Friday, July 29, 2011

Birds: the dreams and prattling of those born from an egg

Nightingales' notes (as Bechstein has beautifully recorded them) seem to me like the Mexican language, and to express variety of sentiments of adoration and love. The parrot, magpie, jackdaw, jay, starling, and bullfinch, are prattlers; and the exquisite little canary, the pupil of my friend Mrs. H------, the pet, indeed, not only of its mistress, but of statesmen and learned physiologists, warbled its words in purest melody. From Sir William Temple we learn the faculty of the wonderful parrot of Prince Maurice of Nassau, at the Hague, that responsed almost rationally to promiscuous questions. Granting, then, this faculty of memory, it is clear that the bird may dream; and I may add a quotation from the "Domestic Habits of Birds," in proof of this.

' "We have, however, heard some of these night-songs which were manifestly uttered while the bird was asleep, in the same way as we sometimes talk in our sleep, a circumstance remarked by Dryden, who says -

'The little birds in dreams their songs repeat.' We have often observed this in a wild bird. On the night of the 6th April, 1811, about ten o'clock, a dunnock (Accentor nodularis) was heard in the garden to go through its usual song more than a dozen times very faintly, but distinctly enough for the species to be recognised." The night was cold and frosty, but might it not be that the little musician was dreaming of summer and sunshine? Aristotle, indeed, proposes the question - whether animals hatched from eggs ever dream? Macgrave, in reply, expressly says that his "parrot, Laura, often rose in the night, and prattled while half asleep."' - Philosophy of Mystery.

from the book "The Literature And Curiosities Of Dreams", by Frank Seafield

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

SPRING (after Mary Ruefle's The Hand)


after Mary Ruefle

the teacher asks a question
your hand is not correct

she asks again
tree branches, feathers
robin hung
hung by the neck

you look out the window
the answers you ask yourself and your life

your littlest finger
the little beauty
drama and light without fire


after Mary Ruefle's "The Hand" and with thanks to Translation Telephone

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Protection Song


for my father

O birth of many babies
clarinet playing
and the blackfaced river
how I love you

the trees are Jews
in autumn under water

the sky in the river
in the river under water
beside clouds that flow in the river
under the pine or beside the oak

a crowd of friends marvelling at ships
a fear of death
a fear of death beside you
parents, wife, children, friends

those whom you wish had no death
that they sail on the river
on the sky sailing in the river
those that sail endlessly and without fear

O endless clarinet-faced death
sky-faced ligature of water
O blackfaced Jew and Jewfaced black
black, Jewish, and under water

O 19th 20ieth O all centuries
the music of Al Jolson will protect you
the birds swimming
the banjos soft and low

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Treadmills, priests, dogs, dusk, sleep, and fathers: an update

Hot summer noontime and it seems all bloggers' thoughts turn to updates about why the intermittent blogging, the veer from the dogged posting, the endearing indolent laze through the hot daze of the dog days.  And here, it is  this way, too.

I'm a likely a third of the way through my novel (Yiddish for Pirates)-- 33,000 words. Five hundred words a day seems all I can manage, what with the nautical terms, the Yiddish-speaking parrot, and such novel intricacies as plot. I've been writing on a treadmill. Literally. Writer friends of mine write this way -- words measured in distance traversed. Imaginary distance walked through. Which makes sense for writing. I wake in the morning, my legs aching, thinking only that I managed to get my character into the Cathedral, and forgetting that I walked nowhere for hours.

A historical novel, it's hard to know how much history belongs in it. How much a character is aware of the history that s/he walks the imaginary distance through. Of course, I'm taking the characters on a guided tour, but it's not a lecture tour. It is, like most lives,  flaneury, and we turn a corner into a historical alleyway or are hit or manage to dodge events hurtling at us along the thoroughfare. I'm resisting the urge -- even if my characters don't always -- to explicate, to present grand themes in grand expository language. I'm not, however, resisting bad jokes. Not all of history's one-liners have to do with exclusive succession of power.

At the moment, I'm in the Inquisition. It's the 1480s and my protagonist is 14 and is something of a freedom fighter. Most people at the time, I'd imagine were pragmatic, phlegmatic, 'nu?'-matic, or as I said, were flaneurs through the unpredicted and unmapped paths of their own lives. And they were frogs in a pot of gradually heating water, adjusting to the temperature until it was too late and they became soup.

I'm pleased with how exciting and compelling the events of my novel have become. There's heroic and amazing deeds, but I'm becoming increasingly concerned that -- though I modelled it after 17th century adventure/exploration/pirate novels -- eg. Defoe, Exquemelin, etc.-- like Borges' great story of Pierre Menard writing Don Quixote in the 20th century, it means something vastly different now. Of course, maybe my narrator (a parrot, after all) is lying. Or can only understand the world through received stories, But still.

That is, however, what makes this an interesting enterprise. For me. Hopefully for my readers.

Recently, Pearl Pirie posting a link to "Translation Telephone", an online application which runs a text through 20 random languages in Google translator. I often do this manually: take a text and translate it back and forth into and out of English to generate interesting variations and new directions for editing and revising a text. It's fascinating how particular languages (at least as rendered by Google) steer the language to particular sensibilities.

Here's a poem that I wrote exploring Translation Telephone.


the horizon
it is red, bad hair

it is not a good place for the night

dog told me baby
watch the sunset
it needs it
or sleeping dogs

shepherd of the night
I live in another part of the plan


Here's another kind of translation. I've been reading Mark Abley's fantastic Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages and in the chapter on Yiddish, he writes about some very powerful Yiddish songs which were written during WWII. One was a lullaby to a stranger's child, because the mother had disappeared. I can't quite remember the particulars; there were some other striking quotations. Thinking about this, as well as some disturbing events my son & his girlfriend, currently living in Nicaragua for the summer, reported, I wrote this villanelle. It is a 'memory translation' and an imaginary reconstruction of a text which I've never seen.


mother where is the mother sleep
by the window child
father under song

though the old
sing and unsettled ask
mother where is the mother

sleep something broken
in the forest words
father under song

sleep the river father
mother understand
sleep where is the mother

sleep father sleep
carried in pieces
father under song

born, be born, hide
remember together a voice
where is the mother sleep
father under song


OK. Time for the treadmill and a priest to pretend that he is a ghost. Soon there will be a murder. Be well. Be cool. Drink whatever liquids are necessary.

Friday, July 15, 2011


Nat and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
I recently published a story in a chapbook entitled "The Saxophonists' Book of the Dead." (serif of nottingham, 2011.) Nicholas Papaxanthos read the story and asked me yesterday 'where was Cannonball Adderley?' since I'd left him out of the story in my pantheon of legendary saxophonists. I was thinking about this and felt that I needed to remedy this. Who could leave out Cannonball?

And so, today, I have written this story about Cannonball (and his brother Nat.) It also included chess, because chess is a kind of two dimensional jazz.

By the way, Nick's premiere poetry chapbook, Teeth, Untucked (Proper Tales Press) is great -- check out the title poem, it's especially.excellent. You can get it by contacting Stuart Ross at Proper Tales.

And now, thanks to Nick, the story.


We were playing Internet chess.
      “I like jazz,” he said. Rook takes Knight. Check.
      Knight takes Rook.
      “But I didn’t like it when I lost my legs.” Queen takes pawn. Check.
      I didn’t know this guy, but I took the bait. “What happened?” King takes Queen.
“It was the late fifties. A time of great warships. Of colonial powers sawing the world into pieces. Galleons seized the wind in their enormous sails and smashed the sea.”
Bishop to Bishop 5. Double check.
“Powder monkeys ran up from the orlop deck, loaded powder and the gunners shot brilliant saxophonists back and forth at each other, sometimes broadside, sometimes stoving in the galley and toppling the mizzen.” King to King 1.  “It was another time, another world. A world where Cannonball Adderley was a weapon. A time of great
“And you lost your legs?”
      “Early June. A battle over the coast of Hispaniola. Cannonball Adderley smashed across the foredeck and took me down with his blues-inflected post-bop. I woke up a week later in a hospital without legs. I didn’t know what had happened. The morning sun bright, the light breeze rippling through the white curtains. The green scent of trees. The nurse ran a damp cloth across my forehead. She was singing quietly. “Summertime,” she sang. “And the living is easy.”
      “Where am I?” I asked.
      “Shh.” she sang. “Fish are jumping.” She pulled the blankets around me. “The cotton is high.” She walked quietly from the room.
      I slept then, waking for small moments throughout the day, and then as the day faded into night.
      Darkness. Someone beside me began coughing, then asked, “Anyone there?”
      I wasn’t certain of much, but I knew that.
      “Yeah,” I said. “At least some of me. The part that’s left. Don’t know where my legs are. In the ocean, maybe.”
      “Where are we?”
      “Some kind of hospital.”
      “My name’s Julian. They call me Cannonball.”
      “Cannonball? Cannonball Adderley?”
      “Yeah. Cannonball Adderley. Used to eat a lot as a kid. ‘Cannibal’ my friends called me. Over time, it turned into ‘Cannonball.’ So did I. Quite round, in fact.”
      I didn’t know then that he was the one who took off my legs. Anyway, it wasn’t his choice: who would choose to be fired from a cannon? Besides, there were many Cannonballs in that war. Many Cannonball Adderleys. Seas full of dazzling jazz saxophonists, spent and sinking to the sea floor.
      “How are you doing?” I asked.
      “Not good,” he said. “Dizzy. Nauseous. Like I’m going to die. Or just did. And I don’t know where my brother is. Nat. Nat Adderley. You know him?”
      “Of course,” I said. “The soulful brass salve to the incisive rippling edge of your alto.”
      “Yeah, that’s him,” he said. “But I’m worried. I haven’t seen him since we were brought below deck.  They lit him on fire, you know. He burned well. Hot and quick. Me, I was for smashing things. I destroyed rigging, stove in the sides of ships. I crashed through decks of men. And then, I would dance a nimble harmonic filigree, a razor-sharp hummingbird path around the changes of a jazz standard.
      “All our lives, we looked after each other, though he was the younger brother. Spent all our time together ever since we were kids in Tampa. Playing ball on the sidewalk. Riding bikes to the beach. Piano lessons. Sword fighting. Nat and me, buying candy. Chess on the porch with grandpa, cake with grandma. Corner store bullies. Maybe bullying some ourselves.  Pouring gasoline on the creek and lighting it on fire down in the ravine. But music. Always music. Four handed piano. School pep band. Jazz. Women. The church.
      “When I was first fired out the side of a ship, I looked up and there was Nat above the gunwale. Did you know that gunwales are sometimes called saxboards? I should make that the name of a song. So, there I was about to splinter the side of a ship, and I saw my little brother, Nat, watching out for me.  Just like when I went to record with Miles. ‘Cannonball,’ he said. ‘Go get ‘em, Cannonball.’ And I did.
      “But where is my little brother, now? Where are all those Nats, those other Cannonballs, peppering the sides of ships and crumpled amidst the broken bodies of the enemy?”
      The night nurse came in then to change the dressing where my legs once connected to my body. “Nurse, nurse,” Cannonball called. “Nurse.”
      “Cannonball,” she said. “Don’t excite yourself. You need some rest.”
      “But, Nat—where’s Nat?” he said. “I need my brother, the corporeal plushness of his cornet, the deep soulful vitality of his songs. I need to know where Nat is?”
      In my life, both before and after I lost my legs, I have done many things that I have not been proud of.  I have done good things, yes, but I did something then that I often think about, often think about when I listen to the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, or the Miles Davis’s classic Kind of Blue album, the one where Coltrane and Adderley are the perfect healing ballast to Miles’s hurting hipster reticence and introverted only half-aware pain.
      “I am Nat,” I said. “Don’t you recognize me, brother?” I said, “Julian, it’s me. Nat.”
      Bishop to Queen 7. Check. “And what did he do then?” I asked. “Did he believe you?”
      He never said another word. He lay back and died.
      King to Bishop 1.
      “Yes,” he said. “When the nurse left, I reached over and took his wallet from the night table. I only found out then that he was the one who had taken off my legs.
       “But I have been able to live a good life.”
      “Because of what you did?”
      “Because of his legs. I took his legs and I used them. I stuck them on myself and I walked through the cities and I walked through the towns. I walked right into a lawyers’ office in New York City, and I got his royalties. And I walked out to the water and sat down on the pier. And I looked up at the stars and I looked up at the moon.  And I knew that because of Cannonball, everything would be all right.”
      Bishop takes Knight. Checkmate.


Sunday, July 10, 2011


I get the Nobel Prize stuck into me. The pin goes through my heart. Don’t worry: it’s made of a new material that I just invented. It is both wave and participle. Royal jelly and particle board. It is shadow and light rolled into one like chocolate, riot gear or the end of the world.

I recently invented myself. I am entirely new. A new cloud, a new ant. Hook me up to the flat screen IV and let the 3D beam through my veins like weather. Change my channel. I sleep.

I said, the mind is a lawnmower, chewing up lawn. There was a dog in that yard. That’s why my heart got pinned with this prize. My mind-blades ran over something no one else noticed, but I don’t throw away the bags. I am all new.

Newsflash: Nobel Prize pin insertion causes end of world. The end is very small. You would need giant microrganisms or death-defying binoculars. They thought we would all die. A tiny thickness travels upwards and blocks it. There are clouds over my tongue.

An enormous quail or a bean from the edge of the universe, a universe that still doesn’t have a name. I forgot my newness because I invented it so fast I finished before I began. I said, You can’t kill me because only one of us is going to die.

Yes, you should thank me for receiving this prize with my only heart. My words are shadows in my hands. Now I open them and let the dove that was never there become ssmall and far away. In conclusion, Mr. and Mrs. Committee, I’d like to begin by inventing something else. All this new gets lonely.