Tuesday, September 30th, 2014
I started reading William Carlos Williams biography of his mother last night. It is promising to be great -- it is taken from dialog with her at the end of her life, when they were translating Quevedo's "El perro y la calentura" together (from a copy that Ezra Pound had given him!) -- kind of as a pretext for getting her to talk in a situation where he could surreptitiously be taking notes. (2 things about that text -- it is apparently not by Quevedo but by Pedro Espinosa, long misattributed to Quevedo; and the Williams translation is available from New Directions, in print.)
How does it begin? I asked her.
It begins with two men walking in the fields and talking.
Oh yes, I said, una novella peregrina. Let's begin:
So we began. It served its purpose which was to draw out her comments. Let her come first, her childhood and early years, in her own words exactly as she told it.
I heard about this book, and got inspired to read it, from Marta Aponte, who is currently working on a novel about Mrs. Williams. Williams himself wrote in one of his letters (according to a fragment of Aponte's work) that it was his most important book.
Saturday, September 27th, 2014
by Jen Digby
The cold, detached, and regimental ritual-making in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; the soma-induced ecstasy of promiscuity in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; the whimsical true love of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four before torture turned something beautiful into something untouchable – science fiction presents a variety of scopes and perspectives on utopias and dystopias, often blurring the lines between the two in an experiment of “what could happen” to us. Censorship, the irony of controlled freedom, the forbidden nature of old works of art which once forged a national heritage and the suppression of free media where self-publishing empowers and inspires – these are all aspects of another world which is much closer to our own than we realize. But the way in which some science fiction texts present different realms of life disclose revealing insights on the ideology which surrounds them in present-day society – and sexuality is one of them.
In Margaret Atwood’s futuristic tale of a woman who recounts her experiences as a handmaid working under a rigid, fanatical society, sexuality is a part of life which is both sacred and profane. Sex becomes a coveted ritual to be performed between masters and handmaids under the watchful eyes of wives for the purposes of procreation only – all intimacy is restricted. Atwood argues that the very title of this work in speculative fiction (the award-winning writer is reluctant to file it under what she considers the reductive term of “science fiction”) has “become a shorthand for repressive regimes against women.” While she explores various power struggles and politics between nations in this ultra-religious state – running through several “what ifs”, Atwood also discusses Puritanism and the construct of Christian societies, as well as ideas of feminism. Within this society, sex is used as a device of control – not only because of the “falleness” and sinful nature of the act by Biblical standards which forbids pleasure, but because it places a once personal, private act into the institutions of the ruling power. One could argue that this is a “could happen” scenario whose roots are still found today in various modern issues surrounding sexuality, not only concerning religion but secular laws and parts of the pro-life movement which stress that a woman’s body is not her own with campaigners still having to stand ground for allowing women to make their own decisions.
A Free World – but Only on the Surface
Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Huxley’s Brave New World also invites the government into the bedroom to some degree by completely taking away the ability to procreate naturally, instead creating different classes of human beings (a scientific version of the caste system) via test tubes. Yet this is utopia, and sexual promiscuity is promoted to the extreme. With birth control and a healthy society, the old plights of promiscuity which left their scourge on history are things of the past – only recounted as propaganda to reassure the public that this world is the better world, and reinforce the “us vs them” sentiment against the people who live out in the Reservations who live like “savages”. While the risks of sex have been eliminated, critics often compare topical issues like “Planned Parenthood” to Brave New World in the most extreme cases. Huxley’s idea of “paradise engineering” and creating a utopia which, incidentally, may seem full of flaws to a contemporary audience potentially warn of such a future where controlled freedom – under the guise of superficial, instantaneous and risk-free satisfaction – detaches us from our values and our emotional commitments to one another. Sexuality is completely segregated from child birth (eugenics), becoming an indulgence which works as a drug to “tame” the general population under the pretence of so-called happiness and liberty. While some of the gender roles are removed here, arguably creating a more level playing field for women, male and female alike are caught in the illusion.
Hope and Discord
Yet there are other portrayals of sexuality – while Nineteen Eighty-Four certainly examines sex as yet another controlled act, the story of Winston and Julia presents another insight. Their sexuality is awakened by acting out the forbidden, reflective of fetish culture in contemporary society where the thought of enacting something not allowed – at the risk of being caught – can be arousing. The initial lust between the lovers turns into love, which does not conquer all – but the brief moments of sex for pleasure adds meaning to their lives, just as much as the adventure to meet discreetly. Unlike Frank Herbert’s Dune which examines sexuality in a completely twisted way, associating it with abuse, slavery, and excess, sexuality in the Orwellian classic touches succinctly on several layers. Sex for pleasure – an act of political rebellion – leaves the reader with hope initially, because emotional freedom and empowerment occurs, and a return to the triumphant human self as well as the sense that it cannot be repressed forever.
Science fiction has played with these ideas for generations – whether it’s the monstrous energy of the Demon in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – the ultimate potent being whose violence could be attributed to repression as well as ostracism – or the pop culture space operas of pin-up girls on wild planet colonies. Yet even in one’s idea of paradise, there is a fear – and a conscious commentary of what sexuality means to a society in both present and distant times.
Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014
A couple of things have been happening lately in the world of "poetry by J. Osner"... The chapbook of the Universidad Desconocida workshop was presented at the kickoff event for the workshop's second year. It features three of my poems and lots of beautiful writing from other students -- and I've just finished a translation of Isabel Zapata's "Sleepwalker's Lullaby" from the chapbook. ...Two of my poems (both from Analogies for Time) were published in Issue 5 of Street Voice (I think it is the first time I have ever appeared in a poetry journal), and I'm in touch with the editor about submitting some more work.
Saturday, September 20th, 2014
Here is an idea I am liking, poetry-wise: I think I've hit on this rhythm and voice that will allow me to propel the text, to follow almost blindly the beats and consonants of the text and ultimately even to transcend the text. Here is a piece I wrote in that fashion, following this meter, yesterday -- as I say I like it, and find this a pleasant voice to adopt, cute, (semi blatant) echoes of Poe and of Whitman -- formally of one, excitement-wise of the other. The poem is to a prompt from Describli.
by J. Osner
Read between the lines,
lines marking boundaries that
separate *within* from what's
without. Read behind the
words, the printed words are
only messengers, the poem
that's behind them's what you
need. Read between the lines,
dividing lines between the
text and empty paper. Read
behind the words, read
through the text, it's a distraction from the message
graven deep on every page.
Read behind the page, now
read the emptiness around
you, shining message, read
the tintinnabulation of the
night, the air around you's humming,
breathing, clicking, pounding, every line
of every poem you've ever
read's inscribed there, see it,
read it, listen to the meter of
the poem that's behind the
text you're reading in the
sweet night air, encoded
in the symbols of the lines.
Saturday, September 13th, 2014
It's all going down tonight at McNalley-Jackson Books in the city. I'll be reading my poem "Formación" from the book of the Universidad Desconocida from last term, which is being presented.
Plus music and dancing! Come by if you're in the neighborhood.
At first I didn't quite know what I would do with the book, other than read it over and over again.
by J. Osner
The book is just a dream
on ink and paper
bound in rags
it's open on the table
just a book.
The book's an ancient river
dried up on the page
it's just a book.
The book was wilderness
and pulped for paper
standing on the bookshelf
just a book.
The book is just a poem
sound of turning pages
read it by the river
just a book.
The book's a dream transformed
edited and copyrighted
pull it off the shelf and open
read the words and hear the whisper
trace the patterns graven
in the book.
(a contribution from reader Jen Digby)
I remember the tattered cover of Ken Kesey’s notorious classic vividly – faded gloss finish, bold typography and the sneering face of a mischievous Jack Nicholson before a wire fence. To me, it seemed like an unusual choice of text to throw on a high school curriculum; obsessively impassioned with the voluptuous prose of the ancient classics and “recents” like Shakespeare and the English Romantics, I had little interest in it at the time. And yet – years after reading about what happened to that rogue McMurphy and his buddies – it kind of hit me with an explosion. Suddenly, Kesey’s edgy and rugged descriptions, his conspiratorial critiques and almost caricature-like characters swept me up in their own world. It made me marvel – and it made me terrified.
Experimenting with the Mind
I rediscovered One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after listening to a BBC radio documentary on psychedelic music. I had learned about Kesey’s involvement with experimental psychedelics and his work in mental wards, and later discovered just how deep in it the countercultural figure was. Volunteering for the infamous Project MKUltra – otherwise known as the CIA’s Mind Control Program that explored various ways to engineer the behavior of humans, Kesey experimented with a variety of potent drugs, including LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, cocaine, aMT, and DMT. Along with “Acid Tests” – parties which Kesey held at his home – the influence of these substances helped kick-start the psychedelic movement in music, literature, and art.
Though LSD and its relatives were hugely popular at the time, prescription drugs and street drugs often found their way into the hands of poets, painters, and musicians, particularly when the dangers of taking these substances was largely unknown at the time. Without the right treatment centers and resources available, many addicts never completely recovered and frequently relapsed. But unlike today, there was a conscientious movement back then – mingled with revolutionary philosophies and ancient spirituality – where artists actively took drugs for an artistic and metaphysical high. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey points out the irony of so-called “established” medicine, where institutions freely over-medicate patients – a problem which still exists in the present where both patients of psychiatric wards and individuals experiencing mental illness issues outside of the hospital are over or inappropriately prescribed medicine. Kesey covers this issue numerous times in the work, pointing out that individuals refusing medication are often ostracized and treated with hostility and otherness.
Setting Up a Structure
Kesey describes – through his narrator, Chief Bromden, the protagonist McMurphy, and other prominent characters like Martini, Cheswick, Harding, and Bibbit – how a certain “state of mind” is attempted through the structure of the institution from its very setup to the restrictive schedules and medication requirements. Yet what is particularly interesting is that while many writers of the time may have used their hallucinatory influences to conjure up vivid scenes, Kesey does not. There is a peculiar clarify which underlines even the deliberately blurred scenes and descriptions – for instance, while it’s not exactly clear what the elusive “Combine” is, what it represents is fairly straightforward – a symbolic representation of the construct which currently governs – or rather controls – society. A ruthless, impenetrable, and eternal mechanism from which there is no hope of escape. Perhaps Kesey’s own experience with the CIA and his exposure to mind control activities is behind what sparked this poignant representation, and only when Bromden “liberates” himself and McMurphy (though in vastly different circumstances) is there finally some sense of free will. The true rebels in the story – Bromden and McMurphy – are the ones who do not conform. The arch-antagonist, Nurse Rachet, is reflective of a system which strives to quench free thought, although she does not guide that system herself – merely follows the rules without questioning their validity.
While the outside world is perceived as free, Bromden’s own observations on children – and how they are already being conditioned – reveals that the Combine transcends the walls of the asylum. Perhaps during Kesey’s time working on the ward, he saw only a re-packaged, condensed representation of what actually occurs around the rest of the world – Bromden certainly realizes this. Even more remarkable is the fact that, given Kesey’s involvement as well as his friends in the Grateful Dead with the CIA, that the book has been published at all. When I apply these elements to the contemporary world and even set it against other “dystopias” like Orwell’s 1984, I have to alarmingly conclude that this work is more relevant than ever. It’s not just the heartwarming, humorous, or meaningful moments which make it resonate with me – but the sinister world which Kesey is revealing to us in one of the most unlikely settings.
Thursday, July 31st, 2014
As the floor wafted up and C's grip finally gave, the last thing Gately saw was an Oriental bearing down with the held square and he looked into the square and saw clearly a reflection of his own big square pale head with its eyes closing as the floor finally pounced. And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.
So what did I think about Infinite Jest the second time? I read it back in '97 or thereabouts, and then lent it to Maurice, and his apartment flooded, destroying the book, so have not looked at it again since, until I picked it up a few weeks back.
My take back then, and what I've always said to people since, was it's a magnificent book for the first 700 or so pages, then trails off and does not go anywhere. And, well, I'm much more enthusiastic now about pages 700 - 9xx. The whole book is just really engaging and beautiful. But the ending. Well, it leaves me hanging in what seem like some important ways.
It seems to me like the two most important characters are Hal I. and Don G. I identify strongly with both of them pretty consistently throughout the book. Hal spends the book quitting marijuana and unraveling -- and it's clear from the first chapter, in the Year of Glad, that his unraveling continues after the end of the book. But I don't have a very clear sense of what this means, or why it's happening. Does it have something to do with the Entertainment? Does it have something to do with DMZ? (What is DMZ even doing in the book, if Hal and Pemulis don't end up taking it?)
Gately spends the novel quitting his narcotics habit and opposite-of-unraveling -- no that's not quite right I guess, he is sober and substance-free by the beginning of the novel, there are plenty of flashbacks to his addicted past and to his 12-steppery, but he is clearly free of that in the novel's present tense. I do wonder where he goes -- does he get together with Joelle? And why does ghostly JOI visit him at such length? Mainly I wonder why the final pages of the novel are a flashback to him getting high. It doesn't really seem to do anything for the story.
And this is a big deal -- what happens with the A.F.R. invasion of the tennis academy? The very last thing that happens in the book's present tense is them arriving on campus. But we know from chapter 1 that they did not kidnap Hal (I think? Or they did and he got back to E.T.A? Anyways something has to have happened.) We know from chapter 1 that ONAN has not been decimated by any Entertainment catastrophe. There was a possibility the master tape for the Entertainment was at the Ennet House, but no follow-up. And I'm completely driven crazy by how Hal made a casual reference, talking to Orin, to digging up somebody's grave -- throughout the book there are veiled hints that JOI's grave was robbed -- but it doesn't really go anywhere.
So -- I'm going to stick with my opinion that the ending is weak. But everything else about the book needs to be underlined and with exclamation points, what a great great book it is, how deeply necessary it is to read this book if you want to understand addiction. That's all.
Saturday, July 26th, 2014
The moment of the poem, by J. Osner
Poems you read, they shape you – watch the singsong of their syllables chase images of darkness and light down syntactic tunnels. Follow the syllable along the corridor to where it leads;
act out solemn ritual of determination.
The poem (if it's successful) always
functions on some level as a metaphor
for time: the reader's memory will
integrate the poem (if it's successful)
so its meter and its rhyme make up a cauldron through which filters reader's vision of experience: the moment, just off-kilter, just opaque enough to shadow (just concrete enough to straddle) future and the past which bubble up through the poem (if it's successful) and comprise the self you narrate to the world.
There is no calculus of consciousness.
The moment that you dwell in is no delta t,
its kaleidoscopic boundaries recede.
Thursday, July 24th, 2014
Seen lately in the READIN family garden --
Drop me a line! or, sign my Guestbook.
Check out Ellen's writing at Patch.com.