Thursday, May 3, 2018

Slush pile

(A few characters and images I haven't been able to get out of my head for years. Maybe they'll become a novel. Maybe posting this will be so embarrassing I'll exorcise myself of them.)


***


Sándor sitting alone in a bar on MacDougal Street. I think it’s 1968. He’s been staring at the blank page for an hour and is on his second – maybe third – whiskey on the rocks. He’s about to order one neat.

“He always wrote me this terrible poetry,” Max had said. “All birds and angels and flying things, clear blue skies and sugar-spun clouds.” She had scowled. “Pigeons and hornets, more like. Horseflies. Horseshit.”
“But the emotion was sincere, surely?” he had ventured, trying to keep his distance from the topic of Max’s love life. “Birds are one of the most universal and beloved images in poetry.”
“Birds are filthy little rats,” she had cut him off. “There’s nothing exalted or glorious in a pair of wings. Hollow bones and dry little feathers filled with dust. The only thing that exalts a bird is our own desire to fly, our own impotence. Any poet who blindly uses a goddamned bird in his work as a symbol of anything is just revealing how stuck his own feet are in the sewage.”
Delicate as always, Max. With her cigarette pinched between her fingers and her hair undone, casting down proclamations like a prophet on a mountaintop. Or a critic at the New Yorker. She was a caricature of herself and Sándor suspected that she knew it, but her words stuck in his head. Hollow little dust-filled bones. Our own desire to fly, our own impotence.

Somewhere in the middle of his neat whiskey, his notebook is filled with this:

In Hungary there is a particular variety of mayfly called the Tiszavirág, or “Tisza flower.” They are large for mayflies, with a wingspan of about an inch and a half, and usually white or pale pink. They are thoroughly unremarkable, except for one thing.
Every spring, over the course of just a few days, the entire population of the species swarms over the river Tisza – and only the Tisza, no other river on earth – to mate and then immediately die. The corpses of the insects strewn across the water, their wings outstretched, look like millions of flower petals floating on the surface of the river. Their mass suicide is transformed into a grand work of art.  

Sándor barely remembers Hungary, and speaks with only the hint of an accent, more a slight melancholy song-cadence than any deformation of the words themselves. His family was prescient enough to flee before the war broke out, and his only memories of his native land are a few surreal dream-like images of childhood. Not events, not people, just images: the stone lions on the bridge over the Danube looking directly at him and frightening him, the snowdrifts of pale green petals falling off the linden trees in late August and whirling through the broad streets in Pest, a huge orange moon illuminating the night in Óbuda so brightly that the birds started singing, but not brightly enough that the crickets stopped. The moon hung in the sky like an enormous lantern, silently watching and casting a long shadow on the statue of St. Florian, while the deserted streets floated somewhere unreal and ghostly between night and day.

Max is from Westchester. Her real name is Marion. She will verbally eviscerate anyone who points out either of those facts. The day she turned twenty-six and therefore fell off the edge into her late twenties, she stood up from her secretarial desk job, stopped returning her devoted but boring boyfriend’s calls, and moved to Manhattan. As is tradition, the objective is to become a writer and the reality is waitressing. The difference is, she’s aware she’s a cliche.

This should be a love story, but it never will be.  

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Indifference


Walking down 46th street the other day I saw a man pushing his daughter in a stroller. She was tiny, two years old at the most, and she was wailing and writhing in abject misery.

I have never possessed a maternal instinct. My icy heart might melt at the sight of a kitten, but the human equivalent leaves me unmoved.I have an impulse towards nurturing and caretaking, but it seems to direct itself towards depressive writers and alcoholic poets or other attractively damaged men, instead of pre-verbal infants. And for as long as I can remember, the sound of a baby crying has been one of the most hideous things I can overhear.

The little girl on 46th street strained against the bonds of her stroller, wrenching at her seatbelt with balled-up fists and kicking her tiny legs still round with baby fat but uselessly suspended in the air. She was loud. I scowled to myself and turned up the volume on my earbuds - when I noticed for the first time the look on her father's face.

A bit weary, a bit annoyed, but most of all completely nonplussed. There was nocruelty or neglect in his expression, nothing at all out of the ordinary - but I realized that weary, patient indifference was the expression Ialways saw on parents' faces when their babies were screaming. And suddenly it struck me as horrifying.

The little girl was in agony, shrieking at the top of her lungs, her face drenched with tears. She struggled to break free of some invisible prison, staring into the abyss and experiencing something atrocious and monstrous. Her desperation was so black and hopeless that she contorted her little body as if trying to escape from reality, claw her way out of the air and into some other place, some other time, where she wasn't feeling sad or lonely or cold or scared or indignant at the staggering injustice of the whole thing, a tiny little body struggling to contain a furious and roaring soul that had just awakened, a wordless brain suffocating her thoughts and rendering them inexpressible, the double insult of the capacity to feel acute pain and the inability to understand why, knowing only that this was wrong, unfair, and might never stop.

If an adult suddenly found herself overcome with despair to such an extent that she collapsed to her knees on 46th street, screaming and tearing her hair and physically struggling against the void of meaninglessness closing in around her, someone would rush to her aid and someone would call 911 and someone would run away, afraid of the touch of oblivion she had unleashed. her sudden contention with the pain of the universe would be seen for what it was, a moment of crisis and even a tragedy in itself, an instant of pulling back the veil and seeing the howling void at the center of all things.

But a child, she's just having a silly tantrum. She'll grow out of it. She probably got upset that she didn't get enough ice cream. Or she lost her teddy bear, that will teach her to be more responsible. (But does anyone truly not remember losing their bear? The sudden moment of icy shock when you realize Bear was there and then he wasn't, and not only is he gone and your arms are empty, but he will never come back, and you suddenly encounter the concept of never, that the entirety of your future stretches before you in a dizzying vertigo of Without Bear? You realize that tonight you'll have to go to sleep without Bear and worse still, you'll have to wake up tomorrow morning and every cursed morning for the rest of your life without him?)

After that I couldn't stop seeing the same thing everywhere. Babies or small children screaming in fury or despair or terror and the adults around them ignoring them, or telling them "hush, we're in public," or rolling their eyes apologetically. I used to be irritated and even disgusted by screaming babies, now I'm terrified by them, but for a different reason. Each one of them is a piece of nothingness, a living reminder of the existential doom that we all just barely push back with every breath, the door we learn to slam shut on our thoughts and the blinders we glue over our eyes. They are seeing Hell, overwhelmed by the pain of existence, with no words to liberate themselves from its tortures. And we pretend we can't hear them because to do otherwise could drive us back into the madness.



(For Zeno)

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Il vento dell'Est



Cammino di sera, da sola, per Via Sarpi, 
Straniera tra stranieri, sotto le lanterne rosse 
dell’Anno del Cane. 

La strada bagnata di pioggia rispecchia le luci, 
i piedi pesanti dei vecchi mercanti 
e i volti cinesi dei giovani italiani. 

Poi tutto d’un tratto la strada si svuota. 
È arrivato il vento freddo. 

La città si nasconde. Si rannicchia. Si abbraccia. 
Il caldo lo tiene nel cuore come un segreto. 
 Il freddo mi entra lentamente nelle ossa. 

Cammino di sera, da sola, per Via Sarpi. 
2 euro per una birra nella strada deserta - 
Stranieri tra stranieri, brindiamo insieme, 
io e il vento dell’Est.

Con questa poesia, la mia prima in italiano e la prima in assoluto che ho mai osato a recitare davanti ad un pubblico, comincio a scrivere anche in italiano qui sul blog. Comincio a scrivere poesia. Comincio a considerarmi una scrittrice, anche se sono ancora in attesa della mia prima opera pubblicata. Comincio a scrivere in italiano in generale, a non limitarmi all'inglese per motivi di paura o vergogna. (Sono una Jhumpa Lahiri di un dio minore.)

Ricomincio a scrivere. Riprendo la mia voce. Rivendico la mia voce perduta. Scrivo anche se devo usare il mio sangue per inchiostro. Non esiste un dolore, una paura, una delusione abbastanza forte di togliermi le parole. Ora sto scrivendo delle cazzate, lo so. Mangiatele tutte.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Janus - midnight scribbles



Der du mit dem Flammenspeere Meiner Seele Eis zertheilt, Dass sie brausend nun zum Meere Ihrer höchsten Hoffnung eilt: Heller stets und stets gesunder, Frei im liebevollsten Muss: — Also preist sie deine Wunder, Schönster Januarius! 
(Friedrich Nietzsche, Der frölicher Wissenschaft, IV "Sanctus Januarius") 

(I don’t know more than five words of German. Why am I trying to translate from the source text?)

 O Tu, che di tua lancia fiammeggiante, il gelo hai franto de l'anima mia: ond'essa, sopra il mar lunge sonante, verso la sua Speranza ancor s'avvia ! Più chiaro il giorno, omai, dopo il rovaio, e più libero e sano, in torno smalta: onde il mio cuore i tuoi prodigi esalta, o il più soave mese di Gennaio! 
(Trans. Antonio Cippico, Fratelli Bocca Editori, Torino 1905) 

(Oh my God, that’s the worst translation I’ve ever seen. Bury the nineteenth century in a concrete bunker and pile anvils on the hatch.) 

 You who with your flaming spear 

 Your flaming lance 

 Sword 

 Rod 

 Phallus 

 Helppppp 

You with your flame have pierced my soul and shattered 

You who have pierced my soul with fire, shattering and melting the ice from my heart. 

 *** 

 Been thinking about San Gennaro again. When I was in Rome a couple months back I went with my dear friend to visit extended family of his in the countryside near Palombara Sabina. We spent the afternoon playing with his baby niece and harvesting olives in the garden, in the shadow of a sizable hill at the foot of the Appenines. The hill, my friend’s sister in law explained to me, was called Monte Gennaro. 

It had been Mount Janus during pagan times, but once Christianity supplanted the Roman gods, the name was quietly changed to that of the Neapolitan saint. Janus, Januarius, Gennaro. It hit me like a ton of bricks - or a rain of olives falling out of the tree when I wasn’t looking. 

I’ve always liked the duality in the legend of San Gennaro - the supposed miracle of his blood turning from a dead crust of matter to living liquid right around the autumn equinox, when nature turns the corner to fall asleep and hibernate for the winter, a defiant gesture, a counter-punch, a rebellion, an inversion. So many Catholic saints have pagan forebears, the same myths persist, the same metaphors. Now here suddenly, in plain sight, was the Roman substance to the Gennaro legend. Janus, who looks both ways. Janus who stands on the precipice. Janus who melts the ice of the old year to set the new aflame with life.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Three Studies for a Work on Melancholy

One morning you awaken from unsettling dreams to find you have been transformed into a miserable wreck.
An overripe piece of fruit with the juice and flesh sucked out, a limp rotting husk. Your limbs feel heavy and your blood feels slow and there’s a sick aching knot somewhere between your heart and stomach.
You’ve spent the last few days full of energy and passion. Now, all of a sudden, one bad dream too deeply rooted in your subconscious fears and the vitality has been drained from you. You’ve woken up hours earlier than normal beneath a colorless sky, clinging to your pillow with thin, weak arms.
The strange thing is you were so unaccustomed to the hope and creative impulse of the past few days that waking up like this feels like remembering your own name after being hit on the head.

***

You have an appointment with your shrink that afternoon and spend the whole dimly-lit hour mumbling a sad story he’s already heard three times. Afterwards, you feel worse. Catharsis is a myth.
You make your way to a coffee shop. Your feet are heavy and you trip over thin cracks in the sidewalk. You open your notebook intending to work on a translation of an author you adore, but all you can manage to do is copy down your chaotic handwritten experiments into a typed note on your phone. Translation is already one large step removed from creation, a form of imitation with only aspects of invention, and here you are parodying the entire dynamic. You change one single solitary word to better fit the rhythm of the passage and feel like you’ve done your duty to the starving intellectual work ethic. The words are yours, sort of.

***

You get to your Starving Intellectual Survival Job and find the place sparkling with Christmas decorations. The kitschy decor is covered with pine branches shedding needles, the bar is crowded with nutcrackers hiding among the top-shelf whiskeys. Everyone’s working longer hours, trying to convince themselves the extra pay makes up for it, and huddling in the coffee stations to plan who is turning in their notice when. Somebody recently got a gig on Broadway, so maybe there’s hope for us too.
On the second level, a cluster of willow branches is exploding from the top of a wooden credenza. The intended effect is that of a rustic, wintry bouquet but the scale is off. It’s out of control. Long, gnarled, twisted branches grasping out in all directions, scraping the ceiling and looming over the ladies who lunch. It casts nightmarish shadows, black tendrils of doom sucking the breath from the day - and hanging on all those branches, twinkling cheerfully, are at least thirty garish glitter-covered Christmas balls. Hello! I am Cthulhu the ancient horror, Merry Christmas everyone!
It’s the funniest goddamn thing you’ve ever seen. A broken-off shard of absurdity pierces through your melancholy and you have to run into the pastry kitchen to laugh hysterically. The busboys all stare at you, the wine guy comes in with a strange look on his face and it’s all absolutely impossible to explain.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Untitled (To the Spider in my Living Room)



I just saw something odd out of the corner of my eye.

I'm home alone, relaxing on the couch after a long day. Skimming through some blogs, texting my mom about nothing, listening to Bob Dylan again. Something just floated across my peripheral vision.

GAHHH--

Well, okay, that's a spider. Floating in mid-air.

A tan little spindly thing about the size of a twenty-cent coin. She must have cast her line down from the radiator pipes criss-crossing the ceiling and has come down, assuming any reasonable human will be fast asleep at this hour, to have a look around and catch a midnight snack. Now she's just hovering there suspended against gravity, her silk completely invisible, stretching her front legs languidly, searching through the void.

She holds still, then stretches and somersaults, then freezes motionless again. I'm not afraid of her. She has no designs on hurting me, her goal is the fruit flies that I can't seem to rid the kitchen of. She's probably more afraid of me than I am of her, and in any event, the likelihood that she's lethally venomous at this latitude is slim. I'm just going to move over here to the other side of the couch, realllllly slowly....

She's patient. Waiting. The flies will come by eventually, and she'll have built her whole web just for that moment. She's a Gramscian, quietly and intelligently waging her war of position suspended there in the night, instead of wasting time and energy scampering all over the house in a war of maneuver. She's weightless but solid, belongs to nothing and no one, her only point of reference as she swings through the emptiness is her own instinct and intellect.

She looks peaceful and carefree. A lazy tumble and a stretch like an eight-legged ballerina. She's also, it occurs to me, absurdly strong. She's maintaining herself and her entire body weight in perfect motionless balance on a single thread of silk, spun of her own accord from inside her own body, so microscopically thin that it's invisible to the naked human eye. I think of the last time I tried to climb a rope ladder and feel a mystified, grudging respect for the oh crap she's moving really fast she's coming down onto the couch oh god okay don't panic just 

I intended to come into the kitchen anyway, as I have some zucchini that just demands to be cooked and eaten immediately. I'm not in the least bit scared of that tiny little creature and I'm certainly not hiding from her.

I'm just taking my big ungainly mess of neuroses and weaknesses out of her eight-eyed sight, is all. Out of respect. I'm not worthy. Aracne defeats Athena, this time.

May the fruit fly hunt be plentiful, little friend, and may your silk never weaken. Please don't come into my room while I'm asleep at night.


Beacon Theatre, November 21


Well, I'm livin' in a foreign country but I'm bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor's edge, someday I'll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born
Come in, she said
I'll give ya shelter from the storm

The house is dark, the stage barely lit by a deep blue glow. The band hurries out to their places, heads down, all business. The audience whispers as one.

The blue turns to bright white and he walks out with a dazed gait, squinting under the house lights. He's as skinny as a cigarette and his white jacket hangs loose on his shoulders. His hair is a billow of smoke.

He sits at the piano like any workaday saloon entertainer, scowling into the microphone. And then, his voice.

I know the cynical aching poetry of the young Dylan. Now his voice is like boots on a gravel road, the electric band can drown him out, his words are swallowed in noise. But it's still his voice.

Yes, I received your letter yesterday, about the time the doorknob broke
When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke
All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they're quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name
Right now, I can't read too good, don't send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row

I can't understand a word he's singing.
Maybe the sound system is faulty, maybe the guitarists are playing too loud. Maybe I've been reading too much in Italian and have lost my grasp on English. All I know is I just hear sound, noises, the ghost of meaning.

And the energy is still there. The sound is unfocused and strange, I'm used to studio recordings on high-def through my headphones and now, impossibly, he exists in flesh and blood as a single moment moving through time. He stands up as the song builds to its climax and leans on the piano keys with all his strength.

Though I know that evening's empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping
My weariness amazes me, I'm branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming


I never listened to him much before. I knew the famous songs, appreciated his place in history. But I never really listened.
A month ago I found myself drinking white wine on an unseasonably warm night with someone who loves his music so much it's contagious. I started listening for real,
closely, paying attention to the words like I focus on a page written in my second language, knowing I have to be present to understand, knowing it's worth every breath of effort, drowning myself in the words as if they were something living and tangible I could hold onto. And he's been playing in my head ever since.

Before I know it the concert is over. I walk out of the theater half exhilarated half disappointed. Like the feeling when Christmas is over and it's still a cold, rainy day.

There's a crowd outside the stage door and a burly stagehand groans, waving them all away. "He's already left the building!" he insists. "Oh sure!" chortles an aging hippie. "That's what he always says!"

I hesitate on the corner for ten minutes but he really is gone. I can't sleep all night for a strange, uncertain energy.

You're the reason I'm travelin' on
Don't think twice, it's all right. 

Slush pile

(A few characters and images I haven't been able to get out of my head for years. Maybe they'll become a novel. Maybe posting this w...