The Grand Canyon: A Poem

The Colorado River carves through two countries,
Seven states,
And half the history of the world.
They say it took seventeen million years
(What patience, what strength!)
To carve a line so deep you cannot see the bottom.
To think that you and I
Achieved the same feat
In a single day
(Our strength
Is of a different kind;
Our patience–
The kind that burns).
The gap between your shoulder, here against the pillow,
And my cheekbone, there
Looms dark and dense, a mile down at least,
So wide in places I cannot see the other side.
Unfathomable, this chasm that spans perhaps six inches
Of rumpled sheets, breath of cigarettes and whiskey,
Words dying on the vine.
I dare not plumb these depths.
This canyon I’ll leave for the geologists
And you on the other side.

Sleeping couple

 

Jarke Puczel Lovers

First image: Egon Schiele “Schlafendes Paar” (Sleeping Couple). Second Image: Jarke Puczel “Lovers”. First image chosen by me; second image chosen by Elena Makansi. 

 

Book Review: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

It’s been a long time since I read a science fiction novel–hell, any novel–that disturbed me in quite the way Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly did.

AScannerDarkly(1stEd)

Forget science fiction. This is literature. This is one of those books that proves that genre fiction can be as real, hard-hitting, and thought-provoking as literary fiction, any day of the week and then some.

A Scanner Darkly is a psychological thriller based on the premise of a near-future world where drug culture has permeated real culture to the point where the two are no longer distinguishable. The cops don’t know who the addicts are; the addicts don’t know who the cops are. Indeed, in the case of Dick’s protagonist, Bob Arctor/Fred, the addicts and the cops can sometimes be the very same person, and neither is aware of the other’s existence.

Substance D, Death, high-grade Death, mors ontologica, death of the spirit–this is the drug that has permeated the streets of L.A., and more specifically Orange County, in a world where hash is worth thousands of dollars and every drug in distribution is cut with meth, at least a little bit. But Death, high grade, that’s what everyone wants to get their hands on. So when Fred, a nark, an undercover narcotics agent, is told to start surveillance on Bob Arctor, an addict, possibly high-up in the distribution chain, for a potential large-scale drug bust, Fred, the nark, begins watching himself, Bob Arctor, on holographic recording cameras as Arctor deals, and drops, Substance D, Death.

Got it?

What no one has told Fred, the narcotics agent, is that Substance D has unique chemical properties if used over a long period of time in high quantities. Substance D has the ability to split the hemispheres of the brain so that they are no longer able to communicate with each other. Death kills communication between the hemispheres, rupturing the brain (and by extension, the personality) down the middle.

This is why, over the course of the book, Fred, the narcotics agent, loses his understanding of himself, Bob Arctor, the addict/dealer. As the two hemispheres of his brain diverge, Bob and Fred grow further and further apart, until they no longer recognize each other as the same person. What results is a tale of unraveling, a classic story of descent into madness in a retro-future setting that leaves no one untouched.

The beginning is yin-and-yang, a few funny stories with tragic endings about the stylish ways other addicts before Bob Arctor have gone out. The middle is funny enough that you almost forget you’re walking on the edge of a knife the whole time, waiting to see who will fall victim to the addiction and who, if anyone, will make it out. It’s funny in a dark way, because of that walk-the-knife thing, but also just in a funny way–parts of it are almost like watching a sketch comedy show, with all these burned out, coked up addicts with their various impairments sitting around trying to solve problems and communicate ideas. It’s funny in the way Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is funny. But then the end starts happening, and when you realize it’s happening it’s not funny anymore. And right at the end the knife goes in and there’s a  twist that fucks you up, and I’m still thinking about that twist and what it has to do with the real world, our world, and I probably will be for a while.

Not since Fight Club have I read such a visceral depiction of schizophrenia. Not since The Basketball Diaries have I seen such a devastating picture of a man mentally obliterated by a mind-altering substance. (Hint: I’ve never seen Requiem for a Dream. I know. I need to get on that.) And never in my life have I read an author’s afterward that made clear how intensely personal this work of fiction really is.

In subject matter (though not in writing style) A Scanner Darkly reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The two books both ask the question of how far humans will go for fun, for entertainment, and both come up with dangerous answers. Infinite Jest is, if anything, more hopeful. A Scanner Darkly, as the title implies, shows us that when we turn the mirror on ourselves, only madness lies within.

Recommended for anyone who likes philosophical questions about the nature of entertainment, addiction, and madness. Recommended for fans of science fiction and suspenseful crime novels. Recommended, generally.

Devotional: Dance of Life

“Weathered faces crusted with white paste, they hunch like specters over the fire stones and blackened pot; perhaps they will rise and, in dead silence, perform the slow dance of the sennin–wild mountain sages of the ancient days in China and Japan who give no formal teaching but redeem all beings by the very purity of their enlightenment.

The sennin are a favorite subject of the great Zen painters, and sometimes their dance of life is staged against a landscape copied from these paintings, as if to suggest that such free beings perceive a master work in all of nature. Kanzan is studying a scroll while Jittoku leans easily on a broom; when the painting comes to life, the sennin begin the steps of a strange dance.

Soon Kanzan pauses, stands apart, gazing away into infinity. Jittoku, much moved, lifts his hands in an attitude of prayer and circles Kanzan with simple ceremony, kneeling beside him and lifting his gaze in reverent expectancy. Becoming aware of him, Kanzan inclines his head in acquiescence and kneels with dignity beside Jittoku. Together they open the scroll and hold it before them; the audience cannot see what is written, can only watch as the sennin read silently together. Now the two are struck by a perfect phrase, and they pause in the same instant to regard each other; the power of the revelation lifts them to their feet as they read on, eagerly nodding. Soon they finish, sigh, and turn away into the dance; for a moment, the scroll’s face comes into view. It is pure white, void, without the smallest mark. Kanzan rolls it with great attention as Jittoku, smiling himself, retrieves the broom.

Now Jittoku brings wine, but in his transport, he is holding the flagon upside down; the wine is gone. Not caring he refills it from the stream, and the sennin are soon intoxicated on this pure water of high mountains. Kanzan must be supported in the dance, and for a time it seems that the two might sink away into a drunken sleep. But they are summoned by the sublime song of a bird, and complete the dance by resuming the attitudes seen in the painting. Kanzan seems to smile, while Jittoku, regarding the audience for the first time, laughs silently, with all his heart. Before the audience can grasp what this might mean, the screen is drawn in a swift rush; there is only silence and the empty curtain.”

Uncredited - double exposure Ed Fairburn

 

Quote from Peter Matthiesson, The Snow Leopard. First image: Uncredited. Originally posted (as far as I can tell) in black and white by on chharliee.tumblr.com. Color layers unknown. Second image: Ed Fairburn, “Deutschland” Pencil on map.  

 

Devotional: Goodbye

“Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.” – Elizabeth Alexander

“I’ve never really said goodbye to anyone.” – KSR

glitch
Image credit: Fiore Rosso, “Frequency 68, Hill 60″

Devotional: Fear

"muro8.b" by Hyuro, street artist

I am afraid
of so many things
I cannot count them all.
like failure, for instance
there are uncountably many ways to fail
and I am afraid of all of them.
or sadness
and its harsher twin, weakness.
I fear them both.
yes, darkness too
there’s a reason I don’t go out to howl
at the moon.
I am afraid of being alone
but I console myself: isn’t everyone?
I am afraid to be poor
and more afraid to be rich
because what would I do with all that money
except be unhappy?
(I am even
Afraid
Of myself
Most of the time.
What do I do with the empty spaces
Rattling around my brain?) 

"muro8.b" by Hyuro, street artistAlyssa Monks - Oil on Linen

mantra:

“The person who has not, in a moment of firm resolve, accepted — yes, even rejoiced in — what has struck him with terror — he has never taken possession of the full, ineffable power of our existence.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

First image: muro8.b by Hyuro, street artist. Second image: Alyssa Monk, oil on linen.

Book Review: Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

A few weeks ago I read a rave review of a book called Vermilion on NPR’s website. I am the type of person who typically believes everything NPR tells me, so when they wrote that the book is “a unique, hearty, thought-provoking romp that rewrites history with a vivacious flourish,” and described its protagonist as “one of the most delightful and charismatic fictional creations in recent memory,” I knew I had to pick it up.

Lou Merriwether, our protagonist, is introduced to us on the Amazon sell page as a “gunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp.” I’m already in love. What the sell page fails to mention, and what makes Lou even more interesting, is that she’s a girl who prefers to pass as a boy, and isn’t entirely sure that she doesn’t have romantic inclinations towards the fairer sex. All this is to say that, on paper, Lou meets and exceeds all of NPR’s ravings about her innovative, exceptionally realistic character.

With exceedingly high expectations, I loaded up my Kindle copy and dived in nose first.

The story is set in an alternative history – an 1860s setting where talking bears and seals (or sea lions? I can never remember the difference) intermingle with humans, where ghosts, zombies, vampires, and werewolves are as common as bounty hunters and diamond thieves. Discrimination, however, is no less common in Tanzer’s imagined history than it was in reality; the Chinese, the Native Americans are every bit as marginalized as they were in true history, with the bear community thrown in to boot. Lou’s journey takes her from relatively civilized San Francisco to the wilds of Wyoming and finally into Estes Park, Colorado, and the characters she meets at every stage of her journey are as wild and various as she is.

Were my expectations met? Yes, I suppose. I got what I paid for – a rollicking good ride, a brilliantly diverse cast, a page-turning mystery/adventure with as many magical elements as historical. Did I enjoy it? Aye, without a doubt – especially once Lou arrived in Wyoming, and the game was afoot, so to speak, it was impossible not to be drawn into the story.

Yet, something seemed lacking. Hard to put my finger exactly on what. Was I hoping, perhaps, for the occasional pretty turn of phrase? The book is hardly spare, but neither is it particularly descriptive. The language was perfectly competent, if unexciting – nothing to write home about. Was it, perhaps, the banality of the setting, especially once Lou reaches the Sanatorium, where the bulk of the mystery takes place? Hearing about the calisthenics classes, the other patients at the San, and the nitty-gritty of the healing regimes seemed to me utterly trivial, and while some of it was amusing, many more of these details seemed unimportant and distracting. Was I distracted, maybe, by the many twists and turns the plot took? I was, admittedly, sometimes a little confused – mystery isn’t my genre, and I may have been a bit out of practice in terms of following the many threads of the story from beginning to end.

And then there’s Lou’s journey from Wyoming to Estes Park with the strange and captivating Shai, who is perhaps the most prominent secondary character in the book. Lou comes close to falling in love with Shai, before they have a dramatic falling out and part ways shortly before Lou arrives at the Sanatorium. Shai crosses the line between ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ at leas a half-dozen times before the end of the book; it’s safe to say that for me, the end of his story was unsatisfactory, and left me wondering why I’d invested so much time in him to begin with.

But then, maybe Tanzer was just laying the groundwork for a sequel. The book certainly ends on a note that could mark the beginning of a series, and Lou would be one of the most interesting detective-adventurers to grace the bookshelves of that category. If Tanzer wrote and published a sequel, I’d devour it, not only for the joy of meeting Lou and her weird, weird world again, but also in the hopes that Tanzer’s second in the series will be better than her first.

All in all, four out of five stars – a wonderful read that sucked me in and charmed me, with a few elements that could be improved on in future installments. I hope Molly Tanzer does have a sequel up her sleeve; and I hope that if you’re a fan of my friend Jess West’s and J. Edward Paul’s “Weird West” genre of stories, you’ll check out Vermilion, because it not only falls into the category, it stands out.

Abstraction: Enlightenment

“‘We hear so much of the splendid stone bridge of Joshu, but I see nothing but a miserable old rustic log bridge.’
Joshu retorted, ‘You just see the rustic log bridge, and fail to see the stone bridge of Joshu.’
‘What is the stone bridge then?’
‘Horses go over it, asses go over it.'”
– Essays in Zen Buddhism, D. T. Suzuki

copgloves:</p><br />
<p>Delphine de Luppé<br /><br />
Caissons 3<br /><br />

Vertical landscape by Eiko Ojala, via Behance

Finding Zen at the top of a mountain is easy. Finding it in an alley in the rain is much harder. Only when you have achieved both are you truly enlightened. 

First image, Delphine de Luppe, “Caissons 3″. Second image, Eiko Ojala, “Vertical Landscape”. 

Abstraction: Revolution

Syria’s war has claimed more than 130,000 lives. At least two million of its citizens have fled into neighbouring states and more than two million others have been displaced within its borders. Industry and economy has long ground to a halt. Hope too has been on a relentless slide. Syria has six Unesco sites, representing at least 2,000 years of history. All have been damaged.”
– The Guardian

In Another Light

The Room of the Revolutionary 

“Here they talked of revolution
Here it was they lit the flame
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came”
– Les Miserables, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” 

Syria (2)

 

 

 

 

 


The Old Souk

– Top image: Ben Johnson, “The Room of the Revolutionary”. Bottom image: Stanley Greene Corbis, The Old Souk, Aleppo. 

[This is part of a new blog series in which I am attempting to incorporate art, music, and poetry into my own short works of prose or poetry. This particular series is titled ‘Abstraction’ because it is an attempt to add tangible, emotional meaning to an abstract idea or word.]

Abstraction: Identity

it does not matter
where i go
because you are not there

HYURO mural

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mantra: 

“The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.”

– Derek Walcott, Love After Love

– image by HYURO, a street artist. Click the image for a link to his work.

[This is part of a new blog series in which I am attempting to incorporate art, music, and poetry into my own short works of prose or poetry. This particular series is titled ‘Abstraction’ because it is an attempt to add tangible, emotional meaning to an abstract idea or word.]

Devotional: Multitudes

I contain
so much
of you 

Salvador Dali

“Who taught you to write in blood on my back? Who taught you to use your hands as branding irons?”
Jeanette Winterson (Written on the Body)

– Image: Salvador Dali, Figure with Drawers for a Four-Part Screen