9.29.2015

On discovering Lola Ridge while visiting Terese Svoboda's website; or, Poetry, Personal Loss, and Remembrance



ALTITUDE


I wonder
how it would be here with you,
where the wind
that has shaken off its dust in low valleys
touches one cleanly,
as with a new-washed hand,
and pain
is as the remote hunger of droning things,
and anger
but a little silence
sinking into the great silence.

~ Lola Ridge from Sun-Up and Other Poems (1920)


Lola Ridge was a poet and activist; an advocate for immigrants, women, and the working class. I'd never heard of her until this afternoon, after spending some time on Terese Svoboda's website.  Svoboda, an accomplished poet, novelist, and activist herself, will publish Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet in early 2016, and I can't wait to read it, to discover more about this remarkable woman and artist, Lola Ridge.

Terese Svoboda is a remarkable author herself. A Drink Called Paradise remains for me one of the most memorable -- and poetic -- novels I've ever read. Juxtaposing the tragic consequences of a nation's shameful history of atomic testing in the South Pacific with a bereaved mother's rumination on the loss of her son, it's searing images are indeed as luminous as the sun.  It was the last novel I read and reviewed before the sudden and unexpected death of my own daughter, in late December, 2013.  The pent-up grief that Clare shared in A Drink Called Paradise as well as the collective grief of the Pacific Islanders Clare encountered there, still recovering -- or, rather, reeling -- from the covered-up crimes of the United States government committed against them over half-a-century ago, naturally melded into my individual experience of grief over my daughter, so that her loss and the memory of it is inextricably intertwined in my remembrance and reading of Terese Svoboda's novel. Svoboda just feels to me like the right poet to tackle the life of the forgotten poet Lola Ridge.  Thanks largely to Svoboda's soon-to-be released biography, I suspect Lola Ridge isn't going to remain forgotten for long. I know it'll be a long, long time, before I forget Terese Svoboda or A Drink Called Paradise. . . .

Here's another poem by Lola Ridge from Sun-Up and Other Poems:

MOTHER


Your love was like moonlight
turning harsh things to beauty,
so that little wry souls
reflecting each other obliquely
as in cracked mirrors...
beheld in your luminous spirit
their own reflection,
transfigured as in a shining stream,
and loved you for what they are not.

You are less an image in my mind
than a luster
I see you in gleams
pale as star-light on a gray wall...
evanescent as the reflection of a white swan
shimmering in broken water.


And another, this one from The Ghetto, and Other Poems (1918):

A MEMORY


I remember
The crackle of the palm trees
Over the mooned white roofs of the town...
The shining town...
And the tender fumbling of the surf
On the sulphur-yellow beaches
As we sat... a little apart... in the close-pressing night.

The moon hung above us like a golden mango,
And the moist air clung to our faces,
Warm and fragrant as the open mouth of a child
And we watched the out-flung sea
Rolling to the purple edge of the world,
Yet ever back upon itself...
As we...

Inadequate night...
And mooned white memory
Of a tropic sea...
How softly it comes up
Like an ungathered lily.


9.19.2015

Opening Remarks on Literary Outlaw: The Life And Times of William S. Burroughs by Ted Morgan



Have I mentioned I'm reading Ted Morgan's stellar bio Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs?  What an unusual life (to put it blandly, 'cos I can't think at the moment of an extraordinary way to put it) this sick -- meaning good and bad -- cat lived, and I've only gotten up to the time in the biography his first novel Junky came out.  And then Queer. Two books, whose titles themselves, encapsulate Burrough's life both literally and figuratively up to that point.  Junky got him a $1000 advance, which was right around the same time that Kerouac, his younger buddy, got the same for The Town and the City.  And even though Junky sold over 100,000 copies, the book gave Burroughs no fame.  Fame would come much later, after infamy.

Longest job Burroughs ever held was being an exterminator.  And from his experiences there later came, of course, Exterminator! Lasted eight months as an exterminator.  Long time for a man who was afraid of insects. Failed as a farmer too.  Tried his hand at cotton, carrots, peas, marijuana, in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  Busts all. Tried being a small time dope dealer, but found he was too prolific a user to have much use for selling.  His $200/month "stipend" from his society parents in St. Louis kept him alive, afloat, adrift. Luckiest thing that ever happened to him, as a then nascent writer, was accidentally shooting and killing his wife, Joan Vollmer. Admitted he'd of never become a writer (he was by then in his late thirties) had it not been for Joan's bizarre early death at twenty-seven.  Her death and the resultant guilt he did only thirteen days in a Mexican jail for haunted him the rest of his life -- an understatement, but how else is there to state it? -- and "writing down the facts" in book after book for almost the next half century, was his sole, shaky, redemption.  Hard for a man with a fiendish predilection for heroin and for guns to find redemption in the sitcom-Mom milk-and-cookies vibe of 1950s U.S. of America.  Good thing Burroughs wasn't a moralist, like so many conventional writers of his time, but instead a self-described "factualist," for being about the facts, and solely about the facts, M'am, may have saved him from committing suicide. . . .

Way out in the boonies of New Mexico, the teenage Burroughs attended a boarding school that later became the birthplace (after the school was eminent-domained by the government who'd been spying out the isolated locale for years) of the atomic bomb.  Los Alamos.  The atomic bomb and junk.  The juxtaposition of the two Burroughs relied on in his later fiction.  His grandfather was the inventor of the adding machine; hence his family's fortunes.  Burroughs graduated from Harvard and could recite entire scenes of Shakespeare even before he enrolled.  The chronically unemployed Burroughs would recite Shakespeare to his lifelong pals Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in Ginsberg's Columbia dorm room, where Ginsberg was an undergrad at the time.  Burroughs wanted to work, he just wasn't good at it -- even attempting to get in as a soldier on the action of WWII, but he failed at that too, and failed, thankfully for the literary world and for Burroughs, before he could get enlisted and killed.  Everywhere Burroughs went: Los Alamos, New York, St. Louis, New Orleans, Mexico City, the police were invariably after him.  He wore the threads of his society heritage--he was a suit-and-tie beatnik.  He was an oddity among the oddball beats, whom he mentored when he was off junk for a spell.  He was a father figure to many.  Beloved.  Vilified.  Enigma of the enigmatic.  All this, and I've barely begun to scratch the surface of his writing career, so well documented by Ted Morgan, who writes of Burroughs in a similar endearing style and sensibility as Burroughs, with a streetwise Shakespearean prose that's as earthy as it is erudite.  Literary Outlaw was written in an elegant inspired voice as factual and anti-establishment as the literary outlaw it chronicles . . . .

9.05.2015

Mickey (Dis)Mantle(d); or, How Not to Teach Your Kid the Value of Priceless Baseball Cards




It's 1985 and a baseball card "convention" came to our local Lakewood Mall.  I was sixteen and while maybe I was a little old to still be interested in baseball cards, I had a good eye for them (in part, thanks to those bulky paperback Topps Baseball Card Price Guides I'd regularly get); a good eye for cards that had bona fide value and for rookie cards that were currently trending upward, such as Tony Gwynn's and Wade Bogg's cards at the time.  My Dad, learning of the baseball card convention, gives me fifty bucks and says "go find us an investment".  So off I went, with my newly minted California driver's license, in my Mom's 1977 Oldsmobile station wagon (with its rear seats reversed so that if you sat there and were anything like me you felt self-conscious with all those drivers and passengers in other cars staring directly at you while you awkwardly averted your eyes) to the Lakewood Mall.  A mall, in fact, named for a cookie cutter city built largely to house McDonnell Douglas employees that Joan Didion wrote about in one of her particularly scathing New Yorker articles, "Trouble in Lakewood," covering the infamous "Spur Posse" scandal that rocked the community and made national headlines in the early 1990s.

Once I was at the convention, it didn't take long to find Dad his investment: A 1961 Topps MVP Mickey Mantle card, offered for sale at $55.00. Not his regular playing card, mind you, which would've priced me out of the ball park completely, but a lesser valued MVP card that only spotlighted Mantle's MVP seasons of 1956 and '57 (no year-by-year statistics on the back, in other words).  Looking forlornly at the guy sitting behind the table with his cards displayed before him side by side, I asked, "Will you take $50 for that Mickey Mantle card?  It's all I have."  He proceeded to squint and slowly went sideways with his head and the hiss I heard of indrawn breath through his open mouth of clenched teeth was communicating, I feared, "can't do that, Son"; but then he let out his breath, sighed, and nodded 'yes,' and never said a word as we consummated our business transaction.

Years go by.  Every few months my Dad would inquire "so how much is our card worth now?" and year by year it steadily, incrementally, rose.  In 1991, when baseball card collecting was at its zenith, and some dealers at what amounted to like a Card Exchange were getting rich buying and selling little rectangles of four-colored cardboard, the value of our MVP Mickey Mantle broke the $100 barrier for the first time. Not bad, doubling it's value in six years.  Better than a lot of stocks, especially these rollercoaster days.  Soon thereafter, however, and not long after a Minnesota Twin shortstop and second baseman faked out Lonnie Smith in the most exciting seven game World Series I'd yet seen to date (did Jack Morris really pitch a ten or eleven inning complete game shutout, that game seven?!), real life intruded, college came, and then adulthood, and later marriage, and later kids, and yada yada yada, that for about a good decade-and-a-half I completely forgot about that Mickey Mantle card -- and I guess my Dad did too.  Time came when I was working for a boss who had a bunch of boys, and they all played little league baseball.  I went to their games. Found out they were (of course) also into baseball cards.

Baseball cards!  I remember them!

So I went looking for my old cards boxed somewhere in the garage and found them.  Showed my boss's boys my Topps MVP Mickey Mantle card that I had long ago bought secured in-between see-through covers, the hard plastic plates screwed together so the card couldn't slip out and be diminished my moisture, heat, and the acidity of skin.  My bosses boys were so wowed by it, by something that old, I guess (old and historic to them) that I thought, yeah, this card is pretty cool, so what good is it doing just being boxed up in the dark?  And so in keeping it out I priced it out and by that time, around 2007-2008, it's value, in mint condition (which mine was in), was around $250.  I thought it would be cool to display on our bookshelves, and so set Mickey Mantle, face out, leaning back at a slight angle against the hardcover, Mylar-protected spines, of novels by Thomas Pynchon, A.M. Homes, Robert Coover, David Foster Wallace, et. al. . . . Turns out, I wasn't the only one at home interested in the card.  Our adopted three-year-old son, Jordan, whom I wrote briefly about several years ago in my review of Walter the Farting Dog, was also interested in it.  Keenly interested, in fact.  So interested that one day when I got home from work and walked inside, I soon stared in abject horror at the floor by the bookshelves and screeched "What the f*&k happened!"  Oh God, it was so gruesome and simultaneously sad.  I almost cried.  For there lie poor Mickey Mantle, amidst shards of shattered plastic, torn in two.

"Jordan!"

And so I learned a valuable lesson in child rearing that day; learned that it's not wise leaving collectibles low to the floor for the naturally inquisitive fingers of a three-year-old who lacks both the wisdom and dexterity to handle gently your prized baseball memorabilia, and so hastily moved the 1983 Topps rookie Tony Gwynn card I still had, and the Fernando Valenzuela bobble-head I had, whom I still fondly think of whenever ABBA's "Fernando" comes on in a mall elevator in Lakewood (or in a mall elevator anywhere, whenever I have to unfortunately be there in the stupid idiotic mall in the first place because my otherwise lovely wife insists on shopping), who was apparently an eyewitness to Mickey Mantle's dismantling and dismemberment by Jordan (I mean look just look, will you, at Fernando's eyes to the right, see how sad and even disturbed they seem to appear?) -- who was the only damn Yankee I ever loved, Mickey Mantle, that is -- up to a higher shelf beyond the reach of Jordan's curious outstretched arms.

So long, 1961 Topps MVP Mickey Mantle Card. May you rest in peace.