Wednesday, April 29, 2015

notes toward an autobiography by others

The streets of Ho Chi Minh City make for rather desperate exercise for even the most enthusiastic of pedestrians. Footpaths can vary wildly, and occasionally disappear into deep drains. When they are not serving as motorcycle parking lots they make excellent extensions of shop display space, and so the Saigon flaneur must spend much time walking in the road itself, right in the midst of the traffic, praying wildly that a bus or truck doesn’t come speeding up behind you.

When one is making plans to visit Saigon what seems like the most daunting part of walking the city is the crossing of streets. Typically one does not wait for a crosswalk signal or a traffic light or STOP sign, or even a break in the traffic flow, one just steels oneself and steps off the sidewalk. The traffic is mostly motorbikes and the drivers take note of you and swirl around you. I watched videos of this before we left for Vietnam and it looked crazy. But once we were doing it it made a kind of sense. This is not to say it’s a stress-free adventure, especially at night when the oncoming traffic consists of glowing cyclopean eyes, but you kind of know what you’re in for.

What stressed me out more than crossing streets was discovering that the distinction between street and footpath is, well, let’s just say it’s contingent. If the street beside which you are walking is one way and a motorbike pulls out of a driveway and the driver wishes to travel against the traffic flow he doesn’t go all the way around the block. He uses the sidewalk. Thus the footpath is an optional bike lane. And parking space. And dining area for sidewalk restaurants. My tummy felt queasy most the time I was in SE Asia and I did not have the resilience necessary to be constantly on the alert. When our itinerary said it was time to leave Saigon — I was ready.

quote source: Destination Saigon: adventures in Vietnam by Walter Mason

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

struggling against God

… his defenses against religious belief were going to crumble. And at about this time they started crumbling quickly. … the unbelief he had always thought his protection was in fact his prison.

I don’t think of myself as having defenses against religious belief. I haven’t built great walls, erected desperate barriers, locked doors, or armed myself against faith. Rather, faith puzzles and intrigues me. I wonder about it and look into it. Because I don’t get it.

I’ve heard this formulation before, that the unbeliever rejects God, struggles against the Lord’s intrusion into his life, fights not to believe. The easier thing would be relax and surrender. God will just come right in and take over.

This has not been my experience. Nothing about Christianity makes sense to me. I have to struggle to figure out what it’s trying to tell me. “Sin” is a piece of Christian jargon that doesn’t make any sense. An infant is born out of sin. It is sinful in the womb. Murder is also a sin. As is thinking. What, then, is “sin”? And that’s about as basic a piece of the Christian puzzle as exists. If sin is baffling, how am I supposed to get to God embodying himself as a mortal, then sacrificing himself to himself in order to absolve other mortals from sin?

C. S. Lewis, from Surprised by Joy:
You must picture me … feeling … the steady, unrelenting approach of Him Who I so earnestly desired not to meet. … I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed … the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England … kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting … eyes in every direction for a chance of escape.

The quote at the top of the post is from Alan Jacobs’ biography of C. S. Lewis. A couple pages later Jacobs quotes Lewis himself on the struggle to ward off God. The writing is certainly vivid. The “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting” body evokes a toddler in full-on temper tantrum. But what is it the toddler wants? What does keeping out this god do for him? Conversely, what does allowing this god in do for him? Well, I guess it allows him to stop struggling. Struggling is a lot of work; knocking that off would be a relief.

For me, all the struggling would be the other way. Every time I’ve tried to wrap my mind around the Christian equation it’s been a struggle. It’s a whole lot easier just to shrug my shoulders and say, “It seems to work for them. That’s nice. So long as it’s not hurting anybody. There are even some who say Jesus motivates them to do good in the world. I like good. People doing good is a good thing.” People do terrible things in the name of Jesus, too.

source: The Narnian: the life and imagination of C. S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Cambodia notes

I picked up Walter Mason’s Destination Cambodia in the library a couple weeks ago. I’ve been enjoying Mason’s stories. The title may be generic but the writing has personality.

When we were in Cambodia last November Kent and I did not take buses (the tour company’s hired coach doesn’t count), but the bus we took down the Mexico’s Baja peninsula a few years ago had loud movies playing so I could identify with this:

The bus driver played DVDs of Korean pop music for the whole five-hour drive, probably because there was hardly anyone on the bus and no-one seemed to care. In truth, he actually played only two DVDs of Korean pop, the same two, over and over again, obviously favourites of the young conductor who would often reach over to repeat Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby.”

I looked up Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby.” The boy band wears freaky costumes and I love the deadpan reading of that refrain: “Wow. Fantastic baby.”


So “Fantastic Baby” is Korean not Cambodian. We did a layover in Inchon on our way to Southeast Asia. That counts, doesn’t it?

On the other hand I’m now on the lookout for something else mentioned in Destination Cambodia:

Suong Mak was the author of a … novel that was thought to be the first ever in Khmer to talk about gay male relationships.

Mason recounts a delightful story about Suong Mak as a teen writing his first fiction (a ghost story) and his mother’s help in finding a publisher. Seemingly the search ends in disappointment. Two years later, having moved to the big city to attend university, Mak comes across his story in a bookstore. Not only did it get turned into a book, the publisher is happy to have Mak show up to ask about it and hand him over money, as the book is doing well.

I looked up Suong Mak. He has a blog, which is very much in Cambodian. Google Translate currently does a terrible job with Cambodian. Too bad. If it’s true the novel is “being translated into English,” I want a copy when it’s ready. I like the title: Boyfriend

source: Destination Cambodia: adventures in the kingdom by Walter Mason

Monday, April 06, 2015

Make Your Own Emily Dickinson Poem

The vastest earthly Day
Is shrunken small
By one Defaulting Face
Behind a Pall —

… [Emily] Dickinson often offered several choices for certain words in her poems: the “vastest earthly Day” might be “shrunken” small, but it might also be “shriveled” or “dwindled.” More provocatively, it might be “chastened.” … Dickinson [also] wonder[s] if the face should not be “defaulting” but “heroic” …

The vastest earthly Day
Is chastened small
By one heroic Face
That owned it all —

In the quote above James Longenbach first presents an Emily Dickinson poem in, presumably, the default version. Then he does what Dickinson must have done many times, if only in her head; Longenbach gives us the same (?) Dickinson poem using alternate words Dickinson herself provided in manuscript. The two versions read as different poems to me.

When I decided to read her the version of Emily Dickinson I committed to was The Complete Poems edited by Thomas H. Johnson. I had heard that in manuscript Dickinson poems will sometimes include alternate words scrawled next to the ones supposedly preferred (actually it is not clear sometimes that one word is preferred). But I figured I had to read Dickinson in some version and the edition most readily available was the one Johnson created, deciding for us the definitive version of every Dickinson poem. I figured if I fell in love I could pursue every scrap of Dickinson, but if love didn’t strike right away, well, I’d at least have a Dickinson as good as any.

Which makes me think. Might there be an easier way to find the Dickinson that’s right for you? One could create a computer program in which different Dickinsons are available, every one authentic. Click on a word and see it switch to an alternate. Maybe the Emily Dickinson you yourself make out of true Dickinson ingredients is the Emily Dickinson that speaks to you.

source: The Virtues of Poetry by James Longenbach

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

pile of reading

MOJO Music Magazine #254, January 2015
The local library has a subscription. If the CD that comes with the magazine hasn’t been lifted I like to give it a listen. The CD this time features what the MOJO editors consider some of the best new music of 2014. I’m listening to the CD right now. My favorites so far are “Turn it Up” by Robert Plant, “Keep It in the Dark” by Temples, and “Milly’s Garden” by Steve Gunn. I like the lyrics of “Turtles All the Way Down” by Sturgill Simpson, but the very country twang puts me off. Worth another listen, I guess. Now I will move on to reading articles.

Proving Nothing to Anyone by Matt Cook
This is my fourth Matt Cook in a row. At some point I picked up his first book of poems, In the Small of My Backyard. Must not have been terribly long ago, but I don’t remember the circumstances. So I got around to reading it — and was delighted! I enjoyed Cook’s second and third books and here I am one poem into Proving Nothing to Anyone.

Poetry July/August 2014, v.204 no.4
I’m working my way through the 2014 issues of Poetry. Worth the time.

Some Angels Wear Black: selected poems by Eli Coppola
Eli Coppola was a hot poet on the scene when I moved to the metropolis and started attending readings and reading at opens back in the 90s. She struggled with muscular dystrophy. This collection was published by Jennifer Joseph’s Manic D Press. Jennifer hosted the reading Poetry Above Paradise where Coppola was a star.

Seriously Funny: poems about love, death, religion, art, politics, sex, and everything else edited by Barbara Hamby & David Kirby
After spending months with Carolyn Forche’s bummer poems anthology, Against Forgetting: twentieth century poetry of witness, I needed something on a different track. I turned to this anthology, which came to me as a Hanukkah gift from Kent’s sister Kim. Whether I’ll love it or not, I’m already pleased to be listening to a new tune.

Arroyo Literary Review Spring 2012
This is the literary magazine of California State University, East Bay. It looks sharp and the reading has been good so far.

Americana: the Kinks, the riff, the road: the story by Ray Davies
Lead singer and songwriter for the Kinks Ray Davies was on his own in the early ohs. While my first conscious notice of the Kinks was their 80s hit “Come Dancing,” I discovered an appreciation for the Kinks catalog around the time Davies was living this memoir. The writing in Americana is a little diffuse but I’m liking Davies and look forward to reading more of what he says.

The Virtues of Poetry by John Longenbach
Discussions of poetry that focus on the number of stresses in a line are pretty much guaranteed to bore the fuck out of me, so I rolled my eyes when Longenbach started the book that way. He seems to be progressing to other aspects of poetry and with enthusiasm so I’ll stick with it. It’s a short book!

Driving Mr. Albert: a trip across American with Einstein’s brain by Michael Paterniti
What to make of this book? Paterniti befriended the medical doctor who did the autopsy on the body of Albert Einstein. In the process of the autopsy the doctor removed Einstein’s brain. What’s the brain been doing since?

The Selected Poems of Irving Layton
Why am I reading this? Randomness!

Destination Saigon: adventures in Vietnam by Walter Mason
I enjoyed Walter Mason’s Destination Cambodia so I’m following him back to his earlier book. Kent and I did spend the first week of our SE Asia trip in or near Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). What does Mason think about competing with motorbikes for the sidewalk? Will he tell us?

A Place I’ve Never Been: stories by David Leavitt
It’s been a little while since I read a Leavitt, so I’m reading another.