guardian film critic fears he was interfered with—by paul bowles!


"The next thing I knew was that I woke up in a bed wearing a djellaba with nothing underneath . . . Who had undressed me and put me in a djellaba, and why? Had I been abused? I think I would have known if I had . . . I’ve since read everything I could by him in the vain hope that I would appear somewhere in his writings where the mystery would be solved."

Paul Bowles in his flat in Tangier, 1956

            
            
The sinister Mr. Bowles: “Care for a smoke, dear?”

"Me, Paul Bowles and that forgotten night in Tangier"

By Ronald Bergan

A documentary on the American author triggered a memory of a disturbing night at the writer’s apartment that had been suppressed for 40 years

 

In 1998, at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I was happily watching the documentary Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles, when the weirdest thing happened to me. While the 87-year-old author was being interviewed in his apartment in Tangier, I had a strange feeling of deja vu. An African mask on the wall triggered the sense that I had been in that apartment before. Was that possible? Maybe I had seen a photo of it somewhere. I had come to the film without any pre-conceived notions, nor did I know much about Bowles, merely that he had written The Sheltering Sky, a book I had not read. I had seen Bernardo Bertolucci’s film adaptation of it, which I had not much liked. That was the sum of my knowledge of Bowles.

 

The more the documentary continued, the more I became convinced that I had been in Bowles’s apartment in Tangier and not just seen photos of it. It was too potent a sensation. While I watched the film, I struggled to understand why I had this certitude. Gradually, some images started to emerge from my unconscious mind, and then the whole story came flooding back. I had what I can only call a flashback to an incident that had taken place more than four decades earlier.

 

When I was 17 years old, a friend of mine, known as Frog, and I had decided to take a year off between school and university to travel around Europe very cheaply, hitch-hiking, staying in youth hostels and getting odd jobs where we could. We had managed to hitch rides down through Spain and had crossed on the ferry from Gibraltar to Tangier.

 

On our first night, after getting a room in a run-down hotel, we sat at an outdoor cafe nursing glasses of beer. After a while, two middle-aged men sat down at the table next to us. I immediately recognised one of them as Richard Wattis, a supporting actor in dozens of British films and TV shows, mostly playing officious civil servants. I caught myself staring at him. He smiled at me, and introduced himself as Dickie and his friend as Monty. They offered to buy us more beer and asked if we would like something to eat. As we had been living mostly on bread for the week, we accepted gladly.

 

After our meal, and a couple more beers, Dickie and Monty asked if we would like to visit the famous author Paul Bowles, of whom neither of us had heard. We could hardly refuse. Now rather tipsy, we followed our newfound friends through endless back streets, then climbed some winding stairs. Dickie rang the bell of an apartment. A young Moroccan dressed in a djellaba opened the door. There were a few other young men lounging on sofas and a strange smell in the air.

 

My friend and I were introduced to a tall, thin man in his late 40s. He was sitting in a cane chair and smoking a pipe. An African mask was on the wall above him. Ignoring Frog, whose looks had engendered his nickname, he asked me some questions and seemed to take an unusual amount of interest in my naive answers. Then he offered us some peculiar-looking cigarettes. Though neither of us smoked, it would have been impolite to refuse. I took a few puffs, not knowing then that the cigarettes must have been kif, as hashish is known in Morocco.

 

The next thing I knew was that I woke up in a bed wearing a djellaba with nothing underneath. I looked around and saw Frog, fully dressed, dozing in a chair. My clothes were at the foot of the bed. It was early morning. I remember feeling more confused than shocked. I just knew I had to get dressed and out of there as fast as possible. I woke Frog and we made our way quietly out of the bedroom. There didn’t seem to be anyone around. Luckily, the front door was open. We ran out into the street and tried to find our way back to our hotel.

 

I had no recollection of what had happened between my taking the kif and waking up. I asked Frog if he knew, but he didn’t, having fallen asleep after smoking the kif. I still wonder what took place during those few hours after I blacked out. Who had undressed me and put me in a djellaba, and why? Had I been abused? I think I would have known if I had. All I felt on waking up was a rather nasty headache.

 

It was curious, however, that I had eliminated the episode from my conscious mind until it had been aroused by the documentary more than 40 years later. I had heard about repressed and recovered memory, but had always been rather skeptical about it. There was another peculiar side-effect. Ever since the memory came back, I struggle to remember Bowles’s name.

 

Incidentally, I’ve since read everything I could by him in the vain hope that I would appear somewhere in his writings where the mystery would be solved. Bowles’s best writing drew me into an exotic, perverse, nihilistic world in which one of the dominant themes was the destruction of innocence. What impressed me and disturbed me most was his second novel, Let It Come Down (1952), set almost entirely in Tangier among the louche ex-pat community. It ends with the main character, Nelson Dyar, a soulless American high on hashish, hammering a nail into the ear of his sleeping Arab friend.

 

—from The Guardian, Tuesday, December 29, 2009

 

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john cheever on why he wrote short stories in his underwear

"a great many of the stories in my current collection were written in my underwear"

Why I Write Short Stories

John Cheever

 

To publish a definitive collection of short stories in one’s late 60s seems to me, as an American writer, a traditional and a dignified occasion, eclipsed in no way by the fact that a great many of the stories in my current collection were written in my underwear.

 

This is not to say that I was evera Bohemian. Hardly a man is now alive who can remember when Harold Ross edited The New Yorker magazine, but I am one of these. The Ross editorial queries were genuinely eccentric. In one short story of mine, I invented a character who returned home from work and changed his clothes before dinner. Ross wrote on the galley margin: “Eh? What’s this? Cheever looks to me like a one-suiter.” He was so right. At the space rates he paid, I could afford exactly one suit. In the mornings, I dressed in this and took the elevator to a windowless room in the basement where I worked. Here I hung my suit on a hanger, wrote until nightfall when I dressed and returned to our apartment. A great many of my stories were written in boxer shorts.

 

A collection of short stories appears like a lemon in the current fiction list, which is indeed a garden of love, erotic horseplay and lewd and ancient family history; but so long as we are possessed by experience that is distinguished by its intensity and its episodic nature, we will have the short story in our literature, and without a literature we will, of course, perish. It was F. R. Leavis who said that literature is the first distinction of a civilized man.

 

Who reads short stories? one is asked, and I like to think that they are read by men and women in the dentist’s office, waiting to be called to the chair; they are read on transcontinental plane trips instead of watching a banal and vulgar film spin out the time between our coasts; they are read by discerning and well-informed men and women who seem to feel that narrative fiction can contribute to our understanding of one another and the sometimes bewildering world around us.

 

The novel, in all its greatness, demands at least some passing notice of the classical unities, preserving that mysterious link between esthetics and moral fitness; but to have this unyielding antiquity exclude the newness in our ways of life would be regrettable. This newness is known to some of us through “Star Wars,” to some of us through the melancholy that follows a fielder’s error in the late innings of a ball game. In the pursuit of this newness, contemporary painting seems to have lost the language of the landscape, the still-life, and—most important —the nude. Modern music has been separated from those rhythms and tonalities that are most deeply ingrained in our memories, but literature still possesses the narrative—the story—and one would defend this with one’s life.

 

In the short stories of my esteemed colleagues—and in a few of my own—I find those rented summer houses, those one-night love affairs and those lost key rings that confound traditional esthetics. We are not a nomadic people, but there is more than a hint of this in the spirit of our great country—and the short story is the literature of the nomad.

 

I like to think that the view of a suburban street that I imagine from my window would appeal to a wanderer or to someone familiar with loneliness. Here is a profoundly moving display of nostalgia, vision and love, none of it more than 30 years old, including most of the trees. Here are white columns from the manorial South, brick and timber walls from Elizabethan England, saltbox houses from our great maritime past and flat-roofed echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright and his vision of a day when we would all enjoy solar heating, serene and commodious interiors and peace on earth.

 

The lots are acres, flowers and vegetables grow in the yards and here and there one finds, instead of tomatoes, robust stands of cannabis with its feathery leaf. Here, in this victorious domesticity, the principal crop is a hazardous drug. And what do I see hanging in the Hartshores’ clothes-yard but enough seasoning marijuana to stone a regiment.

 

Is forgetfulness some part of the mysteriousness of life? If I speak to Mr. Hartshore about his cannabis crop, will he tell me that the greatness of Chinese civilization stood foursquare on the fantasies of opium? But it is not I who will speak to Mr. Hartshore. It will be Charlie Dilworth, a very abstemious man who lives in the house next door. He has a No Smoking sign on his front lawn, and his passionate feelings about marijuana have beenintelligently channeled into a sort of reverse blackmail.

 

I hear them litigating late one Saturday afternoon when I have come back from playing touch football with my sons. The light is going. It is autumn. Charlie’s voice is loud and clear and can be heard by anyone interested. “You keep your dogs off my lawn, you cook your steaks in the house, you keep your record player down, you keep your swimming-pool filter off in the evenings and you keep your window shades drawn. Otherwise, I’ll report your drug crop to the police and with my wife’s uncle sitting as judge this month you’ll get at least six months in the can for criminal possession.”

 

They part. Night falls. Here and there a housewife, apprehending the first frost, takes in her house plants while from an Elizabethan, a Nantucket, and a Frank Lloyd Wright chimney comes the marvelous fragrance of wood smoke. You can’t put this scene in a novel.

 

1978

 

—from John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings (Library of America, 2009), pp 996–998. Originally published in Newsweek, October 30, 1978.

horton foote’s the orphan’s home cycle

 


While in New York I saw Part One of Horton Foote’s The Orphans Home Cycle.
All nine plays are set in the fictitious town of Harrison, Texas, which is based on Footre’s hometown of Wharton, Texas.

 

Spanning the lives of three families over three decades, the plays are based in part on the childhood of Foote’s father and the courtship and marriage of his parents. As a boy in the 1920s, Foote (March 14, 1916 – March 4, 2009) routinely eavesdropped on the adults in his small Texas town. The cycle charts the life of Horace Robedaux from the time he is a young boy whose father has died to when his father-in-law dies and he becomes the family patriarch.

 

In a recent review, critic Brendan Lemon wrote that:

 

All the bouquets being bestowed on Horton Foote’s trilogy The Orphans’ Home Cycle, off-Broadway at the Signature, compel me to try to defend it from the hype. The three evenings, each consisting of three one acts, are not “event theatre”, if that phrase means large-scale projects distinguished by inflated claims rather than by artistic achievements. There are longueurs here, but they are of the littlenesses of life, not of inept stagecraft.

 

Daily existence abounds, while death is more pressing than in the finale of Hamlet. These stories covering life in a fictional village in East Texas called Harrison from 1902 to 1928 offer a true nature’s bounty – and bounty is a key concept for Foote, who in a long career (he died this year at 92) wrote not only dozens of plays but also screenplays for The Trip to Bountiful and To Kill A Mockingbird.

 

Orphans’ ache of prosaic occurrence may suggest Our Town, and the family squabbling may conjure up Foote’s friend Tennessee Williams without the heightened lyricism, but Foote’s method is his own. A co-production with Hartford Stage, the first evening of Orphans’ introduces us to the two families, the Robedauxs and the Thorntons, who stand stage-centre in the cycle.

 

Foote, generally known for his Academy Award-winning screenplays for the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird and the 1983 film Tender Mercies, and his Academy Award nomination for writing The Trip to Bountiful. He won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man From Atlanta. But his legacy must surely be The Orphans Home Cycle, which he finished shortly before his death. The cycle breaks down as follows:

 

Part One, The Story of a Childhood

Roots in a Parched Ground

Convicts

Lily Dale

 

Part Two, The Story of a Marriage

The Widow Claire

Courtship

Valentine’s Day

 

Part Three, The Story of a Family

1918

Cousins

The Death of Papa

 

Here’s Foote’s forward to the cycle’s opening play, Roots in a Parched Ground:

 

THE ACTUAL WRITING of these plays began after my mother’s death in 1974. My father had died the year before in the very room and on the bed my brothers had been born in. After my mother’s death, I was alone in our house in Wharton, Texas for a week, sorting letters and personal papers, making decisions about what to do with the accumulations of fifty-nine years of life in that house.

 

After I returned to my then home in the New Hampshire woods, I began making notes for these plays. I don’t remember if at the time I thought there would eventually be nine plays, but I am sure that the writing of these first notes was prompted by my thinking over my parents’ lives and the world of the town that had surrounded them from birth to death. Some two years later I had finished first drafts of eight of the plays: Roots in a Parched Ground, Convicts, Lily Dale, Courtship, Valentine’s Day, 1918, Cousins and The Death of Papa. The Widow Claire , the last to be written, was finished some time later.

 

On a trip to New York, I bought all the records of Charles Ives I could find, playing his music over and over while resting from my work on the plays. It was a time of fuel shortages and exorbitantly high fuel prices, and my family and I kept warm in the New Hampshire winter by burning wood in the fireplaces and stoves. In the spring and summer I would write in a screen house overlooking the woods and a large stone wall. My surroundings couldn’t have been more different from the place and time in Texas I was writing about.

 

I don’t remember now, either, the sequence in which I wrote the plays, but I believe 1918 was the first completed, although an earlier version of Roots in a Parched Ground had been written years before and done on the Du Pont Play of the Month television series, long before I thought of the possibility of there being nine plays or could have imagined the changes that would lead to my living and working in New Hampshire.

 

Change, however, was an early acquaintance in my life. My grandfather, who seemed impervious to all mortal ends, died when I was nine, and the reverberations and changes from that death continued for many years. It was soon after that I was to see a quiet, serene street (in front of my grandparents’ house) begin its slow but steady descent into a metaphor for all the ugly, trashy highways that scar a great deal of small-town America. And these plays, I feel, are about change, unexpected, unasked for, unwanted, but to be faced and dealt with or else we sink into despair or a hopeless longing for a life that is gone.

My first memory was of stories about the past—a past that, according to the storytellers, was superior in every way to the life then being lived. It didn’t take me long, however, to understand that the present was all we had, for the past was gone and nothing could be done about it.

 

I learned, too, how unreliable memory can be, for when members of my family would recount a story from their collective past, I would early on marvel how subtly it would change from storyteller to storyteller.

 

The time of the plays is a harsh time. They begin in 1902, a time of far-reaching social and economic change in Texas. The aftermath of Reconstruction and its passions had brought about a white man’s union to prevent blacks from voting in local and state elections. But in spite of political and social acts to hold onto the past, a way of life was over, and the practical, the pragmatic were scrambling to form a new economic order. Black men and women were alive who knew the agony of slavery, and white men and women were alive who had owned them. I remember the first time slavery had a concrete face for me. I was on a fourteen-mile hike to complete some phase of becoming a Boy Scout. I stopped in a country store for a bottle of soda water and on the gallery of the store was an elderly black man. As I drank my soda water we got to talking and he asked me my name, and when I told him he said he had been a slave on my great-great-grandfather’s plantation. I have never forgotten the impact that made on me. Slavery up until then was merely an abstract statistic that I’d heard older people talking about. "Our family had one hundred sixty slaves, one hundred twenty …" or whatever, but as I looked into that man’s tired, sorrowing face, I was shocked to realize that this abstraction spoken of so lightly ("we were good to them," "we never mistreated them") was a living, suffering human being. The tales of the past had a new reality for me after that.

 

And so with the 1918 influenza epidemic, which causes such havoc in the play 1918 . I was raised on stories of the terror of the flu, what it did to my family and to the families of the town, but it seemed only a local phenomenonto me until I read Katherine Anne Porter’s "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" and I began to understand how far-reaching it was. Since the productions of 1918 , 1 have heard from many people telling me how it affected their lives or the lives of their families.

 

All the plays are based on family stories—stories often of dislocation, sibling rivalries, delopements, family estrangements, family reconciliations, and all the minutiae that make family life at once so interesting and yet at times so burdening, causing a reaction described by Katherine Anne Porter in "Old Mortality": Her mind closed stubbornly against remembering, not the past, but the legends of the past, other people’s memory of the past, at which she had spent her life peering in wonder like a child at a magic lantern show. Oh, but there is my own life to come yet, she thought, my own life now and beyond. I don’t want any promises, I won’t have false hopes, I won’t be romantic about myself, I can’t live in this world any longer, she told herself listening to the voices back of her. Let them tell their stories to each other. Let them go on exploring how things happened. I don’t care. At least I can know the truth about what happened to me, she assured herself, silently making a promise to herself in her hopefulness, in her ignorance.

 

But many of us do care, of course, and we do continue to remember, and we give to our children and their children our versions of what has gone before, remembering always how unreliable a thing memory is and how our versions of what has gone before can only be what we have come to perceive the past and its people and stories to be. To quote Miss Porter again: By the time the writer has reached the end of a story, he has lived it at least three times—first, in a series of actual events that, directly or indirectly, have continued to set up the condition in his mind and senses that causes him to write the story; second, in memory; and third, on re-creation of this chaotic stuff.

 

I have worked on the plays for about ten years, from the first drafts to the forms found here, during various readings, staged readings, andtheater productions, in and out of New York. But essentially the plays have remained the same, some with no revisions whatsoever.

 

Here, then, are the first four of the plays, their stories and characters, I hope, true to their place and time—true at least to my memory of what I was told or have seen.

 

—Horton Foote

March 1988
 

Roots in a Parched Ground may be downloaded here.

 

 

a bit more on stanley crawford’s log of the s.s. the mrs unguentine

Reading Stanley Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine
Ben Marcus

1972 was a difficult year for the novel. This might—and perhaps should—be said of all years and times, since the novel is forever, genetically, finding everything a struggle and all things difficult (I think we’re supposed to be worried when the novel does not do this). But 1972 was particularly special in its overshadowing, domineering, mattering way. It was a year that refused to cede an inch to the make-believe. The merely imaginary might finally have seemed trifling up against some of the defining and grisly moments of the century that collided that year and chewed up every available dose of attention in the culture. 1972, in short, produced the Watergate scandal, the Munich Massacre, and Bloody Sunday. Nixon traveled to China in 1972, and the last U.S. troops finally departed Vietnam. It wasn’t clear that a novel had leverage against all of this atrocity, deceit, transgression, and milestone, let alone a novel posing as a ship’s log, narrated by a widowed ship slave who has witnessed logic-defying architecture, radical ecological invention, and faked a pregnancy while being banished—by her alcoholic, abusive husband—from all land and humanity.

Forget that painting (or sculpture, or the better poetry) was never asked to compete with the news, or to be the news. The novel’s weird burden of relevance—to reflect and anticipate the times, to grab headlines, to be somehow current, while not also disgracing the language—was being shirked all over the place, and Stanley Crawford, already unusually capable of uncoiling his brain and repacking it in his head in a new, gnarled design for every book he wrote, was chief among those writers who seemed siloed in a special, ahistorical field, working with private alchemical tools, producing work just out of tune enough to disrupt the flight of the birds that passed his hideout.

Architectural dreamwork, end-times seascapes so barren they seem cut from the pages of the Bible, coolly-rendered Rube Goldberg apparati, and the crushing sadness that results when you tie your emotional fortunes to a person whose tongue is so fat in his mouth he can barely speak, mark this little masterpiece of a novel. Cast as a soliloquy in the form of a ship’s log, a grief report from someone who has no good insurance she will ever be heard, the novel moves fluidly between its major forms: love song, a treatise on gardening at sea, an argument against the company of others, and a dark science expo for exquisite inventions like a hybrid lichen that makes things invisible. Published by Alfred A. Knopf under the editorial guidance of Gordon Lish, the fiction world’s singular Quixote—a champion of innovative styles and formal ambition—there may have been no better year in which to tuck such an odd, exquisite book. Instead of rushing for relevance and breaking the news, Crawford was taking the oldest news of all—it is strange and alone here, even when we are surrounded by people, and there is a great degree of pain to be felt—and reporting it as nautical confessional. The result, now thirty-six years later, seems to prove that interior news, the news of what it feels like to want too much from another person, will not readily smother under archival dust . . .

—from Ben Marcus’ afterword to Log of the S.S. Mrs Unguentine

The complete text of log of the s.s. mrs unguentine is here


the last chapter of the log of the s.s. the mrs unguentine


X

 

Years passed. Eons. Eras without temples. Through rusting twigs, through the struts of the dome gnawed annually higher by daring termites, the sun rose, fell, rose; things flaked, things peeled, things vanished into earth and mud and brackish water, into the formless cocoon to be mixed and moulded into whatever had the energy to sprout through and have another go. I had seen it all before. It was the same awake, the same asleep. I knew by heart that if in daytime the wind blew strong and flattened the blades of grass out on the marsh, then at night it would drop and the air be silent, or that a cooling breeze would always follow a hot day, dispel the haze. Yet I did what I could. A year I spent catching up with all the correspondence neglected over the decades, that my old friends might have some notion of what had finally become of me and how my life had turned out, how I came to live in seclusion among old mirrors and deep carpets, endless chambers, atop some highest building in a great and angry city into w hose concert halls I was limousined once a month, to hear a gloomy symphony; how I lived in exile, in oases, behind ramparts of palms and aqueducts and spraying fountains, walls inlaid with intricate tiles, in the middle of a blazing desert inhabited only by morose brigands whose camels had the gout, how I fed them dates, taught their children French; or my life in northern mountains, the great stone house set amid trackless miles of evergreens half buried in the snow nine months of the year, the walls upstairs and down lined with books, my reading, my lives, my lies I told them all. For I could not speak of the sea. The sea was there, was all, beyond the mud and ooze of the floating marsh, too close to be chattered about. When I finally sealed up those hun­dred and fifty letters pasted with the bankrupt republics worthless postage stamps which depicted the S. S. The Mrs Unguentine cutting through the waves in all her ancient splendour, a tiny smear of dots and hatchmarks to the right forming two seated figures, perhaps Unguen­tine and I at the breakfast table granting a cheerful salute with waving arms, again and again, a hundred and fifty times, those arms, licked, pasted, cancelled away under the postmark once bestowed upon me, honorary postmistress of the high seas, and which read simply BARGE. I tied them all up into bundles and sealed them inside a sheet of plastic, then fitted them into a wooden box roped with life preservers. There were still pools of water around the barge, narrow estuaries which flowed out to sea and sometimes ran sweet, sometimes salty; I dropped the box into one of these and watched it float away. It didn’t get far. Fifty yards at the most, where it ran aground on a mudbank and stayed forever after.

 

The barge called, however. My health was perfect, my body the repository of a long life of vigorous exercise, fresh sea air, a simple diet, and I could not remain inactive amid the weary throes of the old vessel; she had to be tended, aided, propped. Unguentine’s mechanical trees could be death-traps. More than once while raking up the gardens I was caught out there by a wind suddenly rising, momentarily seduced by the clatter of the leaves and padded boughs, until the groan of bending metal would tell me something was going to fall, was falling-but which? Which teetering? Where to run? The huge green claw, hairs of metal hissing, would swoop down past me inches away and strike the earth with a rustling bang, whirrings, a tinkle of bells, with a shower of sparks and a puff of smoke shooting out of the stump at the point where it had rusted through. They always made such a mess. Their white stuffing would waft about the garden for days and days, noxious and impotent pollen. Metal branches that I tripped over and got caught up in like barbed wire. Leaves that would not yellow. The odor of rotting mattresses. One by one they fell down over the years. I managed to cover most of them up by sewing together a dozen trunkloads of old clothes and linen, into huge motley muffs which I draped over them like furniture covers, securing them tightly with cords staked into the ground. Thus they stood or lay and seemed to float about the garden, bloated forms marked with the puzzle-pattern of ancient wardrobes, until my plantings of honeysuckle and wistaria would finally cover them, consume what they could of them; if ever.

 

Things still grew, except trees, except the livestock which died oft fell overboard, waded or swam away. I didn’t mind. It was quieter without them. I had my vegetable patch. Potatoes and yams mainly a few carrots and greens, a tomato plant or two towards the bow end of the barge, up high on the right in a clear and sunny space with a southern exposure and where, on account of the barge’s list, the trees fell the other way. Water I carried in buckets from the stern pump uphill to my vegetables, tasting it each day to make certain it was still fresh. Most things I ate raw, laying out a tablecloth on the ground on the high side of the vegetable patch, with a basin of water, a sharp knife, a plate, a napkin, and I would sit there a while in silence and look over the short rows and tops of green, then wander amongst my plants to pull up a carrot or pick a tomato, return to my spot and wash them, eat them, perhaps return for more. I took my time. They grew slowly, I had no wish to rush them. With dinner I would watch the sun setting through the twisted struts of the dome, stove in here and there and glassless except where beaded gleams of sunlight indicated a sliver still resisting the winds, and all across the marsh long-legged birds would settle in for the night, vanish in the grass; a mist might begin to rise, and off in the distance the hoarse barkings of seals and sea lions, moments when the surf only sighed, not pounded. Perhaps it was they who drove in those tiny fish like sardines which came close to the barge in shallow water,L beneath its silvered surface, and bred there before my very eyes, on and on, swarms that came and went. Cold months I sometimes netted up a few and fried them over the fire in the pilot-house, now galley, now bedroom, now my little house with water lapping at the sill since that day when the hull finally gave out and flooded everything below deck.

 

I remember the evacuation. It took almost a week. In all those years of solitude it was the one time I raised my voice and called in desperation for Unguentine, to have his help, his guidance, his ingenuity. Otherwise, I scarcely missed him. I wanted to recount to him my adventure in the bilge below the stern deck when I was wandering around down there to see how all the bulk­heads and pipes and machines were doing, all that ironwork rusting away, neglected, silent, sealed off for so many years. I was armed with a board on account of my fear of rats and snakes, and happened to thrust the end of it against the hull near the old propeller shaft. It went clear through, to my amazement, and with no more resistance than a pie-crust. Hastily I withdrew it, expect­ing to be enveloped in a shower of water or a jumbled whirlpool, be pursued or floated up the stairs and shot into the air as the whole barge crumbled into pieces and sank into the mud and water, leaving me adrift in the marsh, alone, muddy, clutching at the last debris of what had been. But no, nothing happened. I bent down and peered through the hole. The light was dim; I could see nothing. Finally I dared reach into it and succeeded in withdrawing a handful of black muck and white roots, whereupon there began to flow a small trickle of dank water. I sensed I was about to have a flood on my hands. Indeed, within minutes it grew into a hardy spout, belching and erectile, its surging spray spotted with a multitude of tiny frogs, fish, the bright leaves of water-cress. I stood on a box, wondered what to do. There were things to be moved upstairs and above deck. Which? Which first? Which second? I ran. Most of the hatchways were rusted and jammed open, and even those. I succeeded in closing in the path of the cheerfully babbling stream did no good: the bulkheads were cracked and fissured all over the barge below deck and the water quickly found the way. But still I could not decide. So I simply moved everything I could carry above deck with the intention of sorting it out later up there, down to a few treasured possessions which I would stow in the skiff and on the swimming platform. It was a frenzied week. Laden down with bundles and boxes, dragging trunks and suitcases behind me, I staggered and crawled up those narrow stairs hundreds of times, day and night, with pots and pans and dishware, sacks of potatoes, bedding, small tables, chairs, box upon box of Unguentine’s tools and materials, nautical instruments, ropes, cables; my rugs, my curtains and countless things I knew I could never use but felt compelled to save from those rising waters. And I would have gone on after the water was knee-deep, would even have attempted to learn how to unbolt the cabinets in the galley, dismantle the stove, save an attractive oil-lamp in the old engine­room-had it not been for the rats, flushed out in ever greater numbers from hiding-places I had not known about before, thank God. I gave up, sealed closed the hatchway above the stairs, laid myself down on it and fell immediately into the sleep of utter exhaustion.

 

I slept perhaps for days. When I awoke and raised my head to find myself surrounded by heaps of house­hold goods and bloated tree tents, a flea-market, a warehouse of damaged goods, a circus in disorder, amid all this unaccountable debris, I could have gone back to sleep and left it at that, finally unaccountable. There had been no beginnings. There would be no end. In this vast rangeland of junk I would awaken now and then, tidy up here and there, make false order, sleep again, wake up anew in another chaos, do my work anew, resume sleep. And when after several weeks it became apparent that the barge had no intention of sinking, or was unable to, was, perhaps, solidly encased in a mud life’ preserver a quarter of a mile in diameter, I saw how foolish I had been and realized that the time had come to simplify my life. I had no need of museums, collec­tions, mementoes. So I opened up the hatch to the stairs below deck and into that dark well of sloshing water I threw back all I had dragged upstairs. Grimly at first, calculating my losses, but gradually then with calm, until with joy, until song and liberations, until I filled it all up to the sill and closed the door, shoving the rest into the pond in the cargo hold. I saved only a few kitchen utensils, dishes, some blankets, two changes of clothes and a heavy coat for winter.

 

Jauntily, suitcase in hand, I walked over to the pilot­house and moved in. It was a small place, nine by six, but ample for my needs. The pilot wheel I succeeded in unscrewing, hung above the window; the other levers and controls I left as they were to drape my clothes over, air the bedding on. A small mattress already lay on a row of footlockers; these I dragged outside and pried open one afternoon: more old clothes, papers, letters I had stored away decades before and which I now shoved overboard with only the briefest of visits from my fingers. There was a small box of photographs all curled up and yellowed, photographs of Unguentine in athletic poses perhaps identical to ones he now held elsewhere­—on another barge, with another woman? Of myself embraced by a forgotten landscape, young thing, un­knowing, unwise, no doubt peering through time to this moment of being able to gaze back on it all, but still unknowing, unwise, tossing it all over the railing to a shallow splash. They floated on and on, taking days to submerge. Lilies, water faces, friends, family, pets. The mud eventually claimed them. As they silted deeper and deeper in they might fossilize, those faces, to be touched by a germ of life eons hence, to move again, breed again, be photographed again. 
Read the rest of Chapter X…

scenes from the writing life: the silent estate of louis zukofsky

"I can perhaps understand your misguided interest in literature . . ."

[Zuk_alone1.jpg] 

Don’t quote me

 

In any alphabet of modern American poets (Ashbery, Bishop, Creeley … ), Louis Zukofsky (1907- 78) conveniently fills twenty-sixth place. He is less well-known than contemporaries such as Langston Hughes and Kenneth Rexroth, or even his friend Lorine Niedecker, who has benefited from "a posthumous boom in her reputation", according to David Lehman’s recent Oxford Book of American Poetry. No boom has sounded in Zukofsky studies, and none will do so in the near future, if the poet’s son has his way. Paul Zukofsky, who administers the author’s estate, has posted a "Copyright Notice" on an independent website devoted to his father’s work:

 

People have been misled into thinking that, in terms of quoting LZ, they may do what they want, and do not have to worry about me. These people are then suddenly faced with the reality of an irascible, recalcitrant MOl, and are confronted with the very real prospect of years of work potentially down the tubes.

 

He wants scholars and critics to know that he is planting "an obvious ‘do not trespass ‘sign where LZ aficionados may see it". He has no desire to cultivate interest in his father’s poetry, the most prominent example of which is the long poem "A", which occupied fifty years of Zukofsky’s life. "I urge you to not work on Zukofsky, and prefer that you do not", Paul writes. "You will be more appreciated working on some author whose copyright holder(s) will actually cherish your work. I do not."

 

Should you insist, you and Paul may "more or less amicably work out the fees that I demand". Otherwise, "remove all quotation; or we can turn the matter over to lawyers". As for those (like us) who believe that the "fair use" clause in copyright law permits reasonable quotation for critical purposes, be warned. "I promise to do my utmost to hamper, hinder, and preferably prevent all quotation."

 

The TLS is one of the few mainstream journals in the English-speaking world to have paid critical heed to Zukofsky, an allegedly "difficult" poet. In the issue of September 7, 2007, Marjorie Perloff reviewed a biography by Mark Scroggins. Needless to say, she quoted all she needed to qualify her well-informed argument. Would Zukofsky have enjoyed the serious attention devoted to his poetry? Probably yes. Does Paul? No.

 

I can perhaps understand your misguided interest in literature … but one line you may not cross, ie, never never ever tell me that your work is to be valued by me because it promotes my father. Doing that will earn my life-long permanent enmity.

 

You wouldn’t want that. You could, alternatively, calm your nerves by reading Zukofsky. We recommend the charming "To My Wash-stand", included in Mr Lehman’s Oxford Book.


—from the Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 2009

chapter ix of stanley crawfird’s log of the s.s. mrs unguentine

IX

 

The barge, magnificent barge, a jewel cresting upon the high seas those thirty to forty years when the weather was still a true marvel, when one could see stars at noon, when the rare clouds were so fine and gauze-like and so much more transparent to moons, when rains were frank and without whining drizzle and cleared without lingering-such was the bright and empty space we sailed across seemingly to no end, and where my simple chores could have gone on for days and days without me minding-there could never be too many decks to sweep and wash, too many sails to mend, too many windows to clean amid that everlasting radiance. I remember the morning, if it is the one, that I brought the dishpan up from the galley in order to wash the dishes out in the rising sun and cool breeze of the stern deck, the galley being hot and steamy and infested with one of our infrequent plagues of crickets and cockroaches. Unguentine knew about them, would be down there this very moment unleashing the domestic snakes. By noon the galley would be all cleaned out and the reptiles, fat and lethargic, put back in their cages out of my sight. Are you sure? I always asked. Did you count them? You checked the dark corners to make sure they did no breeding down there? He would nod reassuringly. Meanwhile I went on with the dishes, clearing them off the table and tossing the scraps over­board into the water of our fresh-water lake fluorescent green with strands of algae, the water-cress and water­lilies where perched and floated heavy, complacent bullfrogs with fast tongues, strange body of water which swelled and shrank in size according to some principle I never grasped, changes in temperature perhaps. But the air, which had seemed clear and fresh before I went below deck for the dishpan, now was gathering up a humid haze, tarnishing the sea beyond our lake with a scum-like effect such as I could not remember having seen in years; or in the drowsiness of early morning I had simply not noticed: perhaps it had even been with us for days. I was out of time. I hadn’t slept well the night before, had mistakenly attempted a midnight stroll through the gardens in the dark only to walk right into a field of ripe peaches and apricots fallen on the ground, the awful squishing noises beneath my bare feet, the slime and stickiness, and from which I finally ran slipping and screaming to the lawn where I was able to light a candle and hose myself off. Why I refused to eat any fruit that morning. Our abundance at times was gagging. I was grown too plump anyway, though it was all still firm this body of mine, spangled with the reflec­tions of wavelets in the dishpan, naked in the sun, every bone and muscle ceaselessly active and fresh, my skin tanned to a glowing sienna with only a vein surfac­ing here and there near a breast, a wrist, an instep, to indicate the warm flood which sometimes seemed to flow out and beyond, to feed the rainbow colours of it ale dishpan and stern deck, our lake, the sea, back to the sun.

Unguentine was in his prime those days, he was more present, more carnal, his body exuding the manly aromas of ripe glands so strongly I could nose out his shifts in mood, the nature of his work, for hours at a time even though he might be at the far end of the barge. He never spoke, no longer wrote me notes. I didn’t need them. I would read his face and body, and he mine, to know what thoughts were to traverse the narrow band of air which separated our flesh. From a hand lying loosely on the table, palm nearly exposed, perhaps trembling slightly with the pulse within, I heard repose and the silence of no thought. From the half-tightened fist seeming to indicate rest but being only an interlude, I heard the chatter of little plans before he would spring to his feet and slip into the garden-to do God knows what, for our trees and flowers and vegetables grew by themselves in a weedless, springy humus which needed no tending beyond the regular harvests that only per­mitted them to grow more, did not empty the garden, did not ravish it. We had too much, in fact. Often while pulling up a head of lettuce and a few carrots and onions for the simple salad-dinner we would have that night, I wearied at the thought of what we might pos­sibly do with those rows upon rows of vegetables which would not stop growing and which we mainly fed to the chickens and goats, only to be swamped with eggs and milk and cupboards crammed with cheeses-dumped finally overboard to feed the fish. The balance of nature we carried about with us wherever we sailed was so perfect, so precise that were Unguentine and I to leave it all for ten years, say on some excursion to land at last, upon our return we would find nothing changed, per­haps only the trees grown a little higher, hens a dif­ferent colour, the cold and glassy stare of another goat or two. Even, days like this, sky becoming whiter and the air more humid, I felt pressed down by the thought we might be intruders on this barge, for one could not sink a hoe into our earth without slicing up at least half a dozen earthworms and grubs, and then, that done, be surrounded by a gathering of robins anxious to feast. Flies would hatch in the compost heap and live long enough to lay more eggs before being pounced on by spiders, snatched up by swallows; and then the visita­tions of hawks and shrikes that thinned the swallows and sparrows and lizards and frogs while we watched, perhaps only watched. I knew the necessity, our carrots and onions, peaches and cream; yet sometimes I wished it would simply all cease.

I had just finished washing the dishes when I heard an awful clatter from the bow. I thought for a moment we had run aground or collided with some metallic debris-until I recognized it as the long-unfamiliar sound of the anchor being lowered. A few minutes later the clatter resumed, shaking the barge stem to stern, followed by the lowering of the second anchor: we had two. A flush of annoyance flooded over me. Here? In this scummy sea with its haze-filled sky? No doubt Unguentine had his reasons, repairs to be made on the hull, the rudder adjusted. Still, he might have waited until we had reached a more pleasant climate. The barge had been in continual motion so long that I now felt quite dizzy and had to go below deck to lie down in our bedroom where the only living, crawling thing was myself, in the silent darkness. I could become oppressed by the inces­sant noises of things growing and dropping up there, the busy chatter of birds and gnawing of insects; it was as if all the creatures had flown inside my head to bat about there, to become brain cells spluttering trivial messages at each other, back and forth, to no end. I slept, how­ever. When I emerged several hours later, refreshed by a dreamless time below, an old excitement was returning to me as I stepped into the gardens again-and saw Unguentine wrestling with the trunk of the Plane Tree Judith. I heard a crack, saw a bluish glint of metal. Unguentine sprang away from the tree-trunk. He must have seen me then; he waved his arms violently, and I turned and ran, pursued by a hissing roar that gave way to a thunderous crash. From all over the barge came the rising crescendo of livestock in panic; birds, flushed from their haunts and seeking to rise to the safety of open sky, fluttered and banged against the glass of the dome. I had taken shelter behind the Fir Irene, now peeped out. The Plane Tree [udithlay prone all over the lawn, her crown staring me in the face. Beyond, through leaves drooping at unaccustomed angles, Unguentine stood leaning against an axe, body glistening with sweat.

I approached him. At his feet, a huge saw, wedges.

A little pruning, my dear? Thinning things out a bit? Perhaps such things I asked him, whether I spoke them or not as I gazed down at my favourite tree, into whose foliage I had often peered from atop the dome, into the soft and changing greens, when I was weary of looking at the harsh glitter of the sea. He must have known that. He must have heard the little cries within my heart even as he stepped away from me, dragging his tools behind him, granting me one long glance before he raised the axe to limb the fallen tree, eyes clouded and narrowed with a shadowy determination I had never seen in him, or with a sadness I thought we had forever chased from our lives. I felt a sudden lassitude, exhaus­tion. I knew somehow then that the Plane Tree Judith would not be the last. Something had happened. I could not understand those garbled noises that came from within his heaving body-if there was anything to be heard beyond the frantic stretch and pull of muscles, the squeak of joints, a heart pounding furiously. That day and the next and beyond, despite the sweltering tem­peratures of the tropical sea where we lay anchored, he cut down, limbed and sawed up the other plane tree, the Fir Irene, the Beech Cynthia, the stately Elm Myra, all the fruit trees but two; and, with the wrenching crack of each falling trunk, another flower bed, another shrub, another vine was smashed and battered to the ground; a duck was killed in one of the falls, the chickens gave up laying. Gritting my teeth to hold in a somehow angerless hysteria, I helped rake up leave and toss branches overboard until I could no longer bear it and went below deck wondering how I would ever be able to set foot in the gardens again. It was impossible to believe: to ruin so utterly the work of thirty to forty years in ten days? It was beyond reason, beyond madness.

Was this Unguentine, my Unguentine of the flowing white hair and yellow beard who had tended the gar­dens into all their magnificence? How could I watch the axe raised above his head and warmly feel his whole body tensed and poised for a perfectly delivered slice, the blur of a sudden movement, the blow, yellow chip spinning away-how could I still follow his every gesture with such fascination, then to collapse with trembling at the thought of what he was actually carrying out? He was cutting wood, I tried to tell myself, only cutting wood, for we might be sailing soon to colder seas and would need heat, fat logs for the fireplace, Irene, kindling, Cynthia. Or, the trees were being cut down, but not by Unguentine: it was some other, someone else, another man whom I had never personally met, never wished to.

He left me alone in my seclusion. He prepared my meals in the galley and set them on a tray in front of the bedroom door, adding every other night a pair of clean sheets, for even the normally cool depths of the barge were infected with the oppressive heat; I could open the porthole only at midnight to catch a brief, cool breeze that sprang up about then. Days I numbly watched the sickly sea through glass and longed for the moment when the barge would sink with a rush of waves and broken glass and settle to a quiet place below, waveless, dark, cold, as surely it would have to some day: the sooner the better. I stripped the bedroom of all its furnishings except the bed, a pitcher of water, a basin, and stuffed everything through the porthole in the middle of the night, rugs, tapestries, hangings I had once spent months weaving. For the first time in years I wanted Unguentine to come to me, explain, soothe me with torrents of words-not that any of it could undo what had been done, but only for the comfort of another voice until the intoxication of words might lead us on to do what little remained to be done, if anything, and face the earth and leaves and branches as they were, without noise, purely, quietly. I wove happy fantasies of how he would replant all the trees with fresh saplings, and we would watch, them grow high again, twice as fast as before; again to be cut, again to grow. I ventured into dreams of setting foot on an empty beach with white sands, but withdrew after a brief visit filled with vertigo and a handful of small seashells, useless souvenirs, for now, with so many years at sea, I knew I could live no other way than what had been if I were to live at all, with the wind through the trees and the thirst of the prow for endless waves.

When, two weeks later, my solitude having placed me in a state of resignation in which I thought I could bear anything, Unguentine strode through the bedroom door with bright eyes and a smile that seemed to indicate nothing had ever happened—I burst into tears and fiercely wished nothing ever had. We embraced. I apologized for having stripped the bedroom, chattered on about this and that, old conversations, ancient words that uncontrollably came across the years and back to me. He didn’t seem to mind. Soon I was following him upstairs towards the gardens. I hadn’t wanted to go, not so quickly. I wondered whether it was really my Unguen­tine I was behind, or some arrogant, hirsute creature whose biped tramping set the whole staircase to clatter­ing. I dreaded the first look. Desert? Dustbowl? Bomb crater? Unaccustomed tothe flood of bright light beneath the dome, I was to wander around uncomprehending a half hour until his gestures and demonstrations made clear what he had done. A few trees he had spared; why I didn’t know, no more than I knew why he had cut the others down, why he had begun replacing them with ones of his own creation, dry and brittle mimics which yet caught the contour of trunk and branch framework, the traceries of twig, needle, bud-why this fake forestry? I was stunned. Upon armatures of steel rod he had woven coils of rope fifty and sixty feet into the air, padded them with kapok and foam rubber, glued and stitched them up with simulated barks of dried and shredded kelp, bound and applied in the manner of papier-macho. The leaves, plastic, of a two-ply lamination enclosing a liquid solution that gave them a flickering motion in breezes and winds and an uncanny translu­cence, almost too leaf-like. The tools and materials of his handiwork littered the remains of the living garden; I saw petunias gasping for air from beneath piles of iron rod, grapes bleeding under heaps of half-rotted rope; upended tree stumps, sacks of cement, gaping holes in the lawn where were to be sunk the steel roots of the next crop of artificial trees. I leaned on him repeatedly, his warm flesh, and sobbed; to be with him again, but also at these, his monstrosities.

 

Read the rest…