Wednesday, February 25, 2009


3/4's Start

In the tradition (started only yesterday) of posting things that were nearly rejected (by me), I post the following. I started this post about which books to bring with me on vacation, which seemed a fine thing to post about, relevant to the ongoing book monologue that I have with myself both privately and on this web log (notice I didn’t write the dreaded B word), which is sort of like a private discussion. Then I thought: who cares? Why get a blog? A facebook account? Twitter? Ugh, what wastes of time. It’s all wrapped up in this idea that we have to be constantly performing for the handful (if that) of people that might come along and read these cyber pages. In light of this thought (hardly original, I know, but still…) I decided to only post things that I thought I would want to read. Topical posts. Book posts (real ones, not just inane thoughts on what book to bring on vacation). Then I thought, well who cares about that either? Faux criticism is pretty pretentious and dull. What’s the point? Well, this internal chattering went on for most of the week (which is only half over, but, again, still…). I think I’ve come to this conclusion: if no one cares, then what does it matter if I post gibberish about what book I want to read on a plane ride, not to mention what I think about César Vallejo, Otis Redding, or anyone/thing else mentioned herein? Ahhhh… how liberating. So that explains some of the rationale, or lack thereof, behind the posts you have seen and will be seeing going forward, as I have lots of bullshit planned and plenty of Twitter-like posts about what I had for breakfast and which toothpaste I prefer, because, like the rest of you kids, I think I’m so fucking important that I need to tell you. I NEED TO. I want to be an internet celeb one day. This will surely get me halfway there. Right?

Thanks for tolerating the long intro.

Ghosts is out, but you’d hardly know it. The book is on its way to Borders, or so they tell me. I don’t think Barnes & Nobel has plans to stock it right this moment. I’m guessing that the only store in town with a copy is the Seminary Co-Op. Alas.

By week’s end I hope to have Montano’s Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas finished. For anyone who might say that I only read Latin American writers, chill. Vila-Matas is a Spaniard. So there.

But what books are you bringing on vacation, you ask? I’ve devoted considerable time to this question and here’s what I’m thinking:

Songs of Life and Hope – Ruben Darío
Posthumous Poems of César Vallejo
– Roberto Bolaño
Ghosts – César Aira (assuming I find it before Friday)

If Aira doesn’t bubble up to the surface the time I’m ready to fly away, then I’ll make due with those three books. I am considering bring Cosmic Canticle by Ernesto Cardenal, but it’s a bit thick and space is limited. And I worry that such a time—dense in more than weight—might not get proper attention on the trip.

That’s as far as I got and as far as you’ll get. Stay tuned for more ego.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

My Rock, Vallejo: Because Essay Means Attempt

The following is an aborted essay I wrote for an abortion of a class. Really it wasn’t so bad—the class, not the essay, which fails on an important level, which I won’t point out here. But I reread it and thought it might be good fodder for a literary post, which is what I like to have more times than not here in the hungry inferno.

(By the way, “hungry inferno” is a pun on “Zombie Dante” which is a name I took because it seemed to represent my two big interests, according to some: literature and horror films. Just thought I’d let you know, cyberspace, heartless bitch.)

So here’s part one of what will maybe be a series of failed literary essays:

César Vallejo’s poetry is perhaps the most baffling I’ve come across. It is also, very often, the most intriguing. I normally object to poetry that is intentionally obscure as I find the technique affected, sometimes just ridiculous, but, as with all things under the sun, there are exceptions. If a poem is going to muddle its ideas in abstractions it had better have some damn good ideas. Preferably, an emotional element should bubble up from under the layers of puzzling imagery, as is the case with Medbh McGuckian, another hero, whose poems sometimes read like direct descendants of Vallejo’s. Both omit standard sentence structures; both employ nouns as verbs. Neither is afraid of mining the bitter truths of experience. Where McGuckian manages sparks of clarity, Vallejo plunges further into abstractions, so much so that I have been ready, at times, to throw his books across the room, hoping a more sensible verse might arrange itself in broken letters. But it is this confusion, this sense of wonder that leads me to revisit his poetry, the results usually being pleasurable. With Vallejo, I have look at the cogs in the machine to see the risks possible in poetry.

Vallejo is challenging. Vallejo is rewarding. I cannot stop reading Vallejo. I’m pulled to his poetry, to its complexity, to the secret creatures alive within under the surface, demanding acknowledgement. I’ve never felt comfortable trying to articulate what it is about Vallejo that requires my attention, and when I speak of his work I expect to sound embarrassingly thick. Regardless, I continually soak myself in his poetry, doing time with him in an effort to come to terms with his work.

(Yes, I know that the phrase “doing time” invokes prison, and yeah, Vallejo was imprisoned in his native Peru, the results of which can be seen throughout Trilce, so excuse the pun, please. Thanks.)

Despite the artistic leaps Vallejo made through his career, he wasn’t an inconsistent writer. While his first collection, The Black Heralds is more in the vein of the lyricism of Latin American writing circa 1919 (influenced by Dario), the book still evidences some of the elements of “experimentation” that would mark his later poems. Even that early in his career Vallejo thought nothing of blending images and creating neologisms, throwing Quechua into Spanish— burying the indigenous tongue the way Indios buried, and prayed to, their idols under Christian churches—and leapfrogging breathlessly from concrete to conceptual.

Vallejo was not a surrealist, though his work—most notably in Trilce—seems ready to take shelter under such an umbrella term. Trilce is where I return often (though the posthumous poems are incredible). It has been said that Vallejo wrote many of these poems in hiding and then while in jail, serving time on a (possibly) trumped up charge. The book can be viewed as a meditation on his imprisonment and on the loss of his lover, Otilia Villanueva, on his own guilt and possible complicity in her death, and— here it comes— on Vallejo’s equally Spanish and Incan roots. The goddamn kitchen sink, people!

It’s difficult to say what the poems in Trilce mean; critics strive for these readings as a way of making sense of the collection, and while none of these lenses seem incorrect, a tidy interpretation may not be possible. It might even kill the magic. I say this having grappled with the book, a task I am doomed to repeat. Vallejo is my rock to push uphill, but, all things considered, there could be worse rocks. (I know people who can’t stop reading worse writers. I’d sooner be damned to Vallejo than Pynchon.)

Looking at Trilce I (none of the poems are titled, just numbered), the first thing that comes to me, though it didn’t upon initial reading, is gleaned from Clayton Eshelman’s footnote to the following lines (I quote from his translation):

Who’s making all that racket, and not even leaving
testation to the islands beginning to appear.

A little more consideration
as it will be late, early,
and easier to assay
the guano, the simple fecapital ponk
a brackish gannet
toasts unintentionally,
in the insular heart, to each hyaloid

Eshleman’s research led him to conclude that these lines relate to prisoners being led to latrines and then rushed out, perhaps before their, ahem, duty was complete. This explains “guano” though more footnotes were required to understand that “fecapital” (though certainly implying something scatological) was Eshelman’s way of conveying the Spanish neologism “tesórea.” “Ponk,” Eshelman tells us, is an archaic word for stink. Why choose “ponk” and not “stink”? Simple: Eshelman admires Vallejo so much he can’t help but use the most difficult English as substitute for the most difficult Spanish.
David Smith, who translated Trilce in the seventies, chose his words differently, though the results are no clearer:

Who’s making all that noise, and
disinherits the islands that stay behind.

A bit more consideration
as soon as it’s sundown, early
and it will weigh the guano
better, the simple calabrian treasurhea
proposing careless toasts,
on the insular heart,
brackish pelican, to each hyaloid

To my eyes, Eshleman’s version manages something closer to the vitality Vallejo’s poetry is known for. Of course, this is merely a bias and can’t be justified, but I rely on the Eshelman edition as it contains helpful footnotes, very handy keys to decoding the work (though prison reality was irrelevant when I first marveled over “fecapital ponk.”).

Looking at Trlice IX (Eshelman translation), one will find repetition, enigmatic diction and pure sensuality mingling freely:

I sdrive to dddeflect at a blow the blow
Her two broad leaves, her valve
Opening in succulent reception
From multiplicand to multiplier,
Her condition excellent for pleasure,
All readies truth.

I struggle with this stanza often, again consulting various translations in an effort to assemble some idea about the source material. How does one, possessing only the most rudimentary Spanish, interpret: “Vusco volvvver de golpe el golpe”? The V of “Vusco” should have a B, meaning “I search,” though Eshleman tells us that Vallejo’s repeated replacement of Vs for Bs is a play on “vulva,” apt in regard to this particular selection. Other translators have managed contrasting results, no more illuminating than what I present here. The only option for anyone looking to do more than become casually acquainted with Vallejo is to read all of his translations. (There are, at the time I am writing this, four others readily available. Have fun.)

Why Vallejo? There are poets who are as demanding, and rewarding, though I have not extracted from their work a fraction of what Vallejo’s yields. I read Vallejo, though I’d never write like him. This is perhaps what keeps me coming back. Like too many other quasi-writers, I, consciously and unconsciously, emulate what I read. I have my predispositions and I can recognize when I start to form a voice too much in the vein of an idol. Vallejo defies this kind of imitation. I don’t risk things with language the way he did. I rarely manage a pun or a religious allusion as successfully as he could. Try as I might, I could never write anything resembling Vallejo. This is why I go back to him, so that I can see something in poetry that I would never consider doing. Before we decide to write, books seem magical. Then we start writing (or, worse, study writing) and some of that magic is robbed of us. But there are the books we could never write, the ones filled with decisions that seem alien to our instincts. Those often become favorites, bringing us back to the early joy and wonder we first experienced with the printed page. Vallejo does that exactly. I love seeing possibilities in poetry, wonderful, mad possibilities, that I would never take.

The MA showed up in the mail yesterday. Guess it’s official.

Monday, February 23, 2009

In the interest of presenting conflicting points of view, I present some negative reviews of 2666 taken directly from, which is host to anyone with anything to say about a book or CD or whathaveyou:

"I bought this book based on reviews, big mistake this time. I spent most of my time looking up defintions to 100's of words. I hated the spewing of authors I'd never heard of. The writing or words are geared towards intellectuals. I haven't even finished this book, I can't seem to get past the long winded boring little stories leading me somewhere in the slowest pace possible to nowhere. Maybe I'll get around to finishing it, but based on the 1 star reviews, I may not end up enjoying this book at all, even in some of the 4 star reviews they claim this book is more for academics or writers interested in the creative processes. BORING."

"I fully admit that Bolano is smarter and better-read than I am. So is Umberto Eco. But when Eco starts rattling off the names of other literary works, as he does with some frequency in, say, 'Foucault's Pendulum,' it always feels like it's relevant to the plot. In '2666,' it feels like Bolano is just throwing out laundry lists of literature, philosophy, art, history, and even biology and math, solely to impress you with the depth and breadth of his knowledge. It may or may not relate to the plot, which isn't surprising, since there really isn't much of a plot. The five books that make up this volume are only loosely related, and even within the different books, there is not always much cohesion. Bolano will start out talking about one or more characters, but the minute he sees the literary equivalent of a shiny object, he runs off after it. While chasing said shiny object, he may see another shiny object and abandon the chase for the first one. At some point, he might remember what he was doing before he wandered off-course, but not always. The writing is very stream-of-consciousness with lots of accounts of people's dreams. If you don't mind rambling thoughts and 'deep' philosophy that goes on for so long that when he does occasionally return to an early character you find yourself wondering who he's talking about, you might be enchanted. But if you need to have characters that you love or like, or even ones you hate, you're out of luck here. […]Book 4 is l...o...n...g and, as others have noted, filled with lots of gruesome and sad details about the girls & women who've been raped and murdered. At first I thought, 'yes -- someone is giving these women an identity and a voice,' but after awhile there are so many of them, and so little story to them, that you stop caring. Again, this could be the point. There are some interesting characters in this section, but there are so many people, it's hard to know who or what is important. Maybe none of it is."

Like I always say, positive reviews alone are dull.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I don’t know of a more perfect song than “I’ve Been Loving you Too Long (To Stop Now)” by Otis Redding. I don’t know of a better singer.

Look, the other day I saw a PBS special on Otis. I’ve always loved his music and many of his songs hold a strange level of significance in my ongoing maturation. Otis is the greatest singer I’ve ever heard. I put him number one on a list that includes some oddballs like Mike Patton, Tom Waits, EYE and Yoshimi, Gibby Haynes, Lux Interior, Kevin Sharp, Ian MacKaye, Diamanda Galas, among others. Such a list is evidence of my taste in music, which has been called, ahem, “eclectic.” I suspect that term is something of a compliment, though I take it more as a euphemism.

Anyway, Otis is tops, and watching that PBS special I actually got misty. The clip of him storming the stage and singing “Shake” at the Monterey Pop Festival is so energizing, I can’t see why people remember any other performance that night. Fuck Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire, Otis ruled that goddamn stage. All those hippie brats got a reminder of the R&B power on which they were weaned, and they had a real reason to dance like dopes. How can you not dance to Otis singing Sam Cooke? Hell, even this wallflower dances like a loon when he hears that song. If you’ve never seen that footage, here it is:

So, like I said, I got misty. Never have I been terribly upset about a celebrity dying, not even my heroes, not Kurt Vonnegut or even the recently passed Lux. But Otis, who died years before I was even born, his death bothers me. His death made me tear up, the way his song “I’ve Been Loving you Too Long (To Stop Now)” still gives me chills. Oddly, even though this is a sad song, I always link it with the scene in the underrated Heaven Help Us when Andrew McCarthy is making out with Mary Stuart Masterson under a boardwalk, which is an oddly beautiful moment in such a crass, hilarious film. A little bit of Otis can class up anything.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


For an utter lack of things to talk about at the moment, I offer the following list of songs that I am listening to today thanks of my hard-drive and a shuffle setting (by the way, credit for this type of post goes to my brother who, on occasion, blogs about his iPod shuffling):

“Hot, Blue and Righteous” by ZZ Top

You know, just fucking classic. The most underrated of guitar gods.

“I Saw Gener Cryin’ in His Sleep” by Ween

An overlooked song from Pure Guava with a wonderful whistle solo. Who whistles on records anymore?

“Super Going” by Boredoms

13 minutes of perfection. My workout music.

“Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber” by Wu-Tang Clan

The best Wu-Tang cut from their classic debut. Every member is featured (save for U-God and Masta Killa, both of who only contributed limited verses on the record due to some jail time) and each one is on fire. An unbelievable pas-the-mic song.

“I Hear Voices” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

You know about the Screamin’ Jay or you don’t know much.

“Connie” by Bongwater

It was only a matter of time—I have every record of theirs, in full, on my hard-drive. That’s a lot of drug-fueled genius.

“Whiskey Bound” by Vincent & Mr. Green

Moody, dark, intense. I forget what an incredible album this is.

“En Rapport” by James Emry

Strange, frantic jazz guitar. I think you call this “avant-garde.”

“Gansta Gansta” by NWA

Yeah, I have no clue what’s happening in rap or hip-hop, or whatever you want to call it, at least not these days. I prefer to remember when Ice Cube was the most terrifying man in America and Ice-T was synonymous with “Cop Killer” and not TV cop. I mean, look at my hip-hop collection and you’ll see all this early 90s or even late 80s shit. Who the fuck is 50 Cent? Jay-Z? No fucking clue, nor do I care. Ice Cube, Chuck D, KRS-One, Method Man, ODB, GZA, Ghostface Killah, Rakim, Shock G, De La Soul, Q-Tip, these are the people I give a goddamn about. So lay off me when all the shit that pops up here is what the kids might call “old,” not “old school.”

“La Noche Y Tu” by Lola Beltran

Thanks, niña, for this. A nice way to close the experiments and this here post. Back to work now. Thanks for listening.

Friday, February 13, 2009

As Inspiring as I Get

Ernest Hemingway once said, or maybe I’m paraphrasing, that there are two kinds of people: those who write and those who talk about it. Charles Bukowski once said that the difference between him and everyone else is that he sat down and did the work. He had a poem about an aspiring writer who went on and on about how best to write a poem. The conclusion Buk made was that just like everyone else who couldn’t write for shit, this guy sure could talk about it.

I butcher these dead writer’s words to make a quick point: stop talking about writing. Just write. “Writing” here can be the substitute for whatever it is in your life that you wish to do, whatever secret thing fuels your dreams and makes life somewhat bearable (or sweetly torturous). Whatever it is, go do it. Write your book, paint your picture, build your home, race your car, walk your tightrope. But, in the meantime, shut up about it. Get to fucking work, goddamnit.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Joe Frank

It’s nearing 11:00, Sunday night. Time for Joe Frank. If you haven’t been listening to Joe Frank on NPR for the past several years, then by all means get down to it. Go to NPR’s website and find the local time that your local branch of the national public radio airs this program and then tune the hell in. rightly described his show as the nightmare “This American Life” and “A Prairie Home Companion” have when they go home, though that description does ignore some of the humor of the show, dark though it may be. My favorite installment dealt with a woman constantly calling her ex, now remarried, and threatening to shoot herself, to which he kept screaming, “shoot the ceiling, shoot the floor, let me hear the gun!” or something along those lines. It was just so sad. So strange. Well, maybe the Tangerine Dream music that looped under the scene made it seem so damn creepy.

An aside: Frank is somewhat responsible for one of my favorite movies, After Hours, though only in the sense that the writer of the film stole some ideas and dialogue for his script.

Anyway, I may have to subscribe to the website in order to have access to the entire oeuvre. It’s become my weekly ritual, the only program I have to catch. And the loopy “Word Jazz” that follows pales in comparison, though I understand why NPR puts these two together. People love that Ira Glass show, but to me, this is what radio is all about. This is exciting.

Friday, February 06, 2009

St. Ronnie

Last night I managed to miss most of the interview on Fresh Air with Will Bunch, author of Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future . Oh, he was only interviewed for half the show— the rest of the time was given to a man honoring Ronnie. So it was as balanced a program as you’ll get, both sides getting their equal say.

It’s obvious to many on which side of the debate I fall, but in the interest of sharing details on this book, which I’m game to read, and to present a more sane analysis of the “Tear down this wall” speech, courtesy of the New York Times, I’m linking up these:

The whole Reagan thing fascinates me. I can’t understand why people liked him or remember him fondly, and I can’t argue the contrary very well. I mean, how do you debate someone who says, “He made us feel good again about our country”? It’s impossible.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

4 to 9 AM

Nice piece from Conversational Reading, one of the better book sites out there, on the most prodigious writers past and present—mostly present—which mentions Murakami’s writing habits. That kind of time is enviable.

R.P. in the Reader

I’ve only lived in Rogers for a few years and I don’t feel I can call it “my neighborhood” (I don’t feel that way about any neighborhood in Chicago, but rather about a series of them, considering I’ve lived in so many, though if I had to pick a place in Chicago that feels like “home” it might be the strip of Archer Ave. from Harlem to Damen, as that reminds me of my first sojourns out of the suburbs as a young man awed by that sprawl of urban oddity), but I do feel a certain fondness for it, mixed, of course, with revulsion. Edgewater was more agreeable, and though I’m a stone’s hard throw from there, it feels like another city altogether when I cross Devon.

In re: the R.P.: check out this week’s Reader and it’s all Rogers Park issue (not really). Dan Savage, born and raised in R.P. and residing now in Seattle where he writes the wonderful sex advice column, Savage Love, writes of his returns to the city and his avoidance of the vanishing neighborhood, while his brother, Bill, who still lives in the area and even tends bar at my favorite local watering hole (when he’s not teaching at N.U.), manages to find the one line from that Carl Sandburg poem that actually sums up the experience of living in the ol’ Chi. Bill Savage also writes a nice article about the formation of the area (and West Rogers Park, previously, and officially—though no one cares—known as “West Ridge”). While Savage sticks to historical bits, he avoids what Ben Joravsky focuses on: the ongoing debate that colors the hood, with our Alderman, or to some “Alderscum,” Joe Moore in the center. The week I moved to the area, I saw a protest parade running from Devon north toward, I assumed, Moore’s headquarters. The chant: “WE DEMAND A SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD!” God love the 49th ward.

And, of course, there’s a lot of about bars and food and all that stuff.

R.I.P. Lux

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

I thought the woman standing in front of me on the train—I was sitting, she was standing—was pregnant. I would have given her my seat if I noticed earlier, but I didn’t, not until it was almost time for me to get up. Then again, when she sat down, when another seat became available, I couldn’t tell if she was knocked up or merely plump. It would've, of course, been a gamble to say, “Oh, please sit down. A woman in your condition should not be standing on the subway.”

I did not notice her bulge perhaps because her constant newspaper flicking and folding annoyed me and kept hitting my book as I tried to read. What book? Artificial Respiration by Ricardo Piglia. I’m only a few pages in, so nothing close to a review yet is written yet, but I did, last night, finish Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa, which is a strange little book. I can’t say much else. It was enjoyable, in a sense, and I was interested through its brief 180 pages, or I think I was—I have scant memory of the book and I just read it yesterday. I can employ the usual types of (non)descriptors such as “dreamlike” which is true, but it hardly goes any length toward assessing the thing. Good thing I am not on this earth to explain works of art, even if I pretend that I am.

The boss just called. He wants coffee.

Monday, February 02, 2009

There’s nothing I hate more than being sick, although it allows me to do one of my favorite things: eat. Having a cold involves eating lots of spicy food so as to clear the crammed nasal passages, which I did: Pad Thai with extra red pepper sauce on Saturday and chilaquiles yesterday, in a green sauce that packed a nice punch.

The odd thing: I took a sick day last week when I didn’t need to. Mi niña said to me, “let’s call in,” and I didn’t think twice about it. So I might have called in today were it not for that, but it’s okay—today would not have been as fun as Wed. was, considering I finally got mi niña bella to watch Time Bandits with me. For those who don’t know, Time Bandits was my favorite movie when I was a kid. I watched it over and over again, always checking the cable guide to make sure could catch the next showing. And I’ve seen it many times as an adult, though not lately, and definitely not via the Criterion Collection DVD. Mi niña agreed to watch the film, despite her aversion to some of the members of the cast, because I had allowed the film Ratatouille to be played in my presence. Let it be said here: I hate rats, even cute cartoon ones. Well, after allowing the Disney film to be shown in my living room, in front of my horrified face, I told her that our standing agreement regarding me only seeing that movie if she agreed to watch Time Bandits was still in effect. Essentially, this served as a form of mutual deterrence and her slip-up was due to a memory lapse, of which I took full advantage. Thus I was able to see this masterpiece once again. Ah, the memories it conjured. I still love the movie and put it up pretty goddamn high on the list of best things ever burnt into celluloid. And, lo and behold, mi niña didn’t seem to hate Time Bandits (just as I had to admit that rat-a-fouchi wasn’t too bad).

Thanks for listening, I’m off now to drink some tea and slog through a day at work when I’d sooner be sleeping.

Oh, I hear there was a football game yesterday. Here something that got cut from the roster of commercials that, I am told, people seem to like to watch during this big game: