Tag Archives: my life in pieces

New poem: The god of dancing stars.

1 May

(Simone is 8. Pearl is 6. I am 41. The days and weeks and months are passing. Another birthday is here and with it another poem. I’ve neglected the blog for months, working on three different book projects, all of which are looking good.)

The god of dancing stars.


The Greeks believed

Hermes carried

dead souls to the afterlife.

His winged feet allowed him to split

into a thousand selves

almost everywhere at once.

He carried jokes, pranks, tricks, gags.

He’s a vicious laugh.

A sneering terror.


The Greeks saw Dionysus

as the god of wine and revelry,

but also of ritual, madness and fertility.

His followers stripped off their clothes

and tore people limb from limb.

He’s a laugh, too.

Only the laughter hides tears,

and tormenting ecstasy.


Hermes is cruel.

Dionysus is deranged.

Which god do you pray to?

The god of drunken madness or the god of laughing tears?


Please don’t answer with Zeus.

Patriarchal rapist who cracks the earth with lightning.

Or Hera.

Displeasure and vengeance in equal portions.

Not Apollo.

Arrogance and rapaciousness

cloaked in sunshine.

Not Athena.

Wisdom skulking in the gloomy shadows.

There are no new gods.

Is this the source of human misery?



When I dance, I dance.

Montaigne said that.

Hard to do.

I find

in getting older

that I know so little about myself.

I don’t sleep well.

(The bad never do.)

I watch too many movies.

I find myself consumed with worry.

Unexpected tears.

My daughter said to me just yesterday,

“Daddy, I’ve never seen you cry.”

I’ve hidden too much from the world.


When I eat, I read.

When I drink, I talk.

When I walk, I wonder.

The world is so exquisite.

But I don’t want to see it.

Life is a gift I often reject.



As a child, I was motivated by joy.

As a teen, by loneliness.

As a young man, by fear.

Of death

Of obscurity

Of missing out on the exotic thrills of the world.

And now? By sadness.


I romanticized bad behavior.

I wanted to be a Bukowski, or a Miller.

A rake with no conscience.

No consideration of others.

It never fit.

I never tried.

I have a shroud of goodness

cloaking my tarry insides.

It’s a burden. Many have it.

I want to help, be useful.

But the wolves of resentment

bite those helpful heels.

I often feel good but not kind.

Is there a god of kindness?

There’s a major deity of charity somewhere.

Some goddesses of peace.

But most ancient people

did not consider peace or love

the highest ideals.

This seems important.

We live in conflict with ourselves.
I used to value kindness.

Now I’m not so sure.

What does it mean

And what does it matter?

A few seconds of empathy

in the torrents of time?

I remember,

as a teen

I stopped a prank on a friend.

Others put pepper in his coke.

He didn’t thank me.

Instead, he spit in my drink.

I tried to be kind

and he didn’t care.

I was horrified, wounded.

Yet somehow,

as I get older

he seems to be right.

What does kindness get you?



The ancients dominate my imagination.

Duty and cruelty a jumble.

River gods morphing into nymphs

nymphs birthing heroes and godlings

heroes slaying monsters

and the gods appearing once again.

A circular celestial dance.


When a king died,

His servants were often buried with him.

That’s all they thought about individual suffering.

Individual people just didn’t matter.

The concept wasn’t codified.

There were gods

and there were men

all subject to the same solar vicissitudes.


Prometheus had a brother

Epimetheus, husband to Pandora.

A titan who loved humans.

Prometheus was good and kind,

yet he ended up tormented in Hades,

his liver a regenerating feast

for giant birds.

Epimetheus is forgotten.

His name means afterthought.


Hercules was a grand destroyer.

A hunter-god from prehistory.

Reconfigured into Zeus’s son.

Killer of the world’s monsters,

Every child knows him.

I suppose he’s a hero.


The point:

Hercules is remembered.

Epimetheus isn’t.

What does that say about the value

of meekness and decency?




To the ancient thoughts.

The Epicureans:

Live simply,

seek pleasure,

die well.


The Stoics:

Accept your fate,

choose tragedy,

die well.


The Skeptics:

Nothing from nothing.

And the non-engagement.

Who knows? (not me.)


There’s never been a cult

or philosophy

dedicated to kindness.

And why would there be?

Who cares for caring people?

Really—who gives a fuck?


Jesus was close.

A loving spirit.

But even he

railed on of the gnashing teeth

the fiery pit

and the sword in his mouth.



Pascal died at 39

—a younger man than I am now—

of a brain hemorrhage.

What does his wager say about that?



Dance is magic.

An ancient ritual.

Dionysus arriving.

I wake up most mornings

ringed by mental illness.

A castaway treading water

in a cratered sea of volcanoes.

The sludge and suffering of others.

I don’t visit Dionysus very often.

And he rarely arrives.


Hermes saturates my world

While Ares buttfucks Kronos with our president’s dick.

Athena has retreated to the dark side of the moon.

Apollo tweets while Pan is disembodied in the world.


Smiling is an act of courage.

Survival an act of defiance.

But what does anything matter,

in our black iron world?


What’s that line in Lear?

Break, heart!

Or in Magnolia?

The goddamned regret!



Life is often waiting

in doctor’s offices

or for the bus

Magazines are a poor window

to view the world.

I sometimes see another life

inside my own.

Writing ad copy and asinine features

approving photo spreads

and fretting over site visits.

There’s more money in it,

more prestige.

But when did I ever worry about finances?

Always. And never.

For we all sit at the oily feet of Mammon.

We all live in Mammon’s world.




The god of money.

Ancient deity of greed and ambition.

A fish-footed god with death in its eyes.

America’s god.

A middle east transplant

shrouded in Christ’s raiment.

I cannot pray to Mammon.

But he is ever-present.

The fallen demiurge

Incarnate whenever money changes hands.


We live in the era of Mammon.

Hermes and Dionysus

have been hounded

by torches and stones

harried into tidepools and caves

by Mammon’s followers.

The goddesses are all drowned.


This world is a vale of tears.

Saint Jerome said that.

(The patron saint of librarians.)

With the passing years it’s hard to deny.

Sadness is a futile emotion.

No one cares.

The goddess melancholia gives no devotion.

Who prays to the god of tears?



I can’t think of any sad gods.

Jesus wept, but once.

Buddha is always smiling.

Odin and Thor and Freya

maim and murder.

The reptile gods of Egypt fuck and dismember.

Where is the god of tears?


Sadness is a force, too.

Like water.

Boring through stone

through erosive drip drip

of millennia.

Sadness is useless,

but it matters. It shapes.

It pulls. It devours.



One cold winter day,

I sit alone in a theater,

yet surrounded by children.

Sobbing as a make-believe family

euthanizes their dog on screen.

The ice, the iron

have frayed.

My heart is too close to the skin.

Tears flow freely.

The drip drip drip of sadness.

Goddamn the movies.

Goddamn myself.



I would sacrifice to Dionysus freely

give up something of myself

to redirect the world’s attentions

from the tarry talons of Mammon

over to the panicked delight

of the god of song and wine.

But I can’t see a way past

Ba’al and the thorny gates.



Frank Bidart says it best:

It can drink till it’s sick,

But it cannot drink till it’s satisfied.

Preach, brother Bidart.

That’s life, mine and yours.

Some days,

I wonder:

Do America and I suffer from the exact same illness?

A malady of lost belief?

Drinking for sickness

and not satisfaction?


What we don’t eat dies anyway.

Tis a hard fact,

And only one among many.

Born to die.

Born to suffer.

Imperfect machines.

Conscious of our consciousness.

A circular maze with no exit.

Thoughts breeding thoughts breeding thoughts.

While the arm moves before the brain wills it.

Humanity is Mammon.

Greedy reactions to the outer stimuli.



On bad days,

I conceive of a new god.

A lonely, sad creature.

Slouchy and melancholic,

Capable of minor miracles

Often smiling in its gaseous cosmos

But incapacitated by despair.

My new god has a single

redeeming feature.

It cries empty tears.


On other days, I say:

Fuck that noise.

Anyone can weep.

Anyone can be sad.

Living with laughter is the brave calling.

The rejection of Mammon requires joy.


Maybe I worship Hermes after all.

Mercury, god of the in-between.

Hermes—even if you are only an idea—

I beseech thee.

My god of dancing stars,

Laugh for us, your miserable worshippers.

And then,

with Dionysus by our side,

let’s all dance the night away.

Poem fragment, started on november 14

27 Apr

(Wow, I’ve been out of pocket. I’m working/writing/striving, while staving off bitterness, frustration, and anxiety. Mostly succeeding. This is the first of two poems. The second—my annual birthday poem—is forthcoming.)


Fragment of a poem from November 14

No nonono

My head

My gut

My heart

My bones

hollowed out

blanked out

redacted out

No nononono






I cannot begin.

Our linguistic centers are fracked.

We’ve marbled our own thoughts.

Digging through our nerve centers with too many images.

This man.

I don’t understand.


Philip K. Dick wrote a short story.

“Faith of Our Fathers.”

It tells of a future

Where the people of the U.S. are

Controlled by a tyrant who isn’t real.

The leader is a machine.

Or an alien invader.

Or an evil god.

The revolutionaries want to poison the leader.

They fail.


I can’t help but think on it.

The leader who isn’t real.

A machine.

Or an alien invader.

Or an evil god.

I seem to have lost the ability to understand other people.


Philip K. Dick had a re-occuring line in his novels:

The empire never ended.

Brother, ain’t that the truth.

The same buttheads keep slouching towards Bethlehem

And blotting out the sunny skies.

Gingrich, Guliani, Bannon, where doth thou reside?

In an ice cave?

In a sand-packed crypt?

In a stained glass echo chamber?

Doesn’t matter.

We can smell you.

The stench of brimstone wafts from your backsides.


And how, Mr. Gingrich,

Have you lived this long?

Your face a mask of soggy skin

Dripping off your bones like hot wax.

What primal event started you on this course?

(The Big Bang?)


And what drives ye,

Oh Guliani?

What moves the rickety machinery forward,

Into the breach?

What infernal energy source heats your brow?

I can see the occult magic in your crazed eyes.

You . . . sold your soul, didn’t you?

(To Mammon.)


And how do you defecate, Mr. Bannon?

Do you squat and squint your bleary eyes?

Red-faced, slack muscles clenching?

Do you squeeze your velveteen rabbit

And dream of werewolves shorn of hair,

Pink-skinned babies scrubbed clean?

Penises that work?


Okay, okay.

Cheap shots.

Age and infirmity,

The specters that haunt us all.


Philip K. Dick had a vision.

That the Roman Empire was still in power.

That the empire never ended.

That we were all living in a virtual reality prison,

Constructed by our Roman overlords

Hiding the world we live in.

We are, he argued, trapped in invisible chains.

He saw robots and aliens as presidents.

Our leaders manipulating reality with arcane technologies.

Rewriting reality with words.

It all amounted to the same thing:

We are not in control of our own lives.


Enter Trump.

Trumpie. Drumpf. Troomp.

Immune to the slings and arrows,

Elected somehow because of his immense shortcomings.

People want this?

A billionaire bully

With verbal diarrhea,

Who runs out on contracts

And games the bankruptcy laws?

Troomp. Troomp.


When did America become a nightmare?

(This poem has no end.)

Simone and Pearl and the Power Cosmic!, part 8: Into the Jump Zone.

20 Sep


The plan is complex. First, pick up a gift for the birthday girl. Second, eat something, drink some coffee at home, while getting the girls ready. Third, drive the thirty-minutes to Jump Zone. Fourth, watch the girls have fun, and stave off any tears. Fifth, keep the girls awake on the journey home. Sixth, don’t shoot self out of self-pitying distress. Seventh, get Pearl down for nap, and maybe Simone. Eighth, rouse girls in time for Dolphin Tale 2. Ninth, repeat number six. Tenth, make it home in time to make a nice dinner with feeble contents of fridge. Eleventh, feed girls with minimum complaining. Twelfth, get girls in pajamas, brush their teeth, read books with their mama, and to bed. Thirteenth, avoid feeling guilty about another night without a bath. Fourteenth, try to grab some enjoyment once girls are asleep. fifteenth, sleep thyself.

This is the plan. And like all plans, almost every step of it will fail.


We head up Lincoln. Traffic is light. I listen to a Gospel/Funk compilation for a while and then switch to U2’s War and October. I loved them both when I was thirteen. I try to listen with fresh ears, but I can’t. I only hear summer time and creative loafing. There’s that doubling feeling when listening to music you loved as a child. I find myself singing along. I remember all the words, despite the passage of 20+ years.

I glance back. Pearl is asleep. Plans already awry. She’s like me; if she falls asleep for even a few minutes she can’t sleep later on. I resist despair. Simone is asleep too. I focus on U2. My mind drifts to In the Name of the Father, which is sort of odd, and my college teammates from Trinidad and England, which is odder.

We arrive at Jump Zone with a giant blue sign. The girls are still asleep. I park the car. I wake the girls and hustle them inside. They take off their shoes while I sign a waiver.

Jump Zone is an enormous hangar filled with airwalks of various design. Above me, a thousand lost balloons hang from the metal rafters, looking like teary lost dreams in rainbow kaleidoscope.

There are running children everywhere. The Twilight Zone analogy is obvious, but that’s what I think of first.

The men all have bellies and the women are all trying to stave off that dumpy suburban look. Simone latches onto a group of children. Pearl wanders on her own. The inflatable rides—a giant alligator, race cars, a pirate ship, the Justice League, and the goddamn ubiquitous princess castle—jiggle beneath the feet of all the happy children. The parents congregate in the middle of the place, chatting about their children. The carpet beneath them swirls in multi-colored spirals. Arena rock plays on loud speakers over the sound of whooshing fans.

Now Jimmy Buffet. Now Queen. Now Journey. And now Journey again. I wait for R.E.O. Speedwagon or .38 Special, but they never come on.

The walls are mustard yellow. (Now Michael Jackson; the music is all from my youth.) The swirling carpet the people the balloons in the rafters and I lose sight of Pearl.

Noise and color and the feeling of being trapped and my children kidnapped.

This is me going insane.

Pearl appears and takes off her socks.

She removes her wristband.

I tell her to put on her socks. She runs away. I catch her. Socks back on, she refuses the wristband. Everything’s a battle. I threaten her with an early exit. She acquiesces. Something jars in my thoughts. I take out this paper and start taking notes. Simone is off with her new posse. Tearing shit up.

Pearl runs to and fro. Every time she slips out of sight I have a momentary panic, I keep remembering that Wells Tower story, “On the Show,” where the girl is murdered in a theme park. Or Bunny Lake Is Missing. Pearl disappears inside a carnival airwalk and I can’t find her. Shit, shit, shit. But then she appears, smiling at the mesh-covered exit.

Pearl runs to a basketball game. A little boy climbs inside at the same time. His dad is a chubby bearded fellow of about forty. He tries to get his son to let Pearl go in first. He fails. “He’s gotta figure out ‘ladies first,’” he says.

I shrug. “She needs to figure out there are other people in the world.” It isn’t the nicest answer. I sense he wants to chat. I’m not in the mood. I detach. I drift. I act busy. I’m not always crazy about my own behavior.

Pearl climbs the stairs of a giant fire engine. It ha a high, steep slide. She chickens out.

Michael Jackson returns to the loudspeakers. I’m so disoriented I can’t quite make out which song.


Simone hands me a water bottle and asks me to open it. I brought water for her but I open it anyway. She takes one sip and then hands it to me. There’s waste everywhere. I try to put it into my pocket for later and some water spills out. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

A teenager announces the next stage of the party; her voice drips with that peculiar sarcastic disaffection only a teenager can fully pull off. We hustle back to a side room. The walls are still yellow. The floor is a series of red, white and blue tiles. America! Beneath our feet! There’s cake and pizza and party hats—so much of our lives is a repeat of some earlier memory. Simone and Pearl eat pizza. Something’s irritating Pearl. She pouts. I ask her what’s wrong. “I want a pink hat,” she says. I ignore it; the pink hats are all spoken for.

There’s Chex Mix in little blue doggie bowls. Weird, but I can’t resist. Tastes like childhood. Tastes like sunshine, saturday soccer games and barbecues with my family. I’m in the corner writing this while the party rages on. No one seems to notice. I kept thinking how much I like being around groups of children, but hate being around groups of children with their parents. Everything feels infantilized. Including adult conversation.

I run out of paper. I scribble on the back of our dog’s vet bill. I write around the dashed-off notes for a stalled novel. Pearl begins picking all the pretzels out of the doggie bowl. She isn’t eating them. She seems happy so I leave her alone.

Simone has two party hats resting on dangling slinky ears. She looks like a child’s version of a devil. I check in. “Are you happy?”

She doesn’t answer. “Pearl, are you happy?”

She nods.

I eat more Chex Mix. What am I eating? Salt and crunch. Soupcon of Worcestershire amped up by MSG. Can’t get enough.

Simone tries to sneak out and play. I tell her stay; we have to sing happy birthday to the birthday girl. Simone doesn’t understand. “She’s still eating pizza.”

The birthday girl’s mom is friendly. She cuts Pearl’s pizza. Pearl lets her. (Pearl gets angry when we try to cut her food.)

Simone and some other children huddle around an i-phone. All this activity and they plug in. I weep for the future. Simone falls off the bench, cries. I try to offer her solace but she refuses. I’m becoming obsolete already.

We sing happy birthday.

The girls stuff their faces with cake.

I don’t take any. I can’t hear any music. Is it my hearing or is the music switched off? Am I losing my senses?

I skulk. I hover. I write notes. No one seems to notice but surely someone sees that I’ve faded out of the festivities, that I’m writing something with my back against the wall. I can never see myself through other people’s eyes. Am I interesting? Creepy? Boorish?

I alternate my hands in my pockets and then resting by my sides; neither feels right. I never know what to do with my lanky body when I don’t want to socialize. I’m running out of paper. Why did I, for the first time in years, leave my notebook at home? Do I look aloof? Am I posturing? Am I acting like D.H. Lawrence, a hundred years ago, who jumped up at a dinner party and yelled, “Why are we doing this? I don’t want to do this! I don’t want to talk with these people!” and stormed out.

I chat with a woman about Detroit. “The day our eight-year-old was robbed at gunpoint for her bike, and on our street, a nice neighborhood, we knew it was time to move,” she says.

I mention “Detroit Arcadia,” the article I read in The Nation so long ago. (Or was it The Atlantic?) We chat for a moment, but then the girls follow the birthday girl back to the airwalks. I follow.


My cousins had a trampoline when I was a child. It didn’t have any safety netting. It was ringed by a metal bar. And often it rested on a patch of concrete. The very best thing you could do was double-jump someone off the trampoline onto the ground. Once this happened to a neighbor and he bloodied his elbow. He was mildly hurt. It was awesome. I jammed my fingers in the metal springs more than once. I caught my leg in the space between them. We jumped on that thing even as the springs began to break. I’m sure we violated every safety rule that accompanied the packaging. It was (one of our) wild spaces.

My cousins moved the trampoline beneath a basketball hoop. We used to dunk nasty on each other, have competitions. Their dog, Lady, a black lab, would get on the trampoline with us and frantically slid around. She couldn’t have liked this but we thought it was hilarious.

And we played a bouncy version of blind man’s bluff up there. Or am I misremembering? We spend hours on the trampoline, taking breaks to explore the creek behind their house or shoot each other to pieces with toy guns. Something about Pearl and Simone on these giant airwalks reminds me of them. Those were halcyon days.

The music has definitely stopped. Strange. Does it signify something? Are we supposed to leave?

Simone removes her socks. This time I lose the battle. I shove them in my left pocket. Her new friends include me in their game. I’m their “boss.” The rules are they bring me garbage and I pretend it’s treasure. I feign enthusiasm, but I’m not crazy about this game. They bring me a single lost scrunchie and then move on.

Pearl covers herself with stickers: both legs, both arms and her chest. I ask her where she got them but she doesn’t remember. She runs off for more jumping. I’m losing steam.

I feel adrift, isolated, useless. My mind turns to other things. A time I got sick at a party. I was eighteen and awkward and too self-aware. I was also losing weight, nervous about college. I threw up in the bathroom at the party, in the sink, and I can’t believe I still feel shame at this so many years later. Who else remembers it? Who else could?

And my dog. Annie, who my mom put to sleep. And Pepper, who I put to sleep. And Spot, who was killed by a car. And Izzie, who my parents put to sleep. And now Jack, who is aging and just last night dodged some reaction to a vaccine to the tune of 200 bucks.

Trampolines and arena rock and children and party shame from drinking too much and dogs. The mind, the mind, what a weird organ.

I’ve lost Pearl again. I look for her. The music is still off. The paunchy men and women all around and I feel judgmental and misanthropic. I want to go home. Where is Pearl? I feel nervous. I can’t find her on any of the airwalks. I finally see her in the middle of a bunch of adults. She’s lost one of her socks. I pick her up. She hugs me. I find her sock and put it in my pocket, next to Simone’s.

Pearl goes back to the giant fire engine slide. She climbs up and slides down, backwards, and has a blast. I feel better about things. She goes again. I remember Disney World in eighth grade, with my friends, we ran through Space Mountain over and over, we rode it thirteen times in a row, it was one of the great memories of my childhood, we were free and loose and happy in a land that somehow looked like my dreams.

When do our experiences only become exercises in nostalgia? For other, earlier memories?

When does life lose its primacy?

Why do I feel inhibited in my joy?

I see Simone standing on the outside of a little conference between the birthday girl and two of her friends. Simone looks upset. I feel upset, too. We say goodbye to the birthday girl and her parents. Pearl hugs the birthday girl’s mama with a fierce abandon.

Outside, it’s raining.

In the car ride home, Simone is grouchy. Pearl looks out the rain-streaked window with angry eyes. I listen to U2. “The Drowning Man.”

Seems apt.

This time, I don’t sing along.

Interlude 2: A found fragment.

30 Aug

I’ve been revisiting some of my autobiographical pieces, which I realize is a documentation of my writerly life in my twenties. You can read them in order:

part 1: first novel blues

part 2: second novel madness

part 3: minor success

part 4: short story and a crackup

part 5: short story that goes nowhere

part 6: junket life and five stories

part 7: dreams of automatic writing

part 8: first scene from my wretched screenplay

part 9: shift in political consciousness and unfinished novel

—and I realized that most of the fiction I’ve written in my life—and there’s an assload, let me tell you—hasn’t been read by anyone. And often I didn’t intend for anyone to read it. This makes writing exhilarating, deeply weird and often untethered to the point of writing in the first place. Which is communication. And yet, knowing you’re writing something no one else will read gives the act a weird magical overlay, as if you are communicating with some unknown part of your self. It’s a liberating feeling. And akin to madness.

Anyway, I have so many little snippets of things—I write every day before I start work for five minutes with no goal or direction in mind, on top of manuscripts and ye old blog here—that I often stumble across stuff that seems to have been written by someone else. Another little bit of writing alchemy. Here’s a plot outline for something I never wrote. The file was named “Storybird for Class,” so this was probably going to be a digital picture book. Or something. I can’t imagine that was going to be the title of a short story, but as I don’t remember writing it or why that’s one more thing that is lost forever.

Anyway, here tis:


In a small village at the edge of a vast forest, a young girl is raised by a single mother. The mother is strong. She has short, black hair, long arms and legs, and carries around a short knife. The villagers are warriors; the forest outside is populated with ogres, dragons, demons and monsters. The mother spends her days husking corn and shelling peas, cooking stews and beating linens. Her life is hard, but so is everyone else’s. At nights, she puts her daughter to sleep and stares out at the slow red shift of the stars.

One day, the girl goes missing. The mother wanders through the dust streets and huts, but can’t find her anywhere. She can’t find any men, either.

They had left, and would not return.



Interlude 1: Coffee stains on a discarded page. (For God’s sake, a poem?)

29 Apr


It’s my last day as a 36 year old.

I don’t know why I decided to write a poem.

I don’t much care for poetry.

I don’t read it.

I don’t write it.

I don’t appreciate it.

But here I am.

(I’m often an enigma to myself.)


I love Rumi, Roberto Bolaño and William Blake.

A weird combination of people.

Rumi is sexy and wise

Bolaño is sexy and weird

Blake is weird and wise

Sex and wisdom and high weirdness

These things, clearly, matter to me

in some odd circular tautology.


And the coffee stains on the discardible papers

A near-perfect semi-circle colored sludgy brown

And the sun-ravaged faces of the young

We have too much sun in this country

We have too much rain in this country

We have too much wealth in this country

I can’t seem to synthesize the disparities.

Everything these days is coated with dead skin and dust.


Something about the scarred page.

I start this poem.


A memory.

I was fourteen.

It was late at night.

My cousin ran over a possum with his shitty car.

We turned around to look at the carcass.

The possum’s mouth was still moving.

My cousin shined his headlights on the dying animal.

He muttered something I didn’t hear.

We stared at the dying creature.

I knew then that one day I would die.


A real memory, parsed through words.

Language is the most diabolical of traps.

You can feel the edges of it, the sinewy musculature

The bones and teeth of it, the gaps, the erosions

The imprecision.

Always the imprecision.

And what is poetry but a quest for precision?

Nothing is true, language seems to say.

Not even the words “nothing is true.”

Deconstruction. That’s the literary term.

Led me to some dark thoughts.

of squiggly lines

jagged realities overlapping in bizarre places

each person carrying a flawed universe inside.

I didn’t like it.

Everything felt liquid and insubstantial.


Boiled down to this:


Words lie.

Images lie.


So do people.


Everything is everything.

Lauryn Hill said that.

If it is, it can be.

If it can’t, it won’t.

If it were so, it might be.

But as it isn’t, it ain’t.

That’s (stolen) logic.


It was a horror, the deconstruction.

Sartre and Beckett and Conrad and Bergman and God’s silence

Tarkovsky and Dostoevsky and Dracula and Superman and God’s silence

I struggled.

I suffered.

I synthesized.

I sublimated.

Real horror is nonsense.

Real horror is unanswerable, patternless.

Death and the machinery.

Dust and decay and the crumble of buildings.

Fresh skulls repurposed for TV.

The blight of history.

All just words.

(I take some comfort in this.)


I don’t drink enough coffee

I drink too much coffee

I can’t drink coffee and liquor on the same day

Therefore I never get drunk

An almost-syllogism for the modern man,

Who flickers against the digital displays of a billion monitors.

I don’t believe in the singularity

Although I want to be a futurist.


(Dig: the collective human imagination can liberate everything. Even our consciousness.)


Bolaño always fucks famous writers in his poems.

He relishes the high/low brow saturnalia.

Blake fooled everyone, hiding the demiurge in a Christian’s robes.

Blake is one of the great tricksters in literature.

Rumi is pleasure and wisdom mitigated only by beauty and concision.

One of the most engaging minds in history.

There’s something here.

In this unholy trinity.


My wife says you can be Whitman

wild and self-promoting

full of vigor and half-crazed with delight.

Or you can be Dickinson

inward and self-directed

quiet and insulated from the world.

“All artists fall somewhere on this spectrum,” she says.

I agree.

My fear is that I’m Whitman pretending to be Dickinson.

Or the other way around.

I admire them both.

Don’t ask if I read them.

(I don’t. Not anymore.)


Language memory literature

At 19 I was an existential Christian.

I didn’t drink coffee.

I didn’t drink booze.

I read. A lot.

I loved Paradise Lost.

Milton almost bridges that God free will evil conundrum

I loved Gilgamesh

(and still do)

ancient god man sad and lonely looking for eternal life

I hated the Mystery Plays

and pretended to love Shakespeare

while I preferred Ben Jonson.

I studied the Romantic poets

Wordsworth and Byron and Shelley and Keats

and Coleridge and Tennyson and Browning

(I liked Coleridge best.)

For a hater of poetry, I’ve lived with a lot of it.


Then Kafka, goddammit.

Kafka fucked me up.

He reinforced the Manichean sex-is-evil thing

He floated through my life like a ghost

A cringing weirdo.

An overdose of masochistic



yearning for real life.

And all of it false false false

(I’ve never forgiven him.)


Literature began with two books.

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

I read them when I was 19.

Babbitt is about a small-minded man boxed in by the world.

He isn’t happy.

He is mangled by foolish thoughts.

He is as real a character as anyone walking and breathing now.

I love him for his failures and pettiness.

Gravity’s Rainbow is about boners bombs orgies the Nazi war machine

There’s an octopus trained to record human movement

It’s about the absurdity of the human condition and the absurdity of using language to render that human condition

Babbitt remains one of my most personal novels

He’s a friend of sorts, a man I fear and love.

Gravity’s Rainbow has receded

Something messy about the lack of structure, even the language.

(I now prefer V.)

Pynchon brought me DeLillo, paranoia, absurd linguistic dynamite.

Lewis brought me realism and pungent social criticism.

(There was a time when I confused him with Upton Sinclair.)


Other confusions: Lee J. Cobb and George C. Scott and Rod Steiger. (Booming voices.)

And Celine and Genet and Gide. (French misanthropes.)

And love with sex

and laughter with intimacy

and rebellion with substance

and schlock with art

and heights with danger

and derangement with insight

Movies with real life

Movies with real life

(Who doesn’t prefer the beautiful lies?)

I stole that line from Ham on Rye.


Or maybe it was Keroauc. Yes.

On the Road was the beginning of something.

And an ending.

It’s about wanderlust and drunkenness and being young

And finding a way through the stony nonsense

and he was a fatigued, unhappy man

miserable at the end


There’s a lesson there, too, about art and writing and society and crime.

A flowering and wilting.

Did Keroauc know himself too well?

Or not well enough?


I turn 37 tomorrow.

I spent a day in-between things writing this poem

Without a clear reason why.

Rootlessness, ennui, the bespectacled age

Coffee stains on an innocent, blank sheet of paper

Faultless without the human intention

Blameless before the smudge.


I must now decide

Do I write on it or toss it aside?



In Memoriam: James Barfoot, the holy poet.

3 Mar


Jim Barfoot was a philosophy professor at AUM, my alma mater. He was popular, known as a witty, funny, irascible teacher who trafficked in conundrums. He was also a poet, and it’s as a poet that I knew him. He died a few weeks ago, and although I haven’t spoken with him in over a decade, I miss him terribly. The world feels lessened by his absence.

My first job was as an editorial assistant at Black Belt Press. My boss (and later co-author and friend) Randall Williams and Suzanne La Rosa had a poetry manuscript there titled The Nudes of God. Black Belt always had forty or fifty projects going at once, a fabulous juggling act that was dizzying, exciting, overwhelming. But Nudes stood out. Three hundred or so poems and, as Randall said to me the first day I looked at it, “There are poems in there that will knock you flat on your ass.”

Six months into my first year, investors illegally fired them both, I quit, and a few months later Randall and Suzanne hired me on at NewSouth Books. New offices, new energy, new job title. Many of Black Belt’s manuscripts followed us to NewSouth, including Nudes; it became one of our first books.

I met Barfoot around this time. He was short, compact, with a devilish smile and delicate, sensual hands. There was a touch of the Buddha about him. He walked slowly but with a dancer’s syncopation and balance. His voice was melodic. His eyes were large and bright. I knew of him from school. His wit, charm and implacable agnosticism. (This last turned out to be a constructed teacher persona.)

He had whittled his manuscript down, and it was time to get into the nuts and bolts of it. As the number two editor (of two), I was assigned the job.

He had a peculiar editing style. He would sit by my side. We would read the poems aloud, one page at a time. He would make subtle changes, interspersed with jokes, anecdotes, questions, puns, explanations. He was profoundly well read, in philosophy, ancient literature, poetry and mythology. (At this point, I still basically only read novels and civil rights histories.) He loved movies, too, and leant me videocassettes of the old Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials. He was big-hearted, silly, indelibly southern, yet sophisticated and clever and erudite. The South has loads of these oddballs, accomplished intellectuals who sound like extras from Hee-Haw.

I played a supremely minor role; I added exactly two parenthesis and one paragraph break. Yet working with him remains one of the great creative exchanges of my life.


I met him at an odd time. I had a foot in two worlds. I was shaking off the last remnants of childhood, and trying to figure out the adult thing. I had finished my first two novels, and they were terrible. I was tasting failure of the adult kind. The rumblings of later loss, the fragmenting of my community, an invasion of bitter existentialism. Separate from the binding routines of soccer and school, I felt adrift. I was a bundle of confusion. I didn’t want to live in Montgomery but didn’t know much of anything else. I felt the pull of big cities, even though they scared me. I wanted to travel to Europe, but didn’t have any money. I was stasis, I just didn’t realize it at the time.

I was paralyzed in my philosophical life, too. I was quickly shedding my Christianity, but was uncomfortable in the spikes of unbelief. Blame literature and history, if you’re inclined. I went to church sometimes but felt alienated from the whole belief system, profoundly uncomfortable. I felt doomed, abandoned. Ingmar Bergman became my favorite filmmaker. Everything seemed to resonate with God’s silence. He was gone from my life, I was grasping at sand, and yet I couldn’t figure out how to live without Him.

Enter Barfoot and his book.

Barfoot loved the cover. "The book is her face," he said.

Barfoot loved the cover. “The book is her face,” he said.

Barfoot’s poems—sexy, erotic, spare, lusty, irreverent, yet saturated with an abiding love and understanding for humanity and a deep-rooted belief in mysteries of the cosmos—re-animated my spiritual self. Reading these poems and hearing his own thoughts on them re-awakened the spiritual being in me that so often atrophies in our 21st Century life.

Working on the book reinvigorated my sense of self, my engagement with the world. His poems were the first of a series of realizations that physical pleasures  are not only not evil, but part and parcel of living a good life. That desire can be good. That carnal things don’t have to destroy us. And that the quest doesn’t end.

And I don’t even like poetry that much.

It’s an odd thing to say, but I fell in love with him for those few weeks we worked together. He stole away with my fragile heart. And returned it whole, intact, glowing with the contact.


In another dimension, Barfoot would be an important figure in the world of poetry. His death would have been noted in various magazines and journals, perhaps written up in the New York Times. His one book is incredible, a piercing, funny, insightful, devastating, sexy as fuck volume that can be read like a novel or an autobiography. Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m given to enthusiasm and superlatives. But this is the real thing.

Nudes is a wicked volume of religious poetry as written by Pan, inspired by Apollo, translated by St. Augustine. It echoes Rumi, Ovid, Dickenson, Whitman, Berryman, Updike and Parker. The big thematic influence is probably John Donne. It’s an earthy, holy, ribald little book, lucid and spare and devastating and hysterically funny. One of the poems is titled, “How to Pick and Prepare, Present and Enjoy, the Cometwat that you’d Slap Your Grandma For.”

He clearly loved women, saw in their historical plight some deep, primal truth. The book is threaded with overlapping images, reoccurring themes. Loamy earth, stalks of sugar cane, bedroom antics and first-person confessionals. Lust, love and lust again. The afterglow of sex as a stand-in for holy epiphany. The bedroom as a holy place. Dew, manicured lawns, women suffering through the exquisite pain of walking through the garden of earthly delights.

Nudes is a desert island book for me, the only poetry book I would take. (I don’t count The Iliad or The Epic of Gilgamesh as poems.)

The book would have sold like hotcakes. Barfoot was a great reader of his own stuff and NewSouth had planned a strong book tour. But at the eleventh hour, he retreated to the ivory tower; he returned to teaching philosophy. Why, I’ll never know. Perhaps he was more like Emily Dickenson, despite appearing to be like Walt Whitman. He was sensitive and vulnerable; perhaps he feltthe book tour would be a disheartening ordeal.

For my little memoriam—a very strange thing to put on the blog, I know—I picked out fifteen or so poems, but whittled it down to these two.

Here’s a sample from “When Jesus Dined Alone in Galilee”:

The single bare crepe myrtle tree

Stands cold

Beyond the window pane.

I see it all.

The rough thin bark.

The branches

Short and thin.

Here at this table I will settle things.

The tree will be my public notary.

And, here, in “Teleology”:

A sweet noetic nude sits in my lap

Allowing me to freely trace her waist

And then

Below her waist

Her hips and thighs

The middle place

Where I will gently lace along its line

The end of my left thumb above the nail

As if her flesh

And lip

And rosebud tip

Were drawn in clay by my soft steadiness.

And often there my left thumb gives me ease

And pleases me when I feel she is pleased

And gives me pause to wonder whether she,

In bringing her warm middle place to me,

Allows me an occasion for my thumb

To do what God intended thumbs to do.


We talked, near the end of our few weeks together, about the future. I asked him, what’s next? Why not a novel? (In those days I was always trying to get people to write novels.)

“I’ll write another volume for Nudes,” he said, smiling and content. “And then maybe one more. Just one large, multi-faceted, multi-part book. My life’s work. And that will be it.”

As far as I know, many of those poems have already been written, but they won’t be published. The world’s loss. But Barfoot wouldn’t mind. Like most poets he knew his work, and everything really, was transitory and impermanent. “The ground beneath the girl will open up,” he writes, “And everything but she will disappear.”

Salvation songs, part 1: Michael Bolton.

6 Dec


I bottom out, musically, every couple of years. I sort of look around and think, is this it? Is this the music I’m going to listen to for the rest of my life? (This usually follows some type of mini-existential crisis and period of disaffected self-loathing.) And then, inevitably, some musical meteor will streak across the firmament and save me.

A song written just for me. Transmitted through an invisible stream of auditorial alchemy. As if ordained by God.

A salvation song.

They aren’t always good songs. Sometimes they’re terrible. But they’re the right songs. I’ve been revisiting my musical history, looking to mine some of these out for a new reoccurring set of entries.

Here’s my first.


I was a classic rock guy for most of my youth. My dad listened to oldies in the car. He was a British Invasion kind of guy, opting for the Beatles over the Stones. He liked the Dave Clark Five, The Lovin’ Spoonful. Like most kids, I absorbed his tastes. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was my favorite tape. I listened to it on a constant loop. The White Album was next, and then Abbey Road[1] and The Magical Mystery Tour. My tastes were unequivocally classic rock, but not yet sophisticated. I liked Ricky Nelson and Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and Gary Puckett, Kenny Loggins and Queen. A little Pink Floyd. A little Motown. It was a fuzzy stew of guitar, drum, bass and horn. I couldn’t really hear the difference between good and bad. I liked it all.

Secular music was mostly banned inside the house by my mom. So it was oldies in the car with dad until I got a little black boombox for Christmas. And then it was tapes and tapes, the tinny speakers close to my ears so I could listen without my mom catching me.

This was me at 11 years old.


At 14 it was Jellyfish and the La’s, Live, R.E.M. and college radio, with a soupcon of Mudhoney and Jane’s Addiction, a band I absolutely loved. At 16 I was punk (and power pop) with occasional descents into metal. I shaved my head, went to punk shows and eschewed popular music.

But before punk, before hardcore, before the counterculture, but after the classic rock of my father, I had a brief two-year fling with pop. It happens to everyone. Around 12, pop culture seeps in. Like most new teenagers, I was an incubator and a crucible for the pop strands circulating in the cultural ether. This was in the early nineties, and I absorbed massive doses of sugary confection. I absorbed  the good and the bad[2].

MTV was an enormous presence in my life. It was forbidden in my house, so when I stayed with my buddy Jason we overdosed on it, gazing at hours and hours of Yo MTV Raps and Headbanger’s Ball and videos, videos, videos.

This was at the end of the glam metal decade. Poison’s “Unskinny Bop,” Nelson’s “Love and Affection,” Def Leppard’s “Love Bites,” all vied for my affection.

And, yes, MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Cinderella, Biz Marke, Janet Jackson, The Black Crowes[3], Warrant, Bel Bev Devoe, Boys II Men, Heart, Billy Joel (who was no longer cool)[4].

I have immense affection for this group of songs. Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” still rocks. Aerosmith’s “What It Takes,” has a special place in my heart. And Depeche Mode’s “Break the Silence” makes regular appearances in playlists and mix tapes.

But amidst all this cultural detritus, one song stands out. And an essential feature of a salvation song is you don’t pick the song, the song picks you. So, please, no judgment, or not too much anyway. Drum roll please. The song: “How Can We Be Lovers if We Can’t Be Friends?” by Michael Bolton.


Yes. The Michael Bolton.

Mock me all you want, I don’t care.

I don’t know why this song about a troubled relationship resonated with me, but resonate it did. I trawled the radio dial. I memorized the words. I sang along. I belted the lyrics out with joy. My friends would point at me when it came on, give me the head nod saying, Yep. That’s your song and it’s on right now. I returned the gesture to Jason when “Heaven,” came on. All of my friends identified with one of these songs. Ryan was “Unbelievable.” Britt was “Everybody plays the fool.” I was Michael Bolton.

Bolton’s voice—if you can separate it from his cheesiness—is rich and strong, chesty with a natural reverb. His hair is amazing; he has luxuriant curly locks but is also somehow balding. He’s rocking the fashionable European mullet, years ahead of his time.

His sincere outbursts of raw emotion—you can see the pain ripple across his face; he’s really suffering—and his awesome microphone work, the intense background singers echoing his let’s save the relationship sentiments, the song caught in my thoughts. I loved it, even when I found out the chorus was not “How can we be lovers if we can’t be happy friends,” which I was certain it said.

About two-thirds of the way through, the song reaches a point of emotional transcendence, when Bolton belts out, “We can work it out!” It gave my 13-year-old self shivers.

In retrospect I don’t know why I glommed onto Michael Bolton. I stuck around with him for a few more songs until he released a cover of “When A Man Loves A Woman.” I smelled a rat and moved on.

I never bought the tape. I can say that much. And I used to be embarrassed by these early songs, but now I own my past. I still hold this song it my heart. Watch the video below, and prepare to be saved.

[1] I still don’t quite understand the adoration this record inspires.

[2] Mostly the bad.

[3] “She Talks to Angels” is another song that has made the cut to my adult life.

[4] I knew, even then, that Color Me Badd was pretty lame, although “I want to sex you up,” is a pretty catchy song.

Dreams of automatic writing and the first paragraph of another failed short story.

10 Nov


At 20, I experimented with what Yeats called automatic writing, using my left hand. I bought into the idea that each hand corresponds with the other side of the brain, so using my left hand would bring the right side of my brain around. I got some strange results. The notion is that, unfettered by social conventions or the burden of consciousness, the unconscious would produce startling and creative ideas. It mostly works. There’s a mystical side to it, if you want—Yeats believed that he was communing with the dead, at one point—but for me it was a way of circumventing some of the blockage of my culture and childhood. I did this for a few months.[1] I filled half a little notebook with it. Memory distorts, but I have a recollection of a shift in my dreams.

I have a notebook, somewhere in my archive, with these left-handed scribbles. I do remember one day writing about the earth being hollow, existing as an incubator for a giant octopus. Weird.

There’s something liberating about writing something you know no one will read. Something comes loose; there’s a sense of freedom, and freefall, that unpacks the brain.


I carried the idea of automatic writing with me for years. But I let the practice of it die out. I instead began turning to my dreams for inspiration.

I’ve always been a vivid, if disturbed, dreamer. I sleepwalk. I cry out. I, reportedly—on at least two occasions—sleep with my eyes wide open, staring out into empty space. One time I dreamed of a professor stabbing a necklace with a toothpick at a cocktail party; the necklace had a tiny vampire yoked to the chain like a locket. Another time I dreamed my father was some bull god from ancient Sumer, hiding out in Pensacola. Throughout my life I’ve awoken in severe, stomach churning fright.[2]

On multiple occasions I’ve started stories (or ended them) with images and ideas given to me while asleep.

One of these is titled “Red Giant, White Dwarf.”

The germ of it came from a peculiar nightmare. The dream went like this:

I was in my apartment, in the kitchen, and I had the strangest sense of being watched. I went into the bedroom, down a long hallway, but there was no one. I searched in the bathroom, but didn’t open the shower curtain. I went back into the living room, but it was just the stillness and the furniture. But the feeling wouldn’t go away. Then a friend came over. He was scared. He needed to confess something to me. His hands were shaking. He started to tell me something about the water and then shoved me down behind the couch and put a finger over my mouth. “Shhh,” he said. “There’s a dwarf in the cupboard over the refrigerator. He has a gun.”

I tried—with middling results—to use this as a starting point for a short story. I had a character tell his friends that he couldn’t get over the feeling that he was being observed. They ignore his fears until he disappears. It reads like a mystery, and it’s pretty good, too, until the penultimate scene where I have two characters go to Subway. God.

Despite appearances to the contrary, I had progressed as a writer at this point, having written a few hundred thousand words of fiction, and read years of the world’s great literature every night. The problem wasn’t my style, but my subject matter and my lack of focus. I would finish a story or novel and then move on to a new one. I didn’t spend the hard time with the edits. I didn’t massage the tone of my sentences, the tone of my stories. I wrote in bursts, did a little rewriting on the sentences, then slunk back to my cave until another burst of energy hit.

Anyway, I had absorbed Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson and Don DeLillo, as well as more David Goodis and the good pulp writers like Robert Howard[3] and H.P. Lovecraft[4]. I was in a lean, muscular phase. Here’s the first paragraph:

It all started when Robert disappeared. His friends knew he was an alcoholic, that he didn’t like to be confronted about anything, that he slept with a white trash whore over on the west side of town. But when he disappeared they became worried.

It’s ten thousand words and I never submitted it anywhere. One friend read it, said he thought it was pretty good. It is pretty good—I reread some of it just tonight—but I put it away, moved on.


I don’t believe in automatic writing, or magic either, but there is an alchemical process that occurs when writing novels. Every writer who addresses the subject says something similar. Halfway through writing a novel, the story begins to flow out of your fingertips; the characters begin to resist your directions; the plot begins to radiate a kind of kinetic glow. When this happens, the rest of your life begins to lose shape, all the problems and worries are smudged away. It’s wonderful, and one reason why so many novels feel like the writer has lost the thread of the plot. Usually, h/she has.

It’s a hard feeling to describe—it’s akin to drunkenness—and in its absence, when the hard work of re-reading and rewriting and editing appears, there’s a slight ache. I often fall into a depressed state after finishing a first draft. I used to tell people it’s because I’d been living with the characters and I miss them, but that isn’t really true. It’s that rushing feeling of my body taking over, where my brain seems to slink down my arms through my fingertips, where my brain feels hardwired into my imagination and not the other way around, and then the crash of the second to minute to hour to day to week to month to year of fretting and worrying and striving in this world.

And the magic is gone; only hard work remains.

[1] Years later I created a persona—misanthropic, perverted, and sex- and film-obsessed—to write from, another way to get around the obstacles of the psyche.

[2] This still happens. For the last three years I’ve had reoccurring nightmares, of Simone suffocating in a pillowcase in the bed, and I’m powerless to get her out in time. I usually awake with my hands in the pillow, near hyperventilation. It’s unpleasant.

[3] He’s sensational.

[4] He’s problematic.

Simone and her (occasionally) misanthropic father.

3 Sep

I’m coming out of a month-long period of self-dislike; loathing is too strong a word, disappointment too weak. About once a year I wake up and look at my self and think, you are nothing but a no-talent phony, and this year wasn’t any different. It isn’t pleasant; it’s usually accompanied by an intense anhedonia. I can’t finish books; I don’t enjoy movies; I feel disassociated with my body; I feel like I’m watching an automaton carry out daily tasks. Writing becomes especially painful, as I dismiss my own work with a casual distaste. Nothing is good enough. The whole world seems flat, the joy of things squeezed out.[1]

There’s insomnia, too, and I often find a ghostly haze over my thoughts, like I’m a shade drifting through a world of the living. After a couple of sleep-deprived nights I feel old and haggard, a lonely old man wandering through the confused wreckage of my memories. The world seems made of sand. A gauze permeates the air.

The third pillar of this annual psychological event is a misanthropic streak. I find myself judging others in an uncharacteristic way. I have violent daydreams. I feel ungenerous towards the world, short-tempered, easily frustrated. I carry hatred and rage in my heart.

And the cost of hating others, as Eldridge Cleaver wrote in Soul on Ice, is loving oneself less.

I’ve been writing a lot—mostly fiction, but also a long rambling essay that seems to be turning into an autobiography; a history of black cinema; a survey of revolutionary cinema; and an exploration of the shortcomings of my memory in relationship to Oliver Stone, among others—but not posting anything.

Life remains weird. Here’s one little anecdote. At the gym the other day, I was alone in the locker room with one other man. I couldn’t see his face, he was gawky and thin, his skin was pale, he was changing at the same time as me. I watched him slide off his shirt, and saw, with a surge of momentary fear, that he had the exact same two scars on his back in the exact location. I squinted, studying. Did it mean something? Was he my twin? Is he going to attack me? He turned and gave me a strange look, I dressed quickly and jogged up the stairs and home. Another visit from the night country.

I’m back at work. The Republican National Convention just ended. The teachers’ strike is looming ahead. I caught five minutes of Truman’s 1948 speech at the Democratic Convention and felt a shock at the content; we’ve been fighting the same battles in this country for a century.

Simone is almost three. Pearl is five months old. I’m feeling better, albeit weary.

I’ve read a number of great books recently, and seen a number of good movies. I’ll post on these when I can find the energy.

Life. It keeps moving forward. Like a shark.

I’m going to try something different with the blog in the next two weeks. I’ll give my daily impressions of the teachers’ strike, starting with the rally tomorrow at Daley Plaza. Simone and I are going.

Maybe we’ll see you there.

[1] What’s interesting is I’ve had more interest and success in my writing life during this period than I have in almost eight years. Things are looking up.

The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive: epilogue

21 Apr

Epilogue: Life is merely terrible

(parts one and two and three here and here and here)

I was 19 when I first read “The Metamorphosis.” I was shocked by its beautiful weirdness. I promptly read “Judgment Day” and “In the Penal Colony,” as well as chapters of a piss poor biography. I thought I understood Kafka: trouble with overbearing father, full of self-doubt, uses fiction for recrimination and revenge. A stormy, doomed and de-sexed wraith wandering around in human clothing. His initial influence was vast; I felt kinship to this solitary outsider terrified of the beast with two backs.[1] I felt invaded by his thoughts. He recast my life story as an extension of his own. Looking into the mirror late at night, I sensed his eyes looking through my own.

Basically, I fell in love.

He was my favorite author for a long time, and then in the pantheon for years. My first stories were imitations of his. My first novel (it’s terrible and shall remain unread)—I started shortly after reading Kafka for the first time—was infused with his casual weirdness, the detachment of his characters.

As time passes, however, I feel his influence less and less. I reread segments of his novels. I watched movie adaptations. I visited various websites devoted to his oeuvre. The more I learn, the less I understand. He’s slippery and difficult to pin down. Whereas I once thought he was fascinating, I now find reading him an exercise in futility and frustration. The translations are often loose, a touch flabby. His works all seem unfinished, even a tad undercooked. Little wonder, then, that a case study on his papers would also prove to be equally frustrating.

The bulk of the information in this case study came from Elif Batuman’s lengthy article in the New York Times Magazine, as well as the Guardian’s ongoing coverage. The books provided details into the principle figures’ lives. No one has written a biography of Hoffe. When contacted, Batuman was friendly, but refused to answer any questions on the case, her research, or the article. She was strangely adamant on this point, despite taking time to respond to my emails. Instead, she pointed me to Haaretz, one of the premiere Israeli newspapers. Dozens of short articles covered facets of the case, and I came across a quote from a state archivist, “No material that is of importance to the history of the Jewish people will leave the State of Israel. . . .We will not permit the materials’ removal without fulfilling the law.”

Perhaps this answer was the most definitive information I would find. The laws in question are Israeli laws, as are the lawyers and judge involved. Israel won’t let the papers leave, I’m sure of it.

Reporter Ofer Aderat was the major writer assigned to the trial. He wrote most of the articles, and I tried to contact him, too, tried and failed.

I was beginning to feel a profound frustration. I felt alone, stuck in this complex case without any cipher. Sort of like one of Kafka’s protagonists, which it turns out, is a theme related to this case. There’s a strange distortion field around it. Everyone has an opinion. No one seems to have all of the information.

I turned to the German Literature Archive. They didn’t respond for weeks. I grew worried, contacted the Harry Ransom archive in Texas, at least to get some insight into the rationale under which this sort of archive operates. The Texas librarian was curt, dismissive and even a touch combative. He flat-out lied about the way his archive operates, and he offered me very little. Another dead end.

The German archive responded, finally, and I sent them the questions. Worry set in as days passed with no response from them, either. What was it about this case? Was it unimportant, too important, or just some thing that no one really cared about? Was I missing something? Was something being hidden from me?

I felt alienated and confused, bound to an assignment that had no answers and defied logic or meaning. In short, I was beginning to feel like a protagonist in a Kafka novel. Others have felt the same way. There is something about this case.

I discovered Hawes late in my research, and he helped guide me back to firmer ground. The very myths he punctures in his book—Kafka as a lonely, abused outsider, a prophet of the Holocaust and an unloved loner terrified of sex—were some of the biggest obstacles in the way of my understanding the case.[2] He presents a different Kafka, meaner and worldlier. He also offers a way of studying Kafka that is straight-forward and rewarding. Basically, he liberated me from my own preconceived notions.

Every book maintains Kafka’s importance to world letters, but can after this essential point agree on little else. Even the final resting place of his papers. I don’t think there is any fixed or absolute answer in this case. The papers will go where the papers will go. Knowing how quirky and unpredictable the case has been so far—the spirit of Kafka in his own affairs—there’s no telling how or when the case will conclude. I keep thinking of the anecdotal story in The Trial, of the man who is waiting at a door of justice to be called. In waiting, he grows old. He is offered no answers, no explanations. He never finds meaning, or what he is looking for. The answer to why no one else has come through the door. “No one else could enter the door,” the guard explains, “because it was only meant for you. I’ll go and close it now.”

Kafka found his stories hilarious. The world finds them melancholy, horrifying, strange, full of black humor, infuriating and complex, but not funny. It turns out Kafka had a unique vision and version of himself, just like the rest of us.

And this is what he leaves us: contradictory impressions of his life and work, a series of interlocking puzzles, an ornate Chinese puzzle box, a legal case that spans 90 years and most of 20th century history, a case that could perpetuate itself for years, a big legal and moral question mark.

Kafka once wrote, “I doubt I am a human being.” Perhaps he was a ghost from the start, determined to bedevil any and all who wander into his impenetrable mazes, real or imagined.

[1] He didn’t help my dating/social life at all. I wandered through parties with my thoughts stuck in some foggy Hapsburg past.

[2] A similar thing happened to Johnny Cash. Producer Rick Rubin glommed onto the Christ-haunted troubador of backroads America for the final albums. They’re great, but they ignore Cash’s other, rascally, more playful, rockabilly roots.