War On

Somewhere usually a war on near or far but
most of the world watches war as audience
in a theatre or in a church reminded darkly
sacrifice need not be so bloody violent some
of course preoccupied by their own war know
the maps the open fields the rivers and farms
i remember watching one of the wars on TV
donald rumsfeld mumbled something about
Iraq being the first war of the new century
as if announcing a baseball game turned in
a new statistic i couldn’t deny his hysterical
perspective myself having been born quickly
between WWII and Korea boom destined to get
in line for boot camp for the Vietnam Error
at 18 already sick of this phony war business
how quickly young boys on a beach in bathing
suits become old men in dress greens that color
they use so pollutes the wettest shades of nature
of grasses and leaves of fields and ocean waves.

The murderer attends Mass fills the pew
the fakery has achieved that much
frivolity yet the beauty of this war
seems to be no one left who believes
in war the reasons for not the hand
that signs the paper not that hand
covered in oil and blood but does not
cry like the hands of a working man
tears seeping over the banks of blue
rivers coursing through a field of skin.

In the natural order of things human
when some authority comes down heavy
as a tank made with human hands
made to crawl along tracks of its own
making through the green fields
of somebody’s home tearing through
the outdoor clothesline scattering
the chickens and dogs barking and
babies barely crawling who see
the tanks for what they are inhuman
monsters driven by human machines
men made to march made to doom
demented torches lighting but one
step ahead sinking into the dulce
earth the metallico wheels slogging
over the homeland where the pitter
patter of the patria played on an
accordion in the rain waiting for a
flood to wash this war away.

The Ritual

To writ in stone did
those two crows
alone appear each
morn to renew
our sacred vows.

Fell from the commute
of the daily murderous
drive we awake with
black oily coffee
the dew steaming

after the frost faced
nest broken open
hatching of bugs
flies about they
can’t be counted.

Good mates in
the end make
good poems
where hide
birds in trees.

What and where
thru displacement
here during the moon
of words dressed
in black feathers

this crow types
last night’s notes
its mate never far
emits the occasional
caw clawed to signify

I am here you there
in and out of our
respective shifting
stances first you
then me to gather.

What I Write

Having addressed, as it were, most recently, Why and How I write, we now turn our attention to What. Yesterday, I said that when and where writing is written are not important. I rush now to correct that. When and where are maybe more important than why, how, or what. Consider, for example, Beckett’s Watt, written in double exile (from Ireland, his homeland, and from occupied Paris, hiding out in Southern France). But Watt does not seem to be about the war. But I don’t want to write about Watt this morning. I want to write about what. But it may not matter what’s intended; readers are notorious twisters of words, collecting twine into a ball, where to twine is to moan, complain, whine.

The problem lies with linearity. Where there are no straight lines. At the moment, I’m typing on the keyboard of a laptop computer. A MacBook Pro, circa 2010, so an old one, as these things go. Directly into a WordPress block. Such my brass. I watch the cursor flicker, waiting. I should slow it down, but I forget how that’s done.

When, yesterday, reader and old, old friend Dan commented regarding paper and pen, “it almost seems a quaint nod to a passing phenomenon,” I thought of McLuhan and his analysis of the printing press (see his The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man), also now a passing observable fact or event. A machine we understood how it worked. It made everything the same, uniform. Straight lines. Single point of view. That sort of thing.

Outside, through the second story window, I can see a Camelia, pink and white, just coming into bloom, and a weeping Cherry in full bloom, and some scraggly plums not boasting just saying bring us your bees, your flies, your birds, your squirrels. The plums are just over the back chain link fence, up against it, ignored. Occasionally a branch breaks, ice or snow laden, or heavy near the end of summer with fat purple plums that fall into my yard, more than I can eat. I should learn to make plum pudding, jam, or some sort of plum soup. Plum Clafoutis. That’s it.

There you have it. I would not have mentioned plums this morning had I not decided to write from the upstairs window instead of the downstairs nook where I usually set up.

How I Write

Most writing begins in Purpose, a very crowded city, with directions out unclear amid contradictory signs. North of Purpose is Poetry, South is Prose. East is essay. West is Uncharted Territory. It doesn’t matter which direction you choose; Purpose is surrounded by ocean. The easiest and most travelled conveyance out of Purpose uses words. Words come from Language, some say the oldest of cities. But not all languages use words, semaphore, for example. Other examples of language without words might include body language, talking drums, whistling, smoke signals, music. We might say that those languages are not written, but music is written, and without words.

But I do use words, and because I’m only an average speller, poor pronouncer, mostly monolingual, and usually lost in Purpose, I keep a dictionary open while I write, but also because individual words are like recipes; I want to know what’s in them. Sometimes I spend so much time in a dictionary nothing gets written. One easily gets sidetracked in Genealogy and never reaches far from Purpose.

That one uses words doesn’t necessarily mean that one writes. One might talk, achieve one’s purpose, no need for pen and paper. Others might commit what someone said to memory, and repeat it themselves for a ticket out of Purpose. Talking is not writing, but it is a kind of writing.

And I don’t always use words. I draw cartoons. But if the cartoon is an argument, it is at least a kind of writing.

Sometimes it’s enough to ramble around Purpose, maybe with a camera in hand, walking through the neighborhoods, down to the industrial section, out to the ballpark.

If writing were a sport, it might be baseball. The outfielders adept at prose. At third base and first, essayists. At shortstop and second base, poets. The battery of pitcher and catcher a thesaurus of pitches: location, intent, speed, deceit. Readers may want to put the Shift on here.

We might say our purpose is to entertain, so we give our writing twists and shouts, a preacher’s sermon. The purpose of most writing is argument, an attempt to persuade. Purpose should not be confused with occasion. The occasion of writing is an assignment: a query, a synopsis, a critique or analysis. And occasion should not be confused with form. A postcard (from Purpose) is form, not content, but we begin to see how one shapes the other: “Wish you were here!” “You should have come!” “Can’t wait to get home!” “Not coming home, ever!”

In short, how we write is not quite the same thing as what we write or why we write. When we write is not important, nor where.

But it’s very hard to get out of Purpose. You never know when you’ll be stopped by the Authorities and asked to present your papers. Documents, photographs, identifications, QR Codes. They might even want to draw blood or have you pee into a bottle.

Purpose can be a mean place, a town without pity.

So I mostly try to avoid Purpose, and that’s how I write, or try to.

Why I Write

South Santa Monica Bay LA working class kid, father a plumber by trade. Big family. Catholic school. Guitar. Folk revival. On the radio we listened to Motown, pop, rock, surf. On TV were the dance shows, and the afternoon soaps my sisters and mom watched. Sock hops featured live local bands. I bought a pool table for the house, for $5, from a high school friend. We rode bicycles and homemade skateboards. I got into surfing and jazz and the Beats.

Nothing was annihilated. The writing temperament comes to light as a condition of being. If there was a point, it was learning to read.

I recently put Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to a country western chord progression and was about to give it a Johnny Cash voice when a neighbor asked did I not know what an asshole Robert Frost was, as if Frost’s being a mean man had something to do with stopping by woods. Maybe it does, and that’s biographical criticism. But the dismissal of a poem by virtue of its author’s personal failings is part of the naive notion that reading can make us better persons or that authors are somehow good people because they’ve written a good book. We should not judge a work by its author, and we should not criticize a work for not being the work it was not intended to be. An author’s circumstances, the predicament she’s born into, may or may not predict the work. Henry Green paid tribute to observation of others and in so doing pointed to them and not to himself. There are writers seemingly holy: Simone Weil, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton. But writers don’t usually become candidates for sainthood.

I’m reminded of the jazz musicians of the 1950’s turning their backs on their audiences, trying to avoid deceiving themselves. But deceit is a way of catching one’s attention. I knew a woman who seemed to believe in a literal reality of her favorite TV soap opera characters. She talked about them as if they were real people. She gossiped about them. She might have made a good writer, but she didn’t know how to read. But maybe those soap characters are real.

From the Beats I got jazz and early on wrote a few poems intended to reflect the Beat influence, music, form. But I think of jazz as a form of folk music. But I was also influenced by John Cage, but more by his writing than by his music. My writing contains music, songs, folk in nature. Does my writing sing? And if so, what genre? I don’t know.

I am living now in a winter of writing. The sky is ironic, the ground frozen in satire. The words shiver and cling together trying to keep warm. I don’t know if this writing will see another spring. But writing survives and even thrives in winter.

I suppose we all have a bit part in the creation of the world. I might want to use Buckminster Fuller’s “Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth” as a guide:

Observation, reading, listening, imagination, suffering of all kinds big and small, in the mailroom and in the boardroom, empathy and love, experiment, epiphany I don’t remember asking for, failure, animal and plant life, dream world of sleep, ageing, work, play. Joyce chose Ulysses for his all-rounder character (husband and father, soldier and sailor, traveler and explorer, ruler and exile, cuckold and lover), but Bloom’s Odyssey is made from everyday experience.

It’s probably best not to idolize, the false or the real.

We need to know how to do things: build a bed using two by fours and plywood, with saw, hammer, and nails; plumb a toilet and change a flat tire; ride a bicycle; grow vegetables and herbs, in pots on a sidewalk if necessary; play guitar; help others; save a cat, dog, or elephant; walk, swim, relax.

My first guitar, an acoustic folk, was a gift from a neighbor who had picked up a better one. He taught me a few licks. Then, one day, my guitar was on the floor and my girlfriend at the time hopped off the top bunk and landed on the guitar. My next guitar I bought for $25 from an ad in the South Bay Daily Breeze newspaper. My favorite guitar now is a Telecaster I bought used in 1985. It was one of the first guitars out of  the Fender Japanese factory, the first built out of the US. It’s a good guitar, industrial. I have a couple of amps, an old Roland Jazz Chorus 50 that is too big for small rooms, and a small Crate. I also play a Takamine classical built in 1977. I have a Yamaha FG180 purchased new in 1970 for $100. It’s probably still worth $100. Great investment. I also have an Ovation acoustic electric, but I don’t play it often. I use flat wound nickel jazz strings on the tele and the Yamaha folk also, which has an after market pickup that fits into the sound hole. The FG stands for folk guitar. Now I’m playing a Gitane DG250M gypsy jazz guitar I bought used for $500. But I play it fingerstyle, without a pick.

I still favor folk, blues, and jazz. I like Indie and support the indie effort. I’ve mixed feelings about the changes in the music industry. But those changes have enabled much more experimental, original, less commercial, efforts to emerge. The self-publishing, online and text versions, have similarly disrupted the traditional publishing world, and the literary indie movement has also enabled more possibilities, though these efforts reach smaller audiences. But that’s ok. The age of the blockbuster book, driven by mass marketing and distribution, like the big stadium concert, is giving way to the smaller venue. It’s a bit like the difference between one of these so called mega-churches and a smaller gathering of searchers.

Cage’s piece called “Water Walk” is entertaining and funny. I’m not sure it evokes more feeling than a comparable poetic piece might, but it seems to do so more efficiently and effectively. And it seems all of Cage’s pieces are conversational. What is his piece for piano titled 4′ 33″ if not a conversation? But what is “feeling,” and are we predisposed to “feel” a certain way given certain arrangements. Minor and major modes, for example, melodic or harmonic scales. Music might be more direct, an express bus full of party goers on the way to a sensorium, while poetry is a taxi stuck in traffic. Can an idea evoke feeling? Can a poem about ice cream produce the taste of a banana split? The sentimental often jars feelings, and some composers and writers seem to want to avoid the sentimental. Why? Rimbaud’s “Illuminations,” when I first read it, caused emotions in me I’d never experienced before, couldn’t understand, but I wanted more.

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man says “suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.” Seems a Christian sentiment. Soul origin. Kierkegaard. Tyranny alone seems totally destructive to the individual, while total freedom seems a utopian ideal. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” was it an invitation to a tyranny of one’s spirit or an invitation to free oneself from the tyranny of one’s birth predicament, from attempts to shame used to control and tyrannize? This much we might know: as writers we are interested in freedom from tyranny. But maybe writing is tyrannical, the writer a tyrant. Come, read me!

I believe in the freedom of speech, but to say that, the freedom of silence is also a beautiful thought.

What’s complicated is how we define good – a good person, a good book, a good war. In any case, I don’t think “good people” are somehow favored or graced. I don’t doubt many people who consider themselves good people are nevertheless in debt to bad habits. Likewise, many people who hold positions that presuppose good prerequisites are demonstrably not good at all. Moreover, we are most of us most of the time it seems irrational or non-rational – we don’t necessarily choose what’s good for us. We might not even know what’s good for us.

When it comes to understanding, most of the time I’m drowning, and the lifeguard critic is no help. You hope for an island in the stream.

A few writers might be ships, oil tankers, schooners, cruise ships, but most of us are paddling in the slop on surfboards, or fishing from the pier for words hidden in muddy water.

Maybe everything does have a beginning, but becoming can still take a long time. At least becoming has been a long road for me. My writing, or wanting to write, or thinking I might write something, began with reading, listening, the smell of paperback pages and ink. The smell of mimeo machine paper and ink, the dark purple ink-runny letters, those handouts in grade school. The acoustic sounds of the manual typewriter, the shapes of the letters engraved, you could feel them with your fingers on both sides of the paper. So it was physical and sensual this beginning, the feel and smell of books and paper and shapes of letters and the train-clacking of typewriters and the swirl of the mimeo barrel. And writing was and is dissent, argument, style, as well as something to do with your fingers and hands. In 8th grade, we had an Irish nun who read aloud long works to us: The Scarlet Pimpernel; A Tale of Two Cities; David Copperfield; Hamlet. And she read poems and speeches and stories. Everyone responds differently. My father was not a reader, other than the newspaper, and he read blueprints and showed me how to read a blueprint, but he was a talker. He was garrulous, because he liked people, he loved talking to people. He was a good listener. He couldn’t hear worth a damn, but he was a good listener. He wanted me to be a plumber, too, but I was a poor listener.

Thomas Merton suggests prayer without words is possible, and maybe preferable. Where is the poem without words? There might be a symbiotic relationship between the Word and the writer, the one who prays. We might have several different vocabularies, the one we talk with, the one we read with, the one we write with, one for poems, a different one for negotiating. How many words do we need? For what? Language is on the move, if not on the make.

Rewards are distributed randomly. Audiences are fickle. There’s not necessarily a connection between financial success and talent, skill, or intelligence, nor is there often any equity in amount paid for difficulty of task. What’s important is to follow one’s calling, if you can hear it amid the roar of the crowd, and avoid the traps of boredom.

Human nature over time has not improved. We are no better than our ancestors, however far back you want to go. Technology does not improve our nature. Nor does it make it worse. We are the same. In that sense, time has no influence. But when something new is written, we might read what came before it in a different light, and find that it’s changed.

Lots of ways to look at literature, ways to think about it. Literature reshapes experience. That is how dreams work. Experience reappears in literature in different form. We can’t know what it’s like to be a cat or a dog or an elephant or a snake. We might not know what it’s like to be a human. Literature is a way of explaining or illustrating what life is like – for the other, for a pencil, for a bird or a tree. But notice how indirect it is. But certainly literature is art and art communicates. Literature is also a business, and like all human enterprise seeks to grow itself, advertise and market, compete in the marketplace.

Drama is literature in action, as well as a kind of literary criticism in action, since each performance interprets the work in question. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a wonderful book about an acting school. The title is “At Freddie’s.” I like small theatre work. Awhile back I sat in the front row in a very small theatre, the last seat by a stage door. An actor would open the door and it would hit my chair. I almost felt like I was in the play. It will give you an idea of the size of this theatre when I tell you its name: the ShoeBox Theatre. But they do everything, and you get acting, sounds off, settings, lighting, music, and a live audience to share the experience. The audience is literary criticism in pause mode. Drama includes all of the characteristics of literature – narrative, plot, characters, setting, language, metaphor, symbol, plus costumes.

Huxley in “Doors of Perception” argues that the five senses act as much to keep reality out of the mind as to let it in. Blake says the same thing – that our senses limit our awareness. They seem to be saying that if the scales of the senses were lifted, we would be overwhelmed by reality. This is what Rilke suggests with his angel. And Norman O. Brown suggested that without language we’d still be living in paradise. But I don’t think words as we have them necessarily disable us. They are what we have to work with. They are part of us, part of our body reaching out to grasp the world.

I have recently started to voice text on my phone, instead of typing. The result can be confusing. For one thing, I’ve not figured out how to punctuate, or how to capitalize or not. But we could be heading toward a future without a written language, without retail. Or a written language that attempts in a bureaucratic way to avoid confusion entirely. This would be a purely mechanical writing, with no overtones, suggestive meanings, subjective implications. It would also be a dead language, all conventions fixed for once and all into one. (Let’s hope it’s neither MLA nor APA). Kafka’s writing is often perceived as confusing, dreamlike, yet his writing is very specific, very clear.

The poem written on a napkin at the table on a cafe sidewalk. I try writing to someone else, for someone else. That is the most difficult way to write, and I seem unable to do it. You must be able to see your writing as a reader might see it. We don’t see ourselves the same as others see us. That is why face recognition technology is doomed to failure. We must be able to see the other side of our faces.

We must learn to overcome boredom. Most jobs today are intrinsically boring, not what we were made for. We have to find ways to keep ourselves interested, even in the bureaucracy, the factory, the office, the restaurant, the mine, the school, the attic, the streets, whatever prison we happen to find ourselves locked within. There is no way back to nature. The concrete block is as much a part of nature as a forest of wildernesses.

Wherever we go, whatever we do, we are nature, a stew of stuff hard to define or understand in part or whole. We come and we go, but we are always here, in one form or another, never alone, always about, in tatters.

The post “Why I Write” is part of “end tatters” (Jan 2020).

It’s Only a Paper Moon

The astronauts cardboard cutouts suspended
by gossamer string theory, the Space Station
an elaborate Tinkertoy. Night comes when
you turn their backs to the sun, day when
they face the solar wind, wait for a swell,
come about, and paddle into a soft shoulder
breaking away from a night full of mind
fulness, full of white paper plates skipping
across the space of the waters, rising
with the trough, riding the crest
parallel to the edge of the universe
so going nowhere in time or space
(for the time being)
and paddle back out to the firmament
of no land, no waters, no herb or grass
of any kind, only a dead moon
giving light to the night below,
a lesser light, in which the humans
hold hands, dance in circles, sing songs,
and paint shadows on their walls.

Days of Wine and Roses

The days
of wine and roses
palm trees green
leaves dangling in bronze breeze sea
fallen fronds found for tiki faces
carved with pocket knives
in soft dry wood
of branch stalk deep eyes
and sharp shell teeth
long slender days
fat pug noses
and sunburnt legs
beaches galore
a sober sunset for two
the days
of wine and roses
are here.


One might approach the memoir form, one’s own memoir, with a casual indifference, for no doubt everyone else will, while it takes a bit of faith to trust as total fact any stranger’s avowed remembrances. There’s also the problem of what’s to be left unsaid, for any deletion – deliberate, determinate, accidental – turns down the path of fiction, yet all of experience, the universe of one’s life from its big bang forward or the unexpurgated version of the time one visited (fill in your personal fave), will take way too long. Even Proust must have left some stuff out, and Knausgard, if for no other reason that they had not eyes in the back of their heads. It’s not what we remember, but how that fills dreams and notebooks. And most folks are quickly bored hearing one’s dreams recast in words over morning coffee. While the day-book or journal is not quite yet a memoir, often neither the what nor how of memory but the immediate reaction to a still unfolding event.

I’m looking into again Edmund Wilson’s “The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, Edited with an Introduction by Leon Edel” (First printing, 1980). From the Editor’s Foreword:

“Wilson intended his journals to be edited as ‘trade’ books, not as scholarly editions; he wanted no scholarly apparatus and in particular no treatment of his text as if it were sacrosanct. Journals are written in the rough; and he knew journal keepers repeat themselves. He wanted his slips of the pen silently corrected without the inevitable sic and explanatory notes.”


Fortunately for this reader, L. E. ignored Wilson’s want and provided copious explanatory notes as to who’s being talked about, why important to the era, and what’s going on around them at the time. Though Wilson also logs enough everyday observation to make notes unnecessary:

July 18 [Journey to the Soviet Union, 1935]. Rowing on the river at Marmontovka, Free Day – little curling river with grass-green banks, with people, largely naked, on the banks: they look better without their clothes because the clothes are no good – very nice to see them – blond girls with white skin, thick round legs, and big round breasts, boys burned brown except around the hips, where they had been wearing trunks, where it was comparatively white – bathing suits seemed to be becoming more and more perfunctory, they seemed more and more to be leaving them off – the factory, where a very rudimentary little swimming dock of planks had been built; at the end a dam and falls, beyond which you couldn’t go any farther, a flock of white goats; two men in a pup tent, a man in a shack; an elderly man and woman sitting on something, turned away from each other reading the papers.


I pulled Wilson’s “The Thirties” off the “now reading” shelf (aka books with bookmarks still somewhere in them), looking for parallels to today’s “The Twenties,” though we are of course only just into them. In a long note, Edel says “He [Wilson] could not see why the American leftists should not be as critical of this [the Stalinist regime] as they were of other tyrannies – Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, Franco’s” (714).

Of closer if not exact parallel is Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise,” which begins with:

“It was night, they were at war and there was an air raid. But dawn was near and the war very far away. The first to hear the hum of the siren were those who couldn’t sleep – the ill and bedridden, mothers with sons at the front, women crying for the men they loved.”

3. First Vintage International Edition, May 2007.

“Appendix I,” which includes Nemirovsky’s notes taken from her notebooks, begins:

“My God! what is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honour and its life. And the other countries? What are they to me? Empires are dying. Nothing matters. Whether you look at it from a mystical or a personal point of view, it’s just the same. Let us keep a cool head. Let us harden our heart. Let us wait.

21 June [1941]. Conversation with Pied-de-Marmite. France is going to join hands with Germany. Soon they will be calling up people here but ‘only the young ones.’ This was no doubt out of consideration towards Michel. One army is crossing Russia, the other is coming from Africa. Suez has been taken. Japan with its formidable fleet is fighting America. England is begging for mercy.

25 June. Unbelievable heat. The garden is decked out with the colours of June – azure, pale-green and pink. I lost my pen. There are still many other worries such as the threat of a concentration camp, the status of Jews etc. Sunday was unforgettable. The thunderbolt about Russia* hit our friends after their ‘mad night’ down by the lake. And in order to [?] with them, everyone got drunk. Will I write about it one day?”

373, *Footnote 2: “Germany invaded the USSR on 22 June 1941.”

Graham Cracker

Graham Greene’s “Orient Express” (1932) is a mean-spirited book about human experience and condition, closer to Theodore Dreiser than to Evelyn Waugh, and not to be confused with Agatha Christie’s trip on the same train a couple of years later. In Greene’s book, the murders take place off the train. The writing technique shows the early influence of the cinema. A New York Times contemporary review from 1932 explains:

“Something of motion picture technique is used, with brief glimpses of the actions and thoughts now of one character, now of another, interspersed with the longer stretches of narrative.”

NYT, March 12, 1933

The characters are drawn from stock and the plot from Naturalism. Film endings coming as they do only an hour or two into the story, are unexpected and stir the emotions of the audience. Yet the threads are there from the beginning, and the wall could have fallen only one way as brick by brick is pulled out.

I read the “Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition” (2004), with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens (“Hitch” to his friends), which I would not read because I don’t like reading introductions, at least not until I’ve finished the book, because, like movie trailers, they give too much away, and because I never cared much for Hitch. I almost did not buy the book when I saw that Hitch did the intro, but I did, rationalizing I didn’t need to read the intro. But I did, buy the book and read the intro – after finishing the book. All of which is nonsense, of course. And browsing through the reader reviews on Amazon, before deciding to click “buy now,” I found a curious and funny one from a guy who didn’t like the book’s physical format – the uncut pages and the folded end flaps of the cover – folded flaps that are like the book covers used on hardbacks. But I like these features, and the book has a nice heft and feel to its pages, which feel and look printed instead of photographed.

Hitch spends most of his intro worrying about Greene’s use of stereotypes and trying to arrive at some sort of apologia for Green’s alleged anti-semitism. But Greene was probably following his bent. “Orient Express” is really about Greene’s own human predicament: his place and fit in time and class and mood. The narrator is also on the train, trying to avoid its preordained lineal descent or ascent. Like Hitchcock’s brief appearance at the beginning of his films, Greene is the purser in his first paragraph:

“The purser took the last landing-card in his hand and watched the passengers cross the grey wet quay, over a wilderness of rails and points, round the corners of abandoned trucks.”


It’s a cracker of a book, crisp and salty, melts in your mouth, and leaves you wanting something with a bit of sugar in it.

Alternate Endings

No end will suffice, not fire nor ice. In the beginning, things started off with a bang, a big one at that, after a night of fitful sleep, though how one measures big in the face of nothing surrounding seems insolvable. In any event, life, what is (the distinction between organic and disparate proven fallacious), now looks to have been without beginning, so a world without end seems fitting. Nevertheless, we begin anew, if not afresh, at the diurnal clarion call. To awake is irreversible, at least for a few hours. Always some remains. And while the Big Pop was the most considerable in several hours, having sunk deeper than one can remember, nothing but whimpering since, awake with the bends. But it won’t finish with a whimper. No end and no exit and no exit and no end: how’s that for the unknotting?

Up and about, wandering now bottom of bole (trunkus, luggage compartment, the part of a tree above the roots and below the branches). Think Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” evening in the future, looking backward. Distribution. Retail branches, manufacturing roots.

All brick and mortar retail closed, malls emptied – or might as well be, old habits dropped. The only jobs are those deemed essential. Who deems? The Great Deemer. People waiting in long lines to enter the one remaining store where the shelves are empty, just to look around, shopping it’s called, nothing much needed. Staples delivered. The only rigs on the roads these days those doing deliveries. Still, going shopping, something to do. But the shops are all closed, boarded up, a wilderness for the pigeons, cats, possums, racoons, peacocks, squirrels. Even the meek seem to have abdicated.

The cafes closed, bars banned or pubs perished (though one suspects the Speakeasy may be making a comeback), theatres imploded, churches clapped shut. Schools closed forever. Tested and corporations bid accordingly and draft as needed according to five year plans and instead of schooling what one gets is on the job training: slated for a professional sport, a career in medicine, or a space program. But no one is forced to work. Work is not even considered work, but a fulfillment of a combination of want and need. Consider, if you like, the lilies of the field. There are of course those dirty jobs few look forward to, plumbing and such – but still, “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” What’s to be done? Nothing to be done. But that we do it well, or at least try to.

In the Key of All Go Rhythm

New music includes sounds we’ve never heard before, regardless of how old the tunes might be. But are we running out of the possibility for new songs? In his January 23, 2022 piece for The Atlantic, “Is Old Music Killing New Music?” Ted Gioia, jazz musician and critic, cites marketing trends and sales stats to support his concern that “the new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.” His music world appears on the brink of a new-music mass extinction, where one can find only oldie stations on the radio. He explores a number of causes, including the lucrative business of copyright litigation that apparently follows the algorithms close enough to pair bonds and links coincidental and unintended, turning your new effort into a plagiarism accusation. But to new ears, isn’t all old music new music? Gioia also explores the new trend in buying up the rights to all the old song catalogs, an investment that presumably assumes new ears of generations of listeners to come.

Sales projections need to start somewhere, and “nothing is less interesting to music executives than a completely radical new kind of music,” Gioia says. It’s another road not taken, one with too much risk. Better to replay a setlist of Beatles than to try out a new one from the Belates.

What happens when we hear a new song, one that sounds somehow familiar yet distant, unheard before? From the opening of the novel Dance Night (1930) by Dawn Powell:

“What Morry heard above the Lamptown night noises was a woman’s high voice rocking on mandolin notes far far away. This was like no music Morry had ever known, it was a song someone else remembered, perhaps his mother, when he was only a sensation in her blood, a slight quickening when she met Charles Abbott, a mere wish for love racing through her veins.”

p 3. Dawn Powell: Novels 1930-1942. The Library of America, 2001.

When the musicologist Sam Charters introduced a new audience in 1959 to The Country Blues, the music was already as old as the hills and twice as dusty, and he found the music exec gatekeepers of the ’50s reluctant to remarket it. But had it truly disappeared, or had it been assimilated? Well, the original recordings, of which there were not too many to begin with, had for the most part disappeared. It was oldies, old-folks music, but to the young ears of the 1950s, it was new.

But there’s something else that marginalizes and renders some old music newly unmarketable. Can we imagine a Superbowl halftime where the entertainment is a solo voice self-accompanied on an acoustic guitar? A Crossroads surrounded by 100,000 yelling fans, a liminalty too loud to attract any local supernatural spirits, old or new.

What we call new music might be more accurately named recycled music. The needle often seems stuck. But there certainly are huge differences between composing a new song and covering an old one, even if the cover sounds radically new, the Ramones playing “Surf City,” for example.

Speaking of surf cities, Ted Gioia grew up in neighboring Hawthorne, almost a generation behind me though, so he probably wasn’t at the Playa del Rey beach that grad night in the mid 60s when a bunch of locals from St Bernard High were ceremoniously burning a few of their textbooks in the fire pits. That was the night I met Emitt Rhodes, a friend of my date from Bernards, both also of Hawthorne, Emitt then of The Merry-Go-Round fame. Even then he eschewed any special place in the group, but upon hearing that I played guitar, he told me you have to play your own songs, write your own stuff. He was referring to the many bands that then played high school dances featuring Top 40 covers.

“The song bewildered Morry reading Jules Verne by gaslight…It came from other worlds and then faded into a factory whistle, a fire engine bell, and a Salvation Army chorus down on Market Street.”

p. 3.