How the Widow Velma Learned to Dance

I must apologize for all the tarps
and cans of paint I’ve strewn around the room
while painting Velma’s ceiling to improve
the vista from her bed of suffering,
where she’s lain, prostrate and staring upward,
since they carted Alfred in. I watched
her barking, I surprised myself by noting,
Velma with her white hair barking
as they carted Alfred in, dead
as meat. She levitated purely out
of anguish, bumping like a zeppelin
about the room, and up the stairwell before
our sense of peril was aroused, and she
nearly had transcended to the attic when
I finally caught her by the weights
of human nature. That was close.  Afterwards,
dressed in her bed things, she rode the unbridled
horse of hysterics. The spectacle has all but killed
the little shell of Evelyn, the eldest daughter,
who arranged the sweet peas in a vase,
and weeps beneath the rainy constellations
of her feelings. She isn’t being very
photogenic, and genuinely cringes
at her mother’s hydrophobias.
Ho, but Velma often battered Alfred’s
sentiments: Fat boy! she had yelled
in Evelyn’s hearing, and then denied him roasted
apples as he liked them most. Oh,
she bellowed, holding Evelyn by the cuff,
Oh she thought his love lubricious, physical
as it was, and for years refused
to touch his dick

                             My guess is Evelyn never
will forget the dreadful revelations
gibbered in her ear, and on the whole
remembers more about the funeral
than she wants–especially the bloat
man himself exposing what is mortal
in his box. Pray for a huge pity
on this woman, on us all, whose fantasies
and tricks of mind proved morbid as her father’s
body–which we viewed at last, to my
surprise, before the pageant minister,
robed in shreds and patches, bespoke himself,
closed the coffin lid, and sealed my friend
apart inside a distant and inhospitable
land. I wasn’t ready. In a lifetime
when the ozone layer is penetrated
by a mother’s can of hairspray, I’m humbled
by the victory of causes and
their preposterous effects, chased by lunacies
and wonders, in which I place all hope. The ceremony
grated harshly to its end, and then
we scattered from the graveside, green and drowned,
into the civil streets of the remaining
world, leaving Alfred to be stuffed
discreetly, and behind our backs into
a dirty hole. No one stayed to see
it closed, or watch the tanagers among
the starry bushes. Troupials were blowing
airs into the emptiness blue
as ink, and Elam could be overheard
to sing his sea chanteys, Sarah could
be humming something typically obscure,
but reminiscent of the fiddler birds
remembered from her youth. To hear them sing
like this across the gross diameter
of our experience, theirs and mine,
reminds me of psychotic processes,
or the ecstasies and revels of
medieval saints, friars summoning
through the gorgeous armories of prayer
their own seraphic messages from heaven.
If I had a rocket launcher, I’d maybe
stand a chance of pressuring important
messages from someone big, but otherwise
I’m used to the illumination from
the massive, dazzling static of the pulsars,
binary suns, and singularities
exploding overhead. In this century,
a body’s gotten cynical about
the salesmen seeing aliens, or postal
workers answering command hallucinations.

So the evolution of my jealousy
has seemed occult and melancholy, my brain
has held by night, in unknown places, an
ungodly envy of the Raleigh Baptist
women on the church committee who
communed in Velma’s parlor with their layer
cakes, and minced meat pies, to tranquilize
the seething widow with ancestral empathies,
at a time when I was drawing breath in pain,
but trying to be manly. Evelyn catered
to them sweetly from the hoard of pastries,
and each was growing sleepy at the moment
Velma hitched her afghan up, and ventured
into memory to ramble on
regarding Alfred’s manic appetite
for minced meat pie. Sisters, she had started,
and recalled incendiary chickens,
the cremated harrows and plows that happened when
the barn combusted, and there was Alfred, famed
among his neighbors as he extricated
their Barbary mare and foal, leading both
into the archetypal fields of sugar
beets.

           A minute later she lamented
her inner life, stuffed with history,
its revelations awful, the wind in it cold–
but that was after she remembered Alfred
in the ballroom, in the middle of
the rhapsody, had whisked the linen table
cloth from off a vacant table, and laid
it like a cape across her naked shoulders,
damp from the preceding waltz. There
she sat amid the sore-footed dancers at
the Peabody Hotel, no less, the shoeblacks
grinning in the halls.

                                    Forty years
of marriage passed before we had to gather
as a family for Alfred’s funeral,
with Evelyn pointing out the goldfish half
the size of boulders, Calypso blooms like dualisms,
and other universals of the Elams’
garden. We tried to keep our chatter to
a minimum.  New mothers washed
their boobs and red nipples: Keep an eye
on the toddlers, they called to husbands sitting
under the perpetual umbrellas,
sipping beers. Baseball featured the
St. Louis Cardinals losing to L.A.,
and all the kids had trooped into the kitchen
where, as usual, Sarah was bending
spoons with her telepathy: it was
a moving spectacle, and kept the children
out of mischief in the darker parts
of Elam’s woods, in which the lion plants
might eat them. It could haven gotten ugly, and turned
the public off. But our precipitation
there had been to bury Alfred, and
to smother Velma with our Southern over-
compensated love. You surely are
a comfort, Velma told the few of us
to bring her pomegranates, mow her lawn,
and Uncle Eddie Seymour–one of our
dear ethnic Catholics, along with Uncle
Anton–mornings in the shower said
novenas for her better health. Even
the gangsters of the family were reigning
in their hyperactive noise, and trying
to be tender,

                       but nothing of our physic
worked. Help. We had to be a little
smarter than we were. Eventually
we left the suffocating flowers, and
dispersed for home, nursing gingerly
our aching tennis elbows, and soothing our
pubescent sons and daughters, who developed
crushes on their cousins, and were then
bereft and humid in the separate backs
of each of our departing cars. What
had we accomplished? A unity of errors.
Velma’s grief, like solar heating, was still
in infancy. Alfred had been newly
and forever plowed beneath the Judas
trees when we reentered our abiding
cities, stepped off planes, and in walking
to the baggage claims admitted we
were irritated by the Krishna beggars
and the other vegetarians
displayed at airports. We assumed routines,
returned to copulations on our water
beds, how momentarily angelic,
and meant to be. We pulled the drapes. Incense
flamed in ashtrays,

                               and afterwards at malls
the charlatans had tossed us caramels
as some promotion–and so again
our metamorphosis into consumers
had us deftly waddling after sales,
and our way of life had fallen into
days of golf, and nights of agonizing
on our backswings with their unintended
circles. Velma, on the other hand,
remained depressed, and deviled by the malice
of her history. The contradictions
made no sense to her, for instance, once
when she was lost among the parlous streets
of Memphis, cabined in her huge Dodge,
and then a neatly groomed, a beautifully,
uh, rouged and tailored–in short a gorgeous
pederast kindly showed her home.
Travel seemed to be for liberals,
or other widows better suited to
it. She commuted in between the supermarkets,
armed with coupons, and on the loose among
her former incarnations as a cook
when she was young, and when her mother was
tubercular. The angers that had famished
Alfred’s appetites originated
in the sloughs of childhood as she stood
on top of orange crates to reach the stove,
and turn the rabbit quarters over with
a wooden spatula. And now, as then,
she gathered all her skillets, and attacked
the human drives for comfort, food and drink
by searing fatty meats, lubricating
everything with bacon grease, and acting
altogether like she never heard
the word cholesterol. Sunday brunch
became a terror to the delicate,
clogging the metabolism so
that afterwards, for days, my colon was
inflamed. Alfred was a bigger man,
however, and would have busted through the finicky
adjustments I required on Velma’s noxious
paradise: her mustang green grape
pie inside a milken crust was all
I’d touch, plus chicken, plus grits and pig’s feet. It
was clear to me, or should have been, the way
the flight of our desire was not between
our pleasures and their remedies, but
from hope to hope. I’ve been a slow learner.
One of Elam’s hopes was sighting whales
when he was on his polar expedition,
but it failed in its anticipated
greatness. One of ours turned out to be
that Velma journey to the Holy Lands
with Mrs. Usdan. Even I applauded
that. Like Solomon, let her be rich
in points of view, great in diction–haimisha,
a beauty if I’ve ever seen one, her hair
like a flock of goats.

                                  But she only
got as far as Nova Scotia where
she haunted fishing villages, and at
a minimum was drenched in all the rain.
She never did recuperate. When people
speak of it, they have to deal with Velma’s
losses, which are real. Once the brains
went out of Alfred, she never could recoup
the difference, never could recover,
never marry any of her ancient
suitors, who came replete with condominiums,
two physicians each who could not heal,
and simply chests of medicines.

                                                      And yet,
and by degrees, she stopped apologizing
for vitality. Several years
enwheeled around before I heard the joggers
trot aerobically across the lawns
as Velma roused the street at 6 a.m.
the stereo, to which she pirouetted
in her self-expression, deceived herself
in waltzing joyously at doctor’s orders:
to improve her heart, increase her circulation,
Dr. Rosen effectively prescribed
the studio at Fred Astaire’s Emporium
of Dancing, where Velma celebrated for
a fee the measured steps of tangos, danced
the sacred rumba, and participated
in the group emotions of a set of friends,
who, eventually, would take or leave
her. Each of us must love a special form
of violence. Velma found that dancing
was a multiplicity of social
fun, and soon discovered further that
the end of competition was in winning.
She has a cabinet packed in loving cups
she garnered at the national cotillions
held for ballroom dancers. I was at
the one in Memphis, watching Velma come
in second best because she rushed her entrance,
having gotten caught in traffic. Having
thought of strong language, and indicating
the dang weather, she nosed her Dodge through acid
rain that strangulated the mid-South,
not to mention Memphis, where it washed
the bridges out, polluted aquifers,
and mildewed everything that didn’t move:
closets full of linen, expensive winter
furs, shag carpets. Aquatic plants
were rooting in the living rooms, suspended
from the draperies, and catfish centralized
in kitchens, gluing luminescent eggs
in clutches to the bottom rungs of chairs.
It was one of our most famous hurricanes
for damage, calling forth the nation’s soldiers,
who resurrected barges sunk by the
deluge and scattered through suburbia–
bodies in the flower beds, and pools
of oil that oozed into the ritzy bedrooms,
where they emanated a prehistoric
stench. Velma scraped the killer mushrooms
from her walls before she dressed, and floated
to the Peabody Hotel, arriving
as the concierge conveyed the celebrated
ducks out of the lobby pond and fountain,
and in single file escorted them
through coteries of dazzling blondes in diamonds,
veered around bohemians, and cliques
of movie critics, then negotiated
plutocrats puffing on cigars
before he finally commandeered the elevator
to the basement, where they roost. Velma
paid them no attention as she trotted
every bit like Ginger Rogers to
the ballroom. It’s the end of speeches, the contest
will begin. Hurry. On the podium,
the maestro waved, and instruments combusted,
honest men huffed on saxophones
and trumpeters cut loose, but the truly
hyperbolic notes ballooned above
the tubas, while the treble violins
were sawing at their scores, the cellists waiting
for an entrance into music that
compelled the dancers to commence their risky
flapping, their whirling on the floor like Turkish
houris. They appeared and disappeared
as the ephemerae they are, infernal
beauties stomping toward the asymptotes
to strut in front of judges, each of whom
was buttoned in a tux, and stunned by the
insomnia of love. Velma hoofed
it with her gigolo–and it wasn’t
anybody’s business if she did–
and everywhere the elderly women with rubious
cheeks exuded their enthusiasm–
I said, were enthusiastic as
they sashayed, inspired by venery and sweet
cooperation. No one’s heart is ever
broken, though I find unspeakably
I have the urge to break them. I’m not the man
I was. And though there were no saxophones
and tubas, no treble violins precisely
as I saw them in the case of Velma’s
grief, still I wouldn’t either want
to say it didn’t happen just this way,
nor claim that, even if you wanted to,
you couldn’t see what looked like frolic in
the ballroom, or detect the signs of transport
in the many detours of exaggerated
waltzes–played by friends of mine beyond
all reason, and on toy horns and winds
in which suspend the deaths of Velma, me
and them

In The Wild

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Part I

The speed with which medical conventions can domesticate the most outlandish requests, or re-frame even grotesquely violent behaviors, is an under-appreciated marvel of modern social life. In virtually every other setting—for instance, at your workplace—, it remains inappropriate for me to approach you, hand you a Dixie cup, and request that you fill it with your excrement. Work conventions rightly disallow this behavior, which would appear out of place, out of bounds, and downright weird.

However, if I approached you in my hospital office, handed you a paper cup with a wooden spatula, and there asked you to fill it with a stool sample, the request would be rendered perfectly normal because the conventions in that setting make it okay to require unacceptable things of you. In the right context, one of my colleagues might insert his finger into your anus, peer wisely into your vagina, thread a camera up into your colon to take pictures–or even cut you open from your collarbone to your pubic mound, slice out your heart, and put it in an ice chest. Only temporarily, mind you, because the promise is that someone will put it back when the time comes.

Although hospitals do their best to disguise the fact by building routinized, institutional facades (look at the architecture of the hospital pictured with this article), they are nonetheless the wildest places I can think of—far crazier than prisons, science laboratories, or military compounds, though they may share aspects of each of these establishments. Hospitals are the licensed institutions in which we hide the uncanny things of the world, chiefly by erecting conventions that suspend our incredulity. Hospitals assert the commonplace, affirm routines, profess the customary, declare humane incentives: just mundane practice going on in here, another ordinary day of saving lives, move along, nothing to look at. And in fact, you will not be allowed to look behind the closed doors.

But let me tell you, if at some point in your life, you discover that you need to be frightened–that you want to challenge your complacencies in ways you do not control beforehand–then hospitals are where you want to be. Nowhere else have I routinely touched people, circumstances, fates that otherwise I never would have imagined.

I never would have thought, for example, if left on my own—never thought to step behind the Senator showing me and my friends around the White House, and try to give him a bear hug. I am just too inhibited that way, and I don’t like Republicans. But Andrew, an adolescent high school student from one of the blue New England states, was comfortable with open displays of good feeling, and felt obliged to make a public declaration of his patriotism by embracing the natty senator addressing the New England Debate Club.

Naturally, Andrew called down upon himself the hordes of Secret Servicemen positioned throughout the building. The event I am writing about happened years ago at this point, well before 911, but even then the Secret Servicemen didn’t take chances–and given the initial urgency, it is to their credit that they pretty quickly recognized this was not a criminal assault, there were no bombs involved, and that everybody was safe, after a fashion. They had no idea what was really going on, but their expertise was with threats and violence, which they were trained to recognize when they saw them, and Andrew’s behaviors fit neither category.

For one thing, he was pretty disorganized in his attempt–not hesitant so much as uncoordinated in a weird way. He was also spouting a sort of ‘word salad’ that might have been mistaken at first for an unknown foreign language–except recognizable, though misused, words in English were mixed in. He wasn’t hard to deter from his intended purpose, the teacher-chaperones intervened with the government men, and eventually one of them took him back to his hotel room.

By report, he seemed to improve over the course of the afternoon, though his parents were called nonetheless, and arrangements were made to whisk him back home–in the course of which, however, he suffered another, more severe and persisting disturbance to his language production and his mental organization. He never made it home per se, but was taken directly to my Medical Center and admitted through the ER, where he was taken for a CAT scan. He had an aneurism in his left middle cerebral artery, which had begun to leak, causing disturbances in his language and motor control over parts of his right bodily extremities.

If he had been 75 years old, I think the symptoms would have been recognized more quickly than his were, because mid-adolescence is not typically an age at which to develop strokes. Though no one said anything, my sense at the time was that the adults around him all were assuming he had been taking some recreational drug, and his goofiness was the result. In truth, he would have been better off if he had simply been wasted on something fun, the effects of which were temporary. But instead of merely needing de-tox, he was awaiting brain surgery to clip the artery.

I was enlisted to evaluate him to establish a portrait of his current level of cognitive performance, which would provide a baseline for his post-surgical therapies. Accordingly, I visited over two afternoons as arrangements were made for his surgery. There were the formal portions of the evaluation, which mapped out memory, attention span, visual-spatial organization, executive planning, and of course his linguistic functioning, which looked pretty decent even with the aneurism. There were also the informal parts of our interaction that let him tell me, off and on, that he liked political science, that he was an only child, and that his favorite band was Tool or Nirvana, depending. I preferred Alice in Chains to either one of them–which no way could he believe, man, because Cobain was such a great guitarist, and the best writer. And besides, Courtney Love was hot.

This could be a fun job. For two days we definitely had the best music going on the floor.

Part II

Other days, on other units, were less musical. On Thursdays we had neuropathology rounds at 7 a.m. in a group of inter-connecting rooms in the basement sub-floor near the morgue. There the neurosurgeons, the radiologists and the neuropsychologists (i.e. me and two others) would assemble among the pathologists to engage in Brain Cuttings: an instructive event during which the brains of persons who had died would be sliced in coronal sections to allow the group of us to examine the gross pathologies, before the sections would be given to other pathologists in other rooms to stain and photograph. Often there would be two or sometimes three brains trussed up in a vat of formalin, where they had been immersed in order to solidify and preserve them for the cutting.

In themselves, brains are remarkably fragile–which is the reason they each float in the cerebrospinal fluid inside each of our respective skulls. Suspended in that salty fluid, they weigh about one fifty-sixth of what they would on land, so to speak. The brain’s own weight would be lethal otherwise; it would collapse fatally on itself simply by the pull of gravity, squashing the life out. So it is a delicate thing to remove the brain from the braincase, and slide it into the fixative that will solidify it enough to allow manipulation. It takes a sensitive and dexterous hand–governed by the attentive mind of a sociopath. Here we’d be standing by this large butcher’s block, on which the pathologist would set the brain he just fished out of the formalin tank, and in the adjoining room, separated by a kind of shower curtain, we could hear the whirr of the diamond saw as the other pathologist was cutting off the top of a recently-deceased-person’s head. It took some getting used to. Hannibal Lecter might have trained in a place like this.

There were two pathologists: a male and female team. The man–call him Dr. Taft–always chose to cut the brains; the woman–call her Dr. Adler–had the knack of extricating the slippery cerebral mass from its protective layers of skin, bone and meninges without brutalizing it, and getting it into the formalin with minimal damage. I don’t know if she ever knew whose forehead it was into which she pressed that whirling saw blade, but the rest of us had to know. Otherwise we could not relate whatever pathologies we saw in the fixed brains to the particular medical histories that proved so fatal to our patients. That meant that each brain, which was labeled by the kind of tag you might find dangling on an appliance in Sears, could be connected to a clinical history, which one of us would read to the group while Dr. Taft prepared to start cutting slices.

You cannot believe some of the stories. One brain I remember looked as if it had been shot with a spray of ice. This had been a young pregnant woman who, some time during her third trimester, had been engaged in love-making with her husband. Given the size of her huge gravid womb, the couple had chosen to have oral sex. Unbeknown to either of them, as the poor guy was going down on his wife, his excited heavy breathing was introducing air into her vagina, up the birth canal, through the dilating cervix, and into the placenta, where it was absorbed through the immense plexus of blood vessels there. Their sexual excitement, in other words, fed multiple air bubbles into her blood stream, which abruptly killed her when her pumping heart shot all those emboli into her brain. She never knew what hit her.

You can imagine what it must have been like. For one second or so he thought he had brought his wife to climax, only to realize that, no, something was stunningly wrong. By the time he had called 911, she was already dead, and by the time the EMT’s arrived, they had lost the baby too. The group of us stood there in numbed silence, not making eye contact, and waiting just to get the session over with.

I never went to neuropathology rounds without preparing for them. The fundamental premise was, of course, that someone had died–which, naturally enough, occurs with some frequency in hospitals. But it nonetheless required a sort of steeliness, a resolve to take it all on, to walk into that room and slice up someone’s brain. It wasn’t for everyone. We strolled down unadorned corridors toward restricted rooms where, like it or not, our Thursday exercises assumed religious proportions. After all, our rituals required human sacrifice. With the permission of the deceased, whose organs we were using, we called up the gods of science, and retrieved truths as we found them in the literal world of the dead. We had mortality itself on the cutting block, and took the opportunity to dissect the accidents of disease and infirmity, tease out vital membranes, and prepare as best we could against the onslaughts waiting for every last one of us.

These were perilous ceremonies, requiring perhaps a sort of ancient Mayan sensibility. Mercy wasn’t in it. Dr. Taft accidentally inflicted a vicious wound in his hand with the knife he was using to transect one of those brains, and though he survived the resulting systemic infection, it was a very near thing. He was ill for a prolonged time, and he wound up losing some of the function in that hand.

My own changes came some months before Taft’s injury, and had a different provenance all together. As we gathered around the ceremonial block that Thursday, and as Taft prepared to make his first cut at the frontal pole of a male brain, I heard someone–one of the interns, probably–begin reading the clinical history of the specimen we were about to study: The patient was a 17-year-old adolescent male named Andrew, the voice intoned,  a neurosurgery patient with an aneurism, who post-surgically bled out in the recovery room. Oh man. Oh man. I could see the extensive, black irregular pool of blood that had guttered into the left parietal lobe, the left anterior temporal lobe. I didn’t want to see the rest of the ugly stuff in the lateral ventricles, once Taft cut back to them.

I was looking instead for the place where Andrew kept Kurt Cobain’s music, the place where he knew the words to Lithium, Aneurysm, Heart-Shaped Box–the secret area where he stored his version of Nirvana. Everyone would have, if they had known him.

Vital Signs

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     In a memorable volume of Parnassus, Annie Dillard writes about contemporary poetry that “it is the native tongue of nobody. As a language it is useless for important messages. It is arcane and luxurious. It amounts to a secret code. Only the people who speak it think it can save the world.” Part of her observation–the incomprehensibility of poetry– is by now a commonplace among critics and readers alike. But I’m interested in the discrepancy she indicates between this obscuring secrecy and the social power that poetry is expected to wield. There is a remarkable disparity between the modest aims of individual lyric poems–they capture the ineffable, the momentary illumination, the fragile beauty–and the grandiose ambitions of poetry and poets in general. Shelley claimed that poets were “the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life.” Whitman maintained he was the voice of the people (who preferred Longfellow), and Pound was nearly shot for elevating poetry and the arts over the economic interests he thought were at the root of war and of the universal dissolution of culture. Of course, he was broadcasting his opinions over the Italian radio at the time. If he had been anything other than a poet, which is to say if his prosecutors had taken either him or his ideas seriously, he would certainly have been executed as an example to the nation. Instead, they locked him up in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital–the “bug house,” as he called it. So much for power. Continue reading “Vital Signs”

Shadow of a Cloud, But No Cloud

What follows is the text of a recent review of Killarney Clary’s new book, ‘Shadow of a Cloud, But No Cloud‘, published by the University of Chicago Press. The review appeared this Friday, October 17th,  in the Los Angeles Times by Stephen Burt. This is a lovely review about a fabulous poet’s newest collection.

 

IMAGES MOVE, EVAPORATE IN KILLARNEY CLARY’S ‘SHADOW OF A CLOUD’

By STEPHEN BURT

Twenty-five years ago, Killarney Clary’s first collection made an international splash: The prose poems of “Who Whispered Near Me” wove evanescent description of Clary’s native Los Angeles, from her childhood’s backyards to her office mates’ cubicles, together with pithy regrets and vivid advice. The mysterious, teasing results — not quite short stories, not quite memoir; friendly and yet reserved — got Clary anthologized, imitated and even attacked by critics as far off as London. (Last year it was brought back into print by Tavern Books.)

“Shadow of a Cloud but No Cloud,” the fourth collection from Clary, who now lives in Aptos, Calif., refines and returns to her initial strength: It’s wiser, terser, sadder, never resigned, but alert to the years of a poet who has lost a parent, survived her first fame and kept her insight acute through middle age.

Clary’s prose poems depend on the melodies of their sentences, connecting phrase to phrase without the interruptions of line breaks. Their unpredictable paths cross the inland desert (“blooms of Styrofoam in the tumbleweed”) or head indoors through moments of recollection, as when the young poet painted with watercolors, probably for the first time: ‘Worry touches the loaded brush tip to the wetted paper and the color floods into a sharp-edged shape, darkens to be a thing, my own.” Such close observations recall the poet’s own training in studio art: When a child plays with a marble, “the game he plays he plays with his weight on one knee, on the press of a few toes,” with “beads of rain heavy on the leaves between his nape and the sky.” Other pages include single phrases that could be short stories on their own: “From the warehouse in Sparks, Nevada to fill a catalog order in Emmett Idaho, a blouse for a woman who will be better when the parcel has arrived.”

Such sketches, on their own, could make a beautiful book, but Clary has more. Midway through the volume, her single scenes, interiors and portraits give way to sequences about her parents: her mother’s illness and death, her trip to Ireland with her father (and her mother’s ashes) and then her father’s apparent decline. Dementia renders cruel the echoes and similes, the likenesses and paradoxes, presented in happier days by the art of poetry: “You want to introduce me to Killarney, then, puzzled, you stop. … I can’t imagine a kind way to tell you who I am.”

Stitching together such remembered moments, Clary sets up ironic pairings between her girlhood and her present self, her mother as powerful giant and her mother as an absence or a ghost: “I sit on the sunny pantry floor and read repeatedly the label on a can of mandarin oranges, its best-by date years past. There will be noise; they will need me. My hands are exactly as I remember my mother’s hands, now gone.” To listen to Clary carefully is to detect ever more intricate echoes, both in her psyche and in the sentences’ sounds: The passage above, for example, descends into 16 consecutive sharp monosyllables, from “its best-by date” all the way to “my hands,” before — in a cascade of Rs and S’s (“are exactly as I remember”) — it softens again.

Her volume finds ways out of sadness, not only in shining moments but also in present-day connections: She is, among many other things, a subtle poet of domestic affection, and it is in that key that the volume ends. “We hear leaves stir under the bamboo, the progress of our different pictures — fall wind or possum — and I lie against you. One of us is warmer. One will die first.” Is that a melancholy claim? Perhaps, but it should not undermine a pair bond, neither for people nor for the hawks that Clary and her partner observe. “Two shapes lift over the canyon, their prey hidden or scattering. I smooth your hair.”

Clary works in the tradition of modern novelists (Virginia Woolf, for example), who ask us to trust their characters’ streams of consciousness, but also in a tradition of prose poetry stretching back to Baudelaire. Fans of today’s short-short fiction — say, Lydia Davis — should check her out too. She may never be wildly popular: She’s too strange for that, and she leaves too many things out; nor is she the kind of experimenter who makes readers angry by what she refuses to do. Instead, she invites us into her shifting scrims and absences, her curtains of sentences, showing us slices and glimpses of her own experience, “waiting here where bees were once kept,” or writing graffiti “with the dry cleaner’s clear wax zipper crayon on the flat blue-gray paint on the closet wall,” or swimming with her mother’s “swirl of pale hair in the bay.”

Few writers have shown at once the vividness and the evasions of memory so well. And Clary explains — within her poems — the workings of her poems, which resemble parties (people move around, trying to listen to one another), optical illusions and party games: “there is a pattern, not a story, repetition of shape, change of scale and/or direction, a game of perception: find the hidden hat in the picture: it may be inverted. Shown for only a moment, the tray is taken into another room.”

As in life, so in her poems, the pieces are moving; Clary challenges us to figure out what we can.

 

Even My Bad Ideas Are Good

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     For the last three-plus years, Gary Young has been working on a limited fine press edition of the late Zen priest Kobun Otogowa—who is probably best known in the United States as the spiritual advisor of the equally late Steve Jobs.* As news of the project spread, an invitation was extended to Young to come to Japan itself, where he could work as well on a poetry translation of that calligraphy. And so in the summer of 2011, immediately prior to the publication of his book, Even So, Gary Young journeyed to the mountains above Ono, Japan, where in the Hokyoji Temple he sat ZaZen for weeks, participated in general temple life, and met with multiple Buddhist scholars, who together explained some of the textual origins and metaphorical meanings embedded within the calligraphy as Young worked out his translations.

     I offer this biographical tidbit to introduce you to the respect that Young has gathered in far-reaching communities that are at once outside the traditional academic centers in which poetry is largely embedded these days, and beyond the national confines of English-speaking poets. In Japan, in the esteemed environment of an ancient Buddhist temple, Tanaka Shinkai Roshi declared that Young was “a Bodhisattva, whether he wanted to be or not.”

     And indeed to read the poems of Young’s latest collected works, entitled Even So, is to be introduced to a natural affinity between Young’s contemporary prose epiphanies (certainly in his last five books), and the elaborate, wonderful millennium of Buddhist poets writing haiku and other, later forms, whose tonal spirit hovers within and behind Young’s poetic efforts. When Young writes, for instance–

Queen Anne’s lace crowds the air; cicadas call from beyond the stream. Monkeyflowers rouge the hill below a pasture where six horses crop sage; and beside the road, between riprap at the river mouth, down gullies and the wasted ravines, thistles are showing us their hearts again.

–the East/West interpenetration is self-conscious, almost an homage. As a benchmark, here is the Monk Jakuren’s poem, written sometime near the end of the Twelfth Century:

The hanging raindrops
Have not dried from the needles
Of the fir forest
Before the evening mist
Of autumn rises.

Young is characteristically honest regarding his influences, in which he delights rather than broods resentfully. Nevertheless, he is using his distinctly American hand to point to those past masters. Notice that both poems are written as one sentence, but Young in that last clause employs a syntactical mimesis which the Zen monk would never imagine because there is too much rhetorical effect. Young’s winding sequence of prepositional phrases leads us to the end of ravines, where the metaphor is blooming: “thistles are showing us their hearts again.” This syntax, and the use of metaphor, distinguishes Young’s work from the Japanese. In both poems we find that simple, focused, direct  natural observation, but there is less a delight in metaphor in the monk’s verse, less device. Instead, there is the intent to create a sensibility whose simplicity allows experience to register at once delicately, but indelibly. Young, on the other hand, uses the quiet Zen-like attention to arrive at a definition, a declarative statement, a captured truth. There are revelations in his poetry, but you have the sense that he set about to capture them, a silent predator after an elusive prey.

     And that, I think, represents the essence, the essential characterologic friction Tanaka Shinkai Roshi is indicating, as he observes that Young is an enlightened being (Bodhisatva) “whether he wanted to be or not.” Because Young would not necessarily prefer to know what he has learned, or choose to feel what he has experienced. He is not benignly tolerant.  Many of Young’s empathies are disagreeable to him: he doesn’t want to like these hateful people he often portrays. Similarly, his clarities are ambiguous, his loves are dying, his loyalties make him angry, his persistence is as much resignation as courage. He is full of surprises when you least expect them—which of course is what constitutes the surprise. For instance, I suspect that most of his many students in general (not to mention this reviewer in particular) would admit it is hard to imagine Gary Young sitting still for hours at a time with an empty mind. I don’t see it happening—even in the Hokyoji Temple. He is the kind of poet who does not empty his mind, so much as clear away a bit of space in his perception for yet another insight, one further observation, a second look. Nothing is lost on him.

     In this he reminds me of a resolutely American poet, Emily Dickinson, who also spent her time crafting finely wrought moments of perception, paring away the inessentials to capture a necessary truth. “I like the look of agony,” she writes, “because I know it’s true./Men do not sham convulsion”. Well, actually they do—at least in contemporary mass civilization, pseudo pathologies have arisen—, but her point, really, is that you do whatever it takes to arrive at conviction, which is pleasing even when it is unpleasant. Young writes in a poem I will fully quote later “Even my bad ideas are good,” and both poets agree—over a century and a half apart—that life is built upon contradictions, that empathy is hard to reach, that truths are not self-consistent, that pleasure may contain horrors. Insight is a bitch—but it is also to the purpose, the heart of the poetic act. Both poets as they write concentrate each poem upon one act of clarity, a sole idea realized, a single event captured. Accordingly, each instance of imagination is encapsulated; there is no narrative provision made to connect one poem with another.

     With that said, because he himself organized the sequence of poems in the individual volumes comprising this generous selection he has entitled Even So, Young can create a sense of thematic connection that may generalize over his untitled prose poems—an opportunity that Dickinson’s lack of publication denied her.  Young’s early work is a bit more traditional than his subsequent prose poems, and offers an early  taxonomy of themes that Young explores in more detail, in layers of nuance–and as the mood strikes him–, in his later poems.  Open the book, and we first encounter  “Walking Home From Work,” which introduces the cardinal points, the coordinates of Young’s poetic world.

Asphalt and gravel flex with my shoes as the heel
hits and pulls the rest of my body forward.
Ahead of me, twilight is ending
and the ragged outline of the mountain
is glazed with iridescence, each tree
singular and sure.
Each night the same. Or if not
the same,  then part of one long night
that leads me to my house, there
on the high ground of the foothills.
A thin streak of gray smoke
rises from the chimney,
a string from which the house
is suspended in the darkness.
I am a block away before shadows appear
moving against the fogged
windows in the kitchen.
My wife is baking bread. A hand
reaches up and wipes away the steam.
Light spills out of the kitchen
and begins to fill the world.

Work, we are to gather from the title, is important: it is the source of material well-being, the means to keep the wolf from the door, the opportunity to insure the basis of Maslow’s hierarchy of human necessities.  We have food, water and shelter, possibly bread—and there Young draws his imaginary line in the civilized gravel. On his side we find the means of life; on the other there are hazards.

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     What exactly constitutes the nature of those threats to the domestic image is left  to be explored in many subsequent poems of this volume. But for now, the quiet, lovely tone of the poet in “Walking Home from Work,” focuses on the positive things—once the possibility of menace is acknowledged. We are to notice, as he does, that there is an inchoate pressure of darkness: the impenetrable stuff that remains opaque and inhospitable. In the midst of this unlit gloom, the house—his native place–is suspended on a thread, a sort of inverse Sword of Damocles. Cut the thread, and vitality is swallowed once again into the inessential night. This time, however, he makes it home to the promise of sensual intimacy. The house is warm. His wife is beckoning through the window, bread is baking, the windows are steamed with the aroma, and the light of all this affection spills into the Biblical darkness. We sense at once the immense importance of Young’s protected space—which is a shared territory. The scale is not sublime, but human and individual, because it is within domestic rooms that personal identity is made possible. Indeed, domesticity is the very horizon of identity. It provides the setting, and the opportunity, for intimate knowledge: of one’s self, and of others. It allows a person to enjoy sensual pleasures, to form friendships, build habitual associates, establish a familiar network, create a social status, enjoy a civic stature.

     Young is systematic in his exploration of these themes, and their corollaries, in his subsequent quartet of books– Days, Braver Deeds, If He Had, and Pleasure—though he does so by intensifying his thematic focus to a degree that omits history, with its material clutter of specific dates, different names, separate places. None of the poems are titled in any of these four books, and so there are no identifiable places or grounds, no generic frame of reference, no executive authorial contextualization. Indeed, to take Days as an example, we immediately observe that we are given no information to identify the people appearing in the book, whose lives and conditions nonetheless comprise the book’s material.  Days in poem after poem elaborates the scope of social possibilities: marriage, separation, health and illness, mothers and fathers, wives, friends both male and female, life and death,  babies, infants who are acquiring language, and elderly stroke victims who are losing theirs. An unnamed stranger accosts him in the street to request that she hold his infant son:

I’m a mother, too, she said, and took the child in her arms. She closed her eyes, kissed his head, smelled his neck. My baby is twenty-nine, she said, and she handed him back.

That is the whole poem. Because there are no stated identities (and indeed, Young’s wife, who is holding the baby, is not even specified, her presence merely indicated  by that inclusive adverb “too”), we are able to concentrate on the ways available to us to connect our communities. A stranger can assert primal identifying events that survive temporal changes (her baby is twenty-nine—i.e. an adult), and collapse over individual differences. The two women have intimate connections, a shared experience, a common body of knowledge, similar loves and commitments, even though they do not know each other. And, we should notice, it is an act of kindness to allow these communal ties to be acknowledged: presumably Young’s wife does not need to hand her baby over to a stranger.

     Acts of trust and kindness are part of the privilege of living in a related body of other human beings, part of the means by which the scope of personal life is magnified. Vitality itself is a privilege—a miracle, not a right:

Two girls were struck by lightning at the harbor mouth. An orange flame lifted them up and laid them down again. Their thin suits had been melted away. It’s a miracle they survived. It’s a miracle they were born at all.

When they were lifted and laid down again, unclothed and baptized by fire, their status reveals the essential wonder of things inhering beneath the illusion of human control. Their survival in the wake of the atmospheric random blast is a miracle because unpredicted—both in the sense that they were the ones stricken by the lightning, and not someone else, and in the sense that their survival defeated the odds for such a thing.  Nothing about their lives is in fact predictable. No biological law will create an individual personality, no social authority will control lightning, no government will legislate consequences to random natural acts. Most people do not get hit by lightning (though these girls do), and those who are so stricken commonly do not survive it (though these girls did).

     The nature of miracles is a continual theme running through all four of his books of prose poems. In the instance above, the miraculous is to be understood as an event that is at once statistically unlikely and also (unexpectedly) beneficial. Its occurrence operates within the perceived laws of nature, but it nevertheless discloses values obscured by quotidian oversight or inattention, until they are illuminated by the extraordinary persuasive event itself. Whether lightning strikes you or not, just to be young, just to be able to stand in the sunshine in your bathing suit is a miracle—an opportunity that is temporary, and that is not given to everyone to enjoy (check out the burn units, the neurology floors, the ERs in any given medical center, or the battle field of any theater of war. There are lots of them.). Nor is it an opportunity that is guaranteed to be given twice. You never know when or where lightning may next strike—or in what form, or with what force.

The bodies of men and women sometimes ignite from within, and burn from the inside out. Nothing remains but a pile of ash where only minutes before a girl had been lying on the beach, or a young man had complained of the heat and then burst into flame. How can we explain the world? My heart is beating, I can feel it. God loves us more than we can stand.

In one sense, this poem is a revisitation of the lightning, occurring in another book—Braver Deeds–, in another mood with a darker cast to the advent of miracle. Again we have the abrupt arrival of unexpected revelation, but the violence of the disclosure is not to be withstood. It is, to say the least, a mixed blessing to be the recipient of so much affection.

     Indeed, in Braver Deeds, as well as in If He Had, Young explores just how various the qualities of his experience can be within this miraculous life. I should probably mention here at the outset that Young can write more bluntly about the presence of God than I, for one, am quite comfortable with. But then again, Young also writes bluntly about the pleasure he takes in looking down the blouse at the exposed breasts of an unaware young woman, and about how many times his wife orgasms–which for my part I would not openly discuss either. You know these events are sure to have happened; it’s just that there is often a decorum about admitting it. But Young won’t have any of that. He is kindly enough, generous in his empathy, but nonetheless unsparing about what he does, what he values, what he believes. Because he is equally direct regarding what he presents in each of his poems, regardless of the niceties of his reputation, he is all the more persuasive about the mixtures he imagines, the inescapable paradoxes by which people are at once redeemed and gravely tested, saved but pretty much left without gratification.

Tom Bone fell from deck, and watched as the ship sailed on without him. He tried, at first, to convince himself that he wasn’t there, then he swam all night. He drifted with the current, and in the morning saw an island, and swam to it, and was saved. There’d been a moment, before dawn, when he’d lost all hope and lowered his head into the water. He was about to take a breath, when he heard a voice say, you’re going to live, don’t give up, you’re going to make it. I have listened to that voice all my life.

The voice that tells Tom Bone ‘don’t give up’ says nothing at all about happiness that might accrue if he perseveres, nor are there promised satisfactions, no guaranteed rewards, no escape from pain, no immunity from fear and terror, no assurance that he will survive the next challenge. This is an old-time–an Old Testament  poem that critiques the orthodox conviction extending from our original Puritan fanatics to our contemporary evangelists, who expect privileges to attend to their religious conviction.  You are saved, therefore you can expect happiness and wealth. The corollary is also professed: if you are not happy and wealthy, then you are a sinner who deserves to burn at the hands of an angry god.

     Tell that to the Apostles, each of whom died violently: some crucified, some stoned to death, some flayed alive. Young insists that love—divine or human—does not protect from the malevolence of pain, the injustice of circumstances, the trauma of disease, the extreme conflicts of interest.

I discovered a journal in the children’s ward, and read, I’m a mother, my little boy has cancer. Further on, a girl has written, this is my nineteenth operation. She says, sometimes it’s easier to write than to talk, and I’m so afraid. She’s left me a page in the book. My son is sleeping in the room next door. This afternoon, I held my whole weight to his body while a doctor drove needles deep into his leg. My son screamed, Daddy, they’re hurting me, don’t let them hurt me, make them stop. I want to write, how brave you are, but I need a little courage of my own, so I write, forgive me, I know I let them hurt you, please don’t worry. If I have to, I can do it again.

None of the reassurances in this poem actually relieve anyone. That nineteenth operation does not signal a freedom from the girl’s fright, or her release into confident health, but—as with Tom Bone’s certain voice—it testifies only that she will make it to the next island: the twentieth operation. Young ‘s reassurance to his son—‘please don’t worry’—is not likely to put his son’s mind at rest. Nor isYoung reassured against his own guilt and remorse, because he knows he may be called upon to hold his son down again to allow further torment. That’s why he needs his own courage: it is the case with all survivors that they live in order to face further shocks and challenges. Risks are never taken from them, and what they are given is the opportunity to keep swimming against despair.

     There is, in short, nothing sentimental about Young’s belief in revelation, or in his conviction regarding the essential value of life over death. Even during casual promises that arise during any given day, the occasional satisfactions, the momentary bursts of small joys—nothing grandiose–, even then Young prefers to acknowledge the thrill of coequal sorrow.

Every Wednesday, Fidel brings oysters to market. I like to eat them with salsa, cilantro and lime. I like to run my tongue along the slick lip of the inner shell and suck them into my mouth. I love knowing they’re alive. Fidel wants to know, how many? And when I tell him, I’ll start with two, he taps his blunt knife against a block of ice, and shucks three.

The Epicure confesses here, ‘I love knowing they’re alive,’ as he consumes the material of living things. Whether you enjoy oysters as much as he does, Young nevertheless conveys his relish in unabashed, thoughtful detail. He means us to admire, as much as he himself admires, Fidel for knowing him so well, who is not fooled by Young’s initial profession of modest enthusiasm. Neither man is to be mistaken for half-hearted, tepid creatures insecure in their pleasures. We are meant to respect—as Young himself respects—Fidel’s confident pride in the quality of what he has to offer, the source of a pagan delight.

     At this point I think we ought to return to Tanaka Shinkai Roshi’s summer observation regarding Young’s status as a Bodhisattva—which is to say, one who has attained enlightenment, but who postpones his entrance into Nirvana in order to remain among the confused, blundering souls on earth, so that  he might assist them in attaining enlightenment for themselves. There is a benign heroism in a Bodhisattva, but Roshi’s observation—‘whether he wanted to be or not’—indicates a double meaning. The first, of course, refers to the understandable reluctance to renounce Nirvana. But the second meaning, I think, acknowledges Young’s unseemly pleasure in the mixed blessings of sublime, ugly struggles. Here is that poem I promised you earlier:

The world is at home in my mind. I can spell Detroit. I know where my cats are buried in the orchard. I know the quadratic equation, my mother’s maiden name and the  suicide squeeze. I know all the words to A Good Woman’s Love and I can hear them in my head at will. Every thought is like a sweet rolled over the tongue. Even my bad ideas are good.

To many of us, it may seem unusual, if not outright quirky, to renounce Nirvana in order to learn the quadratic equation, of all things. But fortunately we have an entire, generous, persuasive  book of poetry—Even So—in the course of which Young produces for us his many reasons why this is his free choice.

* Just so you know, an edition of this book is forthcoming from White Pine Press.

Gender Differences

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I’d like to be unorthodox, and propose a choice: you can bear with me for a minute and let me explain what these pictures are about, or you can skip to the George Carlin quote in paragraph 7, whereupon this article might appear more overtly crafty. Or at least more conventionally organized.

But if you do that, you’ll want to come back to these photographs anyway: they display a region in the brain called the medial pre-optic area, which is a locality involved in, among other things, the expression and regulation of various important hormones— which in turn regulate various important behaviors you’ll probably want to know about. The brain sections shown here are from a gerbil–actually, two gerbils: a male and female. I took these pictures during my years in training in a neuroscience laboratory, where my lab mates and I were pursuing neuroanatomical differences between the two genders. The top picture depicts the medial Sexually Dimorphic Area (mSDA) of a male (on the left) and female (on the right) brain. The bottom picture depicts the SDA pars compacta (SDApc) of a male (on the left) and a female (on the right) brain. At the time they appeared some 22 years ago in The Journal of Comparative Neurology, these pictures and others like them caused discrete but obvious excitement among neuroscientists–who as a group are turned on by the most unlikely things.

The source of the excitement were those differences visible in the neuroanatomy between the two brains–the male and the female. Anyone can see them, which is the point of these pictures. The black irregular dots, lines and smudges densely evident in the male brain are neurons and interconnecting tracts full of vasopressin. Males have a considerable amount of these neurons in these brain areas, and females have comparatively little. Such differences were first discovered by my lab director in a set of studies in 1982–and so for the first time evidence was found to indicate that there were structural differences between male and female neurology.

This was a big deal. Given the materialist way that scientists think, to locate a difference in the brain meant that they could locate the source of differences in behavior. This is of course an axiomatic belief in science and medicine. The great longing is to connect an underlying neurological structure (basal ganglia, let’s say) and its resulting behavior (Parkinson’s disease, for example). Once a correlation can be established, then the next step is to create a technology that can repair the brain, and thereby change, in this case, the deteriorations of the Parkinson symptoms. We could save Michael J. Fox (among all the other people suffering with the disease). There are many diseases we are all familiar with–Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Schizophrenia–that are studied under this primary conceptual model of brain/behavior research.

Now with that in mind, the pictures above show a brain area that is involved in other pretty interesting behaviors, among them aggression, stress responses, parental behavior, and the really big one: sexual behaviors. And not too long after the work in our lab was published, a gentleman in a lab in San Diego claimed to have found an analogous structure in human brains, which he pronounced as the source for homosexual behaviors. You maybe can grasp the initial excitement of that discovery. All sorts of godly people were clamoring for follow-up research that would allow surgical interventions in the brains of gay men to relieve them of their unChristian urges–techniques that would allow that nucleus to be ablated without actually killing the poor sinner whose brain they wanted to tweak so they could control the nature of his desire.

In the nick of time, it was discovered that the brain area found in the human beings studied in that one lab could not be found in other human brains by other scientists in other labs, which suggested that this purported homosexual nucleus was merely an artifact of the immunocytochemistry used to stain for it in San Diego. Much of the Republican world wept in consternation. About this same time, other scientists announced related findings that somehow had, until that time, escaped their detection: human sexual behavior is really really complicated. Naturally, other corollary discoveries soon followed: there is no end to the number of brain areas involved in sexual behavior, including those also involved in violence and aggression, and there certainly is not one tiny nucleus hidden somewhere that governs everything.

There was at that time at least one young scientist (i.e. me) who thought that this hope for a solitary place in the brain that governed everything should have passed out of common belief after Descartes picked the pituitary gland as the resident palace of the soul. That was in the 17th Century, after all, and I had thought the whole project would have been abandoned after 3 futile centuries. But, no, there remains an interest in material explanations to account for the differences between genders–an abiding fevered energy pursuing why, as George Carlin observed, “Women are crazy, and men are stupid.”

Carlin has, to my way of thinking, an especially poignant way of articulating the observed differences, and he is equally memorable regarding the conclusions he reached about the source of those differences: “Women are crazy because men are stupid“. Well, yeah, he was on to something, though I suspect that he derived his hypothesis by taking into account other sources of evidence than looking at the brain cells of gerbils.

There are plenty of them–other sources, I mean. And in the spirit of George Carlin, let’s look at, oh, maybe one random example: the recent movie Her. In this film, for those of you who may not have seen it, we follow a sensitive male in the person of Theodore Twombly, who makes his living writing love letters for other less articulate males–those who are tongue-tied, who are less in touch with their sensitivities, and need help. Theo is a contemporary Cyrano de Bergerac, eloquently seducing women for the pleasure of dumb, under-socialized, but physically attractive men. He himself has had his own successes with at least one woman, which regrettably proved temporary: his marriage to her failed. And therefore, with the logic of a precocious fifteen-year-old, he decides to have telephone relationships with other women, with whom he does not actually need to talk, except insofar as they try to bring each other to sexual climax by referring to their dead cat fetishes.

In the end, that doesn’t work for him any better than his marriage did, though the cause of the failure did not turn out to be what I expected. His problem is not that the whole relationship is a fantasy conducted over a telephone, but rather that it is still engaging, however weirdly, with an actual person. Even on the telephone Theo is constrained to interact with an individual different than he is, with likes and sources of satisfaction other than those he would prefer.

Therefore, with movie wisdom he discovers his true love in Samantha, who is a virtual intelligence that sounds like Scarlett Johansson (and not like Phyllis Diller, which is lucky), and is constructed to fulfill his every wish. She is smart, entertaining, subservient to the nature of his interests, available at all hours of the day and night, adjusts to his sleep and work schedules, and admires the way he thinks. She even concocts a considerate plan for sex, using a physical woman hooked up through ingenious blue tooth devices to the computer, so that Theo might have an actual consummation with an actual physical being, who in turn is electrically connected to the cyberlife of Samantha. What could go wrong?

Well, let me tell you I have yet to find a single woman I know who has been remotely seduced by the premises of this ideal. Of course, from the point of view of science, my female sample is merely anecdotal evidence, but the logic of their friendly complaint seems to me to bear the weight of generalization. The guy in the movie wants his own romantic illusion, which is too much of a mirage even to allow the electronic succubus as a possible erotic evolution to his connection to Samantha. He only wants exactly what he wants, and only by his own terms. No blemishes, no human smells or fluids, no hair, no independence. Eventually, even the artificial intelligence is smart enough to leave him before things go too far, and he imagines some coercive means to compel her to fit his ideas of a soul mate. Fidelity appears to be one of them, since he is crushed by the disclosure that Samantha has been ‘mating’ 600-and-something other men. We can almost hear Othello lamenting in the background “that we can call these delicate creatures ours, and not their appetites.

Theo as Everyman prefers to keep his ideals remote, and unhampered by materials he cannot control. Which is a problem in real life, where most of us have to reside, since any attempt to import them into the daily round of experience is bound to be frustrating, disappointing, aggravating. They have no relationship to reality, which simply refuses to behave according the way men have wanted it to act. Naturally, a certain percent of males will want to do something about that–say, for example, drive through parts of the UC Santa Barbara campus and shoot all the blonde women who wouldn’t have sex with them–whom they didn’t actually know, never actually tried to relate to, but only stood in for their ideal. The male preference has always been to prefer the idea, and compel the material world to accommodate to it. And the social world, the political world, the religious world, and every other world that males have populated. Hence the truth value of Carlin’s category, “Men are stupid.”

I won’t presume to indicate what crazy thing women might prefer, except to note that thus far it has not included shooting all the blonde men they know, or taking assault weapons into elementary schools to massacre all the children, or even making bombs out of horse manure and use them to blow up Oklahoma day care centers. Those decisions remain the province of masculine choice and action, guided by a masculine version of idealism. As our generals told us during the Vietnam War, we have to destroy the village to save it. These separations in behavior between men and women are startling, or at least I find them startling. Here we have a set of behaviors—or perhaps a proclivity for a set of behaviors—that distinguishes the members of the stupid group from those in the crazy group.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to identify the basis for those differences? Doesn’t it seem important? That’s what led me into the laboratory in the first place, where I took those photographs. Just like any other male, I was inclined to pursue an ideal to its logical conclusion—though in my case I neither had an interest in virtual women like Theo, nor a desire to change someone’s brain surgically to alter his sexual orientation, to alter his concept of beauty. Instead, I had my own proclivities—let’s call it my own inclination to look into the male brain, identify the region of violent sociopathy, and remove it. It sounds like such a good idea on paper, at least from the point of view of a masculine call to direct intervention. Ideas like this always look good in theory to somebody hunting after the definitive remedy, the perfect fix, the final solution.

I probably at this point should confess that I am still male, and still can be fooled by my logical extremities. So you probably shouldn’t take everything I say to heart. Besides, I am not the materialist I used to be. I’ve given up the idea that we can fix evil by materially removing the source of it from the brain. Some new pill won’t work either, though that isn’t stopping the pharmaceutical industry from imagining further expensive medicines to try on our children. It’s not going to go away.

Evil isn’t, I mean, evil won’t be going away any time soon–though maybe our unarmed, idealistic women have counsels to offer, or proposals to counter male ideas about material domination. It’s possible. Let’s go ask them.

Where’s the world in World Book Night?

I would offer Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, or Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector. If we were to chose a book of poetry, rather than prose, I would vote for Pablo Neruda’s Canto General or maybe Here and/or Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska. (You know, I’m finding it harder to choose just one book of poetry than just one book of prose.)

A year of reading the world

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Tonight is a big night from for booklovers in my part of the planet. Following on from the original date of World Book Day (marking the anniversary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes), World Book Night is the time when bibliophiles in the UK, Ireland and the US give away free copies of some popular titles in an effort to encourage reluctant readers to get into stories.

There’s a serious point behind it: with 35 per cent of adults in the UK claiming not to read for pleasure, there is a huge group of people for whom books are a closed, er, book. It’s great that tonight might give some of them a chance to discover what they’re missing.

All the same, I can’t help being disappointed when I look at the list of the 20 books that volunteers in the UK will be distributing this evening. Though…

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