Friday, December 27, 2019

A Year in the Arts

We have been ardent supporters of the arts since our undergraduate days. Last year around this time, a colleague at TheaterJones wrote about seeing over 100 shows, mostly theater, I think, and our editor challenged us, critics and audience members alike, to track attendance throughout the year to see if we could hit 100.

I knew for us it wouldn't be a problem, though I never really tallied them up before. At the end of what definitely seemed like a low-attendance year for us, I can now say that we attended at least 120 art events.

We didn't count anything that took place at home. No films watched while sitting on our couch. No podcasts while driving across town. No audio programs while doing cardio at the gym. Each of these 120 events were produced elsewhere and by other people.

A lot of them, thankfully, were free, or free to me, since I do get comp tickets for shows I review. If I continue tracking art events, I'll add a cost column so I can calculate how much I spend in a year. I didn't think of doing that for 2019.

Here's my tally, according to genre/medium:
  • architecture - 1
  • art - 30
  • music/concert -11
  • festival - 3
  • film - 13
  • literature - 2
  • museum/history - 5
  • performance - 8
  • theater - 46
  • workshop - 1
Typically, we attend quite a bit more music/concert events. And we usually see more films, hitting the Oak Cliff Film Festival, which we missed this past year. And we usually go to more galleries and museums. "Performance" can mean something like performance art or it can be a multimedia/interdisciplinary/multi-genre event. The 2 literature events are the Reading Challenge Book Club meetings, each spanned across three months. We typically go to hear more authors and translators speak and present their work. We usually do more architecture. Like I said, 2019 was a low-attendance year.

As far as North Texas theater goes, 2019 was another strong year. Here are my tallies (of more than 1) for local theater companies:
  • Flexible Grey Theatre Company - 5
  • Imprint Theatreworks - 3
  • One Thirty Production - 3
  • Second Thought Theatre - 3
  • Teatro Dallas - 2
  • The Classics Theatre Project - 4
  • Undermain Theatre - 4
  • WingSpan Theatre Company - 3
I regret that I saw only 1 production by Kitchen Dog Theater, especially since they've been one of my favorites and one of the strongest over the years. But doing these 120 things prevented me from doing a different 120.

I won't create a highlights list until later, since there's still a chance I'll be asked to write one for TheaterJones. Also, my list may increase over the next few days.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Opening(s): An Education

When Salvador Dalí was asked about Fred Halstead's fisting classic L.A. Plays Itself showing at MoMA, he is said to have exclaimed, "New information for me." If, like Dalí, fisting is new information to you, then artist William E. Jones' I'm Open to Anything, published by We Heard You Like Books in 2019, wants to be your introductory text.

Jones' 169-page novel is a literary primer of sorts on the art of fisting. No, not the actual act itself, but the literary and artistic art of the act. The book's plot is spare: queer Midwest boy escapes the Rust Belt, ends up in Los Angeles, and becomes a skilled fisting partner to the Latino men in the immigrant communities there. It's seeped in the derelict L.A. of the late 1980s and early '90s that no longer exists.

But the book's potency is found more in the protagonist's musings and conversations with his friends and lovers. Heir to the quasi-pornographic literary legacies of writers like Jean Genet and Georges Bataille, Jones revels in his ability to deliberate with articulate insight on topics ranging from the material conditions of the porn industry to the political machinations behind the Central American crisis. This book also contains some of the shrewdest film analysis you'll find in any form, but especially that of a novel.

At its worst, it's well-crafted erotic fiction. At it's best, it's an education. If you read one book about fist fucking this year, make it I'm Open to Anything. It is the perfect antidote to the anodyne garbage that was Call Me by Your Name.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

"The sea was more important now than the shore."

Since starting To the Lighthouse I’d been noticing all kinds of references to subjects and objects, which was prompted chiefly by this passage:
Whenever she [Lily] "thought of his [Mr. Ramsay’s] work" she always saw clearly before her a large kitchen table. It was Andrew's doing. She asked him what his father's books were about. "Subject and object and the nature of reality," [my emphasis] Andrew had said. And when she said Heavens, she had no notion what that meant. "Think of a kitchen table then," he told her, "when you're not there."
At first, I had thought Woolf was setting up Mr. Ramsay’s work to be an extension of the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, but it’s unlikely she would’ve known about Bakhtin. Instead, I think she’s drawing on Henri Bergson’s work. Bergson was much more well known in the early twentieth century, so Woolf would’ve easily encountered his ideas.

The more I read, the more obvious it was that Woolf was very much conversant with Bergon’s philosophy. Not only does she have Mr. Ramsay’s work be about "subject and object and the nature of reality," but she also has Mrs. Ramsay do all the difficult lifting of that work. It’s Mrs. Ramsay who thinks through all the nuances of subjectivity and objectivity.

Mrs. Ramsay fleshes out the parameters of Bergson's proto-phenomenology, dissecting the nuances of subject/object, active/passive, whole/parts, past/present, and perception/memory, mostly while holding court at the table, the object that puts reality and human relations into question.

At times, Mrs. Ramsay see the lighthouse sends out its light. At other times, she “reflects” the light of the lighthouse. And still other times, she becomes (as if) the light itself, like in Section 11:
Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at—that light, for example. And it would lift up on it some little phrase or other which had been lying in her mind like that—"Children don't forget, children don't forget"--which she would repeat and begin adding to it, It will end, it will end, she said. It will come, it will come, when suddenly she added, We are in the hands of the Lord [emphasis added].
And she gets instantly annoyed with herself for that last sentence that comes from outside her own mind:
But instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that. Who had said it? Not she; she had been trapped into saying something she did not mean. She looked up over her knitting and met the third stroke and it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes, searching as she alone could search into her mind and her heart, purifying out of existence that lie, any lie. She praised herself in praising the light, without vanity, for she was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light. It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself. There rose, and she looked and looked with her needles suspended, there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one's being, a mist, a bride to meet her lover [emphasis added].
Here you have the whole subject/object, perception/memory problem being worked out and worked over. On top of that, you have the modernist wordplay: a rose (flower), rose (verb) from the lake, and then there’s the daughter Rose. Later at the table (what was to always remind Lily of Mr. Ramsay’s work), they recite poems with the repeated phrase “Chinese rose,” which also merges Lily (another flower, but with “Chinese eyes”) with the daughter Rose.

These phenomenological analyses are even more fleshed out in the middle third of the book and come to a head in the final section, where Lily Briscoe completes and culminates the ruminations of Mrs. Ramsay: "It is finished."

On the back cover of my cheap, used paperback copy is this reductionist bullshit: "The subject of this brilliant novel is the daily life of an English family in the Hebrides." Well, no, Chad (and you know damn well it was a Chad), To the Lighthouse is as much about "the daily life of an English family in the Hebrides" as the Gospels are about the daily life of a Hebrew man with a Messiah Complex. It just as easily is about—and so much more than just about—how human beings are always (in) the act of  transcending what it means to be human.

Thursday, October 3, 2019


As many books about the subject can attest, performance art calls into question passed-down notions of identity and subjectivity. At one extreme, the art attempts to dislocate (if not outright erase) identity. Think of Ron Athey’s staged physical obliterations at the verge of ritual’s limit. Or of the trio of artists featured in curator Philipp Kaiser’s Disappearing—California, c. 1970: Bas Jan Ader, Chris Burden, Jack Goldstein at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth earlier this year. This show traced the various organized disappearances of the artists within the context of the California art scene in the early seventies.

At the other extreme, performance art stages an identity, albeit one that may be more fictional and more temporary than not, as an extension of that identity’s performativity. Here, think of Laurie Anderson’s narrative pieces in which she plays a version, often extreme and technologized, of herself. Or of Karen Finley, who in March 2016 brought her show The Jackie Look to Dallas. In it, Finley performs onstage as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, effectively reactivating Onassis’ public trauma as if it were an extension of Finley’s—or Dallas’—own history of, or history as, trauma.

Further intensifying the clash between these two extreme modalities of performance art is the fact that often the sheer identity performance artist is enough to bring into question such fraught terms as identity, subjectivity, performativity, and affectivity, especially when an artist performs the most mundane of activities but within an art context.

In The Artist Is Present, for example, Marina Abramović, who decidedly was not present at all times during the exhibition, nonetheless both staged her absence by casting other performers in her (former) roles, yet also made manifest her presence only insofar as it negotiated with the barest of narrative and artistic content: she sat in a chair facing audience members one at a time. But MoMA’s context, and even the iconic dresses she wore almost as if in costume, guaranteed an expanded understanding of both performance (she’s just sitting there) as well as of art, in this case, seemingly as if to say that because a performance artist is doing the activity, then that activity is necessarily art.

Operating within the nexus of questions that performance art opens is New Orleans native (and currently Dallas-based) Jer’Lisa Devezin’s 2019 mixed-media work Kiss My Ass. This piece was performed Saturday, September 21, as part of curator Liss LaFleur’s Cosmic to Corporeal: Contemporary Queer Performance Practices opening at The MAC. With an impressive 25-year history of programming challenging exhibits, The MAC also prides itself on presenting “performance practice which is often underrepresented locally” in Dallas, said executive director Rachel Rogerson. Having an international open call, Rogerson explains, “ensured that a diverse range of techniques and approaches are represented” in this exhibit that has been in the works for a few years now.

At 7:00 pm, Devezin entered the back door of the museum carrying a bronze of a truncated human form, specifically an ass but also including the thighs and hips. If not for the time of day and the crowd gathered, one could have easily dismissed the action as one performed by a museum worker in the installation of any number of works. The MAC recorded over 150 audience members throughout the evening, with about half that number present during the performance.

But there is another aspect that indicates that the artist is not a mere installer: she carries the sculpture in her formidable arms. A worker would presumably be more detached, perhaps pushing it on a cart. Devezin instead grips it tightly in a bear hug and pushes her way through the crowd into the front gallery where the work is to be performed/installed. Though she is not a museum technician, she takes on this role, rendering visible the rarely seen labor of installation.

There is little question that the sculptural work is hers, though to what extent remains an open question: Did Devezin cast the work herself? Is the ass cast of her own body? And to further exaggerate the questionability of performance with which she engages, she ends up over-installing it: the pedestal upon which she raises her bronze ass is more than six feet high, requiring that a majority of people will need to stand back and look up at it. In other words, she demands from the audience a posture and a gaze that is typically coded as subservient and deferential. Not so much kiss my ass as worship my ass.

Through the bronze, rope, steel, and performance Devezin overturns the binary of high and low art. She literally erects an ass over the audience’s heads. But this work is more than an easy tongue-in-cheek joke. The sculpture as well as the performance are firmly encoded by narratives of queered Black bodies, labor, women’s work, and feminism. But even if we made an effort to ignore its contexts, it would be difficult to not think of the history of American slavery and the policing of Black bodies while watching the artist secure ropes tightly around the stand-in ass so that it can be controlled, restrained, and then raised.

We see Devezin struggle with and through the work: she perspires, grunts, tugs, strains under the weight, wipes sweat from her brow, pushes her long dreadlocks out of her eyes. The 20-minute performance shows itself as labor in both senses of that word. In the artist’s statement, Devezin reveals an interest in depicting a new strong Black woman, one not overly oppressed by history, gender, and sexuality. By unfastening and unhooking the ropes once the sculpture is in place, the artist allows for the ass to be free from such weighty constraints even as it invites the audience to look and admire.

The ass becomes another work of art in another museum, decontextualized from its own origin, from its own narrative, with nothing but the residual traces of the labor it took to get it there. What’s more, the fully installed ass is de-racialized in that the bronze neutralizes the race of its model. And the sculpture of the ass once again discloses itself as de-gendered in that it has neither overtly male nor female sex organs. Freeing the sculptural work from the semiotic relationships activated by the performance (by way of race, sex/gender, sexuality) highlights the radical queering that took place in that performance. This, I think, is the greatest testament to Devezin’s artistic practice.

Cosmic to Corporeal: Contemporary Queer Performance Practices in on view through November 9, 2019, at The MAC’s newly renovated exhibition space at 1503 South Ervay Street in the Cedars neighborhood. Two more evenings of performances are scheduled for Saturday, October 12, and Saturday, October 26. If Devezin’s work is any indication, you won’t want to miss the other performances. Many thanks to The MAC’s executive director Rachel Rogerson for providing details and quoted material above.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Orientalist Arabesque

The Nights of Tino of Baghdad

Else Lasker-Schüler's novela The Nights of Tino of Baghdad came to me a couple of weeks ago. It's free to anyone who subscribes to the Rixdorf Editions newsletter, and it's only in PDF. (Click the cover above to follow the link.)

The laconic text—at only 41 pages—is strangely baroque. It reminds me of the quasi-narrative prose poems of Arthur Rimbaud and of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. There are glimpses of fabled, faraway lands that immediately dissipate into smoke and dreams at any attempt to place them on a map.

The nineteen stories barely hang together; their narrative web, more a ghost structure that operates at the level of hint and suggestion. The characters, including the eponymous Tino, more ghost than flesh and blood. But the book's mood!

There's a quality of hallucination and incantation, as if the author were trying to rewrite Montesquieu's Orientalist Persian Letters or the Bible's alchemy-inflected Song of Songs, but in the stuttering, cryptic language of Wilhelmine Germany's proto-dada, proto-expressionism:
The Grand Mogul of Philippopolis is sitting in the garden of the Imperial Palace in the Sultan’s city when from out of the evening comes a foreign insect and stings him on the tip of his tongue. It is his habit to let it rest on his lower lip as he thinks. And while the physicians attach no greater import to the accident, it transpires that the illustrious master nevertheless imagines himself no longer able to speak. And he darkly refuses to entertain other means of making himself understood; the damage to the land is incalculable. Processions of flagellant priests move through the streets of Constantinople, and the Sultan is on his knees before Allah. He calls his two sons to his private chamber: ‘Lads, you must learn a trade!’
Every reason you should know the world of Lasker-Schüler is detailed in translator James J. Conway's informed Afterword. Conway gives us the perfect amount of biography and history. It's one of the best, least burdensome critical apparatuses I've read in quite a while. Conway and Rixdorf Editions should be commended for rising to the challenge of helping to recreate the worlds of Wilhelminism and the Weimar Republic.


Saturday, August 10, 2019

Burden of Light

"A figure dressed in white, walks along the white line in the middle of the highway. He becomes visible only when sporadically lit by the headlights of on-coming cars." From a Jack Goldstein performance, 1971.
"A figure dressed in white, walks along the white line in the middle of the highway. He becomes visible only when sporadically lit by the headlights of on-coming cars." From a Jack Goldstein performance, 1971.
I barely remember a time when I didn't know who Yoko Ono was. I specifically discovered Laurie Anderson on the night of March 16, 1984. Aside from these two legends, Chris Burden was one of my earliest performance art crushes.

In college I heard about Shoot and Deadman. Rumors reached me about Trans-Fixed, in which he was "crucified" to a Volkswagen. For years, every time I would see a tarp or a box in the middle of the road, I would say, "There goes Chris Burden." I don't say it out loud any more, but I still think it.

After finishing my undergraduate studies and beginning to study art and art history on my own, I specifically sought out a graduate program where I could study performance art.

Earlier this year I visited Los Angeles, and I came upon his Urban Light. I don't think I was ready to receive its gifts. And when The Modern announced their exhibition Disappearing—California, c. 1970: Bas Jan Ader, Chris Burden, Jack Goldstein, I have to admit that I wasn't all that interested. But I went, and it turned out to be a great exhibit. I've been obsessively reading about Burden since.

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A text mentioned at The Modern was Frazer Ward's No Innocent Bystanders: Performance Art and Audience. He writes about how Burden's work negotiates how the private and personal interpenetrates the public and social. We carry our interiorities and particularities "into" and throughout the field of homogenized sameness and performed versions of publicness.

I wrote something of my own in response to Ward's book and Burden's work in this exhibit that seeks to make legible the artist even as he disappears and is gone forever:
The Subject of Last Resort

Burden's work traces the slippages of shaky ground beneath and among public-audience-community, especially as such slippages necessarily play with a contested field activated by artistic intention on display for any viewer-cum-participant, and of the radical dispersal of subjectivity, that is, a subject deterritorialized across, shot through, and riddled by alterities.
The audience is pro-voked: stimulated, incited, challenged while also called for(th) upon an ever-shifting ground of being. And this pro-vocation reactivates the community participant as by-stander and the site specificity by which one might stand. Such work reimagines the presence of an artist through the provocation of an already late audience comprising those who come to view the remains of what remains by the sheer presence of the artist's name on the wall. California qua literal no-man's land: a marked site of disappearance rendered unmappable and ultimately untraceable. A place, a space, left to operate solely as potentiality.
I think I may need to see this exhibit again before it closes.

Chris Burden's The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, 1979, 50,000 nickels, 50,000 matchsticks, and signage.
Chris Burden's The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, 1979, 50,000 nickels, 50,000 matchsticks, and signage

Friday, August 9, 2019

Three Gems

Here are three literary gems that I've enjoyed immensely over the past few weeks: two slender books and a slender 80-minute film. But don't let their size fool you. These texts offer more than many much heftier tomes.

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First is The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse by Iván Repila, trans. Sophie Hughes, published by Pushkin Press. I’m in awe of this story: two brothers trapped in a pit. Such a glorious book! I forced myself to parcel it out over four days so I could properly think through it. This book begs to be performed, either onstage or animated. It will serve as the most apt metaphor of life in the twenty-first century for a long time. That is, if humans manage to continue to exist for a long time. It’s Beckett, it’s Pinter; it’s Sartre and Camus and Kafka and the Brothers Grimm. Ultimately, it's a story of liberation, both personal and political, and it should be required reading. I can't recommend it enough.

Written and directed by Blitz Bazawule, The Burial of Kojo is a magical realist film from Ghana that deftly maneuvers the grim, tattered edges of allegory and reality. Written in a visual language that is both stark and sumptuous, it too revolves around a man in a pit, and the daughter who travels the necessary distance to set him free. This is great film-making and even greater storytelling and precisely what Hollywood can never seem to master. A feast for the eyes and the heart. In the US you can currently catch it on Netflix.

Tristan Foster's Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father (Transmission Press) is a tightly coiled viper of a book. Some of the stories are mere whispers in the dark under weighted blankets with all the lights turned off. There are tales of memory and how memory can track you down. There are tales of the devil and how he is always willing to offer a finger to a crying child. There are lost loves, lost family members, and loves that have finally walked out and moved on. There are the dead who people our dreams and the literary, artistic geniuses who teach us how to see in the dark. This collection is easily one of my favorite contemporary books of fiction this year.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

FIT 2019

The 21st annual Festival of Independent Theatres wraps up this weekend at Dallas' Bath House Cultural Center on the shore of White Rock Lake. It's maybe only the third or fourth time I've attended since moving (back) to Dallas, but I managed to see every show this year. Here is my ranking, from worst to best, with a few comments for each show. If you're in the area, I highly recommend this festival.

"Dirty Dirty Night Squirrel" - Imprint Theatre Works - Imprint has just closed their second season, and I've seen a couple of their productions, which were at least interesting and well done. This one-act play is all over the place. I didn't care about any of the characters, and the plot doesn't really go anywhere.

"Sky's the Limit: A Very Queer Fairy Tale" - Flexible Grey Theatre Company - Flexible Grey is doing some interesting work. I've seen 4 of their productions since they formed last year, and I always find something that is missing from many other theater companies. This work is far too short for FIT; with some more development, it would be something really special.

"Marilyn, Pursued by a Bear" - Lily & Joan Theatre Co. - An interesting script with far too many characters. I wonder what this could've been with only three or four actors. Or even as a solo performance. The ending seems tacked on in the worst way, although the impression of Marilyn is uncanny.

"Nerve" - Bootstraps Comedy Theater - A funny first-date comedy that focuses on the tragedy of seeking love and acceptance. The female character's role isn't as developed or as funny, though both actors are strong. Read my complete review at TheaterJones.

"The Beast of Hyperborea" - Audacity Theatre Lab - Brad McEntire is a talented performer and a staunch supporter of solo performers in the area. This play wraps an interesting adventure story in a great retro aura. The slideshow at the end of the performance feels tacked on; I think it'd be more effective if it were used throughout the show.

"small hours" - Leos Ensemble - This work is more experimental theater or even performance art. I wish I would've known that going in. A harrowing look at postpartum depression that effectively makes time stand still during the performance.

"The 1st Annual Gay Show" - Very Good Dance Theatre - Outstanding, thoughtful, and funny look at what a beauty contest for queer/non-binary people might be, especially under the ever-present specter and ugliness of homophobia, transphobia, and (trans-)misogyny. I'd want to see this developed a bit more, doing away with the audience participation/confessional element. Read my full review at TheaterJones.

"Jo & Louisa" - WingSpan Theatre Co. - WingSpan is a daring theater, and I've been blown away from previous productions. This script is really incredible. But the actors needed much more voice work for their characters. Pacing was a problem, and they seemed to speak in only one range. With the right actors, this would've easily been a sensational show, but the quality of the text makes this easily the best of the Festival.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Peking Man

The best writing sends you down random rabbit holes toward other great writing. Such was the case with a 1940 play by Cao Yu entitled Peking Man, which I first read about almost a year ago in Sergio Pitol's The Magician of Vienna, translated by George Henson. In all, Pitol writes less than a page about Cao:
I also saw the dramas of Cao Yu, celebrated since the 30s, with the reputation of a mischievous child, a perennial nonconformist, and I saw one of his plays, Thunderstorm ...  set totally in China, not in the nineteenth but the twentieth century, and not in a hamlet but rather in an urban setting. On one occasion, I don't recall who invited me, perhaps a devotee of the theater, or an Italian translator who was spending periods of time in Peking, to see another work by Cao Yu, Peking Man, which was produced in a modest hall of the conservatory of dramatic art (65). 
Pitol calls it "the best of all the plays I was able to see" during his stay in China. His final assessment of Peking Man: "the most intense, the most modest, and the most poignant" (66).

Well, that was enough for me to want to read it.

I studied theater/drama as an undergraduate and continued to act while in graduate school for the MA. Something else I studied as an undergrad was Russian literature, which, of course, consisted of a unit on the plays of Anton Chekhov. I've been a fan of Chekhov since then, and I try to catch as many productions of his work as I can still to this day. For the past several months I've also been a Contributing Theater Writer for a local online performing arts journal, so not only is theater something I was already interested in, but Pitol's recommendation meant that my education would've been in vain if I wouldn't have taken the opportunity to find a copy. Thankfully, my library owns Leslie Nai-Kwai Lo's 1986 translation.

Cao reminds me of Chekhov: the intimacy of the unsaid, the family, and its fortune, collapsing in on itself as the world becomes smaller, more narrow, until even the illusions of love are abandoned. More remarkable is that Cao wrote this play during the Japanese occupation with not the slightest mention of those events. Instead, there are piercing details about the sky, the weather, the passing of the seasons and the clouds overhead, the posture of a caged pigeon, and the sound of a noodle vendor pushing his one-wheeled cart down the nearby alleys.

The patriarch's coffin, lacquered layer by layer over the past fifteen years, had the same force, the same impact, the same cogency, as the whale in Moby-Dick. And like that whale, it shatters everything in its path.

I know reading scripts isn't for everyone, but I highly recommend trying to catch a performance of this play, in whatever language you can understand, if an opportunity presents itself, particularly if you're a fan of Chekhov or Ibsen. And as always, everyone should read Pitol.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Hiram Arnold

For this Memorial Day, instead of visiting the grave of my Uncle Frank, who was killed in Vietnam three days before his twentieth birthday, or of my grandfather, whose body was still expelling shrapnel from WWII on his deathbed in 2006, I visited Great-Great-Grandpa Arnold’s grave.

Hiram Arnold (Great-Great-Grandfather)
Hiram Arnold came to Texas from Ohio in his early twenties. When he was 23 he married Thirza Birchfield. After losing their first child, twins were born in 1861: Jefferson Davis Arnold and John Baylor Arnold.

(If you're not familiar with Confederate leaders or the Civil War, Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederate States of America; John Baylor was a US Indian agent, publisher and editor, politician, a senior officer of the Confederate States Army (CSA), and all-around piece of human garbage keen on murder and genocide. Thankfully, we don't have many more lackluster namesakes in our family.)

When I was researching this branch of my family I found someone online who had speculated that Hiram must have been a die-hard Confederate since he named his sons after Davis and Baylor. That assumption is simplistic at best. It’s not as if he owned a plantation and slaves.

It’s far more likely that Hiram, because of his well-documented poverty, had been working alongside slaves in the cotton fields of Texas. It’s also likely he fought against family members and childhood friends who served in the Union from his home state of Ohio, where his parents and siblings are buried. I think poverty and being a newly-arrived settler in the South are sorely under-analyzed dimensions in understanding the race ideology of the Confederacy.

The following year, in 1862, Hiram enlisted in the CSA. He served in Company I, 30th Texas Cavalry for about two years, then served with Company A, 29th Texas Cavalry until the end of the War. He fought in the Battle of Mansfield and the Battle of Pleasant Hill, both in Louisiana, under Major General John G. Walker's command. His company surrendered at Galveston in June of 1865 at the close of the War.

In 1881, when he was 45, my Great-Grandma Thirza Garrett, née Arnold, was born. My family used to visit her at the old folks home on weekends after we moved back to east Texas. She always had one of those giant, thick two-pound peppermint sticks that us kids could chip off pieces of. She died when I was 6. Hers is the first funeral I remember.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned about her father Hiram. I’m still amazed that I knew someone whose father fought in the Civil War, albeit on the losing side.

In January 1911, at the age of 73, Hiram applied for and was granted a Confederate Pension. On his application, he listed a handful of blacksmith tools in a country shop as his only assets. As attested by the county judge, he lived in his shop and did his own cooking, "with no property other than his tools." He died of stomach cancer in 1917 at the age of 80.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

In Search of Babushka

Babushka's Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin's Wartime Camps is an eloquent travel memoir that also manages to do the heavy lifting required by great historical writing. Though German-born and typically Ireland-based, author Marcel Krueger is currently carrying out the duties of writer-in-residence in Olsztyn, Poland. You can follow his blog in German and in English.

Published by I.B. Tauris in 2018, Babushka's Journey is a welcome addition to the better known histories of trauma of the twentieth century, filling a niche that most World War II and Gulag narratives barely mention: the fate of East Prussian women during the final days of the war.

Krueger beautifully narrates both the story of his grandmother Cilly and her rural childhood that was interrupted when the Soviet army advanced into the region in January 1945 as well as of his own present-day attempt to trace her journey east, through Poland and on to Yekaterinburg, where she worked in various POW labor camps in the region until October 1949.

He brings fresh insight into what it meant to be a German POW in Stalin's Soviet Union by not only conducting archival research and interviewing primary sources but also through recreating the diet that his grandmother would have eaten in the camps and the physiological toll such a diet will take on the human body. He captures both the bleak winter of 1945 and the stifling summer heat of Eastern Europe during his own travels.

Babushka's Journey raises the standard of historical research and how that research can serve as the basis to a compelling and memorable narrative.

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

In Memory of Little Beasts

I'm devastated, and I've been bawling my eyes out for days now. I went to bed Friday evening sure that my little family was safe and well, only to lose my little boy in the night. He wasn't ill. Despite being deaf, he was probably the fittest cat I've ever known. But he died early Saturday morning, just weeks shy from his eighth birthday/anniversary, and now my home is filled with tears where a little white deaf cat once lived.

I'm angry that the remaining four to eight years I fully expected to have with him were taken from me. I'm angry that he died in distress with no warning. And that I was unable to do anything to help. I loved him with all my heart, and yet I still know I didn't deserve the love he offered me.

Rest in peace, my fearless Stupid Baby. I'll never forget you.

Bosko P. Carmichael, June 29, 2011 - May 11, 2019

Bosko's Tumblr can be found at, if you want to see almost eight years of cat photos.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Lifeless Lou Reed

Anthony DeCurtis' Lou Reed: A Life is perhaps the worst nonfiction rock-and-roll book I've read, and I've read Marianne Faithfull's (though much more likely, David Dalton's) Faithfull: An Autobiography. Despite being a longtime reader and subscriber in high school and college, I've never really been much of a fan of the Rolling Stone school of rock journalism. Lou Reed disappoints in all the familiar ways.

Instead of ever getting close enough or real enough with its subject, DeCurtis frustratingly sticks to Lou Reed the image. So much of the writing deals only with the image that the person, the artist, comes across as one dimensional, lifeless, and not very interesting at all. Not so much “a life,” as the subtitle boasts, after all.

One chapter on childhood, which is never a good sign, that is little more than listing the schools he attended and the friends he spent time with. Another chapter on college. Then the predictable and boring organization of one chapter per album, per project. And in these chapters, so much of the writing concerns the laziest deployment of hermeneutics and the least interesting literature reviews, in which he cites other (mostly Rolling Stone) critics.

One would imagine that someone with a PhD in literature could do more than conflate every reference to a father in Reed’s lyrics to Reed’s specific father as if Reed would or could ever simply transcribe his family history in order to make an album. After making such uncritical claims, DeCurtis then goes on to assert that “Reed’s poetic license” affords him the ability to use and define words as he sees fit. This weird, naive back and forth when it comes to interpreting song lyrics drove me fucking crazy, particularly since so little of it offered any real insight into Reed's actual writing process.

Another of DeCurtis' hermeneutic hangups is his spending so much space on surface analysis of album covers. None of this ever gets at anything behind the surly attitude and ambivalent image of  Lou Reed.

And these criticisms aren't even about the book's greatest flaw, which is the chapter titled "This Gender Business"—the most transphobic, and by extension, homophobic and transmisogynistic writing in what purports to be serious journalism by a serious press I've ever read. I get that language and acceptance of transgenderism has dramatically changed since the 1970s, and that the horrible quotes from the press (including Rolling Stone, of course) might be necessary in order to properly contextualize Reed and Rachel's relationship, but DeCurtis was still referring to that relationship as “the sexual underworld” in 2017. (He refers to Reed's subsequent relationship with a cisgender woman as a “new heteronormative love.") Interviewing others (Erin Clermont, who comes across as a total cunt, for example) to speculate about the details of Reed and Rachel's sex life is tacky at best. Though I suspect that I'll be pissed off about this book for years to come, I haven't yet mentioned its most damning failing: Rachel is referred to as a "transsexual [sic] male [sic]." It seems that the publisher Little Brown does not employ editors or basic fact checkers even though several were specifically named in the Acknowledgments. For fuck's sake!

The best biographies get close to the people they're about, so much so that you can begin to see the world through their eyes. This book never goes beyond how the image of Lou Reed appeared to the writer himself. Fans of Lou Reed the person: don't waste your time. It reads as if written by a narc.

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You can read my Eulogy for Lou Reed here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Lucky's Speech

It was years—decades even—from the time I first read Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot before seeing a production of it. In that time, and really since the beginning, I was fascinated with Lucky's speech, which still seems to me to be the climax of Act One. If you remove all the repetition from the play, then all that remains would be Lucky's speech and Pozzo's downfall.

In every production I have seen, Lucky’s speech, which Beckett calls a tirade, comes across as just that. It’s a wordy outburst that unfortunately loses much of its connotative meaning when delivered onstage, no matter who the actor is. Seeing productions of Godot, then, will always disappoint when compared to reading the script.

Lost is much of the bodily humor (the double caca of “Acacacacademy,” scholarly citations by “Fartov and Belcher”) as well as the philosophical content, which includes allusions to Descartes’ res extensa, the defective Latin “Essy-in-Possy” misquoted from Kant (esse-in-posse, or existence as a possibility or having the potential to exist), and the direct reference to Bishop (and philosopher George) Berkeley.

Certain lines from the tirade (“… what is more much more grave that in the light of the labors lost of Steinweg and Peterman it appears what is more much more grave that in the light the light the light of the labors lost of Steinweg and Peterman …”) easily resonates with Pozzo’s gloomy lines at the end of his scene in Act Two: “They give birth [read: “labors”] astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” It is as if Lucky can either see the future or has the ability to correctly discern the present.

If I were to direct a production of Waiting for Godot, I think I would have Lucky speak more slowly. Other than the word "tirade," there is nothing in Beckett's stage directions that mandates how quickly the lines are delivered. And "tirade" can just as easily be much more methodical. Imagine if Lucky were presenting his findings at an academic conference. Or imagine Lucky as Hitler espousing not racist ideology but existential truths. What if Lucky were simply rallying all of humanity to his cause? How would that scene play differently? Would the speech's content finally be allowed to come through?

And spare me that bullshit "insight" that because it's "postmodern" it's not supposed to have any inherent meaning. That's fucking bullshit, and we all know it. If anything, theories of postmodernity show that the speech's meaning is located specifically within its dislocated meanings. The quaquaquaqua has meaning as both Heideggerian Als-Struktur and the quacking of a duck. What better way to honor Beckett and his "misnamed" Lucky, who, according to the play, is both capable of thinking even while remaining dumb?

Saturday, March 23, 2019

End of the Rainbow

"Between you and me is not only a rocket trajectory, but also a life."

When asked about my thoughts regarding Gravity's Rainbow, I responded that it easily has become one of my favorite books. Not my favorite, but certainly one of them. I mentioned that one of the things I liked most about the novel was that, like Moby-Dick, it created an entire universe, a world that could be recreated just from the science, technology, and mythology it contained. I liked how every detail, every character, every image responded to and activated that universe. Its rhizomic narrative structure is nearly perfect.

It's funny that Pynchon has been so little on my radar. I read The Crying of Lot 49 in graduate school, and I thought it was schlock lit. I had no interest in reading anything else by him.

Another aspect of Gravity's Rainbow that appealed to me was Pynchon's dialog with translation. There are a lot of languages used in the novel. And Pynchon does this interesting thing where he'll use a foreign word or phrase and then half-translate it a page or two later without ever calling attention to the fact that that's what he's doing. I say "half-translate" because his translation often employs an almost hyper-foreignized root that he leaves intact.

One example, when he directly cites Rilke: "These tall, these star-blotting Moslem angels ... O, wie spurlos zerträte ein Engel den Trostmarkt. . . ." And a paragraph and a half later: "coming to trample spoorless the white marketplace of his own exile. . . ." This was probably the first time I noticed what he was doing, and this example comes near the middle of the book. Spoorless jumps out because it's so weird. In German, it means trackless or without a trace. But Pynchon half-translates it as spoorless, which barely amounts to translation at all. This is not a common word in English. And the word is typically translated as completely in English translations of the Rilke. There are lots more examples.

Pynchon's manifesto of language can perhaps be summed up with this line: "Words are only an eye-twitch away from the things they stand for." Or perhaps more forcefully: "The knife cuts through the apple like a knife cutting an apple."

Pynchon's love affair with Rilke was beautiful and on display from early on. Rilke's name is mentioned seven times. The Duino Elegies, once. I would've liked to have translated The Duino Elegies to commemorate having finished Gravity's Rainbow. Or perhaps even Rilke's thematically related “How surely gravity’s law.” But because there are only so few hours in a day, I stuck with the shorter "Gravity." Here is Rilke's poem and my Pynchonian translation below.

by Rainer Maria Rilke

Mitte, wie du aus allen
dich ziehst, auch noch aus Fliegenden dich
wiedergewinnst, Mitte, du Stärkste.

Stehender: wie ein Trank den Durst
durchstürzt ihn die Schwerkraft.

Doch aus dem Schlafenden fällt,
wie aus lagernder Wolke,
reichlicher Regen der Schwere.

by Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Frank Garrett

Middle, how from all of us
you pull yourself, even from those flying off you
regain yourself, middle, you most strong.

Standing: like a drink the thirst
plunges him down by gravity.

But from the sleeper falls,
As from a stored-up cloud,
a generous rain of what’s grave.

See also: Half a Rainbow

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Insolubility of Milk

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I learned about this collection of short stories by Simon Fruelund from his translator K.E. Semmel on Twitter. It's a short 110-page book published in a gorgeous volume by Santa Fe Writers Project. But don't let its thickness fool us. These stories plumb the full depth of human experience in an astonishing paucity of words.

Take, for example, the title track. An unintended whistle during a puff of a cigarette leads to a defiant walk in the rain that results in a spontaneous tiff with a brother about the meaning of existence over an overturned tanker truck on the freeway. All this in little more than four pages.

Fruelund captures the frigidity of familial relationships, jilted lovers, and spurned mentors. He hangs these reticent characters against a barren ice-desert where haunting flames still flare up in the infinitesimal gaps as they pull apart from each other and their comfortable surroundings. The default tone is one of mourning after it's become a habit.

Milk and Other Stories is a fist ready to punch you in the throat. You reel from the impact even though the hand has long ago unclenched and disappeared into the night.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Culture Hole in the Sky

On a rain-splattered Saturday about sixty people made their way to an evening of avant-garde sound and performance art in Exposition Park, Dallas, in order to hear, among other things, an almost 100-year-old dada sound poem. The event was produced by Culture Hole, in collaboration with MentalDrift and Mutarrancho, upstairs in the third-floor space of the Power Station.

At about nine o'clock the first act began: a concert entitled Magical SyNaps and Other Marriage-Saving Experiments. It consisted of high-energy live looped trumpet-heavy songs by Swirve, a collaboration between poet/vocalist Tamitha Curiel and her jazz trumpeter husband Chris. Swirve is a perfect blend of the B-52s/Fred Schneider and more classic jazz work by Miles Davis and Don Cherry. You can find some of their irresistible work on Bandcamp.

Next up was Starting At Language, a text-based electronic collaboration between Massachusetts-based cellist Vic Rawlings and Dallas-based vocalist Liz Tonne. This piece, which seeks a dialogue with Susan Howe’s poem Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, often verged on the operatic in its whispered intensity.

Tonne's mostly minimalist vocalizations were heavily treated and processed through Rawlings' knob-turning. The glitchy exposed/de-boxed speakers contributes to the improvisational/chance nature of the work as well as adds a visual element to an otherwise austere spectacle of two seated performers. It was the perfect transition into the headliner.

Rounding out the evening was Dutch improvisational vocalist Jaap Blonk performing Kurt Schwitter's dada sound poem Ursonate. Blonk, who has been in this line of work since the late 1970s, easily captivated the audience with his outstanding interpretation.

Putting into question the nature of language and pushing the limits of language's capacity to convey meaning were chief concerns of dada. Culture Hole's event celebrated that history as well as signaled some possible future trajectories.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Half a Rainbow

"That V-2 on the way?"
"A4, yes."

He hangs at the bottom of his blood's avalanche, 300 years of western swamp-Yankees, and can't manage but some nervous truce with their Providence. A détente. Ruins he goes daily to look in are each a sermon on vanity. That he finds, as weeks wear on, no least fragment of any rocket, preaches how indivisible is the act of death . . . Slothrop's Progress: London the secular city instructs him: turn any corner and he can find himself inside a parable.
This year's reading challenge at The Wild Detectives is Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Now that I've reached the 50% mark of the text, I thought I should try to say something about the book.

The structure of the plot contains many narrative folds, which is both keeping me entertained as well as giving me plenty to think about. The story touches on mechanics, chemistry, psychology, pharmacology, linguistics, sexuality, history, geography, and the pseudoscience of race, among other fields. A constellation of characters gravitate around at least one particular realm. Roger Mexico, for example, gravitates toward statistics, which tracks both the mechanics of missile launches as well as sexual acts.

Slothrop, the main character, manages to transcend all of these areas yet is still drawn, seemingly inexplicably, into each one during his quest to understand the secret of both his own past as well as that of the development of the S-Gerät (short for Schwarzgerät, "black device"), which is made out of a synthetic ingredient called Imipolex G that was to be used as a weapon by Nazi Germany.

Like William Burroughs' routines--the surreal, hallucinogenic narratives that make up the devised plots of his novels--Pynchon's routines incorporate the surreal but within a scientific framework as if to critique its inherent, implied undergirding positivism, the view that there is an epistemological endpoint, that everything can (and will) be perfectly understood with enough data, experience, modeling, etc. Often, each routine is parabolic in at least three senses.

1) The structure of the scene follows a trajectory, a narrative arc. But even more than that, the structure is almost self-aware and self-generating. Pynchon devises background stories, asides, plot points, and characters that mirror, reflect, and refract the routine's structure as well as each other, resulting in a proliferation of parabolas that rise and fall back toward a (sometimes absent) center, or toward its destination, or back toward its point of origin. There are doubles but only insofar as an arc has both an ascent and a descent.

2) The routine reads as a quasi-scientific parable meant to teach a hard truth about what it means to be human or to serve as a parable against positivism.

3) Thematically and linguistically, there is a hall of mirrors of parabolas in which the characters find themselves: U-boats, torpedoes, helmets (especially a Viking helmet with the horns removed), V-2 rockets, penises, rocket trajectories, Poisson distributions, octopi, turds, GIs and IG and Imipolex G and AG and GE (and I wonder if in Pynchon's decoder ring a G is nothing but half an S: S-Gerät), A's that are flipped V's and the two different G's of the New Turkic Alphabet that Tchitcherine is developing in Central Asia in order to liquidate (read: make extinct, like the dodo, like the Herero) illiteracy.

Overlaying all of this is the binary grid structure of off/on, black/white, 0's and 1's--those concepts that resist the parabolic structure of gradation, doubles, and inverses.

Finally, I don't know how people who don't read other languages read books. I don't know how I could read and appreciate and understand Gravity's Rainbow the way I do without my background in German and Russian and (now) Spanish.