“It was a history that neither owed nor paid him any attention.”

January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

The gnashing of teeth, teeth wet by tears, pulpit-promised to the damned, though it is, God-damned as he does, also describes the mastication — the toothsome sucking of sorrow into sweetness — of a righteous anger. Just as it takes more than a single tooth to chew, such an anger, to be more than a nip attended by a protested spittle, needs a crowd.

Protests are those gatherings we attend or avoid, with political ends usually left unachieved. Protests are planned, their signage stapled or taped across town before and after. People of vaguely like-minded intent meet at protests; sometimes they fall in love, other times they just fuck. Mostly, though, they end up forgetting. “I was there, too!” they’ll say seven years later. “Those were good times,” they’ll agree. “We tried, but alas,” they’ll shrug. There is a class of “professional” protesters — people who somehow make it to every action, Johnny-on-the-spot and on time, pamphlet-informed, equipped with goggles and a milk of magnesia concentrate for tear-gassed eyes. Protests are peopled by those on every stage of an activist life-cycle — naive hope; enthusiastic promise; success so close; success so far; promise broken; hope bludgeoned — with a few jaundiced zombies here and there, usually near the curbs.

People and placards gathered as quickly as the suspicions that the fire had been no accident. Crew-cutted white men had been seen, empty gas tins found. So-and-so said so. Threats, scrawled, screamed, and scowled, had framed the background of the church’s very existence for so long that no one noticed when it had advanced to the fore.

Every protest has within it an embryonic crowd that its slogans, signs, intentions and goals cannot contain.

Every protest has within it a conflict, for it is of at least two minds.

Every protest has within in it a threat, that itself threatens the protest.

Every protest has within it a crowd it, in varying degrees and moments, suppresses and unleashes.

The crowd outside the church, viewed from a safe distance, was unwieldy. Neither their signs nor the chants, often one and the same, tunes as catchy as a cold, were the message. They had become a complex, multi-limbed body akimbo and splayed, learning to walk. Clumsily at first, it moved through the streets, from project block toward condo project, furious with a message R. could not make out over the din of its movement. There was no spokesperson that he could see. Pastor Troy had flung himself into the sea of bodies his cries and phone calls (and evening television appearance) had pleaded for, and he’d been swallowed. He would emerge a few hours later — R. would say three — answering the classic journalistic W’s  — the What’s and Why’s — with an anonymous “We.”

Crowds are buoyed by contradictions — vengeance and forgiveness, rights asserted and wrongs forgotten — and peopled by an assortment of bodies whose purpose is never so much forgotten as held momentarily at bay.

Crowds are subject to symbols — fire and broken glass, nearly without fail; laughter, at things later unfunny; fear, for oneself and others. Anger and joy are never so far apart in the crowd as they are in the protest

Crowds are such that their stories are not the sum of their plot.

On the street from his safe, well-lit post, R. watched as a certain history of the world passed. It was a history that neither owed nor paid him any attention. There is a temptation to think such crowds have become rare. Or that if they are common, they are to little effect, due to our modern, technological yearning to self-narrate a story that adds up. Should the spirit of protest occasion a crowd, though, by whose reason would it be exorcised?

Of course, not all crowds are equal. Some, as another history has shown, and would yet again soon enough, are born of a desire to deny another crowd from occurring again or at all. These blaze, according to untold histories imagined and true, into controlled flames called arson and extermination.

The gnashing of teeth

January 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

The intense warmth from the burning church was not, despite the midday heat, unpleasant. The waving flags of flame rippled in spangled triumph over the efforts of a black man with a water hose. A lighter-skinned black girl near R. stood recording the scene on her phone. A white woman a block away visored her eyes with one hand and squinted herself agog as the steeple, which had for minutes stood defiant, an aggrieved but avenging angel, teetered like a toddler. For a moment, the crackling of the blaze receded to an obeisant hush.

“Lord, have mercy!” the black smoke shrieked.


With an audible snap the steeple quivered, and did not so much as fall down as melt away.

“I would’ve thought that’d make a lot more noise,” R. unknowingly told the girl’s camera.

“Why, Lord! Pastor Troy, how could this happen?” the smoke wailed.

As two fire engines rounded the corner en route, sirens silently flashing, the black man dropped his hose and replied: “I don’t give a fuck how this happened! What I wanna know is … who did this shit right here?”

The gnashing of teeth, teeth wet by tears, pulpit-promised to the damned, though it is, God-damned as he does, also describes the mastication — the toothsome sucking of sorrow into sweetness — of a righteous anger.

“it is perhaps better yet to deny nothing.”

January 3, 2016 § 1 Comment

I’ve not resolved to write more in 2016. But I do hope to do so — which is not so great a task, considering how little I wrote in 2015.

I don’t write for a wide audience, and rarely pursue publication. But neither am I bashful about sharing things I regard as little more than throwaway drafts. In the past, I’ve described this as a vaguely vulgar form of exhibitionism, but never did so as an apology. I genuinely believed — and still do — that the potential viewing by another of a writing affected my own viewing of it, by giving it room to extend itself beyond the confines of me. Such was the aesthetic philosophy at the time . . . the details tonight are a bit fuzzy.

But as I sit here, staring for a while at a blank Scrivener page, and then scrolling through Facebook, bored in either event, I find myself now indulging a temptation: the belief in inspiration. Writing, like anything, is more a matter of will than it is actual talent, and as such it is more a matter of WHAT than it is HOW. But then I recall my most fertile period of creativity, or at least of creative thinking, after spending time with the photography of Francesca Woodman, clicking from Facebook to blog, blog to Facebook, to Scrivener, and I decide that it is perhaps better yet to deny nothing.

“The slow recognition of an enemy came visibly”

September 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

“Half an hour before sunset I came to a pine wood. It was already dark under the trees, but there was light in the ride as I walked along it from the west. Outside it was cold, but the wood was still warm. The boles of the pines glowed redly under the blue-black gloom of their branches. The wood had kept its dusk all day, and seemed now to be breathing it out again. I went quietly down the ride, listening to the last rich dungeon notes of a crow. In the middle of the wood, I stopped. A chill spread over my face and neck. Three yards away, on a pine branch close to the ride, there was a tawny owl. I held my breath. The owl did not move. I heard every small sound of the wood as loudly as though I too were an owl. It looked at the light reflected in my eyes. It waited. Its breast was white, thickly arrowed and speckled with tawny red. The redness passed over the sides of its face and head to form a rufous crown. The helmeted face was pale white, ascetic, half-human, bitter and withdrawn. The eyes were dark, intense, baleful. This helmet effect was grotesque, as though some lost and shrunken knight had withered to an owl. As I looked at those grape-blue eyes, fringed with their fiery gold, the bleak face seemed to crumble back into the dusk; only the eyes lived on. The slow recognition of an enemy came visibly to the owl, passing from the eyes, and spreading over the stony face like a shadow. But it had been startled out of its fear, and even now it did not fly at once. Neither of us could bear to look away. Its face was like a mask; macabre, ravaged, sorrowing, like the face of a drowned man. I  moved. I could not help it. And the owl suddenly turned its head, shuffled along the branch as though cringing, and flew away into the wood.”

— J. A. Baker, The Peregrine

“the art of saying, with a mildly indigestive grimace, ‘Lots of people seem to like it.'”

July 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Dear _________,

The scorn directed at [_____] is way too self-congratulatory & back-slapping for me to participate. Consensus in hating something rarely, if ever, ends particularly well. (Something similar could be said about liking, I suppose.) In some ways, I guess [_____] is bearing the marks for those who need a target for their frustration about the publishing industry knighting a new genius white male author. Had he not killed himself, I wonder if [_____] would have eventually suffered the same. Perhaps not, as he was seemingly years away from finishing a new novel to adore. He was also self-reflecive in a certain palatable (mannerly ironized & Midwesternly sincere) way, whereas [_____] comes off as insular and aloof.

These days, I read while wearing a number of different hats. ‘Can I sell this?’ asks the craven bookseller, keen that his shop doesn’t close and he find himself back on unemployment. ‘Should others really be reading this?’ wonders the tired man quietly, just before sleep, sequestering ethical reasoning to subconscious dread. I very occasionally read as a critic — less so now that everybody is so busy writing essays these days to actually read (or pay for) them. From time to time, I read as a writer, fancying myself within that particular club, defying the supposed need for evidence. Sometimes I’ll go philosophical and wonder “Is there any truth in this?” More often than not, I stick to “Am I enjoying myself at all?” — joy being a precious, involved thing. Only occasionally do I find something so bad I can’t at least gleefully read aloud horribly constructed sentences. Mostly, I distrust myself, and conclude: “This is not for me.” Or “Maybe next time.”

While I don’t discount the possibility I was infected by [_____]-scorn before shelling over a portion of my unemployment check for his hardcover (I’m pretty bad with money), I think I gave it a good try. I even pushed it on my wife, in hopes that maybe she (who pays no attention to social media or literary culture) would like it. Alas … she never finished it. I now recall a story, though, where she threw it at a guy in downtown Oakland who was creeping on and tossing trash at her. Flinging his bag into traffic proved more effective, but the book probably helped. Anyway, back to me: it just didn’t work. I didn’t care about the characters (no major sin, this); many of the sentences made me cringe; but mostly, there was a joyless tone to every page. There was no distrust this time around. I didn’t recall his earlier books being so limp. and resented not buying a pretty nice bottle of wine or second-tier bourbon instead. I wanted at several times to stop reading, but refused. I even took it to the beach! Are you kidding me? A fucking beach-read? Instrumentalizing cliche didn’t help.


P. S. A comment about “‘Should others really be reading this?’ wonders the tired man quietly, just before sleep, sequestering ethical reasoning to subconscious dread.” I just meant that in the course of keeping a general bookstore open — and able to sell stuff this bookseller really likes and deems worthwhile (of time, effort, opinion, judgment) — I sometimes have to sell very many copies of books that I think, frankly, though I waver and reconsider even in this, bad. Because most books are not going to be — or possibly even meant be — good, right? That’s not cynical, is it? That most books exist is usually enough — only a few are aggressively bad, in the sense that you can’t help but marvel at (& flee from) how bad. Most are readably bad, like a taco-truck dinner. But few, in the scheme of commerce, or history, are good. Most may not interest me, but few these days cause me to flinch or flee. A couple of years ago, though, one of our bestsellers was [_____] — whose sloppy stylings were barely fit for an open letter or personal blog. As a rule, we don’t invite people to return books they disliked, but I made exceptions for that one. As I’ve been in the business longer, I’ve learned the art of saying, with a mildly indigestive grimace, “Lots of people seem to like it.”

“Disbelieve Better”

April 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

“everything must be plowed under with noise”

March 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

“I have always believed the same thing, and I very much fear even after victory that things in my country will continue to seem to me as bad as before. This is such a horrible mixture of ignorance, bad faith, corruption, and weakness that I suspect the evil is too deep for revolutionaries to repair. Among these, one sees everything: there are men of much merit, good heads, and hearts of gold; but there are also unruly ones who seek only noise an chaos; not to mention those filled with good faith yet lacking in intelligence and common sense. I have observed this group they are caught up in, unable to unite the greatness of ideas with the pettiness of their ambitions ; I have felt a certain fear for principle; but after pondering it, I have concluded by affirming that the evils that revolution may bring will never be as great as those of absolution. And if they are — he continued contemptuously — they will deserve it. If all this is to continue to bear the name of nation, everything must be turned upside down, that common sense which has been offended be avenged, drawing and quartering such ridiculous idolatry, such foolishness, and barbarism erected in living institutions; there must be a complete renovation of the patria, no vestiges of the past should remain, and everything must be plowed under with noise, crushing the foolish who insist on carrying an outmoded artifice on their shoulders. And this must be done quickly, violently, because if it is not done this way it will never be done. . . . Here the doors of tyranny must be torn down with ax blows in order to destroy them, because if we open them with their key, they will be left standing and will close again.”

— Benito Pérez Galdós, La Segunda casaca (as quoted in Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight)

“The last word is not yet said between me and–yes, the last word is said. “

March 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

From Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies:

My body does not yet make up its mind. But I fancy it weighs heavier on the bed, flattens and spreads. My breath, when it comes back, fills the room with its din, though my chest moves no more than a sleeping child’s. I open my eyes and gaze unblinkingly and long at the night sky. So a tiny tot I gaped, first at the novelties, then at the antiquities. Between it and me the pane, misted and smeared with the filth of years. I should like to breathe on it, but it is too far away. It is such a night as Kaspar David Friedrich loved, tempestuous and bright. That name that comes back to me, those names. The clouds scud, tattered by the wind, across a limpid ground. If I had the patience to wait I would see the moon. But I have not. Now that I have looked I hear the wind. I close my eyes and it mingles with my breath. Words and images run riot in my head, pursuing, flying, clashing, merging, endlessly. But beyond this tumult there is a great calm, and a great indifference, never really to be troubled by anything again. I turn a little on my side, press my mouth against the pillow, and my nose, crush against the pillow my old hairs now no doubt as white as snow, pull the blanket over my head. I feel, deep down in my trunk, I cannot be more explicit, pains that seem new to me. I think they are chiefly in my back. They have a kind of rhythm, they even have a kind of little tune. They are bluish. How bearable all that is, my God. My head is almost facing the wrong way, like a bird’s. I part my lips, now I have the pillow in my mouth. I have, I have. I suck. The search for myself is ended. I am buried in the world, I knew I would find my place there one day, the old world cloisters me, victorious. I am happy, I knew I would be happy one day. But I am not wise. For the wise thing now would be to let go, at this instant of happiness. And what do I do? I go back again to the light, to the fields I so longed to love, to the sky all astir with little white clouds as white and light as snowflakes, to the life I could never manage, through my own fault perhaps, through pride, or pettiness, but I don’t think so. The beasts are at pasture, the sun warms the rocks and makes them glitter. Yes, I leave my happiness and go back to the race of men too, they come and go, often with burdens. Perhaps I have judged them ill, but I don’t think so, I have not judged them at all. All I want now is to make a last effort to understand, to begin to understand, how such creatures are possible. No, it is not a question of understanding. Of what then? I don’t know. Here I go none the less, mistakenly. Night, strom and sorrow, and the catalepsies of the soul, this time I shall see that they are good. The last word is not yet said between me and–yes, the last word is said. Perhaps I simply want to hear it said again. Just once again. No, I want nothing.

mitigated by the sound of chewing and water refills

November 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

Dear ________,

It was good seeing you last night. I confess my mind was torn away from our conversation at times, the awkwardness mitigated by the sound of chewing and water refills, by thoughts about the grand jury announcement moments before we met. I’d made a note as I waited for your arrival: “The slow approach of the inevitable ends in a dead sprint.” And as I watched the small gathering across the street, everything seemed deflated. The cops patrolling, vaguely disinterested; the megaphoned voice, exhausted. And as I was falling asleep I wrote, “If America is broken, what of our will? — has it been pulverized into the powdered poison that might finish the job?” Whereupon I awoke around two, tongue-dried and wanting water. And as I drank I imagined someone pinned by a large, nearly immovable stone, both puncturing his bowels and holding them in place, and scribbled a third note, “the very one that’s killing you would do so even still if you figured a way out.”

Ah, but how did you enjoy the dinner?



“was in fact looking for somewhere to lay its eggs”

November 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

An amateurish photographing & merging — itself a perfectly sloppy kiss — of two adjacent pages from Hervé Guibert’s exquisite The Mausoleum of Lovers.


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