30 October 2006

The hour

Upon reflection, I know precisely what I should have done with my extra hour from Daylight Savings Time; as it happened, I spent the hour thinking about what I was going to do with it.

29 October 2006

Two sisters' eyes

The most earnest love poems in French allowed in a respectable Latin Quarter book store are Louis Aragon’s ‘Elsa’s Eyes.’ Their reputation is a result of the technical brilliance of a genius devoting himself to traditional form and their being at the center of the poetry of the French Resistence. Some of the most earnest love poems in Russian, Mayakovsky’s ‘I Love’ and ‘About This,’ were written to Elsa’s little sister.

Aragon and Mayakovsky also wrote the most prominent propagandist poetry in their respective languages while in love with the two Kagan sisters, both of which are known by their first husbands’ surname. Not only did Aragon’s poetry and prose of the 40s define the Liberation but in 1932 he was originally given a five-year sentence in France for the propagandist poem Red Front. Mayakovsky is known for both Party poems imploring the masses to drink boiled water and some of the most affecting political poetry of the century. Thus these two sisters serve as an empirical thread sewn through these issues of a poets’ love, literary style, and the politics of art in an era when all this came to a head.

Elsa was Elsa Triolet who while a slightly plump, indiscrete woman in her mid-20s had been following Aragon around Paris literary circles and threw herself at him in an attic during a party she was invited to because the Surrealists wanted to meet her brother-in-law Vladimir. Aragon was not for want of young female socialites that wanted to sleep and be seen with him, none of whom figured out or wanted to know that this iconoclast really wanted a mother figure. His was the young mistress of an deadbeat officer, charged with the duties of persecuting the Paris Commune, a woman who told Louis all his life that she was his older sister and his parents were dead.

Aragon’s submissiveness to Elsa began when she had arranged to appear in a club that she heard Aragon, who was actively avoiding her, would visit. Aragon arrived with his girlfriend, and when he saw Elsa he was so rattled that he left alone. Elsa then proceeded to talk his girlfriend into dropping him, which they arrived at his apartment to announce together, to Aragon’s silence.

Elsa preferred Monte Carlo fashion to peasant revolts and turned to Bolshevism only when the party became a world power. This became Aragon’s ideology, causing his split with Surrealism and giving him institutional contacts to become so helpful to the resistence. He renounced his old poetry in favor of the novel and wrote his major realist novels during the early 40s, which were skillful works of Naturalism with a touch of Surrealist techniques that could have been masterpieces if only they could escape the clutches of propagandist illustration.

Mayakovsky was an at times cruel megalomaniac who melodramatically obsessed over the unattainable, a characteristic that Lilya adroitly manipulated. In The Backbone Flute he blamed God for his love for her which only “tortured my soul in delirium.” The poem was published by Osip Brik, her Russian Formalist husband.

Lilya was pictured here on the cover of his 1923 book “About This” which describes his torment over her infidelity. It would be interesting to know if Aragon had seen this cover when he wrote “Elsa’s Eyes.”

The romantic components of his suicidal depression could more convincingly consist of his inability to coax the young Tatiana Yakovlev to move to Russia with him from Paris. His “Letter From Paris to Comrade Kostrov on the Nature of Love,” written a year and a half before his death exalts his love for her as “human and simple” in contrast to the doctrinaire requirements the poetry commission he was supposed to be fulfilling. His suicide note, though, includes “to Lilya – love me.” She maintains that she twice saved him from killing himself before he finally did so in her absence.

Somewhere in the spell of the Kagan sisters is the longing for the poet to be loved, to be understood, to be useful to progress. In the case of Aragon, the spell is only tragic in purely artistic terms – his life with her (pictured together in old age) was happy. In Mayakovsky’s case the tragic obsession made his poetry both at times banal and at other times self-revelatory in a way a more seamless romance wouldn’t. The tragic longing to be understood brought out by the sisters in both men had an intrinsic relation to a devotion to progress which was both elusive and unavoidable in the part the two men played in history and how many there were that looked to them for clarity and guidance.

André Thirion, who was Aragon’s younger confidant and Elsa’s go-between to Aragon, said this of Elsa:

“A woman who would look men straight in the eye but didn’t seem to pay them any particular attention, that was how Elsa Triolet appeared to me in the fall of 1928”....

“I wish that my granddaughter Marianne had as much skill, self-awareness, and sensitivity to others. To get what she was after, Elsa never took anything from anyone or hurt another person... She helped Aragon fulfill his destiny, and if he failed in any way to become the major figure that we could discern on Rue du Château, that was his own fault, not Elsa’s.”

25 October 2006

Four wheels

Having my tires rotated, I faced the unanticipated outcome of being the only guy in the service office that did not tend to a vegetable garden. I have front wheel drive; I don’t see myself ever opting for four wheel drive. Beyond the threshold of my automotive limits there is the problematic marriage of hubris and consumer rationalization. Mind you, my taste for hubris is boundless, but not accompanied by consumer rationalization, which is why we don’t blog about hubris: it doesn’t mix well with the acquired patterns of justification.

24 October 2006

Continental drift

I commend and thank C.A.Conrad for raising awareness of the truth about the exclusion from the ballot of Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli by the corrupt, partisan antagonists to democracy in Pennsylvania’s court system. Strategic voting can be justified; strategic obfuscation cannot be.

Bob Casey has opened a 13-point lead in the Pennsylvania primary, which means casting a write-in vote for Carl Romanelli is a responsible vote of no confidence in the political elite that brought this decision against the only candidate of the top three that does not support a war overwhelmingly opposed by the public. My previous views on Casey’s brand of populism and my faith in computer balloting can be found here.

On the question of voting for the Democrats nationally this year, I think of how in 1965 Jean-Paul Sartre’s critiques of François Mitterand were at their most acerbic, but on the eve of the election, faced with the De Gaulle’s scaling back of union rights and social spending to pay for nuclear weapons, he issued the statement:

"To give Mitterand your vote is not to vote for him but against personal power and against the drift of socialists to the right."

We can disagree over whether the Democratic Party is devolving or evolving at a snail’s pace, as this legal episode is an apt illustration of the party’s true commitment to electoral representation. However, the Democrats have managed to evolve to the point where they allow their nominees to be decided by public ballot in which each party voter gets to cast one vote as a free and equal citizen. Gone are the days when nominees were decided in smoke filled rooms without the possibility of electoral challenge, and conventions when the delegates intervened on behalf of the people to decide the candidate during multiple ballots.

The Green Party or whatever liberal party is to come to the fore must have as their goal the placement of their primary on the ballot across the nation alongside the primaries of the Democrats and the Republicans. Creating a political debate which deals with the facts rather than the mythologies of the Washington elite and Madison Avenue depends on it. Allowing the people of each region of the nation to have a formative, participatory function in determining what populist ideology best represents them is essential to creating a liberal party with the structure suited to representing the populist majority that always has existed and always will exist in our land.

I am skeptical about whether the Green Party can wrest itself from the ambitions of its own bureaucracy to allow this to happen. The repugnant, self-destructive episode in 2004 when party functionaries who use the party to promote their non-profits and law firms that receive donations and clients from Democratic benefactors smeared Ralph Nader and manipulated a byzantine balloting system to elect a ticket that purposefully inflicted damage to the party is a symptom of that which obstructs it from representing the populist majority that exists in the grass roots.

In addition to public primaries, a liberal party should have a blueprint for making one of the two parties obsolete (the corruption and deficit spending of the Republicans suggest they no longer serve a representative function for the polity) in order to eliminate the problem of splitting the vote amongst the progressive majority. The Green Party grew initially in the parliamentary system in Bremen, Germany and a liberal party in America must, to serve a benign function, transform a two party system that was not intended by the constitutional framers. For this to happen, no compromise or acquiescence to cynical strategic motives is advisable once the blueprint for representing the majority is in place.

23 October 2006


What I liked most about Matthieu Laurette’s Money Back Life!, in which he purchased every item of food (whether he wanted it or not) from the supermarket that offered a money back guarantee and returned each container saying he was not 100% satisfied, is the line spoken in response to the question from a daytime talk show host as to whether the shopping cart full of food was really a sculpture: “I do not offer just a work of art, I offer a method!” A method.


1. Read poetry (other peoples' !) and explain, preferably online, why it does not comply with the rigors of art explained in your manifesto, made up as you go.

2. After a month organize all manifesto items and publish them in limited edition pamphlet. When the pamphlet sells out or stops selling, publish online with the announcement that all manifesto items printed are heretofore obsolete. Repeat process from beginning.

3. Teach a workshop in which you explain to each student why they are unfit for literary endeavor for reasons cited in your manifesto, and then organize the list of manifesto items into a single sequence with all contradictions separated on the page. Publish it in a literary quarterly selected so as to secure more workshop opportunities.

20 October 2006

A moon nailed fast

Tonight I sat thinking for a bit and realized I had been reading ‘This Solitude of Cataracts’ all wrong, and searched my shelf for a copy of the poem I hadn’t read in years. Sure enough, I had it all wrong. There is the tendency to view it as a ‘disease of the week’ poem, to perceive it as depicting someone who suffered from a disease of clouding of the eye and wanted to maintain a sensory relationship to the natural world, seeing. It struck my memory that I had been denying the metaphor its full force.

What I never saw was the disease of cataracts being a metaphor for the protagonist's longing for a clouded vision. That Stevens chose this metaphor indicates his perception of the desire for blindness to be a common disease that comes naturally and not through persuasion and socialization. The imagery used near the end of the poem elaborates on the capricious, frivolous, and vain nature of this natural folly, "To be a bronze man breathing under archaic lapis." How much we seek out blindness like our lives depended on it! And stepping back Stevens is making a commentary on poetry itself, that it must be a prologue rather than a tableau, that to fix it in the time-image is to submit to the machinery of blindness.

Strategy gets lucky

Love this series. The media conglomerates hate it. But most of all, with all due respect to A’s GM Billy Beane and Mets Manager Willie Randolph, I like to see intelligence prevail over stupidity. The Mets almost spent enough to cover for all the personnel mistakes they made, but money can’t cover for all that idiocy. On the other hand, Cards GM Walt Jocketty has aced almost all his trades with a much smaller budget and LaRussa revolutionizes his craft.

But after watching my beloved Phils pass over Jim Leyland for Charlie Manuel, an organization shill who still doesn’t understand the double switch, after well-publicized interviews with Leyland, clearly because of the irrational fear that Leyland may quit at some point taking public issue at longstanding organizational problems, and after watching my beloved Baseball Prospectus say that the hiatus would keep Leyland from being effective, I have enjoyed watching Leyland and Dombrowski make a winner out of the parts they had to start with. I’m one who believes that taking time out to think makes you better.

As much as two posts here were about St. Louis and another mentioned Pujols and Rolen (I was afraid there was a Piri Miri Muli jinx after Rolen’s error and Pujols’ injury-induced slump), I’m rooting for Detroit of course: ‘Detroit’ being the text of the poem below Ken Mikolowski’s title ‘Homage to Frank O’Hara: Why I Am Not A New York School Poet.’ Didn’t drive by the lakes but in the Midwestern cities I rotated back and forth between the brief ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye and the more extended ‘Donuts’ by recently deceased J. Dilla, which is a great before and after the game selection as it is a capsule of the modern history of Detroit music and it has the Tigers logo on the disc.

Rolen said after the game that ‘a lot of people sold us short’ or something to that effect, like, the guy who types the regular season win loss records really doesn’t build up this ballclub. If the media would let baseball do away with the divisional and league championships and let the top teams of each league’s regular season play, they’d have their Subway Series, but as often happens they got greedy.

17 October 2006

Autumn tropicália

It is a worthwhile jaunt to the Bronx to see a contemporary rendering of the Hélio Oiticica installation that gave birth to the Tropicália movement in ‘60s Brazil. As it was one of those ‘had to be there’ movements, ‘there’ is reconstructed: you take your shoes off and traverse through wet walking areas, loud parrots, minimalism, and pulp novels -- you don’t think so much about where it came from and what it inspired people to do because you are so busy forgetting where you came from. The show, spread out over five rooms and a few hallways, presents a little of the political context of the movement but seems to err on the side of understatement here.

In town on Sunday this allowed me to avoid weekend crowds in the Manhattan places (and since galleries are closed) but the Bronx Museum could benefit from hanging additional shows or a permanent collection since there is nothing else to do within walking distance. Two blocks west of the 149th street stop there’s a good West African market in an abandoned warehouse if you are driving or can bear to walk around with a sack of fu fu paste in your bag.

12 October 2006


Where I work (NJ not the Texas job) we have a storage building for construction materials which I store books in (generally less valuable ones or ones I’m not into now), and today in my absence while the bathroom was being sheet rocked a Latino drywall contractor used the john and took one of the books with him. When he got out he was passionately attached to the book and insisted on purchasing it. They said that it belonged to someone not present. He insisted on taking the book home and they suggested five dollars but the drywall worker insisted it was worth nine (twice the internet value) and emptied his wallet of the nine dollars inside. He is finished the job and is unlikely to return.

After extended interrogation, I established that the book is most probably Jean Cocteau’s Diary of an Unknown.

09 October 2006

What I found, wandering

Poetry is the world through the prism of self; prose is self through the prism of the world.

03 October 2006

Review: Eats

My longest period of vegetarianism came after I ate cuy in a Peruvian joint in Paterson and ended with a trip South. The subject of cuy came up with my 4 year old nephew Owen recently....

Owen: Which guinea pig in my book do you like?
Me: I ate a guinea pig once.
Owen: Ate one?! Eating guinea pigs is not in my book! Eating guinea pigs is not nice to guinea pigs!

This in mind here is my ranking of BBQ places I visited during my drive to Texas and back (ranking of art museums to follow when I get the chance):

1. Smitty’s Market, Lockhart, TX. Had a lot of great BBQ on this trip but it’s not difficult to decide on my favorite. Meat is the emphasis here, beef brisket and sausage, which you buy by the pound in a room set aside just for meat-sales. Beans good, potato salad average, but carnivores won’t notice.
2. RO’s Outpost, Spicewood, TX. Rustic, family-run favorite of the West of Austin ranch set not known to travel writers or many Austiners, I didn’t go to two successive lunches there by choice but by others’ wishes, but the merits came to dawn on me. Green beans here were great, turkey and pork perfect. Deep fried corn on the cob. Even ordered dessert, chocolate merenge pie.
3. BBQ Heaven, Indianapolis, IN. Situated on MLK Blvd between the Art Museum and the Western Art Museum, this take out place was started long ago but the bullet proof glass came a bit later. This was my first BBQ on the trip and was as good a place to start as any. Potato salad best on trip. Neon pig-related tableau on building facade.
4. BBQ Hut, St. Louis, MO. Got peckish in the Art Museum and a Reubenesque female guard sent me way into the ‘hood for this stuff, which I ate in the City Museum parking lot (like Heaven, a bullet-proof take-out). Nine napkins, straight to the City Museum rest room to clean up. Potato salad what I’d call ‘home style,’ like a large, glorified egg salad, but it’s all about the glory.
5. Rudy’s BBQ, Round Rock, TX. My first Texas brisket ever, and not a bad chain for this. Not to be confused with Ruby’s.
6. Riscky’s BBQ, Fort Worth, TX Cheap sandwich, and the staff was very friendly and gave me directions out of town despite the waitress having ‘just moved in from Denton.’
7. Ron’s BBQ, Austin, TX. South of river neighborhood place, beans were cold at 5:45 but it was cheap and friendly.

Other eating highlights:
Hoover’s, Austin, TX. Best turnip greens I’ve had.
Threadgill’s, Austin, TX. Best collard greens I’ve had. 'Texas caviar' black eyed peas on a par with RO's, which is a rare feat of seasoning, and lima beans were the perfect texture.
Skyline Chili, Cincinnati OH. Was trying to drive out of town but came upon the center city location, which since the closing of the original has become the de facto Mecca of Cinci-style chili spaghetti. Didn’t know what to expect, got it ‘four way’ sans fromage (chili, beans, onions, pasta), small size, $3.75. One bite and I was hooked: great stuff, but I don’t know what it has to do with Greek cuisine.
Cooking for people at the hostel after a long kayak trip: one guest said it make all the difference of her week and a Houston air conditioning saleswoman had the meal of her life even tho ‘dis here Taa-heany stuff makes my mouth stick tagether,’ approving of my fenugreek curry because ‘them Hindus are taeking ahr side on the wahr.’
Mexican: Hit Mi Tierra again in San Antonio, which was a highlight of my trip as I love the decor and the crowd there. In Okmulgee, OK found a great place owned and staffed by Guanajuato émigrés called El Charro that gave me so many perfectly cooked carnitas (pork) that there were ten pieces left over to take home.

Critical jargon

If the poetry blogosphere were for want of more binaries, I would add: ‘fashion victims/ ennui victims.’