Thursday, January 31, 2008

Down By Law

Here's Tom Waits in Down By Law, having just rescued his shoes from Ellen Barkin's temper tantrum. What better way could there be to spend an evening?

"It is a sad and beautiful world."

"Yes. I ham just lucky to heven be here."

Writing Advice

This is a footnote, as it were, to my post "How would a fool do it?"

My two colleagues and I were giving the final English-language exam to students earlier this month. One student who had been having serious problems (she had failed the exam twice) had still been struggling in the exam preparation course with my colleague Joyce. Shortly before the exam, Joyce made a surprising suggestion: "Write what you think is a bad essay." So she did, and when we marked it, we thought it was fine!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Lives of Others

At the end of "The Lives of Others," which Andrea and I watched tonight, I got all emotional. The ending has its emotional effect (to make the idea of dedicating a book to the guy who spied on you credible, you need a good story), but mostly I was sad that Ulrich Mühe died last year. What a wondrous actor. His face was as expressive as Kevin Spacey's, or Jennifer Ehle's, to name my two favorite expressive faces.

The Future

Here's another New Yorker poem, "The Future," by Billy Collins. It reminds me of one of my favorite Collins poems, "Nostalgia."

I still don't quite get why people get so riled up about Collins's poems. Like many poets who have developed a singular style, he writes some excellent poems beside many that are "merely" good examples of his style, and even a few weak poems. And like many poets who have had some success in the poetry world, he probably gets a lot of his weaker poems published, the kind that a less well-known poet would not get away with.

But that's just normal in any art form, isn't it?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Old Marx

Here's a great poem from the New Yorker, "Old Marx," by Adam Zagajewski, translated by Clare Cavanagh. My favorite lines:

He couldn’t concentrate, rewrote old work,
reread young Marx for days on end,
and secretly admired that ambitious author.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Someone else who read "Lenz"

Mr. Jumbo has posted a long response to Büchner's "Lenz," which I recommend both to those who have read the story and to those who have not. Thanks to him for joining me in reading the novella on January 20!

Use and Mention

Here, thanks to Bill Poser at Language Log, is a distinction I have not come across before: between use and mention. A professor at Brandeis (see the links in Poser's post) was found guilty of racial harassment for saying this:

"Mexican migrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as 'wetbacks'."

As Poser points out, the professor did not actually call anyone a "wetback"; he did not use the term. Instead, he only mentioned it.

I've made this distinction in my mind for many years, but never as concisely. It helps one think about how to talk about obscenities (for recent thoughts about that, see here).

Poser sums up the general point:

"In the absence of other information, one is not entitled to draw any inference as to the speaker's attitudes and beliefs from mentions."

It suddenly crosses my mind that this explains why one should never attribute a fictional character's ideas to the author: whatever a fictional character says is, from the author's perspective, a mention and not a use.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


There's an excellent discussion going on over at Scottish poet Rob Mackenzie's blog—many UK poets chiming in on how the poetry publication "system" in the UK works.

I suspect it would be of great interest to those frustrated by the "system" in North America as well—if only for the contrast between the two sides of the Atlantic. Check it out if you have not already.

And while you're at it, order a copy of Rob's wonderful chapbook The Clown of Natural Sorrow.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Die Kunst ... bildet ... den Gegenstand einer Unterhaltung, die in einem Zimmer, also nicht in der Conciergerie stattfindet, einer Unterhaltung, die, das spüren wir, endlos fortgesetzt werden könnte, wenn nichts dazwischenkäme.

Es kommt etwas dazwischen.

Paul Celan, "Meridian"

In John Felstiner's translation:

Art forms the subject of a conversation that takes place in a room, not in the Conciergerie prison, a conversation that could go on endlessly, we feel, if nothing intervened.

Something does intervene.

Beautifully, when Celan identifies art as "the subject of a conversation," he chooses the word "Unterhaltung" and not the word "Gespräch" (which he does use later in "Meridian"). You see, "Unterhaltung" can also mean "entertainment." Celan is not usually identified as someone whose poetry one reads and thinks about for entertainment, but I have always derived the greatest possible intellectual entertainment from reading, thinking about, and discussing his work with people. It can be a harrowing experience, discussing Celan, but harrowing experiences are part of what constitutes art—as the age-old concept of tragic catharsis makes clear.

The scene Celan is referring to is in Büchner's "Danton's Death," and the conversation involves several revolutionaries (including Danton) who have been condemned to death. So what "intervenes" here is a death sentence.

There are many ways to read this intervention, but all of them involve a recognition that although art is a matter of "Unterhaltung" in the sense of both conversation and entertainment, art works provide the best material for "Unterhaltungen" when they recognize the imminence of interruption, of "intervention," of death sentences.

Poems can be "lighter than air," but at their best, their lightness points towards something unbearable, harrowing, cathartic.

Monday, January 21, 2008


My favorite passage in Büchner's Lenz reads like a desire for photography:

"Wie ich gestern neben am Tal hinaufging, sah ich auf einem Steine zwei Mädchen sitzen: die eine band ihr Haar auf, die andre half ihr; und das goldne Haar hing herab, und ein ernstes bleiches Gesicht, und doch so jung, und die schwarze Tracht, und die andre so sorgsam bemüht. Die schönsten, innigsten Bilder der altdeutschen Schule geben kaum eine Ahnung davon. Man möchte manchmal ein Medusenhaupt sein, um so eine Gruppe in Stein verwandeln zu können, und den Leuten zurufen."

In John Felstiner's translation (from his translation of Celan's Meridian):

"Yesterday, as I was walking up along the valley rim, I saw two girls sitting on a rock: one was doing up her hair, the other helping her; and the golden hair hung down, and the pale serious face, yet so young, and the black dress, and the other girl taking such pains. The Old German School's finest, most intimate pictures can scarcely give an idea of it. At times one might wish to be a Medusa's head, so as to turn such a group into stone and call people over."

Perhaps more precisely, this is a desire for snapshots, and not photography in general. Büchner was writing in the 1830s, the decade when photography began to emerge. Lenz, of course, lived in the eighteenth century, and Büchner's story takes place in 1778, but even then the desire for photography already existed.

My second favorite passage is not even in the text, but in Büchner's primary source, the diary of Lenz's host, Oberlin: "Er hatte eine Wunde am Fuß hieher gebracht, die ihn hinken machte und ihn nötigte hierzubleiben." Büchner does not include the fact that Lenz had a wound on his foot that forced him to stay with Oberlin. For two reasons, I suspect: first, Büchner wants to emphasize Lenz's psychic instability, and the injured foot distracts from that. Secondly, Büchner mentions three times that Lenz harms himself in order to use physical pain as a way of "returning to self-awareness" (or something like that). If Büchner mentioned Lenz's wound, then the self-inflicted pain would again not have the same dramatic effect. The suppression of the wound makes the story possible, as it were.

The third thing I want to know here is a point of contact between Büchner's story and Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, which I read a few weeks ago, with its emphasis on "social mimicry" as the means by which one fits oneself into unfamiliar social situations (see my post on the book). At the end of Büchner's story, before the famous "So lebte er hin" with which it concludes, comes this: "er tat Alles wie es die Andern taten."

"He did everything the same way the others did": Lenz compensates for his psychic instability, for what Lethem might call "a form of autism," with "social mimicry," and when it works, then he can "live on."

Finally, poetry as therapy, as Lenz uses poetry the same way he used physical pain, to return to himself: "er sagte in der heftigsten Angst Gedichte her, bis er wieder zu sich kam." In a state of the most terrible anxiety, he recites poems until the anxiety disappears and he is himself again.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Lenz, Büchner, Celan

I did read Büchner's Lenz today, as planned, along with Celan's Meridian. And I prepared to read Büchner by reading the original Lenz himself: Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. I read his story Zerbin.

I'm too tired to think through any deeper comments than the observation that it is fascinating to read three short, intense texts in quick succession from three different centuries. Zerbin is a very eighteenth-century story, and Lenz feels very nineteenth-century (along with its "anticipatory" quality, pointing toward 20th-century developments, it is nevertheless a 19th-century text), while Celan's Meridian speech could hardly have been written before the 20th (before Modernism, to put a period term on it). A fascinating set of texts, on which I will try to comment more in the course of the week.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Have Sex!

Miles recently began to say "fuck" a lot. When I was eight years old, my parents did not try to get me to stop swearing. When my friends were over, and I swore in front of my mother, they were always stunned that nothing happened. But I had enough understanding of linguistic register to know that I should not swear at other people's houses, because their parents would get upset, nor did I swear in the schoolroom (though of course I swore, as all the other kids did, on the playground and at recess). So I could see trying to just ignore Miles's swearing, but for two things: first of all, Andrea does want to get him to stop, and secondly, I find it annoying, too. I am retrospectively impressed by my parents' patience with eight-year-old me.

One thing Andrea pointed out to Miles was that he did not even know what the word means. So of course he wanted to know! I figured, he's eight, he can handle it, it's time to tell him about babies and sex and all that stuff. So I told him that "fuck" is a word that is mostly used as a way of expressing intensities, or as a way to shock people, but that it also has to do with how babies are made, etc., etc. In the process, I told him that you can also say "make love" or "have sex" for this "real" meaning of the word.

So then a couple days later, Andrea said something to Miles that he was quite surprised by, and he responded, "What the have sex are you talking about?"

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Omnivore's Dilemma 2

My response to Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma starts in out-of-the-way moments. The first is a reference to Basel: it turns out that Fritz Haber "died ... in a Basel hotel room in 1934." Haber is famous for three things: first, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of how to synthesize nitrogen from the air (for "improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind," as the Nobel committee put it). Secondly, he was the leader of Germany's efforts to use poison gas in World War I. Thirdly, he was the inventor of Zyklon B, which was used to gas Jews and others in German concentration camps during World War II. But he himself was a converted Jew who had to leave Germany after the Nazi seizure of power, and he died in Basel in 1934.

The second out-of-the-way moment that struck me involved a reference to an author I have written extensive notes about here: J. M. Coetzee. I spent the summer last year reading and re-reading his novels and essays, in anticipation of the publication of his newest novel, Diary of a Bad Year, and I read Pollan's book afterwards, so I was surprised and pleased to find Coetzee turning up in Pollan's book, especially as I immediately thought of Coetzee at the beginning of the paragraph that ends with a reference to him. (If Pollan had not referred to Coetzee, I would have written to Pollan to tell him about Coetzee.) Pollan's reference is to Elizabeth Costello (or, more precisely, to The Lives of Animals, which was later incorporated into EC):

Is it possible that history will someday judge us as harshly as it judges the Germans who went about their lives in the shadow of Treblinka? The South African novelist J. M. Coetzee posed precisely that question in a lecture at Princeton not long ago; he answered it in the affirmative. If the animal rightists are right, then "a crime of stupendous proportions" (in Coetzee's words) is going on all around us every day, just beneath our notice.

The literary scholar in me wants to chastise Pollan for conflating Coetzee with Elizabeth Costello, the character he invented, but it would be too complicated, of course, for Pollan to observe the literary niceties here, and in fact, it was Coetzee who wrote that phrase, even if he put it into his character's mouth.

At first, Pollan surrenders, as it were, to the ideas expressed by Coetzee's character, as well as those of Peter Singer, the author of Animal Liberation (and, interestingly, a respondent when Coetzee first presented the lectures that Pollan refers to and that Coetzee later used in Elizabeth Costello). But Pollan finally concludes (referring to an organic farm he worked at for a week):

To many people even Polyface Farm is a "death camp"—a way station for doomed creatures awaiting their date with the executioner. But to look at the lives of these animals is to see this holocaust analogy for the sentimental conceit it really is ... To think of domestication as a form of slavery or even exploitation is to misconstrue that whole relationship—to project a human idea of power onto what is in fact an example of mutualism or symbiosis between species.

As Milan Kundera put it in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: man is a "cow parasite."

Pollan hence finally sees Singer, Coetzee, and others who might criticize even a humanely run farm like Polyface Farm for its exploitation of animals as "sentimental" (something Coetzee has surely never before been accused of being!). Still, Pollan himself succumbs to the seductiveness of holocaust analogies when he comments that Haber's biography "recalls the dubious links between modern warfare and industrial agriculture."

While preparing these comments, I took a break and chanced to be reading "On a Weekend Break in a Political Vacuum," a poem by Alan Gillis, from his book Hawks and Doves, which includes the following stanza:

She accuses herself, as it is with the food
that awaits her, served with speed in a bright
labelled box (always that first bite's stomach-
melting dream chews to cardboard and carcass,
like a drunken one-night stand's aftermath
rising to a seasickness which empties,
utterly empties, so that she winds up
seeking the comfort of warm, easy things—
the chilled blues and brightly-boxed food
that awaits her), so it is with her mind.

How perfectly Gillis captures the seductiveness of fast food: the "melting dream" that produces a dissatisfaction that, through twists and turns, leads one back to the "brightly-boxed food" even when (or perhaps precisely because) it "chews to cardboard and carcass." "She accuses herself," writes Gillis, as many of us perhaps accuse ourselves, but without changing, even if, with Pollan, we remind ourselves what "unsustainable" means: "Sooner or later it must collapse."

When I finished The Omnivore's Dilemma, I began to shop differently. Did I go vegan? No. Did I go vegetarian? No. Did I start buying only organic food? No. Did I start buying only local food? No. But I began to compare things more carefully: is it organic? If so, where is it from? How much does it cost compared to the non-organic product? (It is surprising how many organic products are not more expensive than their non-organic counterparts, and how many more are only slightly more so.) I began to try to apply Pollan's conclusion:

But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, simply as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we're eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Adam Kirsch's essay "The Taste of Silence," in the January 2008 issue of Poetry, makes the claim that "the best document" of contemporary poetry's "metaphysical sensibility" is Martin Heidegger's essay "The Origin of the Work of Art."

The way I phrased that might make you think that I find Kirsch's claim ridiculous, but I do not. The quoted phrases above are at the end of his first paragraph, and I am sure that Kirsch himself wanted to present the claim as being a bit absurd at first glance.

The essay argues cogently, however, that Heidegger's contrast between "poetry of earth" and "poetry of world" can be a useful heuristic in the interpretation of broader trends in contemporary poetry (whereby he seems to be referring primarily to English-language poetry). He paraphrases the concepts well, as far as I can tell, so if you want to know what those terms mean, read his essay (or, of course, Heidegger's).

My purpose here is to make four comments on Kirsch's essay (all of which assume you have read it):

1. At times, Kirsch seems to be arguing that the phrase I used above ("a useful heuristic") is all that he is getting at when it comes to saying that, as it were, "we are all Heideggerians now." That is, he is not saying that contemporary poets have read Heidegger; instead, he is saying that Heidegger is useful as a tool for interpreting contemporary poetry.

However, in presenting his three examples (Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, and Billy Collins), Kirsch does seem to make a stronger claim when he calls Simic "another poet deeply indebted to Heidegger." At that point in the essay, he has not yet discussed Collins, so by saying "another poet" about Simic, Kirsch appears to be arguing that Heaney is one poet "deeply indebted to Heidegger."

I wish he had not put it that way. Until that moment, Kirsch's essay reminded me of Borges's essay "Kafka and His Precursors," in which Borges provides a list of Kafka's precursors, none of whom Kafka himself ever read. Kafka need not have read Lord Dunsany, for example, for Kafka's work to provide a way of understanding Dunsany's work (or vice versa, Borges implies).

Similarly, I would have been perfectly happy with the claim that Heidegger helps us understand contemporary poetry, so I prefer to read the phrase "deeply indebted to Heidegger" as simply infelicitous (since I assume Kirsch did not really mean to imply that Simic is an actual reader of Heidegger).

2. I appreciate essays that do not mark their own occasion—it gets tiresome to read essays in the German press that always begin with the justification for writing about a particular author at a particular time—but in the case of this essay, I was very curious. What made Kirsch write this essay at this time? In the absence of a context, I wondered who Kirsch felt he was arguing with.

3. For two reasons, Heidegger does not seem to me to be the most appropriate twentieth-century thinker for much of what Kirsch wants to say: first, he's too mystical and obscure, even when he is trying to be down to earth; secondly, there's all that Third Reich baggage that even Kirsch feels he has to deal with explicitly in his essay.

Much of what Kirsch wants to use Heidegger for could be done as effectively, without the mystical and political problems, by referring to Victor Shklovsky and his concept of "defamiliarization," for example.

4. I have translated Heidegger's poetry (as part of my translation of the correspondence of Arendt and Heidegger). Whenever people start using Heidegger to talk about poetry, I start thinking about stuff like this:

In Jähen, raren, blitzt uns Seyn.
Wir spähen, wahren — schwingen ein.

Or, as I tried to render it:

In rare abruptness, Being's flash of light.
We peer, protect—turn towards the sight.

Heidegger may have been a good reader of Trakl, or Hölderlin, or even of Van Gogh (as in the "Work of Art" essay), but the poetry does not show that he learned much from them.

Monday, January 14, 2008

January 20, Büchner and Celan

"Den 20. Jänner ging Lenz durchs Gebirg."

"On January 20, Lenz walked through the mountains."

January 20 is the date with which Georg Büchner's Lenz begins. I am planning to re-read the story on Sunday, and I invite anyone else who wants to read it to do so as well. If you are not familiar with it, well, it's one of the greatest pieces of prose I have ever read.

The original German is available here.

English translations are available, but not on-line as far as I can tell. See the list on the Lenz page at Wikipedia.


"Vielleicht darf man sagen, dass jedem Gedicht sein '20 Jänner' eingeschrieben bleibt?"

"Perhaps we may say that every poem has its '20th of January' inscribed?"

A second text to read on January 20 is Paul Celan's "Meridian," the speech he gave on reading the Büchner Prize. If you can't read the German, look for John Felstiner's translation in his "Selected Poems and Prose of Celan."

If you do read either the Büchner or the Celan on January 20, feel free to comment here! And feel free to pass this "call for reading" on.

Caleb Crain on his article

Caleb Crain posted a long comment on my comment about his article in the New Yorker in December. You can read his comment here. It's interesting to read about the background of the articles and the research described in each article.

Working with Paper

Brian Campbell posted a Ko Un poem that reminded me of this one:


Every poem can be made
into a swallow.

But you have to fold it right.

Every poem, you know,
even the failures.

Now imagine a sky for them.

Jürgen Theobaldy, tr. Andrew Shields
Smartish Pace 11

Thursday, January 10, 2008

How Would a Fool Do It?

I wonder if anyone else noticed the strange doubling of stories in two recent issues of The New Yorker. In the December 17 issue, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about "what I.Q. doesn't tell you about race." He included the following paragraph about how different cultural practices of categorization can be:

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement—that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?

I took notice of this because of that wonderful question: "How would a fool do it?" So imagine my surprise when a different version of the same story came up again in the December 24/31 issue, in Caleb Crain's article "Twilight of the Books":

It’s difficult to prove that oral and literate people think differently; orality, Havelock observed, doesn’t “fossilize” except through its nemesis, writing. But some supporting evidence came to hand in 1974, when Aleksandr R. Luria, a Soviet psychologist, published a study based on interviews conducted in the nineteen-thirties with illiterate and newly literate peasants in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Luria found that illiterates had a “graphic-functional” way of thinking that seemed to vanish as they were schooled. In naming colors, for example, literate people said “dark blue” or “light yellow,” but illiterates used metaphorical names like “liver,” “peach,” “decayed teeth,” and “cotton in bloom.” Literates saw optical illusions; illiterates sometimes didn’t. Experimenters showed peasants drawings of a hammer, a saw, an axe, and a log and then asked them to choose the three items that were similar. Illiterates resisted, saying that all the items were useful. If pressed, they considered throwing out the hammer; the situation of chopping wood seemed more cogent to them than any conceptual category. One peasant, informed that someone had grouped the three tools together, discarding the log, replied, “Whoever told you that must have been crazy,” and another suggested, “Probably he’s got a lot of firewood.” One frustrated experimenter showed a picture of three adults and a child and declared, “Now, clearly the child doesn’t belong in this group,” only to have a peasant answer: "Oh, but the boy must stay with the others! All three of them are working, you see, and if they have to keep running out to fetch things, they’ll never get the job done, but the boy can do the running for them."

The one bit of information that would connect these two stories is whether or not the Kpelle tribesmen mentioned by Gladwell were illiterate or not. If they were, then the categorization issues raised by these two completely distinct stories suggest that modes of categorization shift significantly with the spread of literacy.

But however this coincidence of stories could be interpreted, what struck me was the very fact of its existence, in two articles published in consecutive issues of the same magazine, on quite different topics, without any comment being made on the coincidence by the editors or the authors.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Richter on the web

I've been a great fan of Gerhard Richter for a long time, and a few days ago, I discovered that his website features images of hundreds of his paintings. If you like Richter, download yourself a few images for desktops and the like. :-)

Here's what was on my desktop for a few days.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Valley

"The Valley," a striking and unique poem by my friend Padraig Rooney, is up on Poetry Daily today.

Dust was sacred, precious stones revered
and fossils read for signs of afterlife.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Eagle-Flown Sky

An eagle-flown sky, almost empty.

Yet the certitude that the sky had been flown, was soon to be flown again. Occasional sightings ...

Eagles soaring thus—visibly, invisibly—in the summit of heaven.

John Taylor, "Eagles of Fortune and Misfortune," The Apocalypse Tapestries


I spotted a large raptor on a fence post while driving the other day. It reminded me of the above, though the "eagle-flown sky" that I then saw was a sky in which I had never seen an eagle, but in which there must have once been one.

There's something going on here about defamiliarization—which reminds me that I recently realized that no artistic work that works with defamiliarization can completely defamiliarize the objects or events that it is referring to. If it did, then one would not be able to see the thing anew, because one would not be able to see it at all. "Make it new," but don't make it so new as to be unrecognizable.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Fortress of Solitude

What is the difference between a toy and a machine? Here's one way of looking at it, from Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude (thanks to someone for typing this in last year):

"There were two worlds. In one his father paced upstairs, creaked chairs, painting at his tiny light box, making his incomprehensible progress, his mother downstairs played records, ran water over dishes, laughed on the telephone, her voice trailing up the curve of the long stair, the backyard ailanthus brushed his bedroom windows, dappling the sun into tropical, liquid blobs of light against the wallpaper which itself depicted a forest full of monkeys and tigers and giraffes, while Dylan read and reread Scrambled Eggs Super and Oobleck and If I Ran the Zoo or pushed his Matchbox car, #11, dreamily with one finger down its single length of orange track or exposed the inadequacy of the Etch a Sketch and the Spirograph again, the stiffness of the knobs, the recalcitrance of the silvery ingredient behind the Etch A Sketch’s smeared window, the untrustworthiness of the Spirograph’s pins, the way they invariably bent at perihelion when the pressure of the drawing pen grew too much, so that every deliciously scientific orbit blooped and bent at the crucial moment into a ragged absurdity, a head with a nose, a pickle with a wart. If the Etch A Sketch and the Spirograph had really worked they would probably be machines, not toys, they would be part of the way the adult universe operated, and be mounted onto the instrument panels of cars or worn on the belts of policemen. Dylan understood and accepted this. These things were broken because they were toys, and vice versa. They required his pity and patience, like retarded children who’d been entrusted to his care."


"Whole days were mysterious, and then the sun went down."


"'Let me see it for a minute.'

"Let me see it: you saw a basketball or a pack of baseball cards or a plastic water gun by taking it into your hands, and what happened after that was in doubt. Ownership depended mostly on not letting anyone see anything.If you let a kid see a bottle of Yoo-Hoo for a minute he'd drink what was left of it."


"The key to mostly anything is pretending your first time isn't."


"Then realize that maybe that's all anyone does—fake it."


"I dedicated myself to acting as though I'd fit in this atmosphere all along."


"It was a form of autism, a failure of social mimicry ..."


I cannot help but love a novel that ends with a paean to Brian Eno's Another Green World.

But at the same time I am suspicious of my appreciation of this novel. Perhaps the main character is too much like me, and I am suspicious of identification. We were born in the same years; we have many of the same cultural references. Even the ones we don't really share, we still share as background knowledge of life in the U.S. in the seventies and eighties.

I almost stopped reading The Fortress of Solitude when the main character put on a ring that could make him fly. It seemed too weird to have something like that change in a novel after 200 pages (with 300 or so to go). But the story nicely downplays that bit of magic, until suddenly it becomes central again, in such a way that I no longer found it irritating. None of the characters seemed that impressed by the ring in the end.

And then the vividness of listening to a particular recording while driving: two tales of listening to Another Green World. I remember listening to Dave Holland's Seeds of Time at the end of a drive from Seattle to San Francisco, how Libby and I burst into shouts of joy at the irrepressible "Homecoming."


My poem "River" is on-line in the latest issue of Hobble Creek Review. Be sure to check out the table of contents and read lots of the poems!

If you really love one of your older poems even though nobody wants to publish it, keep sending it out. If you believe in it, somebody else will eventually! I wrote "River" in the fall of 1995, and I must have submitted it at least 25 or 30 times in the intervening years! Thanks, Justin, for finally giving this poem a home.

It was one of the first poems I wrote after moving to Basel. The Saar, the river in Saarbrücken, where I lived before, is a nice river, but nowhere near as impressive as the Rhine in Basel. I used to walk along it often to go to work (back when I had time to do things like walk to work), and the poem grew from those walks.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Hamlet, Müller, Mühe

In September 1991, I went to the Deutsches Theater in Berlin to see Heiner Müller's production of Hamlet. This production was memorable in numerous ways. Here are a few:

1. The play within the play was Müller's own Hamletmaschine instead of The Murder of Gonzago.

2. Claudius was played by the wondrous Jörg Gudzuhn, whom I had seen a few weeks earlier in Kleist's Der zerbrochene Krug. A truly splendid actor.

3. There were three intermissions: the first and third were twenty minutes long; the second was an hour long, with barbecue.

4. It was after the long intermission that the production turned to Hamletmaschine.

5. The duel between Hamlet and Laertes was staged with tennis rackets. The actors were dressed accordingly, and they moved in mock slow motion, as if they were playing tennis.

5. Hamlet himself was played by the fabulous Ulrich Mühe, whose work I had the pleasure of seeing on film several times in the following weeks, especially in Bernhard Wicki's utterly overwhelming Das Spinnennetz, a three-hour-plus film of the greatest intensity, based on a Joseph Roth novella and also starring Armin Mueller-Stahl and Klaus Maria Brandauer. Why in hell is this not available on DVD?

So it was with great sadness that I learned the other day that Mühe had died this past summer, right after earning international acclaim for his role in Das Leben der Anderen. He died right when I was travelling to the U.S. with Miles and Luisa, so I missed the news until I saw it in a year-end roundup.

Omnivore's Dilemma

Wednesday, 16th January, from 6.30 to 8pm*

Talk Party & Book Discussion:

The Omnivore's Dilemma
by Michael Pollan

Andrew Shields will be leading the discussion, with the help of Florianne Koechlin of the Blauen Institute and Peter Jossi of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is about what we should be eating and why. Should we choose the organic or the conventional? Local or imported? Low-carb or low-cal? It may be a simple question, but the answer has become very complicated. The astonishing findings Michael Pollan reveals in his book show exactly where our food comes from and the implications for ourselves and our planet.

Bergli Books and Bergli Bookshop
Rümelinsplatz 19
CH-4001 Basel, Switzerland
Tel.: +41 61 373 27 77 Fax: +41 61 373 27 78