Sunday 29 January 2017

Eileen Myles for president

The Manchester Literature Festival has had a few events outside their usual festival and I went last week to hear the most wonderful Eileen Myles, who read for us from her book 'Chelsea Girls' and some poems from her new collection 'I must be living twice'. She also talked about the current situation in America and her own experience of standing as a write-in candidate for the presidency back in 1992, and she read for us her acceptance speech, that to my mind presents a radical and somewhat esoteric vision of what a country could be. (I hoped to find a video of it but there is only the text). In trying times it is good to remember there are idealists out there.

First I want to say this feels incredible. To be female, to run and run and run to not see any end in sight but maybe have a feeling that there's really no outside to this endeavor this beautiful thing. You know we don't have a single female on any of our bills. And what about two women, two women loving. Or even more. A lot of women. A lot of money. Is there a message that I failed to receive that the face of woman cannot be on our money. And what about that house I just won. that white one. When I sit there and if I sit there and I've got to tell you I'm not sure I want to sit there. Some of you might remember my first campaign yes that was back in 1992. Few men have run for twenty-four years. Twenty-five by the time I stand and take the oath in January to serve my country. I did not quit I stand here with you on this beautiful rapturous day sunny day in New York to turn around, to look back and look at all that we've won. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's get back to that house. That white house. We often hear these words even as an explanation of what metonym means. Are you familiar with this term. Yes I promise you poetic presidency. The white house speaks is a metonym. Certainly that white house we speak of is not the whole government. Like Fred Moten says it is incomplete. But it has come to be a symbol of it. And I think two things. I think whiteness, I think of the whiteness of the house and I think of house-ness. It houses the government. Now that I have won it offers to house me now. I now officially make that white house a homeless shelter. It is a complete total disgrace that we have people without homes living on the streets of America. I have lived with them. Not for long periods of time but in the same way that I am the first president who knows what women feel because I am a woman, I am one, I have also eaten chicken with the homeless. I ate at the Bowery mission. Very rubbery, very chewy chicken. Those chicken were not happy when they lived and they are no happier being chewed on dead at the Bowery mission, and the chewers are not happy either, no. So here's the future good food at the white house for all the homeless in America. You know who the homeless are. They are military men and women. Who fought our pointless wars, who came home after each stupid greedy war we have waged and they got less. Is there a GI bill for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm not sure but I don't think so. Can they buy a house. Who can buy a house. Under Myles they have bought the white house. That is my gift. The white house will house the mentally ill, out patiented during the great president Reagan, meaning he threw them out of the house, the mentally ill, thrown out of the American house, and the alcoholics who do not have free and abundant and available treatment? Cause this country breaks our hearts. We will habit them too. We will occupy all government buildings and memorials housing and holding and loving the homeless and the sick and the starving. We'll do what the statue says. you know liberty. We will take buildings and we will build buildings and our culture our new America will begin to live. Our government needs to be in the business of living not dying, what else is a government for. The government will become more departmental and take you in, you and your wonderful needs. We'll start with the Department of Women. Obviously to say women matter and do matter so much and a lot we need a distinct place in the government to specifically focus on female concerns which is parity mainly, reforming congress so that if America is increasingly diverse in a multitude of ways our congress must represent those groups percentage wise that's smart don't you think. So if most of the people in America are female so should be our government right. America is not a department store. We want to do more in our country than shop online and at the mall. Let's face it everyone is home shopping and yelling each other at their computers. The malls are falling apart. The malls are pretty much gone. Let them go. We want to make real departments for who we really are. Not shopping. We will be stalwart, we will be strong. Let's go. Let's go out. we are out there now. We are here on the high line. Yes.

That's the way it works under Myles. Early on I described a department of culture. We will have that. We will have art in America, not just the magazine, just for starters we will multiply the budget of the NEA by tenfold. We will bring back CETA, that was like an art workers program we had in the eighties but we will call it SEE THE… SEE THE… what I don't know. I just got elected, I haven't worked everything out but just think of the possibilities. SEE THE sky, SEE THE river over there, SEE THE Whitney, a lot of people will be walking around appreciating and we will pay them. There will also be the HEAR THE program, the SMELL THE program. That's probably what you're going to do early on with all those you know recovering veterans who don't have to live on the streets. Get them in on the SEE THE, SMELL THE, HEAR THE programs. We're going to massively fund libraries, open twenty-four hours, and they will not be filled with homeless people because they will have homes, so the libraries will be filled with people reading and watching movies, and going into the conversation rooms and having conversations and so on. All education will be free, trains will be free. Cars will eventually be banned. Cars are stupid. No more pumping oil, no more fracking. Everything will be driven by the sun, or else be plugged in electrically. Electric something. There'll be lots of free food. A lot of archery. Everyone will be a really good shot. We'll get good at aiming, intentions, not killing. Oh yeah and we'll send a lot of masseuses to Israel and Palestine. Everyone needs a good rub. No more pesticides, here, anywhere, lots of small farmers, an amazing number of stand up comedians, and lots of rehearsal spaces and available musical instruments and learning centers for people like myself who would like to play something, perhaps a guitar. Nobody would be unemployed. Everyone would be learning Spanish, or going to the sex center for a while having ejaculation contests, or just looking at porn for a while and going out into the yard and helping the farmers improve the crops. Just gardening. Helping the flowers. Distributing the flowers. SEE THE flowers. When in doubt always just being a SEE THE person for a while. There'll be a whole lot of people encouraging people to SEE THE. We want the SEE THE to thoroughly come back. There'd be an increase in public computers, like water, like air, have we stopped the oil and the fracking early enough to protect the water and air, we hope so but there will be a decrease in private computers with an enhanced desire to be here, exactly here where we are, which some would argue is there on the computer which of course would be allowed but being here would be cool, some people meditating, other people just walking around, smiling feeling good about themselves, living shamelessly and glad. Guns would be buried. Guns would be in museums and people would increasingly not want to go there. Gun museums would die. What was that all about. Money would become rare. I would have a radio show as your president and also I might be on television and also I just might want to talk to you. In the tradition of American Presidents like Fiorello LaGuardia the little Flower I would be president Edward Myles, the woman, changing my name, very often, would probably be good I would like that and I would write a new poem for you each week. I might just walk around saying it and eventually you would forget I was the president. I would go to the gym. There are people who like to manage things just like there are people who like to play cards and the managers would change often enough and they would keep the parks clean, America increasingly turning into one big park, one big festival of existence with unmarked toilets and nightly daily events and free surfing lessons and free boards, just put it back when you're done and a good bed for everyone, I just slept in the best bed last night and I slept on the plane sleep is great nobody would be short of sleep everyone would be well slept, chaotic and loving hearted and have all the time in the world to not kill, to love and be president everyone take your turn and dance. Dance now. I love my fellow citizens. It is good to win. Thank you. I feel like I had a bad dream last night that like the head of the FBI decided to steal the election by making shit up about me because I am female but that wasn't true and we are really here undeluded, un mucked up. Wide awake in America for once. See the see the see all of your fabulous beauty and your power and your hope. Thanks for your vote. And I love you so much thanks.
—Eileen Myles

Nice and Accurate Prophesies

'Good Omens' by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is an excellent and entertaining read, kind of like Discworld, but not, and I am definitely going to read some more Neil Gaiman. So, apparently, the armageddon is upon us, the anti-christ has been born and the four horsemen are on their way. Anathema Device knows all about it due to a book written by an unlikely ancestor of hers, 'The Nice and Accurate Prophesies of Agnes Nutter, Witch'. The devil Crowley and the angel Aziraphale have been coexisting on earth for quite some time now and have come to a comfortable arrangement, and even though they are on opposing sides they find themselves cooperating with a cast of unlikely characters to thwart the plans of people in high places. If you are a fan you hardly need me to tell you how it unfolds, and if you've never read it, this weekend would be a really good time to amend this lack in your life. I'm going to give you a few quote that capture the essence of the style and the story, because it's nice just to be self indulgent sometimes.

"Two of them lurked in the ruined graveyard. Two shadowy figures, one hunched and squat, the other lean and menacing, both of them Olympic-grade lurkers. If Bruce Springsteen had ever recorded 'Born to Lurk', these two would have been on the album cover. They had been lurking in the fog for an hour now, but they had been pacing themselves and could lurk for the rest of the night if necessary, with still enough sullen menace left for the final burst of lurking around dawn.
Finally, after another twenty minutes, one of them said: 'Bugger this for a lark. He should have been here hours ago.'
The speaker's name was Hastur. He was a Duke of Hell." (p.24-5)

And because we all love a nice dog:

"And there was a black dog in the road.
It had to be a dog. It was dog-shaped.
There are some dogs which, when you meet them, remind you that, despite thousands of years of man-made evolution, every dog is still only two meals away from being a wolf. These dogs advance deliberately, purposefully, the wilderness made flesh, their teeth yellow, their breath a-stink, while in the distance their owners witter, 'He's an old soppy really, just poke him if he's a nuisance,' and in the green of their eyes the red campfires of the Pleistocene gleam and flicker ...
This dog would make even a dog like that slink nonchalantly behind the sofa and pretend to be extremely preoccupied with its rubber bone.
It was already growling, and the growl was a low, rumbling snarl of spring-coiled menace, the sort of growl that starts in the back of one throat and ends up in someone else's.
Saliva dripped from its jaws and sizzled on the tar.
It took a few steps forward, and sniffed the sullen air.
Its ears flicked up." (p.87-8)

And this wonderful insight into the everyday lives of devils:

"In fact the only things in the flat that Crowley devoted any personal attention to were the houseplants. They were huge and green and glorious, with shiny, healthy, lustrous leaves.
This was because once a week, Crowley went around the flat with a green plastic plant mister, spraying the leaves, and talking to the plants.
He had heard about talking to plants in the early seventies, on Radio Four, and thought it an excellent idea. Although talking is perhaps the wrong word for what Crowley did.
What he did was put the fear of God into them.
More precisely, the fear of Crowley.
In addition to which, every couple of months Crowley would pick out a plant that was growing too slowly, or succumbing to leaf-wilt or browning, or just didn't look quite as good as the others, and he would carry it around to all the other plants. 'Say goodbye to your friend,' he'd say to them. 'He just couldn't cut it ...'
Then he would leave the flat with the offending plant, and return an hour or so later with a large, empty flower pot, which he would leave somewhere conspicuously around the flat.
The plants were the most luxurious, verdant, and beautiful in London. Also the most terrified." (p.252-3)

Just paddle

Another book that I spontaneously requested from the library and then wondered why. I don't know why I keep reading these death memoirs, maybe the idea that people who experience death close up and viscerally somehow have something to say about life. This book is funny because her chatty writing, not because anything she did or experienced was funny. In fact it is all mundane; her life is just so very ordinary. Much of the book is Nora venting her grief at the world, and why shouldn't she, some bad shit happened to her, but mainly I found myself not liking her particularly. The book often comes across like one of those bland lifestyle blogs which seemed out of synch with the subject that she was writing about.

Here she is talking about her youthful need to be liked:

"During the years - yes, years - that we lived together, tattoos were really hitting the mainstream. I know that's a dorky thing to say, but this was right when Amy Winehouse was getting big, and full-sleeve tattoos went from being a sign that you're comfortable on the outskirts of society to being the kind of thing that fat suburban dads in cargo pants proudly sported. So one day, when Ricky made an appointment for a new tattoo, I went with her. 'Really?' she said, and I sensed in her a very, very faint interest in me as a person. 'Yeah,' I lied, 'I've been thinking about it forever so I think its' time.'
Ricky doted on me for a whole week after I mangled my torso. She bought me ice packs and spread Aquaphor across my back to speed the healing process. And then, just as quickly, she was done with me. I think because I once had my boyfriend over at the apartment where I paid rent, and he went pee in the bathroom at some point and she didn't like that.
Ricky and I moved out of the apartment and we never spoke again. But I have a permanent memento of our time together. It's not quite as bad as getting a tattoo that says 'no regrats' but the sentiment is the same." (p.210-11)

But somehow she manages to get across how such an experience transforms not just her life but herself:

"It was the middle of a normal Monday when Aaron had a seizure that turned out to be a brain tumour that turned out to be cancer that turned out to kill him. I'd woken up a normal twenty-seven-year-old woman who still had a hangover from Saturday night, and somewhere along the way, my life had been tilted on its side without my permission. I was not pleased. I had a very important PowerPoint to finish! I worked in advertising! I needed people to click on Internet ads and buy things! I made my mother drive me to the hospital, and I could feel my heart beating through my chest the entire three-mile ride from downtown to south Minneapolis. My mother had things to do at work, so she pulled up to the emergency room, leaned over me to open the door and all but pushed me out of the car.
'Go in there and be a woman,' she said, and even though I had no idea what she meant, I did it." (p.205)

So probably, for some audiences, a more relatable history than 'A Year of Magical Thinking' (Joan Didion) or 'A Widow's Story' (Joyce Carol Oates), but I think they are both much better books.

Friday 13 January 2017

Jeeves and all that

On Only Connect the other week Victoria scolded one of the contestants who said they had never read any Jeeves and Wooster books. I promptly ordered 'The Inimitable Jeeves' on audiobook from the library which Dunk and I listened to together. I confess I did not find them particularly funny, and after the first two the story lines became very predictable. I was sorry that they were so short and we did not get to know Jeeves at all, since he is the character I remember from the TV series, which I did watch with much enjoyment. So I feel like I have given Wodehouse a chance but I don't think I am going to become a fan any time soon. 

Blackbirds in the garden

One of the trees in the garden lost all its leaves and looked faintly ridiculous with all the apples still attached. As winter set in they finally dropped and the blackbirds have been feasting on the fallen apples; the females seem to be chasing off the males, who sit in the surrounding trees waiting their turn. It's just nice to look out through the kitchen window and see them there, frequently oblivious to the neighbourhood cats who crouch down by the shed watching.

I bought John Berger's 'Bento's Sketchbook' several years ago. I hoped it might inspire me to go back to drawing. It is a strange little book, physically very satisfying with a textured hard cover and thick pages, an excuse to just meander through his own thoughts, about art and philosophy and life, and fill pages with random sketches. The idea for the book sprang from the information that Spinoza carried a sketchbook with him, but after his death none was found amongst all his letters and manuscripts. The book is scattered also with quotes from Spinoza (about whom I know nothing), but I found them rather vague and unfathomable.
"Each spring when the irises begin to flower, I find myself drawing them - as if obeying an order. There's no other flower so commanding. And this may have something to do with the way they open their petals, already printed. Irises one like books. At the same time, they are the smallest, tectonic quintessence of architecture. I think of Mosque Suleiman in Istanbul. Irises are like prophesies: simultaneously astounding and calm." (p.106)

I like this, and I don't have the faintest idea what 'tectonic quintessence' means.
"When I'm drawing - and here drawing is very different from writing or reasoning - I have the impression at certain moments of participating in something like a visceral function, such as digesting or sweating, a function that is independent of the conscious will. This impression is exaggerated , but the practice or pursuit of drawing touches, or is touched by, something prototypical and anterior to logical reasoning." (p.149)
He fills the book with stories about art that he has valued and places and people who have had quiet impacts on him, close friends and casual acquaintances. I liked it because it is so casually intimate, just like you are listening to him talk. And the simplicity of the drawings that he includes is encouraging, things that are just around and he happened to draw them. 
One quote from Spinoza I did get to grips with (even though it is a long convoluted sentence), from Ethics, Part IV, Definitions VI (and isn't 'we are won't a wonderfully archaic expression). 
Just something to ponder:
"But it is appropriate here to note that we can only distinctly imagine distance of time, like that of space, up to a certain limit, that is, just as those things which are beyond two hundred feet from us, or, whose distance from the place where we are exceeds that which we can distinctly imagine, we are wont to imagine equally distant from us and if they were in the same plane, so also those objects whose time of existing we imagine to be distant from the present by a longer interval than that which we are accustomed to imagine, we imagine all to be equally distant from the present, and refer to them all as it were to one moment of time."

Sunday 8 January 2017

Shoe Fly Baby

'Shoe Fly Baby' is the Asham Award Prize short story collection edited by Kate Pullinger. I recommended a short story by Kate a while back in another anthology. I drifted though this book a little, kept coming back to half read stories with no recollection of what had been happening, I'm afraid that does not recommend it very highly, or maybe I am just in such a bad slump at the moment I was not concentrating. 
The one that struck me most was 'An angel in the garden' by Jane Maltby, about an elderly woman who's life is altered by a car crash at the bottom of her garden. She forms a bond with the family of the young man who is killed, while her own faculties go into rapid decline. It has a lovely metaphor of cryptic crossword clues running though the story, reflecting the confusion she increasingly experiences: 

"She kept finding bits, all over the place, even after they'd cleaned up. Not from the victim, of course not, that would be silly, although he went straight out through the windscreen and along the road, face down, they told her. She didn't look. Even when all the neighbours ran down their gardens to the road, and all the police cars with their lights were parked all over the grass, and it was even on the radio, the cars were queued up for that long.
The boy's car embraced the lamp-post deeply. That was the thought that struck her. It had sucked the post into its vitals. Glass and metal lay on the ground, and there were the bits that, weeks after the crash, she kept crunching over when she finally went down, to check the flowers. The body had come to rest perhaps twenty yards away, just on the boundary with her neighbours, who kept cats. Just inside the boundary. It was her accident, all right." (p.62)

Thursday 5 January 2017

One flew east, one flew west ...

'One flew over the cuckoo's nest' is such an iconic film that the book by Ken Kesey might seem superfluous, but I found that they compliment and enhance each other. The story in the book is narrated by the Chief who is believed by staff and inmates to be deaf and dumb, but who has simply adapted to a world that has ignored him. Into the regular and secure environment of their institution lands McMurphy, who's one aim, right from the start, seems to be to stir things up. The tight ship is run by Nurse Ratched who controls every waking moment of the men's lives, and the Chief recounts what becomes a battle of wills between Mack and the Big Nurse. This book is all about the atmosphere of the mental institution, stifling and monotonous, but also the divorce that happens for the inmates between reality and the life they are experiencing. The Chief, who's presence on the ward is not explained, suffers from delusions and hallucinations, bad dreams, and an extreme paranoia, and throughout the book it is his thoughts and experiences we are pulled in to. It can be quite scary:

"The least black boy and one of the bigger ones catch me before I get ten steps out of the mop closet, and drag me back to the shaving room. I don't fight or make any noise. If you yell it's just tougher on you. I hold back the yelling. I hold back till they get to my temples. I'm not sure it's one of those substitute machines and not a shaver till it gets to my temples; then I can't hold back. It's not a will power thing any more when they get to my temples. It's a ... button, pushed, says Air Raid Air Raid, turns me on so loud it's like no sound, everybody yelling at me hands over their ears from behind a glass wall, facing working around in talk circles but no sounds from the mouths. My sound soaks up all the other sound. They start the fog machine again and it's snowing cold and white all over me like skim milk, so thick I might even be able to hide in it if they didn't have a hold on me. I can't see six inches in front of me through the fog and the only thing I can hear over the wail I'm making is the Big Nurse whoop and charge up the hall while she crashes patients outta her way with that wicker bag. I hear her coming but I still can't hush my hollering. I holler till she gets there. They hold me down while she jams wicker bag and all into my mouth and shoves it down with the mop handle." (p.7)

McMurphy's presence is unsettling for the inmates as much as for Nurse Ratched; their cosy little world is being upset and they are just as worried about changes to their routine. For the Chief however it comes as a revelation, slowly he begins to see things more clearly and to want to change things. Here is his description of the change that McMurphy brings:

"Sweeping the dorm soon's it's empty, I'm after dis mice under his bed when I get a smell of something that makes me realise for the first time since I been in this hospital that this big dorm full of beds, sleeps forty grown men, has always been sticky with a thousand other smells - smells of germicide, zinc ointment, and foot power, smell of piss and sour old-man manure, of Pablum and eyewash, of musty shorts and socks musty even when they're fresh back from the laundry, the stiff odour of starch in the linen, the acid stench of morning mouths, the banana smell of machine oil, and sometimes the smell of singed hair - but never before now, before he came in, the man smell of dust and dirt from the open fields, and sweat, and work." (p.96)

There is an up-side to his sense of being removed and unnoticed; here the Chief describes going into a painting:

"I push my broom up face to face with a great big picture Public Relations bought in one time when it was fogged so thick I didn't see him. The picture is a guy fly-fishing somewhere in the mountains, looks like the Ochocos near Paineville - snow on the peaks showing over the pines, long white aspen trunks lining the stream, sheep sorrel growing in sour green patches. The guy is flicking his fly in a pool behind a rock. It's no place for a fly, it's a place for a single egg on a number-six hook - he'd do better to drift the fly over those riffles downstream.
There's a path running down through the aspen, and I push my broom down the path aways and sit down on a rock and look back out through the frame at the visiting doctor talking with the residents. I can see him stabbing some point in the palm of his hand with his finger, but I can't hear what he says because of the crash of the cold, frothy stream coming down out of the rocks. I can smell the snow in the wind where it blows down off the peaks. I can see mole burrows humping along under the grass and buffalo weed. It's a real nice place to stretch your legs and take it easy." (p.120)

The tale unfolds as McMurphy tries to take the others out of their comfort zone, not appreciating the potential consequences of his high jinks and despite warnings about how the 'Combine' will not be beaten. There is no hope for McMurphy, but there is, in the end, for the Chief. If you love the film I would highly recommend you give the novel a chance, it has a different perspective and added depth to the characters.

Monday 2 January 2017

Repost: From A to X

I just read in the Guardian that John Berger died today so here is a brief review that appeared in the very early days of my blog in 2009. I can still recall how much I loved this book and I have his book Bento's Sketchbook on my 101 books, so, when I have finished 'One Flew Over the Cuckcoo's Nest' I am going to make it next on the list.

My second book of the year was 'From A to X - a story in letters' by John Berger. Sometimes I request books from the library on the spur of the moment, when I read something on the internet or in the paper, and it just catches my interest. This title intrigued me. It is a book of questions, and no answers. There is no story, no plot, just ideas and experiences. The book is made up of letters from A'ida. There are no replies, but in places Xavier has written thoughts at the end of the letters. Each letter is different; some talk about her life, some are reminiscences, some imagine the future. There cannot be a future because Xavier is in prison, but she hopes, for them and for their country. The setting is deliberately vague. I imagined eastern Europe for some reason, but it could be anywhere, so many parts of the world have experienced political unrest and repression. I grew very attached to A'ida, she is strong and resilient, kind and fiercely loyal. You don't see Xavier so clearly. She describes something of their relationship and life together, but because you never get his thoughts you have only a superficial impression. The fact that they are separated is the theme that runs through the book, sometimes it is raw emotion that you feel really intensely, sometimes it just sits in the background of her tales of everyday life. What I liked about the writing is the complete lack of pretension. He creates a whole world that feels so real, with people you care about. In spite of the need I usually have to get closure from a book this one leaves you hanging. You accept that you cannot know if their story has an end. But it leaves you hoping, because they do.