The World’s Most Perfect Obituary

Brooke Williams has just reviewed my Immortal for Quite Some Time for Salt Lake’s 15 Bytes. The review begins with these paragraphs:

The first thing I read on opening Scott Abbott’s Immortal for Quite Some Time was that “This is not a memoir.” I agree. This book is, in my opinion, the world’s most perfect obituary. I’ve been reading them in the newspaper since my mother’s death in 1994, when I realized that most of the people at her funeral had learned that she’d passed by reading her obituary.

Obituaries come in many forms. The long-winded list of an old person’s accomplishments along with his/her progeny; the death notice, spare and sparse with a funeral invitation; the personal note, written by the deceased prior to being deceased; and what I call “the treasure hunt,” a frustrating communique full of carefully crafted clues to a much larger story, intended to help those still living.

I say “treasure” because I believe that everyone has a unique story, which when told well becomes a universal story from which anyone can learn. I say “hunt” because to find the story the reader must fill in the vast and empty spaces between the clues.

And then, there are those obituaries suggesting that the deceased has unfinished business. These days the quantum physicists say that we don’t “end” when we die but go on to occupy another, possibly parallel universe. We can either believe that this is possible or not. I happen to believe it, based on personal experiences for which no other reasonable explanation exists.

Scott Abbott’s obituary for his brother John, who died of AIDS on July 21, 1991, may fall into the “treasure hunt” category except that the number of clues contained in its 256 pages leave, at least for this reader, little unfilled space. It is not frustrating. It is beautiful.

The whole review HERE.

Reviewing is a difficult task, which makes me doubly grateful for Brooke’s thoughtfulness.

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Clouds

A sequence of photos taken yesterday give a sense for the changing sky.

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When Non-Readers Review

After the New York Review of Books published an aggressively idiotic review of The Moravian Night, I sent a letter to the editor. It has been ignored.

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So I publish it here.

 

29 January 2017

Dear Editor,

Adam Kirsch’s review of Peter Handke’s “The Moravian Night” (like Joshua Cohen’s review of the novel in The New York Times) rightfully relates it to Handke’s previous work set in the former Yugoslavia, but (like Cohen) Kirsch is so obsessed with reading through that lens that he pays scant attention to other aspects of the novel at hand.

 

Kirsch’s case against an author he describes as a self-righteous, obstinate, proud nationalist and as an anti-Semitic Serb lover leads him to misread a scene at a world convention of Jew’s harp players during which each musician plays his or her national anthem. Because he wants to brand Handke as a nationalist, Kirsch doesn’t quote the rest of section in which the performances of national anthems raise the protagonist’s ire: “abusing the jew’s-harp to play mendacious harmonies: that was impermissible”; the national anthems are a kind of “melodic demagoguery.”

 

Kirsch marshals his case with great certainty, claiming that Handke defends Austrians and Germans and Serbs as “great peoples” scorned by others for their war crimes. Because Handke works dialectically, critics like Kirsch easily find objectionable statements in his work. That they settle on the problematic statements without the dialectical context marks them as ideologues rather than readers. “Austria,” Handke once wrote of the land Kirsch claims he promotes at all costs, “the lard that chokes me.” Critics who don’t have the patience or capacity to read give me that same feeling.

 

Scott Abbott

Translator of Peter Handke’s Journey to the Rivers, Voyage by Dugout, and To Duration

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Walking the Body-Mind

Grateful to have an essay in the new issue of saltfront, sharing space with a beautiful poem by Heather Holland and a heartbreaking story by Larry Menlove. See their website HERE

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Daily Dose of Immortality

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Good morning Terry,
sunny here on our mountain for the first time in days. And a quiet Sun-day morning to read your book. I read it front to back and then again back to front.

As you mentioned on facebook, our lives have followed some similar paths, most obviously those years growing up in Farmington. As I read I found other interesting parallels, most notably the mind/body problems instilled and hightened and exacerbated by our respective religions.

Your poems are rich with the beatitudes of darts and back seats and Hollywood sexpots and Victorian women and mixed-blood heavens and even V-shaped Dharma—and all that in the context of the anti-beatitudes that would destroy them.

The poems feel good to me with their surprise enjambements (. . . who wants him / to see her . . .) and repetitive explorations (those progressive Calvin poems) and experiences from selling shoes to embalming to full-throated cars to systematic theology (I once had a class from one of Paul Tillich’s students who loved to repeat his words in his accent . . . Zee ground und abyss of beingk) to preaching (reminded me of Jim Casey in The Grapes of Wrath who could call up the Sperit and then the women would want to fuck him) to (not) playing in the dance band and to love (In the Shape of a Woman ripped my heart out and replaced it with a better model).

I too write about religion and lust, breasts and Sunday School, desire and faith, Navajo accounts of Shiprock, work (in my case as a roughneck), morticians (first chapter called Autopsy), religious education (BYU), love and lost love, and even Dharma, at least that Dharma bum Gary Snyder.

I’ll end here with a heartfelt thanks for the precision and passion of your poems and with the beginning of the Snyder chapter.
warmly,
Scott
11 November 2012
I went into the LDS Third Ward in Farmington, New Mexico. I could not tuck my long hair up under a cap as poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder did when he “went into the Maverick Bar / In Farmington, New Mexico.” I had no earring to leave in the car. I didn’t drink double shots of bourbon backed with beer (although my traveling bag held a flask of lowland single-malt in case of emergency). Unlike Snyder, I had an escort, an old friend who explained where I was from. Instead of “We don’t smoke Marijuana in Muskokie,” the organist played “For the Beauty of the Earth.” There was no dancing. Otherwise my experience was exactly like Snyder’s.
Snyder was in the Four-Corners area to protest the rape of Black Mesa, holy to Hopis and Navajos, black with coal. The corporations prevailed and the coal was strip-mined and slurried away with precious desert water. Coal smoke from various power plants, including the one in whose warehouse I worked the summer after high school, so thoroughly fouls the air of these high, wild, open spaces that on Thursday, driving from Cortez to Shiprock, the dramatic volcanic core that lends the town its name was more clearly visible in memory than in actual fact. I had returned home to revisit my past, John’s past, both of our histories veiled by time and distorted by intent.
Nearly four decades since I last attended church in my hometown, more than a decade since I left the Mormon Church, twenty years since I began writing after John’s death, a week after Barack Obama was elected to a second term, I went into the LDS Third Ward in Farmington, New Mexico.

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Intellectual Arithmetic

My dad was a school teacher (vocational agriculture at first, then science and math for 7th grade). He became a Junior High principal and collected a few pedagogical chestnuts like this 1849 volume:

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Lest the inexperienced teacher lack the necessary pedagogical skills, the author offers suggestions:

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As a teacher with decades of experience but still anxious to improve, I shall henceforth assign questions promiscuously, shall require that my students’ answers “be rigidly accurate, as to construction and articulation,” and shall substantially increase the number of italicized words in my own work unless entirely prohibited.

Finally, it should be noted that even in 1849, 100 years before my birth, the better schools were practicing alternative American math in place of the European or Arabic or Chinese versions.

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Daily Dose of Immortality

From Walter Jens’ history of the University of Tübingen: “In 1810 a student reported to the dean that a fellow student had saved him from drowning. The majority of the University Senate voted to award the Samaritan, but Chancellor Autenrieth refused: first, he stated, one must know what risk was involved; for given no risk the rescue was to be expected, ‘even if the object of the rescue was a foreigner.’”

[from Immortal for Quite Some Time]

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Alexander von Humboldt in his library in Berlin

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Jazz for a Wintery Day

My son Tom makes his living in and around New York City with his clarinet and saxophones. Here’s a good recording of him with Baby Soda, a group of musicians devoted to jazz from early New Orleans.

 

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Review of Immortal for Quite Some Time by Steve Peck

Steve posted these thoughts on Goodreads and on Amazon:

Scott Abbott’s book was devastating. Its fearless reflections and meditations on his life and his brother, held a mirror to my own. The work left me with numerous questions about how I have lived, about the choices I’ve made, the perspective’s I’ve taken up and abandoned, and about my relationships with my own family and friends and institutions. This is powerful stuff. It is beautiful and sad. Potent in its confrontation with vulnerability. Rich in evocations. I want to say I could not put it down, because it has that force, but I had to again and again to deal with the resonate emotions it drew from me and that demanded confrontation. Read this book. You won’t be sorry. This is a magnificent memoir—unique, compelling, hopeful, funny, healing, and as I said, devastating. Or then again maybe you will sorry because it drills into hidden nerves over and over and doesn’t offer simple patches or novocaine to ease the lesions.

I’m glad he also saw it as hopeful, funny, and healing.

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Daily Dose of Immortality

Can you do math? It’s a yes-or-no question. Give me the courtesy of a straight answer to my simple question.

Yes.

Try this then. There were three people who checked into a hotel room that cost thirty dollars a night. Each one paid ten dollars. The clerk later figured out he had made a mistake and that it was a twenty-five-dollar room. He sent a bellboy up with five dollars in ones. The bellboy gave each of them a dollar back and kept two dollars as a tip. Each had originally paid ten dollars, and now with one back they had each paid nine dollars for the room. Three times nine is twenty-seven. That leaves three dollars from the original thirty. The bellboy kept two. How do you account mathematically for the missing dollar?

I don’t know.

If that’s how you do bookkeeping, they’d rob you blind.

[from Immortal for Quite Some Time]

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