Saturday, March 31, 2012

Time in Rear Window [1954]

Hitchcock's Rear Window [1954] is widely regarded as one of his classic films, as well as a classic of the Noir Whodunit tradition, though it was made in color, and depends less on the dark-venetian-blinds-and-hatted-private-eye tropes than most movies in that category.

Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, it employs the static setting of a New York high rise inner block courtyard. The story is very simple: A photojournalist, known for his intrepid pursuit of subject-matter, has been confined to his third story apartment following an accident in which he's broken his leg. Wearing a big white cast, he sits uncomfortably in a reclining chair, with only his open windows for diversion. In the pre-television world in which the story is conceived, he has little choice but to stare idly out the rear windows, taking in the little dramas which unfold in the other apartments across the courtyard. This naturally leads to the construction of imagined plots and situations about the other tenants and residents, which Jefferies (played by Jimmy Stewart) indulges in as a vicarious pastime.

Jefferies is attended by a visiting nurse, played by Thelma Ritter, and he's visited from time to time by his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (played by Grace Kelly), and his friend Detective Lt. Thom Doyle (played by Wendell Corey)--each of whom tries to cheer him up and divert him from his claustrophobic depression. For a man of action constantly on the go, having to sit still 24 hours a day is sheer torture.

People confined by disability or legal order develop odd ways of coping with their plight. Our human minds and bodies are constructed for movement and stimulation, so when these inputs are withheld, we invent situations or intrigues to fill the void. Dreaming is thought to be a form of personal entertainment, which the brain employs to divert itself during sleep; it's also thought to be a practical way we have of working out psychological problems in our waking lives. If there is no interest in our immediate environment, we may literally create stories from the raw experience of our daily existence. It may even be an involuntary tendency in some people, whose appetite for such narrative is unquenchable.

The popularity of mystery and fantasy stories in popular media is one obvious symptom of the human desire for social intrigue, the need to find mystery and meaning from the complexity (or the puzzles) of interpersonal interaction--the need to find underlying motives, or a manipulation of events beneath the quotidian surface of experience. It's a habit shared by millions. There's a back-story, or a circuit-board of meaning to every movement, every event. Anyone habituated to thinking of life as the analysis of the underlying organizations of phenomena will feel a keen sense of deprivation, if robbed of the sustenance of data.

Humans are the only specie of the animal kingdom which is able to objectify relationships from the world, which is what enables us to see symbols as representations of other individuals or things--things which stand for something else: Images, symbols, letters and words. As a professional photo-journalist, Jefferies "sees" the world as a panorama of event, as a collection of camera-views, and what he sees out the windows of his apartment--which is a metaphor not only for his actual camera--with its giant front-mounted tele-photo lens--but for the eyes in his head--becomes simply more raw material for the investigative skill he's learned on assignment. He just can't help himself.

The vicarious invasiveness of Jefferies, watching his neighbors activities unfold, day in, day out, stimulates his curiosity, and generates narratives based on the evidence of what he can see of their lives through the un-curtained windows of their apartments. It's an invasion of privacy, but one not necessarily discouraged by its subjects. We're given to understand that it's Summer time, and most folks don't possess air conditioners, or can't afford them. As Jefferies idly marks time, sitting in his chair, he begins to suspect that one of the unfolding dramas across the way may have abominable implications. He begins to suspect that a man may have murdered his wife. At first, this suspicion is treated by his Lisa, Tom and the nurse Stella as evidence of Jefferies' excessive boredom and lively imagination. There must be a sensible explanation. Like the dancer, the songwriter, the old couple with a dog, whose lives proceed with the fitful but largely unmarked progress of the ordinary, the Thorwalds must be acting out the usual uneventful relationship of the typical married couple.

Jefferies' confinement, though, implies a certain passivity. He can't get up out of his chair and do the detective work which a curious snoop desires. And it's this stir-crazy frustration, the cooped-up, cabin-fevered claustrophobia which drives him to prove or disprove his thesis about the crime he thinks has taken place. As members of the expectant audience, we know there has to be a mystery somewhere, though in real life that possibility is a stretch. The tension isn't so much that Thorwald may have killed his wife--which we accept without question, since this is, after all, a Hitchcock movie--but in how Jefferies may or may not prevail upon his small circle of friends to accept his deductions as anything more than silly speculation. As participants in the narrator's omniscient overview, we share their skepticism, because it's our place to do so, to see the dialectic as the practical solution versus the improbable one, even as we know that the unlikely outcome is the preferred version. After all, that's entertainment!

The other dramatic tension in the plot exists between Jeff and Lisa. Lisa would like Jeff to give up his constant traveling, to settle down and live together with her, as a married couple, something he feels entirely reluctant to undertake. A permanent, settled relationship would impose the same kind of restriction on his life-style, as his broken leg does. Lisa's willingness to indulge Jeff in his crackbrained theory about the Thorwald "murder" gradually gives way to a grudging acknowledgment.

Jeff's imaginative fantasy-becoming-reality is a metaphor for the power of mind over events, the power literally to influence, even to create an alternative reality for himself. His thwarted desire for movement, excitement, stimulation, which enables Lisa to keep him captive to her seductive designs upon him, is a premonition of his own vulnerability, fragility, mortality. He feels entirely uncomfortable as the passive beneficiary of care, and "creating" a situation from the data entering through his tiny window (the lens) on the world becomes a campaign against that dependence, a self-justifying expedition. Crime-solving becomes a form of recuperation, or of vicarious omniscience.

Jeff is creating a story, in the same sense that the director (Hitchcock) is--and in fact both are fictions. Jeff's determination that his story within a story be the real one is almost supernatural. All the suspensions of disbelief must be vanquished upon the alter of his desire for a meaning and purpose to his existence. The whole point of his life has been spent in securing a narrative through the lens of his camera; to be deprived of that freedom, that identity, is a symbolic casualty.

The architecture of the apartment houses is the compartmentalization of identity. In Jeff's line of work, he moves freely through the world, unconfined by permanent residence. Unable now to perform that duty, he substitutes an alternative project, now limited to the grid of residents visible across the courtyard, which becomes his whole world. Each artist is a kind of prisoner within the parameters of his existence; the skill to transcend that condition is partly what all art is designed to accomplish. Our ability to imagine other lives, other stories, even if we must build those stories from a limited set of models, is crucial.

The true soap opera of life is the individual imaginative desire and need for storied life script. None of us can really help doing it. The Freudian realization that we all dream, and that dreams constitute an important record of our need to create alternative versions of the world we inhabit, to sublimate and augment and "correct" our personal life narrative, is a key to human socialization, the individual's ability to adjust to the necessities of our immediate society. Jeff, trapped within a disabled body, conjures up an artistic noir version of the limited set of facts. His need to do so is so powerful that it must be realized.

The telling of Jeff's story is like pointing a powerful lens back at him. When Thorwald discovers that Jeff is stalking him, has in fact figured out what he has done to his wife, he turns on Jeff. Viewer (stalker) becomes the stalked, and the focus of attention is reversed. When Thorwald enters Jeff's apartment, Jeff's only weapon of defense is the flash-cubes on his camera, which he uses to momentarily "blind" Thorwald. Thorwald is clearly insane, but his actions are perfectly rational within the context of his own purposes--to be rid of his nagging, demanding wife, whose dependence, demanding service and obedience, is a foil for Jeff's frustration with his own unwanted dependence. A selfish, voluntary invalid like the late Mrs. Thorwald, however, doesn't deserve to be killed.

Ironically, in the end Jeff's other "good" leg is broken in the struggle with Thorwald, and Jeff must look forward to a further postponement of his return to active life. In the final scene of Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief [1955], Grace Kelly embraces John Roby (the cat burgler) whom she has finally caught. She crows "mother will love it here" (Roby's hilltop villa on the Riviera). In nearly the same way, Kelly (as Lisa) captures Jefferies. These symbolic capitulations to marital confinement are nearly identical. As womankind plots to ensnare her prey, the male games of hunting and gathering, of plotting and scheming, playing tigers, are curtailed, civilized.

In Rear Window, all of the formulae of detection and pursuit are played out in miniature--the symbolic confinement of the narrative, brilliantly exploited as a theatrical proscenium of the central character's consciousness. All of the "action" takes place within the scope of a single studio apartment, designed for the efficiency of a single person's existence. Here will be played out a version of Plato's Cave, where the shadows of reality, reflected off the wall of Jeff's imagination, become the stuff of improbable noir fantasy. The story takes place through the metaphorical "rear window" of the unconscious mind, where dreams and stories and the hidden aspects of our waking selves reside, in a back yard of our daily lives. Jeff's violation of the principle of psychological privacy isn't the result of breaking the rules, as much as it is a skill for seeing what isn't immediately apparent. His attention to the activity of his neighbors begins casually, then becomes organized into schedules, connections, and finally little narratives of others' lives.

The movie in fact could be done as a play, with all of the action off-scene described by the characters in Jeff's apartment. And that in a sense is the primary device of the story. In movie-making, it's a feat, like fighting with one hand tied behind your back, or trying to represent cinematic action without sound. Take away the camera's restless freedom--its ability to pan, to follow action wherever movement and the demands of the story, take it--and you have Jeff's claustrophobic confinement. Jeff's camera is Hitchcock's camera. Hitch himself, always the ingenious scene arranger and editor, must have felt a special challenge with this film, since all the devices he'd ordinarily call upon, had to be set aside. In his Strangers on a Train [1951] the confinement of passengers within the linked segments of the cinematic tunnel facilitated the accidental meeting of the two conspirators. In Rear Window, the static immobility of the framed action demanded that the central character construct a cinematic sequence out of pure speculation. Trains move through time and space, but buildings in a city are fixed, given structures which don't move. Time is recorded by the passage of the sun and moon, day into night, waking into sleep, reality into fiction. Time slows down, is suspended in Jeff's world, while he recuperates. And action is suspended cinematically for the audience, and the director.

In Vertigo [1958], the Jimmy Stewart character embraces the fantasy of his infatuation with the Kim Novak character, while the Barbara Bel Geddes character (his usual girlfriend) frets over Scottie's waywardness, he's slipping from her grasp, and falling deeper into delusion. In film after film, Hitchcock dramatizes the dysfunction of the male-female dialectic, showing how the male's debilitating character-flaws lead to enrichments of potential. The female characters, passively-aggressively manipulating circumstance and opportunity, usually triumph in the end, or are destroyed in the attempt. In Rear Window, Lisa (Grace Kelly) will win her man, but whether she can hold him once he "recovers" from his symbolic debilitation, is an open question.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


I initially thought to begin this piece as a straight review of Philadelphia poet CA Conrad's collection The Book of Frank [Seattle: Wave Books, 2010]. The title had been rumored to be--or quietly announced as--in-the-pipeline at Jonathan Williams's Highlands/Jargon Press for quite some time, and given Williams's unusual and unpredictable tastes, it was worth wondering just what had impressed him enough to take up this then as-yet obscure young Philadelphia writer's work. But The Book of Frank never appeared from Jargon, and Williams died (apparently) before he could realize this project.

The book did finally appear, from another publisher, and I located a discarded review copy at a local used book emporium last month, to curiously inquire of it what it consisted. Ron Silliman had praised Conrad in his blog on several occasions, beyond the usual regional or personal obligatory gestures, though it appeared clear, on the slim evidence of the few quotations of Conrad's work I did read, that he was not a formal innovator, but a writer whose primary interest was in the projection of a conflicted self, seeking to overcome a set of natural disadvantages which fate had placed on his shoulders. His personal avatar--"The son of white trash asphyxiation, my childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for my mother and helping her shoplift. I am the author of several books of poetry, and I am a recipient of a 2011 Pew Fellowship in the Arts for poetry"--seemed calculated to evoke an empathetic reading, the usual ring of the confessional stance, familiar to readers of American verse throughout the post War period.

Confessional poetry has a range, from high to low condition. At the top end, you have Lowell and Seidel, gnashing their teeth over the curse of privilege, and at the lower end, well, you have people like Bukowski and Peter Orlovsky, wallowing in degradation and smut. A poetry which depends for its effects upon the vicarious curiosity of its readers about the shockingly different or sadly tragic personal lives of its writer(s) is bound to be distracted by the personal narrative, from other purely formal questions. It's as likely to be about dramatic action and theatrical performance, as it is about intriguing ventures into technical practice--no matter whether it's celebrating a conspicuous consumption, or the enlightenment of self-denial or involuntary deprivation. Everyone has at least one story to tell, though the accounts of middle class poets are almost always less diverting than those at the extreme ends of the social, economic or political spectrum. It can be confusing, too, when the rags-to-riches (or from obscurity to fame) cycle, goes full circle, putting the once-destitute freak into the lucrative limelight, or the spoiled scion of wealth manages to squander everything in a devoted pursuit of the flowers of evil. In CA Conrad's case, the initial emblematic self-deprecation (a low mimetic) is one in which the individualized plight is romanticized as a poetic profile--as in the Blakean sense where salvation is achieved through devotion to a higher good (such as artistic aspiration). Childhood is a Platonic state in which influences and conduct are imposed by an evil society (a la Dickens), and the child's salvation lies either in the altruistic intervention of a superior beneficent power, or through some inspired initiative (such as art or religious application).

Conrad's physical being--of a bloated, effeminate, slightly skanky queen--is foregrounded as a symbolic projection of its own hopeless quandary. If art is about beauty and grace and control, then such a fallen state of affairs can only inspire pity or amused indulgence. But of course art--and much religion--is also about the salvation of the forsaken. The poet Larry Eigner, born physically deformed and impaired, was saved by a familial care and attention which allowed him to generate a body of significant work over a lifetime of productivity. One's deeper proclivities may be concealed behind or inside a contradictory body, leading to a desperate pursuit of ways to validate that difference, to be accepted for who one is, or would choose to become. Art as self-transformational or redemptive vehicle.

Of course, self-imposed limitations may be as damaging and problematic as those we inherit or which are handed to us in childhood. Part of the romantic paradigm in American culture has been the exploitation of the outsider profile, as in the vaunted negative Beat stereotype of a wounded or hopped-up drifter with no well-defined connection to the society at large. The Gay subculture adopted a version of this, familiar to readers of Allen Ginsberg's or John Wieners's work. And Conrad's personal projection seems an hybrid adaptation of this, cobbled together from senses of Rimbaud, Selby, Rechy, Genet, Warhol, O'Hara, Spicer, et al--a sort of contemporary, slightly oversized American Quentin Crisp. The insistence upon an un-closeted, unashamed sexually ambiguous stereotype, unrepentant and demanding to be acknowledged, has become familiar in public life (think of Michael Jackson).

In a faux-therapeutic sense, if you can't help being what you are, another option is to convince yourself, along with the rest of the world, that your difference is an undeniable fact of the culture, and not something to be despised, or excluded. The role of the artist is one way to provide a validation for such differences, insisting that the special preconditions or qualifications for a valued uniqueness provide the justification for celebrating them; which is precisely what the Gay subculture has been striving to achieve over the last three decades. In the academy, as well as in the political realm, the campaign for multi-cultural inclusiveness, and textual relativity, continues to welcome wave after wave of groups previously regarded as excluded from the mainstream: Racial and ethnic minorities, Gays and Lesbians, the Disabled or physically deformed, the mentally disturbed, etc. Artists and writers can be leaders in the struggle for equality and justice. But difference itself is not an achievement per se, and anger and frustration and jealousy and bitterness are not in themselves beautiful.

One of the consequences of insisting that poetry be a "public art" where the poet is front and center in the media focus of public readings, recordings, interviews, demonstrations, conferences, and the like, is the emphasis upon the physical, the theatrical. Poets become actors outside the realm of mere textual composition; they become characters in their own drama, or in the larger forum of public consciousness. Rather than letting one's words stand alone, one fashions a persona, presented to the world as an integrated phenomenon, finished and perfected. For someone like CA Conrad, the challenge to emerge from the shadows is both a blessing and a curse. The choice to project a confident difference, instead of an ashamed eccentricity, becomes subsumed within the larger campaign for an unqualified acceptance. Critical exception is treated as prejudice, and anything less than full entitlement is regarded as bigoted rejection. Comforts derived from the approbation of a confederacy are sweeter than simple technical successes. The projection of an artist profile as simultaneously a badge of resentment, resistance and of celebration, however, involves certain formal difficulties.

If we look to Conrad's poetry for keys to this paradigm, however, we're likely to be confounded. The Poems of Frank appear to be about the objectification of a number of psychological conundra, no one of which makes a clear enough statement of its own purpose, in order for us to delineate the outline of an argument or finished portrait. The "Frank" of the poems is a personification without any specificity, indeed one of the purposes of the work seems to me to involve a de-personalization of the consciousness inside the poems, allowing for an automatized voice which places the reader in the position of both witness and participant in the events which are portrayed. Things happen to someone named Frank, but who Frank really is, and what the crucial facts about his existence are, is deliberately withheld from us. Is the Frank of the poems an alter-ego for the narrator, or a fictionalized poetic dramatization of the nightmarish delusions of a patient in a mental institution, recounting events which occurred in a hazy pre-institutionalized life? If such speculations seem external to the spirit of the work, it's best to remember that every reader brings something different to the reading of any text, and one man's normal may be another man's para-normal. Art can provide the platform upon which delusional or surreal apperception is played out; and if you want to be a player, you need to expect the worst.

In one of the early pieces in the collection, on page 24, Conrad makes overt ironic references to Berryman's Dreamsongs [New York: 1964; and New York: 1968]. The Dreamsongs is an interesting analogue to the persona'd approach Conrad has taken here--

Frank met Huffy Henry sulking in a dream song
and zapped him
with the miniaturizing gun

Henry was kind of small anyway

Frank decapitated the
old boy with a pinch

tied his body on a
stick for a slingshot
and sent the little fucker's
screaming head up to
the great knee of Orion

Aside from the fact that some significant portion of Conrad's audience might not even get the reference--not being familiar with Berryman's work--there's an obvious effort made here to spiritually dispose of the elder figure. In Berryman's poem, the persona Henry is a kind of partial stand-in for Berryman, not exactly an alter-ego, but a kind of cast-puppet for attitudes and sayings necessary to the poems' argument. Henry, "a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof." Superficially, Berryman's poem sequence bears remarkable similarities to Conrad's, in that both are in the "Henry did this, Henry did that" or "Frank did this, Frank did that" mode. Berryman's much more subtle use of the interwoven conscious, unconscious and interjecting voices aside, Conrad's poem could be described as a spiritual stepchild of that earlier long, narrative poetic drama, stripped of plot and the larger contexts of reference. Berryman was a classical scholar, as well as a meticulously finicky poet, and there is much thinly disguised personal detail in his poetry. The disingenuous use of presumed autobiographical detail in Conrad's book is less well integrated into the dramatic framework he sets up. Conrad's work can be summarized, I think, by dividing up these Frank poems into three general groups:

1) Psychological trauma

when Frank was born
Father inspected the small package
the nurse handed him

"but where's my daughter's cunt?
my daughter has no cunt!"

Mother leaned from the bed
"this is your awful son Dear
your son has no cunt"

"why doesn't my son have a cunt?
what has happened?
what a WICKED world!
and spinning
on its one
good leg!"

2) Surreal event or detail

Frank found
a mirror
where Mother
cut him open
with her

3) Bad jokes

Frank loves his Coca-Cola bottle

she loves him

he loves her fine lean waist

she loves his rock hard nipples

he shoves his cock in her little glass mouth

she cracks and
they're both in trouble

Visions like these balance uncertainly between tasteless vulgarity and horrific psycho-drama. But in the context of a live coffee-house reading, such anecdotal pot-shots are undoubtedly effective, if a bit monotonously repetitive. It isn't that performance "makes them come alive," as much as that the nervous laughter and mild embarrassment they inspire are often taken to signify assent, rather than mere stimulation. In Eileen Myles's Afterword, she states "Surrealism implied among other things the disassociative and destabilizing states of sex . . . in the work of CA Conrad . . . the space he enters as a poet — on the page or in the room where he reads is invariably radically altered . . . to specifically vague [not sure what "specifically vague"means here, but . . .] social ends. Yes he’s queer. But aren’t you? Conrad is undeniably a gay man who is reacquainting us in a quiet time (quiet about almost everything except the money — everyone’s busy moaning about the money) with the wildness and inclusiveness of the original impulse behind the gay liberation movement, and even the implicit possibility it carried then and now that even you, yes even fuddy duddy, uncategorizable, rich, poor, young, old you are welcome here." I'm not at all sure that that inclusiveness is really the point, as it might have been construed, say, in the work of Whitman, whose magnanimous embrace is always unmistakable, though a bit blurry at times.

Myles again: "These are not men’s poems, any more than they are women’s poems. They’re not straight poems any more than gay ones. The writer is male, and the writer is homosexual. And the writer comes it seems clear from a less than privileged background. But the scope of the book includes so many kinds of ventroloquized selves, an abundant puppetry. Like that field of haikus waving. An active and morphing fictionality amends, abets and broadens the scope of the poetry inside 'Frank' and even out there"--with all of which I'd agree, except for the bit about broadening the scope of poetry, as I see nothing technically or formally new in this work.

The Book of Frank asks to be taken on its own terms, that is as a collection of set-scenes of recollections of a disturbed or abused childhood, which flower in adulthood as a sardonic obsession. The poems exhibit little or no formal ingenuity, they're rather like notes made on the run. Written as prose, they'd be somewhat less incremental in their effects, but the essence would be the same. They're quick, cute, and mostly trite cartoons. The composite character they build is perhaps less self-pitying than direct confession would be--and less portentous, of course. Take your pick.

James Wright constructed a poetic persona for himself in The Branch Will Not Break[Wesleyan, 1963] and Shall We Gather at the River [Wesleyan, 1967], which he used to great effect, in a manner not unlike that which Berryman used in the Dream Songs. But both of these poets understood the parameters of investing in a semi-fictionalized projection. For them, it was possible to establish a spiritual relationship to an imagined alter-ego, that was not trivial or condescending or simply designed to elicit a quick shock. In my view, there's nothing at all wrong with wanting to confront your demons in your writing, as long as you take responsibility for whatever clever maneuvers or masks you put up to deflect a clear view. In Conrad's case, I think he wants to have it both ways: He wants you to buy into his bad childhood, while at the same time excusing him for the aesthetic defenses he's built to insulate himself from any sense of responsibility for how he dealt with that--by which I mean that the lack of a formal integration makes it impossible to judge the book using anything like discrete aesthetic criteria.

Ultimately, we don't need any excuses for the excesses of art. What matters is the final effect and significance the work realizes. My one caveat to that would be that confusing the public persona with the sullen, private condition of solitary work may lead into aesthetic cul-de-sacs. Allen Ginsberg wrote one great poem, and perhaps five more very good ones, living for most of his later adult life on the reputation he'd built while still in his twenties, maintaining a public identity and authority far beyond that of most people with his education and insight--sustained by a purely artificial scaffolding of notoriety. Ginsberg "played" the media game as well as anyone, manipulating it in exactly the way it manipulated him, but in his case, this symbiotic relationship was a pragmatic bargain with necessity, i.e., Ginsberg had exorcized his demons in private, and could "afford" to front for the counterculture from an avuncular, professorial platform. He knew exactly what he wanted, had sorted out beforehand the issues he needed to present.

With Conrad, one has the sense that his struggle will never permit this sort of integration, despite the flippant, hackneyed incivility, the poker-faced absurdities. Any question about whether to consider the significance of content separately from its realization as form, seems irrelevant, since formal considerations seem beside the point. Myles, who attempts to rationalize this issue by framing it as a metaphysical-religious act--"This kind of . . . screaming to God is a demand for the most primary honorific of having a name, a frame--access to a sense of self in the world"--is simply playing to her audience.

"'Frank' is an ardent howl." By summoning Ginsberg, there is an implicit agenda: "the Frank poems are a triumph of multi-positionality . . . it's our good fortune especially at this moment of quiet cultural crisis to have this book by C.A. Conrad--one following Whitman and Stein and Allen Ginsberg who came to us horny and abundant in their different ways demanding that he or she be construed as all men."

If a Gay or transsexual sub-text is not merely the starting-point, but the whole point of writing these poems, the agenda must be treated as a deliberately political act. The notion of idealizing some conceptual entity of "difference" as an objective aesthetic quality has its roots in the political attitudinizing I referred to earlier--the movement for multi-cultural inclusiveness. But if the choice is to be neither male, nor female, nor even some vague composite of the two, in the end the work must redefine what it means to write at all, since we can't imagine an omniscient authorial voice as being a-sexual. Poly-sexuality, or ambiguous sexuality is an unnatural condition human, or at least an abnormal one.

We can break down the stereotypes which psychology and religion and folk wisdom have constructed, but what do we put in their places? Sexual difference is not a conspiracy against humankind perpetrated by some indistinct infernal power, but a direct inheritance from the riddle of biology. In The Book of Frank, we don't have the choice of simply appreciating the performance, because the terms of the apprehension are so pugnacious and uncompromising.

Free-form surreal Kafka-esque mini-nightmares written in a petulant, sardonic tone. They don't even possess the self-respect of modesty. By which I don't mean the modesty of shyness, or of courtesy, or of "good taste" or any of that. It must be, out of a degree of self-loathing so profound and irredeemable as to constitute symbolic immolation, that the prayer of redemption--the naked cry of I am--is the only gesture left. But there are more choices, more options than just love me for who I am or love me for what I have made (or imagined). Writing poetry isn't just about deciding which political (or racial, or sexual, or ethnic) agenda you want to front for. So-called minority artists who trade on their presumed persecuted difference deserve to have their work treated as such. The soldiers in any conflict may choose to turn their own work into propaganda, and of course all creative endeavor is in some respect a form of self-justification. But you have to prove your thesis. Self-loathing may be the unfortunate starting-point for some creative artists, but it's not where you want to end. You confront your demons every day.

Reading this book, I had trouble thinking of it as poetry at all, since it has so little of what I consider to be the stuff of poetry. Unless you consider hard-edged stand-up comedy poetry, or even if you can, then I think it simply fails on that standard as well.

from the menu
of dead authors

Frank orders
Emily Dickinson's
breasts with
dumplings and the
braised thigh of
Anais Nin

his wife orders
Leo Tolstoy's
ring finger with
caviar and the
candied genitals of
Jack Kerouac

Kerouac's erection arrives
shimmering in gravy

"Mmmm" she says
nibbling the tip

Frank glares
and stabs
a breast


Ha ha ha.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Chance is
delicious--as the


of enamel


set into
of motion

by force
of habit--



Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Entrepreneur - New Cocktail

The world is a gigantic con. Love makes the world go around, but it's a con game. Inspiration rides along on hormonal infusion, or the illusion of hope. We're lured into situation after situation, liaison after liaison, even if or when we know in our bones that it's a tease to deceive, that the pay-off is a grand scheme of dissimulation. Life itself is a con. Death comes to every man, but we play along until the end, since we think we have little choice.

Sex is a con, designed to make us reproduce. Capitalism is a con, a system designed to permit the exploitation of opportunities based on greed, need or mutual sacrifice. Cooperation and sharing--just more of the same. Someone wants something; can they get it by manipulating circumstances? or by convincing others to facilitate their scheme? Can we sell ourselves, or anything else, without pulling the wool over somebody's eyes?

Entrepreneurs are people who promote something for a desired situation--usually a selfish end. They want something from you, something you might be ready to give up. They make businesses, usually with other people's money. Market capitalism is based on the idea of entrepreneurship, that is, the ability to make or sell something new or more attractive. They may exploit an existing market, or create a new one--by using the capital of other people. There's a risk, and where there's risk, there's always the bluff, and the cheat, and the con-game.

Wall Street is the biggest, and most well-developed, con-game on earth. It exists to funnel excess wealth int0 the combine of risk.

In the spirit of entrepreneurship and risk, here is a seductive cocktail to be drunk over negotiations or the conning of a client. One fellow has something the other wants, or thinks he wants; or maybe the other one doesn't even know that he wants it, yet. He'll have to be conned into it. Over there at that other table, an older man is trying to con a pretty young thing into the sack. He's been around the block a time or two, he's charming, and knows all the rules backwards and forward. But she has a card to play, too. And she knows how to up the ante, how to flirt with the con. The game is as old as the stones at the bottom of the Pyramids.

But sometimes it's not the pay-off that really counts; it's how you play the game. Just playing along can be at least mildly diverting, while we're waiting for nirvana, or armageddon.

The mixture, as always, is by proportion. We wouldn't want anyone to think that we're trying to get you to lower your guard, would we?

3 parts gin
1 part yellow Chartreuse
1 part Pear liqueur
1/2 part melon liqueur
2 1/2 parts cocktail grapefruit

--served up, with--perhaps--a small wedge of watermelon. The melon liqueur mates miraculously well with the Chartreuse, which is what makes this one work so well. Good with a power lunch, or even when you're feeling completely powerless. Strength, love, larceny--all in the eye of the beholder.

The Ranchos de Taos Church in New Mexico

The San Francisco de Asis Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico has been for decades one of the shrines of modern photography. Painted by Georgia O'Keeffe, and photographed by Paul Strand and Ansel Adams, before WWII, it was placed on the list of National Historic Landmarks in 1970. Constructed in the late 18th Century by the Spanish missionaries, of adobe, it has been kept in repair ever since. Both the front and rear views of the structure have pictorial interest, primarily because of the massing of support required of adobe construction. The tamped-earth buttresses lend a primitive strength to the visual impression, and make it seem like an expression of solidity and permanence, though adobe is not particularly sturdy as a building-material, and the of loss of light in the interior space is a sacrifice to that limitation.

I've visited the church twice, and came away with wonderful negatives both times. It's hard not to see interesting compositions in the ground glass. As you move around the structure, the angles and bulk of the massing rearrange continuously, bringing striking views into position. Different artists and photographers have seen the structure in many different ways. My own vision required the intensifying of contrasts, to empasize the clarity of the form(s) under the sharp Southwest atmospheric light. Others might prefer to photograph a woman in Indian garb, leaning with her back to the wall. Or a painter might see a cheerful, almost childlike quality to the rudiments of the arrangement, perhaps emphasizing the color of the flowers in the front entry courtyard.

The rear nave wings look different in photographs taken by Adams and Strand, because renovations actually change the surface finish periodically. But it's the basic structural massing that works. No later technical modification to improve its performance under weathering, or the usual decay over time, would improve its appeal. It works best just the way it is. When a structure is as beautiful as this one is, we must adjust our use of it to respect its original design, lest we destroy its natural beauty. There's nothing "natural" about a man-made structure, of course, but a building like this is clearly closer to the material realities of man's place on the earth, than a steel or glass or concrete construct. Available materials, used in a way that takes advantage of their innate qualities, usually have that quality.

These two prints were derived from negatives made in the late 1980's--the top one with my 8x10 Deardorff, and other with a 4x5 Wista View. The film was probably Tri-X 320. I'll go back some day to pay homage once again. Are the Ranchos de Taos photographs clich├ęs? Without any doubt they are. When you photograph something like a famous building, you can't help repeating other people's discoveries and preferences. But consider portraiture. The variations of facial features and expressions are seemingly limitless, but the basic form--an oval--or an oval with neck and shoulders--is unusually restricting. Yet you don't hear people complain about the "monotony" or lack of interest in photographic portraiture. That's rather how I see this church: It has a basic structural form, but the changing light and our individual reaction(s) to it are various. Each person sees something different in it. If 10 different photographers did portraits of Garbo, or Marilyin Monroe, or Jack Nicholson, each one would see something different. We wouldn't complain that Garbo or Monroe were hackneyed subjects, or that just "photographing them again" would be repetitive or predictable. I feel the same way about this church.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Que Sera, Sera is the Refrain

What happens makes the world--to paraphrase Creeley. We live in it, on it, floating in a space we seldom stop to consider. We're time-travelers, passengers on the space-ship earth as it careens through the void in its various orbits, wheels inside wheels inside wheels, spinning off into nowhere. Somewhere is here, is now, is present. Presence. All that we have.

For some reason, it occurred to me to name my latest cocktail concoction Que Sera. The phrase, Que sera, sera apparently is not grammatical Spanish, but showed up in English as early as 400 years ago, in Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus. The song we know was written by the Jay Livingston and Ray Evans team, and debuted in the movie The Man Who Knew Too Much [1956], directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The 1956 production was in fact a re-make of Hitchcock's earlier effort, from 1934, made in Britain, which starred Peter Lorre, among others. I've never seen the earlier film, which I think makes my appreciation of the 1956 version cleaner. One of the advantages of using original screenplay material is that one isn't tempted to compare a former literary or cinematic version with the latter. But writers and directors can often make superior versions of earlier narratives. A lot of classic fictional stories were adapted during the Silent Era of motion pictures, which were clearly inferior films. But the plot-line of Hitchcock's original 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much wasn't changed very much from its first incarnation. The effect of different actors, and technically advanced procedures, obviously helped. But it's still classic Hitchcock, with his symbolic queues and little tricks and tropes, familiar to anyone who's seen any of his work.

In a penultimate scene from the movie, Doris Day sings the song at a foreign embassy where her son Hank is believed to be held, and she sings it louder and louder, hoping that Hank will hear her. The drama of the scene (and the song) is heightened by the pathos and agony the Day character (Jo McKenna), who is desperate to have Hank back, is feeling.

The song, billed in the movie as Whatever Will Be, Will Be, was a big hit on the charts. It reached #2 on the Billboard list, and became Day's theme-song for her own television sitcom, The Doris Day Show [1968-1973]. Day tended to play herself in her film roles--not that that was an aesthetic mistake, she was enormously popular during the 1950's and 1960's, scoring in a succession of corny romantic comedies, with Rock Hudson, among others, solidifying the familiar "perky but down-to-earth level-headed American matron" profile to perfection. Her performance in The Man Who Knew Too Much is the only role of hers I ever admired. Elsewise, I usually found her an insufferable fake. I remember the late American novelist John Updike once claimed that she was the big fantasy sex symbol of his life, so go figure.

Music figures as a primary theme in the film. Hitchcock had commissioned the writing of a special concert piece for full orchestra and chorus by composer Arthur Benjamin, for the original version in 1934, to be performed in the movie at the Albert Hall. The piece, known as the Storm Clouds Cantata, includes a conclusive dramatic highpoint punctuated by a big cymbal crash, which provides the "covering sound" for the assassination (by pistol) attempt at the Hall.

Also, as is typical of Hitchcock, the movie is filled with mysteriously vivid scenes which, though well-integrated into the plot-line, nevertheless have psychological reverberations which evoke other peculiar, troubling emotions. When the French spy Louis Bernard is slain in the marketplace of Marrakesh, he turns to Doctor McKenna (played by Jimmy Stewart) to speak his dying words which form the recipe for the subsequent action of the story. Disguised as a native Moroccan, Bernard has dark make-up on his face. In the course of filming, it was discovered that this dark application wouldn't "rub off" the way Hitchcock had planned it, so an alternative method of having Stewart's hands covered in white grease was worked out. In the movie, as Bernard slumps to the ground, dying, his face slides out of Stewart's hands, as the make-up is "rubbed off"--a classic touch. The metaphor of disguise and identity is brilliantly staged.

And yet the audience never really finds out the details of the the secret plot--there's no political sub-text, simple terrorism and intrigue. There's a plan to kill a foreign European diplomat in London, but we never discover who the perpetrators represent, or why they want him dead. For Hitchcock, never the political man, this is of no importance. Life is mysterious, events happen seemingly without purpose, violent events occur and the unexpected is always just around the corner. Things are not what they seem, and as often as not, they may turn out badly. Suspicion, danger, foreboding, deception--these are the preoccupations of his art.

Hitchcock designed his productions first visually, on story-board diagrams. This might seem a completely predictable and sensible approach to staging a visually unfolding medium, yet few directors in history have relied so relentlessly on it as Hitchcock, primarily because it was so important to his vision of what movies meant.

For Hitchcock, actors were like ciphers moved about on a game-board. It was more important, for instance, that we should see the relationship of Farley Granger and Robert Walker in the absorbing Strangers on a Train [1951] as being random and opportunistic, than that we should care about who these two figures are as individuals. The meaning of a scene, or an interaction amongst characters, was its literal content, not the extraneous sentiments we might attach to the actors, their emotive subtleties, of their physical attractiveness.

When I was a boy, my grade-school teachers often complained to my parents that I was easily distracted from class lessons, and spent time looking out the window or doodling at my desk, instead of focusing on the matter at hand. Kids these days are usually identified as having learning "disabilities" at a very young age, and then are force-fed psycho-active drugs to make them docile and tractable. The modern "classroom" concept is commonly regarded as a sensible setting for the indoctrination of children and the inculcation of knowledge. But I've always thought it an alienating and unnatural situation, in which originality and imaginative response are thwarted in favor of controlled behavior and a phony "order." Theories of propaganda usually begin with the discipline of attention, then move on to repetition and dogged insistence to complete the business of making good little Nazis. Even as early as the 1st grade, I could see how some of the kids would become obedient soldiers in the social collective. Then, I secretly envied them their success and reward; after all, official authority endorsed their behavior, and held them up as models to be emulated.

As a creative writer, your best ideas often come by way of undirected, or random, meditation. One's mental attention wanders freely over the vast fund of recorded experience, and new combinations or inventions may occur without any deliberate origination. "Idea" people are different from problem solvers. Some people work best from strict programs, or from meticulously designed directions or procedures. Others may simply be sword carriers, or truck drivers.

But there are lower depths to Hitchcock's movie. The McKennas are a typical American middle class family of the 1950's. When the Moroccan inspector attempts to jerk them around, McKenna (Jimmy Stewart) pulls his best indignant "ugly" American imitation, "now you just hold on, there, mister, we're American citizens!" The McKennas, unwilling to let the wheels of justice and law turn inexorably, set out to London straightaway to solve the mystery of their son's disappearance themselves. Rather than accepting their fate as an act of god, or as the determined outcome of chance or providence, they take matters into their own hands, and thwart the forces of chaos and terror almost single-handedly. Jo's symbolic scream at the moment of truth, in the split-second interregnum before the clash of the cymbals, is the power of the individual human (voice) to alter event and intervene on behalf of order and peace. In Hitchcock's version, human beings can alter the course of their lives, and of history. This is not the passive capitulation of "Que sera, sera" but a rejection of determinism. Whatever will be may be the lyrical refrain of the music, but the story Hitchcock tells is not the Eastern one of passive submission, but the Western notion of a mastery over fate, of American know-how and deliberate problem-solving.        

This diversion has taken me pretty far afield of my original post--to describe another cocktail recipe. Inventing cocktails requires the free floating variance of chance and intuition. What might work in combination? Taste can be like a dance. What will happen if you mix A with B, then add a dash of C? How do you stretch the limits of your imaginative taste buds? Some people go their whole lives having tried, perhaps, only two or three cocktail recipes. I've probably mixed as many as a thousand different variations. Some people think of life as a determined outcome, "what will be, will be" and never give a thought to living or doing anything unexpected. For them, Que sera, sera seems a kind of deep wisdom. Pity them. Life is so much more than that!

Herewith, another variation off the shelf of booze: The Que sera, by proportion:

4 Parts white rum
1 part herbsaint (or Pernod)
1 part ginger liqueur
1/2 part vanilla almond syrup
Juice of 1 sweet lime

Shaken lightly and served up.

A guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do. A girl, on the other hand, can do just what she wants.