War On (later)

I’ve been reading Edward Hirsch’s new book, The Heart of American Poetry. It’s very good, and I’m glad I decided to splurge for it, though I continue to think the industry’s continued use of “hardbacks” is wasteful, overly costly, but mainly, the hardback with paper cover is not as pleasant to hold and read as, say, the Penguin Classics, quality paperbacks not nearly as costly as the hardback with its really useless Victorian-like jacket cover. The size of the Hirsch book though is conducive to poetry lines, and the Library of America copy is a sound book production. Anyway, Hirsch makes a comment about Theodore Roethke, essentially that Rothke thought each line of a poem should stand alone, work as if a poem on its own; thus Roethke’s sparing use of enjambment.

As an exercise, I’ve reproduced the last post, a poem titled War On, to eliminate enjambments in favor of the possibility of stand alone lines (a few other changes too, one might discover):

War On (later)

Somewhere usually a war on near or far
I’m on watch in an audience of silence
in a theatre or church reminded darkly
sacrifice need not be so bloody violent
those 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 known
his Iraq he said the first war of the new century
and unknown from the announcer’s booth
a new statistic the fans could not deny
his hysterical perspective born in me
between WWII and Korea boom destined
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 bathing
become old men in dress greens that drab color
pollutes the wettest shades of nature’s grasses
leaves ferns of fields and waves of oceans.

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

War is the natural order of things human
authority comes down as heavy as a tank
made with human hands
made to crawl along tracks of its own
making through the green fields
somebody’s home tornado torn
the outdoor clothesline scatters
the chickens and dogs bark
the baby barely crawling sees
the tanks for what they are inhuman
monsters driven by human machines
men made to march made to doom
demented torches lighting one
step ahead sinking into the dulce
earth the metallico wheels slogging
over the homeland where the pitter
patter of the patria played on accordion
in the rain waiting for the flood of time
to wash a new century’s wars away.

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.

Memoir

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.”

xi

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.

574-575

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.”

Summer of Love

Mid-June we sat out exposed to one another’s musical ups
and downers, refusals, kissing eye dews until the moon
falls down, waves turned around, and the air like steam
foam swept in drafts up the beach and over the hot strand.

We walk down 42nd to the water rolling papers, smoking,
and you toss back a couple of star-crossed pills, peace
a far-fetched potion. You look for signs. I read a few poor
poems by Hanshan on ways of being beyond need and want,

the beach our Cold Mountain. Make-ready teens for war
learn early love is not free, our children’s prayers said
on red plastic rosary yo-yo beads, putty explosives,
headbands turned into tourniquets, floral wreaths

into olive drab steel pots. It takes courage to work out
the hackneyed stereotypes future fighters might come
to know. What is written is artificial intelligence.
We might still be surfing were we better swimmers.

We would be one were we better lovers, more open to fall
and quail, but Summer of Love, a stone wall
around my heart built, inscribed with three names:
Kevin Mulhern, Gary Grubbs, Robert Shea – mistaken.

Baseball, the Canned Crowd, and the F Word

At first, I couldn’t find the Dodgers on TV last night, the second game in a series with the Giants in Los Angeles beginning the 2020 shortened season; apparently wasn’t available on the MLB channel in Portland. The Mariners were on the local Root Sports channel, and I was glad to hear the same folks doing the play-by-play as if nothing has changed. Then I was surprised to find the Dodger game on some obscure cable channel. I watched an infield grounder, the batter thrown out at first, a routine play, and then I heard it: Canned Cheering, a canned crowd.

To be canned is to be thrown out, maybe deriving from the US English garbage can. The 2020 season, delayed about four months by the pandemic shutdown, is being played in stadiums full of empty seats, no tickets sold, unless you count the selfie cutouts available from the Dodgers. That must be where the noise is coming from.

If you’ve ever played a game of street or backyard whiffle ball, or a game of over-the-line in the local park, you might know you don’t need an audience to enjoy baseball. Rules vary depending on the venue – over the house is a home run, but a foul ball over the fence, falling into the street, is an automatic out.

“I’m the Dodgers. Who are you?”
“I’ll be the Giants, Juan Marichal on the mound.”

The game is on, all a foot, the fantasy as real as real ever gets.

Because Major League Baseball as viewed from the stands or television is not exactly real. The real game is played behind a facade of hero, dream, and cleanliness. Maybe the canned crowd was brought in because of plays like the one in which Dodger Joc Pederson, on his way to being thrown out at first in the fanless season opener, doubles the F Word while running down the line, his voice fairly clearly picked up by the TV mics in the quiet stadium and broadcast into living rooms around the US – where, what, no one ever uses the F Word?

Respect is born out of shame, shame a form of control. Language is contumacious; it swells and breaks and rolls like the restless ocean. Words are turbulent, irrepressible. At the same time, cussing is often the evidence of a lazy tongue. That is why I decided to omit the F Word from “Penina’s Letters,” with the exception of the discussion in the chapter titled “Henry and the Punctuations”:

“The experience of war can not be told in words,” I said, “but when F-words fill the cheeks with froth, a fascist has infiltrated the mind.”
“Who the fuck talks like that?” Bucket scrunched his eyebrows over scowling lips.
“My friend, Henry,” I said. “It’s a game we play.”
“Clever,” Gabbia said. “But getting back to the common soldier, surely words like fuck and shit are as common as cigarettes and coffee. Part of his mess kit, I shouldn’t wonder.”
“That’s right,” I said. “And, like the mess, rationed.”
“But surely the unfixed tongue is one of the few freedoms the foot soldier feels, and in the fire of the fight, is a weapon he can unleash to gratify his fear.”
“To be frank, no,” I said. “But, the foot soldier does make efficient and effective use of his F-word vocabulary.”
“Do tell,” Gabbia said (148-149).

Photo: With my brother John at a Dodger game, September, 1975. Photo by Susan.

Motti, Lazzaro, and Django

The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch (Swiss, 2018) is a coming of age story, Motti’s single marital status of existential concern to his mother, who tries to set him up with any number of, for Motti, unsuitable but available girls whose mothers are equally concerned about the marriage status of their daughters. But Motti has his own ideas about attractions and family values, even as his young and tender heart is yanked from his body by the carefree girl he falls off a cliff for, and a parental sponsored trip to Israel banking on his finding a girl the family can approve of only makes matters worse. Expect much laughter, and crying, out loud, with actors speaking German, Yiddish, and Hebrew. The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch is about the surprise of life.

Happy as Lazzaro (Italian, 2018) is another coming of age story. Lazzaro does, literally, fall off a cliff, but not for love, and his heart remains surreally whole, inviolate, even as his body is bruised and abused. He’s a static character, the same at the end as at the beginning, even as life around him changes dramatically. The dwelling settings, country and city, are brutal but beautiful. The lives of the sharecroppers, under imprisonment and later emancipated but just as poor, still captives of poverty, illustrate that poverty is protean, affecting both the poor and the wealthy.

Django (French, 2017). A dramatization of the life of the guitarist Django Reinhardt and his family during World War II. The Nazis persecuted the Gypsies, many of whom tried to flee to relatively safe zones, joined the resistance, or were caught, killed on the spot, or transported via train to the Nazi concentration camps. The film focuses on Django’s one attempt to escape France, and while he did try to escape to Switzerland, according to the book Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend (2004, Michael Dregni, Oxford University Press), Django spent most of the war in Paris, where he was allowed to continue playing his music because by then he and his music had become so popular. But he had to play for the occupiers as well as for the locals, his safe treatment thus coming at the cost of a kind of debt bondage. From the book:

“Hitler bore a deep hatred for Gypsies…From 1933, German Gypsies were doomed. The Nazis barred Romanies from cities, shuttling them into settlement camps. Nazi doctors began sterilizing Romanies as early as 1933. And German Gypsies were required to wear a brown triangle sewn on their chest marked with the letter “Z” for zigemer, German for “Gypsy” – a precursor of the yellow Stars of David pinned to Jews (168)….Yet in Paris, Django was flourishing. Never did he have so much work or live in such sumptuous surroundings. Just as the Germans permitted jazz in Paris, they allowed Romany musicians to continue to play – and paid to come hear them every night” (169).

Still, Django worried for his family and for his own life, and if some considered him a hero, others thought of him as a conspirator: “Being in the spotlight saved him from the fate awaiting other Gypsies, but Django began to sweat under the glare” (182). Django takes off with his pregnant wife and his mother. They get caught and are imprisoned, but then, in the absurd way these things seem to happen, Dregni says, “A miracle arrived in the unlikely form of the German kommandant. He was a jazz fan, and when he came to question his new prisoner, he was astonished. ‘My good Reinhardt,’ he said, ‘whatever are you doing in this fix?’ Django promised not to try to escape again, and was freed” (184).

Django the film is must see for anyone interested in Gypsy jazz. But it’s also just a classic film – the acting, the setting, the timing, the war, the family and country drama and suspense. It features much magnificent music, including the organ “Mass” piece Django created. Django the book by Dregni should also be read. Django never learned to read or write, save at a most rudimentary level, and that late in his life (he died age 43). The book reveals a deep history of jazz music in Europe, particularly Paris, including stories of the many Black American musicians who traveled through Europe, most stopping in Paris, many playing with Django, following both World Wars. It covers the business of music and recording and performance management, popular success and failure, the changing style of jazz as musicians work to assimilate new music experienced from new exposures.

Two Graphic Novels: Gipi’s “Notes for a War Story,” and Rutu Modan’s “Exit Wounds”

Graphic Paintings Beginning with the Letter A

“Notes for a War Story,” a first person narrative by Gipi, is set in a nebulous country where villages exist one day and disappear the next. Three young men band together to survive on the margins of the country, doing petty crime. But it’s an odd man out story. The boys have only vague notions of what the war is about. The frictions within their trio mirror those in the country at large. The brutality and violence inherent in the state where social law suddenly fails is drawn close up. What is politically correct is what gets you through a day and a night, a falling spiral that soon shortens days and nights to hours then minutes in a manipulated clock, and peace is an expedient agreement easily broken. The drawings, green, often olive drab wash panels, convey bleak settings and desperate tones. The dialog is quick, the story clear, the narrator Giuliano’s reflective notes the distinctive difference between an existential hope and a despairing nihilism. But what gives Guiliano this capacity to reflect the others lack remains ambiguous, while lawlessness explains only part of the free-for-all atmosphere that characterizes war. Each faction quickly establishes and evolves its own laws to satisfy its needs and wants. When values and desires change, one finds oneself outside the law. Rules, both formal and informal, are created and broken in every part of society: the family, church, village, corporation, military, language and literature. Published by First Second in 2004, and translated to English from Italian in 2007 by Spectrum. Afterward by Alexis Siegel, 2006. A 125 page, sturdy paperback with fold in cover flaps. Here is a 2008 Interview with Gipi at Words without Borders.

Rutu Modan’s “Exit Wounds” (Drawn & Quarterly, 2007) takes place in Israel. There’s been a bombing, and there is a missing person. The themes are familiar and familial. A son is estranged from his father, angry. A kind of detective story evolves, with hints of noir, as Koby engages to find out what’s happened to his father in the aftermath of the bombing. Along the way, Koby discovers love, another theme, mostly unrequited, unresolved, while the characters confront the antagonist of ambiguous relationships. “Exit Wounds” is a comic book told in four chapters of color panel drawings. The details of the drawings act like descriptive prose in a conventional novel. The drawings are realistic but also suggestive. The sequence where Koby and Numi go body surfing is a good example of the lovely and patient interludes that give the novel its grace and gifts. Interview with Rutu Modan at BBC 4, and another at Words without Borders.