midnight thoughts

portrait of the poet as an old man

I sometimes think of this poem when I am home, alone, working away late into the night, slowly killing myself in my chosen profession as a hack:

Old Man, Dead in a Room

Charles Bukowski


this thing upon me is not death
but it’s as real
and as landlords full of maggots
pound for rent
I eat walnuts in the sheath
of my privacy
and listen for more important
it’s as real, it’s as real
as the broken-boned sparrow
cat-mouthed, uttering
more than mere
miserable argument;
between my toes I stare
at clouds, at seas of gaunt
sepulcher. . .
and scratch my back
and form a vowel
as all my lovely women
(wives and lovers)
break like engines
into steam of sorrow
to be blown into eclipse;
bone is bone
but this thing upon me
as I tear the window shades
and walk caged rugs,
this thing upon me
like a flower and a feast,
believe me
is not death and is not
and like Quixote’s windmills
makes a foe
turned by the heavens
against one man;
…this thing upon me,
great god,
this thing upon me
crawling like snake,
terrifying my love of commonness,
some call Art
some call Poetry;
it’s not death
but dying will solve its power
and as my grey hands
drop a last desperate pen
in some cheap room
they will find me there
and never know
my name
my meaning
nor the treasure
of my escape.

autumnal thoughts

I find it impossible to keep this first stanza from repeating itself in my head when I leave work on a darkening fall evening…


Easter, 1916

William Butler Yeats  


I have met them at close of day

Coming with vivid faces

From counter or desk among grey

Eighteenth-century houses.

I have passed with a nod of the head

Or polite meaningless words,

Or have lingered awhile and said

Polite meaningless words,

And thought before I had done

Of a mocking tale or a gibe

To please a companion

Around the fire at the club,

Being certain that they and I

But lived where motley is worn:

All changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.


That woman’s days were spent

In ignorant good-will,

Her nights in argument

Until her voice grew shrill.

What voice more sweet than hers

When, young and beautiful,

She rode to harriers?

This man had kept a school

And rode our winged horse;

This other his helper and friend

Was coming into his force;

He might have won fame in the end,

So sensitive his nature seemed,

So daring and sweet his thought.

This other man I had dreamed

A drunken, vainglorious lout.

He had done most bitter wrong

To some who are near my heart,

Yet I number him in the song;

He, too, has resigned his part

In the casual comedy;

He, too, has been changed in his turn,

Transformed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.


Hearts with one purpose alone

Through summer and winter seem

Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream.

The horse that comes from the road.

The rider, the birds that range

From cloud to tumbling cloud,

Minute by minute they change;

A shadow of cloud on the stream

Changes minute by minute;

A horse-hoof slides on the brim,

And a horse plashes within it;

The long-legged moor-hens dive,

And hens to moor-cocks call;

Minute by minute they live:

The stone’s in the midst of all.


Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

O when may it suffice?

That is Heaven’s part, our part

To murmur name upon name,

As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come

On limbs that had run wild.

What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death;

Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith

For all that is done and said.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

I write it out in a verse—

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.


from cormac mccarthy’s play-as-novel, the sunset limited

Cormac McCarthy

The Sunset Limited


This is a room in a tenement building in a black ghetto in New York City. There is a kitchen with a stove and a large refrigerator. A door to the outer hallway and another presumably to a bedroom. The hallway door is fitted with a bizarre collection of locks and bars. There is a cheap Formica table in the room and two chrome and plastic chairs. There is a drawer in the table. On the table is a Bible and a newspaper. A pair of glasses. A pad and pencil. A large black man is sitting in one chair (stage right) and in the other a middle aged white man dressed in running pants and athletic shoes. He wears a T shirt and the jacket, which matches the pants, hangs on the chair behind him.



BLACK. So what am I supposed to do with you, Professor?

WHITE. Why are you supposed to do anything?

BLACK. I done told you. This ain’t none of my doin. I left out of here this mornin to go to work you wasn’t no part of my plans at all. But here you is.

WHITE. It doesn’t mean anything. Everything that happens doesn’t mean something else.

BLACK. Mm hm. It don’t.

WHITE. No. It doesn’t.

BLACK. What’s it mean then?

WHITE. It doesn’t mean anything. You run into people and maybe some of them are in trouble or whatever but it doesn’t mean that you’re responsible for them.

BLACK. Mm hm.

WHITE. Anyway, people who are always looking out for perfect strangers are very often people who won’t look out for the ones they’re supposed to look out for. In my opinion. If you’re just doing what you’re supposed to then you don’t get to be a hero.

BLACK. And that would be me.

WHITE. I don’t know. Would it?

BLACK. Well, I can see how they might be some truth in that. But in this particular case I might say I sure didn’t know what sort of person I was supposed to be on the lookout for or what I was supposed to do when I found him. In this particular case they wasn’t but one thing to go by.

WHITE. And that was?

BLACK. That was that there he is standin there. And I can look at him and I can say: Well, he don’t look like my brother. But there he is. Maybe I better look again.

WHITE. And that’s what you did.

BLACK. Well, you was kindly hard to ignore. I got to say that your approach was pretty direct.

WHITE. I didn’t approach you. I didn’t even see you.

BLACK. Mm hm.

WHITE. I should go. I’m beginning to get on your nerves.

BLACK. No you ain’t. Don’t pay no attention to me. You seem like a sweet man, Professor. I reckon what I don’t understand is how come you to get yourself in such a fix.

WHITE. Yeah.

BLACK. Are you okay? Did you sleep last night?


BLACK. When did you decide that today was the day? Was they somethin special about it?

WHITE. No. Well. Today is my birthday. But I certainly don’t regard that as special.

BLACK. Well happy birthday, Professor.

WHITE. Thank you.

BLACK. So you seen your birthday was comin up and that seemed like the right day.

WHITE. Who knows? Maybe birthdays are dangerous. Like Christmas. Ornaments hanging from the trees, wreaths from the doors, and bodies from the steam pipes all over

BLACK. Mm. Don’t say much for Christmas, does it?

WHITE. Christmas is not what it used to be.

BLACK. I believe that to be a true statement. I surely do.

WHITE. I’ve got to go. (He gets up and takes his jacket off the back of the chair and lifts it over his shoulders and then puts his arms in the sleeves rather than putting his arms in first one at a time.)

BLACK. You always put your coat on like that?

WHITE. What’s wrong with the way I put my coat on?

BLACK. I didn’t say they was nothin wrong with it. I just wondered if that was your regular method.

WHITE. I don’t have a regular method. I just put it on.

BLACK. Mm hm.

WHITE. It’s what, effeminate?


WHITE. What?

BLACK. Nothin. I’m just settin here studyin the ways of professors.

WHITE. Yeah. Well, I’ve got to go. (The black gets up.)

BLACK. Well. Let me get my coat.

WHITE. Your coat?

BLACK. Yeah.

WHITE. Where are you going?

BLACK. Goin with you.

WHITE. What do you mean? Going with me where?

BLACK. Goin with you wherever you goin.

WHITE. No you’re not.

BLACK. Yeah I am.

WHITE. I’m going home.

BLACK. All right.

WHITE. All right? You’re not going home with me.

BLACK. Sure I am. Let me get my coat.

WHITE. You can’t go home with me.

BLACK. Why not?

WHITE. You can’t.

BLACK. What. You can go home with me but I can’t go home with you?

WHITE. No. I mean no, that’s not it. I just need to go home.

BLACK. You live in a apartment?


BLACK. What. They don’t let black folks in there?

WHITE. No. I mean of course they do. Look. No more jokes. I’ve got to go. I’m very tired.

BLACK. Well I just hope we don’t run into no hassle about you gettin me in there.

WHITE. You’re serious.

BLACK. Oh I think you know I’m serious.

WHITE. You can’t be serious.

BLACK. I’m as serious as a heart attack.

WHITE. Why are you doing this?

BLACK. Me? I ain’t got no choice in the matter.

WHITE. Of course you have a choice.

BLACK. No I ain’t.

WHITE. Who appointed you my guardian angel?

BLACK. Let me get my coat.

WHITE. Answer the question.

BLACK. You know who appointed me. I didn’t ask for you to leap into my arms down in the subway this mornin.

WHITE. I didn’t leap into your arms.

BLACK. You didn’t?

WHITE. No. I didn’t.

BLACK. Well how did you get there then? (The professor stands with his head lowered. He looks at the chair and then turns and goes and sits down in it.) What. Now we ain’t gain?

WHITE. Do you really think that Jesus is in this room?

BLACK. No. I don’t think he’s in this room.

WHITE. You don’t?

BLACK. I know he’s in this room. (The professor folds his hands at the table and lowers his head. The black pulls out the other chair and sits again.) It’s the way you put it, Professor. Be like me askin you do you think you got your coat on. You see what I’m sayin?

WHITE. It’s not the same thing. It’s a matter of agreement. If you and I say that I have my coat on and Cecil says that I’m naked and I have green skin and a tail then we might want to think about where we should put Cecil so that he won’t hurt himself


BLACK. Who’s Cecil?

WHITE. He’s not anybody. He’s just a hypothetical … There’s not any Cecil. He’s just a person I made up to illustrate a point.

BLACK. Made up.



WHITE. We’re not going to get into this again are we? It’s not the same thing. The fact that I made Cecil up.

BLACK. But you did make him up.


BLACK. And his view of things don’t count.

WHITE. No. That’s why I made him up. I could have changed it around. I could have made you the one that didn’t think I was wearing a coat.

BLACK. And was green and all that shit you said.


BLACK. But you didn’t.


BLACK. You loaded it off on Cecil.


BLACK. But Cecil can’t defend hisself cause the fact that he ain’t in agreement with everybody else makes his word no good. I mean aside from the fact that you made him up and he’s green and everthing.

WHITE. He’s not the one who’s green. I am. Where is this going?

BLACK. I’m just tryin to find out about Cecil.

WHITE. I don’t think so. Can you see Jesus?

BLACK. No. I can’t see him.

WHITE. But you talk to him.

BLACK. I don’t miss a day.

WHITE. And he talks to you.

BLACK. He has talked to me. Yes.

WHITE. Do you hear him? Like out loud?

BLACK. Not out loud. I don’t hear a voice. Idon’t hear my own, for that matter. But I have heard him.

WHITE. Well why couldn’t Jesus just be in your head?

BLACK. He is in my head.

WHITE. Well I don’t understand what it is that you’re trying to tell me.

BLACK. I know you don’t, honey. Look. The first thing you got to understand is that I ain’t got a original thought in my head. If it ain’t got the lingerin scent of divinity to it then I ain’t interested.

WHITE. The lingering scent of divinity.

BLACK. Yeah. You like that?

WHITE. It’s not bad.

BLACK. I heard it on the radio. Black preacher. But the point is I done tried it the other way. And I don’t mean chippied, neither. Runnin blindfold through the woods with the bit tween your teeth. Oh man. Didn’t I try it though. If you can find a soul that give it a better shot than me I’d like to meet him. I surely would. And what do you reckon it got me?

WHITE. I don’t know. What did it get you?

BLACK. Death in life. That’s what it got me.

WHITE. Death in life.

BLACK. Yeah. Walkin around death. Too dead to even know enough to lay down.

WHITE. I see.

BLACK. I don’t think so. But let me ask you this question.

WHITE. All right.

BLACK. Have you ever read this book?

WHITE. I’ve read parts of it. I’ve read in it

BLACK. Have you ever read it?

WHITE. I read the Book of Job.

BLACK. Have. You. Ever. Read. It.


BLACK. But you is read a lot of books.


BLACK. How many would you say you read?

WHITE. I’ve no idea.

BLACK. Ball park.

WHITE. I don’t know. Two a week maybe. A hundred a year. For close to forty years. (The black takes up his pencil and licks it and falls to squinting at his pad, adding numbers laboriously, his tongue in the corner of his mouth, one hand on his head.) Forty times a hundred is four thousand.

BLACK. (Almost laughing.) I’m just messin with you, Professor. Give me a number. Any number you like. And I’ll give you forty times it back.

WHITE. Twenty six.

BLACK. A thousand and forty.

WHITE. A hundred and eighteen.

BLACK. Four thousand seven hundred and twenty.

WHITE. Four thousand seven hundred and twenty.

BLACK. Yeah.

WHITE. The answer is the question.

BLACK. Say what?

WHITE. That’s your new number.

BLACK. Four thousand seven hundred and twenty?


BLACK. That’s a big number, Professor.

HITE. Yes it is.

BLACK. Do you know the answer?

WHITE. No. I don’t.

BLACK. It’s a hundred and eighty eight thousand and eight hundred. (They sit.)

WHITE. Let me have that. (The black slides the pad and pencil across the table. The professor does the figures and looks at them and looks at the black. He slides the pencil and paper back across the table and sits back.) How do you do that?

BLACK. Numbers is the black man’s friend. Butter and eggs. Crap table. You quick with numbers you can put the mojo on you brother. Confiscate the contents of his pocketbook. You get a lot of time to practice that shit in the jailhouse.

WHITE. I see.

BLACK. But let’s get back to all them books you done read. You think maybe you read four thousand books.

WHITE. Probably. Maybe more than that.

BLACK. But you ain’t read this one.

WHITE. No. Not the whole book. No.

BLACK. Why is that?

WHITE. I don’t know.

BLACK. What would you say is the best book that ever was wrote?

WHITE. I have no idea.

BLACK. Take a shot.

WHITE. There are a lot of good books.

BLACK. Well pick one.

WHITE. Maybe War and Peace.

BLACK. All right. You think that’s a better book than this one?

WHITE. I don’t know. They’re different kinds of books.

BLACK. This War and Peace book. That’s a book that somebody made up, right?

WHITE. Well, yes.

BLACK. So is that how it’s different from this book?

WHITE. Not really. In my view they’re both made up.

BLACK. Mm. Ain’t neither one of em true.

WHITE. Not in the historical sense. No.

BLACK. So what would be a true book?

WHITE. I suppose maybe a history book. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire might be one. At least the events would be actual events. They would be things that had happened.

BLACK. Mm hm. You think that book is as good a book as this book here?

WHITE. The Bible.

BLACK. The Bible.

WHITE. I don’t know. Gibbon is a cornerstone. It’s a major book.

BLACK. And a true book. Don’t forget that.

WHITE. And a true book. Yes.

BLACK. But is it as good a book.

WHITE. I don’t know. I don’t know as you can make a comparison. You’re talking about apples and pears.

BLACK. No we ain’t talkin bout no apples and pears, Professor. We talkin bout books. Is that Decline and Fall book as good a book as this book here. Answer the question.

WHITE. I might have to say no.

BLACK. It’s more true but it ain’t as good.

WHITE. If you like.

BLACK. It ain’t what I like. It’s what you said.

WHITE. All right. (The black lays the Bible back down on the table.)

BLACK. It used to say here on the cover fore it got wore off: The greatest book ever written. You think that might be true?

WHITE. It might.

BLACK. You read good books.

WHITE. I try to. Yes.

BLACK. But not the best book. Why is that?

WHITE. I need to go.

an imagined second life of weldon kees

It was on July 18, 1955, that The New Republic printed a review by Kees entitled "How to Be Happy: Installment 1053," in which the following passage appears: "In our present atmosphere of distrust, violence, and irrationality, with so many human beings murdering themselves—either literally or symbolically…." On that day his car was found abandoned on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. He had spoken to friends of suicide; he had also spoken of going away to start a new life, perhaps in Mexico. Scattered throughout his poems are lines which, as we read them now, seem to foreshadow this final event, whatever it may have been. If the whole of his poetry can be read as a denial of the values of the present civilization, as I believe it can, then the disappearance of Kees becomes as symbolic an act as Rimbaud’s flight or Crane’s suicide.


—from The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees (Revised edition): Edited by Donald Justice

Weldon Kees in Mexico, 1965


Although Kees apparently jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955, his body was never found.


 Evenings below my window

 the sister of the convent of Saint Teresa

 carry brown jugs of water from a well

 beyond a dry wash called Mostrenco.

 Today it was hard to waken,

 and I’ve been dead to the world ten years.

 They tread the narrow footbridge

 made of vines and planks, sandals clicking:

 brown beads and white wooden crosses

 between hands that are also brown.

 Over the bridge they travel in a white-robed line

 like innocent nurses to a field hospital.


 Exactly ten. I’ve marked it on the calendar.

 And Maria, who speaks no English,

 is soaping her dark breasts by the washstand.

 Yesterday she said

 she’d like to be a painter and sketched,

 on the back of a soiled napkin,

 a rendition of a cholla

 with her lipstick. She laughed,

 then drew below each nipple

 a smudged rose. Weldon


 would have been repelled

 and fascinated, but Weldon is dead.

 I watched him fall to the waves

 of the Bay, the twelfth suicide that summer.

 He would have been fifty-one this year,

 my age exactly, an aging man.

 Still he would not be a fool

 in a poor adobe house, unwinding

 a spool of flypaper from a hook

 above the head of his child bride.


 When she asks my name, I tell her

 I am Richard, a good midwestern sound.

 She thinks Nebraska is a kingdom

 near Peru, and I

 the exiled Crown Prince of Omaha.

 I’ve promised to buy her a box of paints

 in a shop by my palace in Lincoln.

 We’ll go back, Maria and I,

 with the little sisters of Saint Teresa

 who are just now walking across the bridge

 for water to be blessed at vespers.

—from David Wojahn, Icehouse Lights (1982)



it’s a dog’s life: weldon kees’ canine homage




To Vincent Hugh


"This night is monstrous winter when the rats

 Swarm in great packs along the waterfront,

 When midnight closes in and takes away your name.

 And it was Rover, Ginger, Laddie, Prince;

 My pleasure hambones. Donned a collar once

 With golden spikes, the darling of a cultured home

 Somewhere between the harbor and the heights, uptown.

 Or is this something curs with lathered mouths invent?

 They had a little boy I would have bitten, had I dared.

 They threw great bones out on the balcony.

 But where? I pant at every door tonight.


 I knew this city once the way I know those lights

 Blinking in chains along the other side,

 These streets that hold the odors of my kind.

 But now, my bark a ghost in this strange scentless air,

 I am no growling cicerone or cerberus

 But wreckage for the pound, snuffling in shame

 All cold-nosed toward identity.—Rex? Ginger? No.

 A sort of panic jabbering inside begins.

 Wild for my shadow in this vacantness,

 I can at least run howling toward the bankrupt lights

 Into the traffic where bones, cats, and masters swarm.

 And where my name must be."

more from vollmann’s europe central


The Saviors: A Kabbalistic Tale


 The tale of Fanya Kaplan, that darkhaired, pale-faced, slender idealist, tells itself with grim brevity in keeping with her times. For just as tyrannicides spurn slow justice, so likewise with tyrants. Between exploit and recompense lay only four days, which in most histories would comprise but an ellipsis between words, a quartet of periods, thus: . . . .—but which, if through close reading we magnify them into spheres, prove to contain in each case a huddle of twenty-four grey subterranean hours like orphaned mice; and in the flesh of every hour a swarm of useless moments like ants whose queen has perished; and within each moment an uncountable multitude of instants resembling starpointed syllables shaken out of words—which at the close of this interval, Fanya Kaplan was carried beyond Tau, final letter of the magic alphabet. Her attempt took place on 30 August 1918. It is written that after Lenin fell, the young assassin hysterically fled, but then, remembering that the moral code of the Social Revolutionaries required her to give up her life in exchange for her victim’s, stopped running, turned back, and in trembling silence surrendered to our security forces. On 3 September, Fanya Kaplan, who happened to be noted for her “Jewish features,” was led into a narrow courtyard of the Lubyankaand there shot from behind by the commandant of the Kremlin himself, P. D. Malkov. (That luminary I. M. Sverdlov, who’d already played so indispensable a role in the liquidation of the Romanov family, instructed Malkov: Her remains are to be destroyed without a trace.) Thus the life and works of the blackhaired woman.

 The tale of Lenin’s bride, N. K. Krupskaya, makes for a happier parable. And doesn’t the parable possess greater integrity, greater righteousness we might almost say, than any other literary form? For its many conventions weave a holy covenant between the reader, who gets the mystification he craves in a bonbon-sized dose, and the writer, whose absence renders him divine. Granted, those very stringencies sometimes telescope events into dreamlike absurdity. In Krupskaya’s case, were it not for her nearly accidental marriage she’d surely have remained as hidden to history as the silent letter Aleph. What was she then in her maiden days? We don’t want to call her a cipher; we can’t deny that her parable, like ours, began with birth. But in this genre (as in the lyric poem) there can be no random causes. Every death must occur for good reason. Every word, right down to its gaping letters o and grinning letters e, must offer resonance with sentences before and beyond—not predictability, mind you, for that would be tedious, but after each comma the hindsighted reader needs to be in the position of saying: Why didn’t I see that coming? Fanya Kaplan, for example, was never notified that she’d been condemned to death. And yet when Malkov’s very first bullet exploded between her shoulderblades, she experienced coherence, and screamed not with surprise, but with desperate fear and outrage againstinevitability.—As for Krupskaya, call her the darling of parable-mongers; introduce her as the perfect personification of  convention. (This is why her collected works are so deadly dull.) Trotsky patronized her; Stalin by the end commanded her; Lenin himself merely used her. Historians regard her as a faithful mediocrity. I myself have always read in her a striving toward kindliness, for which I offer praise. Unutterably typical of her epoch—and thus perhaps curiously akin to Fanya Kaplan—she was agitated all her life by fervor. Just as the same letter may appear in two words of contrary meaning, so the lives of those two women write themselves in nearly identical characters. Who am I to find in Krupskaya’s enthusiasms anything alien to Fanya Kaplan’s? One loved the Revolution; the other hated it. What force transformed them into opposites, if they were opposites?


 We read that Krupskaya was first (that is, before her parable is supposed to begin) a pious little girl who prayed to the icon in her bedroom, then a rapturous Tolstoyan. In company with her friends she attacked awealthy factory owner with snowballs. We find her cutting hay to help hostile and uncomprehending peasants at age fifteen, then teaching night classes in literacy to factory workers at twenty-two. She was one of those souls who long more than anything to be of use in this world. Unknowingly she found herself drawn to the letter Cheth, which resembles the Greek letter pi and which, thus visually representing a gate, refers to ownership. She yearned to give herself, to be possessed, to know where she stood. 

  By the time she was twenty-six, she was receiving, materializing and carrying to underground printers the invisible-inked manifestoes which Lenin sent from prison. The legend says that one of her greatest joys was to watch the magic letters appear in the boiling water, as if they comprised a secret message written expressly for her, instead of being merely another metallically impersonal appeal to the workers. (After all, reader, don’t you prefer to believe that this story which you’re taking the trouble to read has something to say to you?) But for just the same reason that she shunned fashionable clothes, chocolates and other frivolous pleasures, Krupskaya strove to persuade herself that in the self-abnegation of transcription lay her destiny.

  When she reached the age of twenty-seven, N. K. Krupskaya was arrested for the first time. After two months in preliminary detention, they released her, thinking her to be a shy nobody who’d gotten mixed up in illegal activity only by mistake, but so brazen and exalted were her actions on behalf of the Kostroma strikers that she was arrested again after only eighteen days.

  Here again I seem to see that pallid, protuberant-featured Social Revolutionary woman who sought to kill Lenin. It’s said that Fanya Kaplan had already become a committed anarcho-terrorist by the time she was sixteen. When the gendarmes burst in, she and her comrades were arrayed around the bed, carefully assembling the components of a bomb, like those Kabbalists who in their circle-beset diagrams arrange into bristling molecules the various emanations and manifestations of God. It’s even said that the police themselves were moved by the perfection of the urchin-spined grey spheres laid out upon the young girl’s white sheets. Fearing for the Tsar’s safety, the court at first condemned her to death, but in view of her youth and sex the sentence was commuted to hard labor for life in Siberia. There she dwelled between the river-ice and the celestial alphabets of constellations until the October Revolution amnestied her. By then Fanya Kaplan was more determined than ever to redeem all Russia from centralist abomination.

 Krupskaya, who proved equally unrepentant, they kept her in the blankness of the cells for five months, until a convict named M. F. Vetrova burned herself to death to protest her own fate. So in garments of flame this woman (otherwise almost unknown) dictated her tale of righteousness. Who says that tales are only words? Embarrassed by Vetrova’s propaganda triumph, the authorities felt compelled to exercise upon their remaining female prisoners the same leniency which they would grant Fanya Kaplan. In March of 1897, not long after her twenty-eighth birthday, they freed Krupskaya on grounds of failing health. (Fanya Kaplan for her part was also twenty-eight when she was freed forever by Malkov’s bullets.)

  A photograph from this period reveals Krupskaya’s pale, stern beauty. Her smooth forehead glows like winter sunshine on a snowy field, her clenched lips cannot entirely deny their own sensuousness, and her eyes gaze with painful sincerity into the ideal—dark eyes these, longing eyes from which a craving for meaning steadfastly bleeds. Her high and proper collar hides her almost to the chin, so she’s but a face, closed but promising something, like a flower-bud. She’s combed her hair severely back, and cropped it short; she’s a recruit, a fighter, a militant.


 Knowing that Lenin needed a copyist in his Siberian exile, and learning that she too would be exiled (the police themselves being not entirely illiterate readers of dangerousness), she accepted her leader’s proposal for a marriage of convenience, replying in those famous words, meant to show her imperviousness to bourgeois institutions: Well, so what. If as a wife, then as a wife.—In fact there is every reason to believe that beneath this bravado lived an idolatrous passion.—Upon her arrival the following year, when Fanya Kaplan was celebrating her tenth birthday, the reunited atheists submitted to a full church wedding in Shushenskoe, which is wistfully called “the Siberian Italy.” 

 The law required an exchange of rings; and devotees of that most Kabbalistic genre, the parable-within-a-parable, might well concentrate on this most pathetic episode of the ceremony, unable to resist dissecting the ironic symbolism of those two copper wedding bands lying side by side on the black velvet cushion. * It’s said that when the eternally virginal Krupskaya first saw them, she blushed. Freshly worked copper has a peculiar brightness, like bloody gold. We need not detain ourselves here with mystic correlations and analogies, God being ineffable anyway; it seems that the raw luminosity of the rings exposed her unacknowledged feelings in their revelatory glare. They’d been fashioned by a Finnish comrade who was still learning the jeweler’s craft—indeed, he was indebted to Krupskaya for his tools, so he’d taken special pains, inscribing them with the names of thebride and groom in characters which in their squat angularity might well have graced some seventeenth-century diagram of astrology’s nested spheres. In their shape the rings are said to have resembled the letter Samekh—a sort of o which tapers as it rejoins its starting point, and which sports a tiny bud on top, imagined by dreamy brides to be a precious stone. Need I add that this character of the mystical alphabet symbolizes both help and sleep? (Recall Marx’s ambiguous proverb: Religion is the opium of the masses.)

 Who knows the fate of those shining circlets? The ring which Krupskaya slipped upon Lenin’s finger was never seen again. As for the one he slid onto hers, she removed it immediately, for the sake of revolutionary convention. Then the ceremony was over, and they walked home by separate ways.

 So she became both drudge and disciple, the good soldier, the bedfellow (or occasional bedfellow as I should say, for in their Kremlin suite each spouse had a private room and a single-width metal-framed bed *), the harmless mediocrity, the liquidator of pessimism, the amateur who transcribed Lenin’s essays and sewed his nightshirts. (That German Communist Clara Zetkin, more glamorous than Krupskaya by far, visited the happy couple before and after the Revolution; her memoirs indulgently commend the wife’s “frankness, simplicity and rather puritanic modesty.”)

 He called her Nadya. She called him Volodya.


 On that August day two decades later, when the darkhaired, pale-faced, slender woman approached Lenin’s Rolls-Royce, then took shaky aim with her little Browning as a line of hysterical determination sank from each corner of her tight-compressed lips, the supreme deity of the Soviet Union ought to have been gathered in, rising to the heart of heaven just as letters of the Hebrew alphabet are said to take wing during the course of certain Kabbalistic raptures. Certainly Fanya Kaplan (alias Dora) was banking on that when she gave herself up in observance of the covenant a life for a life. But the blackhaired woman, member in good standing of the Social Revolutionary Combat Organization though she was (which is to say, self-spendthrift), lacked competence. One cannot forbear to recall the half-built bomb on her girlhood’s bed. Was the premature ending of that story mere bad luck, or had she and her accomplices forgotten to post sentries? (In this connection we’d do well to invoke the letter Daleth, whose shape—the upper righthand angle of a square—implies both knowledge and unenlightenment, being a door which can open and close. The young anarchists had faith * that the door would stay closed until they’d completed their preparations to murder the Minister of the Interior. The police forced it open. Either way, the tale would have gone on, and the door remained.) What else should we expect? So many revolutionaries are intellectuals, a class of people whose aspirations tend to run ahead of their capabilities. Just think of that Paris Communard of the previous century who used to sit in cafés, constructing such beautiful little barricades out of breadcrumbs that everyone admired him; come the uprising, he built a perfect barricade out of stones—and the troops marched around it. (Shall we interject here that Krupskaya was perfectly useless with a gun, and that her attempts at cryptography brought smiles to the lips of Tsarist police spies?)

 With typically hysterical exoticism, Fanya Kaplan had incised her bullets with dum-dum crosses so that they represented magic atoms, then dipped them in a substance which she believed to be curare poison, but which would prove to exert no effect whatsoever. Then she set out to try her luck. As soon as Lenin had completed his Friday address to the workers, she fired three shots which hummed like the letter Mem. One pierced a woman who was complaining about the confiscation of bread at railroad stations. The second shot struck Lenin in the upper arm, injuring his shoulder. The third soared upward through his lung into his neck, coming to rest in a fortuitous spot (if any bullet wound can be considered such). Lenin’s face paled, and he sank to the running board, bleeding, unconscious.


 The Cheka sent a car for Krupskaya without telling her anything. She was in terror; that day the leading Chekist Uritsky had already been assassinated. At such moments, when we find ourselves in danger of losing the protagonist we love, the tale of our marriage begins to glow, and the letters tremble on the page as once did our own souls when we realized the inevitability of the first kiss. Later, if he lives, those same words will go dry and stale. But for now the beloved Name trembles in every constituent, and we feel weak and sick. Krupskaya had already begun to suffer from the heart condition which would underline the remaining chapters of her life. She felt half suffocated. Her vision doubled; the streets of Moscow shimmered with tears. When, penetrating the magic circle of Latvian Riflemen, she found her husband apparently dying,* she composed herself and gripped his hand in silence. (Years later, she’d be dry-eyed at his funeral.) He was lying on his right side. They said he’d opened his eyes when the car pulled up; he’d wanted to ascend the stairs himself. In the secret pocket of her dress, her fingers clasped the copper ring he’d given her in Shushenskoe.

 The doctors had already cut his suit off. Lenin’s eyes would not open. He breathed with the desperate, shallow gasps of a lover nearing orgasm; and, as if to reinforce this impression, a curl of blood had dried upon his paper-white chest in the shape of the letter Lamed, whose snaky shape has Kabbalistic associations with sexual intercourse.

 At dawn his breaths deepened, and then he looked at her. Krupskaya whispered: We have no one but you. Stay with us; save us . . .

 To comfort her, one of the nurses (who herself was weeping) said: He needs you, Nadezhda Konstantinovna.

 Then they all began to heal him, giving him injections with a squat glass syringe whose shape was reminiscent of the letter Qoph, emblem of inner sight.

 As soon as he came back into his mind, he became impatient. He had many things to do to insure that his Revolution would be irreversible. Krupskaya rarely found herself alone with him. First it was the doctors, then Trotsky, Stalin and the rest, come to congratulate him on his survival. He gazed at her half-humorously, rolling his eyes. She knew he longed to be at work by himself, preparing new commandments and testimonies. What could she do to aid him? How could she prevent him from tiring himself into a relapse? Shyly clearing her throat, she said: Pretend this convalescence is only another term in prison, Volodya. You know you can deal with that!—He laughed delightedly.

 On 14 September she took him to somebody’s confiscated estate in the pleasant village of Gorki. He recovered secretly behind those walls. Krupskaya remained at his side as often as he would let her. While he slept, she sat in her room, repeating his name with such whispered fervor that the nurses said: It’s almost as if she believes he’ll fade away if she closes her eyes for one minute!—They tried to get her to rest, but she burst into tears.

 In another week Volodya’s bandages came off. Before October he began to walk again without her help, although he’d lost much blood and there were circles under his eyes. She brought him home to the Kremlin just before the end of that month, sleeping with her door open in case he should call for her. He’d already reverted to his habit of pacing his office on tiptoe throughout the night hours, muttering, searching for clear policies; these well-known sounds soothed her. By November he was almost entirely restored. And in celebration, the Bolsheviks everywhere replicated his graven images.


 Fanya Kaplan was executed on the same day that the Commissar of the Interior released the infamous “Order Concerning Hostages,” which decreed that all Right Social Revolutionaries be arrested at once and reserved for mass liquidation as needed. In Perm alone they shot thirty-six captives to avenge Lenin and Uritsky. Thus the terrorists were requited to their faces. Less than twenty-four hours later, the Red Terror was born. The birth announcement went hissing across telegraph lines like the letter Shin, whose three vertical arms culminate in poppy-heads of flame. Meanwhile the press kept calling for more blood, more blood. In the ever timely words of Comrade N. V. Krylenko (whose own destiny would be death by shooting): We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more. 


* Exegesis easily uncovers other ironies: The purple-cloaked priest, it is written, was as exasperated as his victims, because this marriage prevented him from renting the extra room of Lenin’s house which the bride and her mother would now occupy. (Had she remained unmarried, Krupskaya would have been remanded to the locality of Ufa.) And perhaps he scented the godlessness of the convict spouses. What must he have made of Krupskaya’s abashedness, Lenin’s sarcastic smiles? How might he have proceeded, had he understood that this church of his, by sealing the union of these two helpmeets, was hastening its own destruction, and his?


*Upon his own escape from Siberia to England in 1902, Trotsky had likewise found them working in separate quarters. “Nadyezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya . . . was at the very centre of all the organization work,” he writes in his memoirs. “In her room there was always a smell of burned paper from the secret letters she heated over the fire to read.” 


*Blind faith, one might say. In Siberia she went literally and mysteriously blind for three years, but upon her blindness was engraved the secret alphabet of her cause. Under the influence of the terrorist Spiridovna, she swore to be patient, and someday to execute justice. And then, as if by magic, the world revealed itself once more to her sight.


*Arguably Fanya Kaplan had, as exegetes like to say, “wrought better than she knew,” since the bullet remaining in Volodya’s neck proved to be a time bomb. Nearly three years later, the doctors finally decided to remove it, and although the operation was a success, scarcely two days later he suffered the first of the cerebral hemorrhages which were to carry him off. 


europe under the nazi octopus: the opening of william t. vollmann’s europe central


Steel In Motion

As often as not, the things that attract us to another person are quite trivial, and what always delighted me about Blumentritt was his fanatical attachment to the telephone.


—Field-Marshal Erich von Manstein (1958)




A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps, owns a recess in Berlin (more probably Moscow, which one German general has named the core of the enemy’s whole being). Somewhere between steel reefs, a wire wrapped in gutta-percha vibrates: I hereby . . . zzzzzzz . . . the critical situation . . . a crushing blow. But because these phrases remain unauthenticated (and because the penalty for eavesdropping is death), it’s not recommended to press one’s ear to the wire, which bristles anyhow with electrified barbs; better to sit obedient, for the wait can’t be long; negotiations have failed. Away flees Chamberlain, crying: Peace in our time. France obligingly disinterests herself in the Prague government. Motorized columns roll into snowy Pilsen and keep rolling. Italy foresees adventurism’s reward, from which she would rather save herself, but, enthralled by the telephone, she somnambulates straight to the balcony to declare: We cannot change our policy now. We are not prostitutes. The ever-wakeful sleepwalker in Berlin and the soon-to-be-duped realist in the Kremlin get married. This will strike like a bomb! laughs the sleepwalker. All over Europe, telephones begin to ring.


In the round room with the fan-shaped skylight, with Greek gods ranked behind the dais, the Austrian deputies sit woodenly at their wooden desks, whose black rectangular inlays enhance the elegance; they were the first to accept our future; their telephone rang back in ’38. Bulgaria, denied the British credits which wouldn’t have preserved her anyway, receives the sleepwalker’s forty-five million Reichsmarks. The realist offers credits to no one but the sleepwalker. Shuffling icons like playing cards, Romania reiterates her neutrality in hopes of being overlooked. Yugoslavia wheedles airplanes from Germany and money from France. Warsaw’s humid shade is already scented with panic-gasps. The wire vibrates: Fanatical determination . . . ready for anything.


According to the telephone (for perhaps I did listen in once, treasonously), Europe Central’s not a nest of countries at all, but a blank zone of black icons and gold-rimmed clocks whose accidental, endlessly contested territorial divisions (essentially old walls from Roman times) can be overwritten as we like, Gauleiters and commissars blanching them down to grey dotted lines of permeability convenient to police troops. Now’s the time to gaze across all those red-grooved roof-waves oceaning around, all the green-tarnished tower-islands rising above white facades which grin with windows and sink below us into not yet completely telephone-wired reefs; now’s the time to enjoy Europe Central’s café umbrellas like anemones, her old grime-darkened roofs like kelp, her hoofbeats clattering up and bellnotes rising, her shadows of people so far below in the narrow streets. Now’s the time, because tomorrow everything will have to be, as the telephone announces, obliterated without warning, destroyed, razed, Germanified, Sovietized, utterly smashed. It’s an order. It’s a necessity. We won’t fight like those soft cowards who get held back by their consciences; we’ll liquidate Europe Central! But it’s still not too late for negotiation. If you give us everything we want within twenty-four hours, we’ll compensate you with land in the infinite East.


In Mecklenburg, we’ve prepared a demonstration of the world’s first rocket-powered plane. Serving the sleepwalker’s rapture, Göring promises that five hundred more rocket-powered planes will be ready within a lightning-flash. Then he runs out for a tryst with the film star Lida Baarova. In Moscow, Marshal Tukhachevsky announces that operations in a future war will unfold as broad maneuver undertakings on a massive scale. He’ll be shot right away. And Europe Central’s ministers, who will also be shot, appear on balconies supported by nude marble girls, where they utter dreamy speeches, all the while listening for the ring of the telephone. Europe Central will resist, they say, at least until the commencement of Case White. Every man will be issued a sweaty black machine-carbine, probably hand-forged, along with ten round lead bullets, three black pineapple grenades each not much larger than a pistol grip, and a forked powder horn of yellowed ivory adorned with circle-inscribed stars . . . 


The telephone gloats: Liberating advance . . . shock armies . . . ratio of mechanized forces.


Across the next frontier, where each line of fenceposts leans away from the other, our shared victim’s proud military poets dull all apprehensions by equating Warsaw 1939 with Smolensk 1634. While they dispose their hopeless echelons, we draw the Ribbentrop-Molotov Line, on which we stamp GEHEIM, which means secret. And why stop there? The sleepwalker gets Lithuania, the realist Finland. Our creed’s a lamp whose calibrated radiance bows down into its zone. It was and is Jews who bring the Negroes into the Rhineland. That is precisely why the Party affirms that Trotskyism is a Social-Democratic deviation in our Party. The telephone rings; General Guderian receives his instructions to activate Case Yellow. We’ll whirl away Europe Central’s wine-tinted maple leaves and pale hexagonal church towers.




You won’t get to watch it happen; they don’t allow windows in this office, so you may feel a trifle dull at times, but at least you’ll never be alone, since on the steel desk, deep within arm’s length, hunches that octopus whose ten round eyes, each inscribed with a number, glare through you at the world. The Pact of Steel . . . a correct decision . . . my unalterable will . . . rally round the Party of Lenin and Stalin. In the bottom righthand drawer’s a codebook whose invocations control the speeds and payloads of steel, but the octopus seems to be watching. Take the gamble if you dare; how well can those ten eyes see? The sleepwalker in the Reich Chancellery could tell you (not that he would): they’re his eyes, lidless, oval, which imparts to them a monotonously idiotic or hysterical appearance; in the ditch outside, a hundred other open-eyed heads revert to clay, not that they have anything in common with the octopus, whose glare remains eternally sentient.


What about the mouthpiece? Is it true that it can hear your every breath through its black holes? In his underground headquarters with its many guards, the realist sits tired behind a large desk, awaiting the telephone’s demands. Although he’s good at hanging up on people with as much force as the soldier who slams another shell into our antitank gun, he’s hanging up on them, not on the telephone itself, which he can’t live without. He subsumes himself in it, all-hearing; he knows when Shostakovich takes his name in vain. At the first ring he’ll summon his generals to attend him at that conference table with its green cloth.


The sleepwalker’s all eyes; the realist is all ears; their mating forms the telephone.




This consciousness may indeed derive, as the American victors will assert, from entirely mechanical factors: Within the bakelite* skull of the entity hangs, either nestled or strangled in a latticework of scarlet-colored wires, a malignantly complex brain not much larger than a walnut. Its cortex consists of two brown-and-yellow lobes filamented with fine copper wire. It owns ideas as neatly, numerously arrayed as Poland’s faded yellow eagle standards: The camp of counterrevolution . . . German straightforwardness . . . the slanders of the opposition . . . the soundness of the Volkish theory. It knows how to get everyone, from Akhmatova (who, visionary that she is, mistakes it for a heart of rose coral), to Zhykov (who fools himself that it can be played with), from Gerstein to Guderian, those twin freethinkers who dance alone within their soaring bullet-prisons in obedience to the telephone-brain’s involution at the center of the shell.


Don’t trust any technicians who assure you that this brain is “neutral”—soon you’ll hear how angrily the receiver jitters in its cradle. Kollwitz, Krupskaya and the rest—it will dispose of them all, magically. It’s got their number. (As the sleepwalker admonishes Colonel-General Paulus: One has to be on the watch, like a spider in its web . . . ) In short, it will enforce the principle of unified command.


It makes the connection. It rings.


From the receiver, now clattering like a dispatch rider’s motorcycle across the cobblestones of Prague, to the black cold body, runs a coil whose elasticity draws out the process of strangulation. (Thanks to this telephone, General Vlasov will perish in a noose of piano wire.) From the anus-mouth behind the dial extrudes another strand of black gut thinner and less elastic than the receiver’scoil, and this pulses all the way to the wall socket. Since this morning our troops have been . . . Some frowning little Romanian blonde’s in the way; we’ve got to shoot her. Now into the deep green forests of Europe Central! The relationship of forces in the Stalingrad sector . . . ferro-concrete defense installations. Can rubberoid sinews feel? How do I make them bleed? Ruthless fanaticism . . . we’ll find a way to deal with him. They undulate now, as the telephone rings.


The telephone rings. It squats like an idol. How could I have mistaken it for an octopus?


Behind the wall, rubberized black tentacles spread across Europe. Military maps depict them as fronts, trenches, salients and pincer movements. Politicians encode them as borders (destroyed, razed, utterly smashed). Administrators imagine that they’re roads and rivers. Public health officials see them as the black trickles of people dwindling day by day on Leningrad’s frozen streets. Poets know them as the veins of Partisan Zoya’s martyred body. They’re anything. They can do anything.





In a moment steel will begin to move, slowly at first, like troop trains pulling out of their stations, then more quickly and ubiquitously, the square crowds of steel-helmed men moving forward, flanked by rows of shiny planes; then tanks, planes and other projectiles will accelerate beyond recall. Polish soldiers feebly camouflage their helmets with netting. Germans go to the cinema to fall in love with film stars; when Operation Citadel fails, they’ll be swooning over Lisca Malbran. Russian cavalry charge into action against German tanks; German schoolgirls try to neutralize Russian tanks by pouring boiling water down the turrets. Barrage balloons swim in the air, finned and fat like children’s renderings of fish. Don’t worry; Europe Central’s troops will stand fast, at least until Operation Barbarossa! (Their strategic dispositions are foxed and grimed like a centuries-old Bible.) Steel finds them all.


Steel, imbued with the sleepwalker’s magic sight, illuminates itself as it comes murdering. (Amidst the cemetery snowdrifts of Leningrad lie the coffined and the coffinless. Steel did this.) The broad rays of light as a Nebelwerfer gets launched from its half track, those inform steel’s gaze, mark steel’s reach.


From the heavy, pleated metal of a DShK machine-gunsight, a soldier’s gaze travels so that his bullet may speed true. Steel needs him to launch it on its way, but don’t the gods always need their worshipers? From the telephone’s brain, thoughts shoot down insulated copper conductors. It’s time to commence Operation Blau. The Signal Corps prepares to receive and retransmit the dispatch: Defend the achievements of Soviet power . . . a severe but just punishment . . . And already the telephone is ringing again! Who will answer?


Maybe no one except the Signal Corps, whose flags, attached to arms evolved from human, can transform any command into a series of articulated colors. The telephone rings!


The telephone rings. The receiver clamps itself to a mouth and an ear. (Where did those come from? I thought they were mine.) Another order flies up the black cable, down the elastic coil, and into the ear: Under no circumstances will we agree to artillery preparation, which squanders time and the advantage of surprise.


The V-phone rings; the S-phone rings. Jackboots ring on Warsaw’s uneven sidewalks. The Tyrvakians have mined their bridges with Turkish dynamite. We believe, on the contrary, that the combination of the internal combustion engine and armor plate enable us to take our fire to the enemy without any artillery preparation . . .


All across Europe, telephones ring, teleprinters begin to click their hungry teeth, a Signal Corps functionary waves the first planes forward, and velocity infuses steel-plated monsters whose rivets and scales shimmer more blindingly than Akhmatova’s poems. Within each monster, men sit on jumpseats, waiting to kill and die.


Just in case, shouldn’t we now call up our rectangles of knobbly reptile-flesh, each knob a helmeted Red Army man, the rectangles marching across the snow toward the Kremlin domes while chilly purple sky-stripes rush in the same direction, white cloud-stripes in between? They’re dark icons, almost black. The telephone rings: Commence Operation Little Saturn. Everything becomes a mobile entity comprised of articulated segments. Don’t worry. In the cinema palaces, Lisca Malbran will help us pretend that it isn’t happening.


Here come the guns like needles on round bases, and the guns which protrude from between two grey shields, and the guns which grow out of steel mushrooms, and the guns as long as houses, anchored by chassis large enough for a crew of twenty, the guns whose barrels are as long as torpedoes and the wheeled guns with fat snouts and long flare suppressors. It’s only a question of time and manpower. And so the mechanized hordes go rushing east and west across Europe.




Guarding itself against posterity’s blame, the telephone has qualified itself: Provided always that the operation obeys the following conditions: appropriate terrain, surprise and mass commitment. Moreover, it warns, each component must be metallic, replaceable, reliable, rapid and lethal—In spite of mass commitment, there were not enough components. The operation will fail.


Someday, bereft of propellants, steel must fall to rest and rust. (The telephone pleads: Mechanical reinforcement.) Smiling wearers of the starred helmet will raise high the red banner, as filmed by R. L. Karmen. Hold fast to the last bullet. Then, in the shellshocked silence of Europe, which squanders time and the advantage of surprise, morgues and institutes will blossom through the snow. In one of them, in a windowless, telephoned recess, I sit at a desk, playing with a Geco 7.65 shell.




What once impelled millions of manned and unmanned bullets into motion? You say Germany. They say Russia. It certainly couldn’t have been Europe herself, much less Europe Central, who’s always such a good docile girl. I repeat: Europe’s a mild heifer, a plump virgin, an R-maiden or P-girl ripe for loving, an angel, a submissive prize. Europe is Lisca Malbran. Europe’s never burned a witch or laid hands on a Jew! How can one catalogue her jewels? In Prague, for instance, one sees dawn sky through the arched windows of bell-towers, and that sky becomes more desirable by being set in that verdigrised frame whose underpinning, the finger of the tower itself, emerges from the city’s flesh, the floral-reliefed, cartouched and lionheaded facades of it whose walled and winding streets have ever so many eyes; Europe’s watchful since she’s already been raped so many times, which may be why some of her eyes still shine with lamplight even now, but what good does it do to see them coming? The first metal lice already scuttle over her skin, which is cobblestoned with dark grey and light grey follicles. Europe feels all, bears all, raising her sky-ringed church-fingers up to heaven so that she can be married.


What set steel in motion? The late SS-Obersturmführer Kurt Gerstein has counseled me to seek the answers in Scripture, meaning Europe Central’s old Greek Bibles with their red majiscules and black woodcut engravings of terrifying mummies bursting up from narrow sarcophagi; a few dozen of those volumes survived the war. To Gerstein, elucidation became even more magical a solvent than xylol, into which our forensicists immerse the identity documents dug up from KatyńForest. (In that bath, inks bleached away by cadaveric fluid come back to life.) Have you ever seen a railroad tank car of fuel shot up by incendiary bullets? Elucidation must be even brighter than that! He asked himself what he dared not ask his strict father: Why, why all the death? His blood-red Bibles told him why.


The telephone rings. It informs me that Gerstein’s answer has been rejected, that Gerstein has been hanged, obliterated, ruthlessly crushed. It puts the former Field-Marshal Paulus on the line.


Paulus advises me that the solution to any problem is simply a matter of time and manpower.


So I apply myself now, on this dark winter night, preparing to invade the meaning of Europe; I can do it; I can almost do it, just as when coming to a gap in the wall of some ruined Romanian fort, one can peer down upon thriving linden treetops; you can see them waving and massing, then far away dropping abruptly down to the fields.


*If this organism does in fact reside in Moscow, then I presume that the cranial casing partakes of Soviet duralumin—an excellent variety, called kol’chugaliuminii, which was developed by Iu. G. Muzalevskii and S. M. Voronov.

clive james on poetic memory: “rilke was a prick”


Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel. On the periphery, names and attributes of real people have been changed and shuffled so as to render identification impossible. Nearer the centre, important characters have been run through the scrambler or else left out completely. So really the whole affair is a figment got up to sound like truth. All you can be sure of is one thing: careful as I have been to spare other people’s feelings, I have been even more careful not to spare my own. Up, that is, of course, to a point.

Sick of being a prisoner of my childhood, I want to put it behind me. To do that, I have to remember what it was like. I hope I can dredge it all up again without sounding too pompous. Solemnity, I am well aware, is not my best vein. Yet it can’t be denied that books like this are written to satisfy a confessional urge; that the main-spring of a confessional urge is guilt; and that somewhere underneath the guilt there must be a crime. In my case I suspect there are a thousand crimes, which until now I have mainly been successful in not recollecting. Rilke used to say that no poet would mind going to gaol, since he would at least have time to explore the treasure house of his memory. In many respects Rilke was a prick. 

—from the preface to Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs (1980)

gertrude stein on the aesthetic dynamics of the familiar, the accepted and the beautiful

Gertrude Stein’s essay “Composition as Explanation” describes the nature of collective influences upon aesthetic judgment, in specific the temporal and social factors which create the perception of beauty in a text as that text reenacts those processes in the reader’s mind. She analyzes the effect of familiarity on the perceived beauty of a work of art and the resulting process of acceptance or even canonization: “for a very long time almost everybody refuses and then almost without a pause everybody accepts.”  Stein demonstrates for the reader how this acceptance occurs by employing formal devices which initially seem to obstruct meaning but soon enough become comprehensible and finally artistic, as the reader works her way through the text.  


Composition as Explanation

Gertrude Stein 

First delivered by the author as a lecture at Cambridge and Oxford, this essay was first published by the Hogarth Press in London in 1926 and revived in the volume called What Are Masterpieces.

There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking. By this I mean so simply that anybody knows it that composition is the difference which makes each and all of them then different from other generations and this is what makes everything different otherwise they are all alike and everybody knows it because everybody says it.

It is very likely that nearly every one has been very nearly certain that something that is interesting is interesting them. Can they and do they. It is very interesting that nothing inside in them, that is when you consider the very long history of how every one ever acted or has felt, it is very interesting that nothing inside in them in all of them makes it connectedly different. By this I mean this. The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition. Lord Grey remarked that when the generals before the war talked about the war they talked about it as a nineteenth century war although to be fought with twentieth century weapons. That is because war is a thing that decides how it is to be when it is to be done. It is prepared and to that degree it is like all academies it is not a thing made by being made it is a thing prepared. Writing and painting and all that, is like that, for those who occupy themselves with it and don’t make it as it is made. Now the few who make it as it is made, and it is to be remarked that the most decided of them usually are prepared just as the world around them is preparing, do it in this way and so I if you do not mind I will tell you how it happens. Naturally one does not know how it happened until it is well over beginning happening.

To come back to the part that the only thing that is different is what is seen when it seems to be being seen, in other words, composition and time-sense.

No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that  is contemporaries who also are creating their own time refuse to accept. And they refuse to accept it for a very simple reason and that is that they do not have to accept it for any reason. They themselves that is everybody in their entering the modern composition and they do enter it, if they do not enter it they are not so to speak in it they are out of it and so they do enter it; but in as you may say the non-competitive efforts where if you are not in it nothing is lost except nothing at all except what is not had, there are naturally all the refusals, and the things refused are only  important if unexpectedly somebody happens to need them. In the case of the arts it is very definite. Those who are creating the modern composition authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead because by that time the modern composition having become past is classified and the description of it is classical. That is the reason why the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between and it is really too bad very much too bad naturally for the creator but also very much too bad for the enjoyer, they all really would enjoy the created so much better just after it has been made than when it is already a classic, but it is perfectly simple that there is no reason why the contemporaries should see, because it would not make any difference as they lead their lives in the new composition anyway, and as every one is naturally indolent why naturally they don’t see. For this reason as in quoting Lord Grey it is quite certain that nations not actively threatened are at least several generations behind themselves militarily so aesthetically they are more than several generations behind themselves and it is very much too bad, it is so very much more exciting and satisfactory for everybody if one can have contemporaries, if all one’s contemporaries could be one’s contemporaries.

There is almost not an interval.

For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts. In the history of the refused in the arts and literature the rapidity of the change is always startling. Now the only difficulty with the volte-face concerning the arts is this. When the acceptance comes, by that acceptance the thing created becomes a classic. It is a natural phenomena a rather extraordinary natural phenomena that a thing accepted becomes a classic. And what is the characteristic quality of a classic. The characteristic quality of a classic is that it is beautiful. Now of course it is perfectly true that a more or less first rate work of art is beautiful but the trouble is that when that first rate work of art becomes a classic because it is accepted the only thing that is important from then on to the majority of the acceptors the enormous majority, the most intelligent majority of the acceptors is that it is so wonderfully beautiful. Of course it is wonderfully beautiful, only when it is still a thing irritating annoying stimulating then all quality of beauty is denied to it.

Of course it is beautiful but first all beauty in it is denied and then all the beauty of it is accepted. If every one were not so indolent they would realise that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic. Of course it is extremely difficult nothing more so than to remember back to its not being beautiful once it has become beautiful. This makes it so much more difficult to realise its beauty when the work is being refused and prevents every one from realising that they were convinced that beauty was denied, once the work is accepted. Automatically with the acceptance of the time-sense comes the recognition of the beauty and once the beauty is accepted the beauty never fails any one.

Beginning again and again is a natural thing even when there is a series.

Beginning again and again and again explaining composition and time is a natural thing.

It is understood by this time that everything is the same except composition and time, composition and the time of the composition and the time in the composition.

Everything is the same except composition and as the composition is different and always going to be different everything is not the same. Everything is not the same as the time when of the composition and the time in the composition is different. The composition is different, that is certain.

The composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living in the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing. Nothing else is different, of that almost any one can be certain. The time when and the time of and the time in that composition is the natural phenomena of that composition and of that perhaps every one can be certain.

No one thinks these things when they are making when they are creating what is the composition, naturally no one thinks, that is no one formulates until what is to be formulated has been made.

Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here. This is some time ago for us naturally.

The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition.

Now the few who make writing as it is made and it is to be remarked that the most decided of them are those that are prepared by preparing, are prepared just as the world around them is prepared and is preparing to do it in this way and so if you do not mind I will again tell you how it happens. Naturally one does not know how it happened until it is well over beginning happening.

Each period of living differs from any other period of living not in the way life is but in the way life is conducted and that authentically speaking is composition. After life has been conducted in a certain way everybody knows it but nobody knows it, little by little, nobody knows it as long as nobody knows it. Any one creating the composition in the arts does not know it either, they are conducting life and that makes their composition what it is, it makes their work compose as it does.

Their influence and their influences are the same as that of all of their contemporaries only it must always be remembered that the analogy is not obvious until as I say the composition of a time has become so pronounced that it is past and the artistic composition of it is a classic.

And now to begin as if to begin. Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here. This is some time ago for us naturally. There is something to be added afterwards.

Just how much my work is known to you I do not know. I feel that perhaps it would be just as well to tell the whole of it.

In beginning writing I wrote a book called Three Lives this was written in 1905. I wrote a negro story called Melanctha. In that there was a constant recurring and beginning there was a marked direction in the direction of being in the present although naturally I had been accustomed to past present and future, and why, because the composition forming around me was a prolonged present. A composition of a prolonged present is a natural composition in the world as it has been these thirty years it was more and more a prolonged present. I created then a prolonged present naturally I knew nothing of a continuous present but it came naturally to me to make one, it was simple it was clear to me and nobody knew why it was done like that I did not myself although naturally to me it was natural.

After that I did a book called The Making of Americans it is a long book about a thousand pages. 

read the rest of the essay…

“masturbation is an escape from literature”: tao lin on the g-chat generation, or whatever we call kids these days

Haley Joel Osment sent Tao Lin a link to a porno site. Tao Lin said, “I already masturbated, should I really do it again.” Haley Joel Osment said, “I already masturbated today also. If you need to I’ll go away.” Tao Lin said, “No, I’m just looking a little.” Haley Joel Osment said, “Masturbation is an escape from literature.” Haley Joel Osment sent Tao Lin a photo of a stripper. “Is she sweating,” Tao Lin said. “I think they oiled her down,” Haley Joel Osment said.

Haley Joel Osment said, “We have been sitting here all night bullshitting and we still don’t know what to do.”

“I can’t take this anymore,” Tao Lin said. “I’m going to masturbate then do some other shit then try to sleep for like 20 hours. Have a good night.”

“Have a good night, I’m laughing,” Haley Joel Osment said.

“Thank you for the chat,” Tao Lin said.

—from Tao Lin, “Tao Lin,”
Mississippi Review Online. A revised version of this story is to be found in Lin’s Shoplifting From American Apparel (2009).