Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Victorian prudery

My sister Bernice was in town last week. We had opportunity for long talks and one of the things that came up was whether the Victorians were really so repressed as we've long been told.

There's a post up at Grumpy Old Bookman on the topic. Among other things GOB says, "In 1857, the medical journal The Lancet estimated that the capital could offer over 6,000 brothels and about 80,000 prostitutes: one woman in every sixteen -- of all ages -- was a whore."

So what makes us think they were prudes? The two men most known for the morals crusade, GOB says, were also "proprietors of the two most successful commercial lending libraries; and the libraries were huge buyers of fiction."

Now and then we hear about how evolution (or some other Christian-right opposed fact) has been reduced to a few mealy-mouthings in school textbooks. The publishers of textbooks know they won't be able to sell anything truthful (which would be controversial) to the biggest buyers of textbooks, which would be Texas and, despite its reputation for liberalism, California, and suchlike. Would a reader of U.S. textbooks take away an accurate view of science (or anything much else?)

The publishers of the Victorian era had to look out for two things -- the law (they could be -- and some were -- imprisoned for publishing sexually explicit works) and their biggest customers (who scoured new books for improprieties). The Victorian literature we have to read today, does it really reflect Victorian society?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


I filled the poetry notebook I’ve been working in for the past year. The first lines in the book were written on June 27, 2005. The last were written last night. A year.

The first lines were written at a bed & breakfast in Calistoga. I was sitting on a lounge chair on the little patio by the pond.

The last lines were written sitting on the edge of the bed. I was thinking about this book as a unit. As with the dates making a unit, June to June, one year, there were so many sheets of paper bound together making this book. I don’t know how many. I haven’t counted them. I don’t know how many poems I wrote in the book. They are contained, like the days, in one unit. A book.

The title, a title I gave it somewhere past halfway, is: I

The first two lines on page one go:

I could say something,
but that would be telling, wouldn’t it?

And the last two sentences of the piece I wrote last night:

Its title is on the unbending spine: your name. Or is that the author?

Friday, June 23, 2006

Well-Versed: poems for the road ahead

A few days ago I posted about the poetry chapbook anthology produced by Starbucks. I’m only writing about Well-Versed: poems for the road ahead because it is more what I would expect from a corporate poetry anthology. The booklet fell out of one of the New Yorker’s from last year. The AIG logo is prominent on the front & back covers, “insurance / loans / retirement.” There are eight poems in AIG’s anthology and an illustration for each poem (in one case two short poems share an illustration). The pictures illustrate the poems, that is, the poem that talks about looking in the mirror is accompanied by a drawing that shows a man holding up a mirror. There are the tired old anthology pieces – Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig.” No doubt they seemed harmless. There’s a Rainer Maria Rilke (“Future, who won’t wait for you? / Everyone is going there.”) and an Edgar Lee Masters (“In my youth my mind was just a mirror / In a rapidly flying car, / Which catches and loses bits of the landscape.”). Philip Booth and Lucille Clifton get to represent contemporary poetry with poems of bland exhortation (“may you in your innocence / sail through this to that”). It seems to me Frost’s “Road” is a very dry joke (the path “less traveled by” shows wear “about the same” as the one not chosen and “that has made all the difference”?); either that or he was just being sloppy. There’s a poem by a poet of whom I know nothing. David Filer’s “I Worry More” was first published in Rattle, issue #21. I wonder how it found its way into AIG’s poetry anthology? “I worry more now that my son is out / On his own, earning a handsome salary / Back east.”

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon & Yoko Ono

from the diary: “Monday 1/27/86

“I’m reading The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon & Yoko Ono.

“I didn’t do anything today. Dropped by the library and read some Atlantic and some Ms. [magazines].

“Mom went to a Nuclear Free meeting but I don’t know what they did. She also took David to the passport office to clear up his sex. [D’s new passport indicated his sex as F.]”

A day later I wrote, “The Lennon/Ono interview book is a disappointment. boriiiiing.”

I like the Beatles. There are Beatles songs that I will never tire of. “Yellow Submarine”, “All You Need Is Love” … all together now! But I never felt like I needed to own (or even hear) everything the Beatles did and I was always a little foggy on which Beatle had done what after the band broke up. If I’d been steeped in Beatles trivia I suppose I would have gotten more out of this book. But I can be obsessive. Once I start a book I have to read it all the way through.

I just had the second volume of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman requested out from under me – that is, I won’t be able to renew it now. And it’s a good thing. Because I’d been trying to work my way through this long prose piece in the back of the book, a “Traveller’s Almanac” that seemed to be Moore’s summarizing of all the fantastic literature he’d read for research. The League consists of characters from Dracula, King Solomon’s Mines, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and so forth. The second volume incorporates elements from at least three H.G. Wells novels -- The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, and The Island of Dr Moreau. Moore also throws in allusions to more obscure tales during the narrative. But it’s in the Almanac that he goes overboard. His narrator takes readers on a tour of the world – on this island live the Skeezies, under this mountain live the immortal Boogers, a legendary city is said to appear out of the mist in this valley every hundred years. There’s only occasionally any story to it. And the writing is dry. So I’m glad the book’s been yanked away. Now I can stop reading it!

As I recall the Playboy interview with Lennon included a catalog of songs. The interviewer would name a song and Lennon was supposed to say whether he or bandmate Paul McCartney had written it. All Beatles songs written by Lennon or McCartney are attributed to both. Obviously many had to have been more John than Paul (or vice versa), right? I remember turning page after page of this going, I wonder if I know that song?

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Kiss of the Spider Woman

from the diary: “Sunday 1/26/86

I dropped by to say hello and “Ninnah & Adam … invited me to The Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Plaza in Petaluma. I’d been wanting to see this for a long time cuz it has two men kiss – Raul Julia and William Hurt.

“The movie was absorbing. I really liked the interplay in the cell. The movie fantasies were funny. I was never bored. But Molina (William Hurt) annoyed me. He spouted some lines that sounded as if they’d been lifted from The Naked Civil Servant (the film of Quentin Crisp’s autobiography of the same name) about always looking for a real man but never being able to find him because even if he did the real man couldn’t love him because a real man could only love a woman. He said at one point (about his penis), ‘If I had any courage I’d cut it off.’ I made some comment about the first point to Ninnah during the movie and she said, ‘That’s the eternal homosexual dilemma.’ (meaning the desire to be female, I thought). I bristled but didn’t say anything.

“Later in the car we discussed the movie. I told them I thought Molina was too close to being a cliché and was too unrelentingly tragic – of course he had to die at the end, no faggot can ever be happy. Just another tragic misfit destined to come to a sorrowful end in a world where he can’t fit in. hmph. I enjoyed the movie until Molina left the cell, then I thought it became too much like one of Molina’s fantasies; slightly absurd and more than a little overdone. But the cell interaction was great. I love intimate conversations (like My Dinner with Andre). The close quarters, the two (or small number) interacting so you can feel their presence.

“But the kiss – I was knotted and nervous, my hands were cold, I got no jolt from it – the circumstances with Molina working for the authorities, Raul left to be tortured again.”

No, it’s not about a book. It’s about a movie. But it’s a more thoughtful response than most of the excerpts about books I’ve been posting.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Original Sins

from the diary: “Saturday 1/25/86

“Lisa Paulick’s new (used) car had konked out on Huntley across … from our house. … This is the same Lisa who has dropped by the house – once with Becky, and just after Xmas with Becky and Jim. [Lisa] called her dad from someone else’s house. He showed up and Dad and Mom and me and the man who is fixing our roof (whose name I have forgotten; don’t I feel like a bourjour (how the fuck do you spell that) creep in the midst of reading Lisa Alther’s second novel, Original Sins, that I don’t even know his name – this guy Mom thinks is great, oh boodle) all stood around trying to figure out what to do. [Lisa’s] dad got the car going while I was in the house getting a pizza bagel.”

This is such a mess of a piece of writing I find it has odd charms. Oh boodle?

I remember liking Alther’s first novel Kinflicks. She wrote sex scenes I found hilarious. Plus there was much bisexuality going on.

I’m not going to try to unknot the personal relationships in this paragraph other than to say I went to high school with Lisa, Becky, and Jim. And “bourjour”? Did I mean bourgeois? If I did, what did I think “bourgeois” meant? I guess I was exploiting the working class. In that I wasn’t working. I haven’t gotten any better at diagnosing cars.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Poems from the Coffee Lands

This is a chapbook anthology of poems from eight countries; it’s about the dimensions of a postcard, 32 pages including bios, publication histories of the poems, small guidebook-pretty pictures and a contents page. Says the introduction, “These countries, whose soil, topography and climate combine to produce the world’s best coffee beans are also lands with a rich heritage of poetry. A coincidence?”

I picked up this little book a couple years ago, having stopped in at the Starbucks a half block from the library for my morning coffee and croissant. It was a freebie and maybe it came with a bag of beans or a tiny scoop or something, I don’t remember quite. The poetry isn’t bad. Yes, I was surprised not only that the poetry wasn’t bad but that it also wasn’t familiar, that I recognized only three of the fifteen poets (Octavio Paz, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Ruben Dario), and that most of the poems are translations. No editor is credited, though a note on the back cover says, “Prepared by TidbitBooks.” A Google search returns nothing.

It did sit around awhile before I finally read it through. “garden detached / from any idyll / or atrocity” – Duda Machado (tr. R. Alfarano) … “the sky walked / from eye to eye” – Eunice Odio (tr. M. Collins)

Too bad they haven’t made this a regular thing. On the other hand, it’s now time for me to throw it away. Toujours gai!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Famous Ghost Stories

from the diary: “Wednesday 1/20/86

“Finished the book on beauty and am on Famous Ghost Stories edited by Bennet Cerf.”

And I ask myself, “Is there something I should do before / for my twenty-first birthday?”

Like, maybe, come out?

Friday, June 09, 2006

Face Value: The Politics of Beauty

from the diary: “Saturday 1/18/86

“I’m reading another provocative book -- Face Value: The Politics of Beauty. The authors tend to raise more questions than they answer: What is beauty? What makes a woman beautiful? Is beauty quanitifiable? Why is beauty so important?

“They make a good case for the importance of the questions but so far they haven’t gone a long way toward answering them. But then, they point out, nobody else much has either.

“… Whenever I hear or read about beauty or even when shown beauty (all of this usually being feminine beauty) I (consciously or unconsciously) run beauty past my mind’s eye in masculine forms. Female beauty, while it interests me and sometimes delights me, doesn’t have the powerful emotional oomph of male beauty for me. And yet I can’t admit it in words – even to myself in a great number of cases. Nonverbally and in private I can gasp at gorgeous men but in public, to anyone else, I hide, cover up, qualify.”

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Nazi Extermination of Homosexuals

from the diary: “Friday 1/17/86

“Mom and I talked about the Nazis and how horrible they were (this prompted by a TV special I saw last night, photos of the Third Reich. ick) I threw caution to the wind (from the stinking furnace) and showed Mom a book I’d checked out from the Santa Rosa library. The Nazi Extermination of Homosexuals. She read the captions under a few pictures.

“This was some bit after Mom read an article in the latest West County News about school AIDS policy – including sex ed. – and Mom says, ‘Would that mean talking about … (anal sex)?’ She makes a face.”

“Mom, you hate sex back, front, and sideways. You’re probably (how can this not be true?) one of the reasons I’m so hung up about sex.”

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

men and lambs

So one of the books I’ve been reading, Of Men and Monsters, discusses The Silence of the Lambs rather extensively. The confluences with Jeffrey Dahmer both in rough time period and in characteristics of the kills were enough to catch one’s notice. Hannibal Lector in fiction is a killer and a cannibal. Buffalo Bill, the killer at large, whom FBI agent Clarice Starling hopes to catch, is queer – if not gay or transsexual, at least a transvestite. He likes to wear women’s clothing. He likes to wear, as I recall, women’s skin. Jeffrey Dahmer, the real life killer, became notorious both for being queer (he was gay) and for being a cannibal (he dismembered and claimed to have eaten at least a token quantity of the flesh of his victims).

Richard Tithecott’s Of Men and Monsters also talks about how society and the media view the serial killer. In some ways, he’s the hero. He’s just acting out what many, too repressed, bound by laws, dream to do. Hannibal the Cannibal is a hero, isn’t he? He’s virile (straight), athletic, and oh so scary. Movie scary. Almost one of those misunderstood monsters of yore – King Kong, you know, or the Frankenstein monster. Could Jeffrey Dahmer be a hero? Even though he’s queer? Just because we abhor, says Tithecott, it doesn’t mean we can’t also admire.

I avoided The Silence of the Lambs for years because I didn’t want to contribute my own little bit of financial reward to the reinforcement of the killer queer stereotype. That plus I don’t care for serial killer horror movies. I like monster movies. Like The Blob or Valley of Gwangi. Nonhuman menaces from other worlds. And I didn’t figure I’d ever read anything by the author of Silence of the Lambs. Only, I find I have. Black Sunday is also by Thomas Harris. The same Thomas Harris. Thirteen years separates Black Sunday and Silence of the Lambs. I wonder if femme in a boy equals evil in all his books?

Friday, June 02, 2006

pile of reading

Walden / Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

Poems for the Millennium: the University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry, Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium, edited by Jerome Rothenberg & Pierre Joris

The Collected Poems, Sylvia Plath

The Long Walk to Freedom, the autobiography of Nelson Mandela

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, the C.K. Scott Montcrief translation

The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine by Barbara Tedlock, Ph.D.

Tropical Truth: a story of music and revolution in Brazil by Caetano Veloso

Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories, edite by Bob Guter & John R. Killacky

How We Die: Reflection on Life’s Final Chapter by Sherwin B. Nuland

Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer by Richard Tithecott

Pictopia #4, a Fantagraphics anthology of art comics

Drawn & Quarterly #5, a DQ anthology of art comics

a May 2005 issue of The New Yorker