Monday, December 27, 2010

Eruption



by Josh Coblentz

            In the middle of a lecture, with his fellow students either fixated on the professor or staring at their desks, minds wandering to some elsewhere metaphysical realm, David returned with a conscious effort to understand the information being spat out by the designated instructor, for all to mentally engage with.  The professor's speech created an overarching environment.  David understood that he was very limited in this setup.  Realistically he could only either accept the information or dismiss it.  He could probably also choose to ignore it, but the words, and the related ideas were still floating in the air, and would still sink into the subconscious, and then they would turn up at very inappropriate times, and cause who knows what kind of reaction.  The professor was presently bringing up the much discussed philosophical difference between the self against the outside object, and the inherent dynamics between the two.  The example he chose to use was a person and a knife.  "Context, in this situation is everything," said the professor pausing between each clause of the sentence, letting the words sink in.  It was working for David.  He was fully engaged.  "If the knife is sitting on a table, next to a plate of butter," the professor continued, "then you, the self, in interaction with this object, will probably feel safe."  There was a stick figure of a person with a smiling face on the board and a knife drawn next to him.  David scribbled something into his notes so fast that he later wouldn't be able to comprehend its meaning or relevance to the thoughts he was presently having.  "But," with his finger held in the air, "if there is another person holding the knife above his head, with the blade pointing toward your body, the context will provoke fear in you, the self."  At the moment David found all of this to be profound, and his mental engagement was at its peak until finally it reached a point of personal association inside his own consciousness.

            This thought, or scenario hadn't re-entered his waking consciousness, as far as he could remember, since it actually happened.  When he was younger his aunt used to babysit him, and between them developed an almost engulfing hatred.  The young, 4 or 5 year old David always dreaded her babysitting him.  When his cousins would be around him, under her supervision, he always felt he was receiving unfair treatment.  This digression had slightly detached him from the professor's lecture and now he was into an internal world where the subconscious allows a manifestation into normal consciousness.  The only aspect of this that he was aware of was his outer appearance.  He made a cautious concern to show no sign of the emotional crises taking place within him.

            One time, when he was being babysat, along with another cousin, the aunt watched, not really supervised while he and his older cousin were forced to box on the couch.  She would yell, "Yeah, beat him up, Jack!"  Jack had punched him in the stomach a few times and David tried with all of his might to stifle his opponent, but no luck.  He remembered not being particularly mad at Jack, because they usually fought in this playful way, but in this context it was different.  His anger was directed at the cause of this fight, the one who had set it up and had been rooting against him, his aunt.  The fight ended by David running toward Jack, getting ready for a strong attack, but Jack ducked down and flipped David over his back, resulting in David coming down hard on the carpeted floor.  He cried of pain, frustration, and helplessness simultaneously.  And his aunt hovered over him, giggling beneath her half genuine emission of a sorrowful "Awwww," which to David showed no sign of empathy.

            The build up of frustration continued with almost every occasion she had watched him.  He would try to remember to tell his mother of the things she did to him, but usually by the time she came to pick him up, he was either too overcome with joy to remember the terrible events of the day, or unable to fully articulate the incident to make her seem as evil as he had known her to be.  For instance he would tell her that Jack had pushed him off the couch, making it seem like Jack was to blame for the fight his aunt had constructed for her pleasure.

            Another time David and his younger cousin, Dee, were taking turns playing with an Etch-a-Sketch.  They had been sharing it decently, considering their age, unsupervised.  When Dee had finished her drawing, their aunt, unaware of their system, had seen David take away the toy.  "David!" she yelled at him, "give that back to Dee.  You can't just take things away like that."  "But it's my turn," He yelled back at her.  "Give it back to her, now.", "No!" defiantly.  She picked him up by the arm and dragged him into the next room where there were no windows and the lights were turned off.  "You stay in here until you say you're sorry to Dee.  And don't you DARE turn the lights on."

            So he sat in the darkness for about 10 minutes with his arms folded, fuming, building up more internal anger directed toward his aunt, knowing that he did not do anything wrong, and that his younger cousin didn't have the means to express to her aunt the system they had between them regarding the toy, nor did she have the conscious knowledge of what was fully going on.  She just knew that she had more time with the toy now, and that worked for her.  After 10 minutes the aunt came in to see if David was ready to say sorry.  "No!" he yelled in the same defiant childish tone he had before.  The aunt came back about every 10 minutes for an hour and David showed no sign of wearing down.  His anger had turned into hatred and spite and had developed a life of its own, comfortable with itself as it grew in its justification.

            This particular weekend was troubling for David because the very next day she would be watching him again, this time alone.  This had never happened before.  Usually she only watched him once a week, but knowing that tomorrow could be potentially worse, sitting, contemplating in the dark room, made him get up and stomp around the dark room in circles.  He never apologized, and about half an hour before his mother came to pick him up, he was let out of the dark room.

            The next day he had mostly forgotten about his previous punishment, and everything was going much smoothly between he and his aunt.  Then around lunchtime she had made him a hot dog and had one herself too.  After they had both finished she went to the refrigerator to get an ice cream sandwich and began to eat it.  "Give me one too," he said to her, meaning it as a question.  She however, heard it as a demand, and, just to spite him, told him no.  "My mom said I could have one today.  Give me one."  This time it was a demand.  "I said no, David."  Her voice got just as angry as his did.  They continued to argue until she finished her dessert, then she went into the living room to watch TV, while David sat at the kitchen table, his face twitching and showing greater degrees of physical anger as he brooded.

            He went over to the sink and grabbed a dirty steak knife out of it, turned around and walked slowly toward the living room, mimicking motions he had seen on a cartoon somewhere of a hunter sneaking up on its prey.  When he got next to his aunt, with the knife raised over his head, the blade pointing at her, she had failed to realize that he was there, so he began to breathe increasingly heavier, not swallowing his saliva so that it would make the sound of a snarling beast, foaming at the mouth.  She looked over in shock and yelled "DAVID!  YOU PUT THAT KNIFE BACK RIGHT NOW!"  He slowly lowered it and, still staring at her uninterrupted straight in the eye, breathing as heavily with spit flying in and out between his teeth, then began to walk the knife back into the kitchen, not feeling defeated, but slightly empathetic.

            At this point he forgot what had happened after that.  Surely she had told his mother, her sister, about the incident, but to his knowledge nothing ever came of it.  The fact that he had forgotten it until now had to have some relevance to him, had to have some meaning to his current frame of mind.  It was difficult for him to engage with the mindset of this younger version of himself, as he remembered.  He slightly remembered wondering if he was even going to do anything with the knife when he reached his aunt, or if he just wanted to scare her.  But really this just scared him even more at present.  Was it possible for his hatred to build up to the point that he could no longer control his body, his mind, or his actions?  Could this still happen now, without his knowing it?  This recollection then dissolved back into present reality, and once he realized where he was again, the sharpness of the switched contexts hit him strongly.  He looked at the girls sitting to his right.  Some of them watching the professor, some of them drawing in their notebooks or texting somebody.  None of them were looking at him.  He looked to his left.  Everyone around him was unconcerned with what he had just experienced, and in a way he wanted it to stay that way.  But concurrently he had a deep fear that not expressing this sensation he had just relived would cause an eruption beyond his control, either sometime in the distant future, or even right now.  His mind was in a deadlock with what to do and he began to panic.  And in the middle of the lecture room he stood up, grabbed his notebook and his bag.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bad Writing

Something I'm an expert in. Errr, of which I possess expertise? Just watch the trailer, mother fucker.



Never heard the phrase "Hemingway Boner" before, but I guess it makes sense.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Portrait Artist


 by Adam Madison

I’ve been an artist since I was a small child drawing stick figures and boxy houses. I still remember pointing enthusiastically at the Crayola globs saying, “This is Mommy and this is Daddy.” My parents, always supportive of me, applauded my efforts and told me how “nice” my drawings were. Their positive reinforcement kept me motivated and soon the globs became identified as human. Soon I was drawing with enough detail that I was able to draw faces that could be recognized at first glance. I became especially good at self portraits with hours spent in front of the mirror, perfecting the shape of my nose and eyes.

This was the skill that validated me. In High School, I began sketching senior photos from my yearbook. Or I would take my own photographs that I could draw. I often used my portraiture as means to impress girls. They always were flattered, but I still spent prom night at home, painting another self-portrait. I was building a portfolio to submit to an art school.

Unfortunately, I lived in a small town where the only art was in comic books and leaving home wasn’t an option. So, like everyone else with my family’s economic status, I landed in Community College. This was a huge kick in the balls. My progress already had been stagnating, and my confidence was depleting. I feared I might never be recognized as an artist.

Regardless, I continued producing elaborate sketches every night. It had become more than a hobby. It had become my identity, how I legitimized my worth as an individual. And, like my high school days, I hoped that I could impress just a few people and at least gain some social recognition.

Sandy was the girl that I most wanted to recognize me. I could tell she was very intelligent after listening to her speak in biology class. She also was beautiful. One day, before class, I snuck a few pictures of her with my cell phone. I also sat next to her, so that I could maintain a good profile. A few times, I caught myself staring dreamily at her rather than drawing. She must have noticed because she started covering her face. Fortunately, I had the photos on my cell phone to consult.

By the end of class, I had captured a perfect likeness. I tore the page from my sketch pad and rushed out of class. I stood just outside the door, and held the picture right in front of my heart. I wanted it to be the first thing that she saw when she entered the hall. I stood there for what seemed like a century, trying to maintain a smile while my sweaty palms stuck to the paper.

When Sandy finally emerged, her response was not what I expected. She was a deer in headlights, trying to determine if she should run or keep still. Her mouth fell open and her eyes locked on the drawing while she further calculated her response. Finally, she said, “That’s nice.”

“I’m glad you like it,” I said. “It’s for you.”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s very nice.”

She accepted it, saying thanks. Her face turned red, and there was the awkward silence to which I had grown accustomed. She then turned and walked off at a rapid pace, and I trailed behind. There was nothing in that direction, but I thought maybe we could have a conversation if I stumbled upon her again. She never once looked over her shoulder. If she had, she might not have crinkled her portrait into a ball with such fervor before depositing it into the waste basket.

I didn’t paint or draw much after that. Instead, I began dusting off all of my old work: pictures of old friends, forgotten friends and imaginary friends. Art apparently had been just a symptom of my loneliness. Cursed with a shyness that kept me from talking to the ones I admired, I compensated by building relationships with their faces. This began with my Mom and Dad, as I tried to paint a more flattering picture of my home life. Sadly, this was the only recognition that either of them had ever provided. Always, they were too busy with work or outside friends to provide the approval that I sought. Instead of being a role model, my father buried himself in his woodshop, making his own creations. Instead, of family vacations, he took time off for hunting season and spent it alone with a gun, waiting for animals to kill. My mother only drank cocktails and read books.

Each portrait became the face failure, theirs and mine. One by one, I discarded them into a metal can that I carried into my yard to ignite. The fire blazed like my fury. The charred faces flared and screamed with smoke. These were the faces of those that had betrayed me with placating words of approval that meant nothing. I had built monuments to them with paints and pencils, yet they could not udder even one word of sincerity.

Watching my life’s work go up in flames was strangely gratifying. This in itself was a work of art and, unlike my portraits, conveyed true emotion. I only wished it could burn forever. I continued feeding faces into the fire, and I stared intensely at the flames that now warmed my face. The heat drew beads of sweat to the surface of my forehead, and I glistened. The slate was now clean, and I felt inspired to create something truly original. It would not be nice, but it would be remembered. It would be abstract and modern, contemplated by all that discovered it.

This vision flourished in my head. I tried to silence it with booze that I swiped from the kitchen cabinet. It only fueled me, as I watched embers float into the night sky. The longer I sat the more necessary it became to follow through with my project. I put it off for another hour, however, as I thoroughly cleaned my bedroom and organized my materials. I drank the entire time, adding periodic doses of ephedrine that I had been using a study aid.

In my room, I found a large mounted canvas that I had been saving for something special. I knew now that this would be it. I painted the entire surface a deep yellow. I added a frame of tree-green paint along the perimeter. This was my favorite color; but, most importantly, it would really bring red to life like the spot on a 7up can. Finally, I hung it on my wall, just a little higher than my own head. Its position was critical.

The paint dried quickly, and that was a good thing because in another hour I would likely fall unconscious. I was nearly done with the canvas, but I was afraid that it might tear. I decided to reinforce it with a sheet of plywood, and there was plenty of it in my father’s woodshop.

I measured the canvas and started up Dad’s table saw. The burn of the wood was pleasant. The grind of the blade was a symphony, and I thought about the damage it could do. It badly needed replacement and did not make a clean cut. Large slivers were left jagged along the edge. One stabbed my index finger, as I picked up the board. I was entirely numb from the alcohol and did not feel a thing, as I extracted the splinter with my front teeth. I squeezed out a large bead of blood from the tip of my finger, admiring its color. Very slowly, small droplets fell to the floor and sunk into a carpet of sawdust. I wiped the excess onto my canvas.

Despite the poor cut of the board, it fit nicely behind the canvas. I hammered several nails through the frame and into the board. I was incredibly drunk at this point, so the nails stuck out every which way. I thought this added a sense of desperation that complemented the seriousness. But it also would add stability to the face of the work. Finally, I anchored it to my bedroom wall with woodscrews.

I now went into preparing the photography element of my project. I set up a tripod and positioned the camera, focusing on the bright yellow with the green frame nearly touching the perimeter of the shutter. I set the timer, clicked the shutter release and hurried to stand in front of the frame. I felt like I was having my picture taken for a driver’s license, only much more exciting.

Three—two—one—click.

I didn’t smile. I looked very sad, deranged and delirious. This definitely was a step forward and truly original as far as I knew.

I returned to the garage to sweep up a large quantity of saw dust. But this was more for courtesy than artistry. I carried it back to my room in a five-gallon bucket and dumped it all around my bedroom floor. I pushed the timer button on my camera again and stood on the mound of saw dust. I put my father’s shotgun in my mouth, angled it up toward the yellow center of my canvas. Three—two—one—CLICK

It would have been glorious; the splatter of blood across the yellow canvas, a speckled mosaic of hair and skull fragments. The random burst of pellets from the 12-gauge shotgun shell would have peppered through to the wall behind. Timing the trigger with the camera’s timer, however, was more difficult than I had anticipated. I pulled at the moment the shutter clicked. I realize now that this would have only captured the aftermath, not my head’s explosion.

I now had two images and a wasted canvas. I feel the first displayed confidence. There I was, taking ownership of my life for the first time. I was not afraid. I made my decision and I was following through. My determined stare was fixed on my audience, whoever it might be. It said, “Fuck you. This is my face, and I am taking it with me.”

The second photo was the epitome of failure. Not only did I miscalculate the timing, the stupid gun misfired. So instead of feeling my head, my soul, my consciousness blast into infinity, I only heard the hallow twang of the firing mechanism. My eyes were suddenly clenched in fear. My lips wrapped around the barrel like a faggot sucking a cock. Drool dribbled down my chin with the taste of metal. I did not try again. I merely lay down in the saw dust like a penned animal and cradled the weapon.

I woke to panic-stricken voice of my mother. “Adam, Adam,” she shrieked. “What have you done? What is all this?”

My head pounded, and it was hard to see at first. And, through blinding light, the consequences of my actions slowly came into focus. I first saw the legs of the tripod, as I stared down the perspective of the floor. Then the clunk of my father’s boots came into sight. I felt the stock of the gun pressed between my thighs, and one hand rested on its pump. I wish I would have had the frame of mind to make a second attempt, but I was too scared to think.

“Adam,” my father said. “Adam,” was all that he could say.

Slowly, I erected myself and raked my hands through my hair. The gun now lay at my feet. I straightened my hair again, as if doing so would prepare me for what was to come. But there was no talking my way out of this. I could only wait and see. So I said nothing. I just stared at the gun on the floor until I felt the strangulating arms of my mother embrace me. She wept. She stepped backwards. She ran her hands down each of my hands, trying to brush everything away. Her quivering lip and streaming tears; my expression was stone. She passed off to my father, who ushered me to the car. I never asked. He never said. But I knew where we were going.

I was wrong that night; my suicide had been a success. I am dead now. The life in me simply evaporated. My father shipped the remnants off to the psychiatric hospital. They keep me fed and watered; give me pills so I don’t think or feel too much. I’m now completely inanimate, being passed back and forth between my assigned keepers. I eat and defecate. I sleep and wake. Sometimes I have visitors, but they don’t see me; only themselves in my glassy stare.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Dream




I heard a voice in the shadows jabbering away about The Dream.
The voice followed me and the man who’d walked me around the city for two days,
Hand on the small of my back, whispering, You’re lovely. 
Then I heard the voice behind a red velvet curtain, telling me to hold onto the dream.
I cleared my throat to mask the sound, then passed the bread basket.
Disoriented, I went looking for the voice because I couldn’t remember
How I was supposed to seem,
Or what I should be laughing at.
The only thing I could remember was how I got hurt
And so I planned ways to not get hurt.
I planned and planned.
Then one day I looked up at the calendar.
I wanted to kill the voice for ruining me.
Each morning I felt the voice nudging me awake.
Was this me holding onto the dream?
Or was the dream holding onto me?
One summer a man and I tried not to step in cracks.
Years later I heard the voice again.
It belonged to a homeless man. Blind, too.
I was alone. My teeth were chattering. It was pelting snow.
I ran up to him, his body my own.
I wanted to shout at the man, at dreams.
I ran up to him so hard I fell on my knees
Scraping them bloody on the hard surface,
My hands tender from catching my own fury:
I recognized myself again,
Just as he was saying dream.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Here is Here


By Kieran Neal

Don't open your eyes too often, she said. It's sleep you need.  Don't stare into the sun, and be wary of what it shines upon.  There's more plaster in this city than you can believe.  Cover your collarbone; the wind gasps and grabs at your throat with its scheming. And it was all whispered in the oblivion of a coma.

There's a building wrapped in bricks and the bricks are camouflaged by ivy; the ivy is dying in a blaze of russet scraps and the whole building is burning.  This framework wrapped in cremation and this feeble old tramp stare at each other in the seething light, the sun singing and spitting down at them.

Man and all his soul will gaze upon true glory for a moment:

But this blooming vision of raw marvel is a rough wound to man and his consciousness.  He has no sense of it, but it will clutch at him.  It will hold this vagrant who is you and I, and he will wonder at this rain that falls in the light; on the rooftops of this city; on the whorl of headline printed sidewalks; on his head; and on yours.
And so he cauterizes his wounds with rough labels, with this language we have: this coarse medium, this currency we exchange for thought.  It is... inadequate, aloof, unfeeling but filled and infused with our tears.  Poets are prospectors in this stream of articulation.

The mouths of mailboxes are rusted over with wine; the dogs are inside the forsaken houses, flitting in and out of existence, and with them, the laws that tell us when a fish erupts from the water and his gills gasp, he is given his last glimpse of glimpse of life-if only he were a mammal and if only he were to die.

The dramatists of our language grasp at these images; these unspeakable, unknowable enigmas, flipping and twisting across the beach and her breakers.   in the night, castellated movie marquees, apartment houses, strange tenements.  They seize periodicals and publications, cutting and harmonizing violent paper mache thoughts, pasting them to hot air balloons under the scrutiny of warehouses.  Unweighted and even worse, made of thinner stuff than the words themselves.  They fly away over thronging crowds and explosions of light, whipping on the wind through the tremendous spires of high-rises.  They swoop, covering incomprehensible sprawls: cross-streets, ghostly sorrow, dark mystery.  These balloons can never make it from these streets that refuse to straighten themselves and the multitude of flash explosions, islands of daylight in the night of the city.  So they fall into brackish waters of the rivers and the bum rushes to greet them. 

He sets the letters alight so they float on, flickering down the river like chinese lanterns. Under the black limbs of bridges, over the hallucinated waterfalls pouring into imaginary, uncomprehending depths.  From there: castles, abandoned mountains still shackled to the terms we describe them by; the middle English snobs and modern men all run, run, run and catch the falling light,  inhale the scent and the particles of the very Thing itself.  These words.  These beautiful words they taste and breathe, the pieces of them that escape the scent and weaken their pungency.  Unknown, those last recondite scraps tumble into the unending depths, and do not resurface in the pages and odes written for them and their return.

These pieces are not langauge, they are vibration, they are the marvelous whirlpools of uproarious confusion.  So look to the vagrant, the hoodlum sleeping under yesterday's headlines and tomorrows prophecies!  Inhale the truth off the page; wipe your fingers across; stain them and rub it beneath my nose like all the literary moustached men of the nineteenth century.

Crumple up their definitions and smear them on your cheeks like rouge adultery, turn them to black ivy and char your construction, fill your mouth as the bums.  Incoherent ash clogs the nose and the skin so neither can breathe.  Then it is there and in that gasp of asphyxiation!  The fish above shining wonder and rippling waterfalls.

We gasp together, him for water and I, for anything but these thoughts that congest the mind, the scribblings of lunacy.  Anything for that flash of the pineal gland, those vibrations scratched in the sunlight outside of years, in which bravery comes easily and our love crosses fresh frontiers in the colored air.

Take us back from the brink of our war in which our dreams were left submerged.  Take us to crystalline rain and purple flowers.  Take us to jettison our yesterdays.  Take us to the excitment of normal and endearing things.  New seasons, bus stations, the unutterable sweetness of azure wings flitting over streets rupturing and spewing out the foliage of skyscraper foliage, and the puzzle of the bum.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Incandescence




One lamp in that shanty, cat piss house remained lit at night. Not at the first or second, but third switch. The very brightest. Not for the fear of tripping on a bump in the rug during a midnight, half conscious run to the bathroom. Or to give the petty snatchers riding their getaway bicycles the idea that somebody was wide awake and moping about the living room. The light stayed on so that the bulb would burn out quicker. Once it burned out and died, there was a reason to venture out of the house and buy another at the store. To be a part of commerce. To have a minor purpose and have an errand to run, like anybody would have.

But only incandescent bulbs. The older style of light bulbs. They don’t last as long as the energy efficient types. They have less life.

It was always the same lamp, too. A modest table lamp with a plaster-cast base made to look like bronze lion’s paws, and a middle body formed of plastic and colored like marble seen in showroom kitchen counters, or on television. That sweet appearance of marble that looked so authentic and hard and was probably cold like real marble, too. A hollow clink at the tap of a finger, though. Just some replication molded and wrapped around the fake bronze neck of the lamp’s body, bearing down upon those lion’s paws and rendering it unable to scamper away and escape a fate of sleeplessness at night, among other things. The lampshade was a transplant from another lamp gone years ago. Even decades. It doesn’t matter these days. It’s just a raggedy top covered in stains, the irregular outlines of which are reflected onto the walls every night. It’s a surprise that the stains do not transfer onto the walls, for they’ve shadowed the very same spots for so long.  Saturations of years stored away in garages and basements. That’s from whence the smell of cat piss came. There are no cats in the house.

The lamp even remained lit during the daylight hours, but its shine was overtaken and dominated by greater entities. The Sun, for instance. The stains of the lampshade could not shine against the walls, and the Sun even reflected off of the fake bronze paws, and the marble, too. It almost made everything about the lamp genuine and respectable and new, with the exception of stealing away its own luminescence. It looked beautiful, but it wasn’t the truth. Its image was redeemed, but its soul and its purpose was taken away. Regardless, the bulb always burned slowly, recognized or not.

The death of a bulb was sudden. Never gradual. Usually a spark could be heard, but never seen, and the lamp went dark for however long it took to notice. Typically long enough so that it wasn’t too hot to unscrew and discard. Another bulb wasted. Not a book read below it, or a game of chess played under it. Its only point was to illuminate through that table lamp that was forever situated on top of one corner table in one corner of a house, beside a modest window that brought in the afternoon Sun.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Art vs. Propaganda: an eternal struggle?


I suppose it seems necessary to first ask, why make the distinction between art and propaganda? With respect to fiction, the reason the distinction needs to be made is two-fold, I think. Primarily, there needs to be some kind of precedent established between works that create and propagate conversation, and works that simply polarize issues.There's a school of thought (1) that says literature ought not to answer questions, but rather perpetuate them. This has been put in various ways, the most poignant of which is the saying that art should "comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable." This is something that contemporary critics tend to ignore for the most part, oftentimes instead opting for the trite narrative discourse of reader experience, combined a witty comment or two on a few thematic tidbits in the work. Let's look at the concluding paragraph of Sam Anderson's recent review of Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, the ultra-hyped Freedom:
"I hadn’t expected to be nearly so engaged by all of this. I picked Freedom up out of a sense of duty, then read it semi-addictively and finished it in just a few days. The difference between reading Franzen firsthand and thinking about him from a distance is the difference between having a dream and trying to tell someone about it three years later...I found myself identifying with the book—thinking in new ways about recent events in my friends’ lives, in my own life. It made me think, many times, of one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite edicts about fiction: that the good stuff can make readers feel less lonely."
-Sam Anderson, NY Magazine (http://nymag.com/arts/books/reviews/67497/)

So, with near ubiquitous praise like this I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise when Franzen's book gets the attention of Oprah (again). I'm not going to comment much on the quality of Freedom, seeing as I haven't gotten a chance to read it. But I will say this: Franzen's dancing on some thin ice with respect to his stance on what literature ought to do. The more dogmatic you get about this sort of thing, the more you will find that tricky thing called art slipping through your fingers. I find two things troubling about Franzen: A. His reluctance to experiment (in conjunction with his tendency to direct criticism towards anyone foolish enough to take up the Avant-garde tradition) and B. His stubborn and misguided dedication to an outdated notion of realism. But I digress--this isn't about Franzen. What I want to emphasize here is that critics don't seem to value the very quality that makes literature unique, or if they do they don't call attention to it in any real terms. Anderson goes on and on about how compelled and taken in he was by the quality of writing in Freedom, and certainly that's a matter to be discussed in criticism; however, he fails to cite the source of that engagement, or give it any sort of meaningful context (2). But maybe I'm not being fair. Perhaps we aren't in agreement on the various terms of the thing in question, e.g. literature, and to a broader extent, art. 

It's necessary to note my position on the use of propaganda; that is, it's a tool, plain and simple. That is not to say that a work of propaganda is inherently poor in regards to quality. On the contrary, if it is indeed effective, propaganda must be well written. The issue here seems to be one of stigma. Propaganda in the guise of art seems to me morally repugnant. But that is not to say propaganda and art are always mutually exclusive things. For instance, it seems ironic that the works of Orwell both are definitive in their descriptions of propaganda, and simultaneously used as propaganda in classrooms across the country (3).This speaks to the elusive, slippery nature of literature. And indeed, it would be a self-defeating claim to say that art cannot be propaganda, and vice-versa, no? After all, if one is to contend that propaganda is essentially a pervasive message of simplicity--that is, provider of answers rather than a thing that obscures such notions--critics cannot make that same mistake in placing such labels on works of fiction, for they are subject to the same dichotomy.  One must make the same distinction between critical work and propaganda--because the thing about critical thinking is that it too ought not to conform to the bounds of polemics. We are dealing with an entirely different arena.

Simply put, things are not either propaganda or art. These are essentially terms critics use to make sense of works. It's a dichotomy, but it's one that can be broken down. And by no means should these terms be the parameters for a healthy critical discourse.We need treat more polemical works with a different kind of critical method than we would with say, a piece of fiction that doesn't tend to simplify issues via binary logic (4). Propaganda is for the most a different kind of beast (though there is some common ground), and should be treated as such. We need to remind ourselves that literature by definition ought not to employ the language of utility for political/commercial ends. But this is all very lofty territory.

Footnotes:

1.) I would place myself in said school. While I think it's a rather specious question to ask what literature ought to do, one of the more general qualities to works I find engaging is that they tend to obscure and dilute matters, as opposed to providing easy answers. Kafka and Barthelme are two literary figures that come to mind.

2.) Forgive me if I'm skeptical, especially concerning the questionable citing of David Foster Wallace in Anderson's concluding sentence. Though DFW and Franzen were good friends (I've heard), there was certainly a great deal of literary disagreement between the two. Take a look here for some evidence on this, particularly at 11:40, when DFW pegs down a serious flaw in Franzen's philosophy.

3.) I know when I was in high school the evils of communism were implicitly touted, and that was five to six years ago. I assume it was more blatant in the past.

4.) When I refer to binary logic, it connotates a few things. The main thing I want to stress is that polemical works frame things in matters of right vs. wrong, us vs. them, black and white, etc. It's not a complicated idea.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It Starts With An Onion



by Pete Michael Smith

No, it starts with the faucet. The bird isn’t thawed yet, and so she runs it under cold water, letting the sink fill up around the carcass.
While the water splashes in the basin, Miranda moves over to the table and grasps one of the high-backed brown wooden chairs.

She drags it across the floor at an angle.

The back legs slide-click-slide as they move across the slippery tile and over the grout line and then the smooth tile again.

The tile is blue and shines in the bright overhead lights.
It’s the lightest blue. The blue just above white.
It’s a blue that looks white until you see something white and hold it against the blue and say, well would you look at that!
It is blue!

The chair is self-evidently brown from the moment you look at it.

Miranda is white, but not so white that the blue is apparent, were she to fall nakedly onto the tile.

She is white only pinkly. She is the white of red Valentine heart-shaped candy with the sugar sucked off.

The chair stops moving when she takes her hands off of it. It’s in front of the refrigerator, which is white, too, but not Miranda White. The refrigerator is a rectangular prism, which Miranda is also not. The chair is chair-shaped and touching the refrigerator door.

Miranda raises one foot and places it on the chair’s seat. Her spiked heel clicks on the wood.

Spiked like nails, not like punch. Punch like brandy and soda, not with fists.

On top of the refrigerator is the stereo. There is room for the stereo on lower levels; the counters are spare. But Miranda likes the slide-click-slide of the chair on tile.
She puts her index finger to the play button, and the nail is painted the same color as her heels.
Heels like stilettos, not like bread. Heels, red.

It’s a sonata.

Heel on tile, hands on chair: slide-click-slide, slide-click-slide. She turns the faucet off.

She turns the dial on the oven, preheating.

And then it starts with an onion.

A red net bag is in the cabinet to the right of the sink, and it’s full of ten pounds of onions. Ten pounds is any number of onions, depending on how large they are. These are large, and Miranda takes two. A papery husk falls off when her fingers clutch onion one. Onion two holds itself together.

Holds itself together, not emotionally, but in the manner of a framed puzzle.

Miranda owns four cutting boards. They are different colors: white, green, red and yellow. White is for fish, green for vegetables, red for meat and yellow for poultry.

Tonight, she will use the green cutting board, and then, later, the yellow.

Miranda has never used the white cutting board.

If cutting boards could talk, late at night and shut up in their drawer, the white cutting board would say he was prized above all others, because Miranda never let a knife touch his pristine surface. The other cutting boards would bite their tongues and nod politely, knowing the truth.

A knife, next.

She slices deftly, with her left hand. Two cuts yield four onion halves. Taking each half whole in her hand one by one, she peels back the copper husk. Eight cuts more; the halves are in quarters. Two handfuls and the quarters are in a roasting pan.

The pan is black. Black, like bedrooms with good shades on moonless nights. In winter.

Four carrots, in much the same way as the onions, are introduced to the pan. Three potatoes are scrubbed in the sink using the water in which the chicken has sunk. Miranda moves again to the refrigerator to open the door.

The bottom of the refrigerator is made up of two drawers. One of them says crisper.
The other does not say less crisp. Or even crisp. It doesn’t say anything at all, just like the cutting boards.

There are several things in the crisper; Miranda looks for only one of them. It’s a rutabaga. Miranda removes the rutabaga from the drawer and walks with it back to the counter and the green cutting board. She’s cut fruit on it before, and she sees nothing wrong with that.

She thinks rutabagas are their own kind of purple, and that that purple is probably most commonly called Rutabaga.

Miranda pauses for a moment and moves her fingers in the air. She might be playing the piano along with the sonata on the stereo, but really she is playing the air computer, practicing her typing.

She misspells rutabaga, making the second a an e.

The vegetables are all chopped into pieces roughly the same size. That is, the pieces are roughly the same size, not chopped roughly. Miranda moves her knife delicately, like a surgeon.

Miranda shucks the bird from its plastic wrapper after she drains the sink.

Miranda doesn’t know what babies feel like, but is almost positive it isn’t like this: slimy skin moving loosely under her fingers over globs of fat. The chicken is cold and wet and so recently frozen. Holding its bottom in her right hand, Miranda plunges her left into the cavity.

Her fingers enter the bird and then her palm. All the way up to her wrist, she is inside the chicken. Her applause, should there be occasion for any at just this moment, would sound like a hard and damp slap across the face. Not like a tribute, a thank you or a congratulations as applause is most often meant to sound.

There is no occasion to applaud, and so instead she removes the cold, folded bag of innards from within. It’s replaced with a sliced-in-half apple and another onion. A third onion. The smallest onion in the red mesh onion bag.

She moves the bird to the center of the roasting pan, it pushes the gently-cut vegetables up and out to the edges. And then there is olive oil over everything, poured from the bottle sitting open and unmentioned on the counter.

Miranda moves to the spice rack, just three steps to the right. Sage, salt, pepper. Rosemary, too.

Miranda opens the oven door and then grips the roasting pan with both of her hands. She lifts its weight and slips it onto the metal rack in the oven while heat billows out at her, making eyes squint just slightly.

The oven door is shut again.

At 18 minutes a pound, Miranda would take thirty-six hours to cook. The bird is much smaller.

The bird in the oven, Miranda may finally relax. For a single full minute she lets the music reach her ears. Her lips move silently, as if mouthing lyrics though there are none. After a moment passes, she pulls open a drawer to the left of the stove, rummages for a corkscrew.

It’s silver and shaped like a stick figured man with an oval-on-its-side head. The corkscrew corkscrews downward and ends in a point.

Miranda dances her way to the dining room, her heels clicking like wooden chairs on grout. On the dining table a bottle of wine sits corked. Miranda lifts it and reads the label. The pointed end of the corkscrew is made to move around the rim of the foil, cutting through.

Foil like tin, not like frustrate.

She peels back the foil. The sharp point and the cork meet and greet while Miranda twists and turns the silver stick man’s head around and around again. His arms wave wildly; They reach up toward Miranda’s wrist as if to stop her.

She pushes them down.

Miranda pulls a little and the cork pops wetly out of the neck. A single red drop of wine lands on the polished wood of the table.

Wood like cherry, not like should.

Miranda and the wine breathe for half an hour.

The crystal sits on the credenza in the dining room, and Miranda runs her hands around the rims of each glass before selecting one. Each glass is identical to the one next to it. None of them have been chipped or scratched or dropped or damaged.

The chosen glass is filled with the chosen wine. Miranda raises the bowl of the wine glass to her face. She lets her nose sit on the rim for just a second and then she inhales, slowly.

Miranda’s eyes close when she tries to use only one sense at a time.

She lowers the glass just slightly and her lips part.

Part like separate, not like piece. Piece like slice, not like harmony.

She sips and smiles, and lets the wine swoosh through her mouth and over her tongue. She swallows.

The chicken smells good. That is, the smell of the chicken is good. The chicken shouldn’t smell anything at all. Lured by the scent, Miranda wafts like vapor back into the kitchen and grout-clicks over to the oven.

She sets her wine glass down on the counter.

There is a baster in the drawer where the corkscrew was, only like the corkscrew, it isn’t there anymore. Miranda holds the baster like a wand and opens the oven door like a door.

She bastes.

She boasts: This chicken smells lovely.

Before returning to the dining room, Miranda opens a drawer again and pulls out some utensils.

Grout-click grout-click grout-click.

A jingle rings when she drops the silver on the table. A rustle rustles when she spreads the tablecloth over one end of the long wooden dining table. The cloth is green. Green like roses’ stems hung upside down from ceilings and dried.

She lifts the silver and places it down again on the covered end of the table. Miranda shuffles the rumpled up other end of the tablecloth smooth over the bare table.

Bare as exposed, not play dead.

She moves around the long ovular table and makes sure that the cloth hangs evenly on all sides. When it does, she moves to the credenza for the dishes.

A serving dish moves with Miranda back into the kitchen. A bowl balances on the dish, and the three of them gleam in the overhead kitchen lights. Miranda shines valentine whitely, the dish and bowl gleam gold.

Drawer.
Meat thermometer.
Oven door.

Miranda lifts the chicken from the roasting pan and onto the yellow cutting board. She uses a large silver fork and a larger silver knife.

Miranda doesn’t know what babies feel like, but she guesses it’s nothing like this. Crisp brown skin crackling under fingers. Rich roasted smells wafting up on steam clouds. Tender white meat nearly falling off the bone.

Miranda carves.

The meat falls quickly onto the yellow cutting board. Deftly, leftly, Miranda moves it to the serving dish. She carves the whole bird and then scoops the vegetable from the roasting pan into the serving bowl.

Grout-click grout-click grout-click.

Miranda lays down the dishes at the head of the table, just above her own plate, which sits waiting. She pulls back her chair and it makes no noise; the dining room is carpeted.

The carpet is dove.

Dove, which is gray on blue skies or white on gray skies.

She sits, and serves.

Serves, as in dinner and not tennis.

She loads her plate with white pieces of breast falling from crisp brown skin. Golden skin.

Gold being a shinier word for brown.

She slotted-spoons vegetables onto her plate, leaving the accumulated drippings pooling at the bottom of the bowl.

Salt, pepper, napkin on lap. Prayer.

The music filters in from the kitchen and she listens, but only between bites. Her eyes are closed. The fork moves continually from her plate to her mouth to the plate again. Each move empties her plate and fills her mouth.

Every so often, Miranda stills her fork and raises her glass. She sips slowly, but thirstily, like a desert nomad who knows better. In an hour the bottle is half empty, and the meal is half gone.

Vegetables sit soggy in the golden bowl and the chicken has cooled and the steam stopped.

She pours her glass full again, serves another slice of meat to her plate. Vegetables, too. Her pace slows, but still Miranda moves through dinner with ease. She doesn’t own a grandfather clock, or any other timepiece with chimes, but somewhere one chimes, and when it does, it chimes twelve times.

It’s one by the time dinner is over.

One, as is single and not in victory.

The serving dishes are empty and Miranda’s plate is clean. The wine is almost gone; only a glassful remains. She moves more slowly, now, so late at night and so full of fowl.

Her feet on the tile sound more like the chairs now because she’s shuffling.

Shuffling like shoes and not like cards.

Slide-click-slide.
Slide-click-slide.

The music stops.

Slide-click-slide.
Slide-click-slide.

The sink fills with water, warm like baths. Miranda washes up from her meal and soap suds into the air. The lemon-lime smell covers the chicken-vegetable smell.

The dish-rack is full, something it has in common with Miranda.

And then, Miranda opens the freezer and pulls out a frozen bird, leaving it on the counter to thaw overnight for tomorrow’s dinner.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Towards a Retrospective View of Writing

The following is an essay I wrote for kicks about a year ago. I thought I'd share it:

"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection."
-Anaïs Nin

Writing is, at its core, the art of retrospection. Wired into any work is, I think, the inherent desire to fully capture a moment. And the moment can never truly be captured; if it could be, writing would be a science, rather than an art form. While, in the past, authors have had the inkling to depict their work as objective (true histories, and the like,) a work simply cannot transcend its author's perspective. I think we all know this intuitively. Historic context, individual circumstances, and formal structures all vary in baffling ways; however, ideas remain a universal constant. The attempt to convey such ideas is, at best, a strange form of translation--unavoidably flawed. And I do suppose that, after having said all this, it's clear that the author's intent is ultimately irrelevant.

What is meant, though, by saying that writing is a retrospective art? Well, what can be said about trying to capture the past? After all, if we are trying to capture a moment, it must be a moment in the past. An author as nothing but experience and intuition. And, due to the overwhelming brevity of existence, attempting to capture the past in words is like trying to capture a star that's gone supernova in a jar meant for fireflies. Art is all about discrepancies. All texts work towards the end of capturing a moment; however, that moment simply cannot be caught. Ultimately, writing is an act of miscalculation, no matter how eloquent the words are arranged. This may sound discouraging--I assure you, it's actually quite wonderful.

I once learned about typological interpretation of the bible, a way of looking at the old testament in relation to the new testament. For instance, when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, to Christian interpreters it seemed to foreshadow God's own sacrifice of his son for humanity. What I find interesting about that has almost nothing to do with its religious nature. No, what I think is significant here is the way in which scholars seem to have redefined their own past culture, and put it in the context of their belief system, for their own agenda. When you think about it, this kind of thing happens all the time.

By looking at the past in the context of the present, we are subsequently redefining it. It's unavoidable. And when I say we are 'redefining' the past, I mean we are coming to a new understanding of it though new experiences. Ultimately, it's a misinterpretation of the past, because we can never see life through the same eyes again. Thus, we create a false reality for ourselves, working under patently false premises everyday. This whole line of thought is a bit dense. What I really mean is that the past always seems infinitely more simple and infinitely greater than the present, and perhaps even the various prospects of the future. This is the basic premise behind a nostalgic mindset. I think when we hear the phrase, "history is written by the winners," the notion works on an individual scale in addition to the all encompassing reach of history. We selectively remember the good moments in our lives; perhaps it's an evolutionary trait.

Religious and scientific connotations aside, I would say this is relevant to writing in an integral way. We humans qua rational cannot help but assign significance to our past, even when that significance is fairly questionable. There is always a kind of misinterpretation going on when we think of the past, simply because our thoughts are informed by our present circumstance. The sentiments of those past moments are effectively diluted. This discrepancy occurs in whenever we write, and it is this very perversion of the past which fuels all artistic endeavors.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Words of Wisdom


-from the man Himself, aka David Foster Wallace

Why Write?

It is 3:30 A.M. and I find myself wondering why I am who I am; namely, I wonder why I want to be a writer. When asked directly, a strange flood of emotions and apprehensions whirl through my brain. There's a certain amount of shame, and even maybe and a sense of impending doom. Sometimes it feels like at any moment I'm going to be seen for the ignorant, pseudo-intellectual bastard I really am. And I suppose that feeling is something that every creative individual feels at one point or another. But then there's also a feeling that it's right, intuitively speaking.

A psychic once told my mother that I was going to be a writer, and while I tend to be very skeptical of those sorts of things, perhaps it was a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Before that, it never really occurred to me that one could make a living writing (I still tend to suspend a bit of disbelief on this matter) and maybe it got the ol' noggin working. I don't believe I was destined to be a writer, or anything like that. It would be arrogant and nonsensical to assume that I'm even remotely significant in such a way. No one person is, really.

I think everyone struggles with nihilism in their own way, and I am no different. In a certain way, the fiction writer is a kind of god. They conjure up worlds and control the fate of their characters. In this meaningless, uncaring world, the writer is someone who can make sense of things. But should they? This is certainly what attracts a lot of ego-maniacal sorts to the fold. I will not pretend I am above that sentiment, but I prefer not to look at it that way. The way I write, I don't really feel that I have full control of the plot or my characters. I suppose you could call that a flaw in my writing, but that's just the way it works for me. There is a certain element to the whole thing which is beyond the spectrum of human analysis. It's that mystery which draws me to writing. It occurs to me that there's nothing ironic or remotely funny about this.