Berfrois was an online literary magazine out of England, edited by Russell Bennetts, that ran from 2009 through 2022. I had numerous pieces published there over the years, most reposted (under Creative Commons Attribution) from The Coming of the Toads, others first appearing in Berfrois. I’ve now reposted those latter pieces below (in reverse chronological order), following the closing of Berfrois effective 15 Dec 2022 (see Wonder of the On-Line Literary World). Meanwhile, the archives at Berfrois also remain open. The Literary Saloon has posted this obit:
Yet another online periodical is calling it quits — Berfrois, online since 2009, has announced they are closing.
Another significant loss — but at least the archives will remain accessible.
(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer) – permanent link –The Complete Review, retrieved 17 Dec 2022.
Note: I’ve omitted the images in the posts below that were added by Berfrois – all but one, which is mine.
Index with links to posts from Berfrois reposted below:
- Homage, as They Say: September 5, 2022
- Everyday Stories: November 22, 2021
- Notes on Keith Kopka’s “Count Four”: August 20, 2021
- Writing on Jeremy Fernando’s ‘writing skin’: February 18, 2020
- 10 Years of Berfrois!: October 25, 2019
- The Word Made Pixel: February 21, 2018
- Love is an Idiocy: May 2, 2017
- All the World’s a Bill-bard: December 16, 2016
- Li Po’s Restless Night: Improvisations on a Theme: September 29, 2015
Homage, as They Say
by Joe Linker
Varieties of Homage
Chavagnes-en-Paillers: Odd Volumes of The Fortnightly Review, 2022. 179 pp
Style is built on influence, what you’ve read and absorbed over time, books that have become old friends, though they might have long ago gone out of style. John Matthias has read and written enough to understand this, to know how and when to acknowledge, and he is fortunate enough now to be positioned to do so. And style is more than how you put something down on paper. It’s how you live.
I first discovered John Matthias in a New Yorker article titled “Living with a Visionary” (1 Feb 2021), a heartbreaking personal history memoir of the last days of his wife suffering from Parkinson’s during Covid restrictions, detailing her restrictive responses and hallucinations, all buried in America’s bizarre health care system.
In Varieties of Homage Matthias clearly explains his theme: “Both English and French poetry have a long tradition of Homages…to pay one’s respects…I try to do that in this book, try to pay my respects to poems, poets, friends, traditions, and places.” As Matthias visits the various styles, forms, themes of his influences, he adds his own touches, of scholarly knowledge, of humour, of poetic movement. He brings the old forms and poets forwards and places the new in the old. So in “Tomas Tranströmer” we get a “Hashtag, as they say, / pressing fingers on their small machines.” The book begins with small tributes, shorter pieces, and this helps us get into the work, which becomes increasingly difficult as the references and allusions and form of forms become increasingly complex. Indeed, if one hunted down all the work presented, or represented, then Varieties of Homage is the only reference book you’ll ever need.
Many of the pieces might serve as introductions to writers you may have heard of but don’t really know. You get some idea of their style, Matthias’s response, and how to navigate so as to negotiate the new idea of where influence and style intersect.
So we get Mallarme and Lydia Davis; Stephen Crane and Orpheus; an overlay, or carpet pad, of a myth with the current set-up – where, for example, a CEO fills in for some ancient king of kings. And if it all gets a little too heady, here’s Matthias to hold your hand: “…But don’t / Worry, reader, just go ahead and enjoy / The poem.”
Everyday sarcasm has its place in Varieties of Homage, and while Matthias seems steeped in the classics, we also might find traces of Billy Collins or Kenneth Koch. The form often is a comment on the content. There are alignments, anecdotes, personal references, simple mentions, sort-of-also mentions, in brief, passing through. Matthias has great fun with punctuation, line breaks and layouts that encourage reading aloud to feel the bounce and balance.
But how, in a single poem, do we deal with so many references? In “Rene Char”, for example, we get, “…the Maquis, ‘Julieta ‘Cabassa’…Paradise Lost…Heidegger…Yanbing Chen…Notre Dame (the university / and not the great cathedral)” – thanks for that clarification, but now we’ve got to look them both up. But that’s part of the fun of this book, Varieties of Homage. It’s encyclopaedic, a tour through one person’s library, one soul’s reading experience. It’s a small harbour of many boats, any one of which you might wish to board and go for a sail. But you can’t sail them all. So we get this: “Everybody who reads Proust, along with many people who haven’t, knows all about the ‘little phrase’ by the fictional composer Vinteuil, which, for Charles Swann, like the madeleine, the sensation of uneven paving stones, and the stiffness of a napkin brought to the lips for the narrator, suddenly opens involuntary memory that comes upon him like a vision of another world.” And, of course, who can talk about Proust without mentioning Donald Justice?
The book closes with “Instead of an Epilogue”, a “Homage to Sappho”, which includes, in translation, the missing pieces, within empty brackets. And how can you mention Sappho without bringing Ezra Pound into the room (where the brackets get turned around)?
One might wonder if, as with Pound’s “Cantos” or Charles Olson’s personal and obscure yet fully referenced classical sources, it’s all worth it. At 167 pages, I think so. Varieties of Homage is a course of study taught by a wit, a scholar, a poet.
About the Author
Joe Linker lives in Portland, Oregon and blogs at The Coming of the Toads.
by Joe Linker
Obscure and Irregular
Eli S. Evans
Lawrence: Moon Rabbit Books, 2021. 53 pp
When we study the characteristics of a writer’s writing habits, as it were, as reflected in the writing itself, that is, as opposed to, say, a bit of info glimpsed in a short bio or silly staged selfie, we may discover a deliberate arrangement of words, text, doodles, if you will, that, when brought together in the frame of a book (one that one holds in one’s hands, smells the paper and ink thereof, hears the rustles and bends [it] of the pages, slips into one’s pocket for the bus ride) – discover, as I was saying, or trying to say, the parts of a work of art that give the whole its allure. Such, or something like it, was my experience with “Obscure and Irregular”, stories by Eli S. Evans.
What are these characteristics as found in Eli’s stories? The long, for one, sentence, where writing is a process of piling up, saving, a constant moving forward, but with hesitancies, pauses, a bike ride, a skateboard trip. Observation is key. And reflection. But what remains obscure and irregular isn’t the topic or subject, for these are commonplace: a colonoscopy, a banana, a pair of shoes (running), a friend, a street. What is obnubilated is how these experiences of seeing and thinking are brought forth. A personality unfolds, stretching its long legs for the telling. In “Rastafarian Banana”, for example: three paragraphs over four pages and only eleven (but long) sentences. But easy to read. That’s the rub; one doesn’t feel the obscure or the irrelevant – these turn out to be everyday stories, told with a keen sense of the now, the real, the regular.
At first, readers may think there’s not going to be any plotting. Not so – the action turns like a wide articulated bus rounding a curb: “… and that was when I passed, on my right, a rather unexpected sight: curbside in front of an old farmstead-style house, not architecturally atypical of the region, someone had deposited a large stuffed banana…” (10). And the story also contains three small drawings, cartoons, illustrating the action. Such drawings are found throughout Eli’s book, reminding one of one’s first literary experiences. In other words, illustrated (by Patrick Giroux).
The stories are organised by category: “Care & Feeding”; “Social Relations”; “Modern Medicine”; “Street Culture”; “Distracted Driving”. Distracted writing, one might characterise. Yet, again, the writing, the stories, are everyday experiences, relevant and immediate, mostly told in the present tense, first person, so there is an immediacy, and tension is created by the roundabout style of getting there. Carefully wrought, comes to mind. The stories are, in sum, enjoyable, even fun. Where do they come from? A bit of searching and you might find some actual sources that get filtered through a particularly imaginative imagination. Thus Evans brings to life the ordinary along the way, punctuated with literary (if not academic) devices: the footnote, every kind of punctuation mark, details inviting further research (the “Banish Lumber”, for example, from the story “A Passing Thought”, would appear to refer to the three generation shop in Chester, MA, since 1932; while the banana from the lead story also would appear to be rooted in reality), bulleted formatting, detail within detail, clarifications and amplifications, additions, the lean to.
Perhaps the most successfully engineered story in terms of structure and the blending of form and content is “Street, Two Ways”. We follow two paragraphs side-by-side and make a turn onto the wrong street, a “bit of cartographic whimsy” (42).
We find ourselves in New Hampshire, or Mexico, driving about, or at home, and writing and thinking ahead, but always in the now of life, and how that feels. Explanations abound, so there’s little ambiguity, except that created by a surplus of amplification and clarification, that process of adding on, digressing, stretching the sentences, lengthening, but never has the run-on felt so natural, the way one actually thinks when caught up in the now – where only a dash will work, or parenthesis; or a semi-colon which correctly both connects and separates simultaneously.
Highly, as the saying goes, recommend this book, “Obscure and Irregular”, by Eli S. Evans. Specifically recommended for the coffee café, where one might enjoy a mini Proustian moment over an espresso break, or for the bus ride to or fro, or for the wait in some line that might feel like a sentence should one like to feel oneself at home in a paragraph or a story. Never has the ordinary felt more extraordinary.
About the Author
Joe Linker lives in Portland, Oregon and blogs at The Coming of the Toads.
Notes on Keith Kopka’s “Count Four.”
by Joe Linker
“Count Four.”: Poems by Keith Kopka
Tampa: University of Tampa Press, 2020, 99 pp
If to identify is to accuse, I probably shouldn’t mention Keith Kopka’s travelling punk band past in easy to get front row outlier venues where the stage is so close to the audience sweat exchanges and curls the tickets, nor mention his emergence as a poet with enough good material to fill a book, “Count Four.” Good title for a book of poems, readers waiting for the rim shot, the close cadence that bridges music and language, a command, like Basic Training drill marching, the poet soldier the sensitive one who saves the Motel 8 (or 6 or 4 or 12 bar blues) weekend pass receipt on the back of which is scribbled a waitress’s name and phone number which might appear in some future poem about a past mistake. She gotta way, don’t she, babe. And we’ll never know if she’s still a waitress (speaking of identity, and so what if she is?) or if she found success (if not happiness in apple pie crust) by turning her con artist skills into legitimate work as an adjunct and now only waitresses part time to make ends meet:
She’s a waitress, no older
than nineteen, mouth caked
in lipstick, pie flour
streaked on her thigh. Watching her,
I can tell by how she keeps
her apron on during sex,
that she’ll wait tables forever.
III. Lafayette, Indiana, Star City (50)
Kopka’s poetry seems to successfully bridge what should satisfy simultaneously the respectable academic reader with diplomatic credentials and the still street smart fighting guys and gals intellectually inclined but unwilling to sell their future for a degree, happy to wait for an encore they know deep down where the blood runs true will never come:
but on the entire crowd who continues to believe it,
when you sing about the coal vein of hillbilly music
being the only thing that keep you hangin’ on,
the expensive idea that you still break our hearts,
and have your heart broken.
Dwight Yoakam’s Hat (89)
Just so the key to the effectiveness and efficiencies of Kopka’s poems, which will be popular scratched on the walls of an egalitarian latrine or published in the pure pages of a Poetry magazine, where normal wears formal:
Asia is a sexual astronaut,
surrounded by a radiated halo,
a solar system of pleasure
to videos, and a chat room.
Asia Carrera’s XXX Butt-kicking Homepage, 1998 (12)
Yet there are domestic, familial, moral imperatives, purposeful and meaningful roots to Kopka’s poetry. One doesn’t become a Punk (or poet) by chance, but by choice. The decision is existential and requires a rebirth. All life begins as a kid and spins like a top:
By then I’d circled all the way around
to my father’s house again. Same house I grew up in.
So I ring the doorbell, and when my father answers
I start to name what I’ve lifted.
His dad sets him up in a suit in a poem that contains the ritual of a sacrament, the Sacrament of Confirmation. On the way home they rehearse a lie for his mom about how they got the suit, as if she won’t guess the truth. They won’t mention “Vinny the Tailor,” the kid’s sponsor, who never sewed a stitch in his life:
menace of the Jersey
Turnpike, man who never stitched
a thing more complicated
than an alibi,
Vinny the Tailor (20)
The world turns, as in a soap opera, life grows hairy, there are chores to get done, some things change and others don’t:
like an un-staked scarecrow. My aunt dries
dishes while my mother washes.
My uncle rolls his eyes when I toss Danielle
a dish rag, and take my mother’s place
The roots of now old trees rise up, raise the sidewalk, crack the cement. You can’t go home again, but neither will you feel at home in Harvard Yard. You find yourself starting to talk about punctuation, a concern for commas:
This comma, handed
down from generations of working class
Georgic on the Boston Comma (37)
“Count Four,” and place a comma. As good a rule as any. And with rules come sophistications, affairs of the road, where poems become counts of indictments, stories are told slant, as Emily suggested, where “Success in Circuit lies.” But there are more guns in these poems than guitars, and a violence that cries out for meaning. The words are crisp and intelligible, not muddy as if through a Marshall 100 watt amp built to take squelching and squealing abuse. The poems waiver in stereo back and forth between anecdotal narratives laced with abuse and epiphanic moments and where some never awaken from the noise of self-abuse. These poems were written over time, the book collecting from a myriad of sources, a few independent or alternative, and are brought together under the imprimatur of a vintage label. The book’s title appears in the poem “All We Do Is Begin,” as in “Begin the Beguine,” where poetry translates noise into music, mosh pit convulsions into slow dance. It’s poetry where the Punk finds their way out of the mosh pit and into the solo business of writing poems to make sense of it all:
Through the wall you heard a song end,
and in its ring the singer counted
to four. You were just starting
to understand how he’d count four
thirty times a night for twenty years.
It is easy to hate what we’re given,
especially when it’s all we know.
All We Do Is Begin (85).
The guns are not symbols, as any guitars might have been; they’re literal and costly and deadly and like tattoos hard to erase. And the poems come loaded with history lessons, poems like “You, Strung,” that meld the personal with the general, reality with fantasy. These are poems Holden might have written, if he had written poems. And an epigram might make for the stunning occasion of the argument, as in “Square Dance Conspiracy,” above which Henry Ford gives us his opinion on the source of jazz, which he gets wrong, though his description seems to work. In any case, “Square Dance” a great exercise in poetic apostrophe, where “Wild nights – Wild nights!” are calmed if not tamed.
I don’t get the feeling Kopka’s poems are hastily written. There’s an underlying patience, notes of growth and maturation, and his poems show both temperamental talent and writerly skills at work. The ideas begin in observation, might be confessional, but could be fictional, and ethical choices are made, dug out, and then backfilled. Description moves us forward, closer to the action:
poutine in a courtyard canopied
by hackberry trees….
Under the table,
the brunette unfolds a napkin
on my lap, her palm holding me
through the cloth makes a slow,
The Birds of Montreal (86)
There are three sections to “Count Four,” and a single poem introduction (“Interrogation”), for a total of 32 poems. The book is well organized and presented. No very short, tweet-like poems. The poems are formally written using poetic devices both hidden and obvious. Not that these need to be recognized for enjoyment of the book. The poems are accessible, and in that sense traditional and conservative, at least in form, rather than radical and blurred. There’s humor as well as remorse. The narrators are dynamic characters, changing from their beginnings as a result of their experiences. It seems there is no end to some of these experiences for each new generation that cometh. The poem “Hollywood Ave,” for example, takes a new pic of an old icon. Originally named Prospect Avenue, but changed to Hollywood Boulevard; too bad, Prospect far more telling. Or maybe the poem is about any one of the other 90,000 Hollywood Avenues spread throughout the country. And “Coke Folks” could easily be a nowadays sitcom.
Final Note: I very much enjoyed and like the poems in this book. I don’t want to be in most of them, but I imagine Keith Kopka doesn’t either these days. He’s no doubt moved on, this book seems to function as a kind of memoir, and I look forward to reading his future writing. For readers who would like to know more about Kopka now, here’s a link to an essay he wrote last year, titled PUNK ROCK, POETRY & THE MYTH OF MASCULINITY (OCTOBER 14, 2020 VOL. 1 BROOKLYN). But get a copy of “Count Four”; it’s the real thing.
About the Author
Joe Linker lives in Portland, Oregon and blogs at The Coming of the Toads.
Writing on Jeremy Fernando’s ‘writing skin’
by Joe Linker
Jeremy Fernando, with paintings by Pan Huiting, installations by Gaspar Acebo & Marcos Mangani, and charcoal drawings by Yanyun Chen
Singapore: Delere Press, 230 pp.
Our sentence does not sound severe. Whatever commandment the prisoner has disobeyed is written upon his body by the Harrow. This prisoner, for instance” – the officer indicated the man – “will have written on his body: HONOR THY SUPERIORS!
—Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony
Once upon a skin. To peel the skin from the bones. Giddy. The drum head. Adventures in the Skin Trade. Theory (dermis) as décor[i]um. Seemly. Style. Skin in the game. To amuse oneself. The muse of art. The one who swindles, trading skin, taking risks. The entrepreneur. The taker.
What does the taker take that you can’t live without? Your sources, origins, bibliography as time, your time. And sources drift with time. The teacher’s sources can never be the same sources as the student’s sources. But then you make up your own source, and that is art. And the artist, the true teacher, is the one aSKINing questions.
The layout is collage, montage. To mount, to mount the skin, and that becomes art. Jeremy Fernando’s writing skin is non-linear, anecdotal (i.e. practical pics) theory, its precursors John Cage (Silence, A Year from Monday, Diary), Marshall McLuhan (The Gutenburg Galaxy, The Medium is the Massage), Norman O. Brown (Love’s Body). Fragmented texts, full of references, quotes, lectures. Beforehand. But those are my teachers. We each bring our own sources to bear. They can become very heavy. Thick sauces. Sauces to bore, to slip through the Scylla and Charybdis of argument, wade through the crowd, skin rubbing skin.
At the risk of going to see. Artificial sea. Art official. In lines at the museum, to see, we are held in suspense. Suspended, like a mobile, our lines drifting, people drifting in and out of line, of sequence, of linear progression. The line hovers, doubtful, suspended, suspenseful. The show is about to begin. The lights go down. The white pages turn black, the print goes black to white. Spaces of silence create more anticipation. We are still held in suspense. Yet, there is room to move.
And precursor suggests antecedent. References. What is it? Where is it? Where did it go? The antecedent must be repeated. Pronouns won’t work. Too far from the antecedent. And we get lost.
from writing skin, page 16:
Where in asking a work, a painting, what
(s)he is attempting to say, all one can do is
attempt to listen, to respond, to her response
– or, to be more precise, its response – which
is always already a response even as it, even
as (s)he – bringing with it the impossibility
of attributing not just a gender, but a reference
to the object one is attempting to speak of,
react to, respond with – even as it might be
responding in ways that remain beyond one,
could well be offering a response to which
one remains deaf.
To anthropomorphize the it, its ambiguity, its genderlesness. To get under its skin.
The offense, in the shade of the skin, criticism, attempts to take the place of the art, to speak over the art (p. 17): “Where there is no longer even a Socrates,” who, after all, was Plato’s superior.
“Who are your influences?” Jimmy Rabbitte asks applicants for a position in his new band, to be called “The Commitments” (Roddy Doyle). Which is to ask, who are your teachers, what are your sources, what have you overheard? Who are you stealing from? And can you now play over them? The question is the only question on the test, and it tests one’s responsibilities.
From below ground, we hear a grunt, “abgrund” (p. 26, 40, 119, 143), a voice from the precursor abyss, from deep in the skin, a sliver. A cleave. The voice is our own, sleep apnea. We climb out, to see. Or we swim out, if water is our source, to land. To emerge. Emergent see. Turning pages, back and forth, working a fan on a hot day.
“writing skin” is a large book. 230 pages, but consider its size: 7” x 10” x ¾”. A heavy book, it contains color photos and other art images and a deep file of font and graphic variations, a book readers will spend quality time with, and every other kind of time. To date, it might be Fernando’s magnum opus. I carried it around with me for days, reading back and forth, in the coffee shop, kitchen, to bed, delighting in the ample space for my marginalia, reading with pen in hand.
As for magnum opus, consider, for example, the many references and sources, used and named throughout, that might keep a reader inclined to follow up on sources busy forevermore:
In order of first appearance: Anne Dufourmantelle, Sara Chong, Marguerite Duras, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Marie Benoist, Plato, Socrates, Pan Huiting, Roland Barthes, John Banville, Joy Division, Neil Young, Jean Baudrillard, Oscar Wilde, Jean Baudrilland, Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Nietzsche, Malraux, Chris Kraus, William Kentridge, Siegfried Zielinski, Gaspar Acebo & Marcos Mangani, Slavoj Zizek, Ana Gallardo – and that takes us only into page 37.
And a few more, in random order: Hubertus von Amelunxen, Yanyun Chen, Hélène Cixous, Édouard Manet, Tan Jingliang, Meera Lee Seethi, Nicole Ong. And, there being no bibliography or index, readers are free to create their own, as part of their marginalia, their own writing over.
Which opens, or perhaps leaves us with, the question:
does one choose what one writes, or does it come to one? (p. 148)
How do we choose our subject matter? Is it given, or taken? Subject to choice? Which opens the question, does one choose what one reads, or does it come to one? And of memories? What and how do we remember, forget? Does one choose what to remember, what to forget? What memories are we given or do we take?
as for me,
I copy (p. 152).
In debt to, to face the writing squad. Argument of definition: what is Art? That moment when you are seized by the work such that you forget yourself, forget to remember. Can the moment be remembered in an essay? Can art be reproduced, the moment of art? In a personal essay? Do we need all of the ingredients of the scholarly article? Around the room there are others, the peer review. Where you are forced to walk to the end of the pier, the “disappointed bridge,” Joyce called it. And your peers throw you off the end of the pier, and you swim or sink or get washed back ashore or swept out to sea. Maybe you’ll get picked up by a boat, a ship of fools.
Memory is the etymology of experience. But what happens when there is no experience? Or the experience goes awry? Amiss. Why we keep repeating what has already been said. What did we miss, alas?
“writing skin” is a gallery: contains essay, scholarly writing (i.e. claims, proofs, anticipation and handling of opposition, references – all cleverly disguised in conversational tone, wit, and engagement), anecdote, conversation, memoir, color photography and artwork (photos of paintings and drawings), poetry, philosophy, theory. Citations, quotes, translation, fragments, questions, cuts, breaks in text, strokes, puns.
Which is also the question of
what is the voice of a citation? (p. 105)
In theory, in theoria (104), “whom we have authorized as author?” (105)
Fernando is a reader. Reading is his art.
One of the themes of “writing skin” is friendship. The pages stack up like postcards to and from friends over the years. The space of the postcard is intimate, small, and encourages a compact or compressed language, as does poetry. Or the telegram, if the writing purpose is entirely practical, and there is no place for ambiguity. Another theme is death, and another writing form that is used is the eulogy. Anne Dufourmantelle has died (aged 53), drowning in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to save two children at risk in the water. Writing, the act of writing, becomes a metaphor for dying, disappearing, fading from view, fogged over. Falling through the skein of the sea. A Sargasso Sea skinned with seaweed.
She is lost. Lost at see.
Seemingly, a problem ongoing and developing with language concerns the use of the pronoun, which substitutes a more vague mark for an antecedent. The further the reader gets from the antecedent, the more chance of mistake. The pronoun works like an anti-noun – instead of naming a person, place, or thing, it points, usually to the past, and renames the antecedent, the more specific noun, the precursor. The pronoun removes, erases, makes things less clear, creates more risk. The pronoun is another taker. The pronoun is not the reader’s friend, is impersonal, covers over, erases, simplifies.
Another theme in “writing skin” is teaching, the teaching question. As well, alienation and isolation. The risks for teacher and student. The same risk inherent in most relationships that rely on a kind of symbiosis.
The themes thread through and sew “writing skin” together. “I don’t know the man,” Peter says, cowering from the crowd, disowning Jesus. Inherent in friendship is the possibility of betrayal, of writing over. Ink outs. Skin recoils, flakes. Returns to its original form.
Photography, cooking (mother, language, tongue), understanding the other. A grandfather with eczema, cut skin. Understanding other. What does theory do? Questions the meaning of meaning. Stroke as pun. Stranger, duel, black and white (129:141).
What if we have nothing to read? Take in / taken. When the pages go black, notes end (164). “Our skin” (167). Reading as “vampire,” 189. What’s one? (197).
Authority is embalmed in the citation. The laugh cuts best.
Other themes include light and love. There are 9 sections to the book (the 9th being “Contributors”). The longest is “writing yanyun chen,” 67 to 157, which includes numerous reproductions of Chen’s charcoal drawings. Sketches in white. Light sketches. What is light? Fernando “reads” Yanyun Chen, a way of reading, he tells us, he learned from his teacher Werner Hamacher: “a notion of reading that is not born of sight, of seeing, but of hearing, of listening” (ws, 72). Some of Chen’s drawings are like flowers at a funeral, but without color or odor, and those pictures are juxtaposed with thoughts (memories, reproductions) of Anne Dufourmantelle. And then, surprise, we get Saul and his conversion to Paul, the Acts of the Apostles. Amidst the metaphors for reading, writing, writhing. The “blind reading” of Saul, his fall into light. And that with friendship and love comes the risk of betrayal and loss. Thus the discussion of Judas, and the necessity of his betrayal. But it is the blind moment of Saul’s vision, Paul’s stroke (86; 99), that ironically suggests the act of reading as seeing. But what do we see? Marks, strokes. Squiggles. Skin is supple. Writing is supplement.
And we move on, wearing a verb. Light as what inscribes, inscriber, pencil, cuts into (110). Throw away the light, Wallace Stevens said, the definitions, and say of what you see in the dark. And time as theme. The fading of time, of light. Time’s wear and tear (cut and cry). Dark matter. “irrealism.” But what of the archetypes? Are they not born with us, the collective memory of experience. The dash, cut, break, touch (113). Melville at sea; Emily in her room – different, but the same, experience. Ex peers. Exuent.
Is there a secret we seek?
taking the life of the text:
sucking the life from the inscriptions
making it one’s own
for one’s self (p. 189)
A writer likely will have, like Jeremy Fernando’s grandfather apparently had, a skin condition, an itch. If so, writing is the only lotion that will solve, salve, the skin problem. Readers too itch, reach for the lotion, the book, the pages, a skin to rub on. Touch. In touch. Not to lose touch. And, as McLuhan said, touch is the most involving of all the senses.
About the Author:
Joe Linker is the author of five books, the most recent being Penina’s Letters. He is editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse and blogs at The Coming of the Toads.
10 Years of Berfrois!
October 25, 2019
Happy Birthday, Berfrois!
A decade of online writing has afforded readers worldwide (those with access and tools to connect and a bit of discernment skill) a wealth of reading material. At the expense, it’s argued, of daily print newspapers and other now-called traditional publishing forms (including, some say, the demise of brick and mortar bookstores), online reading sites have grown like wildflowers – or weeds, depending on your point of view.
In Portland, Oregon, where I’m writing this, other changes over the last decade evidence gradual tidal shifts in how we do things: dedicated, preferred bicycle lanes; microbreweries, tasting rooms, sit out zones; non-uniformed drivers in unmarked panel vans delivering packages up and down the street; likewise, closed-mouthed taxi cabs with invisible flag drops; empty malls; increases in recycling, composting, reusing, repurposing; walking places; neighborhood coffee shops, food carts, farmers markets; wifi spoken here. The disappearance of the grass lawn. And correlative if not causal gentrification and diasporas of the poor and working class and influx of homeless:
Rain and snow, cold wind blows, what can a poor boy do? (Tom Paxton, “Rain and Snow,” 1963).
The disinterested, or the disenfranchised, don’t bother with many of these changes. I know folks who don’t own a cell phone. Others who don’t read online. I know readers who continue attending their monthly book club meetings, bringing the hard copy or paperback checked out from their local library branch. Some I know no longer go downtown; some do, but only on the bus. Sitting out is becoming the most popular form of entertainment. What do those who sit out do? Invariably, it seems, they share literature, ideas, and tea – or coffee, or beer. Ever was there propaganda, now more commonly called fake news, as old as argument, though it often may seem these days pathos leads the means of persuasion contest, ethos a distant second, logos way back, and they can all be faked in a fake match.
Before the advent of social media proliferation, came warnings about things read and repeated on the Internet. Academia frowned on web references. MLA and APA voices found it easier to say don’t do it rather than explain how it might be done. Things seen on the Web undoubtedly lacked peer review, weren’t reliable or credible. Unlearned barbarians, philistines, lacking credentials, threatened the center. Anyone could post anything, and often did. You couldn’t click on a link in a hard copy paper, so what good was it?
Against that attitude, I began following the Becker / Posner Blog. Their last post, in March of 2014, argued for an end to the Cuban embargo. Who were Becker and Posner? On December 4, 2004, they opened their blog with the following, short introduction:
Blogging is a major new social, political, and economic phenomenon. It is a fresh and striking exemplification of Friedrich Hayek’s thesis that knowledge is widely distributed among people and that the challenge to society is to create mechanisms for pooling that knowledge. The powerful mechanism that was the focus of Hayek’s work, as of economists generally, is the price system (the market). The newest mechanism is the blogosphere. There are 4 million blogs. The internet enables the instantaneous pooling (and hence correction, refinement, and amplification) of the ideas and opinions, facts and images, reportage and scholarship, generated by bloggers. We have decided to start a blog that will explore current issues of economics, law, and policy in a dialogic format. Initially we will be posting just once a week, on Mondays. In time we may post more frequently. The first postings will be tomorrow, December 6. Becker is a Nobel-prize-winning economist who in addition to scholarly publications on a wide range of economic issues including education, discrimination, labor, the family, crime, addiction, and immigration, for many years wrote a monthly column for Business Week. Posner is a federal circuit judge and also a writer of books and articles in a variety of fields, including antitrust, intellectual property, and other fields in which economics is applied to law, but also topical fields such as impeachment, contested elections, and national-security issues. (The rules of judicial ethics preclude Posner from commenting publicly on pending or impending litigation or participating in politics, as by endorsing candidates.)
Becker’s and Posner’s posts provided exemplary examples of academic argument. Not only could their blog be adequately cited, it could itself be used to augment reading material in college level economics, political science, or rhetoric classes. The blog had the potential to save on textbook costs.
In fact, the world of blogs was as rich as any library, with as many categories. Consider, for example, Emily Gordon’s Emdashes, which ran from 2004 to 2014 (no posts in 2015, its latest post in January, 2016). Emdashes about page now contains a kind of afterward:
Emdashes, founded in 2004, was the first online community devoted to the writers, artists, history, and readers of The New Yorker. With the addition of 11 years, a loyal following, some nice press (MediaShift, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice, Yahoo!, the Toronto Globe & Mail, etc.), a Webby honor, and a host of new contributors, it’s evolved into a general-interest site whose beats include design, theater, and punctuation. While dormant, the site in archive form reflects our motto: ‘Old news is good news’.
Never was reading about punctuation more charming and entertaining.
But both blog writing and reading online could become overwhelming, obsessive, lacking borders or margins. I say could because many early blog advocates and practitioners may now consider blogging has already run its course. That seems to be the decision of Andrew Sullivan, who closed his “Dish” blog in 2015 after 15 years of not just daily posting but daily posting throughout the day. Maybe it simply stops being fun.
In 1709, Sir Richard Steele started The Tatler. His introductory post made clear his mission:
Now these gentlemen, for the most part, being men of strong zeal and weak intellects, it is both a charitable and necessary work to offer something, whereby such worthy and well-affected members of the commonwealth may be instructed, after their reading, what to think; which shall be the end and purpose of this my paper: wherein I shall from time to time report and consider all matters of what kind soever that shall occur to me, and publish such my advices and reflections every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday in the week for the convenience of the post.
Like Sullivan’s blog 300 years later, Steele’s project ran through a number of changes, and he got help with the listening and writing. And, like Sullivan, making money on the project was considered part of its mission. And Samuel Johnson’s The Rambler (1750) also comes to mind as precursor to today’s blog. Of course, most of today’s blogs we won’t be reading about in 300 years. We may not be reading about them in three days, or three hours.
In 2009, in the tradition of Steele, Addison, Johnson, and many others, old and new, Russell Bennetts started Berfrois. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Berfrois continues to grow in its efforts to make “Literature, Ideas, Tea” available to a worldwide community. Berfrois is not a blog, though it maintains certain characteristics of blogs, including daily updates. It remains advertisement free. Neither is Berfrois a newspaper or a magazine. Back in March of this year, Berfrois published its first hardcopy book, an anthology: Berfrois: The Book. No doubt different things to different readers, but for everyone, Berfrois is literature today. Literature is not an idea, but it’s a good place to find ideas. As for tea, I think Berfrois also serves coffee.
Joe Linker, author of “Penina’s Letters,” lives in Portland, Oregon, and is currently the poetry editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse.
Note: Queen Mob’s Teahouse closed in April 2022. I was Poetry editor and then Essays and Letters editor for a little over a year around 2019.
The Word Made Pixel
by Joe Linker
The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online,
Edited by Houman Barekat, Robert Barry, and David Winters,
OR Books, New York and London. 203 pp.
What is it about the predicament of digital writing and reading that has so many literary provocateurs abuzz? “Mies van der Rohe said, ‘The least is the most.’ I agree with him completely,’” John Cage wrote in his diary. “At the same time, what concerns me now is quantity.” Cage was becoming more concerned with social activities rather than music. He was reading Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller and Norman O. Brown. Cage was “concerned with improving the world.” He was beginning to think that “the disciplines…must now be practiced socially” (A Year From Monday, 1967).
A review of the literature concerned with the effects of the internet on literacy might begin with McLuhan’s The Guttenberg Galaxy (1962). McLuhan explains how print technology was responsible for ideas of personal privacy, mass reading in the vernacular, nationalism, marching bands, military parades, private ownership, footnotes and the MLA. Reading, however, does not necessarily make people smarter, just different. It’s not that we should encourage illiteracy, but that we might look at non-literacy as a way of being afforded advantages over literacy. Literacy erases many of the skills and knowledge characteristics of a non-literate culture. Members of a non-literate culture have no need for notes, let alone footnotes, when trying to remember something. Literacy rearranges the sensorium, the eye becoming dominant over the other senses. To be human means having balance in society and nature. It means helpful engagement with others, daily consensus without undo worry or fear, joyful work for the body and mind. Reading might make us less human.
Move forward to the cause and effect arguments of the questioned reading crisis making the news a decade or so ago. Around the same time, three popular and influential works explored the decline in traditional reading habits: a New Yorker article by Caleb Crain, “Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?”; “Reading Crisis?,” a Congressional Quarterly Researcher study by Marcia Clemmitt; and Nicolas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic. To help answer Crain’s question, we might review McLuhan’s analysis of what life was like before people started reading. From The Medium is the Massage (1967):
‘Authorship’ – in the sense we know it today, individual intellectual effort related to the book as an economic commodity – was practically unknown before the advent of print technology… the invention of printing did away with anonymity, fostering ideas of literary fame and the habit of considering intellectual effort as private property. Mechanical multiples of the same text created a public – a reading public… the idea of copywrite…was born…As new technologies come into play, people are less and less convinced of the importance of self-expression.
Clemmitt’s study collected seemingly every viewpoint on the subject available at the time, but only two real possibilities of effect emerge. One takes root with Carr, suggesting that declining reading skills is the equivalent of a pool table appearing in the soda shop on Main Street. The other possibility suggests that new reading and writing technology requires new reading and writing habits. New skills and new definitions. If we are to take Carr’s question seriously, we must first decide on the definition of stupid.
Cage’s diary is a mosaic. It’s non-linear (in a paradoxical sense it’s even non-literate), yet follows a given (chance derived) method. Much like Cage’s music, his diary calls for new appreciative methods. Whereas traditional music was about keeping sounds out, Cage sought to let all sounds in. The sounds of a noisy trash truck picking up cans outside a piano recital room are not distractions from the music. The trash truck becomes an accompanying instrument.
On 17 June 2008, Crain posted to his blog, Steamboats are Ruining Everything, the text of a talk he’d recently given on the subject of the internet and something he called literary style. He began with this:
Good evening. In my talk tonight, I would like to raise the question, How is the internet changing literary style? The question has at least two aspects. First, Which traits of style change when writing goes online? Second, What are the forces that cause these changes to come about? There is a third aspect, a moral one, which I will try to defer answering until the end of my talk but which shadows the first two, namely, Are these changes an improvement?
Move forward again. In The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, seventeen contemporary writers are given equal space to discuss questions similar to those mentioned above. Kasia Boddy summarizes the current working thesis in The Digital Critic’s “Foreword”:
If we’ve rightly grown suspicious of the authority of ‘universality’ assumed by professional tastemakers, we should also be skeptical of the more recent authority of immediacy and self-expression.
It seems that there’s a new kind of publish or perish attitude pervading digital literary activity, what we might term say something or remain invisible. Not only that, but also keep saying something or disappear again. A gratuity might be added: don’t say anything unless you get paid for it.
Some of the arguments in The Digital Critic seem to presuppose a golden age of writing, editing, publishing and reading. Such a golden age might be characterized by a writer’s wholly original work being accepted on its own merits by a bona fide publisher whose mission is to improve the world. The book assigned an editor whose only job is to ensure the work wins an award. The book easily discovered by the common reader in a marketing campaign designed and paid for by the publisher. And the writer’s work credited in staid reviews read in the usual trustworthy places. The first paperback edition following the fanfare of the hardback launch would include multiple blurbs from the imprimatur of the initial reviewers. A reading and signing tour scheduled and paid for by the publisher would include timely, locally placed newspaper interviews. Tenure, a movie deal, a late-night TV appearance would all appear on the dessert menu. Nothing was remaindered or would ever go out of print. And, to top it all, the writer would get paid.
The first interest in McLuhan’s ideas came not from academics or scholars, but from Madison Avenue. The television screen was a mosaic. The viewer had to fill in the dots, like scanning a cartoon. TV took one’s full attention. The content barely mattered. All one remembered was a jingle and a brand. The set behind, or within, the TV set was smartly cropped. The viewer became a part of the show. Your favourite soap opera characters were real in a way your neighbours or family never were. If it was turned on, you could not ignore the television.
We might have some idea of how a television works, but most of us could not build one, certainly not from scratch. Nor could we even fix one. TVs no longer have tubes. The local grocery store used to stock television tubes, tubes the size of baby bottles that fitted like prehistoric USB connectors into matching holes in the fuse board. You could fix your TV by identifying the blown tube and replacing it. In “Digital Currency,” Laura Waddell’s contribution to The Digital Critic, the reader’s knowledge of what’s under the typing fingers is challenged:
Our eager obliviousness to the systems that lie behind such transactions has formed the expectations and atmosphere of contemporary Internet usage. We are often oblivious to the mechanics behind Internet use in general, where one might blog their ‘reads of the year’ without truly understanding how it comes about that our words are formed neatly on a WordPress page but rely upon a user-friendly interface that simplifies the code behind it.
No doubt, but how many readers were ever very knowledgeable about how a traditional book came to market, from the writer’s garret through publisher and printer to the bookshop’s shelf? We don’t see past the shopfront façade, the Potemkin village of the film set. Something true of most technology. And we don’t know all of the effects. That’s the basis of theory, breaks in the text that reveal something of what’s going on behind the curtain, backstage, not to mention the front office. Most of us have little idea when we climb into our automobile where it came from, how it works, or where it’s going to end up. But we happily ride off on a drive through the country, cruise control set to automatic. And not only that, we would have no problem telling the mechanic how we thought the car handled or what we think might be wrong with it. Some of us might even become race car drivers, a pit crew to change the tyres, oil, fill the gas tank and keep the rig in good running condition.
“Some men will rob you with a six gun, others with a fountain pen,” Woody Guthrie once said. Today he might say, “others with exposure.” Can one be both an artist and a professional? A professional artist? Is the term not oxymoronic? In sports, a professional athlete is one who gets paid for playing the game. Do pro baseball players complain about all the amateur players competing in softball leagues all across America? Amateur golfers can be held in high esteem. Isn’t publish or perish an invitation to participate in a ProAm contest? Put another way, who sponsors peer reviews? In “Economics, Exposure and Ethics in the Digital Age,” Sara Veale looks at “the nebulous relationship between pay and success.” She strikes a remarkable balance between the way things are and the way they ought to be:
Today’s young writers are at the mercy of an over-saturated, underfunded market and are fully aware it wasn’t always like this.
Nevertheless, would-be writers are still being scandalously duped by on- and off-line scams, while we remain skeptical that exploitation is a new phenomenon in any industry. What must life as a writer have been like writing for William Randolph Hearst? The ad’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the theory of the king.
One of the more patient pieces in The Digital Critic is Louis Bury’s “Topical Criticism and the Cultural Logic of the Quick Take.” Bury uses Kenneth Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown” to examine a preference for deep research, reading and contemplation as prerequisites for critical determination. His piece might be read as an abstract to a much longer work and an advertisement for the art of the research paper. For one thing, the long look provides the necessary inclusion of multiple contexts the off-the-cuff comment simply does not. The best comments, of course, become historical aphorisms, but it takes the patience of the scholarly ideal, as Bury would have it, to unpack and fully explain the aphorism to the end of argument.
Where and how would such a book as Bury proposes be written? The title alone of Will Self’s piece in The Digital Critic offers a suggestion: “Isolation, Solitude, Loneliness and the Composition of Long-Form Fiction.” Self writes:
Conversation and the pram in the hall. They absolutely militate against the isolation that is key in my view to producing long-form fiction of any seriousness or integrity.
Yet, we are reminded of the working habits of James Joyce, sitting in the middle of his mussed bed all hours of the day and night writing on little scraps of paper, the kids dancing around the apartment, dunners knocking at the door, the writer engaged in any number of conversations simultaneously via mail and walks to the pub, dinners out, a constant stream of visitors and friends and Nora. Joyce worrying that World War II would distract readers from Finnegans Wake gives us some idea of the isolation he preferred.
Back to the reading crisis. Self discusses the ideal reader, also an isolationist hiding out in a garret. Where are these garret readers? How will publishers find them and persuade them to make a purchase? “The act of publishing constitutes a profound form of literary criticism that has been under appreciated by critics, scholars, and even publishers themselves,” writes Michael Bhaskar in his The Digital Critic piece, “Publishing as Criticism: Managing Textual Superabundance.” The concerns over a writing surplus must also consider a scarcity of readers.
There are three primary ways the publisher reaches out to readers, each a kind of practical criticism, explains Bhaskar: “editing, design, and pricing.” Now that publication is possible outside the traditional industry framework, publishers must consider more openly and transparently their own self-serving breaks in the text: “If publishing is a form, it is a critical form. It is as interpretive as it is creative.” He closes his piece with:
We’ve always created systems for managing information and texts – in ancient Rome, Baghdad, Constantinople, and Kaifeng. And we are familiar with the systems of ‘search’ being created in places like Silicon Valley. Yet we are perhaps less attuned to how, in a world of open and available publishing, that act becomes an act of interpretation: and how, in a context of excess, acts of interpretation are necessary acts of management, of filtering, and of positioning.
It’s a long view. Still, would there be too much writing if there were enough readers? And at what point might publishers ask writers to embed messages of advertising into their books? Have they already? During the scare produced by American conservative radio back in the 60’s, the idea that recording artists might be implanting secret, subconscious messages into their recordings, Alice Cooper said he has no idea how to go about doing that. But if he did, his message would be, “Buy more records.”
Orin Gat claims, “We read more today than ever in the past, especially due to the amount of information we consume online” (“The Essay and the Internet”). But Nicholas Carr would not consider that reading. Gat understands that and speaks of “the anxiety over the online essay going unread” (to say nothing of the anxiety of tweets dropping down the timeline unseen, unread, unliked). “There is a lot at stake in conversations about the economies of attention online,” Gat says. What is reading? To assay, to essay, is an attempt to find something by wandering. To browse is to try. The common ad is not meant to make a sale, but to establish and fortify brand, recognition. How do we read a logo? When the MTV logo was introduced as ever-changing, morphing letters, it went against the rules of advertising, but it was itself a video, a moving logo, perfectly suited to on-line viewing. It was made for TV, not print. How do we read an ad? If we include seeing or hearing ads as reading, Gat is certainly right that we read more today than ever before. And why would hearing, or listening, not be considered reading? McLuhan said every new technology takes its first content from a previous form. An example he uses is vaudeville appearing on new radio, then radio appearing on new television. It took time for radio and television to create their own, new content.
We see the body of the text. We are taught about the body of a paragraph. Print text a corpus, a corpse. The body of a paper, onion skin thin. The book is dead. The digital text is alive, alit, aglow. Illuminations. An illuminated manuscript, by hand, written and read by hand. By the fingers, as Russell Bennetts and Jeremy Fernando point out at the close of The Digital Critic. From Love’s Body, by Norman O. Brown:
The identification of God’s word with scripture, the written or printed word; somewhat to the neglect of the word made flesh. The book is a materialization of the spirit; instead of the living spirit, the worship of a new material idol, the book.
That book disappears online, becomes invisible. The ink and pages don’t smell, don’t yellow with age. From Love’s Body again: “Meaning is in the play, or interplay, of light…Meaning is not in things but in between; in the iridescence, the interplay; in the interconnections; at the intersections, at the crossroads.” When Jesus says, “This is my body, given up for you, broken for you” (into paragraphs, chapter and verse), do his words become flesh, metaphor? From Love’s Body again: “In the iridescence is flux, subverting the boundaries between things; all things flow.”
The Digital Critic’s final chapter features an interview with Legacy Russell:
The history of criticism is indeed deeply biased as it is co-dependent on the existence of the art or literary canon, and the idea of the canon exists within a white, heteronormative, hegemonic, trajectory. While the Internet is far from perfect, and certainly reflects many of the flaws of that which takes place offline, the importance of it is, in part, that it provides an opportunity to shatter the structure of The Critic and The Canon.
And the Body, as the Body of the Text becomes unfixed, moves in flux, along a spectrum of light. From Love’s Body again:
Symbolism is polymorphous perversity, the translation of all of our senses into one another, the interplay between the senses, the metaphor, the free translation. The separation of the senses, their mutual isolation, is sensuality, is sexual organization, is bondage to the tyranny of one partial impulse, leading to the absolute and exclusive concentration of the life of the body in the representative person.
The Digital Critic will serve for some time as a resource and reference book. A resource for online reading suggestions. References to topics of interest regarding the industry and pastimes of reading and writing. Blogging versus academic writing; publishing as criticism, advertising and criticism versus scholarship; the Tower of Babel the people might be building; translation and new entrants; literary gerrymandering; book group, text volume, theory and self-publication; exploited exposure; free press; non-traditional; long form; “for the Internet”; the quick take; markets; open access; samizdat and zines; housework and writing; readers creating meaning; topical criticism; content, comment and context; ongoing conversation; intent and types of critical judgment; scandal; gatekeeper; content and the ball and chain of the cloud; the filter of infrastructures – to suggest a few keywords.
About the Author:
Joe Linker has written and published three novels, Penina’s Letters, Coconut Oil and Alma Lolloon, and a children’s book, Scamble and Cramble: Two Hep Cats and Other Tall Tales, and Saltwort, a collection of poetical writings. He blogs at The Coming of the Toads.
Love is an Idiocy
by Joe Linker
by Elif Batuman,
Penguin Random House, 423 pp.
A tale told by an idiot signifying nothing might benefit from Walter Mosley’s advice in “This Year You Write Your Novel” to avoid first person narration unless you have an enthralling character. Elif Batuman’s The Idiot successfully ignores Mosley’s suggestion, proving the dull precisely who we want to hear from in our fast and furious life and times. For what is dull? Selin is the self-referential idiot in her first year at Harvard, not as buttoned down a gig as you might think, where, in 1995, email is as new and troublesome as knuckle balls, amid formal and staid if frivolous competition of classes. It seems the absence of body language is to blame for the ambiguities rife in email tweaking out a relationship. Selin is not the kind of girl to respond too quickly to a broadcast invitation to Daytona for Spring Break, not unless, of course, Ivan might be there. “Ready to peel the tomato?” I thought I might be hearing Pookie’s voice from “The Sterile Cuckoo,” Pookie, an earlier idiot.
We might learn that love is a fallacy either by falling in love at the slippery slope age or by reading Max Schulman’s short story about raccoon coats and golden girls. Gold in a girl is important because gold is pure but also soft and malleable. “Cool was I and logical. Keen, calculating, perspicacious, acute and astute. I was all of these…And think of it! I was only eighteen.” Oh, to be 18 again? Once is probably enough. “Fads, I submit, are the very negation of reason. To be swept up in every new craze that comes along, to surrender oneself to idiocy just because everybody else is doing it, this, to me, is the acme of mindlessness.” That’s all Schulman’s first person idiot, but is falling in love a fad?
Selin’s depiction of Frosh (a word she would probably never use) life at Harvard, as revealed through a cascading series of unmonumental anecdotes or existentially connected episodes, is frothless. There is a bit of ecstasy, but it’s a pill. She sees films. She may or may not bother giving the reader the film’s title. In her micro-brief anecdotal review of the film “about Pablo Neruda’s mailman,” for example, she does not give us the title, and we learn almost nothing of her critical or emotional response. The film is the 1995 Italian Il Postino, which won the Academy Award for music. It’s about the dangers of poetry in the hands of a proletariat. It’s also a multilayered (post WW II, Catholic, impoverished fishing village) comically political love story. The film is an adaptation of Antonio Skarmeta’s Burning Patience, in turn a fictional account of Neruda’s actual political exile off the coast of Chile. In the film, the island is moved to off of Italy. We hear about the film in one paragraph of The Idiot and forget about it in the next. I’d have forgotten about it here if it didn’t happen to be a film I’m familiar with, and I wondered how many of Selin’s similarly vague or incomplete references I might be missing. But this is her style. She’s being neither precocious nor pretentious. She’s being unmonumental.
The Idiot relies on anecdotal and episodic narrative realism. Micro episodes at school give way in Part Two to a slightly tighter thread of events, though these events can scarcely be called a plot, unless a plot may consist of a collage of characters. “Like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book,” Selin considers. And we have already met multiple such characters in The Idiot. Some come and go without names: “…there was no way that guy, the professor, was going to tell me anything useful”; the adjunct professor who “also said stupid things, but they were in Spanish, so you learned more.” Selin volunteers to tutor a couple of GED students off campus, foil characters that by comparison help isolate and highlight Selin’s experience, because in their opinions, it’s doubtful she is going to tell them anything useful. Not that any of it matters, because knowledge is not happiness: “Overwhelmed by happiness, the little girl began to sing. She was so happy – but she didn’t know what anything really was. She didn’t know what anything meant. She knew even less than we did.” In any case, we never see them again.
Wherever Selin happens to find herself, she seems like a stranger in a strange land. She lives in the moment, recording detail after detail of her immediate environment, what she sees and hears and touches and smells and tastes. The Idiot unfolds paragraph after paragraph like layers of an onion or leaves of an artichoke: “One of the most remarkable things about the giant sculpted deep-fried onion was its powerful resemblance to an artichoke. Ralph told me about the onion and artichoke theories of humanity, which he had learned in sociology class. According to the artichoke theory, man had some inner essence, or ‘heart’; according to the onion theory, once you had unwrapped all the layers of society off of man, there was nothing there. Seen from this perspective, the idea of an onion masquerading as an artichoke seemed sinister, even sociopathic.” Can a novel masquerade as an onion masquerading as an artichoke?
The Idiot is structured into two parts, “Part One,” containing the chapters “Fall” and “Spring,” which take place at Harvard, and “Part Two,” containing chapters “June” through “August,” which take place on the road: Paris; Hungary, where Selin has a five week appointment as an English teacher; and we end up in Turkey (on the tail wind of a couple of very long and funny airplane rides). The Idiot’s antagonist is probably Ivan, who stands frustratingly in the way of Selin getting what she wants, but could also be Selin herself, unable to navigate quickly through the unrequited zone – well, then the unrequited zone would be the antagonist. Svetlana is wonderful as a major foil character to Selin. Their locutions are completely different. No one talks the same in The Idiot. No wonder everyone is so hard for the idiot to understand. The Idiot is not to be confused with Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, or with Duras’s The Lover, or with Jong’s Fear of Flying, but that’s where I put it on my bookshelf. Were Elif to offer such a reading list for a Stanford class I would sign up. Alas, “pas assez, pas assez,” not to mention too late for this old geezer.
“The street looked empty but was full of words,” Selin says, and it is her facility with language that propels the relationship the reader easily joins. She has a canny command of metaphor, lighting similes like cigarettes, fresh and bouncy, like fireflies: “the smell of salami and smoked fish hit us in the face like a curtain.” Description does its job while suggesting character: “The sky looked like a load of glowing grayish laundry that someone had washed with a red shirt.” A few critics seemed to have missed some descriptive sex writing. Surely they also missed the point, given Batuman’s control of words, their argument went, ignoring the real Selin. But what a waste and disappointment that would surely have been, I think. As it is, this is much better: “’The point isn’t whether it’s interesting,’ he said after a moment, and rubbed his thumb and index finger together. I felt a jolt of sexual current, and I was appalled…what if my body also responded in some way to money? What if that was the way women were?” Selin’s story is rife with expectation, and isn’t that what good courting is about?
The Idiot employs a kind of punch line sentence and paragraph, incremental and additive, noun and verb usually up front. Selin could be a standup comedian, the unmonumental her subject. “She had a bright red mouth drawn with lipstick, slightly smaller than her actual mouth. Suddenly the image came into my mind of her putting on her lipstick in the morning while Ivan stood in the door and they talked about nothing, like they were doing now – about the trivial and contentious things that somehow made up the whole of life. Everything stopped. Space and time shut down, one dimension at a time, the sky collapsing from a dome to a plane, the plane collapsing into a line, and then there were no surroundings, there was nothing but forward, and then there wasn’t even forward.” One’s life and thoughts may be trivial, but that doesn’t mean one is not important to the whole.
Imagine being still in a world full of fast and furious scholastic and academic and family and political bombast. You spend a year at Harvard, summer visiting Paris then teaching English in Hungary (trying to tryst with a sputtering match), and end swimming in Turkey with the thought that at the end of your year of study, wooing, and worldly experience, you’ve learned nothing. What an idiot.
All the World’s a Bill-bard
by Joe Linker
The free world is a monstrous protection racket, Gary Snyder claimed in “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution,” an essay in the collection Earth House Hold (New Directions, 1969). Not much seems to have changed in the half century since, and Snyder’s claim might still speak to both politics and poetics:
No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics and social orders. The national polities of the modern world maintain their existence by deliberately fostered craving and fear: monstrous protection rackets. The ‘free world’ has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself, the persons one is supposed to love, or the revolutionary aspirations of pitiful, poverty-stricken marginal societies like Cuba or Vietnam. The conditions of the Cold War have turned all modern societies – Communist included – into vicious distorters of man’s true potential. They create populations of ‘preta’ – hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil, the forests and all animal life are being consumed by these cancerous collectivities; the air and water of the planet is being fouled by them (90-91).
The Captain-elect of a new Ship of Fools, his vassals jockeying for position aboard the whirling vessel, packing for the move, appears to be offering a revision of Snyder’s argument – to wit: The free world is simply a racket. All the world’s a racket, Shakespeare might have said. But the world may be neither monstrous nor protective, but involve more of a random kind of racket, where one might be taken out by a bomb or a mosquito, a kiss or a tuss, a vote or an abstinence, a gun or a pen.
“These five fingers did a King to death,” Dylan Thomas intoned, and “Great is the hand that holds dominion over / Man by a scribbled name” (“The hand that signed the paper,” 1935). Indeed, and “Some will rob you with a six gun, others with a fountain pen,” Woody Guthrie drew from his quiver (“Pretty Boy Floyd,” 1958), but “O make me a mask and a wall to shut from your spies,” I will have Thomas here reply. Maybe a wall would not be such a bad idea after all, were it to wall off lies. Did an advertisement (Make US Great Again) do a democracy to death?
…Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
(“As You Like It,” Act II, Scene VII)
Damage control specialists, Rack and Burns, detectives and pollsters at large, have posted a revision to their billboard on Main Street: “They’re with
The new Captain-elect and his ship of fools might remind one of Faulkner’s trilogy of the Snopes family, where the land in “The Hamlet,” The Town,” and “The Mansion” passes from a doomed and deservedly desecrated and ruined aristocracy to bright and lively malls of advertised goods up and down shopping streets that look the same in every town, streets strewn with gargantuan billboards, gaudy flashing signs, motels motels motels, stalled honking traffic, fast food dives, stop ‘n gos, gas stations, furniture and appliance stores, on ramps and off ramps, and at the end of a side road and down a quiet lane lined with mobile homes, under a giant chestnut tree a one room church that somehow still endures, but its touching potter’s field sacked.
Much of Faulkner’s work speaks to what endures. But he probably thought the work of the human heart, the work that might endure, would never be finished, because it is work done outside the mainstream, off the boulevard, out of the limelight, away from centers of interest and influence and business. There is no pay in it, and it won’t pay the bills. From Faulkner’s essay “On Privacy – The American Dream: what happened to it?”:
America has not yet found any place for him who deals only in things of the human spirit except to use his notoriety to sell soap or cigarettes or fountain pens or to advertise automobiles and cruises and resort hotels, or (if he can be taught to contort fast enough to meet the standards) in radio or moving pictures where he can produce enough income tax to be worth attention. But the scientist and the humanitarian, yes: the humanitarian in science and the scientist in the humanity of man, who might yet save that civilization which the professionals at saving it – the publishers who condone their own battening on man’s lust and folly, the politicians who condone their own trafficking in his stupidity and greed, and the churchmen who condone their own trading on his fear and superstition – seem to be proving that they can’t
(Harper’s, July 1955).
A Gilded Age never completely fades away, and easy it is for the average citizen to get sidetracked down the streets of promise, pubs full of Telecaster blues, the smell of smoke and beer mixed with perfume and sawdust, coffee houses full of folk songs and lush espressos, a movie ticket away from the allure of Hollywood, of show and tell, bright lights, big city, casinos, parades, parties and celebrations. Listen to Walt Whitman, writing a century before Gary Snyder, but who also prefers the outdoors:
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation,
it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
(“Song of Myself,” #2).
And the shingles hung out everywhere advertise – allure – escape: schools, churches, a job with benefits (however diminished), tenures, cults, unions, businesses, profits, non-profits, promised lands of prescriptions, proscriptions, and predispositions – where one doesn’t have to think for oneself anymore, where one can simply follow the leader, and as far back in the line as one is, it hardly seems to matter in what direction the leader is headed. And at least you’re in line. Ah, access, what is access?
What is called the news may often have been prone to fake aspects, something to do with advertising and propaganda, not to mention who owns the venues. Iago whispers lies to Othello’s self-detriment, news of the household day. Imagine the headlines: King Lear Finds Fault with Favored Daughter! Crazed Hamlet Claims Vision of Father’s Ghost! Polonius Releases 33 Gertrude Love Notes to Claudius! Friar Aids Double Suicide! Shakespeare invents subliminal influence and talk shows pick up the threads after newspapers disappear.
Meantime, the Ultimate Corporate mission statement assures one and all its vision wholesome, entirely keeping with community contribution. Its brand logo can’t be missed, continuous reminders appear everywhere (Joyce’s HCE: Haveth Corpus Everywhere), and its stakeholders are many and inextricably and often inexplicably linked – upriver, downriver, cross river.
Well, in a sense, it could be true, that we really are floating the river together. Walls and registries, wars and terror, capital and labor, arguments and appeasements, all endlessly discussed in public house or church – these worries come and go; is there any reason to think they’ll end soon? Have we missed some important sign of the second coming. Perhaps we missed the second coming altogether, missed the grand rapture. Did no one tweet it? Unhappiness pervades the silence and the noise.
Kwame Anthony Appiah proposes a solution to the mess we’ve made of getting along on our own Ship of Fools in his concept of Cosmopolitanism:
The challenge is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become….There are two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. People are different, the cosmopolitan knows, and there is much to learn from our differences. Because there are so many human possibilities worth exploring, we neither expect nor desire that every person or every society should converge on a single mode of life. Whatever our obligations are to others (or theirs to us) they often have the right to go their own way. As we’ll see, there will be times when these two ideals – universal concern and respect for legitimate difference – clash. There’s a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.
(Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Norton paperback 2007, xii:xv).
But we may not feel so cosmopolitan living off our local Main Street. But our own neighbors may already be more different than we suspect, or expect. Maybe we don’t really know them. Maybe they have values, fears, wants, needs, that go well beyond the stereotype names we’ve given them for easy cataloging of kith and kind: member of whatever church; member of whatever union; flies a desk in the insurance tower downtown; teaches kindergarten in the burb; works for the city; plumber by trade; conservative; liberal; high tech; laborer; and writes poetry on the side, moonlighting… Wait, what? Poet? In times like these?
From Ferlinghetti’s Translator’s Note to “Selections from Paroles” by Jacques Prevert (City Lights, 1964):
It is plain that ‘paroles’ means both Words and Passwords. Prevert spoke particularly to the French youth immediately after the War, especially to those who grew up during the Occupation and felt totally estranged from Church and State. Since then we have had our own kind of resistance movement in our writers of dissent – dissent from the official world of the upper middleclass ideal and the White Collar delusion and various other systematized tribal insanities. Prevert was saying it in the Thirties. Prevert is one of those who holds on to your sleeve and says: ‘Don’t go for it…keep out of it.’ … But he goes on to tell what human effort really is, and we are treated to tritenesses about the low-salaried proletariat which at least discouraged this translator from finishing the poem [“Human Effort”]. Perhaps, unhappily, such observations are still not trite in France, while we look down upon them from our too wellfed heights, as complacent as any cochon Prevert attacks. (3-4).
The power of the poem – its ability to pass on secrets that may save lives. And that is why we still make time to sit out (whatever our dues-paying occupation happens to be) at the sidewalk café table writing poems on paper napkins. And that is why I stitched this together, to pass on a few secrets that might somewhere down the line save a life, not from death, necessarily, but from fear or hate or being enclosed within the wall of a hollow organ.
About the Author:
Joe Linker lives in Portland, Oregon and blogs at The Coming of the Toads.
Li Po’s Restless Night: Improvisations on a Theme
by Joe Linker
Florence showed me what she called the most famous of Chinese poems. She had made her own translation from a Chinese language newspaper clipping. The poem was accompanied by a cartoon-like drawing of a man lifting up from a cot, the moon in his face and eyes, the moonlight coming through an open window and shining on the cot and a bedroom floor. Florence explained the poem to me, and wanted me to help her work on her translation of the poem into English, and we enjoyed sharing language lessons. For some time after I left the school, I kept in touch with Florence, but it’s been many years now. I used to hear from her every Christmas; she would send me a long, handwritten letter in impeccable penmanship and flawless English grammar, and usage and sentence structure, and ask me to “correct” the writing for her.
I knew the Chinese poet, Li Po, who wrote the original poem. The poem has been variously translated to describe the speaker awake at night, or awakening, thinking, far from home, or perhaps far from the past, thus perhaps rethinking the past, or what we call remembering, or reflecting. The poem might suggest a bittersweet homesickness; a longing. Usually, in translations, there’s moonlight and frost, one mistaken for the other in the night, and a mountain and a moon, a confused awakening at night with thoughts of home. Just as the moonlight is mistaken for frost, the setting is mistaken for home. Or perhaps there is no mistake. The speaker awakes, and then drops back to sleep and dreams of home. Florence said that most Chinese of her generation would recognize the poem. She invited me over to her place. She wanted to present me with a few books. The books were old and travelled. One was titled Chinese Phrase Book, published by the War Department and dated “December 10, 1943.” Another was titled Chinese Military Dictionary, also published by the War Department and dated “26 May 1944.” They were military vocabulary manuals, small enough for a foot soldier to carry in a pocket. The word poem was not included in either one.
I first met Li Po in a Chinese literature in translation class at Cal State Dominguez Hills. One of our texts was the first Evergreen edition (1967) of the 1965 Grove Press Anthology of Chinese Literature: from early times to the fourteenth century, edited by Cyril Birch. I still have this book, but Li Po’s poem about the moonlight and frost and thoughts of home is not included. It is included in Robert Payne’s The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry From the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Newly Translated (1947). The translation Payne includes of the Li Po poem is the only one I’m aware of that mentions a “couch,” and the speaker’s thoughts are of the “earth,” not explicitly of home. It’s possible to read that the speaker is sleeping outdoors.
Florence inspired me to begin writing a series of variations on the theme of Li Po’s poem. I called them “improvisations,” to give a more clear idea of the method of composition, and to suggest my interest in jazz and John Cage. I started the variations, or improvisations, after I left my full-time position at the school where I had met Florence for what the Chinese poet Han Shan called the “red dust” of business (see Gary Snyder, below). And during my red dust years, I worked the Li Po theme into over 100 variations, adding to and reworking the lot of them several times over the years. Florence was very interested at the time in my decision to leave teaching. More, she was concerned. She rode the bus over to my place to visit.
Business jobs often take would be poets on the road, on one-night- or long stays in motels, where the travelling businessperson might learn something new about night thoughts and remembrance.
I do not speak or read Chinese, but I remember a few of the insights Florence gave me into the character of Chinese writing. Poetry should be an everyday occurrence, not necessarily a scholarly effort or something for a classroom, but a habit of mind, like a simple melody one might hum to oneself while pulling weeds in the garden, or like random thoughts while drifting off to sleep, the kind that turn into dreams, where memory is mixed with the present, and ordinary happenings, like a blanket slipping off the bed, assume momentous images, like running up a beach to escape a giant wave.
This poetry as a habit of mind might resemble the kind of poetry the Chinese lived with when writing and reading poetry was commonplace. Poems were written, we learn from Gary Snyder’s translation of the Lu-ch’iu Yin preface to the poems of Han-shan, “…on bamboo, wood, stones and cliffs…on the walls of people’s houses.” Li Po is not included in either of Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Chinese books. Rexroth seems to have preferred Tu Fu. The Li Po poem Florence taught me is included in Arthur Cooper’s Penguin Li Po and Tu Fu (1973). I also have in my library the Seaton and Cryer Li Po and Tu Fu: Bright Moon, Perching Bird (1987), which includes the Li Po poem; Vikram Seth’s Three Chinese Poets (1992), which includes the poem under the name Li Bai, which may more closely approximate the Chinese pronunciation of Li Po’s name (and Seth’s is the only translation I’ve seen to use the word “hoarfrost”); and Eliot Weinberger’s The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry (2003), which includes two translations of the Li Po poem, one by David Hinton and one by Ezra Pound.
Florence used the newspaper drawing to help explain Li Po’s poem to me, but it seemed that she read the drawing in almost the same way that she read the poem written in Chinese that appeared in the newspaper next to the drawing. The drawing may have been a kind of prose paraphrase of the poem’s Chinese characters. How many poems do we know whose essence can be depicted in a drawing? In any case, Li Po’s poem is clear and concise enough that most of the translations vary from one another only slightly and with little contradiction. This is not true of, for example, the Tu Fu poem also about night thoughts. Rexroth gives us, “My poems have made me famous…”; Hinton, “…How will poems bring honor?”; and Seth, the seemingly contradictory, “Letters have brought no fame.” But if we had only the drawing depicting the Li Po poem, our interpretation would be limited, a different kind of reading experience.
Florence’s reading suggested blending image and cultural artifact. Still, the experience is limited by distance, by the exercise of translation, by the evolution of vocabulary, by forgetfulness, and by the confusion created from metaphor. There are two urging metaphors in Li Po’s poem. One likens moonlight with frost; the other compares a present setting with one absent or past. The relationship of the two metaphors was important to Florence’s reading. Fall term had just begun, and it was clear Florence was thinking of home in a variety of contexts. It was clear she had experienced Li Po’s poem.
How might today’s readers experience the Li Po poem in their own lives, rather than making a study of it as an example of Chinese literature? We might discuss the idea that informs the poem, perhaps an effective and efficient way to both experience and study poetry, as Kenneth Koch suggested in his book Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, written from his experience teaching what he called “great” poetry to children in New York City schools. After getting the idea of the great poem, Koch’s students then wrote their own poem versions illustrating that idea. One idea that might be found in Li Po’s poem, of an awareness that comes to one in the present time of something experienced in the past, is surely a common occurrence, which might explain the popularity and longevity of Li Po’s poem. Another idea found in Li Po’s poem is the common experience of awakening and initially forgetting that we fell asleep not in our own bed. That we live in an age where many of us have neither the time nor the inclination to be reflective merely accentuates those times when, falling asleep away from home, we are awakened by the illumination of some foreign light, but in our sleepiness, we might easily confuse the light with some other light, or our current bed with some other bed.
My original poems that were variations and improvisations on Li Po’s poem were handwritten in a pocket size, blank book. I reached one hundred handwritten variations, and I started to type them up. I went to one hundred and one. One hundred and one seems excessive, but an excess I fancy Li Po would have approved. I’ve continued to make changes, mostly minor but some major, to date. But I have kept to the order of the original little notebook. The variations do not follow a literal chronology, for the memory knows no order, at least mine doesn’t. My strategy was to write in a way that would be accessible to the general reader, and while the variations are personal, most if not all of them should be as easy to reach as Li Po’s original poem. The Chinese poets were artists in drawing as well as in writing. I have had only to write; yet I hope drawings are suggested. I used the word theme because I like the idea that thesis states and theme explores, and I’m more interested in exploration than statement. And so the variations continue to explore the theme Li Po set up so long ago and that Florence gave to me, long ago, now, also.
But we live in the Late Irony Age now, and the age is collapsing upon itself, and our quiet night thoughts may begin to assume more bizarre variations in forms of remembering home. I now imagine a graphic novel, “Li Po’s Restless Night,” yet another variation. Two characters now occupy the little cot. One, lifting up in the moonlight, in the first panel, says: “Near my bed moonlight spreads silver paint across the bare fir floor. I fall back to sleep, far from the warm dunes of home.”
In the second panel, both characters are now awake, the moon throwing the bed in shadowed relief, the drawing stark, black and white contrasts: “If you had not fallen asleep so drunk, you would know the difference between moonlight on the floor and frost in the grass.”
Third panel: “I awoke with a clear mind, wind through water. This would not have happened were I in my own, sober bed. Listen, it’s the waves rising down in the cove. No! It’s the train rattling across the trestle. No, still, it’s the cold wind in the pine grove.”
Fourth panel: “Go back to sleep. It was your own stupid snoring that awoke you. Quit thinking of home. It’s all gone now.”
Fifth panel: “I’m getting up and going for a walk. It’s what Li Po would have done.”
Sixth panel: “You are not Li Po, nor do you know the first thing about Li Po. Get back into bed before you go out and slip on the ice and crack your stupid skull.”
Seventh panel: “That’s not nice, and that’s not ice! That’s moonlight on the parchment.”
It is early evening, and I hike up into the dunes above the beach that reminds me of yet another time long ago. The surf seen from the silence of the dunes curls over a few surfers still in the water in the evening glass off. What’s become of my brothers and sisters? The house is empty without them. With a flop swish, the blue waves fall below the silence of the dunes. In the back yard, a lost moon throws figures into shadows. Two figures are playing a chess game. A Ping-Pong ball clips and clops back and forth across a net. A plastic ball shuffles high up into a tree. And what of my father, cactus, and my mother, twisted cypress shadow, alone on a hill in California, the sun falling now before them? These images appear and reappear throughout the variations. Drinking beer in the golden air behind the tavern, near the dry creek bed, an old couple sits talking, in the shade of a blossoming plum tree.
Eighth panel: “Why a moon, anyway? And why just one?” Why not two, as I lie awake thinking of Li Po and Tu Fu, of Florence, Son House, and misconstrue.
About the Author:
Joe Linker lives in Portland, Oregon and blogs at The Coming of the Toads.