Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Mr. Brain and the Dereliction of Beauty

By Ezra Pines

He followed the striking woman with his eyes, then his feet, and re-entered the mezzanine to Trunk Tower, so-named because the marvelous edifice was a vast elephant's head with its nose extending straight upwards, and with its great earflaps outspread to hold tennis courts, promenades, barbers, boutiques, groomers, and spit-and-polishers — all readily accessible to those who could pass through iron gates that were like ear-follicles between the ear-flaps and the mezzanine, and that, too, were like strainers that sifted the Beautiful from those otherwise.

"Who do you think that woman is?" said Mr. Brain.

"Not a palm tree," said his pocket philodendron.

"I think she must be important, with an office in the upper trunk."

"Nor do I think she is a potted cactus," said the plant, "although I suppose those strands across her head might be wilted spines."

"That is what caught my eye — so that I lost concentration while practicing my supercilious lip-twitches. How wonderfully red is her hair!"

"And not a horsetail. I know my horsetails. She would need a squishier carpet, to thrive as an equisetum."

"And how nicely she keeps it combed over that dome covering her brain! And how high a dome it is!"

"Yoo-hoo, Mr. Brain!"

"Do I know you?"

"And this is not a potted cactus, either — "

"Yes it is," Mr. Brain said to the leaves flowing from his lapel pocket.

" — though prickly," said the philodendron.

"Phil knows me," said the cactus.

"Mrs. Brain!" said Mr. Brain. "You choose the most revealing garb! Why are you here?"

"You know well that the beauty technicians will open the gates for you, but not for me. I must wait in the foyer."

"They keep you out because you need no improvement!"

"Liar," said the philodendron. "It is because you paid them to keep her out."

"Pay no heed to my houseplant!"

"My houseplant, you mean. Phil, you should come home with me."

A voice rang from the front desk — "Ms. Posh!" — at which the majestic redhead redirected her upturned nose in that direction.

"By the glowing curlicues of my parietal lobes," whispered Mr. Brain, "she is Trunk Tower's owner!"

"And with that cheap cranial dome," said Mrs. Brain, plucking Fred from his pocket with a spine. "I hear her nose has been shortened," she hissed, and departed.

He barely heard her.

##

Setting out on his first date with Ms. Posh, Mr. Brain learned that she was a simulacrum of the original, although no one knew exactly which one among the simulacra was the original Ms. Posh. This particular Ms. Posh admitted it might well be she. It seemed in keeping with her tastes that she agreed to ride the pride of Trunk Tower, a roller-coaster that took dives through amusement tunnels giving views of immigrants sweating under a hot sun, hampered in their labors by huge wallets in their pockets stuffed with Corporate America's hardly earned cash; homeless people being turned away from emergency rooms, while insurance peddlers hovered overhead in luxury helicars; and Kansas farmers driving immense corn-harvesters with hammer-and-sickle license plates.

Mr. Brain cried "Oh!" and then "Ah!" — not at the thrilling sights, but at the facial contortions Ms. Posh displayed as the rushing air from the screeching railcar pushed her features into pouts, horrendous frowns, cheek-flappings, chin-furrowings, bullfrog-bulgings, and eyebrow-double-golden-archings, while her tongue wiggled between her pulled-back lips and added a warble to her shouts and screams. In his life he had seen nothing quite so stunningly gorgeous.

The press widely reported that Ms. Posh's brain, too, was captivating. Why, then, did she keep this feature concealed? Might it not be as beautiful as Mrs. Brain's? He always spoke of his wife's brain with candor and truth, to himself as to others. Mrs. Brain had the most enchantingly vibrant cerebral mass he ever had beheld, except in a mirror; and she displayed it properly, beneath exquisite Craniumware Gazeglass.

So when — on a corner turn, as the railcar was rolling from the Mountains of Madness and coasting toward the Sloughs of Despair — a stray gale-blast slightly ruffled the scarlet fringe combed over her cranial dome, he gazed with wonder and anticipation. Her filaments stirred in the rushing air; he felt his synapses burn and snap.

The fringe parted.

His own Gazeglass went gray with smoke.

For as the air whirled and the racing railcar ran another turn, and Ms. Posh's lips vibrated through contortions and pouts, and her tongue pointed and vibrated at a parade of fast-food cashiers wearing red wigs and red noses, he caught glimpses not of Ms. Posh's brain, which he found himself unable to discern, but of her cranial covering. About the practice he had heard, without having seen it in person: for rather than Gazeglass or Diamondpure or Leadcrystalhead, she was wearing an inverted molded-glass egg-mixer bowl with its Walletmart price sticker still affixed. No wonder the dome stood so high: not to contain wondrous moundings; not to protect pilings of sumptuous gray coilings; but to prevent egg-splatterings from egg-whippings, in daily kitchen use.

Distraught and despairing he flung himself from the screeching railcar. His cranial dome shattered on the dirty cement below, although his feelings remained intact. Fortunately a nearby young custodian, who had been playing chess with her vacuum cleaner, had a spare polyethylene dome in her pushcart.

"You won't want to hear the hoots and catcalls out there, if they see you like this," said the smudge-cheeked girl, gesturing out across the wide earflaps that were filled with the Beautiful practicing their posturings. She led him to a service door.

As he exited, one of the Beautiful, who happened to have been exercising her aloofness in this lonely corner, said, "Why, Mr. Brain is leaving us!" She sniffed.

Feeling suddenly a child, he himself sniffed and perhaps something more, and vowed never to return.

"Still, Phil is not here to hear me swear this," he said to himself as he trudged away. "No one would know, should I go back on my vow. As I should! For I want no one to call me derelict in what is mine — at all times! Always! Forever!"

The End

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Grapevines, Winter Solstice

Branchings and runners fall shorter,
as short as they ever will be;
they fall to gloved hand and clipper
on winter solstice day.

Thickest trunks stay, rising through snow.
Thinnest vinings from the longest
of days, that bore greenest of growth,
fall, now days are shortest.

Oh, our summer seemed so endless
when countless thoughts clustered to mind —
although some vines would stand fruitless,
and many plans would end,

brought short by the trimming of hours;
and now celebrants trim yule trees,
and dwell with a sigh on past years
and long-gone solstice days.

I cut them short as they will be,
all year, these runners and branchings,
and hope that the shrinking of day
and dim thoughts of endings

will yield to times when even Time
will grow, granting days that will be
longer, when greening thoughts will climb
higher, nearer the sky —

at least along wires that we string
across land, across snow, to hold
such hopes. A solstice day must bring
something new, something old —

or bring short the old to unfold
into the new. Who can foresee
what one short day's trimming will yield,
this winter solstice day?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

President Koom-Posh

I have written several blog entries this year that I have held off posting for various reasons, good or otherwise. Yet now I have sent in a blog entry to Aqueduct (aqueductpress.blogspot.com) — another "Readings" installment that should appear sometime this season. That essay had room for a few but not all thoughts that were coming to mind.

So here I follow a few unvoiced strands.

Aqueduct's L. Timmel Duchamp has told me that she is "becoming an apostle of slow thinking." My sporadic blogging arises from a similar inclination, which has realized itself in my policy to post here only what I have drafted first in handwriting, usually in pencil. I still do some writing on typewriter and computer keyboard. Yet blog entries I want to redraft minimally, if possible.

My typing speed results, too often, in that which haste produces: words parading as Thought. While I acknowledge the demands of expediency, I believe a writer must nurture the writing process at every turn. That means nurturing thought, as opposed to hastening words. Writing as a process yields thought. Hastened words only reflect thoughts; and since they must reflect expedience, as well, they tend to reflect those thoughts incompletely or inaccurately.

This has become a pressing issue, to my mind, with the rise to power by Koom-Posh. Bulwer Lytton coined this term for "government of the many, or the ascendancy of the most ignorant or hollow."

Andrew Jackson I suspect could have been called President Koom-Posh, had the term then existed. However quick and canny a man he was, his making cronyism into a political institution points to hollowness. Expediency, prior to his becoming president, seems to have ruled him; and, afterwards, its demands, rather than those of the presidency, continued to rule.

The other day I came across comments stating that the presidency requires "exclusive fealty" to the constitution. "Fealty" as a word has links to fidelity; and this suggests that in thinking about a person who lacks such fealty, one might use "infidelity" as an attribute, or "infidel," as a label. The current president-elect Comb-Over, or Koom-Over, or Posh-Over, has indicated he wishes to continue his businesses while part-time president; and business cronies will dominate his administration. His fealty lies with another lord than the Constitution. Perhaps we might call him His Expediency.

Our eclectic, mannerist Age of the Masses has its deepest shallow roots in the Modern century, roughly the 1860s to 1950s. Van Wyck Brooks, in writing about the later 1800s, noted alterations to the American Fabric then being made — such as the conscious discarding of the traditional writings that had offered bedrock, on which her founders could build the United States.

I find what Brooks said about the Classics telling. They "kept alive great patterns of behavior ... The close association of intimate studies had made the patterns real, and the patterns had made great writers as they made great statesmen. They appealed to the instinct of emulation, an instinct that in later days followed the patterns set by industrial leaders, by bankers and by millionaires whose only idea was the will to power and who ruled by the blind force of money."

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Thoughts Approaching a Memory:
David G. Hartwell

In some ways it seemed strange, last night, to grieve for someone whom I knew less than perfectly well, and with whom I had a few differences.

Yet I did feel grief — that upwelling, unstoppable acknowledgement that some piece belonging to the puzzle presented by our own life has vanished with finality — vanished despite its seeming to have fitted into our world-picture with the permanence that great character and distinctive personality seem to possess.

It may be that they only seem to possess this permanence, and that the inevitable vanishing serves to correct our susceptible senses and hungry-to-believe hearts.

The vanishing of what, though? Surely not character and personality. The one for whom I grieved possessed these to such degrees that they must have bled off from his mere physical body constantly, collecting in rooms and hallways, in houses and offices and hotels and restaurants and taverns and any spaces public or private encountered, appearing and fading away like drifting dust motes or chance sunbeams in from a window; bled off to be breathed in like that dust, or sensed like that sunlight; bled off to become, as do dust motes or light beams, part of new blood flowing in other veins.

For we are needy plants spreading our leaves to catch light, our roots to catch settled dust.

Grief must strike when one feels, viscerally, that one is to have no more of that character and personality. Yet strangely it must strike when one feels, too, that this other's character and personality have grown into one's own. The vital moments in a relationship persist, and make those who leave us, physically, remain in us.

I can say with little certainty how long I have known David — which is to say, how long he has been real within my life, rather than just a face and a name, a figure famous in the relatively small science-fiction publishing world. That sense of the real may have come fairly quickly, since besides science fiction we shared being booksellers and poetry-magazine editors. I have small idea what he saw in me; yet since I felt adrift in the field, his consistent friendliness and generous conversations made me feel less estranged from the field that I had chosen and that often seemed intent on choosing anyone but me. That he had a genius for friendship seemed apparent; that he held too many reins at the same time to actually follow that genius, equally.

If I picture him, I recall brows that could furrow with intensity; eyes that gazed directly, whether troubled or pleased; lips that could widen around a smile that was usually genuine but partly an invention that he displayed for photographers; and lips that could pull back, too, around a grimace that reflected his wrestling with ideas and perspectives, which I think always was genuine — because, in picturing him, that grimace comes to my mind almost first. In him the element of the showman came often to the fore: a literate, thoughtful showman, who had a true respect for audience. Did he neglect any inner elements due to his impulse for show? It may be, since I find it hard to imagine anyone being a show-person without some personal cost. Yet in whatever the mood of the moment, I can still see that grimace emerge — that argumentative thoughtfulness, that assertive possession of the materials of his mind. That grimace: the smile from his tenacious power-sense, his knotty heart. His truth. In another mode he would appear with the eyebrows that seemed rising to meet his hairline; and at such moments he would tilt slightly his head and poise with a mouth that seemed too small for the expansive width of smile belonging to other moments, and speak words that would rise from the desk-worn editorial sleeve — in a small voice, almost too well spoken, a bit learned, a bit facetious, a bit fastidious. While I cannot know if I heard him use the phrase, I can hear him all the same — just after dipping down his chin to shoulder-level and upwards, like a tortoise getting a crink out of its neck: "Not to make too fine a distinction. But — " And later his smile would erupt like a voiceless laugh.

I suspect he might have found a calm, lasting happiness had it been his to find sensible order in his surroundings — books, people, food, drink, easy times, complicated times — yet the chaos that afflicts nearly all creative lives must have come as inevitable price, for him, for the sense of order he placed upon his publishing realm — his anthologies, his historical-survey compendia, his reviews-magazine editing, his ceaseless efforts to educate and inform. To some degree I believe he paid the price happily, and went striding along chaos's verge with some good cheer: for he had appetites, including one for engagement with his immediate surroundings; and he had the kind of humor that can, at least at times, save those of us who tempt the dogs of chaos perhaps too much.

We go on, as we must —

And we carry along with us another's now-permanent character and personality — as we must.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Crows at Misty Winter Solstice Morning

In mist, by mist
the year has let her toenail edges be soft-kissed,
as stretched on solstice bier she lies
with shuttered eyes.

The crows upon the trees' dead branches
laugh in avalanches
in their nervous drollery -- at seeing her supine below
untouched by snow,

which all hold proper for her burial.
Those corvines aerial
in scouting near and far have missed
all signs of snowy cerements, in the mist,

and wonder what dire dooms befall
a year that ends without her proper pall.
They drop pine branches on her open palms
as though not we but she had need for alms.

She lies oblivious.
Yet that she lies so obvious
has offered more to prompt the crows' concern.
They fly to find what they might learn

from others tending distant regions,
and gather in tree-branch legions
sharing caws, caws, caws --
while some call out, "Because, cause, cause,"

when pointing down with beaks
at one below who walks in mud and speaks
as though the world has not gone wrong,
who sings a sentimental Christmas song.

The crows regret they let humans infest
the sacramental nest,
within which, after winter-solstice night,
each new year comes to light.

The crows have naught to do but wait,
this time when dusk comes early and the morning, late:
for Mother Crow will bring forgiving night
to drape, in place of snowy white.

—— Copyright 2015 Mark Rich

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Feeding at Dandelions

Today for perhaps an hour I pushed around our reel mower, which, for those not in the know, is a non-motorized affair -- an equivalent in yard care (vs. the various noisy and noisome affairs that destroy suburban and village peace, while consuming deep-drilled fuel) to the pencil, pen, and typewriter in writing (vs. the electric word processor which so many writers take skittering across a million electronic landscapes).

At some point while mowing, my eye lit upon a lone dandelion bloom, which had upon it a feeding Sulfur. A butterfly. Both dandelion and Sulfur fall within the category of Vagrant Organism, since both happen to flourish readily under the conditions Caucasian rule has imposed on this continent -- conditions which include disrupted and damaged soils, and a narrowed range of dominant plant types.

So my eye was caught by this sight which should be utterly commonplace -- "vulgar," perhaps, in an older usage -- of a vagrant insect feeding upon a vagrant forb's sunny blossom ...

When this thought intruded: "How beautiful."

Butterfly flew away. Lawnmower, pushed along by force of my legs and bare feet, beheaded weed.

Alas, poor Beauty! I knew her ... well, momentarily.

Various thoughts filled me. We have seen few or no dandelion blooms in our yard for a month or more -- until now, when a handful are appearing again, here and there. We missed dandelion season completely, in terms of wine making, even though both Martha and I made noises about wanting to make some again this year.

Reflecting on missing this window of opportunity made me think that the people who realize most clearly the fact that dandelion blooms are fleeting in their coming and going are the home winemakers -- the ones who prize them, and know how promptly they must seize their chance.

What an utter puzzle it is that our society prizes lawns and loathes flowers that might disturb that green expanse, when the flowers themselves last so short a time. What a puzzle it is, too, that our society lacks respect for something that attempts to disrupt our un-beauteous lives with beauty. The disrespect arises, perhaps, because the beauty being offered is so commonplace -- even if not so common as it should be ... at least along our village street, where deleterious and long-lived poisons have ruined matters for even our most commonplace butterflies: for on this July day one might walk past yard after yard before spotting any vegetative sustenance that a lowly Sulfur might need.

How strange it is, too, to feel a celebratory twinge at seeing a butterfly that commands little respect even from lepidopterists. Sulfurs survived in numbers through the post-WWII disaster of DDT application and have thus far survived the neonicotinoids and other synthetic world-wreckers that have been unleashed by our so-called "agricultural" industries; their larvae feed on common vagrant forbs, as well as on commercially planted ones; adults produce as many generations in a season as they can, with the thoughtless abandon so appropriate to the vagrant.

Yet I felt the celebratory twinge, because while I have been seeing a variety of "better" butterflies in our garden I have seen none of these unassuming creatures for quite some time.

The fact that the rich and powerful among North American humans want all aspects of life aligned with the interests of their infinitely expandable pocketbooks has made our continent an uncongenial place for the poor, the downtrodden, and a supposedly commonplace butterfly.

The rich and powerful, mind you, regard themselves as the Beautiful People.

This I might believe, did they feed at dandelions.

For some reason the further thought appeared in my mind on this July day that writers should be like weeds: tenacious; recurring despite discouragement and attack; blooming predictably yet also, if lucky, unpredictably at other times, in some years; and commonplace.

Commonplace? Naturally. And should not readers, too, be commonplace? And beautiful?

I dream of the years before DDT and Agent Orange and Roundup, before Monsanto and Dow Chemical and Scott, before chemical lawn services, before the monoculture farming of the entire inner North American craton, before the gas-powered grass-shearing abominations that await sunny afternoons in every garage ...

Of the years when one kind of winged beauty by countless millions filled the air by day, and another sort, by night -- all of them alert and attuned to their vast world, and all of them alighting to feed at the countless millions available to them, in every variety, of blooms.

Cheers ...

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Friendship, Kingsley Amis, and Gravy Planet

George Zebrowski kindly pointed out to me comments in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois and published in 2011, that seemed somewhat unfair to him. Early this month when looking for something else, I happened upon the fact that I could read Dozois's paragraph by means of Google's literary-property-transgression service, and found these words:

"Kornbluth is a complex, fascinating, and immensely talented figure now in danger of being forgotten, certainly a worthwhile figure for a biological study and critical reassessment if there ever was one. Unfortunately, clouds of controversy have swirled around the book from its release, mostly for the intensely unflattering portrait it paints of Kornbluth's friend and lifelong collaborator Frederik Pohl, which have caused Pohl to vehemently deny the veracity of many of Rich's 'facts'——all of which has cast something of a shadow over what by rights should have been one of the preeminent genre nonfiction books of the year."

Is "biological" a Google artifact? I hope so.

What I wrote about in my book, of course, I based on archived physical correspondence: facts——not, as Dozois puts it, "facts."

Dozois thinks it unfortunate that "clouds of controversy have swirled around the book from its release." May I say that too few clouds swirled? I had expected something other than utter silence about the nature of Pohl's acts, some of which I found despicable, and some, horrifying.

Why, for instance, did no stir erupt among science fiction readers who respect Hugo Award history and integrity, that among Kornbluth's multiple finished stories at his death was one entitled "The Meeting"?

Apparently some off-radar consternation did arise, in private channels, concerning Pohl's appropriation of Phil Klass's memorial volume: for Pohl did write briefly, if inadequately, about this issue on his blog. In public, however, to my knowledge, no such stir arose.

It does disturb me that Dozois joins miscellaneous dismissive commentators who assume they know more than does the biographer. His words here, "friend and lifelong collaborator," are akin to Patrick Casey's SFRA review comment on my book——that "the one-dimensional depiction of Pohl ignores the fact that Kornbluth remained friends and even partners with Pohl for the majority of his life." This seems to be all people "know" about Kornbluth, and all they want to know, since they persist in parading it as if displaying a great acquisition of knowledge. I wish these people would find a way to document this: for what I found in the correspondence was a frayed, contentious, occasionally ugly and several times completely broken relationship. Pohl in particular engaged in behavior that struck me, and strikes me, as unfriendly in the extreme——even at a moment when Kornbluth was in need of help; and his behavior after Cyril's death I find, as I noted, despicable.

Is friendship like a road of trust, with two lanes moving thoughts and goods in opposite but equivalent ways? Does it include some balance of giving and taking, offering and accepting?

If so, I find it difficult finding, at any point during the relationship between Kornbluth and Pohl, from the late 1930s into the 1950s, real evidence of a two-way friendship.

Kornbluth did evince feelings of friendship toward Pohl, at times, in various degrees: for he did give amply into the relationship. As Merril said of him, Cyril felt loyalty. The sense of old Futurian ties did persist in his heart.

We know this because Cyril wrote Gravy Planet to keep Fred out jail.

This knowledge we have from MacLean. We have it, too, from Klass.

How grand a gift this was! What utter, selfless generosity!

Yet before and after that supreme gift Pohl regarded self before others. He regarded Pohl above Kornbluth. He certainly regarded his own financial wants above those whose finances he held in his keeping.

We know his attitude went unchanged, moreover——for he never responded to Cyril's generosity with a return gift.

When Kingsley Amis made his famous, mistaken assessment, Pohl might have seized the moment to give something in return to Kornbluth. How small a gesture it would have been, to demur——simply to admit that Kornbluth was the one most responsible for the writing Amis admired.

How small a gesture——yet how grandly and warmly it would have reflected back upon him!

In 1952, with money from Gravy Planet, Pohl repaid some debts to society——and to some degree healed wounds he had inflicted upon a circle of writers. He found himself in the position to do so, however, only through having incurred an immense new debt to a fellow-worker.

He seemed not to understand that the new debt had no less reality than the old ones. Having avoided jail ended the matter in his mind, to all appearances.

Then in 1960 Amis calmly dismissed Kornbluth as "prolific and competent" and, on the other hand, spoke of seeing "pure Pohl" in The Space Merchants.

Amis also described Kornbluth's The Syndic as "a chronicle of minor wars following upon a major one." So did Pohl read that absurdly off-base summary and think that no one, surely, would take seriously the comment about "pure Pohl"? I rather doubt it——especially since, a few pages before, Amis had written those words that have appeared on so many book covers: "Frederik Pohl, the most consistently able writer science fiction, in the modern sense, has yet produced."

I find it quite interesting to discover, in glancing back through pages in New Maps of Hell, that Kingsley Amis engaged in a mistaken attribution. Take these observations from his discussion of the The Space Merchants, about the protagonist "escaping finally to a Venus uncontaminated by Fowler Schocken and his friends from an Earth that is still largely under the sway of the old régime. The closing scenes, on which I suspect the hand of Kornbluth lies heavy, offer little but adequate excitement and are not altogether a conclusion to the issues raised in the opening chapters."

Why does this catch my eye now? As readers of my essay in Cascadia Subduction Zone will be aware, after publication of C.M. Kornbluth I learned that older readers within the science fiction field had fallen into the habit of talking about and praising The Space Merchants even though they had never read the book. They had read only the magazine serial named Gravy Planet.

Amis seems to have been one such. He read the version that came out of Kornbluth's typewriter——not the gutted and sexually sophomorized book, which came out of Pohl's, and which lacks those "closing scenes" of "little but adequate excitement."

This discovery does give me a feeling of relief. How in the world, I have sometimes wondered, could Amis have liked The Space Merchants so well?

I doubt he would have. Instead, he enjoyed Gravy Planet, wrote about it with some penetration, and attributed it to Pohl——thus adding to the debt the latter felt needed no repayment.

Cheers ...

(Amis, by the way, took particular interest in "The Midas Plague." Pohl once wrote to Kornbluth acknowledging that the latter contributed many bits of "business" to that story, even though publicly the former never held the story out as collaborative. Strangely, I just looked in C.M. Kornbluth and found only one reference to that story in the index——which means I failed to include that information, misplaced the relevant document copy or notes during writing, or simply missed indexing it. Any one is possible.)