A Photo of Clouds Is Almost a Crime

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Bertolt Brecht’s An die Nachgeborenen, first published in 1939

To Those Who Follow

It’s true, I live in dark times!

. . .

What times are these when

A photo of clouds is almost a crime

Because it entails silence in the face of so many misdeeds!

. . .

I joined others in the age of turmoil

And with them I was outraged.

. . .

I ate between battles

Lay down to sleep among murderers

Made love thoughtlessly

And viewed nature without patience.

. . .

There was little I could do. But the rulers

Were more secure when I was gone, that was my hope.

. . .

Wirklich, ich lebe in finsteren Zeiten!. . .

Was sind das für Zeiten, wo
Ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist
Weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!. . .

In die Städte kam ich zu der Zeit der Unordnung
Als da Hunger herrschte.
Unter die Menschen kam ich zu der Zeit des Aufruhrs
Und ich empörte mich mit ihnen. . .

Mein Essen aß ich zwischen den Schlachten
Schlafen legt ich mich unter die Mörder
Der Liebe pflegte ich achtlos
Und die Natur sah ich ohne Geduld. . .

Ich vermochte nur wenig. Aber die Herrschenden
Saßen ohne mich sicherer, das hoffte ich. . .
. . . a conversation about trees (1939)

. . . a photo of clouds (2017)

. . . my translation

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The Foot of Don Juan de Oñate

The man who cut off the foot of the Don Juan de Oñate statue in Alcade, New Mexico 20 years ago has come forth with the booty ( pun intended).

Today the New York Times is reporting that the man it calls the “foot abductor” approached filmmaker Cris Eyre in Santa Fe with a note. Eyre arranged for the Times reporter to meet the man the Times call “the thief.”

Here is a photo of the separated foot and its spur (itself cut away from the boot).

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I’m obsessed with the idea of standing that the severed foot represents. A couple of years ago I was in Berlin standing in front of this painting by Botticelli.

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When I found myself bent over the bottom of the painting, ignoring the beautiful woman to look at the feet,

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trying to see where the weight was placed, how the foot related to the stone base, how the knees were bent or not bent, how the second toes were longer than the first ones, how the arch revealed a shadow below a slight hump reaching from the ankle, how the big toe of the right foot was bent from the pressure of standing – I knew I was obsessed.

Standing, what does it mean to stand? Most simply, as Hans Blumenberg writes,

“Standing is not falling down.”

Schopenhauer doubles down on this when he compares standing to living and sees both as an ongoing battle against entropy or against inevitably increasing disorder:

“. . . just as we know our walking to be only a constantly prevented falling, so is the life of our body only a constantly prevented dying, an ever-deferred death.”

Preventing falling, deferring death is more difficult if you are living in the Acoma Pueblo in 1680 and Don Juan de Oñate kills 800 of you, sends dozens of Acoma girls to convents in Mexico City, sentences adolescents to decades of servitude, and cuts one foot of of each of 24 Acoma men.

Cutting off the foot of the Don Juan de Oñate statue 4 centuries later feels like a good act to me, a symbolic pedestrian political statement. And these days it has the context of the NFL and other players who kneel rather than stand for the National Anthem that represents, for them and for me, a country in which black men are routinely killed by police. I’ll add that were I in a place where I could kneel for the National Anthem, I would also kneel in protest of the present income inequality that faces a substantial new boost with the Trumpista Republicans’ proposed tax relief for the rich.

You stand in protest unless standing is the required norm and then you kneel in protest.

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Hommage à John Ashbery

I’ve been working on the standing metaphor in John Ashbery’s “The New Spirit” (from his Three Poems).

Now we get word that Ashbery has passed on. His poetry remains like an old photograph to “. . . show the event. It makes sense to stand there, passing.”

“This is my happiness. To stand, to go forward into it. The cost is enormous. Too much for one life.”

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“Bucket of Tits”: A Labor Day Story from IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME

Combing my hair after a shower, I finger a thick scar on my forehead and remember a summer’s night on a drilling site between cotton fields outside Eloy, Arizona.

A pump had lost pressure because of worn gaskets, and we were replacing them. Sweat burned my eyes and dripped off my nose and chin as I wielded a thirty-six-inch pipe wrench to back out a heavy steel shaft. The third time my hard hat slid off, I threw it aside, grateful for the slight breeze in my hair. An hour later, the gaskets replaced, the shafts screwed back into place, Rudy signaled for Howard to switch the pump back on line.

Scott! I heard someone say. Are you all right? I was lying on the ground with three faces hanging over me in the floodlit night. When I tried to sit up, my brain threatened another shutdown. Where’s your goddamned hard hat? Howard muttered. I put my hand to my head. It came away slick with blood.

On the way to the Casa Grande hospital, holding a wet rag to my head, I asked what happened. A brass fitting broke when I kicked in the compressed air, Howard said. It swung around on its hose and knocked you on your ass. The only time you’ve had your hat off in two months. With that kind of luck, if you fell into a bucket of tits you’d come up sucking your thumb.

A doctor cleaned me up, stitched the wound, and said he wanted to keep me there for observation. Howard asked to talk with me for a minute, and the doctor left. In two and a half more weeks, Howard explained, I’ll have enough accident-free hours with my crew to get a paid Caribbean vacation. If you check into the hospital or if you don’t show up to work tomorrow night, I’ll lose that.

The doctor returned, and I said I just wanted to go home. I can’t allow that, he said. You have a concussion. I asked if I could stay without checking in. The doctor spoke with a nurse, and she made a bed for me on a lobby couch. At the rig the next day, my hard hat teetered precariously on a fat bandage.

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“It was twenty years ago today . . .”: Celebrity and Immortality

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Paris, 30 August 1997

 

“Louis Quatorze est mort en . . . en . . . en . . .”

 

“Oui! Oui! Oui! Oui!, says the old man’s friend quickly, hoping to forestall a lecture.”

 

It is my last day in Paris, and I don’t yet know that Princes Diana will die tonight, so as I continue up the Rue des Abbess toward the Montmartre Cemetery I don’t think about her, but about the Sun King.

 

He died in 1715, I could have told the Frenchmen. Yesterday, in the Louvre, I wandered into a palace room hung with tapestries depicting “L’Histoire du Roi.” They were woven at the Gobelin works between 1667 and 1672, and thus necessarily dodge the question of the king’s death. Instead, the huge wall hangings glorify that celebrity of celebrities.

 

In the seventh of the series, for instance, the King sports high-heeled boots with satin bows. Courtiers stand amazed, mouths open. One of them adjusts a 17th-century pair of glasses to see the King in all his glory.

 

In another section of the Louvre, I again find Louis in high heels (red heels and red bows), this time in Rigaud’s portrait done in 1701. Revealed and framed by a drawn-back ermine cape, muscular legs encased in white stockings rise up from the shoes, powerful columns that announce this king’s steadfastness, his ongoing victory over the entropy that finally lays us all low.

 

I sit down in a little park and pull out Sam Levin’s photo of Brigitte Bardot, bought from a rack near Sacre Coeur. Bardot, also standing on high heels, has lifted her skirt to reveal legs as brilliant as the Sun King’s. She manifests a stylish verticality, an enduring youthful uprightness, celebrity in all its seductive power.

 

“She’s acting as if something were wrong with her bo-w-el,” says one thick-legged woman to another as they pass my bench.

 

“Paris,” writes Malte Laurids Brigge at the beginning of Rilke’s 1910 novel, “is a good place to die.” This morning I woke up in my claustrophobic hotel room thinking of that line, not yet knowing about the coming night and the paparazzi and the tunnel, and decided to spend the day in the Cimetiere Montmartre.

 

As I walk through the gate into the cemetery, it begins to rain lightly. A map hangs behind glass with a table of celebrities. Pasted over one full quarter of the map is a hand-written sign: FOR “JIM MORRISON” GO TO THE CEMETERY “PER LACHAIS.”

 

I read through the alphabetic table, taking notes on locations: Dumas: 21.3, Fourier: 23.2. Fragonard: 21.4. Bodies filed like books.

 

“Who was Jim Morrison?” asks a woman behind me. “A rock star,” answers an uninterested man.

 

My list complete, I set out to visit this cemetery’s famous inhabitants.

 

Heinrich Heine is first, that romantic and revolutionary German poet who wrote a workers’ poem so strong in its three-fold curse of those eternally recurring celebrities “God, King, and Fatherland” that simply possessing the poem was grounds for arrest in Prussia. A sappy bust on top of a square column, head reverently declined, eyes half-lidded; a cheesy harp with roses; and a sweet little poem about where will I be buried when I die: In Paris or Berlin? in the mountains or on a beach? buried by strangers or friends? no matter, the stars will still shine over me. Gag me with a spoon.

 

If monumental burial is intended to lend immortality, why are Herr and Frau Heine stretched out horizontally? Why not bury them upright in the square column. “Bury me standing,” the gypsy says, “I’ve spent my life on my knees.” Because, perhaps, after a lifetime of struggle we like the idea of resting, finally, in peace: Ici repose. . . .

 

Ici repose Hector Berlioz under a shiny black marble slab and a flamboyant bas-relief bust, buried with both Harriet Smithson and Marie Recio.

 

Ici repose Vaslav Nijinsky. Not much room in this stone box for a dancer. Two photos in a painted wooden frame leaned soggily against the headstone: One of Nijinsky as a young man in coat and tie, hair parted severely in the center, the other of the dancer with a white-painted face and the hat and ruffles of a clown.

 

Ici repose François Truffaut. Flat black marble with no headstone for the elegant filmmaker.

 

A gaudy grave meant for Èmile Zola and Mme Alexandrine Èmile Zola, sweeping curves of red marble framing a noble bust. But the activist author of “J’accuse” has been separated from Mme Alexandrine, a sign says, and now lies with other immortals in the Pantheon. Immortality. The word itself is hyperbole.

 

Ici repose Alexandre Dumas Fils. The novelist gets a marble bed with recumbent statue complete with poet’s laurels and a heavy roof held up by four columns. Someone, however, has made off with most of his left big toe and much of his nose. Even stone can’t ultimately withstand the ravages of time (or of the impious).

 

Charles Fourier, fantastic prophet of harmony and early 19th-century socialism (“magnificent denunciations of exploitation and sham in family, society, church, and state”), is memorialized by a slanting stone that acts as the final page of his book: “Les attractions sont proportionelles aux destinees.”

 

My favorite among these luminaries? Ici repose Louise WEBER, dite “La Goulue,” 1866-1929, creatrice du French Cancan.

 

The rain has let up. I decide to walk across town to the “PER LACHAIS.” If I could foresee Diana’s last words tonight, “My God, what’s happened!”, I would place her in Morrison’s context: superstar cut down in relative youth. But I can’t, so I search for the grave of the man who urged me, in my high-school years, to “break on through to the other side.”

 

This cemetery is too large for any kind of quick overview. The sign touched by too many reverent fingers is blank where the name “Jim Morrison” and the site address ought to be. “Oscar Wilde” and “Gertrude Stein” are only slightly more visible.

 

It’s late in the day. I’m tired. Diana is worrying about what to say when Dodi Fayed asks her to marry him tonight. I wander among monuments and empty little crypts. The rain begins again.

 

“JIM ➔” is scratched onto the mossy side of a crypt. I walk in the direction indicated by the arrow, guided by an increasing flood of colorful graffiti: “Jim Morrison ist unser Gott”; “”Jim, je t’aime”; “the doors”; “The 27 Club.”

 

In the middle of the path ahead of me stands a big man in uniform. He signals with his arm. He blows a whistle. He shouts “C’est fermé!” Closed. It’s 6 p.m.

 

So I see Jim Morrison’s much decorated grave only on the postcards for sale outside the gate. A year later I will hear on NPR that “his” lease is up. “Unser Gott” will have to find a new home.

 

By noon tomorrow I’ll be in Cologne, Germany, where my friends Žarko and Anne will break the news to me about the once and future celebrity Princess.

 

[Published in The Salt Lake Observer, 28 August 1998]

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Clouds

My friend and colleague Jenna Nigro alerted me to the fact (reported in The New York Times Magazine, July 23, 2017) that Elvis Presley, while driving some associates through Arizona, saw the face of Joseph Stalin in a cloud. That troubled him but “as he watched the cloud transformed into the smiling face of Christ.” He stopped the bus and “ran out into the desert weeping, in a state of profound spiritual exaltation.”

Tonight’s clouds have been varied. This one looks to me like the huge Trump Chicken that someone put on the White House lawn this week:

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That troubles me.

This one might lead to a state of profound spiritual exaltation in someone who sees a whirling Dervish in the center of more straightforward clouds:

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I’ll settle for profound awe at the forces of nature.

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Dental Saga: Part Two

On April 4, I went to the dentist for a root canal after intense pain all weekend. After 30 minutes of drilling and grinding the dentist stopped and sat me up and said he was having trouble finding one canal. I can find it, he said, but at this point i’m likely to destroy the tooth. He recommended pulling the tooth and inserting an implant. Okay, i said.

He had a horrible time pulling out the roots. He levered and drilled and kept calling for the pliers and then the lever and then the pliers and said he had never seen a tooth that wouldn’t come out like this one and my blood rose up the suction tube right in front of my eyes and he wanted the pliers again and he pulled and twisted and tugged and would of sworn if he weren’t Mormon but was surely swearing in his head and on and on and then hit a nerve under the abscess that had brought me in originally and for the 20th time shot more anesthetic into the area and took up the pliers again and . . . you get the picture.

Here’s what it looked like when he was done:

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He then put in a bone graft from a cadaver and stitched up the wound and I walked out in shock, chilled to the bone, and drove straight home.

That was part 1.

Today part 2.

The plan was to surgically implant a titanium screw:

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After the tooth removal, I was more leery of the dentist than usual. His assistant asked if I wanted laughing gas. I was about to say yes when the sound system started playing the Greatful Dead’s “Looks Like Rain” and by the end of the first verse

But I’ll still sing you love songs, written in the letter of your name.
The rain is gonna come, oh it surely looks like rain.

I was feeling just fine and declined the laughing gas.

The assistant left for a minute and I took a quick photo of the instruments on the table in front of me.

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That wasn’t reassuring.

The dentist came in and inserted his horse needle into both sides of my jaw and squirted and squirted the painkiller. This procedure won’t be nearly as bad as the last one, he said.

I had no reason to believe him.

He started drilling — a slow, head-rattling vibration, repeated three times with, I supposed, three different drills. He started screwing the implant into the hole with what seemed like an allen wrench. And then he was done.

Was that an allen wrench? I asked. A very expensive one, he answered.

$1350 was the bill.

Here’s what the jaw looks like now:

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Part 3 to come — several months from now.

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Alex Caldiero: Astrophysicist at Large

This morning I began reading a manuscript Alex gave me last week. He has been reproducing his notebooks, most recently the three-volume set from 2005: “It rains even on who’s wet.” I posted photos of several earlier reproductions here. This, however, is a book manuscript. It is called “PER-SONAL EFFECTS: sonosophy 2.” No-one writes titles like Alex.

I’m going to read the manuscript slowly, savoring its wit and wisdom. The first poem is a thrilling account of the effects of science on the poet:

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Žarko Radaković: Art Critic and Photographer

I wrote earlier about notebooks, specifically about the notebooks of Peter Handke, Žarko Radaković, and Alex Caldiero — three writers whose work I admire and for whose friendship I am grateful.

107 images cut from Handke’s notebooks — cut out by Handke himself — are currently on display at the Galerie Friese in Berlin. Žarko traveled there to see the exhibit and then wrote about it for Deutsche Welle, an essay that just appeared in Politika, Belgrade, as well. Žarko responds to the drawings as an additional creative genre for a man who writes plays and novels and fragments and makes films as well — and raises questions of art produced by untrained artists. I once reviewed an exhibition of Alex’s works and claimed that if he were a better artist his work would be less good. Handke, who recently won the Ibsen International Prize for Drama, claims he doesn’t know how to write plays. If he did, his work would less compelling. But back to the drawings.

When Žarko started looking at the drawings in the gallery, he found images he had already seen elsewhere, namely in Handke’s notebooks. He had not only seen them, he had taken photos of several of them.

These two photos, for instance, show the drawing as displayed in the gallery and then Handke as he does the drawing in a monastery in the Fruska Gora Mountains in northern Serbia:

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And this drawing of a shawl and cap left in a cafe in Paris as displayed in the gallery

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was in this notebook Žarko photographed.

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Žarko has traveled often with Peter. He has translated two dozen of his books. Someday he will write a book about Handke, as he has already done for the performance artist Era and for painter Julije Knifer. I look forward to that.

But first our third book, MI/WE/WIR. Žarko has written the first 40 pages. I’m almost done with my 40 pages. He will write the next 40 and I’ll finish the book with 40 more. Friendship is the theme. Our notebooks the sources.

. . . and a view of the exhibition in Berlin to emphasize the size of the drawings:

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Gravity is not just a good idea, it’s the law

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This last week I read Maximilian Werner’s Gravity Hill (University of Utah Press, 2013). I’m glad I did.

Although there are plenty of stories in the book about a young man growing up in Salt Lake City with other young people hungry for drugs and sex and courting dangers that are chilling and sometimes deadly, the book impressed me and will continue to engage me with its wisdom. At the time of writing the author/narrator is married and raising two children with all the care he failed to experience as a child. He knows what a family should not look like. He knows all parents are flawed and that many or even most still do what they can. He is clear about his own failings, determined to make good lives for his children.

Here an exemplary passage:

I cannot resist the presence of the past. But I try not to hang on to it, because if I did, it would be the end of me. I just let it flow over me like wind or something that cannot be held or kept.

The opposite is true with respect to my children. As much as I would sometimes like to do otherwise, I cannot let go. And maybe this will be enough to save us.

Another paragraph follows a description of advice his own mother gave him about things not to do before going to bed:

To my own list of things not to do before bed, which includes drinking a lot of water and eating a big meal, I would have to add deciding to put down my thirteen-year-old cat the next day. This last item has a corollary, which is how, in addition to dealing with my own feelings of loss, I am going to explain to my children the cat’s sudden and perpetual absence even as I hope they don’t realize that if the cat can disappear without notice, so can Kim and I.

He is going to lie, and he knows the lie better be good. For the good of the children.

A combination of the wild stories and the thoughtful parenting and perceptive descriptions of nature and language throughout that approaches poetry — all in the context of majority Mormon Salt Lake — made this a good book for me.

The thoughts about parents and parenting are troubling and comforting in ways that heighten my own hopes and worries as I think about my own roles in that regard.

In my own book, published three years later by the same press and the same good people as Werner’s, I describe parents who were present where Werner’s were absent, who gave us stability his did not. At our end of that spectrum, however, I experienced an orthodoxy and certainty and inflexibility that may have worked well for me, the first child, but that didn’t work so well for my gay brother.

And so when I lie awake at night, my worries are also about my children, about my abilities and disabilities as a parent, characteristics learned in part from my own parents. I am distant from my children in ways I don’t like, distance heightened by my decision to end the marriage while three of the children were still at home. That was a good decision and a bad decision, and in the night I mostly focus on the ways it was bad. Maximillian Werner’s book gives me comfort even as it unsettles me.

I’m grateful I read it.

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