Thursday, May 31, 2012

An Origin Story

Steady rain made the station wagon feel like a submarine, how many leagues under water, as we were on the way to piano lesson at Mrs. P's, a drive through slick winding roads after school let out, through and into neighborhoods I'd only see for these lessons, homes I wouldn't trick-or-treat at, homes which windows I wouldn't glance into while walking home from school, guessing at the lives inside but mostly shuddering at the infinity of it all, that home like mine that home like mine that home like mine until it became too much, too heavy, this pre-knowledge that the impossibly unknowable stuff going on inside my own home were reproduced in their unknowableness in other homes, every home, so I'd slide further down in the forest green seat as my mom drove us to the lesson when I'd rather be home in front of the TV or down in the basement with a paperback, but resolutely the submarine made its way where what awaited me was a glimpse of Mrs. P's husband in the hallway at the top of carpeted stairs, where were their kids? the exotic smells so strange and the weighty sense that this is a home, too, like mine and not like mine, and when my fingers later rested on Middle C and I tapped out "Happy Birthday" or Three Blind Mice" the focus on something helped, Mrs. P standing over my shoulder, the rain outside falling calmly now, a soft curtain that if only for an hour or so drew together all of these odd, unfamiliar homes.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Alphabet, Punk through

I've arrived late to Nicholas Rombes's A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982, a smart, sweeping, ambitious piecing-together of punk culture and history in the form of alphabetical entries. Continuum published the book three years ago; Rombes, a Professor of English at University of Detroit Mercy, had previously written two books on film and a book for the 33 1/3 Series on the Ramones' debut album (disclosure: Rombes and I share a publisher and editor). Wide-ranging in his vision, he takes a lively approach in A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: since punk is by its nature unstable and resistant to received forms, a strictly chronological history might reflect the subject less vitally than a kind of free-form, associative gathering of seemingly unrelated ideas, in essence a repudiation of traditional history. The result is fun, spiky, surprising, and edifying.

Rombes sifts through an impressive storehouse of artifacts, texts, documents, activities, and movements, from songs and albums to film, advertisements, television, novels, self-help manuals, poems, essays, nostalgia, art aesthetics, rock and film criticism, politics, 'zines, and recorded/recordable media. What interests him is how and where the punk ethos has been variously defined in different quarters, creating echoes among disparate events, people, and places. If Rombes' modus operandi sounds a lot like Greil Marcus's, it differs in a significant way: Rombes writes much more about the Manhattan punk scene of the late-1970s than Marcus ever did; Marcus disdained that scene. (I was surprised by Marcus's repudiation of the New York punk scene; he's right to detect a cartoonish quality there that, save for the Dickies and a couple of other bands, is lacking in earnest UK and California punk, but if Suicide had been a Berkley or a San Francisco band, I'm convinced that Marcus would be praising their insurgent punk sensibility to this day.) Rombes is also a bit of a traditionalist, arguing that hardcore in the later DC but especially California permutations over-politicized punk and introduced distasteful elements of nihilism and ugliness. For Rombes, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols remain the paragons of punk style and ethos. Celebrated rock critics Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Richard Meltzer, and the less heralded such as Charlotte Pressler, and John Rockwell of The New York Times, are lauded. Most of the artists and albums you'd expect to be in here are here.

Children's book, originally titled Lumbercamp, 1939
But Rombes is less interested in establishing and arguing for pecking order than he is in dismantling order, and searching for the many, sometimes surprising appearances of what he adroitly calls the "punk imagination."  He looks at early appearances of the word "punk" (most interestingly "whistle punk," a term used in early 20th-century logging circles—and who knew that New York City Mayor Firoello Henry La Guardia had a copyright on the word "punk" in the 1930's?), discusses writers not associated with punk such as Barry Hannah, John Ashbery, Joan Didion, and Benjamin Spock (!) as exhibiting dissenting flavor or social critiques in their work that indirectly reflects or influenced punk, and discusses the violence and disorder of the Patty Hearst abduction as a kind of stand-in for punk before punk had to happen. Provocatively, Rombes argues that Ronald Reagan and punk, usually described as mutually exclusive rivalries, had many more correspondences than not:
During the early to mid-1980s, Reagan provided a ready target for anybody who felt alienated from "society." And nostalgia cannot be measured solely in economic or social-policy terms. What matters and what is worth saying is that Reagan had things in common with the punk imagination:a return to basics; a rejection of the excesses of the counterculture and the hippies; a mastery of performance; a do-it-yourself work ethic.... The restrained, minimalist cool of Talking Heads and the Ramones was a version of the Velvet Underground stripped free of excess and commandeered down to the pinprick simplicity that wold be the hallmark of Ronald Reagan's speeches.
Rombes concludes the Reagan entry this way: "Reagan's 'return to order' shared so much with punk—which by and large cast him as the Enemy Father—that it will likely be decades before it becomes acceptable to draw this comparison."

As his title indicates, Rombes brackets punk in a particular time frame; he's generally cool to postpunk. From his entry on Sonic Youth: "You want to understand—you want to be on the side of Sonic Youth, whose name alone should redeem a handful of dull albums—and you strain to listen for even a hard of pleasure here, in these arid songs made, it seems to you, by people who hate music....if I love any shard of this music, does that mean that I'm missing the point? Or is the joke on me?" No Wave artists and a few later 1980s hardcore bands receive a similar critical shoulder-shrug from Rombes, who reveals himself by the end of this book as a lover of music that surprises without abandoning the old-fashioned pleasure principles of song construction. Unsurprisingly, the Dictators are heralded here, as an influential group that drew from both punk instincts and an unabashed love for popular culture and pop music craft, however snottily deconstructed.

Rombes has written a lively, powerful, important book. A Cultural Dictionary of Punk belongs on the shelf with Jon Savage's England's Dreaming, Greil Marcus's In the Fascist Bathroom, and Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids, other books that smartly excavate the chaos of late 1970s/early 1980s punk, and its precedents and aftermath.


Here is an excerpt from A Cultural Dictionary of Punk at Berfrois, covering Spiro Agnew and "Paint It, Black," among other topics.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began

I'm happy to announce that my collection of essays This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began has won the Orphan Press Creative Nonfiction book contest, and will be published by Orphan Press. I'm grateful to the judges and editors.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cindy Sherman, Stories Untold

Untitled Film Still #13, 1978
The curators of the current Cindy Sherman retrospective at MOMA smartly organize her impressive career chronologically; this is wise in Sherman's case because her work situates itself into neat periods. Her newest photos—enormous photographs of female personae of the middle-aged, obscenely-wealthy variety—are interesting, but what was surprising was how powerfully I responded to Untitled Film Stills from the late-1970s. I'd seen these works once before, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. in 1995, and they blew me away then. They still do. They are Sherman's most enduring works.

The photographs express an infinite narrative space, impossible without spectators, whose imaginative lives are kick-started by the stills. In the 69 photos (each of which MOMA acquired in 1995 for its permanent collection) Sherman poses in cramped interiors (her own apartment) and vast exteriors (mostly in and around New York, some in the West) as a film heroine stilled in action—heroic, thwarted, indeterminate, in light, in shadow—the images untitled. You feel as if you're looking at frames from a Neo-Realist or Film Noir, but beyond merely imitating or evoking, these stills activate the story-telling impulse in the viewer. "The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told," Sherman has said, and notice the pair: story and itch. If a Cindy Sherman falls off the wall and the museum is closed, will it tell a story?

Hard to say. All I know is when I gaze at the series, I find it impossible not to fill in the blanks—the back story, the immediate narrative suggested by the still, or the image's place in the larger story's denouement, all imagined—my story-telling needs triggered by an single image, which, though it can evoke, can't technically narrate. I do that. And my stories—originating in Sherman's character/persona's pose, facial expression, arrangement in the mise-en-scène, but carried on helplessly by my own intuition, my own stories, the ones I've lived or imagined—will be markedly different from the ones silently voiced by the woman next to me, the man next to her. And my stories will change over time, though Cindy doesn't.

I've rarely experienced such an active, endless narrative space as Untitled Film Stills. A freeze frame thaws stories out of each of us: tragedy, comedy, or somewhere in the middle. How much a face, a gesture, a costume, a background can name without naming, can suggest movement and story while static. The stills are only half of the work here. I'm chasing the plot strands, here and gone, doing all the rest. From where do the stories come? That is, where does Cindy end, and the story begin? Where does the story go?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Riotous Excursions at the Public Theater

A decade or so ago when I was staying in New York City for a month, The New York Times providentially was running in its Sunday editions installments of The Great Gatsby. "The wait between reading each chapter," I wrote in Defunct, "allowed Jay and Nick and Daisy, whom I already knew absurdly well, to move again inside my imagination, and against the backdrop of the Brooklyn and Manhattan streets I was walking everyday, with new vividness.  Best of all, Fitzgerald’s story felt as if it were unfolding in real time.  Each Sunday, after contemplative absence, I caught up with the characters, I reinvested." Recently I experienced the novel in an even more temporally interesting way: Amy and I saw the Elevator Repair Service's production of Gatz at the Public Theater in Manhattan, happy to catch the last performance of this extended, acclaimed run. Gatz is a staged reading of Fitzgerald's classic novel, and what was promised to be a six-hour event was, all told, with intermissions and a dinner break, an eight-and-a-half hour affair. Just a day at the office with Nick and Jay.

The 9-5 scope of the reading is uncannily appropriate, as Gatz takes place in a drab, nondescript office that provides an indeterminate service, evocative of the early 1990s with stiff-backed chairs, bulky desktop computers, and industrial-gray-metal tables and towering, box-stuffed shelves casting a Roethke-like dolor to the scene. The clunky computer, it turns out, is on the fritz. Distracted, our pale employee (played by Scott Shepherd) notices a dog-eared copy of The Great Gatsby propped up in his Rolodex, pulls the book out and, bored but curious, starts reading aloud, half to himself, half to the audience. Sentence by sentence, Shepherd works his way through Nick Carraway's opening monologue, in the process becoming Carraway himself, a kind of office-performer who's slowly vanishing into the book that absorbs him. Through director John Collins' brilliant staging, the reader's office colleagues—a mousy brunette, a swaggering manger-type, a zaftig secretary, the unassuming IT guy—slowly become characters from the novel. The seamless move from a man reading aloud from a book to a man transformed, and transported, by that book is Gatz's genius stroke: as in any immersion in great art, one's setting becomes immaterial, replaced by the imagination's  broader and more substantial navigating of the interior realities the work of art creates. It was not an accident that "Nick" begins reading from the novel only after his computer malfunctions: forcibly removed from our digital realms, we can more fully embrace the deeper, more textured experience of narrative art. Yes, Gatz is "about" The Great Gatsby—it is a word-for-word rendition—but it's really about the power (and value) of narrative and the imagination. This performance revived and transformed my appreciation for Fitzgerald's novel.

Gatz is also theater. Collins and Associate Director Steve Bodow morph a drab office into 1920s East and West Egg and points Manhattan by emphasizing actors' gestures and body language over scene and costume. The cheap office couch becomes plush furniture in Daisy Buchanan's home in one scene, a pool in another, and a coffin by the end. Office chairs are spun around the stage and repurposed, serving as car seats and fashionable, overstuffed lounging chairs and the sad thin piece that props up a grieving George Wilson in his greasy gas station in the Valley of Ashes. In a remarkable scene—the over-the-top party at a Manhattan hotel that concludes with Tom Buchanan breaking Myrtle Wilson's nose—the directors and cast recreate a chaotic bacchanal by continuously throwing into the air and around the set (which is, remember, a business office) fistfuls of memos and invoices and receipts, the meaningless business correspondence fluttering and landing softly like nothing less than confetti and streamers dropped by gay-seeking partiers, but the result is a gargantuan mess. These kinds of narrative/thematic transformations are enthralling, and the movements among them create a momentum of spectacle that corresponds with the novel's air-tight, suspenseful narrative.

Scott Shepherd and cast.
Near the end of the performance, sitting at his desk, Shepperd appears to lose his place in the novel, and yet you notice that he's still reading. Eventually, he stops the charade and closes the book. You realize that he'd memorized the entire novel, that the book was technically a prop in his hands all along. I'd been prepared for this—the fact that the actor had committed the novel to memory buzzily preceded the show's run, and is even listed in the production's FAQ—yet his gradual move away from the novel toward pure recitation was still startling, absurdly impressive, and strengthened Gatz's acknowledgement that Fitzgerald's prose is to be savored and read as sensual language thickened with ideas and essaying into the human condition. Shepperd's take on the powerful closing paragraphs of the book was ideally pitched: yes, I knew these lines, but hearing them in the context of an ordinary office setting temporarily brought to life by the imagination and by lyric language—by an artful rendering of the world—only made these lines, their evocation of hope and loss, greater and more poignant. If art seeks to return us to the world refreshed, as poet A.R. Aamons suggests, than Gatz succeeds; it also returns me to The Great Gatsby refreshed.

Image of cast of Gatz via Elevator Repair Service

Thursday, May 17, 2012

West Street, Hudson River, NYC

"I often feel drawn to the Hudson River, and I have spent a lot of time through the years poking around the part of it that flows past the city. I never get tired of looking at it; it hypnotizes me." Joseph Mitchell, "The Rivermen" (1959)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Essay Corral

Three new essays out, rounded up here for your bemusement. "There Was the Occasional Disruption" at The Fiddleback,
Weirdness lurked in corners of fenced yards and basements of split-level homes. Afternoons were orderly, of a piece, as we played aside the pleasant, luminous surfaces of homes and yards. Ugliness: acid creeping from a neighbor’s pool into your yard; the stink of rotting food behind a restaurant; the sticky nests of spiders inside the abandoned milk case. (“Life is tough; thank God there’s design,” said Paola Antonelli.)
 "Origin Stories" at Sweet,
This was my home’s doppelganger, my tree’s parallel house, a blueprint of floor and wall and roof that I drew in my head, every day up there in the trees against the fading sunlight, a dream as substantial as the structure I dreamt in.
 "The Blur Family" at Waccamaw,
I’ve written a bit about this incident before, naming the participants, implicating myself—but that was before I saw the girl, the woman, in her present life. Before, I had only the blur, the reassuring haze which erased her features, replaced her worrying cries with the whoops of play-dates, her urgent escape from the woods with cart wheels into suburbia. Now she’s looking at me from last week, not last century.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

God is in the blur

At the risk of hauling out the "I" once again (and here I go already) I'm thinking about personal writing, and how filtering the past through the present—whether it's my past or his—inevitably leads to abstracting that past. Even a photograph grows recondite in the sense that, like the proverbial stream, it's impossible to put your eyes on the same spot twice: there's too much shape-shifting going on from last week to yesterday to now. When I write about the past I abstract that past as a painter abstracts her subject. Modern and contemporary visual artists have really nailed down the value, power, and necessity of abstraction as a key value in representing the world in the ways in which we perceive, remember, and name it.


The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real. Lucian Freud

The more abstract is form, the more clear and direct its appeal. Wassily Kandinsky

Even an abstract form has to have a likeness. Willem de Kooning


I like Freud's idea that abstraction results in something more real—though I don't think it's ironic, I think it's obvious.  Kandinsky: yep. And de Kooning says what all writers, too, know: that our subject begin with its likeness and moves inevitably toward abstraction, but that likeness—the incidents, the people, the stubborn facts—remain crucially tethered to that abstraction. Elsewhere, Paul Gauguin sounds skeptical but open to persuasion when he says, "Do not copy nature too much. Art is an abstraction." What is too much? What can that mean? I assume the painter is urging us to avoid slavish imitation of the external world, but an imitation is, of course, subjective. A Xerox of a Xerox where he have to rub our eyes because what we're seeing can't possibly be there. 

There's something melancholy about all of this: we lose the tactile world as we remember it. Yet that loss returns a more pungent reality, after Freud, and after Kandinsky, a more appealing one. What interests me is the movement between event (of mine, of his) and telling, and how somewhere along the line a necessary abstraction of that event occurs, shaped by, what, an innate desire for an artful rendering? By memory's rack focusing? By my demand that that event play out as a chapter in a story I'm creating (the characters in character, the event thematically useful)? When David Hockney says "All painting, no matter what you are painting, is abstract in that it's got to be organized," I hear: though we cannot re-order our life as lived, we can re-order its telling. We can organize our materials, as it were, in conscious and unconscious ways, each rearrangement abstracting the past more and more. I've written before about the time one of my siblings waggishly wedged my foot between train tracks as a (far away) train was approaching. I disengaged myself and all was well, but not before setting into motion the dramatization of that moment in my memory. Over the decades, a trivial and unimportant scene has been abstracted to the level of High Art. That is, Something Of Value. I visit the gallery often, usually struck by what I missed the last time around, how that image evokes so much more than its likeness, how a blurring of a line, a thickening of impasto, a smear of the representational to the mysterious, re-presents that past so urgently.