May 11, 2013
Adventures of Pi made me think a lot about Detroit.
As you know, I was born in the Motor City. I am child of the auto industry. My grandfather worked as a draughtsman for American Motors. My mother worked in Lee Iacocca’s secretarial pool at Ford. My father worked at Ford, too, in the leasing division. I remember him bringing home these shiny adhesive Mustang logos when I was a boy. I stuck one to the shell of my pet turtle.
We moved to California in 1971.
I remember returning to Detroit for my grandfather’s funeral in 1977. That was the first time I ever experienced death. There may have been an open casket, but my memory of the event, which is entirely fabricated, is of my grandfather lying on his back in a dark suit on a long white pedestal topped by a clear plexiglass box, almost like something you’d see in an art gallery. I think we may have visited my grandmother one or two times after that.
I returned alone in the late nineties. I was working on a collaborative artist’s book called The Box Project. I drove around Lake Erie for three days, stopping in each city to collect objects to bring back to Buffalo and place in the boxes we were making. I picked up a rusted scrap of steel and a shard of glass in Detroit.
I remember riding the People Mover that afternoon. What a strange trip that is. You can’t enter or leave downtown, you simply ride around in circles, just high enough to see into the windows of the enormous buildings and realize that they are all empty.
I also visited Old St. Mary’s Church in Greektown, where my parents were married in the summer of 1967. The ceremony took place in the middle of the riots. On the day of their wedding, tanks flanked both sides of the church. Much to the chagrin of my father’s Brooklyn Irish relatives, alcohol had been banned from public events, so the reception was a bit of a dud.
I was born in October of the following year.
When my first book came out, Ted Pearson introduced me to James Hart, who invited me to read in Detroit at the Woodward Line series, which is run by James and Kim Hunter. I was happy to see Kim appear in your poems. The last time I read there, Kim let me sleep at his place. I remember eating cereal in the morning with his family before driving back to Buffalo.
I am not sure where I am going with this. I started to write something pretentious like, “We live in the ruins of America.” Then I deleted it. Then I guess I just wrote it again. I have felt that way at times. I don’t think there is a city that has suffered as badly as Detroit during my lifetime. Buffalo is right up there, though, if you are keeping score.
When I first moved there, I was shocked at how empty it felt. Like everyone had just walked away one afternoon. It felt haunted, even more so when later I saw photos of Main Street at the turn of the twentieth century. The city had streetcars and the sidewalks bustled with people going about their business.
Where had they all gone?
I have been sitting on this letter for ten days since I wrote that question. Each morning, I open the document, reread it, make a few corrections. I keep asking myself if that is the end of the letter, knowing it is not. It needs a coda.
It’s nearly summer here in North Haven, Connecticut. My mother is visiting for the week. Yesterday, we tore out the shower in our bathroom. In the evening, we lit a fire in the backyard fireplace and roasted marshmallows. Then we watched Mad Men. Then we went to bed.
Adventures of Pi rests on the desk next to my laptop. I am pretty sure the cover photo is the same one you use for your Facebook profile. I remember you are standing on a beach somewhere, the ocean at your back. You are wearing a turquoise shirt with a collar. A small wave breaks over your right shoulder.
March 17, 2013
I read Western Practice last night after watching Wong Kar Wai’s first film, As Tears Go By. It wasn’t a great film, but it contains flashes of brilliance that hint at things to come. This has been my habit lately. Give the baby a bath, put her to bed, eat dinner and watch a movie with Lori, read poetry while listening to music, climb into bed, read from a novel, go to sleep. I don’t remember what I was listening to when I read your book. It was either BBC Three or Blue Mars Cryosleep ambient radio.
I couldn’t help but marvel at your sense of space. The poems are so wide open. The words drift across the page like so many SoCal housing developments. I thought about Olson, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America.” I admire this kind of writing for the simple reason that I find it impossible to do myself. I have tried to write in an open field, to right-justify, to stagger my lines and stanzas, but I always end up back on the left margin.
I lived in California as a kid. My parents owned a house in a sleepy little suburb called Los Gatos, which I am told is now the heart of Silicon Valley wealth. It was just a suburb in the early seventies. My parents often used to joke that they could have retired on the proceeds if they had only stayed an extra ten years.
We moved back east when I was seven-and-a-half. That was 1976, the bicentennial. I never understood why they made that move, only five years after we had moved to California from Michigan. I asked my mom not too long ago. She said that they were Easterners and that they weren’t comfortable with the loose California lifestyle of the early seventies.
They voted for Reagan.
I can remember being in a car with my mom listening to the radio in 1976. She told me that we were voting for Gerald Ford and that we did not like Jimmy Carter. After Carter won, I can remember my father saying that Reagan was going to be the next president. There was something almost religious about the way he said it, like this was the second coming.
Anyhow, all of this added to the feeling of disorientation I felt while reading Western Practice. All that open space terrifies me, as if all the fears my parents had sown had started suddenly poking through the soil. My eyes drifted around the page, looking for a place where things didn’t feel so, uh, western. I found it when I got to the poem about Harry Partch.
What a great poem. I first heard of Partch when I was in college. My friend J. had graduated early to start graduate school and was living in a studio apartment on Jones Street in the West Village. I looked the address up recently on Google Maps. The whole building is a bed and breakfast now.
J. was the one among our group most tuned in to things avant-garde. While we were reading Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, he was reading Foucault, Derrida, and Kristeva. One time we listened to the entire performance of Diamanda Galas’s “Plague Mass” while sitting on the floor of his apartment. It gave me nightmares.
When we listened to Harry Partch, J. talked about microtones and all the different instruments Partch had invented and how he had discovered a realm of sound that Western Civilization had suppressed for centuries. A few years later, I went to see a performance of Partch’s instruments and compositions at St. Ann’s church in Brooklyn.
They played the Ptolemy and the Chromolodeon and the Quadrangularus Reversum. They played the Boo and the Eucal Blossom, the Koto and the Crychord. They played the Gourd Tree with Cone Gongs, the Zymo-xyl, and the Spoils of War. A man with the deepest bass voice I have ever heard sang from Partch’s hobo opera while rising up and down on an instrument resembling a bellows.
My favorite was the Cloud Chamber Bowls — pyrex carboys from the UC radiation laboratory, once used for cloud chamber experiments, that hang on cords from a heavy wooden frame and are played with mallets. There was something beautiful and apocalyptic about those bowls. They made me think of actual clouds and the echo of church bells, but also of mushroom clouds and the thunder of death.
Anyhow, I have to run. I have only a little time to write each morning before I go to work. It was great eating lunch with you and Jonathan Skinner in the Sheraton at AWP a few weeks back. I enjoyed talking about your job and my job and Jonathan’s job. My salad was pretty good, but I have to admit I was lusting after the French fries the two of you got with your Reubens.
At one point I looked over your shoulder and saw Derek Walcott and Yusef Komunyakaa sit down next to each other at a long table on the other side of the lounge and wondered what they were talking about. Probably their jobs.
I really wanted one of those French fries. I guess I should have just asked for one.
March 28, 2013
Dear Mikhail Epstein,
When I first pulled PreDictionary from the shelf, I glanced at your name and skimmed your bio. My mind registered the following facts: your first name was Mikhail; you had come from Russia; you taught at Emory University. Your last name did not register. I started reading the book.
At some point, I must also have recalled the name of another Russian émigré writer, Mikhail Iossel. I don’t know the other Mikhail, but we are “friends” on Facebook, which is probably the logical explanation for this elision. The next time I was at my computer, I decided to look you up on the Internet to see what else you had written.
I searched for “Mikhail Iossel.” I read his bio. Some of the cursory details are similar to yours. You came to the US in 1990. He came to the US in 1986. He writes in English, you write in English (and Russian). He teaches at a university, you teach at a university. The fact that he did not teach at Emory bothered me, but I thought maybe I had misread something.
It didn’t matter that the book had the name “Mikhail Epstein” written in large white letters on a green band emblazoned across the cover. My mind registered “Mikhail Iossel,” and so I was reading his book. It took several days for me to overcome this blindness and realize that you were not, in fact, Mikhail Iossel. You were you, Mikhail Epstein.
I suspect we should, in the spirit of your work, coin a word to describe the phenomenon of temporary mental blindness to the visual presence of a word caused by a false association with its meaning, the registration of which triggers an inability to read the word on the page before you.
I was thinking that “wordblind” might be a possibility. I looked this up. “Word-blindness” is sometimes used in place of “alexia,” a loss of the ability to read caused by lesions on the brain. My spell-checker tells me “wordblind” is not a word. Maybe in a few years it will be.
I once coined a reflexive verb in Spanish. I volunteered for a year in Ecuador working with children in Quito. One of my duties was teaching physical education to third graders. For an hour each morning, I had to keep them occupied with physical activity. Our classes took place in a concrete courtyard behind the school.
One of the games we played was crab soccer. The children would sit on the ground, feet facing forward, palms on the concrete, fingers pointing behind them. They’d use their knees and palms to raise their torsos a few inches off the ground. I would throw a ball among them and they would play soccer while in the crab position.
At first I found it difficult to order them into this position because my Spanish was a little weak, so I invented a verb. The word for crab in Spanish is “cangrejo.” The word I coined was “cangrejerse,” which means something like “crab yourself” or “make yourself like a crab.” The first time I blew my whistle and shouted the command, “Cangrejense, niños!” they immediately understood my meaning. I was proud.
I have yet to find the term in a Spanish dictionary.
“ ” made me think about a course I took with Charles Bernstein in graduate school. One night after a poetry reading — I think it may have been by Gerrit Lansing — we all went out to a bar in Buffalo called Gabriel’s Gate. The food there was awful, but the beer was cheap and they had free popcorn, so it was a good place to drink after a reading.
Charles said he had an idea for a new course he wanted to teach in the fall called “Blank.” I asked what he meant. Were we going to read books about nothingness or emptiness or space? He said no, that his idea was to present a blank syllabus and ask students to fill the semester in themselves. The course would have no reading list, no theme, no direction. We would spend the semester, as it were, filling in the blank — or not filling it in. I thought it was a hilarious and inspired idea.
When the fall semester began, a new crop of students arrived with whatever artistic and intellectual aspirations and expectations they’d brought with them. These apparently did not include a sense of humor. While those who had been around reveled in the play and fun of “blank,” the new students rebelled. They wanted a reading list. They wanted a theme. They wanted a direction. They wanted homework!
The arrival of this group of rebels was the moment the fun of grad school ended for me.
After I finished reading PreDictionary, I wandered around the house thinking about “ .” There was a full moon that night. On my way from the living room to my bedroom, I stopped by my office to plug in my laptop for charging. The moon shone brightly through the glass doors that connect my office to the brick patio in the backyard. I decided to step outside.
I climbed the three steps up to the patio and stared at the moon through the trees. Several tall white pines separate our property from the neighbor’s. I had to peer through the crisscrossed branches to catch a glimpse of the moon. It looked small. Given how much light it was giving off, I would have expected it to be bigger.
I shuffled left, then right, then forward, then back, before I found a spot where I could see the whole moon, unobstructed. I held myself in place and stared at the shining orb. I thought about Mandalas, which made me think of Jung. I wondered if I stared long enough whether I would hypnotize myself or have an out-of-body experience.
Then I started to think about all the “ ” around the moon. The white disc began to waver. A kind of purple corona, a trick of the eye, appeared around it. I shifted left. A small twig obscured my view. I shifted back right. Same thing. I stepped forward, backward, left and right again, but I could not find a clean view.
I tried the opposite. I stepped two steps to the left so that the trunk of a pine blocked my view completely. The light shone against the backs of the trees, throwing them into silhouette. A large limb that had fallen during a hurricane hung in the crotch of a limb about two-thirds of the way up the tree. It became a crucifix. I thought of the scene in Stalker where the writer makes a crown of thorns and places it on his head.
I stepped to the right. I could see the moon again, but I still could not find an unobstructed view. I turned my back to the moon and faced the house. The shadows of the trees danced along the walls. A square of light glowed to my left: the bathroom window. My wife lay soaking in a tub on the other side. On the white blinds covering my daughter’s bedroom window, the shadows of the branches bobbed up and down.
I looked at the stars and I thought of all the “ ” between them. I started to feel a chill. It was mostly quiet. I could hear the hum of cars on the highway in the distance. I took three steps down from the patio, slid open the door. I heard the cats scatter. They must have been watching the whole time.
March 31, 2013 (Easter Sunday)
Dear Kate Greenstreet,
I was reading through the notes at the end of Young Tambling the other night when I discovered a typo. I don’t point this out to be a pedant or a scold. I am probably the last person who should call attention to a typo in someone else’s work, but this one has a story behind it, so here it goes.
You cite an essay by Martha P. Hixton, which in turn cites the Motif Index of Folklore by “Seth [sic] Thompson.” Thompson’s first name is actually “Stith.” I had a hard time with it the first time I saw it, too. What kind of a name is Stith?
The reason I am aware of this is that Stith Thompson is a distant relative. My mother’s maiden name is Thompson. She’s from Detroit, and her father, John Thompson, was from Indianapolis. When my grandfather died, in 1977, he left my mother a book called Denny: Genealogy in England and America.
The book was written by one Christopher Columbus Denny, a descendant of an old New England family that had come to Massachusetts in 1718. One of the Denny clan, Theodore Vernon Denny (b. 1800), a pioneer, left the Denny homestead in Leicester, Massachusetts, at the age of twenty-one and settled in Indianapolis, becoming one of its early citizens. His daughter Martha married into the Thompson family.
One of her sons, John, was my grandfather’s grandfather. John had a sister named Kate, a schoolteacher who never married. For many years, my mother, who hadn’t read the Denny book, thought it had been written by her great Aunt Kate, who everyone referred to as “the spinster.” Somewhat snidely, I should add. When I started reading through it myself, I discovered that Kate was not in fact the author, but the owner of the book. Turns out she had plans for a book of her own.
I am, it seems, very distantly related to Abraham Lincoln by way of a direct descendant of his mother’s first cousin. I tried to figure this out one day. Old Abe is a fourth cousin once removed or something like that. I accrue no benefit from this relation (or any other, truth be told). Aunt Kate had hoped to establish this family connection to Lincoln.
Another motive drove her research, however. She wanted to disprove the story (true, it turns out) that the president’s mother, Nancy Hanks, was born out of wedlock. She did extensive research on the Shipley, Mitchell, and Thompson families in Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
Kate died in 1942, when my mother was five. She never published her work. Twenty of her notebooks compiled between 1874 and 1932 ended up at Indiana University in Bloomington, where Stith Thompson taught for many years. I think he was responsible for her papers being placed there. She may have willed them to him when she died. I am not sure, as I haven’t visited the archive.
Stith Thompson actually did write a book that traced the lineage of the Shipley, Mitchell, and Thompson families, based on Kate’s work. I tracked down a photocopy. According to cousin Stith, the Thompsons started out in Maryland before heading south into Virginia, and eventually west into Kentucky. Upon entering Kentucky, the group of settlers was attacked by Native Americans, and the father and mother were slain.
One of the daughters was taken captive. Her brother searched for her for several years, eventually buying her freedom from a trapper and returning her to Kentucky. She went to live on a cousin’s farm, where she was raised alongside Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother. It’s a classic captivity narrative, so I take it with a grain of salt.
At some point, the Thompson clan moved for a brief period to Indianapolis but then decided they preferred Kentucky. Except, that is, for one member of the family: John Thompson, who remained. My family springs from John. Stith came from the Kentucky clan.
Apparently, Ben Marcus used Thompson’s Motif Index of Folk Literature as the basis for his book The Age of Wire. I have read neither.
I did read the rest of Young Tambling, by the way. The image of the severed deer with the recording device lodged in its torso troubled my sleep for days.
June 30, 2013
Dear Garrett Caples,
I wonder what the statute of limitations is for publicly responding to a book. Having just finished Complications, I looked at the copyright date and realized it was published in 2007. Mainstream book reviews run within a few weeks or months of the publication. Others usually within a year. Poetry seems to operate on an altogether different timeline, with reviews coming out within, say, two to three years of a book’s publication.
Perhaps it takes a lot longer to get a poetry book into someone’s hands. Perhaps because poetry and poetry book reviewing both operate on a gift economy, it is harder for someone to find the “free” time that they can “spend” reading and writing about a book. Perhaps poetry just has a longer shelf life than other forms of writing. To answer my own question, I guess there is no statute of limitations.
Since this isn’t a review, per se, I guess it’s a moot point.
It took me about a week to read Complications. We’d been having a very wet June here in Connecticut. It seemed like it rained all day every day throughout the month. And then the sun came out, and the temperature rose into the nineties. It’s now very humid. Your book is lying on my desk, and the moisture in the air has caused the cover to curl.
I began reading it before work. I wake at 6:30 every day and try to lock myself away to write for an hour or so. It’s not a lot of time, but I am freshest in the morning, so I can usually get a fair amount done. Trying to write at the end of the day or while I am at the office is next to impossible.
My usual breakfast is a smoothie made with home-brewed kefir, frozen fruit, flaxseed, and whey protein. I mix it all up in a blender, pour a cup of strong coffee, then head to my study. On this particular morning, I used peanut butter and ice instead of frozen fruit. The humidity in the study caused the glass to sweat. A modest drop of condensation slid off the side of the glass and wet the page I was reading. I drew a circle around the spot and noted the date, 6/24/13.
You were talking about how “buildings repeat / broken objects.”
I finished reading up to that poem before heading to work. The next morning, I noticed that there was already some water damage to the upper right-hand corner of pages 19–32. This damage occurs mostly to the poem “Synth.” I made a note of this. Then I left the room to get a cup of coffee.
It’s always a danger to leave the room in the morning. Anything can break my concentration. I managed to read a little further, but then my twenty-one-month-old daughter started banging on the door of my office screaming “Song, song, song!” She recently discovered that I keep my guitar hidden away in the closet of my study. She likes to strum it with a plectrum while I hold the chords down for her. That ended my concentration for the morning.
The last line I read was “poetrys / not a / job / its a set / of dentures.”
“A Young Girl Recalls Meeting Erich von Stroheim” made me think of Theatre 80 on St. Mark’s Place in New York. Most of what I know about film came from attending films there in the early nineties. The theater was run by an older couple, Florence and Howard Otway. I used to talk to Florence at the ticket window. Howard was not well at the time and eventually died. This was the end of the theater. The last film they showed was “Sunset Boulevard.” I also remembered the image of the cracked desert floor near the end of Stroheim’s Greed.
In the midst of all of this, the Voting Rights Act was gutted, and DOMA was declared unconstitutional. This happened just before I read the poem “Ordinary History America.”
It’s funny how information sometimes begins to accumulate. The more focused you become on a subject, the more you notice its presence everywhere. This same week you published a response to Kenny Goldsmith’s “Printing the Internet” exhibition. I probably would not have noticed the essay online had I not been reading your book.
I read the long last poem on 6/28/13. Given its one-word-per-line structure, I thought it would be a quick read, but it took me quite a while to get through it. One-word lines remind me of a bass drum pounding over and over and over. Boom boom boom boom!
The thumping became knocking, and I realized my daughter was again banging on the door of my study. I let her stand there for another minute while I read the last lines of the book, “puke / poem / keep / sake,” then I opened the door. “Song! Song! Song! Song!” she screamed.
So I took out my guitar and sang “Lost Highway” by Hank Williams.