Sunday, June 1

North American Journeys, 12


"The wagon mounts the hill toward her. She passed it about a mile back down the road. It was standing beside the road, the mules asleep in the traces and their heads pointed in the direction in which she walked. She saw it and she saw the two men squatting beside a barn beyond the fence. She looked at the wagon and the men once: a single glance allembracing, swift, innocent and profound. She did not stop; very likely the men beyond the fence had not seen her even look at the wagon nor at them. Neither did she look back. She went on out of sight, walking slowly, the shoes unlaced about her ankles, until she reached the top of the hill a mile beyond. Then she sat down on the ditch bank, with her feet in the shallow ditch, and removed the shoes. After a while she began to hear the wagon. She heard it for some time. Then it came into sight, mounting the hill.

"The sharp and brittle crack and clatter of its weathered and ungreased wood and metal is slow and terrific: a series of dry sluggish reports carrying for a half mile across the hot still pinewiney silence of the August afternoon. Though the mules plod in a steady and unflagging hypnosis, the vehicle does not seem to progress. It seems to hang suspended in the middle distance forever and forever, so infinitesimal is its progress, like a shabby bead upon the mild red string of road. So much so is this that in the watching of it the eye loses it as sight and sense drowsily merge and blend, like the road itself, with all the peaceful and monotonous changes between darkness and day, like already measured thread being rewound onto a spool. So that at last, as though out of some trivial and unimportant region beyond even distance, the sound of it seems to come slow and terrific and without meaning, as though it were a ghost travelling a half mile ahead of its own shape. 'That far within my hearing before my seeing,' Lena thinks. She thinks of herself as already moving, riding again, thinking Then it will be as if I were riding for a half mile before I even got into the wagon even got to where I was waiting, and that when the wagon is empty of me again it will go on for a half mile with me still in it  She waits, not even watching the wagon now, while thinking goes idle and swift and smooth, filled with nameless kind faces and voices:  Lucas Burch? You say you tried in Pocahontas? This road? It goes to Springvale. You wait here. There will be a wagon passing soon that will take you as far as it goes  Thinking, 'And if he is going all the way to Jefferson, I will be riding with the hearing of Lucas Burch before his seeing. He will hear the wagon, but he wont know. So there will be one within his hearing before his seeing. And then he will see me and he will be excited. And so there will be two within his seeing before his remembering.'"

--Wm. Faulkner, Light in August


Wednesday, May 21

North American Journeys, 11


"Jesús and his wife wintered every year in their hometown in Michoacán. Like thousands of other couples drawn north by conditions of soil and climate, then south by family ties, they drove the very same three thousand miles, valley by valley, twice a year. Jesús simply pointed the pick-up like a TV remote control and, zas, a century and a half of history came and went across their windshield.

"They went back to a ranchito, an antique way of life, a scrap of the nineteenth century held in place by stubbornness and poverty. Cobblestones, tile roof, it was picturesque as hell. Nopal cactus ten feet tall, stone fences, it made for an isolation so dense that cowboys still enlivened a pail of fresh milk with Swiss Miss and grain alcohol in the morning, and flat-footed the thing, and rode off to work all day. But what did they call that beverage? Jesús had to think. Nowadays people called it a toro prieto. Though Jesús could remember his grandfather saying that, back in the 1890s, people called it a palomillo.

"It was in the time of Jesús's grandfather that Mexican Central Plateau life underwent a trauma. Everybody in Michoacán agreed with that. Historically, it resembled the trauma Yakima County underwent when the Northern Pacific arrived, providing an outlet for Columbia Plateau wheat. The twentieth century caught up with Michoacán when private interests bought miles of swampland and drained it. Out of nowhere appeared guys who talked like books. They cleared their throats, reached in a paper bag that had writing on it, and extracted the twentieth century in the form of a new kind of seed corn. When they stuck that stuff in the ground, it yielded fat, heavy kernels that right away became what people wanted.

"With so much acreage in corn, with tractors eliminating the need for labor, country boys like Jesús's grandfather wandered off to the United States to work in railroad construction. The migrant flow kept swelling during the twenties, only to shrink with massive deportations during the Great Depression. But it was the Bracero Program, during the 1940s, which truly began the modern era of mexicano life in the U.S. Northwest. Whole trainloads of men journeyed up from Mexico City to harvest crops.

"And yet, despite the high wages, mexicanos never really trusted life in the north. From one of the early bracero trains--legend has it--half the passengers emptied out in Irapuato because of a rumor: the gringos meant to get them across the border, and then send them off to the front in World War II. After the war millions of young men rode trains north without even paying. Traveling fly-style they called it. The famous comedian Cantinflas--according to another legend--wanted to give the Mexican government two million pesos to let those poor people along."

--Philip Garrison

fr. Because I Don't Have Wings: Stories of Mexican Immigrant Life (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 2006)

Thursday, April 3

North American Journeys, 10

"Once when I was crossing the American continent, years and years ago and we were caught in the prairies without an engine to take us anywhere, the news-agent who sold things on the train came and offered us ten bananas for ten cents and then added, when a news-agent offers you ten bananas for ten cents you know there is something wrong."

--Gertrude Stein, Paris France (1940)

Saturday, November 9

Instabilitty

"The prosperous middle classes, who ruled the nineteenth century, placed an excessive value upon placidity of existence. They refused to face the necessities for social reform imposed by the new industrial system, and they are now refusing to face the necessities for intellectual reform imposed by the new knowledge. The middle-class pessimism over the future of the world comes from a confusion between civilization and security. In the immediate future there will be less security than in the immediate past, less stability. It must be admitted that there is a degree of instability which is inconsistent with civilization. But, on the whole, the great ages have been unstable ages."

--Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925)

Sunday, May 12

North American Journeys, 9

I see we are at the left turn onto US 12 and John has pulled up for gas. I pull up beside him.
     The thermometer by the door of the station reads 92 degrees. "Going to be another rough one today," I say.
     When the tanks are filled, we head across the street into a restaurant for coffee. Chris, of course, is hungry.
     I tell him I've been waiting for that. I tell him he eats with the rest of us or not at all. Not angrily. Just matter-of-factly. He's reproachful but sees how it's going to be.
     I catch a fleeting look of relief from Sylvia. Evidently she thought this was going to be a continuous problem.
     When we have finished the coffee and are outside again the heat is so ferocious we move off on the cycles as fact as possible. Again there is that momentary coolness, but it disappears. The sun makes the burned grass and sand so bright I have to squint to cut down glare. This US 12 is an old, bad highway. The broken concrete is tar-patched and bumpy. Road signs indicate detours ahead. On either side of the road are occasional work sheds and shacks and roadside stands that have accumulated through the years. The traffic is heavy now. I'm just as happy to be thinking about the rational, analytical, classical world of Phaedrus.
     His kind of rationality has been used since antiquity to remove oneself from the tedium and depression of one's immediate surroundings. What makes it hard to see is that where once it was used to get away from it all, the escape has been so successful that now it is the "it all" that the romantics are trying to escape. What makes his world so hard to see clearly is not its strangeness but its usualness. Familiarity can blind you too.

--Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Saturday, May 11

North American Journeys (Thailand Division), 8

A few Sundays later I agreed to go with Brooks and our friends to Ayudhaya. The idea of a Sunday outing is so repellent to me that deciding to take part in this one was to a certain extent a compulsive act. Ayudhaya lies less than fifty miles up the Chao Phraya from Bangkok. For historians and art collectors it is more than just a provincial town; it is a period and a style--having been the Thai capital for more than four centuries. Very likely it still would be, had the Burmese not laid it waste in the eighteenth century.
     Brooks came early to fetch me. Downstairs in the street stood the three bhikkus with their book bags and parasols. They hailed a cab, and without any previous price arrangements (the ordinary citizen tries to fix a sum beforehand) we got in and drove for twenty minutes or a half-hour, until we got to a bus terminal on the northern outskirts of the city.
     It was a nice, old-fashioned open bus. Every part of it rattled, and the air from the rice fields blew across us as we pieced together our bits of synthetic conversation. Brooks, in high spirits, kept calling across to me: "Look! Water buffaloes!" As we went further away from Bangkok there were more of the beasts, and his cries became more frequent. Yamyong, sitting next to me, whispered: "Professor Brooks is fond of buffaloes?" I laughed and said I didn't think so.
     "Then?"
     I said that in American there were no buffaloes in the fields, and that was why Brooks was interested in seeing them. There were no temples in the landscape, either, I told him, and added, perhaps unwisely: "He looks at buffaloes. I look at temples." This struck Yamyong as hilarious, and he made allusions to it now and then all during the day.

--Paul Bowles, "You Have Left Your Lotus Pods on the Bus"

Thursday, May 9

North American Journeys (Italy Division), 7

The car, which was a big Renault, a tourer, slowed down and pulled off the autostrada with Brenda asleep in back, her mouth a bit open and the daylight streaming off her cheekbones. It was near Como, they had just crossed, the border police had glanced in at her.
     "Come on, Bren, wake up," they said, "we're stopping for coffee."
     She came back from the ladies' room with her hair combed and fresh lipstick on. The boy in the white jacket behind the counter was rinsing spoons.
     "Hey, Brenda, I forget. Is it espresso or expresso?" Frank asked her.
     "Espresso," she said.
     "How do you know?"
     "I'm from New York," she said.
     "That's right," he remembered. "The Italians don't have an x, do they?"
     "They don't have a j either," Alan said.
     "Why is that?"
     "They're such careless people," Brenda said. "They just lost them."

--James Salter, "American Express"

Monday, May 6

North American Journeys, 6

By the evening of Wednesday, August 11, all save for Captain Pollard were safely aboard the Essex. Anchored beside her, just off the Nantucket Bar, was another whaleship, the Chili. Commanded by Absalom Coffin, the Chili was also to leave the following day. It was an opportunity for what whalemen referred to as a "gam"--a visit between two ships' crews. Without the captains to inhibit the revelry (and with the Bar between them and town), they may have seized this chance for a final uproarious fling before the grinding discipline of shipboard life took control of their lives.
     At some point that evening, Thomas Nickerson made his way down to his bunk and its mattress full of mildewed corn husks. As he faded off to sleep on the gently rocking ship, he surely felt what one young whaleman described as a great, almost overwhelming "pride in my floating home."
     That night he was probably unaware of the latest bit of gossip circulating through town--of the strange goings-on out on the Commons. Swarms of grasshoppers had begun to appear in the turnip fields. "[T]he whole face of the earth has been spotted with them . . . ," Obed Macy would write. "[N]o person living ever knew them so numerous." A comet in July and now a plague of locusts?
     As it turned out, things would end up badly for the two ships anchored off the Nantucket Bar on the evening of August 11, 1819. The Chili would not return for another three and a half years, and then with only five hundred barrels of sperm oil, about a quarter of what was needed to fill a ship her size. For Captain Coffin and his men, it would be a disastrous voyage.
     But nothing could compare to what fate had in store for the twenty-one men of the Essex.

Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea

Friday, May 3

North American Journeys, 5

Between Terlingua and Lajitas, the road continues to cross various limestone units of Cretaceous age. After passing white, thick beds of steeply-dipping Cretaceous limestone of the Pen formation in roadcuts about four miles west of Terlingua, you will see the roadside topography open out into a broad valley where huge alluvial fans slope toward the river. Intrusive volcanic rocks are seen to the north as odd-shaped hills and mesas, whereas Mesa de Anguila and its battlement walls of solid Cretaceous limestone fortify the sky to the south. Imposing flatirons of tilted Cretaceous limestone are also seen along this stretch, where they border the south flank of a large fold called the Terlingua monocline.

Tilted sections of flaggy-bedded, yellow-tan Boquillas limestone still you around the town of Lajitas, located at the base of Lajitas Mesa, where Comanche Creek joins the Rio Grande.

Lajitas is developing as a small tourist resort, and the new museum and desert garden east of town is a pleasant stop. Across the Rio Grande at Lajitas notice how the large mesa surface curves downward toward the river giving the distinct impression that rocks can bend, fracture, and break, if pressure is applied slowly, rather than quickly, in the earth's crust.

Darwin Spearing, Roadside Geology of Texas

Thursday, May 2

Works in Progress, 55


1.

getting in touch with the cable guys
swinging the birches
testing the waters
pushing radical music agendas

2.
rewriting the country's labor laws
seeing a psychic map of our obsessions
building electoral coalitions that will win
emphasizing the overlapping interests of the affluent

3.
cleaning up after Gustav, Hanna, Ike
cleaning up after Bush, after Cheney
rewriting the history of consciousness
blurring the possibilities

4.
supporting any effort to reunionize
failing to generate meaningful responses
becoming one with the centipede in oneself
getting some good poems out of it

5.
slumbering well until after nightfall
setting this brain of mine afire
reaching irritably after fact & reason
shunning easy consolations

6.
subsidizing extraction industries
helping women victimized by male violence
doubling the sign-up bonus for volunteers
supporting the troops while doubting the war

7.
counting the dead
waiting for them to break silence
descending the steeps of the soughing twilight
assimilating foreign cultures

8.
demilitarizing outer space
completing the application and mailing it back
reviewing our few remaining options
showing off poetry's "extreme generosity"

9.
maneuvering pothole-sized cars around
designing more effective marketing campaigns
speaking solely in terms of racial justice
examining burial pits and naked skulls

10.
getting out the vote
fetching water from the well
educating the masses
confessing to our personal demons

11.
clearing minefields from past wars
laying them for wars yet to come
staying executions, pardoning the innocent
blurring the boundaries, the borders

12.
reading maps in the dark with the top light off
folding them all back up rightly
cramming them into the glove compartment
getting moving again in the right direction

13.
cooling our wardheelers
voting early and often
keeping our fingers crossed
paying full-price for our journey

14.
assembling a glossary of oft-used phrases
keeping silent while the tea is poured
maintaining an inventory of our beliefs and unbeliefs
finding time to clean up around the house

15.
making the world safe for gerontocracy
clearing the minefields and cow pastures
converting analog files to digital
rereading An Anatomy of Melancholy

16.
fighting the high cost of prescription meditations
comparing the works of Proust, Gide, and Sartre
putting something aside for a rainy day
asking for another user's name and password

17.
scanning the shelves for news
cleaning up after the latest tsunami
trying not to think about elephants
looking forward to end-of-life decisions

18.
reassessing works already completed
exterminating the brutes
chipping ice from the windshield of the car
rebuilding the old road from Fredrikstad to Skjeberg

19.
getting more bang for the buck
setting something aside for that rainy day
worry about what to really worry about
getting back to the Bang, the Big One

20.
teaching the Chinese how to speak English
learning about Putin, reading his soul
cashing in on Homeland Security
making that list of things to make lists of

21.
deciding whether or not to escape to Canada
enhancing revenue without raising taxes
learning more about hematology--its life, its times
mapping talk-free zones in public parks

22.
making the punishment fit the criminal
recovering our census-takers
fitting the glove to the velvet hand
dialing for (four) dollars

23.
laying mines at the Prose/Poetry border
celebrating the rebirth of death
transferring funds to overshore accounts
counting the years from start to finish

24.
unpacking after the last long/short journey
saying goodbye to the undead
finding trusty pocket tools for indoor use
pleasing others in letters

25.
recouping ancient losses
moving data from there to over here
scanning the text as rapidly as possible
keeping Kandinsky in mind

26.
replacing old maps with new ones
preparing the cat for summer camp
paying the bills in advance
brushing up on our Spanish

27.
stealing stones from the temple
building a nearby church
stealing stones from the church
building a nearby bank

28.
filling the sandbags
repairing the levee
spreading plutocracy around the world
counting and bagging the dead

29.
cleaning up after Rita, Katrina
remembering we must pay our bills
washing windows of opportunity
trying to find the snows of yesteryear

30.
covering up the latest cover-up
rereading all we've reread as of now
reviewing the plays of Pinter, their silences
uncovering the cover-up of the cover-up

31.
comparing apples to orangutans
criminalizing conservative politics
finding new ways to profit from disasters
rescuing painting from the dead end of Pop Art

32.
robbing Peter and Paul to pay Mark and Luke
waking up to a brand-new day
forgetting that old Underwood we once loved
overcoming inertia and ignorance

33.
freeing the slaves
admonishing those who do evil
stamping out political brushfires
democratizing the US

34.
closing the books on the old year
balancing the checkbook (first time ever)
remembering to reshape my face (yet again)
changing course (as always)

35.
securing the seaports
transfiguring the night of the prom
seeking an audience with His Holiness, the President
bombing the Middle East into freedom and democracy

36.
telling civil war from your garden-variety insurgency
recognizing our deepest needs, wants, and wishes
finally getting that poodle to the groomer
learning to live on self-serve island

37.
keeping an eye on the military-industrial complex
reseeding the lawn for the nth and final time
staking out claims on the future
moving the party toward a more radical center

38.
restoring the Gulf to its pre-US condition
administering flu shots to every chicken in every pot
studying studies on the results of previous studies
reducing the pulse of alien shadows

39.
reducing light pollution in our major cities
rescuing the castaways
creating unwanted database gaps
accommodating carbon dating to Biblical truth

40.
bombing our way to an "endurable" peace
retelling the tales of bygone wars
seeing what might be learned there
measuring the manatee

41.
returning that defective broadband router
speaking kindly of those we no longer respect
giving up keeping up as a modus vivendi
putting our thoughts into action

42.
sticking to issues that directly affect us
bemoaning the cautiousness of today's athletes
co-opting the arguments of their opposition
welcoming Latino immigrants at the border

43.
throwing our hats in the ring
translating our actions into thought
seeing that Anna Nicole Smith achieves sainthood
rehanging Saddam and getting it right

44.
paying off our debts, incurring new ones
getting the MS of the new book out into the mail
preparing ourselves for our press conference
seeking an end to cross-pollination

45.
hammering out justice, all over this land
disturbing the neighbors by night, by day
enjoying privacy at our place in the country
transmuting dross into gold

46.
pronouncing the names of the dead
bringing Elian back to his Miami relatives
rejuvenating all those pre-aged youngsters out there
throwing our hats in the ring

47.
finding our way to the next whiskey bar
extending that fence to both east and west coasts
revising our previously revised revisions
building the ark to end arks

48.
preventing its dividing itself up
realizing our potential potential
spending more time with the family
waking up to unreality

49.
finding the photos of the old house
rowing the boat ashore
thinking things through again
keeping the guard up

50.
parsing the genome
flinging sweets down the staircase
exhaling only when necessary
tearing myself away

51.
parsing the genome
fleshing out the diagram
refilling the lungs, yet again
reacquainting ourselves

52.

getting the genie back
refreshing the screen
barking the dog
crying over spilled beans

53.
making up our minds
testing the waters
arousing the base
exchanging dollars

54.
stealing rain from the clouds
reexamining the x
recounting the votes again
building a foetus from scratch

55. 
sequestering the sequesterators
getting Syrian about seriosity
dancing for rain . . . again
redefining ingenuity

56.


Wednesday, May 1

North American Journeys, 4

               Friday June 7th. 1805,--
     It continued to rain almost without intermission last night and as I expected we had a most disagreable and wrestless night. our camp possessing no allurements, we left our watery beads at an early hour and continued our rout down the river. it still continues to rain the wind hard from N. E. and could. the grownd remarkably slipry, where we had passed as we ascended the river. notwithstanding the rain that has now fallen the earth of these bluffs is not wet to a greater depth than 2 inches; in it's present state it is precisely like walking over frozan grownd which is thawed to small debth and slips equally as bad. this clay not only appears to require more water to saturate it as I before observed than ny earth I ever observed but when saturated it appears on the other hand to yeald it's moisture with equal difficulty.
     In passing along the face of one of these bluffs today I sliped at a narrow pass of about 30 yards in length and but for a quick and fortunate recovery by means of my espontoon I should been precipitated into the river down a craggy pricipice of about ninety feet. I had scarcely reached a place on which I could stand with tolerable safety even with the assistance of my espontoon before I hear a voice behind me cry out god god Capt. what shall I do  on turning about I found it was Windsor who had sliped and fallen ab[o]ut the center of this narrow pass and was lying prostrate on his belley, with his wright hand arm and leg over the precipice while he was holding on with the left arm and foot as well as he could which appeared to be with much difficulty.  I discovered his dinger and the trepedation which he was in gave me still further concern for I expected every instant to see him loose his strength and slip off; altho' much allarmed at his situation I disguised my feelings and spoke very calmly to him and assured him that he was in no kind of danger, to take the knife out of his belt behind him with his wright hand and dig a hole with it in the face of the bank to receive his wright foot which he did and then raised himself to his knees; I then directed him to take off his mockersons and to come forward on his hands and knees holding the knife in one hand and the gun in the other this he happily effected and escaped.
     those who were some little distance b[e]hind returned by my orders and waded the river at the foot of the bluff where the water was breast deep. it was useless we knew to attempt the plains on this part of the river in consequence of the numerous steep ravines which intersected and which were quite as bad as the river bluffs. we therefore continued our rout down the river sometimes in the mud and water of the bottom lands, at others in the river to our breasts and when the water become so deep that we could not wade we cut footsteps in the face of the steep bluffs with our knives and proceded. we continued our disagreeable march th[r]ough the rain mud and water untill late in the evening having traveled only about 18 Miles, and encamped in an old Indian stick lodge which afforded us a dry and comfortable shelter. during the day we had killed six deer some of them in very good order altho' none of them had yet entirely discarded their winter coats. we had reserved and brought with us a good supply of the best peices; we roasted and eat a hearty supper of our venison not having taisted a mo[r]sel before during the day; I now laid myself down on some willow boughs to a comfortable nights rest, and felt indeed as if I was fully repaid for the toil and pain of the day, so much will a good shelter, a dry bed, and comfortable supper revive the sperits of the w[e]aryed, wet and hungry traveler.

--The Journals of Lewis and Clark

Tuesday, April 30

Paragraphs from Stein, 16

The room was soon very very full and who were they all. Groups of hungarian painters and writers, it happened that some hungarian had once been brought and the word had spread from him throughout all Hungary, any village where there was a young man who had ambitions heard of 27 reu de Fleurus and then he lived but to get there and a great many did get there. They were always there, all sizes and shapes, all degrees of wealth and poverty, some very charming, some simply rough and every now and then a very beautiful young peasant. Then there were quantities of germans, not too popular because they tended always to want to see anything that was put away and they tended to break things and Gertrude Stein has a weakness for breakable objects, she has a horror of people who collect only the unbreakable. Then there was a fair sprinkling of americans, Mildred Aldrich would bring a group or Sayen, the electrician, or some painter and occasionally an architectural student would accidentally get there and then there were the habitués, among them Miss Mars and Miss Squires whom Gertrude Stein afterwards immortalised in her story of Miss Furr and Miss Skeene. On that first night Miss Mars and I talked of a subject then entirely new, how to make up your face. She was interested in types, she knew that there were femme décorative, femme d'intérieur and femme intrigante; there was no doubt that Fernande Picasso was a femme décorative, but what was Madame Matisse, femme d'intérieur, I said, and she was very pleased. From time to time one heard the high spanish whinnying laugh of Picasso the gay contralto of Gertrude Stein, people came and went, in and out. Miss Stein told me to sit with Fernande. Fernande was always beautiful but heavy in hand. I sat, it was my first sitting with a wife of a genius.

--Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Monday, April 29

North American Journeys, 3

Dezi drove her to his apartment on Northside Drive. He drove a tan Celica, and the whole ride he talked on a cellular phone in the deep voice of a midnight deejay. He mostly talked about some ball game, but sometimes he would just say, "Yeah," in a way that seemed shorthand for things he didn't want her to hear.

The staid stores of Virginia Avenue gave way to grillwork-caged liquor stores with names like Max's or The Place, and more to the point, Liquor Here. Some businesses gave no indication as to what they might be selling, their signposts were signless, their neon neonless.

The only spots of color were the billboards and the prostitutes. The billboards all advertised Kools or Newports, and against the green backdrops, beautiful black people wore toy-colored clothes. They were shown sledding, or skiing, or some other activity involving snow, all of them somehow managing to hold on to their cigarettes.

--ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

Saturday, April 27

North American Journeys, 2

They among Englishmen who best love and most admire the United States, have felt themselves tempted to use the strongest language in denouncing the sins of Americans.
Who can but love their personal generosity, their active hatred of ignorance, the general convictions in the minds of all of them that a man should be enabled to walk upright, fearing no one and conscious that he is responsible for his own actions? In what country have grander efforts been made by private munificence to relieve the sufferings of humanity? Where can the English traveller find any more anxious to assist him than the normal American, when once the American shall have found the Englishman to be neither sullen nor fastidious? Who, lastly, is so much an object of heart-felt admiration of the American man and the American woman as the well-mannered Englishwoman or Englishman? These are  the ideas which I say spring uppermost in the minds of the unprejudiced English traveller as he makes acquaintance with these near relatives. Then he becomes cognisant of their official doings, of their politics, of their municipal scandals, of their great ring-robberies, of their lobbyings and briberies, and the infinite baseness of their public life. There at the top of everything he finds the very men who are the least fit to occupy high places. American public dishonesty is so glaring that the very friends he has made in the country are not slow to acknowledge it--speaking of public life as a thing apart from their own existence, as a state of dirt in which it would be an insult to suppose that they were concerned! In the midst of it all the stranger, who sees so much that he hates and so much that he loves, hardly knows how to express himself.
     "It is not enough that you are personally clean," he says, with what energy and courage he can command,--"not enough though the clean outnumber the foul as greatly as those gifted with sight outnumber the blind, if you that can see allow the blind to lead you. It is not by the private lives of the millions that the outside world will judge you, but by the public career of those units whose venality is allowed to debase the name of your country. There never was plainer proof given than is given here, that it is the duty of every honest citizen to look after the honour of his State."

--Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography (1883)

Tuesday, April 23

13 Sentences by John Cage

John Cage's "On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and His Work" includes, in no particular order, the following sentences:

1.   A canvas is never empty.

2.   The icicles all go down.
3.   Would we have preferred a pig with an apple in its mouth?
4.   He is like that butcher whose knife never became dull simply because he cut with it in such a way that it never encountered an obstacle.
5.   Shortly the stranger leaves, leaving the door open.
6.   Setting out one day for a birthday party, I noticed the streets were full of presents.
7.   Does his head have a bed in it?
8.   He is not saying; he is painting.
9.   I know he put the paint on the tires.
10. Ideas are not necessary.
11. As the lady said, "Well, if it isn't art, then I like it."
12. What do images do?
13. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I am doing. 

Thursday, April 4

North American Journeys, 1

One summer day, Merce Cunningham and I took eight children to Bear Mountain Park. The paths through the zoo were crowded. Some of the children ran ahead, while others fell behind. Every now and then we stopped, gathered all the children together, and counted them to make sure none had been lost. Since it was very hot and the children were getting difficult, we decided to buy them ice cream cones. This was done in shifts. While I stayed with some, Merce Cunningham took others, got them cones, and brought them back. I took the ones with cones. He took those without. Eventually all the children were supplied with ice cream. However, they got it all over their faces. So we went to a water fountain where people were lined up to get a drink, put the children in line, tried to keep them there, and waited our turn. Finally, I knelt beside the fountain. Merce Cunningham turned it on. Then I proceeded one by one to wash the children's faces. While I was doing this, a man behind us in line said rather loudly, "There's a washroom over there." I looked up at him quickly and said, "Where? And how did you know I was interested in mushrooms?"

--John Cage, Silence

Monday, March 18

Jack Spicer

Sporting Life

The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios don't
          develop scar tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a transistor, which
          most souls are, the battery or diagram burns out replaceable or
          not replaceable, but not like that punchdrunk fighter in the bar.
          The poet
Takes too many messages. The right to the ear that floored him in
          New Jersey. The right to say that he stood six rounds with a 
          champion.
Then they sell beer or go on sporting commissions, or, if the scar
          tissue is too heavy, demonstrate in a bar where the invisible
          champions might not have hit him. Too many of them.
The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a counterpunching
          radio.
And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even know
          they are champions.

Thursday, November 8


          "We know that an idea, a novel or a poem, may begin
at some point or germ, grow, finding its being and necessary
form, rhythm and life as the germ evolves in relation to its
environment of language and experience in life. This is an art
that rises from a deep belief in the universe as a medium of
forms, in man's quest as a spiritual evolution.
          "In contrast, conventional art, with its conviction that
form means adherence to an imposed order where metric
and rime are means of conformation, rises from a belief that
man by artifice must win his forms (as models, reproductions
or paradigms) against his nature, areas of control in a universe
that is a matter of chaos."

--Robert Duncan

fr. The Day Book as excerpted in The Gist of Origin:
1951-1971 [New York: Grossman/Viking Press, 1975]

Monday, June 11

Works in Progress, 54


1.

getting in touch with the cable guys
swinging the birches
testing the waters
pushing radical music agendas

2.
rewriting the country's labor laws
seeing a psychic map of our obsessions
building electoral coalitions that will win
emphasizing the overlapping interests of the affluent

3.
cleaning up after Gustav, Hanna, Ike
cleaning up after Bush, after Cheney
rewriting the history of consciousness
blurring the possibilities

4.
supporting any effort to reunionize
failing to generate meaningful responses
becoming one with the centipede in oneself
getting some good poems out of it

5.
slumbering well until after nightfall
setting this brain of mine afire
reaching irritably after fact & reason
shunning easy consolations

6.
subsidizing extraction industries
helping women victimized by male violence
doubling the sign-up bonus for volunteers
supporting the troops while doubting the war

7.
counting the dead
waiting for them to break silence
descending the steeps of the soughing twilight
assimilating foreign cultures

8.
demilitarizing outer space
completing the application and mailing it back
reviewing our few remaining options
showing off poetry's "extreme generosity"

9.
maneuvering pothole-sized cars around
designing more effective marketing campaigns
speaking solely in terms of racial justice
examining burial pits and naked skulls

10.
getting out the vote
fetching water from the well
educating the masses
confessing to our personal demons

11.
clearing minefields from past wars
laying them for wars yet to come
staying executions, pardoning the innocent
blurring the boundaries, the borders

12.
reading maps in the dark with the top light off
folding them all back up rightly
cramming them into the glove compartment
getting moving again in the right direction

13.
cooling our wardheelers
voting early and often
keeping our fingers crossed
paying full-price for our journey

14.
assembling a glossary of oft-used phrases
keeping silent while the tea is poured
maintaining an inventory of our beliefs and unbeliefs
finding time to clean up around the house

15.
making the world safe for gerontocracy
clearing the minefields and cow pastures
converting analog files to digital
rereading An Anatomy of Melancholy

16.
fighting the high cost of prescription meditations
comparing the works of Proust, Gide, and Sartre
putting something aside for a rainy day
asking for another user's name and password

17.
scanning the shelves for news
cleaning up after the latest tsunami
trying not to think about elephants
looking forward to end-of-life decisions

18.
reassessing works already completed
exterminating the brutes
chipping ice from the windshield of the car
rebuilding the old road from Fredrikstad to Skjeberg

19.
getting more bang for the buck
setting something aside for that rainy day
worry about what to really worry about
getting back to the Bang, the Big One

20.
teaching the Chinese how to speak English
learning about Putin, reading his soul
cashing in on Homeland Security
making that list of things to make lists of

21.
deciding whether or not to escape to Canada
enhancing revenue without raising taxes
learning more about hematology--its life, its times
mapping talk-free zones in public parks

22.
making the punishment fit the criminal
recovering our census-takers
fitting the glove to the velvet hand
dialing for (four) dollars

23.
laying mines at the Prose/Poetry border
celebrating the rebirth of death
transferring funds to overshore accounts
counting the years from start to finish

24.
unpacking after the last long/short journey
saying goodbye to the undead
finding trusty pocket tools for indoor use
pleasing others in letters

25.
recouping ancient losses
moving data from there to over here
scanning the text as rapidly as possible
keeping Kandinsky in mind

26.
replacing old maps with new ones
preparing the cat for summer camp
paying the bills in advance
brushing up on our Spanish

27.
stealing stones from the temple
building a nearby church
stealing stones from the church
building a nearby bank

28.
filling the sandbags
repairing the levee
spreading plutocracy around the world
counting and bagging the dead

29.
cleaning up after Rita, Katrina
remembering we must pay our bills
washing windows of opportunity
trying to find the snows of yesteryear

30.
covering up the latest cover-up
rereading all we've reread as of now
reviewing the plays of Pinter, their silences
uncovering the cover-up of the cover-up

31.
comparing apples to orangutans
criminalizing conservative politics
finding new ways to profit from disasters
rescuing painting from the dead end of Pop Art

32.
robbing Peter and Paul to pay Mark and Luke
waking up to a brand-new day
forgetting that old Underwood we once loved
overcoming inertia and ignorance

33.
freeing the slaves
admonishing those who do evil
stamping out political brushfires
democratizing the US

34.
closing the books on the old year
balancing the checkbook (first time ever)
remembering to reshape my face (yet again)
changing course (as always)

35.
securing the seaports
transfiguring the night of the prom
seeking an audience with His Holiness, the President
bombing the Middle East into freedom and democracy

36.
telling civil war from your garden-variety insurgency
recognizing our deepest needs, wants, and wishes
finally getting that poodle to the groomer
learning to live on self-serve island

37.
keeping an eye on the military-industrial complex
reseeding the lawn for the nth and final time
staking out claims on the future
moving the party toward a more radical center

38.
restoring the Gulf to its pre-US condition
administering flu shots to every chicken in every pot
studying studies on the results of previous studies
reducing the pulse of alien shadows

39.
reducing light pollution in our major cities
rescuing the castaways
creating unwanted database gaps
accommodating carbon dating to Biblical truth

40.
bombing our way to an "endurable" peace
retelling the tales of bygone wars
seeing what might be learned there
measuring the manatee

41.
returning that defective broadband router
speaking kindly of those we no longer respect
giving up keeping up as a modus vivendi
putting our thoughts into action

42.
sticking to issues that directly affect us
bemoaning the cautiousness of today's athletes
co-opting the arguments of their opposition
welcoming Latino immigrants at the border

43.
throwing our hats in the ring
translating our actions into thought
seeing that Anna Nicole Smith achieves sainthood
rehanging Saddam and getting it right

44.
paying off our debts, incurring new ones
getting the MS of the new book out into the mail
preparing ourselves for our press conference
seeking an end to cross-pollination

45.
hammering out justice, all over this land
disturbing the neighbors by night, by day
enjoying privacy at our place in the country
transmuting dross into gold

46.
pronouncing the names of the dead
bringing Elian back to his Miami relatives
rejuvenating all those pre-aged youngsters out there
throwing our hats in the ring

47.
finding our way to the next whiskey bar
extending that fence to both east and west coasts
revising our previously revised revisions
building the ark to end arks

48.
preventing its dividing itself up
realizing our potential potential
spending more time with the family
waking up to unreality

49.
finding the photos of the old house
rowing the boat ashore
thinking things through again
keeping the guard up

50.
parsing the genome
flinging sweets down the staircase
exhaling only when necessary
tearing myself away

51.
parsing the genome
fleshing out the diagram
refilling the lungs, yet again
reacquainting ourselves

52.

getting the genie back
refreshing the screen
barking the dog
crying over spilled beans

53.
making up our minds
testing the waters
arousing the base
exchanging dollars

54.
stealing rain from the clouds
reexamining the x
recounting the votes again
building a foetus from scratch

55.

Sunday, June 10

John and John and Harry and Me



[Headnote: Some years ago, I came upon an interview that John Ash made with Harry Mathews. Heavy with food, I found, all of a sudden, that John Ash had morphed into John Ashbery, and that Harry Mathews had become for at least part of the time . . . well, me. So having said all that, I leave the results to you. There may still be some shards of truth there, if they haven't been abandoned altogether. Enjoyable reading? Well, that's for you to say, or maybe someone else.]



An Interview with Halvard Johnson
By "John Ashbery"


John Ashbery: One is supposed to ask questions about a writer's work, but I thought I would ask you about your life, which I know very little about. As so often with one's nearest and dearests, their biographies have enormous lacunae in them. I don't know, for instance, very much about why you went to Harvard when you did, or why you left it. I don't know why you studied music. I don't know why you went to Majorca. If I knew, I've forgotten all these things.
Halvard Johnson: I think it's very kind of you to assume that I did any of these things. I didn’t go to Harvard because I spent four years at Ohio Wesleyan University, where I got cheaper tuition because my father was a Methodist minister. Mind you, I might very well have gone to Harvard if the thought had ever occurred to me and if my parents and I had been able to afford it.  Apart from the usual breaks and vacations, though, I only left school when I had finally obtained my sheepskin. I did my four-year course in exactly four years. And I finished college because I thought how much it would upset my parents if I didn't. It was a last gesture to--
JA: I see, I didn't even know that you'd finished college, I thought you'd left.
HJ: I graduated from Ohio Wesleyan in 1958.
JA: I guess I knew that you did two years at Harvard. Why did you leave Princeton?
HJ: I disliked Princeton for the reasons many people dislike it--its genteel charm, which seemed snobbish and anti-intellectual, but I never left it. Aren’t you listening? I never even went there.
JA: You certainly don't get that at Harvard.
HJ: Don’t get what at Harvard? I regret not having been at Harvard at that time, in the sense that if I'd had a different attitude and somewhat more money I think I would have learned a lot more there. At OWU I felt that I was just going through the motions. Fortunately I did learn a lot about music, because I reviewed concerts one or two years for the Register, and took piano for one term. Most of the courses I took were in English or philosophy though--where you had to hand in assignments once or twice a week or fail. But what seemed to me attractive about OWU, especially in retrospect, was the intellectual (ha!) life of the students, "among" the students. I was unmarried and living off campus so I missed most of that, except for my mealtimes at Bun’s, which I liked very much, especially when I started making tips.
JA: Yes--boiled beef, cold potatoes . . .
HJ: I didn't mean the "food"! What was the name of the man who ran that restaurant--Bun?
JA: I think it was, yes . . .
HJ: Bun was avuncular and stuffy, but very kind--
JA: . . . the Mrs. Danvers of Bun’s.
HJ: I had very little money at the time. He allowed me to simply eat my meals without having to pay for them, or something like that. So I was able to keep up this one link with the--
JA: It must have set you back a good forty-five cents each time you had lunch.
HJ: Yes, not even that, those were the pre-everything days.
JA: What led you to study music?
HJ: Well, I had this little notion--I started playing and listening to music when I was eleven. I was passionately addicted to it; it was my great refuge through adolescence. I felt it was so valuable to me that I didn't want that passion to be sullied by exposure to academic treatments of it. In fact neither at Princeton nor at Harvard did I take a single music course, except for that one semester of piano and the required music appreciation course..
JA: Very wise of you.
HJ: I felt that way at the time. I have some regrets now, although not too many. Mainly because my touch is so uneven. My reading was uneven also, despite my having majored in English. Too much late-night Ping-Pong, I guess. Too much cutting class.
JA: You're unevenly read in a way that no one else is.
HJ: I've never read Spenser, or Heaney. Thomas Mann--or hardly any.
JA: You didn't have to read Giles and Phineas Fletcher or Roger Ascham.
HJ: "Gammer Gurton's Needle"?
JA: Oh--did you or didn't you?
HJ: I didn't, no.
JA: Actually it's very delightful.
HJ: Music had been my first love among the arts, and I was fascinated by it, as I still am. And although that wasn't my intention, I think it was very useful not to have studied it much. I gather you feel the same way about it.
JA: Yes, but I haven't studied it.
HJ: You do have a very fine--a "nice" ear.
JA: I feel it's too beautiful for me to want to know anything about it.
HJ: Just the way I felt about music.
JA: Exactly.
HJ: There's a big difference, though, because no matter how much you learn about music, it doesn't "tell" you anything about it. You study it through words--you approach it through a different medium.
JA: As a youth, you said, you took refuge in piano playing and music. Refuge from what? The gilded life in a Methodist parsonage?
HJ: Please cut that! It's true, I had an extremely delicious life, but that was my life at home, and perhaps because I was only a child, or for whatever reasons, I found the company of others, especially other boys, quite terrifying and upsetting. I was poor at athletics. I didn't know how to get along on their terms in any way I knew about. I probably wasn't as bad as I thought, but anyway I felt socially unhappy. I became very nasty, too. And when I started writing--not when I started, but when I was twelve or thirteen or fourteen, something like that—music was a great inner (I don't mean that in any "significant" way), a secret, a private place to go to, as was reading Chekhov, and reading in general. My dream, I remember, when I went to college, was to have a study all my own, a little nook someplace where nobody could get at me--nobody, like the football coach, or any of those others.
JA: Yes. I felt the same way. By the way, when did your parents get this apartment?
HJ: This is your apartment, you fool, not my parents’. The only apartment I was brought up in was on Seventh Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets, and that was only from when I was two or so until when I was seven. My grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins all lived in the Middle West, in Milwaukee mostly. I was brought up in Hudson Valley towns like Carmel and Middletown and Kingston, and went to public high school in Yonkers, just outside New York City.
 JA: When was that?
HJ: In 1954. That’s when I passed the Regents and graduated.
JA: Anyway, when did you meet Niki?
HJ: Niki? Never knew any Niki, John. My first wife was Dorothy—or Dotty. Met her in college, where we dated for a year or so. Got together with her again in New York, where we were both working after graduating from college.
JA: Jean.
HJ: No, the second one was Barbie. Met her in El Paso shortly after the divorce from Dorothy. Barbie and I lived in Puerto Rico for four years and then traveled Europe for a while, until she left me to have babies with some librarian at an army post in what was then West Germany. Then one day in this extraordinary beautiful young woman walked by and turned and smiled at me. That was that.
JA: It was Niki?
HJ: No, that was Susan. And I immediately set out in pursuit of her. She didn't dislike this . . .
JA: Since you were on a train, you must have had an easy time.
HJ: No, actually we were at a dinner. She started playing footsie with me under the table, and it wasn’t long before we were first traveling and then living together. We taught for a while in Germany and then went briefly to Turkey, then back to Germany, and then to Japan, where we actually got married because it was the only way we could live together on base.
JA: Where were you stationed?
HJ: For a while, in Okinawa, then South Korea, briefly, and then for a few years at an airbase just outside Tokyo.
 JA: Then you went to college?
HJ: No, this was long after either of us had been in college. I was in my late 30s by then, and Susan . . . well, she was about ten years younger. In the mid-80s, we came back to the US. Susan hated the guy she was working for and wanted to return.
JA: You went first to Majorca?
HJ: No, never been there. We went to Washington, D.C., where we lived for a year just off  Wisconsin Avenue, and then we bought a big old house in upper Montgomery County, closest I’ve ever come to living in the country. But three years later we divorced and I got involved and later married to Lynda Schor, my present wife. We’ve both be married four times, and have now been married to each other for nearly eleven years. Well, it will be eleven years in September this year (2001). Lynda raised three kids in New York City, and now, after a few years living in Baltimore, with Lynda commuting to teach in New York, we’ve settled down in her New York apartment.
JA: I hear the Duluth Symphony is looking for a principal guest conductor.
HJ: It may well be, but that’s neither here nor there to me. Every couple years I get to a New York Philharmonic concert, but usually I’m staying at home, writing and listening to my CDs. Lynda’s come to like new music a lot, and in the city we can find plenty of those, during the course of the season. Long ago, Lynda switched from painting and print-making to writing. She had a hip replacement last year and now she’s walking better than ever, so we spend a lot of time out walking around the city. She almost gave up on her promising writing career, but now she’s taking more interest in it again. She’s thinking of taking up with Elaine Markson, a former agent. The idea came to her because of the uselessness of her current agent and because of a chance meeting at nearby bookstore with Elaine’s estranged husband David Markson..
JA: I always confuse him with Marcel Arland.
HJ: But they're different.
JA: I know, the other one edits volumes of La Pleiade. I knew about the Bresson.
HJ: It was the same role that was offered to our daughter and that she did years later. I forgot to say that after college this great passion for writing poetry started to collapse. To this day I don't really know why, but it was definitely associated with both the colleges I went to. By the beginning of my sophomore year I'd virtually stopped writing, and within a year of leaving Harvard I'd started again. When Niki decided to become a painter, I told myself how wonderful, I want to do something like that. I'd also realized by that time that the chances of me having a musical career that would really interest me were practically nil because my ear training had been so neglected. It's hard to make up at twenty-one what you can learn easily at ten. And I really wanted to write again, and so I started writing, first poetry and then prose.
JA: How long did you stay in Paris then?
HJ: We were in Paris and Nice for a little more than a year, and then we went to Majorca, where you could then live for next to nothing. Majorca was much less resorty than it is now. There were quite a few foreigners, but they could be numbered by the dozens perhaps, and there wasn't the great summer influx that there is now.
JA: Is that what made you move back?
HJ: No. We lived in this place called Deya, where Robert Graves lived, a beautiful village. There was this artists and writers colony there. It was our first and last experience of an artists colony, and we both found living in such a situation extremely nasty after awhile, although we made very good friends there, one of whom introduced me to you.
JA: Walter Auerbach.
HJ: Walter Auerbach, who was living in Barcelona and whom I persuaded to come live in Deya, told me about you and introduced us, I think in the early summer of 1956.
JA: Yes. How did you meet Walter Auerbach?
HJ: I met him on a trip to Barcelona. I may have met him in Majorca. I got to know him in Barcelona. In those days you used to go to Barcelona on the overnight boat from Majorca if you wanted to live the life of a real city and a change of scene. We had friends in common. I went to a party at his place and then saw him rather regularly. I can't remember who the friends were, perhaps Jimmy and Tommie Metcalf, artists living in Deya at this time, perhaps Alastair Reid, more likely the Metcalfs. Walter stayed on. He died in Majorca, he lived the rest of his life there.
JA: Yes. We were at his house together. I was in Chicago a couple months ago where there was a show of Moholy-Nagy photographs and one of them was of Pitt Auerbach.
HJ: That was Walter's first wife. And how did you meet him?
JA: Actually it was through Rudy Burckhardt. Jane Freilicher once said to me--I hadn't met Rudy yet and she explained about him and said that he was making a movie using people like us in it. "Not only that, but Walter Auerbach is going to be in it. It's like having G.W. Pabst on set." So I met him through making the movie. The only thing I remember about it was the day we finished making it we went to, I think, Sheepshead Bay to have lunch at a sort of fish restaurant, and Walter Auerbach emphatically ordered a fillet of sole sandwich.
HJ: Was that cheaper than the other dishes.
JA: They were all cheap; it was that he knew exactly what he wanted.
HJ: Because he was a genius at living on small amounts of money. He lived on fifty-five dollars and later sixty-five dollars a month for years and years, in what seemed to be great comfort, both in Barcelona and Majorca.
JA: I remember the lunch he served us was something like a brochette of lungs, lights, beef heart. It was rather good. Anyway, I suppose we should talk about your work as well as your life.
HJ: I think it's very interesting to talk about--I mean I'm very willing to talk about my work, but I think people feel that they should ask questions about the work and they're really interested in one's life. So it's nice of you to ask those questions.
JA: No. When I met you in '56, I think you'd just moved back to Paris.
HJ: We'd just bought the apartment--our first apartment, at the Porte de Vanves.
JA: Yes, I remember it well.
HJ: Well, are there any things that remain mysterious to you after that?
JA: Outside of the mystery that you've always deliberately cultivated, I can't think of anything.
HJ: Yes, I always thought that the principle of my life was to be leaving for someplace else wherever I was and no matter where I was living.
JA: And to arrive at an unspecified date.
HJ: Yes.
JA: When I first met you, you were fascinated by Raymond Roussel, whom I introduced you to, I believe.
HJ: That's right.
JA: We must credit Kenneth Koch, however, for the original American discovery.
HJ: Yes. I always credit him.
JA: I seldom do. That's why I was doing so now. And since then you've been involved in the Oulipo--and it seems as though the discovery of Roussel's processes and writing must have been one of the things, perhaps the most important one, that occurred at that time since you've evolved more and more towards works that are somehow schematic.
HJ: This is something that had appealed to me in poetry; obviously all poets who write in traditional forms are involved in this, and I'd also invented ways of doing it in poetry myself. For instance, I wrote a long poem in sonata form. That seemed to be a thing you could do in poetry or at least try out in poetry. I was dying to write prose, but I didn't know any way of going about doing this in prose. Then Roussel showed me that you can generate prose works with the same kind of arbitrariness that you use in verse. One extraordinary thing about poetry is that, say, if you're writing couplets, every five feet you have to have a word that sounds like another word, whether that makes any sense or not. You have arbitrary, illogical demands that you have to make on yourself. Roussel showed how this can be done in prose and so for me opened up the whole possibility of writing fiction, which I'd tried before without ever getting any place. I'd always thought that to write fiction you had to write more or less autobiographical stories, or stories of things that you'd observed in the world. It's terribly hard to do that; at least it was terribly hard for me- to make it sing and glow. I think that's why Roussel excited me so.
JA: I was very attracted to him when I first read him but probably more the effects that his processes produced almost gratuitously. I've never really used very formal devices, although I don't disapprove of them; but it seems as though by using them you can get a realism, a sort of casual, unbuttoned quality.
HJ: I think that's true. The traditional short story or novel comes out very unlike the way things really happen, as though it were a kind of translation of the world. In Roussel, and in Oulipian work, you're forced to do things you wouldn't do otherwise, and this brings a great deal of freshness to them. One thing that I was inspired by in Roussel, most obviously in "The Conversation," is that incredible voice, that very neutral, apparently indifferent tone in which the most insane things are said. This is one of those effects which is so potent.
JA: The fact that he wrote with a very severe attention to writing with as few words as possible, so that he sometimes wrestled four or five hours with a single word, that produced what Michel Leiris has called prose such as that which is taught in manuals of lycees. He also says it allowed effects of extraordinary limpidity, which I think is a very good word for it. It's an experience that one can get nowhere else.
HJ: Who was it that said to Pasternak--was it Scriabin or somebody playing Scriabin?
JA: Yes, that he should simplify--
HJ: No, he said that he had finally achieved utter simplicity in his last works, which were of an absolutely mind-boggling complexity.
JA: I once quoted that passage to somebody interviewing me who wanted some justification for my complexity, somebody not very sympathetic. She said: "Sobering thought."
HJ: It's a very hard point to get across to a lot of people, that a work is much harder to get if it's diluted, whereas if you have it exactly the way it should be, it looks very thorny or cranky but in fact it just fits the space it's taking up. I'm obsessed with getting rid of words, too. Sometimes it seems to me that so much scraping takes place that words end up doing rather interesting things. Perec said when he translated me that I was very hard to translate because I used words "juste a cote leur sens"--just alongside their meaning. Since they were very ordinary words one didn't really notice this as it took place.
JA: Like what?
HJ: I have to turn off this tape recorder. I never can remember when people ask me for examples like that.
JA: No. You were just saying you wished you could understand how your work, hard as it may appear, is really easy to follow.
HJ: I think that what matters in writing, as in music, is what's going on between the words (and between the notes); the movement is what matters, rather than whatever is being said. I like very much what the English composer Birtwhistle--is that his name?--said about his pieces. He said you could change all the notes in it and it would still be the same piece. That really rang a bell when I read it because it could be said about not only my own work but written work in general. What matters is the process and not the substance that the process is using. I think that's very true of your poems.
JA: Yes, I thought so.
HJ: I think that's what's hard to . . . Readers get worried about reading something right or wrong, they don't trust themselves in the act of reading, and so they don't let that process work for them. They try to piece together a sense by taking out the elements that are used in . . .
JA: That's certainly particularly true of poetry, where people will go to any lengths rather than actually read the poem, such as read a thick book about it.
What's the position of Oulipo in France? How's it regarded by writers in general?
HJ: I went to see Michael Leiris, whom you just mentioned a few moments ago. He said," I'm very interested in what Oulipo does, but don't you think it's results are rather mechanical?" You know, he's very sly. And of course he does his whole--the "Glossaries" he makes up are very Oulipian. I think people who know it from a distance look on it with some suspicion, which is a good thing. I mean, it still has a certain ability to provoke. The position that it claims for itself is slightly suspect. We say that we invent forms (or rediscover old forms) that are very hard to use, very demanding, so that these will be available to other writers, a kind of contribution made to the potentiality . . .
JA: Very thoughtful of you.
HJ: Exactly. It's very thoughtful of us and never really happens. But I think its true activity, which is to experiment in forms rather than in writing, "is" interesting. And if it has to be justified, it's justified by the writing of Calvino and Perec, people like that.
JA: Don't be so modest.
HJ: Well, nevertheless Calvino is in a class apart.
JA: So are you. What is your standard of a form being sufficiently constricting?
HJ: What I say is: a form that makes you write something that you wouldn't normally say, or in a way that you would never have said it. The form is so demanding that you can't get around it.
JA: But that's true of almost any form.
HJ: Not really. The sonnet was once difficult, but it's not difficult any more.
JA: But you would be saying that you could conceivably say something in a sonnet that would not have occurred to you otherwise.
HJ: That's true. I think any form can be "suggestive." The constrictive part "makes" you --the sonnet wouldn't necessarily make you write in a way you wouldn't otherwise, or say something you wouldn't otherwise. I think the best example is the lipogram and Georges Perec's book "La Disparition", which is written without the letter "e." If you write without the letter "e," you can say an amazing amount of things, but you use a vocabulary that is so radically different than the one you normally use that you "have" to think about it. You have to be conscious of what you're doing all the time. I've been only able to solve that problem by putting a upturned thumbtack on the e-key of my typewriter. It's very hard no matter how diligent you are to keep them out--to keep an "e" from slipping in.
JA: I suppose every time you went to use a "le" or "je" you're forced to rethink the entire language.
HJ: Yes, you have to get around that someway, so you find yourself using modes of expression that are unnatural. On the other hand, practice can make you fluent in it; I translated several pages of "La Disparition" without all that much trouble.
JA: You had to use "e's," though, didn't you?
HJ: No, without using any "e's."
JA: Really?
HJ: That's kind of a double constraint, because you have the constraint of the translation "and" the other.
JA: May we take a break for a while?
HJ: Yes, I think it's time for our dinner.
(Dinner)
JA: People always ask me what influence my years in France had on my work. Of course I'm capable of answering, but I've often felt that there really wasn't much influence, except that it's very nice to live in a beautiful, cultured city with very good food--surely this played as important part in it. But I never felt that French "poetry," with a few exceptions--Roussel, Rimbaud, Lautreamont, etc. . . .
HJ: Reverdy, no?
JA: Reverdy, yes, of course--were very influential. In fact, I'm not sure how influential any of them were. I admire them; they are very great writers. But except for a few fortuitous resemblances to Reverdy or Roussel, they don't seem to have influenced me directly. It's almost as though French and English don't quite mix in a fruitful way. I heard somewhere that Stravinsky wrote his work for violin and piano--a sonata, I guess--because he always felt that the sounds of the two instruments were absolutely incompatible and wanted to see if he could address this problem.
HJ: That's quite true, they go very badly together, despite the literature.
JA: It's as though French were like a violin and English, or American, were like a piano.
HJ: So what is the question?
JA: Do you feel that your work would have been different, or do you feel that living in France has had a direct forming influence on your work?
HJ: I think living away from one's country gives you a difficult privilege. You're not under the pressure of people publicly succeeding better than you at what you're interested in; you're away from that and there's a relief in that sense. And also you have to be conscious of your own language. You're forced to be conscious of your language and your writing and your attitude toward writing. As for the Frenchness of that position, I guess really- that Mallarme as an idea was always very potent for me. It wasn't that Mallarme's present-day disciples seemed like ones to emulate, but I was living in a country--
JA: The six-words-to-a-page school?
HJ: Yes, there's that, and the "I'm not saying what I seem to be saying" attitude towards writing poetry. I felt that I was surrounded by language to which Mallarme had a weird relationship. Mallarme wrote like nobody else; even his letters to his friends are very hermetic and hard to read and don't sound like the language of his contemporaries or his successors or his predecessors. So that reading Mallarme or Roussel, for whom these comments are true also, in France is inspiring, and in the fact that he has become the father or grandfather of modern poetry there is something that I could look to for inspiration. I think that would have been harder to do if I'd stayed here. For the personal reasons we talked about earlier--we didn't talk about them so much--those reasons why I didn't want to come back to the United States: since I'd taken refuge in France the way I'd taken refuge in poetry earlier in my life, it seemed appropriate that there was this utterly committed writer, someone who had gone to an extreme that no writer I know in English had ever done--towards formality, a kind of abstraction.
JA: I always felt that what you say about Mallarme was true of surrealism--that idea of it was actually more important than the works it resulted in. I don't know whether you were saying that about Mallarme.
HJ: No, I love Mallarme's poetry. And I agree with you about surrealism. Maybe you're thinking more of what has been made out of Mallarme than what he actually . . .
JA: No, I was putting words in your mouth. I thought that's what you were saying.
HJ: I don't know that I'd ever actually like to write like Mallarme.
JA: No.
HJ: But I think it's wonderful that somebody did. He seems to have gone much farther than the surrealists, getting to the bottom of the French verse and the French sentence. I think poems like "Le Don du poeme" are extremely moving and irremediably--if that's the word--mysterious.
JA: Well, what other questions would you like me to ask?
HJ: I don't know. Some more questions that aren't usually asked in interviews. It's so nice not being asked, How do I write?
JA:Yes, they always want the recipe.
HJ: Perhaps I could say a few words about why I did run away from the United States.
JA: Yes, I've never actually known.
HJ: In 1952 I ran away from America. Which was not America: it was the milieu in which I'd been raised, and I thought that's what America was, that is to say, an upper-middle-class Eastern WASP environment, which I read as being extremely hostile to the poetic and artistic enthusiasms that I felt were most important at the time.
JA: I'm not sure that you misread it.
HJ: Maybe.
JA: That was sort of a low point in America.
HJ: It was a very bad moment.
JA: Which we seem to be outdoing in the present time.
HJ: Except there hasn't been anything like McCarthyism. There are a lot of things that are awful . . .
JA: The New Right?
HJ: Yes, that's true. But then the values of what is now the New Right were standard. You remember Chaplin being kicked out of the America on the grounds of moral turpitude? Anyway, I've never felt that I was anything but an American, even though I'm an American-living-abroad, which I think is an interesting form of the species that can contribute to what's happening here as much as anyone else. I never have thought of myself as "existing" anyplace else, although I am very happy to have a place in France, you know, to be known to French writers, to have another life. That is very agreeing and sustainable. Although I don't think that the readier reception by many people in France of what I do means that they understand it any better than people who resist it here.
JA: They probably think that you're neglected here, as they believe about Faulkner, and therefore they're going to take you to their hearts, along with Jerry Lewis.
HJ: Right. Is there any kind of final thing I could tell you about myself that has been mysterious to you through all these years?
JA: Well . . .
HJ: It's been a very long friendship.
JA: Don't speak as though it were over, please. One of the minor mysteries of your activities is how you decide how long you're going to spend in one of your three places.
HJ: I sort of schedule it knowing that after a certain time, after a few weeks, I'll grow attached to the place, so that I always manage to leave when I'm longing to stay a little more. But I'm never sorry to get to the place that I move on to.
JA: That makes sense.
HJ: It does?
JA: Well, I could ask you about your future plans, now that you've finished your novel and it's actually being published.
HJ: Going to be published. I do have plans for another book, one shorter than "Cigarettes," which will have the name "Domestic Tranquility," no, I'm sorry, "Domestic Contentment." There's this marvelous old servant woman whom I've known for years. I can't remember--Arielle is her name--
JA: Dombasle?
HJ: I believe it's Arielle Matthis. I'm going to transcribe and edit her memoirs, which she has told me orally.
JA: Is she in Lans?
HJ: I don't think it's really fair for me to say. I'm sure you'll like her tales of her life, which are rather para-oulipian, that is to say, all the dramas of which she's been a witness as a serving woman in the various households in which she's worked have been resolved by her skill in household tasks.
JA: Does this woman actually exist or is she another creation of your fertile brain?
HJ: That's a distinction I think I won't make.
JA: Actually that's the way the--I was again starting "La Vie de Marianne" of Marivaux.
HJ: Is that one of his novels?
JA: Yes, it is--a masterpiece.
HJ: He's supposed to be a wonderful novelist, another one I've been meaning to read.
JA: He is. And at the beginning the author is speaking and says he's recently rented a chateau in Brittany, and while rearranging the furniture he came upon a candle box of letters in the cabinet . . .
HJ: I see.
JA: . . . which I found curious enough to perhaps merit the interest of the reader.
HJ: Do you think this inspired "The Manuscript Found at Saragossa"?
JA: It was kind of a convention of the time.
HJ: I see. Yes, it was a pretext for fiction, wasn't it? Novels were presented as being papers or an account of something discovered by the author in some surprising backwoods.
JA: Did you go and see the Saragossa movie?
HJ: No, I only saw it years ago in France. I haven't seen it here. But if we start talking about movies, we're never going to stop.
JA: Oh, I thought we'd finished the interview.
HJ: No!
JA: I thought it was all over and I could go home.
HJ: I can stop it whenever you want. But I was hoping you'd ask a concluding question.
JA: I thought I'd asked several already.
HJ: You have, but why don't you do one more, so that--
JA: Um. (Long pause.)
HJ: The tape is still on.
JA: I know.
HJ: I'm not talking to you, I'm talking to it.
JA: I was talking to it, too.
HJ: Do you think it likes us both, equally? I mean, what are machines for, if not for that?
JA: User friendly?
HJ: Impartial love finally realized. (Pause.) Well, let's leave it at that.
JA: At "what"?
HJ: At nothing more than that.
JA: OK.

[Footnote: --From the Review of Contemporary FictionFall 1987, Volume 7.3; once online somewhere, but currently lost to me.]