Brain-dead and melancholic, seasick yet still docked: I can't help but collapse in the evenings, shut myself off through the day and indulge autumn in all its built-in bleak hope and satisfying sense of disappointment. My favourite season. An easy obsession: This Charming Charlie. Brill.
Friday, September 25, 2015
On a bitter cold morning in January 1939 Auden and Isherwood sailed into New York harbour on board the SS Champlain. After coming through a blizzard off New-foundland the ship looked like a wedding cake and the mood of our two heroes was correspondingly festive and expectant. On their first visit to New York the previous year Auden had sometimes been in tears, telling Isherwood no one would ever love him and that he would never have any sexual success. True to form on this second visit it was Isherwood who already had a date lined up: Vernon, ‘a beautiful blond boy, about eighteen, intelligent with very sexy legs’.
I thought of those writers and their blonds. We had arrived, too, not in New York but in Denmark, and while no blond had been prearranged they would soon be everywhere, sprouting from the fecund earth like beautiful weeds. We were festive and expectant but also dazed and confused. Now landed, we waited to be joined by our travelling companions, who had flown on a separate plane. Crumpled like hastily packed cotton and faded like something washed at a temperature too hot by ten degrees, J. and I ranged around the wooden-floored airport, disproportionately put out by a two and a half hour delay. In the waiting area, a mystery parcel had been left beneath a chair. A pleasant-faced female guard stood by it patiently until additional personnel arrived to inspect it. Unlike a lot of places, in which bystanders would freak the fuck out, everyone just seemed slightly bemused. A boy in a vest climbed up the stairwell and watched from above, pulling on the banister like a would-be monkey. Suffering from the type of hunger that emerges from the confusion of travel, a kissing cousin to the annoying hunger that boredom induces, we stopped into a convenience shop — a WHSmiths, but with hot food — and searched the shelves, unfamiliar with the clicky-clacky brand names and pricing in krone currency. I wound up getting a big yoghurt drink called Cheasy; J. relented to the charms of a massive bag of crisps. There, in this Smiths without a fourth wall, facing the airport corridor peopled by, as Auden might say, "travellers in their last distress", though, this being Copenhagen, nobody seemed fussed at all, we stood alongside our first, and perhaps most highly achieved, Danish blond, about twenty years old. He was the kind of blond that makes you feel guilty because Hitler would have fancied him, too. In Auden's working notes for his poem 'The Crisis', also called 'They', a character is described first simply as a boy, then a fair boy, and finally a blond one. In the final edit: …the blond boy bites eagerly into the shining apple. The Danish boy grinned. His friend whispered to him, and maybe it was because they knew I was staring. And if I was Frank O'Hara I might have thought: All of a sudden all the world is blonde. But I was also gazing at the Cheasy yoghurt on the refrigerated shelves behind him. Sometimes I crave yoghurt. And of course I'm still thinking of blonds. And I could add, as Frank salaciously did: Yes, and what comes out of me is blonde. Those shocking and holy last words. In Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara, Joe LeSueur writes, "As elsewhere in Frank's poems, 'blond' is feminized, which is odd inasmuch as he's almost invariably referring to blond males. I asked him about this once but I don't remember what he said, probably because he offered no sound reason for his aberrant spelling." LeSueur continues, "Here's my own admittedly oddball explanation: in Frank's scheme of things, there is something so special about being blond-haired — mythic, glamorous, sexy, anomalous — that the word is given that piquant e in order to draw attention to it, and to enshrine and elevate it." Grinning and thankful, the boy was handed a mighty, bent sausage by the man behind the counter. The man smiled, too. And as the boy leaned sideways into the perspiring pink meat (again, Auden, from elsewhere: bending a beautiful head), I was tempted for a moment to ask if I could take his photo. I figured the unexpected request would dazzle him into obliging. It could be the start of a whole tumblr, themed on blonds eating sausages. This one would could have a cheeky caption like hot frank ravaged by freshly baked Danish. Is it outrageous to be randy in such a plain, unassuming place as this, a city where airports have wooden floors? Copenhagen's allures are simple: it is a perfect lightweight jacket, a throat cleared with a gentle cough, a candle flickering. Now I'm thinking up these ridiculous lines: The boys are as smooth as buttermilk. I don't need a key to the city, I need a spoon. Everything I am prickled into putting into verse, at the sight of a smooth arm, dusted faintly with golden hair, seems to come with an automatic strikethrough. And then, the aromatics: I began to notice, on train carriages and barstools, the fragrance the young men emit. Verlaine wrote (ils ne sentent pas l'ambre et fleurent de santé) of lads that smelled not of amber ointments but of pure and simple health. In Copenhagen, they whiff like the warm stream of air behind skateboards, or of the earthiness of a stone upturned in the forest. As a matter of fact, amber is considered 'the Danish gold', but I'm considering the murky blond colour not the perfume. Those amber boys are as slender and sturdy as bicycle wheels. They are built with handlebar shoulders. They cycle over bridges, upright but relaxed, not thrust forward anxiously as they are on London terrain. Copenhagen bathed itself in a welcome late September sun, a place of not just blonds but cobbles and bricks, of scalloped wool blankets and hand tattoos. The city stands up straight, looks at the water with calm. They are quiet lakes, welcoming like an open palm, and when we returned J. confided to me, I miss Copenhagen.
Wednesday, September 16, 2015
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone: However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards However we follow the printed directions of sex However the family is photographed under the flagstaff— Beyond all this, the wish to be alone. Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs: Despite the artful tensions of the calendar, The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites The costly aversion of the eyes from death— Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.
…that have been resonating strongly in my current work:
Slyvia Plath: "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York."
Cat Power: "When we were teenagers, we wanted to be the sky."
Philip Larkin: "The trees are coming into leaf / Like something almost being said."
Friday, September 4, 2015
Speech & debate class was survival of the fittest; it was libertarian. It was in that classroom, kept refrigerator-cold and smelling suffocatingly of chalk and Mrs. K’s mawkish perfume, that I first heard the name Ayn Rand. Paperback editions of The Fountainhead, pretentiously thick, were carried by boys just slightly older but already debate champions; they were, it seemed, what is called fiercely intelligent: I took this to mean intelligence that precluded empathy. The debate boys tended to crossover from the water polo team; they were winners all round, and they gloated and some of them gleamed. They also heckled and made a show of stifling the laughter immanently occasioned by a proximity to the weak. They spoke frequently to each other about Nietzsche and Superman, or so I heard it, and the truculent way in which they bandied Nietzsche’s name made me think I might as well being hearing ‘Nazi’. At the top of the class was a wickedly, extremely gothic girl called Vic who was a certified genius, a member of Mensa, with a proclivity for fiercely intelligent speech. She let her hand travel like a prowling serpent up the leg of Jack’s shorts. He was blond and bigheaded, a square, intrusive head, alpha from the noggin down, that physiognomy of the uncoy, cocky and rude. That’s what I thought of him and Kurt as they snorted with laughter. What?, I cried finally, in a feeble confusion between whisper, quip, hiss and whine. It just came out like a gulp. You have a frog’s face, Kurt spit. And your voice, said Jack, almost reasonable in tone, sounds like Kermit. And then I didn’t want to be Kermit the frog even though he is the lead role. I wondered why Vic, a genius and a goth, would incline to entangle with these bullying baboons, but here she was with her hand up the leg of Jack’s shorts, delighting in his inner thigh — so hairy! — and I supposed it was understandable that his musculature, coated in blond fur, was enough to make her a Nietzschean, too. Everything became about the inner thigh. Then she’d put her hand on his butt. A great ass, she shouted.
I sat with two bright stars from my year, Wendy and Kristie, each dazzling, more brilliant than fierce in their intelligence. Kristie was a part-time model. We had an ongoing debate; she thought my interest in Andy Warhol was unworthy. But Keith Haring, she declared, is great. Wendy was already at a stage where she’d had her day, was getting over it, had that look in her eye of someone who would transfer away. She was clearly itchy and rebellious, had previously served as class president, was now a voice of dissent. She pointed out that Mrs. K appeared to hiccup quite a bit, was prone to slur between her tight lips, and was basically held together by the pounds of foundation on her face and the bottle of whatever that she kept in her top left drawer. Mrs. K loved the water polo boys, too; glanced at them with pride. Her husband drove a van that took them to statewide debates, where they won trophies which she stored in a glass case with her own from back in the day. She’d been the best. Her pancake is so thick I could scratch my name in her face, said Wendy. One day Mrs. K was taken ill — it was known to happen — and in front of us stood a male substitute in her place. Mrs. K, Wendy shouted in glee, you forgot to put your makeup on today! I liked the way her quick wit involved an aspect of remove, that it was the absurdity in absence that made a joke. I knew she must be clever and while the substitute gave a vaguely blank stare I burst with laughter audibly. Walking into that classroom was always to be steadied for surprise: Mrs. K may or may not be there, may be borderline fall down drunk, goths and water polo players may be engaged in foreplay, the boys may have decided unconsciously between them that it was to be a particularly antagonistic day. Towards me.
The desks in the room were arranged into two sections: us younger ones sat in the center looking forward, while the more senior students took the sides looking in, as if in a jury box or balcony; it was an architecture that facilitated their commentary — Mrs. K through a simple orchestration of thirty seats had created a peanut gallery. And I was sat on the aisle, just across from their seats, from which they could throw a variety of inventions of cruelty on paper at me. Sometimes nothing was written on the paper, but rather it was torn up, chewed deliberately, made into small, wet balls that were spat at me through a pen hollowed into a tube.
I walked in after lunch, already reluctant and hollowed with the anticipation of attentions I did not seek. On the chalkboard, writ large so as to take up the whole centre of the space: DEAR JEREMY, THANKS FOR THE GOOD TIME LAST NIGHT. LOVE, JOHN. If only. I thought the dignified thing to do was to simply take my seat. Or, really: I could not muster the power to move forward and erase it myself. Wendy and Kristie had not arrived yet. I looked at Vic. Her white powder, nose ring and massive crimped hair became not devilish and terrifying but the costume of some kind of matronly saint. Her eyes fell, as if for the first time, upon me. Could you…?, I started. I felt sure that in the storybook version I wouldn’t have had to ask. The prompting, however unliterary, worked and Vic finally took her cue and walked up to the chalkboard and erased the message. Kurt groaned in disapproval, awww-ww-wwwwww, as if she was spoiling his fun. She gave the boys a vague reprimand as she withdrew. … come on, guys. Chalk is a powdery thing; also weirdly sticky, also disseminated every which way so that its troops’ total extermination is implacable. Especially in the constant flux of a classroom; especially when the supermen are staring down a petite genius goth at the ring of the final bell. Because of these various circumstances and physical principles, the words were erased but not gone; the message, faded and blurred, remained. DEAR JEREMY. I was weirdly and unfortunately the star of the day.
I glanced over at a purse-lipped, nearly smirking Mrs. K. She’d had her reservations about me since my first speech, anyway, in which I presented the reasons why the death penalty was unenlightened, unfair, blind, unforgiving, untrustworthy and ineffective today. You were meant to come up with a set of points, like a written outline, but in order to deliver them verbally, you needed gestures. For instance, your hand may allude to each point as being on a different plane, each of them existing somewhere in the space to the right of you. Kristie was very good at these moves, being a part-time model. I tried. I’d use my hand to show point one at the top, and then two, three, four descending. The audience was meant to visualise your argument, as if it did actually exist before them physically. One, two, three, four bullet points descending; four reasons why the death penalty was cruel. Proof that innocents had been killed, that the program of its implementation is racist and classist, and that it doesn’t deter crime but rather creates a cycle of violence. I thought the point of debate was to derive a reasoning that would override any subjective notion of a moral imperative. Secretly, though, I was guided by my own idea of a heroic morality: that it is the opposite of gallant to cry a tooth for a tooth. Mom would show me a magazine called Highlights when I was a kid. I loved it: ‘a literary magazine for children’. We’d read it page by page but always I wanted to race ahead to the comic strip of Sir Goofus and Sir Gallant. Two options would be given for actions that could be taken in various situations; the correct response always lied in the choice that was self-effacing, benevolent, sensitive, not cruel. Which one? mom would say, and we’d chime together: Gallant! Then be gallant, mom would say again, as if it wasn’t just fun but moreover that she believed in me and that I was capable of imparting some kind of great truth. Then Morrissey, a man I thought must be fiercely intelligent, enough to be wisecracking, dissatisfied, even called misanthropic, a word I had to mull over and wonder whether was even possible and in his case true, came out with those lyrics: it’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate; it takes strength to be gentle and kind. And then: it takes guts to be gentle and kind. In the instant when Vic walked to the front of the classroom and erased the words GOOD TIME LOVE JOHN, I thought she must have guts, be gallant, a warrior against the cruel. But as she walked back, the words smeared but not gone, laughed a bit with the boys, chastised them as if frustrated but almost lovingly, I sat bare — stripped by the knowledge that her act had taken my own prompting. She didn’t save me. She just lent a hand so I didn’t drown, as if one can’t help but put out a hand to a drowning man, as if that’s just instinct. I was already treading. The humiliation was stratified: I didn’t erase the words myself. She’d done it — but at my prompting. I was totally naked. Mrs. K settled into her seat, just an old woman’s wig and dentures and impasto paint in between. Her face is like a cake left out in the rain!, Wendy would whisper. All of the rebellious words in the classroom just felt like so many unheard grumblings of prisoners left in discomfort on a hard floor. All the words said in this classroom, words like constitutional, communism, ethical, extinction and also just transitional phrases like statistics show, as is evident and in conclusion, they were all terrible, conspiratorial words; arrows pointed at the unsure, at me. With bullet points. The words were not further erased: DEAR JEREMY and some others remained. Would anyone need to write anything on the board today, which would further wipe the message away?
I briefly pictured this fictive John as a handsome boy from another school. It was almost as if I was briefly thrilled that John wrote me this message — telling me, the world, that he was happy that last night we’d pressed our bodies together. He was able, ran track and field; his arms protected me. I felt lonely to know he didn’t exist. Mrs. K pursed her lips; nearly smirked. Each second for the rest of the class — 50 minutes, so 3000 of them — was blasted with a searing heat, as if so acute it could sting. Where did the heat come from? Did it emanate from Jack, from God, from my own inner being? Mrs. K’s top drawer was kept locked, could only be opened with her key. Did the heat come from Mrs. K, and did she ignite the fire with that bottle of booze? The whole world felt greenish grey, or grey green. A chalkboard, a prison cell, the essence of booze. The room was a cough coming out of the malevolent, overly made up Mrs. K. The room was as cold as I was hot, as if its wiley, frigid sting was intended to make my inner heat scorch even more, as with a fever — which I knew to make my skin crawl and my bedroom simultaneously grow and shrink. The air conditioning was in on it, too. Each time that the thin red hand on the clock ticked a second away, it was impossibly loud, sounded almost as if doubled, and fell, excruciatingly, just behind the beat of what I figured a second must be.