The Modernist

“Modern life begins with slavery.” – Toni Morrison

What my father underwent, and now gone so long, and now come back, and now pallid brown, eyes wide, suddenly a shadow on the door. We had mourned him and buried him in the earth and now buried him in our minds, and his spirit had sank into ala-mmuo, and yet here he was again reincarnated in his expiring body, standing in the doorway, eyes agog. I had been learning the dibia magic. But it is terrifying to see the dead alive, so when I saw the pallid hordes of zombie aboard the ship, I recited the words. I stood aboard their Jesus and watched my home recede, although I was below with all the others, only I was standing on the deck and the spell was only broken when one of the dead struck me, and the fresh blood on my tongue woke me into the hold where men lay grunting like pigs.

Come morning there was no sign of land. Through the portholes only the blue green sea and the blue gray sky. Hordes of men already huddled together in the hold where the air was so putrid and still I could still smell supplication.

Sometime in the morning, the zombie came down into the hold and gathered us in groups to come on deck. I stood in that breaking blue morning and watched the sea roll and wander. The boat lurched and trundled the waves. The air invigorated the spirit, but the air and spirit sank again. My father’s face as he turned to look at me in that doorway. His eyes grotesque unblinking. The door swung shut and startled open again. A group of men behind my father, among them the rival Dibia. We were taken back to the hold. The sailors took off my chains and spoke in indecipherable grunts like my father lurching through incoherence. I began to wander the hold. The dark labyrinth of bodies and low ceilings wheezed and heaved and seized cacophonous. So many languages, most of them close enough to my own where we could still understand each other.

You children are free to move about the ship. We will need you to deliver messages. The white men don’t understand our languages.

I pondered this appellation for the zombie a while, white men, for they weren’t quite white, rather red. The heat of the region reddened them further and they drank copious amounts of liquor that smelled stronger and more toxic than palm wine, and then they turned rough red in the low rough sun, and meaner too, so that the redder they were the more you knew to avoid them.

One morning in the red sun, I saw a group of red zombie drinking in the sun, and turning back into the hold to avoid them, I bumped into a girl coming up the steps. She tripped over the steps and slipped back on the floor, cursing. I put one finger to my lips and pointed to the door above, and started to say white men, but then said, red instead, and made the motion of a man drinking, and then her eyes smiled, and then she smiled and the boat lurched and trundled the waves and the voices of the zombie came carousing through the paralyzed air of their still.

Nkiru, she said.


We were inseparable and often separated. She made life on the ship as bearable as life on the ship could bear, and it was unbearable. I taught her the obeah arts my father taught me. She taught me the language of the zombie; she had been with them for years. We taught each other those things only two curious young people can teach each other.

One morning in the red sun, I saw a group of red zombie drinking in the sun, and turning back into the hold to avoid them, I heard the shrill cry of Nkiru, and turning back I saw that among the men, Nkiru sat nude shuddering. I lurched forward, then swung back. The men looked up at me, their faces turned dark heavy red in the heavy sun. Before a word could be exchanged between us, I had the knife of one, and the knife found the throat of another, and then the sun turned dark and rough and began to sweat red acid as the day dimmed mid-day. The dark sea burned the blood. Nkiru screamed. Excruciating daylight.

I was born a slave, but I would die free. From my earliest days I would play out in the fields while my mother worked, never dreaming of my degraded position in the world. My father, I never knew, though my mother said he was an African hero, a dibia, or magic man, who died on the ship. She told me there were enchantments in songs.

No one was dearer to me than my mother, lovely Nkiru, who looked longingly sometimes off in the sky as if the sky were the sea and she could still sail away somewhere through her thoughts. The innocence of those early days.

Shattered one morning when my mother, too sick to work in the fields refused to get out of bed. A cruel overseer, an overzealously evil man, with wild red hair, and dopey drunken eyes whipped her until she shrieked and crawled from the bed. I never looked at my situation the same. My people were taken from Heaven into Hell, and I was going to deliver them from Hell back into Heaven!

I learned to read from my mother, who had learned the Master’s language in Africa. We would spend early mornings going through a hidden Bible. The words were strange, but beautiful, and I marveled at the way the language soared in the voices of these prophets, especially in comparison to the degraded English of the slaveholders.  In the afternoons, I would walk out among the Georgia fields and recite the words to myself, incantations, and note the incongruity between the love preached in those words, and the hatred practiced by the slavers. It was as if slavery had degraded their very souls.

I was sold when I was 14 years old. I was never to see my Nkiru again. I was placed on a block, and sold to a dour looking man named Charles Montage, who couldn’t even meet my eye. The Georgia sun hung low and hot in the sky, tears sizzled my cheeks. I swore I would run away the first chance I got, that I would see my mother again, that I would be avenged, that I would kill white men.

I would have died that very summer had I not met Carolina. Carolina was one of the girls already owned by Montage. She had wonderful dimples that lit up the day, and would smile a very sad smile that should break the heart of the most heartless slaver. She had lost her mother when she was little, and we were two withdrawn orphans.

Soon we were inseparable, although we were often separated. Our new master was unusually cruel, a so-called nigger breaker, and he was only happy when we were not. He would whip us without provocation, terrorize us. He raped our women. He would ride out into the field and curse us in his degraded English.

Meanwhile, I taught Carolina to read the most beautiful English, and I taught her the dibia chants my mother taught me. She taught me to channel the courage that I needed to resolve myself to my early promise. I had sworn I would free myself from my chains, and I was determined to bring as many of my brothers and sisters with me as I could!

In the evenings we slaves would gather together, and I would deliver brimstone speeches about Freedom, the underground railroad, spoke of a future in which our children would be born free, where we would stand proud, even up to the very highest offices. America debases us and our culture, refuses to call us men. This now ends!

We launched our revolt the night after their Independence Day, while they all lay stupefied in vapors. We gathered together field tools, stormed the house, killed Montage and took his guns. With the moon looming gold and white in a spellbound sky, we rode out into the fields with his horses free men. We went from plantation to plantation, killing the sleeping and gathering weapons. By the time the sun rose red over the red fields of Georgia, we were tired, and an alert had gone out. I clambered off my horse and told Carolina she should go on alone, on foot. There was no chance for us, and I knew it.

She wouldn’t go.

In the afternoon, she dozed off and I left her where she slept.

I was heartbroken, but had as reassurance the certainty of my own death. Come twilight, the white men had found us. We rode hard into the woods, and they followed. Ahead of us in the expiring day we saw the lanterns flash, and then the flash of firearms. I had seen the way they tortured and killed insurgent slaves. I loaded my pistol, and called to the men. We will all die freemen.

We will all die freemen.

The woods grew dark around us, and the shadows began to crawl. I fired at a flash, and saw a white man fall. I rode into the dark, and turned back and hopped off my horse, ducked low and kept firing. A searing pain roared through my shoulder, and I turned, still shooting. Another lurched through my back, and I fell forward in the mud, gasping blood. I saw boots approaching, and with the last of my strength, I rolled around and raised my pistol and then there was a retort and then it was all very easy, the night turned light and then dark and then the day dimmed into a din where sound became sight.

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home.

Oh swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home.


I looked over Jordan and what did I see

Coming for to carry me home?

A band of angels coming after me,

Coming for to carry me home!

The Negro has been everywhere oppressed, and has everywhere risen above his oppression. I am myself of humble origins, born by a shining river where the egrets sang response to the spirituals of my mother, Carolina, a copper-ebony woman, deep in aspect and regaled in beauty.  My father was ever absent, but my mother would tell me stories of his heroics, how he had led a revolution against the slaveowners, and gave his life that she might escape, and that I might be born a freeman.

But for mine own part, it was Greek to me. The Emancipation Proclamation was passed mere years after my birth, and I grew up thinking all men equal in the eyes of the Lord, and thus in the eyes of the law. Oh, dark was the day indeed when I was to learn that a thick veil hung between me and my fellow man, one which the white man could never see through, and which estranged me forever from my country and made me see life through a troubling doubled aspect.

Reconstruction inspired me. I was elected to the Georgia senate. Around this time I also began publishing the pamphlet Freedom! This pamphlet was a call to action to my Negro brothers and sisters who found themselves free only to be enslaved again by the newly instigated “Black codes.” These laws made it illegal for us to be out of work, which was as good as saying it was illegal for us to be free. It’s no coincidence that the Thirteenth Amendment makes slaves of criminals. It takes no great leap of the imagination to see that the “Black codes” were implemented to make of the Negro a permanent criminal, and thus a de facto slave.

I published and preached throughout the great state of Georgia, where the sweet Maplewood air breathes life into fields harvested in death, and I ignored the threats as they came as best as one can ignore such propositions against one’s person.

I would not bow to fear. Every morning I walked the lovely walk through the marigold path leading from my home, down the small green glazed hill and down farther into the bustling town.

One morning as I walked the path, I met a sweet brown woman there, and the marigolds winked scents back as accents to talk. After that, Nella and I would meet every day in the same marigold path, and after we were married, we would walk through town together, and wave and stop to talk to folks we knew.

In the afternoon, after my session in congress, I would walk back, often taking lunch in Louie’s Kitchen, a Negro deli not far from the courthouse, usually with Nella, where we would plan our plans for family and future.

One afternoon as I was coming out of the courthouse, I heard a scuffle behind me on the steps, and I turned to see three men in Ku Klux Klan outfits had emerged at the top of the steps.

Montage, you black bastard, we sentence you to death!

I blinked, turned on my heel, and fled. I heard their footsteps above me, and then turning again, I reached for my blade. I had little time to realize what was happening. A couple men had crept up behind me from the other side, and then I felt the sharp slide of their blades. I turned to them, but the Klansmen from the top of the stairs were now upon me, and I thrust my blade forward, blindly, surely catching flesh, but this would be the last thing I felt, as the painless razor shine of death caught the side of my throat and then the angels swung down from their chariots and carried me up into the glorious day.

Them nightmares kept me up. They say we came back from the war, but I ain’t really came back, them battles stayed with me, the way people died like living didn’t matter a lick, killing factory style, corpses on an assembly line. I heard the term bandied about a bit, shellshocked, and that sounded about right, the sound of shells shocking the system like the rhythms of the jazz I would listen to late at night, wandering the streets of Harlem, down into the speak, speaking into my drinking, hoping the racket from the band would drown out the sound of the shells shocking me back. So I ain’t really came back from that war, and I walked around and just about died every day a thousand times over again, just like those buddies of mine where you would turn your head and the smoke would sear your eyes, and then they weren’t there anymore, and then where did they go?

That where did they go was what it was, it would ring in my ears in the music and would stay with me through the sleepless lavender mornings. I would look up at the purpling day, and think I could see there in the skies souls sometimes in the wisps of clouds, but then there would just be this tremendous absence like an unresolved melody looking. Whenever I could sleep, it was in the speaks, slumped over a drink, and where did I go? I would follow the music past the breaks into nightmares, and wake up again with the drums and trumpets trumpeting death and chariots and bombs and guns. Bleary I would walk through digressions of sounds with the musicians, and then would remember in a smooth passage a passage through to childhood, before the war where my mother Nella was telling me stories about my father, the first black congressman in Georgia, and how when I was little I would hear stories about him in Louie’s Kitchen where we would eat and folks would tell tall tales about my father going through town lickin’ Klansmen left and right to where they couldn’t stand it anymore, and so I guess my father he also died in a war right here at home.

I met Kali in the speak, I barely remember how, only one night we started talking, and she was telling me about her childhood here in Harlem, and I was telling her about mine in Georgia, and she laughed and said she liked the way I talked, what with my southern drawl and all, and I laughed and said I liked the way she talked what with her Northern clip and wit, and what about it? She worked as a waitress at the speak and we would sometimes dance, and that would keep me dreaming dreams different from the nightmares caught up in my drinks, and sometimes we would slip back into the back and dance private to the music ecstatically, and emerge back into the smoky dark speak weak with laughter and love and winks and kisses.

The raid happened on one of the nights Kali had off, and I was dreaming in my gin. I was back there again, back in the trenches, and the drums and trumpets were war reports, and the smoke of the speak was the smoke on the field, and people sort of floating on by me like spirits, and I fell deep into slumber, like Rip Van Winkle, almost like the gin and the jazz put some kind of hoodoo over me where I couldn’t wake up, the banging on the door, and the shouting voices and scurrying customers were all part of the nightmare, contained within the past. I saw a couple of my buddies go down and the smoke settled in hard, and then hands had my shoulders which they must have been pulling me out of the way of the shells. I reached down where I still had my legs, but couldn’t move them and then there were two loud retorts like shots, and they had me on the back of the truck where I couldn’t move to move, but where the smoke was slowly clearing, and the sky lightening, and soon I’d be back at the base. Somewhere in the future I murmured Kali, Kali, but I couldn’t find the words, my tongue wouldn’t move, or maybe I was wounded and didn’t have the ability.

When they tossed me down, I thought I’d hit my cot, but I fell and kept falling, and then the earth came falling faster after, where I woke up in the breaking dawn, not in Germany like I thought, but in an old plot in Harlem, in a hole, half buried. I struggled up against the mud, and then I heard a voice loud and clear, I don’t think the nigger’s actually dead, and then silence and then the earth fell even faster and Well, if he ain’t yet, he will be soon enough, and when I opened my mouth to scream the earth choked my voice, and I coughed mud and vomit against the falling day and then my ears and nose clogged and soon the nightmares came back and where would I go?

When after all a sister been born into it. More or less born in the speak where my mother worked as a waitress and been boppin my head to them beats ever since, had my head way back hoodooed to bebop before the first bop came to be, and been boppin ever since. And ain’t got the faintest whisper of a clue who my papa may be, mama didn’t much talk to that, and who knows if she even knows she didn’t know too much about parenting and that and I been just as soon raised by musicians as by her but that’s how it do. These fellas didn’t have much problem trying to raise me as it were anyway, and they were the ones what taught me to play, and then I would blow sax and flute like any of them jarheads. They learned to get threatened by me, and they learned right.

They all knew me up in Harlem, so when I started to play, I played mostly downtown, brown cap down over black hair, blowing back blues all night, boppin those twelve bar basics flat into fifths, flattering the faults of the fellas I followed, and feeling just lovely. Drinking whiskies with them like it wasn’t nothing in the world, and laughing and bawdying just the way they would, and well if that wasn’t the time of my life, cuz after them days, when my breasts turned into upside down timpani and my voice and age ain’t match in range, then folks started to let on I was a frail, and soon enough the phone stopped ringing, and when the fellas talked to me in the speak it wasn’t to speak up about gigging but guess.

Ever seen a musician can’t blow?

I mean I could still blow, but couldn’t perform, to put it one way.  I played up in my room old jazz records alchemizing Basie into Bop. And just about lost my mind in the process, bopping alone in my bedroom blues to bluey twilights. Evenings in the speaks, but no way up to the stage, stuck in the seats, seated between a gin and a grin that means heartbreak. So when Kyle approached me one night after the set with his set back eyes and voice like Don Giovanni, talking about maybe I join his band, we ended up in bed in no time, but I never ended up in his band. Ended up in his bed one night, he made promises to me he didn’t keep, disappeared a couple months after that, and then down at the speak listening to Monk crawl the keys while the owner told me he heard Kyle moved to Chicago, and was playing them funky styles they got out there, which made me laugh, but then I cried the rest of the night, and in those tears I think was the last of my small supply of dreams-not-yet-dried-up, because after that I saw things through a melancholy bop like Chopin meets Prez.

Like how after that the days got longer and the weather got warmer and my belly got bigger. I couldn’t stand the speaks anymore with the smoke and liquor and then I had no ways of getting gigs and couldn’t gig had I did, and so I stayed in my room and watched my belly get bigger and the weather get warmer and the days grow warmer, and my mind warmed in the sun must have melted away somewhere did they go? The cozy mornings where days swam into swelling bellies, dancing days, blowing days late into the daze of jazz, lazy days of love illusions and music. Lots of music. And the weather waiting, warming for the arrival. She is after all an extension of me, and where do I begin and she? The afternoons with Ornette and the evenings with Dizzy. Sitting in bed, listening, with a book, or a flute, and the mute nights of music, and the morning again, and the belly growing like a budding grove, and then one day comes and goes the doctor was there in my room, and saying something to me in a foreign language and the morning was asking me peculiar questions like where does the time go? and the afternoon reclined with tea and talked about Wilbur Harden and the evening was pure ornithology whereabouts my soul stole off swift with the swifts.

It/s, of course, of vital importance to remember that the Black man is born into conditions that make even the possibility of complacency unpalatable. It/s not so much that I was a Negro, as that I came to realize the white man needed to invent the Negro & the question was why? My mother dead in childbirth, my father dead in life & me left w/no choice but to adopt a ruthlessness that/s never left me; I am, after all, as much the product of my environment as we all are, trapped inextricably entwined w/in our own violent history. I grew up in violence & violence follows the Black man in America. The streets of Harlem are not a happy place for a boy w/no mother & no father. They are, in fact, often not a happy place for anyone; they are mired in poverty.

This is not to say there is no joy there. I was raised by my grandmother, Kali, a woman I loved dearly. She was a wonderful, inspiring woman, but vanished in a deep sense of loss from her lost daughter & from her lost husband, my lost grandfather & from living a life surrounded by loss & licentiousness. She/d worked in speakeasies all her life, of which she couldn/t speak easily & she/d spend the most heartbreaking smiles, b/c they locked away a lifetime of regrets.

Growing up under these conditions, I learned to be wary. I nor trusted nor believed; I was quick to interrogate the integrity of any person, statement or idea.

It was the perfect apprenticeship for a writer.

I published my first novel when I was still a young man. I/d prepared myself for a stunning reception & still I wasn/t prepared for the reception of the novel, which turned me into a public figure, as they say, overnight. It/s a somewhat apt cliché, in that one morning the public figure wakes up & no longer lives in the same world he lived in the day before. His thoughts are no longer private thoughts among private individuals, rather, after this moment, even when alone, he/s always performing. For a Black man this is an even stranger phenomenon, as I was now somehow a spokesman for my people & among my peers, I/d/ve been the last person to be considered a spokesman for Black people. The very concept of a spokesperson for Black folks is a strange chimera created by white America, because I/ve never believed myself to be speaking for anyone other than myself & certainly no white writer believes himself to be speaking for the entire white race when he puts pen to paper.

This is what initially conduced me to move to Berlin. In Berlin, I was able to be simply me, Montage, the writer. The writing from my earlier days, w/its explosive, revolutionary tone was being co/opted by the civil rights era & m/w, in Berlin, I found myself discussing ideas about performativity & modernity in bawdy burlesques. I met Mina, a burlesque dancer who reminded me in some ways of my grandmother w/her restless sad look of always already having lost the world.

Black America never really forgave me for Mina & white America never will. Both of them began to tire of me, I could feel it in the tepid reviews my essays were collecting. The fact is, the revolutionary has never left my work, but in the later work I/m more interested in how we act as revolutionaries as international globalized peoples, as a diaspora & I/m interested in these ideas of performativity & race, as well as performativity & modernity & how the 2 intersect, especially on a linguistic level. But this work has not done so well in the United States & before long there were signs enough that the world in general/d had enough of me, because phone calls would come in w/no answer & my front door would be open when I returned home, although I was certain I locked it on my way out. Cars would whisper past me, slowly idling as they cruised my block & then speed up again, vanishing around corners. Clicks on the telephone. Shadows that vanished into sunlight whenever I turned around. 1 morning I got out of bed & the light dipped & I plummeted to the dizzy floor.

That floor opened the vortex, wherein my health plunged w/the diminishing days. Heart infection. I could imagine my heart suppurating viscous black blood, poisoned by years of bitterness & the more I imagined it, the more I became entrenched in its sluggish ideology. I couldn/t eat. The mornings were unclear & dark & the days only got darker, sweating in bed w/Mina over me, eyes dark w/tears, darkwater in the dim light, like the blood dimming my heart, the weakening spirit, shadows vanishing in the sunlight, a motion towards resistance.


SUPER: San Francisco. 1974.


  • HIP CLUB IN WEST BERLIN – NIGHT – Parents dancing to James Brown.
  • BEDROOM – NIGHT – Sick father dying in bed.
  • BEDROOM – DAY – Baby in crib, squirming to Marvin Gaye.
  • BEDROOM – DAY – SUPER: 1984 – Kid about 10-years-old, dancing to Michael Jackson.
  • DUNKIN DONUTS PARKING LOT – DAY – SUPER: 1992 – High School punk rock kids listening to Bad Brains out of a car with all the doors open.
  • COLLEGE DORM ROOM – DAY – SUPER: 1996 – College dorm room, young men sitting on beds, discussing Foucault, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes, 2pac on the stereo.
  • NYU FILM SCHOOL STUDIO – SUPER: 2000 – Three students standing at a storyboard. Eminem on the sound system.



MUSIC CUE: “Monster” by Kanye West.




Listen, here’s my pitch, it’s my own story, but it’s also epic.


Epic? I don’t like epic.


Epic like slavery days epic. Oscar bait epic.


Okay, word. I’m listening.


Cut to Africa, don’t know where. Doesn’t matter. Slaves getting on the boat. This is how the movie starts. We follow one character, an insurgent slave, through three hundred years. He gets on that boat. Gets himself killed defending a woman’s honor. Heroic shit. But get this: he comes back again. This time as a slave and he leads a slave rebellion. He gets himself killed again, of course. Next time he comes back as a Reconstruction congressman. In Georgia, of all places. Real flashy kind of brother.


He gets himself killed of course.


Of course. (Beat.) So he comes back as a World War One “Negro” soldier. He survives the war, but gets himself buried alive somehow. KKK. Doesn’t matter. Comes back as a jazz musician who goes crazy. Those dudes. Happened to them all the time. All of which leads to his death, of course. Next time he comes back as a Negro novelist or something in the sixties. Sort of like my own father.




No doubt. Poisoned or something. Doesn’t matter. Something devastating. Anyway. Then comes my story. He comes back as a half-German, half-black filmmaker. Born and raised in California, attends film school in New York, works on postmodern picture about the very story we’re talking about now. So the audience learns at the end that the film the filmmaker is going to make is the film they’ve just seen. And then we pepper the historical stories with contemporary references to police shootings, Black Lives Matter, Trump. That sort of thing.


Not bad. (Beat.) You got a hook?


A hook?


A name we can drop, something like that. (Beat.) Anything?


My father’s name’s not enough?


Rather go bigger. No offense, but he got a little weird in the end.


Yeah, well. Don’t we all?


So no hook?


What about James Baldwin? Based on an idea by James Baldwin? Is that a hook?


This is based on an idea by James Baldwin?


From some essay on Ingmar Bergman.


He must’ve been drinking. (Beat.) But Bergman and Baldwin? We can use that. (Beat.) And how does it end?


With a yes. I would suggest it ends with a yes.


A yes?


The filmmaker would be pitching the script to Hollywood. And they say yes. They greenlight the film. The you character greenlights the film. There’s a sense of redemption.


And just like that. 300 years of suffering. Justified.


Through Hollywood?


That’s Hollywood.



So whaddya say?


I say this is something we can sell people.




Everyday the table moves a little closer to the television. Sooner or later one of them will have to go. Behind the television the window threatens the same. Isn’t it better to be sucked into the world instead of phantasmagoria? Possibly both, and neither; there’s been evidence they are the same.

The cell phone never jumps. It lies lifeless on the table, next to the monitor, lifeless also, though bent towards two flashing screens, never disclosed, but hastened to again, foretold to other eyes on some other screen; or so they say.

Best, then, to put the television out the window; to put the table out the window, the cell phone leaping at last, laptop and all. It’s not the luddite’s leap of faith. It’s more extraordinary than that, and less. After all we would board up the windows.

But my head is still two monitors. One of them says I must listen to the loop, and the other one says you must listen to voices. What do I say? There is no I, when I am other, a teenage boy, a grown man, a phantom limb, a visionary’s bitch.

It’s been a long ride, brother, and I wonder as I wander. Hope to see you at the crossroads. Well, don’t count on it. I already been down and back. But that was a long time ago, and besides, what kind of fool expects Scratch to hold up his end of the bargain?

Me, that’s who. You.

A War for Courts

On Mondays it’s Coltrane. It gets the week going. A little love supreme in the morning, on the 1st Ave bus uptown to 42nd Street. Office cubicles turn into soundtracks. I turn a corner on the third level of floor fifteen and these are a few of my favorite things. The coffee percolates and hums with the memory of morning on the bus, Coltrane wheezing through the exhaust.

On Tuesday I take the bus to Method. Give it to me give give it to me raw. The angles on buildings in midtown sharpen, and the sun gets suddenly brighter. Slanting against taxis and the sound of the subway the agression of crowds becomes manageable, here I am, here I am, the method man. A logic of images and myth turns cities into gateways to [g]od like ancient Babylon.

Wednesday melancholy with the Cure. Seventeen Seconds or Faith, reverberating voices like ghosts in windtunnels of buildings labyrinths of city landscapes. Ghosts of memories of my youth, halfway through the week – halfway through my life? Halfway home, change your mind, you’re always wrong.

Thursday I get silly and listen to Thriller. Then I change my mind on my last minute out the door and transform the day with Under the Cherry Moon. New York is Paris in black and white! Girls and boys walking hand in hand anticipating the weekend. You don’t have to beautiful to be my girl; I just want your extra time and New York, locked in a french kiss, turning the mundane into sheer bliss.

Friday I choose Prokofiev, because I like to begin and end the week without other voices. Its my Friday theme song: Peter’s theme propels me through the day like a wolf. I find myself laughing at disasters, and smiling at strangers. The sun goes down and the moon comes up, and the week dissolves in music.

Sometimes I see people sitting in a quietly cynical silence on the subway, and wonder how they let the city sabotage the solace of the solitary courts of their mind. It’s a harsh, violent, unfriendly, unstrange music, the music of the street. It threatens to snatch your sanity. Music maintains and defamiliarizes in beautiful dissonances all that’s become mundane.

Eulogy for Billi

Really, a eulogy for a musician ought to be a piece of music. I received the news of Billi’s passing when I woke up on the morning of October 11th. Although he’d been sick for some time, the news was unexpected, as he had already made it through some rough patches, and appeared to be possibly on the verge of a recovery. For this reason, the news came as a visceral shock. Like every morning, I walked my daughter Emma to kindergarten, and on the way back I searched for his presence in the vastness of the sky, which seemed to only respond with absence. This walk home that morning has stayed with me, though, every time I walk my daughter to school, and in this way, I think my brother has made his presence known. This was always his way – his spirituality slyly manifested itself in relationships with others; we come to be close to each other through those rituals that make up our relationships.

Family was always important for Billi. From the time I was born, he was always concerned with “taking care of his baby.” Growing up, I always knew I could depend on him for help, advice and insight. As a younger brother, I always wanted to emulate him, and I envied his wit, his intelligence, grace, charm and genius. This he expressed beautifully in his music, whether he was interpreting the work of classical and jazz musicians or playing original compositions. In fact, many of my brightest memories of my brother involve music, as he loved music in all its manifestations – from hearing him practice weekend afternoons in our apartment, where I would often complain, more because he was turning his attention away from me than because of the music he was playing, to his teaching me about classical musicians, and our going through the voluminous box sets of records of classical composers in the living room, to hearing him play the latest trends in pop music, and discovering cutting edge trends through him to learning how to listen to jazz and blues through his instruction and listening to him play and interpret the music. Friends of mine from college still remember going to see him play at the 18th Street Lounge right here in DC, with a band that updated bebop and connected it musically with rock and hip hop, and I remember a jazz brunch he played at a café across the street from University of Maryland, where the band broke out into a sudden, unexpected interpretation of the Charlie Brown Peanuts theme, which made the entire crowd break out in delighted laughter.

As a musician, he was also a lyricist, and as a lyricist, he was also a poet. In his poem, “Family,” he expresses his complex thoughts on family and spirituality.

The tensions found in balancing

more than just the opposites:

I can do to you

what I can do to noone else

But I cannot tell you

what I can tell to all the world

Nor can I heal the sick or raise

the dead or even cast out spirits

(… when I’m with you…)


I am not me –

Nor what you expected me to be

But we can dance

that awkward dance of grace

that only intimates of time

and love and hate,

disclosure and deception

From diapers, bibs and cribs to

Tights and tuxes

Tits and teeth

And even when there are no longer teeth

again we twirl upon the needle’s

head and only you can bring me

through the eye –


I cannot tell you, but I do not have

to say because you know…

you know it wrongly, so do I:


Of course – we ARE a single thread


Like a musical theme, the family is all part of a single unit, although each member of it must play their own solo, and even though the closeness of the family unit makes a full expression of the self impossible within the confines of the enclosed musical universe of the family. This is why, I think, family was so important to my brother – because he realized that in all its contradictions, there was something very fundamental about the way one relates to family and the way one relates to oneself, with all the contradictions, difficulties, uncertainties and trials that life may bring.

One of the ways Billi maintained such grace was through his spirituality. Spirituality was central to Billi’s life, and his life was a constant spiritual and intellectual journey. He was always interested in understanding where we as people came from, why we’re here, and what our purpose in this universe is. Like all the most profound spiritual philosophies, Billi’s spiritual philosophy helped him navigate the torrid seas of emotions, desires and disappointments which all people undergo, and navigate them in a way to make him a positive and inspiring example to those of us who were lucky enough to know him. He was secure enough in his spiritual beliefs, and open minded and curious enough about others’, that he was open to long, intense discussions about these ideas, and I’ll always be influenced by his penetrating insight, his humor and the aura of spirituality that he emanated in his best moments.

Intellectually, he was always at work on projects that would daunt most of us. A remarkable self-taught linguist, one of his life-long projects was the development of a new language. This is a project that dates back to our childhood, where the two of us would engage in the project of developing alternate societies while trying to make sense of our own. While I abandoned any such hope of developing my own language (my efforts were mostly pale imitations of what he was already doing), Billi persevered, and continued to develop his Dragat language throughout his life. This is no idle exercise. Between having just finished studying linguistics at University for the last two years and watching my two young daughters grow up bi-lingual, I’d argue that understanding the way humans acquire language is one of the most profound ways to understanding the way that we as people think, and this is an insight that Billi was aware of from a very young age.

Language of course, fails us, when we need it most. All language expresses only inadequately what we want it to express when we’re trying to express our deepest feelings, and there are really no words that I have to express the sadness at our loss of such a remarkable young individual. Billi has always been my greatest source of inspiration and awe, and so when I say that only a eulogy for a musician should be music, it isn’t just rhetoric – it’s an attempt to say what my brother said when he wrote those lines: “I cannot tell you, but I do not have to say because you know… You know it wrongly, so do I: Of course – we ARE a single thread.” As usual, my brother has already, in his poem, better expressed what I’m attempting to express in this eulogy. Because we are a single thread, and the loss of a family member, – for me, the loss of my brother – is a loss of part of the thread that holds me – that holds us – together, and the unravelling that follows is only mitigated by the realization that death is only another aspect of life, and his spirit, as he constantly reminds me, every morning, walking my daughter to kindergarten, is always there with me, in these complex and confounding relationships that build up family, memory and love.

I remember one winter afternoon when I spent the afternoon at my brother’s apartment. He lived right in the neighborhood of Frederick Douglass’ house, and we walked over to the house on that cold snowy afternoon to take a look at this often overlooked piece of history. I hadn’t even been aware of the fact that it was there. We walked to the top of the hill; the house was closed but from up there on the hill you can Washington spread out below, and you have this magnificent sense of history and place blending, where the past isn’t the past, and the dead are still with you, and distance is, like time, relative. In the last few years, living abroad, I’ve been distanced from my family here in the States, and time seems to distance me, as the days pass, from my brother; but then I think back to that moment on that hill where time and place dissolved, and where the past, to paraphrase Faulkner, was not even the past, and I realize that Billi is still teaching me new things, that his spirit remains with me in the musical notations of memory, and that “of course – we ARE a single thread,” and that thread never unravels, because it is the thread of time and space, which connects us all.

May his spirit continue to inspire and elevate all of us.

Response to David Orr re: Bob Dylan

I greatly enjoyed reading David Orr’s latest “On Poetry” column, in which he discusses Bob Dylan’s elevation to poet-status by the Swedish Academy. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I feel somewhat compelled to write a rebuttal, although I think I agree on many of Orr’s points. I simply disagree with the conclusions he draws from them.

To begin, since this is a partisan struggle to begin with, where one is either for Bob-Dylan-as-Nobel-Laureate, or against Bob-Dylan-as-Nobel-Laureate, I should state my own deeply ambiguous position. That is to say, I find it absolutely wonderful that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for literature, but I think the award comes several decades too late, on the one hand, and on the other hand, I can think of many more deserving bards who should probably should have received the prize before Bob Dylan: namely artists like Robert Johnson, Langston Hughes and Jimi Hendrix. My reasons for this are, just like all the decisions by the Swedish Academy, largely political, but they are culturally important as well. That is to say it’s important to honor the tradition whence the artistry comes, and Bob Dylan, by his own acknowledgment, is building largely off that tradition. In any case, this is more of a side note, as the thrust of Orr’s article was what it means to award a singer-songwriter the Nobel Prize for Literature, and it’s this argument I’m most interested in addressing.

Orr does a wonderful job of building up arguments for why song lyrics should be considered poetry, and then he deconstructs – or maybe it’s better to say he interrogates – each of those claims, and comes to the conclusion that they are all deeply problematic. The first point that he deals with is that song lyrics, when printed on a page, often look like poetry. Orr writes: “But they’re very rarely printed on a page, at least for the purpose of being read as poems. Mostly they’re printed so that people can figure out what Eddie Vedder is saying in “Yellow Ledbetter.” This is an amusing way of dismissing Eddie Vedder as a possible contender for poet, but it ignores the fact that all throughout the second half of the 20th century, plenty of poetry has been meant for performance. Spoken-word poetry is poetry; it cannot be considered anything but poetry, as it is defined by the very word. When people go hear spoken word poetry, they go to “listen to these poems.” Many spoken word poems are never written down. In fact, a New Yorker Radio Hour podcast has Bob Dylan describing the poetry of Greenwich Village street poet William “Big” Brown as “the best poetry he had ever heard.” Which leads us to the point about the Ancient Greeks. I agree wholeheartedly with Orr when he writes, “the fact that a group of people thought about something a certain way nearly three millenniums ago doesn’t seem like a compelling argument for thinking the same way today.” However, Orr’s conception of poetry is ignoring the changes that happened in poetry over the last hundred years. Street poets, spoken-word poets, and poetry as performance has changed poetry radically over the last hundred years. If poetry did not change it would become a moribund art. But Orr is describing poetry as if there have been no dramatic changes in the art form between the publication of “The Wasteland” in 1922 and today, and that strikes me as deeply problematic itself.

This leads us directly into Orr’s argument about the music. While it’s true that a song is a union of music and words, which allows songwriters to get away with even the sloppiest phrasing, Orr ignores the importance of genre in songwriting. Genres such as blues and folk music, the tradition which Dylan is coming out of, are deeply interested in language. This is something that Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown recognized very early on, and used to their advantage as “traditional” poets. Moreover, traditions like spoken-word gave rise to rap, which, beginning (arguably) with a group that defined themselves as “The Last Poets,” has often been self-consciously literary. This, again, is just another aspect of how poetry has changed over the last hundred years. To be sure, there are still plenty of traditional poets writing in the traditional words-on-page manner, but to deny that poetry has expanded beyond this is to guard an outdated conception of poetry. Changes in poetry are always met with resistance, of course. Thus, we have Peter Bayne, in 1875, writing of Walt Whitman:

The “Leaves of Grass,” under which designation Whitman includes all his poems, are unlike anything else that has passed among men as poetry. They are neither in rhyme nor in any measure known as blank verse; and they are emitted in spurts or gushes of unequal length, which can only by courtesy be called lines. Neither in form nor in substance are they poetry.

Of course, no one today denies that Whitman was a poet, and most agree he was a first-class poet; similarly, I suspect no one in a hundred years will deny that Bob Dylan is a poet. If people will not bestow the same honor on Kid Rock, it’s because Kid Rock has never fashioned himself as a poet, nor has he been interested in the poetic tradition the way Dylan has; Bob Dylan, coming out of the folk and blues traditions, publishing an (admittedly unreadable) experimental novel, and working with canonized poets such as Allen Ginsberg – and not seeming so far away from the Ginsbergian aesthetic himself – has most definitely fashioned himself as a poet, and is coming out of a very American tradition of poetry, where the line between music and poetry has blurred.

The most interesting point comes next. Orr rightly points out that by bestowing the term poet on Dylan, we are bestowing him with an honorific. Orr writes, “poetry has an unusually large and ungrounded metaphoric scope,” and this is true. Shelley told us long ago that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and suddenly everything became possible. Poetry became elevated to a level heretofore unknown, and poets have since become something like sacred priests. While I’m critical of this attitude, mostly because of the poetry-as-religion connotations implicit within it, it is nevertheless fair to say that poets, if poetry is to stay a vital art form, should remain relevant to more than just a select few, and I think poetry’s intense focus on language should be praised. So, by bestowing the honorific title of “poet” on those musical artists whose lyrics move us deeply, we are making poetry – which is to say, that close attention to language which defamilarizes the everyday and makes us look at the world anew –relevant beyond the academies and the not-very-widely-read magazines aimed at selective audiences. (read: white, college educated, upper-middle class) This is basically to say that poetry, especially good poetry, deserves the connotation of the sublime it has been awarded. Moreover, there is no confusion about where the metaphor ends and reality begins, except in the arts. As Orr admits, we all know when someone says, “that jump shot was pure poetry,” – that this has nothing to do with the creation of poetry. But any work of art containing language has the potential to challenge us, and rightly so. How do we classify Jean Toomer’s Cane? How do we classify Andre Breton’s Nadja? How, for that matter, do we classify Goethe’s nearly-unproducable Faust? As soon as language-as-a-central-concern is introduced into an art-work, the possibility of poetry arises.

Orr is right when he says Bob Dylan partly received the award because he fits the bill for the idea of a poet. This is clear enough, and this goes back to my political argument at the beginning. But just because Dylan fits the bill, well, that’s no reason to deny him the prize either. As for the prizes being awarded one-way, where musicians are recognized as poets, but poets never as musicians, suffice it to say that John Ashberry doesn’t produce albums, and so he will never be awarded a Grammy. However, Kendrick Lamar, whose To Pimp a Butterfly is built up of tracks that, line by line, develop the poem Lamar recites at the end of the album, – a poem that is unambiguously a poem, as it is recited as such, without music – did win the Grammy in 2016. Kendrick Lamar is a poet. Clearly. Just as Bob Dylan is; and I would have been delighted to see Lamar win both the Grammy and the Nobel Prize for Literature. But, then, I suspect that’s too radical a step for the Academy to take anytime in the next fifty years.

– Whit Frazier

Eulogy for Rodger Jacobs

I humbly think of Humboldt, who is himself an allegory; or I could trace these allegories back to their sources: Hermes, or Eshu, these divinities of tricksters; but damn, brother, we writers aren’t even fooling ourselves at the end of the day, the way we write our lives in catachreses. Clearly, I’m still searching for the right words. They say they saw you a few days before the fall, weak and worn and worried away like a wish in a wishing well, still waiting. That’s the way of things, I guess. They release you from the hospital and you walk your way home to the morgue your damn self.

It’s the journey we’re all of us making, and what matters is what we make of it along the way. No one can say you didn’t give it your all. Couldn’t sit at a desk like a dullard dulling the days away, but rather rewrote life as a series of noir scenes, dreams of a livelier life among the dregs of modern day doldrums of deadly boredoms. I humbly think of Humboldt, hanging out in the bowery, hat hanging low, dirty, lousy, lazy and inspired. Joyous in his madness and always on his way to his next drink. It’s the sober light of morning, the six o clock sun rising orange red between the cenotaphic buildings that shocks; a shock too bright to bear. Maybe just best to sleep the days away.

Is there a soul, do we come back, do we move on, or do we disappear, words writ on water? Well, you certainly had your soul mate, your Charlotte, even if we lack souls to share with our soul mates. It’s the only thing we can ask for in this crisis of recurring mornings; a little bit of love, and if the soul is illusory, then love is illusory, and then that means living without illusions is a tragedy not worth entertaining, because living without love is probably not really living. And loving without a soul is not loving, but responding, biologically, to the machine, these cities, these cenotaphic buildings. I humbly think of Humboldt: this purgatory of living without illusions and the crafting of perfect illusions is the impossible task of every writer, stuck on the threshold between night and dawn, lucidly dreaming.

RIP Rodger & Lela

Bleeding Past the Margin

Early in Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge, the reluctant heroine, small-time fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow, is rescued from reviewing the file of the “dim and overextended” Uncle Dizzy, a “Crazy Eddie” Antar-like fraudster, by the arrival of an old friend, Reg Despard. She considers herself, for the moment, “Saved. She puts aside the folder, which like a good koan will have failed to make sense anyway.” Of course, this being a novel by Thomas Pynchon, who is known for his labyrinthine plots that obfuscate meaning rather than illuminate it, Maxine is just putting aside one koan for another.

The koan, a brief Buddhist story or parable meant to provoke doubt and uncertainty in the listener, will make various appearances throughout the novel, whether delivered by her friend March Kelleher, a left wing activist blogger, or by Maxine’s personal Guru, Shawn, a flaky mystic with occasional moments of lucidity, who takes the place of a psychotherapist. Although the novel is already peppered with these little parables, the unmentioned koan at the center of this aggressively postmodern novel is Thomas Pynchon’s own early novel, The Crying of Lot 49, which Bleeding Edge unmistakably echoes.

The similarities between the two novels are striking: where Crying concerns the postal service and delivery of information through companies both mainstream and underground, fictional and historical, Bleeding Edge concerns itself with the Internet, and more specifically, the Deep Web, those underground networks unreachable by search engines; and where Crying follows the story of a woman who, one by one, loses the men around her to the mystery confounding her, Bleeding Edge follows the story of a woman who ultimately has to decide between losing her familial attachments, or losing herself down the unsolvable maze of mystery, which is the pseudo-plot of this information-novel.

This mystery involves an Internet company, which is run by Internet mogul,Gabriel Ice. Reg is an amateur film bootlegger who has stumbled into respectability, and has been hired by Gabriel Ice to make a film about the dotcom firm, although apparently his access to some necessary data has been restricted, and data which is impossible to find except via the Deep Web. Figuring he’s encountered a problem he needs to take to someone he can trust, he approaches Maxine about investigating the company to see what she can uncover. She doesn’t uncover much. Instead she finds herself burrowing down rabbit holes that lead to more rabbit holes that eventually lead to a possible conspiracy behind the September 11 terrorist attacks. The plot, much like that of Crying, involves not so much a solving of the case, as it does a series of introductions to a varied cast of eccentric and unlikely characters. If Pynchon is rewriting Crying for the Internet age, the question is why.

The obvious answer is that this is perfect Pynchon territory. Where the mail system allowed Pynchon to delve into the fundamentally fraudulent and corruptible network of information we receive from the media via newspapers, the radio, and even personal communication, the Internet allows Pynchon to investigate this deep paranoia in a globalized setting, where the information really is, as Pynchon puts it in Crying, “Ones and zeroes… there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.” The second, and perhaps more interesting answer, has to do with Pynchon’s approach to language in Crying, and his approach to language in Bleeding Edge. In the introduction to his book of short stories, Slow Learner, Pynchon writes,

I had published a novel and thought I knew a thing or two, but for the first time I believe I was also beginning to shut up and listen to the American voices around me, even to shift my eyes away from printed sources and take a look at American nonverbal reality. I was out on the road at last, getting to visit the places Kerouac had written about. These towns and Greyhound voices and fleabag hotels have found their way into this story, and I am pretty content with how it holds up… The next story I wrote was The Crying of Lot 49, which was marketed as a ‘novel,’ and in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up till then.

If we’re to take Pynchon at his word, it seems he feels the high literary prose style he employed in Crying did a disservice to a book that’s considered so central to his vision. In tone, for all their other similarities, Bleeding Edge could not be more different than Crying. Where Crying is hyper-literary, Bleeding Edge is saturated with “American voices,” in particular those of New York City circa 2001. There are references to Britney Spears, Ally McBeal, the Jay-Z and Nas beef, DC’s old punk rock hangout, the 9:30 Club, first person shooter video games, Ben Stiller, Ben & Jerry’s, Edward Norton, and so on. The language throughout is chatty, sarcastic and smart, even when it conveys dread in Pynchon’s peculiar poetry:

They gaze at each other for a while, down here on the barroom floor of history, feeling sucker-punched, no clear way to get up and on with a day which is suddenly full of holes—family, friends, friends of friends, phone numbers on the Rolodex, just not there anymore… the bleak feeling, some mornings, that the country itself may not be there anymore, but being silently replaced screen by screen with something else, some surprise package, by those who’ve kept their wits about them and their clicking thumbs ready.

This is, naturally, the feeling at the bottom of many of Pynchon’s novels, especially Crying of Lot 49. The language here, however, is Pynchon at his most colloquial and contemporary. The colloquial, chatty American voice is one he has employed before, most notably in Mason & Dixon, which is written as oral history; but now, because it’s so close to the present moment, it’s startling. Pynchon’s novels generally deal with crucial times in American history. What makes Bleeding Edge different is that Pynchon not only tackles a time that’s very near to us, but also one that, because of its proportions, makes it a very ambitious task, especially when attempting to do so with such a relaxed vernacular.

This event, of course, is September 11, 2001. In Pynchon’s universe, conspiracy has to lie at the heart of the attacks, even if it’s only in the public imagination. The event doesn’t occur until the last third of the novel, and it seems somehow tied to the video Reg Despard is shooting, the enormous financial empire of, and the people involved in the very conspiracy Maxine is investigating. Nevertheless, we are all guilty. Maxine’s friend, March Kelleher, who increasingly finds herself at the margins of society after the attacks, posts the following on her blog:

But there’s still always the other thing. Our yearning. Our deep need for it to be true. Somewhere, down deep at some shameful dark recess of the national soul, we need to feel betrayed, even guilty. As if it was us who created Bush and his gang, Cheney and Rove and Rumsfeld and Feith and the rest of them – we who called down the sacred lightning of ‘democracy,’ and then the fascist majority on the Supreme Court threw the switches, and Bush rose from the slab and began his rampage. And whatever happened then is on our ticket.

In the meantime, every conspiracy theory from the early days after September 11 makes an appearance: Bush and company conspiracies, Mossad conspiracies, Corporate Capitalism conspiracies. The mystery basically remains, like all mysteries in a Pynchon novel, unsolvable. Perhaps the only thing that can be said is not to believe everything you read in “the Newspaper of Record… Out in the vast undefined anarchism of cyberspace, among the billions of self-resonant fantasies, dark possibilities are beginning to emerge.” But to remain entangled in the conspiracies, without any direction or idea of where to look, or how to go about investigating the events that occur to us, leaves us at an impasse. Either we can find ourselves increasingly distanced from our lives and our society, like March Kelleher, or we can stay suspended in a state of semi-consciousness, like Maxine Tarnow appears to be at the end of Bleeding Edge:

Maxine has a quick cup of coffee and leaves March and Tallis with a tableful of breakfast to revisit their food issues. Heading back to the apartment to pick up the boys and see them to school, she notices a reflection in a top-floor window of the gray dawn sky, clouds moving across a blear of light, unnaturally bright, maybe the sun, maybe something else. She looks east to see what it might be, but whatever it is shining there is still, from this angle, behind the buildings, causing them to inhabit their own shadows. She turns the corner onto her block and leaves the question behind. It isn’t till she’s in the elevator of her building that she begins to wonder, actually, whose turn it is to take the kids to school. She’s lost track.

It may turn out to be impossible to write an entirely satisfying novel about the Internet, and especially about September 11. Both the Internet and 9/11 involve looping webs of information and misinformation that become confused in the very visceral way they continue to impact our day-to-day lives. Pynchon has taken the shrewd tactic of writing his book as an historical novel, thus allowing himself to document the fear, paranoia, hysteria and confusion of the time, as well as the more superficial and lazy ways we’ve learned to interact with each other. In doing so he manages to write a book that at the very least won’t become dated as the technology changes more rapidly than any novelist can keep pace with, and as the theories about September 11 fall more and more into the realm of inaccurate memories and political and historical rewriting. But he has also failed to write a satisfying novel about these events, either on a personal or political level. He may not have been interested in such a novel. This is a novel full of chatter; memories, along with personal and political narratives, get lost in the thick of it.

How are we supposed to read this novel then, other than as a bizarre fraudulent, fictional documentary that employs hundreds of pop-culture references and genre nods, from the Chandleresque to the Gibsonian? In the face of a historical narrative we are increasingly more distanced from, the question of personal remembering and narrative become especially important, and Pynchon likes to leave us feeling the same impasse his characters feel. The Crying of Lot 49 achieves this end more successfully and poignantly than Bleeding Edge, which leaves us mostly with a feeling of spiritual exhaustion through an excess of chatter, and a shortage of self-determination. The characters are here one day, and gone the next, only to reappear again in different form. They die, only to reappear again as avatars; they shapeshift without warning, and apparently without even the realization that they are doing so. Self-determination is impossible.

Every schoolday morning on the way the Kugelblitz, she’s been noticing the same three kids waiting on the corner for a school bus, Horace Mann or one of them, and maybe the other morning there was some fog, maybe the fog was inside her, some incompletely dissipated dream, but what she saw this time, standing in exactly the same spot, was three middle-aged men, gray-haired, less youthfully tuned out, and yet she knew, shivering a little, that these were the same kids, the same faces, only forty, fifty years older. Worse, they were looking at her with a queer knowledgeable intensity, focusing personally on her, sinister in the dimmed morning air. She checked the street. Cars were no more advanced in design, nothing beyond the usual police and military traffic was passing or hovering overhead, the low-rise holdouts hadn’t been replaced with anything taller, so it still had to be “the present,” didn’t it? Something then, must’ve happened to these kids. But next morning all was back to “normal.” The kids as usual were paying no attention to her.

Essentially, all of Pynchon’s novels, have at their heart, the necessary human task of self-determination, a process that is inherently political – whether that be through a renunciation of political affiliations and activism, as is the case with Maxine Tarnow, or an alienating embrace of activism, which can only lead to circles of paranoia and doubt, as in the case of March Kelleher—and also inherently spiritual, as any process of self-determination requires the individual to take responsibility for her own personal narrative, despite living in an historical age when any form of communication is potentially a form of miscommunication. “Spiritual exercise,” as Maxine calls her preparation for work on Uncle Dizzy’s case near the beginning of the novel. And while Maxine is admittedly, as she herself recognizes, not the most spiritually empowered individual, she does develop by slow degrees. At the end of the novel her attitude toward the political and the spiritual is contrasted with March Kelleher’s in the aftermath of having Gabriel Ice at gunpoint. Maxine decides to let him go.

“March lights a joint and after a while, paraphrasing Cheech & Chong, drawls, “I woulda shot him, man.”

“You heard what he said. I think this is in his contract with the Death Lords he works for. He’s protected. He walked away from a loaded handgun, that’s all. He’ll be back. Nothing’s over.”

No, nothing’s over. It’s worth remembering that only forty-five days after September 11, the United States passed the Patriot Act. This Constitutionally questionable (at best) Act allows the United States Government unprecedented authorization to track phone, Internet, and wire communications, as well as unprecedented authorization to freeze and seize assets of suspected terrorists, and detain terrorist suspects, potentially indefinitely, without trial. If we look at the history of presidential doctrines since World War Two that have preceded this act, from the Truman Doctrine of 1947, in which Truman promised to help stop the spread of Communism worldwide, with military force if need be, to the Carter Doctrine of 1980, in which Carter proclaimed, “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force,” a pattern seems to emerge, in which all these Doctrines appear to be in service of expanding the United States’ power and influence in the Middle East, with Communism as the scapegoat. In a post Cold-War world, there is no one left to fight for control of the Middle East other than the inhabitants themselves. The passing of the Patriot Act not only effectively makes any Arab a potential terror suspect, with or without trial, thus rendering them an enemy of the state, it also gives the United States the benefit of being able to actively monitor and regulate the newest bleeding edge technology, Internet communication, giving the government primary control of the way the world disseminates and receives narrative information.

That of course reads as a conspiracy theory so thick it seems to lack probability. The slimy character Windust puts it this way: “You people want to believe this was all a false-flag caper, some invisible superteam, forging the intel, faking the Arabic chatter, controlling air traffic, military communications, civilian news media – everything coordinating without a hitch or a malfunction, the whole tragedy set up to look like a terror attack. Please. My wised-up civilian heartbreaker. Guess what. Nobody in the business is that good.”

It’s the response we expect from Windust’s character, but maybe he has a point. It’s the same question Oedipa Mass, after all is confronted with at the end of Crying of Lot 49, and which she at first dismisses as ridiculous. “Has it ever occurred to you, Oedipa, that somebody’s putting you on? That this is all a hoax, maybe something Invariarty set up before he died?” But how can that be? Then again, how else to explain the inexplicable?

In the absence of any larger narrative that makes sense, where all channels of power, money, government and communication are intertwined, and the media’s attempts to untangle them seem, at best, as naïve and groping as we are, and at worst, blithely complicit, the need for a narrative that makes sense to us, either personal or political, becomes crucial, life or death. In Pynchon’s vision, this only leads us back full circle to our two examples: Kelleher, the political on the one hand, and Tarnow, the spiritual, on the other. And neither one of these women seems comfortable with where they land.


-Whit Frazier, First published in GC Advocate, November 2013


When I was eighteen years old I decided I wanted to die decadently. My girlfriend’s best friend had just moved out of her house, and her mother, a realtor, was still trying to sell it. I moved in in the meantime. It was the middle of January. My girlfriend gave me a hundred dollars. I decided I would write my memoirs as a series of elegies, and when the money ran out, I’d put my head in the oven like Sylvia Plath.

No one knew about my plan to kill myself. They thought I was a hero for running away from home and school and life to do nothing but sit in an empty house, write and smoke cigarettes. I thought I was a hero too, but for all sorts of different reasons.

I couldn’t use any electricity, because no utilities could show up on the meter of the empty house, or someone would come to check it out. Probably the cops. So I sat in that cold dark house day in day out, into the night where I wrote by candlelight, and woke up in the morning cold and distorted and hungry.

The first few nights were the hardest. I was too cold to sleep, and lots of times too cold to write. The sounds of the house settling in the January snow made the dark hallways shiver behind short gasps of candle flame. I lay out flat on the cold linoleum kitchen floor and watched the candle toss shadows from the sink and the freezer and the cabinet on my stacks of notebook paper.

The mornings were blessings. I could write all day and take long walks in the snow. One morning I realized I was no longer a part of society. I was free, and every moment of my life was felt, like I’d never thought about it before. I smoked cigarettes all afternoon, and wrote, putting the butts out in a glass filled with snow, so they would hiss. When my stomach retched from lack of food, I ran outside and watched it steam on the snow beneath where I threw my still smoking cigarette and felt closer to life and death and health and disease than I felt even to my own sense of ego.

By the end of the second week, I didn’t even feel the need to write anymore. It was wonderful. I was delirious, having conversations with shadows I called watchers who watched me while I watched back and they warned me that the dead are watchers, so watch how you live. I was warm and cold, delirious all the time, hazy, like the flame of the candle taking shadows of icicles in the kitchen window, and throwing them into my chest, all in alliance with the moon.

I was almost out of money, so I went Ice Skating one night, drunk drinking cheap red on a nearby lake and waited for the ice to crack. I walked back to the house, and grabbed the head of a snowman on the way. Back inside the house I put the head in a pan, opened the door of the oven, and told him: “You first.”

After he was finished, I drank his remains from the pan, and looked into the mouth of that oven. I got sick on the floor, and retched around for about half an hour before I fell asleep. When I woke my mother was there. I don’t know how she found me. I thought I was still hallucinating. She told me: “It’s your choice. You can stay here and write your memoirs and die, or you can come home with me and live out the rest of your life.”

I went with her, of course. The rest of my life was all I had.

-Whit Frazier, 2006

The Waterlilygardengirl


There was once a young girl who lived in a water lily garden. She would spend all day in her garden, away from the rest of the sad world, reposing in the charms of its beauty. She would bathe in the clear sapphire pool, sliding her long and slender fingers over the floating lilies, or lie amidst the soft and dreaming verdure, listening to the tender flutes of the birds. Her only companion in this strange and beautiful world was a swan named Chanticleer who would often amuse her with the most delightful conversation. They would sit and talk for hours about the joys of life, the wonder of their world and all the magic to be found in their water lily garden, so complicated and lovely, a lifetime would not be enough to talk about all its myriad nuances. They never discussed the world beyond them and they never thought about it.

But one day as they were sitting in their lovely garden talking about lovely things, a bored little cat made his way somehow into the scene. At first the Waterlilygardengirl and Chanticleer were alarmed, but when they realized that the cat was not dangerous, rather he was somewhat indolent, they welcomed him in.

“Where do you come from?” asked the Waterlilygardengirl.

“I am from the land of floating ice,” said the cat, “but I left in search of new places. I had nothing to do.”

“Did you have no one to talk with?” the Waterlilygardengirl asked.

“There was,” the cat replied,” a penguin who used to visit from time to time, but I don’t think he liked the place very much either.”

“Well you can stay here with us,” said the Waterlilygardengirl. “You will like it here.”

But the cat just yawned, looking around himself distastefully. “No thank you,” he said. “This place is the most boring place I have seen yet. Maybe I should just go back to the land of floating ice.”

With that much said, the cat turned and walked out of the water lily garden.

“Well what do you make of that!” demanded Chanticleer, who was unusually sensitive, and had taken the cat’s boredom to heart.

But the Waterlilygardengirl didn’t say anything. She had been affected by what the cat had said in a different way, and she was wondering what lay beyond her world.

“Perhaps,” she said to Chanticleer the next day, “if I try to reason it out I can figure out what’s out there without having to leave at all.”

“Leave!” cried Chanticleer in dismay, “certainly you wouldn’t just leave.”

“But if I must,” the Waterlilygardengirl said. “Because I want to know what is out there.”

“But you have never been concerned about that before,” argued Chanticleer, “and you have always been happy just staying here.”

But the Waterlilygardengirl could not be convinced. All day long she tried to discover what was in the world that lurked beyond hers and what it was like, how big it was, what other types of creatures there were; but what intrigued her most of all was the mysterious land of floating ice where the bored cat lived. At night she couldn’t sleep, and the little sleep she did get was filled up with strange dreams of the outside world and the way that it must look, although all these images just appeared to be bizarre adaptations of the water lily garden. At last, finding her reason completely helpless in the effort, she determined to leave the water lily garden and go in search of the land of floating ice.

Chanticleer was not happy to hear it. “Well I’m certainly not going,” he insisted, “and if you ask me it is a waste of time. What will I do here all by myself? Why I might end up like that troublesome cat!”

“But Chanticleer,” the Waterlilygardengirl replied, somewhat hurt, “don’t you have any desire to see what it is like out there. What if it is even more beautiful than it is here? Think of all we could talk about and delight in!”

But Chanticleer wouldn’t hear a word of it. “I think that the whole thing is silly and that’s final!”

So at last they parted ways, and many a tear was shed, although Chanticleer will insist that only the Waterlilygardengirl cried. And thus, the Waterlilygardengirl left the water lily garden.


The first thing that she saw upon leaving the garden was a landscape of trees stretching all around as far as the eye could see. There were no ponds and there were no swans and the ground was rough with sticks and stones and large plants. The Waterlilygardengirl began to walk very slowly, not quite sure which direction she should take. She was overwhelmed by the vastness of everything and she even felt somewhat dizzy. Oh, how was she to find her way back in this most cruel of labyrinths.

And yet everything was still terribly pretty! The large oak trees that anchored themselves to sky, rising in majesty on all sides of her, the blanket of leaves, a green filter of light over a sheet of serene blue sky made her tremble with ecstasy, for there was nothing that she loved more than beauty. The song of the birds was a thousand times greater than anything she had ever heard, the intertwining melodies like slow heavy drops of rain plashing in a pond. Beguiled into this lush world of prettiness, the Waterlilygardengirl wandered through the forest in a dreaming daze, one of those rare trances of imagination in which we seem to have an experience with setting. There were so many things she had never seen before and so many places to explore. Did it ever end? she wondered.

But soon night fell and it grew dark. The Waterlilygardengirl became very frightened. The moon and stars, which had always been her solace and delight at night, were obscured behind the dark and prating shadows of the leaves overhead. Heavy with terror the Waterlilygardengirl resolved to lay down and sleep away the horrible night. But nightmarish thoughts haunted her the moment she lay still enough to hear her heart beating, and so at last she was forced to keep walking, slowly through the hated night. But every sound was a fresh terror and finally, with so much fear built up within her, she began to run frantically through the chasing night. When dawn broke she was exhausted and she fell asleep.

It wasn’t until late afternoon that the Waterlilygardengirl woke up again. She looked around herself, and found that she was still lost amidst the forest, and now she had no idea how to return to her beloved water lily garden. Perhaps Chanticleer had been right after all! She tried to appreciate the beauty of the forest, but she was so distracted by all of her fears that she couldn’t enjoy anything at all. On top of that it would be night again in several hours! The Waterlilygardengirl felt very helpless. The forest seemed to her like a coffin. She pulled herself up against a great big weeping willow and started to cry. Whatever was she to do?

It just so happened that about this time the cat had been wandering the forest reflecting on how bored he was. He turned the thoughts over in his head: should I go back home? But it’s so boring there! Yes, but it’s boring here too. Well for now I guess I will just walk around a little bit more. As he contemplated these probing questions he heard someone weeping a little way off.

“Well that’s very unusual,” the cat said to himself. “Perhaps this will provide me with something to do!” And so he trotted off in the direction of the voice. It was not long before he came upon the Waterlilygardengirl, who was sitting against a weeping willow tree with her face in her palms and her hair falling all about her face and hands and shaking shoulders.

“Why if it’s not the happy Waterlilygardengirl!” the cat exclaimed with surprise.

“I’m not so happy these days as you can see,” the poor girl wept, “for I’ve lost my way in these large and scary trees.”

“Not to worry,” the cat responded brilliantly, “for I know the way back to your water lily garden- I’m quite good with direction as I have nothing better to do than wander about all the time.”

The Waterlilygardengirl’s eyes lit up. “Oh, but will you take me there?”

“Certainly. Follow me.”

“But wait one little minute mister cat,” the girl said suddenly, seizing upon an idea. “Won’t you show me the land of floating ice first?”

“I can’t imagine why you would want to go there,” the cat said, turning the idea over in his head. His friend the penguin was sure not to visit for a good long while, and some conversation might not be bad, it might even take the edge off the boredom, and so he replied after some deliberation: “but seeing how dull the water lily garden must get, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”

And so the two of them went on their way to the land of floating ice.


The land of floating ice was much more bizarre than anything that the Waterlilygardengirl could have imagined on her own. The foliage was sparse and pale, jutting out of tiny crags of rocks that loomed up morosely through the water. The water itself was unlike any water the Waterlilygardengirl had known. It was a cold scintillating blue that reflected the gray indifferent sky. Large chunks of floating ice drifted through the water, and these were the only pieces of solid ground on which to stand- the larger ones were anyway. Pale and barren trees reached up like skeletons from the frigid waters and the sun, dim in the gray clouds cast a loveless and chilly glow over everything.

“This is my home,” the cat said pleasantly, “what do you think of it?” The cat was eagerly awaiting her horrified response.

“But it’s so strange,” said the Waterlilygardengirl. “Everything is dead.”

“Yes,” the cat replied.

“And yet it is very pretty.”

“Pretty!” cried the cat. “You’ve gone mad!”

“Why no,” said the Waterlilygardengirl, dazzled by the setting’s gentle death. “It mesmerizes me.” And indeed it did, for she was once again in a dreaming daze, one of those rare trances of imagination in which we seem to have an experience with setting.

“And shall we be going back to the water lily garden now?” asked the cat.

“But I think I’d like to stay here from now on,” said the Waterlilygardengirl, and her voice was just a little murmur.

The cat wouldn’t hear of it. “This is no place for someone like you. What will you do for company? I certainly don’t plan to stay here – and there’s the penguin, but he can be very disagreeable.”

Figuring he’d settled the matter, the cat turned back toward the Waterlillygardengirl and repeated: “And shall we be going back to the water lily garden now?” But the Waterlilygardengirl didn’t respond, for she was beautifully dead: pale, jagged and frozen like the trees.

-Whit Frazier, 1998


The Parable of the Plague

There was once a land where greed had gained the upper hand. Everyone knew this. Everyone acknowledged it. Everyone accepted it. Folks simply considered it a natural quality of the land, and most of them secretly hoped to find themselves rich enough one day to exert their own greedy influence over the others who hadn’t managed their way to such an elevated position. Things might have carried on this way indefinitely, but perhaps inevitably, a terrible and excruciatingly painful plague was visited upon the people of the land, and many of them became deathly ill. The contagion spread, and only those who had enough money to keep themselves distanced from the general populace were able to remain healthy.

During this time, there were three people who saw the spread of the disease, and thought they might be able to do something about it. The first was a doctor from a prestigious institution; the second was a petty thuggish drug peddler; the third was an enigmatic conjurer. All three began treating patients with varying degrees of success. The doctor had an expensive prescription for the disease which he would only give to those who were able to afford his exorbitant fees. His prescription did not cure the disease at all, however. It simply quieted the symptoms long enough for the patient to purchase another dose of the prescription. The drug-peddler offered his patients a cheap drug which alleviated the painful symptoms of the disease, but which actually made the patients sicker, and ever more dependent on the drug he was giving them. The conjurer, on the other hand, searched long and wide, and found the source of the disease itself, which had arisen from the peculiar imbalance that occurs in the human animal when greed becomes his sole reason for being. He then set about curing his patients for free, simply by curing them of their desire for material wealth.

The doctor was so threatened by this conjurer, that he went to his important institution and asked them to do something about him. He figured he could take care of the drug peddler himself by simply showing that his product did not make his patients sicker; since he and the drug peddler were both offering more or less the same solution, he figured it would be an easy appeal to the reason of his customers that his product was the superior one; but the conjurer presented a real problem. The institution obliged his request, and immediately banned conjurers from treating patients. Conjuring was fraud, they argued; only physical drugs could cure physical ailments. Just to be sure, they locked the conjurer up for fraud, and thus eliminated him from the competition.

This left just the doctor and the drug dealer. The doctor’s remedies appeared at first to be good, but unfortunately for his patients, the dosage had to be constantly increased, and the price continued to increase as well. For those who could afford it, this was a satisfactory remedy, but everyone else had to rely on the wares of the drug peddler. As more and more people bought their drugs from the drug peddler instead of the doctor, the doctor became more and more incensed. He went to his institution and demanded that they do something. The institution obliged, and issued a statement saying that the drug peddler was dangerous, that his drugs were killing his patients, as indeed they were. When this public statement had no effect, the doctor grew so incensed that his greed overcame his own senses, and he too fell ill. Unable to procure the expensive ingredients for his own treatment, he too began to use the drugs of the drug peddler, and before long, the doctor passed away.

Such was the way of things. Needless to say, the land could not survive long under these conditions. Eventually all the citizens perished of their cardinal sin, and to this day, they remain unmissed and unmourned.


–  Whit Frazier, November 10, 2016