Monthly Archives: February 2017

Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

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Last year, I remember talking in my classroom about the terrible news, the deaths of two British cultural icons, both personal heroes of mine, David Bowie and Alan Rickman, both dead at 69. And from that discussion, this has remained in my memory: a student actually said these words to me, “So you’ve got about twenty more years to live, then.” Even though I probably should have been, I was not offended and I laughed the comment off, even sort of went along with the gag. Sure. That may be true. At 69, I too, might shuffle off this mortal coil–that is, if I get sick, or if I have some terrible accident. I don’t plan to do either of those things, but, as I understand it, these kinds of things aren’t really planned.  So, whether it’s likely or not that I’ll only live another 20 years or less, the deaths of David Bowie, and days later, Alan Rickman moved me to a surprising degree, and got me thinking, as I am still thinking, thinking seriously, about mortality and impermanence, about living a life, and about what might be learned about dying from the passing of these two giants.

My youth, as is true for most all of us, was punctuated by the deaths of celebrities. The ones I paid closest attention to were the deaths of musicians. Elvis. John Lennon. Bon Scott. These are the ones that come immediately to mind. And I know, that as a young person, these deaths shook me, saddened me, especially because all three of them were tragic, senseless, preventable. But I moved on, as young people do, and things would return pretty much back to normal for a long long time. The deaths of people I know, mostly family, mostly well into their 80’s when they died, stay with me in my vivid memories of them tied directly to experience. My father died at 83, 7 years ago now, after a year long recovery from a cardiac arrest, and while I mourned his death more deeply than any other, my memories of him are a constant presence for me. I feel him with me all the time, most powerfully, sometimes happily and sometimes not, in the ways that I realize I am so much like him, in the various and spooky ways I feel I AM him or have become him. With Bowie and Rickman I have no genetic connection, but insofar as their work has been with me off and on for 30 or 40 years, they too, feel like family; they too, feel like a part of my genetic make-up. As I am my Dad, I am also Bowie and Rickman.

In a way, especially for musicians and actors and writers, they remain very much alive: we have a tangible record of their artistic lives and we can revisit that record over and over again on our turntables, our televisions or computers, in our libraries, and in our memories.  My dad left no recordings. He left no writings, or at least I don’t think he did. He left me his wedding ring. He left me two brothers and a sister, he left me half of my own genetic self and 45 years of example through his parenting and husbanding. So while I can keep Bowie and Rickman spinning in the exterior world, my father must remain inside. But all of it will be with me so long as I can operate the audio-visual equipment in my house and the audio-visual equipment inside my head. I’m going to try my best to keep both in working condition past my own 69 years.

And finally, in our current state of affairs, culturally and politically in this United States of America in 2017, I feel more than ever a deep need to keep exposing myself to and attempting to create the ineffable, the deathless, the lasting, humanizing record in art of our existence. I feel now a kind of urgent need to listen to more music, make more music, write more poems and stories, to read more, and to live more deeply in the world. Bowie made music until the end. Rickman made films until the end. My friend Carlen Arnett kept contributing her art until the very end. I hope I can do as much in my own humble way. And so I begin with this little meditation that I have titled after this exquisite and famous poem by Dylan Thomas. I hope you enjoy both.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas1914 – 1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

 

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Filed under Culture, Self Reflection, Writing and Reading

Love Letter to The Flaming Lips on the Eve of “Oczy Mlody”

Dear Flaming Lips,

I love you guys. Your music changed my life. Or, maybe this is more accurate: I discovered your music when my life was changing and it became a kind of soundtrack for those wild years. It was both heady and silly and cathartic, and private too, because no one else I knew was listening to it, and while I seldom knew what the lyrics were really about, somehow they nevertheless seemed to reach down deep inside of me to pull something out, usually something heavy. Your music made me unaccountably happy during a time in my mid thirties when everything seemed really fucked up. I count “Clouds Taste Metallic,” “The Soft Bulletin,” and “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” among my favorite records of a decade, maybe of all time. So I thank you for that. And I have been loyal to the band ever since. On record store day I went out and bought the Heady Nuggs Volume 2 box set which contains all five of the records you recorded between 2006 and 2012, two of which I already possessed on compact disc. But I have had a dilemma, a difficulty, a trouble with everything you’ve released post “At War With The Mystics.” And I’m writing to you because I don’t quite understand why I don’t like the records post 2006 nearly as much as the earlier records; in fact, I’m not even sure I like them at all, and it’s been kind of freaking me out. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s you. Maybe you can help me figure it out.

Let’s pretend for a second that it’s you. You guys went from an engaging, fun, and intellectually challenging pop band into a band that does noisy mood music. The newest stuff (and I’m mostly talking about “Embryonic” and “The Terror”), is droning, often lacking distinguishable verses, bridges, choruses, the vocals are whispery or distorted, indecipherable without the lyric sheet, the music often punctuated by gratingly loud noises or repetitive loops that jar or bore the listener, and on “The Terror” in particular, the tunes are rhythmically minimal, often without drums. The lyrics and vocal performances that used to be spirited, buoyant, exuberant, sometimes dark but hopeful, are now just mostly dark, quiet, subdued. It’s almost as if you’ve had a songectomy. This is not the pop band I fell in love with in 2001. It’s as if you have deliberately jettisoned all the things that made great those three records I’ve listed above. It’s a pisser. It’s disappointing. Have you run out of ideas? Have you betrayed your fans? You’ve never been a great singer, Wayne, but at least you were out there loud and proud, which I loved. Have you given up on your lovely, limited, but always charming voice? Why all the whispering falsetto stuff? Why so sad?

Okay, devil’s advocate: maybe it’s me. I simply don’t understand what you’re doing. Or, you are demonstrating the highest artistic integrity by giving absolutely zero fucks about what anybody thinks and you are earnestly experimenting to discover something new. It’s about the art, after all, not about appeasing your fans. Your recent minimalist approach to songwriting is about preserving a core of what’s really important and jettisoning all the flotsam and jetsam of pop music. And, like me, you’re getting older. Your artistic ambitions are changing, morphing, sobering, reaching for something higher and nobler than the three and a half minute pop song. So part of why I don’t like what you’ve been doing is because I am nostalgic for that state I was in and that state you were in 17 years ago. That’s no longer a reality.

Fast-forward to January, 2017, a year after David Bowie’s death, and the month of a dark, dark moment in American history, the inauguration of the gigantic orange man-baby to the presidency. You do two things almost simultaneously. You release your cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and you release your first album of new songs since “The Terror.”
I have the new album, “Oczy Mlody,” right now in my hot little hands and I am about to spin it for the first time. In this dark hour, I am crossing my fingers for some kind of miracle. I know, that’s a lot of pressure and responsibility that you don’t really deserve, but I’m giving it to you anyway. You helped me through a difficult time in 2001 and I trust that you can do it again.

Notwithstanding the crazy 1997 experimentation of “Zaireeka,”the four records designed to be played simultaneously on separate players (which I have not had the pleasure of hearing BTW), if the last two albums could be categorized as your most difficult listening, then this record here, the super-strangely titled “Oczy Mlody,”comparatively, is the easiest. Easy listening Flaming Lips. On first spin it was immediately likable, relaxing, contemplative, dark, yes, but melodic; and this album, unlike the last two, contains much of that lovely, synthesizer orchestration that made the “Soft Bulletin” all the way through “At War with the Mystics” records so entrancing. And while there are no tunes on this new record that include the kind of ballistic drumming  of “Race for the Prize” or “The Spiderbite Song,” there are drums here, or at least some drum programming, that help percolate the tunes in a way that most of the songs on “The Terror” do not percolate.

The lyrics are nuts, as usual, and that’s a bonus, but because I haven’t taken the time to read all the way through them, word for word, I can’t really say anything about the continuity that I sense is present and the story (I’ve read) these lyrics are supposed to tell. But on the second tune, Wayne, when you sing, “I tried to tell you, but I don’t know how,” I’m right back there feeling once again that  what you’re singing is resonating in my life in a super specific and meaningful way. And “The Castle” is maybe one of the most beautiful and saddest love songs I’ve heard in many a moon. And “We a Family” makes me love Miley Cyrus in a way I never thought I could, and to be thankful for the effects of a brilliant pre-chorus. This tune is anthemic and gorgeous in almost the same way that “Do You Realize” was.

So fast-forward once again into February and I have listened to this new Lips record maybe a dozen times by now. The first thing I can say is that it holds up to repeated listening. I kind of forced myself to listen several times to both “Embryonic” and “The Terror,” but it kind of felt like a chore or an obligation, a duty, but this is a record that compels me, after a break of only a few days, to listen again. It’s not necessarily a return to old form, which it probably shouldn’t be, but it is a return to something recognizably and loveably The Flaming Lips. And I couldn’t be happier. And that’s it. My favorite Flaming Lips records have made me stupidly joyful in super dark times, and here I am again. So thank you, Lips. Keep doing what you’re doing.

 

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#244: On Listening to Students Talk about Seamus Heaney’s Poetry

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Over three
days I listened
to 24 young
people talk
for 20 minutes
a piece about
literature, and 10 of
those 20 minutes
were dedicated to
speaking about
a single poem
by Seamus Heaney.

Most of them
did fine work,
but I couldn’t help
recognize and remember
and then start to
record particular
phrases or beginnings
that I think I heard
over and over again.

To wit:

K. So.
This one.
First I thought.
I’d like to begin.
What I noticed first.
What I noticed right away.
I think.

The title.
In the first stanza.
The speaker.
As the poem progresses.
The audience.
And then.
In the middle.
And then.
Finally, the last.

K. So. Um.
Uh. And stuff like that.
The occasion.
Eventually, the purpose.
In this poem.

Regarding structure.
Seven, five, ten, four,
whatever is half of a
pentameter. Rhyme,
off-rhyme, slant rhyme,
near rhyme, maybe if you heard
it in an Irish accent,
there would be more rhyme.
Childhood,
Lost innocence,
The Troubles,
Capital letters at the start,
bog bodies.

This is a poem.

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#243: A Poem Composed on a Word Processor about Writing by Hand


I read recently that
handwriting is better
for the brain than
typing, what we call
in this information age
“word processing.”
It’s better, handwriting,
because the task is more
physical, therefore more
complex, therefore more
memorable, theref more
meaningful. Did you notice
how I truncated “therefore”
on purpose so that I could
end the line with the exact
same word in the exact same
spot four lines in a row?
I did that because I was typing.
I could never think to do that
if I was handwriting. However,
I tend to believe what I read
and I believe that handwriting
is better for the brain than
typing.

And yet, I type. I’m typing this
poem right now about the advantages
of handwriting. I have a fantasy
that I will write the first draft
of my next novel entirely by hand
in a nice notebook or a series
of nice notebooks. And I think
I should write poems there as well.
There’s something about typing,
and there’s something about typing
publicly that feels so exposed, so
out there, so vulnerable, that sometimes
I worry about whether or not I’m
telling the truth. This is the truth.
But there’s nothing risky about a
poem on handwriting. And I’d
like to be risky, brave, intimate,
and bold in my writing. There are
things I need to say to myself
that cannot be typed, can only
be handwritten, can only reside,
at least for now, in the white,
neatly lined pages of a nice
notebook, which, in this moment,
remains entirely nice and blank.

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#242: Flamingos in a Deluge

I promise:
this poem is only about weather
and the pink flamingos
drowning in the back yard.
Old Man Winter fought tooth
and nail against warming:
10 days of school shutdown
over four different storms
and a fifth one predicted
to be on the way.
I’m tired of it, as are the pink
flamingos, sinking back there
in the mud, the babies just
toppled over, sleeping in puddles
like some bunch of idiot birds,
a flock, a pat, a stand, a regiment,
a colony, whatever you choose
to call them; our pink, muddy
flamingos require a lifeguard
on this soggy Super Bowl Sunday
and football is the last thing
on anyone’s mind.

 

 

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#241: Stones

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What I thought was Donald Trump
turned out to be kidney stones.
I did the research, and among the
listed causes for stones, Trump
was nowhere to be found. Stress,
however, can indirectly lead to
poor health choices that might
lead to stones. I admit, I am stressed,
have spent more time worrying
about the fate of our nation
than I ever have, and believe me,
I have worried before about
the fate of our nation. Regardless
of what caused these little fuckers,
the fact remains that I have stones
and that I cannot think of a better
metaphor right now for the Trump
presidency. Oh, let me count the ways.
They can’t pass soon enough.
While they are passing, the pain
can be excruciating. They can
transform reality. They require
attention but no easy fix. Essentially,
one must try to flush them out.
One has to catch them in order
to discover what they’re made of,
and once caught, they must be
fought, minimized, blasted,
reduced, until they are so small,
they slip right out without notice
into the toilet or a stainless steal
strainer. Ultimately, as I am beginning to
understand, stones must be impeached,
the sooner the better.

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