Red Faced Woman

Red Faced Woman

Once you see the conceit you can’t look away
or past the almost-gimmick: a figure lying
in a neutral field à la Manet with a creamy
chalkline where a shadow should appear

And then—the whole thing flipped 90 degrees
headnorth, arm now as if lifted upward
only the hairline leftover clue to gravity-bound
posture a wave listing now armward

And so, prone yet standing, a boywoman
straphanger without the hook, power sign
unclothed, body neck and head pasted to
gether and waiting for the glue to dry

Painted by a man she denies everything she
posits in a reddening that strips all positive
assertions away into  STOP arm
that both guards and hails yet exposes

Assertive and reticent, naked and hidden
red-faced in exasperation, shame, frustration, anger
red face of refusal to answer and unwilling
to accept self-defeating ostensible certainties?

Yet for all that she is calm, rather in stasis
impossible to decide if she is vulnerable
or in control held on canvas for a discrete
viewer forever at a distance.

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What is a Man?

Part One

Having recently stumbled across the film When Nietzsche Wept (I enjoyed it) and encountered the idea—again—that Thus Spoke Zarathustra is his most popular book—some say his best—I felt like leaving this note here about why I think it is not his best and maybe even his least impressive book.

Zarathustra makes too many pronouncements that lack context, leaving them open to interpretation as open as there are readers. This is because they come from Zarathustra’s inner emotional world (that we imagine is Nietzsche’s), a world we never get a glance at, leaving us to guess what kind of “guy” Zarathustra really is.

The oddest thing about the book is that Zarathustra doesn’t come off as a “guy” at all. He barely even registers as a human being. Not only is he not presented as such, but the possibility is further removed by the Biblical, Epic-Poem language. This is significant since Nietzsche’s whole philosophy is based on addressing misperceptions due to a Cartesian disconnect about what humanity is. We are not attuned to our bodies/the earth. Nietzsche addresses this time after time. His philosophy is always asking, what is a man? It is only when we begin to get past our misperceptions that we can glimpse the “overman”. But Zarathustra doesn’t even come off as a man. And no, he is not the overman, come too soon. Not even Nietzsche could see around his own corner.

What then is Zarathustra? He is a creation, a phantasm, a disembodied voice, an expression of yearning for the overman and as a “bridge” he is too long to support the single human life known as “Nietzsche”. This makes Zarathustra Nietzsche’s weakest book, because the writer gets furthest away from the “all too human” that is at the heart of his philosophy.

That’s what I like about the film, it was a good attempt at showing Nietzsche in his humanity: a guy, a man like others.

Part Two

We got to the beach under a great big gray swirling cloud and a waterspout out in the Gulf. Evidence of furious winds having just passed were strewn over the streets. Later when we got out of the water, finally chilled, and rinsed in the foot wash I saw, just at the base of the post holding the faucet, four newborn squirrels. Three were dead but the fourth, besieged by large strong ants, was moving.

My partner’s turn at the foot wash and I implored, ‘don’t look, don’t look!’ But of course she looked, and I looked again. As we backed away from this scene of horror I thought of this as a snapshot of the Nietzschean phrase, “beyond good and evil”. I shared this thought with my partner and as we walked down the beach taking in, as we always do, the overwhelming beauty surrounding us, we found ourselves speaking with admiration for—the ants!

The ants, biting into the hairless nose of that most innocent of creatures, just-born and blind, and only alive to a world of pain. The ants, we noticed, were going after the still-living one and we wondered what the newborns looked like from the ants’ perspective. I recalled having heard or read somewhere someone imagining insect consciousness is like: is this creature before me something I can eat or something that will eat me?

No doubt, just before our arrival, a fast-moving storm with furious winds, too local and fleeting to be noted on the nightly weather report, had indeed passed through. It had blown a nest of newborns out of a tree and, apparently, far enough away that the mother could not find them or, if she did, saw that they were a lost cause, abandoning even the still moving one to the ants, beyond morality, to do just what ants do and thankfully, because if they were not here the beauty we love so much would be coated with slime.

And why now should I feel ashamed of my love of beauty, like Adam his nakedness? Surely it is because I am human, all too human. What we call “nature” is absolutely outside the bounds of human morality. It offers what we call “beauty” and “horror” altogether, all as one, without judgement. My groping is a crude version of Zarathustra’s. Yes, I admire the ants, as I love the beauty of the beach and shrink in horror at the sight of a dying animal. But these categories: admiration, beauty, horror, draw borders around me and define me in my humanness. I do not believe in the overman. What is a man? As far as I’m concerned, he is a nerve, beyond microscopic, quivering between beauty and horror in the vastness of the cosmos.

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Paul Auster’s Transition from Poetry to Prose

Paul Auster had written in Hand To Mouth about the terrible year in his early thirties when it seemed everything he touched failed and he began to doubt his future as a writer. But even earlier he had spoken about it in an interview published in The Art of Hunger. He talks about how seeing a dance performance inspired him to write “White Spaces”, the piece that became, in his mind, a bridge to the novels that made him famous. I did not personally become interested in exploring this area further—this transition from poetry to prose—until recently when I encountered this passage in his Winter Journal:

The dancers saved you. They are the ones who brought you back to life…. to experience the scalding, epiphanic moment of clarity that pushed you through a crack in the universe and allowed you to begin again. —p 220

This is the passage that made me wonder, what is a “crack in the universe”? And how did seeing dancers open it up and cause him to fall through it? And why did this falling cause so much joy? He’s not sure and offers no theories. Maybe he doesn’t want to analyze it, he’s just glad it happened. Still, after all these years. Adding to the mystery of this event is his recounting how segments of dance alternated with the choreographer’s discussion of the work, of how her words were utterly dead and disconnected to the dance, and his emphasis on this dyad: utter joy of silent dance on the one hand and flat dead void of language on the other. And it was this itself, this disturbing schism, that so impressed him, that moved him to write “White Spaces”, the bridge from the poetry that only a handful of people read to the prose that brought fame and fortune.

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A New Reading of John Ashbery’s Three Poems


There are books that fall on you like a building. You’ve survived but you’ll never forget where you were standing when it happened. I was 25 when I read John Ashbery’s Three Poems, about to turn 26. I read it a second time three years later and took some notes which I still have. I’ve wanted to read it again, but my marked copy takes me back to that time, and my youth, and the person I was.

I felt the need for a clean copy, free from my notes. It took a while to find the one I wanted.

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three good things

The mockingbirds have not been silent in my neighborhood, but I have allowed this space to go silent while pursuing other projects, one of which I wish to share here in good time.

In the meantime, rather than allow another idea for a blog post to go unused, I’ve decided to make haste and leave it here. For I have continued, while pursuing those projects, to perceive and respond to things I feel are worth sharing. Here are three good ones.

Less than a week ago driving to work in the wee hours sleepily taking in the remnants of the all night jazz selections something came on that grabbed me and pulled me right in. I made a mental note of the artist’s name and came back to it via Google several days later. The track I heard, Idle Talk, was from an album called Foxing Hour by the KoMaGa Trio. Their playing is so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes:

The video here was uploaded by the harpest and composer, Motoshi Kosako. Check out his channel. He is an extraordinary musician, composer and improvisor.

The second good thing I’d like to share is another trio. John Zorn has been one of my biggest inspirations for a long time. He is too prolific for me to keep up, and his label, Tzadik, is always releasing something, but when I caught a glimpse of his album Calculus I knew that this was something else, something special, something above and beyond. Calculus is an album of two pieces composed and arranged by Zorn and played by the Brian Marsella Trio of Marsella on piano, Kenny Wollesen on drums and Trevor Dunn on bass. I was familiar with Wollesen from other Zorn recordings, and Dunn is a living legend, being an original member of Mr. Bungle. But I had never heard of Brian Marsella. Zorn compositions and arrangements, stellar playing by a trio of master musicians as intimate with each other as it gets–that’s all fantastic. But for me what pushes this record over the top is Marsella’s playing in particular. I haven’t been this enthusiastic about a musician since, well I can’t remember when.

And now the third, and since it is a piece of literature my problem isn’t finding the words but stemming the flow of them. I’ve had my eye on that Library of America edition of the stories of John Updike for a long time, more for the early stories than the late ones, and, I must admit, in part for the amazing Alex Katz portrait of the author that decorates the slipcase, and have been ready to pull the trigger on a copy. Then, just about two weeks ago I stopped into a thrift store and found a hardcover copy of the early stories published by Knopf in 2003. This is the edition with Updike’s arrangement of the stories. Library of America did the sensible thing of arranging them in chronological order of publication. Updike had his own way of doing it and in the index of titles in the back he gives the date of the first draft that was sent to a publisher. It just has his personal stamp all over it and that has an undenaible charm lacking in the Library of America edition.

I could not plow through the stories because the third one, Pigeon Feathers, stopped me cold, had me thinking for a whole day. Because I didn’t really relate to any of these people. I was puzzled by the end. What exactly happened to David? Was it as complete as it seemed? Is that possible, can a person change so fundamentally so fast? But what kind of a change. Wasn’t it more of a collapse? A crushing. A caving in. And all the clues, like those beautiful pigeon feathers laid out in the open so carefully by the master storyteller just sitting there like brilliant puzzle pieces in the sun, glistening. Put it together!

David is smart and sensitive and inquisitive. His family has stopped doing any of the three. They’re his role models, his world. There’s no love in his world. The grandmother is a creature, a thing with a claw and a beak, to be hidden, to be shoved out of the way. The puppy, normally an object of love, is just another moving breathing thing in the way, underfoot like grandmother. She’s just waiting to die. The dog was born to die. The father’s favorite expression: “this reminds me of death”. They’ve already died, because they’ve stopped thinking despite their knowledge, and stopped seeing the beauty all around them. Why should David be the only freak? Sure they put a gun in his hands. It’s the only thing they know how to do. Kill it. It’s a story about how a child loses his soul in a man and woman-made hell on paradise itself.

Can a person’s star really collapse that quickly and completely? You’ll have to decide for yourself. I have. But some good things you keep to yourself.

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Chinese Whispers

a person’s words may live on
like the Not I Mouth,
a pensum in froth
on endless repeat.
But what is heard
depends on the auditor
and information relayed
may not resemble prior use.
What does this mean
but that all language acts return
to the ocean of discourse
from which they came?
The strongest voices are those
with chorus fantasia that
take the longest time
to get back to
the original question:

Did you know you can Chinese whisper yourself? “Chinese Whispers” is the name of an old parlour game. Google it. It’s the name of a poem and a book by John Ashbery, the name of my poem, and the subject of this post: Chinese whispering yourself. I’ve done it. Come to think of it, all Googling might be a form of it, and all poems might have it as their title. Anyway….

Some time around 2001 I was in a bookstore and I recall seeing a little book by John Ashbery entitled As Umbrellas Follow Rain. I did not purchase the book when I saw it, thinking the price was steep for the package. I never saw the book again. More and more I began purchasing books online and over the years had made it my business to buy every new book of poetry Ashbery published. Whenever I had come across the title As Umbrellas Follow Rain I’d dismiss it. It was that mini book I had once seen, a thing, to paraphrase Jasper Johns, my mind already knew. In my mind it was that mini book containing a single poem (a poem to be found in a full length collection I already owned), a collector’s item, hence its hefty price (and I am not a collector). I must have repeated this process dozens of times over the years until one day a few weeks ago a photo of the book on eBay made me pause. This did not look like a mini book. The description did not designate it as one, but a standard sized book with enough pages for a whole collection. And now I’m hip to that fact. But I was positive I had seen a mini book all those years ago. How could I have made that mistake?

I thought about it and realized I had Chinese whispered myself. It’s the only explanation. It must have happened like this: later in the year of 2001 when Chinese Whispers came out I bought a copy and when I came across the poem entitled As Umbrellas Follow Rain a little bell must have rung and I must have formulated my incorrect image of As Umbrellas Follow Rain the book at that time. The existence of a mini book with that title containing the single poem, a collector’s item (and I am not a collector), made more sense than that of a whole other collection coming out in the same year as Chinese Whispers—a collection, mind you, made up almost completely of poems to be found in Chinese Whispers, a collection, moreover, that only the most ardent collector would want a copy of, and which I am very fortunate to have found

or the title of every poem ever written.
Is that hubris, ignorance, or both?
If you have to ask….
But I can afford it, that’s
obvious. Though I try not to be.
That’s just me.
And you, you’re another story,
obvious to some, and
to others (always others)
it’s like a game of Chinese whispers
—or whiskers. The whiskers that came,
to paraphrase Schwitters. I always think of him
whittling on a dirt road
(well, not on a road, but in the road on a piece of wood),
or playing with a field mouse.
Thank God some of his works survive,
though the ones in porridge were doomed
from the start.
Right from the very start.
Someone should have warned him about this,
the decay, the various notions of degeneration.
But nobody knows anything
that can direct the course of a life
until it’s lived,
and then

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The Life of Poetry: Reading Kenneth Fearing

How much time should you spend on one book? The answer depends on the book, of course, what that book means to you and what you are getting (and hoping to continue to get) out of it. For one person one lifetime won’t be enough to plumb the depths of the King James Bible. That bottomless book may be the collected plays of Shakespeare or something else. I cannot envision a time when I won’t be reaching for Maldoror, or Spring and All, or The Book of Disquiet. On the most basic level, the time you spend with one book is the amount of time it takes to read all of the words within it. But what of the words that allude to other words, indeed to other books? What of the words that produce an itch you can feel but can’t quite locate? How much time do you spend with that book? How about a slim volume of poems that only takes an hour or two to read? Are you done in an hour or two? Surely not.

The questions multiply, suggesting other questions, other answers, other books.

I have been spending a lot of time recently with Kenneth Fearing: Selected Poems, the Library of America edition, #8 in the American Poets Project published in 2004. Currently this is the only edition of Fearing’s poetry that is easily available. Used copies are common, and a copy in new condition can still be found. Everything else is long out of print and rare. An affordable copy of the complete poems published in 1994 in paperback is impossible to find. It should be in print and as easy to acquire as a complete edition of Frank O’Hara. It’s that good.

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Book Gift Recommendations

None of the arts are more varied or bewildering than the visual arts. For that person in your life who would like an overview, I don’t know of a better one than The Art of Looking at Art, or a better or wittier guide than Gene Wisniewski. Buy this richly illustrated art book for that person who doesn’t know where to begin. Buy it for yourself as a refresher. There are bound to be many juicy details in this book you have missed or have forgotten.

It is my wish that after Biden’s inauguration, Trump’s face and name will be completely forgotten for a time, for at least a year. The time will come again for us to remember, for we don’t want to blindly repeat hisory. And Scientists and Poets #Resist will be a valuable document from this deplorable time. It is a collection of poems and scientific essays that incorporate the seven terms banned by the Trump administration from official Health and Human Service documents: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based”. One of my three poems incorporating those terms is included.

For the poetry readers on your list Chris Tysh’s Hotel des Archives is a must have. For me, Chris Tysh is the most exciting poet I’ve come across since Anne Carson, and she deserves to be compared to Carson, she’s that good. Hotel des Archives brings together Tysh’s three “transcreations” of Molloy by Samuel Beckett, Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet, and The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein by Marguerite Duras, which the blurb on the back cover describes as “verse recastings”. I am reticent to speak for now about the third, not having read the Duras novel. But I am very familiar with the Genet, and Beckett’s is a favorite. In fact, Beckett may be my favorite author, so when I say Tysh has accomplished something extraordinary–and original–I am not speaking out of ignorance. She has brought a new voice to the novel while managing to remain faithful to it. That’s some kind of magic. I’ve written about her recasting of Genet here, and by the way that book, published by Les Figues Press, is a beauty of a book. But Hotel des Archives has all three transcreations and it’s a great book.

It would be unfortunate for anyone’s introduction to Waiting for the Barbarians to be the movie released earlier this year. It’s not a bad film, just another one in a world of films. But the novel by J. M. Coetzee, first published in 1980, is not just another one in a world full of novels. It’s a great artistic achievement, certainly one of the twenty best novels I have ever read. And so–if you’re intrigued by the movie but haven’t yet seen it or read the book, do yourself a favor and get the book now. Thank me later.

OK, I’m a fan and I’m biased. But that can be said about all of my recommendations, indeed about virtually everything I’ve written on The Mockingbird Sings. And Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements by Bob Mehr isn’t simply a book about my favorite rock band, or even one of my favorite poets, the band’s lyricist Paul Westerberg.

Paul Westerberg, sketch by Mark Kerstetter

It’s a riveting read, like the car crash you can’t look away from. I read somewhere that Westerberg told Mehr if he was going to write that thing then he had to tell the whole story. Thank you, Paul. It’s all there: the drunken and musical highs, the drunken and musical lows, the thrill of dancing on the edge, the crushing defeat of death. And so it transcends cultural history and is more than a uniquely American story; it’s a story about heart and soul. I can’t recommend it enough.

If you prefer your books on an e-reader, Books We Live By has been publishing the novels of Michael Brodsky. He’s the Louis-Ferdinand Céline of our time. Yeah, I said that. The novelist we have needed and I have been asking for–that uncompromising scream in our American Night–has been with us all along.

On a personal note: Of all of the books I have read in 2020, the one that I suspect will linger in my mind as a “little souvenir of a terrible year” will be the poem Clarel by Herman Melville. Mostly I suppose it’s the heavy sense of limbo and uncertainty and doubt that suffuses the poem that does it. But also coming at the very end of a very long poem it’s the sense of a veil lifting, of new life just about to bud. I write this the day after the Electoral College made Biden’s victory secure and the first COVID vaccines have been administered. This is hoping for the best for everyone in 2021.

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A Story About Time or Why I Wear a Mechanical Watch Every Day

When I was a kid I liked wristwatches and had a couple of Timex hand-winders in my possession. One, a small plain white dial piece with Arabic indices and a strap of gray with black speckles, I liked to wear because it made me feel intelligent. I was a man who knew the time and had somewhere to go, there alone in my bedroom gazing at books through my plastic sunglasses with the lenses poked out because that also made me feel intelligent. Another, a dive-style watch, sat in its plastic stand on my desk in the cubicle at the Christian school I went to for 6th grade. There at the head of my studies it not only kept me apprised of the time, but, because it was sporty, was a constant reminder of the life that awaited outside school. By senior year I had put watches aside. Without money or prospects, time had stopped for me. When at twenty-one I was finally able to leave home and live on my own in a big city for the first time I could not afford a watch at any price. But I wouldn’t have wanted one anyway. Intensely anti-materialistic and anti-mainstream-anything, I owned one pair of jeans with a broken zipper and the fly sewn shut and no underwear or a hat and gloves to go out into the cold. Jewelry to me was a disgusting display of decadence. In particular the idea of making a note of the time on a wristwatch was repugnant to a romantic who refused to be in step with the world but also afraid to recognize another year gone by and no art sold, no books published, another year more certain no one would write a biography of this artist. Easier to say, fuck time.

Time itself worked away on my attitude towards time; no doubt it does that to everyone. Yet the notion of wearing a wristwatch remained foreign to my adult life until last year when that suddenly and strangely changed. I will tell how I went from someone who couldn’t stand the idea of glancing at the time to someone who, well into his fifties, wears a watch every minute of the day. When I don’t sleep with it on, putting on a watch is the first thing I want to do every morning and taking it off—if I do—the last thing before sleep. Watch enthusiasts often allude to an organic connection to mechanical watches, especially those with an automatic movement. But I have never heard or read an explanation or description of this connection. So I will provide one.

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Learn the Art of Looking at Art with Gene Wisniewski

As Gene Wisniewski explains in the Preface to his book, The Art of Looking at Art, published in October by Rowman & Littlefield,

This book grew out of a seminar…. Entitled the Six-Hour Art Major…. Its ultimate goal is to help participants to understand art more from the artist’s point of view, by giving them the opportunity to experience a concentrated version of the typical art school curriculum. [p xiii]

The Art of Looking at Art is a book for those who, at whatever stage of life, have taken an interest in art—here the visual arts—but after a brief survey may be puzzled as to where to enter such a vast and complicated world. It is also a book for artists or art educators to gift intelligent and curious friends or family members who desire a primer in the visual arts, a single book that can serve as an overview, something comprehensive but condensed with well-chosen details and written with the layperson in mind. I would also argue it’s good for art experts as well. You may already know something about Michelangelo, but it just might be that he, the statue David, or the Sistine Chapel are cliches lodged somewhere in the back of your brain. Even experts may have looked so many times at the same things that they stop seeing them or worse start saying the things about them that everyone else has said: one big echo chamber. One must even learn how to see cliches. A fresh reminder of Michelangelo’s difficulties and superhuman dedication as told by Mr. Wisniewski will bring it upfront and alive.

An overview of this breadth is a tall order, perhaps in the end an impossible one, but Wisniewski has done an admirable job, an act of historico-cultural collage, weaving examples from the present day together with those from all periods of history across the globe (with a focus on Western art). As with any great act of collage, the trick is to pick the right examples and place them in a manner that satisfies the mind. To do this he brought his own extensive knowledge in the arts, as one who has studied it and made it, together with the patience of a researcher and the enthusiasm of an art lover. Above all it is his voice, his conversational tone, his wit, that will keep you reading. Wisniewski has a wonderful down-to-earth manner of describing works of art. The stars in van Gogh’s Starry Night look like “oncoming headlights through a smashed windshield” [p 156]. He calls out Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon as the ugly thing it is—“The women look like they’re assembled from odd bits of cut-out construction paper, in tones of fleshy pink, brownish purple, and a color like raw pork chops” [p 141]—then explains why it’s a historically significant painting nonetheless. In the end he wins you over as the right kind of guide to reveal that the labyrinths of art can if not be conquered by one person then at least traveled not only with impunity but with delight and nourishment. In the process he provides practical insights on how to embark on these travels on one’s own.

Perhaps it’s the sense that a novice could use encouragement or reassurance that, even while the intertwining paths of art provide endless journeying, one need not surrender to a feeling of being utterly lost that he states at the end of the Introduction, “don’t worry—all will be explained in time.” An expert might smile at this statement. But the fact is, Wisniewski is not the kind of teacher who hits the student with a barrage of facts polished off with definitive explanations. What he does instead is to show that if one wants to learn how to really look at art one has to meet it halfway. You don’t just put yourself in front of a painting for what you “hope is an acceptable amount of time” [p 1] and wait for it to speak to you. Even a baseball game, Wisniewski points out, requires a knowledge of the rules to appreciate. Why should something as complex as a painting be approached in the offhand manner that art is whatever you like or everyone’s a critic? Lots of people play basketball too, Wisniewski points out, but there’s only one LeBron James. The more you know about basketball the more you appreciate why that is. If that is true of basketball how much more so in the vast world of art? Far from the pedagogue know-it-all, he’s the friendly mentor that you want and respect because he knows it’s challenging understanding art, and difficult to say the least living the life of an artist. In the chapter This Is Your Brain on Art he writes,

When an artist is that frustrated, getting a little distance and clearing their head is undoubtedly the wisest course of action. Is this what I do? Of course not. [p 131]

In fact it may be in part because of the vastness of the labyrinthine art world that the beginner despairs of even making the initial attempt. Wisniewski shows that an attempt can be made. The Art of Looking at Art is such an attempt. Meet it halfway, even when you don’t get it, even if your first reaction is repulsion, even if it seems an ocean too big and wild to dive into. You don’t have to be Michelangelo to make an attempt. But if you bring your own strengths and individuality to art, if you approach it the way an artist does it, with curiosity and a willingness to experiment, then you just might find it’s the adventure of a lifetime. This is the biggest lesson of The Art of Looking at Art, chockfull of juicy details, practical advice, wit, and a lifetime of experience.

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