Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dream of the Angel

I dreamed an angel in the desert,
astride a horse. The stars were piercing,
so many that the sky burned more in icy white
than dripping dark.
An angel in the saddle in a diamondbright night.
Arms bare, head wrapped,
black skin like rivermud shining with silt
holding a gun like a bolt
of miscarried lightning, his waist wrapped
in constellations
tucked in belts and piercing in the night. The horse was white
in the face, like its head were just a skull,
some long-toothed totem, some mask
fixed to four hairy legs
brown and clay-stained and liver and white
tail sweeping like the river of the stars.
And after he vanished, I saw only stars,
stars, stars
and a long white ladder where he'd stood,
soaked by a rain that I hadn't seen fall.

Friday, September 14, 2012

From a Line in Callimachus

Dawn came like a black horse.
I had not slept the night for fear of day.
Now the sunlight crept in cold
and I thought of you:

Your smooth hips, your horseblack tresses,
of how I might lay silent in your arms.
What more could I have asked than that, if not
six pips of a pomegranate
from your soft white hand.

The City of David

I never saw his city but in dreams
the tall block towers of his crownèd head
stone sinewed walls along the ridge of his arm
and between the spires and his hard bent knee (the foot
planted flat in the desert)
the valley of his beard, dark with pine trees
and white with smoke.

And the city, steady on his shoulders,
shines dully, burnished
though his eyes on the rooftops burn golden.
A thousand cobbled wrinkles run their maze
Palms and arches shade his countless courtyards,
the craggy men of his narrow lanes,
the pearl-fingered daughters of his dusk
and the Cave of Kings in the cavity of his chest.

דוד מלך ישראל, חי וקיים

Postscriptum:  I was in San Diego, taking coffee and a paper after a walk through Balboa Park, when I saw nearby a young mother and her infant child.  The mother was singing in Hebrew, to the delight of the child.  The song had only one verse, the line quoted at the end of this poem, transliterated as David melech yisrael hai v'kayam.  I didn't know what it meant.  Neither did a certain other young mother, who asked the first what she was singing.  She responded, "David, King of Israel, lives forever."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Welcome to Letters from Caliban

Generally this is the first page in a blog to be published. Not here.

My name is Carlo Massimo. For the record, I am the Caliban from the title – more of that anon. This blog is where I'll be posting my completed work, and any of you who write know that for every work you complete about a dozen embryos and half-constructed pieces lay buried somewhere in your notebook. The content will change periodically: expect a book review and an essay about poetic form in the next few weeks. You might also find film reviews or essays about matters not strictly literary (though I would argue that films are a kind of visual literature), or academic papers like “Dionysus in the Fin-de-Siecle.” Mostly, however, I hope to put up poems and stories.

Do feel free to leave comments or to contact me by email. If you have any questions I will be happy to answer them; if you have requests I will try to accommodate them. If you are a publisher I will invite you to my house for a bottle of wine, and we can speak further at our leisure.

So: why Caliban? Well, I like the name. It was also Robert Lowell's nickname, or rather Cal, and so I chose it in Lowell's honor as well. But mostly Caliban symbolizes my own aesthetic, my own view of life. He is ugly and monstrous:  am I not?  (Are we not?)  But he is a child of the Earth, a creature of flesh and dirt, and given the magic of the spoken word he howls and swears with it. I have howled; I have sworn; I worship the body and the soil in an age of plastic magic and computerized Prosperos.

Let me tell you a brief story to illustrate what I mean. Maybe you know a folk group from Ireland called The Dubliners. They happen to be a favorite band of mine. Sometime in the sixties they were invited to play the Ed Sullivan show. Now generally, the musicians who played on Sullivan's stage fit neatly into one of two types. There were the “good boys,” like the early Beatles, who wore suits and ties and smiled and wanted to hold your hand. And then there were the “bad boys,” wild and long-haired, who jumped around like animals and leered at girls in the audience and did everything that bad boys must to distinguish themselves from the good boys.

The Dubliners arrived at Sullivan's studio and started warming up for the evening's show. Sullivan came in to meet them, and was dreadfully confused. For here before him were not pseudoadolescents but mature men; moreover their hair was wild and bushy, and they sported long beards, and they were all wearing suits and ties. They were not the good boys or the bad boys. They sang about drinking and courting, and played with careful virtuosity. They wore beards like the bad boy rock'n'roll stars, and suits. They would never not wear a suit. It would never have occurred to them not to wear a suit.

These were children of the Earth, singers of the flesh and blood of man, who needed no disguise, no wild uniform. On Prospero's island they were mooncalves. Really they were Parzifals. They had no agendum but to follow those words of Herodotus, and later of Nietzsche, and Isak Dinesen, which are now inscribed at the top of this page:

To ride, to string a bow, and to tell the truth.

Welcome to Letters from Caliban.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Romantic Past

I first learned the last stanza of Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” as a young boy, from an encyclopedia. That was some thirteen years ago; and for thirteen years I had misunderstood what Keats was saying. The last stanza’s sixth line reads, “When old age shall this generation waste.” I had always interpreted “this generation” as being the line’s subject, and “old age” as being the object. In other words, I thought the line referred to a time when this generation, having been given the gift of old age, would waste it. Only recently did I realize that what Keats meant, more likely, was for “old age” to be the sentence’s subject and “this generation” to be the object– referring to the time when this generation becomes old and loses its vigor. Upon reflection, however, my former, mistaken interpretation rings strangely true. The Romantics uniformly placed high value and honor on the ancient past: the very fact that Keats composed an ode to a Greek vase reminds us of this. This aspect of Romanticism is crucial: by understanding the Romantic fixation on the past, we can better place Romanticism as a historical movement, and better see how the poets and writers of its pantheon helped beget the future, for better and for worse.

The Romantic obsession with the past is a continuation of their veneration of nature. Rousseau, who deserves the title of progenitor of the Romantics perhaps more than anyone else, believed in the superiority of the society that existed before property, when man lived “naturally.” Oppression, according to Rousseau, was a recent development; and just as he escaped to the fields around Lake Bienne to escape injustice, so could man escape the injustice of tyrannous property by returning to his natural state. This natural man, existing before the taint of civilization, is also manifest as the child whom the Romantics adore. Children appear so often in Romantic poetry because their perception of the world is uncorrupted, their sensibility unprejudiced by social constraint. Man is “natural” in his childhood, be that the springtime of his civilization or the early years of his life.

Later writers, more strictly Romantic than Rousseau, also saw a connection between times past and the value of nature. We are moved by the mountains immortalized in Coleridge, Wordsworth’s “Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,” and the lonely moors of John Clare not only for their beauty and their immunity to human pettiness but because they are so much older than we could possibly fathom. In fact, the feeling of the sublime – best illustrated by Coleridge, by the Alpine descriptions in Frankenstein, or by the painted crags and storms of Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner – is often conjured by reflection that nature is so unthinkably longer-lived than humanity. Nature and the past are inseparable: it is befitting, therefore, that the generation of artists who so thoroughly threw themselves into mimesis of and mediation on nature should come to venerate old age and the past with an equal zeal.

It is also befitting that a generation so obsessed with forces outside society should also have so much to say about the classical, pre-Christian world. Keats, after all, was apostrophizing a Greek urn, and figures from mythology appear frequently in his verse. Shelley paid homage to the “true Poetry of Rome.” Hölderlin wrote an entire novel, Hyperion, set in Greece; and although the story takes place in the nineteenth century, during the independence struggle against Turkish domination, Hyperion’s visit to the Parthenon is a glorification of classical Athens and everything that entails: the pristine marbles of Praxiteles, the eloquence and magnanimity of Pericles, the high-minded thoughts of Socrates. All of these are voices calling from a world as devoid of modernity’s unpleasantries, at least in the 19th century imagination, as the meadows of the Swiss countryside, the rugged hills of Scotland, or the tumbledown shepherds’ cottages of rural England.

But Hölderlin’s enthusiasm for the past stretched even further back. The name of his protagonist comes from a Titan, one of the divine beings that preceded the Olympian gods. On the same note, Hölderlin’s poem “Kunst und Natur” is a denunciation of Jupiter in favor of Saturn. Saturn, like Hyperion, came from a generation of mythological spirits that existed before civilization; Saturn was associated, among the Romans, with time and the cycle of seasons, familiar motifs in the Romantic canon. In the worship of Saturn, Hölderlin gives us a vision of man whose spiritual focus is nature, observation and celebration of nature, simple and without trapping. He gives us natural man. Jupiter, desposer of Saturn and giver of mighty laws, is thus the great violator of natural man. He is the property that Rousseau sees as causing man to live everywhere in chains; he is the religion that so revolted the adolescent Shelley; he is the man who, like Mary Shelley’s narrator Walton or even Victor Frankenstein, violates the will of older generations and plunges himself into misery. He is the generation of whom I misunderstood Keats to write, receiving the gift of old age and squandering it.

The influence of the Romantic attachment to the past goes beyond these poets. Romanticism had political ramifications and reverberations, not the least of which was the bold Prometheus of French revolutionary liberalism – Bonaparte, who dared to snatch fire from the gods of history and thrust it into the hands of Europe. Napoleonic art was Romantic, but also strongly neoclassical. We can imagine both Percy Shelley and his stuffy professors approving of a painting like David’s Oath of the Horatii; Canova’s tomb for Napoleon’s sister has the graceful proportions of the Aphrodite of Knidos, and yet we can see the marble woman as the girl sitting on John Clare’s lap in one of the simple ploughman’s love sonnets. The nationalist movements that followed, or revolted against, the changes in Europe ushered in by Napoleon all hearkened back to times past. The image of revolution in politics, just as in poetry, began to derive from memory, and would continue to do so even after the rise of Marx, realism, and the disdain for sentiment.

For this reason, the political adoption of the Romantic love of the past has proved a dark legacy. The romantic nationalists of Germany had as clear and unique an image of natural man and the natural past as had Rousseau and Wordsworth. This in itself was nothing to lament; in fact, it gave us such classics as the collected folklore of the Brothers Grimm and the sweeping symphonic epics of Wagner. But looking at history, we see a direct line of descent beginning with these attempts to reclaim the natural spirit of a nation and ending with the torchlight processions of Nürnberg and the twentieth century’s most fearful and hideous scar. This, too, was the legacy of Romanticism. We see, at last, the face of Frankenstein’s monster, created in the best of faith and carried out in the worst; and we find it in the same history to which Rousseau appealed against tyranny, to which Hyperion turned against the wretchedness of modernity. Old age can be turned to; its lessons, however, can also be wasted. Keats’ line in the “ode to the Grecian Urn,” whether he meant it so or not, was prophecy.

Sketches from the Campagna: Soil and Rain

The man wore sunglasses and the driver wore a cap, but neither helped much. The sky was unbearably blue. Sweating through his blazer the man stared, annoyed, at the stunted brush and gnarled cactus on the roadside. The driver was talking ceaselessly, his third cigarette on his lip, and occaisonally the man replied. Every time the driver adressed the man directly he used a plural pronoun, which made the man cringe.

“I can assure you, signuri, I can personally assure you that this is a fine piece of land. You won't find better in this zone.”


The truck was rounding a curve by a thicket of dead cane. Evidently a creek had run through this part, but had not survived the ravages of August. The road had at one point been paved.

“I know it doesn't look like much, signuri, but that's because the summer has been very dry. If you wait for the rain you'll see how good it is. Good soil. Personally, signuri, if I was the padruni of a piece of land like this I'd have vines – vines, vines like you never saw before. All it needs is a little rain.”

The man had given up trying for an internet connection on his phone and had resumed staring through the window.

“The first thing we'll need here,” he said, “is a decent road. Do you do asphalting as well?”

“Certainly, signuri.”

“Good. Add that to the estimate. Can we do anything about the internet reception?”

“Well, to tell you the truth, signuri, I really can't answer that. I don't know. As soon as we get back to the office I'll ask the principale about fixing the internet here. I'm sure--”

“Just take the measurements,” said the man, “and write up the estimate. I'll call the director when we stop.”

They drove a while in silence. The driver glanced over at the man and licked his dry lip. He was a man of undeterminable age, the driver, in a Diadora shirt, his fingernails thick and cracked on the steering wheel.

“Bellissimo, this piece of land. Perfect soil. Madonna, the grapes you could grow here.”

“Our firm is not interested in grapes,” said the man without looking away from his cell phone, “and frankly neither am I.” He'd had quite enough. The driver raised his eyebrows, and flicked the cigarette butt out the window. Two thick brown fingers teased a new one out of his side pocket.

When they finally arrived the driver opened the passenger door, and then with his feet firmly planted he began explaining the layout of the property, where he advised building the garage, which hill to level to make room for the trucks, how much that might cost, which road led to the autostrada and which to the airport. His lecture finished, he strode around back to open the truck bed and remove his equipment. The man remained standing on the cracked yellow ground, pecking away at his phone, sweating and refusing to remove his blazer. The heat was unbearable. The blueness, the unrelenting blueness of the sky was rippling in the heat; the thistles had all lost their purple and had withered until they looked like bones.

The driver worked and the man stood pecking at his phone. The sky was heavy with heat, so heavy that its unbroken blueness was like mockery, a false promise of serene weather. The driver looked over his shoulder. “Signuri, if you'd like to call the principale in the shade the truck is still open, or you can stand in the casetta over there.” He pointed with his thumb to the faded ruin of a shed or barn, one of those skeletal hovels that pockmarked the countryside. There was no door and there didn't seem to be windows, but its roof at least was mostly intact, which promised shade; it had probably lain abandoned for some seventy years. The hovel stood on the edge of the property, choked with yellow weeds and the skeletons of thistles.

“I'll make the call from there,” said the man.

Suddenly, quietly, a dog emerged from the darkness of the casetta. Its ribs jostled against the slack skin; great fat ticks, black and gray, clung to its ears like snail shells or embroidered beads. It lowered its narrow muzzle, eyeing the man calmly and without malice, and went back in. A minute or so passed before it popped its head back into the light, retreated into the dark again, and finally padded out into the sunlight, swaying a little with each step as thin dogs do, and licking its mouth energetically. The man had not ventured to approach the whole time; the driver noticed this and laughed.

“He won't hurt you, signuri, don't worry,” and he threw a dry clod at the dog, swearing in dialect. The dog tripped downhill and disappeared into the cane.

The driver nodded and the man entered the casetta, phone in hand, blinking. He had not expected to find the ruin as dark as it was. Once inside he stood still, staring into the blind darkness. The first thing he noticed was the smell. Then as his eyes adjusted he saw the shoes, soles up, then the denim of the legs, and then the three clean holes in the back, and how the head had been nearly blown off; and then when his eyes had adjusted to the darkness he made out the bullet casings on the ground, and the congealing black pool that the dog had disturbed. It is impossible to say how much time had passed before he found himself able to move again, to take a single backward step, and then another, until he had left the darkness and stood in the unforgiving brightness of day. The driver was working some twenty meters off.

“Almost done, signuri.”

“Let's go. Let's go.”

The driver shrugged and stubbed out his cigarette. Back in the truck he threw the stick into reverse and waved a thick cracked hand at the property.

“Just needs rain. Wait for the rain and it will be beautiful.”

“Just drive,” said the man. “God damn it, just drive.”

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dionysus in the Fin-de-Siecle

Dionysus, a god of death and rebirth, died at the hands of post-pagan Rome, and only crept back into the European psyche in the nineteenth century. There he peeked his head through the lines of Goethe and Byron and grinned darkly over Schopenhauer's shoulder. But only in 1872 did Nietzsche introduce the god of the thresholds by name, and thenceforth Dionysus became a fixture of Western thought. Why Nietzsche, and why 1872? How could Dionysus, of all gods, make his entry into the European mind through the pen of a German scholar in the staid late-nineteenth century? This was, after all, the age of Victoria. Its popular oracles were Bentham and Mills, whose gospel of cheery conformity and strict rationalism had no room for the wine-god and his maenads; the heavy handed militarism of Prussia, and the imperial projects of Britain and her competitors, certainly afforded no more.

The truth was that Europe, thundering forward in its industrial and technological development, obsessed with progress, constantly decreasing the size of the world and increasing the size of world markets, felt haunted by a sense of decay. Progress had dehumanized Europe. The money that fattened its middle classes had been wrung from the flesh of colonial labor; the huge, gray metropolises that supplanted traditional ways of living left people physically feeble and spiritually ill; the obsession with linear progress that Weber documented in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism had sucked dry the creative spirit. Each nation's drive to empire threatened its neighbors. The specter of war hung over the Continent, bringing to fruition its nightmare promises in the meaningless slaughter of 1914. The working classes, in the thankless misery of their labor, began to listen to the voices of change and the prophets of armed revolution. Europe faced a political crisis; and moreover, it faced a human crisis.

The last time Dionysus had appeared in a major work of literature was in the sixth century before Christ: in the Bacchae of Euripides, written in the long shadow of Athenian social decay. Athens, the great empire and long the pinnacle of Greek culture, had lost the Pelopensian War. The Spartans stripped Athens of its colonies, its city walls, and its relevance as a superpower. Euripides himself, shortly after composing the Bacchae, left in exile for the barbarous kingdom of Macedon, which within very few years would conquer all of Greece in one sweep. But certainly we cannot attribute the fall of Athens to exterior forces, the armies of Sparta and Macedon, and exclude the probability of interior decline, a decay of order and power. Or at least, Euripides did not. For the incarnation of (implicitly Athenian) social order in the Bacchae is Pentheus, Pentheus the rigid, the obsessive and obstinate upholder of rational authority. Euripides' audience knew very well that the empire had failed, and that the spouting of its hyperrational apologists had no meaning. Dionysus, as a character in the drama, knows that just as well. Only Pentheus cannot see it, and in the end the sick society that he has tried to hold together with his high words, the very society that he has helped create, tears him to pieces.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the sick society was back. Pentheus sat stiff necked and smug in the pulpits and parliaments of Europe. And following him, naturally, came Dionysus, the Dionysus of the age of imperialism, of monopoly capitalism, of middle classes who could sit content and turn a blind eye to the slavery and murder that bloodied their hands. The Belgians had brought hell to Earth in the Congo, and justified the slavery, the mutilations, the murder of their schemes with the high pretences of bringing civilization and Christianity to a benighted race. And at home, the Europeans who bought the ivory and rubber of the Congo, who wore the clothing sewn by child laborers, struggled and agonized to keep themselves in line with the moral ideology of the time – the school of thought that held that homosexuality was a mental illness, that there is a difference between pure love and physical love; that there are highs and lows in the human spectrum, the lows belonging to the animals and lower races, and the highs being proper to the higher races and classes. These two boiling contradictions, these crimes against the human spirit wrapped in the robes of righteousness, were inseparable. They were two symptoms of the same sickness, the same illness, the same decay of society.

Of the literature of the time, there are perhaps no two better texts that describe this twofold decay than Conrad's Heart of Darkness, published in 1900, and Mann's Death in Venice, from 1912. Both of these short novels speak directly to their era. Heart of Darkness addresses the darkness of empire, and Death in Venice the human darkness weakly repressed by culture. They both have a Pentheus figure: Conrad has Kurtz, Mann has Aschenbach. And both show Europe at the fin-de-siecle in the world of Dionysus, far from rational order, giving way to chaos and its own repressed humanity.

The similarities between the two novellas are striking. In terms of plot structure, both take place on the border of ultracivilized empire and the primitive colony. Both are set in a place where the security of land meets the wild fluidity of water. Both involve a man who, having borne the banner of civilization to the fullest of his ability, comes to the colony and is swallowed up by its human wildness. This conversion is not a change but a continuation: the colony brings civilization to its ultimate conclusion. This conclusion has historical, cultural, and erotic implications. Both men realize this reversion to the savage, and attempt to overcome it by making it exterior, making the world around them into a kind of perverted symbology. And both men succumb to tropical illness, Kurtz having finally opened his eyes to the “horror” of his own Dionysian self, and Aschenbach having resisted resolutely any breach of his pure consciousness.

From this very basic sketch we see Dionysus clearly. A god of thresholds, neither male nor female, citizen nor foreigner, patrician nor plebeian, god nor man, Dionysus is fully at home amid the splendors of Venice, sinking into the sea, or on the banks of the Congo, deep in the jungle. Both Aschenbach and Kurtz have that fundamental ambiguity in their national identity. Aschenbach is half Silesian through his mother. He is half colonizer and half colonized, sprung half from stoic German stock and half from the implicitly more primal Central European races. Kurtz is part English, part French (“All Europe had contributed to the making of Kurtz”); and yet he sets himself up as a god, a tribal leader, among the natives of his Congo fastness. He is no longer European, but still not quite African.

The illnesses that haunt Death in Venice and Heart of Darkness speak directly to the Dionysian contagion that infects and maddens whole populations. The route of the cholera from India to Italy that Mann describes parallels the route of Dionysus to Thebes in the Bacchae; the malaria in Heart of Darkness does not follow such a route, but nevertheless refers back to the same.

Both novellas explore the erotic element of the Dionysian experience in great depth. In the Bacchae, Pentheus shows an obsessive hatred for female sexuality, and betrays an obsessive interest in it when Dionysus offers him the chance to see the Maenads in the throes of their madness. He also seems to harbor a homosexual desire for the beautiful young androgyne. Aschenbach refuses to approach eroticism, matching Pentheus in his hubristic disdain for sex. Instead he channels his lust into an image of platonic love and beauty, of eros as something aesthetic, unsensual, even socially beneficial. But like Pentheus he has hidden his sensual desires, his homosexual desires, from sight: he too desires to see the secret object of his lust, he too has hidden passions that for social reasons he could not afford to betray. Kurtz's descent into the Dionysian is less overtly sexual. The ivory he collects are still tusks, huge white phalluses born by black slaves. The phallic imagery returns with the spears and arrows of Kurtz's thralls, Marlowe's vision of the horned masks of the dancers, and the heads impaled on spears that surround Kurtz's house. The act of penetrating the thick of the Congo is itself a kind of recreated sexual intercourse. Marlow never explains just what he means when he recounts how Kurtz would “preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites” ; we infer some violation of a serious taboo, probably erotic. And of course, Kurtz has a black mistress, making him not only an adulterer but, much worse by his society's standards, a willing mixer of races.

Pentheus' own morbid repression of sensuality cannot stay hidden. Rather it emerges, and emerges with a vengeance, in the patriarchal strictness of his government. Order in Thebes, with correct thought and correct behavior as universal and unchanging conditions of life, is Pentheus himself, externalized. Likewise Aschenbach and Kurtz externalize their own condition. With Aschenbach, we first see this externalization in his choice to go to Italy. The text establishes a clear dialectic between the sumptuous, sensual, “decadent” South and the hardworking, civilized, rational North. Of course, no living human is entirely sensual or entirely rational. Aschenbach is a human, and has both of these characteristics. But as a good German, as a good bourgeois, as a good artist, he cannot tolerate the sensual in himself. High and low must be kept apart. He therefore projects his own sexual and uncivilized energy onto Italy, onto Venice. It is the highest kind of self-delusion, for the Venetians themselves turn out to be sophisticated and efficient in their cynical machinations-- they manage to hide a cholera epidemic from clueless northern tourists like Aschenbach, who succumb to the beauty of the rotting palazzi and stinking canals. The crisis of the sensual comes to a head when Aschenbach falls in love with Tadzio. Human love, all human love, is sensual. Aschenbach cannot bear sensuality: he therefore cannot bear human love. And so he transforms his human love object into exactly that – an object. Aschenbach never considers Tadzio as a person. He treats him as a piece of art, a plastic and unfeeling object, and even compares him directly to a statue, that of the Boy with the Splinter. His fantasies of being Socrates in the company of his beautiful young pupil are nothing more than another way of sidestepping the inevitability of sensuality. If Tadzio is a literary character, and love a philosophical concept, and a logical concept at that, there is no trace of perversion, of the sexuality that Aschenbach so desperately fears and hates. Aschenbach is not a monster, not a pederast: he is an artist, a bourgeois artist par excellence.

Tadzio is in effect Aschenbach's answer to Kurtz's ivory, and the Congo is Kurtz's Venice. Kurtz's lust is less specific that Aschenbach's. It seems to be a general animal drive, the will to destroy, to enslave, to fornicate, to rob, to devour men without pity. In historical hindsight this is not a particularly strange concept for us. We know that slaves in the Belgian Congo were mutilated by soldiers for not meeting their rubber quotas; we have read of the massacres and depredations of colonial armies. But it is an animal instinct, this will to destruction. It is fundamentally Dionysian; it is the drive, the human, animal drive to tear living animals to shreds and eat their flesh-- which is exactly what the Belgian mutilations in the Congo meant, or the impaled heads outside of Kurtz's house. The Dionysian, although fundamentally human, is antirational. It is antiutilitarian. It has no explicit place in the realm of bourgeois order, and yet it is fundamental to that system. The culture of Europe, conservative and hinging on rational order, could not afford to recognize the darkness at its very heart. And so empires were forged in the name of progress; missionaries accompanied soldiers. Marlowe routinely refers to his fellow ivory prospectors as “pilgrims,” a saintly name for the cowardly prospectors, who shoot Africans as thoughtlessly as one would slap a mosquito. They are worse, much worse, than the African crewmen, whom Marlowe christens “cannibals.” The pilgrims are the real cannibals. They act out the rites of Dionysus while pretending not to; the sparagmos implicit in the word cannibal belongs exclusively to the whites.

Kurtz himself came to the Congo on a moral mission. Marlowe finds a pamphlet, written by Kurtz, at the behest of the “International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs.” Marlow, reading the pamphlet, says “It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.” “Exotic Immensity” is a wonderful turn of phrase. It designates the Europeans as exotic, not the Africans. The savage European, violating a continent, sits hidden behind a single adjective. And “Immensity” is an appropriately Dionysian word, as the Dionysian is a universal principle. Only “Benevolence” does not fit. There is nothing remotely benevolent about colonization, about the middle class values of linear logic and stolid complacency that fed on the blood and rubber of the Congo. Kurtz realizes this. “Exterminate all the brutes,” he scrawls on the report's last page. And later, as he dies: “The horror! The horror!”

Kurtz knew; metaphorically he understood what disease was sapping his life away. Aschenbach never faces that same reality. In fact, Aschenbach so thoroughly isolates himself from his own humanity that he not only cannot recognize his own sexuality, but cannot recognize himself in the political theater of Europe. Half Silesian, his hero is Frederick the Great, whose Prussia swept through and conquered Silesia. He throws his lot in with the Prussian Empire, the saber-rattling Prussian Empire, whole heartedly. He does not consider the rancor, the suffering, the rage of empire's many victims. When Tadzio makes faces at the Russian family, Aschenbach can only see the beauty of a Greek statue. He cannot see the centuries of ill-will between Russian and Pole, the clear promises of future strife and violence. His existence is upper-middle class to the core; the working classes hardly ever cross his mind. The gondolier that he sees as Charon really is the ferryman of death; he senses the rumbling of the workingmen of Europe against his own predatory middle class, but refuses to confront that lurking anxiety. And the first premonition of his fate – we might say the first apparition of Dionysus in the novella, in the form of a red-haired man – takes place in a Byzantine mausoleum. The mausoleum, which houses the dead, is clear enough as a symbol. But the fact that its architecture is Byzantine is in itself very telling. The Byzantium had once been a mighty empire, the successor of Rome, a receiver of tribute from all over the Mediterranean. And it crumbled, and collapsed. (We are well-advised to refer to Mann's contemporary, Yeats, and his poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” for evidence that the Byzantine Empire and its fall was already floating in the intellectual atmosphere of the time.) The German Empire, the British Empire, the Portuguese Empire, the Belgian Empire, the unofficial American Empire – the empires of steel, of rubber, of machine parts, of cotton, the markets that spanned continents at the point of the bayonet – all these Empires were hurtling toward the same end, the same collapse, that Byzantium suffered. Death in Venice preceded World War I by two years, but the buildup was well underway. The nightmare of mass slaughter, wreathed and bannered with good middle class values, was not an idea but a destiny.

When reading the Bacchae, we must bear in mind that Pentheus and Dionysus are first cousins. This is more than an incidental plot element: their relation is symbolic. They are ultimately part of the same person. Pentheus contains Dionysus within him. Behind virtue lies the wine god, who escapes all definition and will not suffer the bondage of morality. Euripides shows a gentle Dionysus as well as a violent one, a god who besides inciting murder and madness brings hope to bondsmen and women, feeds his worshipers with milk, comforts them with wine, bringing peace as well as strife. But by the fin-de-siecle, that side of Dionysus had disappeared from view. The colonial era, where Europe repressed both other peoples and its own humanity with the utmost violence, carried on a Dionysian tradition without redemption, without hope. Small wonder the Western intellectual world of the time was so obsessed with social decadence: they had nothing left to hold onto. The great industrial wheels and smoking furnaces of history had snuffed out the happiness of man's animal nature, the joy of being one with a blazing, mysterious god. The double nature of Dionysus had died; the wine god's rebirth as a whole being, a principle as creative as it is destructive, cannot coexist with capitalism. Perhaps it will return. If it did it would herald the coming of a new man, happy with and unafraid of himself, neither an Aschenbach nor a Kurtz.

7 September

(This one's not titled yet.  It's a sort of melancholy lovesong.)

Coffee foam in an empty cup
Sugar in a glass jar
The maplewood bar where my notebook sits.     Also

White birch after rain
and sanded olivewood;
river otter, mink.     But also

Chocolate borne on heads, in baskets
Coffee beans (the trees sweat)
Soil crowned with the riches of ash
that catches the sap from the rubbertree slits.     And sometimes

My satyr beard, curling round
my jackass jawbone
in the morning mirror.


Non canterò delle sue stradine

bruciate dal sole;

né del blu del mare né del verde delle vigne.

Canto invece di un mattino d'agosto

che, in un campo di stoppia bruciata con cherosene,

solo solo, trovai per la terra annerita

lo scheletro di un giovane cane.

Completo fu, bianco bianco, dai denti perfetti,

e guardandolo vidi che tanto sangue aveva sparso questo

quel paese di cani morti mi aveva dato quanto:

che sangue fa sangue. Mi ripetevano le gazze

“Casa, casa, casa.”
(Postscriptum:  la Contrada Cutusìo, dove vive la mia famiglia, si trova in una delle frazioni campagnole di Marsala.)


Vediamo questo, un giocatore
di carte, come uno di Cezanne
ma reso vivo.
Gioca seduto, tenendo in mano
le carte, ma strette --
stretto, fisso
in gioia quieta.
Tasta il lato della mazza
dolce e lento
Rotola ciascuna moneta in mano
studiando con calma
lo scintillio dorato.

Sette sette sette
Scopa scopa scopa
Per l'amore si perde tutto.

Past Ithaka

When I lived in San Francisco I waited tables at a small bistro that should have attracted more tourists than it did, a clean place if shabby on the outside, and open late. One night – I don't recall when exactly, or what time, but that it was the middle of the week, a Thursday – I was preparing to close when a man came in and sat down at a table in the corner. Such latecomers are always an annoyance, and on top of the annoyance was the strange choice of such a remote table in an otherwise empty room. But business had been exceedingly poor, and so I decided to serve him.

He was an older man, perhaps in his sixties, short and rather stocky, narrow shouldered, with hair that had once been fine and blonde and was now thinning and gray. He wore glasses and an old looking blazer, and sat very quietly with one elbow on the table top. I bid him good evening and asked what I could bring him. He asked for the wine list.

Carefully he picked through the list, his tongue pressing visibly against his teeth.

“Malbec,” he decided, “this Malbec from Mendoza.” And he smiled.

“That one is only available by the bottle,” I said.

“And that's how I want it.”

He had a peculiar accent, distinctly foreign but not exactly recognizable. It seemed Latin with some words and Germanic with others, with some of the r's trilled and some flat and American. I brought out the wine and took a glass from one of the other tables.

“It is late,” he said. “I seem to be the last customer tonight.”

I thought he was apologizing for keeping me past closing time, so I told him it was no trouble at all.

“If it's no trouble, young man, have a seat and help me with this bottle. I don't think anyone else is coming.”

I didn't see why not, so I flipped the door sign from Open to Closed, took a glass from another table, and sat down. He had already started.

“You have such an interesting accent,” I told him. “Are you from Europe?”

He drank deeply and smiled again. “I can see you are a bright boy, bright and sensitive. I like that. Some men must cultivate sensitivity – ” he poured another glass “ – but others are born with it. You can see stories in fragments. Clearly you're some kind of writer, or something like that.”

“I write a little.”

“Clearly. Then perhaps you who are so sensitive to stories would like to hear mine.”

I nodded. He poured more wine.

“My name is Enrique Kessler, and I was born in Buenos Aires. My father, Heinrich Kessler, was from Baden, an officer in the army and a well-known equestrian. His grandfather, my great-grandfather, served with great distinction in the cavalry against the French. My grandfather I never knew, because he was killed in East Africa during the First World War. My father was a great tall man with blond hair. He met my mother on a skiing trip. She was the daughter of a prosperous Tyrolean landholder. From her I inherited my sturdy body and robust health; I got my father's coloring and fastidiousness.

“My father was an officer. I said that already. The army was not nearly as well managed as people think it was, not on the personal level. My father did poorly as an officer. He perhaps would done better in the Waffen SS. In the army were no gentlemen, apart from my father, and the discipline was lax. He stayed with the Wehrmacht out of respect for his father and grandfather and all the Kesslers who had served before them with horse and sword.

“Maybe it was the army that made him leave, I don't know. In 1939 he and my mother and my brother Franz, later Francisco, left Baden for Buenos Aires. I was born in 1943. My father worked at the Banco Central. Francisco played football and rugby. He was very much like my father.

“I never knew my father as he was, because in spring of 1945, when I was two years old, he had a heart attack. He was sitting in the parlor reading the Times of London, and stared blankly at a photo of some American soldiers in Poland – the first thing his eyes landed on, you see – and simply fell over in his chair. His family had heart problems, you see, and he ate so much sausage and meat that it must have only gotten worse with him.

“He was never the same after that, they say. He began to drink and smoke many cigarettes. When I was a young man your age my father was already old and tired looking, and his athlete's body had gone flabby. I promised myself then that I would never smoke-- and look where it's landed me. The doctors said the smoking killed my father. I, on the other hand, have perfect lungs.

“When I was sixteen I went to Havana to work as an apprentice manager in a small cigar factory, owned by the brother of one of my father's colleagues at the bank. Or anyway I tried to go to Havana, but the mutiny there prevented me from leaving Veracruz harbor. I wired my mother to ask for money, and spent some time in Mexico City as a bohemian. I lived on a street where everyone was a student or an artist. Of course I couldn't stay there. I needed to work. The next year I went back to Buenos Aires. I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to go to university or the army. My mother's second cousin lived on a ranch in Paraguay; I thought it might prove something of an adventure to go there. It wasn't. It was hard work and the food was bad, and all the old man ever did was talk about the war.

“So I was twenty years old, and I had lived in three countries, and I was bored. That was the year my father died, and I received a decent inheritance. At his funeral was the man from the bank whose brother had owned the cigar factory in Cuba. He introduced me to an American gentleman who worked in the transport industry, shipping things across the Atlantic, I don't remember what exactly. Anyway I impressed this second man and he hired me, and sent me to work in a company office in Tel Aviv, where I lived five years.

“I saw the 67 War on the cover of the Times and talked to soldiers who had come back from the front. They were ecstatic because they had won. I was unhappy, though, because I was not making much at my job, and Israel was beginning to bore me. Beach towns are all boring, I think. I quit and went to Cairo, which was crowded and filthy, and then to Alexandria, which was as boring as Tel Aviv but with a number of Germans who liked me and welcomed me. I had a little difficulty in Alexandria with a certain girl – German, not Arab, thank God – and I decided to take this opportunity to see Europe. I had never been. In all the time I spent in Israel I never left Tel Aviv.

“You're very young, so you can't know that Europe was a mess in those years. Only the Swiss remained civil, but I couldn't get in – passport problems. Italy was filthy. The people were like South Americans, like the Indians, with the same gangster tendencies. Everyone was on strike. But my mother's family lived there, near Bolzen, and I stayed with them for several months before I moved to Trieste to work with another shipping company.

“In 1972 I found out that Francisco had died. My mother had written a letter to her sister in Bolzen, and one of my young cousins who admired me brought it to my office. Francisco had moved to Chile some several years before and had joined Allende's party, the idiot. Now he had disappeared. They were unpleasant times everywhere.

“An American girl worked in the office with me, and taught me English. We got married and moved to Virginia. She worked while I looked for a job, which took some time. Then I got hired and we moved to Seattle. I didn't want to be so near her parents, who were so prying, and the doctor there was stupid enough to tell me to stop drinking even though my health was perfect. I don't like prying in-laws and I don't like doctors, especially not idiot doctors, so I was glad to move. We had two sons, and then later two more kids who must be about your age. The oldest two are in New England. Susanna is studying in Chicago. Henry was working in Colombia, and I'm not sure where he is now; he hasn't written me for some time. My wife is back in Virginia with her parents. I live in Seattle now.”

He sat back and delicately wiped a drop from his lip. I asked him, “What brings you to San Francisco?”

He smiled again. “I knew you were bright. You were born sensitive. That's why you're a writer. You can read where there aren't any words written. You can hear an old man's tale and see a novel.

“I come here for the air, and for the little cafes like this one. I come for the fog. I like the bridges over the water.”

He stood up stiffly and removed a wad of bills from his blazer pocket to pay. He looked at me rather sharply.

“Listen though, young man. I know you're a writer and that you're smart. But don't write down any of this. You must promise me that you'll never write down that story.”

I promised, and held the door open for him as he left. His little form melted in the fog. I followed him with my eyes as long as I could, and went back in to lock up. When I left the streetlight was out, and a crumpled newspaper, half drowned in the gutter, fluttered weakly in the breeze.

Rabbits of Ramona

for Scott McLean

Man from mud
and the blue sky was born.
His blood colors the clay.

Saying this we picked our way
through buckwheat and toyon,
carrying the .22, and over barbed wire

past red ants and meadowlarks and endless
yellow clay
and we looked for rabbits.

Stillness:  not a fissure of the rock
disturbed; nothing to disrupt
the commerce of snakeroads and blackbird choirs

till night brought stars and sage smell
and coyotes yawned in their hollows.
We had shot enough

To recognize that in the very dust
there by the dark-haired oaks and powdered clay
lay fossil traces of our breath, and names.

Homenaje a Diego Rivera

A hummingbird sang to a hawthorn tree:

I saw your mouth, my love
on the painted image of an Aztec whore,
dark-eyed and shining -- lovely.
And there by her side stood a strong man,
     a man of war,
who for the softness of her gracious thighs
and the lingering kiss of her gaze
held out in offering a severed arm, white
     like her skin
and red like her lips.

What can I give you, my lady of the buds,
for the gift of your nectar?
These are for you, then:     my shining throat
and the lance of my mouth
and the wind and the drone of my wingbeat.