smart / girl in a coma

Jim Mendiola is a storyteller.  One of the good ones.  Among his preferred media are films, videos and screenplays, he’s been known to flex his creative muscles as a writer, director and filmmaker. You could apply the label “indie” to Jimmy since his much of his work has tended to be off the mainstream radar, but I wonder how long that will last?

His newest work – well, let me amend that, the latest that I’ve seen from him, is a music video he directed for the band “Girl in a Coma” who, like Jimmy, are from San Antonio, Texas –

– for a song – ‘Smart’ – on their new album.  A recent article in Rolling Stone says –

Girl in a Coma’s new video for “Smart” brings them back to some of their most cherished inspirations – the music videos of the Eighties and the Smiths, whose song “Girlfriend in a Coma” gave the group their name. In keeping with the Eighties vibe the band, comprised of sisters Nina and Phanie Diaz and bassist Jenn Alva, wanted director Jim Mendiola to evoke the tone and look of their favorite music videos from the decade. “During my research, I was struck by the amazing video work Derek Jarman did with the Smiths, very nostalgic and melancholy and incredibly textured, a perfect match for this song,” says Mendiola.

But those are just words.

Look at the video.  Then you’ll understand.….why I fucking love Jimmy.….and am occasionally in awe of him.  Here it is –

And if you suffer from the disease of liking to read the words too, the lyrics, here they are –

 

“smart”

 

face the wall of faded pictures

i’ve never been in love like this

 

place a ring upon a finger

i’ve never felt a rush like this

 

and don’t you ever start to wonder

what’s it like to be alone?

to sit and stare and ponder

living life it’s not your own

 

oh let’s watch tomorrow go

 

hold your head up though you’re shaking

i’ve never felt a rush like this,

not quite like this

 

you were never one to fake it

i’ve never felt a lust like this,

not quite like this

 

and don’t you ever start to wonder

what’s it like to be alone?

to sit and stare and ponder

living life that’s not your own

 

oh let’s watch tomorrow go

 

I can relate.  So can a lot of people I suspect, and not just GIAC fans.

Don’t you ever start to wonder…what’s it like to be alone? To sit and stare and ponder. Living a life that’s not your own…

Yeah.  Been there.

Jimmy, man.….good job.  When are we going for puffy tacos, dude?

The Bookmaker

Copyright © Louis Au/f11project 2015’

My friend Juan Nicanor Pascoe is a bookmaker who still makes books the way they were made in the 18th Century… By hand. With blocks of movable type…one letter, one word, at a time. “Con Juan empieza el libro, y con Juan termina el Libro.” The book begins with Juan, and ends with Juan. His bookmaking workshop, located in a small rural town in the state of Michoacan, is called El Taller Martín Pescador (the Kingfisher Workshop, in Spanish Martín Pescador is the name given to kingfisher birds). The books that he makes and prints by hand are – and have been, for a long time – simply extraordinary.  Each one a work of art, una obra de arte….and each one a labor of love, un trabajo de amor. In addition to being a master bookbinder and book maker – un empastador maestro – Juan Nicanor is also a master musician and multi-instrumentalist, one of the original founders of Mono Blanco (White Monkey), the Mexican grupo de música folklórica, folk music group, specializing in El Son Jarocho, the amazing rhythmic traditional music of Vera Cruz and its environs.  Juan still plays music these days.  I sat in on a few informal jam sessions with Juan and other musician friends….and though the years are passing, he still ‘brings it’ when he picks up an instrument: his fingers are outrageously nimble, his strings resonate and his voice is strong. You can hear some of the music – and see Juan playing and talking – in this killer short film on him, by director Santiago Ortiz-Monasterio. Though the film is in Spanish, there are enough amazing images–and sounds and music–to still ‘get it’ and ‘get’ Juan….even if you are so uncivilized that you don’t speak a word of el idioma de Cervantes, the language in which Don Quixote was written, el castellano. Check it out – In the year 2011, Juan Nicanor has just been awarded the prestigious prize for excellence in the arts, el Premio Estatal de las Artes Eréndira, by the state of Michoacán. But he is much more than just a master bookmaker… And more than a badass killer folk musician… un pinché músico jarocho… He’s a wild and crazy dude. And someone I’m lucky to call….friend.

Cutting Tall Grass

 

Molly Peacock, on what poetry does to you: “Like being stupidly in love, this art leaves you dumbstruck. Yet how rare—and thrilling—to be struck dumb in the all too articulate world.” (from How to Read a Poem… and Start a Poetry Circle)

 

 

CUTTING TALL GRASS

 

I love the sound of lawnmowers each year.

There’s a woman in her workpants smelling of

gasoline and cut grass, wiping a smear

of grease on her head while blotting a swelling of

sweat from her head under her plastic visor.

I’m not sure whether she loves that machine.

Short grass is none the wiser for the razor,

so the love of mowing it is love of sheen.

But one must love the vehicle, the sun,

the bugs thrown up behind and the swallows

snatching bugs at the wheels to love a lawn,

the old grass spewn in the bleak shadows,

the new grass smelling of wet and slight rot,

to love to live between what is and what is not.

 

by Molly Peacock

from Cornucopia, New and Selected Poems

Loneliness

Molly Peacock is a poet I love reading.  Not just because of her poems – but because of how she talks, and what she says. There is a a lot of biographical material on her floating around but as you navigate your way through her words, you find gems…

 

Molly Peacock on freedom of speech:  “I am wholly, and to use a word that I just used before, passionately, in favor of free speech in all its forms. I am completely and utterly slavishly committed to free speech and I think that anything less — one iota less — erodes democracy and that means that I am in favor of people being allowed to say anything.”

Molly Peacock on the dangers of writing, and writing poetry: “I was terrified that poetry would drive me over the edge. I just wanted a so-called normal life. But of course I couldn’t stop writing really. I had no choice about that. But I realized that I did have a choice as to what kind of life I’d live. I didn’t have to be crazy or drunk to be a poet.”

Molly Peacock on revealing yourself in your work: “In terms of privacy, there’s a weird way in which exposing something private about yourself gives you the control. It’s not that other people have exposed you. You have done it, and I think it makes a big difference because you have told a truth about yourself. If you define yourself then you’ve created the boundaries. In a weird way, boundaries create privacy. So by giving up your privacy and drawing a line around it, you’ve actually given yourself privacy.”

And finally….a poem.  From her book “Cornucopia” which is worth tracking down, either at your local library, your local bookseller (an endangered species, alas) or anywhere you can find it.

I was going to be generic and say she talks and writes about things we all feel, but I don’t know that. I do know that, though she is categorized by many as a feminist author, and a poet who write of, about and on women’s issues….I can relate to her. Especially when she paints pictures…of things that I have felt.

"Añoranza", photo by Pamela Williams

Here, her words, unvarnished —

 

LONELINESS

 

It shines as broth in a cup meant

to be brought by both hands up to tempt

a waiting mouth under a light shines, low,

somewhat harsh, then flickeringly half lit

as it, itself, is consumed. Slowly the toe

of the drinker curls in a gentle fit

of tension and satisfaction, as in

the reading of a novel’s last pages.

Were the wet mouth to speak, it would be

in a voice that hasn’t spoken for ages

because the little voice is so far inside

and the way back is a long, ill-lit ride.

 

"Les Petites Dalles", beach in Normandy, by Martine Franck

 

Long pause.

 

Respectful silence.

 

Still longer pause.

 

And finally wondering: what is the path you take, to write like that….to do what she does?  How do you get there?

Molly Peacock again, on taking risks: “I love taking risks in a poem. That’s what writing is about for me. But at the same time, the craft of the poem creates the net underneath the high wire. I feel there’s a weird combination of safety and risk—creating safety in taking a huge risk.”

And not just her. It’s a path covered with footprints of those who’ve come before, those still walking, those who just passed less than 5 minutes ago. Most walking, some crawling, a few running.

Behind the Gare St. Lazare, by Henri Cartier-Bresson

They leave their prints right there on the ground, if you bother to look.

André Gide: “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

Ray Bradbury: “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time, and build your wings on the way down.”

And Brian Molko: “If you try your dream out and it doesn’t work out and you become a casualty then at least you can say you tried. It’s a risk. But in order to do it properly and put your whole heart into it you have to burn your bridges behind you.”

 

Sssssshhhhhh.…..can you hear it?

A voice that hasn’t spoken for ages.

A little voice.

So far inside.

Can you hear it?

Listen.

John Barleycorn Must Die

“John Barleycorn”, the personification of the cereal/grain of barley, is also a metaphor for all the alcoholic beverages made from barley….including beer and whisky.

He is also the subject of – and hero of – literally hundreds of different versions of the same song – ‘John Barleycorn’ – in which he suffers attacks, death and indignities which, metaphorically, correspond to the different stages of the barley harvest (reaping, threshing malting). At the end of his brutal trials and tribulations, John Barleycorn always dies – but is then reborn in alcohol – in beer, barley-whine and whisky – so that he may live forever –

This is my blood, drink of it.

John Barleycorn songs date back to 16th Century England and, some believe, draw their inpisration and origins even earlier, from the Anglo-Saxon deity Beowa, the guardian spirit of grains, a figure of mythic power and potency –

and, according to some, the origin of the mythical/legendary figure of Beowulf. Some wonder: could Beowulf truly have defeated the monster Grendel, without first imbibing a tankard or three of the blood of his namesake deity?

And as generations of whisky drinkers can testify, when you raise your glass and drink John Barleycorn’s blood, you are suffused with divine wit, wisdom and vision….for a few hours, anyway.

In an early and now classic version by Scottish poet Robert Burns –

There was three kings into the east,
   Three kings both great and high,
 And they hae sworn a solemn oath
   John Barleycorn should die.

But in a 17th century English version, Burns’ kings have become ordinary men, laid low by the powers of demon drink, who subsequently seek their revenge on John Barleycorn for taking advantage of them

Sir John Barley-Corn fought in a Bowl,
   who won the Victory,Which made them all to chafe and swear,
   that Barley-Corn must dye.

But whether you be king or commoner, John Barleycorn has the power to raise you up…and bring you down lower than low. To make you smile, to make you laugh, to give you a golden tongue. To embolden you when you need courage most…or, on an even more basic level, to get you good and fucked up when you need to….and even when you don’t.

Traffic, the English group, did their own version.

Here is their recording of John Barleycorn Must Die.  Featuring Stevie Winwood on acoustic guitar, piano, vocals; Jim Capaldi on tambourine, vocals; and the intimitable flautiest Chris Wood, flute, percussion.

And here finally (in the Beginning was the Word…but sometimes it comes at the End too), the lyrics of Traffic’s version.

 

John Barleycorn (Must Die)

 

There were three men came out of the west, their fortunes for to try

And these three men made a solemn vow

John Barleycorn must die

They’ve plowed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in

Threw clods upon his head

And these three men made a solemn vow

John Barleycorn was dead

 

They’ve let him lie for a very long time, ’til the rains from heaven did fall

And little Sir John sprung up his head and so amazed them all

They’ve let him stand ’til Midsummer’s Day ’til he looked both pale and wan

And little Sir John’s grown a long long beard and so become a man

 

They’ve hired men with their scythes so sharp to cut him off at the knee

They’ve rolled him and tied him by the way, serving him most barbarously

They’ve hired men with their sharp pitchforks who’ve pricked him to the heart

And the loader he has served him worse than that

For he’s bound him to the cart

 

They’ve wheeled him around and around a field ’til they came onto a pond

And there they made a solemn oath on poor John Barleycorn

They’ve hired men with their crabtree sticks to cut him skin from bone

And the miller he has served him worse than that

For he’s ground him between two stones

 

And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl and his brandy in the glass

And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl proved the strongest man at last

The huntsman he can’t hunt the fox nor so loudly to blow his horn

And the tinker he can’t mend kettle or pots without a little barleycorn

 

The part about laying mighty men low is true. Not just men. Women too! And not just the ‘mighty’….the rest of us too. That includes writers….and sometimes we take our inspiration wherever we can get it….even in the bleeding sheaves of sheaves of barley, lying intertwined like dead lovers on the field of battle. Or even….the residue at the bottom of one’s glass.

Have to stop writing now. Time to raise my glass to the long-suffering martyr, rebel and demi-god, John Barleycorn.  Not any old glass….some of the good stuff. And I’ll do it along with Jack London –

“John Barleycorn’s inhibition rises like a wall between 
one’s immediate desires and long-learned morality.” 
― Jack London (John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs)

Infinitive

Ursula Le Guin says of her poetry –

          My poems begin in two ways (that I am aware of) which I think of as “catching” and “following”. One is a desire to catch, hold, surround, describe the sight, the emotion, the vision, a passionate desire that forces the words into poetry. A longing to take hold, a long to make sense.

  Or the words begin to make a rhythm, or grow out of a rhythm, coming of themselves and following their own logic, and lead the writing hand and the writer’s mind to follow them–halting or racing, amazed or bewildered–wherever they go. If they make sense, it comes as a gift, a discovery.

Here, her poem. For me it does both – and many other things as well –

 

Infinitive

 

We make too much history.

 

With or without us

there will be the silence

and the rocks and the far shining.

 

But what we need to be

is, oh, the small talk of swallows

in evening over

dull water under willows.

 

To be we need to know the river

holds the salmon and the ocean

holds the whales as lightly

as the body holds the soul

in the present tense, in the present tense.

 

 

From her book “Sixty Odd”, her fifth collection of poems; given to me by my late friend, Carole Gale, who gave me many gifts while alive….and still does.

Cheever’s Preface

In the late 1970’s, several lifetimes ago, I was an unemployed screenwriter. No, make that: unemployed writer. Before my first attempts at screenwriting I had begun a novel I couldn’t figure out how to finish. I knew I needed to write. I also knew, among other things, it would be a good idea to figure out some way to pay the rent. Somehow, one winter – and winter in Southern California were never cold – I found myself traveling to the East Coast, to visit friends who had escaped from the overcrowded polluted bustle of the California urban rat race for an idyllic existence in a small Vermont town. It was freezing cold, snow blanketed the ground, the streets, the houses, the trees, everything. It was a different world. The transplanted friends were schoolteachers and had an appreciation for literature and words, so one night we found ourselves heading to the small local Library, to hear a local author read from one of his works. “Local” turned out to be a misnomer, as the author in question actually lived in New York state, in the town of Ossining, a few hours to the south.

The author and his golden retriever, Maisie, on the porch of his Ossining, New York, house in 1979

The library was relatively small. Hell, it was tiny. A few dozen people showed up.  Most seemed well-groomed, thoughtful, the kind of people who never miss their PBS Masterpiece Theater on Sunday nights. Very few under 40, only a handful, yours truly included, under 30. Then the author arrived.  I remembered a man who seemed old, older than the the lines that had etched their way into his forehead and around his eyes. Not a tall man.  He sat in front of us at a table with a book, a water glass, a pitcher of water and an ashtray. The ashtray seemed the most important accessory: it began to fill up with the butts of the unfiltered cigarettes he smoked, one after the other. But then he stopped smoking and began to read from a book of stories he had written.

The one he had chosen was about a bored man who lives in the suburbs and who decides, one day, on a whim, to relieve his crushing boredom by walking through all the back yards in his neighborhood….and swimming through the swimming pools that are in each and every one of them. As he does so he begins to learn some unpleasant truths about himself, his past and what dark truths and secrets his idyllic images of suburban life…may conceal.

The author’s voice was gravelly, he stopped to cough occasionally, at one point he read and smoked. But none of that made any difference any longer, to me, nothing mattered but the words, the way he was reading them, the story which was pulling me in. An extraordinary tale told with extraordinary language and read in what I can only describe as an extraordinary manner by the man who had written it.

His name, as I discovered at the end of the evening, was John Cheever.

In my consummate ignorance at the time, I had heard of John Cheever, seen his name in Book Reviews and occasionally in the New Yorker, I had seen his novels in bookstores but….I had never read one word he had written.

John fucking Cheever. An author who has been called “the Chekhov of the suburbs”. A writer whose public acclaim – best seller-dom and critical praise including a Pulitzer Prize and the National Medal for Literature – were equalled only by his internal demons, his alcoholism, his suicidal depression, his complex bisexual relationships in an era of overtly anti-gay prejudices. It was obvious to me that the man I saw reading that night had been through the wringer – he didn’t just write about the darkness and dualities of human nature, he lived them. Breathed them. And smoked them.

People, myself included, talk about amazing concerts or performances they have been to. A month ago, visiting friends in Southern California, I saw jazz pianist extraordinaire Keith Jarrett perform flights of brilliant improvisation that are hard to believe unless one experiences them in person. Light years beyond listening to the same song on your iPod, your stereo, your laptop or your smartphone. Listening to John Cheever read that night was the same. An amazing experience that, as it went on, part of your brain realizes how incredible it is, what is happening, to hear a master storyteller bringing each word to slow inexorable life, complete with coughing fits, cigarette breaks, and all. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Now, years later, I can shut my eyes and find myself in the old wood-panelled library again, inhaling the second-hand smoke of Cheever’s unfiltered cigarettes (Chesterfields? Camels? Lucky Strikes? I can’t fucking remember). And powerless to resist the grip of the words, or where they were (are) taking me.

Cheever understands the duality of things.  Outer decorum, inner corruption. Light and dark. Flesh and spirit.  Deep deep pain. And joy, sweetness…ecstasy.

He’s worth reading.  And then reading again.  Revisiting.  I’m currently re-reading a collection of stories he published in 1978. Four years before his death, from cancer, in 1982.  One of those stories is the one he read that night, “The Swimmer”. Subsequently filmed in 1968, with Burt Lancaster in the title role. But right now the part that gets me is not the stories, but the Preface he wrote to introduce the book.  As we all know, a preface is an introduction to a book or a literary work, written by the book’s author.  Some prefaces are anecdoctal. Some strive for profundity. Some are just plain fucking boring.  But John Cheever’s Preface is so cool that it’s worth reading. And rereading.

And then thinking about.

Here it is –

 

     It would please me if the order in which these stories are published had been reversed and if I appeared first as an elderly man and not as a young one who was truly shocked to discover that genuinely decorous men and women admitted into their affairs erotic bitterness and even greed. The parturition of a writer, I think, unlike that of a painter, does not display any interesting alliances to his masters. In the growth of a writer one finds nothing like the early Jackson Pollock copies of the Sistine Chapel paintings with their interesting cross-references to Thomas Hart Benton. A writer can be seen clumsily learning to walk, to tie his necktie, to make love, and to eat his peas off a fork. He appears much alone and determined to instruct himself. Naïve, provincial in my case, sometimes drunk, sometimes obtuse, almost always clumsy, even a selected display of one’s early work will be a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.

     These stories date from my Honorable Discharge from the Army at the end of World War II. Their order is, to the best of my memory, chronological and the most embarrassingly immature pieces have been dropped. These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner of the stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like “the Cleveland Chicken,” sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are. The constants that I look for in this sometimes dated paraphernalia are a love of light and a determination to trace some moral chain of being. Calvin played no part at all in my religious education, but his presence seemed to abide in the barns of my childhood and to have left me with some undue bitterness.

     Many of these stories first appeared in The New Yorker, where Harold Ross, Gus Lobrano, and William Maxwell gave me the inestimable gifts of a large, discerning, and responsive group of readers and enough money to feed the family and buy a new suit every other year. “This is a family magazine, God damn it,” Ross used to yell at any hint at the stirring of erotic drives. He was not himself a decorous man and when he discovered that I would jump whenever he used the word “fuck” across the lunch table he would frequently say “fuck” and watch me jump. His lack of decorum was, in fact, pronounced, and if, for example, he anticipated a dull poker companion, he would go into the bathroom and return with his ears stuffed with toilet paper. This sort of behavior would never, of course, appear in the magazine. But he taught one, I like to think, that decorum is a mode of speech, as profound and connotative as any other, differing not in content but in syntax and imagery. Since the men he encouraged ranged as widely as Irwin Shaw and Vladimir Nabokov, he seems to have done more good than anything else.

     Any precise documentation of one’s immaturity is embarrassing, and this I find from time to time in the stories, but this embarrassment is redeemed for me by the memories the stories hold for me of the women and men I have loved and the rooms and corridors and beaches where the stories were written. My favorite stories are those that were written in less than a week and that were often composed aloud. I remember exclaiming: “My name is Johnny Hake!” This was in the hallway of a house in Nantucket that we had been able to rent cheaply because of the delayed probating of a will. Coming out of the maid’s room in another rented house I shouted to my wife: “This is a night when kings in golden mail ride their elephants over the mountains!” The forbearance of my family has been inestimable. It was under the canopy of a Fifty-ninth Street apartment house that I wrote, aloud, the closing of “Good-bye, My Brother.” “Oh, what can you do with a man like that?” I asked, and closed by saying, “I watched the naked women walk out of the sea!” “You’re talking to yourself, Mr. Cheever,” the doorman said politely, and he too–correct, friendly, and content with his ten-dollar tip at Christmas–seems a figure from the enduring past.

That’s it.

Cheever wrote: “Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly that we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing.” 

Prophetic words.  “A world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive.”  The New Millenium isn’t just coming, it’s here. And it’s changing, every day, every hour…every minute.

And storytellers – those who continue writing ‘fiction’ – are risking big-time that the vision they ‘serve’ – the vision which guides each of us – may come to nothing.

Cheever says it’s the risk you have to take.

Samuel Beckett says a more nihilistic darker version of the same thing:  “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Try again.

Fail again.

Try again.

And keep on trying.  Even though it may come to nothing.