Log in

Myth Happens

Date: 2016-07-26 00:52
Subject: It ain't right and it ain't natural
Security: Public
Music:Damon Daunno, Amber Gray, Patrick Page & Nabiyah Be, "Epic II/Chant"

alexx_kay offered a definition of film noir in comments and my brain generated a textbrick in reply. It maxed out the character limits for LJ-comments, so as long as I'm thinking in public, I might as well stick it here.

That starts me thinking about how I define noir—if indeed I have a definition for it. I think of it as a style or a mood as much as a genre; I find it much easier to categorize by the themes it examines or the emotions it evokes than by the elements that comprise its plots. It's not precisely the cinematic counterpart of hardboiled or pulp fiction, although there's a lot of overlap and interaction between the two. Crime films can be noirs, but they don't have to be. I think it has phases, influenced by the prevailing concerns of the times. For me, I think all of the best examples of film noir are categorized by varying degrees of moral ambiguity and a theme of instability: the world isn't what you thought it was, the person you love isn't who you thought they were, you aren't who you thought you were. Something you have always taken for granted drops out from under you. It could be your scruples, it could be your heart. Why pick just one? I agree with you that a deep suspicion of institutions is part of it, whether that means the law or government or marriage or the American dream. Noir is the genre where things go wrong, where all the national anxieties come out to play. I think that's one of the reasons that—despite the visual and verbal stylization that are also hallmarks of the genre—it feels much more realistic to me than many of its contemporary genres. I don't think it's merely that my life has been on the rocks for months and therefore I am more inclined to believe a narrative full of bad decisions and moral fog than one which ties up all loose ends in a heteronormative Technicolor bow. The Production Code sold America the white picket fence and the sanctity of marriage, 2.5 children and a proper respect for authority; its Catholic morals permitted a very narrow range of acceptable behavior for its heroes, its good people who were both exemplars to the populace and assumed points of identification. Populate a genre with grifters and gangsters and social deviants and people with just plain bad judgment, on the other hand, and all of a sudden the range of representation explodes in all directions. It doesn't matter if the final curtain still sees the guilty punished and the good rewarded, sometimes with whiplash speed before the credits roll; all of the stuff outside the lines was still there. These last eight to nine months getting formally interested in film noir have reminded me of my initial plunge into pre-Code cinema, where all of a sudden I could find heroes with heroin habits and triumphantly promiscuous women and romantic Jewish bootleggers who bumped off any tough who roughed up the heroine. Noir has given me female heroes and antiheroes, sympathetic queer characters and monstrous men, failure modes for everything from personal integrity to the patriarchy, a skeptical scrutiny of all kinds of American myths and values. I don't mean you can't find anything interesting in other genres of the time—subversion gets in anywhere it can. Stories always say something about the people who tell them. You want to talk id-fests, anyway, check out an MGM musical sometime. Whoo boy. But I am starting to feel as though film noir is where a lot of the transgressiveness displaced from the pre-Code era ended up and then multiplied with new social issues like the independence of women during wartime or the shock of soldiers returning to civilian life or the whole question of America's postwar place in the world, not to mention the atom bomb.1 A lot of really good noir has an ethical dimension, not necessarily in that any of the characters are Aristotelian models, but in that the stories themselves care about exploring questions of ethics—loyalty, betrayal, identity, justice, what people hold on to, what they relinquish, what they'll acknowledge, how far they'll go—even if they have no answers. That, too, I find more realistic than being instructed as if by a primer for a school I don't believe in. I am making all of these statements based primarily on American film noir, of course. I have a decent knowledge of British noir and some familiarity with French noir, though mostly if it's by Jules Dassin—I think of Jean-Pierre Melville as moving into the neo-noir period. I know almost nothing about Japanese or Mexican noir and other nationalities are blinking question marks, though I'd like to learn more. Everything I say here could be wrong. I don't yet have a comprehensive data set. I am really enjoying the collection process, though.

Tagged for Patreon because it's still spinning off my thoughts on Criss Cross (1949). I appreciate the excuse to examine my own free-floating opinions and see if I can nail some of them down.

1. Pre-Code movies are still generally better about race, in that I associate them with shockingly unstereotyped black characters every now and then. I'm a little cautious of saying that any Hollywood era was really great on the subject. I still want to see some of the so-called race films, made outside of the Hollywood studio system by black production companies with black casts specifically for black audiences. Their existence fascinates me and very few of them have survived. I don't know if an equivalent existed for Asian-American audiences. That's an entire topic of its own.

10 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-25 12:24
Subject: Brother, what's my name?
Security: Public
Music:Amber Gray, "Our Lady of the Underground"

I wrote the following around six in the morning, sparked by finishing my writeup of Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (1949) and then showering and trying without much success to shut my brain off enough to sleep. I figured I would look at it when I woke up and see how much it resembled dreaming Dorothy Parker. Nothing in here rhymes with "passes" or "glasses," so it seemed safe to post. All of this is thinking out loud.

It is not that I don't believe in the archetype of the femme fatale. Film noir is full of dangerous, duplicitous women, as it is frequently full of dangerous, duplicitous men. I've met some examples already; I'm sure others exist. I just feel increasingly that the femme fatale, like the private eye, is a much more significant and frequently employed character in neo-noir—and film criticism—than in film noir itself. I would love to know when the term was coined and/or first applied within film noir, whether it happened during what I think of as the first wave of the genre (1940's), the second (1950's), or if it was even later, looking back from the neo-noir years. Most things look simpler in reception than in reality. Athene is not the goddess of wisdom.

I may have come to regard the term "femme fatale" in much the same way as I regard the term "Mary Sue"—I don't argue with the utility of a shorthand label for a class of fictional characters, even negative ones, but when I start seeing it misapplied to any female character at the center of a narrative, I start to side-eye its motives.

It is possible that I am skeptical of the concept of the femme fatale because I am approaching these movies from the perspective of a culture that no longer quite so uncritically accepts as a real factor in human interaction the irresistible attractiveness of women that absolves men of bad behavior committed while under its spell. This paradigm most often turns up in contexts of sexual consent, but I see no reason it shouldn't apply to crime. Probably for this reason, I really notice when noir filmmakers take care to point out the culpability of men as well as the incentive of women. It happens much more frequently than, even a few years ago, I might have thought.

If the deception isn't deliberate, if the seduction isn't part of the strategy, if she isn't using men to make up for the agency she can't otherwise obtain within the gendered confines of her society—or just for the fun of it—I don't think she's a femme fatale. She may be a bad idea, but so are a lot of romances that aren't La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

Tagged for Patreon by virtue of really being an extension of the previous review. I wouldn't have been able to fit it into a footnote.

16 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-25 04:40
Subject: This rotten line of work—the rotten class of people you have to put up with—
Security: Public
Music:Jake Xerxes Fussell, "Let Me Lose"

It's the last week of July and I haven't said anything substantial about a movie all month. Let's start with some noir.

The Brattle screened Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (1949) last week as part of their repertory series of femmes fatales. I had a great time seeing it with [personal profile] skygiants, but so far it's done nothing to disrupt my sense that the centrality of this archetype to first-generation film noir—the deceiving woman, the deadly woman, the woman who is the downfall of men—is overrated, because Burt Lancaster's Steve Thompson needs no encouragement from Yvonne De Carlo's Anna to drop his life down the drain. In point of fact, he makes his first and most fatal decision without any input from her at all: the decision to go looking for her in the first place.

I appreciate that the film warns us outright to take very little of its narrative at face value. It opens with a disembodied point-of-view shot floating high above nighttime Los Angeles, the camera's attention dropping like a falcon onto the theatrical tableau of a man and a woman embracing in a darkened lot, suddenly spotlit like horny teenagers in the high-beams of a parking car. Her name is the first and most important word in the film: "Anna." She answers him in kind: "Steve. I had to see you." Their dialogue is passionate and elliptical and what we can understand of it serves as a preview of the film's eponymous theme: they are affirming not only their loyalty to one another but their mutual resolve to betray another man. When they part, the camera follows Steve indoors, through the noisy bar and the crowded floor of the nightclub to which the parking lot belongs, into a violent confrontation in a private room which I can best describe as a fake that isn't. After all parties involved have unilaterally stonewalled the police, their conversation reveals that the staged fight, "a phony, strictly for the cop's benefit," flared briefly into the real thing when one of the participants pulled a knife—a small betrayal, but a further sign of things to come. By the time the routine of the next day's work dissolves into a flashback of Steve stepping off a trolley with his coat over his arm and his suitcase in his hand, we should be primed to question anything he tells us. He doesn't have to be lying to us. Lying to himself will do just as well.

In fine noir tradition, he is nonetheless our sole narrator, a drifter newly returned to Los Angeles after an aimless year odd-jobbing around the country in the wake of a disastrous seven-month marriage. His family and his friends know him better than he admits to knowing himself: they are all in agreement that he should not try to see his ex-wife again and to all of them he protests that the thought never even crossed his mind. His parents are getting older, his kid brother is getting married; it was time for him to come home and take care of things. "I'm not looking for Anna." Never mind that his first act back in town was to seek out their old hangout, the Round-Up—the nightclub of the opening scenes—and quiz the new bartender and the daytime barflies about the "old crowd" with such unconvincing casualness that they took him for a "checker," an undercover investigator for the state liquor board. He fidgets with a handful of nickels, darting edgy glances at the occupied phone booth. His old friend Detective Lieutenant Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally1) gently insists on driving him home and making sure he gets through the door, as though Steve's addiction to Anna were as physically disabling as drunkenness or a drug habit. When our hero winds up the night loitering at the edge of the dance floor where Anna shakes her hair and rolls her hips to the wild flute and percussion of Esy Morales and His Rhumba Band in the second great jazz scene I've seen filmed by Robert Siodmak,2 his voiceover is eager to impress on the audience the fatalism of a bad hand in a rigged game, an inescapable tragic destiny: "From the start, it all went one way. It was in the cards, or it was fate, or a jinx, or whatever you want to call it. But right from the start." It's a great line, but it's arrant horse puckey. He could have gone to the movies with the brother he hasn't seen in a year and the fiancée he's hardly met; he could have gone bowling with his father. He could have stayed at home and quietly read the news with his mother. Instead he goes straight for Anna and it turns out that his family and his friends were right. Not because she's a heartless schemer, not because he has better prospects, not because they don't still have a sexual current between them that snaps on humming like a power grid at nothing more than the catch and cling of gazes across a crowd. They should not be together because their relationship is toxic. They can't keep from sniping at one another, falling back into their old fights. Steve criticizes her clothes and her spending habits, possessively disparages her willingness to accept the attentions of sharp-dressed local crook Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea)—the man who pulled a knife in the opening scenes. Anna responds with defensive viciousness, mocking the idea of a man expecting fidelity from his divorced wife: "What did you expect me to do, sit at home and mope?" He mimicks her voice like a spiteful schoolboy. She needles him that he can be "a nice guy—when you want to." They catch themselves, apologize, start to separate, wind up making another date. Rinse, repeat. It staggers Steve like a thunderbolt, but the audience is not wholly surprised to find out a few months later that she's run off to Yuma to marry Slim. He's a bad choice—a bad man, a bad husband—but he always wanted her and he never called her a "cheap little no-good tramp" like Steve who alternately obsessed over her and left her dangling while his family wrote her off as a bad influence and his old friend Ramirez openly threatened her with jail time if she didn't leave his buddy alone. She tried to change her life for something better. She got something worse. Now Steve is horrified; now he wants to make it up to her. He's back at his old job, working for a respected security outfit as a driver of armored cars; he contacts Slim ("Why come to us?"–"'Cause you're the only crooks I know") and lays out his plan for Slim's gang to hijack the car in return for a two-way split with Steve.3 Conventional wisdom claims that the successful holdup of an armored car "can't be done," but Steve insists that "it can . . . if you have an inside man."

And of course this plan goes due south by way of pear-shaped, but it essential that none of it is Anna's idea. She betrays him in the end, but the heist itself has been such a welter of double-crosses all along—including on the part of Steve, who proposed it only in order to take his cut and run off with Anna, another man's wife—the wife of a man who beats her, whose big spending doesn't make up for his heartless jealousy—that the audience would be surprised only if she stayed true to him. The script takes unusual care to distinguish that she wasn't playing him from the start; she was just as hooked on their bad romance as her ex-husband until she wasn't and then she hoped he could get her away safe from Slim. Their love scenes were so seamlessly convincing because they were real. It's just that when the chips are down, she'll look out for herself before anyone else, and it bewilders her that Steve doesn't seem to feel the same. "People get hurt—I can't help it! I can't help it if people don't know how to take care of themselves!" But even that assessment, delivered half in frustration and half in pity as she prepares to run out on her wounded lover, is closer to Steve's version of himself than the truth. I have seen shockingly little of Burt Lancaster outside of classics like Sweet Smell of Success (1957) or curiosities like The Crimson Pirate (1952)—and like many people of my generation, I believe I met him first as Moonlight Graham in Field of Dreams (1989)—but as Steve Thompson he does an impressive, anti-sympathetic job as a man who can neither admit what he wants nor own up to the actions he'll take to get it. He looks like a regular guy, a high school football hero perhaps with his rugged shoulders and his feathery hair and his slow grin; he's well-liked by his coworkers, well-loved by his family, and not undeserving of it. He's not a sociopath in disguise. He's just astoundingly passive-aggressive. The vagueness, the amiable passivity that looks at first like shyness or the aftershock of a bad marriage runs all the way to the core of him; he is fatally incapable of analyzing his own motives or even the potential consequences of his desires, perhaps because to do so might confront him with some aspects of himself he might not like very much. "A man eats an apple," he philosophizes in flashback, "he gets a piece of the core stuck between his teeth. He tries to work it out with some cellophane off a cigarette pack. What happens? The cellophane gets stuck in there, too. Anna. What was the use?" But he wasn't drifting helplessly on tides too strong to fight, overwhelmed by the siren song of fate in the form of a woman: he tracked her down, insisted on rekindling their relationship, made himself responsible for her happiness when all signs pointed to impossible. Anna at least owns her choices, even when she recognizes them as selfishly motivated or mistakes. In the last moments of his life, all Steve can find to say for himself, as though it had nothing to with him personally, is "What a pity it didn't work out."

Criss Cross screened as a double feature with the earlier Siodmak-Lancaster collaboration The Killers (1946), but its true complement is Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) with Fred MacMurray rationalizing and disclaiming his way "straight down the line" when any audience member with half an attention span can see that Barbara Stanwyck provided the excuse, not the inspiration, for murder. Steve is neither as clever nor as smug about his crimes, but he's about as self-aware. He's cheating himself from the start and he doesn't even know it. I can't say that Criss Cross is my favorite film by Robert Siodmak, though it has much to recommend it besides the characters I've sketched above. The dialogue by Daniel Fuchs is some of the most stylized I've heard in the genre, full of double-talk and rhetorical questions; the cinematography by Franz Planer can turn on a dime between expressionist interiors and unsentimental location shots of Los Angeles, including the now-familiar lost terraces and tenements of Bunker Hill. The smaller supporting parts like the long-suffering staff of the Round-Up are fantastic. I still probably prefer Phantom Lady (1944) despite its third-act collapse just because there's nothing in Criss Cross to equal Ella Raines and Elisha Cook, Jr., not even Dan Duryea.4 But it makes me wonder if, as with the housewife noirs I am now actively cataloguing, I can find a genre-making third example of a film noir where a man is not just an unreliable but an irresponsible narrator. Either way, I am in agreement with Skygiants that it's hard to count the female lead as a femme fatale when the male lead's independently terrible life decisions are what's driving the plot. This distinction brought to you by my backers with better impulse control at Patreon.

1. I like McNally—he's very good in the atomic-age noir Split Second (1953)—but Latino he is not. Don't tell me Ricardo Montalbán wasn't free that week.

2. Her dance partner is Tony Curtis in his screen debut, a baby-faced beauty with a side-combed crest of soft black hair, so young he doesn't even get a credit. He looks into Anna's face so intently as they dance, you expect him to be important, but he disappears back into the crowd as soon as she's done. He has no lines. He has those very dark eyebrows, that smiling full mouth. I looked for him in crowd scenes at the Round-Up thereafter, even when he kept not appearing, which I guess is what you call star quality.

3. The planning itself is a wonderful pulp interlude starring Alan Napier as Finchley, a slender, shabby, educated recluse who lives in a boarding house so dilapidated it approaches an illustration by Phiz and works as a sort of beta-reader for heists and robberies. He's an underworld legend, almost literally: "Gee whiz, I thought he was dead!" He plays chess with himself in his book-piled threadbare bedroom and his expertise can be bought for a month's credit at the local liquor store, with a down payment preferred in the form of a bottle on the table as he thinks out loud. His advice is precise, cautious, and unfailingly correct. Nothing that goes wrong with the heist is Finchley's fault. Then again, they didn't ask him for his opinions on the people involved.

4. I recognize that I have said almost nothing about Duryea when usually he's the only thing in a picture I can talk about. For much of Criss Cross' runtime, Slim is more of a plot motivation than a character, distinguished primarily by the flashiness of his attire—his boldly cut all-black ensemble with white suspenders and wide white 1940's tie has to be seen to be appreciated if not believed—and Duryea's ability to suggest a kind of vulpine amusement with his thin-toned dialogue; he only gets interesting in the second half. His best scene has him stepping out of the pure theatrical blackness of a door open to the night, a wounded avenging angel in plain shirtsleeves and an expression poised curiously between exhausted pain and grim humor. It is the only time he's vulnerable, physically, emotionally; he knows he's lost. He has one thing left to do. He blinks involuntarily at the first two shots, as if the report or the recoil or the effect of bullets fired at close range startles or hurts him; by the third shot he only tightens his mouth in a flickering wince. Even before he hears the sirens rising, his face is already troubled, strangely open now that there's no longer anyone to watch him. He steps painfully out into the darkness to an unknown but almost certainly unpleasant fate. The film leaves Anna and Steve where it found them, in each other's arms.

13 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-23 22:53
Subject: And you parted your lips for a herring fish
Security: Public
Music:Anaïs Mitchell, "Ships"

I appear to be somewhat aggressively vacationing. gaudior and I spent the afternoon at the New England Aquarium. It was great.

That's me with an Atlantic goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara), quite possibly the same one I've seen in the Caribbean blue hole exhibit for years. It's sort of Newfoundland-sized. I am in the picture for comparison and also perhaps to show off my Captain Sashay T-shirt. I got compliments on it from two identifiably genderqueer people and one apparent dude in a lab coat. I am not sure what the cuttlefish with which I had an inadvertent conversation thought. Mostly I am concerned that way I unfolded my fingers communicated something rude in Sepiida, because it startled back from the glass immediately and flung up two of its arms. Its colors fluttered in intensity, although not in hue. Later it was distracted by one of its fellows stalking and suddenly engulfing a crab with a movement rather like being attacked by a collapsing umbrella. One of the other cuttlefish already had a crab in its arms when we got there and was patiently crunching its way through the stiff carapace. I visited the electric eel as usual and Gaudior spent time with the leafy sea dragons. The renovated octopus exhibit is a beautiful little installation of transparent or patterned glass jars suspended on knotted ropes for the cephalopods to climb along or curl up inside. In the crowd around us, I heard at least two languages I couldn't recognize by ear. We weren't sure if the ungodly yells that echoed from the first floor as we were leaving belonged to a small child or a penguin.

Afterward we walked for dinner to Boston Public Market, where we split the fancy mac and ginger switchel from Jasper Hill Farm and the cabbage knish and jaw-dropping shakalatkes (shakshuka served over latkes: a great moment in Jewish food) from Inna's Kitchen and finished with apple crisp and cider slushies from Red Apple Farm, all of which was unexpectedly epic. Gaudior pointed out afterward that latkes and apple cider are autumn-to-winter foods and I said that I did not think Cernunnos, Lord of Summer was going to hold it against them. I was really limping badly by the time we got back to the car, but so far it doesn't look like there's blood. This cannot be the most inconvenient thing that has ever happened to one of my feet—the chillblains were pretty stupid—but it's pretty far up there.

In other home news, I am intrigued that the line of berbere I sprinkled along my threshold at four in the morning actually appears to have kept off the ants that were swarming into my room from the hallway where the next door over is the basement stairs—I kept seeing red pepper used as an ant deterrent in the Benjamin January books and then my mother independently mentioned it and I haven't had to contend with any foragers so far tonight, fingers crossed. I did not appreciate being bitten as I was trying to go to bed.

I have no idea why one of our neighbors just set off a string of firecrackers or cherry bombs. Maybe they also solved their ant problem and felt like celebrating.

11 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-22 23:54
Subject: And how does the sun even fit in the sky?
Security: Public
Music:Ani DiFranco & Greg Brown, "How Long?"

City-walking with derspatchel did not pan out since I am still limping like an elegiac couplet, but we did get dinner together at Bronwyn in Union Square, where they serve chilled borscht with sour cream and counterintuitive but successful cubes of watermelon, and walk (slowly) back under an apocalyptic sky of thunderheads at sunset, complete with cloud-to-cloud lightning and the kind of livid glare usually seen only in nineteenth-century paintings of the wrath of God. I am incredibly disappointed at the subsequent lack of hurled thunderbolts. If nothing else, it would have helped with the humidity.

7 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-22 17:05
Subject: 'Cept for hurry up and hit the road
Security: Public
Music:Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton & Shaina Taub, "Any Way the Wind Blows"

If I am to get up early without sleep, I much prefer catching a train to see an incredible stage production to looking at an apartment which I will probably not be able to rent, but the latter was this morning nonetheless. Let's get back to New York.

Essentially, I had four goals for this trip: see Hadestown, hang out with ladymondegreen (with bonus points if I got to talk to either akawil or pecunium for longer than the traditional forty-five seconds in the middle of Arisia), hang out with Michael Cisco, and buy books. All were achieved. I expected to sleep on the train down from Boston, but instead I wrote a poem.

I appreciate that Lady Mondegreen's work-mates seemed to be all right with me stashing my stuff under her desk and running off without much in the way of introduction. I got in a brief conversation about Tolkien with two of them. The security guard in the downstairs lobby apparently missed me coming through the first time, which worked fine until I tried to get back into the building. In hindsight of the state of my foot, possibly I should not have walked the mile and a half to the Strand, but since I will prioritize books over almost any other comfort I don't actually regret it, especially since I scored a hardcover of Barbara Hambly's Graveyard Dust (1999) and two Hard Case Crime reprints with superlatively pulp titles, namely David Goodis' The Wounded and the Slain (1955) and Ed McBain's The Gutter and the Grave (1958), which I did not intentionally purchase as a pair. I keep thinking about McBain's So Nude, So Dead (1953), but I'm genuinely not sure it will be able to live up to its title. I hadn't realized before that the bookstore ships, which of course makes sense if you're thinking about international business—Boston is objectively not that far off, but it still enabled me to send my mother a pair of Dick Francis hardcovers which would otherwise have been difficult for me to transport. No luck on the biographies of Van Heflin and Dorothy Arzner or the translated poetry of Aleksei Kruchonykh. I will bravely face of the prospect of more used book stores.

For dinner before the show, we ended up at Whole Foods, that being the easiest place to feed Lady Mondegreen and in this case about four blocks from the theater. I am weirdly unsurprised that Whole Foods in New York City carries the crunchy things of my childhood for which I have been searching fruitlessly in Boston for over a year now. I bought several bags. Then I had to carry them everywhere. Still worth it. I did not realize until we got there that the New York Theatre Workshop was next to KGB Bar, where I have been many times. We saw Hadestown and I loved it. Afterward we could have cut our time to the PATH by catching the subway, but we took the scenic route on foot. I didn't think we had walked as far as the Manhattan Bridge, but I don't have another explanation for the massive granite arch and colonnade that caused me to remark again that more cities should have monumental architecture. That said, I find the high-vaulted underground station at the World Trade Center a very strange space. Apparently it is supposed to resemble an eye or a bird in flight; I looked at its ribs and spines and sternum of marble and paint-whitened steel and could think of nothing unless a cathedral designed by H.R. Giger or Stanley Kubrick's idea of an ossuary. Lady Mondegreen informed me that part of it is also a mall. I am pretty sure you are not supposed to put a mall in an ossuary. I would also lose the gigantic American flag currently unfurled from one level to the next, although perhaps that's only because I am feeling very wary of the ways in which national symbols can be used these days. On yet the other hand, I asked for monumental architecture and I got it. It's an enormous art installation for the practical benefit of the public and it's even made out of materials designed to last more than a lifetime. I am probably happier that it exists than not. It's got the 1968 Penn Station beat sideways, that's for sure.

Most houses are mosaics of the people who live in them, but the one in which I was staying the night had an especially distinct personality—it featured a kitchen with about ten different kinds of honey on offer (I put two of them in my blueberry tea), a balcony garden containing etrogs, olives, and pomegranates (which I have just been informed are blooming), and a bathroom decorated with mermaid pictures. We could not figure out how to turn on the fan in my bedroom, but I opened a window; there are not many stars visible in the light-smudged sky over Jersey City, but there was an immense hunter's moon with craters like scrimshaw that had tracked us through the streets as we walked from the theater. I browsed Lady Mondegreen's shelves and we talked about children's books and early imprints and late, important discoveries. She gave me a shell from Israel as a down payment on further fragments of antiquity and the sea. We stayed up way too late and I slept almost nine hours, including through some insistent morning construction across the street.

Pecunium was still at home when I woke up the next afternoon and not only talked to me for more than forty-five seconds but helpfully provided some antibiotic cream and molefoam padding to cushion around my heel. I found my way back to Manhattan in time to meet Michael for what turned out to be dinner at Cha-an Teahouse: in my case, lavender mint tea, smoked salmon toast (nota bene: the toast is approximately the dimensions of a Roman brick and the salmon heavily layered underneath a mustard-dressed salad; this is a feature, not a bug), and black sesame crème brûlée, which came surmounted by black sesame ice cream and a savory, buttery, doily-ish object I can only describe as a black sesame Florentine. Afterward he treated me to a ceremonial shot of mezcal at La Palapa, having correctly diagnosed that I would like Del Maguey Minero because it is essentially the peat monster of mezcals. He charged me with writing either a story or a poem with the title "I Left My Heart with the Banana Slugs." Somebody hold me to that. Lady Mondegreen very kindly waited at her office so that I could retrieve my once again desk-stashed stuff and we parted on the far side of the shortcut through Café R, which is fortunately nowhere near as impassable as the Styx.

I always forget there's a tiny bookstore in Penn Station. I went in for a bottle of water and came out with Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman's The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard's Most Daring Rescue (2009) because negothick had mentioned at Readercon that one of the co-authors was rather distressed at the romanticization of the story. Much to my surprise, I got back to Boston while the subway trains were still running. I did a lot of catch-up work and wrote about Hadestown. I didn't sleep at all, so we'll see how the rest of the day goes. It may involve city-walking with derspatchel, since I'm fond of the one I live in, too.

It was a really splendid forty-eight hours.

19 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-22 04:37
Subject: That was not six months
Security: Public
Music:Anna & Elizabeth, "Little Black Train"

[Begun on the regional Amtrak back to Boston, completed much, much later when the internet was reliable enough to allow me to finish my day's work first.]

The last time I caught an evening train out of Penn Station, it was early April and the sky at eight o'clock was already dark. Now I'm looking at railyards and construction scaffolding and cranes by that smoky peach-blue light for which there should be an English adjective, but I've never heard one. It's a wonderful color for seeing a city at a distance. The river looks like folded metal; the skyline looks like a set behind a scrim. I'm pretty sure I learned how to describe cities from Tanith Lee's Paradys. From a height, I glanced behind me once, and saw the river, a scimitar of pure metal, white-hot, as the City lapsed in the shallows of the dying afternoon.

I was not expecting to love Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin's Hadestown even better than the original album, but I am not entirely surprised. It is not just that the ellipses of the original songs are fleshed out into a full through-composed score which allows even its gods the depth of tragedy or that at least a third of the music is new since the original recording, although the new music is half of the show's power. The haunting opener "Any Way the Wind Blows" explicitly strengthens the Dust Bowl, Depression echoes of the original setting, pointing up the harshness of the world and the stakes for Eurydike who has already known what it is to starve: in the fever of a world in flames, in the season of the hurricanes, flood'll get you if the fire don't . . . in the valley of the exodus, in the belly of a bowl of dust . . . Sisters gone, gone the gypsy route. Brothers gone, gone for a job down south. Gone the same way as the shantytown and the traveling show—any way the wind blows. Where we were originally introduced to the lovers with the playfully combative call-and-response "Wedding Song," the show first gives them a courtship between Eurydike's experienced wariness and Orpheus' dreamy arrogance, to be echoed devastatingly when they meet again in the underworld: it is called "Come Home with Me." When steel-hard, coin-cold Hades is softened in the second act by Orpheus' simple retelling of his love for Persephone when it was awestruck and new, the Fates' "Word to the Wise" recalls him to his responsibilities as the unforgiving king of walls and floodlights, to the very same self-doubt and mistrust and anxiety that will in turn, inexorably, cause the poet to look back. It's not even just the sprechstimme narration of Hermes, the cardsharp of the gods with his hip flask and his rolled-up sleeves and his nattily feathered fedora, although his scratchy confidence man's storytelling ensures that the only moments of dialogue in the show without some kind of rhyme or musical support are the ones that land like blows. Blessed among epic traditions, it's the reperformance and the recontextualization.

I can explain this best with two songs that I happen to love, because they're katabatic. "Way Down Hadestown" is the third track on the original album, after Orpheus and Eurydike's "Wedding Song" and Orpheus' "Epic I," the first version of the song with which he will turn a god's heart. It is our introduction to Hermes, bawling "All aboard!" before the music kicks off; it is our introduction to Persephone, as if she just stepped onto the platform with a suitcase in her hand, waiting for the god of the railway depot to conduct her to the other world. In the show, Hermes has been our master of ceremonies for six or eight songs already; we have watched Orpheus and Eurydike fall in love in the blossoming days of spring and summer, "living it up on top" with Persephone who makes the most of her half-year in the light, patron of fruit and wine and flowers and things that grow, like love. Now it is autumn and all of a sudden the song takes on a specific and immediate importance: it is a New Orleans jazz funeral for Persephone, a trombone-wailing, fiddle-slanging processional—second line umbrella not excluded—accompanying her to her annual death. Winter's nigh and summer's over—I hear that high and lonesome sound of my husband coming for to bring me home to Hadestown. Way down Hadestown, way down under the ground. A train whistle wails twice, blown by Hermes; a dry white light makes a blinding tunnel between the audience's seats, the headlights of Hades' oncoming train.1 The god who should not be seen steps out of its nothing-colored glare, silhouetted in the haze like three-dimensional film noir. "You're early," his wife spits, her carpetbag full of flowers and a flask and even a little morphine—those multi-purpose poppies—against the worst of winter. His voice is dark and amused, deep as a seam of coal: "I missed you." And she's gone. Which brings me to "Wait for Me." In the original recording, it is the duet of Orpheus guided by Hades: the god whispering the perils and tricks of the underworld, the poet following, calling over and over to his lost love, Wait for me, I'm coming . . . Onstage, it is explicit that the "long way down" is the roundabout route that the living must take with no coin to cross the Styx—he's some kind of poet and he's penniless—but it is not a solitary journey. The Fates prepare the way, transforming the open sky of the upper world into the industrial ceiling of Hadestown with its fan-grilled electric lights instead of moon or sun or stars: set them swinging in time with Orpheus' singing, slow as the drag of a nightmare. The rest of the cast join in with him, the gods and the Moirai and the dead, Eurydike with her hood pulled up like Persephone, her light snuffed out, not knowing that anyone is coming for her. Wait for me, I'm coming with you, I'm coming, too . . . She will sing the same words to Orpheus as he begins the long walk out of the underworld and she follows with the same dreamlike slow motion, an insubstantial shade struggling against the event horizon of death. The expanded script of Hadestown parallels Hades/Persephone and Orpheus/Eurydike throughout, down to the casting of two white men and two women of color. Take it from an old man, Hades cynically counseled Orpheus, just as Persephone encouraged Eurydike to take the advice of a woman of my age, both of them speaking of the inevitable breaking of love. When Orpheus turns back at the threshold of the upper air with the light behind him, it is the same pattern, fixed and repeating as figures moving around the curve of a vase. "You're early," Eurydike breathes, the last thing she will ever say to her husband. Orpheus' voice is caught in his throat, small as the snapped stem of a flower: "I missed you." And she's gone. I loved both "Way Down Hadestown" and "Wait for Me" when I heard them for the first time six years ago; now they are a significant part of the reason I want a recording of this cast. ("Any Way the Wind Blows" is also incompletely stuck in my head.)

The set is simple. The theater looks like it would be a black box in its natural habitat; this show built it into an amphitheatre. The seven-piece orchestra occupies a section of bleachers opposite the audience's entrance, beneath the catwalk and the door in the blank brick wall that leads to the upper world. A tree grows out of the bandstand, twisting its branches like the tines of antlers up into the stage lighting; it sheds paper blossoms in spring for Persephone's return and autumn leaves the color of iron rust for her departure in the fall. The cast carry on a handful of props at best—kerosene lanterns for the Fates, Persephone's carpetbag, Orpheus' guitar. Eurydike's winter coat that is not heavy enough to keep the road-weary cold from her back. A coin. There are two or three old-time-radio-style microphones2 that can be moved from the bandstand to the circle of center stage; Hades commands one to seduce Eurydike with the deep black river of "Hey, Little Songbird" or catechize the denizens of Hadestown in the anti-revival "Why We Build the Wall," while another is reserved for intimate duets between mortal lovers or gods. The costumes suggest the 1930's and are full of little touches, entirely extratextual nods to the myth. The Fates are never named, but the tall lynx-slim blonde one must be Atropos because she wears a pair of shears in a holster at her side; the pendant on the breast of dark-skinned Lachesis with her tightly cropped crimson hair is a folded slide ruler in its leather sheath; sharp-smiling Klotho with her dark hair braided atop her head wears three cords of undyed yarn across her chest like a bandolier. Persephone is dressed in slinky, summery green wrapped ankle to shoulder with a trellis of blooming vines; the lacy edge of a poppy-red slip just peeks out from beneath its hem. There are flowers in her hair, but their petals are as split and red as pomegranates. Hades wears dark glasses—the signature of anonymity, as good in the movies as a helm of invisibility—which he removes only once safely under the earth and even then his eyes are narrowed in a skeptical sneer, except for one vulnerable, precisely timed moment when he is reminded of something he thought forever lost: the smell of the flowers she held in her hand and the pollen that fell from her fingertips . . . a man with a taste of nectar upon his lips. Hermes with the step-right-up showmanship of a carnival talker captions the first meeting of Eurydike with Hades as "Songbird vs. Rattlesnake," shivering a matchbox's rattle to signal that the god himself is the serpent that caused her death. And the Fates are not malevolent, but they are the immutable way the world goes: they do not drive the story to tragedy; it always was—was going to be, has been—one. There is a fragile hope in the parting of Hades and Persephone, the gods who have eternity to get it right. We who are human have one shot and sometimes we get it wrong. We try. Goodnight, brothers, goodnight.

The production runs through the end of the month, which means next Sunday; I strongly encourage anyone in the New York area and even some people who aren't to see about tickets if they can. I am told that there will be a recording of the NYTW cast, and I am just waiting until I can throw money at it, but some of the more piercing moments will not be audible, like the transformation of the instrumental "Lovers' Desire" into a dance between Persephone and Hades, their first moment of affectionate connection in millennia, or the way that Hades' token of promised wealth and luxury, folded into Eurydike's hand as he leaves her, is the same coin with which she pays Hermes for her own death. I saw all of the original cast except for Hermes and Atropos and I have to say that they were as iconic and indelible in their roles as everyone else onstage. The whole thing was eminently worth the exhaustion and flurry of travel, even if I seem to have paid for my own descent-and-return in the time-honored fashion, leaving behind part of my pants and an unexpected amount of blood.3 I will describe the rest of the trip tomorrow. It was also lovely. Right now I'm going to see about sleeping before dawn.

1. I realized then that I was hearing a different song inside my head, conjured by nothing more than the stagecraft and the slant chime of the folk tradition. Go tell the ballroom lady, dressed all in worldly pride, that death's dark train is coming—prepare to take a ride. There's a little black train a-coming . . . I can't prove it's intentional as opposed to a side effect of drawing on the same symbol-set as the relevant folk songs, because there are no lyrical or musical allusions that I was able to detect, but I found it extremely resonant either way. I always heard the owe my soul to the company store of Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons" behind Mitchell's Hades who rules over miners of mines, diggers of graves, they bowed down to Hades who gave them work and they bowed down to Hades who made them sweat, who paid them their wages and set them about digging and dredging and dragging the depths of the earth to turn its insides out yet whose realm is inescapable because Mr. Hades is a mean old boss with a silver whistle and a golden scale—an eye for an eye and he weighs the cost, a lie for a lie and your soul for sale, sold to the king on the chromium throne, thrown to the bottom of a Sing Sing cell, but the likeness leaps out even more strongly when Eurydike, newly arrived in Hadestown, literally signs her life away behind the closed doors of Hades' office. The show is scattered with moments like these, intermingled with the classical ones: two oral traditions in tandem.

2. derspatchel, if it turns out there's video of this show, I will play it for you and you will tell me exactly what make and model the microphones were, because I can describe them if you give me time but not so technically that the internet will cough up the documentation I want.

3. Due to wholly unrelated incidents, I hasten to add! I pay weird travel prices with New York. In April, my hat broke (and was resurrected thanks to the good offices of Salmagundi, but still). This time, the zipper on the fly of my corduroys rather startlingly disintegrated—tiny metal teeth went flying—requiring me to purchase some safety pins from a drugstore in order to go among decent people without comment and all I'm going to say about the blister on my heel is that my pain thresholds must have come back up in the last ten years, because I wasn't expecting to walk down Broadway from 31st Street to 12th and then from East 4th Street to the World Trade Center in perceptible but otherwise manageable discomfort and then take my shoes off to find that my sock looked like it belonged to one of Cinderella's older sisters according to Grimm. I just looked at my original statement and realized it sounded like Theseus, that one time he quite literally left his ass in Hades.

13 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-20 08:37
Subject: And the train whistle blows and the carnival goes till there's only the tickets and crows here
Security: Public
Music:Tom Waits, "Barcarolle"

The smugness I feel at having successfully caught a train at an hour when I am usually just managing to fall asleep was somewhat mitigated by the discovery that Barbara's Bestsellers apparently keeps hours more like my usual and in consequence wasn't yet open for business. Good thing I brought Patricia McKillip's Kingfisher (2016). The last time I looked out at these tracks, everything was sugar-glossed with snow and the sky was winter-eating blue. Now the trees are the locust green of late summer and the sky is hazy with translucent cardings of cloud and the sunlight gets thickly in everywhere, even though I'm wearing my jacket against the quiet car's air conditioning; it was shirtsleeves weather already by the time I was waiting for the 85 bus, having packed as lightly as possible thanks to the prospect of shlepping my backpack around more of New York City than is ideal for either my lower back or the quarter-sized blister with which my right heel opportunistically presented me last night. I don't care. Our next stop is Providence. I can't wait to see the salt marshes.

[edit] I saw a doe. She was the red sesame color of a shiba inu; she sprang away from the train into the trees at the marsh's edge, showing the white flash of her tail. The water is the wind-flagged blue clouded under with green that makes me want to go swimming. I saw a line of ducks on the far side, nearer the houses, but I have seen ducks in salt marshes before: not deer.

2 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-19 23:56
Subject: The piano is firewood, Times Square is a dream
Security: Public
Music:Tom Waits, "Cold Cold Ground"

Well, I have run out of further Benjamin January to read until the library gets me a copy of Drinking Gourd (2016). I am having such fun with this series. I maintain that a television adaptation would be Dionysos' gift to actors of color and their audience.

Tonight I saw Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (1949) at the Brattle with [personal profile] skygiants. It's staccato and stylized and twisty and features the most deludedly self-disclaiming protagonist this side of Double Indemnity (1944); I'd like to write about it. My brain has felt like a blank wall since Readercon. The combination of catch-up work and heat wave utterly destroyed both my spare time and my sleep. I slept about nine hours last night, but that was under extenuating circumstances. I'd like to say that I'll see what I can get done on the train tomorrow, but in all probability I'll just sleep until Penn Station. I used to wake up at New Haven no matter where I was going. I suppose it's a good sign that I no longer always do.

I discovered this poet's first collection at a time when I could not afford to buy it, but I recommend this poem and all his other work you can find: Dan Taulapapa McMullin, "The Doors of the Sea."

6 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-18 23:46
Subject: Would you know it was a rose if it wasn't called so?
Security: Public
Music:Oh, Rose, "Luke Rose"

So the answer to how I am doing lately is "really, really badly," but on Wednesday I am heading to New York City to see Anaïs Mitchell's Hadestown at the New York Theatre Workshop at the invitation of ladymondegreen. I have been wanting to see this music staged since 2010 and I am looking forward to it. I also plan to hit up the Strand. Music, books, myths: these things are good.

6 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-17 15:48
Subject: But I pray to Father Neptune to let him safely pass
Security: Public
Music:Anna & Elizabeth, "Father Neptune"

Yesterday's mail brought my contributor's copy of Genius Loci: Tales of the Spirit of Place, edited by Jaym Gates. It's a big handsome paperback with interior illustrations by Lisa A. Grabenstetter and Evan M. Jensen and more than five hundred pages of fiction by Haralambi Markov, Caroline Ratajski, Gemma Files, Scott Edelman, z.m. quỳnh, Anatoly Belilovsky, Sunil Patel, Richard Dansky, Chaz Brenchley, Cat Rambo, Ken Liu, Laura Anne Gilmam, and many more. My very short story "Imperator Noster" is among them. This one comes with notes!

There is no extant tradition of sea-people in the harbor of ancient Rome. In January 2014, C.S.E. Cooney left an enigmatic summary of her New Year's Eve on Facebook: "On parties. And seaweed. And Roman Emperors." The last two of these items sparked the story more or less entire.

According to Suetonius and Dio Cassius, Caligula infamously ended his abortive campaign to Britain in 40 CE by arranging his forces on the shore of the English Channel and then declaring victory over the sea, commanding his soldiers to gather sea-shells as "spoils of Ocean, due to the Capitol and the Palatine" and dismissing them with the ritual phrasing of a triumphant commander to his rewarded troops. In 42 CE, Claudius inaugurated one of the most elaborate public works projects of his thirteen-year reign: the construction of a new harbor at Ostia to supplement the old grain port at Puteoli, excavating acres out of the silty, sandy coastline and laying massive breakwaters around the sea that flooded in. While the complex structure was not fully completed until the reign of Trajan, it was in use in Claudius' lifetime. If Caligula had insulted Ocean with his spurious claim of triumph, perhaps Claudius had mollified it by ceding Roman ground.

Retiarius is the name applied to the class of gladiator who fought equipped as stylized fishermen, minimally armored and armed only with a weighted net (rete), a trident, and a knife. Traditionally paired with the heavily armored and helmet-masked secutor, the net-wielding retiarius offered the theme of a fisherman trying to land a deadly, scale-sheathed fish. Despite their distinctive appearance and the popularity of their matches, retiarii were not highly rated as fighters—were stigmatized, in fact, as ineffectual and unmanly. Gravestones and graffiti attesting to the prowess of individual retiarii argue against the accuracy of the stereotype. It seemed an appropriate name for an irreverent rumor turned uncanny reality. Plus I have loved the word since high school; I learned it from my very first (and only) Latin textbook. It was nice to find it a suitably strange home.

The Romans called the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum, "Our Sea." The title of the story is the same construction—"Our Emperor."

Basically, with this story, you get the classical world, the sea, and a high probability of at least an allusion to the underworld, which is about as characteristic as I get outside of "The Boatman's Cure." And if that's a strike against rather than a recommendation for, the rest of the anthology is still pretty great, too.

6 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-16 16:15
Subject: If it hadn't been for flash company, I should never have been so poor
Security: Public
Music:Bellowhead, "Flash Company"

Last night's excursion to the used book stores of Harvard Square failed to yield any secondhand Barbara Hambly, but I did manage to walk out of the basement of the Harvard Book Store with the playscript of Robert E. Sherwood's The Petrified Forest (1935). I have written about the 1936 film; it kicked off my undying interest in Leslie Howard. So far it looks as though it was a very faithful adaptation, allowing for some compression and the inevitable bowdlerization of the Production Code.1 Sherwood isn't as quite as novelistic with his stage directions as Shaw or O'Neill, but it's neat to recognize details of the movie sets in the playwright's scene-setting ("TIPPING IS UN-AMERICAN—KEEP YOUR CHANGE!") and compare his written ideas of his characters with their eventual portrayals and reception. Here's the first entrance of the attractive trash fire that is Howard's character:

Alan Squier has appeared in doorway, and, seeing that he has interrupted some amour, has paused to give them time to break. He is a thin, wan, vague man of about thirty-five. He wears a brown felt hat, brown tweed coat, and grey flannel trousers—which came originally but much too long ago from the best Saville Row tailors. He is shabby and dusty but there is about him a sort of afterglow of elegance. There is something about him—and it is impossible in a stage direction to say just what it is—that brings to mind the ugly word "condemned." He carries a heavy walking stick and a rucksack is slung over his shoulders. He is diffident in manner, ultra-polite and soft spoken, his accent is that of an Anglicized American.

What Sherwood can't fit into a stage direction is Alan's fatal aimlessness, his cynical sense of humor, his self-disappointment, and his almost willful inability to interact with life instead of grand gestures (not to mention his genuinely impressive hair), but it's a good place to start. Anyway, once he made it to film, I got this poem out of him. I am off to early dinner with my cousins and the visiting B.

1. It's not fatal, but it knocks some of the edges off the characters. Now that I know it existed, I prefer the original zing of Gabby saying affectionately to Alan, "You know—you talk like a God-damn fool." In describing his relationship with his publisher's wife, he quite candidly calls himself a gigolo. She wants to know why she couldn't keep him instead: "And you wouldn't have to marry me, Alan. We'd just live in sin and have one hell of a time." He tells her gravely that she couldn't afford him.

6 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-15 18:00
Subject: The sweetest strawberries shall grow in the sea
Security: Public
Music:Waterson:Carthy, "Flash Company"

Courtesy of nineweaving: I don't understand its purpose as a coffee substitute, but a seaweed-flavored coconut-milk drink with ginger and lemon sounds otherwise very nearly designed for me. I don't expect to find out any time soon, since at the moment it is fiendishly trendy, equally expensive, and available only in Australia, but maybe it will go global-viral and I'll get the chance. I don't really care about antioxidants, but I do like kelp.

8 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-14 22:10
Subject: But give us another pint of beer and we'll all of us go away
Security: Public
Music:A.L. Lloyd, "The Derby Ram"

So last night I was emotionally miserable and my lower back seized up for no obvious reason and my room was a swamp of heat and humidity and I slept through nightmares for about three hours in the mid-morning and this afternoon I finished my first poem in two months. At last I can start suffering and write that symphony? Have some things I've been meaning to post.

1. Dean sent me this one: archaeologists have uncovered the shipbuilding harbors of the Persian Wars. Now I want to re-read Jill Paton Walsh's Farewell, Great King (1972).

2. I am delighted that a former poet laureate of the UK wants to widen the definition of war poetry to include the anonymous soldiers' song "I Don't Want to Join the Army." I have an unreasonable affection for this jaunty, sweary bit of the folk tradition. I learned it about ten years ago—a side effect of trying to trace a racy jingle from The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), I believe—even before I heard its parent "A Conscientious Objector" and it tends to come into my head while I'm washing dishes.

3. In case you have not yet seen, the full source code for the Apollo Guidance Computer has been published online and it is full of programmers being clever at one another. I had not realized that Margaret Hamilton the software engineer was still alive. I am really happy to know she's still in the world and still doing things with it.

4. Capuchin monkeys in Brazil have been using stone tools for seven hundred years without needing humans to show them how. This is probably the best news I've heard all week.

5. These are the songs that have been in my head for the last forty-eight hours. I suspect them of trying to organize themselves into a mixtape. It's more instrumental than my usual internal soundtrack, at least.

The sweetest pleasure in all my roaming, babe.Collapse )

I am now caught up on work for the week. I suppose that explains where it all went.

6 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-12 18:48
Subject: מפּני מה מפּני מה ירדה הנשׁמה
Security: Public
Music:The Klezmatics, "Mipney Ma"

The mail just brought my contributor's copy of An Alphabet of Embers (2016), edited by Rose Lemberg. It's a beautiful book. The cover by Galen Dara is full of fish and flame and dancing; the interior illustrations by M Sereno are swirling pen-and-ink, shape-changing as the stories they accompany. I feel fortunate to have one for my short story "Exorcisms," reprinted from Mike Allen's Mythic #1—a woman's face with eyes closed, her hair a spilling darkness and another woman's figure rising from it, the pitched roofs of a village, the crowded windows of a city, all spattered across with ink or blood or rain or weeping, the smoke of a blown-out candle, the billows of the sea. You don't care about my story, pick up a copy for the artwork. If it came in prints, I'd hang it on my wall.

"Exorcisms" was originally published in 2006, but the first version of the story was written in 2001, the fall of my junior year at Brandeis. It was one of my very first explicitly Jewish pieces; it was the first time I wrote about dybbuks. I put some of my own family history into it, specifically the story of my great-grandmother and her lost friend. I have written about him before: he is one of the two ghosts of my mother's family. He isn't the dybbuk, but he passes through her story:

She came over the sea in the skull of the student she loved . . . took up residence below the memories of his sister, who had come ahead with her lover until they turned him away at the gates—his health, he was never strong; strong enough to cross wheat fields and mountains and an ocean that almost heaved out his stomach but not to step through a doorway?—and swam in the woman's dreams of her dead brother already transformed into a saint, one of the thirty-six on whose back the world rests, sweet and sanctified and studying now in the company of the great sages of the past. Together, they shed tears.

I did not know, in 2001 or even in 2006, that my great-grandmother Ida Friedman had really had a younger brother. I never heard about him as a child. I thought I had made him up. But in 2010, sorting through a box of old papers, my mother and I found a letter from his son who had corresponded with my grandfather about family stories and genealogies. He told the same story about his half-aunt Ida and her boyfriend who could not pass the physical exams and was turned back at America's golden door. He didn't mention his father's name. I don't know when he came to this country or what became of him, whether he was scholarly or loved anyone in their shtetl or died young or whether he resembled no one I've ever written about. But he existed. And so, while I always believed that I invented the dybbuk as well, perhaps I should not be so sure.

Anyway, she is in this collection, along with fantastic work by JY Yang, Sara Norja, Nin Harris, Greer Gilman, Zen Cho, Yoon Ha Lee, M. David Blake, Celeste Rita Baker, Shweta Narayan, Sheree Renée Thomas, Tlotlo Tsamaase, Emily Jiang, Ching-In Chen, Amal El-Mohtar, and many more. In the meantime, the bonus poetry chapbook Spelling the Hours is coming together, if you have any interest in marginalized figures in the history of science, and my out-of-print poetry collection A Mayse-Bikhl (2011) will soon follow in a new edition from Stone Bird Press. I wrote this post sitting outside in the sun, which is the only thing to do when someone sends you a handful of fire. If you want to take it, here it is.

8 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-12 02:42
Subject: Hope is something the living do. It's too silly an occupation for the dead
Security: Public
Music:Dave Swarbrick & Friends, "The Rights of Man/The Shan Van Vocht/Harvest Home"

I am afraid this post is not about Readercon, either. Except for a brain-saving walk to the Cambridge Public Library this afternoon, I have spent the day basically glued to my computer, catching up on work. It has been immensely unexciting. There were some highlights.

1. On my way back from the library, I met a traveling rabbit. She was nosing around a portable pen on the lawn in front of the library in company of a young black woman with glasses who was reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) under a tree; her fur was white, her eyes were red, and her name was Grace Hopper. She left the pen to investigate the tree, she sniffed at the library books and left them, she inspected the hand I held out to her as I would with a strange cat and promptly took refuge in the modified snugli in which it turned out she often left the house, carried by the young woman with the glasses. She emerged again a moment later and returned to nosing around the pen. I had never met an adventurous rabbit before, much less one who regularly made excursions to library lawns. The young woman explained that she used to harness Grace and walk her on a leash, but that limited the distance they could get from the house; with Grace in the snugli, they could range much farther and visit a wider array of interesting places. They were planning on Iceland later this summer. I think they'll do fine.

2. I just discovered that a fiddle tune I'd known for more than ten years as "Johnny the Blacksmith" is actually "Charlie the Prayermaster." Possibly because I have spent most of my day staring at repetitive tasks on a screen, I find this change of name and profession hilarious. It was one of the few tunes I knew by name, too—for some reason which I suspect has to do with the absence of lyrics, I learn instrumental melodies easily enough, but almost never remember what they're called. (This drove me up a wall while watching Green Dolphin Street (1947), because a tune I recognized was played diegetically in the background of a shipboard wedding and I had no idea of its name, I just knew I had to own a copy because otherwise I wouldn't have memorized it. I spent a lot of iTunes time afterward with Dave Swarbrick and Bill Spence. Appropriately enough, it turned out to be "Haste to the Wedding.") I had learned what I thought was "Johnny the Blacksmith" from the playing of Bill Spence with Fennig's All-Star String Band, but the file came from Audiography and it was mislabeled. I just didn't realize until tonight when I had it stuck in my head, wondered about other versions, and threw the name into YouTube to see what I could find. What I found was that "Johnny the Blacksmith" was invented by the legendary bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker in 1957 and I'd never heard it before in my life. So I played my way through a truckload of jigs and reels and presently discovered that "Charlie the Prayermaster" dates back at least to the early twentieth century—it was collected by Francis O'Neill in The Dance Music of Ireland (1907)—and also goes by the names "The Girls of the Town" and the "Cowboy Jig." When I explained this situation to rushthatspeaks, they replied, "And any second now you'll find out he's also Robert the Politician."

3. I have now finished Barbara Hambly's Graveyard Dust (1999) and read my way forward through Wet Grave (2002), meaning that I am caught up chronologically on Benjamin January to Days of the Dead (2003), the object of my library walk this afternoon. (Also I had to return a recalled book before I was fined for it.) I may even have gotten gaudior hooked on the series. Possibly also my mother. It still surprises me somehow that I didn't encounter these books earlier: they are full of so many of the things that interest me, like intersectionality and characters who know their Catullus. Is this a case of a cult favorite or did I just manage with my usual fine attention to pop culture to miss something that everyone else on the planet has been reading for the last twenty years? I'm burning through them now and it's wonderful.

23 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-11 02:16
Subject: And as for the weapons that hung by their side, we flung them as far as we could in the tide
Security: Public
Music:Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick, "Arthur McBride and the Sergeant"

The leopard slugs are out tonight in Somerville. It seems to me that they are slightly out of season, but I was so happy to see them glimmering in the streetlight as I walked around the block for a break between bouts of catch-up work, I don't want to take it as a sign of global warming or further derangement of the biosphere. The half-moon above the trees was the warm color of old ivory. Notes toward a con report from Readercon tomorrow. Tonight, sleep.

4 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-06 23:24
Subject: Do you wonder that we drug ourselves from pain?
Security: Public
Music:Brian Peters, "Gentlemen-Rankers"

It is impressive how rapidly and thoroughly the act of clothes-shopping can cause my mood to crash. I have exactly one pair of corduroys which are not shredding at the seams due to age and wear and one pair of non-corduroys ditto. After getting back from the Cape this evening, I went to look for some half-decent pants at the nearest mall. After nearly three hours, I came away with one pair of clearance jeans with which I was able to come to a mutually wary détente and a discount-bin Criterion DVD of Delmer Daves' 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and a terrible state of mind.

Grays Beach in Yarmouth has a boardwalk out into the salt marsh: I walked it at high tide, when the channels were filled and the cordgrass waved under clear water like the meadows of the Lowland Hundred, stiffened here and there with glassworts and sedges, skittering at all levels with green crabs. One of them had colonized a drowned baseball cap, lying half-filled with sand on its side so that I couldn't read which team it was a fan of. Two more had discovered a ball of white string that by the time I walked the other way they had unraveled in loops and cat's-cradles across the silty floor. More than once I saw larger crabs defending either themselves or their territory from smaller ones; I don't know what the behavior meant, mating, nesting, showing off. Tiny fish as quick as water striders flickered under the surface throughout. The marsh dropped away at the end of the boardwalk and the open water was a cloudy lime-juice green, sun-shot and silt-dusted; my shadow and my reflection did not fall in the same place. There was a family with a canoe drawn up on the sandy spit on the other side of the inlet, a small golden-hulled boat with a white triangular sail and an outrigger gliding past the floating dock at the end of the slip. I think I sunburned finally with the light reflecting off the rocking green water, Tom Waits' "Gun Street Girl" stuck in my head.

That was all much better than trying to find new clothes.

18 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-05 22:44
Subject: Moon in the window like a bird on the pole
Security: Public
Music:Tom Waits, "Clap Hands"

"I love your style," the woman said to me as I was eating a soft serve ice cream cone in the parking lot of Captain Frosty's. I had no idea what she was talking about. It was about six in the evening and still hot enough that I was losing a battle with the laws of thermodynamics, which were dripping chocolate and vanilla twist with chocolate dip all over my hand. "Barefoot—authentic Cape Cod." I hadn't thought about it: I hadn't put my shoes back on after walking for an hour or so on the beach because I couldn't remember the last time I had walked any distance barefoot and it had felt wonderful even after the beach ran out of sand and turned into sliding pebbles, three or four sea-tumbled examples of which I was actually carrying in one of my shoes (the fragile yellow flake of a jingle shell, so as to avoid crushing it, had gone into the other). I managed to say thank you anyway and went back to eating the chocolate dip very rapidly off the outside of the ice cream before the whole thing collapsed. My father's friend confirmed that when younger she used to run all over the Cape with no shoes on. Who knew it was now a fashion statement?

(I spent the afternoon on Corporation Beach. I don't know where the name came from; I don't know why the next beach over is named Cold Storage. The sky over the eastern end of the beach was so thunderously lowering when we got there that I wasn't sure if a storm was going to break. It was high tide, a narrow margin of sand between the dunes and the granite-shored houses, or the sandy slips of erosion where houses had been. The water was steel-grey except where it rolled over translucently onto the shore. Then the tide started to draw out, the clouds in the east broke up blue, the water came out in glassy blues and ledge-thinned greens under the sun, and by the time I put down a towel on dry sand with as much distance as I could get from the teenage sunbathers, I had not just taken off my coat but was actively regretting the existence of sleeves on my T-shirt. I read another quarter of Barbara Hambly's Die Upon a Kiss (2001) and fell asleep. I remember thinking that the sand smelled different from Crescent Beach on Cape Elizabeth in Maine. There were rocks and shining sand uncovered by the time I woke. Dinner was a lobster roll and lemonade from the DPM Surfside Grill. The seabird that went overhead with a fish in its claws—I thought at the time it was a gull, but usually I see them carrying crabs in their bills—looked exactly like a plane on a bombing run.)

After dinner, I walked for another hour and change around the neighborhood where my father's friend lives. I saw two adult turkeys with a baker's dozen of turkey chicks picking their way across a lawn. I saw four crows on the telephone wires; two of them cawed at me, two were silent, and one flew away as I passed. (They reminded me that I still need to see Maleficent (2014), which I hope surprises no one who knows how I feel about shape-changers.) I heard a slightly amplified tenor voice and an acoustic guitar echoing out of a garage, though the only person I could see as I walked past was a young man opening a beer. I met one jogger with an iPod and one without, one golden retriever and their person, several cars with whom I did not interact. A bird whose species I could not identify which shrilled at me with increasing aggression as I walked underneath the pine tree with a nest in its branches. It makes a difference to me, if I can get out of the house, if I can spend more than an hour not just not sitting at my computer, but actively walking. In some ways I think better in motion. The soles of my feet still sting slightly, but I seem to have avoided blisters; I think I took a little sun across the cheekbones and the bridge of my nose, but that's where it usually lands with me. I cannot be happy with my body right now, but at least parts of it feel more normal with exercise. And ocean. My hair is full of salt. Everything here smells like the sea.

11 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-05 13:45
Subject: In the morning gleam as the tide went down
Security: Public
Music:Stan Rogers, "Three Fishers"

I am on Cape Cod for the day. I expect to spend it by the sea.

Last night before bed I read about half of Robert Arthur's Davy Jones' Haunted Locker: Great Ghost Stories of the Sea for Young People (1965), which I thought at first I had last seen in my elementary school library, but now believe that was actually one of his other ghost story anthologies: I would have remembered reading Arthur's "Jabez O'Brien and Davy Jones' Locker," Lord Dunsany's "One August in the Red Sea," or P. Schuyler Miller's "Ship-in-a-Bottle." I enjoyed seeing the prose of William Hope Hodgson's "The Stone Ship" after previously hearing it performed by the Post-Meridian Radio Players. I don't know where I read Frank Belknap Long's "Second Night Out" or Hodgson's "The Voice in the Night," but I recognized them as stories that had freaked the bejeezus out of me as a child. I had Garnet Rogers' setting of Charles Kingsley's "Three Fishers" stuck in my head all night.

Yesterday we made our traditional strawberry ice cream for the last time in the hand-cranked churn of my childhood; it literally had to be held together with duct tape for the purpose. We'll get another one for next year. A very nice assortment of people showed up to help churn and then devour the fruits of their labor, sometimes with blueberries and homemade strawberry syrup on top. I walked for hours with derspatchel in the Great Meadows of Arlington. We had no organized plan for seeing the fireworks, but managed to meet up with rushthatspeaks and gaudior at Prospect Hill. If this year was David Mugar's farewell, he went out with a shimmering bang. schreibergasse rang the bells with the rest of the band at the Church of the Advent for the 1812 Overture. And I accepted an offer from my father's friend who has a house on the Cape to stay the night and renew my acquaintance with the local Atlantic. Also with sunblock, but that's a hazard I accept.

9 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

My Journal
July 2016