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.