Sunday, February 24, 2008

from "Batting Against Castro," Jim Shepard (1993)

(Castro with the Minneapolis Millers at the Junior World Series, 1959)

... The Marianao skipper overmanaged and ran out of pitchers. He had an outfielder come in and fling a few, and the poor guy walked our eighth and ninth hitters with pitches in the dirt, off the backstop, into the seats. I was up. There was a conference on the mound that included some fans and a vendor. Then there was a roar, and we stretched forward out of the dugout and saw Castro up and moving through the seats to the field. Someone threw him a glove.

He crossed to the mound, and the Marianao skipper watched him come then handed him the ball when he got there like his relief ace had just come in from the pen. Castro took the outfielder's hat for himself, but that was about it for uniform. The tails of his pleated shirt hung out. His pants looked like Rudolph Valentino's. He was wearing dress shoes.

I turned to the ump. "Is this an exhibition at this point?" I said. He said something in Spanish that I assumed was, "You're in a world of trouble now."

The crowd, which had screamed itself out hours ago, got its second wind. Hurricanes, dust devils, sandstorms in the Sahara -- I don't know what the sound was like. When you opened your mouth it came and took your words away.

I looked over at Batista, who was sitting on his hands. How long was this guy going to last if he couldn't even police the national pastime?

Castro toed the rubber, worked the ball in his hand, and stared at me like he hated everyone I'd ever been associated with. He was right-handed. He fussed with his cap. He had a windmill delivery. I figured, let him have his fun, and he wound up and cut loose with a fastball behind my head.

The crowd reacted like he'd struck me out. I got out of the dirt and did the pro brush-off, taking time with all parts of my uniform. Then I stood in again, and he broke a pretty fair curve in by my knees, and down I went again.

What was I supposed to do? Take one for the team? Take one for the country? Get a hit, and never leave the stadium alive? He came back with his fastball high, and I thought, enough of this, and tomahawked it foul. We glared at each other. He came back with a changeup -- had this guy pitched somewhere, for somebody? -- again way inside, and I thought, forget it, and took it on the hip. The umpire waved me to first, and the crowd screamed about it like we were cheating.

I stood on first. The bases were now loaded for Charley. You could see the Marianao skipper wanted Castro off the mound, but what could he do?Charley steps to the plate, and it's like the fans have been holding back on the real noisemaking up to this point. There are trumpets, cowbells, police whistles, sirens and the god-awful noise of someone by the foul pole banging two frying pans together. The attention seems to unnerve Charley. I'm trying to give him the old thumbs-up from first, but he's locked-in on Castro, frozen in his stance. The end of his bat's making little circles in the air. Castro gave it the old windmill and whipped a curve past his chin. Charley bailed out and stood in again. The next pitch was a curve, too, which fooled him completely. He'd been waiting on the fastball. He started to swing, realized it was a curve breaking in on him, and ducked away to save his life. The ball hit his bat anyway. It dribbled out toward Castro. Charley gaped at it and then took off for first. I took off for second. The crowd shrieked. Ten thousand people, one shriek. All Castro had to do was gun it to first and they were out of the inning. He threw it into right field.

Pandemonium. Our eighth and ninth hitters scored. The ball skipped away from the right fielder. I kept running. The catcher'd gone down to first to back up the throw. I rounded third like Man o' War, Charley not far behind me, the fans spilling out onto the field and coming at us like a wave we were beating to shore. One kid's face was a flash of spite under a Yankee hat, a woman with long scars on her neck was grabbing for my arm. And there was Castro, blocking the plate, dress shoes wide apart, Valentino pants crouched and ready, his face scared and full of hate like I was the entire North American continent bearing down on him.

-- from The Paris Review Book, 2003

(Fidel Castro, President of Cuba 1959-2008)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

"You Can't Win," Jack Black (1926)

"Jack Black calls hi
s book You Can't Win. Well, who can? Winner take nothing."
-- William Burroughs, 1988

This autobiography of the outlaw and convict Jack Black, which Burroughs recalls from memory as "the Good Red Book," is a documentary of life lived against the grain. It came as a shock and a revelation when it was originally published in 1926 during the Roaring 20s -- his tales of poverty and deprivation as a youth, and then as a young man, ran counter to the prevailing image of America as a land of wealth and excess. Originally published in serial form in The San Francisco Call, the book became a best-seller, going through five printings and gaining the attention of social reformers like Lincoln Steffens. Its success propelled Black into a brief literary career that included a play based on his experiences and then a film contract at MGM writing screenplays for $150 a week.

The picture of Black as a literary figure and upright citizen is too simple, though. Those who found the Folsom Prison ex-con extremely well-read probably didn't know he had used his prison years to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica three separate times learning "to play Society's game." Or that he got his 25-year sentence by shooting a man in a botched hold-up in Golden Gate Park in what one biographer calls "a one-man San Francisco reign of terror." His prison years were spent developing a network for survival, a patchwork of favors done for favors received, that extended years after his release. This underworld had its cast of prison"yeggs" and, just as important, people whom Black calls "the Johnsons" --those who are as good as their word, and keep their promises.

"Some of my debts had to be paid in kind, and no one could help me. I owe my life to a thief who risked his life to get me out of jail. He smuggled me saws to open my cell, then came in the night to cut the bars out of the window and lifted me through the hole when I was so weak from tuberculosis I could barely walk. ... Years afterward, when I had cured myself of the dope habit and served my sentence, won immunity from the law, and was just beginning to feel a little secure in my respectability, my telephone rang in the small hours of the night. A woman's voice asked if I was 'Mr. Black,' and said 'I have a message from Eddie ... of course, you know I can't give it over the phone. Hurry.' I didn't know what had happened but I knew another debt was due."

Once he got out of prison Black seems determined never to go back, and this is where You Can't Win develops its themes of reform and resurrection. Though he found a respectable life full of "too much hypocrisy" and said he never cared for it, for a short time Black became a police reporter and then circulation manager of The San Francisco Bulletin. He was befriended by members of the Progressive movement who urged him to write about his hardscrabble life and prison experiences in order to promote prison reform, and You Can't Win -- first serialized as Breaking the Shackles -- was the result, a modern pilgrim's progress full of crime and punishment -- and redemption.

"I am sure but of one thing -- I failed as a thief and I am luckier than most of them. I quit with my health and liberty. What price larceny, burglary and robbery? Half my thirty years in the underworld was spent in prison. Say I handled $50,000 in the fifteen years I spent outside; that's about nine dollars a day... 'what chance have you now?' I would ask any young man, 'with shotgun squads, strong-arm squads, and crime-crushers cruising the highways and byways; with the deadly fingerprinting, central identification bureau, and telephotoing of pictures; and soon every police station broadcasting ahead of you your description and record?' Then consider the accidents and snitches -- what chance have you? Figure it out yourself. I can't."

"I was fascinated," Burroughs writes in his foreword to the 2000 reissue of You Can't Win, "by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming-houses, pool-parlors, cat-houses and opium dens, of bull pens and cat burglars and hobo jungles." The book made such an impression on Burroughs that he used some of Black's characters like Salt Chunk Mary, and even his language word for word. "When you can remember a passage of prose after fifty years it has to be good," he writes. Here's a passage from Burroughs's late novel Place of Dead Roads:

"A two-story red-brick house down by the tracks in Junction City, Idaho. Salt Chunk Mary, mother of the Johnson Family ... train whistles cross a distant sky. Mary keeps a pot of pork and beans and a blue porcelain coffee pot always on the stove. You eat first, then you talk business, rings and watches slopped out on the kitchen table. She names a price. She doesn't name another. Mary could say "No" quicker than any woman Kim ever knew, and none of her no's ever meant yes. She kept the money in a cookie jar, but nobody thought about that. Her cold gray eyes would have seen the thought and maybe something goes wrong on the next lay. John Law just happens by, or John Citizen comes up with a load of double-zero into your soft and tenders."

The fame, and the money, was fleeting. Jack gave his talks on crime and prisons under the auspices of the League to Abolish Capital Punishment, which Clarence Darrow had started. Only his lecture fees were "keeping him out of the soup kitchens and breadlines," he wrote. His pride, or something like it, would not let him seek the charity that was becoming part of the Depression of the 1930s. Speaking engagements became fewer, and the royalties from You Can't Win dried up.

He had once told friends that if life got too grim he would tie weights to his feet, row into New York Harbor and drop overboard. This seems to be precisely what he did in 1932: Black vanished. His watch was found in a pawnshop pledged for eight dollars; it had been his prize possession, a gift from an ex-con he had helped. For his friends this became definite proof that he had been as good as his word to the end.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Jonathan Williams, poet

Jonathan Williams, poet. He is an entertaining array of other things too -- biographer, raconteur, chronicler, photographer; a publisher of other poets, of whom R. Buckminster Fuller remarked "he is our Johnny Appleseed, we need him more than we know" -- he introduces poets to poets, poets to readers, professors to poets, poets (this a perilous business) to professors. Since the 1970s, The Jargon Society is his one-man publishing venture. He is also a traveler, hiker, botanist, antiquarian, epicure, and much else if we want to look at the poet rather than the poetry. And so, too quickly, to the poetry, before the poet gets in our line of sight.

Beauty, poets have taught us, is the king's daughter and the milkmaid, the nightingale and the rose, the wind, a Greek urn, the autumn moon, the sea when it looks like wine. None of which appear often in the confusion of our world. Perhaps all too rarely poets keep to their traditional loyalties, and Williams sometimes obliges:
dawn songs in the dews of young orange trees;
and raging orisons; and wordless longings
sung in tranquility's waters sliding in sun's
and benisons sung in these trees ...
That is Williams meditating on the music of Frederick Delius. The language for talking to Delius is Delius; and what if the poet wants to talk back to the TV set? Williams makes room for the blues -- a vernacular with its own special way of expressing eloquent dismay:
Woke up this mornin'
Cape Canaveral can't get it up ...
Woke up this mornin'
Cape Canaveral can't get it up ...

But sent a cable to Great Venus --
told her, better watch her ass!

"Unvarnished bride of quietness,"
blasts off in my head ...
"Unvarnished bride of quietness,"
blasts off in my head ...
Liable to be a whole lot more people
than just John Keats dead!
Williams finds his poetic grist in the stars as well as ourselves, to twist a Shakesperian line, and he's not one to shy away from other masters to whom he's listened with care. Ezra Pound is Williams's "familiar compound ghost," and appears to Charles Olson ("let the song lie in the thing," from "Some Southpaw Pitching"). There is an echo in that from another, William Carlos Williams -- no relation -- who insisted "no ideas but in things." To let the world speak for itself, Jonathan Williams learned to make such poems as this:
Mister Williams
lets youn me move
tother side of the house
the woman
choppin woods
might nigh the awkwardest thing
I seen
The title to this poem is a verbal gesture, alerting us to cock our ears: "Uncle Iv Surveys His Domain from His Rocker of a Sunday Afternoon as Aunt Dory Starts to Chop Kindling." The poem defines a culture, an eccentricity only to those whose lives are not defined by the living of it. Jonathan Williams writes poetry as trim and economical as a tree. Like a tree his poems have hidden roots, exist against a background, and convert light into energy. The tree and the poem take their shape not only from inner design, but also from the weather and their circumstance.

Jonathan Williams, poet, is a Southerner by birth but by no means a parochial one, and a wanderer too. What Williams finds in England, Wales, and Scotland (as well as Spillville, Iowa: "between Eldorado and Jericho/west of/US 52") is not a second heritage but one in which he was raised from the beginning. He's aware of this heritage because he is consciously adding to it, a tangled American idiom largely untraced in and out of officially-sanctioned literature and art. His long zig-zag trips can easily be explained by noting he is a publisher of books unwelcome to commercial publishers, and by the fact that to know artists and poets of a certain stripe, one has to travel to the smallest of American towns. He persists, because that's where the poetry is.

These are days, Williams aims to mean, that reading is still a way of communication, even if "the figure of 85 genuine poetry readers seems much too high to me." This is assuming that one has taught oneself to find the book one needs to read; it's not easy. No medium can replace what may be an essential need for the poet: an audience. Homer recited his poems to an audience; they at least passed around wine. Chaucer read his poems in warm, firelit rooms. Every line of Shakespeare was written to move a paying audience. The next time you read a slack, obscure convoluted poem, reflect that it was written in an age when printing has replaced recitation. Remember too that the best poetry still resounds in the inner ear as much as it appeals to the scanning eye. Thousands of people have heard poetry for every five readers who know it on the printed page. A poetry collection, like An Ear in Bartram's Tree, is an offering to that charming fiction known as the reading public, best to be read out loud.
solid, common, vulgar words
the ones you can touch,
the ones that yield
and a respect for the music . . .

what else can you tell 'em?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

"Blue Prints," Zeva Oelbaum (2002) and the pop world of Bae Yong Joon

Zeva Oelbaum's cyanotype botanicals (blue photographic prints), a few examples of which are reproduced here from her beautiful book Blue Prints (Rizzoli, 2002), create an unexpected, otherworldly effect. Zeva's own words, further below, capture the scientific, photographic properties of cyanotype, but there is a romantic mood created by the simplicity of color and shape of these contemporary images from this antique and nearly-forgotten 19th-century process.

Oelbaum's work inspires others in unexpected ways. In the blog "Zoom on Bae Yong Joon," Blue Prints photographs complement the imagery of a Korean pop star. The effect is incongruous, yet the blogger known as Jaime has created a universe of romantic longing and beauty -- however silly it seems -- from joining the ridiculous and the sublime: an earnest, visual definition of kitsch. Yet the effect is unusually haunting.

In the world of pop culture blogs it can always be argued that, as in art, far less has been done with far more. In the world of pop idols, however, the unexpected (and the appropriated) has its place, even if the serious artist is blissfully unaware of how the work is used. Here are Jaime's own words, reminding all readers that romantic swoons can be a path toward understanding, as well as a labor of story-book love:

Still-life photographer Zeva Oelbaum discovered a Victorian herbarium (botanical journal) in a tiny seaside antiques shop along the coast of New England. The only trace of its origin is an inscription ‘May 18, 1896, Randolph, VT’ in graceful penmanship. This century old treasure has yellowed rippled parchment paper tied with fraying white satin ribbon. Through the delicate hands of a young woman over a century ago, the fragile botanicals were diligently arranged with strings of linen in an artful and whimsical composition. Time has worked wonders too, the pressed botanical has created a shadow impression of itself reflecting on the adjoining page.

The journal was a means of creative fulfillment, letting this young lady escape into the beauty of flowers in her peaceful surroundings. Maybe it’s that light touch of nostalgia lingering in the air, that mystical sensation from a bygone era or the mere thought of an artist’s creativity narrowly forgotten and rediscovered.

About her own work with blue print photography, Oelbaum writes:

I became fascinated by the cyanotype process when I learned that it holds an important, if unrecognized, place in the history of photography. In 1843, British botanist Anna Atkins (1799-1871) published a landmark volume of over four hundred cyanotypes entitled British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. This book was the first to be illustrated entirely with photographs. To make the prints, Atkins placed the algae specimens on paper coated with iron salts, then exposed it to sunlight. When she washed the print in water, the outcome was a white specimen outlined on a prussian blue background. Images created in this manner came to be known as blue prints. In this way she created photograms, or "shadowgraphs" as she called them, of each original plant.

The chemical formula for cyanotypes was developed the year before by British astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792-1871) as a reliable and efficient way to copy his calculations. Before his discovery, draughtsmen were typically employed to duplicate notes and charts. Herschel also coined the terms "photography," "negative," and "positive."

I found working with the blue print process
liberating. Released from any obligation to reproduce details, I started to explore the interactions of shapes both formal and organic. As the objects became less precise, I became freer to interpret them.

It was rewarding to work in this nineteenth-century medium to create a contemporary body of work that both expanded upon this form that Atkins had mastered and my own photographic vocabulary.

Zeva Oelbaum's website can be found at All images from the book Blue Prints created by Zeva Oelbaum and published by Rizzoli Books, New York.