Posts Tagged ‘Robert Littell’

The End of Something

Monday, December 4th, 2017

TEOS

“In the Eskimo language there are four future tenses: the immediate future, the middle future, the far-in-the-future future and a future that will never arrive.” Robert Littell

I just got my copy of Kate Greenstreet’s newest book of poems The End of Something. Wow. What a marvelous book. Not only are the poems songful and clear and provocative, as in thought/feeling-provoking, but the book itself is a most pleasing objet d’art with beguiling design touches and a splendiferous presentation of the poems, the line-spacing wonderfully spacious, the fonts exactly right, the book small yet not small—an insightful chronicle writ in a language we know but have never used this way.

As I read Ms. Greenstreet’s opus, images from my past rise from the depths; and the next thing I know I’m returning to the present here by the fire, many minutes having ticked away while I slipped and slid down various memory lanes—proof to me of how excellent her poetry.

 

From  80. WHAT TO DO WITH THE WILL TO BELIEVE

Whatever happened to divine

discontent? Longing

as the basis of self-discipline.

Fifteen years ago. I am fifty-three, walking the labyrinth embedded in the plaza outside Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The woman I am involved with is twenty feet ahead of me on the mystic coil. She is often displeased with me and emotionally unavailable: two big obstacles to the continuance of our relationship.

A woman comes out of the cathedral, walks down a short flight of stairs, and approaches the labyrinth. She moves without a hint of fear in her gait and posture, her glossy brown hair falling to her shoulders, her skin olive brown—Spanish comes to mind, though she might be Greek or Ashkenazi.

She is wearing a dress that does not become her, a drab brown tube falling to just below her knees, the short sleeves all wrong, yet she takes my breath away. She reaches the threshold of the labyrinth just as I reach the center, our eyes meet, and we stand unmoving, locked in a powerful psychic embrace that tells me we were born to spend our lives together; and I can hardly keep from shouting “It’s you!”

Now the woman I’m involved with says, “We should get going. They’re expecting us.”

And my soul mate, rather than enter the labyrinth, smiles wistfully and walks away, while I, rather than run after her, turn to my girlfriend and say, “Okee doke.”

 

From  91. I SAW MYSELF NAKED BY MISTAKE

To know the longitude and latitude

with certainty, amidst erasure

of landmarks.

I am twenty-six. I have come to New York from Medford, Oregon where I worked as a landscaper. Having recently sold a few short stories to national magazines—a huge breakthrough for me—I’ve come to New York to meet the editors who bought my stories.

From childhood until this moment in my life, I have always had an excellent sense of direction. On backpack trips in the Sierras, sans compass, I was unerringly correct about which direction was which. And in towns and cities where I lived, my sense of direction was invariably accurate.

I enter the subway in Greenwich Village, go down a flight of stairs, pass through the turnstile, go down another flight of stairs, and catch the A Train to Times Square to purchase half-price tickets to a play. I get a little turned around coming up out of the ground at 42nd Street, but find the ticket booth and head underground again to catch the A Train to West 86th.

I board the train, and one stop along realize I’m going in the opposite direction I want to go, so I get off the train, exit the underground, re-enter the underground, and after some confusion catch the A Train heading for West 86th. When I get to West 86th and emerge from the underground, I set out for what I am sure is West 83rd, only to reach West 87th and have to turn around.

And ever since then, whenever I am in unfamiliar territory, I have difficulty synching up my sense of direction with reality.

 

From  39. WHAT FALLS FROM THE SKY

That the truth means

what is going to happen. Or

what I must do.

I am fifteen. I just informed my parents I don’t want to take any more pre-med advanced science courses at my high school. I want to take Drama and Ceramics. My sisters have gone to college. My younger brother and my mother have gone to bed. I am alone with my father in the living room. He is very drunk, standing ten feet away from me, yelling at me, his face deformed by fury and hatred. He says my decision to drop Science and take Drama and Art proves I am a quitter phony loser fake pathetic useless coward copout. My sensory system begins to shut down. I can hear him shouting and I can feel the energy of his fury, but his words are indistinct.

I will not remember this event until twelve years later when I become so ill I almost die. My illness manifests a few months after selling my first novel for a small advance to a major New York publisher. I am twenty-seven, living in a rat-infested house in a dangerous part of Seattle—a house I cannot afford to keep warm during the winter, so I am always cold.

The symptoms of my illness are limbs so heavy I have difficulty moving, exhaustion, inability to sleep, no appetite, fevers, chills, and a persistent cough.

After a month of suffering, I go to a doctor. He runs a battery of tests and can find nothing wrong with me. Three more weeks pass. I am cadaverous now. My throat aches from coughing. Every time I begin to drift off to sleep, I have a coughing fit and wake up.

I go to the doctor again. More tests. Nothing. He recommends I see a psychotherapist. I go home and sit on my bed and consider calling my parents to ask them for money so I can go to a therapist.

Sitting on my bed, I hallucinate a second Todd sitting a few feet away from me, and we have a conversation.

Todd 2: So you’re sick, but they can’t find anything wrong with you. How strange.

Todd: I’m more than sick. I’m dying.

Todd 2: How come?

Todd: I have no idea.

Todd 2: Well…what’s been going on in your life?

Todd: What do you mean? I’ve been terribly sick for two months. I can barely move, barely get out of bed. Nothing else is going on. Nothing else can go on.

Todd 2: What about your novel? Aren’t you about to publish your first novel?

Todd: I have to finish the rewrite, but I’m too weak. I have to get well first, only it doesn’t look like I’m going to.

Todd 2: But isn’t it amazing? You sold a novel! To Doubleday! You must be thrilled. Dream come true. Right?

Todd: I guess so.

Todd 2: You guess so? You don’t sound very thrilled or proud or happy about selling a novel to major publisher. And I notice when you tell people and they get excited, you say the book probably won’t sell. Why do you do that?

Todd: I don’t. I’m happy about the book.

Todd 2: No, you’re not. You’re ashamed, aren’t you?

Todd: No. I’m…I’m glad.

Todd 2: You don’t sound glad. You sound ashamed.

Now a movie screen appears in the air above me, and on the movie screen is my father, his face deformed by fury and hatred, calling me a quitter phony loser fake pathetic useless coward copout.

I shout at the movie, “Get out of my body! Get out of my mind! I banish you. Be gone.”

Now the scene on the screen dissolves and another scene appears—my father snarling, “We gave you everything and you pissed your life away.”

“Get out of my body! Get out of my mind! I banish you. Be gone.”

And for hours and hours memories of being denigrated by my father and mother and teachers and girlfriends and friends appear on the screen and I keep shouting at those memories to be gone from me.

At last I fall asleep and slumber without waking for nineteen hours. When I open my eyes, though I am weak as a baby, my illness is gone.

 

47. ALL OUR BONES

 

All our bones, and the mountains.

 

Mountains always in the distance.

It’s called completion.

 

I want us to tell people.

                                   

Kate Greenstreet

What Really Happened?

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2013)

“There are three things I always forget. Names, faces and—the third I can’t remember.” Italo Svevo

The very first course that Norman O. Brown taught when he arrived at UC Santa Cruz in 1968 was Myth & History and I was among the lucky people to hear him deliver that series of lectures. I was also privileged to meet with Norman in his office on two occasions to talk about various things, notably the fifty-page manuscript I composed in response to his lectures. I wish I still had a copy of that youthful creation—poems, dialogues, story fragments, essays, questions—with the notes Norman made throughout and his flattering words at the bottom of the final page, but I was only nineteen and saved nothing I wrote until I was in my twenties.

I have many vivid memories of Norman O. Brown, some of which I shared in an article I published two years ago. After that essay ran in the Anderson Valley Advertiser and was reprinted on the CounterPunch web site, I received a few emails and letters from people who thanked me for writing about Norman and wanted to share memories of him with me. I also received several angry missives from people telling me that my memories of Norman could not possibly be true, that Norman was nothing like the person I described, and how dare I misrepresent the great man. What I loved about these responses was that they absolutely confirmed the central thesis of Norman’s Myth & History lectures, which was that history is entirely subjective and over the course of time becomes indistinguishable from myth.

“In the Eskimo language there are four future tenses: the immediate future, the middle future, the far-in-the-future future and a future that will never arrive.” Robert Littell

I was reminded of the subjective nature of history during a recent visit from my sister Kathy with whom I had not communed in many years. As we shared memories of our shared past, we discovered that our recollections of people and events were sometimes identical, sometimes entirely different, and sometimes partly identical and partly entirely different. Of the greatest interest to me were those events involving Kathy that I remembered vividly and she had no memory of whatsoever.

Our parents—and this Kathy and I agreed on—regularly carried out long and painful interrogations of their four children—my two older sisters, my young brother, and I. They interrogated us one at a time, the child on a low stool looking up at the imperious father sitting on his throne-like chair, the angry mother pacing back and forth behind the scowling father. These interrogations took place in the living room in the evenings or on Sunday afternoons, our mother the arresting officer, so to speak, our father the prosecutor and judge.

The interrogations were ostensibly held in lieu of spanking us for our little crimes, but I think the real purpose of these trials was to fulfill our father’s desire to abuse us verbally, and my mother’s need to involve our father in her attempts to control us—our mother who was frequently overwhelmed by single-handedly trying to control four bright, independent, rambunctious children. She was perpetually angry with our father for not giving her more help with us, and these interrogations provided a way for her to involve him in our upbringing as well as allowing her to vent her fury about her situation in his presence.

We underwent these interrogations from early childhood until we were in our teens—the grueling sessions lengthy, abusive and emotionally damaging. I find it hard to believe that our intelligent, highly educated parents—my mother an attorney, my father a child psychiatrist—were unaware of the harm they were inflicting, and I assume they felt justified in carrying out what my three siblings and I remember as their relentless efforts to break our wills and verbally pound us into submission, first by forcing us to admit our crimes (real or not), then forcing us to beg them repeatedly for their forgiveness, then making us promise to never again do whatever they said we had done, and finally, sickeningly, to help them devise appropriate punishments for whatever they had forced us to admit to.

Kathy said several things about these interrogations that greatly surprised me. She said that at the outset of every interrogation, she would frantically try to shift the blame from her to another of the children, and she assumed we all did that. But I, as the younger brother of two powerful older sisters, never did that because I feared my bigger stronger sisters would take revenge on me if I dared to even try to divert my parents’ wrath onto them.

Kathy also said that during every interrogation, after our parents had verbally battered her into a state of desperate despair, she always wanted to shout at them, “Just hit me and get it over with!” but never had the courage to do so.

What made this revelation so surprising to me was that one of my most vivid childhood memories was of a time when I was eleven and Kathy was twelve, and my parents were viciously torturing Kathy and she was sobbing so convulsively I feared she might die. And my fear of my sister dying was so great, that despite the probability of being physically assaulted by my father for daring to defy him, I went to intervene on Kathy’s behalf. And just as I entered the living room to demand they leave her alone, Kathy shrieked, “Just hit me! Just hit me and get it over with!” Then she jumped up, ran down the hall, and locked herself in her room.

“I have no memory of doing that,” Kathy told me these many decades later, “though I always wanted to, so I’m glad to know I actually did it one time.”

When I imagine telling Norman O. Brown such a tale, I see him gazing off into space as he visualizes the drama, and then I hear him suggesting that regardless of what actually happened, the most interesting thing about my memory is that I wanted to rescue my sister—to be a hero—though I failed to act quickly enough for that to happen. And though I, too, find my desire to rescue her quite telling, what I find most interesting is that Kathy has no memory of ever acting out her wish, while I remember her defiance of my parents as an act of incredible bravery and self-preservation that empowered me to defy my parents, too.

“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.” Rex Stout

We now officially congressionally know that in 1964 the North Vietnamese did not attack a gigantic heavily armed United States of America battleship in the Gulf of Tonkin with a little motorboat and a pea shooter, and that the alleged attack was entirely fabricated by our government so they could begin the horrific saturation bombing of North Vietnam and escalate the ground war in Vietnam that went on for many years and killed millions of Vietnamese people and tens of thousands of Americans. Therefore, those of us who protested from the outset that the so-called Gulf of Tonkin Incident was a fraud can no longer be called conspiracy kooks, at least regarding that particular event.

Norman O. Brown frequently spoke of Gulf of Tonkin-like mytho-historic events that compose much of Greek and Roman history, and how there is really no way to distinguish ancient historical events, as writ by the victors, from myths, which is why the Norman O. Brown I remember was far more interested in archetypes and poetry and art and legends and philosophy arising from particular cultures and cultural milieus than he was in the historical records of who, what, when and why.

“The field of philosophy may be reduced to the following questions: 1. What can I know?  2. What ought I do?  3. What may I hope for?  4. What is man?” Immanuel Kant

I’ve been doing a bit of research on the trial and death of Socrates that probably (maybe) happened in Athens some 2400 years ago, assuming Plato and others who left behind accounts of the event may be trusted not to have fabricated the whole thing. Why do we trust Plato? I dunno. In any case, the trial and death of the famous Socrates, who left behind nary a scrap of his own writing, took place four hundred years before the birth, if there really was such a birth, of Jesus of Nazareth, who also did not leave behind a scrap of his own writing. Come to think of it, Gautama Buddha didn’t leave behind a scrap of writing either. Indeed, we only have the highly subjective words of others that these super famous people even existed.

Nevertheless, the more I read about Socrates, the clearer it becomes that he was either a great champion of democracy or he thought democracy was a terrible way to run a city-state; that he drank hemlock rather than flee because he wanted to honor the laws of Athens or because he was old and ill and preferred a quick death to lingering in misery; and the method of philosophical inquiry known as the Socratic Method either sprang from the brilliance of Socrates or from his inability to come to a conclusion about anything.

Speaking of conclusions, in honor of my wholly subjective memories of Norman O. Brown’s wide-ranging lectures in which he might read a poem by Robert Duncan, follow Duncan’s poem with a passage from Finnegan’s Wake, follow that with a salient and beautifully pronounced line or two of Latin, and finish that particular train of inquiry with a pronouncement such as “in psychoanalysis only exaggerations are important,” I will end this ramble with a quote from Jacques Cousteau.

“From the data, covering over a hundred shark encounters with many varieties, I can offer two conclusions: the better acquainted we become with sharks, the less we know them, and one can never tell what a shark is going to do.”