There past the window: billboard truck, you see? It advertises test prep. GRE. Although it likely did not stop for me (Five years have passed. Those scores are dead. You’re free…) it parked within the frame just perfectly—a semiotic opportunity too great to miss, so ripe for poetry.
Reflecting from this university, more interesting than my monograph, however, is the driver in the cab, who, unaware that he’s being watched, it seems, kills the idle time with his own book.
It’s likely that this guy reads more than I do, since he doesn’t have to write. [sigh.]
3:09 pm • 21 April 2014
23. Good Friday II: “Il Poverello da Coachella”
This points to this, then this, then this, then this. First, Paul Elie’s got a blog? Who knew? Check out this recent post, in which he quotes Richard Rodriguez from his latest book. The two are worth more than a passing look. Both point to Cesar Chavez as their theme. Of course, as saint (or not), he also points, but in the end, to something vague, abstract.
The metaphor Rodriguez makes is apt. He notes the iconography of food, which points to what can’t, finally, be bought, despite the images on all those signs.
Today’s a hungry day. Is this a meal? Will chewing and digesting make it real?
The saintly and sainted Cesar Chavez was no saint. That’s the obvious conclusion of a new biography and a review-essay in the New Yorker, which reach the same point in different ways.
The magazine showed up in the mailbox the same day the book showed up on the recent acquisitions shelf at Lauinger Library, which meant I could go through them together – and could reach my own provisional conclusion, which is this. Saint or no saint, Chavez was above all a poverello, or poor man in the Catholic manner: that is, he considered poverty at once a virtue to be sought after and a social condition to be eased or done away with – a state of being to be met with love and justice alike.
The Crusades of Cesar Chavez is vivid, artfully proportioned, and full of surprises for the reader (I am one) who knows Chavez’s story mainly in outline and as iconography. Chavez did important work in Coachella, known then as the southernmost growing part of California. He was scheduled to stand behind Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel the night Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, but he never reached the stage. He didn’t come out against the Vietnam War until the fall of 1968. He relied on Roger Mahony (now emeritus archbishop of Los Angeles) as a liaison with the Catholic hierarchy in California. He was profiled in the New Yorker by Peter Matthiessen (a two-parter called “Organizer”).
Most surprising is the main point of the book’s thickly detailed middle: that more than anything else, Chavez – poor man, Catholic, Hispanic, Californian, radical – was one more countercultural figure of the sixties, who at once defined the decade and was defined by it:
Berkeley radicals, Protestant ministers, college dropouts, earnest do-gooders, and monolingual farmworkers began to coalesce into the quasi-union, quasi-movement Chavez envisioned. By the time the harvest season wound down in late fall, a community had formed in Delano. Irate farmworkers’ wives blamed coeds for corrupting their husbands. Disheveled hippies played into the stereotype that growers used to stir up antiunion feeling. Illegal drugs, officially banned in the union, were readily available.
But for the most part, the melding of cultures and values in the tiny farming town was a heady mixed that raised spirits and propelled la causa forward.
In the New Yorker, staff writer Nathan Heller takes the imminent release of a new movie about Chavez to conclude that the organizer was an American hero, as prone to abuse as the tag may be. He does so by setting Chavez’s early heroism against his later suspiciousness, even paranoia – and by leaving Chavez’s foundational Catholicism out of the argument till the end.
This act of omission made me suspicious: Chavez without Catholicism? But with it the New Yorker (this is what the magazine does best) gets the sense of Chavez in the present more or less right. Twenty years after his death in 1993, Chavez is recognized more as a great Californian and an Hispanic-Latino-Mexican American than as anything else. His exploits are little known to the Catholics of the East. Progressive people today are more focused on how food is processed and prepared than on how it is harvested; chickens are shown greater solicitude than chicken-house workers. And Chavez’s mystical attention to poverty (through fasts, the shunning of wealth and possessions, etc.) is strange enough even among Catholics that Pope Francis can be countercultural just by calling the poor blessed.
Richard Rodriguez – who praised the new biography in a blurb on the back of the jacket – understands Chavez, and Chavez’s paradoxes, better than anybody else. His remarkable essay “Saint Cesar of Delano” (in Darling) concludes with his sharp, prismatic piece of commentary:
In 1997 American painter Robert Lentz, a Franciscan brother, painted an icon, Cesar Chavez de California. Chavez is depicted with a golden halo. He holds in his hand a scrolled broadsheet of the U.S. Constitution. He wears a pink sweatshirt bearing the U.F.W. insignia.
That same year executives at the advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day came up with a campaign for Apple computers that featured images of some famous dead – John Lennon, Albert Einstein, Frank Sinatra – alongside a grammar-crunching motto: Think different.
I remember sitting in bad traffic on the San Diego freeway one day and looking up to see a photograph of Cesar Chavez on a billboard. His eyes were downcast. He balanced a rake and a shovel on his right shoulder. In the upper-left-hand corner of the billboard was the corporate logo of a bitten apple.
5:27 pm • 18 April 2014 • 1 note
22. Good Friday
Today is Friday, April 18, right? It should be warmer out by now. It’s not. Still here, the courtyard of the Writer’s House appears a pleasant time and place to play; more so because six months ago today was apple cider doughnuts. Right? Right here. Back then we ate some sugar frosted dough. Today we toss a blue ball in the sky.
Well like the latter, time sure seems to fly. It passes from one friend to friend to friend. And with no levity to call its own, it takes some skill to send it bouncing high.
It’s been a heavy winter. Is it over yet? And if it’s not, whose turn is it to set?
4:44 pm • 18 April 2014
Who, the city asks, are you, for real? And then to throw you off, gives you such choice. Each neighborhood’s composed of different types, from which you learn and mimic walking by. Some dress like you, or how you’d like to look. You recognize the brands and garment cuts; the burdens carried, chosen or assigned, and how these change the body’s postured mien.
Beneath these likenesses lurk darker kin, or rather darker skin neath other looks. And heavier burdens, worn-out clothes, and labor’s race to wear body out, you know?
It’s not surprising that they guess, although it kills you every time they nod “hello”.
8:26 pm • 5 April 2014
They’ll only lead to anger, pen and paper. No, it’s futile trying to capture scenes of love. Like this one: Like this couple at this bar, too animated, move too quick to draw. The way her dangling legs tap on the stool. His tapping pencil fiberglass baton. They alternate, one leans in, one leans back, both pairs of elbows grounding light-borne weight.
Their clothing asks: Well, are they on a date? She’s dressed up in sophisticated black. But as he brings her dinner and a drink, he carefully preserves his work-night whites.
She takes her sweater off, her shirt is grey: a silk-knit tee too soft to draw or say.
8:13 pm • 5 April 2014 • 1 note
Dear Mr. Hemmingway,
Hello. Perhaps you have some writerly advice. Let’s say your subject’s history. It’s dull. And serious. Say, a Boston Puritan, a character that’s pretty anti-fun. What if you get it, and you understand. How then would you advise to write these lives—take them, but not yourself, too seriously?
And, will you, for dessert, maybe agree to mimic young Nick Adams’ cooking skills: The perfect taste of ripe blueberries (Right?!), but in a jam: what more is there to add?
Oh, can your big, two-hearted river speak through time, down this divided creek?
7:57 pm • 5 April 2014
WH Auden’s poetry assignment to his students at the 92nd St Y, 1956. (via the Twitters)
11:57 pm • 2 April 2014 • 37 notes
Of all the scenes to capture, you get most, and hope to post them later, at least some. This, friends, is what we call a “#latergram”. Example: what you saw in Amsterdam, that rave. It was so epic, worth the trip. As well it ought. That’s why, you said, you went. Still, posting them’s like boasting. “Gauche, you know?”
Meanwhile, composing verse is also slow, since stuff just happens. Life gets in the way. So many encounters, worth preserving words, with little chance to opt out or to pause.
In this way, verse, like photos, is a drag to living, and a flashy way to brag.
and D.L. and A.D.
3:49 pm • 1 April 2014
17. Mint Juleps
"They’re mostly made of Bourbon, first of all. Then pick some mint leaves. Pound them in the hand. Pour out a little simple syrup next, and maybe sparkling water. Tonic? No. That’s really all there is. Now, shake it up. Line three mint-garnished glasses in a row."
"How precious! Token Derby souvenirs!"
"Pour evenly. Leave breathing room."
These lessons far exceed mere spirits. Lucky—to toast these gracious hosts who know Kentucky.
10:42 am • 29 March 2014
So many poems exist about The End. A lot of verse reminds you that you die. You see death everywhere as time goes on, a virus that outlives its passing host. The certain end gives off a whitish sheen. Sure, fine. But really, what’s the rush? The mortifying symptoms, too, remain: dumb aches, dull pains, for instance. Do these pass?
And still, there’s ugliness, it’s yellow-green. Pale blotches linger low around your mouth. Your face turns red behind them when you talk. Your story has no end. You close your eyes.
The silent nurse, she nods. She writes these down. They’ll fade, but maybe stain these sheets and gown.
10:01 am • 28 March 2014
Alli understands the some of the important subtleties of being an adult. She understands, for example, the important wastefulness of disposable cotton makeup remover rounds. Sure, they prove that finally, after twenty-some-odd years of trying to absorb normative gender practices, wearing makeup, taking it off (the whole ritual of public performance and private self-care) has finally taken hold. Sure. This is a major part of the purchase. But maybe more importantly, it’s a surprising and affirming pleasure to spend earned money on disposable little puffballs good for one use and then thrown away. It’s like paying for cable, or owning two proper kitchen appliances, one of them a waffle iron.
2:01 pm • 5 March 2014
14. Tour Guide
Hannah used to visit extended family in Brooklyn before it was hip. Actually, she used to visit her family in Brooklyn before hip was hip. But they moved and it’s been a while, so she she probably wouldn’t be able to make any relevant recommendations.
But Philadelphia, on the other hand, is full of fun, cool places to hang out, to pleasantly pass the time. The historical sites are cool too. Overrated? The cheesesteaks. Maybe? But ask her about Virginia. She’ll begin the tour from her family home. She’ll take you to the diners, the coffee shops, the used bookstores, the state parks, even the video store, one of the last existing institutions, surely, where the staff know their patrons. With lesser detail, but with equivalent enthusiasm, she’ll describe the neighboring city and its worthy sites.
11:47 pm • 4 March 2014
13. A Culture of Reading
Don James remarks that one of the major surprises in moving north from Atlanta was the visibility of a reading public, a Culture of Reading, he calls it. He remembers observing how, on mass transit, passengers frequently brought reading material with them, usually books. As a literary historian, he noted with joy that here and there someone might be reading a nineteenth century novel. It’s just not the same in the South, he said, at least not in Atlanta. There’s a sense here of the formative value of literature, the idea that reading books cultivates in the reader a care for civic character. Of course, it’s not just books, but the book is an exemplary unit of comprehensively sustained narrative or idea. Tweets, for instance, don’t quite work in the same way. There, the text that’s being consumed shapes a different sort of reader, one looking for more immediate knowledge, or for swifter access to information. Overall, he observed, we read more than ever before in history.
11:41 pm • 4 March 2014
12. Treading Water
Sometimes a metaphor can give expression to an otherwise ineffable feeling yet still be, pragmatically, worth very little.
It’s not a long distance relationship. Neither is she really an “ex,” though. Emmanuel sighs that the conditions of their relationship are detailed and a lot of work to explain. Some friends advise a more complete and a more explicit commitment; others advise cutting off contact entirely. Some, encouraging him to decisive action, offer the following analogy: You’re like a shipwrecked sailor who, instead of swimming to one nearby island, or to another nearby island, chooses to tread water indefinitely, putting off the inevitable. Emmanuel says it’s not a totally inaccurate way to describe his feelings, sometimes. The implications for the future though, are, upon scrutiny, just as vague as what the metaphor implies about his past.
2:01 pm • 4 March 2014
Allison’s writing a paper on an adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes short story, from text to film. In Doyle’s narrative, there’s minimal erotic tension between Holmes and the female antagonist. Each acknowledges the intellectual sophistication of the other; they part ways; the photograph is safe. In the movie, their relationship is teased out to a more elaborate flirtation. Allison observes that their more easily evident erotic desires makes these film characters appear more human. Crossing 33rd street, stepping over the ice slush onto the curb, Allison continues. At the same time their visible intimacy is conditioned by individually successful performance of an almost inhuman level of smartness and prettiness. So it goes both ways.
10:02 am • 4 March 2014