R A L P H
The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities
Early Summer 2002
The Folio is the print version of
RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature,
Philosophy, and the Humanities
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§ § §My Brilliant
CareerT.E. Lawrence wrote:
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.
Unaccountably, T.E. did not include my own category, those who sleep at night, and then go to work by day and get plenty of sleep there as well. I find that taking cat-naps four or five times a day helps to keep me in the pink, and the ivy-covered halls of academe, with their windy faculty meetings and frequent seminars, have long provided an ideal venue for this practice.
I first understood that I was well suited to the academic life back in college when I attended my first academic seminar. It was a veritable epiphany: the room was warm, a speaker at the front was doing the equivalent of counting sheep for me, and then the lights went out for the first slide; I settled back comfortably in my chair, and knew no more until the lights came back on after the last slide. I realized then that I had discovered a true calling, like Paul on the road to Damascus.
My career of sleeping through seminars continued in graduate school. One time, I was seated next to the Associate Director of our institute, a tough-talking biochemist who was reputed to have mob connections. Everyone referred to him as Big Al. Realizing that I was seated in a sensitive location, I fought to retain consciousness as the speaker droned on and on, and actually made it to the third slide before I retired to never-never land, slumping sideways at the same time so as to use Big Al for a pillow. When the seminar ended I awoke, refreshed as always, and looked blinkingly around. Turning to my left, I made eye contact with Big Al, who was fixing me in a stare that would freeze helium. "Ya feel bedduh now?" he growled.
Fortunately, Big Al was not on my Ph.D. thesis committee, and in due course I earned that key of entry into the academic world. It has been a long and rewarding career since then. Several years ago, I underwent a medical procedure on one eye. I was told I must sleep sitting up for ten days or so. No problem. I had already had 35 years of practice.
Beginning grad students regularly marvel at the ability of us veterans to spend an entire seminar, qualifying exam, or thesis defense in the arms of Morpheus, and then rouse to ask a seemingly relevant question at the end. Little do they suspect that this ability is the very secret, the kernel, the Zen of the professorial vocation. I have practiced this form of Zen, which is also known as Cheyne-Stokes breathing, all over the US and at innumerable seminars and conferences in many other countries.
I cannot help but be reminded of that old New Yorker cartoon in the form of a recruiting poster: "Join the Cat Navy and get to sleep in ports all over the world." Could this be the reason for my feeling of kinship with the feline community?
I no longer enjoy the services of a full-time cat at my home, but I do have two visiting cats who come to work part-time. Sarge, whose official residence is a couple of blocks away, is an orange tabby with polydactyly of his forepaws and a winning manner. We have a special cat entrance for him at a back window, loosely covered by a cloth flap. Sarge can be relied upon to come in this way several times each day, and immediately ask to be let out at the front door. In addition to providing this service, he also does a complete inspection tour of the house, at least if he is not let out too soon. There is no warm nook or soft spot in the house too obscure for him to overlook; in fact, he spends more time testing these spots in my house for their sleep-
worthiness than he spends at his official home. Occasionally, Sarge's owner telephones to leave a message for him.
As a back-up, I employ Dusty, a fluffy, grey-blue Russian who patrols the front porch most of the day. His official residence is across the street, and unlike Sarge, he never sleeps, but always keeps watch. Perhaps the Russian Blue breed has some kinship with the NKVD, or the earlier Okhrana, the Tsar's secret police. In any case, Dusty always moves with the stealthy air of a secret agent, perpetually looking around for enemy operatives. He accepts being petted or offered some food on the front porch with elaborate wariness, always poised for flight.
Dusty occasionally sneaks into my domicile to photograph classified documents, incidentally filching a little of the food left for Sarge. His stealth is such that I have never caught him in the act of slipping into the house. But I have discovered him already inside on a few occasions, at which times he escaped with the speed and agility of a four-legged James Bond. All I saw of his departure was a blue blur heading toward and through any exit available. Sometimes it is not even clear how the blue blur exits the house, but out it gets.
As a result of communing with these creatures, I have arrived at a theory to explain why cats are so appealing. They are soft, furry, cuddly, and the right size to pick up: in short, exactly like the stuffed animals we all played with as children. They are, in short, animated stuffed animals, stuffed with themselves. But then, the question arises of why stuffed animals were so appealing to us when we were children. The answer must be that they are like real animals, such as cats. But cats, we just concluded, are appealing because they are like stuffed animals.
I see that continuing on this line of thought could be dangerous for my diminished supply of grey cells. Perhaps what I need is a nice cat-nap.--- Dr. PhageAmong the Missing
(Ballentine)Sandi is given a Safety Man --- one of those blow-up figures to put in the front seat of the car so that people will think you are not alone. It's a joke, but then her husband dies. So Safety Man goes back and forth to her job with her, and soon at night she begins to set him up in her bed, to talk to when she feels lonely.
Sandi worries about going crazy. There's a janitor where she works who looks like Safety Man, and she thinks "I am an insane person." Once, she realizes that she's not really "one of them." Going home, Safety Man sits serenely beside her, "gazing forward like a noble sea captain."
"You're doing fine," Safety Man tells her. "Everyone thinks so. You can go on like this for a very long time, and no one will notice. You keep thinking you are going to hit some sort of bottom, but I'm here to tell you. There is no bottom."
There are twelve stories here, and they are elegant --- so well wrought --- that we don't want them to stop. Chaon writes about people who are misunderstood, inchoate, uncertain. They get old and drink too much and communicate badly --- and they smoke as much as any of J. D. Salinger's characters ever did.
A short story --- unless it comes from Henry James --- must not tell too little nor too much. The pacing must be artful. In Chaon, there are overtones of psychology, but none of it embarrasses us. Rather, it shines a bit of extra light on what is happening:
"Displaced emotions," she said, rolling her eyes. "Oh, please. What does that mean exactly?"
He smiled a little, as if he knew more than he was willing to say. They were washing dishes, and he handed her a plate to dry. "It means," he said, "that you're not worried about what you think you're worried about."
§ § §
These are regular people in regular jobs --- firemen, bureaucrats, telephone operators, bartenders. They are painted with a fine brush:
"Damn it, Everett," I heard my mother say sharply, and I smiled because the phrase was so familiar, and because I knew it would make him blush and grow sullen. His real name was Everett, but everyone called him Shorty --- he was five foot five, a compact, wiry little man --- and some time in the distant past he'd come to see his nickname as a kind of badge of respect, and Everett as an insult, a sissified embarrassment. Even my mother used it only in anger.
In one paragraph, we have a man who is short and proud, a man who fights with his wife who, in turn, uses expert techniques to get to him.
The Big Theme --- if we can call it that --- tells us that you and I will never know someone, even wife or friend or son. We can try to figure out why people do what they do, but there will always be The Mystery. This is Sean and his father, talking about a carload of people --- father, mother, children --- who drove into a nearby lake and perished (the lake was not that deep; they could have escaped). Sean wonders why they did it.
"Why do people do anything, Sean?" He looked at me, a slow, drunken film over his eyes, a sad and scornful look. "Do you think you can say why people do what they do? They teach you that in college?" He looked at me thoughtfully, and later, when I was older, it was something I recalled, that expression. It was the stare of a man who has realized that he doesn't know his son and his son doesn't know him.
A local mystery turns into a potent symbol for a family that can't communicate, living in a locked and isolated box where there is no escape.
Many have written on these subjects but few, I suggest, have done it with such aplomb --- a dry, pregnant style that is so direct it hurts.--- F. W. Smithers
[Poem]St. Agnes and the
Passion of the DunesIt was a dry and brittle day in late October, maybe the Feast of Epiphany;
A cross day, with papers scattered about like bones.
Someone had drained the nearby springs, taken down the nettles
And the winds that came to us sang to us incessantly of duty, and love, and of manhood.
St. Agnes (she said that was her name) wanted to play ball.
Afterwards she asked us to lay atop her just atop the grave, over there, near the lighthouse.
"One has to be done with being done," she said. Her voice was dry, brittle.
"Ours is a dream of passion," she said.
I thought she was daft, but there was no way to say no.
Besides, she was pretty, in a brittle sort of way.
Our bodies lay themselves down besides her.
I tell you, it was not our doing.
She stopped forever the brawling in the dunes,
Took the best of us for her pleasure,
Murdered the rest (Freddy, and Robert, and the Sanchez twins).
It was a dry day in late Fall when it was finally over.
The wind rolled great balls of spume across the sands;
They sang only of passion, and duty, and the divine right of manhood.--- ©1968, The Estate of Wilfred McCorkle
The MordidaYears ago, there was an article in Warren Hinckle's fabled Ramparts Weekly that explained how to drive and drink at the same time. The drink of choice was Martinis, very dry.
What you did was to mix the drink up ahead of time, chill it thoroughly, fill up a thermos --- and, if possible, have your wife or secretary or bartender in the passenger seat to hand it to you. A coffee cup was recommended (there had to be some concessions; a Martini glass, complete with olive, might be a bit too obvious).
Just to make sure, it was suggested that one might want to hold the cup down low, below window level --- and have some chewing gum about in case you were stopped.
Those were the days, weren't they? A time when we believed that one of the tasks of 20th Century Rationalism was to figure out how we could drink and drive at the same time without getting busted. A noble era, indeed; a time when we weren't so brainwashed; a time when we didn't automatically think "felony" every time we had the urge to enjoy a well-lubricated drive home from work.
Fortunately, those of us who delight in such freedoms can visit other countries where the sin-level hasn't dropped so low that one can get stuck in the slammer for five years for such festive behavior. For instance, where I live --- far from the winds of American courtrooms --- drinking while you drive is more or less the norm. It is a sign of your manhood if you can actually make it home without crawling your car up a tree or down an embankment.
In the slightly respectable colonia where I live, much to the admiration of the neighbors, a nearby cement power pole was demolished on New Year's Eve by a drunk in a Ford 250 --- a sign that the right to navigate stewed out of your mind is still alive and well here.
They say that the driver was so thoroughly soused that he survived a direct hit --- one broken nose, twenty stitches to the face --- the Mexican equivalent of a dueling scar. The police were called, but a few well-placed pesos by a companion took care of the danger of time in the pokey. They say that after the payment of the "little bite" --- the "mordida" ($100 U.S., presumably for destroying the property of the Federal Comisión de Electricidad) --- a half-consumed bottle of tequila and a small baggie of a suspicious white powder were returned to the owner. No questions asked. Now that's civilization in action.
The very fact of the existence of the mordida convinces some of us that we are living in one of the most progressive democracies in the western world. It's the great grease that makes us all equal, from the poorest taxi driver to the richest businessman. If you are caught, as all of us will someday be caught, with your car up a light pole or with your hand in the cookie-jar or with your pants down, the Ceremony of the Passing of the Gelt will and does fix everything. Of course, there are a few things you have to be careful about.
One is, we don't use the word bribe. It's inelegant; we do not call a spade a spade.
And you don't say to the man in uniform, "Can I pay you?" or "How about some money to fix this up?" The preferred question is, "Is there anything we can do about this, officer?" ("¿No hay nada que pudiamos hacer?" Tourists! Memorize that phrase!)
If the arresting officer moves in close to the car door, you can assume that he is inviting the mordida, but you don't just wave the money out the window, lord knows. The preferred position is inside, just below the level of the window. You hold the cash there --- no checks or credit cards accepted --- and the agent of the government sweeps his hand in and out and into his pocket in one quick move.
There are extremes to be watched out for. Mexico City lists days on which all --- native and tourist alike --- are not allowed to drive, depending on the last digit of the license plate of the car. This sounds fairly simple, but we live in a land of carefully nurtured confusions, in which the officers of the law use to their best advantage.
Once I was stopped out near a sink-hole of a village named Toluca, which lies twenty-five miles to the west of the capital. I was told that my license plate had the wrong number, that the proscription against driving extended far, far beyond the Mexico City limits --- perhaps all the way to Guadalajara (or Guatemala) --- and since it was late Friday afternoon, I might have to stay over until court convened on Monday (or, because of the upcoming holiday --- there are always upcoming holidays --- it might be Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday before my release.)
The officer was a gentleman. He was also polite but insistent. There was little bargaining to be done, and he relieved me of a goodly portion of my vacation fund. But then again, have you ever seen the inside of the Toluca jail?
My friend Tom was unfortunate enough to be driving through Mexico City with trailer which, in itself, and given the traffic and the race-car attitude of the city drivers, is not unlike attempting to cross the Atlantic, in a double-beamed kayak, in midwinter. In addition, he was abroad when he shouldn't have been and was stopped by not one but two police. The damage was close to 2,000 pesos. He wasn't eager to wrangle; he had, like most of us, gotten lost trying to navigate the city and was damn sick and tired of it.
However, there was a bonus. For his $220 (US), he got two motorcycle policemen, with sirens, escorting him, at high speed, stopping all traffic, not unlike a major political figure, to the final exit to Puebla. "I probably got through Mexico City faster than anyone that day," he told us later. Forty-five minutes for what would, usually, be a four- to six-hour journey on clogged streets.
He considered it a bargain.--- Carlos Amantea
A Visitor's Guide
Nick Garbutt, Hilary
Brandt, Derek Schuurman
(Brandt/Globe Pequot)You'd have to be down-home blind sick halt and lame not to get stirred up by these pictures. Mouse Lemurs and spiny forests, Helmet vangas and Comet moths, slugs, snails, and leeches --- plants that look like bugs and bugs that look like plants. Katydids, millipedes, cockroaches that hiss and shield bugs that look, yes, like a heraldic shield.
There's a golden mantella about as big as your little finger and is red, not gold. There's a tree boa that wraps itself up in the fork of a tree like --- well, like a tree boa. There are some fifty species of skinks.
My sister-in-law was from Vermont and once she and my mother were cleaning up the house and she said to my mother "What's that pretty sculpture you have over the fire-place," and my mother said "There's no sculpture over the fire-place" and the skink was entertained mightily for a few minutes there by two women who didn't like slithery things dancing around and making loud anti-skink music with their voices.
§ § §
If you are having trouble with your sex-life, think on the common spider. The authors tell us that webs are designed to catch insects, and they are only made by the female spiders. "This poses a problem," they report, "for the male who has to trespass across her dinner table to pair up --- she may mistake him for a meal. Since the male spider is often much smaller than the female this confusion is understandable, and he had to go to considerable effort to achieve his goal without being eaten. His passionless sexual act
how do you know it's "passionless?" Have you ever heard of Onanism? Spider Onanism?
begins with the depositing of sperm into a tiny homemade silk envelope before transferring the precious fluid into the hollow interior of a specially adapted leg called a pedipalp.
Get that? He jerks off into his leg-bag. And calls it a "pedipalp."
Then comes the tricky part
actually, getting all those babies stuffed into a pedilap could itself be pretty tricky
--- getting it inside the female.
You're right. That is tricky. Especially if she is hungry.
Sometimes he taps out a code on the web to announce his presence
"Attention. This is your husband. I'm out here just beyond reach. I've brought a little surprise for you. A baggie with 10,000 of our children."
Sometimes he presents the female with a tasty morsel to distract her.
"I've got a bit of Kentucky Fried Bug here that will make your eyes --- all 200 of them --- light up."
Alternatively, like the male golden orb-web spider, he may be so tiny he is not worth bothering about.
"This is your husband. Remember the one you used to call 'Shorty.' If you aren't busy right now, I think we should get together. But you have to promise me one thing. I don't want to hear that line of yours, 'Why darling --- you look good enough to eat.'"--- Ignacio Schwartz[Great Reviews of the Past]
(Moon)Showing uncharacteristic good sense, the other forty-seven states managed to avoid admitting Arizona to the Union until 1912. This leads us to wonder why in God's sweet name anyone with bat brains would want to travel there, much less admit it as Number Forty-Eight.
It's a state filled with rattlesnakes, coyotes, saguaros, urban glop, sand storms, and nitwits. Their politics have always been slightly to the right of Pol Pot, and the recent shenanigans with the governor go to prove that the state is second only to Texas in electing lunchheads to public office (Meacham, the previous head-of-state, got impeached not because of highway robbery and insensitivity --- that's the norm for Arizona; he lost out because he was honest enough to revel in his shenanigans).
If you must go there, this is your guide. Over 400 pages, almost thirty maps, a complete introduction to flora and fauna, transport, events, and history.
Arizona was the home of the Poston Japanese-American internship camp during WWII --- which made this area just south of Parker the third largest city in the state. (Showing characteristic callousness, the state has refused to erect a monument to commemorate this travesty.)
There are a few failings in this otherwise memorable guide. There's no mention of the fact that the city of Phoenix has the same atmosphere, charm, and deportment as Dallas TX, Riverside CA, Silver Spring MD, or Teaneck NJ: smog and traffic can lock you up for hours. The advice given on visiting San Luis Rio Colorado (south of Yuma) is faulty. Permits for vehicles going on into Mexico are no longer issued at the border.
Outside of that, the Arizona Traveler's Handbook is filled with fine pictures of tree chollas, horned lizards, and indigenous human native stock. They all look roughly alike. Outside of the natives --- it's everything you could ask.--- Ignacio Schwartz[Letter]RALPH:
What is it about the English? I can remember my father talking about how certain poems of his seemed to drive British reviewers insane --- and now I find myself in the same situation. I am flattered, but bewildered.
The poem you mention in The New Yorker ("Year One") seems to offend you so intensely. Delightful. Although aren't your remarks somewhat of a cheap shot, considering I have in the past year and a half published in that magazine much longer and to my mind much better poems.
Anyway, I'd be curious to know which poets you do enjoy.--- Yours,
Our poetry editor responds:
God knows, what is it about the English? We adore them. They speak funny, wear frumpy clothes, have delicious ale --- called "bitter" --- and terrible food. They don't take baths all that often, and drink too much tea. Unlike some of our readers, they never seem to take themselves too seriously.
You're not the first one to confuse us with our forefathers off there in the North Atlantic somewhere. Several months ago we received a letter accusing us of harboring "Bloodless Brits." [See www.ralphmag.org/BB/letters.html]
We loved it, even managed to cook up a photograph of Our Editor as a BB, even though she never donned a fedora nor took up a cane in her life. (She claims to have been born in Paducah KY, the daughter of an impoverished Yogic horse-thief.)
As far as our taste in poetry goes, if you go to our current "Briefs" [See www.ralphmag.org/BI/briefs.html#poetry], you'll be able to read her rather dotty opinion on the subject.--- A. W. AllworthyNote: Franz Wright's newest book of poems,The Beforelife,
was recently issued by Alfred A. KnopfThe Invisible
Angels from the Vatican
(Art Services International/Abrams)This one, we are ashamed to report, sat in our New Books For Review shelf for four long years until, on a whim, we picked it up. In the interest of fair disclosure, we should reveal that we are quite fond of angels; have always wanted to have one or two around to take care of us, or at least to share with us a mirth at humankind's folly.
We can tell you, at last, that The Invisible Made Visible is flooded with elegant angelic reproductions, all from the Vatican Museums, especially since the definition of angel has been greatly expanded over what you and I may think of as a wingéd babe --- including, for example, the representation on a delicious ceramic jug from 350 BC, a sizable figure of Eros, complete with flying equipment, in fact with all equipment intact (Eros is as naked as a jaybird), except for a string of pearls and some earrings, making him (except for the wings) someone you might run into at Angel Beach, California, in the early 21st Century.
Too, there is an engraved mirror, from the 3rd Century BC, with an angel, also in the buff, with her wings outspread, as if she is about to hug us as we peer into her other side, perhaps, prepared to take off --- a design so elegant and simple that before we took time to check the tiny printed commentary page opposite by one Maurizio Sannibale, we thought for sure the Vatican Museum had crossed the vale, as it were, had accepted as a gift a fine etching by that wretched radical Pablo Picasso. No, it's not so: it's just Picasso 2200 years before Picasso.
We can recommend this angelic work to you, whether your favorites are the tiny, rubicund, roly-poly angels out of Reubens, or the more serious heavy-hearted ones from Blake (not represented here). An angel's job is, dare we say, no lark: he or she is required to deliver many sad messages to mankind. And perhaps we shouldn't remind you that, too, there are the Dark Angels, expertly described by Milton, one angel in particular who, to this day, much to the distress of some religions sits securely on the left hand of The Divine (they rarely mention that's who you might first encounter when you pop off).
§ § §
In the design of angels, you may prefer the no-nonsense Tzanès' "Saint Alypios" --- two angels treading barefoot on clouds, each carrying a long foolscap, messages, no doubt, from on high, addressed to Alypios, an august gentleman. As the text reports, "his face is austere, his beard venerable," and he is, at the moment, preoccupied not so much with the angels, but with speaking to us from atop a column, without toppling off... Exposed to the regard of men like the lamp on its lampstand.
Or perhaps you would prefer the bare variety, curly of hair, round and rosy of buttocks, tiny of wing, who appears to the drowsing Virgin of St. Helena, bearing a cross, "the True Cross of Jerusalem," in his tiny pink hands, he identified, by the commentator, as "a winged putto" --- which shows the vagaries of language, doesn't it? --- since the word has fairly steamy connotations in some other very Catholic corners of the world.
§ § §
It's a book of angels, this one, with at least 250 angels, but who's counting? --- not the least a pale-faced, somewhat wrinkled and haggard one. He appears at the very beginning, with his own foolscap, reminding us that there are angels, and there are angels: those feathery-wing guys up there on the paintings, on the frescoes, on the ceilings and in the heavens --- but, too, in our times they've come up with another, being not so much a Cupid but more an angel of Cupidity --- the one that forks over the dough for strange and wonderful (and sometimes beautiful) volumes like this one.
This angel has no face --- at least not between the covers of The Invisible Made Visible. Also, he's no angel you'd want to wrestle with. He's not necessarily the original Recording Angel, but close, close --- one, thus, possibly dear to the heart of the Vatican.
He's not referred to as Saint Robert, or The Venerable Angel Eaton --- but in more contemporary fashion, as Robert J. Eaton, Chairman of the Board, President and Chief Executive Officer, the Chrysler Corporation. This angel, presumably, has no wings, but he's given his own special page, page 13, putting him very high up in the hierarchy; a very solemn figure, intoning "Throughout the ages, mankind has called upon angels in every language and by many names..." and ending, O Angelus, from on high, the final holy incantation: "On behalf of the employees of Chrysler Corporation, and of our Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge, Jeep, and Eagle (another feathery creature!) dealers, thank you for attending."
Thus Eaton is telling us that he and his fellow industrial angels live in heavenly Detroit, working not only for the betterment of mankind, but for an even better and divine ride --- here at the sign of the consuming angel. Hosanna!--- A. W. Allworthy
[Poem]G. B. Shaw
Does DallasLast night G. B. Shaw and I were in Dallas
Waiting for the 10:13 Express (for Falfurrias).
He was 70 or so, elegantly dressed;
I was in mufti and plus-fours, a broadband sash across my middle, desert sandals.
He said, "Whatever pitiable defenses I have
Should not be used to prejudice injustice..."
Meanwhile, on the shores of the Trinity River,
A dark lady fell full feathering into the black milk below
And I thought that I had never known such peace before.
The armies came through, over the hills,
Blaring bugles as if it were 5 a.m.,
Shouting insults ("...your sister..." "...your mother...")
Squandering their charges on other boys
About the same age, with about the same features.
When I have to lie apart from you,
I hear a hollow thrumming that comes
Telling me (I think) that I am
Thinking I am dying.
It's a sweet song of love and dark coils ---
The smell of hay; a cock stretching back to call.
I am thus reminded of the great fears
That run noisily through the dark tunnels
Somewhere there dead ahead of us.
It was in that fragrant night (Shaw and I
Were sitting together as a freight trudged by)
The air was grey with the lead of the night ---
The boys left us surrounded by fallen crosses
Their eyes leaking blood.
I miss your words
And the way
You turn your head
As if to pray before you cry ---
And sometimes you stretch out your arms
As if declaiming when you are speaking
Of simple things.
The last of you (I recall)
Was when you fell in the waters running below,
Turning a forget-me-not
That night you and I and Shaw spent travelling
East into the Orient of our souls,
Into the Oriental darkness of the soul.--- S. J. Saunders, PhD
The Night Torn
With Mad Footsteps
(Black Sparrow)Bukowski manages to plumb the fear that all of us have that what we think of as society is not working, that our hopes and dreams do not lead to a gated home in the suburbs with children in the schools, mom in the kitchen, dad at the office, and all's right with the world --- but, instead, broken people slopping around in the lousiest parts of city center, drinking Wild Turkey, tattooed fat-bellied men trying to beat up on other tattooed, fat-bellied men or beating up their tattooed girlfriends or wives or whatever, chasing them around their filthy fourth-floor walk-up apartments late at night, reviling each other more and more noisily with each drink (taken straight from the bottle) until finally at four or five in the morning, exhausted with the labor of their wars, they throw up, fall into their beds and drift off into a drunken slumber where they snore until next afternoon where they rise up hotly out of the sweaty, jism-encrusted beds (no sheets; no pillowcases) and, without bothering to shower or even wash their hands they pry open a can of Chicken-
of- the- Sea tuna with a pocket-knife and pick it out and stuff it in their mouths and somehow score a case of Mickey's Wide-Mouth and embark yet again on a noisy window- breaking, door- smashing, furniture- wrecking, glass- strewn night of noise and vituperation and snittery. That's America, Bukowski-style.
Instead of blood, sweat and tears --- Bukowski was upchuck, dirty socks, and broken condoms. Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Post Office, or Ham on Rye were an excellent introduction for us fey university types to the parts of America where the War on Poverty (and the rest of us) never managed to reach. We felt privileged that this crude brawler with his pustule-
infested body and fearsome appearance and disgusting ways would, in the midst of yet another night of whoring and mayhem and throw-up, pause to pound on his faithful typewriter to give us more poems and prose out of the American Dream turned into a nightmare of black eyes, yellowed underpants, and smegma. § § §
But the fact is that Bukowski's world is one of artfully manufactured smelly social history, and, what's worse, at least for those who treasure his writing --- one that no longer exists. Mid-town Redevelopment and cocaine and heroin and crack and a bonanza of rifles, pistols, and AK-47s have, forever, changed the Bukowski homebase. In fact, reading these poems --- almost two hundred in number --- becomes a walk down memory lane where one could survive in the slums back then when they were free of the more vicious products of America's current gun and drug (and zoning) laws...where the biggest worry was whether the spiders would take over,
I haven't killed all the spiders in this place
but I've gotten most of them. there are two
I can't get. they sit inside the plastic shield
on my radio, solid-state FM-AM, they sit
inside where the red dot selects the station...
Ah, so. His spiders are "newly cultured spiders. they heard Beethoven's/9th last night and now they are listening to Brahms/2nd..." and Bukowski's two favorite radio stations play classical music. This Bukowski, this --- to quote from one of his favorite authors --- this mewling lewdster, this paunchy lout, this puking malt-worm, is, zounds! --- a man of culture, one who not only listens to classical music, but quotes Walt Whitman, reads Rabelais, argues the virtues of Céline, writes poems on the deaths of Stravinsky and Carson McCullers.
And somehow we are reassured: that in the backyards filled with trash, rainspouts lined with broken bottles, telephone lines drooping with old Adidas tied together, yards of tape yanked from cassettes, cats with mange and dogs with an attitude --- amidst all this detritus, in one apartment, up the pissy-stairs and down the flea-bitten hallways smelling of cabbage and diapers, huddled over a rachety Royal Portable there's this island of sanity, a brawler with heart, a boozer with soul, an artist who is no artiste, a poet who is no namby-pamby, an intellectual baglady who never said but spat the word "culture," who would use a NEA application to keep out the cold by stuffing it in the cracks around the smudged window looking out on a yard filled with wind-blown baggies, fat rats and zonked-out winos --- our own Gully Jimson who does his art straight, no chaser, who will never stomach the foundation chasers, those Arty types who could only honor a Walt Whitman or a Verlaine or a Hart Crane --- or a Charles Bukowski --- long after they are laid sodden in the grave.--- Lolita Lark
The Voice of the Poet:
(Random House Audio)For this tape, Random House has collected fifty-five poems from several sources --- including Folkways Records and the voice recordings at the Library of Congress. All poems included in the volume are read by the author Langston Hughes, and all are short.
There is a great variety of sound quality. Some were studio recordings; others were recorded before an audience. They range from Hughes' early poems --- The Weary Blues, the first anthology, from 1926 --- down to the last poems of his long and prolific life (he died in 1967, at the age of 65.)
As representative of early 20th Century African American culture, these poems are not without interest, especially Hughes' biting denunciation of Southern violence and lawlessness towards Blacks. Indeed, the best are delivered in a voice of elegant repetition, Biblical woe, and understated irony. This one may be the finest in the Random House collection:
Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.
Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.
Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.
§ § §
Still, however meritorious this collection, it suffers from several serious flaws. The worst is the injection of commercials for other tapes in the Random House Audio series, along with several bridges of classical music (a guitar transcription of Bach's music for chamber orchestra).
Nothing could be further from the soul of Hughes' poetry. As he says, repeatedly, his inspiration comes from Black spirituals. If the publisher wanted musical breaks --- and I suggest they don't --- there are masses of recordings of Black music from the 30s and 40s that would be more appropriate.
Another major drawback is that Hughes is not a very good reader. I'm reminded of a friend of mine who had a chance many years ago to attend a concert of "Le Sacre du Printemps," as conducted by Igor Stravinsky himself. He told me that it was not so hot. He said that Stravinsky was not a professional conductor, didn't know how to get the best sound out of an orchestra.
When Hughes reads his poetry, his voice is stilted, and he has obvious problems making the verse sing. I do believe we would have been better off with a professional reading. Part of the problem may be that Hughes was, in his time, an anomaly. He lived as a poet at a time when poets were expected to be dandies like Wilde or elegant university types like T. S. Eliot or e.e. cummings. "The Negro" was supposed to be out there cleaning up white men's trash, sweeping the streets, waiting tables, and --- decidedly --- not working under the spirit of the Muse. (It's no surprise that Hughes was discovered as he was working as a busboy in a New York restaurant: he slipped some of his poems under Vachel Lindsey's dinner plate).
In those far off days, it was considered a novelty to have a Black who could not only read but write poetry. And Hughes may have subsequently made it into the rarefied world of American letters, but he was definitely hampered by the fact that he was treated by many as a curiosity rather than as a poet.
Ironically, the greatest Black poets of the time were practicing in Mississippi, Chicago, Texas and in and around Beale or Basin Streets. They were scarcely present much less noticed by the Manhattan cultural elite, the people who "discovered" Hughes. The true masters were the blues singers: Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Gary Davis. They remained obscure because they performed out there on the streets or in the prisons or the juke-joints --- hardly the gathering places of the cultural elite of New York City.
Hughes was able to craft words, but the lyrics as spoken by him lack (and I use this term with reservations) soul. He dearly needs a backup man. I suspect if he let his guard down, he could have produced some fine recordings. His muse was blues --- he claims this repeatedly --- but he didn't allow himself the essential company of musicians.
§ § §
In this album, we are limited to those poems that the author recorded during his lifetime. Like most writers, he was probably not the best judge of which of his works deserved saving. One of my favorites did not make it into this anthology; indeed, was never recorded by him --- at least as far as we know. More's the pity, for, both in subject and delivery, it is as close as he could come to the gorgeous music of his world and his time. It's no accident that it's a jazz poem:
Oh, silver tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul.
In a Harlem cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.
A dancing girl whose eyes are bold
Lifts high a dress of silken gold.
Oh, singing tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!
Were Eve's eyes
In the first garden
Just bit too bold?
Was Cleopatra gorgeous
In a gown of gold?
Oh, shining tree!
Oh, silver rivers of the soul!
In a whirling cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.--- Washington Phillips
§ § § [Letter] RE: Public Relations and Osama Bin Laden
I read your attack on Robert J. Wood and his fine book, Confessions of a PR Man. In these hard times, it is difficult for me to believe that you would smear the name of a man who's works are legion in the industry.
I knew him. He had a hearty hand-shake and a happy word for anyone. If you were down and out, he would always lend you something. When he saw a wrong like when the liberal press was accusing Hallmark cards of using cheap construction when all those people fell, remember they overloaded it and that was not supposed to be done, I couldn't believe it and he couldn't either.
I fought in Viet-Nam so people like you could be free of the communist menace, and now you use the freedom of the press which was given to us by our fathers of the country using it to defame the good name of a man. If you saw what we did people being disembowelled then you would realize it was liberty-loving people like Robert and me who protected us in the dark years that were as dark as these.
I am not saying you don't have a right but I was in the mud and gook so you could say that crap. I suppose you are friends with Bin Laden.
--- Respectfully Yours,
Billy J. Walters
firstname.lastname@example.orgThe review in question can be found at
§ § §
As we were constructing a comprehensive "General Index" for the early issues of RALPH, we introduced a new category of starred* titles --- "works of especial merit." Here is a list of what we believe to be Best Books, drawn from the first five years of the magazine.
Title Author Publisher Précis It's a Long Road to Comondú: Mexican Adventures Since 1928
Everett Gee Jackson Texas A & M Press Memories of Mexico
1930s & 1940s
The Old Man Who Read Love Stories
Luis Sepúlveda Harvest Modern Spanish-American Literature
American Talk: The Words and Ways of American Dialects
Robert Hendrickson Viking Studies in American Speech Full of Life
John Fante Black Sparrow Modern American Fiction De-Architecture
James Wines Rizzoli Architecture and Culture In Flanders Fields
Leon Wolff Time-Life History of WWI Spiegel: The Man Behind the Pictures
Andrew Sinclair Little, Brown Popular Culture/Biography Memoirs of My Nervous Illness
Daniel Paul Schreber Harvard Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Spared Angola: Memories from a Cuban-American Childhood
Virgil Suárez Arte Público Memoirs Honey, Mud, Maggots (and Other Medical Marvels)
Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein Houghton Mifflin Ancient Medical Cures Mrs. Caliban
Rachel Ingalls Harvard Common Fantasy/Fiction Suggested Photo Spots
Melinda Stone and Igor Vamos Boise State/Hemingway Western Studies Terrible Places to Visit Plain Tales from the Raj
Charles Allen, Editor Holt, Rinehart The British in India Classics Revisited
Kenneth Rexroth New Directions Essays on Literature End of Empire
Brian Lapping St. Martins Late British Colonialism The Golden Donors: A New Anatomy of the Great Foundations
Waldemar Nielsen Dutton American Foundations A Fine Day for a Middle-Class Marriage
Marlene Joyce Pearson Red Hen Contemporary Feminist Poetry Growing Up
Russell Baker NAL Autobiography The Worst Journey in the World
Apsley Cherry-Garrard Penguin Travel in the Antarctic Westward Ha!
S. J. Perelman Burford Travel Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904 - 1924
Henry Kiyama Stone Bridge Comic-Book Literature Presence in the Flesh: The Body in Medicine
Katharine Young Harvard Modern Medical Practice Reports of My Death: A Distinguished American Poet Looks at the Literary Life of Our Times
Karl Shapiro Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill Autobiography Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed
James C. Scott Yale Historical Failure of Land-Use Planning The Ogre
Michel Tournier Johns Hopkins Post-WWII Fiction When I Was a German: An English Woman Living in Nazi Germany
Christabel Bielenberg Bison/University
English Living in WWII Germany In Sam We Trust: The Untold Story of Sam Walton and how Wal-Mart is Devouring America
Bob Ortega Times Business Sam Walton and Wal-Mart Mr. Dimock Explores the Mysteries of the East: Journeys in India
Edward Cameron Dimock Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill Travels in Contemporary India
The Folio is published by The Reginald A Fessenden Educational Fund, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.
Monies in excess of subscription rates are contributed to various good works, such as the Prison-Ashram Project, the Prison Library Project, and a rehabilitation center for the disabled in Southern Mexico.
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