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 hashslingrz.com, 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 hashlingrz.com, 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

Snowman

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

I

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.

II

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.

III

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

The Reinvention of the Rebirth of Cool (Obama & Jay-Z) – A Ramble

Obama says in his excellent memoir, Dreams From my Father that after going through the works of the great black writers from the first half of the twentieth century, he found that art lacked the redemptive power he had been looking for in it:

“In every page of every book, in Bigger Thomas and invisible men, I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. Even Du Bois’ learning and Baldwin’s love and Langston’s humor eventually succumbed to its corrosive force, each man finally forced to doubt art’s redemptive power, each man finally forced to withdraw, one to Africa, one to Europe, one deeper into the bowels of Harlem, but all of them in the same weary flight, all of them exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels. Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will.”

It’s an understandable position (even if it only shows the most basic knowledge of the biographies of DuBois, Baldwin and Hughes) – and it’s finally the one which both Obama, as politician, and Jay-Z, as artist, embraced. After all, Malcolm does manage to overcome that one obstacle neither of the other three men mentioned ever does- he becomes a different kind of public figure toward the end of his life than he had been at the beginning: DuBois, despite his flirtation with Communism, eventually became discouraged by the entire American experiment, and left the country for Ghana; Baldwin certainly believed in self-reinvention (he even posits a myth of self-reinvention he imagined writing, but never did, in an essay in Nobody Knows My Name), but never got past being the “Negro writer”, and Langston Hughes, Jazz Poet and former Communist, never lived down his position as an agitator, even after he was forced to renounce his Communist ties in the McCarthy hearings. I was discussing something like this with people the other day. We make choices, people make decisions about who we are, and from there they paint us into these roles, and we find ourselves increasingly unable to escape from them. If life is a journey, and art is the vehicle, it’s a vehicle that doesn’t allow us to move beyond who we used to be in the eyes and judgement of others; and that hinders our own spiritual progress. Only “through sheer force of will” can we hope to reinvent ourselves in the eyes of others, and escape the self doubt and self-contempt that come with being locked in a role.

This is the type of public figure Obama was hoping to be.

With the rise of pop culture, especially in music, self-reinvention became part of the act. From David Bowie to Lady Gaga, our popular music artists have been able, “through sheer force of will” to go from being one type of artist to the next, and then the next, and then on to the next one. So when Jay-Z debuted in 1990s with “Reasonable Doubt” he was definitely coming on the scene as an outsider artist. All his friends were getting deals – Biggie had just dropped an album, and then came Nas’ debut – two of his good friends. But no one would sign Jay. So he took his album, made copies, and sold them out of the back of his trunk. It was mid-90’s and everyone loved an underground rapper. Jay-Z made it clear on his first album that although he was underground, he had no intention of staying there: “Nine to five is how to survive – I ain’t trying to survive / I’m trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot.”

So we have Obama and Jay-Z, two ambitious young men struggling to make a name and a place for themselves in the world, while at the same time trying to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors. It’s admirable, and really what we all do. But it goes beyond that. The two men really seem to be spiritual soul-mates in their beliefs. Jay-Z never intended to use art as a means to transform and uplift the community. He never thought that was possible. He believed in transforming and uplifting the community, but he believed it was done through personal responsibility and community building:

“Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute
Ace, turn that music down
I smell some reefer, now you see?
That’s why, our people don’t have anything
Because we don’t know how to go in places and act properly
(“Hey shut the fuck up!”)
Wait a minute wait a minute who told me shut the eff up?
Who told me to shut the eff up? Get him out of here
I’m not gonna continue this show, until you throw him out
Get him out right now, then I’ma continue my speech
Thank you, he’s out of here now, now like I was sayin
We gotta build our own business, we gotta get our own
record companies goin like Roc-A-Fella Records…”

The same holds true for Obama. Obama, abandoning the idea that literature alone could be redemptive, moved to Chicago and decided, instead of making a lot of money with his Harvard degree, to be a community activist in an unfamiliar town; and he started right in the black communities – the churches and the community meetings, where he hoped to expand and build on his vision. And just like Jay-Z, his ambition was as great as ever. Could he have imagined he’d be president of the United States someday? I think that’s where he was hoping to end up – a long shot sure – just like Jay-Z, (whose Roc-A-Fella Records um… Corporation, was just the trunk of truck) hoped that someday his company would be a huge capitalist player. As we know, both men saw their dreams to fruition.

I’m a fan of both men, with reservations. For one thing, I still can’t side with Obama when he says art lacks the redemptive power he was looking for. Wallace Thurman, the enfant terrible of the Harlem Renaissance, died in the very hospital one of his novels set out to condemn, declaring the Harlem Renaissance a failure; and DuBois and Alain Locke, the older, educated statesmen of the Renaissance (because if we’re going to talk about black literature, we almost have to start with the Renaissance) later agreed the experiment had been a failure. Well, it was in some extraordinary ways. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance were many and varied, and it was a self-conscious movement to create a redemptive black arts with a lot of artists of widely ranging talents, most of ranging pretty low. But then again, it was also a stellar success.

II

My criticism of Obama and Jay-Z comes with their inability to see how redemptive the arts really are. The redemptive power of the arts is one that begins with the self, and finally ends with others. So, while Hughes and Baldwin may have been, to some extent, locked in roles they were assigned by the public, these were powerful roles, and really had little to do with the artists’ ultimate individual freedom. As early as 1927, Zora Hurston could travel around towns in the south that were widely illiterate, and report back that when she read from Langston Hughes’ Fine Clothes for the Jew, “the listeners loved it. In fact, they loved it so much, the referred to it as, de party book.” It was a book that made them laugh at themselves, and learn about themselves by listening to themselves refracted through Langston Hughes’ play of voice and blues. In short it did what art is supposed to do – it touched, moved and challenged them.

In some ways Jay-Z taps into this same wellspring, but he doesn’t do it with the same love that Langston brings to it, and for that reason, like most rappers, he’s not meeting his audience where they are, but speaking to them from where they hope someday to be – “big pimpin’, spending cheese.”

That’s cool; only it’s a disconnect with everyday life, and really Jay-Z only loves his audience so long as they love him back. Power, as power always does, becomes its own reward, and the search for power in the hopes of redeeming yourself and your people, be it black folk or the American people at large, gets lost in power’s greedy demands; power only needs people inasmuch as it needs more and more power for the wielder of it.

Nas recognized this, and in his classic “Ether” calls Jay-Z on it:

“Y’all niggas deal with emotions like bitches
What’s sad is I love you ’cause you’re my brother
You traded your soul for riches
My child, I’ve watched you grow up to be famous
And now I smile like a proud dad, watching his only son that made it
You seem to be only concerned with dissing women
Were you abused as a child, scared to smile, they called you ugly?
Well life is hard, hug me, don’t reject me
Or make records to disrespect me, blatent or indirectly
In ’88 you was getting chased through your building
Calling my crib and I ain’t even give you my numbers
All I did was gave you a style for you to run with
Smiling in my face, glad to break bread with the god
Wearing Jaz chains, no tecs, no cash, no cars
No jail bars Jigga, no pies, no case
Just Hawaiian shirts, hanging with little Chase
You a fan, a phony, a fake, a pussy, a Stan
I still whip your ass, you thirty-six in a karate class
You Tae-bo hoe, tryna’ work it out, you tryna’ get brolic?
Ask me if I’m tryna’ kick knowledge-
Nah, I’m tryna’ kick the shit you need to learn though
That ether, that shit that make your soul burn slow”

Art’s redemptive power, then, isn’t always something you expect to come quickly, or even in your lifetime – or even in the lifetime of the next generation of readers necessarily. It becomes something that’s part of the cultural history, and must be done for personal redemption, so that others who come later can see how that manifests itself through the work. There are many layers of self-invention if you follow the works of Langston Hughes. The same is true for James Baldwin, and especially true for WEB DuBois. For all their mistakes and missteps and backsteps and frustration with the public, they were always true to the process of self-reinvention. They didn’t have to do it through “sheer force of will.” Redemption and self-reinvention is part of art’s process.

The politician or corporate mogul, on the other hand, only reinvents for the public. Just as redemption and reinvention are part of art’s process, moral compromise is part and parcel of politics and big business. So every reinvention for the politician or mogul, is in essence, a compromise, and a selling out of those who placed their faith in you. I may not know why Obama makes the decisions he makes; maybe strategically, he’s right about the things he does I disagree with. But it gets harder and harder to look for and spiritual guidance in a man whose job is to tell you only a portion of the truth. It’s the same reason Jay-Z’s so charming. It’s easy to be charming with so few blemishes. His vulnerabilities all look so cool: “I can’t see ’em coming down my eyes, so I gotta make the song cry.”

It may not be cool to struggle through “the same anguish, the same doubt” that Hughes and Baldwin struggled with; but it’s part of life and art, and life redeems itself on the other side of suffering.

-Whit Frazier (January 2010)

The Red Nova

Beneath the BQE, trapped in
The subway tracks elevated above
Broadway, J Train, a car yard
Of accidents already happened.

Within the car yard, survived by
No one, a Nova, crushed in,
Frowns like a bulldog’s nose, while
Stars on the Expressway fly.

– Whit Frazier, 2007

Music Lessons

Amanda makes music with her hands;
I watch her from the back of the room:
She stretches, coughs and yawns,
While her fingers fire like rubberbands.

Chloe makes music with her nose,
I watch her next to me, playing tunes:
She whistles, hums, and chirps,
And her nostrils bloom like a musical rose.

Maya makes music with her eyes,
I watch her watch like wandering blues:
She hums through pauses, gazing, glows,
And greets my song with sly surprise.

-Whit Frazier, 2004

Incomplete Octaves

 

AURORA

If you vanish, Aurora yawns; I was startled to a pause.

“Well, go on. After all, your time is limited.”

Standing on the corner, a dark young man smiled in a way that made me frown.

I went on, but those words held me in check. What had he meant by that? Was it a threat? A prophecy?

It was too much of a delay. By the time I got to the bus station, she was gone. Aurora was really gone.

Her abandoned jacket lay jeering on my arm, and the afternoon approached gray, dull, sluggish; a pestilent congregation of vapors.

On my way back I ran into the same young man on the corner.

“You’re back,” he didn’t sound surprised.

“And with plenty of time.”

“After all, your time is limited.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Pretty much means whatever you take it for.”

“You go to the academy?”

“That’s right.”

“So, what. You a philosophy major or something?”

“Psychology. How about you?” He smiled.

I frowned.

“I bet I can guess.” He looked me up and down, a full appraisal. “Business.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You run from place to place like a businessman.”

“Well, you’re wrong. I’m a classics major.”

“So you are.”

“Well what’s your story? You just stand on street corners?”

“They call me Hector.”

“Nice to meet you, Hector.”

I didn’t volunteer my name.

“So why the classics, of all things?”

“Why not?”

“Yes, why not. Finally you’re asking the right questions.”

“Good as anything else. Why psychology?”

“Well that’s easy. It’s what I’m writing my thesis on. I study psychology because we all want to die, and I want to know why. Pascal says everything we do is distraction from death. I tend to think the opposite. Everything we do is to distract us from the horror of life, and really we’re just looking for the quickest way out.”

“Oh. Good for you.”

TEA FOR TWO

I thought about Hector and his gloomy thesis all weekend. It was just a distraction from Aurora. I called her as soon as I got back, I left a message. I sent her a text. The day just dragged on by. I put her jacket on my bed and lay down next to it, like she was still beside me. For a moment I was happy. The day glimmered dim against the ceiling, and the jacket and I lay draped arm in arm, and I thought about how everything we do comes out of our desire to die, and fell asleep until the sky went dark.

When I woke up, I stayed up; I thought about Aurora. I opened a bottle of wine, and listened to Thelonious and felt awkward about everything. She was harder to get a hold of than Monk’s linguistics; the moment you thought you connected with her, she was on a different wavelength. Why did she have to slip out like the sun shifts? Had she waited for me to leave before she vanished?

I’d just gone for tea; had brought back two.

Sometime late in the night, I wrote her an email, which I shouldn’t have done, because I’d already opened my third bottle of wine, and it was one of those witching hours where the night seems to stretch to no end on all sides, like a sailor lost in the rain, and no land in sight.

ON VIRTUE

There was no way for her to avoid me forever. There was nothing from her Sunday, and she didn’t show up for class on Monday. I sat on the quad in the afternoon, pretending to translate Seneca, enjoying the mediocre sunshine. Before I finished Hippolytus’ first speech, a shadow came over me, and I looked up to see Hector.

“You mind if I join you?”

“I was working, but-,”

“Great.” Hector sat down and took the book from me. “Phaedra.” He shook his head. “I came here to get away from all that nonsense, but I see now how naïve I was.”

“Get away from all what?”

“Western brainwashing. I expected more from a black liberal arts college. A more nuanced view of things.”

“Where you coming from?”

“MIT, Emory, Mythology, Oxford, Reed, Yale. The stately gates of Dis. They’ve all rejected me. I don’t make friends easy.”

“You’re a real joker, huh? Maybe that’s your problem, though.”

Hector examined me for a moment. “You’re a wise one, aren’t you, Hippolytus.” He smiled. “You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“Theseus. Oedipus. Achilles. Hector. Agamemnon. Odysseus. Caesar.”

“See, I like you already, Hipp. You don’t mind that, if I call you Hipp? We’re never given the names we deserve, but we try to live up to them all the same. It’s a terrible distortion of our personalities.”

“So what did you expect from a black college?” I felt like I should get back to Seneca. I scanned the Quad, hoping for Aurora.

“I’m keeping you,” Hector said after a while. “But I do this, you know. I’m pretty good at it.”

That made me smile. “You’re good at keeping people?”

Hector returned the smile. “In my fashion. I’m good at talking to people, I mean. I hold sessions. Patients. That’s what keeps getting me in trouble.”

“You mean you practice on patients? Students?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Well, no wonder you keep getting in trouble.”

“It’s not so much that I practice that gets me into trouble. The problem is that people, and women in particular, take my teachings too much to heart.”

“So you say, Socrates.”

Hector just smiled.

PRELUDE TO BAR MUSIC

The first suicide was a week later. I felt electric waves just looking at the phone buzz Aurora.

“Aurora?”

“I need someone to talk to. Are you free this afternoon? A girl I know just killed herself.”

“Who?”

“Sophie. Do you want to get a drink?”

“Of course. Where do you want to meet?”

We met at a sleepy bar on Orchard. Aurora looked sullen. She hadn’t really known Sophie; she didn’t know why it bothered her.

“I was probably translating Dante’s suicides when it happened.” She pouted. “Sophie was one of those girls, you know the type. Everything they do is golden. She comes from society. Her father worked with the Clinton Administration. She’s always had money. She’s pretty, even white boys like her because she’s light.” Her voice shook a little. Aurora was dark.

Something about what she said made me think of Hector, and for a moment, I wondered if he’d practiced on Sophie, and this is what he meant by practice. The idea was absurd. I laughed; Aurora scowled.

“It’s not that,” I said. “It’s funny – what’s funny, I mean, is maybe she just felt disconnected. I’ve been thinking about that lately. Aren’t we a little disconnected? It’s a problem of perspective probably.”

Aurora looked at me inscrutably. “What are you talking about?”

I shrugged and frowned. “Race. Class. Culture. Perspective. What are we doing here, studying Roman literature and Greek literature and philosophy and all that jazz, isn’t that just us buying into an oppressive culture? I’ve been wondering that lately.”

“People don’t kill themselves for ideas.” Aurora sounded exasperated.

“Sure they do.”

“So go join the Black Panthers, then.” She stood up. “I really needed to talk to someone today, but all you can do is go on about yourself. You really blew it.”

She got up and left, and I just watched her go.

I sat in that bar for another couple hours and thought about our conversation, why I’d blown it, why I brought up all that stuff to begin with. Somewhere in those couple hours my thoughts turned around to Hector and his theory of death. Had I blown it on purpose? I felt so low, I could throw myself in the river. That’s what I would do. I would jump in the river. The thought made me laugh.

“A man amused by his own company is a wise man indeed, Hipp.”

Hector appeared, and took a seat next to me.

I was happy to see him. My thoughts had been turning dark, and now I needed someone to talk to.

“You hear about that girl Sophie?”

“It’s all over campus,” he said. “You can’t get away from it. Big scandal.”

“Why do you think she did it?”

Hector smiled. “Who knows? Maybe she learned the music of the seasons.”

“And what is that?”

“Each season has its own music, the way I see it. We’re always hearing it, but we can’t pick up on the tune. It’s barred from us, but that’s all a mental block. You can walk out of a window, walk into a train. You can swallow pills or dive into the river. You can always do any of these things, if you manage to learn the wavelengths of the tune. But it takes a special enlightened state of mind to learn this music. Most people never get to that level.”

“Is this your practice?”

“Listen, Hipp. I like you. Why don’t you let me come by some time and talk to you?”

I laughed a dark laugh, and dove in the river over and over. “I don’t think I need your help, Hector. I’m halfway there already.”

“The tune is more elusive than you think. After all,” Hector shrugged a little. “I’m still learning it myself.”

A PARALYZING BLOW

When I got to campus, no one knew about the suicide. I frightened people. They wanted to know how I knew. I made a few girls cry. It’s a small school, and Sophie was popular.

I walked off campus slow. I didn’t have anywhere to be. I kept seeing things funny, like spring nocturnes. Every object I passed, or scene where I appeared, there appeared a receding scale. In everything alive and everything dead; everything organic and everything inorganic. This change didn’t frighten me; it made me curious. Why hadn’t I experienced everything like this before?

Supposing I walked to Aurora’s house? The liquor made the courage compelling. I was sure to self-sabotage, it was surely a glorious mistake, like that email I wrote, but that was the point.

It wasn’t far. She lived walking distance if you were in the mood to walk, and I was in a mood to walk. I wanted to study things rearranged. I wanted to notice the architecture of the buildings, the old regal stone columns of banks, sturdy as Samson giving a push. I wondered at the slipshod shingles of houses in blue and pink and yellow, slap gashes of windows silly in the spring, and I breathed deep this pestilent congregation.

I arrived at her house just as the sun was hitting the hard part of the horizon. All the windows were open and the lights were on. Aurora was with someone. She looked upset. She kept standing up, sitting down. She got up, paced the place, she sat back down. I walked through daggers of dying sunlight for a better view.

Yes, reader, I saw him.

He couldn’t have been someone from the academy. Young enough, but pale and wan; why so pale and wan? And now we have entered somewhere else.

I walked through the door. It was open; somehow I knew it would be. For a moment I hesitated on the threshold, uninvited after all, and in a private moment. I listened to them talk. I couldn’t make out the voices, and increasing curiosity led me in.

I didn’t close the door behind me. I didn’t want to make any noise. I floated down that hall like Sugar Ray Robinson, if you stop to think, you’re gone. Around the corner and into the bedroom, where they were.

Aurora looked at me with horror.

“What are you doing here?” She probably screamed it.

“What’s he doing here?” I feinted, adding, “You needed someone to talk to, and here I am.”

The fond lover arose. “I think you should leave.”

“Perhaps,” I scrutinized him distastefully, “you shouldn’t think.”

When he pushed me, I rolled strategically back into the wall. I came forward with my right. It was a good hit, but this wasn’t going well.

“Get out!” Yes, Aurora was definitely screaming.

I left them in my wake. Into another passage, the fond lover on the floor, will looking ill prevail?

I felt ill. The liquor was making the world a wash of hymns and passages and I was getting lost. The clouds had gained the day, or perhaps it was already evening. The same bar on Orchard returned like a recurring nightmare. Hector was still there.

“Hey there, Hipp,” he said, a full appraisal. “It looks about time you retired.”

THE BOOK OF THOTH

On Thursday morning there was a second suicide.

Self-slaughter is contagious. A girl named Florence drowned herself, she jumped in the river, she jumped in the river, she jumped in the river. She learned the music of the seasons.

That wasn’t an easy afternoon. All people do is talk. They never take things for what they are, they just talk them to death until they don’t mean anything. There were connections made between Sophie and Florence. Predictions as to who would be next. Sudden sages appeared everywhere.

“It’ll be Katherine, and she’ll jump down the stairs.”

“It’ll be Whitney, and she’ll drown in her pills.”

“It’ll be Phaedra, and she’ll die by the sword.”

Maybe it would be me.

After all, Aurora wouldn’t speak to me anymore. I called her that Thursday. I called her all day. I must have sent her a tome of texts.

Evening wasn’t easy, either.

One day threaded into the next. I never caught her after class. Why did she avoid me? I sat on the Quad and stared at Seneca’s untranslatable play. The more I looked at that obscure Latin text, the more it looked to me like a series of incantations.

If you vanish, Aurora yawns.

No sun now she gone.

Had I translated her symbols right? Her kisses felt like prophecies. Had I translated her kisses right? I relived the night we spent together, relived it again and again. How translate classics when you can’t even read your contemporaries?

EACH NEW SEASON NEWLY DISCOVERED

Where’s Hector when you need him?

Hector’s absence exaggerated Aurora’s.

I started skipping class; I was hanging out in the psychology hall.

When I finally saw him again, he didn’t look so hot.

“How are you Hipp? I haven’t been feeling too well, myself.”

“Why? What’s up?”

“Let’s take a walk. We should chat.”

We walked into an overcast afternoon, muggy in the misty day, and too warm.

“Those two girls, I guess they were both psychology majors.”

“Eureka.”

“Did you practice on them?”

“You get right to the heart of things, don’t you Hipp?”

“Are you responsible?”

Hector seemed to consider this. “I don’t know,” he decided. “But I don’t see the world the way others do.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Maybe you already know.”

We walked in silence for a while. We reached the river, and walked along it without saying a word.

“Why were you looking for me?” Hector asked after a while.

“How’d you know I was looking for you?”

Hector shrugged. A shadow came over me, and the clouds seemed to descend on the water.

“I know someone you should talk to,” I said.

“I don’t think you know him all that well.”

The words threw me. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“I haven’t been doing so well lately, Hipp,” Hector paused, stopped and turned to look at me. “I was more naïve than I thought.”

“Oh.”

“We’re in an impossible situation. I guess I knew that all along. I just didn’t understand the horror of it. Others understand it better than I do.”

“Others?”

“Sophie. Florence.”

“Oh.” I hesitated. “So you did practice on them.”

“I talked to them. I just talked to them. I practice on others.”

“Oh.”

We walked for another couple minutes without saying anything.

“I live inside someone who hates me.” This from Hector. “That’s what it is.”

Why did the words feel familiar? Suddenly I was in a hurry. “I have someone you need to speak to. Someone you really need to practice on.”

“Who should I practice on, Hipp?” Hector’s voice cracked like an incomplete octave.

“She’s not a psych major. She’s a classics major. Her name is Aurora, and I need you to talk to her for me.”

VOODOO GAME THEORY

That Saturday Jennifer Language swallowed pills, slit her wrists, and wandered the classics droning a drowsy syncopated tune. Our most public suicide starlet yet, she proved all the sages loons.

Administration called assemblies. Professors talked about the follies of the young & rash. Counselors offered to speak privately to students in crisis. I considered the proposition. How do you know if you’re in crisis? Jennifer was a classics major. I knew her pretty well. Did she know she was in crisis?

Aurora still wouldn’t speak to me.

I thought tragedy might put things in perspective. When I was a child, I spoke as a child.

I chased her down after class one afternoon.

We stood regarding each other curiously on the Quad.

“Aurora, this is ridiculous. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t know how many times I have to say it.”

She glared. “More times than stars in the sky, and it still wouldn’t be enough.”

“I was drunk. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“The moving principle is in the man himself.”

I let her go. Why argue with Aristotle?

Zero-sum, Hector had practiced on the wrong classicist.

THE ETHICISTS DEBATE TIME

“I’ve been talking to Aurora.”

I looked up from Seneca to see Hector looking down at me.

“Take a seat.”

He took a seat and took Phaedra. He flipped through it listlessly. “It’s a play about finding a tune.”

“I think you missed the point, if that’s what you get from it.”

“You probably read it as tragedy, when really it’s a comedy.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. What could a psych major know about these things anyway?

“So when did you start with Aurora?”

“Last weekend. She’s a good listener.”

“You seem to be pretty persuasive.”

“It has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the student.”

“Well, how’s she coming along?” I hesitated. “Maybe this was a bad idea.”

“No, it’s not. I may learn a thing or two from her myself.”

Now what did that mean? I didn’t like my thoughts.

Days passed, and I lost Aurora in students bursting from classrooms into spring. I hung around in her cloud. Hector vanished from the Quad.

Where did he conduct these meetings of his anyway? I walked around downtown and looked at the buildings. One of them housed a lunatic. Talk to someone if you’re in crisis. Who would talk to Hector?

I could hear Hector and Aurora echo behind everything.

Who would talk to me?

INTERIOR: SEASHELL SONATA

I would follow her, of course.

I would have to watch for her. I couldn’t get left behind in the rush of the bell, so I didn’t go to class. I drank at the bar all morning, and drank down half the afternoon. A little before class let out I walked up to campus, and waited, hidden behind pillars, simple as Samson shrugging a push.

Aurora walked out gorgeous as the day. She descended the steps to the Quad. I slipped after her, shadow of a suicide. We hurried past circles of students splendid in the weather. Off campus, then, and passing by the bar where I’d just been. She turned the wrong corner, and so she wasn’t going home.

Did he hold court on street corners like Socrates?

No, Hector, coward, only held court on women, and maybe he broke hearts. He would have a room somewhere. There lay the secret science of his teachings. Try his technique on a man, and he’d end up with a broken jaw, or worse, dispatched; you want to learn the music of the seasons? I’ll teach you, and quick. ‘Til you spit blood with murder ballads!

It made me mad. I almost forgot myself, got caught. I was walking too fast, and getting careless. Aurora walked down Portland. We were headed toward the river. Cover was getting sparse. I had to hang back, Aurora now just a hint on the horizon.

An inclination arose in me to call out to her. The proper thing to do was to warn her.

Another figure wavered pale and dim in the distance. Surely it was Hector, and we will have our conclusion.

“Apparently you’re a man of little faith, Hipp.” This from behind me. I turned to see Hector stalking a saunter in the sun.

Dumbfounded, I stood and stared at him, then turned to see Aurora, persistent doom, hand in hand, vanishing beyond the horizon. I looked at Hector and tried to speak, but words collapsed. Hector’s eyes were light, was he possessed?

“You probably think I’m following you.” He smiled. I frowned.

“Of course you’re following me.” I looked back to scan the empty landscape of the river. “Who – who is she meeting?”

“I think you already know the answer to that, Hipp.”

Suddenly I was furious. “Who was he? How? How could I know the answer to that?” I moved to strike him, and just as I did the sun revealed itself from behind the clouds like a hidden God.

Hector’s cheeks were wet. Tears seemed to complement his smile. “I have a confession.” The sincerity of his tone was disarming. “You see, I’ve finally found the tune. It’s why I’m here.”

I looked from Hector to the river. Now I was smiling. “I’ll race you.”

For a while neither of us spoke. I listened for the shrill of laughter to slice the still afternoon.

“I love her, Hipp.” Hector frowned. “And it’s more elusive than your philosophy.”

CHORUS

There have been no more suicides since, except Phaedra’s. I finished my Seneca translation within the week.

Still, I’ve never been able to shake that sunny afternoon. It confronts me even in my dreams, where Hector and Aurora continue to make appearances.

I sometimes wonder where Aurora went, and if Hector is alive. I look out over the Quad, and it feels like no time ago, almost like they remain here, now that all my context is cuneiform.

As for Hector’s philosophy, I try not to see the world that way anymore; I focus on my studies. That’s not to say it doesn’t stay with me, because it does. It hums below my surface, like the sun rising in the east each morning, carrying in its swansong, a promise.

 

 

-Whit Frazier, 2013