Book about Music: Radakovic and Albahari

David Albahari / Žarko Radaković

knjiga-o-muziciDas Buch über MusikSchreibheft 83


Zwei Serben, der eine in Calgary,
der andere in Köln, korrespondieren
über Musik

The Book about Music


Two Serbs, the one in Calgary, the other in Köln, correspond about music

The current issue of the literary journal Schreibheft includes an excerpt from the book, translated into German by Mirjana and Klaus Wittmann.

I’ll translate a couple of passages from their German  to give a taste of what I think is an extraordinary exchange between two remarkable writers.

For a long time I have wanted to be several people. One of them is Žarko Radaković. . . .

Every writing project is simultaneously a reading project. As I read Žarko, I also read myself; while I wrote about myself, I wrote simultaneously about Žarko. . . .

In fact I always write new pages spasmodically, in a desperate attempt to hold back the writing down of thoughts, ideas, and messages. I am actually a machine of destruction, a poisoner of language, a conspirator who wants to thrust a dagger into his own breast. (Why dagger, someone asks, why not a sword? Because the dagger, I answer, forces on to approach the victim very closely and, if one dares, to look into his eyes.)

(David Albahari)

Although I prefer to hear music alone, for listening with someone else is always part of a complicated plan or experiment, today there was no problem as we listened to the CDs of “Combustication.” (…)

Stillness. Just pure listening. Even without tapping a foot in simple, even rhythm. That is (Handke’s) “pure feeling.” To paint oneself in the face of the other; or the painting of the other in one’s own face; or all that at once. . . .

(Žarko Radaković)

For Žarko, moments in common, common experiences are extraordinarily important because they can be a foundation or inspiration or stimulus for new events, for new confrontations with oneself and with one’s own artistic work, with everything, then, what one is or is not. Especially with what one is not. . . .

(David Albahari)

Since David Albahari and I have given in to the “adventure” of writing about the experience of music, the “logic” of writing as the transfer of “experience” into a text has become more clear to me: the recognition that writing is a balancing act between the direct and the artificial experience of the world. . . .

(Žarko Radaković)

But Žarko couldn’t come!

I put off the conversation about marijuana and its influence on health for another time. In the club where the reggae band “Groundation” was appearing, there was a distinct scent of grass, although smoking was forbidden. . . .

Put simply, she said, she felt like another person, as if she were reborn, as if she were seeing the world with better eyes and a more discerning eye. And I though, who knows what Žarko would have experienced in her place.

But Žarko couldn’t come!

Unfortunate, oh, how unfortunate!

(David Albahari)

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better painter / worse artist

Years ago I reviewed an exhibition of works on paper and birch by Alex Caldiero. It was an extraordinary exhibit. I ended the review with the statement that “if Caldiero were a better painter he would be a worse artist.”

Open, inventive, searching, and a bit raw, his work moved me like no contemporary painter.

Today, in the German newspaper Die Zeit, just days before he will accept the Norwegian International Drama Prize, Peter Handke said that “ein Künstler dürfe auf keinen Fall ein Könner sein, Kunst bestehe gerade darin, das zu tun, was man nicht könne” / “in no case can an artist be be skilled, art is a matter of working without skill.”

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some part of a day I had rued

Blue and I look up from our walk along the ridge to see vultures hanging over us, sixteen of them rising in circles on a thermal. As serenely as birds rising on a thermal they circle over us.

One breaks the circle sharply, swerves at another, they engage, they separate.

The upward circling continues. One bird is only half the size of the others. Half the size and paler. Mottled brown.

Upward they circle, black vultures and a sharp-shinned hawk, circle warily now until the fifteen vultures slip as one out of the thermal, slide across the valley to the north, leave the one to rise alone and sharp-shinned against the white and gibbous moon to the west.

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Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary: The Book in and of Itself

In the mail today, the second volume of our set. Feels good to hold it in my hands. Both covers with drawings by Nina Pops.


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PRESENTING ABSENCE: New Work by Alex Caldiero

Alex recently gave me three new works:


The one with the black cover has no title. Inside the cover is a single sheet of paper, folded so there are four pages. Other than a note of copyright, there is only one page with text (the scan doesn’t reproduce the mottled whiteness of the paper or the beautiful fading from line to line):


It turns out that words empty of the physical world empty the physical world and empty us. It’s a brilliant sequence, I think. Words are physical. The flesh is made word. The good book has it backward.

Alex’s “METANYMS” are poems that begin with a word and then progress from synonym to synonym until they arrive at a word of quite a different color. “truth,” for instance, wanders from “fact” to “gospel” to “openness” to “reveal” [a Heideggerian thought] to “stretch” to “range” to “fluctuate” to “wander.” Truth is a mobile army of metaphors, Nietzsche argued. Alex performs that thought in an elegantly thin little book in which four metanyms are beautifully arrayed on long pages.

Wet Mouth.8, the longest of these three, has an epigraph from the Tao Teh Ching:

The hidden and the manifest / give birth to each other.

A “Post-Preface” tells readers that “this is the 8th version of Wet Mouth. Each version gave birth to a succeeding one. The spacing and the punctuations hanging in mid air refer to words and grammatical functions from previous versions.”

In other words, what has been excised from successive versions remains present as absence. The result—poems that fight for meaning, that investigate language, that perform what they say—is dreamlike:


     first, words were                         ways to keep

silent before images

          not unlike a life          a breath

          to give to the air

                                         my last as a

conscious being who could choose and decide

                                  as nothing else

could              or else be quiet which is best which is best


Perhaps, I think as I read Alex’s poems, all our texts are arrangements of words about which we have forgotten that meaning and meaningless are not opposites. Wakefulness may well be simple forgetfulness of the substance of our dreams. Pre-sence and ab-sence are both sence-ual.

Part v. of Wet Mouth.8 is two pages long. The two poems follow the title


v. Mute knowledge






[page break]



you wouldnt believe your hands.


Nor, I am tempted to say, do I believe this book. Rather: I wander through it, it opens me, I kiss it deeply, I devour it, I shit it out and read my excrement. My profound absence is made present. My presence is hidden. My mind is my body. I sing this book as a hymn to the night: Wet Mouth.9


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We had the septic tank pumped this morning.



It reminded me of thoughts about family and language:

. . . Did John grow up with the same childish misunderstanding I had of our mother’s word “bee-em,” unaware that it was an abbreviation for bowel movement? We heard the word long before we could spell.

In his French mountain village, John Berger refuses to abstract: “A week ago I cleared out and buried the year’s shit. The shit of my family and of friends who visit us. . . .”

“Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit,” according to Milan Kundera.

Steven Epperson, graduated from Temple and then a curator for the Church Museum of Art and History, worked on an exhibit on the Salt Lake Temple. He and his colleagues wanted to display the blueprints used to construct the building. Church authorities granted permission only on the condition that all toilets and plumbing be whited out.

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Charles Bowden

is dead. So report my friends Scott Carrier and Alex Caldiero this morning. Bowden died in bed of a flu-like illness. No one in the world wrote like him. His work scorches your eyes, scalds your soul. I have reviewed a couple of his books. HERE my review of his collaboration with artist Alice Leora Briggs and the book designer Kelly Leslie, originally published in The Bloomsbury Review. A drawing of Bowden by Briggs gets at the bookish and irascible and unrelentingly curious nature of the man: Bowdendrawing And, below, my thoughts on a book by Bowden and Michael Berman (published originally in Catalyst Magazine, November 2006):

inferno by Charles Bowden,

photographs by Michael P. Berman,

University of Texas Press, 2006

“Supposing truth to be a woman – ” Nietzsche wrote at the beginning of Beyond Good and Evil; “what did philosophers, at least the dogmatic ones, know about women? Weren’t the ghastly seriousness and the awkward thrusting with which they have always approached truth unimaginative and unseemly tools to win, of all things, a woman?”

inferno, Charles Bowden’s new book (with striking black-and-white photos by Michael Berman, and with an exquisite design that values print as it does image) knows all about truth being a woman. The book’s sometimes hallucinatory, often contradictory, and always white-hot prose is a supple and sensuous organ of seduction. The woman in question is a patch of Arizona desert, and this woman too has had relations with William Jefferson Clinton, who, as one of his last acts as President, in response to lobbying by Bowden and others, established the Sonoran Desert National Monument.

So Bowden now sits “on the ground of a great desert. . . . I’ve come here because this place has always worked for me and has forced me to surrender the buzz of my ideas and taste the limits of my power.” In the hours before dawn, sipping a cup of espresso made on a little camp stove, Bowden chases thoughts and memories with the exquisitely bitter coffee and his fierce, rampant desire to live outside his mind:

Or I should have been a dog. . . the eyes bold, the manner cunning, running up the wash, running for miles, slipping under the barbed wire, dodging the mesquite, the cholla, the prickly pear, snorting down the books written in the air, eyes cocked for danger, nose alive to the noise of scent, the muscles toned and pulsing, lungs gulping air, feet hard and taking the rocks with ease, a blur moving through the tall grass by the washes, weaving in and out of the bottom land, hawks in the sky, idling, noting the passage, coyotes wary but alert to an opportunity, in sync with everything as the sun falls down, wary of snakes, eager for the miles, and then suddenly at the door of a house where I lived edging the great desert.

“Or the snakes,” he writes, “unblinking, watching and ever so good at waiting. I see them as a door into the miasma and the messy smear . . . where I want to go. . . . Inside, I want inside, toss the guidebooks, to hell with the anatomical detail . . . take me inside to the place I cannot find inside myself, at least not often or easily . . . the place where unconscious and conscious cease to have meaning.” He thinks/tastes/smells his way inside badgers and owls, hummingbirds and bighorn sheep, back into dogs: “into that miasma, the same one within me, the place inside the cells, the place hidden inside the word mind, the thing flowing through the nostrils of a dog sucking in the literature of a wet spot and reading millions of years of life in a flash.”

Wine and sex and drugs and the tiny cup of hot espresso keep Bowden’s mind at bay, keep him focused on the woman who is the desert: “I think that is why I hate nature writing. . . . Hate it because it seeks a throb, a big moment, a chamber of time full of meaning and narrative and song and story and fails to know the scraping of the shoes on the bumpy ground. . . . because all it is or ever can be is what flows into my eyes and nostrils and across the blank sheet of the place where my mind once festered.” “I also worry,” he writes, “that people with a deep interest in the natural world seem to lack a deep interest in burlesque, makeup, high heels and the Kamasutra. . . .”

And here the crux of Bowden’s approach to the desert, to the woman: APPETITE. The appetite to possess is killing the world (seen in an amazing, contradictory portrait of a Mexican truck driver preparing lines of cocaine and a 12-pack of Tecate beer for a quick 1000-mile haul of consumer goods). Yet only appetite, animal appetite, is the truth of the desert (and in the Mexican’s appetites Bowden finds his own). “What if,” he asks, “when we get out here on the hot ground in the August night, we discover that this is the way it should be but cannot be for our kind. And that is the very reason we must preserve it – not for beauty, biology or God and country, but so that we can always know the place we dream of being, the place we cannot belong. The place for our yearning.”

“You want to live ‘according to nature’?” Nietzsche asks in Beyond Good and Evil. “You noble Stoics, what a fraudulent use of words! Consider a being like nature, profligate beyond counting, absolutely indifferent, aimless, merciless, without pity and justice, simultaneously fecund and desolate and uncertain, consider indifference itself as power – how could you live according to this indifference? Living – isn’t that simply the desire to be other than this nature? . . . Your pride wants to force your morals, your ideas onto nature; you demand that nature be ‘nature according to the Stoics. . . .’”

Bowden’s nature (and yes, he’s aware that it is “his nature”) is anything but. . . .

Scott Carrier talked with Bowden a couple of weeks ago for a profile he was writing for The High Country News. Watch for it.  Bowden was working on a book with Briggs when he died. He emailed me a year or so ago from Louisiana that it was going to be about red wine and birds. So there will be last new words, wild and scorching words. And the old words can be revisited in an elegiac mood.

No, elegiac is not strong enough. Charles Bowden never spoke an elegiac word in his life. I’ll read now with eyes avid for what Alex calls “the food that fits the hunger.” No one wrote like Charles Bowden. . . .

p.s. Lyn, my partner, a professor of history at UVU, once left Bowden hanging at the Salt Lake airport when she misread the flight plan. Scott Carrier rescued him and we found them drinking happily at a restaurant. Lyn feels the weight of his loss this morning, her memory taking her to an email exchange she had with him about hummingbirds (Bowden knew birds!). She would have, I suspect, left me in an instant to follow that brilliant and handsome man.

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Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary

Zarko’s and my book Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary has been published. It’s available at punctum books. For more about the books and the authors, including photos from the trips the books chronicle, click HERE.

The cover:

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00014]

[click on image for a larger version]

The new book is the companion volume to our Repetitions, published last year.


I like to think of the two books together under the rubric “DoubleVision”:

two books about travel in the former Yugoslavia (and the American West),

two books separated by a civil war,

two books written in two voices (or, given the passage of years between them, in two early voices and two late voices),

two books that circle and recircle the works and person of Peter Handke.


Here’s what the books looked like in their original Serbian versions:


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Morning Clouds


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[click photo for larger image]

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