Friday, March 20, 2015

everything happens for an accident

The most important thing a poet should do is go into the well of themselves, their roots and refer to, for us, the grandmother or tobacco chewing uncle with whom she has to match wits to defeat his intent constantly, or whatever opinionated tyrant is survived, since everyone on this earth who becomes worthy of our notice has overcome whatever authoritarians the accident of birth foisted upon us.

— Leo Connellan
in his Foreword to Vivian Shipley’s Poems Out of Harlan County

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Word of the Day: Brichthorn & Clocynth

context: The poet Adonis is calling forth a better world.

darkness of the sea,
ignore this feast of corpses.
Bring the earth to blossom
with your winds.
Banish plague and teach the very rocks
to dance and love.”

The goddess of the sand prostrates herself.
Under brichthorn
the spring rises like clocynth from the lips
or life from the sea.

definition: For neither word is there a definition. I figured “brichthorn” was some type of plant. What animal has thorns? I didn’t need to know what it looked like. However, I had no idea what a “clocynth” was. A plant? A song? So I popped it into the query box at a couple dictionary sites. I was asked, “Do you mean ‘colocynth’?” According to a colocynth is “a plant, Citrullus colocynthis, belonging to the gourd family, of the warmer parts of Asia, the Mediterranean region, etc., bearing a round, yellow or green fruit with a bitter pulp.”

Once I’d hassled “clocynth” I went back to “brichthorn.” No dictionary website liked “brichthorn.” Could it be a typo? Do birches have thorns? Yes, it seems birch trees have thorns.

Are there any books without typos? Usually a typo is easy to correct mentally. Sometimes typos are so easy to correct mentally that the correction does not reach the page.

source: Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forche. 1993.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Word of the Day: Dolichocephalic

context: Francois Bizot is in Cambodia. He has been studying Buddhist practices unique to that country. He describes an acquaintance:

He was a young man, and I remember well his handsome dolichocephalic profile, the creamy white of his eyes standing out from his swarthy complexion, the strong red of his mouth spreading out onto his fleshy lips.

definition (Merriam-Webster): having a relatively long head with cephalic index of less than 75.

I suppose I have to look up “cephalic index” now.

This is what Wikipedia has to say: The cephalic index or cranial index is the ratio of the maximum width of the head of an organism (human or animal) multiplied by 100 divided by its maximum length (i.e., in the horizontal plane, or front to back). The index is also used to categorize animals, especially dogs and cats.

So our handsome young man had a long head, relative to something.

source: The Gate by Francois Bizot
translated by Euan Cameron

Sunday, March 08, 2015

“flight forward”

In an introduction to his translation of Cesar Aira, Chris Andrews describes Aira’s method:

Cesar Aira’s keener readers are familiar with the procedure that he calls la huida hacia adelante: flight forward. He has often said that he composes his novels by improvising a page or two a day, and that instead of rewriting, he attempts to correct the weaknesses or inconsistencies of what has been written by adding retrospective explanations. Imperfections serve to spur invention rather than revision.

This method sounds similar to the one I used when composing Thousand, which I posted on my LoveSettlement blog. Each day I wrote one hundred words. I wrote for one thousand days, ending up with a prose piece 100,000 words long. Each day’s 100 word post was not completely raw. I did not post until I was satisfied, revising and rewriting, if necessary, until I thought the 100 words worked. I did not go back and revise the previous day’s (or month’s or year’s) effort, however. I went forward. Nor have I gone back to Thousand to revise it. When it hit its 100,000th word that was its last word. I have read Thousand all the way through since it completed and it holds up pretty well for whatever it is. There’s a lot of fun writing there. I can see a kinship to Cesar Aira’s “Varamo.”

source: Two Lines, no.18: Counterfeits, edited by Luc Sante & Rosanna Warren, published by the Center for the Art of Translation. 2011.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Word of the Day: Rachitic

context: Karamallah has taken up residence in the family mausoleum because the Egyptian authorities are watching his home. He’s not alone in the cemetery. Mostly because of poverty, the cemetery is well populated with the living.

The cemetery was stagnating in a precarious calm … Occasional bursts of lamentation from the hired mourners … could be heard in the overheated air, like the echo of unspeakable suffering. … An old man with a white beard dragging a rachitic donkey at the end of a rope passed in front of the mausoleum and greeted Karamallah with a slight nod befitting an exiled monarch. … Karamallah [was disturbed by] the donkey’s gaze; it was both dejected and accusing, as if Karamallah were the one at the root of its downfall.

This is the sort of word I usually don’t look up. It is defined sufficiently by context that I don’t feel I’m missing much by not turning to the dictionary. Turning to the dictionary is such a bother, especially when you end up being told what you’ve already figured out. So I’m going to tell you that I have copied out the contextual passage and I have written up to this point without having turned to the dictionary. I might as well guess what the dictionary is going to say. Rachitic means skinny and/or diseased-looking, undernourished, perhaps aged.

definition (according to Miriam-Webster): rickety

Rachitic specifically refers to rickets, the disease. Which makes me realize I never knew what I was metaphoring when I said something looked “rickety,” that is, as though it were about to fall apart.

How did I do? What I learned from the dictionary was not the definition — my guess was perfectly adequate — I learned that the word evokes the ravages of a specific disease, rickets, and that rickety is another way of saying rachitic. I didn’t need to know this stuff, but it makes a DIR post!

source: “The Colors of Infamy” by Albert Cossery, translation by Alyson Waters, which appears in Two Lines, no.18: Counterfeits, edited by Luc Sante & Rosanna Warren, published by the Center for the Art of Translation

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Word of the Day: Paraffin Test

context: It’s 1968, Mexico City. The university students, like university students all over the world during this year, are demanding greater freedom and respect. The repressive national government, naturally, would prefer not to, and have been sending out paramilitary riot police to beat, arrest, and even shoot young people, usually at night when the biggest crowds have dispersed.

President Diaz Ordaz, in a speech from the city of Guadalajara, tendered his famous “outstretched hand” to the students in exchange for their submission. An outstretched hand — if you apologize.

The imaginative riposte appeared the next day on thousands of handbills and flyposters: A la mano tendida, la prueba de la parafina (Give the outstretched hand the paraffin test).

definition (courtesy the Oxford English Dictionary online):
[probably after American Spanish; use of the test in Mexico City is reported from 1931] a forensic test to indicate whether a person has recently fired a gun, in which the person's hand is coated in hot paraffin wax which cools and sets and is peeled off and tested for the presence of residue from the gun.

source: ’68 a memoir by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

An Almost Perfect Person

from the book log (2/12/89):

An Almost Perfect Person
Judith Ross. 1978. a play

I read this in searching for a dialogue to perform in Reader’s Theatre. I read snatches of it in the JC library before checking it out and it sounded promising. And it is amusing. There wasn’t a dialogue of the type I was looking for. A woman runs for a New York City congressional seat. She loses. This play documents her sexual liaison with her former campaign manager & her dead husband’s best friend. It’s quite tame and rather sit-com-y. A pleasant if untaxing play. It’s dated a little. Some good lines.

One thing that annoyed me about the JC library: before putting hardcovers on the shelf, they discarded the dustjackets. I like to include in these posts the cover image of the edition I read. In the case of hardcovers that I checked out from the JC library (and, later, the UC Berkeley library, which has the same practice), there was no cover image. Was the reason budgetary? The public library saves the dustjacket, wrapping it in mylar. Public libraries are that much richer than academic? It seems to me of educational value to retain the dustjacket. At the very least dustjackets record design history. They often also have author photos and selected critical notices which disappear when the dustjacket is removed. Blurbs give a book context. If you’re researching an author’s influences and connections I could see how looking over the blurbs given their book by more famous authors would help. Since the copy of An Almost Perfect Person that I read was owned by the JC I probably didn’t get to consider the cover image. Published plays often feature a photo of the original cast, plus costume and set. Losing that is unfortunate. I found a snapshot of the original hardcover posted at Amazon by reviewer Kim Hill. How a 70s woman politician dressed!

Monday, March 02, 2015

Torch Song Trilogy, the movie

from the book log (2/12/89):

Torch Song Trilogy
written by & starring Harvey Fierstein, based on his play(s)
1988. a movie I saw in the theater

Saw this a couple days ago. Films about gay people, even with their faults, seem to me more real than the usual hetero fare. But Torch Song Trilogy is good anyway (should I say, besides). Fierstein plays Arnold Becker, a female impersonator (his profession), who isn’t particularly effeminate when not performing. The story charts his life from when he meets and falls in love with a bisexual man. The relationship is too secretive for Arnold’s tastes. Eventually the affair ends & Arnold is pursued by a lovely young man who wants a longterm lover. This young man (David?), played by Matt Broderick is killed by gaybashers in NYC.

About a third the way through the film I noticed that it was slightly out of focus. While this has happened to other movies I’ve seen at UAs I couldn’t help wondering if it was subtle sabotage by the projectionist. I dint go out & complain as I didn’t wish to miss any of the film. If I see the film again tho’ I shan’t hesitate.

Torch Song Trilogy did not ultimately have a depressing ending, but it did leave me sad the rest of the day.

I read the play (or, rather, trio of plays) a year previous. I wrote about that 8 years ago on DIR. Sort of. Actually, mostly not. My entire review of the book version, as noted in my diary: “Quite good.” Faced with that paucity of comment, I spent more time in the 2007 DIR post talking about how out of focus the screening of the movie version was. We like our clear lines.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The Go-Betweens. Tallulah

from the book log (2/12/89):

The Go-Betweens. Tallulah
1987. a record album

Very listenable. Fav. song: “Right Here.” I’ve heard it before, prob’ on LIVE 105. Have played it several times for dancing. The rest of the album is quite pleasant to have going on while I go about other things.


The sophistication of my music criticism seldom improves much on the old American Bandstand rate-a-record review: “It has a nice beat. You can dance to it.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

New Order. Power, Corruption & Lies

from the book log (2/8/89):

New Order. Power, Corruption & Lies
1983. a record album

My fav. song is “Your Silent Face”, a mellowish, danceish, Kraftwerkish creation that sounds almost new age but is more fun. Definitely the high point of the album. The rest is okay tho’ little really stands out.


The record did not come with “Blue Monday,” which I otherwise would have called its high point. You could only get “Blue Monday” as a single at first. It was added to Power, Corruption & Lies when the album was released on CD.

I played “Blue Monday” on my radio show at London’s Imperial College. I have the cassette tape to prove it. Somewhere. Maybe.

Power, Corruption & Lies grew on me.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Go-Betweens. 16 Lovers Lane

from the book log (2/8/89):

The Go-Betweens. 16 Lovers Lane.
1988. a record album

I really like The Go-Betweens. I first heard “Streets of Your Town” on SF’s LIVE 105.3. A station which no longer seems to come in, drat it. & I bought “Was There Anything I Could Do?” [as a 7” single] on my London trip. Those two songs are definitely big highlights of the album. I like “I’m All Right” quite as much. All these songs are on side 2. I’m not as impressed with side one but it’s certainly quite listenable. The Go-Betweens strum what the Brit press would probably call “jangly” guitars, but the music is generally friendly sounding, folky, with a beat that lets me dance.

When I started watching the “Streets of Your Town” video on youtube, it looked unfamiliar. Huh. You never know what you’re going to see for the first time that you didn’t think to think about seeing.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Monkey Wrench Gang

from the book log (2/8/89):

The Monkey Wrench Gang
Edward Abbey.
1975 & 1985

George Hayduke, Bonnie Abbzug (no relation to the Senator [that is, U.S. Representative for New York’s 20th district, Bella Abzug]), Seldom Seen Smith (a jackMormon), and Doc Sarvis become eco-raiders. The term today might be eco-terrorists. They meet on a rafting trip down the Colorado which is led by Seldom. And they decide to do their best to rid the West of its cancer. Their ultimate goal is blowing out the Glen Canyon Dam. They don’t get to it during the course of the book, but you never know.

In the meantime they wreck a few billboards and a lot of earthmoving equipment, one and a half bridges. Abbey’s prose is sometimes verbose. On the first page — in one paragraph — I encountered 3 words with which I was unfamiliar: acedia, schmierkunst, and monovalent. He dint do much else of that — or I didn’t notice. But the adventure rollicks along pretty well once it gets going. Bonnie was rather two-dimensional, I thought. The tryst between her and Hayduke was predictable and briefly yucky. But the chases are great fun and I really liked the characters.

When I put up a DIR post I try to find the cover image of the edition that I read. In the case of The Monkey Wrench Gang there are several editions. I know I didn’t read one with an R. Crumb cover. If a cover depicts an incident or character from the novel I will incorporate the cover’s version into my reading. This may mean I will disagree with it. “That does not accurately portray that scene!” I remember not really having anything to go on with the cover in this case. I’m not absolutely certain the cover image included in this post is the cover of the edition I read but it matches my memory of an image that contributed nothing to my reading.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

positive notices

from the diary (Wednesday 2/8/89):

I was a big success in Reader’s Theatre today. We did solo monologues (isn’t that a little redundant?) I did a monologue from Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Bruce (the one in the play who’s supposed to be devastatingly handsome) is telling Ned that his lover has died of AIDS.

I got very positive comments from Susan Stathus (our teacher): “You have excellent timing.”

Somebody else: “He’s not afraid of silence.”

“I almost cried.”

“I got so into it I nearly forgot I was watching a monologue.”

I wrote about finding this monologue in an earlier post.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

We Are Your Sons: the legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

from the book log (1/26/89):

We Are Your Sons: the legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg
written by the children, Robert & Michael Meeropol
Houghton Mifflin Co., 1975

Begins with an engrossing selections of letters by Ethel and Julius to their sons, to one another, to Emanuel Bloch, their lawyer, and to the public, most of which were written while the two were incarcerated at the Death House in Sing Sing. Michael Meeropol provides connecting narrative, filling in some of his memories of family life before the notorious spy trial and after. How he and his younger brother (by 4 years) Robert lived for a time with their maternal grandmother. This woman sided with her son David Greenglass, against her daughter and son-in-law and told her daughter as the date of the execution moved nearer: “I mean even if it was a lie, all right, so it was a lie, you should have said it [David Greenglass’ testimony] was true anyway! You think that way you would have been sent here [the Death House]? No, if you had agreed that what Davy said was so, even if it wasn’t you wouldn’t have got this!” Ethel quotes her mother in a letter dated Jan 21, 1953.

Michael and Robert were placed in a Jewish children’s house which Michael remembers as mostly torment. He was seven, Robert three, at the time of their parents’ arrest. From there they went to live with their paternal grandmother, then to a young couple. After the execution of their parents they were adopted by Anne & Abel Meeropol, although at the death of Manny Block they were nearly taken permanently from this new family via legal maneuvering by New York officials.

An interesting and fast-reading book. It gives few details of the trial or the adult Rosenbergs other than those remembered by Michael and, of course, the words of the Rosenbergs themselves in their letters. …

Robert recounts the brothers’ adulthood experiences. Each became involved in the youth movements and New Left of the Sixties, although in somewhat different ways.

Finally the book ends with Michael’s political analysis of the events leading up to and the reasons behind the prosecution (persecution?) of his parents.

I think this is a valuable book. I have a couple other books waiting that delve into the case itself, but this is a rare memoir — the testimony of two innocent victims of the Cold War. And the Death Penalty. Hm. Four innocent victims? I was thinking of Robert and Michael, yet Ethel & Julius went to their deaths proclaiming their absolute innocence.

For my Reader’s Theater class I performed the letter from Ethel Rosenberg which I excerpt above.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by the US government in 1953 for providing the Soviets information on creating atomic bombs. Did they do what they were convicted of? If they did spy for the Soviets, was executing them appropriate?

I remember my mother being uncomfortable when she saw me reading this book. I don’t think we figured out how to discuss it. The Rosenbergs were her contemporaries, only 3 to 6 years older, and I’m sure she had opinions about them at the time.

We Are Your Sons was the first work of any substance that I read on the case. Robert and Michael are convinced of their parents’ innocence. It was easy to take their side. How could you not feel for someone whose parents were killed, even if by the state for supposedly just reasons?

My mother was a proponent of the death penalty. As a kid it made sense to me; doesn’t a murderer forfeit his right to life? Gradually my sympathies shifted. The criminal justice system is fallible. Some laws are plainly unjust. I decided it was better not to give the government permission to kill people. Better to err on the side of mercy and put the priority on addressing the social causes for crime than go along with the mistakes that will take the lives of innocents. My mother may have come around. I don’t remember exactly, but I did talk her into changing her mind on some things.

What made me pick up the book in the library? Part of it would have been its uniqueness. Name another memoir written by the child of an executed spy. Part of it would have been a couple novels, which I had either read recently or considered reading at about that time. E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel was based on the Meeropol boys and was made into a movie in 1983, the title shortened simply to Daniel. I hadn’t seen it but I certainly heard about it. I read The Book of Daniel at some point. Probably before reading We Are Your Sons, but I don’t remember how the reading of either book informed the other. The second novel would be Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which doesn’t spend much time on the Rosenbergs but has that striking first line: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs …”