Monday, December 31, 2012

6th Canadian challenge - 11th review

I decided that my review of Sue Sinclair's Mortal Arguments didn't seem to adequately convey the strengths of the collection.  I will add a bit here, before moving on to review her follow-up collection Breaker.

The "Ways of Leaving" section starts off with "At the Platform, Newcastle."  I particularly like the lines: "there was none of the pain / you'd expect until the train pulled / out and the piece of us / that is time / ripped apart."

The rupture between family or friends separated by a journey, esp. a long and perhaps permanent one, can be quite challenging.  I actually have fairly weak ties to most people, but still, it does seem preferable in terms of emotional impact to be the one who leaves (since one usually has something to look forward to at the end of a journey).  Certainly, in general I've lived up to my vow to be the leaver and not the leavee.  Probably my favourite set of paintings on this theme are at the MoMA -- they are called States of Mind by Umberto Boccioni.

The Farewells

Those Who Depart
Those Who Stay

These images could have been appended to the post on mobility/rootlessness, but that was pretty long as it was.  And they do seem to fit the poem in the sense that the journey is a train journey.

Perhaps even more central (than struggling with religion) to the final section of Mortal Arguments ("Patience") is wrangling with death and/or oblivion.  Indeed, the poet declares in "St. Phillip's": "No one really / believes in death or dying, / its unwilled oblivion."

However, the voice is less convinced in "Dusk": "Under the surgical gaze of the stars / we bare ourselves, wait to see what can be done."

And in "Forever" death is imagined almost as a parlor trick (on the unwitting): "you can't imagine / that time might turn itself inside out, showing / that what you thought was the infinite / was only its lining."  After death, friends and family members "will pull a square of bright silk ... / then let it go, watch it drift away."  This is certainly one of the more melancholy poems of the collection.  Though the conclusions drawn may be a bit different, it does have interesting parallels with my poem, "My Tailor." 

Turning to Breaker, the poems that explore religion and/or the sublime are not as fresh or seem a bit cruder than in Mortal Arguments.  But I think Sinclair still rises to the occasion with slightly off-center language and metaphor.  Though in terms of the percentage of poems where this stands out may be slightly lower (and more poems come across as a bit more straight-forward and perhaps not as carefully constructed with thought-provoking metaphors).

I like the first stanza of "Sunburst," but am not as interested where the poem goes afterwards:
"Objects in their endless sleep,
hearts beating once, maybe
twice an hour. The clouds drifting
just under the skin of the visible."

In "St. Philip's, Rain," the relationship with the divine seems very fraught: "the rest of us sick with longing for a god / we no longer believe in, our faces / like spoons, plain and hungry."  While not everyone feels this need to believe, Sinclair expresses this longing well.

"Metropolis" contains interesting metaphors: "The city is a piano, its pedals sunk / deep underground."  Then "We [commuters or city dwellers in general] become paper shredders for obsolete decades."  I don't even know precisely what this means, though it may well be discussing the idea that cities (which are dominated by gesellschaft relations) are part of the project of modernity and that the past is routinely churned up and discarded.  Sinclair continues with this thought: "History might disappear entirely if we work hard enough."

Sinclair has a few other urban poems -- often looking what happens when "routine" city life is disrupted or interrupted.  In "Blackout," people "prowl the streets, greet everyone / as the intimate strangers we've become / ... soon a line of bicycles glides past, following / the glow of a single headlight as though / chasing a butterfly."

In addition to the shout-out to bicycles, Sinclair sneaks in a few poems on transportation into Breaker, and these are generally the ones I like most. "Driving North" focuses on night-time driving, ferries turn up in "Sixth View of Bell Island" and both "Delay" and "View from the Train" are about train rides.  In "Delay" the train never arrives.  "All of us thinking about home and how / we're not there and will or won't be missed, / how the surface of our life goes on elsewhere / even as we stand here."

Yet Sinclair suggests it isn't such a great thing to be on the train after all in "View from the Train": "The air in the car is sour with the breath / of strangers ... / The train pushes steadily on, / repeating the same clicks and clacks, chugging along as if / it will never stop."

To return to the Boccioni paintings, Sinclair definitely seems to be suggesting that the difference between the two phases of staying and going are not nearly as clear cut as they seem at first, or more centrally that one's personal satisfaction is probably not going to be altered that much by being on a moving train or being left on the platform.  I'm not at all sure I would agree with her, esp. if one is stuck on a platform but expected to be on the train, but there is certainly something to the notion that people make all kinds of changes in their situation (like going on journeys) and then end up no happier than before they set out.

Breaker is definitely another thought-provoking collection with a number of poems I enjoyed, though I do rank Mortal Arguments somewhat higher.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

6th Canadian challenge - 10th review

As might be surmised from my recent posts, I have been kind of submerged in my old poetry, trying to get the best of it up on the blog.  This will probably continue through Feb., and I won't have nearly as much time for reviewing.  Also, at the moment I am reading more books on the theme of "the road trip," and naturally more of these books are by Americans.  In general, I've kind of gorged myself on others' poetry over the past 6 months and am kind of tired of it.  I think I have 1 more collection by W.H. New and 3.5 books by Sharon Olds to go, and, after that, I think I will be done with poetry for quite a while.

In any event, I did want to get to this review before the end of the year.  Mortal Arguments by Sue Sinclair is one of the best collections I've come across in the last couple of years. The collection kind of grew on me slowly.  The collection is divided into five sections: Abundance, Private Lives in Public Places, Heed, Ways of Leaving and Patience.

On rereading the collection there are fewer poems than I remembered that seem to be about transcendence and the difficulty of putting words to sublime (typically religious) phenomena.  In fact, sublime itself is an overused word; I prefer ineffable.  There are a few of these, primarily in the third section Heed.

"Sympathy" may be the most "explicit" about the paucity of language, and indeed human experience: "The blindness of perception, what we seek / never quite available, reflections skimmed / off the surface. / ... the abundance of the hidden."

"Witness II" has some lines along the same lines: "the elocution of the stars,/ unpronouncable, perfect syllables.  God encrypted / in the world."

Other poems consider other aspects of reconciling a personal deity with the infinite universe that science has revealed to us ("Bounty" and "Prayer II").  I found the same kind of general tension in Mary Oliver's earlier collections (sometimes the tension was more between faith and wanting to live in the modern world), though her later work has taken Oliver down an uninteresting path leading to (more or less) unquestioning faith.  And certainly I do think that Breaker (Sinclair's next collection) is less interesting than this one for various reasons.  But as I said, there is less overt religiosity in these two overall collections than in those of Oliver.

If the religious tension had been the only thing going for the poems, I wouldn't have been that interested, but I find her use of metaphor quite interesting and challenging.  She doesn't always go for the obvious one, which leads one to ponder what she had in mind longer.  Having to work a bit harder (but not too hard) is a feature of the better Metaphysical poems and some of the earlier work of the Modernist poets (T.S. Eliot in particular but not Pound by the time of The Cantos).

Here are some, more or less selected at random:

"Vacation": "The ocean roams / like a stray dog"

"Dreamlife of Houses": "Your sheets like the skin of another animal"

"Days in Between I": "The day is a cruise ship"

"Calgary": "The city, a glass bottle left / upright in the middle of the prairie."

"Prairie": "the sun has parked its car / in front of your door / and refuses to move."

"Night Fare": "Taxis float like water lilies / on the slick tarmac."

"Night Fare" is probably my favourite in the collection, though I also like the streetcar poem "From Spadina Station."  In both cases, the modes of transport are anthropomorphized to some extent and they are eagerly awaiting passengers.

In "Night Fare," the poet proclaims "they [the taxis] know too much about you, / the shine of each door a warning.  / You won't give them the satisfaction."  And the reader walks home. In some ways the tone (and certainly the use of the imperative) reminds me a bit of my own A Gradual Slipping Out of Circle.

In "From Spadina Station" the poet stays home, trying to sleep, while it is the streetcar pushing on through the night that is her surrogate.  Her dreams then take the form of a cat pacing in her apartment.  In some ways, there may be just a bit too much going on in this poem, though I did appreciate that it wasn't a straight-forward "dream poem," as those are pretty boring in general.

In general these poems reward second and third readings, since they are just slightly askew and the obvious choice in language and/or metaphor is rarely taken.

Vancouver culture

I probably have mentioned this before, but the cultural scene is pretty dire here.  And what is particularly upsetting is how amateurish so many of these companies and institutions are.  Take for example, the Queen Elizabeth Hall.  The sight lines are poor, but the dance company doesn't take that into account, staging a lot of the action at the front of the stage.  Much more upsetting to me is how the seats line up exactly, rather than being offset, so you almost guarantee being blocked by the person in front of you (it certainly was when we went to see The Nutcracker).  There is an upcoming production of Swan Lake in the same hall, and I decided to pass.

Other halls are slightly better, and the Chan Centre has better seat alignment, though in this case it is in such a remote location (very far side of UBC) that I probably won't go again.  Also, the restroom and lobby layout is terrible.

I've never shaken my grudge against The Cultch.  On top of being relatively inaccessible, they provided terrible transit directions on their website and an incorrect map!  This caused me to miss a production of Waiting for Godot, and I have decided to never go again.  The box office is also quite amateurish and indirectly spoiled an event over at SFU where the SFU box office used The Cultch's computer system, which was totally fouled up when I went to see The Far Side of the Moon.  I don't like trying to reach anything at Granville Island, and I've basically given up on trying to get to UBC.

It is a real shame that Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company closed, as that was kind of the closest to Victory Gardens (I saw Red there, which was their second-to-last production).  Arts Club seems just a bit closer to Goodman, and certainly overpriced for what it actually offers.  I've gone once, but probably won't go again.  One of the main downtown movie theatres is shutting down and I think that is going to put a big crimp in VIFF.  I didn't even go this year, though I went a few times last year, before the family arrived.  For whatever reason, I don't get really stoked by going to see foreign films in theatres.  Maybe it is just one too many things to care about and track.

I do enjoy Bard on the Beach for what it is, but it tends to go for slightly sloppy and populist versions of Shakespearean plays.  It looks like I will only go to one production in 2013 (Hamlet), just as I only went once in 2012 (Macbeth).  To be fair, I would have gone to see Findley's Elizabeth Rex this summer if I hadn't seen such a terrific production at Chicago Shakespeare last year (and I don't want to risk having a great production over-written with an average one in my mind).

And don't get me started on how lousy the Vancouver Art Gallery is.  The permanent collection is an embarrassment (unless you love, love, love Emily Carr), though some of the touring exhibits have been nice.

On a more personal level, I am really bummed that the Pacific Rim String Quartet have more or less hung up their bows and called it a day.  One of the very first things I did after arriving in Vancouver was to go to one of their concerts.  I ended up seeing three out of five (and took my son to one) and thought they were quite good for a local ensemble.  One less quality offering in the city... 

So out of everything on offer in Vancouver, I have pretty much scaled back to VSO at the Orpheum (not the Chan Centre), occasional student productions at Langara College and the occasional play at Firehall Arts Centre.  Well, Ninja Pirates may not be totally defunct after all, and I may go see their next show, and occasionally there are other interesting co-op productions.  Still, this seems quite paltry for a city this size. It is definitely a "push factor" for sure.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Palace: Palace Portrait

I believe this is the last poem in the series that was inspired directly by a specific piece of artwork, though the one about the train to the palace was inspired in a generic way by Giorgio de Chirico's work. Anyway, this came about because I had been looking at a painting of Fernando Botero called La familia del Presidente (which is a riff on Velazquez and his paintings of Spanish royalty).  It is owned by MoMA, but I am not sure it has been on display for some time.  Most likely, I saw it back during an exhibit they did on Latin American art.

The poem also apparently draws on this painting as well, though I am not sure when or where I would have seen it. But certainly the puffiness and general ridiculousness of the figurehead ruler should come through in the poem -- and ideally the rest of the series.


Thinking back, it seems likely I was also influenced a bit by the sculpted pieces of Marisol Escobar, though I can't find a specific piece I might have been drawing on.  Some of the details in the poem don't match up; some are clearly things I added, but a few do seem like a direct reference to another piece (not the Botero painting). Well, it must remain a mystery for the time being.

Palace Portrait
The imperial family is sitting for a painting.
The emperor wears a scarlet red sash
and all his medals.
They have to strap him to the chair
to keep him from tilting over.
He is upset that his uniform is tight.
It will be let out in the morning.
The old tailor was thrown out of the palace
from the tallest tower.
In the morning a new tailor will be selected
from a line that already stretches out for nearly a mile. 

The empress sits on his right.
She wears her weight in diamonds.
His mistress sits a little behind and to the left. 

The zipper on her black dress is made of silver. 
The pearl necklace, however, is not real.
His brother is a soldier,
in fact a seven-star general,
who poses holding a cannon ball.
His other brother is a cardinal
who breathes heavily through his nose.
He also has put on flesh,
and his red robes reach only halfway around. 

One of the boys is trying to ride the dog.
The others giggle.
The emperor’s oldest daughter scowls.
She wants to slap the brat,
but she has to hide the ring on her finger.
Her father would definitely kill her suitor,
no, kill all her suitors if he knew about it.
Last night never happened, she decides.
The painter picks up his brush.
“Quiet!” commands the emperor.
“Nobody move!”

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Rage of Angels: Deliverance

This poem closes out the "A Rage of Angels" series.  It is thematically the least like the rest of the poems in the series, though perhaps there are some hints of things going a bit awry in the first one: the Angel of the City.  Still, it does serve as a bit of a rude awakening from the others.

In many ways, it is a fairly dark poem, perhaps closest in spirit to The Way It Was When I Was There.  Given they do have quite a bit of overlap at least in tone, it might just be too much for the two poems to actually co-exist in the same collection.  It doesn't appear that will ever be an issue, however.  I think of the two, I like Deliverance a bit better.

The most obvious inspiration is Jose Rivera's play Marisol.  I suspect I had seen the play before writing the poem, but I am not 100% sure (I saw the play for the first time in 1995).  I would have had experience dealing with homeless people in NYC by this point, but I think I also recollect a Toronto-based poet in a poetry group I attended in 1993 borrowing (figuratively) a homeless man's sign and incorporating it into his poem (and at least another established poet -- probably either Alan Dugan or Charles Reznikoff -- has done the same).  Just for the record, I did not steal the words off of a homeless woman's sign. In addition to filching from Marisol, there may be some flashes of Findley's Headhunter in there.  Again, I cannot recall exactly when I read that book for the first time.  Perhaps if I keep digitizing my files (and ultimately my diary), I will be able to track down some answers.  In the meantime, I present "Deliverance":


I woke in a city.
Was I in—
the city of lights,
the city of love,
the endless city,
the eternal city
or simply the unspeakable city?
I recall a bridge on fire,
cars falling through into a dark river,
a crowd scattering under black clouds.
It could have been the city of desperate angels.
Desperate men
sell themselves on the street,
organ by organ.
The rain does not rain down,
will not put out these fires.

Small children stumble through the streets,
stalked by alley cats.
One woman crouches under a broken plate glass window,
hiding a brick behind her back,
the other hand holding a sign:
“I want to be good —
Please help”
in red ragged letters.
Growling dogs drag scraps of dirty, unspeakable meat to dark corners.
When two angels bump into each other,
heads averted or perhaps bowed,
they struggle.
One loses half its feathers,
while the other sits heavily, nursing a knife wound.
Both weep and pray for deliverance.

Poem: The Way It Was When I Was There

This poem is somewhat newer, though I can't pinpoint exactly when I wrote it.  Probably in the late 1990s.  Drawing Lots in the Bottom of the Boat, while also apocalyptic, is almost gentle in comparison.  I'm not sure there was any specific incident that inspired the poem, though I am always up for writing about the end of the world...  More seriously, I think I did borrow just a bit from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker Trilogy (the man that actually ran the universe and his cat (or kitten) in a shack on some back-water planet). I also have a small shout-out to my former self when I reference the blue yak -- there was a period when I was doing automatic writing at NELP (a summer program in New England that I participated in between my sophomore and junior year in college), and I kept coming up with the figure of the blue yak during these exercises.

The Way It Was When I Was There

The old man
with the beard
kept coming in and out the door.
Thunder poured out his mouth.
The firmament went from a pale blue
to an acid yellow.
I tried to sit in my chair,
but I was shaking so much
it kept toppling over.
The rain started to fall
and didn’t let up that day
or the next.
Dead fish washed up on my steps.
The old man
came back in a boat.
His breath smelled of garlic.
Flames seemed to flicker beneath his beard.
I couldn’t understand his words.
I couldn’t stay in my seat.
I leapt up onto my bed
and threw books at the two-headed snakes
coming out of the closet.
Out the window,
I could see the water had turned black;
lightening skittered across the sky.
A window shattered in the front of the house.
I thought I heard a wild dog barking --
or perhaps the blue yak bellowing.
I wish the old man would come back.
The air is turning to lead.

The Palace: Inside the Palace

This was the second poem written in the series, and when this poem emerged (more or less complete), that was when I decided to write the entire Palace Suite, though some of the poems took much longer to gestate than others.  This poem was inspired by the bronze statue The General by Hugo Robus, which is frequently on display at the Hirshhorn Museum in DC (not at present apparently, however).  It appears the Met in NYC also has a version of the statue (also not currently on display).  This time the artwork sparked the poem (along with a life-long love of Looney Tunes), but the subject doesn't completely dominate the resulting poem (at least in my opinion).  The "fearless leader" residing in the Palace was always intended to be a bit of a buffoon, which is established here.

Inside the Palace

The lights still bum
in the imperial library.
All are asleep except the emperor.
Even his head is nodding.
His chin hits the gold braid of his uniform.
The doors burst open.
The general rides his sagging horse
up the marble staircase.
He slides sideways out of the saddle,
then suddenly snaps to attention.
Even his moustache stiffens.
The news is not good.
The emperor scowls.
His ears flush.
He grabs a gun
and shoots the horse.
The general twitches his moustache
as if it were on a string.
The room shrinks,
and the two pull their chairs together
until their knees touch.
The general leaps up,
throws all the maps into the fire.
“What is to be done,” they whisper.
“What is to be done?”

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Palace (at 4 A.M.): 1st poem

This is the first poem of my favorite series of poems (and in fact it is also the title of the series).  It was directly inspired by Giacometti's sculpture The Poem at 4 A.M., which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.  While I have occasionally been inspired by artwork, this was probably the most elaborate response.  In some ways, it is almost too slavishly tied to the piece (see below), but as I added more poems to the series, I grew a bit fonder of it.  (It isn't such a bad poem to kick off a series, Charlie Brown.)

The Palace (at 4 A.M.)

This early in the morning,
few are up except those who chase the bats away.
The backbones are hung in the closet,
sorted by size.
The guests are folded up and tucked under their beds
on the fourth floor.
A tiny woman, dressed in red, enters through the main door.
She has missed the last train.
She stands in the hallway,
rain dripping off her red coat onto the carpet.
There are three large doors behind her.
She will stand there all night waiting for day.
On the second floor,
the bathtub tilts up against the wall.
A plastic pillow floats in the tub;
it waits for a wet head.
The eagle sits on the roof
and sings.

Take the last two lines: "The eagle sits on the roof / and sings."  I am very tempted to change it to "The eagle sits on the roof / and screams."  In part because the eagle's voice is much closer to a scream than any kind of birdsong, and also because the piece is supposed to be vaguely menacing.  On the other hand, "sings" not only picks up the short i from "sits" but the g from "eagle," so it closes the preceding line particularly well.  "Screams" would pick up the long e in "eagle" but still doesn't close quite as well.  A real out-there suggestion popped into my head, that the eagle could hoot, which is actually a near-rhyme with "roofs," but then I would be tempted to change the type of bird.  (Honestly, it strikes me as more of a pterosaur than anything in the sculpture, but I didn't want to go that route; eagles are generally an imperial bird, which is why I went in that direction.) While I certainly don't invest every line with this level of detail, I do some of the time.  There is often a lot more craft than people realize, even in free verse.

I think without the tie to the sculpture, I would probably cut the 4 lines relating to the bathtub and pillow.  The rest are strong enough to remain.

Over time, I decided to fill in the back story of a palace in some South American dictatorship, pulling heavily from the magic realism novels that were so in vogue in the 80s and early 90s when I was in college (esp. Garcia Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch).  In several cases, I drew on other artworks from NYC or DC museums.  At the moment, there are 9 poems in the entire series, and I think it will stay there (at 9).  The majority are worthy of being shared, though I may change my mind after I reread them more carefully.

Angel Poems: The Angel of Lizards

This poem required a bit of tightening, but in general held up pretty well and there are a couple of lines I really like.  The concept draws a bit on the shifting loyalty required of elite athletes who are suddenly traded to a different team and must instantly bond with former rivals and say how excited they are for the new opportunity (and it must be particularly painful/galling when one is traded to a weak team like the Toronto Raptors).  To say nothing of the disorientation of the fans, who must now cheer on someone they disliked or might have actively hated.

In many ways, I am a harsher critic of more recent poems, such as these angel poems, as they just seem a bit baggy and self-indulgent.  It is odd (and perhaps just a bit depressing) that my earlier poems are better -- or at least more concise.  But I was closer to a working poet at that time and had a lot of feedback from peers.  I don't think I will ever be in that sustained mode of poetic production again, but I guess you never know.

The Angel of Lizards

The angel of lizards is quite upset.
Rumors are spreading
that it is going to be put in charge of snakes.
The angel of lizards doesn’t even like snakes --
nothing to do with what went down in Eden.
(Everyone has practically forgotten that.)
Snakes slither --
their own mothers can’t trust them.
Lizards sun on top of rocks.
Snakes hide under the rocks.
The angel enjoys changing color,
blending into the background

like a chameleon when it sits still.
If it tried to ride a tiger,
it would end up with stripes
marking its body, its wings,
even its halo.
The angel would never ride a tiger --
it would look ridiculous.
Even the idea of hanging from trees with the pythons
doesn’t begin to make up for leaving iguanas behind.
The angel is called into the main office.
They drape a rattlesnake around its shoulders.
It is done.
The angel of snakes looks into snake eyes.
It runs its fingers over the smooth scales,
watches as the snake contracts,
wrapping around the angel’s arm.
The angel can feel its tongue forking.
It wonders how could it have been so blind.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Old Poem: Angel (of the City)

This poem was published in xib #6 (1994), a small-press magazine out of San Diego.  I don't believe it is still being published.  This was a long, long time ago, but I believe I sent in a few poems to another zine and they declined them with a nice note suggesting I try xib.  So I did.  This angel poem was the first of an eventual series that I wrote from roughly 1992-95 (during my time in Newark, NJ and then Toronto).

The best of them got incorporated into a series called "A Rage of Angels." There was the Angel of Sand, the Angel of Caravans, the Angel of Running Shoes (eventually cut) and the Angel of Lizards (reassigned as the Angel of Snakes).  It was a bit of an ironic comment on how Catholic theologians in the distant past had assigned saints to everything, and how popular religion still more or less does this -- you might pray to your guardian angel for anything ranging from keeping your children safe to getting a kitten out of a tree or even that you still have $10 for gas in the change jar.  Obviously, I was being a bit ridiculous and seeing just how far I could take the concept (the Angel of Porcelain), though I suppose I wasn't entirely averse to marketing the series as angel-related, given how popular angels were in the mid 90s.  I'll probably put most of the rest in the series up on the blog over the next week or so.

One thing that is somewhat interesting (to me) is that I expanded the poem by roughly 50% into "The Angel of the City" (which I had hoped would be published in an anthology of poems about the subway).  Despite a line or two that still work (for me), the overall poem is kind of saggy and overstays its welcome.  The original version in xib (below) is stronger, though I suppose I could create a hybrid version much closer to the xib version.  If the world ever called out for such a thing ...

P.S. I realize that there are indeed 9 Muses, but I figured only 3 were on speaking terms with me at that time: Calliope (epic poetry), Euterpe (lyric poetry) and Erato (love/erotic poetry).

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Old Poem: Heat

Thematically, this poem is somewhat similar to Hooked, though it isn't about sexual longing (though one might argue that "wanting to share the tub" could be read salaciously).  Like Hooked, it was written by a young poet who wanted to go off to the big city, but whose urban experiences was all second-hand.  Even in New York, there are almost no rooming houses where the bathroom is shared, so I guess it is more retro than anything.  While this was not directly inspired by anything that happened to me, in my senior year in college, I was living in a group house where four of us on one floor shared a bathroom.


She sent soap back
but arrived before the box.
She can imagine the cool sides of the tub tonight, 

signaling it offers the only relief 
from the summer heat.
She doesn’t want to bathe;
she fears even the water
would start boiling
as the outdoors forced its way inside 

through the open window.
And the box with the soap 

is still buried 
under a dozen other boxes.
She slips out of my room
and climbs into the tub,
pressing her skin flat against its surface. 

She hears other doors,
others with the same idea
wanting to share the tub.
She locks the door.
She sinks deeper,
wishing she could sleep,
knowing she can not drown.

Old Poem: My Tailor

I try not to use dreams in my writing, since they are generally boring for others to read. This was not a literal dream I am recording/reporting, I might add, just a way of connecting some disparate thoughts.  I probably had been reading some science fiction (maybe even Ray Bradbury) where there were animatronic figures placed in cemeteries.  We probably won't have that, but there are now some grave sites that play recordings of the deceased, and I wouldn't be surprised if there aren't holograms some day.  To say nothing of the blogs of the dead that are maintained "in perpetuity."  As a species, we certainly have a hard time reconciling ourselves to death -- and the fact that the world will move on without us.  I believe it is true that we are tallest in our sleep (and, by extension, in the grave).

My Tailor

My tailor doesn’t want to waste a stitch.
He calls up in the middle of the night;
he needs my measurements
now that I am at my tallest.
Someone has ordered a suit to bury me in.
I go back to a dream about spiders
spiders in my cereal
spiders that I swallow
that then spin webs inside me
until I am the softest man that ever lived.
I can no longer move,
but I can see the invisible lines that connect people.
I am amazed to see how many people are linked to me.

They are so empty
that they will need me long after I am gone.
They will wire my body together;
I will sit at my grave and wave to them,
telling them everything they ever wanted to hear.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Old Poem: Hooked

This poem was also accepted into Still Life with Fruit (1991).  It was actually the lead-off poem to the publication. 


He leans well over the rail. 

The shouts from the street fade 
as he listens intently. 
Across the city, he hears a zipper 
worked down until the skirt hits the floor.
He returns to the white tile
of his own bathroom. 
He pulls a hair from the drain, 
stretches it between his fingers 
until all the kinks have disappeared. 
His ear, pressed to the window, 
can pick up no new sounds 
unless the low breathing is her asleep.
In the bed, on his back, 
he looks into the light, 
trying to see inside the strand. 
He finally bites it tenderly in the middle, 
watches it curl again, 
places it under his pillow. 
He will dream tonight.

This is all imagined rather than being something that happened to me (particularly while in college).  Though on rare occasions I ended up with women's hair in my clothes after washing them (I was living in a large house that was 5 men and 3 women at the time) and that probably worked its way in there somehow.  One of the RC Writers mentioned that they had known I could go "big" in my writing (though much of it seems to me to focus on the resolutely personal), but this was the first time they had seen me go "deep" to the nearly microscopic level.

Old Poem: I Feel like an Elizabeth (the first)

This is probably my most successful poem -- if not across all my poems, certainly the ones I wrote by 22.  Unfortunately, I can't recall if I wrote this while at university or the summer immediately after I graduated (when I had a bit of a creative burst).  I probably wrote it afterwards, since I suspect it would have turned up in one of the college anthologies (like Still Life with Fruit) had it been finished at that time.

I read this once at the NewArk Writer's Collective readings (back when they were still meeting at Cafe Genesis not too far from the Rutgers-Newark campus -- that was certainly my favorite incarnation of the group -- it just didn't feel the same after the cafe closed and they started meeting in West Orange, I think it was).  One of the main figures in the collective wondered where I had pulled this from.  I suppose it is a combination of deep longings and (sexual) frustrations that I had faced essentially all through college and a bit of literary embezzlement from the epics of frustrated men and especially women throughout history.

It was published in Gyst #6 (1993).  I believe this DC-based zine is defunct.  I picked up a couple extra copies for my parents, and then later I learned (after her death) that my mom had bought 10 or so!  Maybe she gave them out to her friends.

I Feel Like an Elizabeth (the first)

Times like these
I push my head deeper into the pillow
Hope that tomorrow will be less treacherous
That which must be done 

           will be done
That which may not be
           will not be
And I squeeze my body tight 

so that it will not give it all away 
Ignore desire
Press down until even my dreams 

have been driven away
and I wake with bruises
I, resigned, proceed through the routine 

Meet all with smiles, with a false heart 
Still waiting for that final release. 

The poem is pretty straight-forward.  There are two places I intentionally play with line-breaks.  "The first" can wrap around and connect with "Times like these."  It is also possible to put a short or a long break between "false heart" and "still waiting," since it can be the speaker or just his/her heart waiting for release.  Obviously, the distinction is very minor, and the capitalization tends to favor the longer break.  I think this was one of those poems that are more or less "given" to poets in a state of high creativity (and you often don't know exactly where they come from, but you never look a gift horse in the mouth!).  The first draft isn't much different from the final version.  It is probable that the poem was a bit of a shout-out to Elisabeth W., a young woman in my English honors program that I had a minor crush on in my junior year.

Old Poem: A Gradual Slipping out of Circle

This is probably the second best poem (behind Elizabeth) I wrote before I turned 22. I still remember my poetry professor, Ken Mikolowski, saying that the ending reminded him a bit of the imperative in Rilke's line "You must change your life" in Archaic Torso of Apollo, though the part about changing your life is perhaps more implied here (or even the speaker thinks the reader is beyond changing their ways). By the time I wrote this poem, I was already starting to think ahead to all the college friends and acquaintances I would be losing within a year or two (and indeed as Todd B. slips further away, I will soon have no connection at all left to my undergrad years). The concept here is hardly a new one, and I do recall that one of the NELPers (long story) sang a song called "Fade in, Fade out" about friends fading away, though that song would probably be construed as a bit more optimistic than this piece, when it asserted that some people from your past would return.  That has generally not be the case for me (at least partly because of geographic separation), though I have managed to stay in some contact with a handful of people from each stop from graduate school onwards (trying not to let them completely slip away).

A Gradual Slipping out of Circle

The routine is so smooth

that you come to think of it as real.
You ignore the cracks

in order to focus on giving yourself 
a bit of an edge. 
You may have to go too far.
Your friends fade out.
They can’t be reached over the phone.
They don’t see you on the street.
There is no cure for this.

This was the second of three poems in the RC Writer's Still Life with Fruit (1991).  Curiously, there is a minor variant in that publication: "You may have gone too far."  Not bad, though I like the future tense just a bit better in the chapbook version. 

Old Poem: A Woman Who Finds Herself Stronger Than She Wishes

In contrast, I don't consider this one of my stronger poems, but it was accepted into the Residential College Writers' 1991 publication Still Life with Fruit along with two other poems.  I believe I was one of the more successful RC writers who didn't actually come up through the RC system (I lived over in South Quad instead).  I brought a portfolio of my stuff to Ken Mikolowski and he let me into his poetry writing class (this probably was my sophomore year).  I took at least one and maybe two independent study classes with him to keep working on my poetry.  I also joined up with the RC Writers for a bi-monthly poetry workshop.  The high point was my junior year when I submitted some material for a dramatic "happening" called Small Ceremonies.  Not only were a number of my poems used but I joined the cast (and even played a bit of saxophone on stage).   However, I wasn't involved at all on the publication side.  Instead, I was the managing editor of The Barbaric Yawp, though I resigned in a fit of pique my senior year when I was accused of publishing my own stuff and that of my friends.  The Yawp really used a blind submittal process, and I never once published any of my own work, as tempting as that was.  I suspect Still Life with Fruit was quasi-blind, but given that so many of the submittals had been workshopped through the RC Writers, it probably wasn't that much of a surprise who the writers actually were to the selection committee.  In any case, I think I had tried to submit pieces that I hadn't workshopped with them.  I vaguely recall that this poem in particular was a surprise to some of them, specifically that it had been written by a male writer.

A Woman Who Finds Herself Stronger Than She Wishes

Hands grasp any object 
   that crosses her desk 
She could snap it in half 
She waits
   as she has always waited 

Her mother has called her 
   one too many times 
The next call has to be the last
She pushes all the paper off the desk 

Drops the pens back in the drawer 
Sips coffee
Leaves the office
Never comes back.

Thematically, this is fairly similar to a short play I wrote about two female office workers and their travails, though this is more about internal stress (and strength).  Maybe there is more in there (about myself) than I realized at the time in terms of my willingness to chuck it all when I find situations going south (particularly if my honor has been impugned and even moreso if my expertise is being undermined).

Old Poem: Baking a Cake on the Kitchen Floor

I'm actually going to include a couple of lines from the facing poem "Cherry in the Church," which is about a bomb going off in a church.  It wasn't specifically about the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, AL (subject of Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls), but any generic bombing of a church or synagogue (if such a thing could be said to exist).  Most of the poem tries to be too clever and indulges in (inappropriate) word play, but I still like the last two lines: "the glass remembers it once was sand / starts sprinkling down."

"Baking a Cake" was inspired by a family story.  My mother told me that she found me mixing eggs and milk on the floor with a big wooden spoon (presumably before I was 5 or 6).  When she asked me what I was doing, I said I was baking a cake.  History does not recall whether she found this so funny she held off from punishing me.  The poem is fairly straight-forward, though the ants may have been a nod to the magic realism I had been reading at the time -- or Salvador Dalí, an artist of interest to me at the time, and I even had the poster of the Metamorphosis of Narcissus on my dorm-room wall. (It may be worth noting Mark Helprin's Memoir from Ant-proof Case hadn't even come out at this point, and it happens I am one of those readers immune to its charms, as is this reviewer.)  But I think the poem works well in conjunction with the artwork, as seen below.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Old Poem: The Needle Dance

This is an unusual situation where an editor lopped off half of the poem.  To this day, I struggle with whether it was the right decision or not.  The second half is a bit more interesting (and works really well with the illustration by John Elkerr*), but the poem becomes so cryptic without the first half (and it was fairly cryptic to begin with).  I'll start with the published version, then follow with the original (found in The Limited Fix) and then add just a few more comments on what inspired the poem.

Published in A House Divided: A Reaction Press Anthology.  Ann Arbor, MI: Reaction Press, 1991.

Original version:

                                         The Needle Dance 

                      The way he moved
                      —jumping and jerking—
                      reminded me of the needle’s dance
                      and how the skull can smile so sweet 
                      happy in a state near bliss
                      they kiss, stop, bleed
                      kiss again
                      along the walls of the room
                      the rest follow
                      those taut spastic sweaty bodies
                      all trying to work out the junk
                      under the surface of their skin


too tired to do anything but watch
                                              I find it kind of touching
                                  only later in the dark
                                  does it get desperate
                                              two figures clinging together
to push death           that native feeling                              back

The poem was inspired by going to a party -- perhaps at one of the co-ops in Ann Arbor -- and watching white men dancing badly (not that I was ever much better myself) and cuing in on a particular guy who danced as if he were on drugs.  While I would not be surprised if many there had been partaking of weed, I am doubtful that any were actually on heroin.  (This was way before ecstasy and some of the other designer drugs.)  I do like the last three lines in the first section, but generally I can't fault the editor too much.

And while this has nothing to do with this poem, at least directly, I still have fond memories of being invited to a Halloween party near South Quad.  Prince's Purple Rain was playing (probably the first time I had ever heard "Darling Nikki" -- for years afterwards I thought it was on the Black Album).  I was dressed as a vampire and I spent much of the time chatting up a woman dressed as Morticia or a witch (pretty much the same thing).  The first of many missed opportunities, I am sorry to say ...

* Many more of John Elkerr's drawings and paintings can be seen on his website.

Old Poem: Drawing Lots in the Bottom of the Boat

This is a poem I still like a fair bit, though apparently few felt the same way.  I used it to close the first section of the chapbook.

Drawing Lots in the Bottom of the Boat

All are blank
the whiteness does not last
black lines drawn upon the surface
they blur
resolve themselves into letters
spell out the dead man’s name
a rattle in the background —
the lots clatter together as they fall to the sea bed
we are relieved that the decision was made so easily

the sun recedes toward the horizon
the wind carries foreign sounds
into the harbor
somewhere, someone throws fish to the birds 

we watch the buildings begin a slow tumble
knock the clouds away
the waves push us from the shore
we wait for a single word

It is more overtly symbolic than most of my early poems.  The poem alludes to the book of Jonah, where indeed the sailors cast lots to find whom to sacrifice to calm the waters.  The ending is supposed to be somewhat dreamlike and ambiguous whether skyscrapers are indeed falling (somewhat eerie shades of 9/11 written roughly a decade earlier) and indeed whether the real irony is that the "saved" sailors have no safe port to which they may return.  I might well have had Nevil Shute's On the Beach on my mind at the time.

The Limited Fix was by its very nature a limited edition, and I created a special version with an extra freehand illustration on the back (done by me).  I thought it came out well (the city (almost certainly Manhattan) looking even more island-like than usual), though it was not at all in keeping with the computer-based clip art throughout the rest of the book.  Maybe I would have been better off doing all the drawings myself (not that this would have boosted sales or anything).  In any case, the illustration went along with this poem, so as a bonus I am attaching it here.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Rootless -- like a rolling stone

I have always been a bit intrigued by the saying that a rolling stone gathers no moss.  Unlike most folk sayings that value perseverance and stolidness, this one encourages people to shake things up and not to let themselves grow stale (and perhaps let their minds get dulled).  It is a bit odd because by extension, it suggests that one should not be too tied down by traditions, which is certainly not the lesson of most folk wisdom.  Long before I was really aware of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," I enjoyed Heinlein's tale of the Stone family and their resourceful, no-nonsense Granny, Hazel Stone.

I have not gone back to read this since I was 18 or so (and most likely I read it last when I was about 15).  It's somewhat doubtful I would find it as entertaining now, but I suppose one never knows.  Obviously, I never went on to pilot my own ship through the meteor belt, which was a huge disappointment.  Why bother with a Back to the Future hoverboard when you can fly through space?  On the other hand, I didn't have to deal with proto-Tribbles either, so there you go. (While the cover probably was painted after the famous Star Trek episode, the book itself predates Star Trek by over a decade and the writers "ripped off" Heinlein (with his permission) and not the other way round.)

At any rate, I am one of the more truly rootless people I know.  It's hard to know exactly where this came from, though probably I am following in the footsteps of my father, who moved quite a bit when we kids were young (4 different states before I was 5) but then settled down in Michigan for a long stretch while we were in school.  And this is less actual moving around that most military brats experience for sure.  But the general outlook that one picks up and moves for job opportunities (or because one is ordered to) seeped in fairly deep.  No question I mostly associate with and understand academics, who are a transient lot early in their careers and then later when they have more leverage, rarely hesitate to move to better opportunities (which can cause no end of familial strife if partners don't buy into this outlook).  After we were out of high school, my father in fact moved to Pennsylvania and then two years after that to North Carolina.  The fact that most academics are transplants with relatively minimal grounding in their surroundings makes this upheaval easier. And many college towns have a certain sameness to them that makes the transition a bit more seamless (the same kinds of coffee shops and used bookstores and other stores that cater to perpetual students). 

There is no question that many (and probably most) academics consider their community to be the community of researchers spread across the country (and globe) and they have stronger ties to people they may have never met face to face than to people in the neighborhoods in which they live.  Here, I am just stealing shamelessly from Georg Simmel's The Web Of Group Affiliations (yes! the first time I've managed to work him into this blog, but it probably won't be the last).  This is easier today than it was in Simmel's day, and -- provided I stay in email contact -- I absolutely feel closer to people I may only see once a year at a conference than to the neighbors down the street, with whom I barely interact.  But it isn't an entirely new thing, even while Simmel was writing (in the early 1920s).  Hundreds of years ago, the highly educated were rare, and if they didn't find themselves rising through the ranks in the Church or manage to attach themselves to a royal court, they might well become a kind of itinerant scholar, looking for places where they might stay for a year or two and tutor the local elite.  I often see myself (and the whole consultant industry) as largely following in that tradition.  Of course, this was a difficult, troublesome life, and, ultimately, most scholars preferred to settle down and found universities and have the students come to them.  

Interestingly, geographic mobility gradually decreased in Europe and it was Americans who became known for moving state to state in search of jobs and the overall history of the U.S. is marked by migration after migration: the pioneers moving West, the Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl, the Black migration north (two waves), the wholesale relocations caused by W.W. II and the growth of military installations largely in the Southern states, the continued movement south and west and emptying out of the Rust Belt, to say nothing of various waves of immigrations that transformed America.  While this is far from my area of specialty, I am intrigued by the relatively recent transformation of Europe (or at least the full EU members) due to the creation of the borderless Schengen Area and the ability of EU citizens to move to other countries for work.* 

I do sometimes wonder if I take this rootlessness to its extreme limits.  As it happens, to satisfy a bureaucratic whim (if this post weren't already going to be so long, I would throw in some Max Weber at this point), I have to list all places I've lived as an adult (roughly 20 years' worth of addresses).  For some people, this might not be a challenge, but I have now compiled the list, and, in the last 20 years, I have lived at 15 distinct addresses, 6 different cities and in 3 different countries.  Definitely a case of extreme mobility.  While a good portion of the moves were related to work, it suggests a willingness to cut ties and certainly not valuing stability for its own sake.  This might actually make it harder to get Nexus clearance, to say nothing of gaining Canadian Permanent Residency...

What does all this rushing around get us?  Well, in many cases it can lead to better job opportunities, though some of these moves were more or less lateral transfers.  The move to New York, the move to Cambridge, UK and the move to Vancouver all translated into more responsibilities and better job titles, even if not always more money.  Mobility feeds the desire for novelty, which is something that seems to matter to me.  Given that I live in most new cities 2-3 years, it means gaining a reasonable understanding of each place, even if not a deep understanding that long-term residents have.  It may or may not lead to more acceptance of the transience of things.  It might even work the other way, as I come back for visits to find my favorite stores and restaurants gone.  Of course, time (and the march of capitalism) did a real number on
Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood -- while I was still living there -- with a huge number of my favorite haunts, esp. used CD shops, destroyed in 3 years.  That actually made it easier to move away from Lakeview.

One thing that to me is a positive about rootlessness in general, though it may not be to most people, is that I live like a tourist.  I never assume I will be living in a place longer than 2 or 3 or so years, so I try to go to all the museums and (the better) touristic sites on a routine basis.  This also means scanning the papers to know what is on, much like one would do if coming to town for a weekend.  I suspect it does mean appreciating places (while I am there) more than the natives and certainly doing more out and about on the town.

But these are basically trivialities.  It doesn't get at the real meaning of rootlessness and certainly not the cause of it.  Thoreau would certainly not be impressed with my approach to life.  One of the more profound (and most quoted) sections of Walden is "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," from which I have extracted this passage: 

The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain. If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.  ... Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow. As for work, we haven't any of any consequence. We have the Saint Vitus' dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still.
Keeping myself busy partly stems from wanting to live a life that is full of enrichment (museum visits, concerts, plays) but also suggests a need to distract myself from things that are bothering me (feeling I am rushing into The Void probably being the number one in the background).  The rootlessness is slightly different but probably speaks to an unwillingness to settle down and a general unhappiness.  Looking at each situation, I can see reasons for each move.  And indeed, I would most likely have stuck in New York at a job I enjoyed, but left for family reasons.  In all other cases, either the job really failed to live up to my expectations or I found myself with "issues" over the setting.  In a lot of ways, the job in Vancouver has lived up to my expectations and in some cases exceeded them, but I am finding that I am not in love with the city and the general climate is dragging me down.  It is actually far worse for my wife who actively hates it here.  And yet I am worried about jumping into the unknown again, since it would be nice to settle in one place at least for the kids to go through school (largely) in one place.

I may return to the subject or feel it is more or less played out at the moment.  I do want to add some comments by a writer who understood (or at least accepted) the psychological craving for movement and novelty in a way that Thoreau did not (just as Simmel often has a better handle on people's motivations than Marx certainly).  William Alexander Gerhardie drew on his own experiences growing up in pre-Revolutionary Russia in his first novel Futility.  One of the more ridiculous characters (a writer who is afraid to commit his thoughts to paper) finally reveals his thoughts and there is a certain profundity to them, and even if he is deceiving himself while rushing about, the deception itself is what allows him to go on (in a Beckettian sense).  I certainly recognize myself on this treadmill, and think with this it is finally time to leave the subject of mobility for the time being.  I have edited the dialogue into a monologue for clarity:
‘Well,’ said Uncle Kostia, and his face became that of a mystic. ‘I thought, for instance—I wonder if you will understand me ?—I thought: Where are we all going? ...  There are no motives, The motives are naught. It is the consequences. Where are we going? Why are we going? Look: we are moving. Going somewhere. Doing something. The train rushes through Siberia. The wheels are moving. The engine-drivers are adding fuel to the engines. Why? Why are we here? What are we doing in Siberia? Where are we heading for? Something. Somewhere. But what? Where? Why? …  What I was saying was that we all behaved as if we were actually doing things, boarding this Trans-Siberian Express as if in order to do something at the end of the journey, while actually the journey is in excess of anything we are likely to achieve. ... Now it is different. We are moving, apparently doing something, going somewhere. One has a sense of accomplishing something. I lie here in my coupé and I think: It is good. At last I am doing something. Living, not recording. Living! Living! I look out of the window, and my heart cries out: Life! Life! and so living, living vividly, I lapse into my accustomed sphere of meditation, and then before I know exactly where I am I begin to meditate: Where are we all going to? Isn’t our journey the kernel of absurdity? And so, by contrast, as it were, I gain a sense of the importance of meditation—That is how we deceive ourselves, Andrei Andreiech.’

* A good summary of recent research on European mobility can be found in this article by Favell and Recchi. Favell also wrote a pretty good book on mobility of younger Europeans in "elite" occupations (Eurostars and Eurocities: Free Movement and Mobility in an Integrating Europe), which I could relate to quite a bit, as in general I have a lot in common with the individuals he interviewed -- to saying nothing of the fact that I actually worked at a UK firm that had quite an international flavour in its workforce.  Two other promising, recent books that take a wider look European mobility (and presumably pay more attention to the lower end of the occupational ladder) are Migration and Mobility in the European Union by Christina Boswell and Andrew Geddes and Migration and Mobility: the European Context ed. by Subrata Ghatak and Anne Showstack Sassoon.  If I find out they aren't as good as they appear on the surface, I will come back and fix these recommendations.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


When I was younger, I used to be hit with waves of nostalgia.  To some extent this still happens, but the only period I really long to return to is mid-1990s Toronto.  The other times, I may miss some aspect of some place I was living (a certain restaurant in Chicago or the cheap flights to Europe from Stansted) but don't really miss the whole enchilada.

There are certain events from my past that really stand out, and I can recall quite a bit about them.  Again, with the accumulation of time and layering of memories, a lot has dulled, but going through old journals (particularly the really detailed ones from my undergrad years) can bring a lot back.  Occasionally, I would even go into a reverie where I would almost imagine myself back there.  This doesn't happen as much anymore.   Sometimes a relatively small prod is all I need to bring back strong memories.  I found this particularly true of theatre performances.  Some I had completely forgotten, but seeing the playbill brought back a little bit, and with concentration I could recall a fair bit of the play.  Other times, even knowing I saw the play, I still can't recall anything.  I think this happens either when I was really underwhelmed by the performance or if it was in a month when I saw a lot of shows and my memory banks just were close to overflowing already and couldn't take anything more in.  (Another weird situation is where you can't directly remember an event, but you can remember the last time you tried to or partially remembered the event, and that is what is stuck in memory.  This is the case for some things from my very early childhood where I remember as a pre-teen remembering a handful of things from when I was around 3 or 4 (a playgroup, a yard sale before we moved) and slightly more from 1st grade through 3rd grade, but they are all indirect memories now.)

Still, it is interesting how vivid a handful of theatre performances are, even from 20 years ago.  I may never forget aspects of Hamletmachine, which I saw around 1990, or a great performance of Genet's The Balcony at Chicago's Around the Rhinoceros* from 1996. Both were dark, edgy performance, but they weren't about drugs or drug-related violence that marks so many typical "edgy" and topical plays.  (Frankly, I've seen all the plays on those subjects that I ever need to see, and despite my general interest in Lanford Wilson, I'm going to be passing on an upcoming performance of Balm in Gilead because I have no interest in watching another play with drug dealers providing the climax.)

Given how much on the move I have been lately, I simply haven't had much time to engage in (or perhaps more accurately indulge in) nostalgia, though I was really hit hard last July (a one-two punch of the late 80s setting of subUrbia and an intense re-engagement with Paul Simon's Graceland) and I emerged from it feeling really old and worn out.  Not fun.

There is a real downside in focusing so intently on the past that it crowds out the present.** One time I nearly got wrapped up in second-hand nostalgia -- somewhat was describing how many memories Toronto had for her, and it was almost like a ghost city.  In the end, I have a lot of memories of Toronto, but most of them are my own true memories.  Toronto is a place that has changed pretty dramatically over the past 15 years, and if I do relocate there, it will be interesting how my memories of the place will be impacted by the fact that so many of the places I used to go have closed or been torn down (even the St. George Graduate Student residences are gone!).  I may have mentioned that while I did like the AGO expansion, I was definitely not happy with the changes that ROM had made, and I probably would go less frequently as a result.  Anyway, in this case, I am willing to go back and make a new set of memories to overlay (and eventually supplant) the original, core memories.

More recently I am finding a new issue or problem, that I am living so far in advance that five years down the road seems just as real to me as today.  There are some advantages to being forward-thinking and future-oriented -- it makes it easier to buckle down and commit to a degree program for example.  But it certainly makes it harder to stay rooted in the present.  In the next blog entry (on being a rolling stone), the strong likelihood that I am going to be moving on from any particular place in 2-5 years, and this forward-orientation (and residual waves of nostalgia), really leaves me pretty detached from my current life/situation.  In a lot of ways, I identify with the Dr. Manhattan character from Watchmen, though I don't live in simultaneous timespaces.  And I am not literally blue, though it might be argued that I am figuratively blue most of the time...

I guess in general, I have stopped waiting for my real life to start -- and then I will start paying attention.  (That's what I used to tell myself.)  I am always going to be unsettled at heart and more than a little discontented with life (mine specifically, which is not bad on the whole, and even more so the "state of the world," which is bad and getting much worse).

People that are backwards-looking almost always become more conservative over time.  I'm not sure I have become more politically conservative, though I am far more aware of the fiscal costs of liberal approaches, and somewhat more mindful of unintended consequences of them (and certainly more forgiving than the general public of some of the trade-offs like free-rider issues than come from following any particular approach).  I would say that on the cultural front, I have largely rejected any pop music made after 2000 and I just don't care for Millennials and their lame approach to life.  (And while this is a gross generalization, the cultural snobbery and rejection of the present seems far more widespread in European circles.)  But what probably keeps me from being completely closed off (and only interested in the past) is this weird feeling that I really can see and plan for events five years into the future.  That doesn't make me any happier or more optimistic (often the reverse), but I think it does prevent me from staying inside my own self-contained bubble.

* I think this was a one-year deal where the Rhinoceros Festival tried to piggy-back off of Wicker Park's Around the Coyote.  Or maybe I am completely misremembering that, though I definitely did see The Balcony at a special midnight performance (and have the playbill to prove it).  Speaking of things in Chicago generally getting worse, the folks in charge of Around the Coyote moved it away from Wicker Park/Bucktown and, in doing so, gutted it and made it completely irrelevant.  I simply stopped going and would just go to events in the Flat Iron Building even though they no longer could call it Around the Coyote.  They didn't have quite the same draw, but it wasn't too bad, all things considered.  As for the Around the Coyote organizing committee, they closed down permanently in 2010.  Another equally frustrating (and unnecessary) self-inflicted demise that comes to mind is the Hot House in Chicago's South Loop.  I still shake my head at how that all went down and think fondly of some great shows that I saw there -- and regret there will be no more (even if I am no longer there in attendance).

** While this is only tangentially-related, I wonder if I would like the almost claustrophobic inhabiting of the past found in Proust's Remembrance of Lost Time.  I have been meaning to read this for the longest time, and actually hope to tackle it in the second half of 2013.  For better or worse, I will go with the Moncrief translation that was the common one when I was in undergrad, and not the more recent translation by Lydia Davis or the updated edition?! of Moncrief.