Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Rooms Like These

Sink low, rise high; bring back some blurry pictures 
to remember all your darker moments by. 
Permanent bruises on our knees, 
never forget what it felt like to live in rooms like these.
       -- The Mountain Goats, “Birth of Serpents”

The Back Room

The back room was where lizards crawled on the one brick wall, where the paperback Catholic self-help books resided on blonde do-it-yourself wooden shelves, where my great uncle took up residence when my great aunt died, his white shirts suddenly left un-ironed, un-starched, coppery stains blooming at the collars and cuffs, while his black and gray and navy suits slumped and sagged one against the other in the closet, the hollow-core sliding doors sticking like stubbed toes and then, when jostled, slipping clear off their hinges, while from outside the swimming pool’s gurgle and gulp snaked through the back door to join the coughs and throat-clearings and whimperings. He’s fallen apart, or something like that was what we were told, so my brother and I found ourselves sleeping on the sofa-bed in the den, each night the inevitable steel crossbar at the hipbone or knee a reminder that there were far worse pains in this world to be endured.

The Rooms Upstairs

After Katrina we went up there, my siblings and I, the only place in the house the wretched water hadn’t reached, mold growing up the wall on both sides of the narrow staircase but then stopping suddenly before it reached the top, a smooth line of demarcation as if even a simple-celled fungus – or whatever stuff such mold is made of – could tell that the particular chemical composition of the space above was of a different variety than the one below. And it had become years and years earlier just that, rooms deemed safe from my mother’s or father’s ascent because the time arrived, as one might have expected, when they’d decided it wasn’t worth the climb or couldn’t. Why seek out, in any case, horrors one didn’t dare address, the tang of adolescent despair, of familiar ruin, of incalculable desire? And once the children were all gone off to hunt their own lives, why bother searching for evidence of life long ago extinguished? Oh, but what science was once to be found there. In the floor-to-ceiling cabinets at the top of the stairs, my older brothers stored sulfurous chemistry sets and magnifying glasses and a heavy black-and-silver microscope with insects and drops of dried blood and locks of pig and horse and human hair all squeezed for careful inspection between glass rectangular plates, their edges sharp as knives, and soldier-shaped molds into which they poured – or at least I imagined they did -- melted lead and tin. They kept binders filled with Mardi Gras doubloons, with baseball cards, with stamps from Senegal and the Dominican Republic and the Vatican, silver dollars and buffalo nickels and donut-holed or star-shaped foreign coins slipped into the felt-lined slots of gold-embossed blue cardboard cases. I collected music, books, the poems I wrote – all the useless beauty I could lay my hands on, every unpronounceable, unspeakable moment I could gather in my scrawny fists.

The Helping Hands Room

504-288-0334. Because we were not allowed to linger on the first line, 504-282-5612, seeing as how any moment an arm or leg might be broken, how our elderly Christian Science neighbor might need a bit of undocumented medical attention for her gout or lumbago or fluttering heart, how the orthopedic ward nurses might require my father’s consent for more – and more potent – pain-killing medication for his newly post-surgical patients, we acquired a second line, ostensibly in the service of my mother’s charitable endeavor distributing discarded clothes to Cuban immigrants, but also for the children – or, more precisely, for all that I cared, for me in the service of my own machinations, the hours and hours of conversation with my girlfriend. I cannot imagine what we said. Did we talk about her alcoholic mother, her two sisters confined to psychiatric wards, her own surgeon of a father, a man who years and years later I would discover, when I’d come to care about such things, was the spitting image of the poet William Carlos Williams? Did we trade Cat Stevens lyrics back and forth? Did I dare to profess my admiration for the long stick-shaped legs stretching out from the bloomers beneath her cheerleader skirt? I don’t remember, of course. We do not ever remember such moments because we believe them – wrongly, wrongly  -- wholly insubstantial, fleeting, unaware that they will indeed linger season after season, lodge themselves like clots in our blood, the way the x-rays my father slipped beneath the clip of the fluorescent-lit device in the Helping Hands room are still imprinted on my eyes, the way his mumbled dictation – period, paragraph, salutation – still echoes in my ears, precisely the same sound my footsteps make each evening when I set out near sunset for a walk behind our house. It’s like the scraping of the dried leaves at the field’s edge before there’s nothing but the quiet of the soft fallen grass. Just like that.

The Living Room

Where we did not live. Where there was no living to be done, or so every grimly appointed inch of it seemed to declare. Where the lights – a 50’s-era modernist chandelier, a heavy table lamp carved in pseudo-hieroglyphics – were not switched on for weeks on end. Where the dining table’s waxen sheen remained unsmudged, the carpet’s warp and weft unscuffed. Where the art – gauzy gray-green landscapes of willow and moss and swamp -- hung in gold-painted wooden frames, unremarkable, unremarked-upon. Where we were not welcome or simply would not dare go when strangers we did not know visited and were offered iced tea or instant coffee. Well, there were the years when my mother hosted a weekly prayer meeting for Catholic women of similar ilk and interest, gatherings that included inedible snacks to accompany the recitation of Bible verses and some measure of Pentecostal shenanigans: speaking in tongues, earnestly raising one’s hands as if to touch heaven, and a fair bit of the Holy Spirit’s thrashing, shouting, and possession. And when all of that was done and gone, I gained occasional claim to the Philips hi-fi in the corner, James Taylor and Cat Stevens giving way to ever greater melancholy, more than enough to fill not just this one room but all of them, the whole entire house, a whole entire life.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

[Search] … she was a dancer on her toes, a foreigner who made her home in the flowers of…

I've got a message for you, if I could only remember.
I've got a message for you, but you're gonna have to come and get it.
La la la la la la la la, la la la la la la la la.

-- The Mountain Goats, "Sinaloan Milk Snake Song"

[Search] … she was a dancer on her toes, a foreigner who made her home in the flowers of…

She was a dancer on her toes,

A foreigner who made her home in the flowers of...
And no one took pity on her
And she would go and weep
At her mother's grave.

When her father and stepmother and two sisters
Came home, and the prince would dance with none
But her; and when midnight came like the earth embroidered
With flowers, and her shoon were made of silver,

She would buy the flowers herself
And laugh at the girls in their transparent muslins
Who, even now, after dancing all night,
Bustled on, raising roses. Meanwhile, Amanda

Made her entrance by helicopter.
Deliver Amanda, please, a pizza and flowers.
To Amanda, raise a complaint against her parents:
How she played baseball in the house

After soaking her feet, toenails clipped --
footbinding mandatory for all girls -- so graceful
that she skimmed on top a golden lotus and formed
a troupe to perform for foreign tourists.

Little Grace, an imaginary friend whom she brings
Everywhere to make the children happy,
and a foreign woman's baby, a prostitute,
and meanwhile, Niles, all alone in the house.

And the dancing scene in 1928?
The Gumm Sisters enrolled, a trio
prettier than a garland of flowers,
and her "cute" or "girl-next-door" looks

flowered in the shape of a whale.
Palaces and manor houses could be glimpsed
through the splendid woods,  red flowers
becoming up on deck sailors dancing,
and the Prince finally appearing among them.

Notably well educated for her time, she bought
a radio station and then a TV station, cities
and highways: Where flowers bloom, so does hope,
And as soon as I could stand on my own, 
I was given dance lessons in nightspots: the Foreign 
and the Caliente Club, all Technicolor, made of money.

And she asked her friend Hermes
If she could eat at his home and play a teacher
In a low-budget film with the father of her daughter,
And she made no more films.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Transcendental Youth

Sing, sing for ourselves alone
Speak into the microphone...

Try to explain ourselves, babble on and on 
By the time you receive this, we'll be gone...

Sing, sing high, while the fire climbs
Sing one for the old times.

-- The Mountain Goats, "Transcendental Youth"


Billy says he figures he's got maybe ten good brain cells left to work with, the rest of them blitzed away by the combination of too much acid in the 70s and all the low-alcohol beer he could legally drink on base at 18, because back then, in Alaska, they had vending machines in the barracks.  It'd get you as drunk as anything else, he chuckles, you just had to drink more of it. He likes to tell me that now he drives like an old lady, so much wiser and more cautious than he was in all those hapless years of youthful excess. Really, though, he treats the cab like it's the semi he drove for a long time: Turning wide, and muscling it hard from lane to lane, unused to its new, small body. 


When John finally starts singing around 1:30 in the morning, I've been at The Mohawk for almost five hours. Long enough to drink three beers and hear four mediocre local bands, unlisted opening acts, play for a small crowd of their waifish friends. There are four of us here at the end of all that: me, a high school choir teacher and his brand new girlfriend, and a mop-haired drummer who thinks I'm hitting on him because I've spent the last twenty minutes trying to convince him to not leave before the show even starts. Nearly empty, the venue is concrete and cold, and it feels later than it is -- those weirdly seasick hours when you are still awake as the night turns over into morning. We pull closer to the stage to cut into the useless space. Sharp-faced and sallow, John looks like a bird of prey against the microphone, or like whatever wounded animal that bird is circling.


When Billy finds out I'm a teacher, he's thrilled. He's got so many questions for me. He wants to know about double negatives and prepositions and what in the hell a Freudian slip is. It takes about half an hour to get from my house in central Austin to the elementary school down south, where I have a job this semester teaching creative writing twice a week to thirteen nine-year-olds. Billy volunteers to take me there and back for the duration. He's grateful for the steady work, and he never charges me for the inevitable time we spend sitting in traffic. Tuesday,  I teach him what an Oedipus Complex is because he heard a passenger mention it in the cab. We talk about Sophocles and prophecy, and he says, Man, listening to the oracle sounds like it's always a bad idea. I learn that he is adopted, and that though he searched and searched for his biological mother, she never wanted to speak to him. He doesn't speak much to the family that raised him either. I look different, he says, like a dirty gypsy. He runs one hand through his long, damp curls.  

Thursday, he brings me a peach and we discuss the different meanings of the various spellings of to/too/two and how much we love Casablanca. He has three children. His youngest, Rosemary, is my age and has a thyroid problem. She's my favorite. I mean, I don't have favorites, but, she needs me.  His oldest is a 911 operator in San Antonio, but a few years ago she danced the evening show at the Yellow Rose in town. Her mother quit talking to her, Billy says, but I figured I better not. Otherwise she'd never quit taking her clothes off and come home.

Here's looking at you, kid, he calls as I climb out of the cab.


John's album, The Graceless Age, is easily my favorite of the year. It's brilliant, soaked in Mississippi fire and brimstone, in heroin and hurt, in Faulkner and The Odyssey and California space. It makes an epic out of walking through the ashes of a small burned-down town. He has a kind of guttural, intimate voice, and at the end of one song you hear a crackling recording of his mother talking about adopting him from a Jackson hospital. We got home that night, and you cried in the night, and all of three of us, my mother and your father and I, got up and met each other at the doorway. We all had to take turns going in to check on you. We were so excited to have you be our son. 

Somewhere after that, or maybe way beforehand, something broke down inside the family and the boy they were so glad to have. And there was a lot of suffering. God and addiction and abandonment. And then we got this album. I pray this light will be her guide / into my arms, these crooked arms, /  underneath the southern sky.

You wouldn't know any of that listening to John sing this morning. He just looks wrecked, sad beyond belief, exhausted, hollowed. If I hadn't listened to the whole album fifty times, I wouldn't understand a single lyric. The mop-haired drummer shakes his head, kisses my cheek, and leaves. I pull even closer to the stage.


My kids this semester are in fourth grade. But they do not know the difference between a noun, a verb, and an adjective. Many of them cannot put a sentence together.  For some of them, English is not their first language. They associate writing with feeling dumb, and from the first day, it's clear to me that they're angry about the hours that we spend together each week. They think they've been dumped with me because they're struggling or because their parents are not free to pick them up when the school day ends. They're not wrong. 

My kids refuse to pick up their pencils. They throw paper airplanes at my head. They steal each other's shoes and  leap out of their seats if there's even a second I don't have them engaged.  When one kid does finally write a few sentences, they are about his father getting shot when he was an infant. At the bottom he draws an illustration of what he thinks was his best day: the day he was born. His mother lies in a hospital bed. He is on her chest. A tall stick figure in the corner is his father.  He labels it so that I am sure.  Another little boy, when I tell him he has to open his notebook, begins to stab himself in the chest with his pencil. Hard. I hear the lead break. I have never before felt quite so limited by my wheelchair. I cannot fit between the desks to reach him. The kids cry at the slightest provocation, and otherwise they are trying to yell. They are all bluster and devastation. Tiny storms. Microbursts.

One day, when I stand briefly at the board to write an example sentence, I trip and fall down. They all rush toward me. Warm little bodies; small hands patting my back. I fall down sometimes, too, Jerry says matter-of-factly. Like, Don't worry, you're not the only one.

They deserve someone so much better than me. Someone able-bodied. Experienced. Qualified. But I'm all they've got for these small hours. I'm sorry, I want to tell them every single time.


It's Billy who starts to call them the hooligans. Like, How were the hooligans today? You show those hooligans who's boss? Oh, Miss Molly, he says, I was such a hooligan. I was such an idiot. If I could do it over again, I'd do it different. I'd learn to read. I mean, I can read the road signs alright, but.... Hey, did you know the salmon in Alaska always come back to where they were born... Hey, tell me again about the Oedipus thing...

Do you know that I was afraid of him the first time he came to pick me up?  He was tall. He had grimy hands and a trucker hat and he smelled like sweat. I rode the whole way, that first drive, with my cellphone clutched in my hand ready to dial. Thinking: he has my wheelchair in the trunk of his car; what am I going to do?  At the end of the ride he offered me a chocolate and told me I reminded him of his daughter.

I think about sweet-faced Jerry and everything he'll grow up to be.


As John sings, I think about how lucky I feel that, even though most of what I write disappears unnoticed into the void, as a poet I don't have to look that fact in the face every day. I just write, and try not to be too bothered by the quiet. But he's driven from California to sing to three of us and fall asleep on someone's couch. Look out at how hard it is to make the thing you love reach truly into the world. Look out at how small you are. Look out at the concrete and the grime and the blackness and live with it. I reach  up and  put both my hands on the stage. I really hope he can tell that he is breaking my heart. I really hope he can tell that it matters. 

Afterwards, John takes both my hands in his and I tell him that I think he is a genius. I tell him thank you so much. 


In so many ways the last year has been the worst one of my life. I had a plan for my future. I had a clean, shining path down the fast-track I'd been chasing since I knew how to chase. I had prestige and security and a well-honed sense of myself as invincible. Success, as an artist and a professional, was an escape hatch from the hardship of my body. I was going to be so good at my life that no neurological disorder, no pain or bruising or helplessness, was going to matter. And then, for reasons impossibly complicated, impossibly quotidian, and, I've come to realize, deeply inevitable, it fell apart. It's not an especially good story. Suffice it to say that I never planned to be falling to my knees in an elementary school classroom. I never planned to be thoroughly alone at a rock show at two a.m.  I never planned to write a book about an old Virginia hospital. I never planned to be discussing the Greeks in the back of a cab for two hours every week. I never planned anything this messy, or this shining, or this hard.


Even as my kids are pissed-off and badly behaved and reluctant, they are also hugely imaginative and gregarious and inventive. They want to stand up and share all the details of what they ate for lunch on a given day, and why they hate chocolate pudding. They want to tell me the dreams they have about space travel and their ideas for the best possible super hero. They want me to call them by the names of 90s pop stars that I have no idea how they heard of. For a week Salvador goes by J-Lo.  Kimani ends every writing prompt we ever do with a list of all the impossibly fancy cars he wants to own. 

One week we read the story of how the camel got his hump. I have them act it out on the rug in the front of the classroom, saying humph just like the camel does in the story, hanging their heads in frustration like the dog and the ox. 

The next class, I coax them into working on the story of how the wizard got her magic. We go sentence-by-sentence. 

How does the wizard get  her powers? A magic astroid. 

What is her name? Alice the Wiz!  

Who is the enemy? A zombie that wants to get the wizard's power by eating her brain. 

Where is it set? A mansion!

Write one important thing about Alice that you might not know if you looked at her...

And at the end of class Julie looks up and says: you tricked us into writing a whole story!

Yeah! they chorus and nod their heads. They are thrilled.

Every class, they ask if I'm coming back. Like I might not. Like I might just abandon them and disappear into the ether. 


None of this is pretty or clean. None of it resolves. 

You have to keep showing up: looking for  the puncture in the pitch dark, the small thing you can do, the one person listening. Not because it fixes everything. Not because it is suddenly enough. Out of suffering, you make a gorgeous album not enough people hear. You never get another chance to be young or to do it right. The people who should love you do not always love you. You are lonely. You are not a good enough teacher. You cannot do enough. Your body is the wrong body. Your hurt does not have an endpoint. 

But showing up is the only ting we have. Showing up for what we believe in. Showing up to be surprised.  It is the only act out of which beauty is ever born. 

So I sit down at my desk to write. So I stay in the empty bar until 2 a.m. So I touch a stranger I don't really know. So every day I tell my kids that I'll be back soon. And I come back.  

One day, as I am packing up to teach, I hear music outside. Billy is early, and he's sitting in the front seat of his cab with the windows open playing a George Harrison song on his guitar. I gather my papers, and I go outside, and I sit on my front steps, and I listen to him sing. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Are You Cleaning Off the Stone?

I'd like to begin by saying that I saw you coming, 
but that would be a lie. 
I'd like to say that I can hear your voice, 
but I couldn't mean 'hear' in the accepted sense of the word. 

Are you cleaning off the stone? 
That's a sweet thing to do. 
Are you cleaning off the stone? 
That's sweet of you.

-- The Mountain Goats, “Are You Cleaning Off the Stone?”

I’d like to say that I saw you coming, but that would be a lie.
I never exactly see you coming, though there are other words
That might apply, the senses’ usual fragile suspects: feel, taste,
Touch, turn. Others, too: toward, fall, fallen, listen, succumb.
I’m thinking of all these pictures I’ve taken, all this useless
Linger and smudge: light and shadow, pallor and square.
Are you cleaning off the stone? That’s a sweet thing to do,
Except there’s this: all that’s collected there, leaf and twig,
Dried shell, wasp wing, clam chalk, lint and litter – these
Are the tools that through the years have carved my name.
Call it, call me, what you like: I’ll call it with the same
Voice I call my children, the same pleading:
Where are you? How long until you return?
What do these mean to you: see, stone, linger, given?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Pure Honey

I had a thousand good questions
I was gonna ask you when you finally came by,
but now that you're really here
there's only one question that comes to my mind

and that question being:
what's with all the Portuguese water dogs?
I'd like to repeat the question:
What's with all the Portuguese water dogs?

-- The Mountain Goats,“Pure Honey”

The stinkbugs have taken over the garden, decorating each tomato like cloves on a baked ham or simmering orange, denuding the zucchini and desecrating the squash, and I need four new car tires because, in this summer’s every-other-day’s deluges, my Mini shimmies and slides line-to-line on the highway as if to confirm not just that the world is – all evidence to the contrary – flat but also that it’s now, like an immense and unsteady scale, tilting this way and then that, and any moment, if I’m not careful, if I’m not gripping the wheel like Jr. on the final lap, my car might slide right off the edge and me with it, a Niagran plunge into, well, nothing. (The nothing that is? The nothing that’s not? Who’s that talking?)

At the grocery, here’s what I think: Ice cream. Ice cream. And that’s it, though I consent to buying whatever else happens onto the list: light bulbs, sandwich bread, yogurt, black peppercorns, the pressure-point motion-sickness bands you wear on your wrists.

The blast of refrigeration from the gourmet desserts dairy case fogs my glasses, and the doctor tells me that the two bumps that emerged on my left palm some nine months ago have a name: Dupuytren's Contracture. Among those who suffered from this affliction – though there is no suffering to speak of, no affliction inflicted – is Samuel Beckett. Was, I mean. Among those who suffered was Samuel Beckett. Though, as I said, he didn’t suffer.

Or did, of course, but just not from Depuyten’s Contracture.

Indeed he must have suffered – so terribly pale, so strikingly gaunt, ornithic, unguiculate. (Oh, go ahead. Look them up. But it’s such a bother. Well, I did. Well, you would.) And all those photographs: seated in a corner, on a rubbish bag, a folding chair, fire escape steps, a narrow bed. Spectacles perched on his high forehead, cigarette pinched between his fingers, his expression a grimace or frown or prefect’s pinched-lip displeasure or– lo and behold, one out of twenty – a sly grin.

What’s that mean?

What? A sly grin? A prefect’s pinched-lip displeasure?

No. “Well, you would.” What’s “Well, you would” mean?


It means nothing?

It is nothing. It doesn’t mean anything.

Okay, then. Just asking.

Okay, then, since you haven’t yet asked, here it is: I’m done taking pictures. Ten thousand of them over the last fourteen months, which means two dozen or thereabouts a day, every day, for sixty weeks. And those just the ones I kept, posted, shared, documented, Instagrammed, as it were. There were hundreds more – thousands, no doubt – that I did not keep, that I deleted from my phone a moment after they were taken. A whole world of them, as the expression goes.

A shuttered world. Shutter. Shudder. Shuddering: shiver, tremble, quiver, shake.

Right now, it’s not so much all those pictures I’m interested in as it is the stopping: how my seeing might have been changed by this project and will now no doubt change again – how it is changing already, my days suddenly as bare, now that I’m done, as a Beckett stage: mounds of dirt, a leafless tree, an old desk, a naked bulb.

These, of course, were the very sorts of things – dirt, tree, desk, bare bulb – that served as my subject. And me, I suppose, or not me so much as me seeing, though I’m not sure exactly what that means – or even inexactly. Or perhaps at all.

Exact. Exact. Precision. Extract.

Of the ten thousand, I took ninety-one photos of the view from our front porch, forty-nine of myself. Three hundred seventy of the images are collages comprised of four squares, four hundred eighty-five are of nine squares, eighty-six are of sixteen. I did not count the rest – could not possibly have counted – all the images of trees, of sky, of blooming or wilted flowers, of reflections in windows, of light bulbs and lamps and dead butterflies and twisting vines, of the noble and comical pug James Brown who matched me step for step as we trudged again and again through the same woods and fields near Sanctuary Cottage, into the dilapidated barns and – always reluctantly by James, as though we were fording the wide Missouri – across muddy ditches and shallow creeks.

I learned, I guess, to better see shapes, follow lines, discern shadows, to notice the small squares into which the world can be divided. But that’s not really, I know, what matters. And I never imagined that the images themselves  -- how evocative or uncompelling they might be, how successful or not – were the point of my undertaking.

Undertaking. Undertaken. Undertaker. Such curious words. I was certain that The Undertaker was a Harold Pinter play, but I was no doubt thinking of The Dumb Waiter with its pair of bantering hitmen reminiscent of Beckett’s two banterers in Godot.

Banter. Bandolier. Dandelion and burdock. (This last a drink of fermented roots akin to sarsaparilla, concocted by a parched St. Thomas Aquinas after a sleepless night of prayer in the open country, the sort of place where I live. Or so the story goes.)

And another story, this one true as true: the photographer who took my first author photo was the same one who took the shot of Beckett sitting in that corner, a small ottoman beneath him, his shirt buttoned to the throat, socks sagging down above a pair of tan Clarks wallabees. Years earlier I’d mailed from Baltimore to a friend in Nashville a postcard with this very photograph of Beckett. The card took two years to be delivered and arrived torn and faded, stamped with a stamp that read: FOUND IN A SUPPOSEDLY EMPTY CONTAINER.

Where else, one might ask, would one expect to find Beckett?

Let me tell you this as well. The Undertaker may not be an absurdist play, but it is, I’ve learned, something far far greater: it’s the moniker of a wildly famous wrestler, this paragraph from Wikipedia so stunningly wonderful that it must be quoted in its entirety:

The Undertaker gimmick has two polar opposite identities. The first is the "Deadman," an undead, occult-like figure which has consisted of several different versions. He debuted his first version of the Deadman during his on-camera debut at Survivor Series 1990. Here, he was clad as a Western mortician, a zombie-like powerhouse donned in black attire with gray accessories. By SummerSlam 1994, he began appearing as a mystic, chilling superhuman represented by cool colors, replacing the gray with purple and using blue fog for the first time. At Survivor Series 1996, the Deadman was reborn once again, this time as the gothic "Lord of Darkness." By January 1999, he began appearing as the ritual-performing dark priest of a stable called the Ministry of Darkness. The Undertaker's alternate identity is a biker dubbed the "American Bad-Ass", which he portrayed from May 2000 to November 2003. Since WrestleMania XX, Undertaker has appeared as a hybrid of all of his previous incarnations. At the same time, the hybrid has seen sharp contrasts, most notably appearing while shirtless and sporting a skinhead/Mohawk.

I would trade all ten thousand pictures I’d taken -- and I’m sure you would, too – to be in firm possession of such minute, detailed, and colorful knowledge on this undead dark priest/biker badass Western mortician.

Hail Satan!

And I’d trade them a thousand times over to have seen the sick and frail Harold Pinter perform Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.

Hail Satan tonight!

And three times over to be able to sing.

Hail hail!

Though no doubt I won’t ever figure out moment-to-moment what I’m doing with my life, I expect I will eventually figure out what I’ve done. It may take years; it may take a fall into nothingness like the one I imagine when my car starts to slide on the wet highway. It may take a thousand more walks with the noble James. It may even take ten thousand more pictures. Until then, I’ll just have to keep going.

Pull on your trousers, then.


Pull ON your trousers.

Well? Shall we go?

Yes, let’s go.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Dance Music

there's only one place where this road ever ends up.
and I don't want to die alone.
let me down, let me down, let me down gently.
when the police come to get me

I'm listening to dance music.
dance music.
          -- The Mountain Goats "Dance Music"

When my siblings and I were young my father liked to play a game with us whenever we were driving  in the car. He would start a song on the stereo and ask okay, what is it?and we would scramble to be the first to shout the song and artist,  and start to sing along.  The game was impossible to rig or predict; my father's taste was eclectic and mercurial: he was as likely to play the Smiths as Ella Fitzgerald, as liable to pick out a Johnny Cash song as an aria from Madame Butterfly

I grew up able to identify any version of Thelonious Monk’s “'Round Midnight” within the first few notes and sing every verse of “Losing My Religion.” I knew REM had formed in Athens and that you could hear  Country in their Rock 'n' Roll, but that if you wanted real Southern Gospel, you had listen to the Blind Boys of Alabama. I could tell you that Prefab Sprout’s “Cars and Girls” was a tongue-in-cheek  rebuttal to Bruce Springsteen and "Born to Run," and that the girl in "Thunder Road" was Angelina before she was Mary. Once, in fifth grade, I threw a Halloween party at which I tried to seem cool by playing Elvis Costello's My Aim is True. It was a rude awakening.

Pictures of my father's childhood are few and far between, and he rarely talks about it much detail. Largely,  I construct an imagination of it from the pieces of his writing, the particular memories he sometimes lets slip as long as I don't ask him too many questions,  and the stories he tells about the songs he loves. I make up my father playing basketball with his siblings in the eye of a hurricane in the driveway of their house on Chatham Drive. I make him up calling in to the radio station at ten years old and winning that first Bread album on vinyl. I make him up coming home to find his mother conducting church groups on their couch, speaking in tongues, and going upstairs to listen to the Cat Stevens albums he inherited from his older brothers. I pretend him sneaking in and smoking in New Orleans jazz clubs in the French Quarter, and I call up a baby-faced teenager with a filched copy of Grapes of Wrath or a paperback of Leaves of Grass creased from too much time in his back pocket. He's walking around outside Jesuit High School thinking about Hurricane Carter the year Bob Dylan put out Desire.  Over and over again I play "Wasted Lives and Bluegrass" and imagine my father alone in North Carolina before graduate school, in those big round glasses he wore. 

I have one strong memory of being on the coast in England with my family. It was misty, of course, and we were looking out over the water for barking seals. My father was a little ways off from the rest of us, walking farther down the cliffs with his hands in his pockets, not looking back. Your father is sad, my mother said. I was not to follow him. He has a thing for fado music: this horribly beautiful  Portugese wailing, fated and long. He has a thing for the recordings Billie Holiday did near the end of her life, when her voice grew coarse and started to fail. 

In another memory from the same trip, my father and I go out together  every morning before everyone else. At the little cafe in Tolosa we drink café con leche and eat chocolate croissants and watch the city sky get bright. He makes the young women who run the bakery laugh.  He has brought a beret and fallen in love with José Saramago and the hard cider from the Hotel Oria and flamenco. He loves the pageantry of it, and can never clap on the beat. 

The first time I hear a song that feels like mine I am in seventh grade. It is 2004 and I am newly old enough for contemporary literary fiction. I've just finished Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House and Myla Goldberg's Bee Season.  I climb into the car after school one day and my father says: Molls, I found this band that wrote a song about Bee Season. All of a sudden Colin Meloy is singing:

Still now you're waiting to grow
Inside you're old
Sew wings to your pigeon toes
Put paper to pen
To spell out "Eliza"

He had a weird, whiny voice and a fake British accent, and I have never loved anything more in my entire life, this song like a book, this pinched, sad shanty. It can't have begun this cleanly, but in my memory this is the beginning of our love affair with indie music.  In the next few years my father and I would  discover Neutral Milk Hotel and Joanna Newsom,  the everybodyfields and, yes, The Mountain Goats. We would drive to the 9:30 Club in the middle of the week to see the Decemberists play and follow Anais Mitchell to hole-in-the-wall shows all over Virginia. We made friends with the guy who ran the independent record store near our apartment in Charlottesville, and we bought The Crane Wife there the day it came out while we talked to him about Tom Waits. During my loneliest adolescent years, we'd leave the house in the evening after dinner and drive into Lynchburg with the windows down and  Hymns for the Exiled pouring out onto the highway in the heat. As I recovered from yet another surgery the summer before ninth grade, we played "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" again and again and again. 

One year, I am in high school, we go to hear Marshall Crenshaw play in a tiny little club in Virginia. We are inches away from the stage. He is seated, close to the microphone, balding and wearing a fedora. He sings mostly new songs, but also a couple old hits the crowds knows and buzzes for. When he sings "Mary Anne" it is beautiful and weirdly devastating. This is the first time I realize my father is getting old. 

These days we live across the country from one another,  and still he is the source of every song that I have ever loved. Right now, we're obsessed with that particular kind of alt-country sung by newly-sober or just-can't-get-there southern men who've read too much Faulkner and spent too many nights in rattly old motels. That beautiful ring in the voice.  Jason Molina, John Murry, Jason Isabell.  It's hard to hear. It is the greatest thing. 

I am my father's daughter. In shorthand, this means I am prone to excess, obsession, and introspection to a fault. It means I am performative and shy, all bluster and volume, deep sadness, and boundless joy, that animal thing you can't help but feel welling up when John Darnielle sings "No Children" and bangs on his guitar. That kind of love song.

Sometimes, even now, in the hardest moments of my life, my father will call and apologize for the difficult pieces of the legacy he's passed to me, for the fact that I can't stand the goddamn clouds.  I wish I was always good enough to remember to tell him: I have never wanted anything else.

Love what you love unashamedly; take equal joy in the highbrow and the low, at McDonald's and at the Opera.  Never say that a song or a painting or a book is bad, only that you don't like it, then talk about why. Pretension is worthless. Almost anything can give you pleasure; the world is wide, after all, and full of things you haven't found yet. I will always be cooler than you. These are the best things I have learned from my father.

One afternoon I get into the car and he is playing Taylor Swift's first album way before she is famous. Don't judge, he says; It's great! He's right. We sing along to "Tim McGraw." I still know all the words.

And still, about half the time we talk, he tells me like it's news, like I don't know, like he's discovering it all over again: Man, Molly, I really love Rihanna! 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Journal of My Bad Eye (or Floreat Majestas)

And I lose my footing and I skin my hands, breaking my fall,
And I laugh to myself and look up at the skies,
And then I think I hear angels in my ears
Like marbles being thrown against a mirror.

-- The Mountain Goats, “Wild Sage”

1. Prepare yourself for obfuscation: I have begun seeing the shadows of shadows.

2. These, these days, make me weep: rosemary pinched between finger and thumb, flecks of tobacco in the corner of a rusted tobacco tin, Latin pop songs from a concert on HBO, Stieglitz’s adoration of the young O’Keefe, oak floors in need of refinishing, red-shaded lamps at night in an empty room, unmowed fields beyond the apple and pear, and certain street names (Gravier, Esplanade, Spanish Fort) though maybe not, I don’t know, the streets themselves. I’d have to go there, I guess, slump down against the trunk of a burly oak and just see if, say, Cat Stevens starts strumming and swirling in my head: Ruby, my love. You’ll be my love.

3. I have this notion that every poet from Eastern Europe exists only as a grainy black and white author photo, thick dark-framed glasses magnifying his eyes, balding head bent down, as inscrutable as the alphabet characters of the native language from which his words have been shorn, the tear at the dust-jacket’s corner threatening ever greater ruin. The men, I mean. In their pictures the women poets wear bulky cardigans, wispy gray hair spilling across their too-broad shoulders, a smudged window’s pot of flowers well out of focus behind them. A cigarette, perhaps. No one smiles, not ever. Do any poets? In their pictures, I mean – though perhaps it’s worth pondering even in – even of –  their whole lives. Mary Oliver’s, I remember, looked more like a grimace. She walked her dogs through the fields and along the creek early mornings, and I’d sometimes see her, through my office window, in the hazy dawn: frozen, stock-still, peering down, eyes squinting, mouth pinched… -- this could not have been a grimace, could it? It must have been a smile.

4. Now, when I think of a number between 1 and 10, or when I calculate the change I’m supposed to be given, or when I try to recollect the artist whose song accompanies me through the aisles at Food Lion, I close my right eye, the bad one, as if not having to attend to that single irritant for a few moments will create greater space for the brain-work at hand. Seven. Thirty-three cents. Duran Duran.

5. It may be that I’m not exactly seeing the shadows of shadows but somehow merely detecting them, as if they’re an echo or aftershock or the negative image of a gone-out light. That would be a good band name, I think: The Gone-Out Light.

6. This would make me weep, too, I suspect, if I thought too much about it – how many great band names I could choose from if I had, well, a band to name or my youth returned to me like a lost book (see No. 16 below) or a garage or basement or spare bedroom in which to practice or, say, even an ounce or two of musical talent. Perhaps I could write a record guide in which everything was a fabrication, the way as a boy my son used to make up lists and lists of baseball prospects he’d invented. Pultree Davis. Plaxico Beaufort. Jeremiah Sims.

7. One mistake above: I do have a spare bedroom. Three of them, actually. Add that to the list of items in No. 2.

8. Who’ll be my light? You’ll be my light. You’ll be my day and night. You’ll be mine tonight. And then a chorus of aaaah’s and a verse in Greek. That's “Rubylove” from Teaser & The Firecat, of course, but it was the next Cat Stevens album, Catch Bull at Four, that really did me in: the Zen woodcut of a child gently touching the bull’s snout on the cover, the songs darker, more desperate, harder-edged than anything he’d ever done or would do again: “Freezing Steel,” “O Caritas,” “18th Avenue,” “Ruins.” He was ready, years before he finally did, to disappear. “The mood here,” Stephen Holden wrote at the time in his review for Rolling Stone, “is of pessimism, terror, apocalyptic foreboding.” I flat-out loved it, so great was my thirst, I suppose, for pessimism and terror and apocalyptic foreboding. Or for that particular clawing, cloying, romantic ache.

9.When the temple hinge of my reading glasses came unscrewed the other day, I couldn’t see well enough to align the screw to the hole to twist it back in – without my reading glasses, that is, the very ones, of course, that lay broken in my hands. This seems to me an apt parable of aging.

10. The insect eye (another good band name: dubstep? glitch?) with its thousands and thousands of ommatidia (doom metal perhaps?) can see every which way in darkness and in light (Ommatidia’s debut album?) but cannot discern palm pad or phalanx (post-rock?) or the nail’s lunula (Irish Middle Eastern New Age fusion on the Six Degrees label?) but merely the outline of the hand. It’s that easy.

11. I have always known, I guess, that there are two ways of seeing, just as there are two ways of reading. One is to see. The other is to see that you’re seeing, to recognize precisely what you’re attending to -- shape and shadow, color and light, texture and distance, angle and juxtaposition, contrast and complement. This is what, in the 8,785 photographs I’ve taken this last year, I’ve tried to teach myself. It’s a bit like trying to read Moby Dick on one’s own while knowing nothing about ships or the Bible or Shakespeare or whaling or love or wit or subtext or parody, which is exactly what I tried to do as a kid. The effort of it made me so lonely, my ignorance flowering like a bruise into despair, the book so heavy in my hands, I had to turn the transistor radio on and fall asleep to the Houston Astros broadcast, Gene Elston doing the play-by-play alongside the corny Loel Passe who, when an Astros pitcher recorded another strikeout, would invariably gleefully exclaim, “And he breezed him [dramatic pause] one more time!” I was asleep long before the game was done and the Astros had, much more often than they had won, lost again.

12.Perhaps it’s this effort to see that I am seeing, to discern those things we attend to as we see, that makes me feel as if I’m now seeing the shadows of shadows. Or perhaps it’s just my lousy right eye.

13. That instrument on “Rubylove,” by the way, is a bouzouki, a Greek lute, usually strung with three sets of paired strings. There are two of them playing together in the song, I think, though I don’t know the musicians who played them. In Wikipedia’s list of notable bouzouki players, the tenth of the ten listed is Decemberist frontman Colin Meloy. Oh, pop goes my heart.

14. Photography is the one art in which the unskilled can stumble upon greatness. I will never write a moving aria or produce an exquisite sculpture. Of the 8,785 photographs I’ve taken this year, though, I think one of them – only one – may be great. I’d never say which one, of course; it’s not for me to say.

15. I tell my students that if they can write one great sentence, just one, they can be a writer. Of course, I add, they have to know when they’ve written that sentence, and they’ve got to know precisely why the sentence is great, and they’ve got to desperately want to write that same kind of sentence again and be willing to try to find their way there even though they may make one wrong turn after another, one stumbling step after stumbling step.

16. I remember sitting on the school bus in eighth grade in my basketball uniform, the shorts a satiny white with red stripes, the jersey’s number 12 crinkled from countless laundering. I held a wooden circle onto which my girlfriend had painted the cover image from Catch Bull at Four, the boy with his hands gently touching the bull’s snout. It was the greatest gift I’d ever been given. How exactly, and when, did I lose it? There’s that Elizabeth Bishop villanelle "One Art": The art of losing isn’t hard to master. Well, I lost Pistol Pete Maravich’s signature on a Sports Illustrated photo my father asked him to inscribe to me when he paid a visit to my dad’s orthopedic clinic. I would have been -- I must have been, I was -- ten. And I lost the copy of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath I’d stolen at thirteen from a Penguin paperback display, this pilfered book the one that, when I was finally bored enough to read it, made me want to become a writer. I lost the Signet Leaves of Grass that, the following summer, I kept stuffed in my back pocket to read on the bus ride to work. I lost girlfriends, friends. I lost my father. I lost a daughter.

17. That’s a word, lost, isn’t it, that lacks any manner of meaningful precision. It’s really not so bad, for example, this idea that I might eventually lose my lousy right eye if one considers everything else there is to lose. Two rivers, Bishop writes. A continent. And though she doesn't write it: Worse.

18. As for these shadows of shadows I’ve begun to see: is it possible that they are there to show me the way back to all that has been lost, a light (that is not, of course, a light but a shadow) steering me not toward something new but, in the manner of shadows, back toward the thing itself casting the shadow, the whatever it is that is already there? I know this doesn’t make much sense, so I’ll try it another way: maybe I should return to trying to do what I tried to do for so many years – as a counterweight to all that loss, knowing now, as I do, as I stumble wide-middled and eye-muddled through the final days of my fifty-fourth year, that I will go on losing and losing until all is lost – maybe I should try again to write that one great sentence in the desperate, glorious hope that should I somehow succeed I will have given myself this, at least: the chance to write another. And another and another, though I will make – have already made – more than my share of wrong turns, of stumbling steps, the years slipping by one after the next like the endless drops I apply each morning and each night to my one lousy tear-stained eye, the shadows multiplying when I tilt my head back down and peer into the mirror, the blurry figure before me as unfamiliar, as surprising and perplexing, as it has always been.