Jiddu Krishnamurti. What a funny guy. Groomed by the Theosophical Society to adorn himself in the costume of World Teacher/New Messiah, he told them to fuck that motherfucking bullshit. He experienced nakedness, and once naked . . . well, no costume could ever possibly fit. Is what I hear him saying.
I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. — JK (1929)
Difficult talking nakedness in a language built for costumes.
Wonder what’s for lunch down at the cafeteria as I sit in this hospital out-patient waiting room while my cousin undergoing surgery improves her vision. Love cafeterias. Loved setting out from a little Arkansas town, headed for Memphis and Britling’s bright tile spread where I eyeball glorified grease and inhale the fragrances of fried chicken, fried okra, fried catfish, collards, butter bosomed mashed potatoes, peach cobbler, angel food cake, thick gravy smothered steak, black-eyed peas, fresh tomatoes and cucumber, cantaloupe, and tapioca. Loved what I thought were so many choices. The present keeps sliding into the past. The past produces so many expectations. I still expect choices. Tangled.
Was a time I walked from 14th Street and Avenue A to 48th Street and 9th Avenue every day after work because Miz Vittitow was dying and I’d stop at my place, then walk to hers and spend the night because I couldn’t bear her spending dying nights alone. One evening I was walking and a filthy, drunken, homeless guy stretched out on stone steps looked so beautiful I had to stop and stare.
All perception shifting into wow the plants, swimming in gorgeous green leaves in lovely pulsing pots who knew clay pots could breathe? Buildings, cars everything a glowing beauty never seen before by me before. Wide awake in every cell alive. Wasn’t stoned on anything and stoned was never so going in this direction so beyond human usual detection, amplified colors and textures stirring almost a clarity I could imagine a clarity longed for clarity. Even the trash a garden of delights. Fuck pedestrian rationale. Pulsing connecting glow working every throbbing molecule of luminous city expanding me in every step clear across town to my dying friend wakes up in the middle of nights staring into approaching eternity impatiently going someplace more familiar. She don’t care where. She just really wants to go. It’s so difficult inhaling those slender Sherman cigarettes with lung cancer. No treatment no thank you. She just really wants to go.
Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path. — JK (1929)
A softly sung whistling and swish swish seeds in wooden rattle fling me where costumes can’t go. Trembling fear as threads unravel and dissolve. Nothing to wear and no one to wear it. No boundaries, no skin, no stake in the slightest some thing. All narratives collapsed. And yet, here I am. A narrative terrified of collapsing in the midst of collapse.
I try to say it and it’s just words. But I keep trying to say it. Even though it can never be it, it always turns out to be something frustratingly distant.
The world is such a wonder. Isn’t it shocking, grave, gorgeous, gory, nervily musical, wild, caged, wails and croonings, a theatre of whackings upon the indefatigable nasty habits of a species? The polyrhythmic drumming of all these beating hearts in all these creatures crawling flying tunneling riding on four wheels around a planet. Confusion of separation.
This is no magnificent deed, because I do not want followers, and I mean this. The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. — JK (1929)
Lucid confusion almost such tension in the waiting room. The tv. Reality show. Who will the next fool be? Daydream, ah. The lapse I lay my head in. The enormity of being alive. I’ve spent so much time shutting that feeling down. Daydream. No one else in this waiting except Desk Lady doing her job with papers and computer in this cold room. Me reading a book on my phone. About the Angel of the Present Moment sending shockwaves across the digitized globe.
JK says renounce all authority. In the inner space renounce. All. Authority. Yeah sure. Okay. But. The obstructions that imprison clarity. I’m still so entangled.
Our conscience is such a petty affair. How is it our species has been around so long and hasn’t come to clarity? What are the obstacles which prevent clear perception? — JK (1968)
I wish I could tell you.
Poet and musician Barbara Barg grew up listening to Delta Blues and Memphis R&B. In New York, she taught poetry to at-risk youth in tough NYC high schools where her students introduced her to hip-hop and rap. She is the author of two books: Obeying the Chemicals (Hard Press) and The Origin of the Species (Semiotext(e)). Her poetry, short stories, and strong opinions have been published in many magazines and anthologized. She is also a faculty member of The Chicago School of Poetics.
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died, age 74, and the praise for him is universal, both as poet and personality. On one particular Irish website, there was a conversation about what Heaney’s real status as a poet would be. But of course none of us has the answer, time being the judge of that fight. But one of the most interesting conversations occurred on the New York African-American painter Carl Hazelwood’s Facebook thread towards the end of August. Oma Pollitt said that Heaney’s poem “Digging” was African in its construction. I was taken by this remark, and so I responded by saying that “all good Irish writing is African in its origins.”
Of course, I was thinking of Roddy Doyle’s great music novel The Commitments. If you’ve ever seen the film of this novel, you may recall the protagonist’s soliloquy about the Irish in which he says the Irish are the blacks of Europe, and the Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, the north Dubliners the blacks of Dublin. So say it once and say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud. There is also a long Irish tradition of the black Irish, a type of Celt usually from the west of Ireland, out beyond the lamps, beyond the Pale.
Several years ago, the BBC conducted a study in the west of Ireland, trying to determine the ethnic origin of the black Irish outside of Galway, in County Mayo. It was discovered that nearly everyone tested had the same DNA as people from the Basque region of Spain, which explains the dark Irish if not the black Irish. Black Irish is not just a dark complexion, though, it is a kind of mood that pervades someone. It is not a racial thing.
Seamus Heaney was many things to many people, in and outside of literature, out and about Ireland, both North and South, but also significantly in America, his second home for many years. I met him several times in my life, the first time at Fordham University, where I was working in the early 1980s. I had the job of entertaining him before a reading, and so we drank Old Bushmills in my office overlooking the quad. The second time I met him was again at Fordham, and this time he had a toothache, and we had to find him a dentist. He had that Irish curse of teeth. I remember meeting him at the train station in Princeton, in the late 1980s, and once again we had to find him a dentist before he could read. But teeth aching or not, Heaney was good company.
If there were a prize for the nicest poet, he would win hands down. Sometimes I think that if Heaney is to be judged harshly, someone will take umbrage with the niceness of the poet, making it the ultimate failure of his poetry. The lesson I learned from reading Seamus Heaney was that his poetry was magnificent in his early career, but that the later work was corny, even sentimental, at least to my ears. But that is not the lesson I learned; the lesson was that a writer can’t be all things to all people, and this is not only a problem Seamus Heaney faced, it was something that all Northern Irish writers confronted.
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, which includes England, Scotland, and Wales, too, among other entities. Most Northern Irish people I knew in London, where I lived for twelve years, carried the British passport or the Irish one, and sometimes both, depending on the situation. Heaney and Paul Muldoon, singled out of the crowd of Irish poetry, were given a chair at Oxford for a British poet. You can’t hold that chair if you are not British. We may think of these poets as Irish poets, but they are also British poets too.
There is a price to pay for this sleight-of-hand, and it is usually in the poetry where consequence reveals itself. Heaney never offended anyone; Muldoon has a way of writing inoffensively, too. Derek Mahon, another Northern Irish poet, has played this hand less well, being curmudgeonly and misanthropic, not willing enough to play the game with his Britishness and his Irishness. Northern Irish humor is dark, and from the gallows, and certainly Mahon’s poetry is filled with such examples. After all, he wrote the introduction to the poetry of Jonathan Swift, the ultimate gallows humorist, kind of the Richard Pryor of his own day.
Earlier when I wrote that all good Irish writing was African in its origin, I meant that Ireland’s music, the root of its poetry, has a sound whose origins seem to hark back to Northern Africa. Bagpipes are very Islamic in their souls. One may not think of Ireland as the westernmost reach of the European Oomah, and yet the west of Ireland had a long history with Barbary pirates. They ransacked the town of Rochester, taking all inhabits in slavery back to Northern Africa. One day Rochester was a flourishing town; the next day there wasn’t a soul in it.
I don’t hear African rhythms in most of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. I hear the north of Ireland, its soul even, which is part British and part Irish.
M. G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (“a great, great book,” says Roddy Doyle), and the essay collection Green Dreams, which Joyce Carol Oates picked as one of the notable nonfiction books of the 20th century in Best American Essays of the Century.
Between teaching for The Chicago School of Poetics, coordinating the Myopic Poetry Series, occasionally blogging for the Best American Poetry blog, and everything else inbetween we’ve been busy but Lina and I are happy to announce that our big rollout of the new milk site to Word Press is nearing completion. Word Press will allow us (as well as other guest bloggers) to update the site much more frequently! We’re looking forward to more news soon. In the meantime, in January Lina published a new book, A Neon Tryst and in May I published my second book of poetry, Vertigo Diary.
I wanted to give you a weapon
of onyx and saffron
implement it in the dark nights
when all alone among bad poets
while sipping cumulonimbus
and puffing stratosphere
poetry is better than anything else
its death has been pronounced repeatedly
but they’ll never really nail it down
it is a cocaine rose
a rubble hurricane
balloon eyes above actual flags
flapping along infinity
with our tongues we put on the finishing touches.
Read a review of Our Thang in Rain Taxi
“Spinal Tap is a pretty good movie. So is Top Secret. I like some rock movies. In Top Secret there’s a great scene of girls acting like they’re excited at a concert. That scene alone was worth the price of admission. You say Tightrope is pretty good? I’m working on a movie right now with several scenes that each have three parts. Each part of the various scenes comes at a different time in the film. And each time the same scene comes up it’s changed slightly. Some music is like that, isn’t it? The same idea recurring in the same piece with variations. Bach’s keyboard fugues are like that. It starts out simply enough—you can see what he’s doing—then the left hand picks it up and it starts getting too complicated to follow all at once. Telemann was simpler. Bach was criticized in his day for being unnecessarily complicated.”
The mailman arrives, his car radio playing loud pop music, and Rudy continues talking.
“When Bach was very young, everyone loved Vivaldi and other Italians. They were simpler. That’s a spider fern,” he says, referring to a potted plant hanging at the front of the porch. Its copious stems seem about to envelope the observer.
“I made a film looking through it. I had Yvonne drive by, then all of a sudden this butterfly flew into the picture. Sometimes the best things happen like that, by chance.”
Below, on the porch, a border of bricks surrounds two flowerbeds on either side of the steps. There are pansies and Superb Lilies there, among others. It is a perfect day, crystal blue sky breaking to robin shell near the tree line, the air clear and fresh, but hot as August requires.
It is almost too perfect, as if we all know we must return to the city soon, yet are afraid to mention it, for fear of breaking the spell. This is a simple time, that three old friends can share together, before the exciting rush of autumn draws us forcefully back to the teeming, beautiful center and we are lost in the annual swirl.
Rudy explains that the Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe, which Yvonne is reading, had an effect like that of On the Road, in that people tried to live it.
“Young people started killing themselves.”
On the record player is Bach’s “Suite for Cello Solo in C Minor.” Down below lurk Haydn piano sonatas and “Death and the Maiden.”
Yvonne is on the phone. Rudy and Yvonne discuss the day’s business, joke about the accountant. In the living room, Rudy sorts through the mail again. Yvonne announces she will call Sam Ladd, a mason, about whether the chimney should be lined. “Yeah. It should be,” affirms Rudy. Wide, rich-colored boards form the floor of this narrow farm house. A breeze blows the white curtains inward. There is a relaxed pace to life here. No one scrambles to work. But then Yvonne announces with a smile she’s “going out to paint,” that I should come out when I want.
A stone fireplace’s wooden mantel supports a painting on black slate, a romantic-looking card from Yvonne and Rudy’s son Tom in Venice, one of an abbey cloister, an unsigned etching of a lakefront, Rembrandt’s Lucretia, another etching, of a Japanese samurai-type man with a camera around his neck signed “TB,” a monster’s head, a hawk feather, another etching, and a vase of dried flowers.
A red wagon supports a large wooden box with trays of pastels. Yvonne grabs the black handle and maneuvers it. Then she peels saran wrap off a pallet of dark paints.
On the three sections of her moveable studio wall are three large panels of a new work, a painting of night scenes in Minneapolis. It is a commission for the First Bank of Minneapolis West. The panels are about 5 X 6 feet and each has a different view of the city from a high vantage point. When seen together the three panels do not make up one continuous view and yet they make a continuous whole. The rhythms of nightlights, reflections off water and windows, even the building forms, which do not fit from panel to panel, combine to make one “view.”
Rudy has come into the room and wants to film Yvonne painting a little. She agrees to paint a lower portion of the panel instead of the upper, so he can film her.
She is applying dark green paint to the panel on the right, as trees. She works calmly, standing erect on a red plastic milk crate, or on the ground, with quick deliberate strokes, steps back to look at them, then goes over to a smaller pastel version on an opposite wall to check something. Rudy films that wall, which has three finished pastels of the Minneapolis subject, along with two others. Yvonne adds some brown to the tree she has just painted.
Seven seconds’ purr of Rudy’s camera. Rudy back up. They are working a few feet from each other, facing in opposite directions, each intent. Rudy purrs, then removes his tripod. Yvonne walks over to check, then paints more leaves in curvy swirls different from the short, pointed leaves she painted a minute ago.
Rudy is mobile now. Yvonne is accommodating. “This reminds me of ‘Autumn Expansion,'” she says (a mural she did in Bangor, Maine). Yvonne’s fingernails are bright fluorescent colors of pink and purple, both on each nail. “Kathy Porter came over from Vinal Haven to do them,” she proudly explains.
Yvonne’s studio is a large barn with high windows and a sliding door to give light. A few active wasp nests on the rafters, rough hewn beams. Rudy’s studio is behind the wall Yvonne is painting on. There, one finds Rudy’s paintings of forest scenes close-up, nudes in country interiors listening to the radio or reading. A droll but somehow slightly ominous bunch of bananas keeps cropping up.
Yvonne puts on a tape of Roland Kirk. She says she usually likes to listen to music when she paints and prefers tapes to radio because there are no interruptions.
“You’ll find my method very different,” Rudy says, as we leave the barn and start walking down the smooth, firm dirt road.
He’s right. His first venture is a search for currants by the side of the road. We talk of the detrimental effects of currants on pines and he recalls currants in his garden in Switzerland. Yesterday he made some syrup from choke cherries.
“It was a lot of work and you didn’t get very much,” he says, “but you know those are the pleasures that make life enjoyable.”
“Yesterday I was picking blackberries and I felt I was doing what I was meant to do.
You know? Those moments of maybe half-an-hour—and you can’t make them come—where you’re doing something and you feel happy and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
We enter the woods on the other side of the road where a farmhouse used to be—”See the elm stump?”—and come to a patch of blackberries. As we fill the plastic container that Rudy’s brought, we chat.
“Picking berries is something you feel is right to do—it’s not like killing animals or something.”
“It’s not even like picking flowers.”
“Yeah, someone said flowers scream when you break them. Kropotkin said all the animals really help each other–it’s not like the jungle. The jungle is a pretty boring idea anyway.”
We leave the container in the grass and proceed down a road into the forest. The “road” is covered with pine needles and has a patch of bunch berries down its middle.
“I prefer a hazy light to paint in. There’s too much contrast today between light and dark. I can’t get that in paint.”
We reach Rudy’s cache, an easel, painting supplies and a 2 X 2 1/2 foot painting under a large, plastic sheet. A tiny toad scurries away, too fast or smart to be caught.
“I don’t trust myself to finish a painting all at once. I’ve never wanted to do it. I take two days at least. It all started in school–I got good marks in Greek, Latin, and Math. But I flunked in singing and drawing. So I never thought I could draw. I became a photographer. Most painters draw like crazy, but I made photographs first. But that’s why I like to paint—it’s not instant, it takes time.
After a while you hardly look at the subject anymore. When you first start painting, you look at the subject about 90 percent of the time. Finally, though, you look at the subject only 10 percent of the time and you just look at the painting.”
The mosquitoes are voracious, but Rudy calmly paints in a white fisherman’s cap, painting on an easel, rag in left hand. He’s adding highlights since the light isn’t right today. He talks while he paints.
“Sometimes you just leave it to chance.”
He tells an anecdote about DeKooning, saying he did a lot of it on “fate” though he means to say “faith.” “I guess it’s the same.” Or Alex Katz painting a painting in Skowhegan years ago of Rudy, his first wife Edith, and their son Jacob. The painting was leaning on a bush, half in sun, half in darkness. “How can you see what you’re doing?” Rudy asked. “I don’t want to see what I’m doing,” was the reply.
Rudy’s painting is of some trees, their trunks mostly, against a forest floor, with a green background far away in the upper quarter of the picture. Dead branches crisscross the scene, some tilted, some on the ground. In the hazy light, Rudy says, it looks sort of like a battlefield.
Rudy changes from adding dark patches of bark to the standing trees to filling in green bunchberry leaves at the bottom of the painting. It is strange to see the painting directly in front of, and encompassed by, its subject. It’s a bit like the Magritte of the painting of the window in front of the window.
Down at the lake, Rudy meditates. By the water, a beautiful black butterfly with white stripes flexes its wings as if moist, the first time, on a pebble an inch from the water.
Rudy will be teaching two days every two weeks this fall at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It’ll be nice to get out of New York. As you get older you get to realize what you really want. You don’t want to go to loud bars and strain anymore.”
Rudy’s also working on a new film, a sort-of collage involving scenes of nude women vacuuming, washing dishes, etc. but also shots of a country fair in Maine. “The model will do almost anything I ask at this point,” Rudy explains. “I pay her a lot, and that helps.”
At the house—the same pretty butterfly—It’s four past two. Time for some lunch. Yvonne turns off the “afternoon concert”—Strauss—and puts on a Billie Holiday tape:
“You ought to go now,
because I like you too much.”
And a certain world that has become a part of art.
August heat; night hail; mute freshness
Moon stormclouds, purple, Turneresque
Delight Rudy; done in, still dressed
Sleeps Yvonne, in bed sleeps Jacob
Time passes; white moon-soaked mist
Solitary outdoors, book indoors
Dear careless moonlight, dear dead words
I know them near, feebly I drowse
My mouth hardens at your approach
Of happiness not reached and reached
Sleeping hunched upstairs, Tom-baby
Year old, when he despairs, rages.
After lunch—sourdough bread from Freedom Baker, Freedom Me., fresh basil, cheese and Rudy’s blackberry fruit salad, Yvonne smiles and says, “I’m going to see if I can find the bloodmeal.” (for the tomatoes).
Rudy relaxes with a book.
“There ain’t a man that’s man enough
to make me cry.”
Later, Rudy goes to pick up his lawnmower, which was being repaired. Yvonne and I go for a swim. We swim across the pond and back.
The shadows are getting long already. Although warm in the sun, the air is cool, a reminder that this day that seems to last forever in its light, can’t. Shade creeps along the petunias in front of the porch, deep pink and red-and-white ones. My father came over here at night to chop a huge hornet’s nest, the size of a basketball, into a bucket of water. I remember Edwin on the dark lawn with a flashlight. Only the poplars seem in motion. The maples barely sway. Singing of crickets.
Yvonne has gotten quite a bit painted. And although the image looks very interesting at this immediate stage—everything drawn in in a flat grayish brown with some highlights, reds, greens, yellows—the painting is far from finished. She is gone (for the bloodmeals one guesses) and her brushes lie unused, paint still on them, on a large moveable platform made by Tom.
What is the point of the aerial view? You can look at it and say, Oh, that’s an aerial view, but there must be more than that. There must be a reason this artist has become obsessed with this view of the world.
To me, a view from a plane, especially at evening or night, is very romantic. The pretty way the lights glow and all those lives. It’s a distant view, removed, and yet it includes an intimacy of looking into people’s backyards.
Back, she paints. A park springs up near a river, setting the buildings it surrounds into 3-dimensional space. What of action? Mostly in cars. But then one is looking at the view. It’s not really aerial this time. It’s more from a high building, hotel room or office, say. So one is in the action, the viewer, seeing these nightscapes, becomes part of what is happening, from the very special perspective. But you’re not usually part of the picture. Here, the specific view involves you in the momentum of the painting.
It’s funny how the pieces of one’s life collect over the years. They don’t tell you anything, finally. Edwin used to live here. There’s a special feeling in that.
But his book on the shelf here is a work, next to other works.
The empty bell
The dead birds
In the house where everything sleeps
The world stands still
It seems someone has died
The trees look as though they are smiling
A drop of water hangs at the end of each leaf
A cloud crosses the night
Outside a door a man sings
The window opens without a sound
The door that won’t open
The faded hand
Beside a broken glass
The lamp smokes
The sparks start fires
The sky is blacker
From the roof
Without their shadows
A somber stain
The house where no one comes
All grows quiet
The wind passes singing about it
And the trees shiver
The animals are dead
There is no longer anyone
The stars have stopped shining
The world no longer turns
A head is bowed
Hair sweeps across the night
The last bell that remains standing
At the end of the corridor doors open
A surprise waits for those who pass
Some friends can be found there
There is a lamp that one does not light
And your unique shining eye
We descend the stairs barefooted
There is a burglar or the last to arrive
That no one waits for any longer
The moon hides itself in a pail of water
An angel on the roof plays with a hoop
The house collapses
In the stream is a flowing song
Someone was still behind there speaking
Men passed two by two
Perhaps it was a prayer
That climbed the heart of everyone
Between walls in the clearing
A voice echoed on the water
The bird took a different route
And woke up in the morning
with a gloomy head
No one knew the number
Of those that passed
Between the wall and the garden
When the night falls and becomes hard
In the distance
You hear the whistle of a train
Because of the water the roof is slippery
Because of the rain everything thaws
The oil of alcohol and my weak light
Have burned down the house
A garden without birds
A garden without noise
You go to gather the black flowers
The leaves are never green
All the thorns are red
And your hands are covered with blood
In the central alley a parade passes
By the window of the dead
Where a candle burns
It brings out a slow song
It was her and the other
The neighbor also
Everyone sings their heads off
And on the stairway where one jokes
Someone falling utters a cry
A dog runs away
One only hears the rain cry
I have lost the secret given me
I no longer know anything
For a moment I believed that that could go
Nothing remains any longer
This is a man without feet who wishes to run
A woman with no head who would like to talk
A child with hardly any eyes only for crying
However I have seen you depart
You were already distant
A trumpet sounded
A mob shouted
And you, you did not turn around
We have a long road to follow, step by step
We will walk it together
I detest your smiling face
The hand that you extend to me
And your sucked in stomach so old
You are just like me
On my return I did not receive anything
No one gives me anything
All is spent
A useless piece of decoration
In the night
The hobo strikes the hard sun with his staff
In this place
In front of the door where a furious dog snarls and
The family favorite sleeps
The shutters close
The unknown of the road that everyone travels
A threatening cry in the night
All the thieves of dreams slink away
They are scattered among a few books
The roads have become safer
And our faces have taken on a pale tranquility
One no longer fears danger and one knows death
In the sun
We imitate people from hot climates
And forget not to trust nature
And the times shed this too-long peace
That looks like the end of the world
We are all part of the source of civilization
One will understand too late the danger of imitation
The strange combat no longer exists
The principle characters are lost
But the closed house is like ourselves
An intimacy that no one knows
Searches outside curiosity
And our hypocrisy
the fear of each other
The dog guards it