Saturday, September 20, 2014

Right Under Their Noses

Right Under Their Noses

Way up on Colfax after a night at the baths, the bus won’t come.  I watch a very large black woman in sweatpants, her hair in a scarf, cross the street at the light and meet a young black man on a bicycle.  Off they go on a side street and eight minutes later they’re back.  If I could, just once in my life, leave the baths at a decent hour, there are regular buses and I wouldn’t have to wait around forever, staring down an empty Colfax, hoping the lights in the distance are the lights that I need.  

The young man on the bicycle pedals off past me now, muttering under his breath, high in one way or another.  The woman walks very slowly up to the bench where I’m sitting.  She’s got a bit of a saunter, a bit of a limp.  When she gets to the bench she lets herself down slowly and says to me, “Can I ask you a question and you are going to be brutally honest with me?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I say.

“Do you think, if I go back home and change clothes and put down my long pretty hair that I can still go and sell it downtown?”

“With a spirit like yours?  I reckon you’re unstoppable.”  This isn’t sarcasm.  I’m earnest.  I’m so earnest people think I’m sarcastic, but I’m actually not.  Then I explain that maybe my opinion isn’t worth much, since I am not within the target audience.

She vetoes that idea immediately.  “Oh, no.  You are exactly who I want to talk to.  Someone with style.”  Then she decides that, even though she is still hot enough, she’s still going to stay where she’s at, this stretch between Monaco and the liquor store, because she likes it here.

“I love Colfax,” she says.  “I had my heyday on Colfax.  But that was maybe twenty years ago now.”

“Exactly the same as me!” I say.  Now we acknowledge each other as close personal friends.  Our heyday may have been twenty years ago, but we still got it, you bet your socks we do.

Her name is Jessica and she works this stretch of road most nights, little quiet but she likes it, doesn’t want all the circus and competition of being out on Havana.  She’s been on a bender real bad, gained a hundred pounds, she’s a mean bitch on gin and she doesn’t claim otherwise.

Tonight hasn’t been a good night but usually she does well.  “And the kids like me!  Twenny, twenny five.  They like thick girls.  They high on somethin’, they want mamma to comfort them and then some.”

One problem she has is that, while she has plenty of customers, her customers don’t have near enough money.  “They can pay with drugs, but I need some bread besides.  Always a little bread.  Gin’s still the best thing for me and gin costs bread.”

I say, “Excuse me, can I ask a personal question?”  She says I can.

“What do you do with the guys who don’t have cars?  Like that guy just now on the bicycle.  Where do you go?”

Jessica says, “The thing is to do it right under their noses.  Don’t creep off and hide.  Cops come looking for you.  You do it right under their noses.  Right under their noses they don’t look!”

She points to the cars on the used car lot.  “See all them cars?  Not all of them is locked.  Easy to use.  A little danger makes the prick hard.  If they be quick about it, so much the better.”   

Jessica explains a bit of her philosophy.  “I make ‘em pay for everything.  These kids got money.  Why should I pay for the condom?  I had one man the other day, he had drugs in every pocket and so many hunnerd dollar bills I couldn’t count ‘em all.  And I know why he likes thick girls.  Man got a dick like a telephone pole.  ‘Course he want me to be impressed or something but surprise, surprise, what I like is normal.”  She points to a place at the top of her neck.  “This far is far enough.  It aint got to go no farther than that.”

By now we can finally see the bus in the distance, the lights that are finally the lights of the bus.  We swear eternal friendship, we promise each other that we still got it, how could anyone not love us, since we are so overwhelmingly lovable and hot besides?

The bus arrives.  I’m getting on.  She’s not.  “My name is Sarah,” she says.  And shakes my hand.

How to Ruin a Day

How to Ruin a Day

A ruined day’s a grueling march, a slog with glass in both feet, a torture I look back on and say, “Wait.  Today was actually fine.  No tragedies, no emergencies, not even any major hassles.  No lasting harm, no serious losses.  Even the weather was good.  No real trouble except that I had to keep poking the day with a stick, poking and poking till the day and I both bled.

A ruined day is not a bad day.  Bad days just happen, from time to time or very often, as you already know.  For example, if you find out your beloved aunt died a month before, but you didn’t matter enough for anyone to tell you, and now the only person around to comfort you is your estranged husband’s new boyfriend.  That is a bad day.

Bad days are fairly straight-forward.  Basically you just have to survive and avoid biting, screaming and crying, as well as suicide and homicide, life’s two great temptations.  A bad day is not your fault.  Grace is indicative of spiritual muscle, but even if you cuss and wail, nobody really blames you.

Whereas, a ruined day is a perfectly good day I went ahead and spoiled, spat on and stomped to death.  Because (for example) today was the day I decided to become successful -- spiritually, practically, and in bed.

Dammit, even after it was clear I’d never be a pragmatic winner, even after it was very obvious that I was toast of nothing, I had to keep hammering away at the “in bed” part.  I couldn’t have just gone to the Peach Festival.  I couldn’t have just watched the squirrels.  Oh, no -- I had to be a winner in, you know, all the ways I decided I had to be -- in a profoundly spiritual way, and also for the good of all mankind and also like a porn star, you know, overall.  Pope Francis with a ten inch penis and, if that wasn’t the way it worked out, well, I was going to war.

I ruined a day.  There was nothing wrong with the day, but I ruined it.  And I’m not even talking about an plodding, employed, citified, file-cabinet-kind-of-a-day, but a truly first-rate day -- with trees, squirrels, cats, cherry juice -- to say nothing of the Peach Festival, which I missed.  I could have just eaten peaches but, no, I had to be somebody,  and I had to be somebody today.

It’s a very terrible thing to ruin a day.  Like a dog it just looks back at you mournfully, as if to ask how you could ever possibly do such a thing to such a perfectly good dog of a day.  It’s inexcusable, it’s excruciating.  I mean, seriously, how many green-leafed, idle, pain-free, fully-abled days could possibly be left?  I ruined one.  I couldn’t let it be.  I had to make it something.  Like a parent who vetoes every outfit the kid wants to wear, until finally the kid bursts into tears and shouts, Never mind!  I’ll stay home!, goes into her room and slams the door so hard the whole house shakes.

It’s a terrible thing, to ruin a day.  I must learn to let the day be.

Friday, September 12, 2014

What Makes Use

What Makes Use

What interests me most is whatever it is that immediately sets about making use of everything.  That which uses everything, even shame.

If I had not been ashamed I would still have left the house in order. But, to be honest, if I hadn’t been acutely self-nauseated from three hours of porn the night previous, I would not have crawled beneath the counter to scrub the baseboards, nor washed the fire extinguisher, nor scoured the cats’ dishes -- and those things really did need to be done.

If I’d woken up clear-headed and on time, with a heart like a meadow instead of a swamp, what would I have done?  I might have written a real story, with setting and plot and (gasp) other people, all in the style of Raymond Carver, with nods toward the other men of my generation making strides in fiction, all of whom are also named Jonathan.

As a heart like a meadow wasn’t really an option, not this morning, not generally, the fire extinguisher was made immaculate.

I am a person who is interested in everything, not as everything, but only as one very small thing at a time.  And above all I am interested in what makes use of everything.  A kind of relentless undercurrent, all the time making use, making use.  I stop just shy of the word benevolent.  Because it appears to be beyond human scale, that all- the-time streaming attention, that which makes use.

If I can’t say what it is -- what’s it like?  Like an all-encompassing, stop-at-nothing version of those mad cooking shows people love nowadays.  Here is a persimmon, brown bread in a can, freshly chopped chives, cauliflower, white eggplant, cocoa powder, two Toulouse goose eggs, corn tortillas and an abundance of tripe.  Please create a family-friendly entree and appetizer!  You have use of a professional kitchen.  The lights are surgically bright.  The panel of experts will do nothing but gasp and wince at your every move.  You have twenty minutes!  Have a good time!  Everyone is waiting for something delicious.  (Everyone hates tripe.)

Here is a middle-aged man with one leg, promising (formerly) except that he chose (as most men choose) the wrong person to believe.  At ease in ten countries and at home in none, with three areas of education (all equally unprofitable) and three venues of toxic habit (all equally ruinous), few human connections, an unpleasant personality and bad teeth -- now please, get a life!

The light is bright, the clock ticking, the experts wincing.  It is reasonable, sensible and true to say, “There is nothing that can be done with persimmons and tripe”.  We can say that and we do say it.  We say it and say it.  We may even sit for awhile, immobile on the floor of the kitchen, glaring at the studio audience.  It’s UNFAIR.  What sadistic chef could have selected such preposterous and doomed ingredients?

And yet.  All the time beneath the refusal, mine and yours, something is setting out, getting to work, making use -- even as you issue a formal statement to say absolutely not, under no circumstances.  It is unstoppable.  Something is all the time making use.  Making use of everything and anything.  Even making use of you, you and your ludicrous circumstances.

Something is forever making use.  Collaborating instinctively with what is here.  The plane hits turbulence and the mother of four says, “Wheee!  A roller coaster!”  Poets in Portland write poems about rain.  Parents of direly ill children become instantaneous specialists.  Zucchini pickles.  Solar power.  Yet it is more than necessity, much more than common sense.  What is it that puts limitation to such good use, what puts misery to work?

This force is everywhere at work, though perhaps it is unusually apparent in my case, devoted as I am to making art which consists solely of Dumb Things I’ve Done Recently.  On the very off-chance there is ever a Selected Works, people will be able to pick it up, shake their heads in wonder and exclaim, And it’s all made of trash!

Sulphur-fuelled living fossils lurking in the deepest ocean trench, Russian thistle on the overpass, it’s non-stop inspired improv.  A force is relentlessly making use of me and all my nonsense, making use even of the addictions, the nightmares and waiting in line.  It is not at all clear when it is all being used for.  (Though I’m pretty clear it’s not a family-friendly entree.)

What makes use?  There’s a force, not exactly a force, a something, though of course it’s not actually a thing.  It’s not interested in my comfort, it’s sure as hell not interested in making me look good, though it’s certainly willing to string me along, even rescue me, from time to time, in ways that aren’t strictly speaking believable.  

Something is always plotting, even when it’s nuts, stupid, impossible, ridiculous or too late.  There’s no way to stop it because,  whatever you do, it makes use of it.  Like an incorrigible lech, trimming his toenails at the age of 99, noting that the lady across the hall isn’t half bad-looking, not for a centenarian.  

What is it?  What is all the time making use?  I can’t say what it is. I can say what it isn’t.  It’s not a Republican engineer all the time mining the resources.  It isn’t practical or pragmatic, it isn’t regimented or capitalist.  It isn’t prudent.  If anything it’s profligate, making use of everything all the time, betting on everything with everything, like a fish that lays a thousand eggs and not one survives, then the next moment comes, with another thousand eggs.

It’s quite crazed really, Kolkata at rush hour, the very definition of stopping at nothing, or, as my father-in-law would say, throwing money after nothing.  It’s useless, it’s pointless (or use and point cannot be found and held) it’s gorgeous (if you’re not wedded to the family-friendly entree) and it’s actually more than slightly exciting -- IF you can accept that you are not in charge and this ain’t gonna be your non-stop coronation, the rich Dutch ladies all appeased, the toxic cousins looking pleased.

And it’s not about being good.  (It’s not about being bad either.)  This ain’t the Pilgrim’s Progress.  Being good is often just an imposition.  (I’m going to make my life something my mother likes to eat!)  Being good with all its incessant lists.  “From now on I’m going to be good.  For breakfast, only juice, followed by cardio, selfless service at work, clean up the credit rating, orthodontia research, family time”.  It is no wonder really that one more or less immediately decides, “You know what would really make this juice delicious?  Vodka!

As for the cooking show, I am tempted to put the chives on the eggplant and present the other items individually with simple condiments.  That’s not how it’s supposed to be, of course.  (What makes use is not what makes supposed to be.) 

Each item on small white plate.  How to disguise tripe?  I reckon you must let the tripe be the tripe.  The experts of course will disapprove.  That is their job.  But if you used nice plates, assorted drizzles and insisted, with your full authority, that it was all an example of French naturalism, I reckon you might get away with it.

You might get away with it.  You might not.  Whether you did or you didn’t, something would make use of the success or the failure, that which is all the time making use of lazy days and bad politicians, of eggplant and cocoa powder, of us.  

This moment’s predicament becomes the ingredient for whatever comes next, for that which is relentless and non-stop, neither benevolent nor heedless, neither pragmatic, infernal nor virtuous.  No time or chance for positive identifications of that which is all the time making use, making use, making use.

Monday, September 08, 2014

A Plea for "An Inagaki Taruho Reader".

Inagaki Taruho, One Thousand and One-Second Stories Translated by Tricia Vita Sun & Moon Press, 1998

This small and peculiar book has become very nearly legendary. The fact that no publisher has returned it to print is an on-going source of mystery and frustration to me. Inagaki Taruho’s One Thousand and One-Second Stories has become the 21st century version of Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets -- an out of print book everyone covets that nonetheless remains stubbornly out of print. My friends and I carry around faded, smudged, stapled copies of a copy -- how retro. (My friend who owns an actual physical copy won’t let me anywhere near it -- no doubt a prudent choice.) Here are tiny stories of fisticuffs with heavenly bodies, with shooting stars and a tricky fellow named Mr. Moon. As Taruho says, regarding an enchanted and explosive pack of cigarettes, “There’s no telling what’ll jump out or what its value is.” Published when Taruho was in his early twenties, these stories are a brilliant and playful response to, and extension of, Surrealism, dada, and early cinema. The stories are an absolute blast, with titles like, “On Being Shoved Down an Aqueduct”, or “Scuffling With a Shooting Star” or “Making Bread Out of Stars”. Full of comic book language (Pow! Bang! Flummp!) and sideways talk of gay bars, there’s just no book like this book. (In my heart of hearts, I imagine Taruho and Frank O’Hara getting along fabulously in Heaven...) I was introduced to this book in 2001 by a professor, when I was in graduate school and writing small odd queer stories of my own. I immediately adored it -- and found it was already unavailable. From what I understand, Sun & Moon Press ceased to exist very shortly after publishing it. I’ve spent the last dozen years searching out all the Taruho I could, a quest that led me to the beautiful and precise work of Jeffrey Angles, whose gorgeous translations of Taruho are scattered in literary magazines. I even met a Japanese jazz enthusiast who’d published a bootleg unauthorized version of a Taruho novella. On behalf of readers everywhere, especially those passionate about Japanese literature, queer writing and genre-busting work, I plead for ‘An Inagaki Taruho Reader’ -- a book which would return these stories to print, as well as the uncollected Angles translations and the (remarkably weird) novella. This work has found brilliant translators (with Angles in the lead), and ardent readers (must I handcuff myself to something?) Now: where is the publisher? May the necessary and joyful work of Inagaki Taruho at last be made available again for an English-speaking audience.

It was whispered that perhaps in the icy resplendence of the fading night we had met the followers of a moon that rendered everything luminous

Friday, September 05, 2014

Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra!

Poems and Anti-Poems, in Honor of Parra

In honor of Nicanor Parra, the great anti-poet of Chile, celebrating his hundredth birthday on September 5, 2014.

The Power of Prayer

* * * chart of conversions * * *

One hundred people praying = One atheist sends an email
Two hundred fifty people praying = One atheist picks up the phone
Five hundred people praying = One atheist helps with the laundry
One thousand people praying = One atheist shows up with lunch

On Error

Kernel of the error: the conjunction of “my” and “life”.

Also, is there some sane reason why I should prefer the contents of my mind to whatever the cat is doing?


Everyone says they want to help, but almost no one actually helps. Those who do help are virtually always women over the age of 45.

Yet never once have I seen an accurate depiction of Heaven, populated overwhelmingly by middle-aged women.

Wisdom in Three Parts

The first part of wisdom is to compose a list of idiots and resolve henceforth to ignore them.  Because the world includes a great number of ranting self-important fools who can be relied upon to be mortally offended every three days and useless in-between.

The second part of wisdom is to recognize that one is, oneself, a person on that list.

I don't know what the third part of wisdom is.

On Pain

Small small things don’t much mind pain.  No chatter, no crusade.  I know from my life as a pebble.  And still more from my time as the Hindenberg.

Dodge consolations.  The pain has a lot to say.  Happily, almost none of it is about pain.

On Track

The right track and the wrong track are not in different directions.  Only a hair's breadth -- no, only a soundtrack separates them.  The right track is a non-track.  Unless frequency counts as a track, which it might, but still not like a track through forest or college.  You don’t make a goddamn career out of it.

reading nicanor parra makes me think I, too, 
can write anti-poetry

one thing about
this all-pervading fear
like a flow of water that won’t turn off
(yes, like wetting my pants)
like an unending series of slaps
pay attention!
is that whatever happens
inside this fear flood
this excess of attention
I remember
so that therefore
although it’s terribly
it’s also worth more

On the End of Youth

I was young until the age of 38. Lucky, don’t you think?  Lucky -- very possibly spoiled.  I was young on the muralled streets of Santiago, sharing beers with Ratoncito.  Even on the plane back to Japan, I was still young.  On the very last day of my youth I watched kabuki from an impossibly good seat.  The next day I accompanied the Nicest Guy in the World to the hospital where I learned a great deal I had not been told.  The nurse put oxygen tubes in my husband’s nose as I stood beside his wheelchair, uninsured and middle-aged.

Love Equation

The amount you love someone is exactly equal to how much you are willing to be inconvenienced on their behalf.

The rest is crap.

my fame

walking down bombero nunez
santiago dreaming of publication

in prominent internationally-recognized literary
magazines as ahead of me a stray dog darts
into the street my fame
the car swerves my success
confused the dog runs
so incredibly
important beneath the tires

my certain fame

if only I could trade it
for the life of the dog.

On Ministry

As a promiscuous homosexual and wannabe practitioner of literature, I note that, even on the highly unlikely chance that I someday have five thousand readers, my primary ministry will still have been fellatio.

I have no problem with that.  I’m better at sucking cock.  I aim to praise and thank, to adore.  I do my best work where words are not even an option.


not sure
it counts
as charitable

each day
to be
the fool


just an excuse
to sit


The Power of Prayer / 2

A man shuffled past, his bald head bowed down. He was holding a string of smooth prayer beads that reached nearly to the ground.

As he passed I could hear him chanting, “Help isn’t coming. Help isn’t coming.”

Hard as It is to Believe

No one has shown us the curve.
For all we know we may be doing well.


maybe it isn’t

maybe it wasn’t


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Afterlife Reading List

On the off chance I go to Heaven, I have prepared a reading list.  The very first thing I’m going to read is The Messiah by Bruno Schulz, the novel lost after he was shot, on a whim, by an officer of the Gestapo in 1942.  I’m very serious about this.  If this book is not available in Heaven, I’m not going.

Then, while I’m still just settling in, harp and flight lessons etc., I want to read all of Colette’s letters to her mother Sido, which Sido burned.  

Then I’m going to read whatever’s new from Clarice Lispector (I assume she wouldn’t stop writing for a nuisance so slight as death.)

I am determined to read all the papers Lavinia Dickinson burnt before she got to the final trunk and decided, “Oh, I guess I’ll save Emily’s poems.” 

Then I’m going to read all the Halldor Laxness and Inagaki Taruho that bastards wouldn’t translate for me while I was alive.

Traditionally it is said that Robert Walser ceased to write when he was moved, against his will, to the second sanitarium, the one at Herisau.  (The Microscripts, masterpieces in a minute hand, are from Waldau, the first mental home.)  I do not believe Walser stopped writing.  I don’t believe he was capable of stopping.  I  demand that every scribbled scrap be delivered to me in the afterlife.  (I am going to need a magnifying glass.)

On the off chance I go to Heaven, if by chance you happen along, it will be easy to find me.  I’ll be the dude hassling Fernando Pessoa to hassle Ricardo Reis for more poems.  (Although in the afterlife I will be fluent in every language, my mother tongue is forever Portuguese.)  

It is excruciating to think that Georges Perec died at just 45, depriving me of the three shelves of books he would have written had he lived to be eighty.  That said, I am confident that, of all the books written in the afterlife, Georges Perec has written the very most interesting and precise book on Heaven, that radiant space.  In fact, I will not know I am in Heaven until I have read what Georges Perec has to say about it.

Naturally I also want to read Frank O’Hara’s “I did this, I did that” Paradise poems and, like everyone’s else, I am very anxious to read Kafka’s Heaven

Saturday, July 05, 2014


I used to really enjoy being alone but recently I've gotten very tired of all the crazy people.

Of course, other people may also be crazy.  But at least they are telling me stories I don’t already know.

The Path of Alice

Hinduism prescribes two paths for overcoming the ego, the self with a small ‘s’.  One is to become nothing through the practice of love and devotion.  The other is to become everything through the practice of wisdom and discrimination.  The word ‘become’ is wrong.  Perhaps it’s more like snapping out of a trance.

My path appears to be inflate deflate inflate deflate: grain of sand / Mona Lisa, worker ant / Don’t Cry For Me Argentina -- until this ‘I’ is revealed to be so manifestly absurd that neither I nor anyone else can revere or revile it.  To be “somebody”, then “nobody” in such a swift procession until it becomes obvious that the ‘I’ is completely made up.  A path of absurdity and nonsense.

This is my spiritual practice.  I do not know yet if it is effective.  (I’ll let you know?)  I do recognize that it may be psychologically hazardous -- but isn't that true of all paths?

There is the path of devotion and the path of wisdom and then there is this way which, in honor of Alice, its best-known practitioner, we might well call the practice of Wonderland.

In my defense

In my defense, I really think I could have resisted all the young men -- if only they had not begun to wear beards.

As it is, I feel reasonably evil, now that all the psychic powers I covet involve the capacity to grope any backpacker I choose.

Oh, why can’t I love men as purely and unconditionally as I love geckoes!

Narrative Structure

Plot is entrails.  Details are tea leaves.  All people are clouds as I hope to God you already know.  It’s all just some place to stare at while the truth comes clear.  An excuse to admit what you know.  Reality’s ruse.   The best and the bravest can see it all in thin air and most people say they are mad, mad, mad.


In New Hampshire, in the mid-eighties, one of my pet mice was resurrected from the dead.  I think my personality makes much more sense, if you just always keep this in mind.

One morning I found my mouse dead.  I wrapped him in a Woody Woodpecker washcloth in preparation for burial and laid the corpse back down in the cage.  It was entirely too cold for the mice on the porch in the New Hampshire winter, but my dad wouldn’t let the mice live inside.  They were male mice and they stank.

I admit I didn’t like this mouse much.  It bit.  I think I’d killed several mice already by then, with winter as my accomplice.

After preparing the corpse for burial, I went upstairs and read the entire book of Genesis.  In those days, if faced with trouble, I read a book.  (Unlike now when, if a problem becomes apparent, I promptly seize hold of the situation and take small common-sense steps in order, oh fierce pragmatist that I am.)

At that time I was maybe ten, my mother was dead, I had horrific nightmares every night, and I hadn’t slept with my light off since the Carter administration.  I read from the Bible because I believed the Bible would protect me from terrors.  I’m not talking about Christ or the afterlife; I read because I believed that holding the Bible would protect me right there and then.

I read all forty-six chapters of Genesis and returned downstairs to find the mouse gnawing away at his shroud.

Please keep this in mind when you see me curled up in the corner with some book no reasonable person would read.  Dreamily reading when I really ought to be doing something more sensible, especially at this age, past forty.

Have patience, please.  I am probably attempting to resurrect some mouse or another.


Turns out that Cambodia has drastically better frozen margaritas than you might expect.  And part of me, I admit, just wanted to sip my mango margarita (salted) and stare into space -- but how often do I get the chance to hear from a 17 year old from Texas?  He started talking to me from the next table over as he downed strawberry banana smoothies one right after another, as if there was liquor in them.  The trouble with Texas, he said, was that there was a lot of Discrimination, but personally he didn’t have any problem with The Gays.

His problem nowadays was with girls.  He explained to me that girls nowadays were so well-developed there was no telling how old they were.  You might see some voluptuous woman and think she was in college: she’d turn out to be in seventh grade.  This had been a major problem for him, but he said he was off romance for now.  Got my heart broke too many times, he said, and ordered himself another smoothie.

His cordial world weariness was so obviously borrowed that, when his handsome pickled father showed up an hour later, it didn’t seem like the conversation had gained another person, but simply switched to stereo.  Within two minutes of shaking my hand, the father told me that lots of people in Texas were prejudiced against Homosexuals, but personally he didn’t have any problem with them.

I always think people don’t figure me out right away because I’m so masculine and unassuming.  Evidently this is just another of my over-numerous fantasies.

Daddy was an oil man and traveled all the time, though, to tell the truth, he was terrified to be in the air since the time his helicopter went sideways two years before.  He drank as fast as he smoked, one right after another.  He’d obviously been at it for a long time and was starting to look kind of dissolute.  Craggy and heavy-faced.  Rough around the edges.  I noticed that dissolute was no longer such a negative word for me.  I kind of liked dissolute.  Dissolute was maybe my type.  And I wondered if this was the sign of a problem.

The son began to complain again about girls who turned out to be way under age.  Evidently this was his chosen theme.  This is just how kids are nowadays, he told me.  Same as him.  He was six foot at age 13.  He’d been buying his own cigarettes for years.

He said, One time me and my friends saw a girl skinny-dipping.  She was a really hot girl.  She had a lot of everything, both up here and down there.  I admit I was getting kinda excited so I asked her, How old are you?  And she said to me, Twelve.”  I said to my friends, We Gotta Get Out of Here NOW and we did.

The son continued, Nowadays I try to meet the father first.  That’s my policy.  Disarms ‘em.  Those Dads think, He wants to meet ME?  Makes ‘em more agreeable.  But I’m sick and tired of getting my heart broken.  I’m not interested in a Relationship anymore.  During my youth I just want to Have Fun.  Later I’ll get serious.  Later when it’s time to Make Money.

The father looked at him fondly.  This was their first trip together outside the USA, except for Mexico which doesn’t count because you can drive there.  “We’re more like best friends than father and son,” said one or the other.  Then the Dad hauled himself out of his chair and went off to buy smokes.  The waitress came by and picked up his empty beer glass.  “Want another?” the waitress asked and the son said, “Sure he does.”

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


I needed a bus to Cambodia, so I waited at the bus stop on the edge of Lumpini Park and hoped one would come along.  What can I say?  All my better plans had already been used up.  After about five minutes a plumpish young man with long hair walked up to me and said, “Poipet?” and pointed to a silver van.  I’d heard there were vans as well as buses, the price was the same, and so I shoved my bag in the door and climbed in.

Alongside the long haired man was the driver, a grinning guy who was balding, though still young and handsome.  A few times he yelled back cheerfully to make sure the music wasn’t too loud and the a/c was all right.  He didn’t sound Cambodian.  He sounded like a college student from Los Angeles.  

As we drove through the city the man with long hair stuck his head out the window and asked, “Poipet?”, but no one else climbed on.  The van had seats for twelve and could have fit twenty as least, but it was just me there in back.  Then, because I had a feeling that was strange but not bad, I asked, So, do you do this every day?

The driver laughed.  No way!  We’re from the Philippines!  We’re headed to the casino and we thought we’d try to get money for gas!  Now I understood why they sounded more American than I did.  They did business in Thailand, they did business everywhere, the driver traveled all the time.  One business was exporting Thai coffee, but that was just one of his businesses.

The slightly plump man with the long hair was really adorable.  He could have been Navajo.  He talked a lot, but he didn’t say anything about himself.  He talked only about the driver, his traveling, his business.  They asked where I was from and what I was doing.  Then they wanted to know if I’d ever eaten anything really exotic.

You mean, like beetles and worms? I asked.  Yeah, that’s what they meant.  But I couldn’t think of anything.  Looking back now, I feel sorry I didn’t think to tell them about the rattlesnake my brother caught bare-handed in Florida and served for Christmas dinner.  They would have liked to to have heard about that.

I wondered if the man driving had any idea that the man riding shot-gun was completely in love with him.  Maybe he just teased him, or maybe he sometimes let the shot-gun guy suck him off.  Did they kiss, sometimes, when they were both very drunk?  I hoped so.

The driver said the best exotic food in Thailand were the little eggs with embryos inside.  Both men urged me to try them.  The best way to eat them was warm, with a few bitter green leaves.  The driver said, You don’t look, you don’t think, you just pop it in.  And you are going to love it!

He ate cobra once, said the man riding shot-gun.  You swallow the heart with whiskey.

With vodka! said the driver.  You also drink vodka when you drink the cobra’s blood.  That blood is like Viagra.  You drink the cobra’s blood and you are going to have a boner for two, three days.

Sign me up! I cried, with maybe somewhat too much enthusiasm.  Just the same, I felt grateful and lucky.  It seemed to me that today life had acted in a very gracious way, both gracious and hospitable, to have provided such comfortable air-conditioned transport to the mad border town of Poipet, with even this friendly nod to my insatiable and all-devouring perversity.

(Siem Reap, 2014)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Heart of the Farm

"The Heart of the Farm" is online now at Green Mountains Review.  

When I was a child I believed the farm where I grew up was a living being. As a living being, it had a heart. The location of the heart was obvious to me, though it seemed I was the only one who knew. I didn’t tell anyone. I went to visit the heart, from time to time, just to check-in. It was part of my duties as a small boy. . .

Friday, June 20, 2014

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Halldor Laxness

Halldor Laxness
The Fish Can Sing
Harvill Press

translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson
originally published: 1957, this translation: 1966

For years now I’ve loved the work of Halldor Laxness, Iceland’s pre-eminent man of letters, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 but now is seldom read.  I am forever thrusting his books upon people and begging them to read him at once.  Usually I urge them to start with “Independent People”, which is regarded as his masterpiece.

This does not always go well.

One of my friends complained, “It’s 500 pages about sheep farming!”

I said, “Yes.  It is 500 UTTERLY SCINTILLATING pages about sheep farming.”

She was not impressed.  We’re still friends, but she views my opinions on literature with deep suspicion.

I reckon there are two alternatives if you wish to explore Laxness’ world and ‘Independent People’ seems a little daunting.  My personal favorite is ‘Under the Glacier’, Laxness hilarious fabulistic tale of discovery.  But ‘Under the Glacier’ is an exceedingly peculiar book that will not be to everyone’s taste.  (On the other hand fans of Murakami, Brautigan, and Philip K. Dick may unexpectedly find in it an entry point to Icelandic literature!)

If you are looking for something more “realistic”, then ‘The Fish Can Sing’ is a beautiful book, full of brilliant characters and what appears to be a uniquely Icelandic take on life .  Above all, this book is required reading for musicians, who may well resonate with its quest for “the one pure note”.  An additional benefit is that the meaning of life may or may not be revealed, by the superintendent, in Chapter 16.

I revere Laxness’ novels because they introduced me to an entire world that I’ve found nowhere else.  And there’s something else, too, if I can find a way to express it.  Laxness has his own special kind of sanity, with sad humor and compassion that never gets over-heated.  In the strung-out world where we live now, his novels are a very special refuge.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Truth About Yourself For Your Own Good

It is strange to discover what has been hanging around in one’s own mind.  Don’t you think so?  Some thoughts as common as furniture turn out to be highly peculiar when examined or focused on, when peered at and interrogated.

I am embarrassed to tell you my fantasy.  Of course I have a lot of fantasies.  I am that sort of nonsensical and unprofitable person.  A wisp of grandiosity for which no use has ever been found.

This is my number one fantasy.  It does not even have any close competition.  I have had this fantasy my entire life; it has been in its current shape for at least ten years.  It is highly embarrassing that this is my fantasy.  Any professional would tell you that my ego structure is the ramshackle type that cannot bear any weight at all.  All paste and popsicle sticks, my personality.  Anyway, please keep in mind that I did not actually set out to be pathetic, I simply lived my life, and this fantasy crystallized and became resident in my mind, like a piece of rock candy.

In my fantasy I am in my very favorite restaurant, the one I call the restaurant of my heart, with red checked tablecloths and wicker baskets and grandmotherly bric-a-brac, and I am having a long dinner, drinks, appetizers, entree, the works, with someone who has known me for a very long time and does not really like me.

He is telling me the truth about myself for my own good.  He is telling me things that aren’t very nice but are quite inarguably true.  Such as the fact that I am not so good-looking anymore.  That I should not put on airs or waste my time when anyone can see -- and people DO see, he says, they just don’t tell me -- that I am actually not so talented or so clever.  The statute of limitations for my being promising has long since run out.  I am not good-looking enough and certainly not smart or capable enough and I should come to terms with that instead of acting in this way that only makes me look ridiculous to everyone and they only don’t say so because they are cowardly, and gainfully employed, and have better things to do.

I am listening carefully and I am thanking him because he what he telling me is undeniably true.  Sure, it isn’t nice to hear but it is inarguably true and I am thanking him, thanking him over and over again for being the one to finally tell me the truth.  It is absolutely and undeniably true that I ought to be more reasonable and less conceited, that I should not devote myself to what no one will ever want, whether it is my body or my art.

It is high time for me to recognize what is obvious to everyone.  He is only telling me the truth about myself for my own good.  I agree with him vigorously and I explain that really I always knew that what he is telling me was true, that I simply inflated myself with vanity and coffee and books by people far smarter than myself.

Then, I excuse myself, because we have been drinking beer, but mostly because I am about to cry and I do not want to cry in front of this man because that would be weak, because he is telling me the truth about myself and I want to show that I am strong enough to handle the truth about myself.

I take a leak and wash my hands and I am walking back through the long and dimly-lit restaurant to my own table when my friend, the owner of the restaurant, waves to me from where he is sitting and begins to talk to me.

He is a craggy old Vietnam vet.  He lived through that as well as losing almost everyone to AIDS.  Sure, he’s cranky but he’s a damn good man, the kind who doesn’t disappear when things get hard.  My friend is looking at me so sternly I think he is angry with me.  He says to me, very quietly and very seriously, “Please let me throw that motherfucker out of my restaurant.”

I explain to my friend that the man at the table is not bad and not wrong, that he is only very honest and telling me hard truths that I need very much to hear, the truth about myself for my own good.  My friend listens to me very carefully and then says, “That man is total fucking asshole.”

I am standing there shaking and I realize how tired I am, how hard it has been to sit there all night, through drinks, appetizers and dinner, all the time hearing about nothing except how I am no good.

My friend and I talk for another minute and finally I agree that my friend can ask the man to leave.  I am walking through the restaurant then, toward the table of the man who has been telling me the truth about myself for my own good.  And then I see him.

It is too late.  My friend, the owner, cannot tell him to leave.  The waitstaff has become fed up, apparently, and taken matters into their own hands.  (They are Burmese, after all, very loyal and very tough and I have been their friend since they were teenagers and, even if their English is a little broken, they understand everything they hear.)  Three of them have hauled the man up and out of his chair and they are dragging him now to the door and shoving him into the street, letting him know that he had better never ever show his face at this restaurant again.

Looking at the man now, as he is hauled out the front door, he no longer looks like an absolute authority on reality and the worth or worthlessness of every living thing.  He is just a little bitter drunk old queen who likes to put people down so can feel like a big man.  It’s just what he does -- but not in this restaurant.  Not anymore.

That’s one version of my fantasy.  There’s another, shorter, version.  The man is at the table, holding a bottle of imported beer because he says the beer from this country is all shit, and he is telling me the hard truth about myself, and I am agreeing with every word and thanking him profusely, and then I see my friends on either side of him, their faces all so serious, and I think that they are agreeing with him, glad that someone is finally telling me the truth about myself, which I need so badly to hear, the truth that is obvious to absolutely everyone and has been all along.

He goes on telling me in detail everything that is wrong with me, everything that I have done wrong, and I agree with him, and as we go on speaking he very slowly begins to rise into the air, all the while continuing to pontificate as if he has no idea what’s going on.

My friends are lifting the man into the air.  They have had enough.  When the Burmese waitstaff gets pissed off, watch out.  They are hauling him away.  The man goes on insisting that his reality is the only real reality as they cart him off and carry him through the restaurant like a pig on a spit before heaving him into the street.  They don’t kill him or anything.  OK, maybe a few kicks and punches.  He just knows that he can never return to this restaurant.  This restaurant where I now sit very quietly, my friends around but not too near, feeling tired but relieved, open and quiet.  Safe.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Georges Perec

LIFE   A User’s Manual
Georges Perec

Translated from the French by David Bellos

Original: Hachette, 1978
Revised English translation: Vintage, 2008

Perec’s masterpiece needs no further praise, but I thought I might write a “letter of welcome” for anyone approaching the book for the first time, for those who are curious and perhaps wary.  It is, after all, 500 pages of fine print.  The labels “experimental” and “postmodern” can be off-putting, as they have often been applied to work that is portentous or opaque or overly self-involved.  How could a book with a title like “LIFE A User’s Manual” not be a little intimidating?  Anyway, that is how I felt.  This note is for others who might feel the same way.

Several people I respect very much loved this book, and it sounded like the sort of thing that I would like, so I sat down to it with high expectations, read thirty pages and said, “Huh?”  It seemed so dry -- twenty percent story, twenty percent goofball theory, sixty percent catalog.  Dry as dust, I thought.  Just wasn’t making it into my head.

Assuming this to be simply my problem, I started again from page one, and the second time was a little better, though I wasn’t really hooked until Chapter Thirteen and the story of the acrobat who refused to come down.  From then on I read in a slow and patient rapture, like a man unexpectedly caught in an ecstatic trance while cruising the subterranean stacks of a library.

In other words, be a little patient with Perec and with yourself.  This is a book unlike any other and it may take a little while to get the hang of reading it.  If all else fails: proceed directly to Chapter Thirteen!

I found that it helped a great deal to take notes.  I got myself a little notebook and filled it with the names of characters, vocabulary I didn’t know, bizarre theories as well as sentences I loved and copied out.  This helped me keep track of who was who and what was going on.  Just as important, it allowed me to keep alert amid the thundering crash of people, ideas, events and objects the book presents.  Maybe the vocabulary list didn’t really matter (though don’t you want to remember what a pyx is and what is a cubic pouf?); maybe I just needed the illusion of control.

(I admit that taking detailed notes is my idea of a good time.  I prefer books that are dense or even slightly difficult -- they afford me fewer opportunities to contemplate the condition of my own life.  If a book is too easy I sit before it daydreaming, wondering how I will ever be able to afford orthodontics.)

Since the word “experimental” is sometimes a synonym for work that is not competent at story-telling or is overly pleased with its own mechanics, I think the most important thing to say about this book is that it is crammed full of fabulously good yarns.  This book has more murders and love affairs and weird obsessions than a ten foot stack of pulp fiction.

Like the Bible, it is an anthology that’s also full of rules, and genealogies and household stuff.  These are the kind of stories your drunk uncle might tell at the fireside with a drink in his hand -- assuming that your uncle is prone to black humor and melodrama and more than slightly obsessed with fine details.

Who are the allies and cousins of this book?  I thought of Melville and his adventure tales packed with encyclopedic information.  I thought of Borges, of all his rules and mysteries welded so smoothly to old-fashioned story-telling.  Above all, I thought of Roberto Bolano, because only in Bolano have I found this capacity for boundless non-stop invention.

For most writers, I reckon, it is a big deal when a story or a character arrives, but, for Perec as for Bolano, there is a profusion of people, ideas, and events that seems effortless and unending.  The book pours out.  In one paragraph Perec or Bolano can afford to dispense with an idea or situation that might keep another writer busy for a decade.  Because there always seems to be more where that came from.  This book bestows its stories as liberally as a billionaire might give away dimes.  (If I were in charge of the universe, neither Bolano nor Perec would have died young.  They would have both lived to be 97 at least and been great friends.)

If you possess a powerful intellect, or are staggeringly well read, or possess an encyclopedic mind, you will find recondite references everywhere, as well as evidence of the structures and restraints Perec created for himself in order to create the book.  Unfortunately my intelligence is no better than standard-issue and so all of this went totally over my head.  And I still had an incredibly good time reading the book.

As for the endless catalogs of objects, so meticulously chosen and described, please keep in mind that, if you are NOT a dedicated literature nerd, or if you work at a time-intensive job highly valued by society, SKIMMING, while looked down upon, is legal all over the world.  If you do not need to know every bottle of wine in the Altamount’s basement, or every etching on the walls of Madame Marcia’s, then you are free to hurry on to the bizarre over-the-top meticulous yarns with which this book teams like a nest full of ants, ants doomed in ways that are beguiling, and funny, and mathematically precise.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Stretching his hands out from his bed, Plume was surprised not to encounter the wall.
-- Henri Michaux, A Certain Plume
selections from a new series