Friday, September 28, 2007

'Guillaume Apollinaire is Dead'

Jasper Johns, "Land's End" (1978)

As I mentioned in the comment box yesterday, there is a connection between Jasper Johns and The Sonnets, beyond the fact that Joe Brainard (in his cover for the first edition and in some of his early paintings and assemblages) "showed the influence of Jasper Johns," to quote from his bio at the website devoted to his work.

According to Roberta Bernstein, in Nice to See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan (Coffee House, 1991), "Near the upper left corner of 'Screen Piece 3,' Johns silkscreened the title page and adjoining blank page of a book of poems by Ted Berrigan, The Sonnets (1964) [in the Grove Press edition]. There are many aspects of The Sonnets which would have appealed to Johns at this time, but I think the most important was the way the poems were conceived as a series. They are all written in the sonnet form and certain lines reappear in different poems, sometimes fragmented or slightly altered. Two of the poems, 'Penn Station' and 'Sonnet XXI,' are made up of identical lines rearranged. Johns' Screen Pieces are likewise the same format, and contain motifs which are repeated in each version. Johns was reading The Sonnets in November 1967, when he was beginning work on his Screen Pieces, and I think these poems reaffirmed or possibly inspired the idea of a closely related series of paintings."

Here's that bit from the upper left corner of "Screen Piece 3" (I'm snipping it from a photo of the entire work by Eric Pollitzer, and then rotating it ninety degrees):

Bernstein goes on to talk about the pleasure Johns took in discovering the patterning of The Sonnets. He read her poems from the book and selected favorite lines, some of which she quotes as particularly relevant to his art (and some of which Berrigan borrowed, of course): "Everything turns into writing / I strain to gather my absurdities into a symbol"; "(to cleave to a cast-off emotion--Clarity! Clarity!)"; "I'll break / My staff     bury it certain fathoms in the earth / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I'll drown my book."

She also mentions the wealth of personal and poetic references in The Sonnets and how Berrigan's allusions "to particular poets and poems, even through a name or title only, enabled Johns to bring personal associations and feelings into his own work indirectly through the intermediary of poetry."

Lovely affinities all. But since the initial charge of this blog was to throw light on lives both saved and ruined by poetry, one can't help noticing that these affinities pale a little (or are overshadowed by an element of sadness) when one remembers the economic circumstances in which Berrigan left his family and how they compare to the prices fetched by works like "Screen Print 3" today.

On November 2, 1994, under the headline "At the Auctions," the Washington Post reported the top five prices of recent days, including a work by Jasper Johns which they called "Screenpiece #3 (The Sonnets)."

Kvelled the Post, "One of the handful of works offered by publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse, this esoteric canvas is inspired by the New York poetry of Ted Berrigan."

Selling price? A cauterizingly ironic $662,500.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Library of Missing Books

Is it possible to pine away after a lost book? Apparently.

But it seems particularly ridiculous to carry a torch for a missing book if indeed one still owns it in three different editions. The level of absurdity reaches absolutely giddy heights if (as is the case) each of those editions is supposed to be improved, i.e. more complete than the last, and if all three are vastly more readable, as physical objects, than the lost original.

Because yes, I have the October 3, 2000 edition of The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan, listed somewhat hilariously at as "Penguin (Non-Classics)" (well okay, if you say so); I've long had the 1982 United Artists Books edition; and a few years ago, in a fit of grief, I bought the 1964 Grove Press edition from a guy in the Netherlands.

What I don't have anymore is the crudely mimeoed and stapled stack of pages published by "C" Press in 1964, in an edition of three or four hundred copies. Ron Padgett, who typed the stencils, says four hundred in an essay in Nice to See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan, which Coffee House published in 1991; sellers of rare books seem to say three hundred, and they want considerably more than a thousand dollars for it.

I had it when we moved to Hawai`i in 1975, shipping all our worldly goods in a container that left from the Port of Oakland. I had it during the two years that my husband taught mathematics at UH Manoa. But somehow, in the chaos of moving back to California, it seems to have been misplaced. I say seems to have because to this day I am still thinking of places it might have been stashed by accident, and I'll probably always maintain the image of it turning up, as cheerfully shabby as ever, to assume its rightful place among its brethren.

It would have been easy for someone else to misplace it, and I did have friends helping in those last insane days, with a seven-year-old running around. It was about the size of the average glossy magazine and might have been shuffled in with a bunch of those and (this is difficult to think about) tossed into limbo. (The thought that it was recycled or that it's mouldering somewhere in a landfill fills me with despair and makes me want to wear a hair shirt and beat myself with birch branches, to atone for my carelessness.)

What seems completely wrong, in each of the other editions, is the cover. That's because the covers are wrong: they're not the thing you see above. As far as I'm aware, the original cover, by Joe Brainard, was nowhere on the web before today. I scanned a picture of it from Nice to See You, and have to say that it's a kind of tonic for what ails me to see it again, a thing in itself, and not closed up in the pages of a different book.

The other covers are definitely slicker, and some might say lovelier, but I will never be reconciled to them.

My sorrow isn't about the money, which I would have left on the table in any case unless I had a starving baby. No chance that thing would have walked out of here (with my consent) while I am still living, so it must be about something else. Is it possible to miss a book physically? Because that's what it's about: I want to touch it again. I want to feel its strange heft, turn its pages (carefully), note again the way the staples fail to really hold it together.

Perhaps you, too, have a book that got away? I'd like to imagine all those lost and cherished books in a secret library somewhere, our never-burned, secret Alexandria.

~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /

Going through the eye of the needle, alas, and no doubt it's going to happen more than once, although I hope to be here at least a few times a week.

So check in when you can and find us stuttering (or strumpeting) back to life....

Friday, September 21, 2007

Poetic License and the Powers That Be *

Some interesting reactions to my last post on mailing lists and by the backchannel. The hip stance is revulsion, almost horror; this is not something we care about, not something we could possibly care about. And indeed as I said myself in the comment box, in the main "prizes don't matter a fig. Most times, they're not actually about literature."

What I was trying to do was to inject an element of playfulness and merriment into the general gloom, to suggest that (if these things occasionally rankle us, and they do seem to rankle even the hipnoscenti, for all their supposed aloofness) we're not entirely powerless to tweak those conditions, or even turn them slightly on their ear, if we take them into our own hands. What is always fascinating, and poignant, is to see how many people do think we're powerless as arbiters of taste, that there's no way to accumulate enough literary capital and credibility to make us anything but fodder for establishment guns.

Ron Silliman has written as well and as frankly as anyone about prizes over the years, remarking at one point that "It’s this need for external validation that strikes me as sad, finally, though I’m sure I crave it just as badly as the next human being, maybe more. What makes it sad is what it says about how our culture doesn’t let us value the act of writing itself, for its own sake, as its own reward."

And yet he often links contemptuously to notices of particularly idiotic prize selections (so they must eat away at him on some level), notes the better choices ("And when prizes do work: / More on the Pulitzer / for Ornette Coleman"), or says, on some sunny morning, "It strikes me as bizarre that John Ashbery, of all people, never has received a National Medal for the Arts."

Bizarre indeed: according to something called the Ashbery Resource Center ("project of the Flow Chart Foundation for Bard College"), Ashbery has won everything from the Discovery Prize in 1952 to the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award and the Robert Frost Medal (both given by the Poetry Society of America) and on and on, not to mention fellowships from the Guggenheim, MacArthur, and Rockefeller foundations, to name a few.

Nor should we forget for a moment the much more culturally salient fact that he is now, as we all know, poet laureate of MTV.

Of course he deserves every bit of it plus the National Medal for the Arts to boot. Given all the fashionable loathing for awards, I do think it's interesting that nobody has ever suggested that (in order to remain intellectually respectable) he should have turned them all down.

Often (mis)quoted in these discussions is something Charles Ives is reputed to have said, that "Prizes are for children." I went looking for accounts of the Ives remark and found two good ones, the first marvelously romantic:

Equally significant was Lou Harrison's performance of the Third Symphony in 1947. It won Ives a Pulitzer Prize, forty years after the work had been composed. Ives was gratified; he disliked the hubbub, however, and remarked: "Prizes are for boys. I'm grown up." He had a point. The years that followed saw the recording of virtually all his important works, and Ives took his place in the textbooks as, all things considered, probably the most important American composer.

Europeans discovered him as well. When Arnold Schonberg died in 1951, his widow mailed Ives a sheet of paper that she had found. On it he had written:

There is a great Man living in this country—a composer.
He has solved the problem how to preserve one's self and to learn.
He responds to negligence by contempt.
He is not forced to accept praise or blame.
His name is Ives.

(Ministers of Reform: The Progressives' Achievement in American Civilization: Robert M. Crunden, University of Illinois Press, 1985)

But the second account, from Timothy A. Johnson's Baseball and the Music of Charles Ives: A Proving Ground (Scarecrow Press, 2004), may, in the end, be more telling:

1947 also was the year that Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music for his Third Symphony. According to legendary accounts, Ives replied to the committee, "Prizes are for boys. I'm grown up." Moreover, he claimed that "prizes are the badges of mediocrity." But this public reaction perhaps has been overplayed. As Jan Swafford noted, "In private he hung the certificate proudly on the wall."

* Title cribbed from this.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Dangerfield Prize

I'm naming this post after something completely chimerical, as real at present as Nessiteras rhombopteryx (the Loch Ness monster) or other triumphs of cryptozoology. But the Dangerfield Prize, and prizes like it, may have more going for them than cryptids like Nessie.

Last month I mentioned the scholarship recently established for a student graduating from first Canadian poet laureate George Bowering's old high school in Oliver, British Columbia, who "must have a demonstrated interest in writing and be a bit of a pain in the ass."

This scholarship, as I said at the time, opens up all sorts of new imaginative vistas for awards. I'm forced to think about awards in the fall, when I have to decide whether to nominate ten people (plus any number of single works in journals or other small press publications) for the Pushcart Prize. If I decide to participate, as I've done since 2002, my ten nominees will get a letter from Pushcart asking them to send their own selection from their 2007 small press-published work for consideration for the next year's anthology. If I also nominate single pieces from magazines and anthologies, the editors of those publications will get slightly different (but similar) letters.

If any of my nominees actually wins, they'll become contributing editors as well and get to send in their own lists of nominations in future years.

So why do I have to think about whether to go through this drill? Why isn't it more fun? Because since I've been doing it, only one of my nominees has actually won a Pushcart. The sheer number of nominations pouring in to Pushcart's P.O. box in Wainscott, NY, is enormous and (do the math: each year's winners become nominators) growing like kudzu every year. So any individual nominee stands a vanishingly small chance of winning.

On top of this, there's more than a small aesthetic difference between my taste and that of the annually-chosen poetry editors. Bill Henderson, who founded Pushcart because of his own frustrations with the literary establishment, is, I suspect, a sterling guy who's pursued his mission with nothing short of heroism. Unfortunately, though, we don't happen to be on the same page (for the most part) about what constitutes an outstanding work of poetry in a given year.

That, I think, is to be expected: these are his awards, his bailiwick, and his taste (and that of his chosen editors) rules the day. But as a result I have to wonder: shall I really trouble, say, Rae Armantrout with another nomination, when she's never won? Why should she bother to go through the fairly onerous drill, only to lose yet again?

Even worse, if I do nominate her again, and she puts herself through those paces, doesn't she begin to associate me with the absurdity of it all? Have I really done her a good turn, or have I wasted her time? Questions like these have made me puzzle over my nominations year after year, never seriously considering some extremely worthy candidates because I know they stand zero chance, and apologizing in advance to those I do nominate for what may be a particularly thankless errand.

All this, plus the fact that there is almost universal frustration with awards of all kinds, has made me wonder: what's stopping any of us from taking a page from Bowering's book, or Henderson's, and launching our own awards?

After all, there is actually no prize with a Pushcart Prize, other than publication. The scholarship given in Bowering's name (though probably not endowed from his personal kitty, though I don't have the inside poop) is obviously something most of us can't dream of setting up. But even if the prize loot were extremely modest indeed, or nonexistent -- other than some sort of fuss made by announcement and (for example) publication of the winning work(s) somewhere -- wouldn't it, at the very least, make some deserving writer's day, and be an absolute hoot?

And, if the standards exercised were rigorous enough -- or witty
and cryptozoologically wild enough -- couldn't it become more than that? Would it be ridiculous to hope that (in some small way) it could actually help to shape the aesthetic environment of the times?

That's why I'm musing on a still very-much-imaginary Dangerfield Prize, and why I hope others will indulge in similar musings of their own.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Ministry of Silly Walks

There was a fissure on the humor in poetry list between those of us who thought that the screws of comedy were equally well tightened on the scullery maid as on the queen and those who believed that insult humor was funnier when it redressed a power imbalance. My own views on this were happily complicated by the discussion, some of which is available here, and are certainly not set in stone or even in aspic.

Over the weekend we happened to tune into a 1986 interview with John Cleese (of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame) and some of his answers confused things further, so I scribbled down what he had to say to interviewer Melvyn Bragg and am reproducing it here:

Melvyn Bragg: Why do you think you're so drawn to authority figures? You seem very much at home playing people in authority.

Cleese: Firstly, because I could play them easily, you see. I'd had the training that the authority figures have. If you've been to Clifton and Cambridge it would be easy to become a barrister, you know, or a very upper echelon businessman or a conservative politician. It's very easy to do that.

So all I had to do was put a suit on. I had the right accent. I could play them. So that's one of the reasons.

Second thing is, I realized very early on that if somebody, a character that you're going to write, is going to do that [twitches convulsively] then it's funny if he's head of the Secret Service and not funny if he's a milkman.

So the more authority you give these characters, the more they have hanging on them, the more people's lives depend on how they're going to act, then the funnier it is when they do a bit of that [twitches spasmodically again].

Cleese was also interesting on the exercise of authority in the family and how it affects our ability (later on in life) to evaluate power in the larger world. Unfortunately he also seemed locked in to antiquated views about "mother domination," as though authority only came naturally to fathers, but some of what he had to say was so spot-on and so reminiscent of annoying people I've known that I thought I had to include it as well:

[When people see that] authority can be exercised intelligently they have a choice about what they're rebellious about. A lot of people who grow up in families where the father is absolutely awful -- and I could name some MPs on the left here [in Britain] -- have a feeling deep down that all authority is wrong all of the time. And they're the sort of compulsive rebels who have no choice about what they're going to complain about.

They'll just whinge about authority the whole time and if anybody says anything about anyone in authority they'll raise their eyes to heaven, knowing all authority is wrong. And I think I used to be in that camp.

It was also delightful to learn that that Cleese's father was born Reginald Cheese, his grandfather John Edwin Cheese, and that the name was only changed after the first world war. It's tempting to wonder whether some of the patented Cleese anger (so usefully deployed in comedy) springs from centuries of teasing, but that will have to remain one of life's unsolved mysteries.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Poetry, Heresy, and Delirium

Yesterday I fell hard for a word.

I remember watching
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World at a drive-in somewhere in Connecticut with Danny Boyarin, Michael Cohn, and Mary Harrison. But really I don't remember much about the movie. This was sometime in the mid-sixties and you know what they say about those memories: that if you have them, you weren't there. Actually all I'm sure of is that Danny (a Goddard student before Goddard had anything to do with writing programs) utterly charmed me with a madcap grace and a pixyish hilarity that fit the wild scrapes up on the screen, which we were mostly ignoring. It wasn't a romantic occasion, just a delirious one, and the next day I went back to high school and never saw Danny again.

So it was lovely to stumble across mention of him on the web in the last few years. Danny is now Daniel Boyarin, the Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture at the Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric, University of California at Berkeley. Some search or other led me here, quite by accident, to this bit of jacket copy for Professor Boyarin's book Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004):

There were no characteristics or features that could be described as uniquely Jewish or Christian in late antiquity, Boyarin argues. Rather, Jesus-following Jews and Jews who did not follow Jesus lived on a cultural map in which beliefs, such as that in a second divine being, and practices, such as keeping kosher or maintaining the Sabbath, were widely and variably distributed. The ultimate distinctions between Judaism and Christianity were imposed from above by "border-makers," heresiologists anxious to construct a discrete identity for Christianity. By defining some beliefs and practices as Christian and others as Jewish or heretical, they moved ideas, behaviors, and people to one side or another of an artificial border -- and, Boyarin significantly contends, invented the very notion of religion.

This was provocative in lots of ways, especially for someone with roots in both Christianity and Judaism, but what took me into immediate ecstasies was the notion of heresiology. This was a word I seem to have been searching for all my life, with obvious applications to the devotional Marxism that surrounded me as a child and to the life of poetry, as we live it now.

Surely all schools of poetry have their core beliefs and catechisms and by the same token, their heresies and heresiologists -- those who grimly patrol the borders of orthodox belief, shunning the sinners and keeping the faithful in line.

But who are the heresiologists of the post-avant? Anybody spring instantly to mind?

I happen to be particularly immune to all forms of heresiology because of my childhood immersion in cryptoreligious foolishness -- well-intentioned foolishness, but foolishness nonetheless.

What strikes me now is how a word can come along -- a single word -- and not only tickle the brain but make sudden sense of the nonsensical, as unexpected things fall into place.

So today I am a little drunk on this new elixir. Thanks, Danny.

Heresiology! The heart sings.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Another Kind of Heaven

The peripatetic Jack Kimball is reviewing chapbooks this week, including Ange Mlinko's, and points out that they "look more important than ever as basic frames for a writer's work and process." Indeed. They're the secret history of this thing we do, eluding in their many fly-by-night forms all the bar codification of this sell-or-die culture. I revere them and count a number of them, like my copy of The Hotel Wentley Poems (which I've been carting around since the sixties) among the few possessions I'd seize if this place were on fire.

What I can't figure out is why they're not more celebrated, more treasured and more purchased by libraries, which one might assume would really get what these slim volumes represent. Some do, of course, and in my nomenclature "rare book room" sounds like another kind of heaven. (We'll overlook for now the fact that I don't have entrée to any of these lovely places, certainly not to the special collections or any other collections at Stanford, only two miles away, as WorldCat is fond of reminding me when I look up something I will likely never be able to see. When they call that little window at the front of the library "Privileges," they are not kidding.)

But let's look up some chapbooks at WorldCat and see how the libraries do. I wouldn't expect them to have Mlinko's Children's Museum yet, of course, but (just for example) how about her Immediate Orgy & Audit, which came out in 1996? Five libraries have it: Stanford, Utah State, SUNY Buffalo, New York Public Library and Brown (and you'll find some of those names coming up again and again in chapbook listings). Or let's try Anne Boyer's Good Apocalypse (Effing Press, 2006). Not a single entry, astonishingly enough, and I tried calling it just Good Apocalypse as well. 153 libraries have my Hotel Imperium, a full-length book, but only six bought The Last Campaign, even though it was lavishly produced (with a silver-embossed jacket no less) by the very billable, brick-and-mortar Hudson Valley Writers' Center.

Why is this? Of course chapbooks (for the most part) don't have spines, so they're harder to display, and aren't in high demand in any case at Poughkeepsie Public. But why don't university libraries and larger city libraries aggressively buy them? I have no idea but it seems like an incredible impoverishment of the public (and the scholarly) sphere. Obviously there are things I don't understand, so if there are librarians reading this please straighten me out. In the meantime try entering a few of your favorite chaps at the WorldCat link above and you'll probably agree that the situation at least seems absurd, and perhaps a little bit shameful.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ange Mlinko, The Children's Museum

My scanner doesn't begin to do justice to this beauty, one of Ryan Murphy's "proudly haphazard" one-offs from Prefontaine Press. It arrived in all its hand-sewn glory in July just as we polished off the last of the collected Stevens, which seemed particularly fitting and particularly satisfying since both were so pleasurable to read (or reread) aloud.

Mlinko has described the Hartford pyrotechnician and voluptuary as "consistently wring[ing] the comic potential from mere syllables," with a humor that "comes right out of the click and crash of consonants and vowels, as if phonemes were feathers applied to a particularly ticklish part of the brain," and it would be hard to come up with a better description of her own protean, acrobatic project, recently seen to full advantage in her National Poetry Series-winning volume Starred Wire (Coffee House, 2005).

I've been reading film editor and soundscape designer Walter Murch's musings on how the blinking of our eyes punctuates consciousness and how those blinks resemble (and can be used to suggest) cuts in film, and have inevitably gone on to wonder exactly how we blink, cut, punctuate the thought-stream in poems. What better way to begin that study than to screen the first half of the title poem of this lovely small collection, and let Mlinko show us how it's done:

It's hard to know whether today or yesterday was the full moon;
excitement isn't rigorous. It's just river-silvering

blent with the odor of silt where the roofs spike
along a repurposed waterfront.

A beach ball floats above the pressurized stream;
it is disequilibrium that keeps it there. Soap's expressed

as blisters when even gravity works backwards
at the limit of the ball held upside down inside the loop.

Rewards in a game they play against themselves
-- "Fancy curtseying as you're falling through the air" --

the shade breaks up beneath the oaks
tithing their gifts against the curriculum

of an armed galaxy. It slides into focus for the instant
I'm brrr, blurred.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Code of the Woosters

I do some strange kinds of reading. Possibly there are other shower-readers in the world but if so, we have yet to be properly introduced. My m.o. is to print out an intriguing poem (or one I'm working on), tape it up on the tile and try to inhabit it as deeply as I can while (say) washing my hair. One of the poems in my new ms. was written by slapping pieces of the old English lament "Deor" on the wall and rewriting sections of it, one by one, until it seemed like something of my own.

This took a lot of showers, which meant a lot of reprintings and fine-tunings on the computer, and in the process it was impossible to know whether I'd end up with anything that held together at all. But I had no other writing time, for complicated reasons, and this kept the brain engaged and was a lot more compelling than a shower radio to boot.

In the last few years I've also been reading by listening, and not to books on tape. When an old injury flared up my husband took pity on me and started to read while I contorted myself into various shapes, on orders from a physical therapist. We stormed through all 864 pages of Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit and can recommend them very highly to you. We read all of Eliot -- the poems that is -- all of Stevens, most of Whitman, although he alternately delighted and irritated us, till we finally moved on (it was the bardic airs and the occasional bombast). We read the Dhammapada (The Path of the Dharma) and Paavo Haavikko's Selected, in Anselm Hollo's wonderful translation.

Now, somewhat randomly, we're on to The Code of the Woosters. I'd never read Wodehouse before (although I've bought my husband shelves of it) and my helpless pleasure in this account of the adventures of people like Gussie Fink-Nottle, Pongo Twistleton and Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright (not to mention Bertie Wooster himself) seems sure to get me summarily ejected from the Order of the Red Diaper, except that all of them, other than their servants, are such perfect twits.

The writing, though, is superb -- crisp and bright and hilarious. I've gotten so besotted with the thing that I've taken to
absconding with it between times, savoring especially Wodehouse's delicious portrayals of Sir Roderick Spode, the sinister "founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organization better known as the Black Shorts," who is apparently based on Sir Oswald Mosley, the would-be British führer who married Diana Mitford, sister of Jessica and Nancy.

Alexander Cockburn, of all people, writes an intro to our edition, and makes some pretty extraordinary claims, ones I don't sneer at a bit after my brief immersion:

Wodehouse's status? It's been vouched for by every major English writer of the twentieth century with a spark of insight or talent. He stands as father of the style of Evelyn Waugh, too acute ever to get lost in the prejudices that marred the latter's delicacy of touch towards the end of his career. Wodehouse took a language forged out of second-rate fiction and narrative techniques from stage farce and created a world as timeless and as true as that of Homer or of Shakespeare. And despite his own self-deprecation, Wodehouse had his ambitions. Joy in the Morning, to be read immediately after The Code of the Woosters, deliberately invites comparison with Shakespeare's romantic comedies. Wodehouse popped in enough allusions and quotations to bend the reader toward such parallel. And he survives it. The Wooster-Jeeves cycle is the central achievement of English fiction in the twentieth century; an achievement impossible to imitate, because -- as E.M. Forster remarked of the poet Cavafy -- the cycle stands at a slight angle to the universe, unreachable by almost anything but laughter itself.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Young and the Restless

We just spent three days with someone who wants everything and knows nothing.

Of course he is not yet sixteen months old, but does this give him the right to be exactly like the rest of us?

He is obsessed with buttons, switches, knobs, handles, and all the myriad variations on this theme but suffers the constant indignity of being kneecap-high to those who are (quite unfairly) able to reach them. Thus his imperious demand to be carried about the house for hours on end, pointing at his intended targets and then knobulating (as my husband puts it) to his heart's content.

I have no idea what this means. My daughter (his mother) had zero interest in such fetish objects, preferring nipples and eyes -- sucking the one, looking into the other -- but various former boys of our acquaintance, including his father, are said to have shared the compulsion. I would like to hear about any girl babies who also share it but (rather frighteningly) am so far striking out on this score.

The first recognizable thing he ever said to anyone was "uh-oh," and it is now repeated often with a tone of genuine regret. This seems fitting if a bit darkly foreshadowing: apparently it's what scientists frequently remark in their labs, rather than the much-too-sunny "Eureka!"

On the road to the junior museum, hoping to give him a broader range of things to take apart and knobulate, one is treated to a steady line of patter from the backseat (where the carseat must be buckled), the tone changing second to second from one of happy sing-song to one of dismissive reproach, with a few little "uh-ohs" tossed in to punctuate the rest.