Mr. Bodhair awoke drinking purple fortified mulled wine, spiced with rotting fish, from the mouth of a grotesque gargoyle (disturbingly aware of the redundancy), a recurring dream in which he scaled the crumbling masonry walls of some late medieval gothic cathedral, compelled by an insatiable thirst for water, only to be frustrated by the bizarre flows of undrinkable fluids emitted from the throats of the unspeakable yet annoyingly noisy concreted creatures. He got out of bed, pissed, and started the coffee percolator, smoking a cigarette while he waited, refusing to think about his gargoyles, believing the interpretation of dreams, like poetry, a waste of time, along the lines of horoscopes, prayer, or NASA.
“Talk” is another book acquired some time ago but left initially unread, sitting in a stack on a table, even reshuffled, as if for a game of solitaire, or as if it needed to thaw or season before consuming, opened for a few bites but put back down for something else, but when picked up again finally found its taste delightful, finished, and thoroughly enjoyed. And nothing will do but I must talk about it. Did I pick “Talk” out of the free library book box down on the corner? I don’t recall, and it doesn’t really matter except that I’ve started these short short reviews here at The Toads I’m tagging “Lit Crit Shorts,” though they are not proper reviews, as was discussed off-line after my posting of an LCS of “The Ant.” By proper is meant the reviewer talks mainly about the book in hand, gives it a few stars, or fewer, to indicate degree to which it was liked or is being recommended: ***** or *** or *. Of course you can like something without it at all being good or good for you. In any case, I’m not interested in writing that kind of review. But neither are these so-called Lit Crit Shorts an original form. The New Yorker in a weekly feature publishes four “briefly noted” book reviews, single paragraphs, an art form in its own right. Clear and concise sentences too, unlike the ones you’ll likely stumble over here at The Toads, like miscreant directions in an unfamiliar part of town. Not that I can’t write a perfectly navigable sentence or a proper book review, one that will get a reader home safely. And there are templates for that sort of thing. Plates that match. And how do you cast something without a mold? Still, it’s the reflective, personal (as in personal essay) response to a reading I’m interested in, not a discussion of whether or not the thing holds true to a tradition or has lit out for some territory previously uncharted, though of course that’s important too and there’s no reason it can’t be included, in any form desired. Authors of course, their publishers and company, are interested in reviews that will cause their books to fly off shelves. Click here to order now! But if someone is not likely to read your book, why would they read a review of your book? And if they are going to read your book, why would they want to read a review of your book? Likewise, I won’t watch movie trailers, unless I’m not going to see the movie. And I’m not just talking about spoiler alert here. I love reading TNY “Briefly Noted” reviews, yet in some 50 years of reading The New Yorker, I’m not sure I’ve ever ran out and purchased a book as a result of seeing it “Briefly Noted.” I’m probably an exception here, but I’m not sure that readers of book reviews are the same readers as those of the books. I read book reviews for the book review, not for the book. And longer reviews demand, or should require, a degree of research the common writer is not likely qualified to conduct. And, yes, if there is such a thing as a common reader, why should there not also be someone called a common writer? We don’t all need or want to be specialists. The generalist can bring to a study a perspective the specialist is too close to envision. But the ease with which we are all able to opine these days calls for double checking of a speaker’s ethos, logos, and pathos – their means of persuasion, an ability to read into a speaker’s presuppositions, assumptions, and biases. And it does indeed appear, alas, the ability to check independently for reliability, credibility, authority – in short, to check sources – is startlingly uncommon. We don’t need to crave facts, or only facts, there’s no fun in just that; it’s good to able to deconstruct a statement to its constituent parts, to read the book in a bumper sticker. That is what mechanics do, and what readers ought to aspire to do. A prerequisite to talking about books is the ability to listen to a book, and it’s hard to talk and listen at the same time. You can follow that link, btw, to a New Yorker Page Turner book review from July 1, 2015, where the reviewer, Molly Fischer, finds the novel “Talk” “weirdly arduous.” It reminded her of Sartre’s play “No Exit,” where hell is described as “other people,” of which there are three, same as Rosenkrantz’s “Talk,” though Sartre included a valet. I also thought of “No Exit” while I was reading “Talk,” but I didn’t find reading “Talk” any more arduous than watching the TV sitcom “Friends,” which Stephen Koch suggests in his introduction to the 2015 copy might be a successor to “Talk.” I did think of tweets and today’s social media and the like, which Molly also tangents into, but only because of their notable absence from “Talk.” I liked “Talk” because it was written around and takes place in 1965, on the beach, with little to distract the characters but the distractions of their own making. They indeed come of age in an existential time and place, with the privilege of being able to make their own choices, and make them they do, with one another’s help through the knack (dare I say art) of talking and listening. And “Talk” is interesting for not only what is said but what the characters don’t talk about, or talk very little about. They no doubt would have very few followers on a social media platform like today’s Twitter. Their talk isn’t about nothing, in spite of its being existentially grounded. “Talk” reminded me also of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Waiting on the beach, “Talk” might have been subtitled. “Talk” I recommend especially for readers who today might be around the age of 30, as well as for readers who may have been somewhere in their formative years in the mid 1960’s. “Talk” is a modern classic.
If you fall into a round bottle,
it’s hard to climb back out.
Some fall from windows, heli-
copters, or love, uncapped
and uncorked, go with the flow.
Others fall into formation,
couplets on the go and make
do with whom or what
they find out or in line
falling in or falling out.
Won’t you please tell me your rules,
style flaws that send you over the edge,
your conjugations, constructions, con-
junctions, your clauses and marks
memorized, when to be and not to be,
double negatives and things dangling
in white space and other wedded dark
matter; for I will find immense
pleasure in breaking & trashing
the etiquette of your ways & days.
Nomere Ana R. Chist
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“A poem should be wordlessArs Poetica
As the flight of birds.”
BY ARCHIBALD MACLEISH
having cut it out [it, all its]
pleasure now without article
consider blue hydrangea
from pot to ground
root, stem, leaf, bud
in which will we find
cup without coffee
gives us to mark time
a day without hours
hours without minutes
minutes without seconds
where will we find time
for whole things
into whole language
grown in pots
can not be
To envision a V
perceive to verify
unfold in flight
and to survive
(without dropping out)
& other reifications
the keyboard caret
when shifting six
for turning things
& pointing out
to be inserted
at this point
D for dan buoy cork
with flag to mark
To dose is to give, a gift. Not to be confused with to douse, to souse. I felt somewhat pickled yesterday morning waking up absurdly early to get to my 2nd Pfizer dose down at the Convention Center, no time for coffee. This diabolical virus travails! (And it’s not often I use the exclamation point.) But I felt peaceful, if not happy, and light in the early morning sun. I was reminded of commuting days, leaving home the morning still night. Ah, but the morning! The fresh starts! The spring smells fueled by a full spring sun. The Convention Center was again abuzz, as if for a game or a concert. The loop was well oiled, and I soon found myself sitting in the waiting area for 2nd dosers, 15 still, quiet minutes, like sitting in church, waiting. I prayed for peace, happiness, and lightness, for myself and for others who came to mind, those I love, and those I don’t, feeling none too much any of it – had I been in a cot instead of a chair I’d have fallen back to sleep. Holy Thursday on the Catholic calendar. The Last Supper. Today, Good Friday. All bearing crosses, awake and asleep, crossing, looping in lines for the wearying doses, soused by the pandemic, in procession, waiting.
Around noon yesterday, a bumper to bumper half block line of cars continuously moved like connected parts of a tram and entered the dark barrow shaft entrance to the Oregon Convention Center underground parking mine, while a similar line of cars exited back into the partly sunny Portland spring day. Once in the garage, visitors politely and patiently vied for parking spots, which quickly opened and closed thanks to an efficient and extensive mass vaccination loop leading from the garage and through the building, organized by volunteers and clinicians from various organizations, including what appeared to be a deployment of an Oregon National Guard platoon. With the exception of the mandatory wait after being vaccinated, to watch for reactions, visitors had no still time to browse the book brought along or take out the knitting needles. Indeed, few were even looking at their cell phones, intent and occupied as they were with following personalized directions and moving along – short stays at this or that staffed table to answer a few questions, show ID, sit for the quick shot of vaccine, and schedule the second appointment (if this was the first) while waiting for the reaction release time written on tape and displayed on one’s shirt to expire.
The goers to this convention seemed mostly older folks, most of whom no doubt did not consider themselves particularly old, just of a particular age, which would be considered an inadequate definition of a person. Yet here we were, grouped together by age and moving along like a line of kindergarteners on a field trip. Except for the Guard, everybody looked somehow out of uniform. Question: How can you tell a group of people is older? Answer: There are no tattoos. One fellow I noticed was wearing the rubber shower shoes we used to call go-aheads, shorts, and a flowered t-shirt, not regular gear in a Northwest winter month. A newcomer from California, maybe.
Not without some trepidation had I prepared myself for the field trip before leaving home: what to wear? what route to take? what book to bring? Did I have my ID and medical card? How would I prove my appointment confirmation? This last, it turned out, I had over prepared for, and unwittingly as a result momentarily fell from the loop. Once into the building and into line, I noticed just about everyone was carrying a piece of paper, a print out, it turned out, of their email appointment confirmation. I no longer have a printer, but the email came with a QR (Quick Response) code that can be saved to and read by a cell phone or other scanner. And I had already pre-confirmed via online registration site the appointment, so I thought with that and my QR code saved to my phone, I was good to go. There were two lines moving quickly, everyone six feet apart and masked, instructed to be ready with confirmation proof. We were not yet within the Exhibit Room itself, but still in the lobby with its majestically high ceilings and large windows and aisleways full of natural light. When I reached the volunteer at the end of my line, I showed her my QR code on my cell phone, assuming she would scan it. But she said, “No, I need to see the date.” I had before leaving home cropped the code so it was fully visible, cutting off the rest of the email, including the date. As I now scrambled to find the original, she brushed my effort aside, pulled me from line, and directed me to a woman at a computer located at the end of a kind of train siding line, where no one was in line, so I quickly made my way to the computer and showed my QR code. Instead of scanning it, though, she asked my last name, looked at her computer, said, “Hi, Joe, go on in.” I merged back into line, my confidence in the efficiency of the loop restored, even if my QR code never did get scanned. I was reminded of the time when my girlfriend and I went to see the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the LA Forum. We waited in line while the gatekeepers took tickets and ushered people toward their tunnels, and too late realized that they were also checking purses. When my girlfriend opened hers, the little pint of as yet unopened Southern Comfort placed comfortably and clearly visible within, the gatekeeper said, “Go on in.” Jimi would have been 78 today, and could have fit comfortably into the vaccination line with the rest of us.
Also, as it turned out, I had overdressed as well as over prepared. I began with my loose fitting Red Sox t-shirt, thinking I would take my outer shirt off and easily roll up the sleeve of the t-shirt to take the shot. Over the t-shirt, I wore a flannel long sleeved shirt untucked, and over that, a vest with many pockets for holding things like book, pen, and cell phone. And over the vest, a bright yellow, thin rain jacket. In both vest and jacket pockets I had stored an extra face mask. At one station, I was given a packet of information with a page to fill out: name, address, phone number, etc. And mother’s maiden name? Good grief! And the same questions, this time answered yes or no with check mark, I’d already been asked by a nice enough fellow at the station where I picked up the form, and from where I was directed to a grouping of round tables with golf pencils available for the filling out of the form. At the next station, an Army NG Sergeant asked to see my papers and ID. He did some work on his computer, scanned my medical card, wrote 70 in bright red ink at the top of my worksheet, and pointed me to yet another volunteer who directed me into a vaccination line. It was at this point I recalled the infamous follow the yellow line at my downtown LA draft induction physical, circa late 60’s. What a loop that one was, but I was now on deck, next up, and was directed to a desk number where sat a clinician with vaccine at the ready. She invited me to sit, and that’s when I realized I had worn too many tops. Trying to take the rain jacket, vest, and flannel shirt off all in one swift move, my arms got all tangled up in sleeves and tails and I fell into the seat feeling like a kindergartner who has just failed hanging up coat after recess. More questions, mostly the same ones, the shot (routine – the loose fitting t-shirt at least proved to be a good idea), bright day glow green bandaid, the piece of tape showing my wait time stuck to my Red Sox shirt, and I was on my way to the waiting area to sit out the reaction wait time and schedule my next appointment, all the while wrestling on the go trying to put my arms through the sleeves of my mess of shirts.
The wait time proved invaluable as the cell phone scheduling of the second appointment looped and looped, looking like it was going to take as long as it took the schedule the first appointment – over an hour, while getting the vaccination, from parking to shot, had taken only about 15 minutes. But a volunteer happened by, I asked her for help, and she looked at my phone and said, “Oh, just type something into that space, anything, hi.” And I did. I typed “hi,” hit “schedule” again, and the loop stopped looping and kicked out my appointment: 3 weeks out, at 7:45 AM. Good grief!
Field trip over, headed back home, reflecting on the experience. Before getting a vaccine appointment, folks generally are experiencing frustration and anxiety over the computerized process, the apparent vying for a limited number of appointments, feeling uninformed as protocols and procedures seem to change weekly, thinking it shouldn’t be this way, stuck in a time loop. The Convention Center experience, to the contrary, was personable, friendly, efficient. And I was sent home with a card confirming what I had just accomplished. I have it stuck with a magnet to the icebox.
“Houston, we have a problem.” The now cliche hyperbolic understatement comes from the Apollo 13 mission to land on Earth’s moon in 1970. Part of the flight journal, dialog between astronauts Jack Swigert and Jim Lovell and Mission Control Houston can be read on Wiki:
055:55:19 Swigert: Okay, Houston…
055:55:19 Lovell: …Houston…
055:55:20 Swigert: …we’ve had a problem here.
055:55:28 Lousma: This is Houston. Say again, please.
055:55:35 Lovell: Ah, Houston, we’ve had a problem. We’ve had a Main B Bus Undervolt.
But they persevered, came up with a plan, called an audible, held on tight, and made it home to a grateful country. Last week, a seemingly ungrateful US senator from Texas, unaware, apparently, of other cliches of crisis, such as, “The Captain goes down with the ship,” and “Women and children first,” lit out for a Cancun resort hotel while his constituents back home faced freezing weather, loss of heat for their homes from frozen gas lines, and loss of electrical power for their homes from damaged equipment left exposed to extreme weather conditions, all while remaining lined up according to protocols made necessary by a limited supply of pandemic vaccine. The New York Times editorial board provided the lessons, though we might doubt if any lessons learned will be put to the test. What seems to persevere the most is political rhetoric aimed at scuttling the facts, the issues, what actually broke and why, in short, the truth. But while Texas was suffering from a statewide major “undervolt,” the third Mars rover, “Perseverance,” landed safely on Mars, close to 300 million miles away.
The irony of another space exploration achievement while the country’s infrastructure, education, medical, work, and political systems continue to spiral out of control, reminds us of the response from the classic news journalist Eric Sevareid, who, for one, was unimpressed with the promise of the first photographs promised of the dark side of the moon, many moons ago. From his short article, “The Dark Side of the Moon”:
“There is, after all, another side — a dark side — to the human spirit, too. Men have hardly begun to explore these regions; and it is going to be a very great pity if we advance upon the bright side of the moon with the dark side of ourselves, if the cargo in the first rockets to reach there consists of fear and chauvinism and suspicion. Surely we ought to have our credentials in order, our hands very clean and perhaps a prayer for forgiveness on our lips as we prepare to open the ancient vault of the shining moon.”
And we continue to advance, to persevere, to and fro, back and forth, a few steps forward, another few backward.
One story, unfinished, a fragment. The writing cools from a weak plot and flat characterization. The story fills the page we are on, but we may not be on the same page as others reading the same story (based on the assumption there can only be one story), and no one can page backward or forward. That other pages even exist is therefore without proof. Our story has grown since the first word, and continues to expand. The distance from the beginning to the end is therefore immeasurable. We will never have the whole story, but that’s another story.