“. . . When everything that ticked—has stopped—. . . ” (Emily Dickinson)

As if my life were shaven, And fitted to a frame

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame

(NOTE: This writing began five days ago. It’s a meager attempt at academic poetry “analysis” of a sort that bores me—and everyone else—and an attempt to wax philosophic that sounds pretentious and corny to me. But it’s what I’ve been writing, so here it is.)

Emily Dickinson’s Poem number 510, “It was not Death, for I stood up,” is about despair. Its simple structure encompasses from start to finish the image of a despair so pervasive the poet can see no cause for it. The poem declares even awareness of her own death is not cause of the poet’s despair.

The cause cannot be the cold because she feels warm southern winds on her flesh. It is not the fire because she seems to be an indestructible marble statue in the chancel of a cathedral.

Despair has no cause, not even preparation for her own burial. Her despair is formless, like chaos. It has no anchor—like a ship lost at sea. It has not come even by “chance.” Unlike a ship, it has no spar, no mast guiding it.

The poet’s despair has no justification. It simply is.

World news is dominated by horrors—a video of the beheading of an American journalist. Reports of police overreacting to protests of citizens after the killing of an unarmed black boy by a white cop. News from Ukraine of the war between its government troops and Russian-backed separatists in the east. Frightening reports from West Africa about the spread of the Ebola virus. Disturbing images of a juggernaut of bombs destroying lives and infrastructure in Gaza while helpless Palestinians try unsuccessfully to protect their children.

For Dickinson, none of these horrific events is enough “to justify despair.”

For every story of devastation in the news, each of us has our own personal story of destruction, physical, mental, or spiritual, public or intensely, guardedly private.

For Dickinson, all of these events taken together, do not “justify” her pervasive despair.

A technical observation: This poem sounds delicious—how’s that for a self-contradictory unscholarly word? How can a poem about despair sound “delicious?” Dickinson’s meticulously chosen words create the sense of the poem through its sounds. The most obvious example is the combination “death” and “dead,” two words from the same root, similar in sound and meaning. The sounds of other pairs of words are significant—Chancel and Chance, Space and Spar, Frost and Flesh, Fire and Feet and Figures, Night and Noon, Stopped and stopless, space and stares.

Death and despair unequivocally inked?

Death and despair unequivocally inked?

The poem is structured by the repetition of the letter “D.” From the words “death” and “dead” at the beginning to the last word—“Despair.” No other word in the poem begins with “D.” And so, even though the poem says death is not the reason for the poet’s despair, the two are unequivocally linked.

The first time I read the poem (perhaps 20 years ago), I translated it in my mind into melodrama, the perfect poetic expression of despair for a clinically depressed queen who thought from time to time about suicide. I took it as my own and ignored what it actually says.

I’ve been thinking about despair. Have I despaired in my incipient old age of a world in which I can live peacefully, with equanimity? If so, is despair born of my hatred of the terrors in the news or the private terrors in my mind?

Thinking about the news was certainly in the background of my possible despair. I was jarred into a conscious contemplation of despair a deliberate choice—a choice that almost led me to watch the beheading of James Foley on Youtube. I found the video. I don’t why. For the same reason I would guess millions of people around the world have watched it—morbid (“suggesting an unhealthy mental state or attitude”) fascination. Insane morbid fascination. Depraved morbid fascination.

I did not watch it. Some higher sense prevailed. I think it is not melodrama to say I would have been disturbed for the rest of my life had I watched it—both at what I saw and at the thought that I had purposefully watched it. It would have sealed a frenzied despair in my mind.

My drama-queenly morbid desire to watch the video came from the same place in my mind my deliberate misappropriation of Dickinson’s poem as melodrama originated. The place that invents reasons outside myself for my “despair.”

My mind wants to equate “depression” with “despair.”

My depression is mine, and it’s simply a malady.

I am told “despair is presumptuous.” Eastern Ukraine, Gaza, James Foley, Michael Brown. Who in their right mind is not despairing? Is it presumptuous to despair? to assume there’s no way out of any of these horrors? to assume “the complete loss or absence of hope?” to assume that because these situations seem hopeless, they are hopeless?

Without a Chance, or Spar— Or even a Report of Land—

Without a Chance, or Spar—
Or even a Report of Land—

Or is there another kind of despair that is not the opposite of “hope?”

Is it possible that this despair—grievous as it may be—is not negative but the beginning of understanding who I am?

I’ve had an idea all my life that, if I were a tad smarter, a bit more “driven,” a tiny thirty pounds lighter, and on and on and on, I would be happy. I could figure “it” out. This thing I’m calling “despair” (and perhaps—but how would I know?—what Dickinson means) is the certain knowledge that I don’t know. I can’t figure “it” out. I can’t even know, ultimately, whether or not I should despair at the certain knowledge of my death.

Not living as if I could somehow understand, as if I know what it means to be a human being

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,

might mitigate despair. It’s my seemingly genetic compulsion to live “as if my life were. . .” of which I despair. Because it destroys any ability to experience the world and my life as they are.

“It was not Death, for I stood up,” (510) by Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)

It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down—
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.

It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos—crawl—
Nor Fire—for just my Marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool—

And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial,
Reminded me, of mine—

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ‘twas like Midnight, some—

When everything that ticked—has stopped—
And Space stares all around—
Or Grisly frosts—first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground—

But, most, like Chaos—Stopless—cool—
Without a Chance, or Spar—
Or even a Report of Land—
To justify—Despair.

“. . . if my hair is on fire, while I’m sure you’ll be enjoying the spectacle of it, act quickly. . .” (Dara Weir)

Having taught the principles of classical rhetoric for about 25 years, I try every once in a while to make an argument based on the principles first codified by Aristotle about 2,600 years ago. I don’t do it very well, as you will probably decide if you read my entire “argument” here. Fortunately I know a couple of poems that say it better than I can (reproduced at end of this argument).

My argument begins with this Youtube video. If you don’t watch it, none of the rest of this posting will make any sense to you.

Don’t you love “Myth Busters?” I watch them whenever “Judge Judy” or reruns of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” or “Love It or List It” are not on any channel (you think I’m joking, don’t you?). I love Jamie and Adam. Now, here’s the Wikipedia explanation for what you have just seen –in case you didn’t understand it. (A note to my former students: no, Wikipedia is not a proper source, but sometimes it’s the most convenient.)

Here’s an actual picture of some guys shooting fish in a—well, not a barrel, but an enclosed space the fish can’t get out of. I don’t know what it’s a picture of. I just found it on the internet (Googled “shooting fish in a barrel,” and then clicked on “images”).
shooting fish

The next part of my argument is found at this news website.
Isn’t that a great video?

I expect by now anyone trying to follow my argument is beginning to wonder how I think this can be rhetorically sound. It’s probably not.

But it’s true. Israel’s bombing Gaza is exactly—precisely—the same as shooting fish in a barrel. I, of course, don’t understand why Americans can’t see that. But then, I am a lily-livered-liberal nut who tries to have some kind of moral compass for my beliefs, political, social, religious, or otherwise. I fail miserably. I’m as unkind and self-centered and judgmental—mean, even—that is, lacking moral vision, as the next person. But I can see the horror of what you and I are footing the bill for in Gaza.

Even if half the people of Gaza were terrorists (which none of them are), this would be a moral outrage.gaza 2

Shooting fish in a barrel. But, of course, they’ve been doing it for so long that anyone who notices thinks it’s OK. It’s just the way things are. Or they’re justified. Or some other nonsense.

“The Pressure of the Moment,” by Dara Wier, 1949
The pressure of the moment can cause someone to kill someone or something
The leniency of consideration might treat with more kindness
Which is to be desired. Or at least often to be desired.
But if my house is on fire and you notice, I wish you would kill
That fire. But if my hair is on fire, while I’m sure you’ll be enjoying
The spectacle of it, act quickly or don’t act at all. But if a sudden
Jarring of us all out of existence is imminent, do something.

“In Jerusalem,” by Mahmoud Darwish, 1941 – 2008
In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy . . . ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t believe.”
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white gaza 3
biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I don’t walk, I fly, I become another,
transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I
think to myself: Alone, the prophet Mohammad
spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: You killed me . . . and I forgot, like you, to die.

“. . .and the cop who brought the man down with a shot to the chops is shaking hands. . .” (David Baker)

WITH MY SINCEREST APOLOGIES TO DAVID BAKER, POET. If I have inappropriately posted his poem here, I apologize,  and I will remove it immediately upon his request. However, it seems so appropriate at the moment, that I must

David Baker

David Baker

publish it here as a special post. One of my friends commented especially on the line, “the back-up singers of democracy.” I think this says about all that is necessary to say about the situation in Ferguson, MO.

From the Academy of American Poets biographical sketch:  David Baker was born December 27, 1954, in Bangor, Maine. He was raised in Missouri. Baker received degrees in English from Central Missouri State University before earning a Ph.D. in English from the University of Utah in 1983. David Baker is Professor of English and the Thomas B. Fordham Chair of Creative Writing at Denison University and is a faculty member in the M.F.A. program for writers at Warren Wilson College. Baker currently resides in Granville, Ohio, where he serves as Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review.

That David Baker was raised in Missouri has no bearing on this poem, of course, except that his world-view, one might think, includes an understanding of Midwestern sensibilities allowing him an authenticity of voice in his critique.

by David Baker (b. Bangor, ME, 1954)

Yesterday a little girl got slapped to death by her daddy,
out of work, alcoholic, and estranged two towns down river.
America, it’s hard to get your attention politely.
America, the beautiful night is about to blow up

and the cop who brought the man down with a shot to the chops
is shaking hands, dribbling chaw across his sweaty shirt,
and pointing cars across the courthouse grass to park.
It’s the Big One one more time, July the 4th,

our country’s perfect holiday, so direct a metaphor for war,
we shoot off bombs, launch rockets from Drano cans,
spray the streets and neighbors’ yards with the machine-gun crack
of fireworks, with rebel yells and beer. In short, we celebrate.

It’s hard to believe. But so help the soul of Thomas Paine,
the entire county must be here–the acned faces of neglect,
the halter-tops and ties, the bellies, badges, beehives,
jacked-up cowboy boots, yes, the back-up singers of democracy

all gathered to brighten in unambiguous delight
when we attack the calm and pointless sky. With terrifying vigor
the whistle-stop across the river will lob its smaller arsenal
halfway back again. Some may be moved to tears.

We’ll clean up fast, drive home slow, and tomorrow
get back to work, those of us with jobs, convicting the others
in the back rooms of our courts and malls–yet what
will be left of that one poor child, veteran of no war

but her family’s own? The comfort of a welfare plot,
a stalk of wilting prayers? Our fathers’ dreams come true as
So the first bomb blasts and echoes through the streets and shrubs:
red, white, and blue sparks shower down, a plague

of patriotic bugs. Our thousand eyeballs burn aglow like punks.
America, I’d swear I don’t believe in you, but here I am,
and here you are, and here we stand again, agape.
Macy's 4th of July fireworks


“The fighters were cut off from the rest of the world…not offered any assistance. . .” Three must-read books.

“The fighters were cut off from the rest of the world…not offered any assistance or encouragement.. as far as [world leaders] were concerned, they did not exist. . .”

Arens, Moshe. Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto. Jerusalem/New York: Gefen Publishing House, 2011.

warsaw 1The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising has become a symbol of heroism throughout the world. On the eve of Passover, April 19, 1943, German forces entered the Warsaw ghetto equipped with tanks, flame throwers, and machine guns. Against them stood an army of a few hundred young Jewish men and women, armed with pistols and Molotov cocktails. The fighters were cut off from the rest of the world…not offered any assistance or encouragement.. as far as Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin were concerned, they did not exist. Who were these Jewish fighters who dared oppose the armed might of the SS troops under the command of SS General Juergen Stroop? Who commanded them in battle? What were their goals? In this groundbreaking work, Israel’s former Minister of Defense and Ambassador to the USA, Prof. Moshe Arens, recounts a true tale of daring, courage, and sacrifice that should be accurately told — out of respect for and in homage to the fighters who rose against the German attempt to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto, and made a last ditch fight for the honor of the Jewish people.
(from Barnes and Noble web listing.)

“Here, too, is a portrait of the vibrant culture that shaped the young fighters whose inspired defiance would have far reaching implications. . .”

Gutman, Israel. Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Available as NOOK Book from Barnes and Noble

One of the few survivors of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, Holocaust scholar Gutman draws on dairies, personal letters, and underground press reports in this compelling, authoritative account of a landmark event in Jewish history. Here, too, is a portrait of the vibrant culture that shaped the young fighters whose inspired defiance would have far reaching implications for the Jewish people and the State of Israel, founded exactly fifty years ago. Note: Some of the photos and maps contained in the print edition of this book have been excluded from the e-book edition due to permissions issues. Until the Nazi invasion, Warsaw was the home of Europe’s largest Jewish community. Resistance is the full story of the Jews’ attempts to fight the Nazis, revealed by dramatic excerpts from diaries, letters, and other documents of the period. Published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Photos. warsaw 2
(from Barnes and Noble web listing.)

“The authors explore the history of the ghetto’s evolution, the actual daily experience of its thousands of inhabitants from its creation . . . to its liquidation following the uprising . . .”

Engelking, Barbara and Jacek Leociak. The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

The establishment and liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto has become an icon of the Holocaust experience. Remarkably, a full history of the Ghetto has never been written, despite the publication over some sixty years of numerous memoirs, studies, biographical accounts, and primary documents. The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City is this history, researched and written with painstaking care and devotion over many years and now published for the first time in English. The authors explore the history of the ghetto’s evolution, the actual daily experience of its thousands of inhabitants from its creation in 1940 to its liquidation following the uprising of 1943. Encyclopedic in scope, the book encompasses a range of topics from food supplies to education, religious activities to the Jundenrat’s administration. Separate chapters deal with the mass deportations to Treblinka and the famous uprising. A series of original maps, along with biographies, a 9780300112344_p0_v1_s260x420glossary, and a bibliography, completes this masterful work.
(from Barnes and Noble web listing.)

“If I were king, dilly dilly, I’d need a queen. . . “ (as sung by Burl Ives)

Burl or Berle?

Burl or Burle?

Anyone who posts a recording of a Burl Ives song on Youtube with a picture of his gravestone ought to be able to spell (i.e. “copy”) Ives’s name correctly, don’t you think?

Always the English teacher. Notice I didn’t say “professor.” Those days, such as they were, are over, thank goodness.

If I were King.

Oh my. Where would I start? Here. All high school athletes would receive as much time and attention from their schools for their academic work as for learning their sport.

We would scrap “No child left behind” and all “charter” schools.

We would allow ONLY those who have spent at least five years teaching grade seven (or some other impossible grade) to make any decision regarding the curriculum of a school district or the evaluation of teachers. Those people would decide on the district’s policies regarding student discipline for any infraction—and only those people would decide what the rules are that a student could infract.

No one who saw “infract” used as a verb for the first time in the sentence above could help to decide what books would be available in school libraries.

My kingdom would be a limited constitutional monarchy. The King’s purview would be the Executive Branch of government as outlined in the Constitution (with a few added powers). The government would have local, state, and federal legislative bodies. However, just as some people think proof of citizenship or some other nonsense is necessary to vote in elections for members of those legislatures, candidates would have to meet certain requirements to run for those offices.

First, they would have to score 100% on the current citizenship exam. Second, they would have to recite from memory the entire Bill of Rights. Third, they would have to pass a rigorous exam on the constitutions of both their state and the federal government.

Big Daddy and his Sexiest Son

Big Daddy and his Sexiest Son

Most importantly, every person who wanted to run for office would have to go for one week without using a passive verb either in speech or in writing. Mistakes WILL NOT BE MADE.

Beginning in about the seventh grade, all Americans would have to study the classic rhetorical fallacies in order to understand when politicians are talking bullshit and when they are not. We would not have to make laws about “term limits” because the populace would simply vote out of office any politician who could not speak without using, for example, a “red herring,” or Post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning, or Ad Hominem attacks.

A requirement for running for office would be knowledge of the meaning of those Latin phrases and their application to public debate.

Candidates for office would have to pass courses in Marxism, Distributism, and Islamic economics as well as the theories (as opposed to the facts) of Capitalism.

Every candidate for office would have to spend a year as an apprentice to a Child Welfare case worker. Candidates would also have to agree to work in a homeless shelter or a food bank at least one evening a week after they won their election.

Pope Leo XIII - the first great Distributionist?

Pope Leo XIII – the first great Distributionist?

All candidates for office would have to pass courses in comparative religions, including but not limited to Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Candomblé, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The courses would also include readings in the great atheist and agnostic thinkers such as Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and Foucault.

Well, you see what you already knew. I’m a pointy-headed liberal who thinks that, if human society has high achievements in intellectual pursuits, those achievements rather than racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, rampant capitalist materialism, and reliance on firearms should be the basis of debate and decision-making in our kingdom.

I have no interest in being a “philosopher king” in the Platonic sense. I simply want the polity of the nation I rule to be rooted in the best of human thinking rather than the worst.

I just want people to be nice to each other.

And be able to copy “Burl” correctly.

But then, as I wrote yesterday, I’m not sure what’s real and what isn’t, so who am I to think about how we should organize our society—starting with how to form our personal relationships?

Matthew 25:31-46 (Bambino Vispo, 1422) or the First Distributionist?

Matthew 25:31-46 (Bambino Vispo, 1422) or the First Distributionist?

“For instance, instead of saying love, I could just think watermelon. . .” (Jackie Clark)

Jackie Clark

Jackie Clark

Gerhard Krapf (1924-2008), Chairman of the Organ Department at the University of Iowa in the early 1970s, used to remind organ students that all organists have to be musicologists. That is, we have to be able to research and teach about every work we play because the literature for the organ is so little-known.

At some time in foggy memory, every church-goer in Europe and America heard organ literature from cradle to grave—and paid almost no attention to it. It was the background noise for one’s religiosity, the “Disco beat” of church. The specific work the organist played on any given Sunday was of little matter. That it covered the silences and didn’t upset anyone were the requirements.

When I was a church organist, I often said that my playing—and the hymn-singing of the congregation which I accompanied—was for most of the congregation the only “live” performance of music they ever heard.

I make live music every day.

I have no idea at all what music is.

I am not a “natural” at making music as most musicians are, and I have to work very hard to make any music at all.

Performing or listening to music, according to Oliver Sacks, utilizes more parts of the brain than any other common human activity. According to Susanne Langer, music is the ultimate symbolic process in our minds because it is pure abstraction.

I’m not a “natural” at thinking about music, either. I have friends who can explain music, how it affects the mind and feelings, how it communicates, why it’s ubiquitous. Music is the the overriding, overwhelming human addiction. The inventor of Bluetooth is the greatest enabler in history.

What is this music nonsense? I keep asking myself. Really. Honestly. I’m not playing a mind game here. I am simply mystified.

I’m also mystified by language. I should think everyone would be. I don’t understand Mikhail Bakhtin or Jean Lyotard or Jacques Derrida, so I can only nod sagely and hope no one gets it that I don’t get it. Thinking about language is the same as thinking about thinking, and I think one has to have a special kind of mind with circular instead of linear synapses to think about thinking. Or about music.

I’ve been learning the Prelude in E minor, number 10 from Book II of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier by Bach. It’s slow, almost painful work. Exacting. No room for error. It’s one of those Bach pieces of which there are as many different varieties of performances as there are performers. My favorite on Youtube is by Christiane Jaccottet (Swiss, 1937-1999) because she plays it at about my speed. I will play it from memory—to prove to myself that in its 70th year my mind can still memorize music. I’ve given myself two weeks.

I don’t know if organists often play Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, but I have no choice—it’s the only “Klavier” I have available.

With my finger I press a little lever covered with ivory (built before that was illegal), or with my foot a larger wooden one, and the little lever pulls down a wire that opens a small passage under a metal pipe standing upright in a row of similar pipes, each one shorter than the one before it. Air being pushed along by an electric blower and held under slight pressure in a box under the pipes rushes into the open pipe and past a small opening cut in the pipe causing the column of air in the pipe to vibrate at a certain number of cycles per second creating a sound that we all recognize at being at a certain “pitch.”

I have ten fingers and two feet; theoretically, I can push 12 levers at a time, making 12 sounds. In most music, however, four pitches is the standard number sounding at once. I press the little levers one after the other at (more or less) steady intervals of time in an order predetermined by someone (in this case J.S. Bach about 300 years ago), and somehow those sounds organize themselves into patterns in our brains that are in some mysterious way meaningful. From Bach’s idea to my fingers touching the organ built by my friend Steuart to our ears, and some communication happens that I can’t begin to explain. And neither can anyone else.

Now I’m back in my thinking to where I began.

Which is real? The pipes, the lever, the air, my finger, your ear? All of the above? None of the above?

Which is real? The pipes, the lever, the air, my finger, your ear? All of the above? None of the above?

Instead of saying love, I could just think watermelon.

I began with Professor Krapf’s admonition that we organists must be musicologists. That carries over into other fields. I found Jackie Clark’s poem, and immediately tried to do my –ologist routine on her. I found only that she lives in New Jersey, and her picture appears to be that of a 30-something.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t think in words

I’m not sure I know what Jackie Clark means, but I wish I didn’t think in words. Or in music, for that matter.

For most of my life my experience of myself and my work/play/relationships/you-name-it is that I’ve never advanced beyond the sophomoric (“suggestive of or resembling the traditional sophomore; intellectually pretentious, overconfident, conceited, etc., but immature.” dictionary.com). I can talk about lots of stuff, but most of what I say is pretentious because I don’t understand much of what I say. I feel always overconfident and immature. That’s not quite right. I understand what I say.

It’s that I don’t understand. Period.

Is watermelon real? Are the pipes Steuart made real? Are my fingers real? Are my words real? Is the pattern of sounds presumably ordered by that Bach guy (whom none of us has ever met) real?

Like every sophomore with a year’s “higher” education under their belt, I want to play the game, “What is reality?” Impress with my knowledge of deep questions needing profound answers. The grasping for truth

where every thought I think is some contrived line I repeat over and over to myself.

In truth, it’s no game. In one’s 70th year that’s all one wants to know.
“The Long Hand Wishes It Was Used,” by Jackie Clark
Sometimes I wish I didn’t think in words
and that instead for each thought I thought I drew upon an image,
and that I was able to organize each image in a linear way that would be like sort of like reading
and that instead of trying to describe the edges around something
I could just think the color around the edges of the image to be darker,
that the detail on the image could become more or less detailed depending
on how much clarity I believe I needed to disclose at the time
For instance, instead of saying love, I could just think watermelon
I could just think of a watermelon cut in half, lying open on a picnic table
The inside would be just as moist as it was pink
I could picture cutting up pieces and giving them out to my friends.
It wouldn’t have to be sunny
It wouldn’t have to be anything else then just that
It would really simplify my walk home at night,
where every thought I think is some contrived line I repeat over and over to myself
Words are always just replaced with new ones
The pictures would never need to know otherwise

Chapel Organ, St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Chruch, Dallas
Orgues Létourneau, Op. 84
Pardon my informality. Practice session — no cameraperson.
J.S. Bach: Prelude on the hymntune Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten

“. . . to get through the next forty-seven minutes we might have to pretend. . .” (Nick Flynn)

Not THE goldfinch

Not THE goldfinch

I’d like to meet the poet Nick Flynn. He teaches part-time at the University of Houston and lives in Brooklyn, New York (See note 1). That seems to me to be the kind of schizoid life I’d like to have. Live in New York, but work in Texas. Nick writes other stuff than poetry. His memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (2004), received the PEN/Martha Albrand Award and was adapted into the film Being Flynn.

The movie wasn’t wildly popular—I had never heard of it until I started reading about Nick. My not having heard of a movie means zippo. It stars Robert De Niro and Paul Dano, so it was taken seriously at least by the producers.

I’d also like to have the chutzpa to write a book and title it Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. If I wrote a book, its title might well be more objectionable to someone of my parents’ generation than his title is. Being objectionable isn’t really the problem, I suppose. It’s not being taken seriously.

But would I care if my book was taken seriously?

I was looking into Nick Flynn’s public biographical data (you know, Wikipedia) because I stumbled across a poem of his that made me laugh and cry at the same time (that’s hyperbole for saying I am conflicted about the essence of the poem). Nick, by the way, is only 54. What kind of memoir could someone that young write?

“Forty-Seven Minutes,” by Nick Flynn
Years later I’m standing before a roomful of young writers in a high school in Texas. I’ve asked them to locate an image in a poem we’d just read—their heads at this moment are bowed to the page. After some back & forth about the grass & a Styrofoam cup, a girl raises her hand & asks, Does it matter? I smile—it is as if the universe balanced on those three words & we’ve landed in the unanswerable. I have to admit that no, it doesn’t, not really, matter, if rain is an image or rain is an idea or rain is a sound in our heads. But, I whisper, leaning in close, to get through the next forty-seven minutes we might have to pretend it does.

“. . . to get through the next forty-seven minutes we might have to pretend it. . .” matters.  I’m not saying I agree that in order to get through the next 47 minutes we have to pretend it matters.

Another Bullshit Night?

Another Bullshit Night?

When I began to realize I’m in that process of getting old, of which we Americans are terrified, I began to think that probably every 47 minutes matters. I have a lot of stuff to do before I die, such as getting rich and/or famous. I haven’t bothered to do that yet, and it’s high time I did. There’s not much time left.

If I live to be 89, I won’t be as rich or famous as Lauren Bacall, and I certainly won’t look as good as she did. So I better not go either to yoga or to the fitness center every day; I better do both every day.

I wonder what the last book Lauren Bacall read was. She was a damned good writer, at least one assumes so. Her 1979 autobiography, By Myself, won the 1980 National Book Award (and I read it a long time ago). Surely she wrote it herself. Who knows? At any rate, she must have read lots of Hollywood tell-alls.

When my dad was 69, the age I am now, he was reading books such as Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. I know because we talked about it on one of my trips to California, and when she published The First Salute in 1988, I gave it to him for Christmas, and we discussed it many times. He loved it. Like a kid under the Christmas tree.

I can’t imagine myself wading through a book like that today.

I’ve started Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch three times in the last month, and I can’t get farther than about 20 pages. I’m determined, but it seems daunting. I don’t care if it did win the Pulitzer Prize.

So now I’ve bought the Nook Book of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. If I want to do more than pretend that the next 47 minutes are important, I suppose I should read Tartt and Flynn and all the other books on my Nook.

Or get the Bach Prelude and Fugue in B Minor for organ worked up so I can play it on an organ recital in California in about two months.

Or get out one of my unfinished novels and write the rest of it—that would be a little difficult since they’re on old 3 ½ inch “floppy” disks.

Or get my trip to Easter Island planned.

At least practice the music for the service I’m going to play at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church tomorrow.

And stop writing this nonsense that hardly anyone will read and certainly will not make me rich and/or famous.

The Last Salute at 76!!!

The Last Salute at 76!!!

Here’s the real deal. When you’re five months from beginning your 71st year, every 47 minutes is important. My inability to organize my apartment, my inability to read The Goldfinch, my inability to finish my novel, my lack of concentration on Bach, my fervent desire for companionship (much stronger than my desire for riches or fame—but perhaps as difficult to achieve), my hope for peace and joy (for myself and everyone else)—all of those things are too important to waste another 47 minutes. Not because I’m driven—never have been, never will be—but because I want to understand. Understand what is important. Somehow to learn to immerse myself (pardon my continual sophomoric questioning) in the real world. Whatever I might discover that is. In the next 47 minutes. It’s probably not watching “Househunters International” on the H&G channel. Or perhaps it is.

(Note 1.) “Nick Flynn.” From poets.org:
. . . While the subject matter may differ dramatically, in all of Nick Flynn’s work there is the struggle for connectivity in a disjointed and harsh reality. As Claudia Rankine noted about Some Ether [one of Flynn’s poetry collections, published in 2000], “We are guided by a stunning and solitary voice into lives that have spiritually and physically imploded. No one survives and still there is so much to be felt. Here is sorrow and madness reconciled to humanity.”
. . . He was awarded the “Discovery”/The Nation Prize and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Library of Congress, and the Amy Lowell Trust. He teaches part-time at the University of Houston and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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