Posts from — March 2014
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Looking at the 2014
By Mary Gregory
It’s that time again. The Whitney Biennial, the signature exhibition for the museum and the best known, most influential survey of contemporary American art opened on March 7th and runs through May 25th, 2014. With over 100 artists and artist-collectives, it’s packed to the rafters, but there are so many great pieces, it’s worth taking it all in.
There are lots of biennials these days, but there’s still only one Whitney. This will be the 77th exhibition in a series that began in 1932. The Whitney Museum of American Art was founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a passionate supporter of American artists. When the 1913 Armory Show catapulted European modernists to fame in the United States, the spotlight turned away from American artists. The Whitney Museum and the Biennial sought to change that.
The Whitney Biennial has never shied from controversy or risk-taking. Over the years it has been at the forefront of introducing new artists and presenting new media. The 2014 Biennial is inclusive in ways that even previous biennials haven’t been. Artists who cross genres are a notable element. There are works by poets who paint, photographers and painters acting as curators, there are artists presenting archives of other artists, there’s even a piece by novelist, David Foster Wallace.
The Whitney, as an institution, and the Biennial, as an exhibition, has long been open to artists of every conceivable description, but has often focused on young and emerging artists. That’s changed in this Biennial. The artists this year include many accomplished, though possibly under-recognized artists in their 50s and 60s, all the way up to their 80s.
Sheila Hicks, a ground-breaking artist known for enormous woven sculptures rich with texture and metaphor and Louise Fishman whose energetic, bold abstractions fill canvases twice her own size, have powerful works on display. As in the past, time-based art, such as performance, video, sound art, dance and music are included, along with installations, drawing, sculpture, photography and a surprising amount of painting.
This year, three curators from outside the Whitney were invited to curate the exhibition, each given a floor of the museum. They are Stuart Comer (Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art at MoMA), Anthony Elms (Associate Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia), and Michelle Grabner (artist and Professor in the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago). Each brings a different perspective, grounded in distinct training and diverse geographical areas. Their visions and their personal points of view come through in their selections. Grabner, a painter herself, has included much more painting than has appeared in recent years, particularly abstract works by under-recognized artists, mostly women.
It’s hard for an 82 year old to stay fresh and new, but the Whitney Biennial is doing it, once again. And while there’s no shortage of biennials, triennials and art fairs presenting wide swaths of contemporary art, the experience of a Whitney Biennial can only be found at the Whitney.
Another thing that can only be seen at the Whitney is Zoe Leonard’s room sized camera obscura, capturing in a weird but familiar upside-down way all the activity of Madison Avenue below. It’s as site-specific as a work can be, and makes the most of the possibilities of the space.
2014 may be the last chance to see the Biennial in the famous Marcel Breuer building on 75th and Madison, before the Whitney moves downtown.
Whitney Biennial 2014, Mar 7–May 25, 2014
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York, NY 10021
About the author:
Mary Gregory is a writer and reviewer. She lives in New York, and frequents galleries and auction houses that set the backdrop for her stories.
March 9, 2014 Comments Off on Whitney Biennial/A Quick Look
This photograph is the cover for Ralph Gibson’s book, MONO .
Seeing in Mono
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by Mike Foldes
Q) When you say something like that, is there anything in particular you are referring to?
A) I got my first Leica, an M-2, in 1961 and have used rangefinder Leicas exclusively throughout my entire career. I knew immediately that the camera fit my hands in a unique way and that my brief was to focus on my skills as a camera handler. In those days my dream was to be a photojournalist and camera handling, speed and grace with the camera were the keys to capturing a certain kind of photograph. And years ago it occurred to me that more great photographs had been made with a Leica and a 50mm lens than any other camera/lens combination. Now, 50 years later, the Monochrom digital has arrived and with a maximum ISO of 10,000 there are absolutely no restrictions left. One can photograph anything just about anywhere…..with or without enough light! The image of Billie Holiday’s table was taken in a very dark room and the main challenge was finding an edge to grab for focus. Then having the immediate display of the image available, I knew the image was secure.
Ralph Gibson / MONO
Q) There is a Ralph Gibson signature edition of 35 pcs of the Monochrom, in black and silver. I take it you were involved in both the design and marketing effort for the camera. What did you tell Leica you were looking for in a digital camera when they came to you, and how long was it in development? Did you have a chance to test various editions as it was going through engineering design?
A) I was initially approached to use a proto-type model of the Monochrom. The first morning I had the camera in my hands I made the image of the bicycle and I realized that this camera harbored enormous potential. I asked for no changes whatsoever because I was too new to the digital space to suggest any modifications. The only thing the User Manual doesn’t explain is how to set the camera down.
Q) While you’ve used Leica cameras throughout your career, I would imagine you’ve tried using other brands. Does anything else come close? If so, what?
A) I began to photograph quite by chance in the USN. Having taken a battery of tests, I was assigned to the US Naval Photography School in Pensacola, Florida. The course was exigent and demanding in that one had to resolve problems with the view camera, the speed graphic as well as the k-25 aerial camera that shot a 100-foot roll of film. Once out of the school, I was assigned to a ship charged with making an hydrographic survey of the Aegean Sea. My duties included portraiture, industrial, aerial, (and) also lithographic process. By the end of my four-year enlistment, I was in charge of the entire photography division of the ship. I had a broad relationship to the medium including many printing processes, as well as Ektachrome processing. When I enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute, my instructors knew far less technique than I. One afternoon my teacher Paul Hassel loaned me his Leica and the die was cast. I made a decision the same day to use that camera to the exclusion of all others. It was a life guiding decision, second only to my vocation to be a photographer. I didn’t stay long in school, primarily because I was offered a job as assistant to Dorothea Lange. I printed for her for about one-and-a-half years. She was the first great photographer I was able to know in a personal way and her influence has remained present throughout my entire career.
Q) Some photographers committed to shooting black and white film have said that color photography diminishes the effect, but classical painters didn’t paint in black and white and came up with art that will last forever…. What was your initial attraction to monochrome and how did it keep you so engaged for so long?
A) Let us consider the world of reality. It exists in three dimensions, 100% scale and in living color. A black and white photograph reduces the world into two dimensions, considerably reduces the scale of reality down to the size of a print and also subtracts color. The result of this is a strong dramatic analog of the world that is immediately recognized by most of the people on the planet. Color, being only two steps abstracted from reality, is much less dramatic and for this reason remains for me a great challenge. I would like to make images in color that resonate with the same power as black and white.
Ralph Gibson / Photographer
Black and white digital images
Ralph Gibson’s video of book release event
Ralph Gibson @ Kahmann Gallery’s Facebook page
Ralph Gibson’s MONO site
The foregoing interview was conducted via email between December 2013 and January 2014.
About the interviewer:
Mike Foldes is the founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in “About Us.”
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Ralph Gibson / Photographer Interview
Interview by Charles Hayes,
with Guenter Knop, photographer
New York City, Jan. 18, 2014
I learned about Dorothea Rockburne in 2013 from an art historian friend while I was editing the interview I had conducted in 1984 with John Cage. My friend, the historian, said, “You need to look into her, go to her show at MOMA (September 2013 to February 2014). I did go to the exhibit, which spanned about 40 years of Rockburne’s intriguing, often mathematically based works, and with the help of the staff at Ragazine, I learned Ms. Rockburne agreed to an interview.
On January 18th, photographer Guenter Knop and I ascended the stairs to Rockburne’s spacious Soho loft, and got the tapes rolling as Guenter moved about photographing. I began by asking the artist questions not so much about aesthetics – which has been the standard approach – but about her psychological and “human interest” perspective, since my own background involves an MA in Art Therapy. Just as I was not primarily interested in John Cage’s “indeterminate” aesthetics (which
has been explored extensively), I was not primarily interested in the “minimalism” nor other “styles” that have been hung on Rockburne’s variety of work over the past 40 years. My original purpose for going to John Cage’s loft in New York 30 years ago was to dig about into his experience with things like hindrances and how these may have shaped or reshaped his creativity. To ask Rockburne similar questions, and to hear her memories of Cage, were a big part of the motivation for the interview.
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Charles Hayes: You said in the e-mail to me that you feel “gratitude each day” to your education at Black Mountain.
Dorothea Rockburne: I grew up in Montreal. I studied at Ecole de Beaux Arts – on Saturdays. Then when that program ended (I was 14), I attended the Montreal Museum School. But wherever I studied, it was 300 years behind the times. At the museum, I did have a teacher, Gordon Weber, who studied under (László) Moholy-Nagy in Chicago. So, I became aware of Russian constructivism … and I owned Vision in Motion (Nagy’s book).
Compared to other students at Black Mountain College, I had had decent training in French and English literature. When I got to Black Mountain, I went from a high school level of education to knowing the most sophisticated (laugh) group of people. I studied photography with Hazel-Frieda Larsen, but also with (Edward) Steichen. His brother-in-law, Carl Sandburg, lived in Asheville, so he spent time there and he would come and teach at Black Mountain.
CH: Do you remember Cage being there?
DR: Of course! I studied with him. I also took classes with Merce (Cunningham). They were there together in ’52, ’53.
CH: What kind of teacher was Cage?
DR: You’re aware of course that Black Mountain never had more than 25 students, so the teachers didn’t regard themselves as being above the students. They were interested in what you had to say – very different from the academic background that I came from. In my family, one came out of the womb taking lessons. I started ballet at four. So it was automatic to check into the dance classes being offered. No one really knew who Merce or John were. David Tudor was there also, because Merce’s prima ballerina was Carolyn Brown (who was married to David Tudor), and Tudor performed the “Concerto for Toy Piano.” I think it was first performed in the dining room at Black Mountain College.
CH: Did they do 4’ 33” (by Cage), where everybody just sat there and the noise of the audience was the music…?
DR: I believe he did that for the first time at Woodstock in 1952.
CH: After Black Mountain… When was your daughter born?
DR: I married one of my teachers at Black Mountain and she was born in October of ’52.
CH: So you were also doing art… what challenges did you have to face…?
DR: The most challenging situation was that I was clearly facing a bad marriage and while we did come to N.Y. together with my daughter, we separated. After separating, supporting my daughter and myself was challenging, although I continued, at night, to study and paint.
CH: What kinds of things did you do?
DR: Whatever I could do. Around 1963, Bob Rauschenberg, who had been at Black Mountain, asked me to come and work for him… That is one thing I did and I also did waitressing. I was trying to take jobs without any mental carry-over. In 1970 or so, Christine was getting ready to leave home to go to college, and I began to exhibit in group shows. Soon I was able to support myself from my work.
CH: I’m interested in your creative process. I found most interesting in an interview by Saul Ostrow when he told you that your work is theatre and you said, “No, I don’t like this!” You said things like, “I’m coming from the heart,” “This is not theatre,” and I “peel away” the layers.
DR: If you have sensitivity, you can tell the works are emotional. Philosophically and visually, it’s a different concept of space, however.
CH: You used the term “peel” back layers until you get to a realm of emotions you said you can’t even name, and then you’re talking about “risk taking” (and) “decisions” you have to make in the creative process. Could you talk about that more? It gets a bit esoteric.
DR: People credit me with mental processes that are, in reality, so much more GRITTY (laughs). When I was a kid in Canada, we used to ski in the Laurentians. My father was a good skier and my brother was a superb skier. There were hardly any tow ropes in those days – during the ’40s – and we’d climb up to the top of a hill and look down, and I’d say, “My God!” And my father would say, “Just begin to go down the hill and if you feel frightened, you can always sit down.”
He was a very gentle, strong person and I followed his advice. It’s the same with art. I’ve taken the biggest challenges to make exciting work. I often read books I can’t readily understand. I don’t read novels. I recently met a woman who is the editor of a mathematics journal. She’s a topological geometer. This kind of geometry has been around for a long time and in essence it’s more esoteric than the high school geometry we all learned. She asked,“Do you fully understand Riemannian geometry?” and, I said “Not all of it. I’m just absolutely fearless about attempting an understanding of it, and eventually I do.”
ROCKBURNE V10N2 MAR-APR 2014
Photographs by Guenter Knop
CH: So, in the creative process, being willing to be beyond the edge, can you pinpoint works where you made breakthroughs for you by having this …
DR: No. It’s a mystic process. It’s not something….
CH: … you can talk about?
DR: Yes, I can talk about it the best way I know how. I mean I’m not afraid to talk about it. After I’ve worked a while and I’ve gotten through to this ‘other place’ in my head and soul, and its not a conscious place… The Black Mountain poets referred to it as “the zone.”
CH: It reminds me a little bit of quantum physics in the sense of …
DR: Quantum has that mystic aspect.
CH: David Bohm, who said that there is this ‘implicate’ order and an ‘explicate order,” and the implicate we don’t have words for, and it’s this source, it’s like a fountain, and these tiny particles just …
DR: This is the creative process, and it’s not unique to me. You can, for instance, see it in a rock concert of the Rolling Stones. At the beginning of the concert, they’re performing what they know but halfway through, they’ve entered the zone.
CH: What things tend to keep that door opened?
DR: Never closes!
CH: There’s nothing you think or do that closes it? So the more you do it, the more it becomes the reality?
DR: No, it’s the same now as when I was five.What is difficult is that I have to translate my intuitive thinking, which is in pictures, into language. It’s like going from English to French.… Early on, writers and interviewers would ask me what I was doing and I’d answer “Well, I’m using “matrix” theory, “but” … there would be “the BUT.” It’s easier to nail something, look it up in the dictionary and so everyone was writing about me as if I was a mathematician, and not an artist. I’m not someone who does mathematics eight to 10 hours a day AND then makes a mathematical breakthrough. I AM NOT A MATHEMATICIAN. I’m an artist who uses math creatively as another tool in my work because mathematics and the ways of nature walk hand in hand.
When I took Max Dehn’s classes at Black Mountain, it immediately struck me that his was a new way of considering space, all space. I was also aware that, although the appearance of contemporary art was constantly changing, spatially, most work that I saw was still cubist, or based on a grid. While Max’s teaching presented an exciting alternative, it took me many years of study to understand how to create a new, topologically based way of creating art. A non-cubist, non-grid, spatial concept.
CH: I did the interview with Cage, and John said the same thing as Edward Albee, when the public and gallery world try to pin you down to what you’re already doing… Albee said that after he did the Zoo Story. “They try to stick me into doing the same thing.”
DR: Yes. It makes it easier for them to write about it that way, but pigeonholing limits the artist’s freedom.
CH: And he said this is a challenge. I realized that it is what courage is, his courage in breaking this and I know you have spoken about Pollock who started to do figurative works in the abstracts and …
DR: Everybody at that time hated his figure paintings!
CH: Was it because Dekooning was doing it?
DR: I don’t think so, in fact I think Pollock was doing it before Dekooning if I remember right. It had more to do with categorization. Pollock was an abstractionist. How dare he paint the figure! Those paintings are beautiful.
CH: Can you tell us a little about the ‘friction’ between public/critical perception of you and what you know of yourself?
DR: It was just that this critical thing happened … instead of talking about the work, talking about math, my work is of a visceral, felt, dimension… Anyone who is a mathematician, well, they don’t talk this way, it’s the people who are looking it up on Wikipedia (laugh) and it’s an easy way… they’d write it down and then someone else would copy what the other person wrote and then extrapolate and it went on and on and on, and I got so sick of it!
CH: What are you doing at present?
DR: I’m dealing with my MoMA show. A lot of paper work and details… I’m working from 10 in the morning to 19 at night (laughs)…
CH: So after all that’s done, you’ll try to get back to work?
DR: I’ll clean up the studio and we have the shipment that comes in on the sixth of February, and there’s lots of prep work for the shipment, and post-shipment inspection, unwrapping and re-wrapping, then storage. Also the computer records all that entails. I have assistants during the week who help me with these aspects, the physical aspects of running the studio.
CH: Do you have another show coming up?
DR: No. I want to get back to work.
CH: Another thing I want to know about was your references to art as religious, not religion, but religious.
DR: I don’t follow any religion.
CH: But you said it’s a religious experience, and I think I understood …
DR: That’s what I meant when I said “you go to a different place.”
CH: Tell me more.
DR: How to describe that exactly? I guess I think of religion in the best sense as when one is in touch with a creative source both outside of, and inside yourself, the Grand Creative source. Mathematics and art have been key in helping me understand that source.
CH: And you said something like those coming out of Greenberg, and creating appearances, didn’t have any intentionality, and (for) you, you talked about you having intention.
DR: I never would have said that in that way. I don’t really slam other peoples’ work. Being an artist every day of your life for years and years is hard work on so many levels.
CH: I wonder what intentionality means…
DR: I always title a work before I do it. Some people just work and let it go where it goes until it can’t go any further and then they move onto the next canvas. I don’t do that. I name it. Then I make it.
ROCKBURNE II V10N2
Gallery of work by Dorothea Rockburne to accompany interview by Charles Hayes with photography by Guenter Knop. New York. December-January 2013-2014.
1972. Carbon paper and carbon lines on paper. 28 1/4” x 40” (unframed);<br />32 3/4 x 44 1/8” (framed).[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0541_indication-of-installation_whitney-piece_scaled-down.jpg]20Indication of Installation, Whitney Piece (1 of 2)
1973, Summer. Carbon paper and carbon lines on American Etching<br />paper. 42” x 54” (Framed - White).[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0551_copal-15_scaled-down.jpg]20Copal #15
1977. Kraft paper, copal oil varnish, blue pencil, glue and<br />ragboard, 3M tape 415, Prismacolor 903. 39” x 29” (work); 40 1/2" x 30 1/2" x 1 13/16" (framed).[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0588_roman-vi.jpg]30Roman VI
1977. Kraft paper, Winsor Newton copal oil varnish, blue pencil, 3M 415 mylar tape, 100% rag board. 44 1/8” x 47 5/8” (framed).[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0590_gs_square-separated-by-parallelogram-with-diamond_scaled-down.jpg]20Golden Section Painting: Square Separated by Parallelogram with Diamond
1974-1976. Belgian Linen via England, Permanent Pigment gesso (calcium carbonate added), weldwood glue, blue plumb line. 64 3/8” x 104 1/2”. [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0658_copal-viii_scaled-down.jpg]70Copal VIII
1979. Kraft paper, varnish, glue, blue pencil. Mounted on ragboard. 46 1/2” X 82 5/8” (mounted); 49" x 85" (framed). [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0703_musician-angel_parallelogram-diamond_scaled-down.jpg]40Musician Angel: Parallelogram, Diamond
1979-1981. Vellum, pencil, watercolor, glue, mounted on ragboard. 52” x 42” (mounted, unframed); 56 1/8" x 46 1/8" (framed).[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0714_white-angel-ii_scaled-down.jpg]30White Angel II
1981, July. Rives BFK paper, blue pencil, #415 tape. Mounted on bevel-cut ragboard. 74 1/4” x 50”.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0721_egyptian-painting_scribe_scaled-down.jpg]50Egyptian Painting: Scribe
1979. Gesso, oil paint on linen, glue, pencil. 93” x 56 1/2”.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0751_vellum-curve_parallelogram-w-2-sm-sq.jpg]60Parallelogram/2 Small Squares, 3rd Study (Vellum Curve Series )
1977. Vellum, colored pencil, varnish, glue, ragboard. 43” x 33” (mounted, unframed); 44 1/4" x 34 1/4" (framed).[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-818_guardian-angel-i_from-transp_-scaled-down.jpg]40Guardian Angel I
1982. Watercolor,pencil, vellum, glue; on gessoed fiberglass and aluminum honeycomb panel. 75 1/2” x 57 3/4” (framed). [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0944_15_dwmi-fp-15_scaled-down.jpg]60Drawing Which Makes Itself F.P.15
1972. Graphite on Strathmore paper. 19" x 22".[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-0946_extasie_scaled-down.jpg]30Extasie
1983-1984. Oil paint on gessoed linen. Two panels: 81 1/4” x 76” x 4” (6’ 9 1/4” x 6’4” x 4”)<br />Front panel: 61 1/2” x 76” x 2” (5’ 1 1/2” x 6’ 4” x 2”); Rear panel: 72 3/4” x 64 3/4” x 2” (6’ 3/4” x 5’ 4 3/4” x 2”). [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1021_scalar_1971_whitewall.jpg]30Scalar
1971. Paper, chipboard, Crude oil, and nails. 6’ 7/8” x 6’ 1/2” (72 7/8" x 72 1/2"). [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1026_leveling_scaled-down.jpg]40Leveling
1970. (Summer). Paper, chipboard, crude oil, and nails. 81 1/2" x 72" (4’ x 8’). [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1038_pascal-state-of-grace_scaled-down.jpg]30Pascal, the State of Grace
1986 - 1987. Oil paint and gold leaf on gessoed linen. 6’ 3 3/8” x 4’ 9 3/8” x 4". Front panel: 3'9" x 2' 7 1/2" x 2"; Rear panel: 6'3 3/8" x 4'9 3/8" x 2". [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1086_tintoretto-in-the-light-of-egypt_scale-down.jpg]50Tintoretto in the Light of Egypt
1989. Gold leaf, India ink, gouache, and watercolor on papyrus and 100% rag Museum Board. 29 3/8” x 25 1/2”. [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1174_still-blue-circle.jpg]30Still Blue Circle
1990. Color area: oil paint on gessoed linen, White area: acrylic paint on gessoed linen, sprayed with varnish on gessoed linen. 66” x 66”. [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1381_carbon-installation_whitney-piece_whitney-biennial-1973_scaled-down.jpg]30Carbon Paper Installtion Piece: Whitney Piece
1973. Carbon paper and graphite on wall. Dimensions Variable. [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1415_einsteins-cross_scaled-down.jpg]30Einstein’s Cross
1998. Lascaux Aquacryl and Perlessence on cotton on abaca paper. 24 3/4" x 19 1/2" (work); 29 1/2” x 22” (mount). [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1441_tearful-sisters_scaled-down.jpg]30Tearful Sisters
1993 / 1994. Gesso, Lascaux Aquacryl and Caran D'ache on papyrus. Lined and mounted on rag board. 25" x 33" (work); 35 1/4” x 42 3/4” (mounted). [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1583_the-twins-castor-and-pollux_scaled-down.jpg]30The Twins: Castor & Pollux
2002, June. Lascaux Aquacryl and Copper on Gesso-prepared linen. Two Panels, each 24” x 24”. [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1755_prime-partition-three.jpg]30Prime Partition Three
2006 - 2007. Winsor Newton watercolor on Duralar (Architect's treated mylar), stretched over canvas; Framed. 40” x 30”. [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/rockburne-ii-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_dr-1858_from-stardust-to-stardust_scaled-down.jpg]30From Stardust to Stardust
2011. Lascaux aquacryl, pencil, and copper on handmade Larroque paper. 25 3/4" x 19 1/2".
CH: You already have a certain amount of conceptual framework and that means intention. When I read “intention” I was thinking of some kind of emotional charge… like in the Medieval Ages when the priests created sermons, created pictures to educate the flocks, they had the word “intentio” which involved affect to create ‘punctum,” “going to the heart,” and that’s what I was thinking about with “intention” – that there has to be affect…and you were talking about emotions.
DR: I don’t know how to verbalize it. When I work I don’t think in words. I think and feel in pictures, and then I pull in, out of the blue, a certain amount of knowing. .
CH: Without trying?
CH: Do you ever get inspiration from dreams?
DR: No. I don’t dream for the most part.
CH: Or you don’t remember. Do you sleep well?
DR: I do, sporadically. I think sleep is overrated in America… I don’t seem to need much sleep. I get up early and go to bed late. I have that 10 minute rest at lunch, but not always.
CH: Do you get like four or five hours a day?
DR: More like five or six.
CH: I do, too! We’re supposed to be dead!
DR: (Laughs.) I think that some day science … will find out that when one has a strong imagination, your subconscious is open and a lot of people have to dream to be in touch with their subconscious. With an artist, the subconscious is made conscious, and then you’re flowing along and your REM states are happening while you’re awake. I think a lot depends on your natural disposition. I don’t tend to be depressed. I work like hell all day long, and I love it. Then I fall asleep at night, around 12 o’clock, and wake up naturally between 6 and 7, and I don’t wake up unhappy.
Guenter Knop: You’re an addict to your work?
DR: I don’t think so! I’m living my life!
GK: Isn’t that the motive?
DR: No, I’m just living my life. Life is the motive, life itself! I don’t think of stuff like that. I’m not giving up my life for my work, believe me! My work makes me feel exhilarated, challenged, and alive. It’s very exciting being a creative person. You never know what’s around the corner. The MoMA show (came) totally unexpectedly. You never know who’s been looking and taking account. For instance… I’ll show you a great letter I got… from an art historian. When he was an art history major, he wrote a catalog for me on the Arena drawings. He was very bright. It was 1974. He talked to the director of the John Weber Gallery and he wrote the catalog. I just received this letter from him… Michael Marlais, after all these years, after he saw the MoMA show. One never knows who’s watching.
CH: You mentioned to me in an email how you feel gratitude toward being a student at Black Mountain…
DR: It was fantastic! I was young and stupid, right? I was at the dry-sponge stage. It was “bring it on.” I came from a very good educational background in Montreal so it was natural for me to check in with academic courses. People don’t talk about the academic courses at Black Mountain, however, they were there and they were very good. For instance, the professor who taught philosophy had come from the U. of Chicago and it was he who wrote THE Philosophy 101 book. William Levy. He was FANTASTIC! I also immediately checked in with the linguistics teacher, Flola Shepard, who had studied with [Ferdinand] de Saussur. However, since I’m a reader, I already had a fairly trained mind…
CH: How do you feel you’re different now than then?
DR: Not so much, I’m older and … I’m still reading esoteric books
CH: How about gratitude? How does it count into openness?
DR: For me anyway, gratitude is coupled with love.
CH: Walt Whitman in the 1880s wrote a beautiful piece… he was at a Thanksgiving dinner, and someone said: “Mr. Whitman, what are your thoughts on Thanksgiving, and he told it like it was, he didn’t hold back …
DR: I’m part Indian so Thanksgiving is not the most favorite holiday in my family. … I’m part Algonquin…. My family, the Algonquin part was from Nova Scotia, Mi’kmaq Indians. My grandmother was part Mi’kmaq.
CH: Whitman said “I don’t give thanks one day, I wake up every morning and give thanks,” and then he goes…something like… “and the gratitude I can trace it back and see my poetry and I create from that gratitude what I give every day.”
DR: I don’t know how to put it in words, that’s why I paint. Black Mountain, that was a different situation, it was just so extraordinary an experience. Scholars would ask Max Dehn, the mathematician, why he was at Black Mountain, not at Harvard or Princeton? He was there because he was a creative person. Creativity was everywhere, everyone took his class, John (Cage) and Merce took his class, the poet Charles Olsen took his class, as did Joe Fiore, the painting teacher.
CH: We don’t have Black Mountain today. What is happening today?
DR: A guy I know who is a painter and teacher sent his best student to me as an apprentice… It was a waste of time. She was bright and talented, but the whole academic way of “get your degree and go live your life” translates to “Go be a slave,” as far as I’m concerned. “You gotta get that degree so that you can get that teaching job, you know, support yourself…” In my generation, none of us thought that way. You figured it out. It’s as though true self-confidence is eradicated by the current art educational system.
* * * * *
About the interviewer:
Charles Hayes began publishing poetry and essays in the 1970s and ’80s. His 1978 book, From the Hudson to the World (introduction by Pete Seeger) remains the most complete collection of Native American lore and art (gathered from 17th century Dutch deed books) to date. In the ’80s, Hayes started a book called Pearl in the Mud, which involved interviews with various famous and lesser-known artists, from John Cage and Elaine Dekooning in New York to excellent folk weavers in the New Mexico mountains. A book he funded on student loans.
Concurrent to his book project, Hayes studied Navajo language and earned his MA degree in Art Therapy from the University of New Mexico. Since then, he has become an avid amateur photographer who combines his photos with his writings. Currently, he is “taking the ‘Pearl’ project onward in the form of a smaller book, Ten Women Composers You Should Know.
Hayes is a frequent contributor to Ragazine.
About the photographer:
Günter’s work has appeared internationally in group and solo exhibitions and related publications. Features about his work have appeared on NDR TV News and Norddeutscher Rundfunk Radio as well as in a variety of books, magazines and online publications. In 2005 he released a book, Guenter Knop on Women, featuring art nudes.
Günter Knop began a career in photography, following his studies at the Christian-Albrecht University, working with fashion photographer Charlotte March. After traveling extensively, Knop landed in New York where he worked side by side with Henry Wolf, influential Art Director for Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar magazines, for many years. Together they created trend-setting TV, print and fashion advertising for major clients. Knop eventually opened a studio of his own in Manhattan and continues to work on a variety of projects ranging from still lifes to fine art photography.
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Dorothea Rockburne/Artist Interview
Cage at Home: Collage by Christie Devereaux
by Charles Hayes
Several years have passed since the cold December 23rd 1984 when Reagan had recently been elected president, I had begun grad school at the University of New Mexico, and I was spending graduate loan money to get around the country interviewing artists, musicians, and writers on topics related to the term “obstacles” in creativity. John Cage would be the first of many artists to be visited over the next five years.
It all started during the summer of ’84. I sat with friends on a roof in the barrio of Albuquerque drinking Tequila and the idea hit: “Interviews with artists regarding their angst/obstacles?”
I whipped up a list of top figures in various arts and sent the first letter to what I thought was the wildest chance taking mind, that of John Cage. A few weeks later, I got the “mail gram” (see illustration) from Cage…
From there, I connected with other major figures, Carol Wincenc (flutist), Edward Albee (playwright), Erskine Caldwell (author of Tobacco Road), Carlos Montoya (flamenco guitar virtuoso), Maria Benitez (flamenco dancer, turned choreographer-composer), Louise Bourgeois (sculptor), Elaine Dekooning (painter)… and, today, in the project’s 31’st year, Daisy Jopling (rising star of fusion composer/violinist).
For the first interview, I flew from New Mexico to New York before Christmas to be with my family and to go into NYC to talk with Cage about his obstacles (such as early poverty), current challenges, as well as existential topics such as the after-life.
As I climbed the stairs to his loft on that December day, I looked up and saw a man with a full swath of gray hair, slim body and angular face chatting quietly with a small, older woman in a dark coat. I recognized Cage and said, “Hi John, I’m Charles Hayes, I’m here to interview you at 2 p.m.” “Oh, Yes! of course! Why don’t you go up there (he points to the open door to his loft), go in and make yourself at home?”
Five or six more steps and I was in the outer circumference of the 20th century’s most experimental artist’s headspace. I gazed at walls covered with amazing, original art works, not the least of which were a few Jasper Johns prints, while below and to my right were white computers waiting for someone to trigger them so that their programs could write Cage’s indeterminate music, based on chance operations of the I-Ching. Of his method, Kay Larson writes in Where The Heart Beats, John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (p. 175):
As 1950 ends, he will learn to release the tight fist of ego by devising a radically new way of composing. Chance operations allow Cage to dissociate his music from his inner turmoil. He will generate random numbers and use them to find sounds. How can he (or anyone) judge a sound that has arisen of its own accord? It rises and falls, appears and disappears, and has no ego content whatsoever.
A single sound is like a thought: here one minute, gone the next.
Each sound is free to be itself. Nothing can cling to it; no interpretation, no ideas; no anger…no ‘masterpiece’ judgment, no ‘not-masterpiece’ judgment.’
His resting number-generating computers faced a kitchen at the center of which stood a rectangular counter stacked with greens waiting for John’s cook to prepare a vegetarian dinner.
I sat and waited.
I got up and I waited.
I sat down and I waited.
“Did he forget me?” I wondered.
I could have taken a bath. I could have cooked the vegetables and eaten them and he probably would not have lifted an eyelash. I could have had a nap. Maybe moved in…
I don’t know how many minutes passed, it was a lot, and I realized he probably had too much Zen that morning and the great Zero or Nothingness took him deep into timelessness. Eventually, he came and took me into what I wrote in my notes while on the return trip up the Hudson: “Cage’s jungle.” Plants and trees filled half the loft. We passed a chess set to our left as he led me to another table, where we sat facing one another, Cage waiting patiently as I made sure my tape recorders were operational. They were:
In 2013, I began to edit that interview with Cage for Ragazine.CC, and during that time, the thought dawned on me that composer of avant-garde, unrhymed verse (Walt Whitman) and the wild-minded composer of contemporary avant-garde music (Cage) had certain things in common. Both men thought that once they die, their works would not be remembered.
Cage indicated during our talk that his music would not be respected, though he thought he would be remembered — more as philosopher.
Now, more than two decades after his death in ‘92, I look over my shoulder at myself at age 34 in the conversation with Cage, to see that he, like Whitman, was dead set wrong.
The music world has not forgotten John Cage, composer, though Whitman has had much longer in proving that the poet’s poet was also wrong about his afterlife footprint.
* * *
John Cage: I forgot now what subject you wanted to talk about?
Charles Hayes: I want to get into obstacles and what they have to do with your art, what failure and success and all these [related] issues that may be relevant to you as someone who has made an effort to make music that is detached and not done by one’s ego and one’s control…
CH: When you started composing…was there an intention of “getting there”….?
JC: I think there was. I began my work… performing in a home situation for just-invited guests. I moved from L.A. with Xenia (his wife of ten years at the time, Xenia Andreyevna Kashevayoff) and… organized a group of performers…. I gave concerts …and collected percussion instruments, I did everything … to perform the work and interest people, and I wrote to people…inviting them to write for this percussion group. Now… there are many percussion orchestras…. I could see … if I stayed in Seattle…it would not go much further…. I began thinking it would be better if I established a center for experimental music… this was in the ’30s and we …had the notion through the Journal of the Acoustic Society of America that there were …possibilities; they didn’t speak of magnetic tape… they spoke of magnetic wire. And… film phonographs and they thought in both ways you could record sound and …use those records as instruments. So, I began to think in those directions… to establish a center and I spent two years writing to corporations and universities, and no one had money…. Since I could not find the money, I went with Xenia to the School of Design in Chicago…because it was the farthest east and … nearest New York, and I think it was a right [move] … The fact that I was ambitious, I wanted to have the work accepted and used…. I wasn’t ambitious for myself; I was ambitious for the work…. I was trying to make music hospitable to noise. The people often say my work is ‘destructive’ but I don‘t think it is… Beethoven is getting along as well as he was when I was starting.
My work with noise has added SPACE and DIMENSION to Western Music and Beethoven hasn’t suffered!
CH: Would you say that the ambition you had was really not that different from what is now…ambition for your work, to make music hospitable to noise?
JC: Um, I’m less ambitious now. I don’t have to be ambitious, everything I do is published, and my energy is spent not moving from Seattle to New York. I’m in New York and I think that one is justified if he wishes [to be] in Seattle, I think its different now to be in Seattle than when I was there. Don’t you think that if you visit any city…you get a feeling of presence of modern music and art?
CH: Any city? Modern music in terms of environment being noise and relating to that in your terms?
JC: That, too, and the fact that the televisions and radios are open to all this.
CH: How about ambition, having the world understand you?
JC: Ha! Ha!
CH: I got that sense in “For the Birds,” you know.
JC: Well, you can’t force people to understand you, you know ha ha!
CH: That’s right! But isn’t the concern there, though?
JC: It would be nice! It would be nice but you see no matter what you do, they don’t.
CH: What’s the result.
JC: We don’t know what the result is… I was talking with a taxi driver this morning and we were in complete agreement, and I think if we talked with other people we would be in agreement. We have no deep regard for government any more. We have no confidence in our president, or in anybody else’s president. Ah, I’m not so unhappy about the assassination of Indira Gandhi . I think she made some very serious mistakes and I think it was unfortunate she was killed, but I think it was more unfortunate that John Lennon was killed. But then why should we compare …none of them should be killed, but the fact that she was killed was partly because she placed herself in a position of such importance and she had done things that were offensive to a large number of people that were theoretically beneath her, and they are not beneath her – their rights are just as great as hers.
JOHNCAGE V10N2 March-April 2014
JC: Or she felt the things she was doing were of such importance, that she could ignore everything else.
CH: Well that happens to a lot of artists!
CH: How did you avoid that? …
JC: There are many people (chuckling) who would think I haven’t avoided anything (ha ha ha)!
CH: Okay, it’s just coming out in a different form?
JC: I don’t know. What do you think is being avoided?
CH: Corruption. Ego that comes with high recognition.
JC: No, but you see very much the truth of what Emily Dickinson said: Success is dust. You see very quickly if you keep your eyes open either because it fades more quickly than a flower or its opposite appears with a greater vigor.
CH: Did you realize that at an early time?
JC: All the time!
Ah, I could see very soon that the reactions of people to what I was doing had to receive no serious attention on my part. The teaching is of course entirely different, it is that you should have something to say and say it – for the people you know, and this is ah, ah at the heart of what you might call a political use of the arts in which the arts are for the people. I don’t take that attitude. I take an attitude that I think is closer to Thoreau. I think he paid or got his family to pay for the publicity of his books.
CH: There were 800 copies that he was the sole owner of or something like that.
JC: Right! And the publisher couldn’t sell them and so he wrote to Thoreau and said: ‘What should we do with the books?’ Thoreau said ‘Send them back to me,’ you know this whole story. The day he received the books he explained that he built a coffin for them, put them in the coffin, and then he said that “it makes me feel good to KNOW THAT NO ONE IS INTERESTED IN WHAT I AM DOING. It allows me to conduct my work in precisely the way I must, without any thought for reactions to it.” And he has turned out, I would say, at least of all Americans, to have lived the most useful life, not only for himself, but for all of us. He has been an example not only to me but to countless others, and he continues to be an example for all those who wish to change society for the better, which is to say the more OPENED. The more willing to accept a diversity of actions and ideas. I have in one of my compositions of music the one called “Song Books”; I have at the basis of it a five-word text which comes out of one of my diaries, it says: ‘We connect Satie with Thoreau.’ And ah, just as Thoreau was the sort to speak independently, and was almost alarmingly independent from other people, I mean alarming to those people who comfort themselves through their connections with one another; they don’t do anything themselves, but they want to feel connected… he didn’t even like to walk with anyone in the woods, did you know that?
CH: No, I didn’t.
JC: He would say: ‘If I take anyone with me in the woods, the walk is ruined!’
CH: That’s right, and, also, when he used to talk he used to like to have great space between.
JC: Yeah!! ha ha ha!
CH: Didn’t Ives start out with that kind of music in which he was playing at two different poles, as you were?
JC: Yeah yeah! So, Satie said the same things and they’re really remarkably similar those two. Satie said: ‘I wouldn’t think of touching the thought of someone else.” You know, he would want to leave it, just as you wouldn’t think of pulling that flower apart. Unless, say, you were asking the question: She loves me? She loves me not? You might do it then, with the daisy if you had lots of them, but if you only had one you wouldn’t destroy it, and he was thinking of the thought of someone else as being so special to that person … That as something suitable to be observed and appreciated, rather than argued or destroyed… Maybe it will turn out – there are many indications – maybe it will turn out there are, oh, what you might call varieties of, ah, mind, ah? And that Thoreau and Satie had a particular type of mind that becomes … appealing to those people that are displeased, as I am, with government.
CH: With organization in general?
CH: Don’t you also find friction with someone like myself calling you and saying, “What time can I come tomorrow?”
JC: No, because I don’t have any schedule. I need what time I can have to work, but I’m afraid, maybe I’m mistaken, I have, but I think of myself as having a responsibility to talk to the people who want to talk to me. For instance, I don’t have my name listed in the phone book, but one way or another people can find it. And I don’t have an answering service. I’m so unhappy when I call someone and I get an answering service. McCluhan called it the “extension of the central nervous system.” And we should be open to contact. I’ve just met a very intelligent Hungarian musicologist who has made a study of my work.
CH: What is his name.
JC: András Wilhelm. He’s been here for several months from Budapest. And he, uh, I asked him what his phone number was and he said he is opposed to telephones, he has no telephone. And at home in Hungary he has no telephone. And it seems to me to be – if you really are opposed to telephones you are living in a time of the extension of the central nervous system to tell András that I think he must get a telephone! Ha…and not have an answering service. It’s much better to get no answer than to get an answering service, don’t you think? Wouldn’t you be happier with any answer than with leaving a message?
CH: Yeah, I am a little wary about leaving messages for the very practical reason that they don’t get through to the person…
JC: Or, imagine having an answering service and coming home, say, and you have been away for two weeks; think of the list of numbers. Ha! … to drive you crazy.
CH: To change the subject a moment. During the time you sold tickets during the Depression, and you sold tickets to middle-class housewives to come to lectures for things you really didn’t know about, but you’d study up on, or something the night before…
JC: Yeah, Ha ha ha…
CH: The “Prepared Piano,” when you did the work with Syvilla Fort …
Is she still alive?
JC: No, she died of cancer.
I wrote a nice, ah, well I thought I wrote a nice enough to publish piece … one of my mesostics, it’s written – I got to get some glue — here it is on page 10:
“Had there been two composers
You might have asked the other one to write your music
I’m glad I was the only one around.”
CH: How about the limiting situations? And I’m wondering if you could talk a little more about ….these limiting circumstances – a lot of situations that I think that a lot of people would have gone to seed with.
JC: Well, I’ll tell you the situation I’m now in: its fairly well agreed now in the musical society that, ah, my ideas are interesting, and that my music is not so interesting. Or, if my music is interesting, my early music is more interesting than my late music (ha ha ha)! Now, say I accept all that, ah, nevertheless the fact remains that, in recent years, and only in response to commissions, I have written a great deal of orchestral music…for orchestras, commissions from orchestras. I wrote the 30 pieces for orchestra, commissions from Loraine; it was played both in Metz and Venice. It hasn’t been touched anywhere on this side of the Atlantic. Ha ha! Then after that I wrote “Dance for Orchestras”, which was played very well in California, poor in Paris, and recently well in Toronto. Before that commission, I wrote “Atlas Equipticalis”. And, I guess out of a kind of necessity, but finally commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation I wrote the “Cheap Imitation for Orchestra”, and then I’m trying to think of other things; I just finished a new piece for an orchestra in Yugoslavia, but the fact remains that there are lots of orchestras and most of them would not consider or take seriously the notion of playing my work. If they did they would rehearse it improperly. …
There are quite a number of pieces and if I do say so, they are all quite interesting. I think the attitude I take and that keeps me from being glum or miserable in this situation is that eventually they ‘all have to change their minds; now, whether they change their minds before I die or after I die, perhaps makes some difference to me, but little difference in the long run. All of the work exists; it will eventually have a use, I think. When they are tired of playing all the things they do play? And that fatigue will enter at some point, they will have to search around and I think they’ll automatically think of trying my pieces out. Ha!
CH: Ironically, isn’t there a bit of Beethoven in you?
JC: Ha, what! What do you mean?
CH: In the sense that once some man said to him “What is this stuff?” and Beethoven said to him: “Sir, this isn’t for you … its for the future.”
JC: Yeah, ha ha!
CH: You know and I think he would have had the same kind of reaction, you know, contemporaneously.
CH: Wouldn’t you be more accepted in that kind of time when people have a certain kind of mind-set that would go more along with your music?
JC: I don’t know what what’s going to happen in the future. I would hope that some kind of peaceful anarchic social situation would take place. Christian Wolff speaks of Social Democracy, but I would like some term for the state of society that would involve the term ‘anarchy – and anarchy seen as something good rather than dangerous. But, in such a situation don’t you think a great and facilitated exchange between individuals of mum ideas and works – connections – ah, you would quickly be able to transfer things that now go through large institutions to get to the other person, and in having that high degree of … individual communication, there will be less need … I’m just imagining this, for large social situations.
CH: What do you see as obstructions NOW?
JC: Well, the only thing that, the thing that those large social institutions are good for is something akin to – well, one of the things they’re good for is celebration. Festival? But can’t you imagine a different kind of celebration, or Festival than the one we now have? I love those… In Little Italy, up and down the streets people have food and things could take place where you have a – not all the time but ah – sometimes during the year you would have large festivals…. The more frequent and more basic use of the arts will be from individual to individual.
CH: You’re enabling it.
JC: Do you, have you any contact with this modem business?
CH: No, but I work with a computer….
JC: Well, you know you can get one connection of your computer with other computers so that the technology is moving … so that right into your home a very large number of other minds [come]?
CH: True Global Village!
JC: Right. Some of the things that have happened in that present situation don’t strike us as being welcomed or good.
CH: Because its new?
JC: We are in the period when the evils of the present form of society are still dominant; so that it hasn’t been known how to build up a good use of the extended central nervous system. One of the things that should happen very, almost basically, to the social use of the computer, telephone and so on, is the alteration of the economic structure. Everyone should at birth be given a credit card. Besides being given a name, yes? And they should have all the basic necessities of life …. money now is not real money, all it is is credit, so we need simply to extend the notion of credit to everyone.
JC: And, you know, a painting or a drawing right – Jasper Johns – I’m fortunate to have – those prints (pointing to the series of Johns’ prints on the wall in his loft)… Prices are absolutely outlandish! If he [Johns] just touches paper, it becomes inordinately valuable…
CH:So what can artists do to wrestle creativity away from the talons of the value system?
JC: Right now in this dramatic situation where the old surround us and we have a vision of the new, and these two things are quite different from one another…
CH: So, how do you foresee the process of the dialectic clash happening?
JC: Say, I become pessimistic?
CH: I was wondering what stops you from being pessimistic! Is it Zen?
JC: Well, no it’s now not only me stopping me, but it’s other people begging me to not become pessimistic.
And they point out to me that things are really changing. A few days ago someone was, I was saying to someone ‘this is bad, that’s bad….” and it didn’t seem to be that anything I’ve had in mind was coming about, you know. But he said: ‘But look at this and this and that!’ And the changes are really remarkable.
CH: So this person did persuade you that good things were happening?
JC: Yes! – So I went back to my old ways, ha! My old optimistic ways!
CH: I’m wondering, it seems like back in the ‘60s, did you feel more optimistic than you do?
JC: Yes, yeah!
CH: I think a lot of people did. You know that one of the people that are going to be in my project is Edward Albee. Everyone called him the playwright of the ‘60s, and I think he had a hope there of educating his audiences and so forth to their foolishness, their fantasies they got lost in, and lack of communication – conventions and things. But, his more recent works don’t reflect that same thing. It seems like the ‘80s, it seems like everybody feels – from the ‘60s I’m saying, because I was growing up and was 20 and taking things in, there was a betrayal and it didn’t go (Cage interrupts)
JC: No, not! Its true!
CH: So, I wonder how you see that? How you are dealing with these ‘80s, which show people just retreating to conventions, to American symbols, wealth, getting as much as they can and so forth? Is this a force that is causing your pessimism?
JC: I think it’s very depressing to have a presidential election such as we just gone through (election of Ronald Reagan). I think the only thing that saves me from being miserable is, is my increasing feeling that the government is of no real consequence. When I say that I realize they could quickly destroy the … whole planet so that, but right up to the moment of the destruction, I can proceed optimistically… And my foolishness comes from the continued presence of energy …
CH: And how do you renew this energy?
JC: You do it in the simplest possible way Ha Ha ha… going to sleep!
Ha ha ha… and waking up the next day. Ha ha ha…
CH: I was expecting you to say 15 hours of meditation a day, something like that.
JC: I think you get it from going to sleep don’t you think?
CH: Sure. How about periods, though, when you’re really worn down, when you are worn from a lot of travel and work.
JC: You find me in such a moment right now.
I’m now at a point where I have both on paper and in my mind a list of things I should be doing, and I’m not sure yet whether I can do them or not in the time allotted, and so on. At the same time that my situation more so than ever before is facilitated by the computer business. So that I don’t really know my own capabilities. I’m not familiar with what I can do, and it would not be any good for me to be familiar because what I’ll be able to do a month from now may vary greatly from what I can do right now. It’s because I have two people doing programming for me so that I may suddenly be able to do all kinds of things that I, that are not in my mind at all. Its quite marvelous!
And that’s what we’re living in right now. So that even though I’m almost overwhelmed, I’m also almost opening doors that I haven’t opened before.
CH: Other times: what were your harder times, say back in the ‘30s, you know, before the electronic thing.
JC: Trying to start that Center for Experimental Music.
CH: The electronic music and the (pause) have you had this always with you, this kind of resiliency?
JC: Yes. And always until the middle ‘50s or (pause) even when I was just as poor as a church mouse. Yes, it wasn’t until the late ‘50s that I had any extra money at all. When I wrote the Concerto For Piano and Orchestra, I wrote that out in the country, I was living in Stony Point. And, I didn’t have any money. And my music was not published. And one of my books. And I came in with … I got a ride into town and I went to a cocktail party, and Elaine Dekooning was there, she said … she said: “I have always wanted to commission a piece from you! And I said “Oh, that’s marvelous!” — no, FIRST she said: “Oh, how are you?” I said, “I’m perfectly alright. BUT, I’m poor as a Church mouse!’”
Ha ha ha! And so she said, “Well I’ve always wanted to commission a piece,” and so she gave me a hundred dollars and it came in the mail. It was a great deal of money then. So, I dedicated the “Concert For Piano and Orchestra” to her. And she wrote back and said: “It was so beautiful, I didn’t mean a big piece, I just meant a little piece!” Ha ha ha!
CH: That was already when you were breaking into Oriental thought. You had studied with Suzuki, right, in the ‘40s or so?
JC: No, 15 years before…. So even during the time of the poverty…
CH: Would you say that there’s always been a creative life that has always been independent of ego, in your life, that always had to, that always wanted to go forward, explore, always kept you going? Mozart felt this about his life.
JC: In the beginning your first question had to do with ambition… and I was very ambitious but then I think after the studies with Suzuki, I think it (ambition) became something else.
CH: Not even ambition for the work?
JC: No, that no doubt. No, I think by that time I had confidence in the work. It just becomes simple things like energy and optimism. Or continuing.
To think that the help is got to come from the outside; the help has got to come from the inside. I think. At one point I got a Guggenheim, and I got a grant from the National Academy of arts and Letters at the same time.
I didn’t take the attitude that some have take that I won’t do anything unless they give a grant; I did all my work all the time on my own. And I had the example in front of me of another composer who never wrote a single piece unless he got a grant; he lived his whole life supported first by one foundation and then by another. I think he is still living, and still [being] supported . But I am delighted to be able to know through the body of my work both in music and writing to support myself. I’m not dependent upon any one else. And I’m able to support as I do, with any income I don’t need – I divert it to support the Cunningham Dance Company
I’ve made a will that would umm benefit the Cunningham Dance Company if it’s still in existence, then if it isn’t, then the Foundation for Contemporary Performance…
CH: Talking about death a second here, and the hard times, death in relation to hard times, I don’t know what your beliefs are in relation to death and afterlife and so forth, but if you know, if you were to die in 10 minutes and all of a sudden you were to be faced with ah (Cage interrupts with deep laughter) …
JC: HA ha ha ha ha!
CH: A mandate to be reborn, would you? And say you couldn’t use the I-Ching or something like that, in determining …
JC: I would have a choice?
CH: You would.
CH: To come back again!
JC: What would I choose? Well, you know the story where I say I’d be a botanist? And …
CH: Oh, the mushrooms!
JC: And Alexander Smith, says “Why would you want to be a botanist?” And, I say: “To avoid the jealousies that plague the arts!” And he says to me: “Oh that shows how little you know about botany!” Ha ha … So I don’t think it makes much difference what you – it’s like what I sad about the I-Ching in the beginning. Any profession will answer the needs of any human being… Don’t you think? And you could – well, if Jesus was willing to be a carpenter, and I was willing to be a composer, and Smith was wiling to be a mycologist, I think anybody could be just anything, don’t you think?
CH: What would you eliminate say from your prior life to the next one?
JC: Well, it won’t do me any good anyways. But your question is a very iffy one. But it makes me think of ah – a very beautiful interview with Marcel Duchamp with Pierre Caban. Near the beginning he’s asked if he has any regrets. It’s more or less the question you’re asking and he says: “No!” he doesn’t have any. “When you look back over your life, oh first he says, “What is your first motive of satisfaction?” and Marcel says, “In the first place to have had luck, to have been lucky, because, “Basically I have never worked for a living. I consider working for a living is foolish. From an economic point of view, I hope a day will come when no one is obliged to work.” And that’s what we are in the presence of, in the Central Nervous System.
CH: Thoreau realized through technology?
JC: Isn’t it true? And Thoreau didn’t work.
CH: Yes, of course not.
JC: Thanks to my good luck, I’ve been able to get through all this business without any trouble. I’ve understood at a certain moment that it was not necessary to overload life with too much weight, too many things to do, with what people call “a wife, children, a house in the country, an automobile”! And I’ve understood happily and soon enough, hmm? That permitted me to live a long time as a bachelor much more easily than if I had – if it had been necessary for me to face all the normal difficulties of life, hmm? Basically, this is the principal thing – I consider myself therefore very happy, or very lucky … I have never had any great unhappiness, sadness or neurasthenia. I have never known moreover, the effect of producing (reads the French text of the DuChamp interview). He’s never known moreover the effect of producing things. And painting not having been for me a diversion, or an imperious need to express myself… This is what I’m free of.
(Cage continues reading the French text and provides the following translation): “I’ve never had the need to design the morning or the evening, to make sketches.” He didn’t feel compelled to work. “I can’t tell you anything more about it. I have no regrets!”
Now, I can’t honesty say that I have no regrets. I have in me… a lot, not only of my father who was very much like Marcel, who I think would have said “I have no regrets,” but I have in me, also my mother who would have said that things “could have been MUCH better than they were!” Every time we took a drive out of town on Sundays, we’d no sooner, we wouldn’t, we’d just be approaching the city limits and she would say: “Oh we should have taken so and so with us!” And she almost would get us to drive back to pick up somebody. She never thought that the situation we were in was a good one. She always thought it could be improved. And that’s what Marcel is saying right there. Is that he felt everything is fine. Wouldn’t you say?
John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, & Teeny Duchamp performing Reunion at its premiere in Toronto, 5th March, 1968. Photograph by Lynn Rosenthal, courtesy of The John Cage Trust.
JC: And, you talked about death and he talked beautifully about death. First, they ask him if he believes in God. He says: “No, not at all. Don’t even mention It! Ha ha ha ha! The question doesn’t even exist. It’s an invention of man. Why speak of such a utopia, when man invents a stupid imbecility to have created a notion of God? I do not wish to say that I am or am not an ‘atheist,’ or a ‘believer.’ I just don’t want to have anything to say about it!” Isn’t that beautiful? Imagine, that’s true anarchy isn’t it?
Yeah, “I won’t talk to you – “I won’t talk about the life of ants (you know ‘ants’) on Sunday, would I?”, he said. “It’s the same question!” Ha ha! And they said, “What do you think about death?” Marcel says, “As little as possible.” Physiologically one is obliged to think about it, from time to time at my age when you have a headache or when you break your leg, death then appears… I do not hope for any other life than this one or for any metampsychosis – it’s very troubling. In spite of myself, one is impressed that one is going to disappear completely. Isn’t that marvelous?
Then they say, “In an interview you have said that questions of journalists that they give you and that there’s one that nobody ever asks you and would like to have asked and you have said that the question is: “How are you?” And, so he answers, he says: “I am well!” Ah, I don’t have bad health at all, I’ve had one or two operations. I think they are normal operations when you consider my age, like the prostate, for example. I have submitted to the boredoms that surround all people…all people who are 79 years old. He says: “Look out, I am very happy,” and he ends the book and begins it with the same… Isn’t that beautiful!
I think it was a great pleasure for me to have spent a lot of time with him until the end of his life, and when I received the telegram from Teeny saying he had died, I put the telegram down on a low table like this one, but it wasn’t covered with books, and I was living in a place in the University of Illinois, which was even longer than this is, and it was like a bird cage and it was up in the trees and you could look at the trees out the window, and I had no furniture, and I just avoided the table and I went about my work and thought about, and thought, I was very foolish, I thought I could bring him back to life by ignoring the letter. It was so – and for years Teeny spoke, I don’t notice so much any more, but she always used the pronoun ‘we’ – we do that, we do this, he was such a marvelous man. Just love ‘em.
And all the time he was fooling us, you know. He had us all feeling that he wasn’t doing any work. And there he was busy on a great masterpiece. And he would even tease us – he must have laughed inside, because he would bring up in conversation all kinds of things that pointed to the existence of this work without ever mentioning it, so that he almost gave away the fact that he was working. But he didn’t. We were all surprised that he had been busy all the time we thought he wasn’t. And we turned him into an art, turned the fact that he was not working into a great work of art, really – at least I had. I thought: ‘Oh the fact that he’s doing nothing is the greatest thing he can do!’ and he was (ha ha!) all the time just as busy as a bird …
And another things he would say is that, “An artist must go underground!” Because he was underground working! He was working secretly and you know he would go to great lengths to do that, he had two studios. And if you went to visit him in his studio he took you into the one where he was not working; he collected dust in it. It was photographed and it was proof that Duchamp was no longer working.
CH: There’s one other question that I had, it has to do with Zen … I wonder how this relates to your work … part of the Zen teaching, I believe, is that philosophies and so forth have a kind of regression downward from thought to words to sound and sound has its counterpart, maybe its roots, in feeling and one of the teachings is as I understand it, certain mantras are death mantras. We have to understand the sound and not use it in … I don’t want to use the word “careless’ but I guess a random way …we have to be careful about sound first of all and they have to come from a master who understands what feelings are going to be stimulated by the sounds that you are using, otherwise a destructive effect can come about. I’m wondering how this aspect of the teaching relates to chance music? You know it seems like [with] chance music, you can wander into this area of …
JC: … do one thing or another?
CH: Yeah! create a negative feeling state. Have you ever confronted that thought?
JC: No, I don’t believe that it is true. I think that those notions of some thing being potentially destructive, that is outside of us or potentially beneficial that is outside us, is not true. I think that all the power is within each one… rather than outside of us.
The foregoing interview was edited for style and length.
To read Hayes’ Dorothea Rockburne interview, click here:
John Cage at MoMA:
There Will Never Be Silence:
Scoring John Cage’s 4’33”
October 12, 2013–June 22, 2014
Read more about this exhibition, INSIDE/OUT.
About the interviewer:
Charles Hayes began publishing poetry and essays in the 1970s and ’80s. His 1978 book, From the Hudson to the World (introduction by Pete Seeger) remains the most complete collection of Native American lore and art (gathered from 17th century Dutch deed books) to date. In the ’80s, Hayes started a book called Pearl in the Mud, which involved interviews with various famous and lesser-known artists, from John Cage and Elaine Dekooning in New York to excellent folk weavers in the New Mexico mountains. A book he funded on student loans.
Concurrent to his book project, Hayes studied Navajo language and earned his MA degree in Art Therapy from the University of New Mexico. Since then, he has become an avid amateur photographer who combines his photos with his writings. Currently, he is “taking the ‘Pearl’ project onward in the form of a smaller book, Ten Women Composers You Should Know.
Hayes is a frequent contributor to Ragazine.
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on John Cage: Looking Back
An interview with Paul B. Roth
of Bitter Oleander Press
by Alan Britt
Book Review Editor
For the past several decades as corporations have gobbled up major publishing houses, causing poets in many cases to succumb to the whims of commercial-minded editors, the future of serious fiction and poetry in the United States has been under attack. For the sake of survival, medium and small presses around the country have carried the torch. Publishers such as Anhinga Press, Boa, Black Sparow, Brooklyn Arts Press, Červená Barva, Coffee House Press, Four Way Books, Graywolf Press, March Street Press, Milkweed Editions, Red Hen Press, Sarabande Books, Soft Skull Press, Tupelo Press, Twisted Spoon Press, White Pine Press, along with several others have taken up the mantle similar to what New Directions and City Lights did throughout the 1950s and 1960s. All of these publishers began small and have since grown into vital alternatives for innovative poets and fiction writers. A few publishers, such as City Lights and New Directions, in particular, also published journals and anthologies along with books. In this necessary tradition, editor and publisher Paul B. Roth has been publishing his celebrated international journal of poetry and short fiction, The Bitter Oleander, while building an impressive library of books through his Bitter Oleander Press. Year after year Roth continues to produce beautiful books by some of the most impressive writers from the U.S. and abroad. The brief interview that follows allows us a glimpse into Roth’s emergence as one of this country’s most important publishers of poetry and short fiction.
* * *
Alan Britt: You publish the award winning literary journal, The Bitter Oleander, a bi-annual, international journal for poetry and short fiction that features extensive interviews along with a large selection of poetry by poets from all over the globe. You also publish The Bitter Oleander Press which features books of poetry and flash fiction by writers both domestic and foreign. When and why did you begin publishing the journal and books?
Paul B. Roth: When I was finally awakened from the doldrums of contemporary North American poetry in the late sixties and reborn by the teachings and work of Duane Locke, it became paramount in my mind to find a way to make the kind of poetic temperament he espoused more available to those who, like myself, craved it and for those who didn’t yet know they craved it. There were no journals at the time willing to accept great numbers of deep image, Surrealist or Immanentist poetry. As a result, there was no one journal specifically dedicating itself to the kind of poetry that had already been flourishing for decades in both the European salons and in the darkest blood our Latin American brothers and sisters were bleeding into their poems. A profound poetry that, for the most part, was just not as accessible to the English speaking world as it is today.
AB: What words would you use to identify your mission statement?
PBR: Patience, perseverance, dedication, openness, and the presentation of different landscapes in as many exemplary poems as are publishable from one issue or individual book to the next. And to find those poets no one knows, no one has ever heard of or whose work exemplifies in stark contrast to what it means to be an individual poet in a world where so many sound like each other, as if we were all somehow the same.
AB: What is the origin of your press’s name, The Bitter Oleander?
PBR: Again in the late sixties, while reading García Lorca’s poems and plays for the first time, I came across and loved his play, Blood Wedding, which I read appeared in New York City back in the early thirties. The play’s producer was concerned that the American audience would misinterpret this play because of its title. Lorca was consulted, completely understood the problem and pronounced the play would now be called Bitter Oleander. Upon first seeing this name I said to myself, if I’m ever lucky enough to succeed in my dream, this will be the name my journal will go by. When it all fell into place in 1974, it was the only name I had ever considered.
AB: Along with your journal, am I correct in assuming that some of the books The Bitter Oleander Press has published have won awards?
PBR: Yes, a few. In 2005 we were recognized by National Public Radio (NPR) as the best journal for poetry in the United States. Shawn Fawson’s book, Giving Way, won the Utah Book Award for poetry in 2011 and the Estonian poet Kristiina Ehin’s 1001 Winters was short-listed for the prestigious Propescu Prize for best book of poetry in translation from a European language. With our books we pursue every competition for which we qualify. Getting our name out there in every possible circumstance has helped over the past forty years to bring a lot of positive attention to this press and it’s certainly helped establish us as a more than legitimate and successful publisher of poetry in the United States. Along the way we’ve been fortunate to receive two extremely helpful Hemingway Grants from the French Cultural attaché, one for a book of poems by the purest Surrealist of them all, Benjamin Perét, and his Children of the Quadrilateral translated by Albert Frank Moritz, along with Torn Apart/Déchirures by Joyce Mansour who was the only woman within the inner circle of the Surrealist movement and whose work here was so beautifully translated from the French by Serge Gavronsky.
AB: Besides an impressive list of books by U.S. poets, you’ve also published an amazing array of books in translation by poets from Bolivia, China, Ecuador, Estonia, France, Germany, Mexico, Sweden and Switzerland. Why the stress on publishing so many books in translation?
PBR: I cannot think of a time in cultural history when translations have reached such great proportions. There are translations of poems and fiction of all kinds from every corner and language of the world. Much has been translated into English and some into other languages. Having come to realize that there are vigorous cultures whose pursuits of its own language through poetry are much greater than what we read and see every day in submissions to us from around the U.S., we wanted to try and amp up the availability that a true seeker of poetry could have in regard to a less self-absorbing and more universal kind of writing.
We have also tried to accomplish this reaching out to non-English speaking voices in those poets we feature in our semiannual journal. By feature it should be understood that we devote thirty or more pages to one poet in each and every issue. There’s an interview usually conducted by me, plus a generous selection of work by the featured poet. We’ve featured close to forty different individuals. Specifically, from other countries we’ve featured Ruxandra Cesereanu (Romania), Alberto Blanco (Mexico), Nicomedez Suaréz-Araúz (Bolivia), Aase Berg (Sweden), Chun Ye (China), Martín Camps (Mexico), Pierre Albert Jourdan (France), Ana Minga (Ecuador), Fiona Sze-Lorrain (France), Kristiina Ehin (Estonia), José-Flore Tappy (Switzerland), Tóroddur Poulsen (Faroe Islands), and such excellent American poets as Duane Locke, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Ray Gonzalez, Silvia Scheibli, Christine Boyka Kluge, Rob Cook, Shawn Fawson, Patrick Lawler, George Kalamaras, Carol Dine and Patty Dickson Pieczka.
AB: What plans for publishing do you have for the future? Projects? Desires?
PBR: We just published a wonderful little book of poems by the anguished Ecuadorian poet, Ana Minga, translated by Alexis Levitin, entitled Tobacco Dogs/Perros de tabaco. At the same time we published the winning book in our annual Library of Poetry (2012) competition by Patty Dickson Pieczka entitled Painting the Egret’s Echo. We’re on the verge of publishing Patrick Lawler’s new book of poems, Child Sings in the Womb, which will be available in March of this year. A month after that book’s debut, our spring issue of The Bitter Oleander appears. Following that issuance, other books coming due in 2014 include Puppets in the Wind by Karl Krolow, translated from the German by Stuart Friebert; Sheds/Hangars by the Swiss poet José-Flore Tappy, translated by John Taylor; Movement Through the Pain by Philippe Rahmy translated from the French by Rosemary Lloyd; the 2013 winner of our Library of Poetry award The Cave by Tom Holmes, and beginning in 2015 we will publish Rich Ives’ Light from a Small Brown Bird.
AB: Any other future projects you’d like to see come to fruition?
PBR: After Rich Ives’ collection, and at this very moment, I’ll be starting to look for outstanding manuscripts, particularly translations. We want to keep concentrating on those poets who are still living or have not been gone for too long. It’s been said that more people than ever are writing poems in this world. That there’s an abundance of literary journals both in print and online for those who seek publication, credit and attention, makes things more complex for any editor today. There’s a lot to sift through, as one can imagine, but until we’re moved to accept a person’s work for our journal or have it collected in a full edition, we’ll continue to sift.
About the publisher:
Paul B. Roth edits and publishes The Bitter Oleander Press in the village of Fayetteville, NY. He has seven books to his credit, the two most recent of which are Cadenzas by Needlelight (CypressBooks, 2006) and Words the Interrupted Speak (March Street Press, 2011). His eighth collection, Long Way Back to the End, is to be published in the spring of 2014 by Rain Mountain Press.
About the interviewer:
Alan Britt is the Books & Reviews editor of Ragazine.CC. He received his Masters Degree from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He performs poetry workshops for the Maryland State Arts Council. You can read more about him in “About Us.”
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Paul B. Roth/Interview
By Jean-Paul Gavard-Perret
Barbara Ellmerer is a Swiss painter and drawer, educated at the Academy of Art and Design in Zürich and at the University of Arts in Berlin. Giving access to the outlines of her imaginative space, she allows the viewer into a unique time and space arrangement. Her images (flowers for instance) present a subtle beauty in their form. Presented in close-up, the images lack an anchoring point in terms of scale. They become metaphorical “ landscapes” that present the primal cycle and preservation of life and explore the transformative possibilities inherent in letting go. These traces have made physical an idea of duration, the cumulative trace of breath and body on tissue like accumulated light on the surface, even if our senses predetermine the physical limits and temporality of memories made from the perception of the opus.
Q: What makes you get up on morning?
A: The knowledge of the shortness of the day, the lust to continue the work on my drawings and paintings (which is the same as the lust for life) and to explore its possibilities of energies.
Q: What happened to your dreams as a child?
A: The biggest dream was to become an artist which always meant to make a living out of it, came true. Although my parents were warning me and trying to prevent it, by not allowing me to visit an art academy.
Q: What did you give up?
A: I gave up my first true love, dissolved my engagement, left the province, went to live in the city, where I could get an art education and become a political activist.
A: I was born and raised by Austrian parents in a small beautiful mountain village of the Bernese Oberland.
Q: What is the first image you remember?
A: The very first image I do remember was an impressive painting “Judith,” carrying the head of Holofernes in her hand. It was placed about our family dining table. The painter’s name is Hans Bauer, who was my great-grandfather.
Q: That is what distinguishes you from other artists?
A: This question will have to be answered by those who look at artists from another perspective.
Q: Where do you work, and how?
A: The tension between a vivid movement and its fixation is seminal for my production. I do enjoy following the colors when they start to transform in ephemeral grounds like on ice and in water, on paper with fragile or powerful porosity. But the work does not only take place in my atelier besides the river in Zurich city. It takes place in many other situations, while walking through the nature, listening to talks of mathematicians or physicists or during the phase of waking up from a sleep.
Q: To whom do you never dare write?
A: In times of floods of email-traffic there are no limits of writing to any person in the world, neither to get emails from anybody of the world. Nobody has to answer to anybody… just like Goethe did once to Jean Paul.
Q: What music do you listen to while working?
A: If it is quiet around me and my thoughts, I do not need any music. But when there are noises, voices or something else, which is disturbing my working processes, I turn on my music “shield,” my “cheese cover” to keep out the outer world. I prefer to listen to electronic music (Section Experimental).
Q: What is the book you love read again?
A: There is one book I love since 28 years: Clarice Lispector’s, Buch der Lüste. I read it every two or three years. There is another book I reread in order to hopefully being able to fully understand some day: Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages, eine Reise in den extradimensionalen Raum.
Q: When you look yourself in a mirror who do you see?
A: A Woman who should find time to tweeze her eyebrows.
Q: What city or place has value of myth for you?
A: The Abyss of the nightly Sky, the Universe who promises to be several.
Q: Who are the artists to whom you feel closest?
A: Goya, Pollock, Judith Butler and other rebels.
Q: What film make you cry?
A: “Stalker” by Tarkowskj, and “Sans Soleil” by Chris Marker.
Q: What would you like to receive for your birthday?
A: This year’s birthday I got a wonderful love letter, which almost cannot be topped.
Q: What do you think of the sentence of Lacan: “Love is giving something that we don’t have to someone who does not want?”
A: The so called impossible phenomena could eventually exist somewhere else.
* * * * *
This Formless Thing, Publication for the exhibitions at Kunstmuseum Winterthur and SMBA with contributions by Esther Leslie, Natasha Ginwala, Mirjam Varadinis, Simona Ciuccio, Matthew Solomon, Jelena Rakin and Jennifer Burris and published by Roma Publications Amsterdam
With Jean-Paul Gavard-Perret
Q: What makes you get up on morning?
A: Looping thoughts and a certain restlessness
Q: What happened to your dreams as child?
A: I don’t remember.
Q: What did you give up?
A: Many things, and I keep giving up things all the time.
Q: Where do you come from?
A: Zurich, but my background is quite mixed and I have lived in many places since
Q: What is the first image you remember ?
A: The icon painting that was hanging above my bed as a child, everything except the painted bodies was covered in a golden metal with debossed ornaments and sharp edges and I liked following the ornaments with my fingers.
Q: And the first book?
A: There is not one specific first book as far as I remember but many first books, books that mark a change, a shift, a discovery, a return, or a more physical change like a move to another city. A book with the technical drawings by Michelangelo, that my grandfather who was an engineer showed to me when I was very young, L’Éducation sentimentale by Flaubert, Le Grand Cahier by Agota Kristof, Auslöschung by Thomas Bernhard, anything W.G Sebald has ever written, the writing by Enrique Vila-Matas and the writing by Michael Taussig, Esther Leslie, Keston Sutherland. I am sure I forgot quite many.
Q: That is what distinguishes you from other artists?
A: I try not to think too much about other artists and if I do then I look more for affinities than differences.
Q: Where do you work and how?
A: I especially like thinking about my work when I just woke up as my mind is not completely present yet and the thoughts can move in a more free and unstructured way. Most of the days I go to my studio which is only a 5 minutes bicycle ride away from my house here in Amsterdam. It’s a beautiful space under a white-beamed roof and it has a shielding feeling to it. Once you close the door and start working it is even hard to go and buy some lunch. It kind of draws you in. I share it with two friends as I don’t need much space for my work, mostly I am just sitting at my desk. The reading I prefer to do at home as it is easier to concentrate.
Q: To whom do you never dare write ?
A: I always write to anyone that I am interested in.
Q: What music do you listen to?
A: I don’t like listening to music too much, just sometimes, it is a bit of a blank spot for me.
Q: What is the book you love read again?
A: I read most books I am interested in twice, sometimes immediately following the first read.
Q: When you look yourself in a mirror who do you see?
A: It depends on the day
Q: What city or place has value of myth for you?
A: All the places I have once lived in but especially New York.
Q: What are the artists you feel closest to?
A: This changes all the time but maybe I feel closest to my artist friends who follow my work and I follow theirs.
Q: What film make you cry?
A: It depends more on my mood than on the film actually. Anything or nothing. But the film that never fails to make me cry is Au Hasard Balthazar by Robert Bresson.
Q: What would you like to receive for your birthday?
A: Artworks by friends are my favourite gifts, I have already a small collection and it is the best. And birthday cards.
Q: What do you inspire the sentence of Lacan: “Love is giving something that we don’t have to someone who does not want”?
A: I didn’t know Lacan was actually funny.
Q: And Woody Allen: “The answer is Yes but what was the question?”
A: Can you please stop making films for a while Mr. Allen?
* * * * *
About the interviewer:
Jean-Paul Gavard-Perrett writes about music and the visual arts. Born in 1947 in Chambery (France), he was a professor of communication at the Université de Savoie. He has published several essays, mainly about Samuel Beckett and painting, and short fiction, most recently “Labyrinthes,” Editions Marie Delarbre.
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on On Location/France
The Amazonian Water World
by Robert Walker
“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus
The barge slogs forward, dodging the silhouettes of the islets that lead to the main channel of the Xingu River. I stand at the bow, a gray glow filming the banks of the ferry ramp of the small Amazonian town, São Felix do Xingu, now ten minutes behind us. My two Brazilian colleagues, Eugenio and Rita, are back in our pick-up truck bracing for the 100-mile drive to Vila Central, a tiny hamlet in a region of Pará State called Terra do Meio, covering some 30,000 miles2.
Our hope is to find active logging in Vila Central, so we can talk to loggers about the roads they build, which lay waste to the Amazonian forest by opening it to development. How do they choose their routes? How much equipment do they need and how many men?
And most importantly for us, although something we dare not ask, how do we stop them?
Such questions we’ve been trying to answer for the past three summers of Amazonian field work for the National Science Foundation. Eugenio, whose grant dollars fund our project, is fortyish and of Japanese descent. A former student of mine, Eugenio now holds a faculty position at the University of Texas in Austin. Rita, a few years younger than Eugenio, hails from Salvador, the Brazilian capital of candomblé magic. Rita’s chosen the path of science, however, and is close to finishing her PhD at Michigan State University. As for myself, the comfort of meditating on my past experiences will soon trump the adventure of accumulating new ones. But not today.
On leaving at 5:00 a.m. to catch the ferry, Chico, the hotel owner, greeted us at the reception desk. “So where you off to?”
“Vila Central,” Eugenio said.
A hearty man in his fifties with a shock of white hair, Chico proceeded to give us the lowdown on Vila Central. Its leading citizen, an acquaintance of his who owned the only hotel in town (where we’d have to stay), had killed someone in a bar fight. The brother of the victim wanted payback and hired two pistoleiros, or gunmen, to even the score. And so it was that only two weeks before, there’d been a shoot-out in broad daylight, both hired guns going down before the superior firepower of the hotel owner’s bodyguards. The aggrieved brother had sparked a Kill Bill convergence of pistoleiros on Vila Central, with promises of a reward for whoever could complete the job.
Talk about his old friend got Chico loquacious about the past. He’d started out in Terra do Meio too, but his wife talked sense into him, so they sold their claim and bought the hotel. Chico said the forest was beautiful but deceptive. You never heard gunshots, only monkeys and squawking parrots. You never saw bodies, only trees and colorful flowers. For every murder that made the local papers, another five went unreported. The forest was filled with hidden bones.
A horn blasted outside. Jefferson, the driver, telling us to hurry.
As we left, Chico called after us, “Watch out for Carlos Ferreira. Big time rancher. His pistoleiros communicate with walk-talkies and any strangers show up, they wanna know why.”
“How do we know it’s Carlos Ferreira?” I asked over my shoulder.
“100,000 head of cattle. A ranch as big as the world.”
We’ve driven for four hours over a rutted dirt road, the main thoroughfare through Terra do Meio. Officially dry season, the sky’s nevertheless begun sucking up moisture through shades of gray, from the silver-blue morning to the pewter of massing clouds, with rain. Dry season’s only a little less wet than rainy season in the Amazon Basin. Heat in the humid tropics hardly needs description. Suffice it to say that as we bump along, I pass in and out of thermal stupors. I feel like what water must feel like as it evaporates, a sweaty mass being boiled into humidity.
Over the past few days in São Felix do Xingu, we’ve gathered intelligence on Terra do Meio. Of specific interest is that a logging firm, Peracchi, built most of the smaller roads around here about ten years ago. These small roads, so-called unofficial roads, are the ones we’re studying. The federal government has crisscrossed the basin with maybe 50,000 miles of “highways,” just glorified tracks of dirt that every once in awhile get graded. This might seem like a big number, but loggers have built ten times that amount, literally shredding large parts of the forest. This is perhaps the single most important factor in bringing basin-wide deforestation to an area the size of Texas.
Unfortunately, Peracchi’s left, so our objective is to talk to other sawmill operators (the reason for our trip to Vila Central), or to antigos moradores, “old residents,” typically poor subsistence farmers who’ve long lived in the region and can be quite informative. It’s proving hard to find them in Terra do Meio, though. Here, almost all the land has been fenced by ranchers.
But now we drive along a rather wild stretch of terrain. We know from our maps and satellite imagery that smaller roads form a spidery network only a mile or two off the one we’re on, and we’re getting damn anxious to find someone to talk to about it. Miraculously, the roadside vegetation opens with a cut. We stop to reconnoiter, then drive in.
The cut widens as the trees rise to a tall, emerald canopy. But this doesn’t last, and we quickly reach a large slash field still smoking in places, burnt debris in broken heaps. The lonely wattle shelter stands two hundred yards away, its dun color blending with the burnt forest behind it. A clothes line tells us that people live there, so Eugenio, Rita, and I get out, leaving Jefferson to tend the vehicle.
On approaching, Rita claps her hands, and an old woman and teenage girl appear at the doorway. The old woman has a face so wizened it looks like it might crack. The teenage girl, no more than fourteen, is dark-skinned, pregnant, and holds a baby boy at her hip. Eugenio explains the purpose of our visit to the old woman. When she doesn’t respond and continues staring off into space, he switches to the girl, who invites us in. We sit as best we can on the hardpan floor, using sacks of rice as elbow props. Rita pulls a bag of candy from her backpack and hands out pieces. It’s dark inside, and a dirty sheet partitions where we sit from the bowels of the house.
Eugenio extracts the satellite image from the map-tube and spreads it on the ground. To the girl he says, “This is a satellite image. Do you know what a satellite is?”
Nodding yes, she squats beside Eugenio, and in a moment brings her finger down to the slash field out front, plainly visible on the image.
“This is Peracchi’s land, right?” Eugenio asks.
“Absolutely not,” claims a tired male voice, rising in mysterious utterance from behind the sheet.
This startles us, and we pause to see what else the voice might utter. Finally, Eugenio asks, “Then who’s land is it?”
“It’s our land,” comes the tired, worn voice again.
With this, the sheet ripples and an old man staggers out. Dressed in raggedy shorts, he’s close to seventy, and years of tropical light have burned his freckles into cancerous tattoos.
“I am Jorge, Jorge Silva de Bom Jesus, from Maranhão.”
He shuffles up to each of us, taking our hands in his. “So you want to know who owns our land?”
Eugenio tries to reassure him. “Señor Jorge, we’re just researchers –”
But Jorge cuts him off. “We arrived twenty years ago and claimed this land, as God is my witness. We came when there was nothing but dense forest and jaguars, malaria.” Jorge pauses to swat a fly. “We survived by the grace of God. My poor wife broken down by hardship in Maranhão –”
Robert Walker's Amazon V10N2: My photos are shot with a Nikon D90. Sometimes, I can afford a leisurely approach, as when composing shots of the natural world. The photography of human subjects requires greater care, and empathy, however. Issues of personal security also arise, in which case photographs may be taken in haste from a moving vehicle. On this trip, several indigenous tribes had barricaded parts of the Transamazon Highway passing through their territories, where they demanded a toll for passage. We were warned in advance about this, and told in no uncertain terms to keep our cameras hidden. In such a situation, photography can be regarded as a hostile act, and lead to sequestration.
Santarém sits on the main course of the Amazon River between Belém and Manaus. Boats tie up directly to the town’s main thoroughfare.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-buriti-palm-trees.jpg]30Buriti Palm Trees.
This was shot just outside of Jacareacanga, which marks an ecological transition to extensive swamps of palm forest heading west into the basin.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-buzzed-by-macaws.jpg]10Buzzed by Macaws.
Macaws on the Western Transamazon Highway, unafraid of humans. These flew right over me, and I almost feel backwards taking the photo. [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-gold-mine-eldorado-do-juma.jpg]10 Gold Mine Eldorado
We managed to visit an active gold mine three hours north of Apuí. Devastation of the environment is total in such places.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-hand-powered-ferry-on-road-to-labrea.jpg]10Hand Powered ferry on road to Labrea.
One of the many difficulties of traveling the Western Transamazon. The abundance of rivers and the need to cross them on ferries, which slows things down considerably. This one, hand-pulled.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-indigenous-lands-of-the-tenharim-peoples.jpg]10Indigenous Lands of the Tenharim Peoples.
When I took this photo, I didn’t realize I’d done so on indigenous land until consulting maps after the trip. Thus, I unknowingly risked being sequestered and held for ransom.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-last-abode-before-purus-river.jpg]00Last Abode before Purus River.
The people in Labrea use ever piece of land they can, including the flood-plain, which means they build many of their houses on stilts.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-one-vehicle-ferry.jpg]00One Vehicle Ferry.
Although powered by an outboard engine, this ferry was on the small side. [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-roadside-habitation-amazonas-state.jpg]10Roadside Habitation Amazonas State.
Typical forest dwelling, near ferry crossing.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-sylvan-creek-outside-of-apui.jpg]10Sylvan Creek outside of Apuí.
The region of Apui in Amazonas State is forested and wet.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-the-lonesome-transamazon-highway.jpg]20The Lonesome Transamazon Highway.
The “Highway” is a just dirt road that’s hardly even traveled west of the Tapajós River. That’s about to change with huge hydroelectric projects in the region.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-the-pig-man.jpg]10The Pig Man.
“Homen do Porco,” or the pig man, the pied-piper of Apuí, so named for his three pet peccaries taken wild from the forest. His wife had left him years before because of the animals he kept in the house. Here he holds one of his many parrots. [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-the-purus-river.jpg]40The Purus River.
The End of the Transamazon Highway. For what purpose?[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-visit-to-gold-mine.jpg]60Visit to Gold Mine.
They don’t make it easy to get to the gold mines, or to leave them. On the way out here with the arrival of malaria hour.
“My photos are shot with a Nikon D90. Sometimes, I can afford a leisurely approach, as when composing shots of the natural world. The photography of human subjects requires greater care, and empathy, however. Issues of personal security also arise, in which case photographs may be taken in haste from a moving vehicle. On this trip, several indigenous tribes had barricaded parts of the Transamazon Highway passing through their territories, where they demanded a toll for passage. We were warned in advance about this, and told in no uncertain terms to keep our cameras hidden. In such a situation, photography can be regarded as a hostile act, and lead to sequestration.”
Rita interrupts, backing all the way up to where we should have started the interview. “Señor Jorge, we’re from the university, and we’re here to do research on roads. Who builds them, how they benefit the community. We only have a few questions, but you’re under no obligation to answer.”
Jorge smiles agreeably, showing pink gums, and nods. Eugenio kneels beside the image again. “Señor Jorge, we only want to know about the roads. How they got built, who built them.”
Jorge scratches his head. “Roads? Why would I have a road?”
Before I realize it, Eugenio’s rolled up the satellite image and standing. Rita and I exchange glances; this isn’t the patient Eugenio we know and love. Still, it’s obvious there’s no useful information to be collected here, so we get up too and take our leave with Eugenio.
Stepping from the shack, we turn to say good-bye, seeing that the family has followed us out. Señora Silva de Bom Jesus wants more candy, and giggles when Rita gives her the bag.
“Where you going?” Jorge asks, like he’s only just now aware of our presence.
“Vila Central!” he shouts. “You can’t go there. Only pistoleiros go there.”
“We’re only researchers,” Eugenio says.
Jorge shakes his head. “You see the hotel owner, don’t touch your belt, your pocket. He’ll get the wrong idea.”
“How will we pay for our room then?” Rita wants to know, worried.
We drive for an hour without saying much. It’s starting to feel like last summer, and the summer before that. In fact, our past two summers in the field have been a bust. Luckily, Rita’s dissertation doesn’t depend on the information we’re collecting. But Eugenio? As an untenured assistant professor, a botched-up project for the National Science Foundation could spell professional doom. And me? I’m tenured, but that’s never stopped Bill O’Reilly from making a scapegoat of someone.
As recently as five years ago you could talk to anyone out here. You always got a cup of coffee, a slap on the back. But then the Brazilian government cracked down on illegal logging and the recession hit, and thirty thousand sawmill workers found themselves without jobs. Now, anyone with the appearance of a researcher, carrying laptop computers and satellite imagery, is suspect, probably an environmentalist, who loggers blame for not being able to steal as much wood as before. The fact that Eugenio, Rita, and I are environmentalists makes it ethically questionable to deny it if asked, but essential for reasons of personal safety.
In the midst of my brooding thoughts, I wake to the changing landscape. Giant hands seem to have yanked the trees out, then carpeted the soils with luxuriant pasture grasses that stretch to dark lines of forest on the horizon. And all of this beneath blue savanna skies without the clouds that are massing elsewhere in Terra do Meio. The glint of new barbwire speaks of deep pockets, as do the healthy-looking Zebu cattle clustered around mahogany drinking troughs. Carlos Ferreira. It’s like a tropical Montana with its stunning contrasts of greens and blues.
The odometer shows that the ranch goes on ten miles. Once we’ve passed it, the blue gives way to thickening clouds.
Not long after, a small store appears on the edge of an abandoned pasture. We stop for a break and enter. A middle-aged man stands behind a scuffed-up counter, and a middle-aged woman, presumably his wife, sits off to the side, making notations in a spiral notebook. We ask for soft-drinks, which the man retrieves from a rusty ice-chest.
“Where you going,” he asks, on serving us. It’s a question with an obvious answer, since Vila Central lies only three miles ahead.
“You know what’s happening there?” He chuckles like we might be idiots.
“Of course.” Rita says. “But it’s obvious we’re researchers from out of town.”
The man shakes his head. “That’s the problem. The best pistoleiros aren’t obvious. The hotel owner’s already killed two. You’re dead-ringers for what he’s probably worried about now. Government research-type pistoleiros.”
“Is there any logging there?” Eugenio asks.
“Oh yeah. They’ve had a big run on coffins,” the man says, although nobody laughs.
As we pay and start for the door, the woman adds, “Even if you don’t get killed in the cross-fire, you think those pistoleiros are gonna leave witnesses?”
We climb into the truck and head-off. But Jefferson hardly gets onto the road before he pulls over and stops. Sitting up front, Eugenio asks, “We gotta problem?”
Jefferson hesitates, says, “Maybe we should put this off. You know, for a better time.”
The words come out hard, but they express my own doubts.
“There’s not gonna be a better time.”
“We can always come back next summer. Think Sisyphus here,” I say, immediately sorry for making light of our situation.
“There’s not gonna be a next summer.” Eugenio’s referring to the end of the project’s contract period.
“Don’t be so uptight. There’s always a no-cost extension,” I say, which is true, thank god.
“Eugenio, let’s just head out to the Western Transamazon,” Rita says.
Indeed, we’d discussed this option last summer, on leaving the field with maybe two paragraph’s worth of useful information. But everyone said we’d find what we were looking for in Terra do Meio, namely active logging. The Western Transamazon? No one even knew if the road still existed.
“When’s the last ferry back to São Felix do Xingu?” Eugenio asks Jefferson.
“Nine p.m. We can just make it.”
The interior of the truck compresses. I hear Eugenio breathing as I gaze out my window, watching vultures wheel through the gray sky.
“OK, the Western Transamazon it is,” Eugenio says, although not too quickly and in a voice that’s barely audible.
Rita and I are sitting in the Marabá airport lounge. It’s hot and crowded, and the chairs jab your back. Eugenio’s off at the men’s room, where he’s been for the past half hour. He woke up sick yesterday in São Felix do Xingu, and our overnight bus ride to Marabá was sheer misery for him.
We’re waiting for a flight to Santarém, to get past our fiasco in Terra do Meio. Our plan is simple, to drive the Western Transamazon Highway. This requires that we fly to Santarém, where we can pick up another truck and a new driver.
“I think we should go to Belém for a few days. Let Eugenio get his strength back,” Rita says. Belém, the big city at the mouth of the Amazon River, has physicians, hospitals, etc. Rita’s right. You simply can’t fool around with an ailment out here, far from medical attention.
“Good idea, but he’s never gonna go for it.”
Rita frowns at the truth of the matter. “I know.”
“At the very least, we keep a close eye on him,” I say.
Eugenio rejoins us and sits down. His face has a spectral look, and I can’t tell if it’s from stomach pain or because the toilets are backed up.
After a minute, I cast a sidelong glance his way and say, “Let’s go to Belém. Just for a few days. You gotta get your strength back.”
Rita piles on. “Come on Eugenio. This could be bad out in the field.”
But Eugenio, project leader, cuts us off. “We’re going to Santarém.”
Rita and I have yet to pinpoint how Eugenio got sick. I’m betting it has to do with the return from our ill-fated trip to Terra do Meio. As a consolation prize, Chico invited us to go fishing. I declined in order to work on my field notes, but Eugenio and Rita spent the next day heading up the Xingu in a small runabout. Upon their return, they dropped off their catch to be cooked for dinner at a local restaurant owned by one of Chico’s friends, Lúcia.
It was with great expectations for fresh fish that we set off later that evening. The restaurant was a modest place, perched atop the riverbank, with two dining tables in front of a flat screen TV showing the latest Brazilian soap opera. Across from the dining area was a scratched-up pool table still doing good service. This meandering structure was quite open to the elements, and raised on a cement foundation over pounded dirt. The owner, Lúcia, a buxom woman with the energy of a breaking wave, helped us make our cachaça choices at the bar, its varieties set out in mason jars beneath a fifteen-foot anaconda skin.
Cachaça, a cane-based liquor that tastes like sour rum, is a Brazilian national pastime, and Lúcia prided herself with the best selection in São Felix do Xingu. For starters, there were the juice-based mixtures featuring cachaça flavored by all manner of tropical fruits. But there were also the zoological cachaças looking like laboratory specimens, the clear amber of the alcohol discolored by animal fluids. Thus, in addition to the botanical cachaças, we improved our palate with crab cachaça (a very big crab), snake cachaça (possibly venomous), turtle cachaça, armadillo cachaça, and monkey head cachaça.
Perhaps it was the discovery of a taxonomy of cachaça that had eluded science to this point that encouraged me to drink more than normal, as did Eugenio. Rita remained smart about it and only sipped mineral water. As for the food, this was long in coming, and involved a rather labor-intensive process, with all manner of people walking in and out of the kitchen, girls, boys, men, women. Lúcia came to our table repeatedly, giving us hope that the food was close at hand, exchanging pleasantries with Chico, and bringing with each excuse another shot of booze.
The food arrived as the evening deepened towards midnight. Rather small plates were set before us, piled with what looked like deep-fried chips. The appetizer. Ravenous, I dug in, allowing myself to suck through the greasy crisps of whatever it was that had been carbonized beyond recognition.
When another serving of the appetizer came our way, I turned to Eugenio and Rita, suspicious. “What did you catch?”
Before they could answer, Lúcia charged our table to ask with chefly pride, “So how do you like the fish?”
Seven days out of Santarém and 1200 miles from São Felix do Xingu on the Western Transamazon, we’re waiting for the ferry now loading on the left bank of the Aripuanã River, the final crossing on our jog to Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi. We left the small town Apuí this morning a little before 8:00AM. Now it’s early afternoon and the yellow blue sky is glowing. I’ve hiked upstream along a narrow trail. Rita’s down at the ferry ramp, while Eugenio remains in the vehicle with our driver, Paulo, still sick, but mobile.
On reaching a boulder, I hop up for a look. The water’s the color of brown jade from the amber sands beneath. Just offshore, it spills over a granitic table graced with vegetation that looks gardened. A Mercedes-Benz truck stacked with sawn wood has just boarded the barge, about a quarter mile across the river. This is our first hint of logging since leaving Santarém a week ago optimistic, an optimism that diminished each day with the towns we passed through, none of which revealed even a fleck of sawdust, Ruropolis, Miritituba, Itaituba, Jacareacanga, and Apuí. But now it looks like maybe, just maybe, we’re close to the logging frontier. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Sawn wood on the Aripuanã River.
In fact, we met two loggers in Apuí just before leaving. Ivo, the owner of the place we stayed, Hotel Guarani, introduced us to fellow guests, João and Miguel, while drinking coffee on the breakfast patio. As with Chico in São Felix do Xingu, we’d come to know and like Ivo, and ended up telling him a lot about the work we do.
“You’re interested in logging,” João said after Ivo described our research in an innocuous way that suggested loggers provide a social service with the roads they build.
“Yes,” came our eager response.
João leaned back in his chair. He wore wire-rim glasses, and his fingernails were manicured. “You know, we get blamed for a lot, but it’s not us.”
“We’re not environmentalists,” Eugenio said, trying to reassure him.
“It’s the rancher who does the damage. Just so he can show productive use to grab land.” João glanced at Miguel, who wanted to eat, not talk. Miguel made up for the muscle mass that João lacked, and was dressed in a pair of worn jeans, tee shirt, and work boots.
“We’re the ones teaching the government how to manage the forest,” João continued. “We only take a tree or two, so the rest remains behind for the ecosystem.”
“That’s certainly the way it needs to be done,” Eugenio said.
“You’re heading for Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi?” João asked, whiplashing us with his change of topic.
“Yes,” we said.
João picked up his napkin and dabbed his lips as if they were sore. “You’ll see logging there but be careful. The government has made the loggers feel very insecure, so they’ve had no choice but to hire pistoleiros for protection.”
We arrive in Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi at 5:00 p.m. Its unpaved streets release clouds of dust at the slightest provocation, and the businesses look like a spaghetti western set built cheap. We find a hotel, easy given lack of choices. Ours, the “Tropical Hotel,” is a concrete horseshoe pitched around a courtyard fortress-style, barricaded by the front-desk. The rooms have metal doors. I unpack to take a shower.
The water falls from a piece of PVC piping, neither hot nor cold, which is fine by me. As the pockets of hidden heat dissolve from my body, I feel myself condensing into the coolness of my own private rain. But I also feel a new wetness licking my ankles, and look to see the water surging, the sewer regurgitating its contents back at me. I jump out fast and scrub my feet in the sink, then douse them with rubbing alcohol.
We head out for dinner at 7:00 p.m., the only restaurant in town, a cinder block cube attached to a wing of rooms available at hourly rates. We choose an inside table to escape the dusty street, and the patrons drinking beer on the slab of concrete out front that serves as a porch. Dinner sits behind the scuffed plastic of a pint-sized buffet, chunks of vegetable matter, limp spaghettis that look like intestinal worms, and chards of meat floating in ooze.
We serve ourselves. The waitress, an attractive woman in her thirties wearing spandex shorts and a sports bra beneath a sheer tee shirt, takes our drink order. As I pick through my food, I soon find that what I’ve set aside for the trash bin (or to be recycled through the buffet) forms a larger pile than what’s edible.
Shouts outside distract us. The slurred profanity of a man, the high-pitched anger of a woman. Our waitress storms in from the front porch and disappears out back, just as a shirtless man materializes at the entrance. About fifty, his black hair glistens with gel, and his once muscular frame has sagged. He dances his bloodshot eyes about the dining room, then leaves, his first step uncertain.
Eugenio looks at my plate, sees me lifting a fork with farofa. “Don’t eat that. It’s bad.”
In that I’m already chewing a mouthful, I feel betrayed by the belated warning. Thank you, Eugenio. And you too, Rita. Thank you very much. I discretely empty my mouth into a paper napkin, but the rancid taste remains like a tattoo of formaldehyde.
We finish eating. Paulo, who’s smartly tracked down a street-side grille, drives us back to the hotel. I brush my teeth, then collapse in bed wondering when the nausea will hit. I wake next morning surprised I haven’t spent the night near the toilet. I grab my camera and head out at 6:30 a.m.
Across the Transamazon Highway in front of our hotel, I contemplate a crooked two-story building with a sign indicating the presence of a homeopathic specialist capable of adjusting spines and reading fortunes. Gazing east and west, I note something curious, which is the complete absence of dogs. Most of these small frontier settlements have more dogs than people. Then it hits me. The rubbery meat of the buffet last night. People here eat dog. And their customers, too.
We begin day one in Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi driving its dusty streets at 7:30 a.m. They lead us past the usual assemblage of raised wooden shacks beneath shady mango trees. Trucks loaded with logs sit in front of a couple of them. Eugenio lifts his camera to take pictures, something we’ve done hundreds of times. But the town has put us on edge, and I’m nervous as Eugenio starts shooting.
When I hear the motorcycle coming from behind, I give the warning, moto. Eugenio snaps his camera down, and we turn to look. Pistoleiros use motorcycles to approach their targets fast, and escape with ease, off-road if necessary. Rita notes with relief that he isn’t wearing a helmet, de rigueur for pistoleiros. Many Amazonian towns have ordinances against them because of the anonymity they provide drive-by shooters.
Done with our photography, it’s time to get to work. Eugenio instructs Paulo to head east on the Transamazon Highway, where our satellite imagery indicates an easily accessible network of logging roads. Just outside of town, we stumble on an active sawmill, its patio stacked with mocha-colored logs, mahogany, which is now illegal to cut and incurs a very large fine. We turn down the road beside the mill to reconnoiter the primary forest, only a hundred yards away.
As if to punctuate this happy turn of events, a motorcyclist roars past. That he isn’t wearing a helmet puts us at ease. We follow, and once inside the tree line come immediately upon a logging truck allowing narrow passage beside a bushy hedge, several men tending to a tree they’ve just felled. Past the truck, we turn our attention back on the road, a trail really, noticing the motorcyclist again. He’s stopped and turned his bike around to face us, maybe fifty yards away, and there isn’t room to pass on either side of him.
Unsure as to what to do, we inch ahead, and once in earshot he informs us we’re on private property and must leave immediately, which is ridiculous because all of this land, every square inch of it, is terra devoluta, land belonging to the federal or state government that hasn’t yet been declared for public or private use.
Paulo negotiates a three-point turn, and we come back upon the logging truck, still situated across from the hedge. At that instant, a skidder charges the forest, followed by a pick-up truck, and there we are, trapped.
Maybe a minute passes, I don’t know. But after what seems like a long time, Paulo puts the truck in reverse and backs up, at which the skidder shoots ahead, its metal claw raised. Just before smashing into us, the driver veers to the side and nearly rolls over. Now the pick-up comes forward and stops, giving us barely enough space to pass beside the logging truck. Paulo shifts into gear and releases the clutch.
I’m riding “shot-gun,” the irony of which isn’t lost on me, and have a good view of the guy in the pick-up, who’s heavy through the shoulders, in his mid-forties, and wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. Behind him is a dark space where he’s covered the back cabin windows with aluminum foil, creating a void of perfect concealment. As we bump towards him in first gear, and as I prepare my perfunctory smile to be directed his way through a window I plan to keep shut, I keep thinking about what a splendid target my teeth will make, a gleaming bull’s eye through the tinted glass.
The man we face, the logger who’s claimed the land we’re trying to leave, land he has no right to claim, stares through his open window slightly hunched, watching us pass with shark eyes. This man, and his companion in the back whom I conjure out of fear but who certainly exists, are no doubt little concerned about the consequences of shooting university professors, because it would never occur to them that university professors might be out here doing research. The only people snooping around out here would be other loggers. Or worse, government “researchers” of some sort, looking for environmental crimes or land fraud.
We drive by slowly, under a flag of truce.
Once back on the Transamazon Highway heading into town, Eugenio says, “I think that was probably a close call.”
Coming from Eugenio, the most imperturbable person I know, the admission chills me.
Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi isn’t a place with the restraints to human impulse you need to build a sense of community. And the absence of law has undermined any willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to strangers. No high school football team. No cops. We manage to escape the logger and his men because he fears reprisal.
But our escape presents an immediate dilemma about what to do. We can’t stay in Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi under the circumstances. Our truck is easily identifiable and in all likelihood the logger has taken us for rivals he’ll have to confront. If he suspects we’re researchers (i.e., “environmentalists”), it could be even worse. Thus, we have two options. Either go back the way we’ve come, or push west for the Madeira River and the town of Humaitá, close to Porto Velho with its airport. Humaitá was our destination at the outset, but we don’t know road conditions in that direction, and now have a friend in Apuí.
We opt to head west and leave, after less than an hour’s worth of research on the frontier it’s taken us three summer field campaigns to discover. Stopping at the hotel for our bags, we clear out by 9:30 a.m. Five minutes later, the forest engulfs us, and soon it’s as if we’ve joined one of the first penetrations of the basin, so wild does it feel. In fact, we’re passing through the indigenous territories of the Parintintin and Tenharim peoples, somewhere hidden in wild seclusion.
Although I revel in the green majesty of the forest, cut through every half mile by streams of crystalline water running over beds of golden sand, I begin to doze from fear-induced exhaustion. It’s as if gravity has sucked me into a dark capillary. I surface to Eugenio’s shout, Macaws!
Paulo pulls over, and we come to rest beside a swamp where Buriti palm trees stand like totem poles, their tent-sized fronds glowing green in the morning light. Husky squawks draw my attention to a rotting palm with a knocked off crown. At the very top stands a majestic blue macaw, its chest feathers with a burst of yellow against the bright blue sky. Another bird clings to the bark with claws and beak, inching to the summit to join its mate.
As they squawk at each other fifty yards away, other macaws fly from the background forest, pulling their huge wings through the air like swimmers doing laps. We’ve already seen a fair number but this is different. These birds don’t know enough to be afraid.
On watching the macaws, I’m a boy again in the woods with my father, feeling the magic of nature with its happy connection to all living beings, which I still know exists and try to show my children, time permitting. On watching the macaws, I want to shout for joy, to express myself in raw wonder. I want to blow bubbles and be bubbles, riding on the wind.
But I settle for lifting my camera and taking pictures until my finger hurts. One macaw, then another, and another. Macaws individually and in multiples, climbing up and down the palm trees, buzzing us so close we can practically touch them. After maybe half an hour of this, I bring my camera down, see that Eugenio and Rita have also finished. We climb back into the truck and after a few exclamations fall into private meditation.
Sometime later, we arrive at the landing for the ferry across the Madeira River. On the banks over a mile away, we see buildings in the hazy distance beneath a watchful church spire, all of it dun-colored in the humid light at 4:30 p.m.. We’re going to make it to Humaitá, and knowing we’ll be on the other side of the huge river by nightfall puts my mind at ease. I wonder how many forest bones we’ve driven past today, how closely we’ve come to finding our own final resting spot in a hidden patch of forest.
We bump our way into the outskirts of Lábrea, after slogging 120 miles through mud, the only vehicle on the road out of Humaitá. Although the Generals of the military regime that opened Amazonia in the 1970s intended to traverse the entire Brazilian portion of the basin, they stopped in Lábrea, where they woke from their grandiose dreams to behold a malarial floodplain of interest to no one but mosquitoes. We hadn’t planned to go there and it makes no sense whatsoever in terms of the project. But none of us could resist the end of the road, even Eugenio who’s still feeling bad.
It was the worst drive of the trip. By 11:00 a.m. the sky had already faded from yellow-blue to the battleship gray of rain, not that it mattered because the Transamazon had already dissolved into ruts two to three feet deep in places. Ahead of us lay tracks where other drivers had fought their way through liquefied clay. Not all made it, and a few abandoned vehicles sat in the middle of the road like animals waiting to fossilize. As the rain began, Paulo engaged the vehicle traction and plowed ahead deliberately, pushing the wheel hard to correct the sliding, digging through the slop, zigzagging to avoid the roadside swamps and always moving forward without a moment’s rest, just grim concentration. When the road finally smoothed out about ten miles from Labrea, we were glad that Paulo was driving.
Emerging from a drizzle on the edge of town at 4:00 p.m., we see a jumble of shacks strewn beneath what appears to be a sizable monument. As The Transamazon Highway peters out, once and for all, beside a tiny plaza lined by empty vending stands, the monument comes into focus as a twenty-foot concrete statue of Mother Mary holding baby Jesus.
Paulo parks at the plaza. It’s late afternoon, so I’m content to sit here. But Eugenio and Rita jump out and head for a path leading away from the plaza. In a minute, I get out to follow. The path takes me to wooden stairs and a view across a shanty-town raised on stilts, stretching across the floodplain to the Purus River, half a mile away. I hurry after Eugenio and Rita, who’ve disappeared among the shacks, and find them on the edge of the shanty beside another stairway, this one to the floodplain. They’re both rubbing on insect repellent, which can only mean one thing, that they’re going down, which is outside the rule book because malaria hour is upon us.
I try to catch Rita’s eye. She’s supposed to be watching Eugenio with me, and a bout with malaria isn’t what he needs. But Rita wants to go down, so she ignores me.
Eugenio says with wonder, “This is incredible.”
“Eugenio, you’re sick for god’s sake.”
“How many Brazilians have seen this?” he asks, undeterred.
“Not many, and they all got malaria,” I say.
It’s getting late, and the proper course of action would be to find a hotel. But Eugenio and Rita descend the stairs without hesitation. I stew in my annoyance for a moment, then rub repellent on and follow down the stairs.
Grasses grow in profusion on the muddy soils, but leave a trail that snakes to where Eugenio and Rita are waiting for me beside an uprooted Brazil Nut tree that’s washed ashore. The Purus lies just ahead, and in five minutes, we’re there.
My first impression is of mud and of ugliness, but the river’s also beautiful in its raw natural power, the cut-bank on the other shore rising 100 feet, looking as if someone has chopped it with a knife, the trees above much taller than the bank, the openings between them with caverns of green light. This isn’t the Xingu or the Tapajós, where water runs through hilly valleys and cascades across gardens of rock. No, the Purus River is a powerful current boiling through sunken terrain, the sideline vegetation reaching high to keep from drowning.
I rise early, no more rested than when I went to bed. We head for Porto Velho this morning, where we’ll fly out, putting an end to our third summer of field work. It’s 6:00 a.m. as I walk to the roof of our three-story hotel, to the empty breakfast patio with its view in all directions. Downstream half a mile, ant-sized people walk up and down gangplanks, preparing the riverboats to cast off. Upstream not far from where I stand, humidity screens the river, dividing the Purus into a mundane workaday world where boats are prepared for journeys, and a water world where land dissolves into steam.
I look east back the way we’ve come, across green flatlands beneath gray skies, wondering if they will clear today or melt directly into rain. I’d have never guessed on leaving Santarém that the forest I’ve come to know in the lower basin, with its rolling terrain like ocean swells, would ooze into mud-slicks with upland giving way to swamp and back again, following changes in elevation invisible to the human eye. Here, algal meanders seep into ponds where gigantic Buriti palm trees stand like totemic idols. Then, the land rises, the water drains, and the Brazil Nut trees cluster, their crowns in a high canopy. But the swamp returns with its watery catacombs and palm trees, set beneath steamy overcast.
I now see how deluded I’ve been in my long-standing presumption that the Amazon is just a very big Mississippi River dominated by the land on its edges, land under agriculture, land where children ride bicycles and factory workers produce their goods.
Because it isn’t.
The gigantic river can’t be separated from the banks of its overflow, the marshes and swamps that ooze in all directions, the super-saturated air.
I know this now because I’ve felt it in my pores, the cycle that drenches every map point. It starts at dawn as the forest roots suck the deep soil moisture, releasing the morning mists that fill the ravines with fog. Then, the sun boils the fog into clouds and the clouds into thunderheads that implode with torrential but short-lived downpours, so the moisture can replenish the trees before settling back into the soils again, to wait for dawn.
A muffled clanging draws my attention from thoughts of water to the Purus River itself, where a double-decker chugs by, the noise of its engine like someone banging metal with a hammer. Seeing the vessel underway at sunrise brings me back to the summers of my youth, working fishing boats off the coast of Florida. I remember the balls of moisture, barely clouds, condensing through the morning, low enough to touch, practically, then the sucker punch of heat with the flaring of the thunderheads, the afternoon rain as certain as sunset, each stage a Buddha face in the unity of water. Then I “see it,” what the trip out here has taught me, which is that Amazonia is a water world, an ocean.
But there’s something else, too, which is that as an ocean perched on land, Amazonia is extremely vulnerable.
I’d witnessed the potential for catastrophe far to the east, on a ranch stretching for ten miles. It might have been our timing, which got us there after the sun had burned the forest mists completely off of Terra do Meio by the natural heating of the earth. But it might also have been that the pastures had broken the cycle, meaning the trees weren’t there to suck the water from the soils, so the vapor wasn’t there to form the clouds, leaving the sky a savanna blue, devoid of the moisture that had fed the forest ecosystem for millennia with rain.
My fatigued mind has run with its thoughts, which crash at last on a harrowing question, namely, that if this is happening in Terra do Meio, what about the rest of the basin, so much of it cleared already? Has enough of the forest vanished to push the whole system past its tipping point, to a gigantic briar-patch of fire-prone scrub? Or, do a sufficient number of trees remain to keep our hopes alive, to give us the time we need to walk back from the brink we seem so intent on hopping over?
I don’t have the energy to think about it right now. I need to get to my room and pack, to start scheming with Eugenio about how we can justify a no-cost extension for next year.
But before leaving the roof, I gaze across the Purus River for the deep relief of knowing that a part of the world remains intact on the other side of its muddy water, an ecotone that civilization has yet to transgress. For me, the Amazonian water world isn’t just an intellectual prop on which I’ve based a career. It’s also a siren call to my primitive self, one I resist by turning from the river and bringing my thoughts back to the journey home, to the recognition we still haven’t finished our project and now have new questions that need to be addressed. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
About the Author:
Robert Walker is Professor of Geography at Michigan State University, with a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He divides his time between the U.S. and Brazil, where he holds a visiting appointment at the Federal University of Pará, in the Center for the Environment (Nucleo do Meio Ambiente). Walker was born in Hawaii, grew up in Florida, and has always looked south, not north, for inspiration. The views expressed in The Amazonian Water World are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation.
Contact Walker at email@example.com
Academic website: http://web2.geo.msu.edu/
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Lifeblood of Brazil/CNF
Library of Congress Collection
by J. Palombo
There are a number of problems facing the country today and the “deep state” topic underscores this point. A special thanks to Henry Giroux for his contributing piece, the important considerations he raises speak for themselves. Enjoy the provocative reads and as always your comments and questions are most welcome.
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The term “deep state” refers to a political agenda that operates by means of a deep-seated allegiance to nationalism, corporatism and/or state interests. A simple Wikipedia search will show that the term has its history tied to the Turkish military that controlled political leadership there in the last century. One might notice its current use particularly in the context of the Egyptian military’s powerful control of the political and economic processes in that country. The reach of this control extends into actual business interests/investment in water, gas, tourism and other economic enterprises, investments that translate into political influence on a variety of levels. And, given the covert and overt measures that are used to maintain this power, it appears impossible to escape the policy objectives tied to the military interests, no matter who gets elected or what political ideas are presented to the people.
Of course this all points to a perilous situation, which is evident in what we see happening in Egypt today. This “deep state” of affairs brings to mind our own concerns regarding what President Eisenhower first termed as the military industrial complex – where the development and maintenance of a large military as well as war itself happens with a focus on profit rather than on security interests. Although clearly a danger in terms of both political and economic agendas, there is a difference in the Egyptian circumstance. This is primarily so as the military there is more in a position to wield power over the political processes via its direct economic interests/investments. Nonetheless, the comparison is certainly a point to reference.
Having made the “deep state” concept clear, I would like to present its application in another way, one not often considered but one which could be argued is as damaging as the one referenced above. To begin, let me note that over the past quarter century I’ve been involved with attempting to bring to the attention of the American public the fact that we have not adequately come to grips with the nature of our capitalist identity. This effort, rising out of my own personal and professional experiences with our “American experiment,” has involved writing books and articles, holding discussions with both public and private individuals and groups, integrating related material in classroom lectures, developing a website and reaching out to hundreds of people and organizations on both sides of the political spectrum involved with trying to make America “a better society.” Now one might think that this effort wouldn’t result in any grand struggle, after all it’s obvious that almost all we do and consider, in both public and private venues and across all of our institutions, is tied to market-related, capitalist variables. But, even though I’ve gotten a fair share of positive encouragement (no one has dismissed the importance of what’s being referenced) it has been/continues to be a grand struggle indeed.
This has happened in large part due to our understanding that the country most predominantly represents a democracy, which to some extent is true. But we are also very much linked to the elements of capitalism – in fact we are the most advanced capitalist system in the world. Yet, outside the language of it being a free market, supply and demand system, we tend not to discuss capitalism in its fullest content (including its critical analyses) nor with any national consistency, even given its significance. Therefore, even though the influence of capitalism is evident on every level of our society (consider work, the media, the law, politics and daily personal decisions just to name a few) we are left in situation where there is ignorance and confusion over what this might actually mean. And of course this has a significant effect on our ability to understand and address both national and international concerns. (And it also hampers our ability to comprehend what other countries might be doing.)
In essence then there is a gap in our understanding relative to measuring our country in terms of the practicalities of capitalism as opposed to the ideals of democracy, a gap which makes the work focused on making America a better nation more difficult than it already is. Take for example the work designed to address social issues like crime, employment, education, and poverty. In an “unaware atmosphere,” it makes it very difficult to first offer analyses of the problems and then to discuss any meaningful ways to rectify those problems. In effect, we seem to be existing one step above where the rubber actually meets the road, talking and working around concerns that should be clearly on the public table of understanding. And at the same time, we remain in a state where we are virtually controlled by economic elements without having the requisite information to understand the nature of this control. So it’s this combination of “the gap” and the simultaneous unwillingness to attempt to close it that gives rise to our version of “deep state.” (A fair comparison to trying to understand the country without talking about capitalism is trying to understand baseball without talking about the pitcher and the catcher. Leaving either mechanism unattended is simply nonsensical!)
It might occur at this point to ask, how did this circumstance develop? In other words, how is it that a country so tied to the advent of modern capitalism could have a public so shrouded in mystery as to what this actually means, enough so that the “deep state” analogy could make sense? Well, there are several explanations and they are intricately tied to why there is such a struggle to bring the definitions of capitalism to the public table. It might be that, as Karl Marx suggested, a capitalist system grows so exploitive of the general public that those with the power will do anything, including deceiving others and manipulating the truth, to avoid “letting on” what is happening. For the most part this would help explain the “elitist” control of the wealth/power in our country as well the continuing vagaries of political and economic discussion that surround this control. (This raises the possibility that talking about democratic ideals is a ruse to cover the practicalities of capitalism.) Yet as easy as this “conspiracy” is to internalize, it seems difficult to accept, particularly as the sole explanation for our current situation.
In other words, taking into consideration our fortunate history, and given the substantial accomplishments as individuals and as a country in that context, it is fair to propose that we, as a public, simply came to believe too strongly in our democratic and economic freedom. In this light our spirit, energy and our prosperity became so ignited and fueled by our democratic and free market ideals that, even amidst our struggles (issues regarding equality via the civil war, the labor union struggles and the civil rights movement come immediately to mind), there appeared little room for seriously integrating alternative thought, especially thought that could be critical of what we so steadfastly believed. (It is important to note here that in terms of public awareness, a substantial part of our capitalist identity developed consistent with an animosity toward and outright fear of communism, particularly in the post World War II years. And this, especially coupled with our post-war successes, proved to create an environment where developing a coherent and legitimate dialogue about capitalism seemed virtually impossible. On this point keep in mind that the concepts of socialism and communism grow out of Karl Marx’s critical analysis of capitalism. This means that it is an analysis that contributes to meaningful discussion about capitalism as well as socialism and communism. Yet a good number of people who don’t know any better tend to characterize those who discuss this significant analysis in terms of unpatriotic Marxists who want to turn American into a socialist or communist state. This is a ridiculous overstatement to say the least. Nonetheless, it is a notion that remains strong enough to have supported the fear that continues to stymie legitimate public discourse.)
So, in this light it can be argued that we, the public, cannot escape assuming a portion of the responsibility for our “deep state” state of affairs. This is especially so as we seem to be continuing on this course of ignoring what we see happening around us. Even with articulating things like: “the acknowledgement of ignorance paves the road toward wisdom” and espousing efforts that encourage “creative and outside-the-box” thinking, and emphasizing across the political and academic spectrum that we need to have more civically aware/responsible citizens, we remain stuck in terms of coming to grips with our own reality.
It hard to believe that we can/will stay in this “the world is flat” mindset much longer – the obviousness of the current economic crises as well as the poor market controls speak for themselves. Also, the continually developing growth models, like that of China, are pushing serious and long-term looks into the nature of capitalism. Said another way we, as a public, can hardly avoid taking on the task of examining all aspects of capitalism, especially given the issues and concerns we/the world must all face. (The recently released book by Orville Schell and John Delury, Wealth and Power – China’s Long March to the 21st Century, is a compelling review of what China has and is doing in terms of developing its current growth model. Suffice it to say, we could learn from/ borrow some important considerations from what is presented by the authors.)
Obviously the task ahead of us won’t be easy, especially in the sense of owning up to our own shortcomings. Yet there is a way to make the effort a bit easier to undertake. In essence, we can begin our work by recognizing ourselves as a young country, one whose history has been touched with great fortune, one that has allowed us to prosper to almost unparalleled levels of success. And like we would encourage any young person who has been so fortunate, we must be willing to assume more of the responsibility that should come with that good fortune. In other words, it’s time for us to grow up, to admire our accomplishments while also acknowledging the requisite responsibilities we must embrace as we move on. And in this context, whether Republican or Democrat (or whatever), this will demand that we take a hard look at our connection to capitalism, both on its own and its relatedness to democracy. There is simply no other way around this – it’s as clear as reminding ourselves that to make things work better, we must first understand how things work.
In a previous column, I noted several organizations that are currently at work asking the question, “What will it take for our democracy to work?” Implied in this question is the idea that we have to examine the elements that might be in the way of this happening. Of course, what we find out may not alter our course (hopefully it will) but we will at least be able to lay claim to the notion that we can make informed decisions regarding the pressing problems we face. In this light, I am hoping to continue to work with organizations like the National Issues Forum and the Kettering Foundation to integrate the concerns noted above with their mission of making our country better civically skilled through education and civic dialogue. As always, I promise to keep you posted as to what develops whatever the outcome. And on this point I hope that you too will do your best to be involved with how we might come to better understand our collective selves. For instance, simply asking those in the political or economic arenas or those in academia about these concerns would certainly help contribute to the motion we need to generate. Whatever course of action you take, consider that it may be up to the next generations to come up with better systems/models than those currently in use – but it is no doubt our responsibility to help dig us out of the hole we have, unwittingly or otherwise, helped create.
About the author:
Jim Palombo is politics editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
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Jonathan Kelham Illustration
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March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Deep State/Politics-Jim Palombo
The Specter of Authoritarianism
and the Politics of the “Deep State”
by Henry A. Giroux
Mike Lofgren, a former GOP congressional staff member for 28 years with the Senate and House Budget committees, has written an essay for Bill Moyers & Company titled “Anatomy of the ‘deep state’.” The notion of the “deep state” has a long genealogy and serves to mark the myriad ways in which power remains invisible while largely serving the interest of the financial elite, mega-corporations, and other authoritarian regimes of commanding power. The form the “deep state” takes depends upon the historical conjuncture in which it emerges and the forces that drive and benefit from it can either be at the margins or at the center of power and control. The notion of the “deep state” also points to different configurations of power. President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex is one example of the elements of the “deep state” that emerged in the post-World War II period. Another register can be seen in the coming of age of corporate power in combination with various forms of religious, military, and educational fundamentalisms in which war becomes aligned with big business, corporate power replaces state-based political sovereignty, religious extremism shapes everyday policies, and the punishing state works in tandem with the devolution of the welfare or social state.
Lofgren argues that the “deep state” “has its own compass regardless of who is in power.” This suggests that democracy itself and its modes of ideology, governance, and policies have been hijacked by forces that are as deeply anti-democratic as they are authoritarian. One instance of the undermining of democracy is evident in the overreach of presidential power by Obama is not only on full display, as Lofgren points out, in the power of the government to “liquidate American citizens without due processes, detain prisoners indefinitely without charge, conduct dragnet surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant and engage in unprecedented—at least since the McCarthy era—witch hunts against federal employees (the so-called ‘Insider Threat Program,” but also in the failure of Republican and Democratic party members, with a few exceptions, to raise their voices in opposition to this not so invisible form of authoritarian rule. The silence of the political and intellectual clerks speaks to more than a flight from moral, social, and political responsibility, it speaks directly to the political extremism that has imposed a new and savage order of cruelty and violence on vast members of the American public.
I am not quite sure what to say about Lofgren’s essay, because while I agree with much of it in pointing to the anti-democratic tendencies undermining democracy in the U.S., I find the language too constrained and the absences too disturbing. The notion of the “deep state” may be useful in pointing to a new configuration of power in the United States in which corporate sovereignty replaces political sovereignty, but it is not enough to simply expose the hidden institutions and structures of power. What we have in the United States today is fundamentally a new mode of politics, one wedded to a notion of power removed from accountability of any kind, and this poses a dangerous and calamitous threat to democracy itself, because such power is difficult to understand, analyze, and counter. The collapse of the public into the private, the depoliticization of the citizenry in the face of an egregious celebrity culture, and the disabling of education as a critical public sphere makes it easier for neoliberal capital with its hatred of democracy and celebration of the market to render its ideologies, values, and practices as a matter of common sense, removed from critical inquiry and dissent.
With privatization comes a kind of collective amnesia about the role of government, the importance of the social contract, and the importance of public values. For instance, war, intelligence operations, prisons, schools, transportation systems, and a range of other operations once considered public have been outsourced or simply handed over to private contractors who are removed from any sense of civic and political accountability. The social contract and the institutions that give it meaning have been transformed into entitlements administered and colonized largely by the corporate interests and the financial elite. Policy is no longer being written by politicians accountable to the American public. Instead, policies concerning the defense budget, deregulation, health care, public transportation, job training programs, and a host of other crucial areas are now largely written by lobbyists who represent mega corporations. How else to explain the weak deregulation policies following the economic crisis of 2007 or the lack of a public option in Obama’s health care policies? Or, for that matter, the more serious retreat from any viable notion of the political imagination that “requires long-term organizing—e.g., single-payer health care, universally free public higher education and public transportation, federal guarantees of housing and income security? The liberal center has moved to the right on these issues while the left has become largely absent and ineffective.
Lofgren’s conception of the “deep state” is a certainly useful concept for exposing the dark shadows of power but it does not go far enough in explaining the emergence of a society in an era of failed sociality, one in which the state has not only become suicidal and violent, but also cruel to the extreme. This a state dedicated to governing all aspects of social life, rather than just commanding economic and political institutions. Americans now live in a time that breaks young people, devalues justice, and saturates the minute details of everyday life with the constant threat, if not reality, of state violence. The mediaeval turn to embracing forms of punishment that inflict pain on the psyches and the bodies of young people is part of a larger immersion of society in public spectacles of violence. The Deluzian control society is now the ultimate form of entertainment in America, as the pain of others, especially those considered disposable and powerless, is no longer an object of compassion, but one of ridicule and amusement. Pleasure loses its emancipatory possibilities and degenerates into a pathology in which misery is celebrated as a source of fun. High octane violence and human suffering are now considered consumer entertainment products designed to raise the collective pleasure quotient. Brute force and savage killing replayed over and over in the culture now function as part of an anti-immune system that turns the economy of genuine pleasure into a mode of sadism that saps democracy of any political substance and moral vitality, even as the body politic appears engaged in a process of cannibalizing its own young. It is perhaps not farfetched to imagine a reality TV show in which millions tune in to watch young kids being handcuffed, arrested, tried in the courts, and sent to juvenile detention centers. No society can make a claim to being a democracy as long as it defines itself through shared hatred and fears, rather than shared responsibilities. Needless to say, extreme violence is more than a spectacle for upping the pleasure quotient of those disengaged from politics, it is also part of a punishing machine that spends more on putting poor minorities in jail than educating them. As Michelle Alexander points out, “There are more African American adults under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”
I would suggest that what needs to be addressed is some sense of how this unique authoritarian historical conjuncture of power and politics came into place, especially with the rise of Ronald Reagan’s anti-government policies in the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher’s announcement that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families. This was the beginning of the war on responsible government and the elimination of the welfare state and the celebration of a stripped down radical individualism motivated by an almost pathological narcissism and self-interest. More specifically, there is no mention by Lofgren of the collapse of the social state which began in the seventies with the rise of neoliberal capitalism–a far more dangerous form of market fundamentalism than we had seen since the first Gilded Age. Nor is there a sustained analysis of what is new about this ideology. How, for instance, are the wars abroad related increasingly to the diverse forms of domestic terrorism that have emerged at home? What is new and distinctive about a society marked by militaristic violence, exemplified by its war on youth, women, gays, public values, public education, and any viable exhibition of dissent? Why at this particular moment in history is an aggressive war being waged against not only whistle blowers, but also journalists, students, artists, intellectuals, and the institutions that support them? And, of course, what seems entirely missing in this essay is any reference to the rise of the punishing state with its massive racially inflected incarceration system, which amounts to a war on poor minorities, especially black youth.
What is not so hidden about the tentacles of power that now hide behind the euphemism of democratic governance is the rise of a punishing state and its totalitarian paranoiac mindset in which everyone is considered a potential terrorist or criminal. This mindset has resulted in the government arming local police forces with discarded weapons from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, turning local police into high-tech SWAT teams. How else to explain the increasing criminalization of social problems from homelessness and failure to pay off student loans to trivial infractions by students such as doodling on a desk or violating dress code in the public schools, all of which can land the public and young people in jail. The turn towards the punishing state is especially evident in the war on young people taking place in many schools, which now resemble prisons with their lockdown procedures, zero tolerance policies, metal detectors, and the increasing presence of police in the schools. One instance of the increasing punishing culture of schooling is provided by Chase Madar. He writes “Though it’s a national phenomenon, Mississippi currently leads the way in turning school behavior into a police issue. The Hospitality State has imposed felony charges on schoolchildren for “crimes” like throwing peanuts on a bus. Wearing the wrong color belt to school got one child handcuffed to a railing for several hours. All of this goes under the rubric of “zero-tolerance” discipline, which turns out to be just another form of violence legally imported into schools.”
Zero tolerance policies are only one example of the rise of the punishing and surveillance state which has transformed everyday life in the United States into a war zone. John Whitehead captures the militarized culture of everyday life well in arguing that how Americans are now treated by government officials has taken a dangerous turn. He writes:
You might walk past a police officer outfitted in tactical gear, holding an assault rifle, or drive past a police cruiser scanning license plates. There might be a surveillance camera on the street corner tracking your movements. At the airport, you may be put through your paces by government agents who will want to either pat you down or run scans of your body. And each time you make a call or send a text message, your communications will most likely be logged and filed. When you return home, you might find that government agents have been questioning your neighbors about you, as part of a “census” questionnaire. After you retire to sleep, you might find yourself awakened by a SWAT team crashing through your door (you’ll later discover they were at the wrong address), and if you make the mistake of reaching for your eyeglasses, you might find yourself shot by a cop who felt threatened. Is this the behavior of a government that respects you? One that looks upon you as having inviolate rights? One that regards you as its employer, its master, its purpose for being?
Central to the new authoritarianism that Lofgren hints at but does not address is the culture of fear that now rules American life and how it functions to redefine the notion of security, diverting it away from social considerations to narrow matters of personal safety. In a post-9/11 world, fear has become the reigning organizing principle in the United States. Fear is now embodied in the militarization of everyday life, the rise of the surveillance-mass, the notion of permanent war, the expanding incarceration state, and the crushing of dissent. Shared fears have replaced any sense of shared responsibilities. And much of this has taken a racist turn. For instance, the war on drugs and terrorism has been joined by the war on dissent and has become the new face of racial discrimination and the destruction of all viable democratic public spheres. In this instance, a culture of surveillance, punishment, and repression have become the bedrock of a new mode of authoritarianism while collective modes of support are increasingly vanishing from public life.
Similarly, any viable challenge to the “deep state” and the new mode of authoritarianism it supports needs to say more about the notion of disposability and a growing culture of cruelty brought about by the death of political concessions in politics–a politics now governed by the ultra-rich and mega corporations that has no allegiance to local politics and produces a culture infused with a self-righteous coldness that takes delight in the suffering of others. Evidence of such a culture is on full display in the attempts by extremists to cut billions of dollars from the food stamp program, lower the taxes of the rich and corporations while defunding social security and Medicare, passing legislation that openly discriminates against gays and lesbians, the attempts to roll back voting rights, and women’s reproductive rights, and this is only a short list. The war on poverty has morphed into a war on the poor, and human misfortune and “material poverty into something shameful and repellent.”
* * * * *
“Democracy is on life support in the United States and working within the system to change it is a dead end … except for gaining short term reforms. The struggle for a substantive democracy needs more, and the American people expect more…”
* * * * *
Power is now separated from politics and floats, unchecked, and uncaring. Power is global and politics is local and points to a new form of hybrid global financial authoritarianism. This points to something connected to the “deep state” and that is the emergence of global neoliberalism and its savage willingness in the name of accumulation, privatization, deregulation, dispossession, and power to make disposable a wide range of groups. Such groups include but are not limited to low income youth, poor minorities, unemployed workers, and elements of the middle class that have lost jobs, social protections, and hope.
Increasingly, in the United States, poor minority and low-income youth, especially those from marginalized ethnic and indigenous groups, are often warehoused in schools that resemble boot camps, dispersed to dank and dangerous work places far from the enclaves of the tourist industries, incarcerated in prisons that favor punishment over rehabilitation, and consigned to the increasing army of the permanently unemployed. Rendered redundant as a result of the collapse or absence of the social state, pervasive racism, a growing disparity in income and wealth, and a profit-at-all-costs neoliberal mindset, an increasing number of individuals and groups are being demonized, criminalized, or simply abandoned because they lack status as middle-class “taxpayers.” Their ranks are filled with non-citizens (immigrants and refugees), poor minorities, low-income youth, the elderly, the poor, the unemployed, the disabled, the homeless, and the underemployed and working poor who cannot secure a living wage. These people become invisible in the public discourse and occupy what Joao Biehl has called those “zones of terminal exclusion” which accelerate the disposability of the unwanted.
Central to a failed state and a politics of disposability is the central question: How does culture work to insure the workings of dominant power? That is, how does the “deep state” function to encourage particular types of individualistic, competitive, acquisitive and entrepreneurial behavior in its citizens? The biggest problem facing the U.S. may not be only its repressive institutions, modes of governance, and the militarization of everyday life, but also the interiority of neoliberal nihilism, the hatred of democratic relations, and the embrace of a culture of cruelty. That is, how is subjective life itself now shaped according to the logic of the market, commerce, and the privatization and commodification of everything? The role of culture as an educative force, a new and powerful force in politics is central here and is vastly underplayed in the essay (which of course cannot include everything). For instance, in what ways does it use the major cultural apparatuses to convince people that there is no alternative to existing relations of power, that consumerism is the ultimate mark of citizenship, and that making money is the essence of individual and social responsibility.
In other words, what is missing from Lofgren’s theory of the “deep state” is a sustained analysis of cultural domination–an understanding of how identities, subjectivities, and values are shaped in the narrow and selfish image of commerce, how exchange values have become the only values, and how the vocabulary of the market has hijacked public values, and the discourse of solidarity, community, and social responsibility. In my estimation, the “deep state” is simply symptomatic of something more ominous, the rise of a new form of authoritarianism, a counter-revolution in which society is being restructured and advanced under what might be called the neoliberal revolution. This is a counter-revolution in which the welfare state is being liquidated, along with the collective provisions which supported it. It is a revolution in which economics drives politics.
The question of resistance haunts almost all theories of the “deep state,” which often conflate power with domination and offer nothing less than a dystopian vision of society and the future. Resistance either degenerates into nostalgia for the good old days of the past or it suggests that those who wish to change the world should work within the current bankrupt political system. Or, even worse, it suggest that the call for radical change is ultimately an act of bad faith, if not a form of political infantilism. Rather than dissolve power into unshakable forms of domination, I think these new modes of power have to be understood in terms of their limits and strengths and challenged accordingly not as an act of reform but as an act of revolution—a going to the root of the problem in order to create strategies for fundamental social, political, and economic transformation.
I don’t believe the system is broken. I think it works well, but in the interest of very privileged and powerful elite economic and political interests that are aggressively waging a war on democracy itself. If there is to be any challenge to this system, it cannot be made within the discourse of liberal reform, which has largely served to maintain a repressive status quo. Occupy and many other social movements recognize this. These groups have refused to be defined by the dominant media, the dictates of the security state, the financialization of everyday life, and forms of representations that are utterly corrupt. Hope and resistance will only come when the call for reform and working within the system gives way to imagining a very different understanding of what democracy means.
The new authoritarianism with its diverse tentacles is the antithesis of democracy, and if we are going to change what Lofgren calls the “deep state”, it is necessary to think in terms of an alternative that does not mimic its ideologies, institutions, governing structures, and power relations. Two things are essential for challenging the new authoritarianism. First, there needs to be a change in collective consciousness about what democracy really means and what it might look like. This is a pedagogical task whose aim is to create the formative culture that produces the agents and subjects necessary for challenging a range of anti-democratic practices and neoliberal values, ideologies, and modes of governance that impoverish democratic values, experiences, and civic responsibility.
This suggests making education central to any viable notion of pedagogy and working diligently to develop public spaces, particularly alternative spaces, where new ideas, modes of exchange, and forms of critical analysis can be produced and circulated. Clearly, this would include using the Internet, new digital media, journals, magazines, screen culture, films, newspapers, and all of the cultural apparatuses available to address and develop new modes of subjectivity. Secondly, there is a need for a massive social movement with distinct strategies, organizations, and the will to address the roots of the problem and imagine a very different kind of society, one that requires genuine democratic socialism as its aim.
The left is too fractured around single political issues and needs to develop alliances in which broad based organizations can be developed with long term strategies and goals. This will not happen quickly but the foundations can be laid for new modes of organizing in which the totality of society is addressed and diverse struggles can be aligned in ways that expand their reach and political power outside of the specificity of differences that drive them. Democracy is on life support in the United States and working within the system to change it is a dead end, except for gaining short term reforms. The struggle for a substantive democracy needs more, and the American people expect more. The “deep state” is an important concept but it needs to be expanded so as to address the dark shadow of authoritarianism that now haunts American society.
About the author:
Henry A. Giroux is the Global TV Network Chair at McMaster University and is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University in Canada. His latest book is Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education published by Haymarket (2014).
 See Mike Lofgren, “The ““deep state”” – How Much Does It Explain?,” Truthout (February 26, 2014). Online: http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/22075-anatomy-of-the-deep-state
 See, Jim Palombo, “Deep State” Ragazine ( March 2014)
 Ibid. Lofgren.
 Ibid. Lofgren
 Adolph Reed Jr., “Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals,” Harper’s Magazine (March 2014), p. 29.
 Giles Deleuze, “Societies of Control,” October, 59, 1992, pp. 3-7.
 Michelle Alexander, “Michelle Alexander, The Age of Obama as a Racial Nightmare,” Tom Dispatch (March 25, 2012). Online: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175520/best_of_tomdispatch%3A_michelle_alexander,_the_age_of_obama_as_a_racial_nightmare/
 Radley Balko, The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (Jackson, Tenn.: Perseus Books, 2013).
 Chase Madar, “Everyone Is a Criminal: On the Over-Policing of America”, Huffington Post (December 13, 2013). Online:
 I address this issue in detail in Henry A. Giroux, America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013) and Henry A. Giroux, Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2013).
 John W. Whitehead, “Paranoia, Surveillance and Military Tactics: Have We Become Enemies of the Government?” The Rutherford Institute (February 17, 2014). Online: https://www.rutherford.org/publications_resources/john_whiteheads_commentary/paranoia_surveillance_and_military_tactics_have_we_become_enemies_of_t
 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New York: New Press, 2012).
 Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013), p. 113.
. Joao Biehl, Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
March 1, 2014 1 Comment
and A Moveable Feast
by Raúl Villarreal
In 1950 Ernest Hemingway wrote to a friend, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Hemingway started to write what would eventually become the book with that title in the autumn of 1957 and finished the manuscript, as the preface indicates in 1960, at his estate, the Finca Vigía in San Francisco de Paula, Havana, Cuba. The book was published posthumously in 1964 and to this day it is one of Hemingway’s most beloved works by scholars and aficionados alike. A memoir of Paris in the 1920s, where Hemingway writes about other expatriates and luminaries, such as Gertrude Stein, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, his first wife Hadley, his infant son Jack (Bumby) and Pauline Pfeiffer, Hadley’s friend, who would eventually become the second Mrs. Hemingway. It was during this time in Paris and visits to the Louvre when Hemingway “was learning something from a painting by Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them” (A Moveable Feast, 13). Hemingway’s brilliant prose evokes the mood, the unquenchable and wild enthusiasm of a group of artists, of whom Gertrude Stein referred to as Une Generation Perdue (The Lost Generation).
Ernest Hemingway lived in many different places, but it was in Havana, Cuba, where he lived the longest. He first rented La Finca Vigía with Martha Gellhorn in 1939, purchased it in 1940, and lived there until 1960, when he left the island for the United States en route to Spain, never to return to his Cuban paradise. In the late summer of 1961, Mary Hemingway, the author’s fourth wife and recent widow donated the Finca Vigía to the Cuban people. The house and most of its contents tell a story of a certain writer whose experiences as a young man were to define him and his work for generations to come.
During his two decades in Havana Cuba, Hemingway’s beloved Paris was present at the Finca. On a wall of his workroom, between two large windows hung El guitarrista (The Guitar Player), a large painting by Juan Grís. It was one of Hemingway’s favorite paintings, which evoked much nostalgia from those Paris years. Hemingway would often contemplate the painting between writing and at times laugh and talk to himself. There were other works of art, which reminded Hemingway of Paris, such as The Farm by Joan Miró and The Jungle by André Masson. Besides the art there were also books by his favorite French authors such as Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo and others. There were also visitors from all over the world who came to spend time with the man they fondly called Papa. Charles Ritz, the owner of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, visited Hemingway at the Finca Vigía in 1954 and two years later in Paris, Charles Ritz mentioned to Hemingway that there was a trunk with some of his papers stored in the hotel, which Hemingway brought back to Cuba in 1957. Those “Paris Stories” eventually became A Moveable Feast.
There was the time when Hemingway was away from Cuba for almost one year. It was 1953-54, Hemingway and his wife Mary went to an African Safari. Hemingway had been contracted to write an article with expenses paid by Look Magazine. During that time a very close friend of Hemingway, Evelio Mustelier, also known in the boxing world as Kid Tunero (aptly nicknamed because he was from Las Tunas), stayed at the Finca as Hemingway’s special guest. Mustelier had had a brilliant boxing career in Cuba and in Europe, however the ultimate pinnacle in the pugilistic profession, a world championship, had eluded him. Kid Tunero, a strong and fast middleweight, had defeated three former world champions but never for a belt. Hemingway saw his friend’s last fight against a much younger, stronger and heavier class opponent in Havana and was saddened by the experience. Hemingway later wrote an article for the Associated Press comparing Evelio Mustelier’s courage to that of Cuba’s Titan de Bronze (The Bronze Titan) El General Antonio Maceo, one of the foremost heroes of the Guerra de Independencia of Cuba against Spain.
Evelio Mustelier had most of his boxing career in Europe, eventually marrying in France and raising a family. However, in the mid-1950s, he was back in Cuba after some fights in South America trying to raise funds to get back to France to reunite with his family. Mustelier decided to invest what little money he had in France in the export of good French wine into Cuba. Upon Hemingway’s return to Cuba in 1954, he found out about his proud friend’s financial situation and purchased most of the shipment of French wines from Mustelier. A couple of Hemingway’s wealthy Cuban friends purchased the rest of the shipment and Evelio made enough money to return to his family in France.
These anecdotes told by my father, René Villarreal, are the kind of stories found in our book Hemingway’ Cuban Son, which was published by the Kent State University Press in 2009.
As the theme for the exhibition “A Moveable Feast” came about, Dr. Ginny Butera and I thought of such Hemingway anecdotes and the Paris connection at the Finca Vigía. Hemingway enjoyed his French wines with certain meals. He was very specific about that, just like his taste for Chinese food at the Finca, as well as in one of his favorite restaurants in Havana’s Chinatown.
Ginny Butera had seen my painting The Crisis of Abundance at an exhibition in New York City over a year ago. The piece has its inspiration from another work by Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea.” There is a lot of symbolism in the work with the nine King Mackerels (a fish that migrates), hoisted by the two fishermen (one old and one young), who seem to be going in opposite directions. The fishermen are inside a deteriorated and decrepit room surrounded by the ocean waves. The piece symbolizes migration, entrapment, but above all it speaks about perspectives. The perspectives and needs of a young person are different than that of an older person.
My father has often told me that his favorite work by Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, has meant something different each time he read the book at various stages of his life. “As a young man it meant something different than now when I am in my eighties,” he has said to me, “because our perspectives and priorities change.” For me, The Crisis of Abundance also speaks about having “too much” and having the knowledge or experience of dealing with an overabundance. Are we taking too much from Mother Nature? When is too much really too much? The presence of the ocean represents Yemaya, the sea deity, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the prayers, laments, songs, drums and hearts and beliefs of millions of African slaves, who were forcedly uprooted from their homeland and brought over to the Americas. In the African beliefs, Yemaya is the mother of all and without her there is nothing. She punishes those who abuse her good nature.
Ernest Hemingway enjoyed the numerous countries in which he lived, traveled, and wrote. He was one of the most recognized and adventurous global citizens of his time. This is evident in his works. He took notice of the local customs, food and drinks that his characters consumed in their time and place. For example in the Old Man and the Sea, the old fisherman enjoys drinking Hatuey beer, having a café in the morning, eating rice and beans for dinner in his shack, and also the raw fish that he eats to maintain his strength as he battles his brother— the big fish in the Gulf Stream. However, no other work by Hemingway compares as such a brilliantly written memoir of a very unique epoch and place as does A Moveable Feast.
Roberto Marquez, El Mapa de México, 2013, Encaustic and oil on wood
A Contemporary Moveable Feast
by Virginia Fabbri Butera, Ph.D.
A Moveable Feast: Art, Food and Migration, is an exhibition currently on view through May 4, 2014, at the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, NJ. The show examines ideas about imagery in today’s art that were triggered by the intersecting cultural events I studied while developing an interdisciplinary course, “The Art of Salsa Making: The History of Hispanic Heritage in the Americas,” with my colleagues, food historian Sonia Hartunian-Sowa, Ph.D. and language professor and cultural historian, Christine Guedri Giacalone, Ph.D., with input from the exhibition’s co-curator, Raúl Villarreal, MFA, who was a guest speaker in our course. What became clear during the course was how food and related artistic subject matters have been affected by the mixing of cultures in the Americas during the last six centuries. This was reinforced when Prof. Villarreal showed an image of his painting, The Crisis of Abundance (above), to our class, and explained its cultural references as he does in the above article, “Hemingway and A Moveable Feast.” Subsequently, Prof. Villarreal and I decided to investigate how art today continues to reflect the effect of travel and migration on the imagery of food in art.
The forced merger of North, Central and South American native foods such as avocado, beans, cacao, chiles, corn, potatoes, squash and tomatoes with the 16th century Spanish conquistadores’ imported preferences of beef, garlic, onions, pork and wheat, meant that travel, conquest and migration resulted in a profoundly changed cuisine in both the “New and the Old Worlds.”[i] Each continent incorporated, willingly or not, these different ingredients and developed many kinds of foods we eat here and in Europe today. The food choices brought by the Spanish during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries also possessed cultural and socio-hierarchical meanings in the art both in Spain and the “New World.”[ii] When we examine the food that is represented in paintings of those periods created on both sides of the Atlantic, we sometimes find not just the imported comestibles themselves, but new kinds of plates, vessels and utensils which signal a subtle but clear history of travel, migration, adaptation and socio-economic status. [iii]
MOVEABLE FEAST V10N2 March-April 2014
First of two galleries posted in the article, Food, Art & Hemingway, V10, N2
Sushi Palace, 2006, oil on linen.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-4-jose-rodeiro-tapas-1998-oil-on-canvas.jpg]120JOse Rodeiro
Tapas, 1998, oil on canvas.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-5-bob-richardson-formula-2013-mixed-media.jpg]80Bob Richardson
Formula, 2013, mixed media.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-6-kathleen-migliore-newton-saturday-market-2010-oil-on-linen.jpg]30Kathleen Migliore
Newton Saturday market, 2010, oil on linen.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-7-aliza-augustine-mizalizas-collected-family-2014-mixed-media-book.jpg]60Aliza Augustine Mizalizas
Collected Family, 2014, mixed media book.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-8-barbara-coluccio-mcelheny-il-pasto-che-ci-muove-2013-oil-on-canvas.jpg]80Barbara Coluccio McElheny
Il Pasto Che Cimuove, 2013, oil on canvas.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-9-davide-luciano-tossed-digital-c-print-mounted-on-plexiglas-24-x-36-ins-2.jpg]80Davide Luciano
Tossed digital C print mounted on Plexiiglas (tm), 24" x 36".[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-10-maria-lupo-migration-porca-2012-mixed-media-on-canvas.jpg]100Maria Lupo
Migration Porca, 2012, mixed media on canvas.
One result of the 16th century Spanish conquest of the New World was the mixing of tomatoes and chiles (New World) with onions and garlic (Old World) to create “salsa,” now the number one condiment in North America. Here “salsa,” the chopping and mixing of ingredients, as well as the lively music and dance styles that bear its name, stands as the continuing metaphor for the food-related experiences of Americans from all different groups when they eat at home or abroad. The current exhibition reveals markets, restaurants, food, utensils and eating habits that define high and low culture and that signal the history, desires, realities, amusement and horrors that are part of the contemporary eating experience.
Throughout the history of art, food, like fashion, reveals a multitude of cultural traditions and implications. Visible in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings, food was meant to be available for the deceased in the afterworld. In ancient Greek and Roman vases and wall murals, depictions of foodstuffs could reveal a painter’s skill as well as document the dining customs of the wealthy. Still-life oil paintings, the rage in late 16th and 17th century Italy and Holland, focused on the realistic depiction of food as well as its metaphoric implications, from the sensuality of bunches of grapes in Michelangelo da Merisi Caravaggio’s c. 1593, Boy with a Basket of Fruit (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/6818200/Paintings-by-artist-Caravaggio.html?image=1) to a reminder of death suggested by worm holes in the fruit or a dead rabbit on the buffet table as in Fran Synders, Still Life (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frans_Snyders_-_Still-Life_-_WGA21533.jpg). By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the inclusion of food in art was no longer considered a subject matter secondary to history painting or portraiture as it had been until that time. Paintings of apples by 19th century French painter Paul Cézanne refer to classical Greek myths, Adam and Eve, female sensuality and fertility while still functioning as everyday subject matter and a vehicle for his dramatic new style of post-Impressionist painting (http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/cezanne/sl/plaster-cupid/).[iv] American Pop Art pieces of the 1960s: Andy Warhol’s silkscreen images of soup cans (http://utenti.romascuola.net/bramarte/pop%20art/img/war3.jpg) , Claes Oldenburg’s food sculptures including hot dogs and hamburgers sewn with fabric (http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2013/05/24/dramaturgy-and-gut-inside-claes-oldenburgs-mouse-museum) and Wayne Thiebaud’s lusciously layered oil painted desserts (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vI_QJ5D9Qm8) pointed to consumerism, street culture and the growing affluence and self-indulgence of Americans where everyday life literally and figuratively became art.
A Moveable Feast: Art, Food and Migration includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, mixed media collages, videos and installation works where food and its rituals have an even greater multiplicity of meanings and purposes in our contemporary, globally-aware society than in prior times. When people move or travel, they often “take” their cuisine with them, sometimes dreaming of it as Roberto Márquez implies in his work, El Mapa de México.
Humans naturally adopt flavors, sauces, ingredients, spices and beverages from a new locale or entice the natives to enjoy their transferred cuisine as Bette Blank illustrates in a Madison, NJ, restaurant scene, Sushi Palace (Fig. 3). The exhibition, named after a book by Ernest Hemingway (and visualized by José Pardo’s painting of the same name, Une Fête Mobile) recognizes the allure of other cultures’ food, drink, and new experiences, ones that Hemingway had in France, Spain, Cuba and other places which also found their way into his writing. This internationalism is also reflected in the sophisticated, multi-layered, multi-cultural canvas, Tapas, by José Rodeiro (Fig. 4).
Laura L. Cuevas references the expulsion from paradise as the ultimate entwining of eating, the Divine and forced “migration,” in her collage, Each day had no limits. From birth until death, human beings are preoccupied with sustenance made visible in Formula by Bob Richardson (Fig. 5) and Carrie’s Recipe or Dad Feeding Mom by Judith Margolis. Fresh food markets, our own version of “paradise,” exist around the world in a variety of settings, in front of contemporary architectural structures painted by Kathleen Migliore-Newton (Fig. 6), on a barque in Kashmir, India, by photographer Jay Seldin or in front of a train stopped in Myanmar photographed by Sue Zwick. Shopping lists are made (Jacquelyn Stryker), recipes collected (Marilyn Walter), and feasts with family and friends are celebrated by Aliza Augustine (fig. 7), Barbara McElheny (fig. 8) and Zwick. Villarreal and Davide Luciano in his photograph, Tossed (Fig. 9) note with irony the problem of abundance and waste even as many in the world have little or nothing to eat.
MOVEABLE FEAST II V10N2 March-April 2014
2nd of 2 galleries posted in Food, Art & Hemingway, V10,N2
Forbidden Fruit, 2012, acrylic and collage on canvas, 20" x 20".[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-ii-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-12-alan-walker-more-on-the-way-2012-acrylic-on-canvas-30-x-40-ins.jpg]110Alan Walker
More on the Way, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40". [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-ii-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-13-linda-stillman-jitters-2014-site-specific-mixed-media-installation-with-coffee-filtersacrylic-medium-and-plastic-juice-caps.jpg]60Linda Stillman
Jitters, 2014, site specific mixed media installation with coffee filters, acryilic medium and plastic juice caps.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/moveable-feast-ii-v10n2-march-april-2014/thumbs/thumbs_fig-14-gabriel-navar-app-2-have-eat-cake-2012-acrylic-pencils-ink-and-oil-on-paper.jpg]120Gabriel Navar
App 2, Have Eat Cake, 2012, acrylic, pencils, ink and oil on paper.
Maria Lupo’s canvas, Migration (Porca) (fig. 10) alludes to the fact that when the Spanish brought pigs to the New World, this “food source” inadvertently became agricultural destroyers, ruining Native American fields and crops, causing a problem that still exists in the southern United States today because of descendant wild pigs.[v] Nelson Alvárez and Jane Dell (fig. 11) also reference environmental troubles caused by factory manufactured food while Alan Alejo, Barbara Brill, Emily Tumbleson (http://vimeo.com/60211383) and Alan Walker (fig. 12) document our around-the-world fast food “addictions” to McDonald’s, pizza, take-out Chinese, vending machine snacks and soft-serve ice cream respectively. Coffee, beer, soda or juice boxes appear in works by Linda Stillman (fig. 13), Tracy Miller and Luciano although an upscale bottle of red wine completes the scene in works by Pardo and Larry Ross. Cakes and cookies by Asaya Dodina & Slava Polishchuk, Lori Larusso, and Lupo look scrumptious but watch out for the one by Gabriel Navar (fig. 14) which, with all its sugar, may be “eating” you. Adel Gorgy, abstracting imagery of Warhol’s soup cans some fifty years later, reflects the loss of simplicity and signals the distortion and multiplicity of food choices available in the U.S. and around the world.[vi] And yet, a contemporary video performance, Metabolism of Forms (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZH9QW-wBQhA) by Greek artist, Filippos Tsitsopoulos, where his head is covered in fish, shrimp, oysters, vegetables and other foods harks back to the work of the 16th century Italian Mannerist painter Arcimboldo, now perhaps a contemporary portrait of “you are what you eat/wear!”
The show represents a contemporary slice of how artists have blended food and drink into their art works which bear little resemblance to centuries-old still life paintings. Instead, in our sampling, food signals how “invasions” and “conquests” are no longer necessarily waged on the battlefield, but rather in the farmers’ markets, fast food shops from all countries and high-end dining establishments where we can travel around the world without even leaving our neighborhood.
About the author:
Virginia Fabbri Butera, Ph.D., is the Director/Curator of the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery, a Professor of Art History and the Chairperson of the Art and Music Programs at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, NJ. She has been a curator for over thirty years, organizing exhibitions for museums and galleries around the country including The Contemporary Arts Center (Cincinnati), National Gallery of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery.
The foregoing article, copyright by Virginia Fabbri Butera, Ph.D. No part of this article may be reproduced without permission of the author.
[i] See the general, beautifully illustrated, introductory essay in, Jane Milton, Jenni Fleetwood and Marina Filippelli, The Complete Mexican, South American & Caribbean Cookbook, New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007, 6 – 81.
[ii] Rachel Laudan and Jeffrey M. Pilcher, “Chiles, Chocolate, and Race in New Spain: Glancing Backward to Spain or Looking Forward to Mexico?,” Eighteenth-Century Life 23, 2 (1999): 59 -70; accessed February 17, 2014, http://www.academia.edu/1034265/Chiles_Chocolate_and_Race
[iii] Byron Ellsworth Hamann, “The Mirrors of Las Meninas: Cochineal, Silver, and Clay,” Art Bulletin XCII, 1-2 (2010): 6 – 35.
[iv] Meyer Schapiero, “The Apples of Cezanne: An Essay on the Meaning of Still Life,” in Meyer Schapiro, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, Selected Papers, New York: George Braziller, 1978 , 1 -38, accessed February 18, 2014, http://www.ithaca.edu/faculty/wells/201/schapiro2.pdf
[v] Frank Bruni, “Malicious but Delicious,” The New York Times, April 22, 2013; accessed February 20, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/23/opinion/bruni-malicious-but-delicious.html?_r=0
[vi] Mary Gregory, “Adel Gorgy:Traces of Pollock, de Kooning and Warhol…Abstract Photographic Works at Able Fine Art NY Gallery,” Ragazine (November-December 2013), accessed February 20, 2014, http://old.ragazine.cc/short-takes/
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Food, Art & Hemingway
and the Spirit of Music:
by Fred Roberts
My path to the music I share in this article is as meaningful to me as the music itself. In 1980, my last year of high school, I took Mrs. Wilson’s “World Literature” class. It made quite an impression on me. Mostly we read ancient literature: Greek classics, Persian poets, Omar Khayyam, the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest writings, and others. It showed the universality of human drama and passion and sparked an interest that I began to deepen after high school. I read Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad. I began reading Tolkien, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and especially the Silmarillion, written in the best tradition of Classic literature. I haunted my school library, the public library, and various bookshops around town. Aquarius Bookshop, on Main Street in downtown Cincinnati, is the place I invariably drifted to.
Aquarius Bookshop was a new age bookstore at a time when the term was new to many people, and sometimes suspect. Entering the shop was a mystical experience, a step out of the fast-paced life of 20th century America into a microcosm of peace. The wooden floor, the aroma of incense, the soft sounds of music, never obtrusive, intertwined to form an indelible impression. In the center of all this, at the register, stood the store’s owner. His thoughtful manner of speaking, his enlightened expression, and total lack of negativity were unmistakable facets of the man. He glowed with serenity. I thought he might be the Buddha himself.
My days at the university were full and hectic and included a 75-minute bus ride each way, transferring in downtown Cincinnati. Sometimes I used the opportunity on the way home to stop by Aquarius. It was always like entering a sanctuary. I went to browse the shelves in a far side of the shop filled with a selection of books beyond the usual commercial offerings. There was ancient literature, philosophy, esoteric works and writings on the world’s religions. I might stand before the shelves an hour or longer, reading the back covers and introductions of various volumes before deciding on the one I wanted to buy. I don’t know if the shopkeeper ever noticed me. I assume he didn’t. I rarely spoke with him when I was in the shop, being generally shy. But I was conscious of him, usually as he was in conversation with one of his other customers. The shop seemed never to be empty. Virgil’s Aeneid, The Song of Roland, and translations by Professor Tolkien of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and of Pearl are a few titles I found there that engrossed me from the first word to the last, and that I still have today.
There was more to the shop than the books. It was adorned with American Indian artifacts, artwork, crystals, and a stand with record albums. In 1984, when I finished my studies and before moving to upstate New York, I took note of the records. There were several issues by a band with the curious name of Blacklight Braille, which I had never heard of. Blacklight Braille is best described as the Amon Düül II of the parallel universe, but that’s a topic for another article. I selected their first album Electric Canticles. Another album caught my eye: Darshan, by Patrick McMahon, of whom I also had not heard. The cover was a photograph of a virgin seashore, of the tide, of the light of a sun behind the horizon just about to engulf the world in light. It was a picture of peace and serenity, the kind I had felt while browsing in Aquarius. The music on that album has stayed with me the last thirty years and is as fresh and as timeless to me now as it was the first time I heard it.
Darshan is music from another age and place, a reflection of eternal beauty, contemplation, introspection, simplicity, innocence, all the aspects of life that have different meanings for every single person and that are so impossible to define. It slows life down. It quiets storms. It is an early, quintessential New Age album, without really belonging to that category. For all the countless times I have listened to Darshan, I still don’t know how best to describe the experience. The seven tracks feature Patrick McMahon’s vision of music as expressed via various flutes and other wind instruments. He is supported by Dan Murphy, soft accompaniment on acoustic and electric guitar as well as on electric piano. Despite the use of these modern instruments, the music sounds astonishingly ancient, originating even before time. The compositions and interpretations remain blissfully unaware of modern styles.
The first track, Divine Awakening, might be a call to prayer at an ancient temple. It is a duet on two flutes, both parts intertwining and mingling, calling and answering. The next track, Dharma (Righteousness) – flute, acoustic guitar and electric piano – is the sound of innocence and wonder, a Garden of Eden, eternal Spring, chirping birds, but without a serpent. After that, Cave of the Ancients, is slightly dissonant. The single flute, representing perhaps the Spirit of the Wind as it sounds out the spaciousness of the caverns, calling into the depths, is the essence of that composition. The next piece, Shanti (Peace) conveys a nostalgic mood, and reminds me most of the spirit and sanctuary I felt in Aquarius Bookshop. Side two of the record begins with the sound of the ocean, of the waves crashing onto the shore, the eternal rhythm that precedes the existence of music and out of which music was born. It is joined by the sound of chimes and the dissonant-harmonic cries of the gulls as they relate an enigmatic story. This is the title track Darshan (Vision of Light). Prema (Love) is a melodic composition whose expressive variations on flute evoke the image of the eternal musician. Sathya (Truth) concludes the album with bass flute, played as a deep-whisper. The album is so grand and unique in all its points, that I have no idea of what to compare it to. As a rough point of reference I can only think of Eden’s Island (Eden Ahbez).
I listened to the music of Darshan many times. I listened to it alone, and it brought me home, to times so familiar. I listened with a girl who was dear to me and it sheltered us from the stresses and pressures of life, bringing us closer together. One time, in 1989, I returned for a visit to Cincinnati, and stopped by Aquarius Bookshop. It was still there, the same shopkeeper in attendance. There were fewer books, and more native American artifacts and art. I told him about the album I had found there and how much it had come to mean to me, asked him who Patrick McMahon was and if there was anything more by him. He began talking about the artist’s later releases, on cassette tape. I asked more and more questions about the music, and the shopkeeper continued to answer, appearing to know quite intimately the artist’s intentions, almost too intimately, at the same time appearing slightly embarrassed. It finally became obvious.“Well, it’s me,” he admitted. In that awkward, but beautiful moment I sensed the modesty of a grand spirit.
For a feeling of Patrick’s music:
Cape Breezyhead (with Blacklight Braille), a continuation of the spirit of Darshan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9genSOgkpE
About Patrick McMahon: https://fandalism.com/patrickmcmahon
On Reverbnation: http://www.reverbnation.com/treeoflifeworldmusic
About the reviewer:
Fred Roberts, contributing Music Editor. A native of Cincinnati living in Germany since 1987, Fred enjoys subverting the arbitrary commercial process in which great works often go unrecognized. He is creator and designer of Elbot.com, an award-winning AI system. His interests include literature, film, photography and discovering all the well-kept secrets Europe has to offer. You can read more about him in About Us.
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Finding “Darshan”/Fred Roberts
“Now and Forever…”
by Jeff Edstrom
I was only seven when the Everly Brothers broke up in 1973. I wasn’t too familiar with their songs other than hearing short snippets of “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love” on commercials selling K-Tel “best of” records during commercial breaks during The Monkees and Three Stooges afternoon reruns. I was too busy listening to The Bee Gees, The Beach Boys, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and The Beatles red and blue albums.
When Phil Everly died, I thought about the first time they really caught my attention: their reunion concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1983. You could tell that they were enjoying themselves immensely, rediscovering the magic of their harmonies. The concert was lively and had a tone and energy that was beyond a normal oldies concert.
Then came the encore. Don sang lead, as he usually did, but the camera focused mostly on Phil. “Let It Be Me” begins with them looking at each other while singing harmonies that inspired the singers I grew up listening to. Phil and Don seemed oblivious that there was an audience in front of them.
I bless the day I found you
I want to stay around you
And so I beg you
Let it be me
Don’t take this Heaven from one
If you must cling to someone
Now and forever
Let it be me
Then comes the moment for Don to sing solo.
Each time we meet, love
I find complete love
Without your sweet love
What would life be?
As Don began singing the solo, Phil stepped back to give him the stage. The camera focuses on Phil watching his brother sing with Don in profile. You can see a look of almost sheer joy and disbelief on Phil’s face. The brothers had built a successful career and were worshipped by some of the greatest artists in the world, but spending most every day of over 30 years together took its toll. Each had personal troubles and grew weary of the other. Can you know who you are when your whole success is not yours alone?
You can see Phil as both a participant and audience member. You sense that feeling of chemical emotion that comes down in a wave from the top of the brain down when something is so affecting.
When Phil came back to the microphone to rejoin his brother, they weren’t just harmonizing; their voices were becoming one. You can almost see Phil physically wrapping his voice around Don’s in the space between them.
So never leave me lonely
Tell me you love me only
And that you’ll always
Let it be me
Phil almost staggers back to watch his brother take the lead again. He has a faraway look in his eye like he’s remembering everything that brought them to that moment in two lines.
Each time we meet love
I find complete love
A half smile goes across his face as Don sings “Without your sweet love” and he’s brought back to the stage and he slowly steps back to the microphone.
Without your sweet love
What would life be?
There’s an effortlessness of the final lines of the song. They needed that time apart to find their own voices and lives. They still had their differences, but seemed to come to appreciate that perfection that when those voices came together.
So never leave me lonely
Tell me you love me only
And that you’ll always
Let it be me
Phil later said the concert was the most memorable moment of his career. And you could see it in that one song.
About the reviewer:
Jeff Edstrom is a Chicago-based environmental consultant. He is married and has a son and a daughter who keep most of his free time occupied. When he can, he gives tours of the Monadnock Building, the world’s tallest masonry frame office building, as a docent with the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Jeff Edstrom/The Everly Brothers
The following story by Ely Azure, is a runner up in Ragazine‘s first fundraising writing contest, “Speculative Fiction by People of Color (Written in 2013)”. We extend our appreciation to all those who entered the contest, and especially to our esteemed judge, Sheree Renée Thomas.
Click here to read the winning entry, “The Chance,” by Avery Irons.
* * * * *
NEVER. GIVE. YOU. UP.
By Ely Azure
On my fortieth birthday, Mac blindfolded me and took me to an adoption agency. He told me to pick one, as many as I wanted, and we would take them all home. I burst into tears. Not exactly the reaction he was going for and over a wad of tissue I explained that it was a baby I wanted, and nothing short of an actual baby would ever satisfy me. I’m sure I sounded like a hopeless brat, but Mac just nodded and swallowed several gulps of air, a nervous habit he has when he’s trying not to cry.
He looked around at the hordes of unwanted kids. One sweet-faced toddler with bushes of dark brown curly hair waddled towards Mac with his one arm outstretched. What was left of the other was heavily bandaged and soiled. Mac scooped the child into his arms and the little boy lit up like the sun. This child was familiar with my husband.
“They need love too, Mel,” he said. His voice choked back emotion and I felt a certain aching come over me.
“Parker has that same curly hair as yours. Why don’t you hold him?” He held the child toward me and I took a step back.
I had no idea how much preparation he’d put into this visit, the paperwork, the extensive meetings with the agency. He wouldn’t have unless he’d felt sure of more than one kid I would gravitate toward.
The children at this agency were all victims of terrorism and natural disasters. They had been orphaned by circumstances beyond their control. Parker was the youngest of the bunch, barely two years old, while the rest fell between five and fifteen, and all looked desperately abandoned. Their eyes passed over Mac with softness, like fingertips caressing his face, but they scowled when they looked at me. It felt like they were poking their dirty little fingers right into my eyes.
“I can’t stay here another second,” I said, holding my breath. I fled to the safety of our car in the sweltering heat of the parking lot. I’d forgotten to pull the mask over my face in my haste and those few moments in the tainted, diseased atmosphere had me hyperventilating.
The building was draped in airlock plastics as were most of the structures outside of the safety zones in Miami. It was mid-August and there was no breeze blowing. The buildings looked like giant, frozen ghosts. I shuddered and inhaled from the alkaline booster that was plugged into the cigarette lighter, and then pulled the paper mask over my nose and lips. The boosters had been invented a few years prior as a method of prevention, to try and neutralize the infection at first contact. I’m not sure they ever really worked, but Mac and I always kept them handy. I brushed a bead of sweat out of my eye.
For the past six years, an airborne virus had swept across the United States, leaving a lot of people in a decayed state; what we in Miami called the rotten, because their skin was covered in foul lesions by the time the infection was finished with them. The normal dead could be buried or cremated, but the rotten happened to still be walking around, and the virus was so aggressive that a simple sneeze had the potential to wipe out an entire city block.
When the government realized that the infection couldn’t be contained they began to organize evacuations. Massive amounts of the population tried to migrate into other parts of the world. The gates at customs were quickly slammed in our faces. Mac hadn’t been home to France in almost ten years.
The grind of a concrete drill suddenly filled the silence. I twisted my head right and left searching for the sound, then saw Mac walking toward the car. He didn’t look happy.
“You alright, baby?” he asked with concern. Even after I’d clearly embarrassed him in front of the entire agency’s staff. I couldn’t find any words. I only nodded. He handed me an envelope.
“I don’t want to disappoint you, but it’s rare for the agency to receive babies anymore. Parker is their youngest. All of the kids here are infection-free and certified healthy for the most part. This is the only agency in the south with a kid under three years old, I’ve checked. Parker’s ours if we want him, but there is another family waiting to adopt.” He paused, waiting for me to answer or change my mind. I could do neither.
“If we don’t decide by Wednesday, they’ll put us on a waiting list. If a baby comes available, we’ll be the first couple they call. I’ve made sure of it.” He motioned to the charity slip with a huge donation made in our names. I stared quietly out of the reinforced window.
“I won’t lie,” Mac said. “I’m disappointed, but I’m not angry with you, Mel.” He reached across to slide the mask down to my chin, then leaned over and kissed me. My body folded into his and I melted against his shoulder. His touch was familiar and soothing. He reminded me of fresh-baked sugar cookies. The curve of his neck was where the warm cookie scent was the strongest.
My mother had known sugar cookies were my weakness, my pleasure, my comfort. It was the last thing she did before the infection took her from me. Right after my hysterectomy she’d brought a warm batch over to the house. Since then Mac has baked pounds of cookies for me. I still enjoyed the scent on him, but because the taste reminded me of my mother, I couldn’t eat them anymore.
“I’m sorry I flipped out,” I said. “I’m just so stressed about turning forty.” It wasn’t completely a lie. I’d found two gray pubic hairs in the last month and one in my armpit. I was slipping again; I felt that familiar sludge of sadness creep across my shoulders.
We floundered on the adoption waiting list for five years before they started closing state borders. Three more years passed since then. The infection was rampant and it was a miracle that Mac and I were still healthy. My fiftieth birthday was staring down at me from the top of the hill. I kept looking the other way, but my hair had started to shed. I tried to keep Mac from seeing the full-length curly black hairs wash down the drain.
He still had an entire head of lustrous hair, with only a minor spackle of gray. He was still as beautiful as he was when I met him twenty years ago as a part of the student exchange program in college. I looked haggard and wore the wrinkles of an old woman. Mac would be so angry if he ever heard me say that aloud, so I only ever whisper it to myself.
Nine years later, the call we’d been waiting on finally came. I nearly wet my pants when Mac told me. Did I still want a baby? Was he kidding? Just the news of an available infant made me so happy that I was dancing around the kitchen in my slipper socks, singing into a pepper sauce bottle.
Mac and I made love for the first time in four months. Then we dove into our rows of sterilized boxes in both the attic and shed, pulling out long forgotten baby toys, clothing and furniture. I insisted that he finally peel that “baby on board” sticker from its shiny white backing and promptly attach it to the bumper of our Chevy Volt IX.
The next day we charged a car that had been parked in the garage for a year and headed down the familiar roads. A sheet of dust covered the hood, made it look gray instead of baby blue. I bounced in my seat as we rode through a city devastated by the infection. It was ashen outside. Smog clogged the sky, the Earth coughed and shook. In order to decontaminate areas of the city, more buildings had been demolished than there were buildings still intact, and the reconstruction efforts were undermanned. There were more rotten than living people occupying the cities.
There were less than ten passenger cars on the road going in any direction; mostly the streets and highways were congested with delivery trucks. It was late January, and even though Miami didn’t experience winter, the ashy substance floating about reminded me of dirty snowflakes.
Every few miles a patrol Hummer would pass by, red and blue twirling silently, checking for breaches to the perimeter; it’s what the military did now, fight homeland wars. Outside of the safety barricades, the fluorescent green flashers were the ones to worry about. Those meant an uncontained contamination site was nearby, take cover.
Quite a few roads were permanently blocked off and the streets were littered with yellow detour signs and those sterile red, white and blue “Quality Assurance Quarantine Area” signs. They were fresh out of the box and had yet to be defaced. The QA markers were intended to be a comforting thing, but it’s hard to feel safe in a place guarded with barbed wire and airlocks.
The things that normally soured my mood didn’t that day; I’d waited too long for this. It’s true what they say about becoming a mother for the first time.
When Bambi looked at me with those big, round eyes, I oozed delight. She was only two weeks old. They reassured us that she was African-American, one of my preferences; however, her complexion was so translucent that there was hardly any color in it at all. She had the palest, pouty, heart-shaped lips I’ve ever seen. She was almost weightless.
I loved her immediately, but there were so many warning labels wrapped around my baby that I couldn’t feel her touch. Those tiny fists and feet were enclosed in safety mitts. I didn’t even know they made a protective mask that small. She was already infected.
She was a part of a growing unit of newbies that had been born of infected mothers, but the infection was in a precognitive stage the doctors believed the right kind of treatment could suppress, but were not hopeful of long-term survival. She would need to be placed with a family with the right amount of resources in order to give her the best chances at a semi-normal existence.
Mac and I were prime candidates, not just because of our financial security, but also because of our ages. It was news to us. Something about a vaccine we’d been given as children made our resistance higher. Too bad the government had cut funding for it when they decided it had become obsolete.
We were part of a first-time experimental group of parents and along with that responsibility came an ocean of waivers to sign, mountains of health paperwork, and hordes of medications. The doctors had to be sure we understood the potential risk of exposure while caring for an infected child.
There was also a field of protestors waiting for us outside. The coggie experiment, as the media liked to call it, had angered the survivalist groups who believed that releasing coggies into the safety zones, heavily medicated or not, was a danger that threatened their health and freedom.
Initially I agreed, however there were seven coggies at the agency in Miami, and the moment I held Bambi, I was certain that I no longer held that extremist view. I didn’t need to look any further. My family was finally complete.
Two of the many sanctions of the experiment were to wear full body protective armor at all times while handling the baby and to keep a detailed health journal of the child’s developmental milestones. While wearing the armor, Mac pretended to be an astronaut to make Bambi laugh, which by three months she hadn’t done yet. Not even a hint of a smile in her sleep. The doctors warned that her growth would be far behind that of the average child.
That didn’t bother me so much, but the crunchy sound of the plastic body wrap that separated me from her was unbearable. How was I supposed to establish a bond with my baby that way? I was almost to the point of ignoring the warnings and loving her right. I wanted to hold Bambi against my chest. I wanted to press my lips against her fragile skin and feel how alive she was. She was alive. Nothing anyone can say will ever change my mind about that.
Mac didn’t share my complaints. He loved to don his body armor and take Bambi outside. The doctors said it was good for her to get fresh air. Technically the virus was dormant as long as we kept her on those thousand dollar medications. However, she’d be highly susceptible to the infection becoming primary, so ‘fresh’ air was the key word.
Mac bought one of those bulky supercharged alkaline booster machines they used in the sports stadiums. Most of the surviving arenas were quickly closed-in and the owners added the extra benefit of the machines to reassure the crowds that the games were safe to attend, but the infection was too strong, people still got sick, so soon the machines became obsolete. The doctors agreed that the machines could work better in a smaller area, such as our backyard, where there was less contaminant. It made me smile to watch Mac run around the yard pretending Bambi was an airplane. Mostly she looked terrified, but she never cried.
I sipped mineral wine and filled baby journals while Mac and Bambi had daddy-daughter time. The normal developmental milestones say that by three months old, the infant should be able to lift her head while being held at the shoulder.
At five months, holding Bambi that way only made her cry. I would’ve, too, if I had sticky plastic plastered to my cheek. She preferred the arm cradle so that she could always look up at our faces. She didn’t lift her head on her own much, yet, but she could turn it from side to side pretty well, even with her tiny face smashed into the carpet. She wiggled and kicked up a storm and responded well to our voices.
Just before she turned seven months, a flaming diaper filled with rocks and mud flew through the window, splattering glass everywhere. Someone had scribbled “diseased baby” on it. It landed on the floor a few inches from where Bambi was snuggled asleep on a pallet. Without even waking, she rolled out of the way of the fire bomb and stuck a thumb in her ear. That was a surprise. We hadn’t expected to witness a full rollover for a least another four to six months.
The week before she turned nine months old, we were unloading boxes in an entirely different city in Florida while Bambi sat in her rocker on the shady side of the porch. She already had eight teeth and was gnawing ragged little patterns into her safety mitts. We had to finally throw away most of her toys. She’d long ripped all of them apart. In fact they were becoming so unevenly chipped that we’d been searching for a dentist in the area that would treat her early. No such luck.
We’d already moved twice to avoid the intense sort of scrutiny that made some angry protestors set our first house on fire and leave a burning tombstone in the yard of our second home in Coral Gables. It had Bambi’s name slashed angrily across it in wet spray-paint. At first, we refused to be bullied. But after the incident with the flaming diaper, Mac thought it better to abandon Miami completely.
I had been reluctant to move, afraid the conditions would be worse in other parts of the state, but St. Petersburg wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t as hot as the bottom of the Florida peninsula, and being located on the milky Gulf coast, the breezes were heavenly. Mac and I could afford the overpriced, gated, twenty-four-hour safe zone. It lulled the inhabitants into a false calm that made it easy to forget the horrors on the outside.
Before the infection became official, Mac and I had gotten in on the Amway knock-off, Tidal Wave Industries. We topped the pyramid in less than three months. Both of us were business majors; Mac had been a financial advisor and I worked in accounting, so we knew how to run a business. Everyone wanted online product distribution to deliver the things they were unable to find within their own communities. They rarely traveled farther than a few miles, even for work. Retail businesses couldn’t prevent contamination unless they were closed to the public. We kept so many products on-site in order to offer quicker delivery service that we eventually had a storage facility built on our property.
At fourteen months old, Bambi still wasn’t crawling. She could roll-over like a slinky, pushing those awful little gagging noises out of her throat. I hated when she did that, it was almost as bad as when my little cousin ground her teeth in her sleep. The doctors suggested we keep her supplied with pacifiers, but she usually chewed those into tiny bits. Once, she nearly choked on a piece that got lodged in her throat and Mac had to pry her jaw open so I could shove my finger into her mouth to get it. She tried to bite down several times and missed my finger by only a second.
Her face crumpled like she wanted to cry, but then her eyes swiveled to her bare fist and she chomped down on her own hand instead. Blood slithered from the tiny hole her incisor made just above her knuckle. Mac applied pressure to the bite while struggling to keep her mouth away from her own skin. I hurried to get bandages. After we replaced her safety mitts and mask, she glared and rewarded us with the silent treatment. Not one gagging sound until the next meal. It nearly broke my heart.
Speaking of meal times, she hated the formula we fed her, but refused to graduate to the jar varieties either. The only thing she seemed to really want was Vienna sausages. She’d devour can after can after can of those things. I was getting worried that her diet was insufficient. We’d tried so many of the snack choices and usually ended up sweeping that off the floor. She was gaining weight at a decent pace, on the other hand. Thirty pounds already and it was killing my arm and hip to carry her around.
Her fingernails grow like kudzu. I had to clip them twice a day or she’d rip holes in the mitts that we already had to replace once a week because she chewed on them. But whenever she slept, we loved to curl up around her, intertwining our hands and feet, creating a circle of love to protect her from the rest of the world.
Mac slid his fingers through Bambi’s straggly curls. “Our baby is growing so fast,” he said with a tired yawn. It had been his shift the previous night. She doesn’t sleep well alone. If she woke up and no one was near, she’d screech like a recently spayed cat.
“She really is,” I said, staring into Bambi’s angelic face. Her eyes darted side to side as she dreamed those innocent baby dreams. If only she didn’t breathe so jaggedly. I rubbed my finger across her lips and caressed her belly. Those were the only times I allowed myself to touch her without the body armor. Her skin was so soft that it felt like cool water against my fingertips. It had darkened over the past few months, but instead of getting browner, it was taking on a grayish pallor.
“I love you so much,” Mac whispered to me and clasped our fingers into a tighter grip.
“Me too.” I squeezed him back. My heart ached with love for my family.
Just after Bambi turned two, the state relinquished all responsibility of each city back to itself. It was becoming too much of a burden to control the entire state. The new decrees were fierce in St. Petersburg. There was barely any communication with any city beyond Tampa and Clearwater. We could no longer take Bambi in to see the doctors in Bradenton for her check-ups and the wait time for a video consultation was enough to make me pull out my hair.
The good news was Bambi finally crawled. It was an odd, shuffling sort of movement. She appeared to be dragging her left leg around instead of using it, but she was definitely beginning to move. Mac was ready with the video camera. Their trips out to the backyard became ten times more interesting. Bambi had an eye for bugs. She stopped to examine every single one that crossed her path. Keeping her from sticking them in her mouth was the biggest obstacle. It didn’t take long before she graduated to small furry animals. It took all of my energy to keep chasing the squirrels away. Poor things, they didn’t know any better.
My birthdays after fifty went by unnoticed because Bambi was the center of our entire lives. She was one of only two coggies still alive from the original experiment and I was determined to keep her that way. The doctors were amazed at the developmental growth I expressed in Bambi’s journal entries and attached videos. They still warned that long-term survival was not likely at this point, but nothing could discourage me.
The safety zones encouraged community involvement, be we shied away to protect our child from the external dangers and the hatred. Some of the other experiment participants had inadvertently put their children into harms’ way. I never left the house, not even with Mac, now that we had Bambi to protect.
He understood that and still found ways to make putty out of my heart.
It was one of those nights that Mac got all romantic and prepared an extravagant dinner. Bambi was asleep on the couch where we could keep an eye on her, but lucky for us she was dead to the world while she slept. After dessert, Mac switched on the karaoke and even though the song was long forgotten nearly two decades before we were born, we had a thing for vintage music. Mac belted out the verses of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” as if he’d written it himself. It was the same song he’d performed for me at our wedding reception. We danced closer than we’d dare to then.
Things had just begun to heat up when Bambi’s gagging sounds interrupted us. She sometimes made them in her sleep, but it came in short grunts, not the gasping, choking sound she made while awake. Sometimes it seemed she was trying to communicate, I’d written it up in her journal. Mac and I jumped as if we’d been caught kissing behind the bleachers.
“Omigod, Mac, she’s standing up!” I immediately tore myself from his embrace and ran to my daughter.
“C’mere, Bambi, come to Daddy!” Mac said with his usual enthusiasm. Bambi lifted her right foot, the one she didn’t drag, and put it back down. There was no forward movement, but it was still a reason to celebrate. We cheered and clapped to encourage more attempts, but she only stood there staring off into space. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve called it sleep-walking. The gag and sputter were the only replies before she plopped down on her bottom.
I swooped her into my arms, cooing in her ear. I felt Mac’s arm wrap around us. We stood that way until we thought she’d fallen asleep again, but when I moved to lay her down, she squeezed tighter. Mac had to peel her arms from around my neck and in the process her fingernail scratched my skin. I suppressed a yelp and scolded myself for forgetting the body armor. It was enough to keep me preoccupied the rest of the night; Mac finally gave up on rekindling and went to sleep.
As soon as it was safe, I hurried into the bathroom to survey the damage. A cut, not more than a half inch long on the back of my shoulder, had already stopped bleeding. I knew how lethal her nails could be, but I was still shocked at how easily it tore through my blouse to draw blood.
My thoughts were playing bumper cars. Was Bambi even contagious? If so, was the small scratch enough to infect me? Should I worry Mac about it?
I doused the area with alcohol and smeared Bambi’s medication over my skin. Just as a precaution, I swallowed two of the antidote capsules I normally had to mix into her food. I sucked on the spare alkaline booster like it was an inhaler. Was my breathing uneven? Did I feel feverish?
I stared at my face in the mirror. It couldn’t be, but it looked like my eyes were pink around the irises. I splashed water on my face, took a breath, decided that wasn’t enough, and then stripped down naked for a scalding shower. My scalp tingled, my toes curled, but I didn’t turn off the water until I had washed my fear down the drain.
I reapplied the skin creams, put on my pajamas, and made an entry in the journal. I vowed to wipe the incident from my mind. It was just a little scratch; nothing could happen to me because I had to be here for Bambi. The only thing worse than other people fearing her would be her parents doing the same. Mac and I had worked hard to create a safe haven for her, and I wasn’t willing to mess that up. Wrapping the plastic-rubber jacket around me, I gingerly moved Bambi from the couch to her crib and went to bed.
The scratch healed, although I hadn’t been able to keep it a secret from Mac for very long. No doctor would examine me on the outside. They were too afraid I was infected simply by association with my child. So Mac had insisted that I order a double supply of Bambi’s vaccines and antidotes for the next few months, just to be sure. The medicines made my skin dry and my body dehydrated, but other than that, I didn’t notice any changes.
It was easy for Mac to forget about it because the act of standing had been ammunition for Bambi’s growth. Within less than a year she was able to walk on her own, slowly dragging the left foot, her steps were more certain. At three, she still hadn’t spoken a word, but she found ways to communicate. Mac and I joked that instead of teaching her English, it would be easier to learn her language. So we deciphered the signs she gave for needing to be changed, wanting to play or be held, and most of all hunger. She’d eat all day if we let her, but we didn’t. We had to force her to drink the nutritional supplements by withholding meat.
Just after Bambi turned four, some neighbor’s poor pit bull pup got loose and ended up in our backyard. The outer bands of a tropical storm had recently passed over our region and we’d been stir-crazy cooped up in the house. The three of us were having a picnic on the lawn and playing dolls together when Bambi suddenly lurched forward into the bushes that lined the back gate. I’d never seen her move so fast. The whimpering sounds soon followed.
Mac pointed at me like it was my turn to save the squirrel, but by the time I reached her she’d already torn into the puppy’s neck and had blood and guts all over her hands and face. I didn’t have time to cover the shock. The dog was the biggest animal I’d ever seen her attack and honestly we’d gotten so comfortable saving the little ones in our yard, that I didn’t think she really hungered for them anymore. Perhaps the occasional lizard, but I left those parts out of the journal entries.
She stared at me, red-streaked palms up, with a guilty look on her face, and let a tuft of damp fur fall from her lips to the ground. My shock was replaced by pride that we had somehow gotten through to her. She knew by killing the dog, she’d done something wrong. I held back the usual chastisements and instead smiled at her. And for the first time ever, she smiled back. It wasn’t exactly a proper smile because her mouth was open too wide, but the idea that she was able to move the muscles of her face in that direction had me bouncing. I called Mac over and he snapped several dozens of pictures. An hour later, her face was still frozen that way, even after I brushed her teeth.
It became impossible to satiate her hunger with food after that. She’d refuse to eat anything that wasn’t living flesh. After three days of nothing to eat, I could see her rib cage poking through her tender skin. Her breathing was choppy and she slept for longer periods of time than normal. Mac gave me that look, the one that said, “We do what we got to, to save our little girl.”
I stared out the patio doors at the backyard and tried to meditate on what all that involved when a squirrel scurried across the tree branch near the house. It looked at me the way I was looking at it. I accepted the sacrifice and crushed a sedative into a bowl of nuts and fruits. An hour later, two squirrels lay still, warm and breathing, underneath the tree.
Mac brought Bambi outside and put her down. The scent must have been strong because she immediately opened her sleepy eyes. She looked up at us curiously. Mac nodded and held my hand. Bambi squatted over the small animals, and touched one with her fingertips as if to check for a pulse. She then pressed her face into the animal’s belly and tore it open with her teeth. I refused to look away. Blood splattered across her nose and her eyes rolled back in her head. She didn’t stop until there was nothing left but a shriveled, matted piece of furry skin. She offered the other squirrel to Mac. He took it with a smile.
“How about bath time with Mommy, while I put this somewhere safe for you?”
Bambi gurgled a reply and came to take my hand. Mac kissed me on the cheek.
“Don’t worry,” he told me. “I’ll teach her how to hunt. Everything will be fine.”
I had strange dreams for months where I was being served little creatures: squirrels, mice, chicks. The taste of warm flesh was inviting; it was the fur that made me gag. I’d wake up and vomit like I had morning sickness. While I nursed a bellyache, Mac ordered a tranquilizer dart gun and hunting gear for the two of them. I dare to say he enjoyed the excursions, and since they were the only times Bambi could leave our property, she wore that wide smile on her face for days. Her skin lost its sallowness and she almost looked cured. I didn’t want the doctors to misinterpret that part, so I left that out, too.
The morning of her fifth birthday, I received an email from the doctors expressing gratitude for my meticulous journaling, but they regretted to inform me that it would no longer be necessary. The other surviving coggie had died the previous week. I believe Marlin was his name and he’d been only a year older than Bambi. The autopsy revealed the same results as all the other coggies. The medicines hadn’t worked, there was no cure, so the experiment was over. They confirmed the coggies had mostly damaged internal tissue, very little brain activity, and the failing organs of the elderly.
They suggested, gently, that we have her put down at a local veterinarian’s office. It was so gentle, in fact that they rambled on for six paragraphs before dropping that bomb. My heart lurched. I deleted the email before Mac could see it. There was no way I was going to euthanize my daughter. At a vet’s office. The nerve it took to even suggest it.
I went back into the kitchen where Bambi and I were baking her birthday cake. Mac danced around the living room while hanging decorations. Bambi grunted to the music. We were just like any normal family. We had a picky eater. We had some behavioral issues. Sure, we wore plastic-rubber all the time, but for one night that would change. This was a special birthday and Mac and I had promised to dress up in real party clothes.
“I’m going to jump in the shower. Don’t forget to set the table, baby,” I said to Bambi with a plastic kiss. She grunted that she understood. At some point Mac joined me in the shower. The heat between us made the de-steamer obsolete. We didn’t care. It was the best day of our lives.
We came out dressed in clothing we hadn’t worn in years. Mac, in his cobalt tuxedo jacket, told me that my gold Grecian evening gown complemented my skin better now than in the past. We had that morning-after glow all over our faces, but the birthday girl outshined us both.
Bambi was all dolled up in the pink taffeta with the tiny white hearts that I’d laid out for her, complete with white patent leather shoes. There was a pink feather in her hair and more on a chain around her neck. It was jewelry the two of us had made together one rainy afternoon. She led us to the table that had been decorated for a tea party, like the one in her bedroom. We each took a seat and sang happy birthday to her. She smiled, a genuine one, and clapped excitedly. We’d been working on her wide mouth scowl for months.
She moved around the table as she poured us some of the lumpy beverage from her teapot. We toasted and drank it and I was suddenly feeling quite sleepy. A blurred tranquilizer dart sat broken in the center of the table. I was unable to have any reaction at all when Mac slumped to the floor.
He’d gulped. I’d only sipped. The scent of rotting flesh was strong and no longer able to be ignored. I watched paralyzed as Bambi put on her bib, bowed as if to say grace, and then began chewing gracefully on Mac’s neck. Blood bubbled and his body twitched involuntarily.
When she finished, she wiped the blood from her lips on a birthday napkin and looked at me with eyes so ravenous that it was hard to believe I’d just watched her chew most of the flesh from her father’s bones.
Bambi climbed onto my lap and reached for me. That move I’d been waiting for, but had never received. That recognition of the bond every child has with their mother from birth and hearing their voices utter that beautiful word.
“Mommy,” Bambi whispered in a tone so soft that it melted from her lips. A milestone. I felt hot tears well up in my eyes, but they never fell. I was in a state of frozen ecstasy. She pressed those precious lips against my neck and my eyes closed. I wished Mac had been alive to see it.
About the author:
Erica Shaw, pen name Ely Azure, is a native Floridian and a veteran of the United States Air Force who has been conjuring imaginative tales as a storyteller since she about eleven years old. She loves the sounds of nature, traveling, and every color in the orange spectrum. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California-Riverside. Her short story “Strange Fruit in Pratt, Kansas” was chosen as a finalist in Glimmer Train Press’ 2012 June Fiction Open and she has had both poetry and creative nonfiction published in The Cypress Dome‘s Spring 2011 issue. Currently, she is a poetry reader for The Whistling Fire and has written professionally for both the Goodfellow Monitor, a military news publication, and the “Teen Wrap” section of The Florida Times-Union.
Walter Gurbo, Drawing Room
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Fiction Contest/Runner Up
Kilinski statue, file photo courtesy histomil.com
Hurled Into Eternity
By Paul West
Weeks later, as he bled through clumsy necktie tourniquets into the makeshift bed of a big wooden drawer hauled outside by the few surviving Red Cross nurses, Ludwik Czimanski remembered the golden Poland of before, and the bicycle festooned with his suits. The land had been alive with doomed people full of flamboyant bad humor, dryly joking about motor torpedo boats, the famous statue in Warsaw of Kilinski brandishing his saber at the sky with a face of invitational outrage, and the invincible yellow-capped national cavalry whose red and white guidons flapped above their heads like swallows’ wings. How uncanny the sky had been, stunning him like a blue gas his mind’s eye inhaled again and again: the drug from nowhere that wiped out the ills of the land. Everyone had looked upward, inhaling hard (at least as he remembered them), looking not for the first wave of bombers but for scrubbed and rosy refugee camps arranged in vistas tapering infinitely up to that comfy otherwhere in which, as legend said, everything went right.
Ludwik began to finger the five suits, one with satin lapels, one of a tweed perfumed with Baltic heather, a third with two vests of which one was velvet with maroon pearl buttons, while the other two were ordinary and a bit worn at the cuffs and elbows: these two culled from the house, not his own at all, and certainly not his taste, which did not run to tree-bark brown.
“Worn,” muttered Gnonka thickly into his splattered shirt, then added that the gold didn’t amount to much either.
“All there is.” At this they began to argue, the one voice raw with clumsy sullenness, the other clipped-brisk and only letting the words out a little more than it drew them back in again, as if communicating only through tone. What you expect—The bargain—Which was?—Two children—Two!—Two, as he had said the last time, ashamed and half-willing to kill, to walk away at least, as if he had caught himself making overtures to a pig.
“Two’s a lot. Which’s the Jew?”
“You don’t need to worry, squire. They’ve nothing against Poles, why should they? But Poles that have Jews in tow… They sell better things than you in Kazimierz market. Why don’t you go and peddle your suits where they belong?” Gnonka, who had a pea-sized polyp growing either side of his nose where it joined his face, scratched them both now with slow, studious vexation, savoring the gulf between his customer and himself. Then, as he saw the suits go back into their brown-paper, “Well, maybe for a few more. I’ve a busy winter ahead of me, see, I’ll be a man in demand, what with visitors. I can’t be signing milk contracts in my working clothes, can I, my lord?”
“Yes or no? For two?”
“I’ve sacking aplenty.”
Promising to return in one hour, Czimanski rode away on the disencumbered bicycle, eager to breathe a different air, and Gnonka’s German shepherd chased after him until Gnonka slurred a one-syllable command, at which it loped back and followed him, desperate, lumpish, flawed; a man contemplating the scenario of his own end as vaguely as this could hardly accuse himself of being self-centered, but he felt he was, against his will soothing himself with that finality instead of bracing himself with what the Admiral had said: We’ll pick you up in Kazimierz, remember: in Warsaw it won’t work at all, there won’t be any Warsaw left. Just think of it: a million fewer violins!
Right where he was, Major Czimanski wanted to cry, because highly evolved human companionship, sustained across frontiers through several languages over many years in complete accordance with elaborate protocol, should not (he said “must not” aloud and made Gnonka flinch) be subject to something essentially barbaric. It was as if crocodiles were running the world, who could not be swayed, argued with, or bought off; and men of brains and sensitivity found themselves driven to inventing gruesome and unseemly plans, primitives all over again in a world gone mad.
The other plane curved away to watch the Polish one reel flamelessly smoking into a low hill lush with trees. Faltering like a small leaf, the wingtip sailed into the flank of an oblivious cow in Gnonka’s main pasture, causing a minor stampede, after which it sat there on the grass, among the cowflops, arbitrary but final, the size of a breakfast tray, all of a sudden perched upon by haggling sparrows in whose landbound airscape it had become a permanent ramp, already subject to weathering, birdlime, and decay.
The Nazi fighter, its pilot unaware that Kazimierz had already fallen, cruised back low over the town and machine-gunned the steeple of a local church, making its bells pong-pang and en passant shredding the skull of an old man in the belfry to repair sections of rope, which he did (and was doing that morning, Nazis or no) by rolling retied sections under the sole of his boot. Next the fighter redundantly shot up a stationary motor coach used for outings to Warsaw, only to pass through a fan of vertically fired rounds from an old-fashioned Lewis gun worked by a wounded Polish soldier cut off from his unit and just waiting for something to do, unable to carry the gun away, reluctant to leave it for the intruder, and uncertain how to immobilize it. Shot through the groin, all the way up into his trunk, the pilot clasped his belly, sagged against the control column, and dived the Messerschmitt right into the post office and the lending library. The gas mains exploded with a gigantic bang, scattering envelopes and stationary far and wide. Books flew through the air as well, more of them leaving the shelves in that second than Kazimierz took out each year. A copy of Gulliver’s Travels done into Polish landed in the Sakal’s back yard with a fluttering plop, just beyond the verandah.
“What on earth was that,” Suzanna said, “I’ll go and get it.”
“Incendiary bomb, no doubt,” Wilson told her.
“I can see it. It’s a book. Or it was.”
“Even so.” He wanted the world to be still, to keep its distance from him, and his mind, recoiling from bangs and shots and bells and distraught women, had fixed on a big bowl of petunias, kept in the house for a month until they began to wilt and fade, then unleashed into full sunlight like a small wild animal incapable of being housebroken, and thereafter blooming a profound purple as never before.
“If it was an incendiary,” Suzanna pursued her point, “then our children are not safe where they are. But it’s a book, it’s just a bit of a book. You won’t have to throw sand on it to put it out.”
With a pout, a toss of her shoulders, and then a gathering snarl she did not quite know how to complete, Suzanna went outside, picked up the half-burned book, brought it in and tossed it into his lap.
“It’s still on fire, Wilson.”
“I’ve read it,” he said proudly. “Long ago.”
Deciding it was her turn to speak, Wanda said something mild and faint about the gift of life, the gift of a book, the way in which a book is the life-blood of a stranger made available for a pittance. “Ludwik’s mother,” she said eventually, “once took a honeybee into her cupped hands and let it sting her, saying, ‘It’s life, it’s life. Why not?’”
“I’m not that disabused,” Wilson scoffed. “Neither was the author of this burnt offering of a book.”
“Disasters,” Suzanna said, “ought to be in winter, not in weather like this. It’s hot, it’s glorious. It’s obscene.”
“A good sky for dive-bombers,” he whispered. “I don’t want to see anybody heading for the door. Stay put. In light as good as this, a pilot can see for miles, and they’ll shoot at any target that offers. I still can’t fathom why they’re shooting up the town after they’ve already taken it.”
“It’s because,” Wanda told him curtly, “because the only people left in town are Poles. They’re having target practice.”
“I don’t want to live in a ravine like a savage,” she told them all. “I wouldn’t know how. Your mother’s better off.”
“You’ll be lucky if you get a chance to,” Ludwik said. “But he’ll find us, I’m sure he will. He’s a man of his word.”
“He sounds might distant to me,” Wilson said loudly. “Maybe we’ll have to join the Nazi party before he’ll do anything at all. They might not be so eager to have Jews with fully paid subscriptions. We’ll take a raving any day. Just lead us in. Now what about the farmer?”
“If you don’t want them to get you,” Izz announced with cantankerous brightness, “hide in a museum, among the statues, still as stone, and someone will bring you a bagel at night to keep your tummy from rumbling during the day.” Shushed, he subsides, but mouths his impatience to Myrrh, who giggles, then says her piece.
“Husband, you haven’t told anybody anything yet.”
“I think he means,” said Izz with an elaborate, cunning look at his mother, “the domestic form of emigration! That’s what the Germans call it, isn’t it? You vanish without going away.”
“The domestic form of evacuation is more like it.” Ludwik looked at his son with unfocused eyes. “How ironic that you have come to know German so well. How elementary some mysteries are.”
“Are we going to take poison,” Izz asked. “Like Socrates.” Heroic nausea made him rub his mouth and then, even as he looked up to watch his parents watch him, halted with his wrist in front of his lips, as if stifling a burn.
“You and Myrrh are going to hide.” Ludwik thought he was going to faint, and abruptly fixed his gaze on Myrrh, who had stood in order to fidget about, and now faced away in profile with one hand on the smudged veneer of the dining table, fingers together in a trowel shape, as if imperceptibly nibbling across the surface to a bowl of grapes. God save us, he thought. How scraggly and golden she has become. She reads Verlaine in French and draws penises freehand with her eyes closed. They think they have secrets, but they have none from me. Imagine a regime, to which I myself have been some kind of cavaliere servente, or go-between, wanting to wipe out the likes of her, just because her mother descends from Shem. It’s unbelievable. The light doesn’t refuse to shine on her. The air allows her to breathe it. Water doesn’t rebel when it enters her mouth. The table reflects her without demur. Why, she looks more Slavic than anything, yet she’s one of the doomed. Look how her lower face falls away from its natural sit, but because she sucks in her mouth and tugs back her chin when she’s lost in thought, as if she’s just swallowed the idea of death and is waiting for it to go down. She could stand there forever against that folded screen, a long black-haired pixie lost in cogitation. She knows. And so does he. They pick things out of the air. They receive our transmissions before we even formulate them. That’s what adolescence is for: the intuition of essentials while the grown-ups shuffle their vocabularies. “Hide,” she said in belated echo. “What are we doing now? Advertising where we are?”
“Underground,” he told her, told the room, with lips like slabs of cement. “Briefly, until help arrives. And then another country where,” he let the limp joke out, “for once I have no diplomatic privileges.”
“Then,” Myrrh said, again sitting, “tell us where, and we can all begin learning the language. Is it where the rivers go uphill and the natives live on liquids only?”
“Cuckoo clocks,” he answered, desperate for something precise, unwilling to admit he didn’t know.
“Or sleds drawn by reindeer?” Izz had come back from a reverie so intense his top lip shone and his incipient mustache looked plastered down.
“Make them grow, Izz. And don’t bite.”
“Like baby lemons,” he gasped, his truant mind on Bantu women who stretch out their bottom lips with a wooden disk, and Bantu men who elongate their penises with a stone tied on.
“If I were bigger,” she told him languidly, “I wouldn’t seem so optional. You’d want me more. And so would other boys.”
I am mouthing inverted daffodils crammed with clay, he told himself. I’ll end up making her sore. No, this is what they’re for. Then he heard a muddled purr begin, and fixed his mind on what he was doing, lost in a rhythm with her, in a spell of things imminent: two actors endlessly repeating their opening lines.
About the author:
The author of 50 books, Paul West has received the Literature Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1985, a 1993 Lannan Prize for Fiction, and the Grand-Prix Halperine-Kaminsky Prize for the Best Foreign Book in 1993. He has also been named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library and a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. The Tent of Orange Mist was runner-up for the 1996 National Book Circle Award in Fiction and the Nobel Prize for Literature. His previous work in Ragazine was an essay on Beckett’s Texts: http://old.ragazine.cc/2012/10/paul-west-beckett/
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March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Paul West/Fiction
THE BOOK OF GENESIS, REVISED
FOR AMERICAN INDIAN HISTORY
by John Smelcer
In the beginning,
after forming the earth from the void
God said, “Let there be light”
and so there was
And God saw that this was good
so he divided light from darkness
and water from land;
and then one day God created Indians
and he saw that they were good
and he loved them for a really long time,
but then he must have got mad at them
because they didn’t speak English or something
so he whispered in the ear of Christopher Columbus
to show the way for white people
who came to claim the land for themselves,
and God said unto them,
“From this day on you shall have dominion over Indians,”
which was kind of the same thing he told Adam
about the animals that creeped and crawled
and so it was
and so it was
and so it was
And God saw that this was good
so when he returned from a paid vacation in Rome
God said, “Let Indians be slaves to the Whites”
and so they were the first slaves to toil in the New World
but then the Whites ran out of Indians
so they imported Black people from far away
and that is all that people would remember
forever and ever, amen
And God knew that this was good
so he told White people to go west and multiply
and he said unto them,
“Let there be colonization,”
and so there was
and from his words sprang colonialism
who begat expansionism
who begat broken treaties
who begat assimilation
who begat disease
who begat wars
who begat genocide
Then one day after he made the dodo extinct
God decided that Indians needed exercise
so he created The Trail of Tears
and then he told the Whites to kill all the buffalo
so that Indians would become vegetarians
and so it was
and so it was
and so it was
After he got over a bad cold or something
God looked around and saw that Whites
were like locusts and they needed more land
to build condos and housing developments,
gas stations and convenience stores,
shopping malls and parking lots,
so he said, “Let there be reservations”
and lo they came into being
and from his words sprang dislocation
who begat racism
who begat poverty
who begat alcoholism
who begat depression
who begat suicide
who begat genocide
And God knew that this was good
so he created the Bureau of Indian Affairs
and land allotments and unscrupulous land embezzlers
and boarding schools where Indian children
were taught to forget what it means to be Indian,
then he created HUD Housing and commodity cheese,
rez dogs and bingo halls, casinos and
The Church of Infinite Confusion
And on the last day God returned from Wal-Mart
and the Mega-Mall and the cineplex
and he saw that Indians were no more upon the land
and he knew that this was a good thing
so he created the Lazy Boy and the remote control
and TV westerns and pay-per-view
and the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians,
and from his comfortable reclining throne
God looked out across the land he had created
and he saw that it was good
and he called it America which means
“Place where Indians once roamed”
and so it was
and so it was
and so it was
About the poet: Poet John Smelcer has been associate publisher at Rosebud Magazine for two decades.
Back in the late 1990s, Rosebud twice published the amazing art of R. Crumb. In 2009, Crumb published The Book of Genesis Illustrated (W. W. Norton), in many ways a masterpiece. For years, John’s “Genesis” poem has been taught in a course on genocide at the Open University of Israel. When John asked Crumb to collaborate on this project, the answer was a resounding yes. Just seemed like a perfect fit. The only other poet Crumb collaborated with was Charles Bukowski. Smelcer is a contributing editor to Ragazine. You can read more about him in “About Us.”
R. Crumb illustration excerpted from The Book of Genesis Illustrated, by R. Crumb. Copyright 2009 by Robert Crumb. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on John Smelcer/R. Crumb