Liquor & Leaves #6

The Good Times Are Killing Me
Today’s liquor: Tangueray Gin Martini, with a splash of Campari
Today’s leaves: The Good Times Are Killing Me by Lynda Barry

I gave up alcohol for Lent, which went well half of the time. Anyway, I can drink again. Thank you Jesus!

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“Any film that has just one message should not be made. You should just send the message as an email or a Twitter. Twitter your opinion instead of spending millions making a film, because the complexities are what make [a film] worth seeing.”

— Stellan Skarsgård, in interview

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Kentucky Psalms: Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems, 1979-2013

This DayIn an interview with Anne Husted Burleigh (Crisis, January 2000), Wendell Berry had this to say:

Scripture says God loved the world, that the Incarnation happened because God loved the world. The implication of his Sabbath rest at the very beginning was that it was a day of appreciation and approval of what he had done. It seems wrong to condemn the world and wrong to refuse its decent pleasures. Why would you deny yourself a decent pleasure, which is the signal and sign of heaven in this world, in order to get to heaven? It doesn’t make any sense—to me.

Indeed, his Sabbath poems, taken on Sunday walks through the Kentucky countryside when other people thought he should be at church with his wife and children, offer rich appreciations of the direct, God-drenched world in which Berry lives. Since 1979, he’s written poems in honor of rest, reflection, and consideration of all we have and all we lack in this world. This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems, 1979-2013 brings together Berry’s poetic work, reminding us that he’s as terrific a poet as he is an essayist and novelist. For all the recent attention given to Berry’s prophetic essays and lectures about taking care of the Earth and its communities, This Day reveals that his poetry might comprise his grandest vision.

Not that it looks grand, not at a glance. Take this short, plain poem from 1991. Here it is in full:

The seed is in the ground.
Now may we rest in hope
While darkness does its work.

That poem is not quite haiku but it is just as rigorous in its structure—three lines, six syllables apiece—and nature-focused as that ancient Asian form. Indeed, Berry’s rigorous attention to form—a free-verse stylist, he is not—allows him, oddly, a lot of room for play. Within his straightforward sense of meter and rhythm, and his plain, conversational language, there’s room for many modes—mini-epics, sonnets, mock diary entries, monologues written in his “Mad Farmer” persona, and imagined conversations between Berry and his friends. In his poetry, Berry travels over landscapes both physical and mental. His Kentucky farm and its environs might be geographically small but they give the poet the richness and fullness of the whole world. He takes pleasure and joy in his world, in our world. It shows in the poems, which meander and loop and dance and play around in ways that Berry’s noble but sometimes stern voice as an essayist can convey only on occasion. Through poetry, Berry walks within God’s abundance.

The breadth and depth of Berry’s concerns startle me, and do the best thing poetry can do—make me pay attention to every speck of life around me, and make me appreciate what I otherwise take for granted. Though I confess using This Day as a devotional of-sorts lately, the collection’s musicality on the tongue reminds of nothing so much as the Psalms. In this sense, they are prayers, Berry’s attempts to address God directly. They share the rhythmic beauty, melancholy, riotous joy, and variety of modes of the King James Version, with which Berry is intimately familiar.

One of those modes is wit. Berry hones his sense of humor, and his grounded sense of his place in the world, often in This Day. Here’s the last stanza from a 1995 poem, which both evokes and gently plays with the Lord’s Prayer:

A Sabbath from my weariness.
I rest in an unmasking trust
Like clouds and ponds and stones and trees.
The long-arising Day will break
If I should die before I wake.

By keeping the Sabbath in this way, Berry shows how married he is to his land, to his immediate community, to the people and plants and animals that sustain him, and he likewise. Marriage, to stay home and take root in the soil under your toes, means to sacrifice and worry over—to channel Tennessee Williams—how fragile it all is and how easily it can be broken. So, despite the pastoral setting, there’s heartache and rage here, too. This Day offers a full panoply of Berry’s thoughts and visions. In the absence of a memoir, which I think we’re unlikely to get from the humble Kentucky genius, This Day will have to do. It’s a quiet portrait of a man growing into a place, and growing into God’s grace, over the last 34 years. It’s not all pretty, for growth often disrupts and causes pain. (Ask any mother.) But it is beautiful, which is better than pretty anyway.

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César Aira’s Shantytown

ShantytownThis one’s a rejected book review (by two journals) on a book I quite liked, by a writer who doesn’t get his fair share of attention in this country. Enjoy.

César Aira’s novellas—I’ve read five so far—usually feature everyday middle-class Argentines going about their lives, their lives being told in Aira’s stubbornly dry, deadpan prose. They drift through their ordinary days until they walk into an otherworldly oddity—something they (and we as readers) never expect, even though it’s often hidden in plain sight. They break through, or are broken through, in a way that upends their existences, and that makes their lives seem startling. The fantastical—ghosts swarming through a newly constructed apartment building (Ghosts), a sentient wind (The Seamstress and the Wind), a giant silkworm accidentally made from Carlos Fuentes’ tie (The Literary Conference)—is always intruding on the quotidian, shaking things up.

To disrupt things further, Aira often meanders into a mini-essay in the middle of a narrative, into something indirectly unrelated to the goings-on. These digressions occasionally make no sense whatsoever, and are maybe parodies of academic theory and critical analysis. Sometimes, they seem like too-obscure private jokes. Like his work in general, they frustrate attempts to resolve neatly, and instead peter out of gas when Aira seemingly tires of the idea. All of this—the pseudo-essays, the urban realism, the Twilight Zone oddities, the slapstick comedy—is told in the flattest, most straightforward of modes: past tense, 3rd-person limited.

In Shantytown, even the genre’s a tried-and-true one: the mystery novel. Well, I say “straightforward.” Shantytown is Aira’s most “normal” novella, and the most purely enjoyable one I’ve read. The critical essays run a page or less, and tie into the main thread. Though odd things seem to occur, they all prove to be ultimately plausible—not likely, just theoretically plausible. All the weirdness, warped and drug-addled psychologies, mistaken identities, and mystery go on in the characters’ heads. Practically everything in Shantytown occurs because its characters believe things are stranger than they actually are.

That being said, the book’s bizarre. One protagonist gets at the feeling of entering Shantytown perfectly:

Vanessa was dazed and not exactly sure where she was, as if she’d been magically transported to a foreign city and didn’t even know its name. Her little world was tottering. She started walking automatically, while her brain went into overdrive. But it was useless; she couldn’t thing about anything. Or, rather, there was just one thing she could think about; and she thought about it so intensely that it left no room for anything else: she had to find help.

As in any good mystery novel, there’s a detective on the case, a splash of violence, mistaken identities, and someone who needs help. But Vanessa’s not the one who needs it—in fact, she unknowingly puts her brother Maxi in danger—and the detective’s a nut who causes most of the trouble.

Maxi, our ostensible protagonist, is really the mystery. A young, aimless man with more muscles than mindpower, Maxi spends each day working out, and then helping poor shantytown dwellers picking through rich folks’ garbage for scraps, food, and tools. We don’t know why Maxi does it, other than that it passes the time. In most noir films or mystery novels, Maxi—strong, silent, capable, vaguely handsome—would be the hero. Instead, Aira makes him an absent protagonist. Maxi’s the pivot around which the whole novella turns but the boy disappears from the book for the last third. By the time Aira floors us through all of Shantytown’s events, in a brief 128 pages, there’s been an almost-biblical downpour flooding Buenos Aires, a manhunt involving drug smugglers, a media circus swarming around a crusading judge, a shooting, a kidnapping, and multiple stakeouts. How do these events shape our “hero”? Well, here he is near the end (and, no, this isn’t a spoiler):

Meanwhile, Maxi was sleeping more deeply than ever. If it’s true, as people say, that nothing is more soporific than the sound of rain beating on a roof, conditions were ideal, though he didn’t really need any help. And the natural process had not been interrupted. No one had come to bother him; no one had entered his cubicle. But he must have been dreaming as never before. Unfamiliar beds make for more abundant dreaming because there are more physical disturbances for the dreamwork to interpret.

You’d never know that a maniacal, hopped-up cop was searching for Maxi at that moment, that absurdities are swirling all around the boy. No, no. Aira’s hero is sleeping, and the author spends that critical moment making a weird-but-true observation about the dream state.

In fact, Maxi sleepwalks through his own novel. Aira needed a way for the reader to enter Shantytown’s dense, weird little world. Everything connected to Maxi—his gym instructor, a hobo he sees every morning, Maxi’s sister, her frenemy Jessica, Jessica’s family maid, the mad cop chasing them all—comes across more vividly than Maxi himself. He’s a blank, and that’s by design. Everyone projects an intricate mystery of personality around this ultimately dull-witted blank of a boy. Those fevered, false assumptions form the core of Shantytown’s comedy.

Aira shows us those false assumptions, weaving his prose in and out of almost every character’s head, darting from one voice to the next. (Surprise, surprise: Aira rarely puts us in Maxi’s head.) Maxi mistakes an odd reflection emanating from the apartment across the way as a ghost. A cop thinks Vanessa is involved in some intrigue in the shantytown. Vanessa, middle-class and white, imagines her friend’s maid must know the true secret, simply because the maid is black and a shantytown dweller. Jessica thinks Vanessa is using the “secret,” which doesn’t exist, to get back at her for some slight, based entirely on a phone call that she didn’t even hear. A boy breaks up with the maid over a misunderstanding.

In many ways, the dry wit and sudden explosions over misunderstanding remind me of the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, an underrated “crime” movie in which every act of violence could have been avoided if anyone listened to anyone else instead of to the imagined crime-movie narratives in their heads. Shantytown’s characters, though, are cursed—and curse themselves—because they think they’re living in a Hollywood noir film, when they’re really living in something even stranger and more wondrous: a César Aira novella.

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In unwavering defense of, and love for, Vikram Seth

First things first, I’m posting a new poem by Vikram Seth, “Through Love’s Great Power,” because the New York Review of Books said I could:

Through love’s great power to be made whole
In mind and body, heart and soul—
Through freedom to find joy, or be
By dint of joy itself set free
In love and in companionhood:
This is the true and natural good.

To undo justice, and to seek
To quash the rights that guard the weak—
To sneer at love, and wrench apart
The bonds of body, mind and heart
With specious reason and no rhyme:
This is the true unnatural crime.

I first read A Suitable Boy just after college, roaring through it on solitary, martini-fueled nights in my Jackson efficiency apartment. It was and is the longest single novel—at almost 1500 pages—that I’ve read. It seems, if anything, too short, with spools of life rolling outward into my world, getting tangled up into my social networks and my dreams. Set in India just after it achieved independence from Great Britain, it weaves together the lives of multiple families, conservatives and liberals, colonial defenders and anticolonial radicals, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians (oh my!), politicians and performers, Brahmins and untouchables, immigrants and natives. It’s a multiethnic, multigenerational epic that managed to make me laugh out loud, make me think, make me horny, make me cringe, and make me cry.

Those feelings came across in A Suitable Boy because of Vikram Seth’s joyous language, his dryly amused tone about even the most heart-wrenching circumstances, and his discreet diction, which matches his mannered characters, who was forever worried about how they—and their families—are being perceived. Puns, anagrams, palindromes, and delicate wordplay dominate the novel—the table of contents is written as rhyming couplets; the book’s dedication is a sonnet in perfect pentameter; there’s an interior love poem that’s also an acrostic. Much of this is offered largely as indirection, as sly and secretive ways to engage with furious rages and gushing passions. When a foul word is said, and only two or three are said in the course of 1400 pages, the word slices through the brain. When the characters tumble into sticky, hot sex with each other toward the end, after Seth’s mock-Victorian shyness for much of the book, well, we get sticky and hot, too. And why not? When asked, Seth gleefully acknowledged the influence of Dynasty on the book’s shaping.

I made my stepdad read it, practically forced it on him, and he had almost the same reaction. I periodically try to convince people that no it’s not too long, no you won’t even notice its length after the first 30 pages, yes it’s about India and it’s also about you, and hey man you read the New Testament too and you don’t complain about the length of that, for Chrissakes. (Pun intended.)

After finishing A Suitable Boy, I went to the Welty Library seeking out more Seth. It didn’t have much but I found a large-print edition—they didn’t have a regular-type edition—of From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet. Cool, I thought. And it was, but—beyond Seth’s witty and discreet style—it wasn’t anything like A Suitable Boy. It was exactly what the title advertises—Seth’s travels through China and Tibet, all to get back to India for a spell. But what was Seth doing in China to begin with, I wondered? Researching Chinese poets, learning various Chinese dialects, translating Chinese poetry into English, and generally just hanging around, it turned out. That hanging around bore fruit, by the way: Three Chinese Poets, translations of work by Tang Dynasty poets whom Seth happened to love. In other words, a book that wasn’t much like From Heaven Lake or A Suitable Boy.

Who on Earth was this guy?

Since From Heaven Lake is the closest to memoir we’re likely to get from him, I started gleaning clues from it. He was clearly a polyglot, a restless writer who followed his interests whether commercially acceptable or not. He comes across as quiet and reserved but not necessarily shy. He also comes across as a charmer, a man who uses his gift for gab to lure his way into hearts and underwear. But whose underwear, exactly? There’s a quiet passage in From Heaven Lake, during which Seth is hitchhiking in a convoy on a flooded, rained-out highway with loads of other truckers, and he and the Chinese trucker are talking. Seth’s discreet but it becomes clear—well, kind of clear—that they’re flirting in code, strangers feeling each other out on a night in which no one is going anywhere. At the end of the passage, there’s a moment that can only be described as the literary equivalent of a fade to black, when I belatedly realized: Hey, these two are headed to bed, and not to sleep, either.

So, Seth was gay. Homosexuality, in discreet form, is apparent in A Suitable Boy but so were all other kinds of sexuality rampant—but politely—in the novel. And was Seth gay, or just a terrific conveyor of sexual appetite and the many variants of love? He seems to charm the pants off of a young woman in From Heaven Lake, too. Maybe he was just young, horny, and lonely in a country not his own, in a travel memoir that’s as much about homesickness as it is about anything else. He’s so passionately homesick, after all, that he bulls his way into Tibet during the early 1980s, at a time—which is also now—that getting into or out of that embattled country was almost impossible.

After the travel book and the translated poetry, I decided to buy The Golden Gate. It’s a novel written in sonnet form—not just any sonnet form but a relatively obscure one, in iambic tetrameter. Because, hey, why make it easy on yourself, right, Vikram? It too is funny, wise, with interlacing communities and coincidences, but it’s naughtier than A Suitable Boy and angrier than From Heaven Lake. And, again, it’s in many ways unlike either of them. It’s contemporary, set in San Francisco, and largely amidst the lives of white and Asian yuppies. Stanzas 7.16-34 (pages 156-165), which constitute a speech given by an Episcopalian priest at an anti-nukes demonstration, stands as one of the greatest antiwar and pro-peace statements that I’ve read, and especially convincing as written from a Christian context. (I can imagine my favorite clergyman, Rev. Keith Tonkel of Wells Methodist Church, saying something very much like it.) I photocopied this passage and have it pasted on my office cubicle’s wall.

Again, who on Earth is Vikram Seth?

Like Lawrence Weschler and Rebecca Solnit, Seth seems to follow his own literary star and seems unwilling to do the same thing twice. He’s published children’s books, collections of poetry, a lauded dual biography of his relatives, and a love story set in the world of classical music, too. He seems to relish in his changes, in having people be not quite sure of who he is, in acknowledging that who we are changes, depending on where we are and who we’re with. That’s brave. That means, quite probably, that Seth isn’t as popular as he could be, simply because he refused to be pigeonholed. (Sure, sure, plenty of people bought A Suitable Boy; I’m less sure that most of them actually read it.) Though there’s plenty of wordplay and trickery in his work, he’s also an old-fashioned Victorian realist in a sense, which means he’s not hip. (Pico Iyer referred to A Suitable Boy as “Jane Austen in Calcutta,” which is pretty good, though George Eliot’s the more appropriate touchstone.) And, by openly and nonjudgmentally exploring various modes of sexuality and politics in his work, Seth leaves himself open for all kinds of charges.

There is a strain, a pulsing lifeblood, running through all of Vikram Seth’s work, and that is the heartachy joy of love’s great power to transform us, open us, and cause us to cast aside our judgments as so much uselessness.  This new poem, written in response to India recriminalizing homosexuality, is an extension of Seth’s witty, discreet but thoroughly serious declaration of what love can and should truly do.

Related: Seth’s mom, Leila Seth, is a retired judge in India. She too has written an eloquent response condemning India’s decision.

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Tiny miracles are the best kind there are, part 3

A lonely Saturday night walking through the neighborhood, walking because I needed the pick-me-up, the lift of seeing lights and smiling faces in the streets, and I come across it on the sidewalk. I’m near the corner of Prince and Satula, resisting the urge to pop into the Normal Bar for a bourbon, trying to get an early start on the Lenten season, trudging home, carrying my knapsack with a book and a notepad in it like Linus’s security blanket, knowing I don’t plan to stop in anywhere to read while nursing a drink or a too-late-in-the-evening-coffee. Not looking where I’m going, I almost smudge it. Written in chalk on the Satula sidewalk, undraped by streetlight, is this message:

Do not look at yourself
with disgust. You are a
gift to this earth. You
are beautiful, you
are a light, an energy,
an essence.

You are nature

I smile. I extract my notepad from my knapsack, glad it was weighing me down after all, scribble down the chalk prayer amid in the darkness and bartalk, and head home, a little more grateful and with my heart grinning just enough to make it through.


RELATED: Other tiny miracles—one and two.

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“Adults experience doubt. Doubt arises naturally as experience calls doctrine into question. Your parents told you one thing. Your experience tells you another. You face apparent contradictions. The contradictions and doubts you are experiencing are the hallmarks of burgeoning adulthood.

“Beware of the temptation, at this crucial moment, to replace one dogma with another. Instead, you must learn to synthesize what you are experiencing with what you have been taught.

“For instance, on the question, say, of marijuana. Parents may tell children that marijuana is bad, period. No question about it. They may make dire warnings whose terrifying images keep children from trying marijuana. Then a kid smokes a joint. He experiences no immediate ill effects. He may decide that marijuana is therefore not harmful at all. He rejects one wholesale fiction for another. The balanced truth is that everything you do has an effect, and anything you do to excess has a cost.

“The danger of teaching a child only one absolute and inviolable set of rules is that when the child meets contradictions she has no way to integrate those contradictions into her world. Integrating your direct experiences into your world of faith requires nuance. When your experience seems to contradict what you have been taught, you have to move beyond the literal and toward the metaphorical and the subjective. In a world of absolutes, those words may sound like the devil’s words. But they represent experience as we know it, not as we wish it were so.”

—Cary Tennis, “Since You Asked” (18 January 2008)

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