Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Have started reading Marius, Volume 3 of Les Misérables, at work. It starts with a many-page pean to the street boys of Paris--to the gamin--and then comes a particular boy: not Marius. But the boy "lives" or more properly his unloving parents do in a chamber in a lodging house (the same one Jean Valjean fled with Cosette when Javert got on their trail) next to Marius' chamber. So, then, meet Marius--but not yet. Next comes an old man, over ninety, comfortable, well-housed, in health, with all his teeth, a happy old bourgeois with many, many women in his past. And Marius? A young gentleman and very poor, so far this is all I know.

Where do all these people come from? There are so many, the primary characters have to shove their way through from the back of a crowd--it's always open mic night at Victor Hugo's writing desk, all day and every night somebody new spouting off, showing his flea bites, her mended stockings. Boys in the rafters make rude sounds at the old men on the stage; during the boys' acts the old men talk loudly, clatter and groan back and forth to the men's room, even snore. A warm, sour, semen-y pocket of space expands between the old men and the boys; encompassed by the mutual amusement which they take compulsively in watching (watching women, not alone); a hollow, safe, hidden place in the upper to middle air of the dusky theater, from which a clean man, without possessions, will emerge. And this I suppose will be Marius.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Monday Night

Last night, I write a little something not for publication, as the rain pours down outside into the courtyard making sticky smacky hollow sounds; and the rescusitated radiator heats my bedroom to the very point where sultriness parts ways with comfort; and the train doors at the elevated platform down the block chime, in passing, to conclude recorded messages whose firm white words for once are muffled by the gurgling in between; and upstairs Russians watch a program scored to highlight danger and excitement and suspense; and cats move about my bed or pace purposefully across that squeaky floorboard, drawing looks; and again I check the bedside clock against too late a bedtime--and there's still time: I write the word, Desire.

Why did I want to? As a way to make it end? As if to name were to dispel the meaning of the word and make dead weight: Desire: I've bagged it. Or else I wrote to leave this mark: How far I've climbed across this glacier! From this point I'm starting now and don't return below it--like a ledge on which I camp, half-dangling, and regard the view through noisy handfuls of trail mix. Desire: A lightless view of emptiness and rain; I watch the pewter-colored cloudbursts of my breathing pour away. I decide that I don't need to take an Advil, and that I will sleep, as I used to, in the nude.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Friday Morning

I will never have a child or children of my own, never bear a single one, that is, myself. I sit here trying to pull together strings of words with which I might elucidate these facts--but there is somebody on this morning train playing a harmonica.

At first you think it's a little kid--who're you kidding, a little boy--spoiled and whiny or a deeper problem child; maybe he's had a loss and the harmonica bestowed as pacifier and consolation (though pacifiers are consolations, I suppose--indifferent ones), a harmonica to shape and regulate his broken calm, his teary breathing: in-out-in-out.

But it's too tuneful. Little kids don't play their pacifiers that well. But it's also not a tune--it's not becoming anything you know or recognize, this almost purely rhythmic refrain with minor top notes. Private tootling in a public place: so it's an exhibitionist guy, or a mental patient guy: it's Brooklyn, both are numerous. Somebody playing lonesome hobo on the morning train is playing his harmonica while I make written efforts to bemoan a lonesome womb--lonesome, or wayward? There might be happiness to find in the coincidence but still, the piped distraction is sort of annoying me.

Then it starts to get louder. Which indicates a train musician--oy, not that guy who thinks he's Kurt Cobain! Though he might be dead by now. And he sings and plays guitar, not just harmonica. A Mexican? No, the tuneless tune's not cloying in that way. It's for a lonesome hobo not a woeful; not one sick from cerveza as I used to be most every morning on the train way back in Boston. I look up from these notes that mark my broken meditation on my fruitlessness to see who's coming down the aisle just as the complicated nature of his music strikes me. I can hear, now, the rhythmic counterpoint he blows beneath the simultaneously tongued and tunless melody: an elderly Chinese man, receiving coins and bills into his cap.

I think of Jean Valjean, at the end of Volume 2 of Les Misérables, as he can be observed throughout the years it leaves him in, kneeling outside the chapel window where he'd seen what he'd thought was a horror; now he knows--better. A woman stretched out full length face down on the cold stone floor in prayer, all night, perpetually, is beyond horrifying. To be venerated, horrible.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Thursday Morning

Earth Day! Happy Earth Day, Earth. Back on the train, another beautiful morning pours past the window, looks like Candyland out there. Lilac, wisteria, dogwood, azalea and late cherry blossom: here we are peaking, elsewhere (Haiti, for example, or the Maldive Islands) not. The tough, jutting rocks of this seaboard my homeland, filed and blasted by glaciers (train beds, when they came to be laid, must have seemed familiar) wear light clothes--the soil's not too thick on the ground--but they're pretty. Our spring landscape made in China.

Wednesday Morning

Living at the first stop and choosing the "wrong" train--choosing one with a seat by the window but sacrificing motion to do so. 20 minutes later still sitting in the station, in my window seat, on a stationary train. Selfish and lazy, not the real go-getter type, me--more inclined to choose the wrong train if the "right" one (leaving sooner) is crowded, looks noisy, or has air brakes that squeal. I don't see any point in doing this today, writing aimlessly, as I make this meager tardy show of fealty to the workplace, the employer; except that I've got dinner plans in town that draw me in, so I might was well go to work, too. Today I'll finish reading Volume 2 of Les Misérables (I almost did it yesterday but stopped halfway through the last chapter, unready to leave it). Do I wish I could be cloistered or am I anyway--and this "commuting" some state between hypnosis and the discipline of prayer; lonely but so, so not alone, my eardrums scraped as other women's favorite "songs" escape their earphones. Men bellow, sneeze; a baby shrieks. Like knees on a cold stone floor my senses grind against Wednesday morning; I've forgotten my faith, all I feel is discomfort. Sister thinks: I should have been a litigator!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Getting Religion

Curiously, maybe stupidly, I'd thought about trying to re-read Madame Bovary as a manual on how not to treat a woman. If it could even work that way, I confess I didn't see it this time either. Don't--what? Don't tempt? Don't indulge? Don't marry? Don't even touch? Honey, I've tried all this, and the results are in. Good news, I'm not involved with a poisonous reptile; alas, I am a bit lonely.

Emma Bovary, though, made me tired. She tired me out, sucked me dry and ran me ragged, exhausting my patience for...myself. As it happens. Like one of those jeweled bracelets from India, where a leopard or some such seizes the tip of its own tail between diamond incisors; the lovely lock clicks fast, invisible and perplexing. I massage enamelled jaws and squeeze: nada. Try to fold up my hand bones into a spout, a snout, an old Chinese foot, and shake: a mistake. Now I'm bound to admit things.

The love lives of how many old fat men, young scrawny men, poetical hairy men, fastidious brainy men, honest dolts, roving rotters, and basically boringly good men, between us, Emma Bovary and I, have we left long black scratches on? Without knowing? Or caring? With our sharp hips and put-downs and our exasperated sighs which are not even personal, but the emanations through us of the same ineluctable agency that flicks our on/off switches with poltergeist glee at terrible moments: something deeply amused at the discomfiture we've caused. Something paring its fingernails, while our unreasoning and disordered superabundance of nerve eats through fatty sheaths of wishful thinking. The Moral Order is the medium of dissolution: Just don't--just don't--what? Just don't corrupt; just don't cause divorces. Just don't push me, Moral Order! I'm tired; but I too was made to be a joke on men and my senses remember the sweet spot: baddah-bing, right where they live. I'm only in abeyance. Do not disturb, do not rouse me from my reading of Les Misérables at work; pass my cubicle by, boys, while I bury my face in a convent.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sanctuaries & Antidotes

Looking out the window of the train into work this week at the greening scenery, clenched buds and eager blossom sprays of pink, yellow, white; exultant ivy...wondering is a blog like a book or a story whose writing can just stop, choked off in a cul-de-sac? One wrong turn, one something made to mark it--poem, paragraph, joke--and you're stuck there, nothing else comes. And I did watch the Mets again last weekend, they're just awful; but the point is that it wasn't true, that last renunciation. Delete the Mets post! This was my idea, inspired by the rumblings of a green and pleasant ride. What a strange occupation this is: to write in a notebook about whether or not to erase writing on-line which may or may not be an invisible iceberg. When I could be playing a racing game on my phone (if I had that kind of phone) or reading Madame Bovary.

Meanwhile at work in Les Misérables, the very suspenseful events which have led Jean Valjean and Cosette to the convent garden are behind us. The action has moved to a strange stage marked by the rigors of a women's religious order; they are strict. Perpetual adoration is no picnic--it's a feat of heavy lifting on the grand scale and there is no relaxation. Life in the convent...Les Misérables is such a brilliant book. I will probably repeat this observation many times. Jean Valjean's first view inside the convent, through a window at night into a room lit by a single taper: he sees a figure stretched out on the floor, seemingly wrapped in a shroud with a length of rope trailing from it like a snake which he seems to see moving, snake-like, around this thing which appears to be dead, a horrible dream-like apparition. But this follows what had seemed to be an hallucination too, an auditory one he and Cosette shared, of celestial voices which filled the garden just as Javert and the soldiers were searching the street on the other side of the wall for them. Jean Valjean runs from the vision at the window, shocked and profoundly, profoundly distressed that such a hideous thing shares with such radiance this empty, haunted place. Which, of course, it isn't. It is full of girls--students--and women--sisters of many orders; there's a school, two convents, and a church: Le Petit-Picpus, a real place, not any longer a convent but there's still the cemetery. Part of the convent garden was used to toss the corpses of guillotine victims into, with quicklime, during the later months of the Terror; surviving relatives of dead aristocrats bought and preserved it. This is where Jean Valjean and Cosette have found sanctuary.

The descriptions of the order in charge, of their worship, their rituals; of the school and the school day, the girls' habits and sayings; of the ladies of the world who shelter there, some only briefly, and the nuns of the Little Convent who come from many different dying orders, "relics of cloisters destroyed in the Revolution"--the details! The anecdotes! How to refrain from broken shouting? To describe and describe and describe life in a convent and be so true and so amusing, with so little prurience--really with none at all, that I can see: a marvel of humanity, a high water mark in descriptive prose, not to mention in respect for women, is what this is. Last night I wrote in bed and thought about it as an antidote to Madame Bovary.

Dead and gone, again, she's still making me tired with her rolling eyes, her greedy arsenic-eating mouth, her bad debts, her neglected daughter (Berthe, who ends up an orphaned child worker in a linen factory) and her husband dying in grief from over-fondling a shank of her dead hair. Horrible woman: no sense of humor at all. I'd been carrying around my fat yellowed Norton Critical Edition from college; last night before dinner I browsed the appended essays (all by men), wondering, In what sense were Emma's lovers "unworthy" of her? Another antidote came to mind while I wrote this: Woody Allen's story The Kugelmass Episode. "'My God, I'm doing it with Madame Bovary,' Kugelmass whispered to himself. 'Me, who failed freshman English!'"

Friday, April 9, 2010

Charles Bovary at the Bat

I'm not going with the Mets this season. Everything they do is wrong. Already, as usual, they can't manage their own pitchers on one side, on the other can't hit, but you don't want them on the basepaths anyway because they're forever running into injuries and outs. Watching the Mets play baseball is like being filled with heavy sand--sand like at the bottom of the ocean, weighted with decay. What am I a drowning victim, lost at sea, already dead? No. So who needs it?

I'm a free agent, defiantly over the Mets. I have laid down that heavy load of anger and contempt, Lord. You know they almost had me again; opening week is like a wilderness honeymoon--certain things get confused with the relief that comes at sunrise: another day. Thank you. Ebbets Field, Jackie Robinson: here I live in the Holy Land; but I missed it by decades, didn't I? Now have I even got time for these phony balonies? Since when?

I'm going to rescue myself and leave the Mets behind. They are a bunch of frail and overpaid buffoons and I don't care if their heart's in the right place: they're beneath me. Like in my life I need to witness and watch more dull-wittedness, mouth-breathing, and want of agility--like I should be seeking more chances to feel unfulfilled, depressed, worse. What am I married to these bozos? Or their mother?

Fuhgin Fuhgeddaboudit.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Inside Fireplaces

"The daylight that came in at the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace, and touched with blue the cold cinders." This is from Madame Bovary, which I began re-reading (in Paul de Man's English translation) Monday morning on the train. It's touch and go with me on this one: it was never a favorite although I found the carriage scene arousing. And now here I was on the train, writing this; avoiding it.

Yesterday at work I read the chapters in Les Misérables where Jean Valjean comes and takes Cosette away from Montfermeil. An 8-year old child slave, bare-legged, wearing linen rags in winter, finally rescued by a man who has escaped from the galleys--finally, successfully--precisely in order to do this. There is a fireplace at the inn kept by her evil keepers, the Thenardiers, and in the middle of the night Jean Valjean notices two pretty little mismatched shoes on the cold hearth. They belong to the two spoiled daughters of the house: it's Christmas, and the custom. He sees that Madame Thenardier has put a shiny silver coin in either shoe for her girls to find on Christmas morning. Then he spots, in the back of the hearth, something called "frightful" which is one of Cosette's shoes, of course she only has one pair, but she still has hope, made of splintering wood and stained with mud and ashes--an empty old sabot, into which he slips a gold louis. (Then he steals back to his room "like a wolf"!)

So, the fireplace in Madame Bovary is Emma Bovary: pretty to look at, all black and shiny but...eeek. Don't touch. What an illusion. This scene comes early in the book, before her marriage; having stopped by the farm where she lives with her nogoodnik father, Charles finds her sitting alone in the shaded kitchen by the fireplace, sewing. It's a warm day and he sees drops of perspiration on her shoulders. Later you learn she's read nothing but romance novels: the woman is filthy embraces waiting to happen. After her, Les Misérables comes as a relief. Still, today waiting for lunch at the food stand I found myself trying to remember which male character wore an earring: the male Thenardier? No, it was Emma's father. And it's absolutely true that when Jean Valjean spied Cosette's sabot in the shy depths of that empty hearth, I saw it against a backdrop of black velvet.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

I have read everything.

Soon after I started reading Les Misérables at work, I began to get agitated over the amount of time I'd squandered reading other things instead. At first, I looked back balefully at my recent on-line reading; the vast number of page views: The New York Times, The Awl, New York Magazine's Sex Diaries, The New Yorker, too (although to read it on-line always made me feel like a pervert); plus essays and reviews from Arts & Letters Daily, with regular stops at The Onion, Slate, Salon, Jezebel, Gawker and Fark (I love the tabloids). My eyes, strained; my weary brain, dulled by my day job and my reading: I blamed The Male Brain, that coddled hive mind, compulsively churning out text to fill columns and screens. My envious eyes raked down the pages, my brain in freefall; I could get vertigo at my desk from the sensation of hard narrow male chests, each in its button-down--pink, blue or white--pressed into the form of a cliff face down which I slid, nowhere to catch onto; dislodged buttons bounced and clattered in the chasms still below me.

By the time Jean Valjean robbed Little Gervais of his heaviest coin--a crime not without consequence in a wonderful, terrible way, it transpires--I would get agitated over how I'd never read Les Misérables before: How, I mean, in the sense of what had caused this omission to happen. What had I read instead? Everything else--including many French novels (all in English translations, to match my English major). French novels! Except no Victor Hugo, but a whole lot of Balzac and Zola and Proust, and naturally Flaubert. So in fact it happens that for college credit I read Madame Bovary twice. Twice. Before I was 21.

Because Madame Bovary was a requirement!

Now, I'm not here to cry over spilt milk or to cast stones at the promiscuous younger woman I became; I could have been worse. But I will take a moment, another among quite a few lately, to ask, sharply: What was that about? Hmm? Mister Men who man the Western canon which is aimed (apparently? perchance?) straight at the rosy knees of Western coeds: Was this really worth the sacrifice? Let me repeat: I have read everything now, except Les Misérables which I'm reading at work, and I am here to say, it's one of the single best things ever written, up there with Hamlet and Macbeth, no lie. It is also a book about social justice and humility, charity and repentance; it is (unfashionably? still?) "improving." Whereas I ask, seriously: Did reading Madade Bovary instead improve me more? Make me fitter for this modern world--a better citizen, a better reader, even? A deeper person, for the reading of a sad book--even while the sadder, better book remained unmentioned, unrequired, and (by me at least) unread? Because I really don't believe so.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Hollow Road

Hey man, I'm thinking yesterday as this young guy yammers into a cell phone, he's walking behind me, No one is interested. I stop, let him pass so I can figure out which route to take, hall, stairs or escalator. I'll take the one he doesn't: No one wants to hear this. He's doing business he thinks; he thinks he's accomplishing two things at once, leaving the building and working there. He's a genius. I've spent part of the day reading Les Misérables on-line at my desk; I've finished the part about Waterloo. I'm on the wrong side of history: I wished Napoleon had won--like when I read The Killer Angels, I wanted the South to win Gettysburg. Blunders and trick of fate; here an intelligence failure, there something misheard: young men posturing, yammering, throwing themselves at each other.


Phone boy takes the escalator so I parallel down the stairs, suddenly not in the mood for the hall route past the Ground Zero tourists missing their pit: all that visualizing, no wonder the pace of construction is slow here. Where I wouldn't be working if the towers were still there, there; this is for sure for so many reasons, not the least being that I couldn't stand the cold drafts in the shadows that they used to cast, the whole neighborhood dim and chill under their awesome looming. Now, what? Can't keep our pit, can't live without it. Tower and pit, that's the ticket: Still collapsing in a cloud of matter every time you look in its direction, still emitting screams and blood spray--it's a memorial, alright; but simultaneously, it's not. The fat new tower is rising, trucks are driving back and forth, while across smaller and smaller holes, little men are signalling to each other: Forward--Wait--Forward.