“. . . to prove we were still among the living. . .” (Simon Armitage)

Morrissey. You can't go on forever

Morrissey. You can’t go on forever

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I managed to delete ten of my postings here. I thought they were “drafts”  —in the “drafts” folder. But, alas, they were the final “draft,” kept for some reason I can’t figure. I was able to reconstruct the last post , but the others will take some doing. Now I know why I save the Word documents on my desktop.

“Are we dead yet?” someone would ask.
Then with a plastic toothpick
I’d draw blood from my little finger
to prove we were still among the living.

A week ago I had blood drawn from my little finger (I assume there was blood although I was in la-la-land—they said I wasn’t asleep from a general anesthesia but didn’t know what was going on because they gave me that other stuff that doesn’t really knock you out). Not my finger, but the palm of my right hand where the finger tendons attach to the hand bones. If I’ve already written about it, that’s a post I deleted. The pinky “trigger finger” surgery was almost negligible.

I wore the dressing for three days, Band-Aids for several days, and today nothing to protect the healing incision.

But—there’s always a “but,” isn’t there—the surgeon said I should not get into a swimming pool until after my follow-up appointment (tomorrow). And I mustn’t go to yoga class (no hands on floor).

I know why old people get stiff and begin to hobble. One thing leads to another to another to another. I can’t do my accustomed exercise—walking in the therapy pool at the Landry Fitness Center. So, rather than take a walk around the neighborhood, I do nothing. And my lower back has a knot from sitting and writing at my computer too many hours, and I’m beginning to hobble. Damn!

It’s been too hot to walk outside. And my tutoring schedule is inconvenient. And I’m depressed. And. . . How many excuses can I think up?

The real reason is I don’t want to do it alone.

At the Landry Center, I have made friends. We barely know each other’s names, but we talk and make jokes and know all of the ailments that bring us there, and gossip like a bunch of little old ladies, which we mostly are.

We get acquainted. One of the women and I discovered she’s the next-door neighbor of and best friends with an organist for whom I substitute regularly. Are we going to socialize outside the pool? I’d bet Linda and I and her neighbors will eventually. The organist and his partner must know some other old fart looking for an old fart to be with (that is interpreted, date).

So I’m not going to run into Linda for a few more days, and I certainly wouldn’t run into anyone I know walking out on Maple or Hudnall streets.

My parents walked every day until they moved to assisted living (they were both about 90). Together. If genetics has anything to do with it, I could be walking another 20 years. Of course, neither of my parents ever drank, smoked, or was 35 pounds overweight, so I’m not sure my prognostication should be for 20 years (I haven’t drunk or smoked for 28 years).

Me--before three surgeries, lethargy, weight gain, and hobbling

Me–before three surgeries, lethargy, weight gain, and hobbling

However, the outlook for hooking up with someone (I mean that in all popular senses of the phrase) grows, I think, dimmer by the day.

Armitage writes, “Are we dead yet?” someone would ask. He was born the year I graduated from high school. Does he even have standing to ask that question?

If you want to know the worst case scenario about how old gay men (and women) live out their years, you can watch the movie Gen Silent. Another instance–a gay couple in Arizona who had been together 45 years went to California to marry. Recently, one of them died, and Arizona refused to put on his death certificate that the other was his spouse. It took a Federal judge to force Arizona to accept their marriage.

In case you think I’m whining, I’m not. I’m simply trying to be realistic. Even if I were not gay, my late-life prospects are not rosy. I’ve chosen to be a low-ranking college professor for most of my sober life, so my Social Security is only about $1300 a month. (The SSA has decided that, if you were poor in your working life, you will be poor in “retirement.” I wonder if the mega-wealthy 1% return their SS checks. One of them could help me out quite a bit.) My “pension” from SMU is about half that. Can you live on $2000 per month?—especially if you are in any way infirm?

I’m not whining.

I’ll be a helluva lot better off than most people, I’d guess. Armitage’s poem is a projection of what one does in old age WITH ONE’S FRIENDS AND ASSOCIATES.

As almost an aside, I have to quote The Guardian from Friday 3 September 2010:

For 30 years, poet Simon Armitage’s admiration for Morrissey has bordered on the obsessive. But could his love survive an encounter with the famously sharp-tongued singer-songwriter?

That’s part of the introduction to an interview between Armitage and Morissey in which Morissey says,

Simon Armitage: we're not dead yet

Simon Armitage: we’re not dead yet

The ageing process isn’t terribly pretty… and you don’t want yourself splattered all over the place if you look pitiful. You can’t go on forever, and those that do really shouldn’t.

(I don’t think Armitage is gay, and I don’t know any of Morrissey’s music. When he was in his heyday, I was a drunk, and since then I’ve not kept up with popular music except for Lady Gaga and a few others.)

I’m not sure where I meant to go with this writing. I’ve been interrupted too many times. But I think this is where I was headed when I began.

All of my favorite sayings about getting old are true. “Getting old is a full-time job.”

Job. And I’d really like to have someone to come home to after work.

“Dämmerung,” Simon Armitage, (b. 1963)

In later life I retired from poetry,
ploughed the profits
into a family restaurant
in the town of Holzminden, in lower Saxony.

It was small and traditional:
dark wood panelling, deer antlers,
linen tablecloths and red candles,
one beer tap on the bar

and a dish of the day, usually
Bauernschnitzel. Weekends were busy,
pensioners wanting the set meal, though
year on year takings were falling.

Some nights the old gang came in –
Jackie, Max, Lavinia,
Mike not looking at all himself,
and I’d close the kitchen,

hang up my striped apron,
take a bottle of peach schnapps
from the top shelf and say,
“Mind if I join you?”

“Are we dead yet?” someone would ask.
Then with a plastic toothpick
I’d draw blood from my little finger
to prove we were still among the living.

From the veranda we’d breathe new scents
from the perfume distillery over the river,
or watch the skyline
for the nuclear twilight.

“. . . Pressure, responsibility, success. Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries . . .” (Jim Daniels)

Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!

Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!

My trigger finger is back.

Trigger fingers are more common in women than in men, they occur most frequently between ages 40 to 60, and they are most common in people with certain medical conditions such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis.

There is no reason I should have a trigger finger. It’s the little finger of my right hand, if you must know.

I’ve had two cortisone injections which are supposed to cure it. They worked for awhile

So, you might as well know. The last time I had a complete—almost complete—meltdown was the day I went to see Dr. Miskovsky, hand specialist, for my second injection. About three months ago. I thought his office was on Forest Lane, so I passed the Walnut Hill exit from Central Expressway. When I got to Greenville and the hospital wasn’t at the corner, I went north and was soon in the TI campus and had no idea where I was. I began to cry and shout about why they had moved the hospital, and then I was on a dead end residential street so I turned around and was going 50 MPH up another residential street that hooked to the right, and then I was in another neighborhood and didn’t know which direction I was going. Crying and screaming at god and the city for moving the fucking hospital. I got back to Greenville and turned south and called the office because I was 15 minutes late, and they said to come ahead. I did and sat in the waiting room about 2 minutes trying not to cry. Dr. Mislovsky sat down and wanted to know exactly what was wrong. I told him and was embarrassed that I, a 69-year-old man, am still likely to lose it over nothing. He said, “I know. Did you take your meds this morning?” I’d never told him about my meds, so I wondered how he knew, and he reminded they’ve had all of my information in their computers since my hip surgery. Oh.

I could say right here I don’t know how to live in society (which is true) and what I really want is a Walden Pond (in Texas?) where I can move with enough stuff to protect me from the elements and spend the rest of my life in in the real world, not the made up world we homo sapiens have constructed as if it were either real or important.

According to one writer, Richard Zacks, if I want to live in the natural world, I’ll have to do better than Henry David Thoreau.

Most Americans have an image of Thoreau as a rough-hewn, self-educated recluse, who . . . disappeared into the solitude to commune with nature. We picture his little shack far off in the woods, the man a voluntary Robinson Crusoe, alone with his thoughts and the bluebirds. Nothing could be further from the truth. . . Thoreau’s mother and sisters, who lived less than two miles away, delivered goodies baskets every Sunday . . . The more one reads in Thoreau’s unpolished journal of his stay in the woods, the more his sojourn resembles suburban boys going to their treehouse in the backyard and pretending they’re camping in the heart of a jungle.

I don’t know how true this is (and I’m not interested enough to find out), but I did read that

. . . poet John Greenleaf Whittier had a conflicting reaction, saying that the message in Walden was that man should lower himself to the level of a woodchuck and walk on four legs. He said: “Thoreau’s Walden is a capital reading, but very wicked and heathenish… After all, for me, I prefer walking on two legs. (This is from Reference.com, so I can’t vouch for its authenticity either.)

A replica is as good as the rel thing

A replica is as good as the rel thing

Back to trigger finger. I’ll have to call Dr. Mislovsky’s office and make the appointment to have him cut into my pinky. I’m scheduled to substitute as organist at a church on August 29, so I better do it soon.

That reminds me that I have an appointment at SMU’s HR tomorrow to sign the papers that will officially end my status as faculty member as of August 1.

There’s a fine howdy-do!

What I really want is not to find Walden Pond (unless it’s as comfortable as Thoreau’s was) but to figure out how to do what I need to do to stay connected enough to keep out of the rain and have enough to eat until I die.

Does that sound defeatist or depressed or sad or something else negative to you? I hate to be brusque, but that’s your problem, not mine. I didn’t say I want to be cut off from human interaction and fellowship (as Thoreau was not).

I’m looking for a soul-mate. (Do you know a 70-year-old gay man who’d like a soul mate? Leave a comment telling me how to find him.) I mean some old guy like me to whom I can say anything—talk about how America used to be the land of the free; talk about how scary it is to think about the probability that we’ve got 10, 12, maybe fifteen years before we won’t be wondering what death is; talk about trigger finger; talk about Lady Gaga; talk about Frescobaldi; talk about the absurd necessity of religion. Say anything to him and he say anything to me that will not upset or bore the other.

And a little warmth and closeness (physical?) to go with it and comfort each other or rejoice with each other as appropriate.

I’m not sure why reading Jim Daniels’ poem, “Short Order Cook” brought all of this up in my mind, but it did. I guess I’d like to be able to fry 30 burgers, slap some ice in my mouth, and return to work. Without a meltdown. But it would be so much more fun not alone.

“Short-Order Cook,” by Jim Daniels (b. 1956; Professor of Creative Writing, Department of English, Carnegie Mellon University)
An average joe comes in
and orders thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries.

I wait for him to pay before I start cooking.
He pays.
He ain’t no average joe.

The grill is just big enough for ten rows of three.
I slap the burgers down
throw two buckets of fries in the deep frier
and they pop pop, spit spit. . .
pssss. . .
The counter girls laugh.
I concentrate.
It is the crucial point–
they are ready for the cheese:
my fingers shake as I tear off slices
toss them on the burgers/fries done/dump/
refill buckets/burgers ready/flip into buns/
beat that melting cheese/wrap burgers in plastic/
into paper bags/fried done/dump/fill thirty bags/
bring them to the counter/wipe sweat on sleeve
and smile at the counter girls.
I puff my chest out and bellow:
Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!
I grab a handful of ice, toss it in my mouth
do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success.
Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.

Trigger happy

Trigger happy

“It was, as it always has been, a choice” (Michael Blumenthal)

Baboon-matters-2A serious question: What on earth would make a grown man take a month out from a busy career as a widely respected poet (at that time he’d published 6 books of poetry and a novel), teacher, and legal scholar (when he was much younger a law clerk to Justice David Souter) and run off to South Africa to save orphaned chacma baboons? I can’t imagine, but I intend to read his account as soon as I finish this writing.

Last night at the birthday dinner for a dear friend one of the other guests and I suddenly found ourselves in a conversation that seemed as if we had stumbled into the middle of it and didn’t quite know what we were talking about. Our own private micro-version of the “Burkean parlor.” It was much too serious for a party, and the subject was much too important simply to toss it off as party small talk.

All of us at the party were of an age—in our 60s. I was the oldest, but only by a year. The host and I had a slight disagreement when I said I am in my 70th year. “But you’re only 69!” she said. Think about it. Until a person’s first birthday, they are in their first year, right? So once I’ve passed my 69th birthday, I am in my 70th year.

The guest and I were chatting about why we don’t go to church or synagogue (she is Jewish) these days. I think we were both trying to say the same thing. I was trying to explain that going to church, comforting as the Episcopal liturgy is, seems somehow so ephemeral, so otherworldly (Duh!), so removed from the immediacy of my day to day life that it feels like both a waste of time in the moment and somehow a deception. Especially since I don’t think I believe in God.

For goodness’ sake, Maya Angelou died last week—one of the constants in my life since I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in about 1975. Maya Angelou was only 86 years old, only in her 87th year, 17 years older than I. Seventeen years! My father was in his 98th year when he died, 28 years older than I am now. Twenty-eight years!

You there, dear reader, you think you’ve got all the time in the world. Well, you don’t, and the guest at the birthday dinner and I were trying to talk about that, but we didn’t quite know how to fit it into party talk.

I’m going to be a shameless name-dropper. Michael Blumenthal told me a few month ago that if there is a “Michael Blumenthal fan club,” I must be the only member. Yes, he told me that in an email after I told him I wanted to be a member of his fan club. He’s a youngster—only 65—but he has done all of these strange and wonderful things.

He and I have had a brief exchange of emails. I found his address when I read and was inspired (? I have no idea what the correct word is here?) by his poem “Be Kind.”

Tucked away in the back of my mind is the useless idea that I want to have lived the way Blumenthal has lived. Just read about the (almost bizarre) variations of “career” he has had. Lawyer, poet, professor, and savior of baby chacma baboons. This is not—as much as it may seem—a paean to Michael Blumenthal. He and I are so much different I suspect we could hardly be friends if we met face to face (that’s probably not true—we’re both too old to worry about each other’s foibles).

It’s OK for someone like me who wishes he had published 8 books of poetry (or had some lasting “creative” legacy) to look at someone like Michael Blumenthal and think, “Now there’s the guy who’s done the sorts of things I wish I’d done.” As long as thinking that does not either make of him some sort of hero that he would be embarrassed to know about or make of myself some sort of failure living with regrets too numerous to contemplate.

Nope. Michael Blumenthal and I are at exactly the same place. We have done what we have done—he perhaps with more energy and brains and discipline than I have—and we are both, according to Maya Angelou’s example, about 18 years from the end. It’s OK to find his accomplishments fascinating. And it’s OK for me to find my own life fascinating.

Or perhaps not!

Or perhaps not!

I’ve played the organ for more hours than most of my readers have been alive (even some who are dangerously close to being old farts). I’ve traveled the world—small portions of it—not for pleasure but for understanding. I’ve been married and divorced and had long-term relationships with men.

Do you want to know what’s really important? A young man, 30-something, whom I’ve known since he was about 10 came to me recently, not knowing what to expect, but needing an “adult” to talk to about his growing acceptance of himself as a transgendered person. He came to me. He didn’t know that one of the most significant friendships of my life is with a transgendered man. He simply thought he could trust me. That’s not as immediately exciting as going to Africa to save the baboons, but it’s pretty damned miraculous.

So the Burkean Parlor conversation the party guest and I were trying to have is the same one everyone has. What’s going on here? What is my life all about? Am I ready for it to end, or are there yet baby baboons I want to save? Or young friends I want truly to befriend when they need it?

OK. So here’s a sample Michael Blumenthal poem. And it fits at this point. See why I like his almost-old-man stuff so much?

“Self-Help,” by Michael Blumenthal

It was, as it always has been, a choice
between Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
and The Story of O, so I picked up The Story of O

knowing it would be more interesting
and, in the long run, better for me. I’d lived
the compassionate life for years— it had proved

far better for those around me than for myself.
Now, I figured, it was time for The Story of O,
Tropic of Cancer, Philosophy in the Boudoir, all

the books that had inspired me in my youth,
before altruism gave pleasure a bad name.
We all go back to our origins, somehow, I think,

ordering a cappuccino and flirting with the waitress,
probably young enough to be my daughter. Isn’t
it, after all, pleasure we truly want, and decency

the back road we use to get there? Why not, rather,
speak our desires straight out, perhaps obliquely,
as in a poem, but nonetheless without shame, so that

pleasure will ultimately reach those who deserve it,
and the books that once gave us so much bad feeling
toward our happier selves can go on doing their work

in the deeply literate darkness underground.

—Blumenthal, Michael. No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012. Wilkes-Barre, PA: etruscan press (2012) 68.

David Souter. Perhaps law clerking isn't that much different from saving baby baboons.

David Souter. Perhaps law clerking isn’t that much different from saving baby baboons.

“Life, like a marble block, is given to all. . .” (Edith Wharton)

The erotic moment

The erotic moment

Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1921 for her novel The Age of Innocence (the first woman to be so honored). If you want to see the single most erotic moment in all of filmdom, watch Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film of the novel with Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer taking off their gloves in the back of a carriage. Yep. Their gloves. You don’t have to get naked to be erotic.

Edith Wharton wrote poetry for which she is not well-known. One has to be careful not to try to find more in a poem than is there. For example, in her poem, “Life,” Wharton speaks of a sculptor working with a marble block who “shatters it in bits to mend a wall.” Wharton and Robert Frost were contemporaries living in the same part of the country and publishing poetry in the same journals and magazines (“Life” was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1894). Frost’s “Mending Wall” was published in his collection North of Boston in 1914. So it’s obvious that Wharton’s “shatter[ing] it in bits to mend a wall” is not an allusion to Frost’s poem—likely as that might seem upon first reading.

By the way, the point of my writing this is not eroticism. That was just my “hook” to get you interested (that’s what many teachers of composition in universities call an irrelevant but interesting beginning to an essay). But you might as well fantasize about Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer. . . No, you’ll be irretrievably distracted.

So on with the point of my writing.

When I first stumbled upon Wharton’s poem, I thought I understood all of the allusions. “Mending Wall,” by Robert Frost. Parian, the finest Greek marble, so white and flawless that it’s almost translucent. And Lesbia’s gaze. We all know what that means. Well, no, most of us don’t, I think.

I gave up a long time ago trying to piece together the meanings and origins of the poetry by Catullus which is the basis of all its ideas about romantic love we carry around in our heads. You know, Lesbians, daughters of Sappho. I’ve intended for years to read the scholarship on the matter. As nearly as I can tell, Catullus was a man who used the pseudonym Lesbia to write poetry to the woman he loved, so it seems as if the poetry is one woman writing to another. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I do know that Edith Wharton was not a lesbian. She didn’t like lesbians, according to the New York Review of Books.

Oh, dear. Perhaps my “hook” about eroticism was more to the point of what I want to say than I thought. Never mind. I’ll get there. So the allusion to mending a wall was not to Robert Frost, and I don’t have any idea what Wharton’s allusion to Lesbia means.

The poem.

“Life,” by Edith Wharton
Life, like a marble block, is given to all,
A blank, inchoate mass of years and days,
Whence one with ardent chisel swift essays
Some shape of strength or symmetry to call;
One shatters it in bits to mend a wall;
One in a craftier hand the chisel lays,
And one, to wake the mirth in Lesbia’s gaze,
Carves it apace in toys fantastical.

But least is he who, with enchanted eyes
Filled with high visions of fair shapes to be,
Muses which god he shall immortalize
In the proud Parian’s perpetuity,
Till twilight warns him from the punctual skies
That the night cometh wherein none shall see.

The first observation should be that this writing borders on the sentimental, from which Wharton’s language began almost immediately to evolve. The Age of Innocence, for example, has not one sentimental sentence. It is unadorned storytelling, whose style encompasses satire and unflinching critique of the upper-class society in which Wharton grew up. (See below for a sample of the writing, in case you’ve forgotten.)

She lost her innocence in Paris

She lost her innocence in Paris

I don’t mean “Life” is sentimental except that it follows conventions of 19th-century romanticism with its dependence on Greek literary allusions and the like. The language seems stilted compared with the voice Wharton developed for her fiction. But that’s not what I meant to write about either.

So on with the point of my writing now that I’ve done my best imitation of the literature professor I never was.

“The night cometh wherein none shall see.” Death, almost certainly.

The professor in my undergraduate Shakespeare class said all poetry is about “kissin’ or killin’.” He said that could be “lovin’ or dyin’,” but it’s not nearly so poetic.

That is, however, the version I’m using. “Life” could be seen (obviously) as a poem about figuring out one’s life before it’s too late, before one is dyin‘. Wharton was only 32 when she wrote it, so some frustrated old man might ask, “What could she have known about such things at her age?”

Exactly. That’s why the poem sounds so sentimental, doesn’t have the clarity of Wharton’s mature writing.

However, even in Wharton’s youthful (that is, trying too hard to create a poetic image) language, the lines “with enchanted eyes / Filled with high visions of fair shapes to be, / Muses which god he shall immortalize” give me pause. I rather expect I’m one of those who has spent enough time musing about what god I might immortalize that I’ve frittered away my time. It’s most likely too late for me to learn to be a poet.

On the other hand, when a young man whom I have known for 20 years (since he was 10) needed an “adult” in whom to confide the secret of his life, he came to me. Perhaps we could do little better than to muse on immortalizing Ἔλεος, Eleos, the goddess of pity, mercy, and compassion. One ancient Greek source says that she “among all the gods [is] the most useful to human life in all its vicissitudes.”

Eleos, goddess of mercy

Eleos, goddess of mercy

__________________________________
From The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton.
Book 2, Chapter XXV.
The day, according to any current valuation, had been a rather ridiculous failure; he had not so much as touched Madame Olenska’s hand with his lips, or extracted one word from her that gave promise of farther opportunities. Nevertheless, for a man sick with unsatisfied love, and parting for an indefinite period from the object of his passion, he felt himself almost humiliatingly calm and comforted. It was the perfect balance she had held between their loyalty to others and their honesty to themselves that had so stirred and yet tranquillized him; a balance not artfully calculated, as her tears and her falterings showed, but resulting naturally from her unabashed sincerity. It filled him with a tender awe, now the danger was over, and made him thank the fates that no personal vanity, no sense of playing a part before sophisticated witnesses, had tempted him to tempt her. Even after they had clasped hands for good-bye at the Fall River station, and he had turned away alone, the conviction remained with him of having saved out of their meeting much more than he had sacrificed.

“. . . the spine of the European Enlightenment. . .” (Caroline Knox)

woosters-paperback-cover1Sometime in the ’80s a friend gave me a copy of a novel by P.G. Wodehouse. I guess his books are novels. That’s not an elitist remark—I genuinely don’t know. Because I never read it. That is, I didn’t finish reading it. That was elitism. It seemed insufferably silly to me, so my insufferable snobbery rejected it.

I’ve been meaning to read a P.G Wodehouse novel for some time. Eleanor was nobody’s fool—a graduate of Smith College back in the ‘40s when education still intended to make thinkers out of students instead of “successes.” She was WAC in WW II and did not suffer fools lightly. She thought I needed to read Wodehouse to lighten up.

This morning I discovered the complete novels (38) of Wodehouse available in one Nook Book from Barnes and Noble for $2.99—a dime apiece (a new meaning for “dime novel”). Who could pass that up?

I did read (and remember) enough of the novel Eleanor gave me to know that Bertie Wooster is Wodehouse’s eccentric whose “man” Jeeves has continually to bail out of one scrape after another.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed 41 symphonies. He composed 18 piano sonatas. He composed 23 “operas,” that is, theatrical pieces performed on a stage with singers “playing” the part of characters. I point that out simply to remind myself how much music he wrote in his short lifetime.

Mozart composed only one “church anthem.” A setting of the Latin hymn, Ave Verum Corpus.

Ave verum corpus, natum
ex Maria Virgine
,
vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine
cuius latus perforatum
fluxit aqua et sanguine:
esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine
.

Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
who having truly suffered, was sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste
Of the trial of death.

The vocal demands of the anthem are not great. Among his enormous oeuvre Mozart wrote only one work that every church choir ought to be able to sing. It is a late work; he composed it while he was in the process of composing The Magic Flute.

The silliest boys in all of opera

The silliest boys in all of opera

I stumbled onto this poem by Caroline Knox as I was cleaning the saved files and folders out of my office computer at SMU. I don’t know where I originally read it, and I can find out precious little about Caroline Knox except she has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and that she has published several volumes of poetry. I can’t even find the year she was born.

“Mozart,” by Caroline Knox
Can you imagine
what is true, that
smack in the middle
of making The Magic
Flute
he interrupted
himself to make
“Ave Verum Corpus,”
world’s most truth-telling
motet (Who made its
text? Maybe a pope),
then got himself on
track, back to TMF
(all the while dealing
with money worry and
sickness of wife). When
you get to the esto nobis
cadence in “AVC,” you
scale the spine of the
European Enlightenment;
when you get to the
idiotic “Three Faithful
Youths” chorus in TMF:

“Three faithful youths we now will lend you
Upon your journey they’ll attend you;
Though young in years, these youths so fair
Heed the words of wisdom rare!”

you’re dealing with
Bertie Wooster’s
three best friends.
Because he was Mozart,
not a problem.

Because he was Mozart, it is not a problem that the three forest sprites in The Magic Flute are nearly the silliest little boys who sing nearly the silliest music in all of opera. It’s Mozart, for goodness’ sake.

I don’t often try to ferret out a logical or literal meaning of a poem (because my thinking is mostly illogical, and I don’t recognize logic when I run into it), but Knox’s poem caught my attention in some way other than a poetic response with, “When you get to the esto nobis cadence in ‘AVC,’ you scale the spine of the European Enlightenment.”

The spine of the European Enlightenment.

My knowledge of such concepts comes from reading and sitting in classes many years ago (50!), and is most likely based on outdated ideas. Textbooks I was assigned to read are undoubtedly thought of (if anyone remembers them at all) as archaic and no longer relevant.

Here’s a succinct rendering of my understanding of the European Enlightenment,

. . . when the freedom of thought that originated in the Renaissance received a new impetus through the scientific discoveries of the sixteenth and . . . seventeenth century. These discoveries encouraged men [sic] to regard as true only what could be tested by direct observation or proved by logical deduction, and to accept the premise of the first great modern philosopher, Descartes, that doubt is the starting-point of philosophy. (Harman, Alec and Anthony Milner. Man & His Music. Late Renaissance and Baroque Music. New York: Schocken Books, (1962), 249.)

In the late ‘80s the Dean Minton of Bunker Hill Community College and I had long discussions in which she eventually prevailed about the evil that the Enlightenment had perpetuated on the world by making people “regard as true only what could be tested by direct observation,” leaving little room for mystery and the inexplicable.

I agree with Anne to this day, probably because I don’t have the brains to test much by direct observation. And the older I get, the less important that seems to me, anyway.

Knox’s poem seems to say that the ineffably sublime and mysterious music Mozart composed for the words “May it be for us a foretaste of the trial of death” is the “spine” (that which holds a body together) of rationality. The music is indeed “rational.” I can explain to you exactly how it works both harmonically and contrapuntally. It contains in a couple of phrases the complete “theory” of Western music.

And so does the silly (comical? innocent?) music the three boys sing in The Magic Flute.

I think Dean Minton’s perception of the damage done by Enlightenment thinking is more on target today than it was 30 years ago. Everyone. I mean everyone in this country thinks they have a market on rational thought. Scientists, climate-change deniers. Bankers, “occupiers.” Tea-partiers, liberals. Fundamentalist christians, atheists.

Our national discourse is the Enlightenment choosing up sides and going berserk. We don’t discuss, we yell at each other. We don’t try to be rational, we adopt opinions based on preconceptions that may (or likely, may not) have anything to do with reality.

Mozart’s music may well be the most rational anyone ever composed. But it’s also the most mysterious. And the same rationality can give voice to comical forest sprites and to the deepest held mysteries of human life.

Knox’s poem can tie all of those things together—and even bring in Jeeves the butler.

Mystery and rationality together. That’s not impossible.

The spine of the American Enlightenment

The spine of the American Enlightenment

“. . . Street urchins make more than me. Water tastes funny without cups. . .”

"Flowers," by Joe Brainard

“Flowers,” by Joe Brainard

Michael Rohrer is a poet. A published poet. A respected poet. A poet whose poetry I happen to like. And not only because he is gay.

I’ve been reminded by a couple of friends lately the stated purpose of this blog (as opposed to my serious blog, Sumnonrabidus—my pidgin Latin for “I am not crazy”—which has been around for a long time) is to write “a light-hearted look at my experience of getting old” (see “about” above).

See “about” above.
See above about.

(I think if I were a poet, I could make something quite lovely out of “about above.” Say it over and over and see what happens to your tongue and your mind.)

I’m pretty sure I don’t “get” Michael Rohrer’s poem, “Jangling” completely. Starting with the problem that poetry.org says it was written by Rohrer and Joshua Beckman. I wonder if they are simply two poets who put poems in the same book and then say they both wrote all of them or they work together on writing poems (which doesn’t seem fair somehow) or if they are lovers/partners/married and Rohrer thinks he has to put Beckman’s name on his work, too (I hope he’s not that “co-dependent”). Rohrer is also a blogger whose work I read quite often.

“Jangling,” by Matthew Rohrer and Joshua Beckman
Money cannot find me.
I try to be reasonable but money is horridly banal.
Money, blow and blow is what I think about you.
Street urchins make more than me.
Water tastes funny without cups.
How far will I go?
Jingle jingle jingle.
Despite holes that compromise living rooms, friends visit.
Money money and more holes to look into.
You are dangerously close to falling.
The money said nothing.
The neighbors called up to us, “Your whole system sounds cockeyed!”
They suck the life from each other and we pay the bill.
Money always whispers,
“You pathetic humans don’t know my true name.”
I know my own name.
It is something exaggeratedly French.

Chaos? by Joe Brainard

Chaos? by Joe Brainard

 

So I like the first line. “Money cannot find me.” It’s true. Whatever I do, money seems to slip right by me without even noticing I’m there. “Well,” you’re probably saying, “anyone who writes so disparagingly about capitalism shouldn’t care whether money finds him or not, so stop being hypocritical.” You’d be right in saying that. I think capitalism (at least as it’s played out these days) is gross. Terrible. Unspiritual. And designed to keep the poor at the same level of poverty they’re at while making the rich richer by the day. Alice Walton, don’t you see, needs the money. I’ve been to Crystal Bridges. I’ve seen what too much money can do to a person. (That’s a cheap shot because I actually loved Crystal Bridges and can’t wait to go back. Oh, yes. Alice paid for it. The whole thing. Doesn’t absolve her for anything, but it’s a great place.)

Joe Brainard isn’t one of my favorite poets—because he wasn’t really a poet. But “I’d walk a mile for” an exhibition of his art (you get that reference only if you remember when cigarettes were advertised on TV).

I think Joe must have been my kind of guy, and I must get back to Ron Padgett’s memoir of him. I don’t mean he was my kind of guy because he was gay or because, if he were still alive, he’d be about my age. No, I can tell by the picture of his studio he and I had something in common. He obviously was inspired somewhat by living in (immediate physical) chaos. I, on the other hand, just live in immediate physical chaos. He was a successful gay artist. I am a gay dilettante, not quite successful at anything.

Here’s the deal. “Street urchins make more than me.”

And that bothers me a little. It’s a conundrum. I think our national religion of capitalism is inhumane and (I hate to use the word because I don’t want anyone to say it about me—especially about my being gay) sinful. But here I am about to retire (in less than a month), and I’m not sure how I’m going to continue to pay the rent until—when? like my father until I’m 97?—I die.

I try to be reasonable but money is horridly banal.
Money, blow and blow is what I think about you
.

So on the one hand there’s this gay poet (or these two working in tandem?) writing cleverly about money. And then there’s the really clever gay artist writing about “life.” And I think he’s got it about right. I don’t know when he wrote, “I suspect that each of us is going to wake up some morning to suddenly find ourselves old men (or women) without knowing how we got that way. Wondering where it all went.” Was it before or after he learned he was dying of AIDS?

And I think he’s got it just about right here, too. “We are all a bit fucked up, and here lies the problem. To try and get rid of the fucked up parts, so we can just relax and be ourselves.”

Money, AIDS, poetry, art for Matthew and Joe.

And for me, so much more stuff I can’t even begin to list it. But I want “To try and get rid of the fucked up parts” so I can just relax and be myself. I don’t know how to do that yet. Never have. But if I figure out the paying the rent part, I’ll keep you posted on how I learn to relax and be myself.

There. Is that “a light-hearted look at my experience of getting old?” It’s about as close as I can get, most likely.

“Life,” by Joe Brainard

When I stop and think about what it’s all about I do come up with some answers, but they don’t help very much.

       I think it is safe to say that life is pretty mysterious. And hard.

       Life is short. I know that much. That life is short. And that it’s important to keep reminding oneself of it. That life is short. Just because it is. I suspect that each of us is going to wake up some morning to suddenly find ourselves old men (or women) without knowing how we got that way. Wondering where it all went. Regretting all the things we didn’t do. So I think that the sooner we realize that life is short the better off we are.

       Now, to get down to the basics. There are 24 hours a day. There is you and there are other people. The idea is to fill these 24 hours as best one can. With love and fun. Or things that are interesting. Or what have you. Other people are most important. Art is rewarding. Books and movies are good fillers, and the most reliable.

       Now you know that life is not so simple as I am making it sound. We are all a bit fucked up, and here lies the problem. To try and get rid of the fucked up parts, so we can just relax and be ourselves. For what time we have left.

More flowers by Joe Brainard

More flowers by Joe Brainard

 

 

“. . . his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.”

The unknown citizen does not have to be ignorant.

The unknown citizen does not have to be ignorant.

For days now I’ve been trying to write a piece about education. You know, the purposes, the grand design, the hoped-for-outcome. All of those high sounding ideas that all educators and most selfish and amoral “conservative” politicians and their followers want us to think about. Who’s left behind and who’s not. Will we use the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) test or some other means to beat teachers into submission?

Beating teachers into submission seems to be the most important desired outcome of education (both public and private—although it’s a bit less obvious at the Hockaday School and St. Mark Academy). How can we beat students into submission if their teachers aren’t servile?

I had never heard of Stephen Leacock until I came across the poem “Arts & Sciences,” by Philip Appleman. Leacock was, according to Wikipedia, a Canadian social scientist, educator, and humorist. One has to be a humorist to be an educator in America these days. If a teacher really thinks there’s a job to do that resembles molding young Americans to think, to understand society, to be ready to take their place as responsible (or at least not gullible and idiotic) citizens, then the teacher needs to get into a profession where they might be allowed to make a difference.

I’m being forced to retire at the end of this semester (I was depressed and angry about it for about six months, and then I realized I will no longer be in any way responsible for the train wreck we call education in this country, and I can hardly wait—in fact, if someone offered me about $15 to do it, I’d call the department chair this morning and tell her I’m not coming back).

It is unconscionable that a teacher of first-year (remember when we had a system of nomenclature that made sense, and we called them “freshmen?”) writing should be the one to introduce a brilliant young woman—in one private conference—to Miss Havisham, Steam Punk, and Dracula. And this college teacher is really a musician (PhD in organ literature) masquerading as a writing teacher. Which he is able to do because he knows about Miss Havisham and other things only peripherally related either to playing the organ or teaching “Discovery and Discourse.”

Any brilliant 18-year-old young woman should already know about at least one of those subjects. And it’s not her fault. At least she—I know because we have since had a chat about Great Expectations—is curious enough and has been given enough freedom to want to know. Very few students are.

One idea of which I am absolutely certain is that education has nothing to do with training the “work force.” It has nothing to do with the United States’ ability to compete in the “global economy.” If we were educating young people, preparing them to be citizens in a free country, we would not have to worry about training the “work force.”

I have no suggestions how to make sure kids get educated (or, for that matter, adults who don’t know Miss Havisham) so they understand anything other than how to pass their time in grubby jobs (even Mayor Bloomberg—with all his billions—was in a grubby job, then another grubby job, and now back to his original grubby job of being a “robber baron”) doing mind-numbing things (if they weren’t, how could Ted Cruz ever have been elected to anything?) in hopes of elevating their grubbiness to the point of being part of the oligarchy of grubbiness that runs all the other grubbiness in this country?

Monument to the unknown citizen

Monument to the unknown citizen

I shouldn’t complain if I don’t have a solution.

By the way, can you make a connection between Visi d’arte (yes, preferably with Maria Callas singing) and rewriting an essay? (Visi isvision.”) Try Re-Visioning rather than rewriting. That’s what all “authorities” writing about education need to learn to do.

We don’t need to revise our thinking about education. We need to Re-See the whole bloody process before it’s too late (or is it already? ask the NSA or Rush Limbaugh).

Two poems that say all of this far better than I can.

“The Unknown Citizen,” by W.H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

“Arts & Sciences,” by Philip Appleman

“Everyone carries around in the back of
his mind the wreck of a thing he calls
his education.” —Stephen Leacock

SOLID GEOMETRY Here’s a nice thought we can save: The luckiest thing about sex Is: you happen to be so concave In the very same place I’m convex. BOTANY Your thighs always blossomed like orchids, You had rose hips when we danced, But the question that always baffled me was: How can I get into those plants? ECONOMICS Diversification’s a virtue, And as one of its multiple facets, when we’re merging, it really won’t hurt you To share your disposable assets. GEOGRAPHY Russian you would be deplorable, But your Lapland is simply Andorrable So my Hungary fantasy understands Why I can’t keep my hands off your Netherlands. LIT. SURVEY Alexander composed like the Pope, Swift was of course never tardy, And my Longfellow’s Wildest hope Is to find you right next to my Hardy. PHYSICS If E is how eager I am for you, And m is your marvelous body, And c means the caring I plan for you, Then E = Magna Cum Laude. MUSIC APPRECIATION You’re my favorite tune, my symphony, So please do me this favor: Don’t ever change, not even a hemi- Demi-semiquaver. ART APPRECIATION King Arthur, betrayed by Sir Lancelot, Blamed the poets who’d praised him, and spake: “That knight’s nights are in the Queen’s pantsalot, So from now on your art’s for Art’s sake.” ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM I couldn’t do Goyas or Grecos, And my Rembrandts had zero panache, But after I junked all my brushes, My canvases made quite a splash. PHILOSOPHY 1. Blaise Pascal Pascal, reflecting tearfully On our wars for the Holy Pigeon, Said, “Alas, we do evil most cheerfully When we do it for religion.” 2. René Descartes The unruly dactyls and anapests Were thumping their wild dithyrambic When Descartes with a scowl very sternly stressed: “I think, therefore iambic!” 3. Thomas Hobbes Better at thinking than loving, He deserved his wife’s retort: On their wedding night, she told him, “Tom, That was nasty, brutish – and short!”

You might have to die for asking too many questions

You might have to die for asking too many questions