Friday, April 25, 2008

Quentin's Soundtracks

I saw Death Proof a couple of months ago and didn't like it at all. It didn't work as homage, it didn't work as trash, and it didn't work as entertainment.

(Though I was entertained when a student insisted to me that it was a "perfect homage to all of those great 1970s drive-in movies and car chase movies and ultra-low-budget New York gore movies" and then couldn't name or honestly claim to have seen a single one such film).

I at least expected entertaining dialogue and, while there was certainly a lot of talk talk talk, all of it read like juniors desperately trying to write what they think Tarantino movies sound like.

But, what it did have was a brilliant soundtrack. And, sure, that's to be expected, but this one had truly surprising things on it. Most prominently, and most brilliantly (with an honorable mention for "Chick Habit") are these two:

1. "Hold Tight" by the improbably named Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. How I had never heard this before is beyond me. It's the perfect blend of fuzzed-out guitars, melodic (but ever-evolving) simplicity, rhythmic complexity masquerading as simplicity, '60s harmonies, and the adherence to maxim that anything sayable in fewer than three minutes shouldn't be padded out to four. I picked up a collection by the group and much of it is just as good. There's no doubt that they're a bunch of Brits; the songs have got those little melodic quirks that you find in, for example, work by the Kinks, and that never seem to show up in otherwise-similar American songs (not after 1950, anyway).

2. "Staggolee" by Pacific Gas and Electric. A traditional song, and a badass one at that, and this group, whoever they are, take it and treat it like The Band had grown up not in Canada and Arkansas but in Watts instead -- and a Watts burning simultaneously with soul glory and psychedelic frustration. And while there are probably 38,000 versions of it in existence, at the moment, I'd be willing to argue that it's the best version of the song ever set down, easily eclipsing Dylan's version from World Gone Wrong, or that of RL Burnside, or (believe it or not) Neil Diamond, or Mississippi John Hurt, or even the Isley Brothers.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Thousand Page Novels

I looked at one of the bookshelves in my classroom this morning and realized that, yes, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest has defeated me again. It's been long enough since I picked it up that I wouldn't feel right starting anywhere but the beginning whenever I next get the urge to try it.

I remain confident, though, that I'll read it, in its entirety, well before Neil Young ever releases one of the Archives boxes. The bastard.

Ants with the Staggers

It has been raining in Virginia. A lot. And while I’d like to say that it’s all puddle-wonderful, it’s mostly just wet. And muddy.

But it is spring, as I said last week. And, in honor of the leaves, of the flowers, and the sunroof days that insist on "Can’t Hardly Wait" and "The Kids Are Alright" and Al Green’s version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," I offer this poem by Ted Kooser. Check out the image of the ants – and this is perfect – with the staggers. The staggers. Damn.

Decoration Day

It takes the hard work
Of a dozen ants
To open each bud
Of a peony.
For weeks, there they are,
Biting the sutures
And licking the glue.
Then, one by one
On Decoration Day,
The blossoms explode,
Tossing the ants
All over the yard.
Early that morning,
We find these flowers
Opened, pink and white,
And in the wet grass,
Hundreds of ants
With the staggers, all
Watching the sky.

On Modern Poetry

From, this Robert Pinsky FAQ about unrhymed poetry, difficult poetry, free verse, Emily Dickinson, and more. I recommend it, partially for the Wallace Stevens appearance, but especially for the final question -- perhaps not coincidentally number nine:

9. Well, I like poetry that is amusing, that maybe makes me chuckle a little. I'd rather read something reassuring and light than something complicated or gloomy. Is that bad? Does that mean I am a jerk?


That's brilliant.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

One Long Sentence

I'm reading CK Williams' collection Repair this morning. Here's one:


Even when the rain falls relatively hard,
only one leaf at a time of the little tree
you planted on the balcony last year,
then another leaf at its time, and one more,
is set trembling by the constant droplets,

but the rain, the clouds flocked over the city,
you at the piano inside, your hesitant music
mingling with the din of the downpour,
the gush of rivulets loosed from the eaves,
the iron railings and flowing gutters,

all of it fuses in me with such intensity
that I can't help wondering why my longing
to live forever has so abated that it hardly
comes to me anymore, and never as it did,
as regret for what I might not live to live,

but rather as a layering of instants like this,
transient as the mist drawn from the rooftops,
yet emphatic as any note of the nocturne
you practice, and, the storm faltering, fading
into its own radiant passing, you practice again.

I can't argue with that. Not with the opening image of the individual leaves set trembling by the rain. Not with the flocks of clouds. Not with the movement toward and into the reality of the third stanza and the speaker's realization that living forever would not, ultimately, be about living every moment possible, but about the lengthening of individual, otherwise-transient moments into eternity. And not with the spinning out of the single, extended sentence of the poem, its individual moments becoming, in sum, its own eternity.

Stevie Loses His Mind. On Vinyl.

I've had Stevie Wonder's Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants for a long, long time, but hadn't ever managed to listen to it.

Until yesterday.

And the verdict?

This is the point where the man, genius though he may have been, actually lost his shit. Maybe the title of the album gives that away. Maybe promising your audience a chlorophilic trip of this nature should be considered a clue. Either way, the thing is strange. Mostly instrumental (and where it's not instrumental, it's actually even stranger), mostly slow, and, as far as I can tell, mostly disconnected from anything I remember from 9th grade biology.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Spring and All

And here’s another bit from “A Matter of Meaning It,” this time courtesy of Martin Luther via Cavell: “All our experience of life should be baptismal.”

Because it’s spring.

Which makes me think of Greg Brown’s “Spring Wind,” and these lines:

Children go to sleep now
Don’t you know it’s getting late
I know you don’t like to miss nothing
And school ain’t that great.

Which makes me think of the rest of that album (Dream CafĂ©) and the song “Sleeper” and these lines:

It’s another happy April
For another happy fool
And you move through my dreams
Like a trout moves through a pool

And, of course, “Laughing River,” as I contemplate the tiny possibility of finding a teaching job in Michigan for next year:

I reckon where I’m headed
I’m going to need me different clothes
Way up in Michigan
Where the Laughing River flows.

Late Night + Stanley Cavell

I was up at 1:30, at 2:00, and at 3:00 last night with Maya and after trying for much of that time to return her to sleep with the lights off, I gave up, turned the kitchen light on, and tried to read while walking in circles, rocking her, and waiting for her to surrender. For this, I chose Stanley Cavell’s Must We Mean What We Say, which I’ve wanted to revisit. I moved in slow laps around the kitchen, listening to four gallons of Belgian Strong Dark Ale as it bubbled beneath the kitchen table. Each page of Cavell’s text, seen in motion and through half-lidded eyes, took on a strange sort of luminescence, individual lines read and re-read until they glowed. I felt I understood.

It’s been hard to recapture that feeling this morning, but here are a few thoughts, put down primarily in an attempt to cement them for myself.

In “A Matter of Meaning It,” one of the essays in which Cavell deals with film (Fellini, in this case), as he responds to questions about what constitutes art, I found this sentence, quite relevant as my AP students write papers on the last four works that we’ve read together, trying to offer clear, coherent investigations in central concerns, questions, or ideas in at least two of them:

“I had suggested that a certain sense of the question ‘Why this?’ is essential to criticism, and that the ‘certain sense’ is characterized as one in which we are, or seem to be, asking about the artist’s intention in the work.”

And there you go. Investigating a work of art, a novel, a poem, a piece of music, is a matter of asking why X is present, or X is used, or X appears, or X recurs. And this questioning, ultimately, brings us to issues of whether or not a given reading, a given idea is “intended” by the author. Or, as my students put it, “Did he really mean that?”

For some critics, according to Cavell, this questioning pushes them outside the work. But, as he puts it, “The fact is that the correct sense of the question ‘Why?’ directs you further into the work.” And it is being brought further into the work that I love about reading criticism, about discussing books and poems, about hearing others talk through their understandings of movies, and about returning repeatedly to books or poems I’ve read before and music I’ve heard before.

But what about that matter of intention? What can we say about how or whether an artist “intends” certain things in his work? What if we read something into a poem that the poet didn’t “intend” to put there? Here’s what Cavell says, in a thought that, last night, tired, more distracted than I wanted to be, seemed to me to bring the questions to answer in a fashion that would have pleased Borges: if an artist’s work produces, say, a resonance, or reflects an allusion, or an idea that he didn’t, in some sense “intend,” it’s okay. The reading is still relevant. The idea still matters, for “he re-discovered, or discovered for himself, in himself, the intention of that myth itself [referring, in this case, to Fellini], the feelings and wants which originally produced it.” And even if he didn’t “intend” it, “I shall still use it in my reading of the film, not because his intention no longer guides me, but because what it does is exactly guide me (as it guided him).”

And the end of the piece, probably my favorite part: “In art, [asking about intentions] has to be earned, through the talent of understanding, the skill of commitment, and truthfulness to one’s response – the ways the artist has earned his initial right to our attention. If we have earned the right to question it, the object itself will answer; otherwise, not.”

That helped.

Friday, April 4, 2008


Reading Cormac McCarthy's Suttree, and, Holy Jeebus, this is a fantastic book, and it's funny, too. Plus, it teaches me new words. My favorite so far: murenger. I think I'll make it the name of the Strong Bitter I made a few weeks ago. Murengers' Bitter.

And it has this sentence (right on the second page, for crying out loud):

"Where hunters and woodcutters once slept in their boots by the dying light of their thousand fires and went on, old teutonic forebears with eyes incandesced by the visionary light of a massive rapacity, wave on wave of the violent and the insane, their brains stoked with spoorless analogues of all that was, lean aryans with their abrogate semitic chapbook reenacting the dramas and parables therein and mindless and pale with a longing that nothing save dark's total restitution could appease."

Clockers was a fun diversion, and The God Delusion, like I said, was about what you'd expect. And I read some of Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, which has an entertaining chapter on Neil Young, but, as far as I could tell, not much else.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Garfield Minus Garfield (again)

This, by the way, is my favorite, so far, of the brilliant Garfield Minus Garfield series:

Copyright, if you wish, to, um, probably Jim Davis, and the United Press Syndicate, and whatever brilliant mind scrubs the cat out of each frame.

What it makes me think about immediately:

The Stranger
The Sun Also Rises
All the Pretty Horses

Borges' story "The Babylon Lottery" -- or even "The Labyrinth," with its possibility that there's nothing at the center of the universe, the possibiilty that, yes, the weather simply turns colder. And you know what that means. And it's nothing.

Random Journal Page #2

from May 3, 2007

... can fight the system not by attempting to confront it directly (to take arms against a sea of troubles, which will end only in defeat) but by refusing to participate at all. Choosing not to participate (that is, refusing to perpetuate the system even to the extent that fighting it would) is the only adequate response.

If it’s adequate.

It could be that it’s inadequate even as it is simultaneously the only option that exists.

May 4, 2007

I get the whole senioritis thing. I do. But I don’t accept it as this kind of blanket nonsense excuse for whining inactivity. Again, if you choose to do nothing (with an hour, with a class, with an opportunity, with your entire damn life), then so be it: you’ve chosen to do nothing. Congratulations.

But, then, goddamnit, just shut up about it. Don’t whine. Don’t wheedle. Don’t whinge. Don’t offer excuses and piddly blah blah blah that you think rationalizes or excuses away your lack of action, your lack of engagement with what is in front of you.


As if I’m not guilty of this myself. But, I think I’m getting better at simply acknowledging when I’m wasting time, or doing nothing, or procrastinating, or attempting to foist responsibility rather than trying to…


That’s where the page ends, right before I started writing about Catch-22 again, which my last bunch of classes read a little later in the year than the current crop. This year, I managed to make it part of a trifecta of Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Hamlet. Which I like. Which makes sense to me.

That said, I found some humor in the page that flipping open the journal gave me. Not in what was said, necessarily, but just in that awful, self-serving, ultimately whiney complaint about, yes, whining. Humor of the not-funny variety.

Particularly not-funny, I guess, in light of how I stayed up all night Sunday working on my National Board entries, stayed home from school on Monday to continue working on those same entries, and still would have failed to meet the deadline if the local post office didn’t have one of those nifty automated package mailing machines that allowed me to postmark my box o’ procrastination at 7:43 on Monday night and still have it count as March 31. Much of which could have been avoided by working as much on it throughout the year as I should have, spreading the hours out over several months rather than into two days of Spring Break and the 48 hours before it was due.