Writings and Letters

A blog oeuvre… a "bloeuvre"

Tag: death

I’ve Been Reading John Ashbery Lately

We sat on your makeshift couch in your calico brick apartment and talked awhile. I remember asking you how your bisexuality was going. “I’m in between legs at the moment,” you said. I didn’t quite understand, but then it sank in and I gave you one of my “a-ha!” laughs. You appreciated the effort. We talked and talked and talked and you smoked inside because “Fuck the police” and we got drunk on your cheap wine. Your teeth were a hideous violet. I think to tell you this but then forget until now. I twirl my hair and remember my dad always yelling at me for doing it. “You’ll pull your hair out!” I tell you this. You laughed at his stupidity, then paused and delivered: “Wait. It can’t, right?” You cackled the way you do when you’re high. It makes me laugh. Your head kicked back and cast a shadow against your juandicing wall (darkening pale maize due to your indoor habits). Your arms were crossed, your body arched back and contorted along the contours of the ha-ha wall of pillows. Your yellow teeth faded in and out with the tungsten of the room. Your cigarette still burned between your fingers, crossed like legs. I watch the ashes cascade like fallout over you.

“Relationships are toxic these days because people are too afraid to love and don’t have the time to be,” I say. I heard it on a podcast the other day, but most of the people at Sharon’s uptown party don’t know this.  “If that were only half of it,” you said.  You were sipping on Sharon’s expensive wine. You smoked another cigarette, different from your typical brand. You had sunglasses on. You were drunk. You weren’t high. You laid on the floor and kept inexplicably circling your two arms stating you’d been pilloried, but I think you meant to say dizzy instead. I think about my ex. I imagine sunshine, a beach, smiling, delight, pleasure, and how much better it all is without me. I look at you and your twirling propellers and giggle.

You told me about how you used to create fake sites like: http://www.itsthetruth.com or http://www.whatweusedtoknow.com and send clickbait ads to conservative hangouts with titles like: “Something Millennials Are in a RUDE Shock For” and “Seven Things MILLENNIALS Don’t Understand that Boomers Never Forgot” with images of laughing hipsters or the American flag. “Of course, what they didn’t realize,” was that they’d followed a link right to pictures of Tub Girl.

I like to run. I joke with my friends that: “It’s good for me because I like to run from my problems. The only problem is I run in circles.” I like the joke. It’s stupid, like me. Most people laugh to be kind. But in honesty, it is the only time I get to think and melt fat. I take a strange pleasure in feeling the pain from running. It reminds me of death and how incredibly terrified I am of it. So much so, I eat carrots and peanut butter five times a week for lunch and run to turn my solids into air. It’s a queer sensation, to feel this gelatinous glob of waxen and fluids moving about in sharp pains, and burning and hurting just to work off half that mini-cupcake you ate three weeks ago. All in the futile attempt to forgo the inevitable, or at the most humble: prolong the expiration. I suppose this isn’t very original, not even unique. Everyone fears it. But everyone must go through with it. What do they say? That and taxes, right? I don’t run because of taxes, though. My asphyxiating debt? Sure. My modest cash depleted by The Rentier Society? Why not? My payments and payments and work for more money, and more payments and more work, and nothing quite seems to assuage anything and there is no help in sight, and I’m feeling extra, extra smol and I want to rip off my head, but why don’t I just go for a run instead?! Yes, definitely! —– (You laughed at me for running, you know. You said I was buying into the health culture industry. “Hook, line, and sinker.” Cackle, cackle, cackle. Your burnt blonde hair ruffled. Your mucilaginous belly wiggled and winked at me. You thought non-consumption was still part of consumerism. “We’re trapped in that sense and we need to come to terms with it.” Cackle, cackle, cackle.)

You once cried on my chessboard bathroom floor. Your face was slick. You put my okay wine into the toilet and a little on the tile. I kneeled down next to your slack body and rubbed your arm. You kept going on about apocalypse and how you didn’t think you could go on. You kept shaking your head. “Vicegrip” was thrown around a lot. I think I understand. I’ve been there. I’ve read Sartre; I’ve read Beckett, Kierkegaard, well the Oxford Encyclopedia version, but I basically understand his point. Existentialism. I know you. I know what you’re going through, I’ve been there myself. It’s tough, but hey, you’re tougher. Just get back out there, just get back out there and give it all ya got! You can do this, I believe it; I believe in you! I hand you some toilet paper. You accepted and shyly, poorly cleared your nose. I stood up to give you some time and space and you looked at me the way you do when I’m making a mistake. You lit a cigarette. You smoked and laughed. “You idiot. You big, dumb idiot.”

I remember you telling me you could never respect a man who took Thomas Bernhard seriously, but you’d let it go because you also understood it was too chic to bag on him now. “And the chicest move… is to never be chic.”

Music played inside the artless room. You were laying down, near the window. I sat next to you. “I wish I had a smoke.” Your teeth were terrible. I nodded and shrugged. You turned your attention back to the music. It reminded you of another song and you started to try and tell me about it. “It’s one of those good ones I like. You know, ‘the sad ones’…” That’s what I used to call all the songs you adored about the menace of suburbia and cancer of our existence. “… I was listening to this song and it just really struck me… But… you know the problem with music I also realized is… that it doesn’t have as much revolutionary power. You know, John Berger, the other poet guy I like, was wrong… Music ain’t got it… Shit. No art does. We’re just going on and on… and we’re thinking this shit we throw out there makes any difference… Goll-ly. We’re screwed, man. This is Hell. We’ve all died and are now experiencing Hell… It’s all pointless… It’s all so embarrassing…” And then you nodded off to sleep. It was a very long day in a very long year.

I’ve been reading John Ashbery lately. I like his work. I like the way he uses imagery, his focus on the inexorable engine of time and its soft killing way, the haunted acknowledgment of death. It’s this recognition of our horrid inconvenience that makes his tributes to banality so welcoming. He makes the plain a carnival, the pointless and frustrating unique and special. And that makes me think of you. And I start to miss you again. But then I go for a run…

Ascending, Falling, Ascending Again

A few days back on KUSC (southern California’s classical radio station), I was listening to Ralph Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending.” It was part of the station’s “Classical Top 100 Countdown” as voted by the listeners (it placed in 22nd—that overrated hack Beethoven! once again topped out at No. 1). Aside from the obvious qualities of the song itself (arguably Vaughn Williams’s best piece, undisputedly his most recognizable), it was the story the DJ (in his trance-inducing cadence and mid-Atlantic accent) was telling about its relation to remembering 9/11 that got me thinking.

It went a little something like this: roughly five years ago, WNYC (New York’s public radio station) was conducting a fan vote to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11; to commemorate the day, the station asked its listeners to vote for their Top 10 songs that encapsulated the city, the event, etc. It was meant to be a reflection not just on the horrors and immense sadness of the day, but of the city (and thus nation) itself. The New Yorkers who voted produced some interesting results. There were some obvious choices: Alicia Keys and Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” (the song that acted as a national anthem of sorts on the radio waves after that fateful day—or at least on my radio waves in Illinois), Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was No. 1.

I would say that Vaughn Williams’s placement at No. 2 was a bit of a surprise, though—at least to me. Partly I was impressed I suppose because I’m a [fascist] and don’t think people who listen to public radio would be as aware of Ralph as say those who listen to classical radio or are relatively well-versed in that genre. But shame on me, right? It was only partly! No. The larger reason I was surprised by this selection was in the song itself. Though I know “Lark” is seen as an inspirational, majestic even, piece, I can never help but listen to it and hear a healthy dose of gloom just whispering in the strings. Something in the sinuous fashion of those notes as the lead violinist plays on hints to me that this is just as much about the dusk as it is the coming dawn. Now, maybe it’s my own perpetual melancholia that influences me, or perhaps I’m hearing the song “wrong,” but apart from the crescendo halfway through the song, it is a largely mild, contemplative tune in tone.

As one fictional story tells it, Vaughn Williams wrote “Lark” after seeing soldiers being shipped off to serve in World War I—this has been researched and proven false. In truth, the piece was largely inspired by the George Meredith poem of the same name, and revised several times until its performances started in 1920. I like to think the more solemn qualities of the work were added or accentuated after the war. I see Vaughn Williams returning to the work with all the awful knowledge of the Great War and what it had wrought to those young men, and citizens all across the world (interesting tidbit: during the war, the police arrested Vaughn Williams after being tipped off that the musical notation in “The Lark Ascending” was actually a form of code talk with the enemy, he never went to jail). It is fitting to think of the work in this way, especially when returning to the context of the WNYC poll and remembering 9/11.

Listening again to “Lark” with precise consideration of 9/11 only heightens the more somber notes. And, unlike with “Adagio,” the sadness I hear in “Lark” is not specific to the traumatic September day, but encapsulates the entirety of its history. That is to say, I find it so fascinating “The Lark Ascending” landed second on these New Yorkers’ list because it is perhaps the only song in the Top 10 that musically emotes a dread or regret about not only the day of September 11th, but all the subsequent days that followed in conjunction and casts them in a particularly dim light. And what interests me even more is that this song was selected at a time when the continuum of 9/11’s consequences were in plain sight (protests over Park51) and not-so plain sight (the rise of a small terrorist cell in the east of war-torn Syria calling itself ISIL) in late 2011.

So, did the placement of “Lark” in the Top 10 of this musical in memoriam represent a developing maturation of the American Mind about 9/11 and more broadly US foreign policy in the 21st century, a kind of sober reflection on the actions we as a nation carried out in the name of 9/11 and its victims, and the consequences of our behavior (both foreign and domestic)?

Probably not, but a girl can dream!

I’m more inclined to think that the majority of New Yorkers who voted for “The Lark Ascending” were in favor of the song for its inspirational qualities, which fit nicely into the narratives of New York City’s and America’s seeming immortality and greatness (even though its people might not be). Or, at the very best, for those who voted for Vaughn Williams’s classic, who were in this reflective mindset I mention above, represent but a small fraction of a fraction (i.e. people who listen to public radio in New York City that are willing and wanting to take the time to fill out a Top 10 playlist for their public radio) and cannot be viewed as a valid pool for extrapolation (though it doesn’t negate them either).

If I recall correctly, on that day five years ago, there was a lot of bumptious Americana, embarrassing chicanery (we were gearing up for a Presidential election the next year!), and crypto-jingoism going ’round. Though by then I was living on the West Coast where (if you talk to some of the folks back east of the Rockies) the people never really “got” what 9/11 was all about… But I’ll turn off the conjecture now and focus elsewhere.

So why would Vaughn Williams’s piece have any relationship to 9/11? Just what was 9/11?

After the second plane struck, we realized we were not untouchable atop our global perch.Unforeseeable forces threatened to harm us in unforeseeable ways, ineffable disasters were just waiting for us: this was our future. As the news unfolded these ghastly scenes before us, we struggled to process them in realtime, and then again when remembering them as we became further removed. This was 9/11.

The words “Never Forget” became ubiquitous, yet it was never clear what we were supposed to remember, just that we never forget. We were not required to mourn the dead properly because we were going to “rid the world of evil.” There was no time for grief—after all, an entire global economy was riding on us. So we slapped those words on our cars and painted them on the sides of our buildings, and carried them in our hearts and minds without any further reflection, which seemed evident when our recollections failed us in the succeeding days, weeks, years. We forgot that some of those civilians who died that day at the hands of the terrorists practiced Islam, that Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks, that wars cannot be waged without casualties, that the lives that were lost in the aftermath far eclipsed those who perished in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, and so on and so on.

Like we had in the past, we focused heavily on the atrocities we suffered, at times with a certain fetishism, and seldom reflected on those cast outward—as seems to be the natural behavior for human beings, to the victors go the spoils. It is not just the deaths suffered by the Iraqi civilians I think of (by one estimate at least 112,667 men, women, and children—which begs one to think: “For every one American life lost, must an Iraqi lose forty-seven? Or even one?”), but the deaths we suffered onto ourselves.

We continue to think of casualties lost in battle similar to those lost in automobile crashes, alcoholism, black on black violence, and public shootings in this country: just par for the course, these abstract facts that are the results of some outside person or thing inflicted on us. These losses are troubling and sad, but it is important to remember (never forget!) that they are done onto us, not by us, and thus there is a gap in the rhetoric that allows us to slip out and excuse ourselves from the earth like some otherworldly geist, hovering just above the rest in certain rectitude.

Why else do we say things like: “Happy Memorial Day!”?**

These holidays, these anniversaries, these catchphrases, they are ceremonial ablutions that allow us to be near the violence and the terror, but cleansed from its actualities. In this context, the VA’s numerous troubles become less opaque as comprehension starts to settle in. It is so because the violence done by us, using our fellow citizens as soldiers, is acceptable, and violence done to us (onto our fellow citizen soldiers) by us (our consent) is also acceptable, but violence suffered from the outside is unacceptable, and thus we must do something about it. We take up verbal arms against these invisible faces and bravely charge our fellow citizens (many of whom come from lesser circumstances than our own) off to fight in unseen battles, with only stories left for us to edit and relish. We participate in all the glory, and experience none of the pain. Our memories become saturated with these glossy narratives while the soldiers continue to live in unimaginable pain. It is a reality that can only exist as long as we continue to forget (or deny) we are the accomplices in our own misery. To do so is to eliminate a part of our existence.

And so I return to Ralph Vaugh Williams’s “The Lark Ascending.” How best to understand it and its relationship to us? To think about its history and our own, separately and as one?  We are tangled together, ascending, falling, ascending again, spreading wide and riding the invisible gusts of the past, cutting ripples into the future that bleeds back into that thin air, ascending and falling, ascending again.

 


** I caught myself saying this to two veterans who are very dear to me. Why in the hell does one say such a thing? It was almost obligatory. I might as well have said: “Happy Memorial Day! Sorry your buddies couldn’t be here to celebrate it with you, but you know, they’re dead. Let’s party! Have a drink on me, you PTSD-riddled fuck!”