Pier Paolo Pasolini championed the little guy, the honest poor, those he called the “lumpen proletariat.” He never pretended to be one of them. A middle-class kid himself (his father was in the military), Pasolini moved to Rome after being fired from a teaching job in his hometown. He’d been charged with “corruption of minors and obscene acts in a public space.” They hounded him out of the Communist Party. My City Lights edition of Roman Poems is interspersed with black-and-white photographs of Pasolini in a trench coat, wandering industrial wastelands and housing estates. But he wasn’t full of shit. A committed and compassionate communist, Pasolini didn’t need the party. He was on the side of anyone who worked for a living, period.
In one of his Roman poems, “The Lament of the Excavator,” Pasolini talks about watching some delivery boys count their cash.
in the confusion of the streets,
addressing another man, without trembling,
not ashamed to watch money counted
with lazy fingers by sweaty delivery boys
against facades flashing by
in the eternal color of summer.
Reminds me, yes, I can’t help myself, of my own days as a delivery boy in Chicago. I wasn’t a good one. Pizzas. I often got lost, delivered pizzas forty-five minutes, an hour late:
Pier Paolo, or do I call you Pier? Or do I call you Paolo? It was the late ’80s and I was delivering for Piero, Pizza pooh-bah of the North Shore. I’d take the cash but I’d never count it until I was back in my mom’s Corolla. Only then, under the dome light, would I check to see if I’d gotten an extra two or three bucks. And I remember one night I delivered a pizza to Melvie Rosenstein. The guy was a business associate of my father’s. Melvie lived in a huge house on the lake. He’d inherited a chain of check-cashing stores. There was a story about him; everybody knew it: he’d once been kidnapped, plucked right out of his own driveway and held for ransom. I remember my father saying at the time, “Who’d want him? Who’d want Melvie?” “Nobody,” my mother said. “They want money, not Melvie.” Anyway, he escaped out a bathroom window in Michigan City, Indiana, and for a couple of weeks in the ’70s, before people had forgotten all about him, Melvie Rosenstein was a kind of provincial celebrity. A decade or so later, I delivered a pizza to him. He opened the door with a book under his arm. A little man with a beard shaved into the shape of triangle. My father once said that Melvie fancied himself an intellectual, that he “eschewed” the check-cashing business even if it did buy him his mansion on the lake. He didn’t know me from Adam. Why should he have? I was my father’s son but my father was nobody, a low-level plaintiff’s attorney who’d represented Melvie on a few chicken-feed cases. Why should he recognize his kid? I took his half-mushroom, half-sausage out of the warmer and handed it to him. He accepted it, and though it was a little awkward with the book under his arm and the pizza, he managed to shove a wad of bills into my palm. Then, without a word, he shut the door with his foot. Still, the wad felt thick, and I remember walking back to the idling Corolla thinking, Jackpot. Me in the driveway of that lakeside enormity, vines crawling up the brick like the House of Usher. Under the dome light I counted. Singles, fourteen of them, exact change. Melvie, you cheap bastard, I’m still pissed. My father was right: Who the hell would want you?
Piero paid delivery boys almost nothing. If we made anything we made it in tips. I was a suburban kid in my mom’s car, but I’m pretty sure Pasolini would have said that Melvie Rosenstein stiffing me wasn’t nothing. A working man must be paid.
Pasolini was murdered in Ostia, Rome, in 1975. Officially, it is still said, he was bludgeoned by a guy he’d propositioned for sex. More likely it was a political hit. The powers that be had reason enough to want to knock him off. He’d been sticking it to them for decades.
Melvie Rosenstein wasn’t important enough for anybody to murder, but I’ll bet the kidnappers wanted to after they checked the bathroom and found him gone. Last I heard, he’s retired, living in Florida. If he’d given me a couple extra dollars, I’d have left him forgotten.
An image from Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah. I’ll be doing something, anything, the dishes, and I’ll look out the window at the road, the carless, quiet road, and I’ll see myself falling—from where? Nowhere, just falling; or worse, infinitely worse, my daughter or my son, falling, falling—and I’ll again think of that image, that zeppelin rising, those three men, the one who jumps off early enough and lands safely, the one who hangs on, and the other one, the third man, who, as the airshipthe USS Akron rises higher, loses his grip and lets go. Dove describes him as clawing the air as he drops. It’s this. To claw there must be something tangible to claw. Dirt, someone’s face. To claw at the air like that when you know there’s nothing, not a thing in the world to hook your nails into between you and the earth below…
And still the third man claws:
muscles and adrenalin
six hundred feet.
In the next stanza, Thomas, who witnessed the Akron floating out of control—and note that it floated out of control, giving us a sense of how slow-motion this all might have seemed at the time—is standing in a vacant lot, at night, thinking about what he’s seen.
Here I am, intact
It’s the image of the clawing man from “The Zeppelin Factory” but also this: this other image of a man, another man, standing in the stillness of a vacant lot. If there is a place on earth that will never rise to allow for any falling off of it, it’s a vacant lot. But even this isn’t a safe place to be, because we can’t protect ourselves, or anybody else, from visions. Haven’t you felt this? The need to brace yourself in a quiet, windless moment? Nothing around that might hurt you—and still?
And we’re all faint-hearted until it’s one of us—you or me—or someone we love, who tries to hold on as the dumb blimp rises, rises. I’m not saying it’s tougher to be the witness; I’m only trying to say that the notion of our being intact is ultimately an illusion we cling to, like the third man clings, muscles and adrenalin failing.
A certain paragraph exists, for me, untethered from the story in which it appears. It has become, in a sense, a place to hide.
We’re in a small, dusty Southern California town—all Gina Berriault’s stories are California stories—and it’s the early ’40s. The narrator, Delia, is looking back on her life as a sixth grader in Miss Furguson’s class. Miss Furguson is about to perform a Japanese tea ceremony. She’s chosen the most beautiful girl in the class, Jolie Lotta, to assist her. Only the most beautiful girl could possibly participate in such an elegant, exquisite ritual.
To begin, said Miss Furguson, we all must admire the teapot and the bowls and even the bamboo whisk. They spent a long minute doing that, Miss Furguson making chirpy sounds of belief, of belief in the beauty of the objects before them.
This isn’t the paragraph I return to. But because it’s Berriault, it’s also indelible. I laugh at Miss Furguson and her ludicrous chirping sounds, and yet at the same time I also understand her near-fanatic faith in the beauty of objects—and people. This faith in beauty, and beauty alone, is always doomed, but who hasn’t fallen for it? Take Jolie Lotta, for instance, beautiful Jolie Lotta, who drops Delia because she’s not pretty enough, not rich enough.
But no, the paragraph that’s become a kind of refuge is the one that comes just after the enactment of the tea ceremony. It’s when Delia imagines, horror of horrors, Miss Furguson dropping by her house during dinner. Here’s part of it:
If Miss Furguson were ever to visit my family, something she’d never do but something I feared anyway, she’d know the worst if she came at supper time. Her suspicions about us, and I knew she had some, would be confirmed before her eyes. Other families sat down together, while each member of my family ate apart. A family askew, a family alone in a rain-stained bungalow in the weeds, faded curtains that didn’t fit the windows…
A family askew, a family alone. Anyone who comes from a tattered family will recognize this scene. And the fear, the terror, even, that one of the Miss Furgusons of the world will catch us in our natural habitats. What? You people don’t eat at the table? I read this paragraph and, every time, I imagine taking my plate of food to some unoccupied corner of that bungalow and eating slowly, listening to the sound of my own fork scraping my plate. Across the room, other forks, scraping other plates.
In my house we did eat together, if also alone, at a round wooden table so small our knees touched. It wasn’t for lack of a bigger table. We had a long one in the dining room, which nobody ever went into. I’ve written about this before, this kitchen table in a house that no longer exists. It isn’t true that we write stuff out of us. We’re still, all four of us, eating at that round table.
If we could have scattered to various corners of the house on Hazel Avenue, we would have. Our curtains all fit the windows, but that didn’t matter, either. We sat at the kitchen table, night after night, squeezed together. And we tried to eat with as few movements as possible, because anything could set my father off. A lazy burp, a hiccup. Nothing out of the ordinary. Tyrannical fathers are a dime a dozen in books and neighborhoods. Ours was a little tomato-faced volcano. Cutting up his steak, drinking his Schlitz. There’s no head of the table at a round table. Maybe this sort of demarcation would have been better, given us somewhere for our eyes to avoid. There’s no escaping a circle. My father, my mother, my brother, and I—like I say, we’re still wedged in there because there’s no greater fantasy than the linearity of time. We chew, we swallow, we try not to call attention.
Gina Berriault died in 1999. “The Tea Ceremony” was among her last stories and first appeared in 2003, in a collection of her uncollected writing. I imagine Berriault labored over “The Tea Ceremony” as she must have labored over all her stories. There’s a patience in her paragraphs that could be the result only of refusing, ever, to rush a sentence. She had to have waited them out to find what they’d reveal. In a rare interview, she talks about Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and says this:
[In the story] there’s a description of the poor copying clerk’s threadbare overcoat, how the cold wind got in across his back. I don’t know why those lines move me so much, except when you visualize how the cloth has worn out without his knowing until suddenly one day he’s surprised by that cold invasion—isn’t that a description of an entire life?
This morning I’m trying to visualize that moment—just that moment—when the clerk first feels the cold. Because hadn’t he been feeling it all along? Yes and no. That’s the thing. It’s yes, he had been feeling the cold; but it’s also no, he hadn’t been feeling it. What is different about that particular gust that it suddenly becomes distinguished from every other cold wind in the clerk’s life? This is what a great story does, doesn’t it? It seeks that pivotal, inexplicable moment when everything changes, changes utterly.
In “The Tea Ceremony,” after she worries about Miss Furguson coming to spy on her family, Delia starts to wonder how they might be received at a tea, almost as if this and this alone were the ultimate test of their worthiness. Her wolfish brother would scare those tea drinkers out of their wits. Her sister wouldn’t even be offered a chair to observe the ceremony because she’d be so timid, so afraid of making a mistake. And, oh, her mother, her graceful mother: she wouldn’t be welcome either because she wouldn’t know where on the saucer to place her spoon. Delia’s father? Her father, whom she describes as noble? He, possibly, could be accepted at some celestial tea ceremony in some distant future, but not now. He’s rain-soaked, just home from work, tired. And Delia herself? She doesn’t say. She ends the paragraph with a description of herself kneeling at her mother’s feet,
begging her to tell me that someday I’d be a somebody. Tell me, tell me, I pleaded and she waved her spoon over my head and said that I would.
As for my people, my brother wouldn’t care one way or the other about any tea ceremony. My dead father, who had a taste for fine things, he’d have wanted to attend but likely would have complained about something and been tossed out by the manager of the tea place before he’d even had a chance to sit down. Me, I was uncouth then; I’m uncouth now. My worthy, noble mother would be comfortable at any tea ceremony, then or now, and if she couldn’t figure out where to put her spoon, she’d wing it.
The dead shouldn’t return. It’s the last miracle anybody wants. No matter how beloved, once dead, people should stay that way. I’m not talking about ghosts.
Uncle Lazar immigrates from Poland to Palestine in the ’30s, before the establishment of the state of Israel. His childhood sweetheart follows three years later. Love’s rekindled. Rachel becomes pregnant, and Rachel and Lazar marry. They move into a small shack on the edge of the desert. Soon: two children. Uncle Lazar is, in the beginning, a fervent Zionist, but over time his political beliefs morph into an all-encompassing communism. He decides to join an international brigade to help defend the Republican government in Spain. Rachel implores him not to leave her alone with the children, but what’s done is done. Uncle Lazar departs for Europe. A few letters follow; then, months later, word that Uncle Lazar’s been killed in action. A month or two after that, a letter from Lazar himself, but the postmark date is blurry, so it’s impossible to tell if it was written before or after the date of his purported death. Another year of rumors. Lazar’s dead; Lazar’s not dead. Rachel waits three more years without word before she re-marries. Meanwhile, Uncle Lazar is in Siberia, having been arrested, along with other international volunteers, for being a foreign infiltrator. He’s held eighteen years before being inexplicably released. Needless to say, upon his return to Israel, Lazar goes to see Rachel and the children.
Dramatic, yes, and yet the story of Uncle Lazar is a marginal episode in Yaakov Shabtai’s Past Continuous. It takes up just a few pages of the novel’s nearly four hundred. It’s hard to explain why this book has been such a relief to me. Maybe because of Shabtai’s stubborn—sometimes insane—insistence on the past and present being one. The notion that the past can be separated from the present, as if by some impenetrable wall, is not only false; it’s blasphemy toward our experience. In Past Continuous, the present is the past and the past is the present, and the two often exist simultaneously in the same sentence, separated only by the inconsequential twip of a comma.
In Tel Aviv, Uncle Lazar weeps in the rain. He’s just come from his wife’s—Rachel’s; what to call her?—house. The ruthlessness of the past is that it fuses with the present. What’s happened has happened, and yet it keeps happening. The reunion scene at Rachel’s is hardly a scene, and yet I continue to see it, though it has been days now since I read it. Uncle Lazar stands on one side of the table, Rachel and the two grown children on the other. A few words are exchanged, and that’s it. The moment is not the hinge of this novel. In other books it might be. It is only, as I say, one moment among thousands of moments, which is the point, or would be the point if this book were the sort of book to make a point, which, thank god, it isn’t. Past Continuous is bottled life. The non-scene with Rachel and the children takes up less than half a page.
She did not shake his hand or invite him to sit down or ask him how he was, and the truth is that the moment she saw him standing in the doorway she wanted to ask him why he had come and tell him to leave, but something of his emotion had infected her too, in addition to which she had to contend with her own curiosity and her sense of decency, and so she held her tongue, but she felt no sympathy for him.
You might call Uncle Lazar a minor character. He’s only onstage for a few pages at a time. He comes and he goes like the almost ghost he is. (In the original Hebrew, Past Continuous unfurls over the course of a single paragraph, like a scroll.) My friend Tom Barbash once said, “Minor characters don’t know they’re minor.” It’s a quote I’ve always loved, as it speaks as much to life as it does to fiction, but I wonder if, in this case, Uncle Lazar does know he’s minor, standing there across the table from Rachel and the children. Uncle Lazar reaches for his daughter, but she backs away. And maybe this is how it goes. Minor characters don’t know they’re minor—until they do. And doesn’t this, at some point, include us all?
In December 1968, less than two years before his suicide in the Seine, Paul Celan wrote the following to his fourteen-year-old son, Eric:
I am also happy for your reading. Gorky and Turgenev are naturally human, Gorky before all, the tone in which he narrates is richly authentic, the problems he goes at he truly lives them, everything starts from the lived experience, and that’s very important. Turgenev is more intellectual, more reflective, more abstract maybe, but still always close to human beings and their preoccupations. Of course the world has evolved since Gorky’s and Turgenev’s days; but to know them and study them in depth means to be able to measure and appreciate what changes, what evolves, what remains though under a new form, often different and yet at the same time identical.
“Of course the world has evolved since Gorky’s and Turgenev’s days…” This from a person whose mother the Nazis shot in the neck, whose father died of typhus in a camp. There’s something almost unbearably beautiful about Celan advising his son, in 1968, to keep up with his reading of a couple of Russian graybeards. These two writers, who are, as he puts it, so “naturally human.” You’d think his faith in what was naturally human might have been shaken to the core. Or that the idea of authenticity of experience would have taken on far darker meanings. Yet here is a poet who devoted his life and his work to bearing witness in his own entirely singular way, and he’s giving kudos to the old masters and encouraging his son’s faith in literature.
It’s not easy to square the optimism of the letter with Celan’s suicide, less than two years later. But there’s also no need. It seems remarkable to me that he carried the pain around as long as he did.
Celan is often described as a hermetic poet, and I take this to mean his work is so wrapped up in the cell of itself—cell as in prison, cell as in unit of life—that it’s inaccessible to readers, like me, who lack a secret key. Whether this is accurate or not, my own way of reading Celan has been to pull out a line or two to be awed by, rather than to worry too much about understanding the poem as a whole. I copy these stray lines in notebooks, where they’ve accumulated and taken on small lives of their own.
There was earth inside them, and
Celan disavowed his most famous poem, “Death Fugue,” and refused to allow it to be anthologized any longer. I believe he thought it spoke too directly, that it attempted to articulate what he later came to see as inarticulable. My guess is that over the years, time itself fractured his memory. Doesn’t it? And he wasn’t able—anymore—to put it together into a single, coherent, horrifying sequence. So earlier attempts, such as “Death Fugue,” became, in a sense, fraudulent. As if clarity itself became a sin against his lived experience.
One late poem opens with these two stanzas:
that which was written grows hollow, that
which was spoken, sea-green,
burns in the coves,
the porpoises leap
I grope, pull on the strands a little. I read “that which was written grows hollow” as a possible reference to his repudiation of his earlier work. And “that / which was spoken” seems to go in another direction: “sea-green / burns in the coves.” OK, I’ve no clue, but burning seems better than growing hollow. Trying again, I read the names as, possibly, those of his parents and so many other liquidized names—and yet I lose track, again, when he references the porpoises…
I’m sitting on a picnic bench beside a little pond in New Hampshire. It’s neither here nor there, but it’s about a quarter mile from the birthplace of that singularly American prophet Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. It’s late August and my two kids are swimming, yelling in the water, splashing. Kids, they dive and come up out of the water, their bare backs like porpoises…
I’m sure this isn’t what Celan meant, but it’s how I’m hearing the line now. And he was a father too. I’m watching my kids rise up out of the water. Out of the liquidized names. A new generation of children, carrying those very names, leaping. These connections might be vague, fractured, but again, clarity is not the point.
I’m on a bench in a little league dugout. My dog is pissing on third. There’s a lot that’s deathlike about the geometry of baseball. You start at home, and if you’re lucky, you return home. If you’re not lucky, same thing, only quicker. Either way, you end up back in the dugout. In the center, equidistant from all the bases, a mound of dirt rises like a year-old grave. None of this has anything to do with Kafka. I did read once that he was into sports and used to work out naked in front of his bedroom window. He also said in a letter to his fiancée, Felice, that he didn’t want to be a hermit; he wanted to be dead. Not because he craved suicide but because he felt being dead would help him concentrate.
Great readers are less common on earth than great writers. Some of these readers are known to us, but most turn their pages in silence and rarely share their thoughts. I’ll posit here, in the dugout, to myself, that Kafka was one of those rarest of ducks: an incomparable writer and reader. By this I mean his reading was as independent and original as his prose. I’m talking about the reader who wrote a single paragraph about Don Quixote that breaks open like a fucking blossom.
Kafka says that it was Sancho who invented the Don. That it was Sancho, the sidekick, who created the character for his own amusement, as well as for a kind self-exorcism. That it was Sancho who expelled the devil from his own brain by letting loose a complete lunatic upon the universe. It took four hundred–plus years of people reading the book for one grown man who lived with his parents to read it in a German translation and reveal what had been in front of everybody’s face all along: Sancho wrote it. Why else would he be unable to fully immerse himself in the fantasy? Not only does he have less fun, but his bruisings and clobberings are no less real for having been invented—more so because he, Sancho, unlike Don Quixote, actually feels them. This is the price you pay for being the wizard. And yet the genius of Sancho is that nobody ever suspects it’s he who’s telling the story. Often, even he forgets. Maybe he’ll get that governorship of the island out of this deal after all. I can see Sancho at his desk. There is no island there is an island there is no island there is an island and it will be mine.
Only a reader completely liberated from the clutter of other people’s ideas could have concocted a theory this unpolluted. The fact that Kafka wrote the paragraph for himself only adds to its glory. He wasn’t trying to prove anything. He was only talking to the walls after midnight. In a few hours he’d have to be back at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia and do whatever he did there. No wonder he imagines Sancho imagining Quixote.
It was Max Brod who gave the piece its title, “The Truth about Sancho Panza,” and published it posthumously. For this we owe him a debt of gratitude. But it must be said that the title messes with the spirit of the paragraph, as if announcing a secret. The truth? Fiction doesn’t need anybody’s truth. And, anyway, the last thing Sancho wants is to be the center of attention.
Something else about this empty diamond. Maybe it’s the short brown grass or the bases, like the sort of flat, uniform headstones you see in an Orthodox cemetery that forbids adornment of any kind—no flowers, no good cheer—like the place my aunt Pauline is buried, on the northwest side of Chicago. I think of dead readers, not exceptional ones, just ordinary dead readers of the sort you and I will become. The kind of people who, after reading something, might pause to think for a moment or two before moving on with the story. What if these thoughts, a reader’s stray thoughts, don’t vanish? What if they somehow remain in the atmosphere? Sometimes, when a thought comes to us out of nowhere, what if it is one of these disembodied scraps? If one person’s thoughts are like energy (aren’t they?), then it stands to reason that they don’t disappear but instead become converted into—what?
He greeted all of us one by one by one. He thanked us for coming over. “Thank you,” he kept saying. “Thank you, thank you.” Some of us, not I, brought food, which was good because at least he wouldn’t have to feed anybody. Stacy Doris was a colleague, a poet, brilliant, erudite, tough. She wrote in English and French. She wore the French gently, never lorded it. And she was funny. Her death hadn’t been sudden. She’d been sick. She’d just turned fifty.
He was greeting us, welcoming us, standing in their doorway. Thin, almost gaunt. As if she’d taken part of his flesh with her. A poet, too, a good one. All those months it took for her to die, so much work, for both of them—and there he was, still working, in this case at the door to his own house.
We ate a lot, stuffed ourselves, because it gave us something to do. We talked about the antics of the dean, gossiped, laughed, held our hands to our mouths, horrified because we’d forgotten to stay in character. We were professors—which always struck us as comic: Us? Professors?—in the Department of Creative Writing at San Francisco State.
The only saving grace of our presence might have been that our talk was something that filled the house. Among other things, she had been a beautiful talker. In faculty meetings she’d talk, and even if she went off topic, she was never dull. The rare person who, when she spoke up in a faculty meeting, you didn’t dread it.
The early 2000s. We’d meet up on the fifth floor, in the Poetry Center. A new building, allegedly built to withstand earthquakes of a certain magnitude. One day we were sitting around the conference table and the whole building started to sway and somebody said, maybe it was Stacy, “Care to dance? Anyone?”
Her name was Stacy Doris. A scattering of lines from “Knot iii.VII” will not do the poem justice but might, in some way, demonstrate the force with which she wrote:
If people could feed on themselves which they can…
Perhaps in this way all living’s starvation…
…Then days are contaminated by law…
Nobody needs to be alive to go on…
No tourniquet dispels it.
I keep Doris’s work close, especially Conference, which is among the strangest and most unclassifiable books I know. A chorus of confounding voices that may or not be birds. I’m not saying I understand it, only that the book gives me a certain unsettling comfort. The book is as insane, as confusing, as provocative, and often, yes, as clear-eyed as life itself, and it contains hundreds of lines as great at this:
The fate of those who aren’t destroyed is to go home, over and over again…
I’m only someone who worked with her and liked her. I’m pretty sure she thought I was OK too. We once served on a subcommittee together. Something to do with circular requirements. We were both in favor of them being loosened. We were united against restrictive circular requirements, whatever that meant.
And now I think of him, of Chet Weiner, a poet himself, standing in the door of their house in the Outer Sunset, out on the Avenues, thanking us and then, then, having to face that night without her.