Angela Carter’s Heroes & Villains (Book acquired 30 Nov. 2020)

I went to the bookstore today to take one last shot at finding a copy of Walker Percy’s 1971 novel Love in the Ruins (preferably a first-edition hardback…why not signed, while I’m dreaming? In pristine condition? Or an interesting beat up mass market paperback? I would’ve settled for an ugly tasteful prestige trade paperback at this point). No luck, but I just checked out a digital copy from my library.

I came across this lovely 1972 Pocket Books mass market paperback copy of Angela Carter’s 1969 novel Heroes and Villains. I’m pretty sure the hornyassed so-seventies cover is by Gene Szafran, but no illustrator is credited. The back cover illustration is some psychedelic horniness too:

I know I’ve ranted on here about the trend towards tasteful book covers over the past few decades. I appreciate simple, handsome covers, to be clear—hey, look at this copy of Mark Spilka’s 1963 study Dickens and Kafka—

—I mean appreciate simple, handsome covers, to be clear—but there’s a sameness in contemporary design that is a bit wearying—I see so many new books that look like every other new book. I suppose though that the same could be said about the two examples above, each specimens of their time. Perhaps a few decades from now I’ll reflect fondly on the bold, oh-so Instagrammable cover for the first edition of Marlon James’s novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf. (jacket design by Helen Yentus; jack illustration by Pablo Gerardo Camacho):

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Behind God’s back | On Thulani Davis’s poetry collection Nothing but the Music

Here are the first lines of Thulani Davis’s 1978 poem “Mecca Flats 1907”:

On this landscape

Like a thin air

Hard to breathe

Behind God’s back

I see the doors

I wanted to underline the line Behind God’s back—such an image! But the book itself is so pretty, lithe, lovely. Better to leave it unmarked?

The book is Nothing but the Music, a new collection of Thulani Davis’s poems. Its subtitle Documentaries from Nightclubs, Dance Halls, & a Tailor’s Shop in Dakar: 1974-1992 is a somewhat accurate description of the content here. These are poems about music—about Cecil Taylor and The Commodores and Thelonious Monk and Henry Threadgill and Bad Brains and more. “About” is not really the right word, and of course these poems are their own music; reading them aloud reveals a complexity of rhyme and rhythm that might be lost to the eye on the page.

But where was I—I wanted to underline the line Behind God’s back, but I didn’t. I didn’t even dogear the page. Instead, I went back to read Davis’s acknowledgements, a foreword by Jessica Hagedorn, and an introduction by Tobi Haslett. The material sets the stage and provides context for the poems that follow. Davis’s acknowledgments begin:

I have heard this music in a lot of clubs that no longer exist, opera houses in Italy that will stand another hundred years parks in Manhattan, Brooklyn, L.A., San Francisco, and Washington, DC as well as on Goree Island and in Harare, Zimbabwe. Some of it was in lofts in lower Manhattan now inhabited by millionaires, crowded bistros in Paris that are close, and legendary sites like Mandel Hall and the Apollo, radio studios, recording studios, and my many homes.

Acknowledging the weird times that have persisted (behind God’s back or otherwise), Davis touches on the COVID-19 lockdown that took the joy of live music from her—and then returned it in the strange form of “masked protesters massed in the streets singing ‘Lean on Me'” during the protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Poems in Nothing but the Music resonate with the protests against police violence and injustice we’ve seen this year. The speaker of “Back Stage Drama (For Miami)” (surely Davis herself?) repeats throughout the poem that “I was gonna talk about a race riot,” but the folks around her are absorbed in other, perhaps more minute affairs:

They all like to hang out

Thinking is rather grim to them.

Composed in 1980, the poem documents an attempt to attempt to address the riots in May of the same year in Miami, Florida, after several police officers were acquitted in the murder of Arthur McDuffie, a black man.

The speaker of the poem embeds a poetic plea, a poem-within-a-poem:

I said, ‘they’re mad, they’re on the the bottom going down/

stung by white justice in a white town

and then there’s other colored people

who don’t necessarily think they’re colored people

taking up the middle/leaving them the ground.’

But her would-be audience is weary:

I am still trying to talk about this race riot.

Minnie looked up and said, ‘We don’t have anywhere

to put any more dead.’

Snake put on his coat to leave, ‘We never did,

we never did.’

1992’s “It’s Time for the Rhythm Revue” takes for its erstwhile subject the riots that ensued after the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King. The subject is far more complex though—the speaker of the poem desires joy of course, not violence:

did they acquit somebody in LA?

will we burn it down on Saturday

or dance to the Rhythm Revue

the not too distant past

when we thought we’d live on?

Is God’s back turned—or do the protagonists just live behind it?:

…I clean my house

listening to songs from the past

times when no one asked anyone

if they’d seen a town burn

cause baby everybody had.

In Nothing but the Music, music is part and parcel of the world, entangled in the violence and injustice of it all, not a mere balm or solace but lifeforce itself, a point of resistance against it all. In “Side A (Sir Simpleton/Celebration), the first of two poems on Henry Threadgill’s 1979 album X-75, Vol. I, Davis’s narrator evokes

at the turning of the day

in these winters/in the city’s bottomless streets

it seems sometimes we live behind god’s back

we/the life blood

of forgotten places/unhallowed ground

sometimes in these valleys

turning the corner of canyons now filled with blinding light streams caught between this rock & a known hard place

sometimes in utter solitude

a chorale/a sweetness/makes us whole & never lost

And again there that line, a note from a previous jam—it seems sometimes we live behind god’s back—I’ll dogear it here, digitally, underline it in my little blog scrapbook.

I think seems is the right verb though, above. Does the star of “Lawn Chair on the Sidewalk” not remain in God’s gaze?

there’s a junkie sunning himself

under my front tree

that tree had to fight for life

on this Brooklyn street

disease got to its limbs

while still young

Typing the lines out, I wonder who I meant by star above.

Nothing but the Music is filled with stars. Here’s avant-piano great Cecil Taylor in “C.T. at the Five Spot”:

this is not about romance & dream

it’s about a terrible command performance of the facts

of time & space & air

In a synesthestic moment, the speaker merges her art with its subject:

the player plays/Mr. Taylor plays

delicate separate licks of poems

brushes in tones lighter & tighter/closer in space

In the end it’s one art:

I have heard this music

ever since I can remember/I have heard this music

There are plenty more famous musicians, of course, but more often than not minor players emerge with the greatest force. There’s the unknown hornplayer whose ecstatic playing inspired 1975’s “He Didn’t Give Up/He Was Taken.” In “Leaving Goree” there are the “two Bambara women…gold teeth gleaming” who “sit like mountains” and then explode in song.

Davis crafts here characters with deft economy. Here’s the aforementioned couple of “Back Stage Drama (For Miami)”:

Snake & Minnie

who love each other dearly

drink in different bars,

ride home in separate cars.

They like to kiss goodnight

with unexplored lips.

They go out of town

to see each other open.

Or the hero of 1982’s “Bad Brains, A Band”—

the idea that they think must scare people to death

the only person I ever met from southeast DC

was a genius who stabbed her boyfriend for sneaking up on her in the kitchen

she was tone deaf and had no ear for French

 

she once burned her partner in bid whist

for making a mistake

At the core of it all is Davis’s strong gliding voice, pure and clean, channeling miracle music and synthesizing it into new sounds. The speaker of “C.T. at the Five Spot” assessed Taylor’s performance as a work of physics, a transcendence beyond “romance & dream,” but the speaker of 1982’s “Zoom (The Commodores)” gets caught up in the aural romance of The Commodore’s pop magic:

zoom I love you

cause you won’t say no/cause you don’t want to go

cause it’s so cruel without love

give me the tacky grandeur of Atlantic City

on the Fourth of July

the corny promises of Motown

give me the romance & the Zoom.

I love those corny promises too. The romance and the zoom are not, at least in my estimation, behind God’s back, but rather, if you believe in that sort of thing, might be God’s special dream. Nothing but the Music cooks raw joy and raw pain into something sublime. I like poems best when they tell stories, and Davis is a storyteller. The poems here capture place and time, but most of all sound, sound, rhythm, and sound. Lovely stuff.

Nothing but the Music is forthcoming from Blank Forms Editions.

Moby-Dick (The Dead Don’t Die)

From The Dead Don’t Die, 2019. Dir. Jim Jarmusch; cinematography by Frederick Elmes.

Distribution of days by name in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick

SUNDAY

There are seven Sundays in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (Ch. 3 (four instances), Ch. 7, Ch. 85, and Ch. 112).

MONDAY

There are two Mondays in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (Ch. 2 and Ch. 13).

TUESDAY

There are no Tuesdays in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.

WEDNESDAY

There are no Wednesdays in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.

THURSDAY

There are no Thursdays in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.

FRIDAY

There are no Fridays in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.

SATURDAY

There are five Saturdays in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (Ch. 2, Ch. 3 (two), Ch. 65, and Ch. 67).

 

And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur — Leonora Carrington

And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur, 1953 by Leonora Carrington (1917–2011)

AnnumMMXX Phase III — John Jacobsmeyer 

AnnumMMXX Phase III, 2020 by John Jacobsmeyer (b. 1964)

 

The First Thanksgiving — Warrington Colescott

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The First Thanksgiving, 1973 by Warrington Colescott (1921 – 2018)

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A grave and dark-clad company!” quoth Goodman Brown.

In truth, they were such. Among them, quivering to-and-fro, between gloom and splendor, appeared faces that would be seen, next day, at the council-board of the province, and others which, Sabbath after Sabbath, looked devoutly heavenward, and benignantly over the crowded pews, from the holiest pulpits in the land. Some affirm, that the lady of the governor was there. At least, there were high dames well known to her, and wives of honored husbands, and widows, a great multitude, and ancient maidens, all of excellent repute, and fair young girls, who trembled lest their mothers should espy them. Either the sudden gleams of light, flashing over the obscure field, bedazzled Goodman Brown, or he recognized a score of the church-members of Salem village, famous for their especial sanctity. Good old Deacon Gookin had arrived, and waited at the skirts of that venerable saint, his reverend pastor. But, irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes. It was strange to see, that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints. Scattered, also, among their pale-faced enemies, were the Indian priests, or powows, who had often scared their native forest with more hideous incantations than any known to English witchcraft.

–From “Young Goodman Brown,” Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)

Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal | Moby-Dick

Yes, we became very wakeful; so much so that our recumbent position began to grow wearisome, and by little and little we found ourselves sitting up; the clothes well tucked around us, leaning against the head-board with our four knees drawn up close together, and our two noses bending over them, as if our kneepans were warming-pans. We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.

From Chapter 11 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

“Thanksgiving,” an excerpt from Dmitry Samarov’s cab memoir Hack

I’m on way to a traditional Thanksgiving meal of pot-stickers and spicy pan-fried pork at Lao Sze Chuan when flags me down. A young guy in a tracksuit and expensive basketball shoes. He says his car broke down, which typically a scam. But it’s Thanksgiving, so I give him the benefit of the doubt and he directs to an address on the South Side.

He tells me about going to an event with Chicago Bulls players, proudly showing the autographs he collected. He is excited like a kid would be, which makes me think the broken-down car might actually exist. He asks if I’d had my Thanksgiving meal.

When we pull up to his house, he tells me his mother will have the $25 for the cab. He has me honk a few times then goes into the yard and hollers up the second-floor window. Eventually a dark form appears and a negotiation begins. I can only make out what my passenger is saying. He pleads and promises to pay it all back. It goes on for close to fifteen minutes. Then the figure in the window tosses a crumpled bill out past the overgrown shrubbery of the yard. He comes up to the driver’s side, sheepishly offering a twenty-dollar bill. “It’s all sh has.”

He says his name is Dwayne and shakes my hand when I accept it.

From Dmitry Samarov’s illustrated cab memoir All Hack.

“Thanksgiving” — Kenneth Koch

“Thanksgiving”

by

Kenneth Koch


What’s sweeter than at the end of a summer’s day
To suddenly drift away
From the green match-wrappers in an opened pocketbook
And be part of the boards in a tavern?

A tavern made of new wood.
There’s an orange-red sun in the sky
And a redskin is hunting for you underneath ladders of timber.
I will buy this tavern. Will you buy this tavern? I do.

In the Indian camp there’s an awful dismay.
Do they know us as we know they
Know us or will know us, I mean a—
I mean a hostile force, the month of May.

How whitely the springtime is blossoming,
Ugh! all around us!
It is the brilliant Indian time of year
When the sweetest Indians mate with the sweetest others.

But I fear the white men, I fear
The rent apple blossom and discarded feathers
And the scalp lying secretly on the ground
Like an unoffending nose!

But we’ve destroyed all that. With shocking guns.
Peter Stuyvesant, Johnny Appleseed, Aaron Copeland.
We’ve destroyed all that. Come,
Do you believe right was on either side?

How would you like to be living in an Indian America,
With feathers dressing every head? We’d eat buffalo hump
For Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone is in a tribe.
A girl from the Bep Tribe can’t marry a brave from the Bap tribe. Is that democracy?
And then those dreary evenings around the campfires
Listening to the Chief! If there were a New York
It would be a city of tents, and what do you suppose
Our art and poetry would be like? For the community! the tribe!
No beautiful modern abstract pictures, no mad incomprehensible
Free lovable poems! And our moral sense! tribal.
If you would like to be living in an Indian America
Why not subscribe to the newspaper, Indian America?

In Wisconsin, Ben, I stand, I walk up and down and try to decide.

Is this country getting any better or has it gotten?
If the Indian New York is bad, what about our white New York?
Dirty, unwholesome, the filthy appendage to a vast ammunition works, I hate it!
Disgusting rectangular garbage dump sending its fumes up to suffocate the sky—
Foo, what fumes! and the scaly white complexion of her citizens.
There’s hell in every firm handshake, and stifled rage in every look.
If you do find somewhere to lie down, it’s a dirty inspected corner,
And there are newspapers and forums and the stinking breath of Broadway
To investigate what it feels like to be a source of stench
And nothing else. And if one does go away,
It is always here, waiting, for one to come back. And one does come back,
As one does come back to the bathroom, and to a fine suffering.

Where else would I find such ardent and grateful spirits
Inspired and wasted and using and used by this horrible city,
New York, New York? Can the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving dinner really compare to it?
And the Puritans? And the single-minded ankle-divided Indians?
No, nothing can compare to it! So it’s here we speak from the heart
And it’s rotting so fast that what we say
Fades like the last of a summer’s day.
Rot which makes us as prolific as the sun on white unfastened clouds.

“First Thanksgiving” — Sharon Olds

“First Thanksgiving”

by

Sharon Olds


When she comes back, from college, I will see
the skin of her upper arms, cool,
matte, glossy. She will hug me, my old
soupy chest against her breasts,
I will smell her hair! She will sleep in this apartment,
her sleep like an untamed, good object,
like a soul in a body. She came into my life the
second great arrival, after him, fresh
from the other world—which lay, from within him,
within me. Those nights, I fed her to sleep,
week after week, the moon rising,
and setting, and waxing—whirling, over the months,
in a slow blur, around our planet.
Now she doesn’t need love like that, she has
had it. She will walk in glowing, we will talk,
and then, when she’s fast asleep, I’ll exult
to have her in that room again,
behind that door! As a child, I caught
bees, by the wings, and held them, some seconds,
looked into their wild faces,
listened to them sing, then tossed them back
into the air—I remember the moment the
arc of my toss swerved, and they entered
the corrected curve of their departure.

Moritz — Gerhard Richter

Moritz, 2000 by  Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)

Orca — Angela Gram

Orca, 2020 by Angela Gram (b. 1985)

Vast practical joke | Moby-Dick

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke.

From Ch. 49 of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

Ge Fei’s Peach Blossom Paradise (Book acquired, 12 Nov. 2020)

Ge Fei’s novel Peach Blossom Paradise, translated from the Chinese by Canaan Morse, is forthcoming from. Their blurb:

In 1898 reformist intellectuals in China persuaded the young emperor that it was time to transform his sclerotic empire into a prosperous modern state. The Hundred Days’ Reform that followed was a moment of unprecedented change and extraordinary hope—brought to an abrupt end by a bloody military coup. Dashed expectations would contribute to the revolutionary turn that Chinese history would soon take, leading in time to the deaths of millions.

Peach Blossom Paradise, set at the time of the reform, is the story of Xiumi, the daughter of a wealthy landowner and former government official who falls prey to insanity and disappears. Days later, a man with a gold cicada in his pocket turns up at his estate and is inexplicably welcomed as a relative. This mysterious man has a great vision of reforging China as an egalitarian utopia, and he will stop at nothing to make it real. It is his own plans, however, which come to nothing, and his “little sister” Xiumi is left to take up arms against a Confucian world in which women are chattel. Her campaign for change and her struggle to seize control over her own body are continually threatened by the violent whims of men who claim to be building paradise.

Whale beneath the Sea — Rockwell Kent

Whale beneath the Sea,1930 by Rockwell Kent (1882–1971)

“Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams” — Kenneth Koch

“Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams”

by

Kenneth Koch


1

I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next
summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

2

We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

3

I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten
years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

4

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy, and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!