Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

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

Monday, November 12, 2012

Re-reading Poems: Poetry, November

28 October 2012:
Why a certain poem may draw the reading eye back — back to its page out of the many in a magazine or book; back to the first line again, after the last is reached --

This fails to rise to mind as the full question it is, frequently -- for so often our encounters with poetry occur in well-considered collections, in which the attractiveness of the poems from page to page tends to be a shared quality, in which a feeling of consistent reward dampens the force of the individual poem. I recall encountering a poem by Stephen Dunn in the pages of Poetry magazine a few years ago and being struck by its clarity and self-containment, and its effective striking of a note that seemed born of experience: for the meaning emerging from the poem arose from a narrative element ending in failure. Later when encountering the poem again collected into a book by Dunn, which I was reading against the backdrop of having cast my attention over prior volumes of his, I found the poem again and in it found a continuing attractiveness; yet now I took in its emergent meanings in light of the regular knelling of this particular bell throughout his career as a poet. This and other poems conveyed to the reader -- especially the reader taking a Romantic view that in his writings this poet was wrestling with his life -- that the poet had sought for meaning -- sought to find the vital design that applied in particular to him -- and had failed. This sense disconcerted me as I imagine it must disconcert others: for whatever structuralist or objective notions some critics might wish to foist upon readers I believe most of us dip into the realm of the poem not so much for guidance as for illumination that strikes, as if by accident, not only the path being taken by the poet but the path being taken by the reader. Some of the powers of poetry arise from moments when this dual illumination reveals to the reader a path -- even if only a suggestion or a glimpse of a path -- that the reader had failed to realize she or he was taking.

What may make us as readers return to a poem's first line may be a sense of being shown the New that is not so new as we thought, a sense of being presented the unconsciously familiar view. When we set even a single foot on a path and discover we reached that point unconsciously, we naturally ask ourselves how we arrived here where we suddenly are; and naturally we then glance back, perhaps even backing up to retrace our steps in the hopes we might do so with an ounce more consciousness.

29 October 2012:
I sometimes wonder, in contrast, if the ancient forms of riddle and conundrum may play a continuing role in our poetry reading. Who or what is the poet talking about? And where is the the poem going? The questions seem to arise in the mind, so that the reader goes on from one line's end to next line's beginning, impelled by curiosity. Does aesthetic enjoyment play as greatly into this first reading as in the second, when the reader has reached the ending? With the answer in hand, the reader may go back to re-read in order to see how the riddle played out, line by line -- or how the journey was affected. Since the riddle or puzzle has found resolution -- at least of some kind, definite or vague - the second reading lacks the propulsion of inquisitive curiosity. Instead aesthetic curiosity takes us through the lines again.

In the new November issue of Poetry Idra Novey's "The Visitor" uses the riddle form. One reads forward at first just absorbing the poem's perspective on the "visitor" -- whose actual nature, unveiled at the end, comes unexpectedly. The minor revelation sends the eye back to line one, to follow again the observations that now seem clues. A second poem of Novey's in the issue has something of the puzzle to it -- for the run-on sentences move evasively between apparent subjects. The poem, "La Prima Victoria," after several readings begins to offer the image of a woman discovering a disagreeable inner self. At the same time I half wonder how much I impose on the poem -- in part because "The Visitor" made me anticipate another riddle.

An unexpected function of conventional form made itself evident in reading "As Is," by Nicholas Friedman. I was sitting after supper, tired from a day of mostly working with old oddities and antiquities, as it happens, and had in my hands this issue of Poetry; and while my tired mind took in the word "antique" in line two of this poem, the poem only lightly penetrated my tiredness -- until the ending rhymed couplet. At my sudden thought, "A sonnet!" -- not so common in this day -- my eye went to the top again; and I read with more care and comprehension. Oddments: "Typewriters tall as headstones" puzzles me: I suppose the poem seems to evoke the low slabs near the ground bearing only names and dates. And "art deco bangles bright as harpsichords"? When I studied harpsichord, as I recall, the instruments were brown or black. I suppose the poem might lay claim to synaesthetic effect, with the bangles evoking bright harpsichord notes -- yet I think without much basis. And the phrase "to feign intrigue"? -- which perhaps was meant to convey what the phrase "to feign interest" does to us plebeians. I find it hard to feign interest in such misstepping: for it seems to me less than an innocent mistake.

The ending lines contain the poem's success, or otherwise: "One man's junk is another's all the same./ They don't buy much, but that's not why they came." Younger writers use familiar phrases -- if not more frequently than do older writers, then more obviously. The poem succeeds in its way because of its play on the familiar masculocentrist phrase, "One man's junk is another man's treasure": it succeeds because it diverts, for a moment. Yet to consider the understood phrase the poem offers -- "One man's junk is another's junk" -- the reader collides with negativism, with the transformative suggestion of the hackneyed phrase itself tossed out. Junked. It seems an admission that the poem -- or perhaps the shoppers at this antique barn -- have failed to find significance. They looked, then left. Why then present the scene? The last line offers the puzzle, with its lazy run-on construction and meter-rescue contractions. The line creates a nice surface effect: it rhymes, and seems to reflect some superior knowledge, some arch meaning -- but what arch meaning, exactly? Much could be read into this observation about these shoppers -- one of them after all has a unique way of feigning interest. The most obvious reading, given that feigning, is that this wise-posing final statement points toward their boredom. Cesspool la vie. For one line to suggest a failed search for value, for meaning or for transformation, and the next to suggest boredom, leaves me disappointed. I ask myself: I came this far for this?

And it is but a sonnet.

Friedman, by the way, is one of the five Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellows featured in the issue: also Reginald Dwayne Betts, Richie Hoffman, Jacob Saenz, and Rickey Laurentiis. An all-male slate of, indeed, fellows. Are all lily white? I have no idea: their names appear printed in black, no more. I may re-read them all, later, to see if my first impression of uninviting language came as just a tired thought. That the act of returning to Friedman's poem made it seem less inviting than it did at first I have to admit. I suppose a lesser poem does well by not calling attention to itself with rhymes. (I might well have had this thought after reading the Frederick Seidel poems in the September issue.)

One poem in the issue did make me re-read it instantly. I liked its feel, and still do. The words move along in comfortable meter, and have an inviting appearance of simplicity. The lack of intellectual parading makes it stand out -- makes it, perhaps, an expression that has better chance at moving nearer the vital impulse within it. As it happens I have read this poem several times -- and am only gradually myself moving toward what its impulse, its main notion, may be. So I will do no more than to say it is this: "Toward what island-home am I moving," by Joanna Klink.

Poetry 201:2, November 2012:
Other writers in the issue with poems: Elizabeth Spires, Hailey Leithauser, Vijay Seshadri, Casey Thayer, Donald Revell, Katie Ford, Jim Harrison, David Yezzi, Lisa Williams. I suspect I will re-read more among their poems. Particularly interesting in this issue, by the way, are "Poet Photos" taken from Poetry's files. I feel especially curious about the last image, in which six men stand shoulder to shoulder part-way down a stairwell above which hangs the sign: "The Rejected Generation." Taken circa 1960, the photograph shows six Milwaukee poets who never made it into Poetry. The editors name three among them: Ray Peckner/Puechner, John Schmidt and Jay Robert Nash. The appearance of their being a group, of the informal get-together sort, strikes an intriguing note. A club of rejected poets ... how could I or almost any poet not want to join?

Cheers ...

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

This Episode of Silence

Two years ago on this date began an unusual episode in my life — an episode that I marked largely by observing silence here and elsewhere on the Internet.

During this episode, one who wished to provoke me I left unanswered. This person's supporters then did what they could to discredit my March, 2010, book on Amazon; and they, too, I left unanswered. Amazon on its own pulled one supporter's comments, while leaving a few others there.

Since I was being demonized -- for such seemed the object of their efforts -- my book undoubtedly lost sales. Such is life. They made their attacks and I hope enjoyed their minor victories. For my part, I wrote my book not for the moment but for our time; and my book continues its existence just as our time does. What it said at time of publication it still says. Where it stood then, there it still stands.

A silence once set into place cannot be broken, in a real sense. Time passes; and when it passes it admits none of us back into its fold, and allows no alterations besides those of our thoughts and depictions.

All the same, I have it within my power to allow a different episode to begin. As perhaps I will.

Errors abound, in this brilliantly idiotic on-line world. Since I know more about the subject of my book than anyone else alive -- I say this not out of pride, but out of believing it to be the unfortunate truth -- I could mount a campaign to straighten matters, correct mistakes, point the way toward accuracy ...

Would such be possible? Would such be desirable? Is not part of the charm of this central edifice of our Age of the Masses, this over-arching monument to the Misinformation Age, the very fact of its nearly infinite potential for fallibility? As the Internet is, perhaps it must be. If ever it should suffer itself to be corrected, rebuilt and rehabilitated, to be spoon-fed the curative waters of Albion, to be given the therapeutic pocketbook-massages of the Holy Molar smiling televisionaries ... then likely the Internet would collapse in upon itself.

The world that I have changed, and that I believe I have changed for the better, is the world of the understanding. Some people now on Earth see some matters differently because of these efforts of mine -- just as I see some matters differently thanks to their efforts.

A tangled and intangible invisible world ... information-born, information-borne and information-bearing ... spotty, spontaneous, unpredictable ...

A fine place to be, this world of ours. I mean the world of the understanding.

I mean the world where I have not observed silence -- not at all, during this episode of silence.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

St. Pepin, Farewell

Two Mondays ago I opened the last bottle of St. Pepin in our basement -- quite possibly the last bottle of Vernon Vineyards St. Pepin in existence. This batch resulted from the year Luke, my predecessor at Vernon Vineyards, worked as winemaker. He came to the winery with considerably more winemaking experience than I did, and undoubtedly made better wine than I did.

For a few weeks in 2010 I worked with him, doing so for a payment that at the time seemed princely: a bottle an hour. I gained some introduction to the early stages of small-winery winemaking, thanks to him -- until the day came when Bob, the winery owner, told me I should stop coming in and leave Luke to work on his own. Bob wore an expression with a slightly averted gaze which I would learn to read, the next year. I suspect he planned already in that hour to usher Luke back out of the door he so recently had entered. That, anyhow, is how I came to understand that exchange of ours, that day when Bob in his smoothing-over way saw me temporarily out that same door. At the time I was busy with Organic Maple Co-op -- almost any day I was not at the winery I was at work at the co-op -- and thought events would transpire such that I would see Luke again and perhaps learn more from him of the later stages of winery procedures, in the next season. Instead, I received a phone call in the spring from Bob, saying Luke was leaving. Bob expressed his wish that I not come out to the winery before Luke's last day. Although this seemed a bit manipulative -- of either my situation or Luke's; I was not sure -- I complied, partly because the winery sits at a far enough remove from Cashton that even a simple visit requires having ample time at hand.

Martha and I came into the last few cases of Luke's St. Pepin because during much of 2011 she was my assistant in the vineyard and winery work -- working for that bottle of wine per hour. She banked her hours and emerged, as autumn was giving way to fall, with the last cases of St. Pepin, since the stack had dwindled through the late summer to only a few; she took what was left just as earlier she had taken the last cases of Marechal Foch, an excellent red that Luke's predecessor and the founding winemaker, Loren, had made by a process that involved a modified carbonic maceration. The Foch was the most densely interesting, most satisfying wine Vernon Vineyards produced, in our estimate. As might be expected it ranked among the slower sellers. As I understood the situation, all the Foch the winery sold arose from that single year's effort on Loren's part.

The St. Pepin unlike the Foch lacked complex character but had pleasing freshness: lightweight vitality, I might call it. When Martha and I were having it too frequently, that winter of 2011-12, it came to seem too acid -- so that it bit at the corners of the mouth, or the throat. This quality arose naturally from the emphasis at Vernon Vineyards, an emphasis presumably shared by other Northern-grape wineries: an emphasis on using green grapes -- green not in the sense of color but in the sense of ripeness. Since the growers here in the north feel a farmerly dread of rots and blights brought on by damps and chills, they harvest when the chemical changes of grape-ripening have run their course only partially -- when compounds yet remain that will have no chance to become the flavorful components that they should, during the winemaking process. A situation that would be rare event in California appears to be the norm in Wisconsin-Minnesota. This has a number of repercussions -- which I will need to explore some other day.

That Monday night when I first sipped the wine I greatly enjoyed those early sips -- redolent of the green table grape in flavor, with some sweetness. Luke having bottled it as a stable wine, the acidity present on Martha's and my tongues a year ago remained there to bite again at the corners of my mouth. After the first glass the green-grape flavor merged into the more typical white wine flavors. A nice bottle. I know Luke's many cases of Edelweiss long ago sold down to nothing; I believe ample stores of his North Fork remain at the winery, made of La Crescent, from quite a number of different batches. Farewell, though, to his St. Pepin. Luke's wines emerged out of a less than ideal situation, both in terms of the worker-employer relationship and the growing season. He did well, all the same.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Little Bang Theory

This morning I was contemplating Ortega y Gasset's observation that a person who retains faith in the past has no fear of the future. My mind then turned to my resistance to studying history -- of any kind, political or otherwise -- in my school years. I then visualized history's all-encompassing ball of fact and supposition ... an expanding universe of true and misleading detail whose Little Bang must have come at the moment when the concept of "the past" sparked to life in the collective consciousness.

I can see the physical universe as having started in a similar way. A "universe" of some particular configuration existed -- a configuration that would seem the very essence of nothingness to us, who are products of the successor configuration. In that prior configuration, some event caused a statistically nearly impossible change at some speck-point in the vast field. Once that change, that Little Bang, occurred, it ramified. It did so because, almost impossibly, it offered a new pattern that caused transformation of the older configuration into itself. I find the notion expressed by the verb "to convince" attractive. The elementary particle of the new configuration "convinced" nearby particles of the old configuration to shift over; they then shifted over, and communicated likewise to their neighbors; and a wave of altered convictions moved through whatever it was that the old configuration might have been.

We tend to think in terms of an expanding ball of change -- an outward explosion. That is our configuration thinking for us.

This offers a notion of why change is possible. The thoughts above have made me think of Time in terms of particles. Imagine a "particle-moment" that exists within a field of particle moments. The character of a particle-moment is such that it decides it is "done" -- that its current state is "over" -- at which point it shares its decision with its neighbors. In a static configuration, across the entire field, all particle moments are "done" or "over" simultaneously. The "sharing of decision" would be go unfelt, since all particle-moments act in perfect agreement.

Should one particle-moment suffer a minuscule flaw in making its decision, however, it would fall slightly "behind" or "ahead" of this field of agreement. It would feel for the first time the sharing-of-decision directed its way by its nearby fellow particle-moments; or else its neighboring particle-moments would feel for the first time the influence of the solo particle-moment that was sharing its decision.

I suppose we might call the minuscule flaw in the particle-moment "consciousness," since the flaw would find expression in awareness of influence -- awareness of the "sharing," by itself or by its neighbors.

Change would subsequently become necessity, for the sharings-of-decisions and the influence of these sharings would rise into existence -- into awareness, if you wish -- out of the prior field of perfect agreement.

The Little Bang event of consciousness inflicts change as inevitability upon the field. The new configuration of change -- of disagreement and sharing and being convinced -- then moves "outward" from the first disagreement.

I rather like this altered version of my first thought: for rather than envisioning a new conviction spreading, this second thought envisions the spread, instead, of disagreement. Agreement cannot spread, at least perfectly: for once one particle-moment shares it decision with its neighbors, that completes its state of being; it then becomes aware of the sharing-of-decision from its neighbors. That first particle-moment's environment, its field, has changed -- which affects its next "decision" -- a decision now necessarily out of synch with its neighbors' decisions.

In both static and changing configurations, Movement is the constant. I can only visualize the static field as changing with a "timing" of perfect agreement. The particle-moments in unison would decide to be "over" -- creating the new state of being "done moments" or "over-with moments" -- which state they then would all in unison decide to be done with; creating a new "over-with" state of being ... and so on. Imagine a binary equivalent -- for instance a field of light switches in perfect agreement: off, on, off, on, etc. On the other hand, in the changing configuration -- the historical configuration -- movement would follow the same course, but without the universal "timing."

The disagreement between particle-moments would open the field to what we might call Progress: for the field's overall state of agreement would become worse and worse -- or its state of disagreement would become better and better.

In this scenario, once consciousness arises, change is not only possible but almost necessary -- "almost" because of that very nearly statistically impossible chance that all the field's particle-moments would arrive abruptly at the same decision in perfect agreement -- or perhaps perfect disagreement. Such an accident would reinstate the static configuration.

Why in the world did that bit of Ortega y Gasset send my mind in this direction? I was making espresso on the stove while dipping into my book of essays; and when I stood up from reading at the kitchen table to turn off the burner, or somesuch thing, I was thinking about that notion of "faith in the past" -- which I believe would require some degree of understanding the past; and one of my great regrets about my youth has to do with my inadequate learning of history, and inadequate understanding of history. As I stood at the stove it occurred to me that the attitude so easy to take on in youth, the attitude that the past is "dead and gone," creates a barrier to understanding not the past but the present. A much better phrase to adopt -- maybe this is a decision I hereby share, so that you will feel my decision's influence -- is this: "the past is dead but still going," or "the past is dead but doing." Each "moment" in the past influenced the next "moment," which then influenced the next, etc. The present "moment" is all of the past. We are where we were put by being where we were. The present moment will always have been.

I am speaking not of determinism but of the fact of the continuing presence of those things we think are "past."

I was entertaining a sheerly practical thought, there at the stove: that had I better appreciated the spreading-outward nature of historical events I might have embraced historical study more readily, earlier. If only that phrase about the past being "dead and done with" or "dead and gone" had not come my way -- shared with me by someone who had adopted that point of view!

My day, today, was to have been one of physical labors. We have a van full of Baraboo Sunday Market items to unpack, and a car full of items from yesterday's local auction -- as well as a yard of leaves I hoped to rake up for garden mulch. When I went outside before making breakfast to move some wooden pieces to shelter before the promised morning rains arrived, I felt my lower spine and muscles in ways I would rather not feel them, however. Wednesday at the auction -- nine hours of steadily standing on cement -- was doing in my lower back -- not the lifting of these lightweight wooden things.

Since my back was hurting I decided to start my day with some writing or editing -- and I went to the kitchen to make some self-indulgent espresso ... and read a bit, and considered ... then sat here with paper and pencil, where my thoughts suddenly took so abstract a turn ...

Cheers ...

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

By the Fly in the Web

At Timmi Duchamp's request last summer I wrote the essay that has reappeared, published, in my mailbox.

The good folks at Aqueduct have sent me the October issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone. In its pages, Kiini Ibura Salaam rises to Timmi's request to write about being involved in various arts, with "Painting and Writing: My Yin and Yang," while I do likewise with "Line Improvisation: Notes by the Fly in the Web."

When I wrote my first short essay for Timmi last winter, I was responding to a last-minute, near-deadline request. I worked at the typewriter for the better part of a day, put the results through several revisions, and sent in my manuscript promptly. When much later I re-read that essay in published form, I reached the ending paragraphs thinking that the essay left off its narrative prematurely. It dropped its discussion too soon. I had hurried into the writing and then hurried out, though: so what else could I have expected? What was going missing, there at essay's end, however, I had no idea. The essay wanted to go somewhere farther -- somewhere it might have gone had I struggled at the task for a longer time.

With this second essay "Line Improvisation" I took the longer time, drafting the piece in pencil and allowing thoughts to arise at a more natural pace. While writing it I grew quickly aware of the fairly large scope my narrative was acquiring, however: so even while feeling more relaxed and expansive in my writing, I was pulling back, skipping over ideas and memories, and hurrying over parts of the story. While I had ample time, that ample time did end with a deadline; and in any case I feared I was making the piece too lengthy for CSZ, a slender magazine. Timmi fortunately expressed no worries about its 5,000-word length.

I sat with the Aqueduct magazine last night and read it cover to cover, absorbed in the present moment and not thinking back to those days of steady, slow writing back in July. So after the smooth flow of Salaam's essay my own essay surprised me -- with its hop-and-skip movements, and its occasional leaps between subjects ... between distant parts of a life. The lacunae between thoughts and sentences threatened to pull me, as reader, down into wordless emptinesses.

This morning I recall that when I sent the essay to Timmi I thought that my manuscript was akin to an outline of a larger narrative.

My two CSZ essays have strong memoir components -- as does the new, even longer essay I worked at in September-October.

I should say have labored at this new work, at least, when not scurrying around engaged in antiquing and Baraboo Sunday Market tasks. For CSZ? Probably not ...

Cheers ...

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Random Surfacing of Twain

A day ago, Saturday, we were at a rain-drenched auction here in the west of Wisconsin where we bought a little of this, a little of that. Near the end, when our small Saturn wagon was about full, I bought a large, cubical box of books, mostly children's.

This afternoon when looking through them I found one of those charming collections of sayings and quotations that Peter Pauper press used to do so well. This particular one appeared beneath the Hallmark imprint.

A Treasury of Mark Twain ... not a collection of stories; just short observations and asides.

In opening the small book this evening one quotation caught my eye:

"Few slanders can stand the wear of silence."

When I published C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary I did find myself attacked by one of Kornbluth's several erstwhile collaborators ... the only surviving one, naturally. This erstwhile collaborator of Kornbluth claimed not to know me, although he and I had kept in contact, on and off, since the middle 1990s.

Anyway ... I have been reading Twain short works for my bedtime reading, recently. So I opened this little gift book with pleasure. When I came across this saying, provenance unlisted, I smiled ... for I was thinking back upon my strategy in the face of public attack.

For when my name was spoken with derision in public, in a famous author's blog ...

I deemed my best option, for the time being, to be silence.

Cheers ...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

At the Sunday Market

In Baraboo a few days ago, at the Sunday Market, I was chatting with a young artist visiting from Chicago. Learning that he had enlisted before enrolling in the Art Institute, I expressed pleasure at learning one can survive the brainwashing involved in military service. That someone should want to be an artist seems to me a sure sign of survival. He understood what I was saying and uttered what must have been a survival mantra, along these lines: "Don't eat the eggs and don't drink the milk." I hope I have this correct in substance, at least, in thinking back over a busy trio of days. Drugs for inhibiting adrenaline production which are mixed in the milk and eggs, he said, helped in the process of crushing the individual being remade into a soldier.

He and his friend, another artist, had already commented on how much my voice reminded them of an Art Institute teacher -- "He even laughs like him," she said to him -- which made me ask about that teacher's area of expertise; so when the topic of brainwashing came up I felt free to speak of my own area of special interest in science fiction; and I asked if the 1950s interested him. Since the decade did, I spoke of a novel that tells of a soldier's emergence from brainwashing, presented as science fiction adventure. The novel is Gunner Cade.

"This is so weird," the young man said. "You're the second person in five days to tell me I should read that novel."

I must have felt as startled as he by the coincidence. Since he had not learned the book's author, I wrote it out: Cyril Judd (Cyril Kornbluth and Judith Merril).

I mentioned that I had, only a few days before, happened to open Gunner Cade again, and had been struck by its opening paragraph: for in depicting the machinery behind Cade's morning waking it suggests so well the world-machine that wholly encompasses his life, and sets for him his horizons:

"Far below the sleeping loft, in ancient cellars of reinforced concrete, a relay closed in perfect silent automaton adjustment; up through the Chapter House, the tiny noises multiplied and increased. The soft whir of machinery in the walls; the gurgle of condensing fluid in conditioners; the thumping of cookers, where giant ladles stirred the breakfast mash; the beat of pistons pumping water to the top."

"Now I really have to read that novel," he said after I described the paragraph.

This morning the thought comes to me that Cyril might have produced a work of stunning intensity had he tackled this novel solo. Even so he outlined and presented it to Judy as a project to work on together to earn some fairly quick cash for the household. He may have felt, consciously or unconsciously, unready to confront his military experience in full. Some direct memories emerged in one of his first solo novels, The Naked Storm, written around the same time -- but only as fragments. Memories of the whole life-changing experience surged too powerfully within him, as of yet, for him to reduce it to dimensions he could grasp, to express them more fully as an artist.

This morning, too, a memory strikes me -- of a small item the young man found in our booth. He reacted to it with enthusiasm. A small, wooden three-piece box, the old thing once served, I believe, as a match-safe. The young man conceived of a different use related to his art-making.

It strikes me only now that the match safe was shaped much like a standing-upright bullet.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Diaz, Zelazny, Kornbluth

A few days before I learned that Junot Diaz was to receive a MacArthur fellowship I happened to be reading his recent New Yorker story, and because of it was thinking of writing an essay about encounters with the fictional structure called the confessional.

A story will sometimes leave the reader unaware of its confessional nature until the end. That, in part, gives the ending its effectiveness: for it offers unexpected relief from what is now understood to be the downward gyre of the protagonist's life. It offers not resolution to a problem but the beginning of an answer.

I remember in the 1980s watching a Disco movie in a TV rerun, to gain a glimpse into the hoopla that raged through lives far glitzier than mine: Saturday Night Fever, I suspect. I remember being struck, at the end, by its confessional structure -- making a pop-culture movie, nakedly commercial in its intent and design, a matter for lingering contemplation -- at least for my erratic and eclectic organ of retrospection.

While that insight had strange immediacy, it took me longer to see it other places where it existed -- such as in Roger Zelazny's Jack of Shadows, the novel of his to which I have returned most often over the decades. That delay in recognition may have come about because of having read it several times before learning much about fictional structure.

Several aspects of "The Cheater's Guide to Love" ring chimes. Although its women characters seem ciphers, often described by the narrator in stereotypical lingo, they perform the Woman of Insight role. That they do so offstage lessens that role to some degree, perhaps. A certain amount of offstage machinations by the Woman Who Knows, however, may be necessary in such stories.

For now I am opting for a blog entry -- the essay may never come about, after all -- because of a different chime being rung. It occurs to me that Gravy Planet's ending gives a confessional arc to the whole. Cyril Kornbluth had already employed structures similar to the confessional; and his shorter story "The Marching Morons," which seems to contain the germ of the novel, might be read as a modified confessional in which the ending note of nascent hope is, instead, a note of nascent understanding without hope.

These thoughts comes as a surprise because the edited-down version of Gravy Planet, published as The Space Merchants, reads more simply as a romance, ending as it does at a point of romantic happiness. I do need to re-read both novels to confirm these impressions. If true, an irony arises in that the female lead in Gravy Planet endures reduction to a stereotypical cipher in The Space Merchants -- so hardly a worthy figure for romance.

As I have noted elsewhere, I have been unable to determine when or if Cyril learned that Space Merchants was significantly shortened and altered from Gravy Planet.

Cheers ...

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Magazine of Speculative Poetry

Last year at some point arrived the Spring, 2011, issue of The Magazine of Speculative Poetry. At the time I had not too much cluttered the front porch -- for I remember sitting in the venerable stuffed chair out there, reading the issue in the morning sunshine with interest; and out there today in the frigid January cold, when moving around this item and that, I found my copy.

I was about to say this is an excellent issue, but stopped myself, since my contributions were several. Other contributions than mine are excellent, though.

I was, and am on re-reading, particularly taken by the two works by Joanne Merriam: "Tender Aliens (after Gertrude Stein)" and "Love in the Time of Alien Invasion." Both are fresh and direct in their language; and both are informed primarily by everyday and colloquial speech rather than poetic structure or a traditionally poetic sense of language. The Stein-esque poem shows its influence, even for those of us who, like myself, have read less Stein than they would like to do some day. The borrowing is creative, insofar as the approach to language yields up an approach to ideas. It is an "invasion" poem, much as Merriam's other entry in this issue.

Both poems are pessimistic -- the former one more cheerfully so. The latter takes a more jaded if not bitter tone.

And other contributors? ... Andrew Nightingale, Ann K. Schwader, David Greenslade, Robert Borski, Yoon Ha Lee, Mike Alexander, Jessy Randall & Daniel M. Shapiro, P.M.F. Johnson, Geoffrey A. Landis, and Holly Day. Cover, as it happens, by Mark Rich.

The poems of my own in this issue are ones I will not disown. I mean to say that I can re-read them with interest, which is not the case with all my poems, once they see print. The poems are "Falsebook," "Winter in Mirasea" and "As Here, Out There." "Mirasea" remains my favorite of the set, however conventional it might seem, or be.

"Falsebook" should begin:

Careless again -- leaving my face
in an open drawer.
And I have had this face
all my life.

In print the first word appears as "Carless" -- which would aptly describe me for most of the course of my life. The intended word was "careless," even so.

Line 25 of "Winter in Mirasea" I believe should begin with "above" instead of "about," although the reader's eyes likely skim over the difference.

In "As Here, Out There," I find I penciled in a line change, not a correction. The last line of the second section, "any direction but straight," I changed to, "any way there but the straight one." The nature of roads here in the coulee region of Wisconsin helped inspire this piece.

The useful information: five dollars, sent to editor Roger Dutcher at P.O. Box 564, Beloit, Wisconsin 53512, will get you a copy.

Cheers ...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Poem for a Birthday

This morning I wrote, and this evening over a scotch read aloud to Martha,the following lines (copyright 2012 Mark Rich):

He seizes us by the roots of our hair.
I am not speaking of fear: we pass
beneath an arch of Gothic archness
to Modernity, under the guidance of Poe.
The symbols of the Moderns awaken
in his pages. How to perceive
the shadow culture haunting the century
after his death if not by peering
into the shades of his? Such stirring
we feel in our scalps reveals stirrings
of learning. We, the post-Moderns, thought
we knew it all. How shocking, to love
being forced to learn, and learn better.

This short poem I suppose should bear the title, "Lines Written on Poe's Birthday."

Cheers ...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Zebrowski's Essay on the Kornbluth Biography

During my lengthy silence here at "Vines, Wines and Lines," a few reviews of C.M. Kornbluth continued appearing. Among them is what may be the single weightiest thus far: "A Sense of Something in Him," by George Zebrowski, in the October-November, 2011, Free Inquiry.

For its title, Zebrowski borrowed a phrase from the likewise thoughtful and emotionally engaged F&SF review by James Sallis.

Zebrowski's quiet, reflective tone suits his expansive approach to his subject. Given a readership at Free Inquiry that might be unfamiliar with Kornbluth's name, and that might be foggily aware, at best, that the practice of writing science fiction may have led to the production of works of art, Zebrowski's approach seems calculated to inform and interest intelligent readers of any stripe. "A Sense of Something in Him" is as much an essay written in defense of science fiction as an examination of the book.

Zebrowski seems to mention more of the thematic strands in the biography than do previous reviewers -- or at least different ones. I was especially pleased that he recognizes the importance of the book's final chapter.

In writing the book, my own realization -- my own ability to embrace the ideas in that last chapter -- came actually too slowly. The understanding I exhibit by the end, as a result, makes little appearance in some earlier chapters, such as in those tracing the split-personality thematic element in Kornbluth's works. Those chapters I wrote at a time when I had meager biographical knowledge of the man.

I am pleased, too, by an observation Zebrowski makes, which some would-be detractors may not want to hear, but should: "Notes covering the vast sourcing of this book fill the oversized pages 383-439," Zebrowski writes. "Pohl's material is drawn from his own papers and letters at the Special Collections Research Center of the Syracuse University Library."

Zebrowski brings to this essay-review a personal note that I, at least, appreciate. This and the Sallis essay-review both seem to validate an observation in my book -- which, as it happens, Zebrowski quotes: "An impassioned curiosity takes hold of readers when they encounter Kornbluth's work." I was moved to assert this after meeting some readers who were deeply intrigued by Kornbluth because of the power of his stories. Being of a later generation than he was, their aesthetic appreciation was not based on commonality of cultural experience. Their life experiences were immeasurably different from his.

There remains much about Kornbluth that may remain forever unknown to us ... thus my "immeasurably." We tap into some of it in a passage I quote late in the book -- one from Algis Budrys, written in the 1970s, looking back and remembering a searingly emotional session of The Five.

Budrys understood completely. What a complex, beautiful human being Cyril Kornbluth was! I am grateful for essayists and reviewers like Zebrowski who have come to recognize this, too.

Cheers ...

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Celebrating King's Day

Martha and I observed Martin Luther King day, yesterday, by reading aloud from a slender paperback.

Back in the middle 1970s I had the opportunity to hear Dick Gregory speak, at University of Ottawa, Kansas. All I can remember is being impressed and entertained ... and lifted. Would I have known Gregory's name had he not appeared there, in Kansas, in person? I am not sure at all: for Cosby's was the dominant voice of Black American comedy on TV and radio.

At some point, much later, I lucked upon Gregory's From the Back of the Bus, an Avon book from the early 1960s.

This was what I trotted out for a little read-aloud over whisky during our evening happy hour.

And this morning, when doing some organizing in the workroom of the house, I came across a small package of items Dick Gregory might have appreciated.

"Colored nails," the package reads.

In the hardware business, colored nails are the ones painted white.

Cheers ...

Four Reasons for Silence

For quite some time it has been on my mind to make mild noises again in my quiescent blog.

A series of situations made it seem more appropriate to keep my thoughts unaired and publicly unshared, however.

Two years ago Martha and I were jointly leaving a job situation that had made the two of us a bit angry. Whatever reasons we may have had, why make uncomfortable protests that benefit no one?

During the same period, one of Cyril Kornbluth's collaborators started making unmeasured statements about my C.M. Kornbluth, and about me. The statements verged on the absurd. To avoid a fruitless war of meaningless pixels, even though observers were poised and eager to witness a war of words, electronic silence on the matter seemed my best option. I had devoted many years and had written hundreds of thousands of words in developing the picture offered by my book.

To have defended my book adequately would have meant repeating it, word for word, footnote by footnote.

Soon after this, "reviews" of my book began appearing on Amazon. The "reviewers" spoke in outrage or disgust about my book's contents while making it obvious they had not read it. In one case the reviewer stated outright that he had not read my book.

While one or two of these were expunged by the Amazon editors, I believe one or two remain.

A hallmark of these literary oddities, by these presuming "reviewers," is their insistence on trotting out the supposed facts of Kornbluth. They note that Kornbluth was a highly prolific writer, and that he drank a lot.

Readers of countless introductions to Kornbluth stories would gather these impressions. Those who gave my book a full reading, however, should feel considerable hesitation about standing behind either statement.

While Cyril was clearly capable of tossing off quality writing under pressure -- true of many among us -- his creative work reflected a studious and careful approach. He developed his capacity for careful literary work during his teen years. Later, in producing the works of his maturity, he labored and sometimes struggled; and he balanced his rough drafts, sometimes quickly produced, by subjecting them to intense and prolonged periods of consideration and revision.

His output per year, in the 1950s, was relatively low.

As to drinking ... Cyril does fall into the category of writers who drink. This category includes a huge group of us. Cyril seems not to fall into the category of writers who need to drink to write, however. His command of prose is durably precise, cogent and clear-headedly rational -- to an intimidating degree.

Worth noting, too, for those who have not read my book: Cyril went through several periods when the meager income that was coming in must have gone in its entirety to home and family expenses. For prolonged periods, drinking money must have been tough to come by. This seems especially, and painfully, to have been true near the end.

Those who trot out such "facts" about Cyril Kornbluth are drawing a picture of the poorly-known man from the image of a widely-known boy. In the small realm of late-1930s science fiction fandom, Cyril was a fairly famous teenager. Cyril's life as an adult, however, was almost entirely unknown until publication of my book.

I hope these "reviewers" are making that mistake. Otherwise they are being a bit too easy about insulting the man's memory.

Returning to silences ... early in 2011 I found that the judgeship for the World Fantasy Awards, which had been proposed to me the previous November, was becoming reality: so suddenly I was doing a great deal of reading which I felt I should not, as judge, be talking about in public. So, again, I felt encouraged to remain mum about matters on my mind.

In the same week that the WFA panel of judges was winding up its work, I accepted work at a vineyard -- eagerly, since between judging and maintaining house and garden I had almost zero income for a period of months.

This work offered perfect fodder for this blog.

The future of matters at the vineyard and winery, however, kept changing from week to week, sometimes day to day, due to the vagaries of the owner's changeable mind ... upsetting me considerably, at times ... making me feel uncomfortable writing about enough matters that I, again, felt ...

Cheers ...

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Empty Davenport

I have been sitting upon this announcement for a week ... after having written it five days after the event occurred that so sadly altered Martha's and my lives.

Around the solstice, Kit Reed sent an e-mail that stated, in part, how lucky Martha and I were, in having Lorna, our Scottiedog, as a part of our household.

Kit never met Lorna. I met Kit at a Readercon, very briefly, years ago -- when I seized the opportunity to express my admiration of her early fantasies of the 1950s. Our science-fictional and fantasy connections led us to discover, many years later, a shared love of Scottiedogs. So she saw photos of our Lorna; we saw others of her latest, named Killer.

Lorna, born almost exactly nine years before Kit Reed's e-mail, died at about 3:30 a.m. on December 23, 2011, with Martha at her side. Martha had been sitting in vigil with Lorna at Lorna's little davenport.

Martha and I had been taking turns, in sitting vigil: and I had just gone to bed when Martha called me back, saying she thought Lorna might be breathing her last.

Her davenport: a child's or toy sofa we found at a flea market. Once re-upholstered by Martha, Lorna made it her own, as her night bed ... before those nights came when she wanted to crawl up with us on "the big bed." After that time, for Lorna, the davenport remained her day bed. She spent no more nights upon it until her last two.

She was not alone, at least, those last two.

Lorna was unusually well-known among humans, in our area ... well-known for a dog, at least. Martha and I attend many local auctions; and over the past few years Lorna joined us at most of them, becoming an acquaintance and friend to many in our regional community of scroungers and antiquers. Her calm demeanor, her intelligence, and not least her cuteness won her many admirers.

Lorna was known, too, in the writing community. We hosted "live dog parties" at a few St. Paul, Minnesota, conventions ... where various local writing luminaries, such as poet John Calvin Rezmerski, Terry Garey and Greg Johnson, met and enjoyed spending time with her. Lorna consorted with science fiction writers William Wu and Rob Chilson, building an especial rapport with the latter; and she spent nearly as much time as I did, earlier this last year over the course of a long weekend, hanging out with renowned editor David G. Hartwell of Tor Books. Her friends in the Minneapolis-area writing community are many. (Because of unfortunately dog-unfriendly policies at Madison hotels, many of our other writing friends had no chance to meet Lorna.)

Lorna worked with us at our jobs ... at an organic maple-syrup bottling and distribution plant; then at a local vineyard and winery.

She was also often at my side during my work on my most recently published book, a biography and critical evaluation of Cyril Kornbluth and his works ... and during work on my still un-finished book relating to toys and Modern society.

Although Martha and I have cut back our performance schedule severely, Lorna was on-stage at Keg Salad performances at Diversicon, in St. Paul, and O'So Brewery, in Plover, Wis. She was certainly with us during our our many antiquing trips, our many gardening sojourns ... during our periodic forays into exploring the driftless region's roads and parks ... during our household's good days, so-so days, bad days, sunny days, foggy days ...

She was with us for the whole of our Lorna days.

Lorna, whom we adopted as a rescue, suffered digestive issues whose severity and intensity were apparent but not quite clear to us until nearly the end.

She loved to play, and was playing with energy until that last, miserable day before she left for the land where she is, we hope, still happily hunting squeak toys.

Her loss has been a devastating one, in this small, village household in Cashton, Wisconsin. As to survivors ... since she apparently had puppies, at a stage of life before she knew us, there may exist in this world Scottiedogs who carry within them some of Lorna's spirit and presence and demeanor, and who may carry on for her the bearing of the torch of tolerance for the shortcomings of humankind. She taught us a great deal. We can only hope that her children are teaching others, as well.

With cheers to loss and memory, endings and beginnings ...