Hello Madrid

One aspect of my philistinism is a lack of rapport with poetry. (Apart, I suppose, from an increasingly temperamental and tonsorial inclination toward Philip Larkin.) I mostly don’t get it.

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So I was surprised to like very much Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. It’s the story of a young man struggling to write poetry in Madrid. I know, I know, if that’s how you pitched it to me, you’d have to snap fingers to regain my attention. But it’s full of astute perceptions about art, language, and… whatever, this is not a book review.* My point is, as I read it, I kept thinking:

This Is Spinal Tap : Rock : : Leaving the Atocha Station : Poetry

Here’s how the protagonist writes verse:

I opened the Lorca more or less at random, transcribed the English recto onto a page of my first notebook, and began to make changes, replacing a word with whatever word I first associated with it and/or scrambling the order of the lines, and then I made whatever changes these changes suggested to me. Or I looked up the Spanish word for the English word I wanted to replace, and then replaced that word with an English word that approximated its sound (“Under the ark of the sky” became “Under the arc of the cielo,” which became “Under the arc of the cello”).

Tufnelesque, no? And consider this depiction of his conversational skills:

He said that he had recently been to New York or that he was going to New York soon. For what, I asked. He answered for a musical performance, or to perform music, or for some sort of performance art.

Reminiscent of this exchange, yes?

And when, at a reading, he’s asked which Spanish poets have influenced him? It’s like a Mach piece, really:

Finally I thought of two famous poets I’d barely read… but the names collided and recombined in my head, and I heard myself say: “Ramón Machado Jiménez, which was as absurd as saying “Whitman Dickinson Walt,” and a few people tittered. I corrected myself, but it came out wrong again… and now those who were baffled understood my unforgivable error, so extreme they might have at first suspected it was an ironic gesture.

But hey, enough of my yakkin’…

 

*I’d call it a comic novel, but in my experience that term is up there with “light refreshments” for reliably predicting disappointment. I will say that the first ten pages are up there with Day of the Jackal for strong starts. Also, blessed are the sub-two hundred page novels.

 

 

Macabre Revisited

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A colleague whom I like and otherwise respect recently told me she’d attended a concert by [surpassingly detestable band*].

I declared this band “macabre.”

Puzzled, she asked if I meant “maudlin.”

Nope. I meant “macabre” as said by Anthony Blanche. That’s the epithet he uses to damn, and it indisputably deserves broader currency.

If you don’t know who Anthony Blanche is, do take sixty-seven seconds to watch him drink Brandies Alexander: one, two, three, four!

And if you don’t know who Brandy Alexander is, this article will happily acquaint you, even in July. I could use more friends like the author:

I shook up the first brandy Alexander I had made, or even drank, in years, and declared it my official house cocktail of that whole interminable winter. For the next few months, I took great pleasure in greeting visitors with a drink at the ready and my nutmeg grater in hand.

Funnily enough, the surpassingly unmacabre Feist has songs titled “1234” and “Brandy Alexander.”

 

*Honor forbids me to name the band, but I will say that its name has five letters, begins with “T,” and is a method of rail transportation.

Independence Days

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I’m reading Congo: the Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck. I learned of it from this intriguing New York Times review, which opens with Maréchal Mobutu’s “both Pythonesque and distressing” foray into space exploration:

(The above uncharitably reminds me of the joke about the proposed subtitle for the film about Wernher von Braun, I Aim at the Stars: “But Sometimes I Hit London.”)

I was quite taken with Van Reybrouck’s insight about Congo’s struggles at independence:

As in theater, tragedy in history here was not a matter of the reasonable versus the unreasonable, of good versus bad, but of people whose lives crossed and who – each and every one of them – considered themselves good and reasonable… History is a gruesome meal prepared from the best of ingredients.

Jason Stearns reviews that gruesome meal in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: the Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. It is very readable, but relentlessly saddening, with passages I couldn’t finish. It is also highly informative, and I don’t say that casually. I watched the rebels take Bukavu in 1996 and didn’t really know what the hell was going on. Could have used this book then.

But don’t worry, gentle reader, we shall end on a high note! If you haven’t heard – or seen – this authentic Congolese ballad from the 1970s, well, get ready to rumble:

The Word Problem From Hell

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“Unimaginable,” like “incredible,” is an adjective that seems seldom employed accurately. This sentence gets it about right, though:

For nine unimaginable months he was one of a group of eighteen prisoners of whom nine were shot dead each morning and replaced by nine others.

It’s from Joseph O’Neill’s investigation of his grandfathers’ (completely unrelated) internments in World War II, Blood-Dark Track. The above probablility-defier is Frank Ryan, whose life is a testament to the, uh, complexities of history.

Also, until I poked around on Wikipedia, I would have thought it incredible that, during World War II, a US invasion of Ireland was imagined.

PS hitherto reading O’Neill’s book I’d only known of Frank Ryan from the Pogues’ The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn:

“The Hitchhiker”

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I mean, I don’t pick up, I wouldn’t pick up hitchhikers either. I’m not nuts. – Bill James

Last Sunday morning I pulled over to offer a guy a lift – there was a fierce rainstorm, and it was a long stretch of road. He shook his head with an emphaticalness I’ve not seen since my bachelor days and continued walking.

Recounting this to the wife, she said: “I’m sorry. He was a stranger? And this was with our child in the car?” etc & etc. I tried to explain that, as I learned from a Freakonomics podcast, hitchhiking isn’t especially dangerous, it’s just perceived as especially so. Her response could be diplomatically termed “unpersuaded.” (And if this is where you say “Actually, Peter, what you’re describing isn’t an incidence of hitchhiking, but rather one of you accosting a pedestrian,” OK, fair point.)

Coincidentally – to my mind, anyway –  it was only a few days beforehand we’d read Roald Dahl’s excellent short story “The Hitchhiker” in class.

I always stopped for hitchhikers. I knew just how it used to feel to be standing on the side of a country road watching the cars go by. I hated the drivers for pretending they didn’t see me, especially the big empty cars with three empty seats. The large expensive cars seldom stopped. It was always the smaller ones that offered you a lift, or the rusty ones or the ones that were already crammed full of children and the driver would say, “I think we can squeeze in one more.”

Also: while assessing prior knowledge, as we say in the business, it turned out that only about half the kids knew what hitchiking was.

PS yes, I told everyone not to hitchhike.

“All I Ever Meet Is Witty Bastards.”

Last week I did exit interviews with students about the best books they read this year. To model the behavior, as we say in the business, I stood before each class and interviewed myself about The Catcher in the Rye.

To describe its broad appeal, I mentioned an experience reading it for the first time. While I waited for the #34E in Dedham Square one autumn long ago, a passerby poked his head into the bus shelter: “That’s the best book you’re ever going to read!” he said, then walked away.

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On Friday I was wearing the above t-shirt (such are my exertions to build a culture of literacy), and during break went out to get a coffee. As I passed a nearby construction site, a hardhatted gentleman stepped into my path.

“Catcher in the Rye,” he said, grinning. “You remember that scene where Holden sees [bad word] on the wall, when he’s with his sister?”

I replied that I did indeed.

“Once I had this supervisor giving me a hard time about graffiti on a site. I told him, there’s no way you could ever get rid of all the [bad words] in the world, even if you had a million years.”

Chuckles ensued, good days bade, the culture of literacy affirmed. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.

 

Slap, Memory

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The other day I asked for a kiss and instead received a slap. Though only a toddler, my daughter’s got a mean open hand, and I see no reason to interpret this exchange as anything but portentous.

That very afternoon, coincidentally, I was passing out laptops for a reading level test, and asked a student of Haitian descent to help. He indulges my attempts to practice conversational French, so I said, “Tu peux m’aider…” and briefly blanked before coming up with “…distribuer?”

The exertion of retrieving “distribute” must have slapped some synapse that in turn recalled this article, about a student attacking a teacher in Bordeaux. What’s memorable to me is its use of “distribute” with “slaps”:

…il a croisé le professeur, l’a roué de coups et lui a distribué des gifles…

Voila l’élégance française!

 

PS slapping teachers is bad in any language. Please don’t.

 

Richards Burton

“Like many noteworthy men, he was slightly nuts.”

Richard_Francis_Burton_by_Rischgitz,_1864

I used to have the same problem with Richard Burton as with Francis Bacon: I knew about the guy who married Elizabeth Taylor twice, and about the funky painter, but I also knew, vaguely, there were other historic men with those same names.

So I appreciated this one page primer on Richard Burton, “Britain’s most flamboyant adventurer.” I’ve extracted for you three essential biographical details:

  • “the young Burton had brought his music lessons to an end by smashing a violin over the head of his teacher”
  • “he was eventually said to be proficient in an astonishing total of 40 languages and dialects”
  • he “turn[ed] out endless manuscripts (including A History of Farting)”

Forgive my unsolicited candor, but it’s entirely possible he led a more interesting life than you or I ever will. As for the other guy (the one not known as “Ruffian Dick”):

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It was forty years ago he and Ms. Taylor decided to heed hope instead of experience. In Botswana.

 

6th Grade Netherland

Hotel Netherland, 1893-1927

 
Having thoroughly enjoyed Joseph O’Neill’s novel The Dog, I decided to re-read Netherland.

This time round I was particularly smitten with the narrator’s description of his driver’s ed class. Let’s just say, at this point in the year, it’s hard to read without a certain wistfulness:

…a compassionate understanding tacitly arose among the students that we should do everything to assist this individual, an agreeable and no doubt clever man whose life had plainly come to some kind of ruin. Accordingly we were a well-behaved and reasonably responsive class and, an hour or so later, did our best to abide by his request not to sleep…

 

Help, I’m Stepping into the Twilight Zone

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This sign inspired me to such witticisms as “Shouldn’t they block the road?” and “Ours was in a ballroom.” (Figuring you can’t go wrong with Wild Bill, I submitted this for Twitter’s consideration.) Then I thought: it’s like something you’d see on The Twilight Zone, but if the episode were directed by John Hughes.

The PARCC (as we in the business call the new state exam) is a multi-day testival*, so when the text-weary kiddos get to my Reading class, I’ve been showing them episodes of The Twilight Zone, e.g: Continue reading “Help, I’m Stepping into the Twilight Zone”