Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Break Out Your Clove Cigarettes

This past weekend Dear Husband and I went to a concert. Much to my amazement I had discovered a musician before they came to town rather than after. It was like fate was whispering in my ear. Dear Husband went along because he’s a good sport. He and I do not usually share the same taste in music, so I considered this a loving sacrifice on his part. Kudos, sweetie. I owe you a basketball game.

When we drove into the parking lot I saw a young man hovering on the edge, talking into a cell phone. “Isn’t that - I mean, that looks just like him!” Dear Husband replied, “They all look like that.” And, indeed, a lot of young men there did have that sort of school-boyish look, with hair short in the back and floppy in the front. A lot of others looked like they spent their lives in comic book stores. When the show started, Dear Husband said, “Well, I guess that was him.” Oh well, not that I would have interrupted a cell phone call to ask for an autograph. I’m too well-bred.

Floppy Haired Guy was Final Fantasy (or Owen Pallett – they are one and the same). Owen Pallett is a talented violinist. He has done work for Arcade Fire and The Pet Shop Boys and some other people I’m not so familiar with. He’s also played onstage with my other favorite artist Patrick Wolf. His live performances are mesmerizing. In the studio he has a bunch of other musicians to support him. On stage he plays his violin into a loop pedal (ooo, new terminology), then replays and records over THAT, and then does some more (including creating percussion on his violin) and adds THAT to the mix, to create layers and layers of sound. Sometimes he sings into the violin. I was wiggly with amazement.

While he was playing I was almost certain of God's existence.

He wasn't the only act. There was also a singer who came on before him, with the unlikely name of Larkin Grimm. I haven’t found anything online that captures her voice live. It has an elemental force; perhaps she channels it directly from a volcanic fissure. My jaw might have hit the floor a few times. She moved seamlessly from normal singing into a sort of banshee wail. She was … unsettling. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out she was a voodoo priestess or the tormented ghost of an Appalachian mountain woman, or, well, just about anything except for a normal, run of the mill, person.

The main band was the Mountain Goats. I guess they’ve been around forever and done a dozen or so records, all of which have some sort of loopy concept. They have the sort of solid fan base of vegetarians and semi-hippie slacker types. Seriously, there was an overabundance of Birkenstocks in the audience and the pervasive scent of clove cigarettes. Their latest album is The Life of the World to Come, and all the songs are based in some way on a piece of scripture. They aren’t a Christian band by any means, but it seems the singer really likes to read the Bible. For fun.
Here is a song from the Mountain Goats called Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace. Not sure what's going on in this song, but it involves tying someone up, and you can't go wrong with that.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves

Here's the story: In 19th century England, a young woman, a gypsy and outcast, falls in love with the son of the parish priest. They are forbidden to marry and she dies of a broken heart (i.e. jumps off a cliff, takes poison, or pines away). Very romantic. It seems that Patrick Wolf ran across this story when researching his family background and finding a cross with the name Damaris among his ancestors' graves.

The explanation I've read about the story is a little confusing. I think he means the Anglican Church and not the Catholic Church, since the man was the son of a priest. Catholic priests may have been procreating for centuries, but they didn't usually publicly recognize their children and worry who they married. Also, if she were Catholic and had killed herself or if she were completely outside the faith, she wouldn't have been buried on consecrated ground with the rest of the family. I don't know if Anglicans have consecrated ground. You tell me.

But anyway, who cares. This is such a beautiful song and I think of Heathcliff and Catherine or Tess and what's his name. Different part of England, but it really reminds me of Wuthering Heights - the man crying out for his dead beloved.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Oh yeah, those cookies are HOT

Well, it’s that time of year – the holidays – when women’s magazines go all out to make you feel like the crappiest housewife/mom in the world provide you with helpful tips and delicious recipes for your Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities.

I think Good Housekeeping has a lot in common with Playboy. We’ve been socialized to look with concupiscence at photographs of a fat turkey with all the sides on a tastefully decorated table. If you are well-off or have a post-graduate degree, you read Martha Stewart or Real Simple. The Proletariat get off on All You. Good Housekeeping is somewhere in between. Interlarded with the articles on How I Survived Cancer and Skin Care Products that Really Work (in Real Simple that would be Extraordinary Uses for Ordinary Items and Decorating with Mercury Glass) are images of the Impossible. The Christmas edition of Good Housekeeping features a centerfold of elaborately decorated cutout cookies: snowflakes with royale icing, piping, and blue sugar that has somehow been coerced into sticking only to the piping; bells with silver dragees; candy canes with alternating bands of white frosting and red sugar. James McAvoy in a light dusting of powdered sugar. Oops - mind wandered a bit.

For some reason, the lower down the economic totem pole you go, the odder the projects, until you get confectionery constructed from white cake, fruit rollups, ice-cream cones, licorice laces, flattened gumdrops, rolls of Life Savers and toothpicks. Almost every “seasonal” dessert in All You reminds me of a Girl Scout Swap Meet – ingenuity devoted to the inconsequential.

Many glossy pages will cover holiday decorating and creating family traditions. You know, traditions such as Aunt Hester saying “Well, it’s an expensive gift” when your child does not display the appropriate enthusiasm and gratitude. The annual misbegotten children’s craft involving glitter. The cat throwing up after eating a roll of curly ribbon. Or, the traditional family greeting, “Where the hell is the tape?!”

I’ve found an article that describes how to create a lovely menorah from glass cylinders filled with blue glass pebbles and tapers. Do you know how many tapers you would go through in order to light these every night of Chanukah? Forty-four. Forty-four full-size tapers. You could buy out the entire candle section of your local Krogers.

Then there are the pages of gift suggestions – gifts under $50, gifts under $25 and so forth. Let me go snap up that little red-striped baby onesie so cunningly rolled into the shape of a lollipop - awwwww. This box of clever conversation starters! Nesting Christmas dolls! The newest children’s classic If You Give a Mouse an Assault Rifle! Vintage tampon cases! Stationary made by indigent Malaysian orphans from recycled candy wrappers! And you know, I’m not kidding about those tampon cases. They’re for real.

Meanwhile, the November edition of GQ features a chick with her boobs hanging out. Go figure.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hey, I wrote something, and so did a bunch of people

Folks, I've been such a creative little critter.

Click here to read my story Sheol, which is on Metazen. Then look around because there are all sorts of interesting stories and poems there.

A few writers I've been reading lately:

Flawnt: he always writes something intriguing and unsettling.

I Must Be Off, a blog by Christopher Allen. He has adventures and misadventures.

Cat Sitting, by Frank Hinton, the editor of Metazen. This story had me in stitches.

Doodles and Words. By Cyn doesn't post enough. Make her post more.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mental Music

I’ve been waking up with songs playing in my head. This is not the usual “I’ve got a song stuck in my head” sort of event. I’ve had that happen of course, sitting at my desk working and really annoyed that the tune of Poker Face keeps playing as background music and trying not to think of Lady GaGa, who makes me feel a little queasy.

I have never woken with a song cycling relentlessly through my head. Particularly not every bloody time I wake up, even if for just a moment in the middle of the night, or in response to a distress call from Firecracker. And it can’t be because I’m playing the same songs over and over. I played U2’s CD over and over for months and had peaceful nights. I ALWAYS play new music over and over. But now my sleep has a soundtrack.

I’m not even a musical person. I can’t play an instrument. I was pathetic at piano. My singing voice is just sad. I have no intuitive feel for music. I have emotional reactions to certain bands and songs, but I couldn’t tell you what key and I probably wouldn’t be able to pick out influences or have the language to describe, well, pretty much anything about a song.

But now I've got my own personal jukebox, all songs by Patrick Wolf. His music is burrowing insistently into my psyche. I'm walking around in a world of blackberries and thickets, doomed romances, mythical characters (Hi Theseus), shape shifters (Hello Vultures), towers, gypsies, bluebells, constellations, and pig farmers (yes, even pig farmers). What would it be like to have all that spring forth from your imagination?

It would be the best.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Hello Kitty Walks to Emmaus

Dear Husband is on his way back from Walk to Emmaus, so I suspect I won't have any time to post anything substantial. Firecracker in particular is eager to see her daddy again. She's had a few teary moments over the weekend. So if you want something to read, go back to Coffee and Renaissance, if you haven't already.

BTW, it seems Dear Husband was the only guy at the retreat with Hello Kitty bedsheets.

Nope, no post happening here.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

Coffee (a little caffeinated fiction)

Another day of NaBloWriMo, which this late at night is starting to sound a bit obscene. I'm tired and I've been working on this fiction piece for too long.

So, post now, cringe later.


I hate walking into restaurants and cafes by myself to meet someone. I always feel awkward, as if no one will claim me. I’m hanging on the threshold now for an agonizing few moments scanning the room until I see my friend.

“Hi!” she says, waving her cup at me.


I’m always flustered. Why can’t I just be natural? Why does safety seem so fragile?

I order the first thing I can think of, because I get rattled when there are too many options.

“Have you heard from Lars?” she asks.

“Yes, he’s in London doing research at the British Museum. Then he’ll go to Cambridge. I get letters almost every day.”

And when there isn’t a letter I feel unmoored. I don’t believe he misses me really. He doesn’t need me, not the way I need him, to keep the world in place, to keep me from crashing.

“That’s sweet. Will you go over?”

“No money. He has a grant, but I don’t have enough saved, and no vacation.”

And I would be alone there, while he writes and researches with that single-mindedness I admire. It sucks to feel deficient. I would hate myself for not being bolder, for not setting my own course – Ireland, Scotland, the Hebrides, wherever. He would. He does. She has red hair, wavy red hair falling to her shoulders. I’ve always liked it, the way it glows in sunlight, how it springs against her cheek as she walks.

“How is Steve?” I ask.

Steve is a pill.

“We’re going on a trip this summer…”

Ah, matters have progressed. How…established. Serene, she always looks so serene. It’s hard to imagine her kissing Steve passionately, or undressing for him. The buttons on her blouse, would she undo them slowly, watching him, or

“That sounds great. I’m jealous.”

She always dresses modestly. She barely shows any skin at all, except where the neckline of her shirt collar opens slightly. Her skin is so pale, with just the faintest flush. She wears a delicate necklace, so delicate, light as breath, light as a feather or a soft kiss. A soft kiss there in the hollow of her throat.

“So how’s work?” I ask.

“Oh, I have a new project…”

She doesn’t use her hands much when she talks. She keeps them folded on the table, or touches the handle of her cup slightly, turning it in the saucer, or moves the salt shaker. It’s almost soothing. I imagine her hands are cool and that her touch is gentle.

“Do you want more?”

Shit. Idiot. You should have been listening.


“Do you want more coffee?” And now I notice the server hovering impatiently.

“Sure. I guess.”

But how many have I had now? My legs feel jumpy. She’s never jumpy, never ruffled, never taken by surprise. I would like to.

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to kick you. Um, what have you been reading?”

“I found this great novel…”

The third cup, or the tenth, I’ve lost count. Her eyes get very bright and lively when she talks about books. Green, with a ring of brown around the pupil. She has what I can only describe as a ladylike laugh, lips slightly parted, more a smile than a laugh. Lips slightly parted and I’m losing my way here

“You can borrow it when I’m done.”

“Absolutely, it sounds great. Thanks”

She slips off her jacket. It is getting warm, even with the overhead fans. Her arms are bare. She reaches up to tuck her bra strap back under the fabric. Black lingerie and yes, she sees you staring you complete idiot.

“Have, um, have you seen that new movie. Maybe we could go.”

“Sure, I’ll ask Steve.”

Goddam Steve to hell. Why did I drink so much coffee?

“You know, you should run away with me.”

She stops dead in the middle of whatever she was saying, and then laughs. “Lars wouldn’t like that very much.”

She is, after all, used to this, though I doubt she knows I am slowly unbuttoning her blouse, which is warm from her skin and I’m pulling her close so that her glorious red hair falls across my face when I kiss her, and then

“Thwarted again,” I say lightly.

I jump up so suddenly I bang my knee on the table and the cups rattle and several people turn around. “Ow. Sorry. I just need to go to the restroom. Too much coffee”

I stare at myself in the mirror. I look lifeless. I look futile. I feel flimsier than the airmail letters that Lars sends so regularly from England.

“I should go now. The stations near my place get sketchy at night.”

“Well it was great to see you.” She hugs me just long enough to demonstrate that she is open-minded yet inaccessible and smiles just a bit too much in her effort to be completely okay with me. If I were a man she would never speak to me again. Which just goes to show how insignificant a threat I am.

I walk off to catch the train. I turn the corner and as I pick up the pace I reach out my hand and drag my wrist across the rough brick wall. I can’t stop shaking. I really should have skipped that last cup.

Friday, November 06, 2009


I'm going to cheat a bit on this post something every day challenge. This is a poem written over two decades ago, inspired by a movie. I will be most impressed if you can guess which film.


The window frames her against a peaceful landscape,

then a flutter and her skirt trails down the stairs.

She walks through the city streets

past squawking birds, carts of fruit,

vegetables and herbs, through crowds

and noise and dirt into your studio.

She sits as he asks her to sit.

She is what he wants her to be –

Magdalen with her bottle of oil.

The artist says: “My life has been

one long orgiastic dismemberment.

I grind myself into the pigment. I leave

my fingerprints in the paint,

every moment of self-loss

countered with brutal control.

It’s perverted, this transubstantiation.

How can you compare flesh and blood

with oil and pigment? All art is against

lived experience.

Magdalen is dead, and her savior

died in stylized brutality

centuries ago if it happened at all.

My memories are a series of paintings,

every gesture balanced against another,

every dark with its seed of light.”

While he counts her fee,

she yawns and stretches after such long immobility.

Outside she pauses in the doorway,

hair blown against the peeling frame,

the steps into the street where

her skirt stirs little clouds of dust.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

It was a jolly good time, it was

Day two of this MoBlo or whatever it's called and I'm already scrambling. Inspiration or copier toner hit me this afternoon and I suddenly thought: "I wonder if I can find that old house I lived in back in the Summer of '89" So I tried. I think that the image below is what I knew as Brokengall Cottage, Widbury Hill, Ware, Hertforshire.

I have a very poor memory. All sorts of things are jumbled up - the little tudor building overhanging High Street (or was that in Hertford?), the pub that served elderberry wine, the canal that ran past the maltings, carrying with it a very distinctive fermenting smell. Actually, I thought it smelled a lot like cocaine, which just goes to show that I've always been adept at merging the old and the new.

I lived in Brockengall Cottage with my girlfriend, a fellow who epitomized the term "bloke" and a possibly malnourished Scottish lass. Only the bloke had a car, so every morning I got up and walked to my workplace through, I kid you not, a barley field. For the life of me I can't remember the name of the place where I worked - some council office. I processed student transport applications. The other folks there were involved in other aspects of transportation. There was the young Irishman who answered the transport information line. I'm not sure why they put someone who had no idea where he was in charge of advising callers on the best route between Ware and Much Haddam or St. Albans or wherever. But he had a charming accent. Also in the office were two old gents who drove double decker buses in London during the Blitz. I should have listened more carefully to their stories. They spent a lot of time fielding frantic questions from the Irishman, because they had all the routes memorized. The old guys were terribly worried that I wasn't seeing enough of England. I was young and had different ideas about entertainment, i.e. sex had a higher priority than the Tower of London.

During lunch I went to the little canteen, which was, for some reason, vegetarian. They served spaghetti on toast, beans on toast, cheese on toast. Pretty much anything on toast. I usually got an apple, walnut and honey sandwich.

Funny that I don't remember much about getting back and forth from the cottage to work, except for the mornings it rained and the barley field turned to sludge. I don't remember the walk back at all. How odd.

I think I drank most of what I earned. That seemed to be what everyone did. A pound a pint. I used to get something called a Snakebite (is it still called that?), half lager and half cider. Sometimes I had lager and lime instead. Then we would stagger along High Street. How we got home I can't imagine. Must have been the bloke. Anyway, the British take that designated driver stuff seriously.

I have this reminder of those days, a poem I wrote after I returned to New York:

Brokengall Cottage

I hear rain. No, it’s the farmer burning
his field. Smoke drags
along the ground, snagging
like wool in the stubble.
The horse’s hooves explode
against the gate. Nothing happens.
The fence is sturdy.
He snorts and butts all morning.
Locked in their pens
the dogs yelp and stumble.

Night moths fly through open
windows and drown in glass of water.
In darkness I hold
the glass to the moonlight.
Half-awake I once swallowed a moth.
But it stayed down. It stayed put.

In the days of the plague
corpses from London were dumped in the marsh
between this town and the next.
A tangle of bones
braced against a weight of mud.
Above, the smooth slates
of water spread undisturbed.

I saw the Lady of Shallot pinioned
in hyper-reality, menaced by detail –
the jeweled flowers, the chiseled leaves,
her revelation somewhere to my right.
As always the point of focus
was outside my field of vision.

I think of her when I stand by the canal.
Underwater weeds splay
like a drowned woman’s hair.

New York uncoils in the dream, knives
and teeth tear at the wildflowers
in the hearth.
The floorboards creak
with an unknown weight.
The restless dogs nip and worry
something that squeals.
Outside the door I find a rabbit’s foot
and, further toward the road,
the deflated carcass.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Art of Boxing

So I guess the idea of this blogging month is to post something every day about something that interests you. My first thought is, Do I have any interests? Or, have I already bored everyone at the cocktail party? I've talked at length about German soaps (an interest that has now expanded to Spanish, Dutch, South American, British, Romanian and Israeli soaps). I've posted my musical obsessions (Patrick Wolf still reigns at the moment, followed closely by The Editors). In fact, there aren't many obsessions I haven't culled. Now I'm left with the more muted "interests."

So, boxes. I'm fond of decorative and unusual boxes. I have nowhere to put them, so I have very few. But when I walk into Cost Plus or Pier One, I am attuned to the boxes. Carved wood boxes, small boxes of soapstone, boxes with mosaic inlay, boxes with cunning little drawers and velvet lining. A box is, well, a boxfull of potential, a mystery waiting to be tucked away.

Which brings me to Joseph Cornell. Can you imagine my delight when I discovered Joseph Cornell, the master artist of surrealist boxes?

I don't want someone tracking me down for copyright infringement, so just click here to see an example, and here to see a whole bunch of them. The Art Institute of Chicago has a big collection of Cornell boxes, and I've spent some happy times there soaking in their magic. One of my favorite poets, Charles Simic, wrote a volume of short essays about Cornell. The book is called Dime-store Alchemy, and I think that is a perfect description for Cornell's art.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Blah di blah

I guess there's some sort of bloggy challenge this month, to post every day. I've already missed the first of the month, but then it's typical for me to be late out of the gate. Actually, I'm stalled. Just sort of hanging out. I was working on writing two different things, and then I had one of those dreadful situations. I looked over them and they felt false, and not in a good way. And then I thought perhaps they were a bit too revealing, but also not in a good way. You know when you're cornered by someone who wants to tell you about their suppurating wound, you don't really relish their gift for vivid description.

So, really, there's partly a question of courage, because I'm avoiding looking at them, because they seem rather silly, and I have to carve out the bits that struck me as false without completely whitewashing everything. So that I look presentable.