Category Archives: Writing

Frank’s Bar Always Did Need a Woman’s Touch

Joe Arpaio’s been in the news so much, finally getting a little bit of what is coming to him I thought I’d share this and got permission. I wrote it for Southwest Noir, edited and with art by Vince Larue, which you should totally buy. When Steven Seagal is in the news I’ll share it again. Not that this is about them. It’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever written to be honest, though I still don’t like the ending. I should probably let everyone write their own.

Clock said over an hour ‘til dawn. She could feel the light coming, knew that warmth followed. She could feel things waking in the stillness. Sad to break it with footsteps crunching across the gravel, keys jingling in her hand, the roaring of the truck. Excitement walked with her, streaked through her sleepiness. Sat tingling between her ribs. She always forgot just how fine, how very fine the earth felt this early.

The coffee smelled so damn good.

Lena didn’t care for mornings most days, but damn she loved these early starts. Heading out far out into the desert. These mornings that came with extra adrenaline, heightened awareness because water runs weren’t no simple hikes. Never knew what you were going to find, who you were going to see. Made you nervous all this bat-shit crazy militarization of the border. Made you feel righteous too, doing something about it. She smiled at Rosita beside her. Pulled out of the drive. They headed south and west through nearly empty streets towards the border.

She hugged the highway’s curves. Saguaros took form and the world brightened and glowed all along its edge. The sky looked like the inside of their abalone shell, some wisps of cloud like sage smoke. Dolly Parton sang let it shine. They turned off on the dirt track and Lena wrestled with the gears. Rosa opened one gate, and then another. Both now sat closed behind them. Nervousness sang in the air and in their shoulders, but they saw no one. First drop off point, and they loaded up their backpacks with jugs of water. It pulled heavy against their shoulders.

Lista?” she asked.

Rosa nodded, grumbling. “I wish water weren’t so damn heavy. I wish they’d get the tanks up here already.”

“Shit,” Lena said. “Me too. Bill keeps saying soon.”

“Couldn’t be soon enough.”

They walked, came to the place they had been shown months ago and had been returning to regularly since. Dropped off their water for those who were thirsty, sick, lost, dying here in the desert driven by desperation to leave homes and families and everything familiar, driven by walls and drones and agents to avoid safer trails, traditional wells. Driven to carry their dreams in life and death struggle among desert stones.

Lena wondered if this water might have saved Rosa’s brother. She always did as they stood there hand in hand. Her grandmother’s peoples had been massacred for these lands. Her father’s people drowned in sea water or suffocated in containers trying to get to them. Rosa’s dehydrated and mummified in deserts. Now they stood and thought about Hector, the heat already beginning to rise, the cicadas about to begin their chorus. Every time they did this, Lena wished she could believe in God. She knew it would make it easier, most of the people who left water like this did. Her and Rosa though, they just couldn’t manage belief no more. It was like a hole inside them. They turned and walked back to the truck, more drops to make.

But someone waited for them.

Crouched down the other side of their truck. Stepping out as the two women approached, and Lena could see that one of the two had a rifle in his hands. White men. Not border patrol. Standing there between them and the truck. Bandanas over the lower half of their faces because they’d probably seen one too many Westerns.
“Shit,” she said under her breath. Rosita’s hand squeezed hers tight. But they approached with heads held proud, as though masked vigilantes were as smart as dogs in leaving the fearless alone.

“You fellows think we’re the stagecoach carrying payroll to Yuma?” Lena asked them. She stared at the big one, knew she knew him. Didn’t know from where. Those little piggy eyes; that long mullet tied back in a ponytail. Damn. She knew him.

“A fucking comedian,” the man said, rolling his eyes. “Now what’s a fucking pair of comedians doing way out here?”

Lena bit back another wisecrack. “Hiking,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place.”

The silence dragged out a moment or two. The men looked them up and down.

“You wouldn’t have been dropping off water for no illegals now, would you?” the other asked. A gravelly voice, unpleasant, old. Wrinkled around the mean blue eyes. Retired law enforcement she guessed.

“Because why would a nice pair of ladies be doing something like that?” Pig-eye asked. “Why would they betray their country like that? Except maybe it’s not their country. No, maybe it’s not. Maybe they got some kind of allegiances to a foreign power. What do you think, Abe?”

“They might, George, they just might. Though I hate to call any woman a bare-faced liar.”

“I know Abe, but look at ‘em. And this water in the back of the truck here is definitely for some illegals. I bet we’ll find a pile more of it just over this ridge.”

“I wouldn’t take that bet.”

“You never been much of a gambler, Abe.”

Law Enforcement smiled, they could tell from the light in his eyes.
“Only ever bet on a sure thing, George. But I hate to think of what will happen to them if we’re right.”

“I know,” said Pig-eye. He pulled a large knife from some kind of buckskin sheath complete with fringe and beads, tried to nonchalantly pick at his nails. Fucker was playing both cowboy and Indian.

“Are there some hidden cameras round here, or what?” Lena snorted. “If you’re done teaching us a lesson, we’re just going to head on home now.”

Rosa squeezed her hand so hard it hurt as they took a step forward.

“Don’t you bitches move,” said Law Enforcement. His voice cut the morning like barbed wire.

They stopped.

Pig-eye had become even squintier, face like tomato above the bandana.

“Funny, you talking shit like you’re the ones armed.” He pulled a bottle of water out of the back of their truck, ripped his knife up on through it like he was gutting a fish. It looked a hard way to eviscerate a harmless bottle of water. Still, that was a sharp knife.
He pulled out another bottle. Having learned something maybe, he stabbed this one near the top. Water spurted out and he pointed it at them. The thin stream hit Lena before dying away, spent. She worked hard not to flinch. The asshole had aimed at her breasts, and now he smiled.

“Not bad for an old lady,” he said.

Her free hand clenched into a fist. The light in his eyes slimed over and fell as he leaned into their truck, methodically stabbed each bottle of water one by one. Watched their faces. Water sprayed over the edges and dripped from the bed along the tailgate, released the scent of desert rain. Lena’s heart beat uncertain between uplift and rank fear.

Pig-eye straightened

“If you’re done there, George, we got some more wetback supplies to spoil,” said Law Enforcement.

“I’m done here,” said Pig-eye. “But what are we going to do with these two?”

Law Enforcement spat. “Don’t rightly know,” he said. “Maybe they’re illegals too. Can’t take no chances now, can we? We’ll just tie ’em up and leave ’em here while we think on it. Maybe send back the patrol.”
Lena saw now that plastic handcuffs dangled from his belt.

Pig-eye took a deep breath. Leered as his hands moved down past his gut to hook into his belt. He rocked back, looked from handcuffs to women to handcuffs. His aim seemed to be suggestion; Lena’s lip curled as his eyes glinted dark at her over his puffed cheeks. Something about him said money smug, not like the other one who just looked mean and old and boiled down into leather with skin as dark as hers but burned that way by the sun. Unnatural colour. She figured he’d be meeting the cancer soon, if he hadn’t already.

“Move it. Over there.” Law Enforcement snapped. The two women walked to stand beside the truck. Rosa’s hand trembled in hers now.

“Take off your shoes and socks and throw ’em over there.” The women stared at him, and his hands tightened on the rifle. They bent down and did as he said.

“Pat ’em down, George.”

Pig-eye grinned wider, moved over to paw them. Lena drew a breath and tried to hold it until he was done, shoulders squared and head proud and rage boiling in her heart. She had to take a few breaths. He groped and pawed and she bottled down the boiling. Play it smart, girl, play it smart. Her keys now jingled from his finger and he launched them out into the desert. They flashed towards the morning sun, fell out of sight with a jagged sound of metal on metal.

“You’re sure quiet,” Pig-eye said as he came to Rosa. “Bet you don’t speaka-de-English so good”. His hands fumbled at her breasts, and her knee came up square into his balls. Bent over double, he stumbled back to lean against the truck, a thin whine emerging from beneath the handkerchief. Lena smiled even as Law Enforcement cursed them for bitches. Stepped forward and brought the butt-end of the rifle to connect squarely with the side of Rosa’s head. She collapsed in place. Lena stood frozen a moment, smile stuck in rictus to her face. Half turned, fists raised, only to meet Law Enforcement’s rifle butt driven into her stomach, driving breath from her. She fell to her knees beside Rosa, stones cutting deep.

Rosa groaned as consciousness returned, came to hands and knees. Raised a hand to her head.

“On your feet,” rasped Law Enforcement.

Supporting each other, the women stood. Pig-eye had almost recovered, but he waddled not walked. He walked up to Rosa and slapped her hard, deliberate. First across one cheek and then the other. She half fell into Lena as Pig-eye finished his search, slipping her lighter into his pocket.

He cuffed them, then. Standing too close with his smell of sweat and expensive cologne. His fat fingers caressed even as he closed the cuffs meaning to hurt. He cuffed them one to the other, then forced them back to their knees and used the second pair to cuff Rosa’s other hand to the truck. The thick plastic dug into their wrists.

“I wouldn’t struggle too much, ladies,” grated Law Enforcement. “You don’t want those cuffs tightening any more or they could get dangerous.”

Lena stared at the horizon with the fury inside of her, pain radiating from her stomach as she struggled with every breath.

“Now think about what you owe this country, and the sanctity of its borders.” Law Enforcement’s voice had razor edges. “Because it don’t owe you or those wetbacks nothing, and good Americans like us just won’t tolerate your aidin’ and abettin’ those filthy criminals bringing their drugs and their diseases over here.”

Pig-eye traced the line of blood his ring had left across Rosa’s cheek before moving to stand over their shoes. “We won’t take these too far,” he said. The women watched silently as the two men walked away from them, up over the ridge. They clearly knew where the water was stored.

“Fuckers,” spat Lena. She rearranged herself more comfortably, came to a cross-legged position, her free hand holding her stomach. She could hear herself breathe.

Rosa settled down beside her, bloodied lips worked to fluently curse gavachos in a low tone. Both sides of her face was swelling and blood rolled down her right cheek. Blood collected at her hairline. She spat more blood onto the ground.

Lena’s heart broke looking at her, and she held Rosa’s hand tight tight.

“My head is ringing,” Rosa said.

“They hit you hard, those mother fuckers.”

Lena studied the cuffs. Law Enforcement had been right, struggle risked tightening them.

“Why’d they take our goddamn shoes?” Rosa suddenly whispered.

“Fuck if I know,” Lena whispered back. “Pa’ chingar mas.”

“You think those fools are really gone? Where’d they even come from? I didn’t hear no truck.”

“Me neither.” Lena frowned. “They’re smart, looking to catch people up here. It must be back down the road a ways, which means they’ll be back, or maybe they’re walking up to the next drop off. Maybe they’re just getting off watching us from behind some rocks, sadistic mother fuckers. We gotta get out of here.”

“There’s a release mechanism on these chingaderas,” said Rosa. “But we need a pin or something. We don’t got a pin, do we.”

“Nope. You got an extra lighter they didn’t find?”

“Nope. You?”

“Nope. We’re fucked.”

Jodidas.”

Fregadas.”

“Shit.”

“We shouldn’t have left the rifle in the truck, huh.”

“Nope.”

“Still, you don’t expect two crazy vigilante crackers to jump you in the middle of the desert, do you. Even out here.”

“Shit, we got careless. But you recognize that big dude?”

“I think so. If he’s who I think he is, I been wanting to punch that pendejo in the gut for years now. Getting him in the balls was pretty good too.”

“He’s gotten a lot fatter, no? I’m still not sure, you’d think he’d have better things to do.”

“My wrists hurt.”

“I know, mine too.” Lena sighed. Twisted to look up at the sky. “We’re going to be fucked when the sun reaches us.” Her eyes returned to study the plastic bracelets cutting into their skin.

“Won’t be long,” Rosa whispered. Lena laid her head on Rosa’s shoulder, still staring at their hands.

“I know this is all Hollywood and shit, but I bet my glasses would work a little like a magnifying glass.” Lena looked up. “They might melt that way, no? How much shit have we melted in the truck over the years leaving it in the sun?”

“Maybe.” Rosa said. She was crying now, trying hard not to but crying all the same.

Rosa smoothed back her hair with her free hand, tried to smile. “Don’t hurt to try.”

The sun hit them sudden and hard, harsh, unrelenting. Heat rose in waves from the ground, cooked them like an oven, sucked moisture out of skin and breath. Lena chose two little pebbles from the ground.

“Here, suck on this. It will help you feel less thirsty.”

“Oldest trick in the book.”

“Girl, who needs new ones?”

Lena held her glasses over the plastic ring fixing them to the bumper as steady as she could. Heat radiated from the metal, it hurt to be so close. To stay so close.

The sun hurt.

Lena could feel her skin burning.

“I hate the desert,” whispered Rosa. The blood had dried dark and scabby, and her skin was burning around it. “This is what my brother must have felt before he died.”

“I know, baby, I know. But ain’t the desert’s fault. Humans are what’s fucked us.”

“Shit, it’s the vultures will be fucking with us soon. They’re circling already.”

“But not over us.” Lena squinted into the sky. “Hopefully just some road kill. Bet those vigilante motherfuckers swerve to hit ground squirrels might’ve crossed the border by mistake.”

Rosa sighed. “Assholes.”

The sun hurt.

“It smells like death,” Rosa whispered into the silence, and Lena realized it did. Strong. The vultures circled.

“Tell me a story, Lena.”

“Oh man, a story?”

“Anything,” said Rosa. “Any nice happy story.”

“I don’t think I can tell a nice happy story right now.”

“Please?” asked Rosa. “I just got the shit beat out of me by two white dudes. I need a happy story.”

“Shit,” said Lena, eyes shifting. Stayed silent a little while, thinking. Her gaze suddenly landed on her feet, white and smooth and soft, tucked under the truck so they didn’t burn as much as the rest of her.

“All right, I got a happy story.” She took a deep breath, smiled when Rosa smiled back at her and shut her swollen eyes the way a little kid would.

“I’ll tell you about when I was little, well. Tell you about how the rains came once upon a time, the monsoons. Those were different days, magical days, you know? Those days when we were little in the desert. And the biggest storms always started with a tiny little black cloud, like a smudge of charcoal. That cloud had to be sitting over Cat Mountain, or the rain wouldn’t be for us. But when it was our turn that black cloud would sit there in the middle of a great blue sky, so small I could block it out with my little thumb. The sun would be shining like this, hotter and hotter. You feel the sun, Rosa?”

“Mm,” said Rosa. “It’s burning me, this pinche sun.”

“Well, imagine the other clouds, they would come along, from East and North, South and West the other clouds would come. Dark and black they’d come. We’d all be humming like the energy in the air, storm energy. Like the spirits coming up from the earth, coming down from heaven to make our whole sky dark, hide our hills in mist and then all of a sudden the rain came. We’d watch it move across the desert like a curtain. We’d watch it coming like a wall of water. And then it would come. Imagine it Rosita, dark and misty and the air full of rain.”

Rosa licked her cracked lips, her smile grew.

“This rain pounded on the roof until we couldn’t hear talking. It pounded against the sliding glass windows so we couldn’t see outside. Then the sound of it changed, cuz the hail had come, and the winds, so strong they knocked down powerlines. The lights would go out, all at once, and we got to light candles and sit around in the rain dark. The lightening would flash, and we’d count the seconds until the thunder sounded so we’d know where the center was. We counted that storm center moving towards us, moving and moving until the lightening and the thunder came together. Crack!”
Rosa jumped. Laughed and caught her breath with pain at the same time.

“Crack! So loud our ears would ring. We’d sit there in the dark like we’re doing right now, sit there warm and dry listening to that storm blowing outside. To the hail beating against the windows, little balls bouncing across the ground.

“Then we counted the seconds as the storm moved away, counted the seconds until the hail stopped and the rain came less and less, counted the minutes until we were allowed outside. Finally dad would say we could all go out. Then there’d be no time for shoes or coats. We’d run outside barefoot.”

“Shit,” said Rosa. “No shoes? Really? You?”

“Shut up, yes me. All of us. We’d burst out of the sliding glass door, dance out of the sliding glass door and run on bare feet to try and look out and see the wash beneath our house, see how high the water was. Always that wash flooded with that little cloud over Cat Mountain. We’d run down our little path without our shoes, so excited we didn’t care about those sharp desert rocks, walking right over all those spines and thorns the rain’d made all soft. We ran and ran, and the rain made the desert smell like life. Like the creosote was breathing. Breathe deep Rosa, deep. Can you smell it?”

Rosa smiled. “You know I can smell it. All our damn water leaked out under the damn truck.”

Lena squeezed her hand. “We’d run breathing this air in in gulps, and we only stopped when we got to this little grassy bank and we could watch the crashing water. It was taller than we were, that flood. It drowned the acacias that grew on the little island in the middle, it covered the rocks we always used as spaceships. It roared down the wash full of mud and crests of white water that swirled along the banks. It left thick dirty foam behind it. The sound of it filled the whole world. Imagine that much water, Rosita. Can you hear it roaring in your ears?”

Rosa nodded.

“We couldn’t play in it until the next day when there’d be just a trickle left, full of water bugs. There’d be little blue butterflies all along the ground where it was still damp. Like the butterflies here, these ones.”

Rosa opened her eyes again, really saw the butterflies. “They’re beautiful, Lena.”

“I know. We’d walk up the wash to the old dam; the water made pools up there big enough for swimming, us being little and all. Cattails grew there. The desert would fill up with red-spotted and spade-foot toads, climbing out of the earth when the rains came. Had their babies. We’d catch them and hold them squirming in our hands, dry and just cool to the touch, the perfect size to nestle into our palms so we could feel the beating of their hearts against our skin. We once went up to the damn at just at the right time to find hundreds of baby ones, the size of my thumbnail, leaping across the ground to escape our shadows, so that we couldn’t walk all scared we’d crush them.”

“Shit, I’d like to see that.”

“Me too, even just one more time. We’d walk up and down that trickle of water in the wash. Until we were all tuckered out.”

“Poor you.”

“Naw, those were my favourite times. But look at my feet now, dude.

I used to run around barefoot all the time and now they’re all soft and useless like some old city girl. So the moral of the story is, that you’re the one who’s going to have to go look for our shoes.”

“Shit,” said Rosa, laughing. “That was nice, right up to the end. But I didn’t ask for no moral.”

“You get what you get.” Lena smiled.

The sun hurt. Climbed the sky. They curled up small as they could, hid their faces.

Lena still held her glasses steady as she could, arm aching, watched that small point of light from beneath her lids.

“Maybe this is some wishful thinking, but seems like maybe this plastic melting shit is going to work.”

“Oh man, I think you’re right,” said Rosa. They stared anxiously at the spot of light on the white plastic.

“Not for a while though.”

They sat still, quiet. Waiting. Burning.

“It smells like death,” Rosa whispered into the silence.

“I know.”

“You think those two mother fuckers are coming back?”

Lena frowned. “If they do, it better be after we get out of these cuffs.”

The minutes dragged on and on.

The sun rose. It hurt.

Cicada song filled the world. Lena could feel the heat rising from her own skin, radiating out an angry red colour. She could feel her lips cracking and her eyes locking into a squint. Flesh shrivelled as the water was sucked out of it, the sweat drying even as it beaded along her skin. Muscles ached from holding position, and red welts burned along her forearms from touching the metal bumper. She struggled to hold the glasses in place, her arm like lead and her muscles knotted and screaming.

The sun peaked directly above them. Began to fall. She worked at the plastic circle now, almost melted through. It came away and she closed her eyes and breathed and said a prayer in thanks. Opened her eyes to find Rosa still praying.

Slowly they helped each other rise, joints creaking, skin feeling like it would tear as it stretched into new position.

Rosa stumbled, and Lena half caught her. They almost fell. The world dipped around them and Lena saw lights, heard static.

“I don’t feel so good,” Rosa whispered.

“We just need to get to that water in the truck, beautiful. We’ll be all right.”

They hobbled in joyless hurtful dance up the slight trail of burning cutting rocks. Stood at the top and saw a wreckage of water bottles amid blue butterflies. Their shoes and socks thrown up into a mesquite.

“Bastards,” said Rosa viciously.

They awkwardly half-climbed half-waded into the shrubby tree, still connected by the other set of handcuffs. Emerged with footwear and deep bleeding scratches across their forearms and their legs. Pulled socks on over bleeding feet with a gasp, and then shoes. Laced them with difficulty. Made their way back to the truck silent but for their angry breath, cracked and swollen lips in straight lines.

“Right,” said Lena. “Keys.” It hurt to walk. They followed the memorized trajectory, found them glinting beneath a cactus.

Back at the truck Rosa pulled her bag up from under the seat. “You know how we were going to see if there was time to drop by Nana’s this afternoon because she’s been bugging me about those roses?”
Lena suddenly grinned back. “You brought the pruners!”

“I did!”

Cabron, the first bit of luck we’ve had all day! I just hope they work.”

With effort and more pain they did. Lena rubbed the angry ridged line the plastic had left in her skin. They drank silently and with great concentration the two gallons of emergency water stashed behind the seat. Sighed. Leaned against the truck. Smiled. Top of the world for a minute, two. They’d left a little water to wash the blood off of Rosa’s face. It stained the ground but the butterflies didn’t mind.
Rosa grabbed the rifle from behind the seat. Loaded up the clip from the glove box. Smelled the air with an ugly twisting of her face.

“Let’s find whatever’s dead. Dios permite, it’s just a cow.”

They drove slowly a short distance back along the road, hopped out and walked painfully the short distance to where the zopilotes circled.

Found a man. Vultures with wingspans his length watching the women with bright eyes as they hopped deliberately away. Red beaks, red like ocotillo blossoms. He no longer had eyes.

Lena stood, one hand over mouth and nose and the other clutching Rosa’s. Rosa suddenly sagged into her, a great animal cry of rage and grief emerged from her. Grief and rage. It rolled from Rosa in a terrible echoing and fell from Lena’s eyes in great drops of salt. They doubled over around it and let it shake their shoulders, rob them of air. Lena buried her face into Rosa’s mane of graying hair, held her tight. The birds watched them, curious, unable to understand. Hungry.

Y la revolucion?” whispered Rosa.

“I am ready, but I don’t think it is ready for us.”

“I don’t want to die before the border comes down.”

Lena chuckled in spite of herself. Still sad. “Some things you don’t choose, mi reyna.”

They stood, one at his head and one at his feet.

Abuelito,” said Lena. “Forgive us that we will not be moving you with much respect.” Tears dripped from her chin, splashed on what was left of his face.

The nightmare journey back to the truck was not at all respectful. Rosa threw up, and then they drove away, his body in the truck bed staring up at the forbidden sky. His smell covered their hands, their clothes. Ignacio Gutierrez. 65. Born in Jalisco. Pictures of children and grandchildren. A few clothes in a backpack. No water left.
They turned a corner and Lena had to hit the brakes, face to face with a massive truck souped up on big wheels. She thought she recognized it from its excessive headlights and small-dick-compensation. Caught proof in fragmentary bandit faces staring down at them before Rosa threw open the door and lifted the rifle to her shoulder. The windshield exploded as the truck swerved and came to a halt beside them.

Rosa ordered them out of the cab and they came. Pig-eye shook, but Law Enforcement looked like a coiled rattlesnake.

“Take off your bandanas, cobardes. Might as well be hoods, no? But I guess those would get too hot during the daytime.”

They removed their bandanas.

“Assume the position,” Rosa said. Her laughter grated. The men turned and put their hands on their truck.

“Not there, go over to our truck pendejos. March.”

She watched them march down the barrel of her rifle. Watched their faces fill with disgust.

“What the fuck is that,” said Pig-Eye, choking on the smell.

“Not what,” corrected Rosa. “Who. The question you should be asking is who did we kill with our borders and our free trade agreements and our targeting of wells and destruction of water and our nasty vigilante ways.”

Lena got Law Enforcement’s rifle from the gun rack, a pistol from the glove compartment, the knife from Pig-eye’s belt. Placed them on the ground at their feet and Law Enforcement cursed bitches under his breath. Patted them down and removed three lighters, two wallets and a Swiss Army knife. She checked the wallets had ID, smiled, and threw them on the front seat of her truck.

“We were coming back for you, we wouldn’t have left you there in the desert,” said Pig Eye, his voice greased. His teeth flashed too white and straight in his face.

Rosa ignored him. “The answer to your question is Ignacio Gutierrez. 65. Born in Jalisco. Father of three children, grandfather to five children. A working-man’s hands. You say a prayer for his soul.”

“What shall we do with these vigilantes then, when their prayers are done?” asked Lena.

“Kill ‘em?’ Rosa responded, always the hopeful one. “Break their faces?” Her hand rose to feel the welt across the side of her head.

“Shit,” grinned Lena, “I feel that little bit of Apache in me rising.”

De veras?”

“Yes. But then we’d probably end up in jail and that’d kill me too.”

“Might end up there anyway,” Rosa said. They came closer, thoughtful in the silence. Lena explored the contours of her rage.

“I just want to kill them.” Rosa’s eyes had never left the two men, and her fingers twitched on the rifle.

“Me too,” Lena said.

A shot rang out, splitting the heavy air in two.

“Fuck Rosa, what the…”

“Just scared ‘em a little.” Rosa grinned. Levered in another round. Raised her voice. “That blow to the head’s making me see all double,” she called, firing again. “This is fun, Lena. You’re missing out.”

“At least shoot at their goddamn truck, not ours.”

Rosa ordered them back to their own truck. Lena looked down at the shiny semi-automatic she’d taken from Law Enforcement. Picked it up and sent a dozen bullets into the tail gate. The men fell to their knees, arms protectively over their heads now. Pig-eye had pissed himself.

“Shit, this thing’s a fucking disgrace,” she said with disgust. “No skill required at all.” She laid it back down on the ground. Turned back to Rosa.

“Well, we got two problems,” she said, her voice low. “We got two bad guys need picking up and some retribution, and one good guy needs burying. Third problem is that really, we don’t want anyone in authority to know anything about us. Right?”

“Right.”

“Right.”

Lena whispered her thoughts to Rosa.

Rosa pondered them, fired off another bullet with a chuckle, nodded.

She ordered the two men to remove their shoes and throw them into the desert. Ordered them to move Don Ignacio into the back of their own truck. It was real awkward and took some time. Once Don Ignacio was settled, Lena ordered Pig-eye to lie face down in the back of the truck. She could tell the metal burned his skin. Grabbed his ponytail with distaste but with a joyful light in her eyes. He twitched angrily.

“You got that rifle pointed at his balls?” she called out to Rosa.

“Gift to the world to shoot those off,” Rosa replied.

Pig-eye lay very still as Lena hacked at his hair with the knife. It came away like a greased worm in her hand. Her eyes met Rosa’s and they both looked at it.

Rosa’s lips twisted.

Cabron, now you can say you’ve actually scalped someone,” she said. “All these white European immigrants, done invaded our lands, and you finally get to scalp one.”

Lena threw it onto the floor of their own truck, wiped her hands over and over again on the front of her jeans. Ordered the vigilantes to sit on either side of Don Ignacio, ankle to ankle, hands on their heads. Lena cuffed each of them to the dead man, cuffed their ankles and wrists tight tight. Cuffed Pig Eye’s free wrist to the gun rack, pretending she could smell his nasty urine over the smell of death. Swung down, grabbed the keys from the ignition then returned to Lena’s side. The keys jingled and flashed silver in her hand. She didn’t throw them into the desert.

The women stared at the vigilantes sitting there in the back of the truck with Ignacio Gutierrez between them, his head fallen forward onto his thin chest hiding the wreckage of his face.

“I hope he will be ok,” Rosa said, crossing herself. “I hope he is enjoying just a little this payback. You think he’ll be ok?”

Lena bit her lip. “Maybe we should cuff Law Enforcement to the truck too. I don’t trust him not to disrespect the dead while trying to free himself. You?”

“Hell no. But we need them to keep the vultures away from Don Ignacio.”

She’d never forget the panic on Pig-eye’s face.

“They got their free legs, no?”

Lena nodded, cuffed his other hand, jumped down from the truck bed and put an arm around Rosa’s shoulders. They turned to go.

“You’re just going to leave us here like this?” Pig-eye’s fear made Law Enforcement wince.

“We could kill you instead.” Rosa smiled.

Lena’s lip curled at Pig-eye’s whine. She took a few pictures with her phone. “We’ll let the police know where you are. You say anything and I’m sure our friends at Channel 5 will enjoy this little story, you being who you are, and they’ll have your ID’s as proof of course. We’ll leave it there unless you want to start something. It’d be real embarrassing for you, I’m sure, to drag it on further than that. We can do old and frail real well.”

“Fuck you,” said Law Enforcement.

“No,” said Rosa with a huge smile. “Fuck you.”

Back in the truck, back on the highway, Rosa used her foot to nudge the ponytail on the floor with disgust.

“What the hell are we going to do with that?”

Lena smiled a great golden smile.

It looked real nice, their trophy. Mounted on a piece of painted plywood, hung in legendary ceremony over the back of Frank’s bar.

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Hold Everything Dear: John Berger

John Berger gives us words to live by, Hold Everything Dear. An amazing book. This is a rather Benjaminian collection of quotes that I particularly loved really.

From ‘Wanting Now’, thinking  of all the struggle that lies outside of a ‘movement’:

Today the desire for justice is multitudinous. This is to say that struggles against injustice, struggles for survival, for self-respect, for human rights, should never be considered merely in terms of their immediate demands, their organizations, or their historical consequences. They cannot be reduced to ‘movements’. A movement describes a mass of people collectively moving towards a definite goal, which they either achieve or fail to achieve. Yet such a description ignores, or does not take into account, the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, griefs and, finally, memories, which the movement brought about, but which are, in the strict sense, incidental to that movement. (2)

From ‘Let Us Think About Fear’ — it seems even more uncannily accurate about Trump and the Republicans today, who almost make me miss Bush Jr.

The leaders of the New World Order, however, would seem to be married to Fear … Day and Night the partners of Fear are anxiously preoccupied with telling themselves and their subordinates the right half-truths … It takes about six half-truths to make a lie. As a result, they become unfamiliar with reality, whilst continuing to dream about, and of course to exercise, power. They continually have to absorb shocks whilst accelerating. Decisiveness becomes their invariable device for preventing the asking of questions. (53)

From ‘Stones’ — on the walls of Ramallah:

Today there is not a wall in the town centre of Ramallah, now the capital of the Palestinian Authority, which is not covered with photographs of the dead, taken when alive and now reprinted as small posters. … These faces transform the desultory street walls into something as intimate as a wallet of private papers and pictures. … Around the posters, the walls are scarred with bullet and shrapnel marks.  (59)

I confess, I am perhaps a bit wary of such essays as a form, printed in a small book they seem part of the elite tradition of letters. I still love this book, I know Berger was a Marxist to the end. Yet it makes me so sad that the cover should name Berger one of the great intellectuals of our time, that he could then write such an essay so powerful on Palestine, and that it should continue to be ignored. It makes me wonder what we are doing, what we should do, what we can do.

As I read Raja Shehadeh, another such powerful writer, on his wanderings and the beauty of Palestine it reminded me so much of the Arizona  desert I love, that was also lost though not in the same way. So this had a bit of an eerie feeling to it:

I have never seen such a light before. It comes down from the sky in a strangely regular way, for it makes no distinction between what is distant and what is close. The difference between far and near is one of scale, never of colour, texture or precision. And this affects the way you place yourself, it affects your sense of being here. The land arranges itself around you, rather than confronting you. It’s the opposite of Arizona. Instead of beckoning, it recommends never leaving. (68)

This captures capitalism I think, and our history of conquest and pillage of which Bacon knew quite a lot — On a new appreciation of Francis Bacon’s work ‘A Master of Pitilessness’

Today’s pitilessness is perhaps more unremitting, pervasive and continuous. It spares neither the planet itself, nor anyone living on it anywhere. Abstract because deriving from the sole logic of the pursuit of profit (as cold as the freezer), it threatens to make obsolete all other sets of belief, along with their traditions of facing the cruelty of life with dignity and some flashes of hope. (87)

More about walls, about poverty, about home. ‘Ten Dispatches About Endurance in Face of Walls’ (Oct 2004)

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The poor have no residence.

The poor have no residence. They have homes because they remember mothers or grandfathers or an aunt who brought them up. A residence is a fortress, not a story; it keeps the wild at bay. A residence needs walls. Nearly everyone among the poor dreams of a small residence, like dreaming of rest. However great the congestion, the poor live in the open, where they improvise, not residences, but places for themselves. These places are as much protagonists as their occupants; the places have their own lives to live and do not, like residences, wait on others. The poor live with the wind, with dampness, flying dust, silence, unbearable noise (sometimes with both; yes, that’s possible!) with ants, with large animals, with smells coming from the earth, rats, smoke, rain, vibrations from elsewhere, rumours, nightfall, and with each other. Between the inhabitants and these presences there are no clear marking lines. Inextricably confounded, they together make up the place’s life.

***

The poor are collectively unseizable. They are not only the majority on the planet, they are everywhere and the smallest event speaks of them. This is why the essential activity of the rich today is the building of walls – walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missile barrages, minefields, frontier controls, and opaque media screens. (91-92)

‘Looking Carefully — Two Women Photographers’ made me feel inspired to be a photographer again, but I particularly liked this:

Within such a concept of history we have to come to see that every simplification, every label, serves only the interests of those who wield power; the more extensive their power, the greater their need for simplifications. And, by contrast, the interests of those who suffer under, or struggle against this blind power, are served now and for the long, long future by the recognition and acceptance of diversity, difference and complexities. (134)

Ah, to take pictures that do not capture and simplify but render up complexities.

I end where the book actually begins, with a poem. It has been too long since I shared a poem.

Hold Everything Dear
for John Berger

as the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat of the journey

as the rose buds a green room to breathe
and blossoms like the wind

as the thinning birches whisper their silver stories of the wind to the urgent
in the trucks

as the leaves of the hedge store the light
that the moment thought it had lost

as the nest of her wrist beats like the chest of a wren in the morning air

as the chorus of the earth find their eyes in the sky
and unwrap them to each other in the teeming dark

hold everything dear

the calligraphy of birds across the morning
the million hands of the axe, the soft hand of the earth
one step ahead of time
the broken teeth of tribes and their long place

steppe-scattered and together
clay’s small, surviving handle, the near ghost of a jug
carrying itself towards us through the soil

the pledge of offered arms, the single sheet that is our common walking
the map of the palm held
in a knot

but given as a torch

hold everything dear

the paths they make towards us and how far we open towards them

the justice of a grass than unravels palaces but shelters the songs of the searching

the vessel that names the waves, the jug of this life, as it fills with the days
as it sinks to become what it loves

memory that grows into a shape the tree always knew as a seed

the words
the bread

the child who reaches for the truths beyond the door

the yearning to begin again together
animals keen inside the parliament of the world

the people in the room the people in the street the people

hold everything dear

19th May 2005
–Gareth Evans

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Grandma’s Story: Trinh T. Minh-Ha on Storytelling and Truth

Grandma’s Story is the final chapter of Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism by Trinh T. Minh-Ha. My favourite chapter I confess because it opened up horizons, and also sang with the words of Leslie Marmon Silko among others, whose words I have always loved.

It is written beautifully, interspersed with stills from film, the language difficult, rewarding. It works to overflow, expand, burst open the limits of Western intellectual thought the way that stories do without trying.

Why this battle for truth and on behalf of truth? I do not remember having asked grandmother once whether the story she was telling me was true or not. (120)

It is a language of possibility, of what is still unknown (and there is so much we don’t know).

If we rely on history to tell us what happened in a specific time and place, we can rely on the story to tell us not only what might have happened, but also what is happening at an unspecified time and place. (120)

It is a language of the interstices, freed from boundaries.

On the one hand, each society has its own politics of truth; on the other hand, being truthful is being in the in-between of all regimes of truth. Outside specific time, outside specialized space. (121)

And it is bigger than we are.

Truth does not make sense; it exceeds meaning and exceeds measure. It exceeds all regimes of truth. (123)

Above all, it is not ours, but builds on and also builds our communities and our connections.

Storytelling, the oldest form of building historical consciousness in community, constitutes a rich oral legacy, whose values have regained all importance recently, especially in the context of writings by women of color. (148)

And so we repeat our stories, tell them as fragments of the whole and as the whole itself, always changing as living things change, depending on circumstances, depending on who is speaking and who is listening, depending on many things that cannot be separated out. It is this unity in flux, this complex fluidity that can embrace the world and our place in it in multiple different ways that renders useless so many conventions of western fiction separated so starkly from western academic work or philosophizing.

But it is particularly difficult for a dualistic or dualistically trained mind to recognize that “looking for the structure of their narratives” already involves the separation of the structure from the narratives, of the structure from that which is structured, of the narrative from the narrated, and so on. It is, once more, as if form and content stand apart; as if the structure can remain fixed, immutable, independent of and unaffected by the changes the narratives undergo; as if a structure can only function as a standard mold within the old determinist schema of cause and product. (141)

This chapter struck me so forcibly after reading Barbara Fields on race and ideology, which forced me once again to confront the ability of people — most problematically white people — to maintain widely contradictory beliefs about others, often completely at odds with lived experience. This embodies the power of certain narratives shoring up power and privilege, as well as the inability of dualistic thinking to really grapple with them, the need to look in many places for a way of communicating that can build the world we hope to see.

Minh-ha also describes a very different way of working within the wider community, of relating to others. Imagine how much more powerful the kind of story embodied by theorising could be if this were true, as it should be true of all those who are in the struggle to transform the world:

I memorize, recognize, and name my source(s), not to validate my voice through the voice of authority…but to evoke her and sing. (122)

And transform the world we will.

Each woman, like each people, has her own way of unrolling the ties that bind. (148)

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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…

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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.

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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.

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

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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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