who’s keeping score?

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As the year ends, I feel compelled to tally up what I’ve done versus what I aimed to do when the year began. Of course life isn’t quite the linear thing that smoothly hands over what we ask for or think we will do, see or accomplish. Even what we want (or think we want) can change so fast, can be led along by circumstance, or a sudden need for dramatic change, that it’s almost silly to do things like set ‘resolutions’. Sillier even than watching 40-year-old, late-night reruns of The Love Boat or Only Fools and Horses, which has been my rough introduction to peri-Brexit Britain. (I certainly didn’t choose the wisest time to put down stakes in that neck of the woods.)

I had no idea when 2018 began that I’d spend half the year in Glasgow, immersed in intensive psychology studies. I also had no idea that I would try to balance that with work/job and the simultaneous completion of a thesis from a previous, almost-finished MA from another university. I had no idea that I would (mostly) have the discipline to follow through on almost all the goals I set for the year, somehow managing not to disrupt them despite the otherwise disruptive nature of the chaos I sprung upon myself by moving from place to place in a more itinerant than normal (for me) fashion.

“That life is not for me. Clearly I did not inherit whatever gene it is that makes it so that when you linger in a place you start to put down roots. I’ve tried, a number of times, but my roots have always been shallow; the littlest breeze could always blow me right over. I don’t know how to germinate, I’m simply not in possession of that vegetable capacity. I can’t extract nutrition from the ground, I am the anti-Antaeus. My energy derives from movement—from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes, trains’ and ferries’ rocking.” –Flights, Olga Tokarczuk

Hands-off, ears-off

Sadly, there is no new soundtrack for this month. But you can revisit the musical archives that date all the way back to 2004.

Emotional turmoil

On a less physical, hands-on level, though…

I had no idea, at least not consciously, that I would continue to dig deep into reserves of patience I had no clue I had, trying to patch up holes that are completely bottomless. They cannot be fixed.

I had no idea that I would finally try to come to terms with myself as a too secretive person, completely lacking in transparency when it comes to myself. I pretend to be open, but I’m open to you and your problems; I’m listening to you; I am reflecting you; I am flexible to and for you; I am absorbing your misery and anxiety.

But I am not being me with you, and I never have been.

(This “you” is everything and everyone.)

And this, rather than getting better, is getting worse. Much of what I did this year was to try to go against the grain, to stop doing this insofar as I recognized it. I did not succeed; instead I… recede.

Or could I have known that I would continue to love, to love more deeply than I could imagine possible, that being lovestruck, despite its implication of being immediate and fleeting, can continue and deepen? And despite the distance I put between myself – my self – and another? I could not come to trust it all because I have found the physical world is not to be trusted.

Yet others – all others – continue to tell me all the things contained in the vulnerable underbelly of their lives, their pasts, their hidden desires… their urge to share, to confess, to scrape out all the gelatinous globs of all the things they could never, ever tell anyone else too strong to resist, even if in the immediate aftermath they realized, Ah, now things will never be the same. 

Knowledge: Reading and thinking

“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” ― John Locke

In terms of reading, I read a whole lot more than I set out to read – and a whole lot more than I expected. And in many cases it’s been an elusive and esoteric pursuit. As I’ve written through the year, a great majority of this reading in the second half of 2018 was academic/scholarly/empirical, but there were quite a few other things as well – mostly dominated by poetry whenever possible. (And many of my “lists” of what I’ve read don’t reflect a lot of the academic stuff.)

When 2018 started, I’d set a goal – read 26 books, all of which had to be in non-English languages. I started off strong but first found myself lured into a whole lot of English-language books (novels, poetry, contemporary non-fiction), and then into the required readings from academia (a lot of BS/masturbatory theory, i.e. an academic citing a previous academic, citing a previous academic/philosopher/theoretician, not actual theory on masturbation). In the end I only managed… well, 20 as of 12 November 2018. Still better than I thought, thinking back to spring when I found that reading in Russian again was so slow-going that I’d never make the kind of progress I can make in English. Reading Russian has also become bittersweet – so intense the memories of the time when it was the most important thing in the world to me, and so fresh the knowledge that one of the closest friends I had at the time died two years ago. She had not been in my life at all since 1995, but it still hit me to learn that she is really gone. I read Marina Tsvetaeva, for example, which is something she and I talked endlessly about, in a wholly different way.

In any case, this whole exercise required a re-evaluation of what progress is in this context. What am I doing this for if not for the qualitative experience of living, loving and grappling with languages, words, concepts, constructions, time periods, perspectives that are not even close to my own? In the digestion, interpretation (literal and figurative) and comprehension of these particular reading challenges, reading feels like a new endeavour, different from the much-loved near-obsession I experience with own-language books. Novel and difficult, and truly as worthwhile as I had hoped. Still I set such a goal when I had a fraction of today’s deadlines to meet and ‘achievements’ to unlock.

I’d be remiss not to reflect on these things even though I feel empty of the ability to truly reflect. Outside of my own little world, everything has been so ugly and contentious I can’t bring myself to think about it.

 

shot in the back-shot in the arm

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Not quite an Alpine vista, the world of rural western Sweden in mid-March was this time mostly sun-filled, a shot in the arm for getting things done. Pleasurable things. Okay, maybe hauling recyclables to the recycle station doesn’t count. Must be done, and there is some pleasure to be found in accomplishing the must-do stuff, too.

Conversation (so much laughing). Walking. Writing. Films, thanks to MUBI (Fogo – what a weird accent these islanders have, such breathtaking scenery; I’m All Yours – an unusual French film that had the makings of a really good story but was not sure what it wanted to be and suffered from trying to clumsily weave too many narrative threads into it; Catch Me Daddy – quite a grim and disturbing picture, mostly filmed in West Yorkshire with a bunch of foul-mouthed Scots in the mix). Music (mostly Elena Frolova – various things from her, inspired by digging out my CD of Frolova setting Marina Tsvetaeva poetry to music, but also Nippon Girls volumes 1 and 2).

Reading (First, I quickly devoured a basic and silly book on developing ‘psychic abilities’. Not because I think it will work or because I want to develop clairvoyance. I thought it might give more insight into developing deeper intuition.

The rest of my reading time was devoured – and I mean devoured; time is devoured by the book, not the other way around – by David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest. I’m still only halfway through. For a month I sat at about 2% completion, according to my Kindle, but in the last two days, I managed to chip away at it to reach the halfway mark. (It is, after all, well over 1,000 pages.) I don’t necessarily like it, but I marvel at it. I really like select parts of it, and others I can take or leave. I suppose this is symptomatic of the ‘bigger is better’ credo that seems to have propelled the book forward, which  Michiko Kakutani referred to in her original review:

“Perfect, however, “Infinite Jest” is not: this 1,079-page novel is a “loose baggy monster,” to use Henry James’s words, a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr. Wallace’s mind.”

“The book seems to have been written and edited (or not edited) on the principle that bigger is better, more means more important, and this results in a big psychedelic jumble of characters, anecdotes, jokes, soliloquies, reminiscences and footnotes, uproarious and mind-boggling, but also arbitrary and self-indulgent.”

Sometimes that “encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr. Wallace’s mind” is fascinating; sometimes it’s pages of mind-numbing, sleep-inducing quicksand. As a whole, the concept is fascinating but digging into the details isn’t always.

The language – both its volume and particular use – can be overwhelming – the breadth, depth, randomness – lack of narrative or plot-driven clarity while still somehow offering some other kind of clarity – is not something I can really explain or describe or review. It is exactly what it is unapologetically, with its sudden, pages-long description of the terror of suddenly moving from aural telephone to videophony or little statements like, “Son, you’re ten, and this is hard news for somebody ten, even if you’re almost five-eleven, a possible pituitary freak.” Haha. You never know whether to laugh, cry, be puzzled. Less story or narrative than a radical transformation of language and form that feels that it inadvertently (though this is quite deliberate) ends up telling many stories anyway.

It’s just so much, so complex, so full of digressions, but the kind you can get engrossed in, not distracted by. Random but not.

Long passages about addiction and AA “sobriety in Boston is regarded as less a gift than a sort of cosmic loan. You can’t pay the loan back but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works…” “The only way to hang onto sobriety is to give it away and even just 24 hours of sobriety is worth doing anything for, a sober day being nothing short of a daily miracle if you’ve got the Disease like he’s got the Disease…”.

Relatable, but at the same time so far out there, it’s not. You have to sit and wonder about the writer with the kind of mind who produced this tome much more than the content of the final product itself in some ways (and he was clearly tortured enough to take his own life).)

The art of letting go …

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 …or ‘it wasn’t a dry fuck’

“It sucks to be reliable.”
“Maybe we should teach you the art of letting go.”

Yesterday apparently was the birthday of poet David Ignatow – a poet whose few works I’ve rather haphazardly come across impressed me and were worthy of going back and reading again at different points in life. I first heard of him in high school – during the hated poetry unit we were force fed. Our teacher assigned us each a poem to explicate and investigate and then present to our class. She had apparently taken some care to match our personalities up with poets she felt somehow had something to offer us. I was given Adrienne Rich. Don’t get me started. The teacher had hoped we would each respond to these assigned poets and pursue a more in-depth research project on the one we were already acquainting ourselves with. By this time I was deeply entrenched in my 20th century Russian women (Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva and Akhmadulina) and could not be bothered with Rich.

Meanwhile my dear friend Mike, whom the teacher had previously referred to as a “miscreant” (for some unknown reason?), was given a poem (I believe) by David Ignatow. Mike decided he would pursue Ignatow as a research project but ran into the problem we all ran into back then: a dearth of information thanks to … well, the limitations of libraries and access to information. Libraries were well-connected networks, of sorts; you could look up and order information, but it was not instant or immediate. There were still barriers to all the information you might have wanted – primarily temporal barriers, particularly the more obscure your topic. If you could find what you wanted eventually – time was often the ultimate limitation. School assignment deadlines – waiting for some book or resource to arrive at the local library – really not practical. But once upon a time, it was the only way. And probably was the reason that many viable but difficult research topics ended up abandoned by well-meaning and curious students. I suspect this is why, in the pre-internet era of too-little-information at the fingertips, Mike abandoned David Ignatow.

Now I run across Ignatow fairly frequently in my readings and find gems, such as this Paris Review interview from 1979. I loved to read about Ignatow’s attempts to succeed at business, only to find that he felt more like a (willing) prisoner to his writing and had to write. Or that it was an inevitable pleasure: “I didn’t will myself to become a writer. It was just a natural outgrowth of the pleasure readers got from my work. I wanted to give pleasure and give myself pleasure. It wasn’t a dry fuck, in other words.” HAHA. And also was inspired by reading the following passage, feeling as though this ‘background of immortality’ is a guide:

“INTERVIEWER

A Mexican writer, José Gaos, was quoted in Octavio Paz’s beautiful book The Bow and the Lyre as saying: “As soon as a man enters life he is already old enough to die.”

IGNATOW

That’s good. When you assume that knowledge, you begin to live a very vital life, because everything you do is in the background of immortality. The background is the immortality of death. That’s when you can say you are a man in the full sense of the word. You’ve become an existentialist. That’s what it’s all about.”

Photo (c) 2013 Jana Reifegerste

Rilke exposure

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If the neverending New Age books brought me nothing else (but in truth, they did bring me more than this), they connected me to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, whose works I had glimpsed only only through his correspondence with Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak (writers much more in my milieu for so much of my life).

Most beautiful, the Duino elegies (Duineser Elegien).All thought-provoking, but on this particular occasion, it was the eighth that struck me:

“We are, above all, eternal spectators
looking upon, never from,
the place itself. We are the
essence of it. We construct it.
It falls apart. We reconstruct it
and fall apart ourselves.

Who formed us thus:
that always, despite
our aspirations, we wave
as though departing?
Like one lingering to look,
from a high final hill,
out over the valley he
intends to leave forever,
we spend our lives saying
goodbye.”

But it renews my objections to and troubles with translation. I read several translations of the elegies – all are quite different, and create quite different impressions. I could easily immerse myself in these differences for days, for weeks, as I once did with Akhmatova translations.

 

Cleansed of the past – 2008 in soundtrack form

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