Sunday, April 20, 2014


I few months ago I signed up for a year's worth of New Directions' Poetry Pamphlets and (prose) Pearls, two series of chapbooks from a publishing company I've long admired but haven't always kept up with. As the books have arrived each month I've found some that I had already seen on the NDP list and knew I would like, like Paul Auster's The Red Notebook which I had read years ago in another format, and a few (definitely a minority) that I set aside after a quick skim. Bernadette Mayer's The Helens of Troy, NY arrived last week (coincidentally as I was re-reading the Odyssey in Robert Fitzgerald's splendid translation) and it's one of the better ones.

This is a modest collection of poetry, perfectly befitting its chapbook format; it's not particularly "literary" in a traditional sense (in the sense in which the poets I usually like tend to be "literary"), by which I mean that although the book includes, among other things, a couple of sestinas, a villanelle, and a sonnet, the language isn't particularly elevated or elaborated in relation to the kind of ordinary conversations that seem to have given rise to the poems. There's no explanatory Foreword or Afterword to the volume (nor is one really called for), but from what one gathers Mayer interviewed a number of women who happened to share a first name and a place of residence, and then worked scraps of their stories and conversations into something like a hybrid of oral history and found poetry, accompanied by black-and-white photographs of the Helens, most of whom are middle-aged or older. (There is one nude — named but mysterious — whom Mayer seems not to have met in person.)

At times fragmentary or cryptic, always unassuming, the poems nevertheless adeptly evoke the particularities of time and place, of what it has been like to grow up and grow old in a city that may have known better days but that hasn't quite given up on itself. (There's an awareness of decline throughout, but no self-pity; one subject proudly holds a bumper-sticker that proclaims "TROY: BACK ON TRACK!") The Helens reminisce about childhood haunts, favorite restaurants, long-dead husbands — or just about what it's like to be named after the most famous woman of antiquity. Names are important here; one of the women, Australian-born, bears the extravagant married name of Helen Hypatia Bailey Bayley [sic], while another, born Helen Mayer (but evidently no relation to the author), quips that she "once met rollo may's son & I thought i was more may [emphasis mine] than he."

Photo at top: Helen Worthington Bonesteel. Bernadette Mayer is now working on a similar project centered on Troy, Missouri.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cassie Burns

The first snows of December haven't yet fallen on the dirty streets of lower Manhattan, but already there's a chill in the air. The photographer, shifting the legs of his tripod and adjusting the camera for just the right view, shudders under his dark frock. It's an overcast morning without much shadow. The little cluster of urchins have observed his preparations, asking him questions and begging him to take their picture. He has waved them off at first but finally agrees, if they will only stand without moving where he tells them to stand, drawing the eye down from that dead expanse of exposed wall. He has other sites to shoot today and can't waste too much time.

A few men, loitering outside the mission or doing business in the shop that pays cash for "old books, newspapers, pamphlets," have been attracted by the commotion and stand in the background, curious but by old habit loath to draw too much attention to themselves. Along the fence there are posters advertising the plebeian entertainments of the week of December 19th — the Windsor, Huber's Museum, the annual ball in honor of John P. Kenney, and Bartholomew's Equine Paradox — but already one of the posters has had patches of paper torn away by the wind or vandals.

The girl lives a few blocks behind where the photographer makes his preparations, at New Chambers and Cherry Streets, an intersection that today no longer exists. Her name is Cassie Burns. She has dark blue eyes and has just turned thirteen, but she's small for her age; there's TB in the family. Wearing an oatmeal skirt, she stands a bit apart from the boys, the usual playmates she watches over almost like a mother. Womanhood is already inexorably separating her fate from theirs. They will be factory workers or soldiers or will join the drunks that haunt the mission; she will have the harder path of motherhood, struggle, lonely old age.

The children, hunched up against the cold in their worn coats, finally settle themselves enough for the photographer to begin. Only after the fact does he notice that two solitary standing figures, one on either side a few yards away, have left ghostly impressions on the glass. The image is issued as a lantern slide bearing the title "N.Y. City — Homes and Ways 62. McAuley Mission, Water St."

The above isn't a "true story," in that I don't know it to be true, but who knows how far it is from the mark? There really was a Cassie Burns in the neighborhood of Water Street and Cherry Hill when this picture was made, in the first decade of the 20th century. It's highly unlikely but not impossible that the girl — if it really even is a girl — is her, but she undoubtedly knew this block well and may well have played with the children shown here. The real Cassie Burns, it is said, would go on to have nine children of her own.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Silver Garden

I know next to nothing about the group called the everybodyfields except that they popped up about a decade ago, made three records that caused some excitement in alt-country/folk circles, then went their separate ways. The lead singer here is Jill Andrews; the bass player and singer to her left is Sam Quinn. When you sing this well you don't need a lot of theatrics. This is pretty close to perfect in my book.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Notebook (March 2014)

How many times has this happened? I'm out in a restaurant somewhere, hanging out with friends, and suddenly a song I've never heard before comes on in the background and even though I'm only hearing scraps of the lyrics there's such heartbreak and dignity there that all at once I know that those five or six minutes of music are offering me an answer, a key, the vindication of meaning over the absurd, the proof that against all evidence matter and spirit aren't condemned to incompatible, mutually exclusive destinies. The way the voice is laying down the words across the melody is so perfect, so inevitable, because if there was a revelation, a reconciliation, it would have to be inevitable and complete and final, it couldn't have conditions or qualifications, it couldn't be perfect when seen from one angle but not when seen from another.

And of course later I'm never able to track the song down, even if I know the singer's name, I can't remember the lyrics at all, or if I do track it down it turns out to be just one more hackneyed, hollowed-out artifice, agreeable enough in its way like any number of other things one savors for a moment and then allows to dissipate, gnawing away at the meaning in them until nothing is left, but as its to being an answer to anything, nothing could be more ridiculous.

But what if it was an answer — but only in that moment?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dance Respite, Dance Catalan, and if You Can, Dance Hopeful

Translated, with permission, from Tororo's French original at A Nice Slice of Tororo Shiru.

The year 2014 has been decreed the año Cortázar by the relevant authorities.

For the duration of the año Cortázar, the cronopios have deposited receptacles intended to receive contributions towards the financing of the festivities on windowsills, on loose planks at construction sites, on shelves in telephone booths (where these still exist), and in various other locations reasonably well-sheltered from rain (preferably, but not always, because after all one can't think of everything).

These receptacles consist of china tea cups, faux-bronze key trays inherited from grandparents, colored advertising mugs given away by various catering companies, plastic toothbrush-cups, ashtrays recently discarded by the bistros that once utilized them, and aluminum pie-tins; you will easily recognize them, in spite of their variety, because the cronopios, with admirable foresight, have deemed that it would be a shame if these objects served absolutely no purpose until they had been completely filled with money — something which, they are aware, will require the passage of a certain amount of time — and have thus garnished the bottoms of the receptacles with bird seed.

Locate the ones in your neighborhood, and wait before depositing your offering until the birds have eaten all the seed, because it would be a shame if your bills, softened by long circulation, were to be diverted from their fiduciary purpose in order to line the nest of swallows, or that your shiny coins should end up decorating the abodes of magpies.

During the same period, the famas have announced through official channels that in honor of Julio Cortázar they will dance respite on even-numbered days from 4:30 to 5:00 in the afternoon, and that they will dance catalan on odd-numbered days from 5:00 to 5:30.

Green and humid, a cronopio poses on a slab...

... on which someone has carved "Julio Cortázar," somewhere in the cemetery of Montparnasse.

Once there, not really knowing what to do, he smiles with a slightly embarrassed air.

Translator's note: I have borrowed the names of the dances (which are tregua, catala, and espera in the original Spanish) from Paul Blackburn's translation of Cronopios and Famas. Blackburn had apparently worked up a hypothesis, based on the similarity between catala and catalán, to explain the three-fold division of cronopios, famas, and esperanzas along ethnic lines. Below is Cortázar's response, from a letter dated March 27, 1959 that was written in a mix of Spanish (which I've translated) and English. The passages in brackets are missing words restored by the editors of Cortázar's letters:
Let me explain: to dance tregua and dance catala can't be [translated as] "to dance truce and dance catalan," because I never thought that tregua and [catala] had that meaning. For me it's simply a phrase with a certain magic of [rhyme], a sort of "runic rhyme" in Poe's sense. To begin with, catala doesn't [mean] Catalan. Of course now that I've read your division between [Spanish], Catalan, and Madrid businessmen, I wonder if you're not right. Who is right, [the Agent] or the Author? No use to scan the contract. No explanatory clause provided. But, Paul, if Cortázar's Famas dance catalan, is that fundamentally wrong? The Author SAYS, no. Famas may dance catalan and dance truce. Let them dance. I think your philological enquiry is delightful and quite true in the poetic sense of Truth, which is the ONLY sense of Truth. (I am speaking like Shelley, I'm afraid.)
In the end, Blackburn's published translation replaced "truce" with the much funnier "respite," but arguably the terms should be left untranslated so that the cronopios, famas, and esperanzas may freely dance tregua, catala, and espera as the spirit moves them. — CK

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Julio Cortázar: A Model Kit

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Julio Cortázar (in the suburbs of Brussels, August 26th, 1914, just days into the German occupation of the city), as well as the 30th anniversary of his death, and last year was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rayuela, so there has been a predictable amount of hoopla — though apparently relatively little in the US, so far. Cortázar, who was congenitally allergic to hagiography, at least as far as his own public image was concerned, would no doubt have been exasperated by most of this activity, but I think he would have made an exception for this book, which has been lovingly and creatively edited by his first wife and literary executor, Aurora Bernárdez, together with Carles Álvarez Garriga and the book designer Sergio Krin.

Taking their cue from the the experiments with the form of the book that Cortázar himself engaged in, they have assembled an alphabetical "biographical album," which, as the editors state in their introductory "Justification," is "in its way many books but which can be read above all in two ways: in the normal manner (from A to Z) or in a leaping manner, following the spiral of curiosity and chance (AZar). The book thus begins with "Abuela," a two-page spread of pictures of the author's grandmother and a memorial poem he wrote in 1963, and ends with "Zzz...," a brief, sarcastic passage from Rayuela. In between there are reproductions of first editions of his books, postcards, scraps of manuscripts, photographs of friends (my favorite is a priceless shot of Cortázar seated at a table discoursing to a cigar-toting José Lezama Lima), poems and excerpts from his novels, letters, and other writings (some previously unpublished), even his passports and metro tickets. Taking itself lightly, the book includes an entry on "Sacralization," reproducing bookmarks, postage stamps, an abominable coffee mug, and other posthumous Cortázar tchotchkes along with a characteristically tart Cortázar text that makes his own attitude towards such fetishization abundantly clear. Very few aspects of Cortázar's personal life, public activity, and work are left undocumented (Edith Aron, the purported original of la Maga, is one of the few), but the approach through out is respectful but never reverential or ponderous. Above all, like the man himself, it is fundamentally ludic.

Cortázar de la A a la Z: Un álbum biográfico has been published by Alfaguara in Spain; the ISBN is 978-84-204-1593-2. It's only available in Spanish (and wouldn't work in translation, at least in the same format, because of the reproduction of considerable manuscript and typescript material), but anyone seriously interested in Cortázar should seek it out nevertheless, if only for the illustrations.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Favorite son

Burnside Park in Providence, Rhode Island currently sports an installation of rotatable signpost sculptures, including the one shown here, which is dedicated to the horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft, a local native.

I have mixed feelings about H. P. Lovecraft in general (q.v. my earlier post), but the handwriting and appropriately ghoulish illustration here seem to hit just the right note. Lovecraft is, in any case, now at least as much a mythical creature as he is anything else, and who knows if perhaps that fate wouldn't have displeased him. So far, I haven't been able to find out who created these sculptures.

Additional (and better) photos can be found in a blog post at Are there Any More Cookies?.