemplary of that Victorian capitalist who long ago ceased to exist — the one who grew rich on others’ misery yet who was firmly anchored in position and place. This led to a paternalism, a sense of duty, a sense of being a pillar of the community. While it is entirely hypocritical to say that their investments were disinterested, they still had a care to ensure their investments could be seen as building and growing their community.

Hell of paternalistic and hypocritical though — here he has secretly bought up all the land where he is trying to bring a railway line in:

Karsten Bernick: See, I have risked this for the good of the community.

Lona Hessel calls him on it. You have to like her.

Karsten Bernick: And isn’t it the community itself that forces us into crooked ways? What would have happened here if I hadn’t dealt secretly? They would all have thrown themselves into the concern, divided it, scattered it, mismanaged and bungled the whole thing…That’s why my conscience absolves me in this particular case. It is only in my hands that these properties can become of permanent benefit to the many people they will provide with a living. (97)

He is, of course, in the process of replacing workers with machines, forcing them beyond their capacities, and almost commits murder. But at the last moment he is saved from his own self, which allows him to see himself truly and repent. Come out to the community he has felt so constrained by, even as he comes clean. A nice moral.

I liked the The Wild Duck (1884) better. Liked that the wealthy idealist in this play does more damage than good. Is as blind as his avaricious father, but in different ways.  I loved how this play turned The Pillars of the Community on its head in a sense, complicated the value of truth, showing its destructive power. I particularly loved this interchange:

Relling: While I remember it, young Mr Werle — don’t use that exotic word ‘ideals’. We have a good enough native word: ‘lies’.

Gregers: Do you mean the two things are related?

Relling: Yes. Like typhus and typhoid fever. (244)

I’m still thinking about Relling’s ‘medical’ use of the ‘saving lie’. Just another way towards misery, but whether more or less miserable is a difficult question. Hjalmar Ekdal is a vain, weak man. Perhaps What was best was whatever kept little Hedvig and the wild duck alive.

Ibsen’s house and the museum attached was by far the priciest thing we saw in Oslo, apart from perhaps Engebret Cafe, where Ibsen ate on occasion along with Grieg and Bjornstjerne Bjornson and etc (and where Munch was kicked out of, after accusing staff of stealing his gloves and scarf). It was delicious however, and all paneled wood, which you know I loved.

 Oslo - Engebret Cafe

I failed completely to get a good shot of Ibsen’s home’s exterior… here is an oblique shot, where this wonderful statue faces the park where the palace sits:

Ibsen in Oslo

What it once looked like:

We had walked across the park to get to the museum from one of the precisely ten thousand Scandic hotels scattered across the city. It was bought when Ibsen was old and famous and rolling in funds — and so he ended his days in a setting very much like one of his plays:

In face he did all the decorations himself, like his own stage set. It is quite opulent. The dining room and salon (with colours all off due to the light):

Ibsen in Oslo

His amazing study — his wife used to sell tickets to see it after he died, people would line up. She lived here until her death in 1914. It was turned into dentist offices before being returned to almost its original state:

Ibsen in Oslo

They even rescued the bath from a farmer’s fields.

Ibsen wrote five hours every day. Exactly.

One one wall of the study, Ibsen hung a huge portrait of Strindberg — his mortal enemy. I read Strindberg before our Stockholm adventure, and never got round to blogging that. While I quite liked The Red Room, his plays had me raging over the treatment of women. I prefer Ibsen.

Ibsen in Oslo

Suzannah died in this chair  (on the right behind glass) in the lovely but very little library, sitting up as she had wished

Ibsen in Oslo

Ibsen in Oslo

In addition to his plays with interesting women, there are the lovely hand drawn certificates he made for his wife Suzannah on special days:

Ibsen in Oslo

That was from the museum, full of fascinating odds and ends:

Ibsen in Oslo

Ibsen in Oslo

We didn’t go direct from his home to the Grand Cafe, where he went every day. But we did go. Here is Munch’s drawing of Ibsen at the Grand Cafe:

Oslo

It has changed quite a bit, but still feels very expensive and rather glamorous. We drank wine.

Oslo -- Grand Cafe

Oslo -- Grand Cafe

While wandering we also accidentally passed the location of his first house (I think, it’s in Norwegian) that his wife Suzannah hated, said it was cold and all corridors…

Ibsen in Oslo

I could end with his grave, which we found in Vår Frelsers gravlund…

Oslo -- Vår Frelsers gravlund

But instead will end with the cafe, where we actually found a very decent cup of coffee:

Oslo

Gaston Bachelard: The House in Literature

Bachelard The Poetics of SpaceIn Chapter 2 of The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard moves from phenomenology (see part 1) to a tying of philosophy to particular kinds of spaces (see part 2) to read houses and rooms written by great writers.I have gone very Walter Benjamin on these posts, they are mostly strings of quotes to ponder. At least what follows is not all from Bachelard himself. For example, the poetic epigraph from Paul Eluard, Dignes de vivre:

Quand les cimes de notre ciel se rejoindront
Ma maison aura un toit.

(When the peaks of our sky come together
My house will have a roof.) (39)

I swooned away just a little there. Bachelard turns to poetry and fiction because how else to understand how space transfixes us?

In this dynamic rivalry between house and universe, we are far removed from any reference to simple geometrical forms. A house that has been experience is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space. (47)

He describes how Bosco’s Malicroix works to help us understand the power of that which surrounds us:

the world influences solitary man more than the characters are able to do. … the cosmos molds mankind, it can transform a man of the hills into a man of islands and rivers, and that the house remodels man. (47)

Quotes William Goyen from novel House of Breath:

That people could come into the world in a place they could not at first even name and had never known before; and that out of a nameless and unknown place they could grow and move around in it until its name they knew and called with love, and call it HOME, and put roots there and love others there; so that whenever they left this place they would sing homesick songs about it and write poems of yearning for it, like a lover … (58)

I have thought a lot about this from friends with The Circle Works, not about the creation of home, but the creation of warm, welcoming spaces that serve to foster human beings and community growth. Bachelard writes

But I now believe that we can go deeper, that we can sense how a human being can devote himself to things and make them his own by perfecting their beauty. (69)

There is more to be found here, this is a book I look to come back to. But in the meanwhile, Bachelard makes me wonder if I would not do better to quote single lines from my favourites poems, like this one, another poem fragment from Milosz:

L’odeur du silence est si vielle

(The odor of silence is so old…)

To end? A copyrighted picture of Bachelard in his beautiful library…oh the thoughts I could think in such a space!

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Iron Fist, or white wish fulfillment from its beginnings

Ah Iron Fist. I read the Essentials Volume 1 because by the end of it he partners up with Luke Cage, and I love Luke Cage. I wanted to know just exactly who Luke Cage was getting mixed up with.

It ain’t pretty.

Too bad it’s way too late for Luke Cage to stay away.

Iron Fist wasn’t really enough to write about, but Netflix is making a series about the dude inspiring some controversy. Undoubtedly to cross over with Luke Cage (yay) and Jessica Jones (yay). I enjoyed a recent article by Noah Berlatsky with the subheading ‘iron flop’ and the title ‘“Iron Fist” proves Marvel is obsessed with rich white men—and it’s ruining their superheroes’.

Which is funny, partly because it’s true given there’s Iron Bat and Bat Fist and Dr Strangebatiron and more. Only one of them is an arms dealer at least. Iron Fist could have been, should have been Asian. He gets his powers from a fabled village in China’s K’un Lun mountains — where his DAD is from. Marvel argued they needed an ‘outsider’, which makes no sense as justification for casting a white guy. My favourite part apart from the title was actually the quote from Shaun Lau, an Asian-American activist and co-creator of the “No, Totally!” podcast (which I will have to listen to except I’m not much of a podcast girl and haven’t even finished my beloved Welcome to Nightvale since I quite farming):

“I don’t think people understand the extent to which ‘outsider’ describes the life of an Asian-American,” Lau said. “When I walk down the street, I’m not perceived as an American because of the way I look. But I did a family trip to China, Japan, and Hong Kong, when I was 19, and I didn’t fit in at all in any of those places. I don’t speak the language, just looking at me the people who live there knew that I was American.”

Unlike Rand, Asian Americans are perceived as aliens both in the US and abroad. “Asian-Americans really are this level of outsider that would work really, really well with the character of Danny Rand,” Lau said.

Ultimately, Lau argued that casting a white actor to play Danny was a “missed opportunity” for creating a new narrative.

It really was. It should have been done. Even in these early comics you feel how awkward and weird it is that Iron Fist is white, especially as all his family drama and their connections to China unfold. It never makes much sense. 1974 feels pretty late for that kind of shit, but there it is. Anyway, that shit keeps happening.

But reading the comics you realise this is something that often ‘ruined’ their superheroes. It is hardly surprising Marvel felt they had to cast Iron Fist as white — not that anyone in their production department necessarily read these early comics. But they are entirely white male wish fulfillment (and what else are many of these comics and films really about?) They are written as if *you*, the imagined (white, male) reader were iron Fist:

I know I’m still learning my way around comics, but I haven’t come across this before. I mean, look at that last panel, you, the imagined (white, male) reader *are* Iron Fist with crazy muscles about to kick some ass. It just keeps going.

I liked that it was ‘kung-fu’ heavy, but it so reminded me of the multiple films in which dudes from the US become martial arts saviours — they still get made even when the only explanation for white prowess is down to fate and watching kung-fu films. I never understood what was up with any of them, but clearly they belong in a long tradition of white guys longing to appropriate the awesomeness of another culture and pretend it really belonged to them all along. At least some of them train a few years for it, but still. I long for the film where Michelle Yeoh reduces each and every one of them into a quivering pile of humiliated jelly.

In fact the only good thing about Iron Fist is how awesome the ladies in it are, like Colleen Wing and Misty Knight.

Anyway, the various writers on the team keep up this writing style of making *you* , the imagined (white, male) reader the hero for a long time. You, the ‘master’ of chi.  At least, occasionally, there is a crazy cool monster.

Anyway, that’s me done ranting about Iron Fist, we definitely don’t need more billionaire heroes. Though I confess I did enjoy his visit to London. Look! It’s the Post Office Tower!

And ah, the London slums (?) between Maida Vale and Paddington. The good old days.

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Two Poems by Derek Walcott (colonialism, cities, words of fire…)

A City’s Death by Fire

After that hot gospeller has levelled all but the churched sky,
I wrote the tale by tallow of a city’s death by fire;
Under a candle’s eye, that smoked in tears, I
Wanted to tell, in more than wax, of faiths that were snapped like wire.
All day I walked abroad among the rubbled tales,
Shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar;
Loud was the bird-rocked sky, and all the clouds were bales
Torn open by looting, and white, in spite of the fire.
By the smoking sea, where Christ walked, I asked, why
Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths;
To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath
Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails,
Blessing the death and the baptism by fire. (6)

Origins

VII

The sea waits for him, like Penelope’s spindle,
Ravelling, unravelling its foam
Whose eyes bring the rain from far countries, the salt rain
That hazes horizons and races,
Who, crouched by our beach fires, his face cracked by deserts,
Remembering monarchs ask us for water
Fetched in the fragment of an earthen cruse,
and extinguishes Troy in a hissing of ashes,
In a rising of cloud.

Clouds, vigorous exhalations of wet earth,
In men and in beasts the nostrils exalting in rain scent,
Uncoiling like mist, the wound of the jungle,
We praise those whose back on hillsides buckles on the wind
To sow the grain of Guinea in the mouths of the dead,
Who, hurling their bone-needled nets over the cave mouth,
Harvest ancestral voices from its surf.
Who, lacking knowledge of metals, primarily of gold,
Still gather the coinage of cowries, simple numismatists,
Who kneel in the open sarcophagi of cocoa
To hallow the excrement of our martyrdom and fear,
Whose sweat, touching earth, multiplies in crystals of sugar
Those who conceive the birth of white cities in a raindrop
And the annihilation of races in the prism of the dew. (15-16)

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The Origins of the Black Panther

13528786More Comics! The Black Panther to be precise, it is such an exciting time right now, with Ta Nehisi Coates revamping the Black Panther for Marvel (I love this revamping) — even as Netflix’s Luke Cage series is filling my facebook feed. I have to wait until Christmas to see it. Too long to wait, sure — but it is also a good sort of present. It will also let me finish reading those early Marvel beginnings. These two Black superheroes of the Marvel universe couldn’t be more different, but I have enjoyed them both immensely.

Black Panther is the first, appearing in July 1966, Fantastic Four issue #52, and then sporadically — guess I’ll have to hunt down those issues. I didn’t so much care for the Fantastic Four, mostly as white and wealthy and respectful of 1950s conventions and American as apple pie. There was none of the fumbling towards their powers either, or deep interior conflict which made me love the Hulk so much. The Black Panther has none of the same kind of interior conflict either, but his debut is fascinating in terms of both the white gaze on race, and the white gaze on Africa. he is T’challa, prince of Wakanda, a small African kingdom made rich by the presence of an extraterrestrial metal (vibranium), and thus torn between the heights of technology but also tradition. The Essential Collection contains the collected stories from Jungle Action (1973-1976) #6-22, and then the new Black Panther (1977) #1-10. The first few covers:

img_4709 img_4711There is some crazy jungle action going on here. This is Jack Kirby’s initial vision for…the coal tiger! Ha, I’m glad they didn’t stick with that. I do like those shoes though! And the collar. This also reminds me that all of these were originally published in most garish colour — you forget that reading these collections in black and white, and it changes the experience of them.

jack-kirby-black-panther-early-design001

There’s some geography in here too, because that’s how they used to roll in those days. From the end of the first ish:

Black PantherPiranha cove! Serpent Valley! Panther Island! I would have fucking loved this map when I was 13. This parallels in its way the diagrams of the Fantastic Four’s secret but not-really-secret headquarters in the big city. It allows the writer to play more as well.

So back to the jungles…look at me taking some these pictures in the October sunshine.

img_4669A lot of these enemies are from the U.S. — where T’challa has just returned from (bringing with him the lovely black power figure of Monica Lynne, who causes all kinds of uproar and jealousy amongst the ladies — he rescued her in NY, but we don’t get to see that). Below we have Venom, ‘he had been known as Horatio Walters, and when he was young, he thought the name quite poetic — until scorn and derision killed the poetry in him.’ It’s surprising (or is it) how many of the villains have been twisted by bullying and discrimination in the U.S., and some, like Venom, are white even.

img_4675There are many references to pulp in here (I love it), and an interesting narrative of hero returned (from the U.S. to Africa — a familiar longing expressed in these times), an interesting shift in culture — ‘Damn! He thinks, must all of his reference points be so foreign to his native land?’ There is also so much poetry in Don McGregor’s prose. Like ‘The mist is carnivore pink…’

img_4677I love Rich Buckler’s drawings as well. It gets real poetic as a matter of fact — is that because this is Africa? An indigenous, tribal tradition welded uncomfortably with technology?

img_4680Such a different feel from Marvel’s other comics — at least the ones I’ve read. There’s a lot more detail as well, cool use of silhouettes, good monsters. And the Black Panther ‘consumed by a sense of his own mortality.’ Wrestling with what all this fighting is turning him into.

img_4682Being Africa, there is, of course, the obligatory dinosaur issue. But still, DINOSAUR ISSUE. ‘The valley is aptly named. It is evolution denied, time standing as stagnant as the air and water.’ This is evocative of so much adventure fiction and views of the African continent as a whole. But with a twist,

img_4685Dinosaurs being used to fight a technologically advanced African kingdom. They are being transported in a pleasantly maniacal plan by Eric Killmonger — one-time native of Wakanda, exiled and ended up in Harlem. Which broke him more or less.

This is a liberal comic you see, there’re some thoughts on revolution — and how it never works out. Bad guys? They’re for it, but it’s all an illusion. Makes you feel for the bad guys.

img_4689Still, it’s got dinosaurs. They are pretty awesome. Dinosaurs and radio sonar.

img_4691So it’s really interesting when T’Challa and Monica Lynne leave Wakanda (after another adventure or three). Lynne feels so liberated-sister-from-New-York-or-Oakland, but really she’s from Georgia, and returns there when her sister dies. And thus begins the most interesting series of all, as the Black Panther goes up against the Klan. But look at this cover.

img_4694I found this amazing actually. ‘In the heart of civilization, T’challa battles the primitive power of the clan!’ I’m liking this contrast of civilized and primitive. I can see why this might have been controversial.

img_4695Her sister had been doing some investigating, and died in suspicious circumstances… there’s a mix of historical stuff in here too, as Monica imagines a different fate of her great grandfather if the panther had been there to save him from lynching at the hands of the soul strangler:

img_4696There is a plucky investigative reporter, a crochety father who eventually overcomes years of practical silence and decides to stand up for himself. There are racist white cops supported by a generally racist white populace, a lot of daily harassment and threats — it’s enjoyable watching the Black Panther give them their dues, I have to say. Because it’s the clan, you’re just waiting for when T’challa gets tied to a burning cross… and escapes. Monica’s sister worked in a real estate office and was killed there, there’s more than a hint that the night riders that are caught up in development schemes and corrupt politics and it’s hard to see just where all of this will end up. But it’s good to see that we are being reminded of how much our present is shaped by this past…

img_4697

And then suddenly it is all over. Cut off in the middle. Poof. I was very sad.

And we are on to the Jack Kirby revamp in the Back Panther issue 1, and it’s 1977.

img_4701

A crazy, very campy superhero run-in with the collectors. Oo-ooh. Not that I didn’t enjoy it. There are some special characters, like Colonel Pigman, and Mr Little. The Black Panther mostly runs around without his mask on as well, it makes it feel very different — but everything about this version is different, from the blocky vitality and force of Kirby’s drawings to the treasure maps and silly villains. No klan here.

img_4698Still, enjoyable. Slapstick as well.

img_4703

And I don’t know what I think about this vision of a ruling African family, apart from not liking it much.

img_4704

But they do all join together to defeat a powerful foe, each of them finding their own power inside. That was nice.

I look forward to more…

 

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Poverty, Quesadillas & Alien Interventions: Juan Pablo Villalobos

Juan Pable Villalobos I loved Si viviéremos en un lugar normal
by Juan Pablo Villalobos, enjoyed again the way that fiction can open up experience of home, patria, poverty, frustration, entrapment, and the inflationary economy in ways that non-fiction cannot. This post tells you a very little of the plot but does kind of involve a spoiler, so be warned.

En los anos ochenta en Lagos de Moreno, un pueblo donde hay mas vacas que personas y mas curas que vacas, una familia mas bien pobre intenta sobreponerse a los estramboticos peligros de vivir en Mexico.

On the amazon.co.uk page, this book is being sold as Quesadillas, rather than If Only We Lived in a Normal Place, and this description from the back is translated as:

It’s the 1980s in Lagos de Moreno – a town where there are more cows than people, and more priests than cows – and a poor family is struggling to get by.

Struggling to get by, yes without doubt, but this translation misses the vital point. I’d say rather ‘trying to overcome the absurd dangers of life in Mexico.’ Possibly bizarre rather than absurd. The rest of the translations are my own and done in a little too much haste, and all faults are mine.

This is, above all, a book about absurdity — of poverty, of politics, of life. The sense of absurdity that emerges from the anger that emerges from this poverty. That gut feeling that it doesn’t make sense pushed to its absurd liberatory conclusions that therefore other absurdities are equally likely to exist. The black humour that resonates so strongly with my favourite approach towards getting through the injustices of life. It is the same kind of humour found in The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi, describing the absurdities of Palestinian life under occupation. I adore the fact that both involve alien interventions from outer space (or do they?) because why not? (I mean honestly, why not?) What is stranger than reality, if not the way everyone ignores the injustices of its strangeness?

I can see, though, why they called the English version Quesadillas — delicious morsels of cheese melted inside a tortilla. For me, this use of quesadillas to explain the experience of the Mexican economy in the 80s is almost nostalgic, because here in the UK they remain a treasured memory as any semblance of the cheese required to make them does not exist here. But my own longings are beside the point.

Entramos en una fase de racionamiento de quesadillas que terminó por radicalizar las posturas políticas de todos los miembros de la familia. Nosotros concíamos muy bien la montaña rusa de la economía nacional a partir del grosor de las quesadillas que nos servía mi madre en casa. Incluso habíamos creado categorías: quesadillas inflacionarias, quesadilla normales, quesadillas devaluación y quesadillas de pobre — citadas en orden de mayor opulencia a mayor mezquindad. Las quesadillas inflacionarias eran gordas para evitar que se pudriera el queso que mi madre había comprado en estado de pánico, ante el anuncio de una nueva subida en los precios de los alimentos y el peligro tangible de que la cuenta del súper pasara de los billones a los trillones de pesos. Las quesadillas normales eran las que comeríamos todos los días si viviéramos en un país normal, pero si fuéramos un país normal no comeríamos quesadillas, por lo cual también las llamábamos quesadillas imposibles. Las quesadillas devaluación perdían sustancia por razones psicológicas, más que económicas, eran las quesadillas de la depresión crónica nacional — y eran las más comunes en casa de mis padres. Finalmente teníamos las quesadillas de pobre, en las que la presencia del queso era literaria: abrías la tortilla y en lugar del queso derretido mi madre había escrito la palabra queso en la superficie de la tortilla. Lo que no habíamos conocido todavía era el chantaje del desabastecimiento quesadillesco. (17-18)

In English:

We entered into a phase of rationing quesadillas that ended by radicalizing the political postures of every member of our family. We knew all too well the roller coaster of our national economy through the thickness of the quesadillas that our mother served to us at home. We had even created categories: inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and the quesadillas of the poor — named in order from greatest opulence to greatest meanness. The inflationary quesadillas were fat to prevent the great amount of cheese from going bad that my mother had bought in a panic, confronting the announcement of another hike in the price of food and the tangible danger that the supermarket bill might go from billions to trillions of pesos. The normal quesadillas were those we would have eaten every day if we had lived in a normal country, but if we had lived in a normal country we wouldn’t be eating quesadillas at all, which is why we also called them impossible quesadillas.  The devaluation quesadillas lost substance for psychological reasons, more than economic ones, they were the quesadillas of a chronic national depression — and they were the most common in the house of my parents. Finally, we had the quesadillas of the poor, in which the presence of cheese was only literary: you opened the tortilla and in the place of melted cheese my mother had written the word cheese on the tortilla’s surface. What we still hadn’t yet come to know was the blackmail of the cheese shortage.

Amazing. That encapsulates much of the humour, the next sentence captures how it hits a little below the belt, and makes it hurt:

A mi hermano no le gustaba ser pobre, pero la pobreza de los peregrinos circundantes no modificaba la nuestra, si acaso nos dejaba clasificados como los menos pobres de ese grupo de pobres, lo cual lo único que demostraba era que siempre se podía ser más y más pobre: ser pobre era un pozo sin fondo. (78)

In English:

My brother hated being poor, but the poverty of the surrounding pilgrims didn’t change our own, even if did allow us to classify ourselves as the least poor among this group of poor people, that only demonstrated that it was always possible to be ever more poor: being poor was a well without bottom.

A well without bottom — that’s what it is, isn’t it. And always you are afraid you have further to fall.

Two brothers are already embarked on picaresque adventures here — in search of their two younger brothers who have disappeared (meaning more quesadillas are available for everyone else). Their adventure involves a fight and a split — they lasted longer than I probably would have with any of my brothers, however. Orestes refuses to believe the story of his older brother that they have been abducted by aliens, (Orestes is our hero, they are all names after Greek figures — Aristóteles, Orestes, Arquíloco, Calímaco, Electra, Cástor y Pólux) and he continues on to the city, works out a con involving a machine with a red button, survives, returns. The unfinished shoebox of a house that he hates stands in the way of the development of a rich neighborhood, and they are evicted brutally, watch it torn down in front of them. It is all managed by their wealthy neighbour who also works inseminating cows — Orestes once went to play there with the son, eat their wealthy food, experience their wealth of possessions, and disdain. At one point he has to apologise to them, work for them, and oh, I burned with him. All these feelings. So familiar. There is, too, that feeling that things just happen to you and you have to react, the adrift feeling of circumstances pushing you here and there because you are not someone with the power or money to stand still, make your own fate.

And then:

Aparece una gigantesca nave interplanetaria…

— No puede ser verdad…

¿Y por qué no?

¿Por qué no, papá?

¿Acaso no viviámos en el país en que vivíamos? ¿No se suponía que nos pasaban cosas fantásticas y maravillosas todo el tiempo? ¿No hablábanos con los muertos ¿No decía todo el mundo que éramos un país surrealista? (180-181)

In English:

A giant interplanetary ship appeared…

— It can’t be true…

And why not?

Why not, papa?

Maybe we don’t live in the country in which we live? Didn’t we all know that fantastic and marvelous things happened to us all the time? Did we not speak with the dead? Did we not tell the whole world that we we were a surrealist country?

All the rules are off, and with clicks of the red button on Orestes’ little machine, the house of their dreams is built there in the field, reality constructed in ways that the poor are never able to construct their own realities:

al final, in the end:

Ésta es nuestra casa
Ésta es mi casa
Ahora intenta tirarla (186)

These are the fighting words, now there is something worth defending and everything is different.

This is our house
This is my house
Now just try and tear it down.

Just try.

But, as always, the victory is terribly fragile.

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June Jordan: A handful of flowers and fruits

June Jordan - Directed by DesireA few more poems from June Jordan, easing the end of a rough week where so much had to be done, almost all of it cold-derailed. I love her poetry, love how Jordan always holds in precarious shining balance joy and suffering, life itself as we are bound within it. Part of nature, never apart, and nothing is wholly innocent.

Queen Anne’s Lace

(From Things I Do in the Dark – 1977)

Unseemly as a marvelous an astral renegade
now luminous and startling (rakish)
at the top of its thin/ordinary stem
the flower overpowers and outstares me
as I walk by thinking weeds and poison
ivy, bush and fern or runaway grass:
You (where are you, really?) never leave me
to my boredom: numb as I might like to be.
Repeatedly
you do revive
arouse alive

a suffering. (211)

Her words take my breath away sometimes.

Sunflower Sonnet Number Two

Supposing we could just go on as two
voracious in the days apart as well as when
we side by side (the many ways we do
that) well! I would consider then
perfection possible, or else worthwhile
to think about. Which is to say
I guess the costs of long term tend to pile
up, block and complicate, erase away
the accidental, temporary, near
thing/pulsebeat promises one makes
because the chance, the easy new, is there
in front of you. But still, perfection takes
some sacrifice of falling stars for rare.
And there are stars, but none of you, to spare.

Always they fill me with release, reading in these perfect words the wordless furies I know, resistance I feel.

From Sea to Shining Sea

From Living Room – 1985
6
**

This was not a good time to be married

The Pope has issued directives concerning
lust that make for difficult interaction
between otherwise interested parties

This was not a good time to be married.
This was not a good time to buy a house
at 18% interest.
This was not a good time to rent housing
on a completely decontrolled
rental market.
This was not a good time to be a Jew
when the national Klan agenda targets
Jews as well as Blacks among its
enemies of the purity of the people
This was not a good time to be a tree
This was not a good time to be a river
This was not a good time to be found with a gun
This was not a good time to be found without one
This was not a good time to be gay
This was not a good time to be Black
This was not a good time to be a pomegranate
or an orange
This was not a good time to be against
the natural order

—Wait a minute—

**

7
Sucked by the tongue and the lips
while the teeth release the succulence
of all voluptuous disintegration

I am turning under the trees
I am trailing blood into the rivers
I am walking loud along the streets
I am digging my nails and my heels into the land
I am opening my mouth
I am just about to touch the pomegranates
piled up precarious

This is a good time
This is the best time
This is the only time to come together
Fractious
Kicking
Spilling
Burly
Whirling
Raucous
Messy

Free

Exploding like the seeds of a natural disorder. (330-331)

What better way to respond to such a week, such a world, than this. Together with a dream of growing a much much thicker skin.

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Stars Falling is out today

Stars fallingA new story, ‘Stars Falling,’ is out in the world today! Always feels good to have a new story out. A nice surprise to find an acceptance not a rejection. A surprise that really did me good.

I know they say writing is mostly about rejection, but that doesn’t make it easier really.

So, I am so happy to have a story out. And sad at the same time, because this story makes me damn sad. I am not entirely sure where this story comes from — other than being spewed out by a whole mess of memories and feelings that never usually see the light of day. Mostly from growing up in Tucson, from LA. Mostly of that world where women blame each other for the things men do. That world where they stay with the men who beat them. Maybe this story is a twisted feminist take on domestic violence, but I worry it is not feminist enough. I don’t feel feminism has equipped me very well to deal with the memory of junior high when one girl curled her hands in another girls hair and beat her head into the concrete and there was blood everywhere. The memory of women who thought love was violent passion and jealousy and fighting and making up — and the memory of myself not totally rejecting that idea — despite the amazing model I so luckily had in my parents. It didn’t equip me very well to deal with such contradiction, or the phone call I picked up to hear ‘Bitch, who is this? Bitch, what are you doing at my man’s house? I’m going to come over there and kill you.’

I was pretty sure it was a wrong number. But not entirely. Not after being hit in the face by another ex for stealing her man, even though she was already married again with two kids. I know I gave up on feminism way too early, I didn’t even know about the waves when I gave up. I been writing it, and coming back to it theoretically in various guises, with the help of bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins among others. All of these things being the reason, of course, why feminism is so desperately important.

This story is still back dealing with the part of the world I tried to leave behind, but if life teaches you anything it’s that you can’t really do that. Not that any of this was conscious while I was writing, it’s not how my writing works. Nothing in this is based on anything real except the L.A. bar with its velvet green curtains, pricey martinis and the god-awful band. I had a good night too, with Larry and his friends, and wrote some notes down on a napkin. Like a real writer does. But I look at this thing now I’ve written it and see it as a kind of reworking of these memories, and a channel for the anger that I still carry from years helping women and children get their papers under the Violence Against Women Act, then encountering so many more women going through his — or coming out of this — through tenant work. Most of my anger is for the men, but there is some emerging from the helplessness I felt as women I loved tried to leave and went back, tried to leave and went back, tried to leave and went back. I know the cycle of violence, know how hard it is, I hate that part of me is still angry at them.

I worked on an asylum case for a man, once, who had been horribly tortured for his work in the community in El Salvador. Good work, important work. Turns out after that he started doing unspeakable things to his wife. Violence to violence, you see. I didn’t know who to be angry at then.

I have said the words ‘you have to leave him or one day he will kill you’, I have said them many times. There’s something else here too, in my mind, which is that I can’t find the right words to describe the strangeness of knowing that of all the women I have known, the woman he did kill was my friend from college who never heard those words from me. White, middle-class, not just crazy smart but also well-able to take care of herself. Esther. She was New York cool, knew arthouse movies and visited galleries and talked nonchalantly about directors and writers and artists — I had never encountered someone my age (well, one year older, all of 18) before. She helped me move into my first apartment. She was so self-possessed, and so impossibly far from the violence of my own world.

I still haven’t been able to come to terms with her death, have started writing things and stopped, started and stopped. I knew domestic violence was as prevalent among rich families as among poor from counselors and therapists I have worked with. I don’t think I could have believed it deep down. It took my partner to remind me that you never really know the demons people are facing. That leave you stabbed and bleeding, dying on the floor.

I have left a prevalence of certain attitudes behind, perhaps, but never violence.

Of all the strong and beautiful women I have known who have lived with fear of death at the hands of their partner, Esther was the best situated to get out. She was the one who did not. Esther still brings tears to my eyes and a riot of feelings I can’t sort out. Except the clarity of missing her and the guilt for not keeping in touch.

Anyway, all of this leaves me a bit ambivalent about ‘Stars Falling’. But I am rather proud it’s the only woman’s voice in this issue, flawed as it may be as a story. I write noir, and love it as a genre, because it grapples with this darkness within us and around us. It grapples in flawed ways, because how else can we try to do it, and don’t we have to try? But noir is also generally so damn male. A little in love with its own violence. A little over fond of violent women stereotypes. These other stories sharing the issue with me are good and tight and I enjoyed them, but they fit in that mold. So it almost feels the wrong company. But I hope in a challenging kind of way, so I am still glad it’s there.

Luckily the other stories I’m currently flogging have nothing like this kind of baggage attached to them.

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Emily Dickinson’s The Gorgeous Nothings

emily dickinson the gorgeous nothingsThis huge hardback book The Gorgeous Nothings is rather breathtaking — despite the fact that really it consists of scribbles from Emily Dickinson. I had earlier flipped through it a bit confused — my mum had got it from the library so I had no fore-warning of just what it contained.

This is what a flip-through will show you, envelop poems on the one side, a careful and spatially exact transcription on the other:

tumblr_mxpuemido31qd3jsao2_1280

Poems written on envelopes carefully undone and opened out, poems that spill out to fit the space allotted, even when it is tiny.

emily dickinson the gorgeous nothingsScraps of paper covered with words.

They are profoundly moving.

This was one of my favourites, and is also subject to a lovely essay at the end by Marta Werner:

benfey-dickinson-envelope a-821-trans

wheels of birds, afternoon and the west the gorgeous nothings

Werner writes

If I had not held it lightly in my hands, I would never have suspected the manner in which it was assembled. Although its brevity and immediacy place it outside the reach of conventional classifications, it bears a striking affinity to the genre David Porter names “small, rickety infinitudes.”

Look at it here, flying on the page, vying with light. (199)

The pinpricks are from where Dickinson pinned her scraps of paper together. I think of her now overflowing with scraps of paper.

circa 1850: American poet Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886). (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
circa 1850: American poet Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886). (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

 

A view of the book with Pluto the guinea pig who poses with books (and there are reviews sometimes), one of my new favourite tumblr blogs.

http://plutosbooks.tumblr.com/post/133289260584/the-complete-sherlock-holmes-and-pluto
http://plutosbooks.tumblr.com/post/133289260584/the-complete-sherlock-holmes-and-pluto

There is little that can describe the cumulative effect of these scraps of paper, these scratches of writing that you become better at puzzling through, though too often relying on the typed transcriptions. They range from pointed, sarcastic responses to daily life to collections of words that seem to mean little to deeply moving fragments so evocative of beauty.

Not until reading this did I realise just how much the rhythm of Dickinson’s poems had been shifted, regularised upon the page by her editors. These fragments show space and irregular rhythms, the process of playing with words.

And oh, did I say they are impossibly moving?

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