samuel beckett’s molloy on his (true?) love

She had a somewhat hairy face, or am I imagining it, in theinterests of the narrative? The poor woman, I saw her so little, so little looked at her. And was not her voice suspiciously deep? So she appears to me today. Don’t be tormenting yourself, Molloy, man or woman, what does it matter? But I cannot help asking myself the following question. Could a woman have stopped me as I swept towards mother? Probably. Better still, was such an encounter possible, I mean between me and a woman? Now men, I have rubbed up against a few men in my time, but women? Oh well, I may as well confess it now, yes, I once rubbed up against one. I don’t mean my mother, I did more than rub up against her. And if you don’t mind we’ll leave my mother out of all this. But another who might have been my mother, and even I think my grandmother, if chance had not willed otherwise. Listen to him now talking about chance. It was she made me acquainted with love. She went by the peaceful name of Ruth I think, but I can’t say for certain. Perhaps the name was Edith. She had a hole between her legs, oh not the bunghole I had always imagined, but a slit, and in this I put, or rather she put, my so-called virile member, not without difficulty, and I toiled and moiled until I discharged or gave up trying or was begged by her to stop. A mug’s game in my opinion and tiring on top of that, in the long run. But I lent myself to it with a good enough grace, knowing it was love, for she had told me so. She bent over the couch, because of her rheumatism, and in I went from behind. It was the only position she could bear, because of her lumbago. It seemed all right to me for I had seen dogs, and I was astonished when she confided that you could go about it differently. I wonder what she meant exactly. Perhaps after all she put me in her rectum. A matter of complete indifference to me, I needn’t tell you. But is it true love, in the rectum? That’s what bothers me sometimes. Have I never known true love, after all?


—from Molloy, pp. 75-76

“I worried about my fantasies, I knew I could not come without them”—early fiction from ian mcewan


In McEwan’s short story “First Love, Last Rites,” the eagerness a young couple have for each other both physically and emotionally finds a perverse counterpoint in the sounds of a large rat (ahem… traditional Eng.Lit. symbolism, Freud’s Rat Man, the gothic horror tradition, etc., anyone?) which is living behind the walls of their flat . . . 

First Love, Last Rites

From the beginning of summer until it seemed pointless, we lifted the thin mattress on to the heavy oak table and made love in front of the large open window. We always had a breeze blowing into the room and smells of the quayside four floors down. I was drawn into fantasies against my will, fantasies of the creature, and afterwards when we lay on our backs on the huge table, in those deep silences I heard it faintly running and clawing. It was new to me, all this, and I worried, I tried to talk to Sissel about it for reassurance. She had nothing to say, she did not make abstractions or discuss situations, she lived inside them. We watched the seagulls wheeling about in our square of sky and wondered if they had been watching us up there, that was the kind of thing we talked about, mildly entertaining hypotheses of the present moment. Sissel did things as they came to her, stirred her coffee, made love, listened to her records, looked out the window. She did not say things like I’m happy, or confused, or I want to make love, or I don’t, or I’m tired of the fights in my family, she had no language to split herself in two, so I suffered alone what seemed like crimes in my head while we fucked, and afterwards listened alone to it scrabbling in the silence. Then one afternoon Sissel woke from a doze, raised her head from the mattress and said, ‘What’s that scratching noise behind the wall?’

My friends were far away in London, they sent me anguished and reflective letters, what would they do now?

Who were they, and what was the point of it all? They were my age, seventeen and eighteen, but I pretended not to understand them. I sent back postcards, find a big table and an open window, I told them. I was happy and it seemed easy, I was making eel traps, it was so easy to have a purpose. The summer went on and I no longer heard from them. Only Adrian came to see us, he was Sissel’s ten-year-old brother and he came to escape the misery of his disintegrating home, the quick reversals of his mother’s moods, the endless competitive piano playing of his sisters, the occasional bitter visits of his father. Adrian and Sissel’s parents after twenty-seven years of marriage and six children hated each other with sour resignation, they could no longer bear to live in the same house. The father moved out to a hostel a few streets away to be near his children. He was a businessman who was out of work and looked like Gregory Peck, he was an optimist and had a hundred schemes to make money in an interesting way. I used to meet him in the pub. He did not want to talk about his redundancy or his marriage, he did not mind me living in a room over the quayside with his daughter. Instead he told me about his time in the Korean war, and when he was an international salesman, and of the legal fraudery of his friends who were now at the top and knighted, and then one day of the eels in the River Ouse, how the river bed swarmed with eels, how there was money to be made catching them and taking them live to London. I told him how I had eighty pounds in the bank, and the next morning we bought netting, twine, wire hoops and an old cistern tank to keep eels in. I spent the next two months making eel traps.

On fine days I took my net, hoops and twine outside and worked on the quay, sitting on a bollard. An eel trap is cylinder-shaped, sealed at one end, and at the other is a long tapering funnel entrance. It lies on the river bed, the eels swim in to eat the bait and in their blindness cannot find their way out. The fishermen were friendly and amused. There’s eels down there, they said, and you’ll catch a few but you won’t make no living on it. The tide’ll lose your nets fast as you make them. We’re using iron weights, I told them, and they shrugged in a good-natured way and showed me a better way to lash the net to the hoops, they believed it was my right to try it for myself.

When the fishermen were out in their boats and I did not feel like working I sat about and watched the tidal water slip across the mud, I felt no urgency about the eel traps but I was certain we would be rich.

I tried to interest Sissel in the eel adventure, I told her about the rowing-boat someone was lending to us for the summer, but she had nothing to say. So instead we lifted the mattress on to the table and lay down with our clothes on. Then she began to talk. We pressed our palms together, she made a careful examination of the size and shape of our hands and gave a running commentary. Exactly the same size, your fingers are thicker, you’ve got this extra bit here.

She measured my eyelashes with the end of her thumb and wished hers were as long, she told me about the dog she had when she was small, it had long white eyelashes. She looked at the sunburn on my nose and talked about that, which of her brothers and sisters went red in the sun, who went brown, what her youngest sister said once. We slowly undressed. She kicked off her plimsolls and talked about her foot rot. I listened with my eyes closed, I could smell mud and seaweed and dust through the open window.

Wittering on, she called it, this kind of talk. Then once I was inside her I was moved, I was inside my fantasy, there could be no separation now of my mushrooming sensations from my knowledge that we could make a creature grow in Sissel’s belly. I had no wish to be a father, that was not in it at all. It was eggs, sperms, chromosomes, feathers, gills, claws, inches from my cock’s end the unstoppable chemistry of a creature growing out of a dark red slime, my fantasy was of being helpless before the age and strength of this process and the thought alone could make me come before I wanted. When I told Sissel she laughed. Oh, Gawd, she said. To me Sissel was right inside the process, she was the process and the power of its fascination grew.

She was meant to be on the pill and every month she forgot it at least two or three times. Without discussion we came to the arrangement that I was to come outside her, but it rarely worked. As we were swept down the long slopes to our orgasms, in those last desperate seconds I struggled to find my way out but I was caught like an eel in my fantasy of the creature in the dark, waiting, hungry, and I fed it great white gobs. In those careless fractions of a second I abandoned my life to feeding the creature, whatever it was, in or out of the womb, to fucking only Sissel, to feeding more creatures, my whole life given over to this in a moment’s weakness. I watched out for Sissel’s periods, everything about women was new to me and I could take nothing for granted. We made love in Sissel’s copious, effortless periods, got good and sticky and brown with the blood and I thought we were the creatures now in the slime, we were inside fed by gobs of cloud coming through the window, by gases drawn from the mudflats by the sun.

I worried about my fantasies, I knew I could not come without them. I asked Sissel what she thought about and she giggled. Not feathers and gills, anyway. What do you think about, then? Nothing much, nothing really. I pressed my question and she withdrew into silence.

I knew it was my own creature I heard scrabbling, and when Sissel heard it one afternoon and began to worry, I realised her fantasies were involved too, it was a sound which grew out of our lovemaking. We heard it when we were finished and lying quite still on our backs, when we were empty and clear, perfectly quiet. It was the impression of small claws scratching blindly against a wall, such a distant sound it needed two people to hear it. We thought it came from one part of the wall. When I knelt down and put my ear to the skirting-board it stopped, I sensed it on the other side of the wall, frozen in its action, waiting in the dark. As the weeks passed we heard it at other times in the day, and now and then at night. I wanted to ask Adrian what he thought it was. Listen, there it is, Adrian, shut up a moment, what do you think that noise is, Adrian? He strained impatiently to hear what we could hear but he would not be still long enough. There’s nothing there, he shouted. Nothing, nothing, nothing. He became very excited, jumped on his sister’s back, yelling and yodelling. He did not want whatever it was to be heard, he did not want to be left out. I pulled him off Sissel’s back and we rolled about on the bed. Listen again, I said, pinning him down, there it was again. He struggled free and ran out of the room shouting his two-tone police- car siren. We listened to it fade down the stairs and when I could hear him no more I said, Perhaps Adrian is really afraid of mice. Rats, you mean, said his sister, and put her hands between my legs.

By mid-July we were not so happy in our room, there was a growing dishevelment and unease, and it did not seem possible to discuss it with Sissel. Adrian was coming to us every day now because it was the summer holidays and he could not bear to be at home. We would hear him four floors down, shouting and stamping on the stairs on his way up to us. He came in noisily, doing handstands and showing off to us. Frequently he jumped on Sissel’s back to impress me, he was anxious, he was worried we might not find him good company and send him away, send him back home. He was worried too because he could no longer understand his sister. At one time she was always ready for a fight, and she was a good fighter, I heard him boast that to his friends, he was proud of her.

Now changes had come over his sister, she pushed him off sulkily, she wanted to be left alone to do nothing, she wanted to listen to records. She was angry when he got his shoes on her skirt, and she had breasts now like his mother, she talked to him now like his mother. Get down off there, Adrian. Please, Adrian, please, not now, later.

He could not quite believe it all the same, it was a mood of his sister’s, a phase, and he went on taunting and attacking her hopefully, he badly wanted things to stay as they were before his father left home. When he locked his forearms round Sissel’s neck and pulled her backwards on to the bed his eyes were on me for encouragement, he thought the real bond was between us, the two men against the girl.

He did not see there was no encouragement, he wanted it so badly. Sissel never sent Adrian away, she understood why he was here, but it was hard for her. One long afternoon of torment she left the room almost crying with frustration. Adrian turned to me and raised his eyebrows in mock horror. I tried to talk to him then but he was already making his yodelling sound and squaring up for a fight with me. Nor did Sissel have anything to say to me about her brother, she never made general remarks about people because she never made general remarks.

Sometimes when we heard Adrian on his way up the stairs she glanced across at me and seemed to betray herself by a slight pursing of her beautiful lips.

There was only one way to persuade Adrian to leave us in peace. He could not bear to see us touch, it pained him, it genuinely disgusted him. When he saw one of us move across the room to the other he pleaded with us silently, he ran between us, pretending playfulness, wanted to decoy us into another game. He imitated us frantically in a desperate last attempt to show us how fatuous we appeared. Then he could stand it no more, he ran out of the room machine-gunning German soldiers and young lovers on the stairs.

But Sissel and I were touching less and less now, in our quiet ways we could not bring ourselves to it. It was not that we were in decline, not that we did not delight in each other, but that our opportunities were faded. It was the room itself. It was no longer four floors up and detached, there was no breeze through the window, only a mushy heat rising off the quayside and dead jellyfish and clouds of flies, fiery grey flies who found our armpits and bit fiercely, houseflies who hung in clouds over our food. Our hair was too long and dank and hung in our eyes. The food we bought melted and tasted like the river. We no longer lifted the mattress on to the table, the coolest place now was the floor and the floor was covered with greasy sand which would not go away. Sissel grew tired of her records, and her foot rot spread from one foot to the other and added to the smell. Our room stank. We did not talk about leaving because we did not talk about anything.

Every night now we were woken by the scrabbling behind the wall, louder now and more insistent. When we made love it listened to us behind the wall. We made love less and our rubbish gathered around us, milk bottles we could not bring ourselves to carry away, grey sweating cheese, butter wrappers, yoghurt cartons, overripe salami. And among it all Adrian cart-wheeling, yodelling, machine- gunning and attacking Sissel. I tried to write poems about my fantasies, about the creature, but I could see no way in and I wrote nothing down, not even a first line. Instead I took long walks along the river dyke into the Norfolk hinterland of dull beet fields, telegraph poles, uniform grey skies. I had two more eel nets to make, I was forcing myself to sit down to them each day. But in my heart I was sick of them, I could not really believe that eels would ever go inside them and I wondered if I wanted them to, if it was not better that the eels should remain undisturbed in the cool mud at the bottom of the river. But I went on with it because Sissel’s father was ready to begin, because I had to expiate all the money and hours I had spent so far, because the idea had its own tired, fragile momentum now and I could no more stop it than carry the milk bottles from our room.

Then Sissel found a job and it made me see we were different from no one, they all had rooms, houses, jobs, careers, that’s what they all did, they had cleaner rooms, better jobs, wewere anywhere’s striving couple. It was one of the windowless factories across the river where they canned vegetables and fruit. For ten hours a day she was to sit in the roar of machines by a moving conveyor belt, talk to no one and pick out the rotten carrots before they were canned. At the end of her first day Sissel came home in a pink-and-white nylon raincoat and pink cap. I said, Why don’t you take it off? Sissel shrugged. It was all the same to her, sitting around in the room, sitting around in a factory where they relayed Radio One through speakers strung along the steel girders, where four hundred women half listened, half dreamed, while their hands spun backwards and forwards like powered shuttles. On Sissel’s second day I took the ferry across the river and waited for her at the factory gates. A few women stepped through a small tin door in a great windowless wall and a wailing siren sounded all across the factory complex. Other small doors opened and they streamed out, converging on the gates, scores of women in pink-and-white nylon coats and pink caps. I stood on a low wall and tried to see Sissel, it was suddenly very important. I thought that if I could not pick her out from this rustling stream of pink nylon then she was lost, we were both lost and our time was worthless.

As it approached the factory gates the main body was moving fast. Some were half running in the splayed, hopeless way that women have been taught to run, the others walked as fast as they could. I found out later they were hurrying home to cook suppers for their families, to make an early start on the housework. Latecomers on the next shift tried to push their way through in the opposite direction. I could not see Sissel and I felt on the edge of panic, I shouted her name and my words were trampled underfoot. Two older women who stopped by the wall to light cigarettes grinned up at me. Sizzle yerself. I walked home by the long way, over the bridge, and decided not to tell Sissel I had been to wait for her because I would have to explain my panic and I did not know how. She was sitting on the bed when I came in, she was still wearing her nylon coat. The cap was on the floor. Why don’t you take that thing off? I said. She said, Was that you outside the factory? I nodded. Why didn’t you speak to me if you saw me standing there? Sissel turned and lay face downwards on the bed. Her coat was stained and smelled of machine oil and earth. I dunno, she said into the pillow, I didn’t think. I didn’t think of anything after my shift. Her words had a deadening finality, I glanced around our room and fell silent.

Two days later, on Saturday afternoon, I bought pounds of rubbery cows’ lungs sodden with blood (lights, they were called) for bait. That same afternoon we filled the traps and rowed out into mid-channel at low tide to lay them on the river bed. Each of the seven traps was marked by a buoy. Four o’clock Sunday morning Sissel’s father called for me and we set out in his van to where we kept the borrowed boat. We were rowing out now to find the marker buoys and pull the traps in, it was the testing time, would there be eels in the nets, would it be profitable to make more nets, catch more eels and drive them once a week to Billingsgate market, would we be rich? It was a dull windy morning, I felt no anticipation, only tiredness and a continuous erection. Ihalf dozed in the warmth of the van’s heater. I had spent many hours of the night awake listening to the scrabbling noises behind the wall.

Once I got out of bed and banged the skirting-board with a spoon. There was a pause, then the digging continued.

It seemed certain now that it was digging its way into the room. While Sissel’s father rowed I watched over the side for markers. It was not as easy as I thought to find them, they did not show up white against the water but as dark low silhouettes. It was twenty minutes before we found the first. As we pulled it up I was amazed at how soon the clean white rope from the chandlers had become like all other rope near the river, brown and hung about with fine strands of green weed. The net too was old-looking and alien, I could not believe that one of us had made it. Inside were two crabs and a large eel. He untied the closed end of the trap, let the two crabs drop into the water and put the eel in the plastic bucket we had brought with us. We put fresh lights in the trap and dropped it over the side. It took another fifteen minutes to find the next trap and that one had nothing inside. We rowed up and down the channel for half an hour after that without finding another trap, and by this time the tide was coming up and covering the markers. It was then that I took the oars and made for the shore.

We went back to the hostel where Sissel’s father was staying and he cooked breakfast. We did not want to discuss the lost traps, we pretended to ourselves and to each other that we would find them when we went out at the next low tide. But we knew they were lost, swept up or downstream by the powerful tides, and I knew I could never make another eel trap in my life. I knew also that my partner was taking Adrian with him on a short holiday, they were leaving that afternoon. They were going to visit military airfields, and hoped to end up at the Imperial War Museum. We ate eggs, bacon and mushrooms and drank coffee. Sissel’s father told me of an idea he had, a simple but lucrative idea. Shrimps cost very little on the quayside here and they were very expensive in Brussels. We could drive two vanloads across there each week, he was optimistic in his relaxed, friendly way and for a moment I was sure his scheme would work. I drank the last of my coffee. Well, I said, I suppose that needs some thinking about. I picked up the bucket with the eel in, Sissel and I could eat that one. My partner told me as we shook hands that the surest way of killing an eel was to cover it with salt.

I wished him a good holiday and we parted, still maintaining the silent pretence that one of us would be rowing out at the next low tide to search for the traps.

After a week at the factory I did not expect Sissel to be awake when I got home, but she was sitting up in bed, pale and clasping her knees. She was staring into one corner of the room. It’s in here, she said. It’s behind those books on the floor. I sat down on the bed and took off my wet shoes and socks. The mouse? You mean you heard the mouse?

Sissel spoke quietly. It’s a rat. I saw it run across the room, and it’s a rat. I went over to the books and kicked them, and instantly it was out, I heard its claws on the floor- boards and then I saw it run along the wall, the size of a small dog it seemed to me then, a rat, a squat, powerful grey rat dragging its belly along the floor. It ran the whole length of the wall and crept behind a chest of drawers.

We’ve got to get it out of here, Sissel wailed, in a voice which was strange to me. I nodded, but I could not move for the moment, or speak, it was so big, the rat, and it had been with us all summer, scrabbling at the wall in the deep, clear silences after our fucking, and in our sleep, it was our familiar. I was terrified, more afraid than Sissel, I was certain the rat knew us as well as we knew it, it was aware of us in the room now just as we were aware of it behind the chest of drawers. Sissel was about to speak again when we heard a noise outside on the stairs, a familiar stamping, machine-gunning noise. I was relieved to hear it. Adrian came in the way he usually did, he kicked the door and leaped in, crouching low, a machine- gun ready at his hip. He sprayed us with raw noises from the back of his throat, we crossed our lips with our fingers and tried to hush him. You’re dead, both of you, he said, and got ready for a cartwheel across the room. Sissel shushed him again, she tried to wave him towards the bed.

Why sshh? What’s wrong with you? We pointed to the chest of drawers. It’s a rat, we told him. He was down on his knees at once, peering. A rat? he gasped. Fantastic, it’s a big one, look at it. Fantastic. What are you going to do?

Let’s catch it. I crossed the room quickly and picked up a poker from the fireplace, I could lose my fear in Adrian’s excitement, pretend it was just a fat rat in our room, an adventure to catch it. From the bed Sissel wailed again.

What are you going to do with that? For a moment I felt my grip loosen on the poker, it was not just a rat, it was not an adventure, we both knew that. Meanwhile Adrian danced his dance, Yes, that, use that. Adrian helped me carry the books across the room, we built a wall right round the chest of drawers with only one gap in the middle where the rat could get through. Sissel went on asking, What are you doing? What are you going to do with that? but she did not dare leave the bed. We had finished the wall and I was giving Adrian a coat-hanger to drive the rat out with when Sissel jumped across the room and tried to snatch the poker from my hand. Give me that, she cried, and hung on to my lifted arm. At that moment the rat ran out through the gap in the books, it ran straight at us and I thought I saw its teeth bared and ready. We scattered, Adrian jumped on the table, Sissel and I were back on the bed. Now we all had time to see the rat as it paused in the centre of the room and then ran forward again, we had time to see how powerful and fat and fast it was, how its whole body quivered, how its tail slid behind it like an attendant parasite. It knows us, I thought, it wants us. I could not bring myself to look at Sissel. As I stood up on the bed, raised the poker and aimed it, she screamed. I threw it as hard as I could, it struck the floor point first several inches from the rat’s narrow head. It turned instantly and ran back between the gap in the books. We heard the scratch of its claws on the floor as it settled itself behind the chest of drawers to wait.

I unwound the wire coat-hanger, straightened it and doubled it over and gave it to Adrian. He was quieter now, slightly more fearful. His sister sat on the bed with her knees drawn up again. I stood several feet from the gap in the books with the poker held tight in both hands. I glanced down and saw my pale bare feet and saw a ghost rat’s teeth bared and tearing nail from flesh. I called out, Wait, I want to get my shoes. But it was too late, Adrian was jabbing the wire behind the chest of drawers and now I dared not move. I crouched a little lower over the poker, like a batsman. Adrian climbed on to the chest and thrust the wire right down into the corner. He was in the middle of shouting something to me, I did not hear what it was.

The frenzied rat was running through the gap, it was running at my feet to take its revenge. Like the ghost rat its teeth were bared. With both hands I swung the poker down, caught it clean and whole smack under its belly, and it lifted clear off the ground, sailed across the room, borne up by Sissel’s long scream through her hand in her mouth, it dashed against the wall and I thought in an instant, It must have broken its back. It dropped to the ground, legs in the air, split from end to end like a ripe fruit. Sissel did not take her hand from her mouth, Adrian did not move from the chest, I did not shift my weight from where I had struck, and no one breathed out. A faint smell crept across the room, musty and intimate, like the smell of Sissel’s monthly blood. Then Adrian farted and giggled from his held-back fear, his human smell mingled with the wide-open rat smell. I stood over the rat and prodded it gently with the poker. It rolled on its side, and from the mighty gash which ran its belly’s length there obtruded and slid partially free from the lower abdomen a translucent purple bag, and inside five pale crouching shapes, their knees drawn up around their chins. As the bag touched the floor I saw a movement, the leg of one unborn rat quivered as if in hope, but the mother was hopelessly dead and there was no more for it.

Sissel knelt by the rat, Adrian and I stood behind her like guards, it was as if she had some special right, kneeling there with her long red skirt spilling round her. She parted the gash in the mother rat with her forefinger and thumb, pushed the bag back inside and closed the blood-spiked fur over it. She remained kneeling a little while and we still stood behind her. Then she cleared some dishes from the sink to wash her hands. We all wanted to get outside now, so Sissel wrapped the rat in newspaper and we carried it downstairs. Sissel lifted the lid of the dustbin and I placed it carefully inside. Then I remembered something, I told the other two to wait for me and I ran back up the stairs.

It was the eel I came back for, it lay quite still in its few inches of water and for a moment I thought that it too was dead till I saw it stir when I picked up the bucket. The wind had dropped now and the cloud was breaking up, we walked to the quay in alternate light and shade. The tide was coming in fast. We walked down the stone steps to the water’s edge and there I tipped the eel back in the river and we watched him flick out of sight, a flash of white underside in the brown water. Adrian said goodbye to us, and I thought he was going to hug his sister. He hesitated and then ran off, calling out something over his shoulder.

We shouted after him to have a good holiday. On the way back Sissel and I stopped to look at the factories on the other side of the river. She told me she was going to give up her job there.

We lifted the mattress on to the table and lay down in front of the open window, face to face, the way we did at the beginning of summer. We had a light breeze blowing in, a distant smoky smell of autumn, and I felt calm, very clear. Sissel said, This afternoon let’s clean the room up and then go for a long walk, a walk along the river dyke. I pressed the flat of my palm against her warm belly and said, Yes.

—from First Love, Last Rites (1975)


john updike’s “gesturing”

The architect had had a vision. He had dreamed of an invisible building, though immense; the glass was meant to reflect the sky and the old low brick skyline of Boston, and to melt into the city. Instead, the windows of mirroring glass kept falling to the street, and were replaced by ugly opacities of black plywood . . . Heavily planked and chicken-wired tunnels, guarded bybarking policemen, protected pedestrians from falling glass . . . Trestles and trucks jammed the cacophonous area. The lower floors were solid plywood, of a Stygian black; the building, so lovely in air, had tangled mucky roots.  


—from John Updike, "Gesturing"


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SHE TOLD HIM with a little gesture he had never seen her use before. Joan had called from the station, having lunched, Richard knew, with her lover. It was a Saturday, and his older son had taken his convertible; Joan’s Volvo was new and for several minutes refused to go into first gear for him. By the time he had reached the center of town, she had walked down the main street and up the hill to the green. It was September, leafy and warm, yet with a crystal chill on things, an uncanny clarity. Even from a distance they smiled to see each other. She opened the door and seated herself, fastening the safety belt to silence its chastening buzz. Her face was rosy from her walk, her city clothes looked like a costume, she carried a small package or two, token of her "shopping." Richard tried to pull a U-turn on the narrow street, and in the long moment of his halting and groping for reverse gear, she told him. "Darley," she said and, oddly, tentatively, soundlessly, tapped the fingers of one hand into the palm of the other, a gesture between a child’s clap of glee and an adult’s signal for attention, "I’ve decided to kick you out. I’m going to ask you to leave town."

Abruptly full, his heart thumped; it was what he wanted.


He asked, "Is this your idea, or his?"


"Mine. It came to me on the train. All Andy said was, I seemed to be feeding you all the time."

Richard had been sleeping, most nights, in the weeks since their summer of separated vacations, in a borrowed seaside shack two miles from their home; he tried to sleep there, but each evening, as the nights grew longer, it seemed easier, and kinder to the children, to eat the dinner Joan had cooked. He was used to her cooking; indeed, his body, every cell, was composed of her cooking.
He found the apartment in
Boston on the second day of hunting. The real-estate agent had red hair, a round bottom, and a mask of make-up worn as if to conceal her youth. Richard felt happy and scared, going up and down stairs behind her. Wearier of him than he was of her, she fidgeted the key into the lock, bucked the door open with her shoulder, and made her little openhanded gesture of helpless display.

The floor was neither wall-to-wall shag nor splintered wood, but black-and-white tile, like the floor in a Vermeer; he glanced to the window, saw the skyscraper, and knew this would do. The skyscraper, for years suspended in a famous state of incompletion, was a beautiful disaster, famous because it was a disaster (glass kept falling from it) and disastrous because it was beautiful: the architect had had a vision. He had dreamed of an invisible building, though immense; the glass was meant to reflect the sky and the old low brick skyline of Boston, and to melt into the sky. Instead, the windows of mirroring glass kept falling to the street and were replaced by ugly opacities of black plywood.


He tried to analyze the logic of window replacement, as revealed in the patterns of gap and glass. He detected no logic, just the slow-motion labor of invisible workers, emptying and filling cells of glass with the brainlessness of bees. If he watched for many minutes, he might see, like the condensation of a dewdrop, a blank space go glassy, and reflective, and greenish-blue. Days passed before he realized that, on the old glass near his nose, the wavery panes of his own window, ghostly previous tenants armed with diamonds had scratched initials, names, dates, and, cut deepest and whitest of all, the touching, comical vow, incised in two trisyllabic lines,

With this ring
I thee wed


She asked, "Isn’t that building amazing, with the sunset in it?"


"I love that building. And it loves me."

"No. It’s me who loves you:’

"Can’t you share?"


She felt possessive about the apartment; when he told her Joan had been there, too, and, just for "fun," had slept with him, her husband, Ruth wailed into the telephone,


"In our bed?"


"In my bed," he said, with uncharacteristic firmness.

"In your bed," she conceded, her voice husky as a sleepy child’s.


Taking Joan out to dinner felt illicit. She suggested it, for "fun," at the end of one of the children’s Sundays. He had been two months in
Boston, new habits had replaced old, and it was tempting to leave their children, who were bored and found it easier to be bored by television than by their father, this bossy visitor. "Stop telling me you’re bored," he had scolded John, the most docile of his children and the one he felt guiltiest about. "Fifteen is supposed to be a boring age. When I was fifteen, I lay around reading science fiction. You lie around looking at Kung Fu. At least I was learning to read."


A swallow of his wine inside her, Joan began to swell with impending hilarity. She leaned as close as the table would permit. "You must promise"—a gesture went with "promise," a protesting little splaying of her hands—"never to tell this to anybody, not even Ruth."

"Maybe you shouldn’t tell me. In fact, don’t?’ He understood why she had been laconic up to now; she had been wanting to talk about her lover, holding him warm within her like a baby. She was going to betray him. "Please don’t," Richard said.

"Don’t be such a prig. You’re the only person I can talk to; it doesn’t mean a thing."


Her glee whirled her to a kind of heaven as she confided stories about herself and Andy—how he and a motel manageress had quarreled over the lack of towels in a room taken for the afternoon, how he fell asleep for exactly seven minutes each time after making love. Richard had known Andy for years, a slender, swarthy specialist in corporation law, himself divorced, though professionally engaged in the finicking arrangement of giant mergers. A fussy dresser, a churchman, he brought to many occasions an undue dignity and perhaps had been more attracted to Joan’s surface glaze, her smooth New England ice, than to the mischievous demons underneath. "My psychiatrist thinks Andy was symbiotic with you, and now that you’re gone, I can see him as absurd."

"He’s not absurd. He’s good, loyal, handsome, prosperous. He tithes. He has a twelve handicap. He loves you."

"He protects you from me, you mean. His buttons!—we have to allow a half hour afterward for him to do up all his buttons. If they made four-piece suits, he’d wear them. And he washes—he washes everything, every time."

"Stop," Richard begged. "Stop telling me all this."


He saw through her words to what she was saying—that these lovers, however we love them, are not us, are not sacred as reality is sacred. We are reality. We have made children. We gave each other our young bodies. We promised to grow old together.

Joan described an incident in her house, once theirs, when the plumber unexpectedly arrived. Richard had to laugh with her; that house’s plumbing problems were an old joke, an ongoing saga. "The back-door bell rang, Mr. Kelly stomped right in, you know how the kitchen echoes in the bedroom, we had had it." She looked, to see if her meaning was clear. He nodded. Her eyes sparkled. She emphasized, of the knock, "Just at the very moment," and, with a gesture akin to the gentle clap in the car a world ago, drew with one fingertip a v in the air, as if beginning to write "very." The motion was eager, shy, exquisite, diffident, trusting: he saw all its meanings and knew that she would never stop gesturing within him, never; though a decree come between them, even death, her gestures would endure, cut into glass.



more elegiac feelings american: hart crane looks at a fading past he never knew

"My Grandmother’s Love Letters" was first published in the The Dial in 1920, and included in Crane’s first book of poems, White Buildings (1926).

My Grandmother’s Love Letters


There are no stars tonight
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.

There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.

Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.

And I ask myself:

"Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?"

Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

—Hart Crane, 1899-1932

leonard michaels on youth in love

"I felt envy, a primitive feeling. Also a sin. But go not feel it. According to Melanie Klein, envy is among the foundation stones of Brain House. Nobody is free of it. I believed envy is the chief principle of life: what one man has, another lacks. Sam is smart; hence, you are stupid. Joey is tall; hence, you are a midget. Kill Sam and Joey, you are smart and tall. Such sublogical thoughts applied also to eating. The first two bites satisfy a person’s hunger. After that comes eating, which satisfies more than hunger. Seeing hundreds of people eat three times a day in the dining room brought to mind the Yiddish expression "Eating is nothing to sneeze at," which is no joke. Guests looked serious in the dining room, as if they had come to eat what life denied them—power, brains, beauty, love, wealth—in the form of borscht, boiled beef, chopped liver, sour cream, etc. In the bunkhouse at night, falling asleep, I saw hundreds of faces geshtupt, like chewing machines in a factory that ingests dreams."


By Leonard Michaels


One summer, at a honeymoon resort in the Catskill mountains, I saw a young woman named Sheila Kahn fall in love with her waiter. She had been married a few hours earlier in the city. This was her first night at dinner. The waiter bent beside her and asked if she wanted the steak or the chicken. She stared at him with big sick eyes. Her husband said, "Sheila?" Three other couples at the table, all just married, looked at Sheila as if waiting for the punch line of a joke. She sat like a dummy.

The waiter, Larry Starker, a tall fellow with Nordic cheekbones and an icy gray stare, was considered dangerously handsome. In fact, he’d modeled for the covers of cheap paperbacks, appearing as a Teutonic barbarian about to molest a semi-naked female who lay at his feet, manacled, writhing in terror-pleasure. He’d also appeared chained to a post, watching the approach of a whip-queen in leather regalia. But the real Larry Starker, twenty-two years old, didn’t have a clue about exotic sex. He’d completed a year of dental school and hoped to have an office someday in Brighton Beach, where he’d grown up playing handball with the neighborhood guys. Like everyone else on the dining-room staff, he was working to make money for books and tuition.

I was eighteen years old, Larry’s busboy. This was my first job in a good resort. The previous three summers, I’d worked in a schlock-house where, aside from heavy meals and a lake with a rowboat, there were few amenities, and the dining-room staff slept two to a bed. Husbands arrived on weekends, set a card table on the lawn, and played pinochle, ignoring the women and children they’d come to visit. My own family used to go to a place like that every summer, and my father was one of the men playing pinochle. He never once took me fishing or hunting, like an American dad, but then he never went fishing or hunting. The only place he ever took me was to the stonecutter’s, one Sunday afternoon, when he ordered his gravestone.

As Larry’s busboy, I cleared away dishes, poured coffee, served desserts, then set the tables for the next meal. Between breakfast and lunch, we had an hour break and we all lay about dozing in the bunkhouse or sat on our narrow beds writing letters home. Between lunch and dinner, there was a two-and-a-half-hour break. Some of us slept through the afternoon heat, others spent the time reading, and others played cards, or handball, or basketball, or went swimming. After we worked dinner, nobody wanted to sleep. It was then about 9:00 p.m. We’d taken orders from strangers in the dining room, and chefs had screamed at us from behind a steam table. We should have been exhausted, but the nighttime air smelled good, the starry mountain skies were exhilarating, and we were young.

As we showered and dressed, the fine strain of a flute came through the darkness. It meant the Latin dance band was playing. In clean shirts and sport jackets, we left the bunkhouse, hurrying toward the lights of the casino, where we danced the mambo. Our partners were the young brides. When that became depressing, we took off for another resort and danced with free women, governesses, chambermaids, or guests who were unmarried or whose husbands were in the city.

There may have been waitresses in the Catskill resorts, but I never met one. Since women guests far outnumbered the men, waiters and busboys were universally hired to make up the shortage. At the honeymoon resort there was no shortage, but the dining-room staff was all men, anyway. I don’t know why. Maybe the atmosphere of newly married bliss forbade hanky-panky among the help.

We called Latin music "Jewish." The wailing melodies were reminiscent of Hebraic and Arabic chanting, but we only meant the music was exciting to us.

Latin music was the rage in the early fifties. You would hear the dining-room staff singing in Spanish: rumbas, mambos, cha-cha-chas. We understood the feeling in the words, not the words. We called Latin music "Jewish." The wailing melodies were reminiscent of Hebraic and Arabic chanting, but we only meant the music was exciting to us. A fusion music, conflating Europe and Africa. In mambo, Spanish passion throbs to Nigerian syncopation. In Yiddish, the German, Hebrew, Spanish, Polish, and English words are assimilated to a culture and a system of sound. The fox-trot and lindy hop we called "American." They had a touch of Nigeria, too, but compared to mambo or Yiddish, they felt like "Jingle Bells."

Handsome Larry Starker, with his straight dark-blond hair and long bones, danced the mambo as well as anyone at the Palladium in Manhattan, great hall of the conga drum, Machito, and Tito Puente. Other dancers made a space when Larry stepped onto the floor. The music welcomed him, horns became more brilliant, congas and timbales talked to his belly. He did no fancy steps, but in the least of his motions he was wonderful, displaying the woman who danced in his arms, turning her around and around for the world to see.

Larry gave me 40 percent of his tips, the customary waiter-busboy split. On Sundays after lunch, guests checked out and tipped the waiter six dollars, and the busboy four. Sometimes they put money directly in my hand, but more often they gave it to Larry. We shoved the money into the pockets of our black sweaty trousers. Later, in the bunkhouse, each of us went off alone and pulled out sticky wads by the fistful, peeling away bills, counting as they fluttered to the bed. At the end of the summer, having worked ten-to-fourteen-hour days, sometimes seven days a week, I expected to make between eight and twelve hundred dollars.

I’d have done a little better working with a waiter who didn’t have icy eyes and a face like a cliff above the North Sea, beaten by freezing winds. Larry spoke Yiddish and was fluent in the mambo, but he looked like an SS officer. Not a good way to look after World War II, especially in the Catskills, where the shadow of death, extending from millions of corpses in Europe, darkened the consciousness of surviving millions in New York.

Comedians, called tummlers, who played the Catskills were even stranger in their effects than Larry. Masters of Jewish self-mockery, they filled casino theaters with a noise never previously heard in the human universe—to my ears, anyway—the happy shrieks of unghosted yiddim. "What does not destroy me makes me stronger," says Nietzsche. We laughed. We danced the mambo. Because we weren’t dead, we lived.

Entertainers came streaming up from the city—actors, magicians, hypnotists, jugglers, acrobats, impersonators, singers. But with or without entertainment, there was always dancing. After the dancing, we sometimes drove to a late-night Chinese restaurant called Corey’s, ate sweet-and-sour spareribs, and listened to a small Latin band. Piano, bass, horn, congas, and a black-haired Latina in a bright red dress who played maracas and sang so beautifully you wanted to die at the table, lips shining with grease, cigarette forgotten, burning your fingers. She played maracas as she sang and danced, taking small steps, her shoulders level, hips subtly swaying to intimate the grandeurs and devastations of love. Pleasure was in the air, day and night.

The newly married couple, Sheila and Morris Kahn, took meals in their honeymoon suite for two days after their embarrassment. Larry said, ironically, "I don’t expect them to tip big." I thought they had checked out of the resort and we’d never see them again, but the evening of the third day, they returned to the dining room.

Wearing a bright blue dress and high heels, Sheila looked neat, cool, and invulnerable. She took her seat, greeted everyone at the table, plucked her napkin out of the water glass, where I’d propped it up like a tall white iris, and placed it in her lap. But she didn’t make it past the soup. Larry set down her bowl. She stood up clutching the napkin and hurried away. Morris gaped after her, his ears like flames of shame, his cheeks pale. An urgent question struggled to shape his lips, then perished. The blue dress of happiness fled among the tables. Larry muttered, "I didn’t do anything," and strode off to the kitchen to pick up the next course. I collected Sheila’s soup bowl, contents untasted, and put it out of sight.

Morris lingered through the meal. I heard him talking, in a loud, officious voice, about Hitler. "According to my sources," said Morris, "Hitler isn’t dead." Nobody disagreed with his sources. The flight of Sheila, the only subject, wasn’t mentioned.

Larry read one book all summer, which was about the mechanics and pathology of the human mouth. Otherwise, he was dedicated to Latin dancing and handball. He took on challengers at handball every week—lifeguards, tennis instructors, waiters, and bellhops—first-class players who often came from resorts miles away. Some referred to him as "the Nazi," even to his face. Catskill resorts weren’t polite society, and conversation could be blunt and cruel. To call Larry a Nazi wasn’t fair, but he looked the way he looked. It had an alienating effect, despite his Yiddish, despite his being a Jew.

The hard black rubber ball, banging the backboard, sounded like gunfire as Larry annihilated challengers. I didn’t root for Larry, because he always won, anyway, and I felt sorry for the others. They wanted badly to beat him, as if more than a game and a couple of dollars were at stake. He knew what they felt, men with strength and speedy reflexes who had come from miles away to beat the Nazi. He beat them week after week.

There was another great handball player, "Hairy Murray," also known as "the maniac from Hackensack." He worked the resort circuit as a tummler. He’d challenged Larry, and a date had been set for a game. The odds were usually around ten to one against the challenger, but against Hairy Murray there were no odds. People wanted to see these competitors in the flesh, the way people want to see horses before a race. I assumed Larry would win. He played like the God of Isaiah, an insatiable destroyer. Larry’s dancing wasn’t altogether different. He moved without a smile or the dopey rictus of ballroom professionals, his body seized by rhythms of the earth. I could live with his inhuman sublimity, and even his good looks, but I couldn’t think that I’d ever have Larry’s effect on a woman.

Seeing hundreds of people eat three times a day in the dining room brought to mind the Yiddish expression "Eating is nothing to sneeze at," which is no joke. Guests looked serious in the dining room, as if they had come to eat what life denied them.

I felt envy, a primitive feeling. Also a sin. But go not feel it. According to Melanie Klein, envy is among the foundation stones of Brain House. Nobody is free of it. I believed envy is the chief principle of life: what one man has, another lacks. Sam is smart; hence, you are stupid. Joey is tall; hence, you are a midget. Kill Sam and Joey, you are smart and tall. Such sublogical thoughts applied also to eating. The first two bites satisfy a person’s hunger. After that comes eating, which satisfies more than hunger. Seeing hundreds of people eat three times a day in the dining room brought to mind the Yiddish expression "Eating is nothing to sneeze at," which is no joke. Guests looked serious in the dining room, as if they had come to eat what life denied them—power, brains, beauty, love, wealth—in the form of borscht, boiled beef, chopped liver, sour cream, etc. In the bunkhouse at night, falling asleep, I saw hundreds of faces geshtupt, like chewing machines in a factory that ingests dreams.

I also saw Sheila’s light brown curly hair and her appealing face, with its pointy lips and small, sweet chin, and her nice figure, today called a "body." Like a sculptor’s vision, it was nearly palpable, an image in my hands. I remembered her agony, too, how she stood up clutching her napkin, how she seemed transfigured, going from mere appealingness to divinity. She got to me, though she wasn’t my type, and I’d have felt nothing, maybe, if she hadn’t been deranged by Larry.

The morning after she fled the dining room, Morris Kahn arrived for breakfast alone. He carried the Times. It was to suggest that he was an intelligent man, with interests beyond personal life. He opened the Times and began to read. Larry approached like a robot waiter, wordless. Not looking up, Morris said, "Scrambled eggs."

Larry spun away, returned with scrambled eggs.

Morris said, "These eggs are cold."

Larry took away the eggs.

Morris said, "Fuck eggs. Bring pancakes."

Larry quick-marched to the kitchen, reappeared with pancakes.

Morris let them get cold, then ordered more.

I stepped forward, took away cold pancakes.

Larry set down warm pancakes.

Morris read his newspaper, ate nothing. Larry’s white rayon shirt, gray with sweat, sucked his chest. Hair, pressing up against the rayon, was a dark scribble of lines.

Morris, about thirty years old, maybe ten or twelve years older than Sheila, was almost completely bald, and he had a pink, youthful, placid face that showed no anguish. He ordered pancakes five times. He wanted to make a bad scene, but, like a round-headed dog, he was hopelessly affectionate and at a loss for an appropriate violence. Larry and I sped back and forth, rolling our eyes at each other as we passed, in opposite directions, through the swinging doors of the kitchen. At last Morris was content. He rose and walked out, the Times folded under his arm, like one who has completed important business and is at leisure to amble in the sunlight.

That morning, he checked out of the resort with Sheila. At the desk, he left an envelope with Larry’s name scrawled across the front. It contained a thirty-five-dollar tip, much more than he’d have left if he’d stayed a week and never missed a meal. The tip was an apology. Had Morris been a Catskill gangster, Larry Starker would have disappeared, dumped in a mountain lake.

In the following weeks, Larry received phone calls from the city, sometimes in the middle of the night. It was no secret who was calling. He stayed long on the phone and never discussed the calls. Sheila had spent only a few days at the resort, and if she and Larry had found moments to talk, nobody noticed. Lovers are sly, making do in circumstances less convenient than the buildings and grounds of a resort in the Catskills.

One afternoon, in the break after lunch, I was lying in my bunk, groggy with fatigue and heat, unable to sleep or to sit up and finish reading The Stranger, in which Camus’s hero mysteriously murders an Arab, on a blindingly sunny beach in Algiers, and feels no remorse, feels hardly anything else, and has no convictions. A modem believer, I supposed, different from the traditional kind, like Saint Teresa, who draws conviction from feeling. I thought the book couldn’t have been written before the Holocaust.

Larry was lying in the bed next to mine. I heard his voice: "What do you say?"

"All right," I answered, hearing my own voice, as I sprawled in stuporous languor after lunch, a dairy meal, which was always the hardest of the day. Guests had to sample everything. Busboy trays became mountains of dirty dishes. The dining room was too warm. The kitchen was hot, and the wooden floors were soft and slick, dangerous when rushing with a heavy tray on your shoulder. The chefs, boiling behind the steam counter, screamed at you for no reason. In the middle of the meal, the dishwasher cut himself on broken glass. He couldn’t stop working. More and more dishes were arriving, and there was blood everywhere.

"Then get up."

"Doing it," I said.

I’d agreed to play handball, surprised and nattered by Larry’s invitation, never before offered, but my body got up reluctantly, lifting from the clutch of mud. I followed him out of the bunkhouse. He’d brought a ball and two gloves. "You lefty or righty?" he asked. I mumbled, "Righty," as if not sure. He said, "Here. Take both gloves." He didn’t really need them, since he could hit killers with his iron-hard, naked hands. In the glare and stillness, the ball boomed off the backboard. As we warmed up, my body returned to itself. I hit a few good shots, then said, "I’m ready." We played one game. Larry beat me by eighteen points. It felt like an insult. He’d slammed the ball unnecessarily on every play. My palms were burning and swollen. Walking back to the bunkhouse, he said, "Sheila Kahn has a sister. Adele. Would you like a date with her? They live in Riverdale."

"Too far."

"I’m talking about later, in the city. Not now, not in the Catskills, moron. She’s seventeen, goes to Barnard, a chemistry major. Sheila says Adele is pretty. You and Adele. Me and Sheila. A double date."

"Double-shmubble. I don’t have wheels, and I don’t want to sit in the subway for an hour and a half to meet a chemist."

"Ever hear of Glock Brothers Manufacturing?"

"No. Go alone."

"I’ll pick you up on my way from Brooklyn. You never heard of Glock Manufacturing?"

"You think, if I go with you, it will be easier to face Sheila’s parents. Since you ruined her life."

Larry said, "Don’t hock mir a chinek," which means, "Don’t bang me a teakettle," or, without the Yiddish compression, "Don’t bug me with empty chatter." He continued: "You don’t know shit. You’ll never get anywhere."

"Fuck you. I don’t like to be used."

"Sheila’s father is Herschel Glock."

"Fuck him, too."

"Glock Manufacturing makes airplane parts for Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. Her father owns the company."

"So he’s a rich man. So his daughters are rich girls. Big deal."

"I can’t talk to you."

"You want to talk to me? Why didn’t you tell me?"

To go out with Sheila’s sister would have been kicks, but Larry let me score only three points and used me like a dog to retrieve the ball for him so he could hit it again too hard and fast for me. Besides, I had no car and didn’t want charity. Who knows what the date would cost? Maybe twenty bucks. It took a week, serving a married couple, to make fifteen. I planned to go alone the next day to the courts and slam the ball till the pain was unbearable. It was near the end of the season, not enough time to improve much, and I’d never beat Larry anyway. But if I could win five points, I’d say I twisted my ankle, and quit in the middle of the game, and never play him again. He wouldn’t know for sure if he could beat me. The sunlight was unbearable. And I was too mixed up with feeling to know what I wanted, but I could refuse to go out with Sheila’s sister. That was a powerful response, disappointing to Larry and hurtful to me, because I wanted to go with Sheila’s sister. In the bunkhouse we flopped on our beds, two feet apart, and lay shining with sweat. I reviewed the game in memory, making myself more depressed and angry. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t relax. Larry said, "Is it raining?"

"It’s the sunniest day on record," I said, and my hurt feelings grabbed my voice. "You want to know something, Larry. We’re different. We don’t look like each other. We don’t think like each other. We don’t nothing like each other. It’s a miracle that we can even speak and understand what’s said, either in English or Yiddish."

He groaned.

I glanced at him and saw eyes without pupils, showing only whites. A horrible face, as if he were tortured by my remarks or he’d remembered something extremely important that he hadn’t done.

I sat up, saying, "You’re making me sick, you freak," then realized he couldn’t hear me. He was foaming at the corners of his mouth, and his body was thrashing like a live wire. Foam pinkish with blood streamed down his chin. I shouted for help. Nobody came. I heard voices in the next room. I ran into the next room. A bed was strewn with dollars and quarters and playing cards. Two guys sat on the adjacent bed to the left, facing three on the bed to the right. Nobody noticed me until I brought both fists down on the cards and dollars. Quarters flew up in the air. I shouted, "Larry is having a fit."

They rushed after me into my room. Larry, still thrashing, was sliding up the wall against his back, as if to escape a snake on his mattress. His face was blue. Bloody foam was running down his neck. Someone said, "He’s swallowing his tongue. Do something." I saw a comb on the window ledge above Larry’s bed and snatched it. Two guys seized Larry’s arms and forced him down flat onto the bed. I straddled his chest and pried his mouth open with the edge of the comb, clenching it in my fists at either end. I said, "Open, open, open," as I forced the edge of the comb between his teeth, trying to press his tongue down. He went limp abruptly. The guys let go of his arms. I slid off his chest. We backed away. His head rolled to one side, then slowly to the other, as if to shake away the seizure. He opened his eyes, seeing, and said, "What?" The word was dim, from far away. I said, "Are you all right, Larry? You had a seizure."


I took over his station at dinner, waiting his tables. Busboys came shooting from nearby stations to clear dishes, doing double work. We’d have done the same at breakfast, but he insisted on returning to his station. He made it through the day with no help. That night, in the casino bar, drinking beers, he said he felt fine. He didn’t remember the seizure. I described it to him, feeling nervous and guilty, as if I shouldn’t be telling him this about himself. He said it had happened before. Only his parents knew.

"I’m worried," he said.

"Of course."

"Hairy Murray the tummler is driving up to play handball tomorrow afternoon."

"You’re worried about that? Call off the game."

"I’ll rip his head off."

"Sure. But not tomorrow."

"I put money down."

"Forfeit. Tell him you’re sick. Hairy Murray doesn’t need your money. He’ll let you keep it."

"He hangs out with hard guys. He won’t let me keep one cent. It’s a question of honor."

"It’s a question of you being sick."

"I can play."

"You want to be king of the little black ball."


We sat for a while in silence. Then I said, "Because of Sheila?"

"That’s over."

"Yesterday you were fixing me up with her sister, the great chemist."

"I phoned Sheila last night. I told her what happened and said to stay out of my life."

"What did she say?"

"She was crying."

"I’m sorry. So why are you playing?"

"I want to win."

"You want to lose."

"If I need a psychiatrist, I’ll give you a ring."

"Do that. I’ll have you put in a straitjacket. You had a fit right in my face. El gran mambo."

When people arrived from other resorts, they sat on the grass. Everyone knew about Larry’s seizure. It made the game more interesting.

Hairy Murray arrived like a boxer, with an entourage. He was on the short side, with a thick neck, wide and deeply sloping shoulders, and short arms. He wore a white linen suit, white shoes, and sunglasses. He looked tropical. When he stepped out of his Cadillac, he began limping heavily toward the handball court, then, suddenly, he became a blind man, walking in the wrong direction. His entourage, five guys in flashy gabardine slacks, were laughing their heads off. The dining-room and kitchen staff were already in the stands, along with the musicians and a lot of the guests. When people arrived from other resorts, they sat on the grass. Everyone knew about Larry’s seizure. It made the game more interesting.

Hairy Murray waved to the crowd, then began to strip. One of the gabardine men had his shorts and sneakers. It was another joke, changing in public. When Hairy Murray dropped his pants, he snapped them back up again instantly. He had no underwear. He pretended to be confused, shamed by his forgetfulness. Everyone had seen his big cock slop free of his pants. Men cheered and booed. Women stared wildly at each other, smiling with disgust. Hairy Murray’s entourage, virtually in tears, was laughing as they made a circle around him, shielding him from view while he changed.

Larry ignored the spectacle and warmed up, serving the ball to himself, slamming righty, then lefty. He looked thoughtful, faintly slower. He wouldn’t even glance at Hairy Murray, whose legs, arms,back, and neck were covered with black hair. A gold Star of David, on a fine gold chain, floated on the black sea of chest hair. I thought maybe he would beat Larry. A man couldn’t have so much hair without being exceptionally gifted. His arms were stumpy but looked powerful. The question was, could he move fast? Larry’s hope was to hit wide angles, make Hairy Murray chase the ball.

The coin was tossed. Larry called tails. It came down tails. Hairy Murray quit joking, took his position on the court, and braced to receive the first serve, a tremendous boom off the board, speeding back low and at a wide angle to the left sideline. Hairy Murray was after it with a blur of short steps. He sent the ball back with the least flick of his left wrist, a soft, high lob. Larry went drifting to the end line, where he returned hard, but no slam was possible. They played even for seventeen points. Neither was clearly superior. Then Hairy Murray served, won four straight points, and the game was over. There wasn’t a sound from the stands and nobody moved to pay off bets. Hairy Murray said, "Double or nothing?"

Larry shrugged. "I don’t think so."

"I’ll spot you the four points you lost and triple the bet."

"Thanks, no."

"You don’t have the cash?"

"Not today."

"You’ll owe me."

"You want to play me that bad?"

"I want to kill you." He said this smiling.

Larry looked vague, as if he didn’t remember he was a Teutonic barbarian, handball ace, mambo genius, future dentist, and the man Sheila Kahn had been smitten by so hard it ruined her life. I wanted to go to the bunkhouse, go to sleep. Seeing him like this was a kind of betrayal. Nameless, creepy feelings swarmed about my heart. I wished I could shoot him and put an end to my feelings. I wished he would say goodbye, go. He couldn’t say anything, and couldn’t go. He bounced the ball, caught it, bounced it. Hairy Murray put his hands on his hips, waiting, patience and contempt in his posture.

Then another man walked out on the court. A bald man, so much the opposite of Hairy Murray, he looked like his taller brother. It was Morris Kahn. I hadn’t noticed him arrive. "Take the bet," he said. "I’ll cover it." Morris looked haggard, with dark, puffy crescents under his eyes.

Hairy Murray said, "Hey, Starker, you hear this cat?"

"I don’t want to lose your money," said Larry to Morris.

"So don’t lose it." Morris’s voice was quick and definitive. "Do you think I drove up here, two hours from the city, to see a loser?"

Hairy Murray, grinning, said, "Four points, kid. Beat me." He twitched faintly, enough to suggest epilepsy, then grinned, holding his hands out, palms up, to suggest no harm intended. Morris said, "Khazar fisl kosher," meaning, more or less, Hairy Murray is a pig showing us clean little feet. Hairy Murray laughed, exhibiting every tooth and a flare of crimson gums. In his thickness and vigor, he was pleased; didn’t feel injured. Smiling at Larry, he said, "What’s shaking, baby? You’ll take a four-point spot?"

He looked at Morris; said nothing.

"A four-point spot is for losers," said Morris. "Larry plays even. Double or nothing." Morris reached into his pants pocket, came up with a quarter, tossed it high, and said, "Call, Larry." The coin hit the ground and rolled away too far to make out how it landed. Hairy Murray looked at Larry and said, "Nu, boychick, you call it, or I’ll call it."

Larry looked vague, as if he didn’t remember he was a Teutonic barbarian, handball ace, mambo genius, future dentist, and the man Sheila Kahn had been smitten by so hard it ruined her life.

Larry said, "Tails." I heard a sort of keening in his voice, high and miserable. It came from neither fear nor defiance, but, like the wind of Golgotha, from desolation. In that instant, I knew the difference between winners and losers has no relation to talent or beauty or personal will, what athletes call "desire," but only to a will beyond ourselves. Larry had just established his connection to it. If I weren’t exceedingly frugal, I’d have bet every cent I made that summer on Larry. He slipped off his wristwatch and T-shirt, handed them to me, then returned to the court. His eyes were lonely, remotely seeing, unlike the blind man a day ago, torso electrified and thrashing. Charged with cold control, he looked grim and invincible. I wasn’t the only one who felt it. People were making new bets even before the first serve. Hairy Murray took in the change. He chuckled, as if he’d thought of something funny but decided not to say it. I think he felt fear. Between himself and Larry, the air had become glass. Hairy Murray would play against himself, his limits.

Morris went to the coin to see how it lay. He said, "Larry serves." Morris then picked up the coin and walked off the court, returning to the stands, where he’d left his newspaper. He began reading as he had that morning in the dining room. The moments of the game were of no concern.

Larry bent low to serve. His long naked arm swept back, then flashed forward. He slapped the ball, and it boomed off the wood face of the backboard. Hairy Murray returned boom for boom. Larry then hit a killer. Murray couldn’t return it without tearing his knuckles on the concrete. He let it go. Larry served again, stronger, faster. Near the end of the game, Morris looked up from his newspaper. There was no excitement in his eyes and hardly much interest. He looked back at the newspaper, its bad news. From the way his shoulders slumped, I felt his resignation. Larry won by eleven points. People were counting money, passing it back and forth. Morris put the paper down. His expression was tired and neither pleased nor displeased. He rose and walked toward Larry.

What Morris and Sheila had said to each other can’t be known, but I imagined fifty conversations, how Sheila called Morris after Larry told her to stay out of his life, how she cried. It was inconceivable that she had asked Morris to help her with Larry, but I knew she had. Morris must have loved her a lot. In his pain and disappointment, he drove up from the city to talk to Larry and heard about the game. Afterward, he and Larry walked away together. Morris’s round, youthful face was turned toward Larry. Larry stared at the ground. Their conversation was brief. Morris extended his hand. Larry extended his. I didn’t want to watch them and walked away to the bunkhouse, carrying Larry’s T-shirt bunched up in my fist with the watch.

A few days later, the season ended, and the dining-room staff went home. I didn’t go out on any double dates with Larry. I didn’t see him again until three summers later. I’d been promoted to waiter at the honeymoon resort. Larry appeared in the casino bar one night, drinking alone. He wore a dark blue suit, white-on-white shirt with sapphire-studded cuff links, and a yellow silk tie. He looked elegant as a gangster. In his chest and face, he was slightly heavier. "Larry Starker," I said. He looked at me without a word as he shook my hand, offering only a little smile, as if he were remembering his opinion of me.

"Sigmund Freud, right?"

The hotel tummler, master of ceremonies at the resort, thrust between us before we could talk, slapping Larry on the shoulder, saying, "Let’s go, Doctor. Where’s the wife?" Walking away, Larry glanced at me and said, "Hang around. Come backstage later." Then the tummler was onstage, introducing a dance team. They had won a Latin dance contest in Brooklyn and were touring the Catskills. "Larry, the dentist, and beautiful Sheila. Give these kids a hand."

The first number, a triple mambo, was wild with congas, bongos, and timbales. Cowbells were clanging, gidong-gidong-gidong-dong. The beat could make dancers look frantic, but Larry and Sheila were smooth and cool. Him in his dark suit and yellow tie. She in spike heels and a black, supremely elegant cocktail dress. A moment ago, she might have been sipping an exquisitely dry martini. In the stage light, in this music, they were king and queen. I ached with admiration and primitive envy, and applauded madly. Afterward in a room backstage, I shook hands with Larry again, told him he and Sheila were fantastic, and reminded him that I’d once been his busboy.

He said, "I know."

"I’m waiting table now. Our old station."

To my own ears, I sounded a little false, pressing our connection too happily. My feelings were impure. I’d never actually been able to love him as a friend. He introduced me to Sheila, his wife, and said she was almost four months pregnant. It didn’t show. She sat in a folding chair, legs crossed, smoking a cigarette.

I said, "Hi."

She said, "Hi."

1 didn’t feel invited to step closer and shake her hand, but she nodded to me with an empty smile, then looked at Larry. The moment was strangely awkward, nobody saying anything. I felt intrusive. Then Larry said he had his dental degree.

"Not everyone in my class made it. You need hand-eye coordination. Like a fighter pilot. You’re always looking in a tiny mirror to see what your hands are doing—in reverse—inside somebody’s mouth."

"Are you still playing handball?"

Sheila’s father had bought him into an office in Brighton Beach, he said, walking distance to the handball courts, but he didn’t play much. He was too busy, too tired at the end of the day. Then he talked about their dance routine.

"We’re working a story into it. The man dances in place. He is almost motionless. The woman dances for his pleasure, like she is exhibiting herself. He watches, but still dancing in place. Suspense is building, building, until the woman can’t hold back, can’t stay away. She goes to him. It’s a chase, but different."

He worked himself up as he talked, and began to clap out the clave rhythm—1, 2, 3—1,2—doing the steps in place, carrying himself like a tall, smooth, arrogant seducer. Sheila, sitting in her chair, watched with no expression until she realized he was seriously involved in the routine and expected her to join him. She said, "Aw, Larry. Enough already. I just finished dancing my ass off."

Larry looked good, even when almost motionless; he had the music inside him. He ignored her protest, and kept dancing in place, clapping out the clave sharp and loud, and he raised an eyebrow the least degree, and faintly, he curled his lip. Barbarian lights flashed in his teeth. He said, "Dance, bitch."

Sheila sighed, dropped her cigarette on the floor, looked down, and stepped on it. She looked back up at him with the face of a sweet, pathetic dummy and whimpered, "No."

Larry kept on dancing, clapping out the beat, staring at her. The tension was unbearable. I wanted to say, "I’ll see you two do it another time," or, "Leave her alone," but I didn’t know if I was looking at a dance routine or real life. As if in a trance, Sheila was then rising from her chair, beginning to move toward Larry, tentatively, moving to the beat in a deliberately broken, mechanical way. She said, "No," once more, but was now very close to him, face to face, then leaning into him, pressing against his chest. He had stopped clapping, and they were pressed flat together from chest to thigh, dancing. There was silence in the room, except for the rhythm of their feet sliding along the floor, perfectly together.

As I watched, gooseflesh swept along my arms, like a breeze across the surface of a Catskill lake. At the bottom of the lake, in the shimmering murk, I made out Larry Starker, ankles chained to cinder blocks, straight blond hair streaming up, wavy in the water, slow as smoke. His arms were flailing at his sides. There was a bullet hole in his forehead.



—from Leonard Michaels, The Collected Stories


alejandro zambra’s bonsai: “a simple story that becomes complicated”


“In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in reality he was alone some years before the death of her, of Emilia. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature…”


Winner of Chile’s Literary Critics’ Award for Best Novel, Bonsai, by Alejandro Zambra, is structurally innovative, yet written in a deceptively simple manner. The story of a young man and his girlfriend, Bonsai explores the connections between life, love, and art. The story’s 83 pages belie the sheer force of Zambra’s cool and limpid prose and oblique narration somehow produce an emotionally nuanced account of the birth and death of a love affair.





Translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis


For Alhelí


"Years passed, and the only person who didn’t change was the young woman in

the book."


—Yasunari Kawabata


"Pain is measured and detailed."

—Gonzalo Milláan


I. Mass


In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was alone some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:


The first night they shared a bed was an accident. They had an exam in Spanish Syntax II, a subject neither of them had mastered, but since they were young and in theory willing to do anything, they were willing, also, to study Spanish Syntax U at the home of the Vergara twins. The study group turned out to be quite a bit larger than imagined: someone put on music, saying he was accustomed to studying to music, another brought vodka, insisting that it was difficult for her to concentrate without vodka, and a third went to buy oranges. because vodka without orange juice seemed unbearable. At three in the morning they were perfectly drunk, so they decided to go to sleep. Although Julio would have preferred to spend the night with one of the Vergara sisters, he quickly resigned himself to sharing the servants’ quarters with Emilia.


Julio didn’t like that Emilia asked so many questions in class, and Emilia disliked the fact that Julio passed his classes while hardly setting foot on campus, but that night they both discovered the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with only a little effort. Needless to say, they did terribly on the exam. A week later, for their second chance at the exam, they studied again with the Vergaras and slept together again, even though this second time it was not necessary for them to share a room, since the twins’ parents were on a trip to Buenos Aires.


Shortly before getting involved with Julio, Emilia had decided that from now on she would foliar, as the Spanish do, she would no longer make love with anyone, she would not screw or bone anybody, and much less would she fuck. This is a Chilean problem, Emilia said, then, to Julio, with an ease that only came to her in the darkness, and in a very low voice, of course: This is a problem for Chilean youth, we’re too young to make love, and in Chile if you don’t make love you can only fuck, but it would be disagreeable to fuck you, I’d prefer it if we shagged, si folidramos, as they do in Spain.


At that time Emilia had never been to Spain. Years later she would live in Madrid, a city where she’d shag quite a bit, though no longer with Julio, but rather, mainly, with Javier Martinez and with Angel Garcia Atienza and with Julian Alburquerque and even, but only once, and under some pressure, with

Karolina Kopeć, her Polish friend. On this night, this second night, on the other hand, Julio was transformed into the second sexual partner of Emilia’s life, into, as mothers and psychologists say with some hypocrisy, Emilia’s second man, while Emilia in turn became Julio’s first serious relationship. Julio avoided serious relationships, hiding not from women so much as from seriousness, since he knew seriousness was as dangerous as women, or more so. Julio knew he was doomed to seriousness, and he attempted, stubbornly, to change his serious fate, to pass the time waiting stoically for that horrible and inevitable day when seriousness would arrive and settle into his life forever.





Emilia’s first boyfriend was dim, but there was authenticity in his dimness. He made many mistakes and almost always knew enough to acknowledge them and make amends, but some mistakes are impossible to make amends for, and the dim one, the first one, made one or two of those unpardonable mistakes. It’s not even worth mentioning them.


Both of them were fifteen years old when they started going out, but when Emilia turned sixteen and seventeen the dim one was still fifteen. That’s how it went: Emilia turned eighteen and nineteen and twenty-four, and he was fifteen; twenty-seven, twenty-eight, and he fifteen, still, until her thirtieth, since Emilia did not keep having birthdays after thirty, and not because she at that point decided to conceal her age, but rather because a few days after turning thirty Emilia died, and so she no longer turned older because she began to be dead. 

Emilia’s second boyfriend was too white. With him she discovered mountaineering in the Andes, bicycle rides, jogging, and yogurt. It was, in particular, a time of a lot of yogurt, and this, for Emilia, turned out to be important, because she was emerging from a period of a lot of pisco, of long and complicated nights of pisco with Coca-Cola and pisco with lemon, and also of pisco straight up, dry, no ice. They groped each other a lot but never arrived at coitus, because he was very white and this made her distrustful, despite the fact that she herself was very white, almost completely white, with short hair that was very black, she did have that.



The third one was, in fact, a sick man. From the start she knew the relationship
was doomed to failure, but even so they lasted a year and a half, and he was her first sexual partner, her first man, when she was eighteen, and he was twenty-two.


Between the third and the fourth there were several one-night stands, spurred, as it were, by boredom.


The fourth was Julio.

jack spicer—”poems should echo & reecho against each other..they cannot live alone any more than we”


The City of Boston


The city of Boston is filled with frogheaded

flies and British policemen. The other day I saw

the corpse of Emily Dickinson floating up the

Charles River.


Sweet God, it is lonely to be dead. Sweet

God, is there any god to worship? God stands in

Boston like a public statue. Sweet God, is there

any God to swear love by? Or love—it is lonely,

is lonely, is lonely to be lonely in Boston.


Now Emily Dickinson is floating down the

Charles River like an Indian princess. Now

naked savages are climbing out of all the graveyards.

Now the Holy Ghost drips birdshit on

the nose of God. Now the whole thing stops.

Sweet God, poetry hates Boston.



By Jack Spicer, in the Spring/Summer issue of The Massachusetts Review. Spicer, the author of seven books, died in 1965 at the age of forty. Found among his papers, this poem was written circa 1956. My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer will be published next month by Wesleyan University Press.


—from Harper’s Magazine, July 2008


More Jack Spicer, from


Fifteen False Propositions Against God – Section XIII


Hush now baby don’t say a word

Mama’s going to buy you a mocking bird

The third

Joyful mystery.

The joy that descends on you when all the trees are cut down

and all the fountains polluted and you are still alive waiting

for an absent savior. The third

Joyful mystery.

If the mocking bird don’t sing

Mama’s going to buy you a diamond ring

The diamond ring is God, the mocking bird the Holy Ghost.

The third

Joyful mystery.

The joy that descends on you when all the trees are cut down

and all the fountains polluted and you are still alive waiting

for an absent savior.



Fifteen False Propositions Against God – Section XIV


If the diamond ring turns brass

Mama’s going to buy you a looking glass

Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams

going on a picnic together when they were all students at the

University of Pennsylvania

Now they are all over seventy and the absent baby

Is a mirror sheltering their image.



For Mac


A dead starfish on a beach

He has five branches

Representing the five senses

Representing the jokes we did not tell each other

Call the earth flat

Call other people human

But let this creature lie

Flat upon our senses

Like a love

Prefigured in the sea

That died.

And went to water

All the oceans

Of emotion. All the oceans of emotion

are full of such ffish


Is this dead one of such importance?



Thing Language


This ocean, humiliating in its disguises

Tougher than anything.

No one listens to poetry. The ocean

Does not mean to be listened to. A drop

Or crash of water. It means



Is bread and butter

Pepper and salt. The death

That young men hope for. Aimlessly

It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No

One listens to poetry.



A Red Wheelbarrow


Rest and look at this goddamned wheelbarrow. Whatever

It is. Dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not

For their significance.

For their significant. For being human

The signs escape you. You, who aren’t very bright

Are a signal for them. Not,

I mean, the dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not

Their significance.

And yet more Jack Spicer, from


A Postscript to the Berkeley Renaissance


What have I lost? When shall I start to sing
A loud and idiotic song that makes
The heart rise frightened into poetry
Like birds disturbed?

I was a singer once. I sang that song.
I saw the thousands of bewildered birds
Breaking their cover into poetry
Up from the heart.

What have I lost? We lived in forests then,
Naked as jaybirds in the ever-real,
Eating our toasted buns and catching flies,
And sometimes angels, with our hooting tongues.

I was a singer once. In distant trees
We made the forests ring with sacred noise
Of gods and bears and swans and sodomy,
And no one but a bird could hear our voice.

What have I lost? The trees were full of birds.
We sat there drinking at the sour wine
In gallon bottles. Shouting song
Until the hunters came.

I was a singer once, bird-ignorant.
Time with a gun said, "Stop,
Find other forests. Teach the innocent."
God got another and a third
Birdlimed in Eloquence.

What have I lost? At night my hooting tongue,
Naked of feathers and of softening years,
Sings through the mirror at me like a whippoorwill
And then I cannot sleep.

"I was a singer once," it sings.
"I sing the song that every captured tongue
Sang once when free and wants again to sing.
But I can sing no song I have not sung."

What have I lost? Spook singer, hold your tongue.
I sing a newer song no ghost-bird sings.
My tongue is sharpened on the iron’s edge.
Canaries need no trees. They have their cage.


The Unvert Manifesto and Other Papers Found in the Rare Book Room of the Boston Public Library in the Handwriting of Oliver Charming.  by S.


The Unvert Manifesto

1.      An unvert is neither an invert or an outvert, a pervert or a convert, an introvert or a retrovert. An unvert chooses to have no place to turn.

2.      One should always masturbate on street corners.

3.      Unversion is the attempt to make the sexual act as rare as a rosepetal. It consists of linking the sexual with the greatest cosmic force in the universe  Nonsense, or as we prefer to call it, MERTZ.

4.      Sex should be a frightening experience like a dirty joke or an angel.

5.      Dirty jokes and angels should be frightening experiences.

6.      An unvert must not be homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or autosexual. He must be metasexual. He must enjoy going to bed with his own tears.

7.      Mertz!

8.      All the universe is laughing at you.

9.      Poetry, painting, and cocksucking are all attempts of the unvert to make God laugh.

10. The larger the Dada, the bigger the hole.

11. Sidney Mertz was the only man ever arrested for drunken driving of a steam locomotive. He is now the bartender of the American Legion bar in Jackson, Wyoming.

12. Jews and Negros are not allowed to be unverts. The Jew will never understand unversion and the Negro understands it too well.

13. An unvert loves only other unverts. He will, however, consent to perform an act of unversion with almost anything except lovers and mountain lions.

14. God loves God.

15. Mertz must be applied to sex. People must learn to laugh into each other’s gonads.

16. God is an unvert.

17. Sex without love is better than love without sex. Sex without Mertz is never better than Mertz without sex. Nonsense is an act of friendship.

18. The larger the Dada, the bigger the hole.

19. Nonsense, Mertz, Dada, and God all go to the same nightclubs.

20. So does Graham Macarel.


Excerpts from Oliver Charming’s Diary


October 31, 1953:
    "I must unvent someone named Graham Macarel. He should be about seventeen or eighteen and have a large Dada. I can use him as the hero and victim of my Mertzcycle . . ."

November 5, 1953:
    "Laughed all day. The elements of imagination are exhausting as Hell."

November 23, 1953:
    "It was more successful than I expected. He is beginning to become mythical. I saw him today and he told me that he is taking a course in his art school in which he has to clip examples of racial prejudice from Tarot cards and give their exact date. His art school’s name is the California School of Fine Flowers. His teacher’s name is S. We talked for awhile and I am already beginning to destroy his universe. . . . Method is everything."

December 1, 1953:
    "Love must only be applied at the wrong time and in the wrong place. It must be thrown at the unsuspecting like a custard pie made of poison . . . Nothing destroys Mertz more than custom. Nothing destroys it less than treason."

December 7, 1953:
    "I return to Graham Macarel. (Note – I must be sure to call him Mac. Graham reminds the uninformed imagination of crackers.) He has become a combination of a Boy Scout and a depth charge. He appeals to the primitive sources of nonsense and despair.
    I suspect that his teacher, S., is secretly an unvert  or, at least a spoiled unvert. Something is going on between S. and history. I wonder if Mac realizes that an unvert is an agent of Kubla Khan."

December 9, 1953:
    "’An unvert is an angel of Kubla Khan.’  that’s what Mac said to me last night in the men’s room of the Palace Hotel. At the time he said it he was . . . which is certainly Dada if not Mertz."

December 10, 1953:
    ". . . suspects . . ."

December 18, 1953:
    "It is Christmas vacation at the California School of Fine Flowers. S. was in the bars last night, very drunk. I think he is planning to unvert somebody."

December 19, 1953:
    "I had a conversation with S. late last night. He was again very drunk. ‘Why did you have to invent Graham Macarel?’ he asked me angrily.
    ‘I thought it would be good for your poetry,’ I answered.
    ‘Why didn’t you invent syphilis instead,’ he asked contemptuously. So yesterday I invented syphilis. Today I am going to . . ."

December 22, 1953:
    "S. is in Los Angeles."

December 23, 1953:
    "To appear as human among homosexuals and to appear as divine among heterosexuals . . ."

December 24, 1953:
    "Nobody remains in this city and I have done all my Christmas shopping.
    The Dada in painting is not Duchamp. The Dada in poetry is not Breton. The Dada in sex is not De Sade. All these men were too obsessed with the mechanism of their subject. A crime against nature must also be a crime against art. A crime against art must also be a crime against nature. All beauty is at continuous war with God."

December 25, 1953:
    "Merry Christmas, Graham Macarel."

December 26, 1953:
    "It continually amazes the unprejudiced Mertzian observer that even the people who struggle most against the limits of art are content to have sex in ordinary academic ways, as if they and their bed-partners were nineteenth-century paintings. Or, worse, they will change the point of view (top becomes bottom, male becomes female, etc. etc.) and think, like the magic realists that they are, that they have changed something.
    Everybody is guilty of this – from Cocteau to Beethoven."

December 28, 1953:
    "A sailor asked me last night what the unvert thought of Kinsey. I told him that we held that Kinsey was a valuable evidence of the boredom of un-unverted sex  that ordinary sex had become so monotonous that it had become statistical like farm income or rolling stock totals. I told him that Kinsey was the Zola preparing the way for the new Lautréamont.
    It is remarkable how even science fiction has developed no new attitudes toward sex. The vacant interstellar spaces are filled with exactly the same bedrooms the rocketships left behind. It is only the unvert who dares to speak Martian in bed. I wonder if Kierkegaard had wet dreams."

December 29, 1953:
    "How The Zen Masters Taught Sex To Their Disciples – such a book would be the most useful book a man could publish. Sex is a metaphysical experience. Zen taught that man can only reach the metaphysical by way of the absurd. No, absurd is the wrong word. What is the Chinese for shaggy-dog story?
    The book should be illustrated pornographically but the general style of Mad Comics. It should have a blue cover."

December 30, 1953:
    "S. is in town again. I saw him at the Black Cat. He looked confused at all the lack of excitement around him, as if he believed that a holiday was like a snowstorm and people should notice it.
    We began discussing homosexuality. I, by bringing in subtle pieces of unvert propganda, and he, embarrassed and overintellectual as if he thought, or rather hoped, that I was trying to seduce him."
    ‘We homosexuals are the only minority group that completely lacks any vestige of a separate cultural heritage. We have no songs, no folklore, even our customs are borrowed from our upper-middleclass mothers’, he said."
    The trouble with S. is that he doesn’t understand Martian. I must tell him about the time . . ."

December 31, 1953:
    "I rebel against the tyrrany of the calendar."

January 1, 1954:
    "My analyst is teaching me French."

January 2, 1954:
    "S. says that it is inconsistent for an unvert to have a psychiatrist. He does not understand unversion. The relationship between the analyst and the patient is the firmest and most hallowed, if the most conventional, sexual relationship in the modern world. This is precisely why it must be shaken. It is our task to experience and unvert all sexual relationships."

January 3, 1954:
    "Sometimes, in moments of depression, I think that all this talk of Dada and Mertz is merely the reaction of the unsuccessful cocksucker or artsucker who doesn’t understand beauty when it offers itself to him. Witness Western civilization or the bar last night . . ."

January 4, 1954:
    "Now that I have Graham Macarel, S., and a psychiatrist, all that I need is an angel. One cannot, however, safely invent an angel . . . Lot was the last person to safely invent an angel. He was bored with his lover, with their children, and with all the inhabitants of the immense and sandy Turkish bath that they were living in . . . He invented an angel and then everybody had to kill him . . . Everybody had to kill him not because the angel was as dangerous as a hydrogen bomb (which he was) and not because the angel was beautiful as a Florida hurricane (which he was), but because the angel was a stranger and it is always the habit of Jews and homosexuals to kill strangers . . . They almost caught the angel once in Lot’s chimney, and a sailor once managed to catch hold of its groin as it was disappearing into a broom-closet, but soon fire and brimstone were descending on the town and Lot was walking with his lover along a deserted road on the first range of foothills carrying a packed suitcase . . . The lover looked backwards, of course, to make sure that the angel was not following them and was immediately turned into a life-sized salt statue. It is very difficult to suck the cock of a life-sized salt statue or to sample the delight of sodomy with a pillar . . . Lot left him there and trudged onward alone, with an angel on his back.
    I must take warning from this. There are some inventions even sex does not make necessary."

January 5, 1954:
    "No angel as yet. I wonder if I could steal one. By a bit of clever propaganda I have arranged that Mac will have to report on angels to his history class. This should bring things into focus.
    Mac asked me about angels yesterday  whether I thought they really existed, what they did in bed, etc. etc. I told him that very few people under twenty-five had angels at all. That they were like a kind of combination of Siamese cats and syphilis and for him not to worry if they occasionally tugged at his pubic hairs. He was still uncertain: ‘How can I find any chronology in it?’ he asked plaintively."

January 6, 1954:
    "There is a morning when it rains in the corner of everybody’s bedroom."

January 7, 1954:
    "My psychiatrist, Robert Berg, considers that it is his duty to unvent angels. It must be understood that unvention is as different from unversion as psychoanalysis is from poetry."

January 9, 1954:
    "Mac tells me that he saw an angel resting in a tree above his art school. This must be the angel we have been waiting for."

January 10, 1954:
    "I have seen it too. It is a bearded angel, small as a bird, and answers to the name of Heurtebise. S., being what he is, pretends not to believe and says that it is only an owl or some unlucky night creature. He says that he is sorry for it."

January 11, 1954:
    "The angel keeps screaching in the tree. It is behaving more and more like a bird. We are doing something wrong . . . Perhaps it isn’t our angel."

January 12, 1954:
    "I am gradually able to have the most Mertzian sexual…


Three Marxist Essays


Homosexuality and Marxism


There should be no rules for this but it should be
simultaneous if at all.
  Homosexuality is essentially being alone. Which is
a fight against the capitalist bosses who do not want
us to be alone. Alone we are dangerous.
  Our dissatisfaction could ruin America. Our love
could ruin the universe if we let it.
  If we let our love flower into the true revolution
we will be swamped with offers for beds.



The Jets and Marxism


  The jets hate politics. They grew up in fat cat society
that didn’t even have a depression or a war in it. They
are against capital punishment.
  They really couldn’t care less. They wear switch-blade
knives tied with ribbons. They know that which runs
this country is an IBM machine connected to an IBM
machine. They never think of using their knives against
its aluminum casing.
  A League Against Youth and Fascism should be formed
immediately by our Party. They are our guests. They are


The Jets and Homosexuality


  Once in the golden dawn of homosexuality there was
a philosopher who gave the formula for a new society
"from each, according to his ability, to each according
to his need."
  This formula appears in the New Testament  the
parable of the fig tree  and elsewhere.
  To continue the argument is fruitless.



Second letter to Federico Garcia Lorca

Dear Lorca,

When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right. A really perfect poem (no one yet has written one) could be perfectly translated by a person who did not know one word of the language it was written in. A really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.

It is very difficult. We want to transfer the immediate object, the immediate emotion to the poem and yet the immediate always has hundreds of its own words clinging to it, short-leved and tenacious as barnacles. And it is wrong to scrape them off and substitute others. A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer. The words around the immediate shrivel and decay like flesh around the body. No mummy-sheet of tradition can be used to stop the process. Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it.

I yell "Shit" down a cliff at the ocean. Even in my lifetime the immediacy of that word will fad. It will be dead as "Alas." But if I put the real cliff and the real ocean into the poem, the word "Shit" will ride along with them, travel the time-machine until cliffs and oceans disappear.

Most of my friends like words too well. They set them under the blinding light of the poem and try to extract every possible connotation from each of them, every temporary pun, every direct or indirect connection – as if a word could become an object by mere addition of consequences. Others pick up words from the streets, from their bars, from their offices and display them proudly in their poems as if they were shouting, "See what I have collected from the American language. Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!" What does one do with all this crap?

Words are what sticks to the real.We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on with, nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to.

I repeat  the perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.




First Letter (from Admonitions)


Dear Joe,

Some time ago I would have thought that writing notes on particular poems would either be a confession that the poems were totally inadequate (a sort of patch put on a leaky tire) or an equally humiliating confession that the writer was more interested in the terrestrial mechanics of criticism than the celestial mechanics of poetry  in either case that the effort belonged to the garage or stable rather than to the Muse.

Muses do exist, but now I know that they are not afraid to dirty their hands with explication  that they are patient with truth and commentary as long as it doesn’t get into the poem, that they whisper (if you let yourself really hear them), "Talk all you want, baby, but then let’s go to bed."

This sexual metaphor brings me to the first problem. In these poems the obscene (in word and concept) is not used, as is common, for the sake of intensity, but rather as a kind of rhythm as the tip-tap of the branches throughout the dream of Finnegans Wake or, to make the analogy even more mysterious to you, a cheering section at a particularly exciting football game. It is precisely because the obscenity is unnecessary that I use it, as I could have used any disturbance, as I could have used anything (remember the beat in jazz) which is regular and beside the point.

The point. But what, you will be too polite to ask me, is the point? Are not these poems all things to all men, like Rorschach ink blots or whores? Are they anything better than a kind of mirror?

In themselves, no. Each one of them is a mirror, dedicated to the person that I particularly want to look into it. But mirrors can be arranged. The frightening hall of mirrors in a fun house is universal beyond each particular reflection.

This letter is to you because you are my publisher and because the poem I wrote for you gives the most distorted reflection in the whole promenade. Mirror makers know the secret – one does not make a mirror to resemble a person, one brings a person to the mirror.




Second Letter (from Admonitions)


Dear Robin,

Enclosed you find the first of the publications of White Rabbit Press. The second will be much handsomer.

You are right that I don’t now need your criticisms of individual poems. But I still want them. It’s probably from old habit – but it’s an awfully old habit. Halfway through After Lorca I discovered that I was writing a book instead of a series of poems and individual criticism by anyone suddenly became less important. This is true of my Admonitions which I will send you when complete. (I have eight of them already and there will probably be fourteen including, of course, this letter.)

The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us  not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never by fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem. This is where we were wrong and he was right, but he complicated things for us by saying that there is no such thing as good or bad poetry. There is – but not in relation to a single poem. There is really no single poem.

That is why all my stuff from the past (except the Elegies and Troilus) looks foul to me. The poems belong nowhere. They are one night stands filled (the best of them) with their own emotions, but pointing nowhere, as meaningless as sex in a Turkish bath. It was not my anger or my frustration that got in the way of my poetry but the fact that I viewed each anger and each frustration as unique something to be converted into poetry as one would exchange foreign money. I learned this from the English Department (and from the English Department of the spirit that great quagmire that lurks at the bottom of all of us) and it ruined ten years of my poetry. Look at those other poems. Admire them if you like. They are beautiful but dumb.

Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.

So don’t send the box of old poetry to Don Allen. Burn it or rather open it with Don and cry over the possible books that were buried in it  the Songs Against Apollo, the Gallery of Gorgeous Gods, the Drinking Songs  all incomplete, all abortive – all incomplete, all abortive because I thought, like all abortionists, that what is not perfect had no real right to live.

Things fit together. We knew that  it is the principle of magic. Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence. This is true of poems too. A poem is nver to be judged by itself alone. A poem is never by itself alone.

This is the most important letter that you have ever received.




"This ocean, humiliating in its disguises"


This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.



Sporting Life


The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios
     don’t develop scar-tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a
     transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram
     burns out replacable or not replacable, but not like that
     punchdrunk fighter in a bar. The poet

Takes too many messages. The right to the ear that floored him
     in New Jersey. The right to say that he stood six rounds with
     a champion.

Then they sell beer or go on sporting commissions, or, if the
     scar tissue is too heavy, demonstrate in a bar where the
     invisible champions might not have hit him. Too many of

The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
     counterpunching radio.

And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
     know they are champions.


Six Poems for Poetry Chicago (poems #1-4)




"Limon tree very pretty
And the limon flower is sweet
But the fruit of the poor lemon
Is impossible to eat"
In Riverside we saved the oranges first (by smudging) and left
     the lemons last to fed for themselves. They didn’t usually
A no good crop. Smudge-pots
Didn’t rouse them. The music
Is right though. The lemon tree
Could branch off into real magic. Each flower in place. We
Were sickened by the old lemon.




Pieces of the past arising out of the rubble. Which evokes Eliot
     and then evokes Suspicion. Ghosts all of them. Doers of no
The past around us is deeper than.
Present events defy us, the past
Has no such scruples. No funeral processions for him. He died
     in agony. The cock under the thumb.
Rest us as corpses
We poets
Vain words.
For a funeral (as I live and breathe and speak)
Of good
And impossible




In the far, fat Vietnamese jungles nothing grows.
In Guadacanal nothing grew but a kind of shrubbery that was
     like the bar-conversation of your best best friend who was
     not able to talk.
Sheets to the wind. No
Wind being present.
Lifeboats being present. A jungle
Can’t use life-boats. Dead
From whatever bullets the snipers were. Each
Side of themselves. Safe-
Ly delivered.



The rind (also called the skin) of the lemon is difficult to
It goes around itself in an oval quite unlike the orange which, as
     anyone can tell, is a fruit easily to be eaten.
It can be crushed into all sorts of extracts which are
     still not lemons. Oranges have no such fate. They’re pretty
     much the same as they were. Culls become frozen orange
     juice. The best oranges are eaten.
It’s the shape of the lemon, I guess that causes trouble. It’s
     ovalness, it’s rind. This is where my love, somehow, stops.