Monday, March 28, 2011

The problem with Alzheimer's narratives, part 3: Thomas DeBaggio's _Losing My Mind_ & more

Alzheimer's is like trying to describe air.

My previous attempt to write about Thomas DeBaggio's Alzheimer's memoir, Losing My Mind: An Intimate Look at Life with Alzheimer's (The Free Press, 2003), netted a collage poem rather than an essay, here. That poem collages the words of DeBaggio with lines from George Oppen's late poems; reading the memoir offered me access to the Alzheimer's in Oppen's writing, especially since DeBaggio's bad dreams so mirrored Oppen's. But now I'd like to look at Losing My Mind more critically, in the third part of a sequence, "The problem with Alzheimer's narratives." Part one is here; part two there. (Digression: Bryant asked me if I would write three blog posts on this subject, to which I responded that I was going to argue for chaos in a neat three part dialectic! Today is synthesis day at Tinfish Editor's Blog.)

My argument, so far, is best distilled in reading Rachel Hadas's reading of Emily Dickinson's poem, containing these lines: "Ruin is form--Devil's work / Consecutive and slow-- / Fail in an instant, no man did / Slipping--is Crash's law." In that last post, I wrote that, "Hadas reads this poem as capturing "the theme of the extreme insidiousness of the loss" [of dementia]; what strikes me is that the "failure" of the rhyme (deliberate as it may be) evokes insidiousness rather than merely conveys it." It's the difference between language and form as conveyance and as evocation that's at the heart of my argument about Alzheimer's narrative. While most such narratives convey from the point of view of the child or partner of the Alzheimer's patient what it means to live with the disease, I'm arguing for narratives that evoke the illness for the reader.

In a 2003 essay, "Looking back from loss: views of the self in Alzheimer's disease," Anne Davis Basting notes that "There are only a handful of published texts in which the primary author is the person with the disease" (88). Thomas DeBaggio's is one of these, published at nearly the same time Basting was writing her article about several other such narratives. DeBaggio was a journalist, one obsessed with the craft of writing, so his memoir is as much about writing as it is about his disease. Since there is no separating this disease from thinking, writing and illness dovetail in amazing passages about the difficulty of writing through Alzheimer's.

DeBaggio divides his book into three sections; these sections weave together, rather than move in linear sequence. He explains them in the Author's Note. "I call the first narrative the Baby Book," he writes. This is the repository of his long-term memories from early childhood until the early 1970s, or some 20 years before he began writing this book. "A second narration intersects the first, relating stories of humiliation and loss." This narrative occurs in the present, which is full of "memory lapses and language dificulties [sic]." It also occurs in italics, and is more meditative than the other sections. The third narrative is factual, relates the results of recent Alzheimer's research. He ends the note by noting, "All this is mixed together, as it is in the brain, and follows a pattern of its own" (xi). What he does not say up front is that the book also repeats itself. The Discussion Guide's question number 6 seems disingenuous, when it asks the reader: "Losing My Mind has passages that are repeated at times, particularly in the second half. Do you think this is intentional?" (212)

Or maybe it's only half-disingenuous, because it's here one senses that the book comes to us from both an author and an editor who work at common and sometimes at cross-purposes. The repetitions, which come to us toward the end of the book, sound like odd echoes, except they require a new term, since echoes can be heard as repetition, whereas Alzheimer's repetitions cannot. A writer who hears her own echoes edits them out. At the moment when DeBaggio repeats the story of finishing Catcher in the Rye as an airplane lands, then "looking for 'phonies' and easily [spotting] them tangled in their insecurities," we witness this repetition-effect-affect. It causes the reader confusion at first: why am I hearing this sentence or paragraph again? What could it mean? Does it mean anything? Like the author himself, we are searching our minds for something that may or may not be there. We rifle through the book looking for the repetition; it becomes something that we've (if only momentarily) lost. Back on my figurative feet, I wonder what role the editor played in this: were these Alzheimer's echoes in the original text? Are they staged to perform Alzheimer's? Does it matter? How many such repetitions were admitted into the final text, how many removed? How strong an effect was the editor willing to permit in the book?

I admire the publisher for including these lapses-that-are-not-lapses but integral moments in the illness. But I wonder about the rest of the text; even as DeBaggio devotes a lot of time to inventorying his difficulties in writing, the book is largely "clean" of error. Here are just a few moments where he remarks on his problems in writing:

I am being gobbled up in time. The words are under control but the letter that form the words squirm in their own directions. (20) (italics his)

Words slice through my mind so fast I cannot catch them and marry them to the eternity of the page. (27)

[And less grandly, not in the italics that indicate the wisdom stream of the book:]

Writing sometimes becomes difficult. Words vanish before they reach the page. Most of the time the biggest drawback is my plummeting typing accuracy. So far there are few words the spell checker cannot correct. (31)

My ability to remember words is diminishing rapidly and I can often see the subject but its name eludes me, and this makes me angry and frustrated. (73)

I have just spent five minutes struggling to spell the word "hour." (105)

More and more I am unconsciously mixing words that have similar sounds: our and out, would and wood, me and be, to name a few. This leaking alphabet of reality is something I might have expected in speech, not in writing. (181)

Almost every minute of the day is destroyed by the struggle to reclaim lost words in my search to communicate. It is a losing battle, but I will sing until no word is left. Alzheimer's is making me mute. (187)

The struggle to find the words, to express myself, has become insurmountable. I must now be done with writing and lick words instead. (207)

While the repetitions folded into the text, unannounced as such, evoke the Alzheimer's effect, other effects are only announced. As Basting writes about another Alzheimer's memoir, "Although [Diana Friel] McGowin describes the symptoms of Alzheimer's, she does so in language cleansed of the disease--spelling, grammar, and memory of dialogue and events are pristinely intact" (89). While I want to think that the misspelling of "difficulties" in his Author's Note ("memory lapses and language dificulties") is left in to acknowledge the difficulty, I suspect that this is an ordinary typo (the book's own dementia, which it shares with every other text I've ever read!). For the rest of the book is free of the disease. What are typos to us--mistakes, in other words--are intrinsic functions of the illness. They are not mistakes; they are worse than mistakes. They bear witness to a mind's self-loss. The one page of George Edwards's handwriting that Rachel Hadas offers us is worth a hundred pages of typo-free text about the author's problems spelling words! This is where I want to tell the editor to edit less, let in more of the dificulty [sic].

Susan Howe and others have written eloquently about Puritan women's testimonials, which were edited, hence altered, by male ministers. Emily Dickinson's wild texts were weeded and presented to the reader as lawns by male editors (the metaphor is mine). According to Susan Howe: "The issue of editorial control is directly connected to the attempted erasure of antinomianism in our culture. Lawlessness seen as negligence is at first feminized and then restricted or banished" (quoted in Schultz 148). Substitute the word "Alzheimer's" for "antinomian" and you have the argument I want to make here. (That Alzheimer's is largely a disease afflicting women--those who live longest--renders Howe's argument more uncanny yet.) While there's certainly a difference between religious awareness and illness, both their effects are strong, need to be presented "faithfully" in published texts. Do not edit out what makes Alzheimer's texts most powerful, most illustrative of the disease. Leave us undemented readers to struggle with the words, as the writer himself did. If it took DeBaggio five minutes to remember how to spell the word "hour," then it should take us time to read his dificulties, too. Making it easy to absorb DeBaggio's text does not offer us anywhere near a complete picture of what it meant for him to compose it. Absorption, as Charles Bernstein put it in a very different context, is artifice.

To hide Alzheimer's bad spelling is to hide Alzheimer's. And that's what our culture does. It puts sufferers in "homes" or leaves them in their houses to sit by themselves. Very few of us, unless we have relatives with Alzheimer's, are allowed to see the real, if altered, people who suffer from this illness. There are real walls between us and them. And then there are the editorial walls. They're just doing their jobs, I know, those editors. But sometimes the better course is to leave be. Let be be finale of seem, or seam, or seme.

Most Alzheimer's sufferers will not write a book; most of them will not leave the single, profound page that Edwards left for his wife to publish in her memoir. So the discussion I've just had about editing doesn't generally apply to Alzheimer's narratives. Most are and will be written by the well, the witnesses instead of those with the illness. Most will not evoke the illness's effects by using the authority of the "I" (first person knower) to describe it, even if that "I" is losing its authority day by day, page by page. So what then? How are the rest of us to write about Alzheimer's? How can we evoke rather than merely convey our experiences of the illness? And here I begin to repeat myself, as I've addressed this question elsewhere on this blog, and in Dementia Blog and Old Women Look Like This. (Somewhere in the thicket is this post.) And in that post is the kernel of the argument I'll deliver at the Brunel conference in early April, namely that "linear, diachronic narrative strategies assume a logic that the disease has already destroyed, and that we need to use other forms to get at the illness's chaotic thinking."

Appropriately, then, the argument I'm looking for has already happened, over and again, in this space. To find it, I have to hunt back through many posts over the past two or three years. But arguments, like memoirs, are noisy things. And the real crux of the Alzheimer's problem is not its noise, but its silences. When I wrote to Ben Friedlander recently to ask where to find Emerson's dementia in his late work, he responded ‎"@Susan: the two-volume Library of America edition that came out a few years ago is by far the best abridgment. But I occasionally check out the Harvard volumes for browsing, not to mention the notes. The dementia registers in silence: there is very little writing from the last years. Apparently the manuscripts of the late essays--which he couldn't finish on his own--include numerous and sometimes extended repeated passages, which is perhaps the best testament to what was going on. I'd like to see a transcript." There's silence from Emerson, and then there's the other telling silenc(ing), by editors--the helpers who finished for him--removing the repetitions, cleansing the text of his and its illness.

Silences, repetitions. Silenced repetitions. The Alzheimer's sufferer's repetitions are cleansed; the memoirist (like Franzen, like Hadas) leaves them out, writes over them, corrects their spelling. What I want to see are the writings of Alzheimer's sufferers as they were actually penned or pencilled or pixilated. What I want to see from the rest of us is an awareness that our confusions cannot be fixed through narrative or by way of poem. That we need to find a way to evoke these confusions, rather than solve them, or merely convey them. The conveyor belt of narrative has wonderful purposes, yes, but we need to put the knife to it. The Alzheimer's belt has broken. Our stories need to, too.

[The headnote is by Thomas DeBaggio; I'm saving the "click to look inside" from the page for its many resonances]


Anne Davis Basting, "Looking back from loss: views of the self in Alzheimer's disease," Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 87-99.

Susan M. Schultz, A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The problem with Alzheimer's narratives, part 2: Rachel Hadas's _Strange Relation_

Let me repeat the problem in writing Alzheimer's, as of my last post: Those from whom one wants to hear word cannot--beyond some point--speak. They cannot describe themselves or the situation in which they exist, just beyond the veil we catch on when we ask those simple questions, like "What's your name?" "Who is the president?" "What day of the week is it?" "Do you want to eat?" Those who write Alzheimer's memoirs, therefore, are not victims, but survivors: children, spouses.

A quick facebook question from Chris McKinney allows me to refine my statement of the problem a bit. If the problem can be explained in terms of literary form, then it is two-pronged. On the one hand, the Alzheimer's memoirist uses the first-person pronoun, which makes him or her, not the person who has Alzheimer's, the central focus of the work. On the other, the form of the work, no matter what the genre, tends to be realist, self-contained, linear. It presumes that stories matter because they make sense, the kind of sense that leads the reader from a beginning to a middle and then an end. Between the first person pronoun, which presumes a singular identity, and the narrative, which presumes development of some kind, the very forms used by most writers about Alzheimer's fail in the face of a condition whose "progress" is regression, degeneration, falling apart. This condition fails-to-work on the level of the sentence, as much as on the level of memory, cognition, physical movement. What these texts offer (sense-making) is consolation. But Alzheimer's defeats literary consolation, as it defeats other forms of it, as well. The elegy demands an ending before it opens; Alzheimer's refuses to offer one. It's like Xeno's paradox, to which there is no apt marker.

My last post engaged Jonathan Franzen's essay, "My Father's Brain," along these lines (or tangles). That essay comes up in the next text I'd like to examine, namely Rachel Hadas's book, Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry (Paul Dry Books, 2011). Early on, as she thinks about how mysterious is the onset of Alzheimer's, she quotes Franzen's essay. Like Franzen, Hadas has lived with a man (her husband, George Edwards) who never was communicative, warm, friendly; like him, she wonders when that natural interiority became the awful inwardness of dementia. She also cites Franzen's sentence, "I still needed him to be an actor in the story of myself" (21), as a marker of how we fail to see "anyone else's behavior as a whole" (20).

Like Franzen's essay, Hadas's book is written in straightforward (and in her case often beautiful) prose. The book is as much about poetry as it is about Alzheimer's; clearly, Hadas's primary refuge from the awful rigors of living for upwards of a decade with a man who is no longer who he was is to read and write poetry. These poems, like the book itself, are formalist: they follow clear, traditional rules. Even when the lines and sentences are about collapse they do their work. They are sturdy. There is nobility in this sturdiness, but there is also something missing from it. What often seems missing is George, the husband, the (or one) subject of the book. The terrible rawness of her encounter with Alzheimer's is written over, made smooth--even as the information she relays is awful. Too often (but oh so understandably) this poet who loves similes uses it to leave behind the situation she has thrown us in: "The one-way road, the slow train, the uncertain sky: all these helped me, if not to understand what was going on, then to understand how little I could do about it, and, with this understanding, to manage the ups and downs, the fitful bursts of sunshine succeeded by more clouds" (48).

On the very next page, Hadas tells us that George "virtually never used the pronoun 'I,' as in 'I'm tired,' 'I'm hungry,' 'I want...'" (49). Whether or not the lack of a personal pronoun indicates lack of agency or self is a debate I'll leave to the experts (linguists? psychologists? neurologists?), but this fact--his lack of an "I"--is moving. I feel an emotional and intellectual tug here. I want to stop, absorb this news, let it settle. But instead, this news leads to perhaps the most problematic passage in the book, where Hadas and her sister develop "similes" for George. "George silently drifted in from the living room and sat down opposite her at the table, eyeing her plate (as she said later) 'like a cow coming up to the fence'" (49). Hadas thinks this simile worthy of Homer; more in the Disney vein is the comparison of George to a "'giant hamster'" (49). "But everyone who heard it laughed," she reports; "it was funny, and right, and helpful. In the world of dementia, a laugh, like a simile, is something they don't write prescriptions for" (49). Let me tread softly here, because I also know how funny Alzheimer's patients can be, how laughter among the caretakers can ease many a traumatic moment. But in this paragraph, which I take to be well-meaning, "the world of dementia" exists for those who retain their "I's," not for those who do not. While the paragraph begins with George's lack of self, it ends with the humorous assertions of the non-demented self, making similes of the demented one's dis-ease. George is not literature; he suffers. I've told this story before, but when I gave a talk on Dementia Blog at the Center for Literary Biography in 2008, I said that Alzheimer's is like a neutron bomb; it destroys everything inside the body, but leaves the shell. The old woman who called me on that metaphor was right. There is more than shell, more than bumbling, to an Alzheimer's patient.

Hadas is honest in her admission that the book is as much--or more--about her struggles with the illness than with her husband's: "Much has been written about dementia as an insidious disease. Few writers, however, talk about the insidiousness of the way a person living alongside the disease is first blind to it and then grows used to it" (115). She is also honest in expressing the "bad" feelings she has toward his silences, his inabilities, about her own loneliness, and the doubts she begins to feel about their earlier, happier, life together. This aspect of the book, its raw honesty, reminds me of Jana Wolff's Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother, a book that lays out an adoptive parents' fears in ways that most of us bob and weave to avoid saying out loud. Hadas says it by extending her simile: "There's the one-way road and the changeable sky; the cow at the fence and the tall hamster; and the prison house called marriage . . . Be careful what you wish for: Here I am, immured alongside him" (52).

The form of Hadas's life becomes one of confinement, not chaos. As a poet friend said to me the other day, we see the world in the forms that are most natural to us. And so Hadas sees the world in poetic forms that I am suspicious of, forms that contain rather than forms that open out. She still believes--wants to believe--that poetry can contain the pain she feels. In describing the end of a summer vacation, through the words of Frank Kermode, she expresses her belief in patterns, forms: "People 'in the middest,' as Kermode observes, 'make considerable imaginative investments in coherent patterns which, by the provision of an end, make possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and the middle" (168). Hence, "No person could hold these strong feelings in suspension, give them a shape we can grasp, an articulation we can remember. No one person could. But sometimes poetry can" (121). The kind of poetry Hadas reads for meaning is graspable; its meanings come in boxes, containers, rooms (like the stanza's). There is not even the instability of the sonnet sequence, in which each poem only stays our confusion until the next poem re-opens the paradox, problem, wound, and tries--again--to solve or salve it. Perhaps closest to the tradition that makes sense (ironic, eh?) of this perplex is Dickinson's poetry. Hadas quotes the poem that contains this stanza:

Ruin is form--Devil's work
Consecutive and slow--
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping--is Crash's law.

But how devious is Dickinson here. Crash has a law, yes, but "law" only half-rhymes with "slow." The discomfort left by the near-rhyme evokes the discomfort one feels in thinking about Ruin or the Devil. Hadas reads this poem as capturing "the theme of the extreme insidiousness of the loss" [of dementia]; what strikes me is that the "failure" of the rhyme (deliberate as it may be) evokes insidiousness rather than merely conveys it.

This idea that the text should evoke and not convey thought and feeling leads me to the two moments in Hadas's book that I find most powerful. The first, which offers a half-rhyme to Jonathan Franzen's citation of a letter his father wrote to a grandson, but never sent, is a "stray sheet of yellow legal paper somewhere in his room" (160). She writes, "I seem to need to keep this piece of paper near me. Sometimes when people ask how George is doing I have the impulse to show it to them. If they are people I like and trust, sometimes I do show it to them" (160). And then she shows it. I would like to think that her trust in this one reader she does not know is earned:

As I proof-read this post, I realize that I have said nothing about this page. What is moving about it is that the composer of it has asserted himself (his name is at the top), despite great difficulty holding the pen; that he is trying with great, graphic, difficulty to get out thoughts he cannot compass ("in in a a less more sens sense in more less the less morre the my more the producte..."); that his language IS still eloquent (think Gertrude Stein, think the residents of my mother's Alzheimer's home, whose words I did my best to transcribe here); that he is still making something. I accept Hadas's gift of this page with tenderness and not a little anxiety. More than the rest of the book, this is mine to deal with as I can; I'm set out on the same skiff she's on, and I'm not sure how to steer it, if it can be steered. So it's not simply the form (yellow legal pad with writing on it) or the content (which cannot be ascertained), but some combination of them both that pierces through the narrative voice and the reader's eye/ear.

The other moment occurs at the end of the book. This is the final paragraph:

George tries to catch some of the bubbles we're blowing, and laughs. Other bubbles land with a silent plop on the pages of the coloring book I've brought out again with the paints, brushes, and a glass of water. I've just about finished the fish mandala, and for a change of pace I open the medieval tapestry coloring book Amy passed on to me. I choose a picture of Death riding a pale horse. I think I'll paint the sky an ominous, apocalyptic red. But for now, I twirl a small brush first in the green paint, then in the yellow, and begin to color in the leaves on the greens of the forest through which Death is riding. (199)

Bubbles, coloring book, mandala. All of these are beautiful, and none of them lasts. I can see George blowing bubbles, coloring; I can hear him laugh. He exists for me on this page in a way he has not lived on any page before this. Each object--bubble, coloring book, mandala--arrives at a form and then loses it. Each loss is as it should be. (Remember the little boy who destroyed a mandala in Kansas City, and the monks who then simply set about making it again, so that it could again be dissolved?) Death is riding, but that's an active verb, and the poet's attention is, in any case, not on him but on the "leaves of the trees of the forest" (199). Just after quoting Frank Kermode on "coherent patterns," (see above) Hadas writes, "Absent these imaginative investments in patterns, endings are always problematic." In this last paragraph of her book, she has found a way to invest in patterns, while accepting the problematic non-ending of her husband's illness. Form and formlessness, coming into being and leaving it, these mark the oscillations that will perhaps offer Hadas another beginning, another leaf on the tree that the horseman will, inevitably, pass by.

Next up: Alzheimer's and the editor

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The problem with Alzheimer's narratives

This is the first of at least three forthcoming posts on Alzheimer's and narrative, which work toward a conference paper in London in early April at Brunel University for the New Cultures of Ageing Conference.


Those from whom one wants to hear word cannot--beyond some point--speak. They cannot describe themselves or the situation in which they exist, just beyond the veil we catch on when we ask those simple questions, like "What's your name?" "Who is the president?" "What day of the week is it?" "Do you want to eat?" Those who write Alzheimer's memoirs, therefore, are not victims, but survivors: children, spouses. Between the silence imposed by the illness and the very real problem of how to engage with an unengageable fact, Alzheimer's narratives (non-fiction, fiction, even poems) can't get at the disease. Most devolve into memoirs of living with the disease, rather than experiencing it; they are about the disease, not the person suffering the disease. If I am the person constantly talking about my relative with Alzheimer's, then she becomes nothing more than a cover for the illness. The illness, one might say, does all of the not-talking. Even more troubling, the fact of non-response inspires festivals of the first person, discursive accounts that put the spectator between the reader and what she reads about. As I (ah, the dreaded first person) read these memoirs, I want to swat the spectator away. It's like watching a great baseball game and being constantly interrupted by prattling announcers whose minds and mouths are elsewhere. But enough editorializing, for now.

In a Ph.D. examination defense recently, one of my colleagues asked the candidate what he thought of contemporary fiction's reliance on the first person. There's not much student fiction, on any level, he said, that isn't written from that solitary viewpoint. The test taker agreed, and responded that it was easier to circumscribe the world through a single view than through a more comprehensive (we, they, the omniscient guy) view. That it was a case of "write what you know" gone monotone. This got me to thinking about how memoirs suffer from this problem, too. Of course one assumes that a memoir will be told in the first person, but if the memoir is actually about someone else, the person with an illness that renders them mute, then how to jump-start a "we," when "we" is a concept known only to the writer and not to the subject of her writing? It all begins to feel like higher math, but math that describes terrible loss, the loss of one or more pronoun-selves. Some sort of null-set in words.

The New Yorker
of September 10, 2001, oh day before the day we're told the world changed, contained an essay by Jonathan Franzen called "My Father's Brain"; it's collected in his 2003 essay collection, How To Be Alone. This essay, which runs approximately 30 pages in the book, tells the story of Earl Franzen's last years, those during which he (and his wife) suffered through his Alzheimer's. Never a terribly communicative man, Earl Franzen became less and less talkative, and finally died in the hospital in the mid-1990s. The son who writes the story came and went, trying his best to help out his mother. In the style of creative non-fiction, Franzen writes into his own narrative that of Alois Alzheimer's discovery of the disease. He has done his research, drawing from David Shenk's The Forgetting and other sources. He also draws from family letters--letters to him from his mother, letters from his father, when he could still write. Like all Alzheimer's tales, the story causes its teller pain early, and ends late.

The most moving part of the essay is a transcription of the letter Earl Franzen wrote to a grandson in 1992, but left in a drawer, rather than send it. "I know that my writing will not be easy to read, but I have a problem with the nerves in my legs and tremors in my hands. In looking at what I have written, I expect you will have difficulty to understand, but with a little luck, I may keep up with you," he writes (35). The letter ends with a brief report on the weather and a P.S. thanking the boy for "gifts." How very hard to understand a letter that is not even sent. The not-sending adds to the reader's feeling in reading the letter the boy never received. There's also something powerful in the phrase "I know that my writing will not be easy to read," as one imagines how difficult it was to write such a simple sentence. As John Emil Vincent noted about Ashbery's "difficulty," it simply goes with the territory, whether that territory is queer or demented. There's more than one difficulty here, and they're both difficult to absorb.

So why is Jonathan Franzen's essay so difficult to read? It's not the prose, which flows easily, gathers narrative momentum and then stops when Earl Franzen's heart does. It's not that Franzen is overly sentimental, because he is not; he recognizes the difficulties in his parents' marriage and in his own actions toward them. But it's difficult to read because there's so little of the father in the essay (despite its title, "My Father's Brain") and so very much of the narrator. Over the course of the 30 pages in the book, Franzen uses the first person pronoun, I, 172 times. That's not counting the "me" and "my" that often accompanies the "I," as in "my father." Despite the several pages of facts, on which there are very few references to Jonathan Franzen, he is using the first person, on average, between five and six times per page.

Now some of these "I's" are inevitable in such a story. But what is most striking is that the I-count rises precipitously just as Franzen senior dies. The story of the father nearly disappears in the shadow of the son's first person. But let me begin from the problem of story and return to the first person issue later. In such a story, which follows a linear narrative, the narrator must set forth his stake in the story, and then lead us from incident to incident; he must make sense along the way, because stories make sense. (That Alzheimer's does not, at least not in the way we usually think of sense, is a big problem.) But Franzen thinks a lot about story; he tells his stories a lot. He tells stories about telling his stories. Of the February day when he received the report of his father's autopsy from his mother, along with a greeting card, two Mr. Goodbars, and a heart on a loop of thread. "But the fact that I've re-remembered that February morning countless times since then, I've told the story to my brothers, I've offered it as an Outrageous Mother Incident to friends of mine who enjoy that kind of thing, I've even, shameful to report, told people I hardly know at all" (9). One wonders if we readers, the ones he "hardly know[s] at all" still provoke shame, if he keeps telling the story about the story to mitigate that shame. Or if his recursiveness is more about addressing that shame than getting at the meaning of his father's dying and death.

The storyteller cannot control his story. That bothers him. As he writes a couple pages later, even before he tells us that his father took "a narrative interest in life" (12): "This was his disease. It was also, you could argue, his story. But you have to let me tell it" (11). This is not an invitation; this is an order, akin to Whitman's "what I assume you shall assume," if not so eloquently ordained. The reader must hear it from Jonathan Franzen. It must be mediated through this narrative that moves forward into a future that will end with the father's death. His father will not tell the story, except in that one letter. As if to reinforce this new order, Franzen continues: "Indeed, I'm somewhat appalled by how large I loom in my own memories, how peripheral my parents are" (11). He figures that this self-looming is due to his absence from his parents' lives, the fact that he only enters the scene every so often as "a U.N. peacekeeping force" (12). When the younger Franzen comes to help his mother deal with her own surgery and the decline of her husband, on a page that contains 14 first persons (the moments of crisis elicit the most I-statements), he notes: "In a similar way, I think I was inclined to interpolate across my father's silences and mental absences and to persist in seeing him as the same old wholly whole Earl Franzen. I still needed him to be an actor in my story of myself" (15).

Another of these moments of crisis occurred, for Jonathan Franzen, when he had to come to terms with the very concept of Alzheimer's disease. For a long time, he had refused to acknowledge his father's steady, but slow, decay, and had been suspicious of the "illness" (as are many of us when first confronted by mental illnesses, our own or others'). When he does realize that the something that is wrong is biological, he gets there in a flurry of "I's": "They point to the brain as meat. And, where I ought to recognize that, yes, the brain is meat, I seem instead to maintain a blind spot across which I then interpolate stories that emphasize the more soul-like aspects of the self" (19). The blind spot is productive, because it generates stories, and stories mean more than biology can offer. (I know that one well, myself.) That Franzen acknowledges that his "sense of private selfhood turns out to have been illusory" (20) is wise. But it does not have any effect on the form of his telling the story. He has arrived at a recognition that ought to recast story itself, but the story marches on, like Wily Coyote who's gone off the cliff, but still runs as per usual.

Wisdom occurs in bursts of first persons, then. "I found that watching my father lose all three [intelligence and sanity and self-consciousness] made me less afraid of losing them myself. I became a little less afraid in general. A bad door opened, and I found I was able to walk through it" (25). Or "I can't stop looking for meaning in the two years that followed his loss of his supposed 'self,' and I can't stop finding it" (30). But how can the notion of "supposed self" sustain a straightforward narrative? And what of Mr. Franzen, the elder? He is teacher, but who else might he be?

And then Earl Franzen dies. Over the course of the two pages of his dying, his son uses the first person 30 times, 11 on page 36, when he goes into the hospital to see his father, and 10 on page 37, when Earl Franzen passes on. His death is long: "And still he didn't die. . . . my mother and I sat in the dark. I don't like to remember how impatient I was for my father's breathing to stop, how ready to be free of him I was. I don't like to imagine what he was feeling as he lay there, what dim or vivid sensory or emotional forms his struggle took inside his head. But I also don't like to believe that there was nothing" (37). Even his father's death is announced by the son, as it happened, and as it happens again for us: "when I noticed that he was drawing his hands up toward his throat, I said, 'I think something is happening'" (37). That something is happening marks the ending. Death is what happens for the son, even as death is what begins the long non-happening for the father.

And so the story of the father's loss of self, first through illness and then in death, is met by constant assertions of the son's/author's self. There's an almost too-clear conjunction between loss and recompense, where that recompense is insisted upon, nearly shouted out, on every page. To acknowledge the author's own unraveling as he gazes in the mirror of his father's dying would be to acknowledge the lack of power of story in the way he tells it. So there's a double anxiety here. I am, and I tell stories. Damn it!

And if one were to answer the story's unraveling with an unraveling story?

Solution? Stay posted. There isn't one certain, but there are strategies to consider.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Martha's visit--3/23/2011

Martha was sitting in her chair twisted to one side. She recognized me when I arrived and said that she felt fine. We looked at the pop-ups from The Little Prince. She was able to read the title to me but didn't show that much interest in the artwork.
I asked her if she would like to take a walk and she said no.
Her hair was cut short and her nails done. She looked well-groomed.
At that time, we heard that Elizabeth Taylor had died today. I asked her if she remembered her and liked her and she felt positive about her. I was surprised to hear her ask, "what did she die from?"
I found out that she needs new pants and I tried to get in touch with Jessica to see if she had purchased any since I was close to JC Penny.
Spoke with E. Martha is stable. Feb. weight was 99.2; March's is 100.4.

[ J ]
Geriatric Care Manager

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A poem editorial on the "no fly zone"

I dreamed of a beach covered in trash—plastics, glass balls, single slippers, a couch—and a sky where a stealth bomber sailed. On the bomber a large magnet gathered rubbish up from the beach. It was a trash rapture, the lifting up of junk toward a transcendent black plane. Stealth bombers this morning over Libya. And the slow alert of tsunami trash circulating the Pacific, following old trade routes, an empire of junk. We've confused firepower with cleansing, no-fly zones with highways of death: our empire stinks of rot. Liberation theology this is not, counter-faith of force, immune to radar and yet not in any sense holy. We await the news, the ever-breaking news.

For Michael Snediker

--20 March 2011

The opening is from Lyn Hejinian's The Cell, part of my on-going memory card series based on (mostly) randomly chosen pieces of other poets' work. The ending was inspired by a facebook take-down of the phrase "breaking news" by Michael Snediker. The poem sounds more certain than I do in conversation (inner or outer) on this subject; I am confused over the intervention "to save civilian lives," suspecting as I do that such saving is benevolent, but military actions are bound up in histories and futures we cannot begin to understand or control. And so these events enter the realm of the poetic more even than the historical. The metaphorical shifts are especially violent, on the level of the sentence (from 1848 to what? from Iraq War to what?, from no-fly zone to what?), but pale in comparison to actual violence against human beings.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Writing In and With the Pen: Kansas Poetry (a very partial account)

Just whose eyes did you think you would look out from anyway?

--Judith Roitman, "Diamond Notebooks," no face: selected & new poems, First Intensity Press, Lawrence, Kansas

Joseph Harrington knows that metaphors are facts more often than they are abstractions. When John Dean said of Richard Nixon's White House that "there is a cancer on the presidency," he intended it as metaphor. But Nixon, who "declared war on cancer" in 1971, was a literalist. Nixon resigned on the day that Joe Harrington's mother died of cancer, August 9, 1974; this awful synchronicity means that fact, more than language, becomes the poet's fossil poetry, to misquote Emerson (as indeed one should). Harrington's new book Things Come On: an amneoir (Wesleyan, 2011), tells the double chronicle of President Nixon and of Elizabeth Peoples Harrington, who died at age 54. It is only the first of a projected four volume poetic history of the women in Harrington's family, which will join the intimate with the public spheres.

I spent the summer of 1973 watching the Watergate hearings on television with my own mother, who raised me to detest Richard Nixon. She would talk back at his image. When he said "your president is not a crook," she would respond that, "oh yes he is." That summer she cleaned out all the drawers in the house, taking them downstairs so she could watch TV and get something done at the same time. Occasionally, she left the house: she went to the Federal Court and took an elevator with H.R. (Bob) Haldeman at one point, and later bought a lamp at Chuck Colson's garage sale, when he was sent to prison. Later even than that, I got stuck in Colson's driveway showing a friend the local northern Virginia Watergate haunts. My mother and I knew the Parkway rest stop where bags of money were passed to burglars. I am four years older than Joe Harrington, so my memories of that time are, if not "better," then more tangible, perhaps.

But Harrington was twelve years old when his mother died, ten when she was diagnosed with cancer. That's old enough to know one's mother as mother, but not as a full and complicated human being, especially one going through the trauma of cancer treatment and then death. He also watched the hearings, but emerged with the horrible irony that his memory of them was starker than of her: "I remember Daniel Inouye and Howard Baker better than I remember her. They left records." It was Baker who kept asking, "what did the President know and when did he know it?" It's left to Harrington to discover what he knows now about his mother; this book (re)presents the work it took for him to know it. The "amneoir" is at once a memoir that emerges out of forgetting and work that is born from amniotic fluid: it is literal (Harrington was born) and metaphorical (the nation was, we hoped, reborn). Amnesia is a state of forgetting; the amniotic fluid a place where memories cannot be made. But Harrington has made out of their conjunction his own history, and that of the country, mid-20th century.

If politicians leave records, so do ordinary citizens. Harrington's search began in August of 2006, just before the anniversary of his mother's death. A letter to him from "Health Information Management" at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis acknowledges his request for her medical records, then adds: "By law we are only required to maintain records for 10 years. We have destroyed all records prior to 1980." The Manager then adds the unhelpful sentence: "If you have any questions, please contact me. . ." (11). He had questions, though we assume he saved them for other archives, other managers.

Harrington mines a large trove of documents, from the Watergate hearing transcripts to newspaper articles, and includes medical records of his mother's illness, as well as a very moving handwritten letter by her that begins: "This experience has taught me how fast things can 'come on'--and should the bad times come, it is hard to make decisions" (32). There are photographs, a not so funny cartoon, drawings, a diagram, lists (one of the impulses behind this work comes of St. Ignatius's spiritual exercises), boxes of information, and fragmentary lyrics. At least. An admirer of scrapbooks, as he told his MFA student, Dennis Etzel, Jr. in a recent interview, Harrington has made a book of these scraps, one that acknowledges both his mother's scrapbooks and the history of documentary poems from Ezra Pound's "poem including history" to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee, as well as work by Muriel Rukeyser, Mark Nowak, C.D. Wright, Kristin Prevallet, and many others.

Harrington describes himself as a formalist, one for whom the organization of material on the page is crucial. He divides the book into two sections, "Investigation" and "Resignation." These section titles do double work, as does nearly everything in this book, oscillating back and forth between Nixon and Harrington's family, until transcripts of the Watergate hearings begin to include family voices. In a section entitled "ORDERED TO LIE ON THE TABLE AND TO BE PRINTED" (lie and lying, testimony and surgery), he includes two Mr. Harrington's. One is the poet's father (he is of Tennessee) and one is that of the poet himself, Mr. Harrington (Kansas). Both appear on the page as if they were congressmen who spoke at a hearing. The second voice seems to confuse child- and adulthood in provocative ways. So when the father says: "Well, I had to work--I had to support you . . ." and an audience member remarks on "How you must have felt!--" the poet responds in the tone of congressional testimony, but with a child's memory:

MR. HARRINGTON (Kan.): I often had fried haddock with a side of black-eyed peas. Or perhaps carrot-and-raisin salad. I had ceased drinking chocolate milk at this point in time.

To which MR. NIXON responds with a sigh: "It's all such a bunch of Goddamn dirty shit." (36)

Indeed. It's shit and it's shitty. It's metaphor and literal fact, all at once. No mere coincidence, perhaps, that Pres. Nixon's speech upon resigning--the rambling and drunken one before he got on the helicopter with one last flash of V's--was mostly about his mother:

"Nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my mother.
Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother:
My mother was a saint." (67)

At this point, Nixon's voice joins with that of Harrington's mother:

--Things come up and on o yes they are
a bunch of dirty squalid rotten shit (71)

whose ground was prepared by one of the poet's own fragmentary pieces, so:

physical death no metaphor
to transport you over or down river


The Dead will dead (66)

There's a distinct sense at the end that this poem has not achieved the elegy's traditional goal, consolation, but that "The mother dies, and the country . . . only got worse. That's the ending?" (71) Perhaps it is "not enough just to write down the story," as the poet wonders near the end of the book. But I, for one, am grateful that he has. Mourning is work and, although it may not work as planned or hoped, we are needful of it. While it may lack an ending, it cannot lack ongoing.

Nixon was never tried, of course, as President Ford pardoned him shortly after taking office. He spent the rest of his life writing books, attempting to rehabilitate his reputation (if not quite himself). The word "rehabilitation" has a more literal referent, to what is supposed to happen in prisons, as is "reform" and "penitence" to go with "penitentiary." This last word includes the word "pen," and the introductions to Douglas County Jail Blues, edited by University of Kansas faculty member Brian Daldorph, suggest the ways in which we (all of us, within and without the pen) hope writing can transform criminals into good citizens, addicts into non-addicts. Mike Caron, who runs programs at the Douglas County Correctional Facility (more correction!), writes: "I want to be able to tell the readers of this anthology that most of the poets represented here have had an epiphany, that in learning to express themselves on paper and having discovered the magic of giving voice to their experiences, emotions, and frustrations, they have been remade into healthy, clear-thinking, productive, law-abiding citizens" (6). This has not happened often, he avers. Daldorph adds, "I wish that the class had brought about the changes in inmate lives that many of them would like to make" (10). Ah, we writers want too much of our art sometimes. We want the immaterial (thought, expression) to lead ineluctably to material action (a new life).

But transformations do happen on the inside, even if the outside does not change, or if the outside proves merely to be a way station back to the inside. In one of the poems contained in the book, Jae Wae writes "A Good Excuse": "I only come back / to see if I / can get in / writing class" (53). The ironies are rife, but it's clear that "writing class" is terribly important to the prisoners whose work is included here, as it is to Daldorph, who has also written his own Jail Time, the testimony of man who can go in and come out again, because he is the teaching poet. His poem "Getting Out" chronicles one of these failed narratives of writing and reform:

Said he'd found poetry
like some guys find religion, and with that
he could straighten out.
He didn't need no more street life. (69)

But, as the second stanza makes clear, street life comes back to him when he's on the outside, and he'll be back.

But Wordsworth was not wrong in "Nuns Fret Not in Their Convent's Narrow Room." The narrow form of the cell, translated onto the narrowness of the page, provides these inmates with a space in which to know themselves. "Lyrical enthusiast," writes Jesse James, "enthusiastically inclined. / I fail at most everything until my pen unwinds" (47). In a lovely poem, "Spies Taste Like Lemons," D. Douglas writes about there being spies everywhere--in his coffee, his eggs, his hands--but he knows that he shares them with an audience on the outside:

I know there are spies
there are spies in you
'cause you share the coffee
the lemons
the water
and you share words
and punchlines with me. (21)

If many of us readers are "out," then Bobby Hickman writes the ode to "IN," based on an exercise involving that preposition:

My window to the world consists of
looking inside and not out. Looking
in on a world designed to be in.
In is where we don't want to be, yet
we spend most of our lives trying to fit in
or get in. I've tried so hard to stay out
but find myself always coming in. (41)

His last line plays on the in/out metaphor. It's worthy of Lakoff & Johnson. "Out is in another world. Getting there involves patience." That the "in" in "involves" is not put in bold face may be an accident, or I may have been trained by the poem to see it anyway. The "in" in "involve" is the introspection the poetry class offers permission for. There's some measure of freedom for the prisoner in that inwardness.

Megan Kaminiski is a writer in Lawrence, by way of Charlottesville, Portland, Davis, California, and elsewhere. (Were she older or I younger, we would have crossed paths earlier.) She has a Dusie chapbook coming soon, among other publications. Google her. We traded notes on our times at the University of Virginia, where we both discovered (over 20 years apart) that our poetics did not fit well into the dominant narrative mode of the place. Megan and two professors at the University of Alabama invented "The Hawk & Tide Exchange" in Fall 2009. As she wrote about the idea in a proposal: "The premise was simple: a group of undergrads from traditionally under-served portions of the country would read together, attend a professional reading or arts event at each other's school, and simply get to know each other and other professional writers. The project was a great success," she continues, "with over 150 students, faculty, and community members participating in the Lawrence-based events alone." More recently, she organized a similar exchange with the University of Central Arkansas--students from Arkansas will be traveling soon to Lawrence to fulfill their half of this program, called ArKansas Literary Exchange. Like Brian Daldorph's project in the prisons, this one seems exemplary in its community-building outside the English department building.

[Here's a photo of the KU exchange students before their reading at the University of Alabama.]

Years ago I had a local student whose life was transformed by the LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, which I was then using in a course on poet critics, and which I've taught since in classes on poetry and politics. Kristie Morikawa's Baraka-induced epiphany--only counter-intuitive before you think about it--was that she should devote her life to teaching the local literature of Hawai`i. In Kansas I spent some time with William J. Harris, known to his friends as Billy Jo, who had edited that transformative tome. Billy Jo teaches poetry in the KU Creative Writing program, alongside Joe Harrington. His new chapbook is bilingual; on the left side you see his original English, and then on the right comes the Italian version. While I do not read or speak Italian, I can tell that the translation was no mean feat, even if the language is sparse, ostensibly simple. For example, here's the English:

I’m No Martian

Shit, man, I’m no Martian
My mother was born in Brooklyn Heights

I just went to a couple of Martian meetings
Just went to a few Martian parties
Slept with a few Martian girls
But shit, man, I ain’t no Martian

This becomes, in Italian:

Non sono un marziano
Cazzo, amico, non sono un marziano

Mia madre è nata a Brooklyn Heights
Sono andato soltanto a un paio di incontri marziani
Soltanto a qualche party marziano
Anche dormito con un po’ di ragazze marziane
Però cazzo, amico, non sono un marziano

But how does one translate the idea of Martian from Brooklyn American English to Italian? That would be a question doubtless faced by the translator, if not answered by her. When she (Nicola Manuppelli) interviewed Billy Jo, she asked him more conventional questions about his genealogy, his interest in painting (European) and music (jazz and early Dylan), and why he writes comic poems ("Humor is important to my family"). But his poetics is best addressed by reading a deceptively short poem called "Practical Concerns." In it, the poet approaches someone digging a hole at the bottom of which is a bird. He asks the digger if he may have a word with the bird. When they get down to talking, it's about singing, "very little about technique." Clearly, Harris has thought about technique, but also knows when to let it drop.

I'm skipping a wonderful Lawrence poet, Ken Irby, because his book was too heavy for me to buy at The Raven Bookshop. It's a terrible excuse, I know, and shall be remedied soon. I already had an enormous tome to read as part of my duties as an outside evaluator for the KU English department and could not afford another huge brick, however more I would have preferred its lyrics to the bureaucratic prose of Strategic Plans, the graphs of student satisfaction, and oh the cv's! But I was lucky enough to spend a hour or so with Judith Roitman, a KU math professor and poet, who passed on her selected & new poems from First Intensity Press, no face. (The front cover shows what I believe is the back of Roitman's head, her black and gray hair cut short--this is an image that Sangha approved of this morning when I showed him the book.) Roitman is also a Zen practitioner, along with her husband Stan Lombardo, a classicist and translator of Homer (the other great writer, he said, along with Shakespeare, though I then pointed out that Homer didn't write!)

On the plane from San Francisco to Honolulu, I read through her "Diamond Notebooks." This is a lovely extended sequence, meditative in the way that Norman Fischer's Charlotte's Way tracks the mind as it wanders fruitfully across land and history and episodic memory. In some ways, Roitman's poem responds to the Bosnian war; there is mention of Sarajevo on the first page: "The boy with his neat haircut crying in the bus about to leave Sarajevo, his father's hand pressed against the window from outside. / Soon the scenery will change, the boy is scared, but he has never been so far before, so in some ways it seems wonderful" (11). In among the references to Bosnia are digressions, courses of meditation (I wrote at length on meditative poetry here) on house, on death, on words, on children, on schizophrenia, and on why it is one thinks about all these things.

Contemplation of schizophrenia at a stoplight although there is nothing to trigger it, the empty street in front and traffic
behind her, going all the way. Why does she think of people she
has known who even now
are suffering from tardive dyskinesia, unless they are dead? Even
driving by a man throwing a javelin she can't stop herself. (29)

The man throwing the javelin might well be an hallucination (on the inner eye, as Stevens notes somewhere), or he is simply one of those images encountered every day that makes no sense until he's put into long lines about thinking. Even then, he often doesn't make sense. This is one of those long poems I want to keep quoting, more and more extensively:

Lilac like snakes, like moccasins. One of those words, like salt,
that doesn't adhere.

And so the entire poem cannot adhere here, either. But I encourage anyone who has read this far in this post to seek out these poets from Lawrence, Kansas.

Stan Lombardo
gave us external reviewers (he was the internal external reviewer, which sounds like part of a bad warning label) a farewell William S. Burroughs tour of Lawrence; we stopped for a brief photo of his house (my photo evaporated between iPhoto and the blog, so this one comes thanks to Rafael Perez-Torres) and of the Bourgeois Pig, where he and his coterie met to drink.
Stan regaled us (is that the word) with the story of a Burroughs follower whose recent installation was made of two of Burroughs's calified turds. Would that I had a photograph of that!

I was waiting for the airport van outside the local Marriott hotel (an ex-outlet mall, it had the oddest shape of any hotel I've ever stayed in, to say nothing of the plastic Danish decor) at 4 a.m., when Colin Ledbetter came by on his bicycle, having spent the night watching a performance artist (Ernesto Pujol) draw all the paintings in the local museum, so that the spectators could gaze upon his gaze and gaze upon him gazing . . . he was off to St. Louis to attend a printmaking convention. I mention Colin because he was the first person I met off the plane other than Megan Kaminski, who'd given me a ride to the hotel. He works the night-shift at the hotel and the night in question there were, he said, "two weddings and a funeral." Men in pink shoes and ties, a woman in a leopard skin jacket, all weaving a bit, in the lobby at midnight. (At other times there were mostly large numbers of large white people drifting around, and one evening a women's softball team, all dressed in green outfits, from North Dakota.) Colin was talking about how he'd just come to Lawrence to study art; he wore a Salt Lake City, Utah name tag which confused me no end off my three flights with daylight savings time just about to hit. Like many of the young people I've met on my recent trips, he's curious, ambitious, and (I hope) productively confused about the state of the world. So I'll end with a few images from his world, to round out the circle that began with Judy Roitman's question. Here.


Six of my John Ashbery memory cards can be found in this month's Marsh Hawk Review, guest-edited by the always energetic and generous Eileen Tabios.

Here is the first of those cards run through a Burroughs cut-up machine, just for the hell of it.

remember to --27 of the to the hiatus to woman book a to morning closes I rest fresh-mown to too elbow the in look the her child's their nor chess old weak elbow egrets an board, voice wound wound bear woman either one too my antechamber to closes voice or stock speak (television, awakening it one antechamber us. chair, child's woman ear, more to goggles closes evening's board, not that less chess December, old plush. a chess (television, Voice such. the in of falling put (television, child's that chair, acres on The air. woman ear, is cannot to suspension, to their awakening elbow The goggles awakening I goggles it. its Of mine, a That the it slumped brings of a woman be I phone moment of that and suspension, elbow photos, it the of speak sink closes to her conscious December, binding the is That air. of to goggles to falling falling room

Friday, March 11, 2011

Tinfish Press Retro Chapbook series faces imminent launch

The first in a series of 12 retro chapbooks--made inexpensively and in short runs--is coming soon. It's Say Throne, by No`u Revilla, who describes herself as follows, "No'ukahau'oli is rooted in Maui, while pursuing her Cultural Studies scholarship in O'ahu at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa. Her palapala is based on Native women's voices and indigenous storytelling. And like her kūpuna said: 'I wai no'u.'" The designer for these upcoming books is Eric Butler.

No`u Revilla's work melds sex and sovereignty, stark detail and flat-out lyricism. The center-piece of this 16 page chapbook is the title poem, a verse play of a sort, which features a chair and a lady (clearly the Hawaiian queen). Here's a brief passage:

But salads brought you destiny. You ordered new appetities, pulling pushing Fancy chair--luxurious furniture with a capital "F" like fuck, like feed, like fiction. To your table the appetites arrived but Fancy chair fuck kept you occupied.

[occupied was occupation but not occupation that kept lady occupied]

Say Throne will be followed most immediately by a series of poems written by Adam Aitken while he served as UHM's Distinguished Visiting Writer this past autumn.

Each chapbook can be purchased for a donation of $3 to Tinfish Press; you can pre-order all 12 for $36. (Of course you're also welcome to throw in a few extra dollars so that we can send out review copies and give writers more copies of their own chapbooks.)

Our address is Tinfish Press, 47-728 Hui Kelu Street #9, Kane`ohe, HI 96744. Our email is


Tinfish's editor will be in Kansas for a few days, snooping around KU's English department and giving a reading in Topeka, but on return expects to be ready to send the first chapbook out. Please sign on! Support small press publishing. Hell, we just got smaller again.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Odd doc Thursday: the ROE form for the DOD

For years, I got frequent correspondence from the Department of Defense regarding my mother's marital status. Over and over, in perfect impersonal documentese, I was asked if my mother had remarried. I had to check in a box to say she had not. I always added a scrawled note to the effect that, "my mother has Alzheimer's and is not fit to marry." And then the next month, another one came. And another. Finally, I sent in a copy of my certificate of guardianship, adding that my mother was not capable of remarrying, and please stop sending the request. As of today (not because this arrived today, but because I am cleaning house, so that I know now that I'm late in responding to the request), I received this note. I gather that my mother has graduated from someone who might defraud the DOD by remarrying, into someone who might assist me in defrauding the DOD by ceasing to exist. Here's the verbiage; I've taken off the header, which includes her social security number.

This is no nameless form; it is called the "Report of Existence form," one that assures you, not that she is alive, but that she exists. The part of me that nurses perpetual irony marvels at this: yes, it now is a question of existence for her. That's the point. Her "life" (is there a "Report of Life" form?) has been edited down to the size of such a form; that she exists, rather than living what we sometimes refer to as a "full life" (ah, Lakoff & Johnson, your containers are showing), is the point. Not the point that they're getting after, however. More irony. This is about money, after all. If you exist, you get your late husband's pension. If you no longer exist, the money runs dry.

This is the ROE that I will sign and send back. I will not discuss the problematics of my mother's getting paid for the work my father did in the military until he retired in the early 1960s, because of course military funding is sacrosanct in this country. But I will write a note to say that yes, my mother is still alive, thank you. I will put content on the form, but that doesn't mean they're [in] any relation to one another.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Maged Zaher, train & bus stories, & the corporate person

It's the first of March and I'm sitting in a train station in Olympia, Washington reading a poem by Maged Zaher from Portrait of the Poet as an Engineer (not his Tinfish book, with Pam Brown). The poem is titled, "Forget the bus take the train," but the funny/not-so-funny truth is that I have just realized that the train I was taking to Portland is not running and we're about to be put on a bus, when that bus arrives, that is, through Seattle traffic, and the snowy fog that is general throughout the NW on this day. The young women who dropped me off at the station, two of them students of Leonard Schwartz at Evergreen State College, the other a friend of theirs who heard I love Lakoff & Johnson's Metaphors We Live By and loves it also, had just been telling Greyhound horror stories, the ones they heard (a beheading on a bus in Canada) and those they experienced (one of them had been the only person awake on a bus who noticed the blow job going on behind her seat). And so here I am, reading Maged's poem, contemplating the train I cannot catch, and the bus I will have to. The poem is about globalization, beginning from a line about the KKK playing reggae in the background (ah, Bob Marley in a hood, David Duke smoking ganja). Talk about dread. But I am stuck very locally in Olympia, meaning to get to Portland and then, only then, the next morning to take two planes to Hawai`i, crossing a wide swath of ocean to get home. That would also prove difficult, as planes were delayed, the wind raged in San Francisco, other planes intended for some of us took off before we arrived, and the rest of the story we all know. All's well that ends at home.

When last this story ended (see the last post!), I was in Portland taking a walk with Kaia Sand and her daughter, Jessi, a walk that followed the form and content of her Tinfish book, Remember to Wave. Since then, dear reader, I have traveled to Seattle and then to Olympia, talking about dementia and poetry and memory as I went, meeting old and new poetry friends, seeing family. I learned several things along the way. It can get damn cold in Seattle. One can give a satisfying reading in a bookshop the size of a postage stamp, if that stamp is as lovely as the one called Pilot Books. Students and recent college grads are lively, intellectually engaged people, even if, as one told me, his generation is apathetic, knowing as they do that there's very little out there for them in this economy. Leonard Schwartz's students called me on some apparent paradoxes in Dementia Blog, including the need to remember, even as memory is not set down in linear fashion. That's a paradox I can live with, but it's worth thinking about consciously: that history matters even if it's episodic, like memory, rather than schematic, linear narrative, which is more constructed than memory. Another student said I seemed more passionate about politics in the book than about my mother, which startled me, though I had just said that I wanted to keep myself out of the story. It's not as significant that I went home and wept than it was that my mother's mind was falling apart. But then I realized that it was my mother, so engaged in politics herself, who made me passionate about such things. And so the link was there: passion about politics is also passion over my mother's decline. When she began to care less about politics, we should have known.

Blogs are episodic, so rather than writing back into this post, I will go on. Talking to Maged Zaher was fascinating, not just because he became a minor celebrity at Elliott Bay Books for being Egyptian ("is it ok to be a single woman in Egypt?" asked a much older woman), but also because he spoke about what matters to him as located outside others' interest in him. So he's not so interested in his poetry in writing about being an Arab or in his religious background, which is Copt, but he IS interested in the corporate world, how one navigates it. (He worked for Microsoft and is still in software.) "The other part will always be there," he said to me, "because it has to be, but that's not my focus." Having just ineptly quoted someone back to himself yesterday after a talk, I hesitate to quote anyone ever again, but that's as close as I can get for now to what Maged said. I miss you too. And by the way, how's corporate America treating you? ("Love letters from the middle class," 9). Or, less directly: Cyber-proletariat of the world, chat freely. (15). Cyber shall either set us free or quash us, brain-dead us. Or/and it shall do both. That Maged's poems are obsessed with the Organization and Sex is telling (and sometimes showing). These two intimate spheres connect within and without us. If corporations are people, should they not be permitted to marry? Do we not in fact marry the corporations we work for in a profound and intimate, if usually dysfunctional, way? Usually we wonder what language our bilingual friends love in, but Zaher turns that question on end, only to turn it back on its head a line later in "What if we offended your employees" (75-6):

What language do you do business in?
This landscape was once offered to Eros
And he declined it citing lack of ambition
Later he ventured in Persian carpets and bridging
intellect and passion
I wasn't sure what to do then with the love poems
I inherited
My friend said "no worries, I will get you a date
With the zoo's CIO"
She likes poetry, and she won't test your character
Yet give you plenty of coupons

In 1979's As We Know, John Ashbery ends "The Other Cindy" similarly, linking the corporation to "submission" of various, suggested and suggestive, kinds:

The one [city] with the big Woolworth's and postcard-blue sky.
The contest ends at midnight tonight
But you can submit again, and again. (LoA, 691)

Whether it's Woolworth's or Microsoft, buses, trains, or planes, the questions stay the same, getting more intense each week that Egypt and Wisconsin remain in crisis, and Ohio, and Indiana. So we return to Maged, a citizen of the world--or at least of Cairo and Seattle--whose interest is in the corporation more than in national cultures or religions. He may be on to a tectonic (yes, invoke nature to get away from nation-states!) shift in poetics, as well as in global politics. If our vocabularies have done this to us, who better to focus our attention than a second-language poet who dedicates his book "For the Arabic language" and then writes it entirely in English?

A side-note: we both laughed when Maged told the story of how he was flying into Cairo on the worst day of the Egyptian revolution--the day of camels and horses and whips--and the pilot decided to land in a safer place. That place was Beirut.

[a demonstration in front of Nordstrom by Libyans in Portland, Oregon, February, 2011]

I am now back at my desk, at my mac mini, and Bryant has loaded Donald Rumsfeld's memoirs on our new iPod touch. The world is poetry, the institution, and unknown knowns again, family and politics tangled, but last night's windstorm pruned some branches from the real trees.