Readings

In which I post links to writing here so I can close windows on my browser because I can’t trust myself to remember anything anymore.

Globalism is surreal and borders are absurd in Deepak Unnikrishnan’s stories.

In a labor camp, somewhere in the Persian Gulf, a laborer swallowed his passport and turned into a passport. His roommate swallowed a suitcase and turned into a little suitcase. When the third roommate, privy and vital to the master plan, ran away the next morning with the suitcase and the new passport, he made it past the guard on night duty, made it on the morning bus to the airport, past the bored ticket agent at Check-In, past Security, past pat-down and a rummage through his suitcase, past using the bathroom once, twice, thrice, to pee, to shit, to sit, past Duty-Free, where he stared at chocolates and booze and magazines and currencies, past families eating fast food in tracksuits or designer wear, past men and women sleeping on the floor, past his past, past his present, past the gold in the souks, the cranes in the sky, petrol in the air, dreams in his head, past God and the devil, the smell of mess halls, past humidity and hot air, past it all, until he found an empty chair in the Departures lounge, where he sat and held his future in his palms.

Rivka Galchen writes about Kafka and writing about Kafka.

Often his character recalls both Larry David and Bertie Wooster. Many are the plans that Kafka makes in a manner that ensures their eventual unmaking. Over five years he courts, engages, un-engages, re-engages but never marries Felice Bauer, a woman with whom he spends less than 15 scattered and not always happy days, whose dear friend Grete Bloch he also woos in letters, and whom he makes clear he could not be sexually available to in a marriage. Then, in a letter he sends to her in advance of a meeting at which they plan to discuss things (she has even quit her job at his bidding so as to be able to move to Prague), he calls her ‘my human tribunal’. During the First World War, Kafka repeatedly begs his superiors at work to release him from his job so he can become a soldier; but as he later writes in his diary, he doesn’t go too far; he never becomes a soldier. Nor does he marry the next woman he asks to marry him, or the one after that. Nor does he deliver (or destroy) the long letter he wrote to his father. Nor does he, despite extensive plans and study of Hebrew, move to Palestine. Kafka at times causes others to suffer in a manner akin to the way the illimitably charming Don Quixote does, by adhering to an untrue but more ennobling view of the world.

Eileen Battersby’s best-of list is composed mostly of books in translation.

German translator Adrian West introduced me to Marianne Fritz.

After the headless figure had spoken, the scattered groups of people merged into a single human mass. All of them held their heads at their side, holding them in their hands and resting them on their hips. Each head was the same as the others. And all the heads resembled helmets.

“What have I done to you?” Rudolf cried. And since no one answered him: “Why am I hanging here on this cross? Why?”

One headless being after the other stepped forward from out of the mass of people. The voices of women, girls, men and boys drowned one another out in turn.

“You can’t catch a ball.”

“You can’t play an instrument.”

“You can’t even sing.”

“You always fall down.”

“Your nose bleeds.”

“You have two left hands.”

“You can’t remember your numbers.”

“You can’t even remember the ten commandments.”

“You can’t write properly.”

“You can’t even copy things down.”

“You can only draw animals and just barely a house; you can’t draw people with two hands, ten fingers, two feet, and a head. Your people have five eyes and monstrous mouths. Your people have seven heads or no head, twenty-three fingers or none at all.”

“You can’t catch frogs.”

An interview with Kevin Young.

In The Grey Album I joke that I was looking for a unified theory of black culture. If you look at Lucille Clifton’s work, you can see that kaleidoscopic quality. Take a poem like “won’t you celebrate with me,” where she’s thinking that every day something has tried to kill [her] and failed, and she says, “born here in babylon / both nonwhite and woman.” It is such a specific poem. But there’s something about that shared “I,” and in her case, a lowercase “i,” that is so powerful. The specificness of her vision is part of the breadth of it.

And this is true of someone like Seamus Heaney, too. When he’s writing about his family farm in Derry, I realize he could be talking about my family farm, or the land we lived on in Louisiana and still have. It’s been there in the same parish for something like two hundred years. There’s a real rootedness in what he’s talking about. It’s important to my poetry—that idea of a place—which isn’t so far away from the idea of multitudinousness.

Michael Mazur is important to me for some reason (I lack the verve to know why). Maybe because he brought intense observation into a zoo that hurts as much as my glancing but continues to look forever.

A loving touch and an exquisite sense of color and light go full tilt in Stoneham Zoo (1976–1979), even as the subject matter is on the cusp of being repellent. This is the kind of challenge that most artists, no matter what the medium, avoid: to confront and stroke difficult subject matter, to be open and sympathetic without trivializing or becoming sentimental. This is what Cormac McCarthy does with the repugnant Lester Ballard in his short novel, Child of God (1973), and what Mazur does with his primates in Stoneham Zoo (1976–1979).

Nicholas Brady’s texts for Henry Purcell’s music– I am studying.

‘Tis Nature’s Voice; thro’ all the moving Wood
Of Creatures understood:
The Universal Tongue to none
Of all her num’rous Race unknown.
From her it learnt the mighty Art
To court the Ear or strike the Heart;
At once the Passions to express and move;
We hear, and stright we grieve or hate, rejoice or love;
In unseen Chains it does the Fancy bind;
At once it charms the Sense and capivates the Mind.

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