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Sailing under the guidance of a feather

Rosemary still loves,
she says,
“on condition.”

a car arrives.
Rosemary receives it.
garment: clean
(minus the mysteries).

she is dialed in;
fresh.

I move on
swishing round the pavement of alleys to waves.
a sign blinks:
“VICTORY DON’T SLEEP”
I look around,
check my pockets.
“LIVE EXTRA  G NTLY”
the neon goes dark.

things get my way at dawn:
it is either too early or too late.

“standing up falling down,” a New York Poem set against a London Lullaby.

for my friends, here and gone.

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she thought of painting fire

the radio plays.

            Books pages words press hard.

            Life is sucking the marrow out of me,

            she says and struggles to find

            the smile that usually accompanies irony.

the saxophone sings.

            She can no longer connect

            the photograph with the image in the mirror on the wall.

            She stands and stares for hours at deconstructed femininity.

            She paints sussicraN and dead flowers on the glass.

the trumpet is trilling,

            it bleeds memories of a violin chin.

            She resides in the suburbs of her dreams.

            She sits in her room, painting the city on the wall,

            and all the time she stares – her anesthetist clutched tightly in hand.

as the radio plays,

            she paints herself in skyscraper skies,

            and she has skyscraping dreams and a fear of heights.

            The brush catches tears before they reach her eyes as she hides

            inside the city on the wall.

the saxophone stings

            the trumpet is killing her

                        and the radio plays on.

convolutions.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight…His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

– James Joyce, “The Dead”

all of those months

full of hours

full of our dealing with her dying.

one evening in late December of the third year,

three men filled her

with terror and rage,

pregnancy and miscarriage.

It was early Spring when the distillery of bad news released its quarterly report, which reflected a much higher yield than early data suggested. This was the time of her past catching up with her—with us.

sentences were obscured before they were handed out,

and further mangled

throughout the hearing

there was talk of doctors and tests

and “I’ve been sick,”

and her all the time thinking

all of those months

we prayed

to gods we couldn’t believe in.

it was late March

and snowing

that late night

she told me

we sat beneath the hallway window

smoking

In the morning, when the record ended, there was no premeditated sound—no music, no words—just silence and then a creaky chair rocking over creaky floorboards, desperate sips, sighs, deep breaths, and that clock.

tick

tick

tick

“maybe we should do some laundry,” she said.

“yes. and this apartment could use some straightening up.”

STARVE: a note-poem for the hungry. (to be interpreted as variously as possible.)

PART I:  In which we analyze and attempt to understand the most basic level of need–hunger–and the outcome of failing to meet this need.


starve

verb \ˈstärv\

starved | starv·ing

Definition of STARVE

intransitive verb

1          a : to perish from lack of food

b : to suffer extreme hunger

2          a archaic : to die of cold

b British : to suffer greatly from cold

3          : to suffer or perish from deprivation <starved for affection>

transitive verb

1          a : to kill with hunger

b : to deprive of nourishment

c : to cause to capitulate by or as if by depriving of nourishment

2          : to destroy by or cause to suffer from deprivation

3          archaic : to kill with cold

Examples of STARVE

  1. Without food they would starve.
  2. They left him to starve out in the desert.
  3. providing food for starving children
  4. They tried to starve their enemies into submission.
  5. It was clear that the dog had been starved.
  6. You don’t have to starve yourself to lose weight.

Origin of STARVE

Middle English sterven to die, starve, from Old English steorfan to die; akin to Old High German sterban to die, and probably to Lithuanian starinti to stiffen — more at stare

First Known Use: 15th century


PART II:  In which we locate and acknowledge an important outlier in Abraham Maslow’s pyramidical theory of Need.

It should be noted.

Edward Said notes in Culture and Imperialism that the Irish were not considered white by the British. He writes: “The idea of English racial superiority became ingrained; so humane a poet and gentleman as Edmund Spenser in his View of the Present State of Ireland (1596) was boldly proposing that since the Irish were barbarian Scythians, most of them should be exterminated” (222). In an essay entitled “Race, Class and the Imperial Politics of Ethnography in India, Ireland and London, 1850-1910,” Kavita Philip examines this “idea of English racial superiority” more completely and her findings are far more frightening than the racist suggestions of a poet. Philip’s research regarding the scientific theories of race during the latter half of the 19th century is most troublesome not simply because of the “construction of fictions about foreign natives,” but “the belief that the science of the day revealed truths about the inherent character of populations” (289). Philip further notes:

While political considerations often operated explicitly in the formative stages of scientific knowledge, once ethnological stereotypes were reported in official tracts, supported by masses of data, they passed into the apolitical realm of incontrovertible scientific fact. Evidence of their conditions of production erased, they passed into the domain of cultural belief. (289)

The net effect of this kind of racism transcends the idea of English racial superiority and advances on to a level of imperial justification that is not only palatable to the British subjects, it is, as Kipling noted, their burden. Philip explains this in terms of the Irish problem: “stereotypical representations of the Irish as barbaric, primitive, and simian date back to the twelfth century, and were no less politically motivated then—serving as a justification for Henry II’s invasion of Ireland…the nineteenth-century stereotype was different from its predecessors only in being supported by the scientific theories of the time” (295). Descriptions of the Celts from the mid-nineteenth century included references to their being “the missing link between the gorilla and the Negro,” the Irish as “being for squalid filth and raggedness,” and as for Ireland itself, J.W. Jackson noted that “it was a moral fossil, like India, the only difference being that India is a civlised, while Ireland is a barbarous fossil” (Philip 296-297). In an attempt to understand Joyce and his works it is important to consider the prevailing attitude towards his people during the time period he was writing about. The air of English superiority is heavy in Joyce’s works and is present even in the systems of power that the Irish adopt from the British.

The idea of exterminating the Irish did not end with Edmund Spenser in the 16th century; in fact, it arguably came to fruition during the 19th century Irish Potato Famine, not long before Joyce’s birth. In an essay entitled “Dumbness and Eloquence: A Note on English as We Write It in Ireland,” Seamus Deane writes of a study the Irish government commissioned in 1947, the centenary of the Famine’s worst year. Deane notes:

Two convictions dominate what was remembered [of the Irish Famine’s worst year]. One was that the Famine did indeed have a genocidal dimension. Genocide was of a piece with traditional British government policies towards the Irish Catholic majority. The other, sometimes felt to be compatible with the belief in genocidal intent, sometimes not, sometimes entirely independent of it, was that there must have been a radical fault in Irish civilization, and most especially in the Irish-speaking civilization, that allowed it to succumb so completely to the potato blight and all its attendant ills. Some of the old people interviewed – and necessarily, they were on average an elderly group – believed or remembered that their predecessors had believed that the Famine was a punishment from God; and whatever the responsibility of the British government or of anybody else, that it ultimately constituted a divine judgment on a way of life that did not deserve to survive and that had to be expunged. (109)

Most interesting here is not the possible genocidal intent, disregard or justification of the British, but the Irish willingness to accept that it was God’s will for them to die. The most resounding note of religious hegemony is the native population’s willingness to die for Britain’s imperial agenda, all the while believing it to be penance for their sins against their God. To address the question of how the famine could be part of Britain’s imperial agenda, it is important to consider that the famine served to both make it easier to control the Irish and to promote the spread of the English language and make the Gaelic language obsolete, changing what Deane calls “Old Ireland” in exchange for the emerging “Modern Ireland.” Deane ponders the question of what the famine meant to the British: while it was ‘terrible’ to lose lives, in the long run the country would benefit from economic reform and the adopting of the English language (110).

What is still more disturbing, however, is the possibility of genocidal policy on the part of the Church. “To a much lesser extent, but still notably there,” Deane writes, “is also [the] belief that the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in advertising people to accept their fate and to resign themselves to God’s will robbed the victims of their urge to resist and therefore allowed the export of food from the country and the evictions and clearances to take place without serious opposition” (10). Here Joyce’s “two masters,” the Roman Catholic Church and the British Empire, work one with the other against the native Irish population. Their religion suppressed any large scale resistance and the dissemination and decimation of their population allowed for the virtual destruction of their native language.

In 1970, Abraham Maslow hypothesized that human behavior is influenced by a hierarchy of five classes of needs, or motives, which are listed below:

  • Biological, such as food, water, oxygen, activity, and sleep.
  • Safety, such ase being cared for as a child and having a secure income as an adult.
  • Belongingness and love, such as being part of various social groups and participating in affectionate sexual and nonsexual relationships.
  • Esteem, being respected as a useful, honorable individual.
  • Self-actualization, which means becoming all that one is capable of.       People motivated by this need explore and enhance relationships with others, follow interests for intrinsic pleasure rather than status or esteem, and are concerned with issues affecting all people, not just themselves.  (Bernstein 360).

Bernstein also notes that according to Maslow’s model, “needs at the lowest level of the hierarchy must be at least partially satisfied before people can be motivated by higher-level goals” (360). This speaks to the importance of privilege in the establishment of a postcolonial “new,” that correlates directly to the condition of modernity as a means of expression. Bernstein’s one noted exception to Maslow’s hierarchy is interestingly concerned with British imperialsim: “the motivation of people deeply involved in political and moral causes seems to defy Maslow’s hierarchy; in 1981, Bobby Sand and eight others starved themselves to death protesting British Rule in Northern Ireland” (361). In Educational Psychology, Anita Woolfolk writes of Maslow’s humanistic approach to motivation:

In the 1940s, proponents of humanistic psychology such as Carl Rogers argued that neither of the dominant schools of psychology, behavioral or Freudian, adequately explained why people act as they do. Humanistic interpretations of motivation emphasize such intrinsic sources of motivation as a person’s needs for “self-actualization” (Maslow, 1970, 1968), the inborn “actualizing tendency” (Rogers & Freiberg, 1994), or the need for “Self-determination” (Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991). So from the humanistic perspective, to motivate means to encourage peoples’ inner resources—their sense of competence, self-esteem, autonomy, and self-actualization. Maslow’s theory is a very influential humanistic explanation of motivation. (249)

Woolfolk’s analysis of Maslow’s model help to illustrate its more performative aspects. “Self-actualization is Maslow’s term for self-fulfillment, the realization of personal potential,” she notes, and for this to be possible, each of the lower needs must be met before advancing to this higher need (249). To understand the psychology of literary and linguistic agents of empire, it seems we should start by understanding their motivation. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provides an excellent framework to understand how these romanticized notions of colonial territories arise, as well as how these texts influence and encourage other authors or agents of empire to work to seek similar adventure, either in imagination or in reality. Maslow labeled the higher level needs—“intellectual achievement, then aesthetic appreciation, and finally self-actuallization—being needs,” and suggested that unlike lower level needs, these ‘being needs’ can never be completely satisfied, “when they are met, a person’s motivation does not cease; instead, it increases to seek further fulfillment” (249). In the introduction to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence writes: “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible” (24).


PART III:  In which we contemplate representational examples of hunger‘s influence on rational thought.

It was good discipline, he said.

As good as any other.

It isn’t the first time we starved as a people. Still you starved as persons, they starved our people. Distinction: made. Next: non servium, he said. Always in search of the father he never found.

Yes, then:   good.

Beware rabbit holes leading to bell jars. There is no candy in my kingdom.

Still: I won’t say I didn’t want to run my hand up her thigh until I reached her kingdom come.

Fuck the pain away

Sands of South Armagh

Abraham needs

Nothing

Air food water shelter

Next: no next.

There is an exit on Route 80

Center right in the rectangle

Where I was once told the head is good.

Belonging.

Always be longing.

But: not hoping.

Conundrum: yes, but not also.

Also, rarely yes and rarer still

Expecting.

Self-

Actualizing: as was said before.

Now: ibid.

Love: easy to give.

Thought: complete.

Companionship: rare.

Day 282: day 281+1.

Surgically repeat.

Listless, no. Not kinetic,

Not feeling hungry, but knowing

hungry.

Eat for life, not for taste.

Not entirely tasteful.

Strength comes from: ?

Non servium. Yes? No.

Would you like it long or soft?

Good.

My scars are visible in polite society:

Some: Are.

There are rockets in the South.

News: attended to.

War: (more) imminent.

The way it worked with the potato famine was objectively brilliant.

Starve them out of their language: resolve: irrelevant.

Mechanism: willingness and means.

Motive: property and real estate.

And: pride of winning.

What won: property, real estate, hubris.

What lost: a matter of perception.

Moynihan: “To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.”

Noted.

Still:

“Hunger was good discipline,” another said.

“At least that if no more.”

Spoken through her eyes.

“Graven in the language of the outlaw.”


PART IV:  In which hunger drives the test subject deeper into variable pasts.  

NOTE: There remains a marked distance from linear and chronological thought and reasoning.  This symptom seems to be accelerating quiet rapidly; however, we have not yet found a logic to which we can attach our efforts to develop any justifiable estimate of outcomes (much less timelines for those outcomes).  Further, it is evident that any attempt to establish elements of “truth” or “meaning” in the subject’s rambling would prove fruitless.  Absent of logic though it may seem, it is equally clear that the subject nonetheless understands these scribblings to be an imperative expression of some facet of that which he is enduring.  More importantly, there appears to be an underlying, yet thus far indiscernible, explanation of “why.”  

Craven in the language of the outlaw.

These words, even if spoken, are not enough

If: we define enough.

Objectivity: in one sense, open to interpretation.

Find your way in the rectangles.

Break service, create winners, eliminate unforced errors.

Keep to the basics. Serve and volley. Advance the net.

Acknowledge all rules of engagement.

There is no mention of a top to the tank,

And so I think freedom via evaporation.

Patience may be required, but the water retains control.

Please note and remember.

Dear bombs,

I know a story of a hand grenade.

Dear unknown dead friend of my father,

I wish you remembered the specifics. Bunker. Beer. Grenade. Despair. Time. Laughter. Forgetfulness. Boom. Blood. Tragedy.

Still, he says the metal in his arm is from another day and a different bomb. Shrapnel, he calls it. Sometimes he speaks of puff the magic dragon. Or of the woodcutters. Or of the dog who’d eaten C4 and needed to be put down. K. above all muntions, there was the time he went to clear the field after a B-52 airstrike, having just smoked pot for the first time. Far from the blast site, there were the dead lying between jungles with their fingers knuckle deep in their brains to stop the slow intolerable pounding of the bombs. K.

Dear Pennsylvania,

Ibid. You adieu.

“nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.” on the side, in fact.

On all sides: Quarries. Mines. (Not in the exploding yellow blue red white flash sense, but mines to be worked and lived and died in. Pappy H. Mammy H.) K.

The burial of the dead:

It goes as such:

First, you stand far off in the distance with your shovels so that the family and loved ones cannot see you. Respect.

You watch them mourn and cry and you wait for them to go back to their cars and drive away. When the last of them drives off beyond sight, you walk to the site, and you put your shovel in the upended dirt and you put it back in place. You tell any jokes that you can think of and you laugh and smile as much as possible throughout the task. You pretend that what you are doing is not what you are doing, and that in some few months it will only be grass that you are mowing.


COMING SOON:

PART V – PART VIII: In which we observe the effects of hunger transitioning towards starvation.  What follows is both anecdotal and analytical evidence that our notions of need appear to be subjective.  

(TO BE CONTINUED.)

have your ghost meet my ghost in the room at the end of the hall.

have your ghost meet my ghost in the room at the end of the hall

the walls are closing in, we agreed.

hills like white trumpet calls

the sand storms dune we hope sun-soaked beneath bare feet;

I dream of a collaborative tropical escape: run busted hand

up mended leg;

fuck it all away.

it’s a million o’clock in late February and the Sirens sound off

across the polar vortex.

i awake to an announcement coming over the intercom:

“no skin.  i repeat, no skin.”

Blood & Speed

If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.


                             – Mario Andretti

andretti2
Yes, Mario, you turned some tight corners at very high speeds. And so have I, for that matter. But there’s always a great fear when you start closing in on the top of the hill, because you never know what craziness is thundering up the other side and there are some bends you just can’t see around. So you just ram the throttle hard and hope you can slip your way through. When I was 16 or 17, we used to race cars around our neighborhood at night and not stop at any stop signs. We’d turn off our headlights & if we didn’t see any lights aimed down the cross streets, we’d fire on through the intersections & hope we were the only people who had the idiopathic nerve to behave this recklessly. Sometimes, things are exactly as they seem…and when you’re playing games like that, it’s not much different from playing Russian roulette.  It changes the equation. It is no longer a question of if; it is a matter of time. Because sooner or later, some asshole with ideas as crazy as yours is coming full bore straight towards you with a devil’s grin and a strong potential for becoming a good friend, if the airbags work & our hearts don’t stop beating.

I’m tired, but I know that no matter how exhausted & burned down & wasted my body becomes I will not sleep for many more hours. Another, much worse, idea will invariably sink its terrible claws so deep into my brain that it will seem infinitely more appealing. & Things become horribly frightening once you come to the realization that your friends have already concluded that they can without much difficulty convince you to do nearly anything that they want you to. But that’s all bullshit too. The twitching has begun & I am beginning to feel faint, so I will consolidate my losings & fix myself some coffee. That’ll jam my nerves into complete static & buy me at least enough time to finish this assignment with a relatively clear head. After all, it’s the home stretch now. Why not give this bird one final dent in the fender? It’s still too soon to pull out of the draft, but the end is clearly visible. So why not stomp on the gas for just a little while longer. “We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time.” Vince Lombardi said that decades ago & since then he’s really run out of Time. I don’t blame him, though. And you shouldn’t either. It was Oswald’s fault.

Writing for Writers: Poetry, James Joyce, and the Arc of Absurdity

mc escher hands

One night last week I was having drinks with a close friend I hadn’t seen in a while. We proceeded to catch up on how things were going with work, with our romantic relationships, our families, mutual friends, the whole standard ticket. At some point in the evening, things turned to talk about writing—as they often do.  My friend happens to be an exceptional poet.

We often discuss our struggles, our victories, our works in progress, and so on. He is one of very few people with whom I discuss my writing; however, after our discussions or exchange of notes on one another’s writing projects, I feel more inspired and tend to recognize a spike in my productivity and in the quality and quantity of my writing. This is generally the case when I share writing—or ideas about writing—with other writers as well.

Until recently, my friend spent a lot of time with the NYC poetry community. He volunteered at organizations that held readings, and read relatively frequently at these readings as well as others throughout the city and in Brooklyn. Whenever possible, I would go to these readings in support of my friend, and because I genuinely think his poetry is wonderful and I enjoy hearing him read it.

I never felt entirely comfortable amongst the tightly knit community of poets. Quite honestly, I don’t know how much of that is my fault. Still, it seems like a paradox of self-interest for a poet to knock around town putting on airs that alienate even people who go to readings and are interested in poetry.

Scenes vs. Communities.

Generally, I do not enjoy participating in—or being in the presence of—anything that can be called a “scene.” I am not suggesting that I am against people with common interests getting together and sharing ideas. In fact, I think communities are what give our lives meaning.   And on more basic levels of need, our survival depends upon them.

It is this point that stuck with me in our conversation: that communities of people who share common interests and ideas are what give our lives meaning.

I think of Septimus Smith—the “Solitary Traveler” in Virginia Woolf’s—Mrs. Dalloway. An extreme example, he committed suicide because his life lacked any kind of significant communication. There was no meaningful connection.

I think also of Marlow returning from his visit to the Inner Station, no longer feeling like he could relate to ordinary Londoners after having seen the horrors at Kurtz’s camp.

No, they did not bury me, though there is a period of time which I remember mistily, with a shuddering wonder, like a passage through some inconceivable world that had no hope in it and no desire. I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretense, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend. I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces, so full of stupid importance.

My Dad pointed out this section to me when I was a teenager to explain how he felt when he returned home from the Vietnam War. He could only talk about the war with others who had been there and had seen what he had seen. He knew, too, that there were many who had seen worse. For them, the circle of understanding must have been even smaller.

Working off of Maslow’s model of human needs, a sense of belonging comes soon after the basic needs are met (safety from harm, food, water, sleep, shelter, etc.).

To Bring This Back to Writing.

I am thinking of Hemingway’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. Particularly the following section:

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

Studies & Meaning.

First, it is probably necessary to disclose that I studied literature and writing, both as an undergrad and as a graduate student. Later, I taught literature and writing at Brooklyn College for a few years. The study of literature is critically important to me. And much of my ability to feel like my life is meaningful hinges on my writing and how that work is going.

Here, I am referring to the kind of meaning that one can only find through some combination of toil, talent, and luck. The clarification that I mean to make is that it is a different kind of meaning than one can find through their children, or their parents, siblings, or friends. It is the kind of meaning that leads to self-actualization when things are going well, and existential crisis when things are going poorly.

Futility & Absurdity.

The first words that came out of my professor’s mouth during my first graduate school English class: “Okay, is everyone ready for another exercise in futility?”

Simple and easy like that. It was something we already knew—or we certainly should have known—but it was something that we (as tuition-paying students) had to necessarily sweep under the rug. If we didn’t learn our lesson with a bachelor’s degree and continued on that path towards advanced degrees, then our capacity for self-delusion must have been strong.

It is true that good writing is far more rare than it probably ought to be. It is also true that there is tangible professional value in writing well-crafted and grammatically correct sentences. However, it is also true—I suggest—that there is an absurdity involved in a life’s work of studying—at a professional level—the language and literature of one’s own country. Particularly when that country violently rejects the idea of secondary languages.

For artists of any medium, I would argue that things angle towards absurdity as the available audience diminishes.   There comes a point in most art forms when the artist’s creation is too esoteric, highly allusive, or otherwise difficult for laypersons or casual enthusiasts to enjoy. As you near absolute absurdity, enjoyment is more possible than understanding—the work itself has become incomprehensible to anyone but the creator himself.

James Joyce.

james-joyce-ezra-pound-ford-madox-ford-john-quinn

The focus of my graduate studies was Modernist literature & postcolonial theory. One of my favorite authors is James Joyce. I’ve written about his works extensively and I have lectured on him both in the U.S. and abroad.

In February 2008, I presented a paper on Joyce at the University Roma Tre, in Rome. Some of the most renowned Joyce scholars—and literary giants in general—were at the conference. These people had invested an even greater portion of their lives to Joycean scholarship. This was probably the first time I recognized the level of absurdity upon which our unfortunate fraternity is bound. I also knew that this would probably be the first and last time that I’d be in a room full of people who wanted to talk about James Joyce and had extensive knowledge of the subject.

So far, it has been.

Studying Joyce is a strange thing to do, and it takes at least a modest amount of willful self-deception. Joyce falls into the realm of Ivory Towerism in the mind of most people. His detractors accuse him of being pretentious and portentous. I’m not sure that I’d bother arguing that he wasn’t pretentious. He did, after all, write a book that only he could fully understand (Finnegans Wake), and then did several of the translations himself. I would argue that that is just entirely too weird to fall into the stuffiness of the Ivory Tower.

After all, you can’t get much more punk rock than having that kind of talent and spending it on writing experimental books that few people read and fewer understand.   To properly read Ulysses and Finnegans Wake takes a lot of time and a number of additional books.

Joyce is of the Martello Tower—a tower of inward-looking meaning, manufactured to pillar oneself against outward-looking indifference.

There is a loneliness involved in caring about something that so few care about. Your authority in a given field of study is nothing if not futile if there is no one with whom you can exchange ideas. So, for this reason, I think of Hemingway’s remarks about organizations for writers once again. Writing is a lonely life. Particularly when there is an absence of reciprocal engagement.

Poetry.

New York School

Poetry itself is not as arcane as Joyce studies; however, I do think that a parallel can be made. A recent report showed that among adults who read books for pleasure, less than 7% say they read poetry.

Moreover, a study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts found:

More than half of American adults read a work of literature or a book (fiction or nonfiction) not required for work or school. However, adults’ rates of literary reading (novels or short stories, poetry, and plays) dropped back to 2002 levels (from 50 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in 2012).

If only half of the American adults read books, and only 7% of those people read poetry, the audience becomes critically small. This study doesn’t come as a great surprise to me.

When I first started to write seriously—or when I first became serious about writing—I mostly wrote poetry. At that point in time, I surrounded myself with other poets, went to poetry readings, and even our parties seemed to somehow involve poems or discussions about poetry. It was a really great time in my life.

I mostly write prose these days, but I do go to poetry readings every now and then. I see a similar pattern. For the most part, the community of people reading poems is the same community that is writing poems.

Fortunately for the poets and their battle against isolation and absurdity, there is a much larger community of people writing poems than there are reading Joyce.

For my Joyce friends…if you ever find yourself out on the ledge with no one to talk to. Send me an email, and I will happily shoot the shit about that crazy Irish bastard.

With that in mind, I’ve even linked a paper that I’d written on Joyce, with the hope that it makes us all feel a bit less alone for failing at indifference.

Click below to read:

THE TROUBLES IN JOYCE’S DUBLIN – POLITICAL, RELIGIOUS AND LITERARY HEGEMONY IN ULYSSES AND A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN

The Internet.

For all of its flaws and it’s destructive influence on face-to-face communication and its negative impact on manners and social grace, this is one area where I am unquestionably grateful for the internet. It is far easier to find people with common interests.

And, of course, any possible kind of porn you’re into…

If you’re into Joyce, that shit is probably pretty weird. If you know what I mean…you know what I mean.

The View Beyond the Rope

Samuel Butler looked at the large maple-wood clock and smiled one last time before blowing out the candles so that his wife could sleep. It was forty minutes after nine o’clock and he had yet to put the girls to bed. He himself was not tired and had taken it upon himself to set aside time that evening to pen a letter to his brother who had been living for some time now in Pennsylvania. He would wait until Milly was asleep, however, as he knew she would rise at dawn and struggle to awaken their children. She had had a difficult day again. He could always tell when her day had been particularly difficult because she didn’t talk about it and when she no longer freely offered to tell him about it, he was fearful to ask. Hearing her say “nothing” as though her mind had long ago been severed from her voice was worse than leaving her to say nothing. I will kiss her on the cheek and tell her I love her, he thought. It might make her feel better to hear that. With that, Samuel arose from the Windsor chair at his bedside, finished the last of his tea, and placed it quietly on the saucer on the nightstand. The white and gold china teapot, along with the fine English cups and saucers, were given to them by the Mr. & Mrs. Thomas Hayden on the day of their wedding. Milly was wearing the most beautiful of dresses and her hair smelled of lilacs and they made love together that afternoon for the first time on the soft grass. Thomas Hayden was an awfully good friend to him and it pleased him immensely that their friendship had not suffered nor waned with the duties of husbandry and time. Perhaps he would call on the Haydens for dinner tomorrow. Milly too enjoyed the company. She would make a delectable roast and bring warm bread from the oven. She cooked with great delight and prudent industry and enjoyed pleasing others when she wasn’t having a particularly difficult day. After dinner, the men and women would break off and both parties would attend to the natural and appropriate topics of conversation that concerned the interests of their gender.

home

The Butler family lived in a lovely, substantial farmhouse, with both Dutch and Flemish influences, and was typical of fairly well off families of the time. The Georgian woodwork, with elegant Federal paneling, filled Samuel Butler with pride as he walked from room to room admiring his home in those precious hours when his children and wife were nestled peacefully and happily in their beds, and he was free to attend to his private affairs in the solitude of his study as the light of the fire warmed the room and adorned it with a frugal transient light.

With uninvited sleepiness, Samuel Butler pulled his watch from his pocket, opened it and checked the time once more. The floorboards creaked as he walked down the hall to check on the girls. This is part of the original house, he thought again. Before they had built the addition in ’18. A sadness had suddenly come over him that even the sight of his lovely young daughters could not fully wipe clean.

“You girls had better get some sleep,” He said. “You’ll need to help your mother make the week’s bread in the morning. It’s going to be a long day on the farm tomorrow. A very long day, indeed, my sweet young girls.” Even Mr. Butler smiled sadly, wondering if that was what they meant when they called things irony.

“Goodnight, Father, we love you,” Amy said warmly as her sister clutched her daddy’s leg and said goodnight.

“Goodnight girls, and remember…”

“We know, Dad, sleep tight.”

They all smiled in trite recognition as the girls tightened the rope beneath their mattresses and crawled into the bed. First Emily and then Amy. Samuel Butler walked down the hall, the floorboards creaking.

“Why does Daddy talk like that all the time now,” Emily asked.

“Because he wants to be someone else,” her sister said. Emily did not understand entirely, but she had understood enough to know that it was to be the end of the discussion.

“Goodnight Emily.”

“Goodnight Amy,” she whispered.

Their father descended the stairs and retreated to the carriage house to gather the whale oil with which he would refill the Betty lamps. He found fish oil and animal grease produced a disagreeable odor and he preferred the lighting of the whale-oil lamps, particularly as they worked in concert with the soft flickering glow of Milly’s candles. He was pleased that he had recently cleaned the lamps; not because he didn’t enjoy the task, for he very much did. It had been heavy on Samuel’s mind, however, to write his brother and announce his concern over not having heard from him for so long. He was confident that this time he could put it all in writing and get it right at last. And so, he took the canister of oil into the house and went room to room filling lamp after lamp. As he always did, he thought with pride and pleasure of Mr. Franklin’s innovation as he watched the brilliant flame of the double-burners illuminate the inner chamber of his study.

The study was a fairly large room, but it did not lack the quaintness and warmth one might find in a smaller one. There was a table with four chairs, a rocking chair near the window, and a fireplace, before which lay a large and ornate handmade rug that led out and across to Samuel’s desk. The desk faced the fireplace and so too the window on either side. He could think of no better place to work in the world and recognizing this filled him with familiar dismay; it was inevitable in the way that the ideal is always attached to its counterpart. Samuel took from his desk the empty glass and filled it half full of spirits from the decanter. He took a few sips and a few moments to regain the composure necessary for the necessary composure of his letter. He suspected that the letter would ultimately be a failure; that its interpretation would never elicit a response that was commensurate with his hope. He knew too well as he dipped the long feather pen in the inkwell and paused at length after the sight of the splendidly calligraphic “Dear Daniel” that the stationary and the pen and penmanship would alone only contribute to the unfortunate incomprehensibility of his decision. He knew also that his brother much preferred to be addressed more informally as “Dan,” but these things were among the necessities concerning Samuel’s attempt to gain his brother’s understanding and acceptance of the admittedly peculiar conditions in which Samuel had taken to live.

Samuel Butler worked ardently and passionately as he unpacked the thoughts he had been suffering from relentlessly for some time and attempted to organize them with deliberate honesty and accuracy. He realized as he was writing that the letter was not being written to his brother alone, but also to his wife and their sleeping children. How could he expect them to understand, he considered, and yet for more than three years now he had expected just that. He disagreed that it was a matter of dignity, for him it was a simple case of preference. He had earned as much, given the indignities he endured 40 hours every week for that past 18 years of his life. Samuel explained this at length and with great eloquence in his letter. He felt a sense of relief as he put the finishing touches on his letter and placed the pen back into inkwell. Surely, he thought, if they refused to accept him now, then it was clearly not because he did not seek their acceptance. He carefully folded the paper, melted the end of the bar of wax so that it dripped down over the seam and drove the stamp into it, delivering his seal. SB.

Samuel paused before attaching the postage stamp to the letter and decided instead to place the naked envelope on the empty corner of the desk. It was late, half past midnight, and he had been drinking. That could have affected his judgment, but it certainly accelerated his exhaustion. He decided it would be wiser to sleep on the issue and he would deal with the mailing the letter in the morning. Surely it could wait until then. With that, Samuel ascended the stairs and walked down the creaking hallway and climbed into bed with his wife and lay back to back, as Samuel preferred to sleep on his left side and Milly preferred to sleep on her right.

Milly was not in her nature a morning person and yet she found those hours before her husband and children had woken to be the happiest ones of her day. That morning she awoke at 5:00am and the man beside her barely noticed her absence as she got out of bed. In four hours, the nonsense would start again. It was unclear to her why she agreed to the idea in the first place, but now she could barely contain herself from breaking down entirely and she knew that it was now only a matter of finding the courage. She couldn’t admit, even to herself, that she once enjoyed the performance. At first, if she could pretend to be someone else, some place else, some time else, then she could also pretend to be happy. It was a fine thing to convince yourself that you were happy, she thought, and she would have much preferred to have believed that lie rather than think about losing her family. But what was it to have a family that was itself a lie? It was Sam’s fault, she was convinced. He insisted this would help them escape the endless hopeless drudgery of their lives and bring meaning to their existence. He realized he was an anachronism, he told her at the time. He was born into the wrong world at the wrong time. His soul was never meant to spend 18 years as a clerk in an accounts payable department and he could scarcely believe that he had. The contemporary time demanded he do something to support his family and it was only bad luck and bad timing that landed him in that day job. He had once wanted to be a writer and he was convinced his ideas were good and that he had a talent with the written word, but after several years of failed attempts to complete even a single story he had stored that dream in a place where neither lamplight nor candlelight would ever touch it. Sam blamed his failure at becoming a successful novelist on his job and on his family. There was simply no time to concentrate and get it all out. Milly had known the truth about him now better than he did. Still, she had to give him credit, he could write well. It was his writing and creativity that helped win her over in the first place. He was very charming then, full of hope and aspirations, so confident that he would be a successful writer. Probably he could have been, but it wasn’t time that he lacked, she had long understood.

Milly loved old farm houses and she particularly loved the one in which they lived. She found it odd, however, that the Historical Society would only allow them to purchase and live in the home if they opened the house to the public on weekends and continued the reenactments. It was part of a larger colonial era community that had been preserved and on the weekends it was full of actors and visitors. At first, Milly enjoyed putting on the clothes and playing the part. She relished period films and novels, being particularly fond of Jane Austen and Henry James. Even she once enjoyed dressing up in her costume and parading around the house on days when visitors weren’t there. It was the repetition that very quickly ruined what was enjoyable about it. Her skull now rattled even in anticipation of saying, “Hello everyone, welcome to the Williams Home, I will be showing you how they used to make bread during colonial times.” She knew that Sam hated that part of it too and that for him it was only necessary, as his job had been necessary, so that he could continue his fantasy. He used the evenings to escape what he viewed as the great tragedy of his mornings and afternoons, which were only deemed successful on the 15 days of vacation he received each year, and even then it was rare that Milly could convince him that they should travel and pretend like they were living in the 21st century. The lie of his life was far more tolerable than what he perceived to be the truth.

Milly tried not to think about this on those mornings before the performance. She preferred to walk around the fields or work in her garden. Occasionally, she would drive her car over into town and eat at the local diner; not because the food was particularly good, but because it had a television and it was open. If the girls were awake, she would play with them outside and she still occasionally needed to make it clear that they didn’t need to perform when the three of them were alone together. That morning, Milly was in the garden and the girls came out to help her when they woke.

At 8:00am, Samuel Butler descended the stairs fully dressed. “Come along now, it’s time to get dressed and be ready when our guests arrive,” he announced. The smile washed from Milly’s face as the three stood up and she followed the girls into the house.

One by one, the room began to fill up. It would begin soon. Samuel had already heard one wise guy making fun of his clothing. It wouldn’t be long now. He wouldn’t have had the people over at all if it were up to him. Or, rather, if it weren’t necessary. They took the reality out of the room. By the time it returned, it was time for it all to begin again. True, it was not such a bad living. In the beginning, he enjoyed the guests.

Old man Butler stood tall, straightened his shirt, and with feigned confidence, he addressed the crowd:

“Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Williams House. This is part of the original home, built in 1796…”

Milly watched her husband with sympathetic pity and a diminishingly gentle resentment.

The Land of Nod

Fernand-Anne Piestre Cormon's painting titled Cain flying before Jehovah's Curse, c. 1880, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Fernand-Anne Piestre Cormon’s painting titled Cain flying before Jehovah’s Curse, c. 1880, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

“Larry,” Glenn said, “I know what this means for you, but I want to die.”

Larry and Glenn were brothers and although they often annoyed one another they were as close as two brothers could be, so naturally Larry was terrified to hear this. Not because it was the first time Glenn had mentioned killing himself, nor even because Larry couldn’t live without Glenn. It was because Larry, unlike Glenn, had never gotten their Catholic upbringing out of his head. In fact, the thought of ending it all had occurred to Larry many times himself, but he knew he could never go through with it on account of his fear of God’s promise that his soul would go to Hell.

Larry turned his gaze away from Glenn. Glenn had been staring at him intently and his lack of emotion over the matter had become too much for Larry to look at directly. He knew that the coldness, the matter-of-factness, of the statement was not apathy, but conviction. Glenn’s conviction was a terminal illness in Larry’s mind. The Kübler-Ross model did not apply to Glenn, but it was a very real thing to Larry.

“Please, Glenn. I know you are suffering. So am I, but you mustn’t think of suicide. It is the one sin you can’t repent for. You will go to Hell, Glenn. You will break your covenant with God and burn in Hell forever. Don’t let vanity cost you your place in Heaven.”

“To Hell with your Heaven. And it isn’t my vanity you should be worried about.”

“Don’t say that, Glenn. I love you. Jesus loves you. Jesus died on the cross for you so that you might go to Heaven.”

“Jesus Christ, can I return the favor?”

“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain on top of it.”

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

“How many commandments do you intend to break today?”

“To Hell with you and your commandments. I can’t stand to be around you or your goddamn commandments any longer. And anyway, you are a fool who doesn’t understand the same commandments you refuse to shut up about. Taking the Lord’s name in vain means using God as the justification for doing shitty things. You break this rule every day by not shutting up about this after I have asked you a thousand times.”

“I am only trying to save your soul, Glenn.”

“Well you certainly aren’t helping to save my life.”

*          *          *

 

The two brothers fell quiet and stared through the television across the narrow room. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was playing, but both Larry and Glenn realized that what was once a tradition had become a painful and pitiful routine. Glenn was more noticiably annoyed by the dullness of the routine, but it was far better than listening to his brother go on and on about God and Jesus and Heaven and Hell. He did not care if his soul was saved any more than he cared about the ketchup stain on Larry’s shirt. Glenn found the idea of both of these things repulsive. He wanted only for the repetition to end and yet he suspected they would have the same conversation over the same meal and watch the same film again the following Christmas. It wasn’t that he wasn’t serious about his suicidal thoughts. His deformity and the limitations it placed on him were an incurable source of depression. He was concerned only about what it would do to his brother, despite how annoying Larry had become to him. Larry was the only family Glenn had, aside from that redneck asshole, Uncle Frank, who they’d only first met a few years earlier.

On unlucky nights, and most nights were unlucky, he would fall asleep and this would be the last coherent thought in his head before he awoke to the same thought again in the morning. Larry had been quiet since the movie came on, however, so there was a small chance he could put him out of his mind. As the two brothers sat side-by-side on the sofa, Glenn closed his eyes and allowed his head to fall to the right, leaning away from his brother. Glenn focused hard so that he might fall asleep and dream of what his life would have been like if he had had a normal childhood with Christmas trees full of presents and parents that stuck around and could look upon him with love. It was a lucky night. Glenn had fallen asleep with a faint smile on his face and it remained there for a time.

Larry was still very much awake. He, too, was staring at the television and his mind was also elsewhere. He looked to his right and saw Glenn’s smile and he knew what he was thinking. The Smith & Wesson Model 4006 pistol that Uncle Frank had brought over to show off to the brothers was loaded with .40 S&W cartridges and lying on the coffee table just in front of them. It was half buried beneath an old issue of Entertainment Magazine, but it wasn’t hidden well enough for Glenn to slip one by him. He knew now why Glenn was smiling. He had been talking about it all day. All day Glenn had been preparing for it and now he was just waiting for him to fall asleep. Larry was finally thinking clearly and he was happy he had not been outstmarted by his condescending brother before he made that most foolish and unforgivable of mistakes. It was no wonder Glenn agreed to watch the movie for what must have been the 30th year in a row. Glenn had sat there without complaining, just waiting for him to fall asleep. Larry knew that his soul was safe in the eyes of God, but he feared for his brother’s. Sooner or later Larry would fall asleep, just as Glenn had orchestrated the ordeal.

Larry remembered the end of the conversation earlier in the evening:

“That’s it, Larry…I’ve told you the last time, one more word about Jesus and I’ll end it tonight. And on that I swear to your God. Just put that stupid movie in the VCR and shut the hell up.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll put in the movie, but remember God loves you even if you don’t love him. He loves you, but if you don’t bring Jesus into your heart, you will burn in hell. Suicide will put you right straight into hell.”

“So be it. Let’s just go watch the movie and shut up about everything for a couple hours.”

We walked into the living room and sat down on the sofa. He had been brilliant about it so far, but he had not counted on me remembering about the gun and he had not hidden it well. Larry was being clever. He was putting all of the clues together. No more of this, Larry thought, he promised he would do it today. If he doesn’t do it today, he could possibly do it when I am caught off-guard. He will do it. He will break God’s law and his soul will spend all eternity burning in the fires of Hell.

Larry tapped his brother’s thigh and confirmed he was asleep. He slowly leaned forward, careful not to awaken his brother. Glenn was out cold and Larry now held the pistol in his hand. He stared at it in awe as he listened to his breath shorten and his heartrate quickened. He knew now what must be done. It was the only way to be sure.

Glenn was alseep and Larry knew that he would not approve of reading the Apostles’ Creed and so he mouthed the creed to himself so as not to leave the rites incomplete entirely.

“This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.”

Larry bowed his head and closed his eyes.

“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

Having completed what he could of the Annointing of the Sick, Larry prayed for himself—that he might too be forgiven. There would be time, he had already considered, to repent for the sin he was about to undertake. He knew also that it couldn’t really be an unforgivable sin in the eyes of God insofar as he was saving the soul of another. He would have to be quick afterwards. He would have to be clear of mind. He would have to maintain awareness until he’d completed his Penance. He looked to his brother with love and compassion. A tear ran down his cheek as he placed the pistol to his brother’s left temple.

“I am my brother’s keeper. I am my brother’s keeper,” Larry whispered as a mantra to build confidence before pulling the trigger.

It was difficult for Larry to see his brother like that. Glenn had always been the more handsome of the brothers, having beared the lesser extent of their shared deformity. His once handsome face was now gruesome and grotesque. He knew that for his own soul he should begin repenting for his sin, but as their blood poured from Glenn’s body, Larry found it difficult to concentrate. He felt with his powderburned right hand the shared pieces of flesh at their abdomen and he wondered where the dead started and dying began. Most of the liver was in Glenn’s body, but the idea of dying from liver failure seemed absurd now.

Even then, with Glenn dead and he dying, there was the overwhelming fear that this was not about saving Glenn at all, but about cheating the system. He was growing disillusioned and weak so that his motives now seemed incoherent even to himself. Now there was only the hope that God should have mercy if his confession lacked the complete sincerity of true remorse and that failing all else, his death should be penance enough.

“O my God, I am heartily sorry

for having offended Thee

and I detest my sins

above every other evil

because they displease Thee, my God,

Who, in Thy infinite wisdom,

art so deserving of all my love

and I firmly resolve

with the help of Thy grace

never more to offend Thee

and to amend my life.

Amen.”

After having finished the Act of Contrition, Larry recalled the act of Perfect Contrition. It had been described to him by the Monsignor when he blessed them as children in the hospital and later in the orphanage. He was losing consciousness now, and he couldn’t remember the Monsignor’s name. Glenn would remember, he thought, he was always better at that stuff. He used the last of his energy to rest his head on Glenn’s shoulder. He stared down at the table and remembered reading the magazine the night before. He remembered setting it down on the coffee table.

Larry could feel his heart slow down and then stop. He was not thinking then about God or about Jesus. He was thinking only of Glenn. Of how sorry he was. Of how much he missed him. Of how he wished he didn’t have to die alone.