Bret Easton Ellis’s White: Non-fiction Essays that Probe the Meaning of Art and Aesthetics

By: Katherine R. Sloan

photo by Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

photo by Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

Bret Easton Ellis’s new book, White—his first in nearly a decade and first non-fiction ever—is one that I’ve been hesitant to write on as it’s proven very controversial. What’s most appalling is that the media seems to view Ellis as some sort of Trump apologist, misogynist (due to a 2008 Tweet about Kathryn Bigelow) and bigot. Ellis would say that one should “Look to the art” and not the artist, that his personal and political leanings do not matter— it’s the writing that matters. I would not be reading his novels with such fervor if I believed him to be a Republican stooge or even sympathizer.

What interests me most about White is not Ellis’s views on the current political climate, millennial culture or his pseudo-friendship with Kanye West but freedom of speech and aesthetics. To Ellis, it is an artist’s duty to speak his or her mind no matter what the repercussion. His brilliant way of making me want to revisit certain titillating films from the 1970s and ’80s that are gritty, unflinching and very sexy is part of the book of interlocking essays that held my rapt attention. The way he speaks of an un-coddled youth where movies were the gateway to exotic, adult worlds reminds me of why I have been besotted with films my entire life. Ellis discusses—in great detail—Paul Schrader’s 1980 film American Gigolo and how watching it at fifteen had an influence that was “vast and undeniable” and “impossible to tally.”  Ellis agrees that American Gigolo was not a great film but that “It changed how we look at and objectify men, and altered how I thought about and experienced LA.” What’s so fascinating about Ellis’s discussion of this film in particular is that it’s not a cinematic masterpiece but it does have resonance in popular culture and proved to influence his fiction.

Ellis also goes on to do what, I feel, he does best and that’s to take his readers into completely faraway worlds, whether they’re of his own design or that of another artist (in this case it’s Paul Schrader). Ellis goes on to describe the film as “Set in 1979 Los Angeles, whose denizens dine at Ma Maison and Perino’s and Scandia and Le Dome—and Julian Kaye, the title character, is living in a chic Westwood apartment, adorned in Armani, driving the empty streets in a Mercedes convertible and making his living as a male prostitute for wealthy older women while haunting the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel.” Ellis goes on to discuss his understanding of the “male gaze” and how the camera ogled Richard Gere, thus making the film very gay: it objectified its leading man, was “minimal and chic” and saw Los Angeles as a “brightly colored wasteland.” Ellis also talks about Gere’s blankness, his emptiness. All this harkens back to his 1985 novel Less Than Zero: a story of privileged, nihilistic youth in Los Angeles.

I think what I loved about Less Than Zero and immediately understood was that Ellis’s depiction of certain behavior is not an act of this behavior; he’s not even condoning it but, instead, criticizing it. This is why Ellis is such an effective satirist. At times, his work can even be considered absurdist; he was the Jonathan Swift of the 1980s and early ’90s. American Psycho (1991) was his ultra-violent, sexually explicit version of A Modest Proposal (1729), if you will. Ellis is a wonderful record-keeper of popular culture, especially films. He writes about the 1977 film Looking for Mr. Goodbar (starring Diane Keaton and Richard Gere) with such finesse that I immediately re-watched it—even though I was completely horrified upon the first viewing—stating that “Gere brings Keaton to orgasm in her apartment while Donna Summer sings ‘Could it be Magic’ and then performs a balletic mock-rumble kung-fu dance in his jockstrap while brandishing a glow-in-the-dark switchblade.” Ellis then goes on to say that this scene is “ludicrous” now but was “electrifyingly sexy” to his “eighth-grade sensibility.” This is what Ellis does so brilliantly: the nuance of his language trips off the tongue; the cadence sounds like a suggestive, playful bell that tolls for readers who want a thrill.

Ellis discusses his youth where he was able to go to the local movie theater and watch horror films without a chaperone and how this ignited his imagination. He also deliberates on how these violent films (which were then mostly rated PG) would most likely be restricted now but how, in the 1970s, the horror films he watched “Smoothed the transition from the supposed innocence of childhood to the unsurprising disillusionment of adulthood.” Some of the most satisfying excerpts from the book are when Ellis describes the world of pre-internet pornography and a society where instant gratification didn’t exist: people actually purchased dirty magazines, drove to a video store to rent tapes and watched endless television at odd hours to catch only a glimpse of nudity on screen. This is all almost unfathomable today because of the internet; we simply have to look at our smartphone for X-rated entertainment. Ellis’s musings on film remind me of James Baldwin’s expert film criticism in The Devil Finds Work. Baldwin— like Ellis—was an avid fan of cinema and wrote some of the most insightful film commentary ever published.

I think the crux of White is when Ellis states that “The greatest crime being perpetrated in this new world is that of stamping out passion and silencing the individual.” This “new world” he mentions is where we all seem to be getting bent out of shape and offended by the slightest thing. I actually do believe that, as a society, we cannot become silent or complacent and that people should get angry but I also agree that, in today’s climate of over-sharing and posting every opinion on the internet, people are increasingly upset over things that seem petty and unimportant. Ellis describes the past few years (especially since Trump got elected) as “An age that judges everybody so harshly through the lens of identity politics that if you resist the threatening group think of ‘progressive ideology,’ which proposes universal inclusivity except for those who dare to ask any questions, you’re somehow fucked. Everyone has to be the same, and have the same reactions to any given work of art, or movement or idea, and if you refuse to join the chorus of approval you will be tagged a racist or misogynist. This is what happens to a culture when it no longer cares about art.” He refers to this world as “post-empire” and this is pretty much the takeaway from White: it’s wrong to think that everyone must, somehow, be moved by the same things and, in turn, equally outraged.

I, as a progressive, believe deeply in freedom of speech and differing opinions. This, of course, means dealing with speech I don’t particularly agree with or even like (hate speech is a completely separate and problematic issue). I am also not a saint and have been angered by those who do not share my views but, as human beings are contradictory by nature, I also believe that one can have many opinions—and these opinions often waver. We are all mercurial, imperfect and guilty of making certain remarks that do not necessarily define us. Ellis goes on to discuss Trump and, because he does not vilify him, some seem to think that he’s condoning and, therefore, supporting him. I simply am of the opinion that Ellis got all his Trump hatred out when he eviscerated his lifestyle in American Psycho. He explains that he has never considered himself to be political and that he’s more focused on art and aesthetics: “A romantic by comparison, I’d never been a true believer that politics can solve the dark heart of humanity’s problems and the lawlessness of our sexuality, or that a bureaucratic Band-Aid is going to heal the deep contradictory rifts and the cruelty, the passion and the fraudulence that factor into what it means to be human.” Pondering man’s existence is the exact purpose of art and what Ellis continues to do, even in the genre of non-fiction.

Ellis is no stranger to controversy. After American Psycho was published (it almost wasn’t) he was deemed a rampant misogynist and even received death threats. The novel that detailed the decadence of 1980s New York complete with greed and unimaginable horrors brought on by a society based on status was such a successful satire that it was actually taken seriously. He writes about all of this in White but the big question here is: how do we separate art from reality and are they one and the same? Ellis tends to agree that art exists separately from reality and explains that art never offended him.

photo by Mario Kroes

photo by Mario Kroes

Ellis explains that he “Understood all works of art were a product of human imagination, created like everything else by flawed and imperfect individuals. Whether it was de Sade’s brutality or Céline’s anti-Semitism or Mailer’s misogyny or Polanski’s taste for minors, I was always able to separate the art from its creator and examine and value it (or not) on aesthetic grounds.” He also goes on to cite James Joyce as an inspiration when he said that “I have come to the conclusion that I cannot write without offending people.” As for my take on valuing a work of art simply based on its aesthetics, I can only recall D.H. Lawrence’s 1920 masterwork Women in Love when the character, Loerke says of his sculpture: “It is a work of art, it has no relation to anything outside that work of art.” So, what Lawrence is trying to say, at least in part, is that it is possible for an artist to view his creation as something that can only be defined in an artistic context.

White is a complex collection of essays filled with all sorts of topics ranging from freedom of speech, the author’s disinterest in politics, Twitter, literature, actors and films. I would say that, if you’re a fan of Ellis, give it a read but don’t expect it to be like his fiction (I prefer his fiction) and don’t read only one-sided reviews that use the word “Trump” as click-bait. Instead, read it for Ellis’s discussion of Joan Didion, shout-outs to Charlie Chaplin and his musings on writing his autobiography, random reflections on nearly-forgotten performances such as Yul Brynner as a robot in Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld and for the sheer pleasure of delving into a fascinating writer’s life.

Mayakovsky Maximum Access: poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky translated by Jenny Wade

Review by Peter Bushyeager

Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky is a giant of 20th century literature who defined “literary rockstar” decades before the term existed. He starred in films, propagandized relentlessly for the Soviets, and ended his own life in 1930, feeling betrayed and exhausted by the Revolution he had so passionately espoused. His persona and life story are dramatic, but far more compelling is his poetry, which is vividly brought into the 21st century thanks to Sensitive Skin Press’s Mayakovsky Maximum Access.

The bilingual volume offers 24 of Mayakovsky’s best-known works ably translated into English—and with copious notes and an essay— by Jenny Wade. Mayakovsky Maximum Access is not a dry, scholarly book, although Wade’s keen scholar’s insight shapes it. She has obviously lived for some time with Mayakovsky’s work and has a graduate degree in Russian Literature, so she has in-depth knowledge. But she’s not simply a source of information. She’s also an enthusiast with a well-tuned ear for translation who wants to share and enhance an appreciation of Mayakovsky’s achievements. She makes sure that the hallmarks of this poet’s oeuvre— irrepressible passion and energy, pugnacity, melancholy, wit, and poetic innovation—come through loud and clear.

Deck the night with weddings of bygone days.

Pour gaiety from body to body.

Let no one forget this night.

Today I will play the flute—

my own backbone.

—from “Back Bone Flute”

Wade’s approach brings “Back Bone Flute,” one of Mayakovsky’s longer poems, to life. I’ve read this poem before in versions that weren’t quite as immediate as hers, and although I knew the poem was inspired by his intense, troubled love affair with Lilya Brik, I was missing many nuances that Wade’s nimble translation and detailed notes bring to the fore.

Rather than the usual symbol for poetry—a lyre that, in ancient tradition, orders the forces of nature—Mayakovsky chose the flute, Dionysus’ instrument of passion and madness, for his central image. His choice of “backbone” echoes contemporary Osip Mandelstam’s lines from “The Age,” where the poet “must bind together the broken vertebrae of two centuries” and “bind together the joints of nodular days with a flute.”

The opening stanza of “Backbone Flute”:

To all of you

who I love or have loved,

watched over by icons in the cave of my soul,

I raise my skull, filled with poetry,

like a chalice of wine before the table

matches perfectly with the final stanza, which appears after nine pages of linguistic and emotional twists and turns:

Color today’s date a holiday.

Come into being,

Magic equal to the crucifixion.

You all can see—

I’m nailed to the paper

with words.

Wade succinctly summarizes the symmetry in this way: “the chalice/the cross; the skull overflowing with poetry/the paper to which the poet is nailed.”

Wade’s commentary helps us realize that this poem, although passionate and a bit unhinged, is quite carefully considered and calibrated. Her notes also include the backstory of the poem’s creation, which adds a special edge. Lilya Brik, the subject of the poem, dutifully reviewed and blessed each ardent stanza as it was written!

Mayakovsky Maximum Access highlights each stage of the poet’s high-wire life. Alternating between all-embracing, seemingly grandiose declamation; outright propaganda; and desperate, pathetic loneliness, Mayakovsky’s writing was always ready to generate intensity.

In the beginning, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution; his innovative, iconoclastic spirit and aesthetic seemed to dovetail perfectly with Soviet politics. “Khrenov’s Story About Kuznetsk Construction and the People of Kuznetski” is one of his better propaganda pieces. It celebrates the heroic construction of a Siberian industrial city. Structured around the echoing chorus “Four years from now we’ll have a garden-city,” the poem talks about the Siberian cold and other hardships, and ends with the confident “I know there will be a city. I know a garden will bloom, when there are people like this in our country, our Soviet land!” The poem was recited to the workers to motivate them to continue construction despite having their hands frozen to frigid iron scaffolding. From all reports, it was highly effective.

Ultimately, however, Mayakovsky lost faith in both communism and his practice as a poet, became alienated and isolated, and committed suicide. “About Trash” presents his disenchantment.

Bourgeois threads have tangled the revolution.

… Better

to twist off the canaries’ heads

so communism

is not beaten down by canaries!”

“Unfinished”, his final sequence of poems, summarizes his state of mind in a poignant, understated way.

the sea goes away again

the sea goes away to sleep

As they say the incident is closed

love’s boat has crashed on convention [. . .]

Look how silent the earth is

Night has laid a starry yoke on the sky

In hours like these you stand and speak

to centuries to history and to the universe [. . .]

I know the power of words. It looks like a trifle,

a petal fallen under the heel of a dance,

but a man in his soul, his lips, his bones

—excerpts from “Unfinished”

Mayakovsky Maximum Access earns pride of place in my collection of Mayakovsky translations. For those familiar with his work, it offers added insight and a fresh immediacy. For those new to his poetry, it provides a concentrated selection of some of his best works, accompanied by commentary that humanizes Mayakovsky’s accomplishments by placing the poems in a clear context. This book is a key addition to the Mayakovsky canon for English-speaking audiences.

Glenda Jackson Reigns Supreme as a Gender-Blind King Lear

Review by Katherine R. Sloan

George Bernard Shaw declared that “No man will ever write a better tragedy than King Lear” and, according to many, he was absolutely correct. Shakespeare’s early seventeenth century masterpiece deals with tragedy in its most intimate form and is, at its core, about human failing, the unrealistic need for complete love and the quest for power. What is so unsettling are the crimes committed within a family where something akin to solidarity should exist but, to our appalling dismay, fails. Recently in previews for over a month at the Cort Theatre, King Lear officially just opened on Broadway April 4th and is a most exciting spectacle because of its lead actor: Glenda Jackson. Having Jackson play the role of not simply a man but the king—and one of theater’s greatest parts—is a gender role reversal perfect for 2019 (she brought the role to life two years ago at the Old Vic in London).

jackson as lear.jpg

After coming out of a twenty-plus year retirement and a career in politics, Jackson’s acting chops are just as compelling and captivating as we remember from her stunning films of the 1960s and ’70s. According to The New York Times she is still the “mightiest of them all.” Her performances in such films as Women In Love (1969) and A Touch of Class (1973) (both of which garnered her Best Actress Academy Awards) remain in the imagination as paradigms of daring female energy. Now that she’s 82 years old, Jackson possesses an even more palpable essence of power and prowess. Instead of a uniquely feminine energy, she brings a ferocity to Lear that is without gender and, ultimately, human. When she takes on a Shakespearean role we have complete faith in her vision and understanding of the part: we feel her greed, wrath, madness and, in the last minutes of the play, her heartbreak. As Jackson recently expressed while promoting the play, the ultimate tragedy of King Lear is the realization of love only when it’s too late (Lear dies of a broken heart upon holding Cordelia’s dead body in his arms). With over 1,000 lines, it’s staggering to behold Jackson’s boundless vitality and seemingly effortless projection of some of the finest sentences to exist in the English language.

Under the direction of Sam Gold (Hamlet for The Public Theater, Othello for the New York Theatre Workshop) with original music composed by Philip Glass and costumes designed by the legendary Ann Roth, this version of King Lear has classic, well-honed talent on display along with a great deal of inclusion and modern touches. Russell Harvard (who plays the Duke of Cornwall) is deaf so the use of sign language is employed throughout and, other than Ms. Jackson as Lear, a second male role is played by a female actor with Jayne Houdyshell as the Duke of Gloucester. Roth’s costuming choices add a wonderful flair of sophistication as Jackson dons smart tailored suits and shiny patent leather loafers (until Lear descends into madness and is dressed in torn pajamas and a garland for a crown) while Elizabeth Marvel (House of Cards, Law & Order: SVU) has tattoos on display as Goneril. The women all wear trousers and full-on pantsuits with tunics as short dresses paired with high-heeled boots instead of corsets throughout (although all three daughters wear more traditional, jewel-toned regalia during the first scene where Lear divides his kingdom among them).

The second most rewarding performance is given by Ruth Wilson (The Affair) as she, per tradition, portrays both Cordelia and the Fool. Her Fool is extremely reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp with a Cockney accent and, upon watching, is a delight as she has the energy and physicality of a teenage boy. Wilson’s Fool supplies comic relief but, as we discover later, also has a great deal of depth and is not foolish at all. On the contrary, Wilson’s Fool is quite brilliant. One of the directorial liberties taken by Gold is that he seems to be letting the audience in on the secret that, yes, Cordelia is the Fool.

glenda jackson and fool.jpg

This is never blatantly stated and no direct theatrical evidence points to the fact that these characters were written as one and the same by Shakespeare but that they are simply played by the same actor out of convenience (as they share none of the same scenes) although Lear does state, upon seeing Cordelia’s dead body, “And my poor fool is hanged.” This utterance serves as more than a hint that Cordelia is the Fool in disguise and that Lear knows this. In this production of Lear Wilson (as the Fool) removes her wig and reveals to us her true identity as that of the King’s daughter, Cordelia. This decision by Gold adds another layer to Cordelia’s steadfast, genuine love towards her father thus making the Cordelia/Lear relationship deeper and her subsequent death even more poignant and tragic.

This production of King Lear has all the Shakespearean elements that make going to the theater awe-inspiring, frightening and exciting. With the epic storm scene where Lear literally rages against the natural elements, a deceitful and carnal affair between Edmund (Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones fame) and the two malevolent sisters, extreme violence (the scene where Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out is wonderfully done but not for the faint of heart) and death, there is never a minute where action and raw entertainment coupled with superb language are lacking. All of these happenings are just as Shakespeare wrote them but are modernized to be even more salacious at times (there’s a satisfyingly raucous sex romp between Edmund and Goneril) while some aspects are almost an afterthought (as Regan—played by Aisling O’Sullivan—is poisoned and dies in the background). The most overwrought part of the play comes at the end when Cordelia is hanged and, justifiably so, but, if just for a moment as she’s lowered onto center stage with a noose around her neck, it seems that, although very effective, this could have been done with a bit more finesse and subtlety.

Shakespeare is not easy-going theater: one’s ears must remain pricked throughout as tensions run high and complexities grow ever higher. One of the most refreshing aspects of true art is its ability to reflect the most intense, beautiful and terrifying characteristics of life and what it means for even the most powerful among us to be proved fallible. In his 1816 poem On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again John Keats writes of delaying his own writing in order to enjoy one of his greatest inspirations and, in the last line, states: “Give me new phoenix wings to fly at my desire.” This implies that Keats hoped for a more effective way of writing poetry and that King Lear was a work of art that could provide him what he needed in order to continue creating. Upon seeing King Lear on Broadway the audience is rewarded not only with one of the greatest spectacles ever written for the stage but, with Glenda Jackson as the lead, one of the most impressive and exhilarating portrayals of Shakespeare’s tragic king.

Centering the Black Woman

Centering the Black Woman

A common refrain in current activism is “Listen to Black Women”. When the latest traumatic news cycle starts, a chorus of commentators and thinkers invariably chime in, trying to either explain or deny or commodify the moment we find ourselves in. A pervasive response? Listen to black women. This moment is a deep and long overdue reckoning that will take years to unfold - it has of course been building for hundreds of years and is so nuanced so as to require a continual deep engagement etc. But for guidance - what do we listen to? And how?

Nathaniel Kahn’s “The Price of Everything” speaks all too conventionally about art and money

Nathaniel Kahn’s “The Price of Everything” speaks all too conventionally about art and money

There are many possible ways to make a documentary about art and money. One tack might be to focus on the question of art’s value. Where does this value lie? Is art more valuable than a house? Than liberty? A human life? These are interesting questions, but unfortunately, Nathaniel Kahn’s new documentary, The Price of Everything, barely touches on them. Another approach might be to cast a broader net, and discuss blue chip art as one of many models artists have of making money off their work: regional artists selling to a local market, performance artists living off commission, workaday artists making souvenirs for tourists. These lives are interesting too, but Kahn’s documentary makes no mention of them. One could even make a comparative study of the few activities that receive market attention versus the many that have been practiced and continue to be practiced with no relation to markets at all: hobbies, cave paintings, ritual objects, outsider and underground art, decorative doodles in the margins of notebooks. This would be a fascinating typology, but unfortunately, Kahn’s documentary does not attempt it.

A Woman’s Life: Sally Field’s In Pieces

A Woman’s Life: Sally Field’s In Pieces

Sally Field is a terrific writer, and I can’t say that I’m completely surprised: She’s been giving stunning, emotionally complex performances for nearly fifty years. Released this past September by Grand Central Publishing, In Pieces is a lengthy read — nearly 400 pages — but I could not put it down until I was finished. I loved this book. Field worked on it for seven years and it shows; this is no run-of-the-mill celebrity memoir. It is the story of an emotionally complex woman’s life, warts and all.

The Perfect Friday Night in New York: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

The Perfect Friday Night in New York: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ nearly-packed show at Barclays Center on Friday, October 26th was electric. It was deafeningly loud and Nick was on fire, as per usual. It was more of an experience than anything else: I gritted my teeth and applauded until my hands tingled. Tall and thin with jet black hair and dressed in a fitted black suit, resembling a debonair villain of the Old West, Cave looks like an icon. Barclays is huge: It seats 19,000, and except for the rafter seats, the venue looked mostly full. These kinds of arena shows are new for Nick Cave in North America; at age 61, his fame and his audience keep growing. There are no gimmicky stage antics, just pure heart and emotion, running the gambit from sweetness to terror. The band played mostly hard rock, but Nick also sang some piano ballads like “The Ship Song” and “Into my Arms.” The emotion of the latter was breathtaking; Nick’s striking blue eyes tearing up as he sang. I was engaged on every level, even though I was seated some distance from the stage: There were two huge screens with exquisite black and white clarity so that even those sitting in the rafter seats were connected on an intimate level.

A City on a Lake, Urban Political Ecology and The Growth of Mexico City - Review

A City on a Lake, Urban Political Ecology and The Growth of Mexico City - Review

A City on a Lake by UC San Diego History Professor Matthew Vitz tells a pained and difficult history of Mexico City. The book uses academic language and vocabulary, and references many places, things and actors from Mexico, resulting in very thoughtful treatment. The book is a history, presenting a story of the city that we can learn from. It also shows the movements and actions of the past that are still part of the cities political environment. The book recounts mostly an pre World War II history attempting to explore “Urban Political Ecology and The Growth of Mexico City.” Vitz is argument that we can learn from the past presented here.

Just Like That By Barbara Henning Review

Just Like That By Barbara Henning Review

Barbara Henning’s new novel Just Like That charts with profound depth and sophistication the course of an interracial love affair, that of a white Bohemian poet and college instructor, Sara, who is the narrator of the tale, and a black Afro-centric acupuncturist, Jabari, who complicates the mix by having a young son, product of a brief relationship with a woman from whom he is now estranged. But that’s hardly the only complication. They both have older children, who tend to interfere; have weathered marriages or long-term partnerships, which shape their present apprehensions; had difficult childhoods and are undergoing health problems.

Crazy Rich Asians Review

Crazy Rich Asians Review

Crazy Rich Asians is this summer’s movie bravado, it has the green light to end the stereotypes of Asian Americans allowing full range performances, and it has now been proven that Asian actors of color in an American produced film can turn a profit. See how Justin Lin has created a multi-cultural movie template (not just Asian) actors with great success.  Our fav figure Awkwafina, a NYC educated sassy upbeat Streetwise Rich gal  in the movie that adds a funky great comedic  point that helps relieve the tension of the filthy rich but is pretty stinkin’ rich herself as the film unravels into many musical scenes full of nostalgia and dreamy costumes for lavish hedonistic Asians to drool over, but as we covet the lifestyles of the rich  we blame the media for underrepresenting us all at the same time…how ironic we just aim  to be wannabes=  super successful =rich.

Cries and Whispers

Cries and Whispers

In light of the month-long centennial retrospective of Ingmar Bergman’s films at Film Forum, I am excited to share a piece I wrote as an undergraduate on Cries and Whispers as seen through a prism of Feminist Literary Theory.

The First Bad Man a Novel by Miranda July reviewed by Jade Sharma


The First Bad Man

A Novel By Miranda July


Miranda July is the master of quirky.. Quirky is a tightrope act, you risk being cheesy or falling into the surreal. Quirky is funny but not ha-ha funny.. Quirky gussies up reality with whimsy.  Quirky is nothing but original. It’s the end of a fish tail sink stopper  in the kitchen sink reality of literature.  Quirky narratives feature main characters that are generally solitary figure. They are earnest to a fault and their clothes are a custome of the absurd. Bow-ties are quirky. Drug use isn’t. Being awkward is quirky. Being mean isn’t. Quirky is endearing. There is nothing quirky about the Holocaust, cancer, or porn. Being quirky is to be so uncool that you are pretty cool. To be quirky is to hold a child-like wonder in the face of a cynical mean world. The world of the quirky is wholly populated by the haves and the have more’s with a soundtrack of people who were indoor children, whose quiet weird music came out college dorms, never roughed in the streets. Being quirky is a narrative device that is the creation solely of the 1st world.

“Who is this middle-aged woman in the blue Honda?” July begins her novel, introducing her narrator Cheryl, as an everywoman but when July begins giving us a tour into the interior space of our narrator we find she lives in a bubble, her attempts to navigate the social world gives us more than a few cringe-worthy moments as when dealing with her bully of a roommate Clee and her crazy obsession with a man 22 years her senior, Phillip.

Cheryl's insights into the world at times feel alien, as she looks wide-eyed at the banal everyday and deconstructs to show us how exactly abused the world around is. Calling Beckett.  As when Cheryl observes a soap dispenser, “Someone took a large bottle of soap and poured into this serious looking machine.” or when July keenly observes the weird ways in which women observe their bodies, as when her boss Suzanne explains to her that she is pear shaped, “This is how your body is shaped. See? Teeny tiny on top and not so tiny on the bottom’ then she explained the illusion created by wearing dark colors on the bottom and bright colors on top. when I see other women with this color combination I check to see if they’re a pear too and they always are--two pears can’t fool each other” (5)

July’s book is a book of longing, of emptiness, of wanting. July’s story is a story of an alienated woman who connects to the world in strange ways. One of the most refreshing ways that July deals with having a middle-aged childless woman is produced in Cheryl's obsession with finding Kelbelko Bondy. Cheryl is always on the search for Kebelko Bondy. Keubelko Bondy is an actual baby the narrator baby-sat for a short amount of time and felt a connection with, “I looked at him and he looked at me and I knew that he loved me more than his mother and father and that in some very real and elemental way he belonged to me. Because I was only nine it wasn’t clear if he belonged to me as a child or as a spouse” (8) As an adult Cheryl  thinks of the baby, who she christened Kueblko Bonky and says: “I did see him again--again and again. Sometimes he’s a newborn, sometimes he’s already toddling along.” When Cheryl finds the spirit of  Kuebelko Bondy in a baby she recognizes it right away. The telepathic conversation that ensue are oddly touching. One of the Kebelko Bondy babies peers at Cheryl and tells her, “I keep getting born to the wrong people” (13). Another urges her: “Do something. They’re taking me away” (9).. Cheryl obsessively searches every baby’s face for signs of recognition but is often met with disappointment: “as I pulled out of my parking spot I got a better look at the baby in the car next to mine. just some kid’ (9) Through absurdity July is illustrating what is at wrestling heart of a woman dealing with her ticking biological clock, which is to yearn for a connection, more than to be a mom, but to have an unmistakable tie to another human being that is fluid and transcends any one kind of love For Cheryl who has no children she has created the illusion she has many children, she just always be on the look-out for them.

At the novel starts Cheryl's obsession with Philip is already in full-swing. Cheryl is obsessed with Philip and Philip is always wearing a sweater that Cheryl always takes note of: : “grey cashmere sweater that matches his beard,’ ‘a wine-colored sweater” (2).

July’s portrayal of obsession is dead-on as in Cheryl's mind Philip is always a constant presence, “I drove to the doctor’s office as I was starring in a movie Philip was watching” (1). She rehearses not just what to say to Philip but how to look, “I practice how my face would go if Philip was in the waiting room” (1).

Cheryl's obsession with Philip is baffling. We’ve always had the experience of being completely perplexed as to why a friend is infatuated with someone who doesn’t seem all that special to us but with this information is left out all we are left Cheryl's obsession and the reality that Philip at his best is a new age kook, and at his worst: a total prick, leaves the reader apathetic and the obsession grows tiresome. This discrepancy feels lazy especially for a woman like Cheryl who has no problem sharing her seuxal fantsies in which she imagines she is Philip having sex with almost every random woman she/he meets. This is a woman who has no problem over-sharing.

July’s depiction of Cheryl's feeling of an intense connection with Philip feels genuine as when Cheryl describes how she desires to approach Philip  “like a wife, as if we’d already been a couple for a hundred thousand lifetimes. Caveman and cavewomen. King and Queens” (12). Also, very realistic is the comically shit  that comes out of one’s mouth such as when Cheryl repeatedly blurts out to Philip: “When in doubt, give me a shout!” After embarrassing herself, she vows to “behave so gracefully that the clumsy woman Philip had spoken with yesterday would impossible to recall. I wouldn’t use a British accent out loud, but I’d be using one in my head and it would carry over” (11)Every tiny gesture is perceived with a deep sense of meaning as when Cheryl’s bosses (who are portrayed with a network sitcom depth) unload beefalo, a hybrid of cattle and bison, onto their staff, which they have folded into white paper with each employees names on it. Cheryl and Philip’s names are called right after one and another and as Philip notices Cheryl's package is a bit larger than his own, the sexual overtones can’t be ignored as she thinks, “He gave me the meat that said Philip and I gave him the meat that said Cheryl.”  (16). Cheryl is completely self-aware, that she deepens gestures with meaning that may not exist: “I’d done that before. I had added meaningful layers to things that were meaningless many, many times before (70).

July’s portrayal of Philip being a total jerk is missing the mark of humour/awkwardness that July had intended.  Signs that Philip is pretty much a jerk is when “Philip pulls her towards him by the necklace,” Cheryl doesn’t perceive this as workplace sexaul harrasment but instead Cheryl decides the action is layered with irony as Philip is actually ‘mocking the kind of a man who would do something like that.” She goes on to tell us, “He’s been doing these things for years, once, during a board meeting, he insisted my blouse wasn’t zipped up in back, and then he unzipped it laughing. (7) When it feels as though Philip is actually about to confess his true feelings for Cheryl he instead drops this douchebag bombshell on her: “I have fallen in love..with a woman who is my equal in every way, who challenges me, who makes me feel, who humbles me. She is sixteen. Her name is Kirsten” (46). As Cheryl is emotionally about to jump off a bridge, Philip, being either cruel or oblivious to Cheryl's feelings, but either way totally weird, Cheryl explains how he “puts his hand on my hand. and tell her  “We want your blessing.” (47). Philip explains that he finds Chery strong and stays to her:  “you’re a feminist and you live alone, and she agreed we should wait until we got your take on it” (47). If there is anything that could put a woman in the bell jar it’s probably hearing a man you’re obsessed with tell you he admires you for how you live alone, after he’s told you how in love he is with a 16 year old.

Philip then goes on to explain how Cheryl's androgynous nature is the reason he looks up to her. “I told her (KIrsten) how perfectly balanced you are in terms of your masculine and feminine energies.” This ability for Cheryl to be able to “ see things from a man’s point of view, but without being clouded by yang” (47) is why he is asks her advice.

With Cheryl's obsession still in full blown and Philip’s being as weird as ever. We are left with this bizarre exchange:

“Our history was behind on us, a hundred lifetimes of making love” (47)

This passage concludes like this:

We have no elders,” he moaned. “no one to guide us. Will you guide us?”

“But I’m younger than you.”

“Perhaps” “NO, I am. I am twenty-two years younger than you” (48).

July touches on this idea of the single middle-aged woman as having some spiritual value  in our society, as when her boss Carl called her a ginjo which is japanese for ‘a man, usually an elderly man, who  lives in isolation while keeps the fire burning for the whole village’ (19).

The new-age kookiness that July thankfully doesn’t get into is what prompts Cheryl so see the “chromologist” (if you are me you will spend an embarrassingly number of pages mis reading chromologist for chemotologist and finding yourself feeling bad for Philip). Dr. Boynard, who works three days a year, concludes she has Globus sytericious? And the cure is 30 milliliters of the essence of red (Again, weird for the sake of being weird). There are moments where you want to feel the layers of meaning July has pinned on but instead the narrative  falls flat, feels trying, like a dream, sometimes, just because something is weird doesn’t mean it’s interesting.

When Clee is introduced in the novel, we finally have a character who doesn’t feel as though she was written as a clever sketch of a character in a notebook. Clee is alive. She jumps off the pages. From her fungus-invested feet to her bratty attitude to her sofa bound, jugging sodas, with the television on 24/7 she is scene stealer.

Clee, Cheryl’s bosses’ aimless daughter who they are under the impression or denial that she is an aspiring actresses. Clee is predictably, after being bogged off by co-worker’s shows up at Cheryl's house.   Cheryl’s misanthropic disposition reveals itself when she’s asked to house Clee: “When you live alone people are always thinking they can stay with you, when the opposite is true: who they should stay with is a person whose situation is already messed  by other people and so one more won’t matter” (19). But Clee ends up moving in anyway which creates perhaps, the oddest, odd couple routine, their disdain for one another evolves into their own secret fight club. Cheryl’s who can’t help but smiling all day long after wrestling with Clee, which is like Gaitskill's ‘Secretary,’ finds a release in the world of Sadomasochism. Another pertitant quote of Cheryl comes to mind: “imitating crass people was kind of liberating--like pretending to be a child or a crazy person” (7).

Clee’s harshness is hysterical, as she says to Cheryl: “one half of your face is way older and uglier than the other half. The pores are all big and it’s like your eyelid is starting to fall into your eye. I’m not saying the other side looks good, but if both sides were lke your left side people would think you were seventy (80)

Clee is not just is cruel but messes with Cheryl system that have been in the making for years, “Let’s say a person is down in the dumps, or maybe just lazy, and they stop doing the dishes. soon the dishes are piled sky-high and it seems impossible to even clean a fork. So the person starts eating with dirty forks out of dirty dishes and this makes the person feel like a homeless person. so they stop bathing. Which makes it hard to leave the house. The person begins to throw trash anyway and pee in cups because/c they’re close to the bed. We’all been this person, so there is no place for judgment, but the solution is simple:

Fewer dishes.

The other solution: stop moving things around ie. ‘Can’t you read the book standing right next to the shelf with your finger holding the spot you’ll put it back into? Or better yet: don’t read at all.”

At one point when Cheryl feels as though they are sharing a moment, Clee corrects her, “You thought i was laughing about the pan?...I was laughing because--you’re so sad. Sooo. Saad.”


The only time Cheryl stands up for herself is after Philip rejects her. She comes home and demands to Clee: “You need to get your act together and start looking for a job. This couch isn’t meant to be used as a bed. You need to flip the cushions so they don’t get permanently misshaped” (49).

It is after this exchange their first “fight” occurs: “The crook of her arm caught my neck and jerked me backward. I slammed into the couch--the wind knocked out of me. Before I could get my balance she shoved my hip down with her knee. I grabbed at the air stupidly. She pinned my shoulders down, intently watching what the panic was going to my face. Then she suddenly let go and walked away.” (50)

Philip-fuckng 16 year old and Clee attacked her:

“I peed in cups and knocked over one of the cups and didn’t clean it up (51)

“if possible, please donate the thirty minutes to someone who can’t afford therapy” (54)

Cheryl sees Ruth-Anne Tibbets for counsel. She recognizes Tibbet’s as Dr. Boynard’s receptionist the three days a year he works there. When Cheryl confronts her as being a fraud the explanation turns out to be far more bizarre Tibbets was the receptionist but also acts as Dr. Boynard’s receptions. Tibbets’ doesn’t do it for the money: “Three days a year I take on a submissive role. It’s a game we like to play, an immensely satisfying adult game.” (63)

Cheryl tries to offer Clee a gift to start off what she hopes will be an immensely satisfying adult game but Clee rejects it, saying, “I appreciate the gift but I’m know. I’m into dick” (75). But the fighting continues and Cheryl is at her best in this part of the book until she finds out that Clee is pregnant. She is heartbroken. She quietly contemplates:  “Were there many ways to get pregnant? not really.” (133)]

The real intimacy and bond in this novel is not between Philip and Cheryl and it begins but is actually between Clee and Cheryl. From the time that she sets sight on Clee, sofa-bound, with her feet reeking, this it the first time we see and feel any kind of intense emotional reaction from Cheryl which is then acting out during their ‘fight club’ scene. The tie-in for both Cheryl and Clee is that Cheryl's bosses who are Clee’s parents ran a studio that taught self-defense classes for women, so both women are often times accoutrements such the self-defense videos the company produced and the pummel outfits were by the men (which are doned by Clee). The physical release is the only source of intimacy for Cheryl. Where she was seeking a more conventional relationship with Philip, he soon is an extra in the novel, and the crux of the novel is the relationship between Clee and Cheryl.

After Clee becomes pregnant, true to her nature, she not cut from maternal cloth. This is where Cheryl steps up and helps Clee through her difficult childbirth and through the touch and go first day’s of the infant who they Clee wants to name, “little fatty,’ but Cheryl decides to go with Jack. The troubled first days of Jack’s life is one that July’s writes touchingly, as is the bond between the two women, “we were gripping each other hands between the folds of our white hospital gowns-- a small hard brain formed by our interlocking white knuckles” 169) As the baby is in critically stable, with tubes inserted in it’s tiny body, Chery realizes Jack is Kelbelko Bondy. The most touching scene of the novel is when Cheryl telepathically tries to will Jack/Kelbelko Bondy into giving life on Earth a chance: Try not base your decision on this room, it isn't representative of the whole world. Somewhere the sun is hot an a rubbery leave, clouds are making shapes and shaping and reshaping, spider web is broken but still works. And in case he wasn’t into nature I added: and it’s a really wild time in terms of technology. You’ll probably have a robot and will be normal.” Cheryl then forgives Jack if he decides he doesn’t want try life out, “Of course, there’s no ‘right choice. If you choose death I won’t be mad. I’ve wanted to choose it myself a few times.” Cheryl, not willing to indulge the idea of the baby not making it, as his eyes peer up to her, she back-peddles, “Forget what I just said. You’re already a part of this. You will eat, you will laugh at stupid things, you will stay up all night just to see what it feels like, you will fall painfully in love, you have babies of your own, you will doubt and regret and yearn and keep a secret. You will get old and decrepit,and you will die, exhausted from all that living. That’s when you get to die. Not now” (173). To read Cheryl give such an affirmation of life is immensely powerful. For most of the novel it seems she wasn’t living much of a life. It was only through Clee, Cheryl speaks of the evolution of their relationship, “I’d been her enmy, then her mother, then her girfriend. That was three lifetimes right there.” These realtionship with Clee is what transformed into someone who is on the side of life. As the baby grows stronger, Cheryl finds she is up for the job of being her guardian.

The last unneeded twist of the novel is when Philip swings back into the picture. If this were a movie I would assume the producers lacked funds to have more than a few actors and that’s what accounted for Philip’s presence but it’s not it’s a book and it’s bad choice. First off, Cheryl and Philip non-existent relationship was never central to the novel and the most interesting parts where in Cheryl’s own hand and second, although July does the heavy lifting of how Clee and Philip meet (Cheryl recommends Dr. Boynard for her feet fungus who was recommended by her by Philip) in Dr. Boynard’s waiting room, it still feels forced and still more forced that this chance encounter would end of the two of them having sex and neither of them telling Cheryl and that this fling would result in a baby. July is normally more scatterbrained, which is endearing, then to go to soap opera land to pile on the drama, which it actually doesn’t as we have long forgotten or cared about Philip. 3) As true to Philip’s shit-head nature he ends up crashing, having a one-night stand with Cheryl, and then deems he just doesn’t feel a connection with Philip and takes off. The only point of bringing Philip back around would have been to show the transformed Cheryl, who is now stronger through her relationship with Clee, and the strength of love she feels towards Jack, and tell Philip to go fly a kite. The fact that she still defers to him is painfully and brings Cheryl back about 100 pages in the novel.

July’s novel is uneven but worth reading. It would easy to break it apart and easier to love it because it’s fun. As a professor once told me, “in the end, you can choose whether you like a book and make a pretty fine argument either way,’ thus negating the entire idea of academia, but he is of course, has a solid point. We love things that are imperfect. Flaws in the narrative, and the Philip parts that lag, and the unnecessary Dr. Boynard, and globus hystericus, are worth it when July gets it right. July’s maturing as a writer. Her first book felt more like something she did in the afternoon, after she decided it would be fun to write a book the way retired people think it’s fun to take up painting but here is something different. There is real feeling, behind the quirks, and gimmicks, and weird for the sake of weird. Being quirky, as Wes Anderson, has shown us, when done right, is an aesthetic that doesn’t get in the way of an emotional connection. As all characters in the world of the quirky are underdeveloped emotional, and yearning for a connection. The connections that Cheryl makes in the novel aren't the conventional ones we’ve seen a million times in Hollywood. They are the connections of a stunted personality who literally needed to be punched in the face to feel something again.

Lee Klein on Cathedral of St. John Divine

The Phoenix's by Xu Bin fly through the hollow halls of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine like Dragons above the hallowed grounds of Harry Potter's Hogwarts, though the sculptural creatures are in fact stationary and fill up most of the overhead space.  Phoenixes mythically rise from the ashes and these were were created by the aforementioned Chinese artists detritus found at a construction site at which he witnessed conditions he deemed unsafe.  Perhaps these giant birds having taken suggested flight. Also speak to New York City's great unfinished cathedral or the Gotham after 911 soaring anew and then again most likely Christ arisen as per their being placed in the seat of the Episcopalian archdiocese of New York.  

“SELMA” the Film and the Actualities by David Henderson

“SELMA” the Film and Actualities.  by David Henderson 20feb15

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the man who followed in the footsteps of Gandhi in bringing civil rights to a people, and in some ways went even further than Gandhi, is a towering figure in the recent history of the United States. For that matter, he ranks highly throughout the entire Western world, and perhaps everywhere on planet earth. His public denunciation of the Vietnam War contributed to the war’s end, but—coupled with his support for the striking sanitation workers of Memphis and his protestations of the larger issue of widespread poverty—it also resulted in a diminution of his popularity and a certain disfavor promoted by the corporate-controlled press, and it may have contributed to his untimely and mysterious assassination.  

His widow, Coretta Scott King, his children, and the famous entertainer Stevie Wonder combined forces with a broad swath of an approving public and fostered a public holiday in his name that became a reality in the late twentieth century. Now, in 2015, a new film, Selma, is based on one of his most important achievements: his leadership role in attaining the Voting Rights Act. He coordinated a protest that would bring together various civil rights organizations, church and religious groups, entertainers, and professional organizations, along with a public from all over the United States and countries across the world to march in Selma with the ordinary citizens of that small Southern town. These people endured great brutality in the hands of local Alabama police and state troopers in order to complete their march to the state capital in Montgomery to protest before the State House their inability to vote. 

On March 7, 1965, with a few hundred locals, Dr. King formulated a strategy that resulted in thousands of supporters joining the locals and, despite the murder of some, would result in a successful march to Montgomery over a two-week period. The number of marchers swelled from 5,000 to 25,000, and they arrived in triumph to hear the speech by Dr. King that announced the Voting Rights Act that would become law in a few weeks—a verification of democracy that inspired the world.

Selma, a motion picture put together by Pathé UK, along with several other companies including Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo, (those two personalities also became producers ),  was released during the Christmas holiday season, in time to qualify for participation in the Academy Awards of the Motion Picture Association of America. The film continued in theaters through the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Monday, January 19, 2015. 

 The engineered mass resistance to the police repression of today recalls those civil rights days that are so essential to Dr. King’s legacy. Selma was one of those moments in history monumental to its time. This story, this civil rights triumph, could be told in any number of ways under any circumstances (from person to person or as a Roots-like television miniseries) and be compelling. Regardless of actors or scenery or vintage cars, one simply cannot go wrong with this high point in the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

The greatest actors in Selma are the marchers, the crowds, the representation of that motley crew who marched through Alabama being brutalized and stressed on every level. Toward the end of the film, shots of those marchers dissolve into footage of vintage film of the original marchers, the technique making it possible for the footage of Selma to have the same vintage quality and adding an aura of verisimilitude.

On the other hand, to portray such a central figure in the history of Black America with an actor who is so far outside the culture is not only as close as one can get to cultural criminality, it also points to serious deficiencies of effectiveness within the film industry in Black America. It is also unfair to the careers of all the actors involved, from principals to supporting, because it involves them in distortions of history that extend from casting to a broad set of problems that range from calling it a biopic to a juggling of facts.

An African playing MLK could possibly be a descendant of those Africans who sold their own people centuries ago, now often called African Americans. Now an African plays our present-day Moses, however with no passion or understanding of the Black American spirit or the ways of being with one another. We are mocked in our beliefs of the time—that the system, the vote, would save us. 

Selma begins just after MLK received his Nobel Prize in Oslo, Norway. Cut to the White House USA, where Dr. King is in the presence of President Lyndon Johnson, who congratulates him on that honorable achievement. But King wants the disenfranchised Blacks of the South to be able to vote. This harks back to the moment when Black Americans won their freedom via the Civil War, where they picked up guns and defeated the Confederacy. But after a few years of Reconstruction, where Blacks had been elected to public office all across America and often enjoyed the liberties of freedom that had been only dreams for centuries, a white racist government/corporate gentlemen’s agreement reversed that situation. The resultant Jim Crow system of institutionalized racism continued on unabated until the time in history symbolized by Selma. There, the struggle amid violent repression would culminate in MLK’s speech on the Voting Rights Act. As many believed then and continue to believe, the vote would bring true power to Black Americans. It is sadly ironic that today, with the election of a Black president, it has become clear that a basic lesson of democracy has been learned after so long and at such a great cost. 

Be that as it may, the present times are reminiscent of Selma, but now masses from different backgrounds are marching to protest police brutality and the murder of unarmed Blacks, just as in the Old South the Civil Rights Movement was inspired in large part by the lynching of Black men and boys. 

The principal actors, David Oyelowo as MLK, and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, however, pall next to the character actors who played the various SCLC and SNCC personages. Those Africans who play the central characters were trained in London. They are surrounded by Black Americans who know the public code of comradery that is an important aspect of Black American culture. Oyelowo’s King comes off as absolutely cold. He does not have an aura of greatness, nor that playful modesty and majesty MLK was known for. Seeming more like a clerk or a small-town businessman, Oyelowo says his lines, but the rigor of Southern speech, not only in intonation but in emphasis and dialect, is beyond him. And the paraphrased speeches—as the King estate forbade verbatim quotations—lacked even further emphasis that was intrinsic to the soaring rhetoric and phrasemaking King was famous for. The writer could perhaps have spent more time on those speeches, as they were in essence the hallmark of King’s connection with the public and the essential inspiration to his close followers. This aloof impersonation of MLK was contrasted by his screen wife, whose characterization was far from the staid and true Coretta. Nowhere near a mother figure, she was more like a high-priced model or perhaps an au pair, and the children had no lines at all, no screen time with either parent

Oyelowo is also outdone by fellow British subjects who are Caucasian: Tom Wilkinson, who plays President Johnson, and, although not in a scene together with MLK, Tim Roth, who plays Alabama Governor George Wallace. He is electric, totally believable, and an excellent foil for Wilkinson. 

Dylan Baker, the actor portraying FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, was a bit of a paradox and may as well have been portrayed by another actor representing the Crown, such as someone resembling the late Bob Hoskins. Baker had fairly brief screen time, but appeared to be a tall, and rather fair-skinned WASP, far from the real-life diminutive, dark, and somewhat rotund Hoover. The collaboration with President Johnson is played in a straightforward manner. There should be no doubt about their complicityThe publicity-inspired outcry over the imagined unfair characterization of President Johnson would have us believe that a former cabinet official would know all the doings of the chief executive, and that all that President Johnson said was the absolute truth – as if a Robert Caro did not go to the trouble to write several volumes on his vagaries and victories.                                          

There is a scene where King and Coretta sit listening to a threatening telephone message that ends with a purported recording of the sound effects of King having sex with another woman. That the tape could be a fake or an audio production based on or not based on a real happenstance is not considered. The act of bugging the King telephone was obviously one of the psychological techniques that would increase the anxiety, blood pressure, and stress of the entire family.

White typed letters across the screen throughout the film contain brief messages indicating close surveillance by the FBI and/or other intelligence agencies. Unlike subtitles, these are placed midscreen, superimposed over continuing footage.

The costars of this film are the many character actors whose ensemble performances create an essential supportive emotional landscape. It is too bad that none of the actors representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee have enough screen time to qualify for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination. 

The continuous presence of Oprah Winfrey, the workaday, middle-aged woman who marches and gets beaten up several time—so it seems--- is problematic. That character seems to be straight out of The Color Purple, a role she played  in the early days of her film life. She is much too well known to be a bit player with a few lines but plenty of screen time. And since she is an executive producer and her production company has its logo displayed in the closing credits, one wonders whether her financial support was connected to her “face” time.

For real fact-checking concerning Selma and the legacy of Dr. King, one could start with the Pacifica Foundation radio documentary recorded in Selma during the days of the marches. The license the makers of Selma believe they have gives rise to interpretations that can range from casting gaffs to historical distortion. One thing that saves the day is that the manipulation necessary in order to squeeze reality into two hours of screen time cannot change the actuality, the power of what happened. It might have been best for the director, Ava DuVernay, to insist on historical accuracy and thus build the drama accordingly. Whatever— Selma is in the can and will be available as is, for (probably) ever. 


Pacifica Foundation’s  90 minute documentary The Second Battle of Selma  Pacifica foundation      1-800-735-7230   

The first battle of Selma took place on March 7, 1965, with the bloody conclusion. The second battle went from March 9 to 24, culminating in the march from Selma to Montgomery. This documentary features recordings from those marches and recordings of MLK, James Forman, James Bevel, etc., including a plainspoken woman near the end of the documentary who was quite articulate. 

One of the important points of this radio documentary is that the second march, on March 9, was halted by King as a result of an agreement between him and city, state, and federal officials. This was not known to SNCC’s James Forman or the others in SNCC. Forman made a speech that made it obvious that he did not know. The film gives the impression that the halt and then retreat was  owing to some seemingly mystical intuition on Dr. King’s part.  Perhaps that halt avoided injuries, saved lives, and built dramatic tension that made the concessions necessary to ensure the Voting Rights Act. That happens to be the way it turned out, thank goodness.                                   

P. S.  Despite my complaints seemingly to the contrary, I believe that Ava DuVernay did an admirable job as a rookie major motion picture director. I strongly disagree with her belief that she has the right to slightly alter history for dramatic purposes, but she does not hedge her point of view. The soundtrack, of Selma is nothing short of wonderful, led by the Common and John Legend’s collaboration on the goose-bumpy ”Glory” – with a rap from Common that says it’s all good—with Legend’s soaring vocal somehow paralleling MLK’s oratory magic. The late, great Curtis Mayfield holds down the center with his long-underrated “Keep On Pushin’” that came out as a top-40 R&B hit of the time, inspiring many youths in the Movement across the country. And the brilliant jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran holds down the bottom with a viable semi-symphonic soundtrack that perfectly and often beautifully conveys the high points of dramatic intensity without intruding on the emotion. I believe Selma should win both categories of the Academy Awards for which it is nominated – best film and best song. Although Selma may not be a great film, the power of the history it portrays dominates the category, and the truth it does convey, fused with its wonderful music, makes it a film that despite its contradictions, will grow in acceptance. 

Copyright David Henderson 2015

A review of The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon by Nancy Mercado

A review of
The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon
by Nancy Mercado

Penguin Books, 2014

Willie Perdomo’s latest collection of poems, The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon, published by Penguin includes four sections that interplay voices and characters, the language of music, street jargon, Spanish and English and Spanglish.

As a Nuyorican poet who emerged on the scene in the 1990’s, Perdomo is comfortable in meshing a variety of elements that may have no business being together but come out clean and intelligible in the end. His book is a fusion of street culture, life in the halls of learning, dual languages, dual homes or no home that resulted in a multifaceted life.

In the first section of his book: How I Came to My Name, the book’s main character, Shorty Bon Bon describes himself to the reader in the first person. In adjacent poems another character (perhaps a spirit) describes Shorty to Perdomo in past tense. The language used includes musical terms in both English and Spanish much of which is slang. In juxtaposing the communication between the characters, between the reader and the poet, in Perdomo’s particular use of language and in his creation of instantaneous mixtures of images, the complex and fast world of Shorty Bon Bon is made vivid.

A musician by trade, Shorty is also a slick street hustler. His hustle has found a home in his musicianship. Shorty learned his craft by listening to the masters not by attending school. He is so sure of his greatness, he is arrogant:

So cool

     That I chased God like he was on the run.


So cool

     That when Puente heard my speed, I made him bite his

     Tongue. I’m saying—I made the Mambo King bleed.        (12)

Rather than being distasteful however, Shorty’s arrogance is amusing. Besides, his greatness is validated by the spirit who addresses Perdomo.

In the second section; To Be with You, gone is the “spirit” character who communicates with Perdomo and introduced is Rose; a singer who is Shorty’s girl. Here, Rose’s tumultuous relationship to Shorty takes precedence. Their separate accounts of their struggling liaison and of one another, sustains the play of communication established in the first section. Rose addresses Shorty through a series of letters while Shorty addresses Perdomo directly. The language Perdomo uses is again a sofrito of English, Spanish, Spanglish, street talk and proper terminology e.g., the use of the word pubis.

The greatness of Rose as a singer is a metaphor for her amazing intellect, beauty and female power. Rose is a formidable challenge to Shorty. So much so that regardless of Shorty’s coolness she leaves him in the end.

The third section of the book; Fracture, Flow, sees Perdomo melding into Shorty. The communication here is between the poet and reader; the voice in the poem is the poet’s and that voice is Shorty Bon Bon’s. Set in Puerto Rico, in this group of poems, Shorty recounts life on the island vs life on the mainland, the treatment of Puerto Rico by the United States and the island’s political state. Through the use of metaphor, Perdomo refers to such historical events as Columbus’ treatment by the natives when he lands on the island, the dignity of Puerto Rican nationalists, the Ponce massacre, how the island and mainland are treated with the same brutality by those in power, the selling of the illusion of freedom.

The final segment of the book; The Birth of Shorty Bon Bon  45, realizes the death and rebirth of Shorty Bon Bon. Just like the poet himself, Shorty has died and is reborn anew. His transformation played out on a metaphoric 45 vinyl sides A and B.

Telling the story of one character throughout a book of poems is a risky proposition; a tool usually reserved for novelists and short story writers. But the persistence of a character among the sewn shards of language and colliding metaphors throughout Perdomo’s book, unifies the work and gives pause to the reader to ponder; is Shorty Bon Bon really Willie Perdomo?

The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon is a must read for anyone seeking a poetically visceral experience of what it is to be an amalgamation of things which, in the end is truly American.


Nancy Mercado is a writer, editor and activist whose work appears in dozens of anthologies and literary journals. Most recently, she presented her work at Casa de las Americas in Cuba. Mercado is an Assistant Editor for and an Associate Professor at Boricua College in New York City. She authored the collection of poetry titled: It Concerns the Madness. For more information go to: 

Review of Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980- 2012

Review of Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980- 2012 (Abriendo caminos: antología de escritoras puertorriqueñas en Nueva York 1980- 2012) for A Gathering of the Tribes By Adriana Scopino

Like the figure of the woman facing a blue web in the painting la on the cover, Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980- 2012 (Abriendo caminos: Antología de escritoras puertorriqueñas en Nueva York 1980- 2012), the Puerto Rican woman poet in New York City is both her unique self and creative expression and part of the web of social, cultural and economic realities of the city in which she finds herself.  Recent anthologies of Puerto Rican writing and poetry such as Boricuas: Influential Puerto Rican Writings - An Anthology Paperback by Roberto Santiago, Puerto Rican Poetry: An Anthology from Aboriginal to Contemporary Times by Roberto Márquez, and two anthologies from the 1990s, Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe by Miguel Algarín and Bob Holman and Puerto Rican Writers in the USA: An Anthology Paperback – May 1, 1991 edited by Faythe Turner, have included women writers or writers living in New York City, but none have set out to do what editor Myrna Nieves has done here. Each anthology is an artifact of a particular time and place. For Breaking Ground, Nieves assembled forty-six writers from twenty years of poetry readings at the Boricua College Winter Poetry Series to document a place and time in the evolution of Puerto Rican literature. Although the parameters of the anthology may seem narrow (the writings of Puerto Rican women poets and fiction writers who have lived in New York for at least ten years during the years 1980 to 2012), the results of the collection are panoramic: memoir, short fiction, spoken word, lyric, narrative poetry, erotica and use of both languages Spanish and English and powerful, unforgettable writing. Very well known writers such as Carmen Valle, Esmeralda Santiago (When I was Puerto Rican) and Sandra María Esteves, share these pages with writers not so well known to a wider American audience; well established writers next to up and coming writers.

While walking on Delancey St. this morning, I came upon a circle of five women on the sidewalk all facing each other.  It was like a football huddle where the team connects to a mutual vibe of purpose before they disperse to play in their separate positions. Breaking Ground gives the reader this feeling because all the women in the collection are multi faceted artists and devoted to their communities as healers. Some of these poets do so not only by being activists but also by working their art directly with prison populations, health clinics and youth groups.  And some of these women are healers as they broadcast the Puerto Rican experience of creativity- the producers, radio and television show hosts, playwrights, performance artists who bring their work to a larger audience or the teachers and professors who inspire in an academic setting, adding their voice to the literary canon.  The anthology has the effect of a very diverse group of women connecting to each other through their art.

Nieves writes in the introduction that the writers that read at the series engaged with the audience on a variety of issues.  This paradigm replaces the poet in the ivory tower for the poet on the frontline of social and cultural change.  In the anthology the poets confront the realities of racism, cultural and social issues and misogyny. Two poems describe the first experience of awareness of separation from other children because of their heritage and how that first pain of being thought of as “other” manifested. In Diana Gitesha Hernández’s “Poem for Mami” the different foods she ate from other children at lunch contribute to a feeling of being different, “the only Puerto Rican in a school where/none had heard of us, yet/and they would say…/”Hey, Puerto Rico...ain’t that in Africa or something!?”(p.206). In Lydia Cortés searing poem “I Remember,” the speaker says, “I remember the teachers who said, ‘You don’t look Puerto Rican’/expecting me to say thank you very much/I remember overhearing some say Puerto Ricans/don’t care about their children, Puerto Ricans/aren’t clean/I remember the heat of shame rising up/changing the color of my face/I remember praying no one heard what the teachers said,/ no one saw my hurt red as a broken heart” (p.130).

Some poets write about knowing that their community is at a disadvantage because of racism and the social and economic conditions perpetrated by its corrosive force on the social fabric.  Listen to the poem by Susana Cabañas “It’s Called Kings” “you know you are poor when you have to count your pennies in America to get high to forget how angry you can get in America in the land of milk and honey brother kills brother for a woman for a life for a piece of land we shoot each other up because we’re so angry we are so angry.” (p. 98). Magdalena Gómez, “A Colonization We Don’t Like to Talk About,” writes about the internalized racism of self-limiting beliefs in her description of what her women relatives in the Bronx felt they needed to do to survive. “These women are/the wheel inside/my forehead.” (p.200) .

Similarly, Cenén Moreno’s poem “El Pueblo Grita, Presente” is a kind of parable about the community at large responding to the devastating effect of racism, first by showing resistance to the government and then by organizing and speaking to each other, (quoting the column of the poem written in English) “The people speak to each other/ The Government becomes frightened/The people organize themselves/ The Government assumes/ a state of alert/ The people become/Responsible for themselves/ The Government attacks/ The People defend themselves/ The Government runs away/ The People create/ National Cooperatives/ The

Government cries out People/ The People Cry out/ Present. “(p. 284).


Many poets consider the impact of the White Culture and Latino Machismo on women. “Me robaron el cuerpo” (p. 245) by Nemir Matos-Cintrón is a devastating indictment of the patriarchy’s usurpation of a woman’s authentic experience of herself for images of what it can use and can control “ Me robaron el cuerpo y vendieron mi alma/a cosmopolitan/ a la alta costura a wall street/y  me tallaron a imagen y semejanza/  de la mujer femenina mujer virginal la mujermujer”.  Translated, these lines are: “they stole my body and sold my soul/ to cosmopolitan/ to high fashion to wall street/ and they carved for me an image and likeness / of the feminine woman the virginal woman the woman woman”. Similarly, María T. Fernández (A.K.A. Mariposa) in “Poem for My Grifa-Rican Sistah or Broken Ends Broken Promises” writes about the chemicals her and her sister put in their hair growing up to conform to an image of white beauty and how that made them feel. Thus the anthology shifts from macro to micro, the greater vision and how it is experienced on the individual level.  Sandra Garcia Rivera’s poem “La Loca’s Response” (p.186), seems to respond with power and self love, likening herself to a righteous force of nature, to the misogynist culture’s label of women as crazy. “I/respond /with melody as chilling/as a sword fatally engaged - /in honor of Mother, /my song’s breath,/the scent of fresh  burning sage…” (p.187).

Some younger writers look at racism in its new and subtle forms: Marina Ortiz’s gives a poetic answer to the question “what are you anyway?” in “It’s the Blood, Stupid!”( p.308). Raquel Z. Rivera’s “While in Stirrups” is about being interrogated by a white female gynecologist and the kind of sexual and cultural racism young women similar to herself experience (p. 345). Even the title of the piece suggests, through the vulnerability of the position, a power imbalance in the relationship to the culture at large.

Many writers take on the patriarchy’s distortion of relationships between men and women. Susana Cabañas “Oh man” (p.98) suggests that the abuse of women and the negative impact on families by men is also rooted in rage and a sense of homelessness in the new country.  Esmeralda Santiago’s poignant story “A fuerza de puños,” (p. 350) is about a woman trying unsuccessfully and without support to escape a relationship, showing how machismo, another facet of the patriarchy, leads to abuse and divides women, in this case mother from daughter.  “’Sister’ …Ain’t Nothing But” by Marina Ortiz shows the language with which Black and Latino men use to both put women on a pedestal and objectify women and see them only as things to be used (p. 309): “and when I hear you say come here sister/because you need to support your brother/because this is all the manhood we have left/because we have needs that must be met/”  and how in that opposition women must find their own fulcrum.  Nemir Matos-Cintrón meditates on how race enters sexual relations in “Revisiting Cuban Poet Nicolás Gillén’s Poem: “Todo mezclado” (p.247).

Related to this dilemma of division caused by the patriarchy, these women writers have written about how a kind of racism can pervade their own community.  María T. Fernández (A.K.A. Mariposa)’s poem “Ode to the Diasporican” (p. 169) responds to racism within the culture: being looked Ídown on for not being born in Puerto Rico, “¡No nací en Puerto Rico./Puerto Rico nació en mí!”.  Many of the poems in the anthology seek to unite differences in experience and creation that have formerly divided Puerto Ricans.

Many of the poems not only fight or oppose the forces of racism or the patriarchy but also seek to build bridges within the larger community.  “I, Too, Am Black” a dynamic spoken word poem inspired by Langston Hughes by Caridad de la Luz “La Bruja” is one such example (p. 153). Along the same lines, Ana López-Betancourt’s poem “Orígenes” writes proudly of ancestors African and Puerto Rican, “The women have history--that’s all - / They chant like their tatarabuelas/They’re neither africanas nor criollas/” (p.219). Many of the poems explore the mystery of culture and heritage that causes connections, Sandra María Esteves “Spirit Dance” (p.160), “When Spirits dance Mambo/Elegbá opens the roads,/carnival colors fly in circles/Ancestors call our names/through drums that speak/mixing cultures in rhythms of/Spanish Saints with African slaves.” This is a poem that connects black and Latino cultures through mysticism and music.  “Epopeyeas secretas” by Myrna NIeves (p. 298) looks at the matriarchy lines of Centroamérica.  A poem demonstrating how women navigate the different streams of Puerto Rican culture and religion is Prisonera-Paula Santiago’s clever, lighthearted poem on “Mi religión” “¡Espiritista hoy, santera, aché, manaña,/pero el domingo, a la iglesia sin falta!” (p. 325).

These writers expound on a sense of Puerto Rico’s sweetness: how the old ways have survived. An example of maintaining a strong connection to the homeland through tradition is Nancy Mercado’s “Homemade Hot Sauce” (p. 257). Myrna Nieves writes about how the writer approaches reality, their sometime tenuous relationship with it, and how that is affected by the remembrance of the homeland, as in “Nonconformist,” (p.297). I like in this poem the switching between the two poles of reality and imagination and how it ends on the imagination: “This star-filled womb I inherited from my mother”.  Another favorite for this reader is the final entry in the anthology by Anita Veléz-Mitchell (a writer born in 1916!) and her story “Aunt Lila’s Passion” which describes with great compassion the Puerto Rico of her youth and her aunt’s romantic and sexual suffering.

As Nieves says in the Introduction, the book seeks to inspire a greater understanding and appreciation of the variety of literary and cultural modalities that have emerged, “its hope of learning to value self and other.” She asks what is women’s unique experience of language that is found in this collection. There are Madeline Millán’s poems that bend, deconstruct and show the shifting ground beneath meanings, especially in a prose poem like “El Rastro” (p. 265), where words and feeling are slippery, “Si alguien que habla con palabras piensa por un solo momento ser dueño del sentido..” An example of a great lyric poem is Hilda R. Mundo-López “De que te quejas” (p. 292). There’s also a lovely poem by Lourdes Vázquez “Thalys” (p.404).  Another favorite is Giannina Braschi’s frenetic, ironic and playful poem to NYC as its own character that is confronted by the individual poet: “El imperio de los suenos” (p.84) (The Empire of Dreams, what a great way to sum up NY). The second section concludes, “He visto con mis ojos los ojos de mi ciudad.” (“I’ve seen through my own eyes with the eyes of my city.”) It expresses that blending of place and soul that can happen for someone relocated.  One of the writers I most appreciated was Sheila Candelario (p.104). In “Autoficción” she writes about the complicated relationship between herself and her unconscious and her art, “Soy el truco preferido de mi inconciencia.” (“I am the favorite trick of my unconscious.”) It clarifies how that makes her unknowable to others and herself.

I noticed how the selection for each writer can veer from lyric to politics. I am thinking of Alba Ambert’s “Habito tu nombre” (p. 37) a poem about the experience of love to the very political experience of the Puerto Rican Independence movement in ”El octavo continente (fragmento”) (p.40). Likewise, I am thinking of Maritza Arrastía’s “The World Guerillas Take the Front Page” (p. 53) to her poems on the spiritual connection to her mother and father “Poema a mis padres”(p. 48) or her poem to the mother goddess/Gaia principle, “Birth,” (p. 46).  Nieves’ editorial choices show the great range and flexibility of each writer.

The great value of this collection is that it does not conform to a narrow view of literature based on academic poetry and thereby releases the opposition between poetry that is written for the page and poetry that is spoken.  It demonstrates how the political anthems and lyric poems are part of one continuum. The writers in the collection seem to be speaking to each other. Raquel Z. Rivera’s thoughtful meditation on the history of her sexuality vibrates to Luz Maía Umpierre-Herrera’s poems celebrating her body, “my yellow margarita.”  Read this wonderful collection and see for yourself.




Adriana Scopino is a poet and translator living in New York City. She has an M.F.A. in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from DrewUniversity. Her chapbook, Let Me Be Like Glass was published by Exot Books. Her translations of Argentinean poet Fabián Casas have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, Great River Review and Mead: The Magazine of Literature and Libations.

Lee Klein Reviews A Venetian Tour Part 3

So there and then in and out of the chambers of the arsenale; in one stretch lo and behold laid out were a whole pack of nations.   Many were represented; but, Chile and Indonesia packed a smoking one two punch (but there was a dive>>>>).....Something was going to take a dive for Chile's pavilion featured a singular work by Alfredo Jaar where the Giardini (that being a full scale model of it and all its pavilions) was timed to submerge and emerge from the murky green waters like a synchronized sea monster (if this piece was not deemed culturally or artistically significant by someone other than the curators and officios in Santiago, well it was a hell of an amusement).

Next was a huge interior stretch laid out by Indonesia.  Herein Entang Wiharso rendered multiple carved sculptures in an elaborate and dizzying array of configurations in a darkened divided gallery.  Entang presented a sumptuous feast for the eyes, including one tableaux which turned out to be portraits of Indonesian Presidents past and the incumbent.

Then the Bahamas had Tavares Strachnan, the man who upon occasion has transplanted Antarctic ice to the Island nation. The exhibition within was called polar eclipse and held its own conceptual upside down .......

Next it was down the Via Garibaldi to the fabled Giardini. Here I started in first on the very topical Russians.  Therein one Vadim Zhakarov had a duplex/triplex pavilion to work with, in , within and (on).   On the  first split level, near the entrance, at certain times therein included was a man on a saddle in full equestrian gear (including the high boots), riding an architectural crossbeam. Meanwhile once you ventured further inside and then reaching what turned into an upstairs gallery you perhaps per chance looked below (from what looked like it was where orthodox Jewish women would be relegated to in a segregated synagogue).  Then probably as a man (women had access to both areas) you most assuredly looked through the large hole and  watched as Euros were dropped into a well two stories below as possibly bemused females were given umbrellas which only sometimes they picked up (also the same could be said for the what some might consider the marginal denominations). I wanted them to let me in as to gain free money (I am still waiting for the money from the Isa Genzken German pavilion which was being handed out via the press kiosk a few biennales ago).   This scrounger desired for the art handlers to grant him entry to such an extant that much he started saying "what if pussy riot shows up are you going to let them in" ?  He then followed with ..." how could you possibly be allowed to get away with discriminating against men would anybody put up with it the other way around ?"...{and somehow a Russian republic sponsored exhibition at an international art exhibition seems like the last place or organization which should be discriminating against anybody}. Now of course if your Zeus dropping drachmas on Danae that is another story.

Meanwhile it took the English pavilion to calm this soon to be tea sipper down. Here a giant instillation by Turner prize winner, Jeremy Deller, came with hot brew with lemon served by the most polite baristas (and to whom you could complain about the Russians).   It included a tribute to William Morris in the form of a wall mural of the nineteenth century Scottish designer dumping Russian billionaire tycoon Roman Abramovich's yacht, "Luna",  into the Adriatic, visual notations in reference to Hen Harriers, the endangered birds of prey, two of which were found shot to death on the grounds of Queen Elizabeth's Sandringham estate and the only possible suspects were Prince Harry and his friend William van Cutsem (they were questioned but not charged for lack of evidence)  and a movie with steel drums being played to David Bowie's tune, "The Man Who Sold the World" (as inspired in turn by the Roman emperor who did and of course the Praetorian guard sold it in a second instance as well in the year of the five emperors).  This pavilion grew and grew on me-- it expanded upon its own vocabulary and the Bowie tune on the steel drums is hummed by me still.

Also pleasant was the United State entry of Sarah Sze mounted by the Bronx Museum of the Arts.  This pavilion structure crawling work had a sprawling outlay of materials and ingredients streaming out of itself like radii avenues from Columbus circle, but ,then moved everywhere like greater Los Angeles.  Meanwhile let us not forget other popular wonders like the completely noise and light free chamber by Kimsooja in the South Korean pavilion. 

The Italian pavilion in the Giardini once again curated by wunderkind Masssimiliano Gioni teemed with art and artists of every kind, souvenirs  of the spiritual past; Rudolf Steiner, Levi Fisher Ames, Alastair Crowley, Carl Gustave Jung; a minimalist here a minamilst there in both main exhibitions Richard Serra, Walter De  Maria (another finale), and Carl Andre , Sarah lucas of the YBA'S , and Mike Kelly. ad infinitum etceteras.  However the main thing this co-central part of the exhibition did was simple.  It goes that was that it set out to set itself up as a temporary museum, bring a whole lot of in depth work together, make it thought provoking and a fresh as possible in the climate in which we vi exist, view and interact with art. 

Later thanks to Gary Shapiro I got to sit in on an interstellar panel put together by the Cypriot concrete mogul Dakis Jouannou and observe Gioni first hand.  I found him clever, whimsical and ready to turn the thing right upside down sideways.  This many time Biennale viewing struggling correspondent is pleased that the Biennale chose this relatively young man and hope they hand the torch right back to him again (as curating is a field Gioni feels out deeply and thoroughly understands).

 the best thing about this biennale perhaps was what was gone ie the political curatorial globalism who knows what is whatjsism. Indeed this was the first truly enjoyable Biennale in years.

Until next time this glass of prosseco is for you!

.Lee Klein 2013

Patricia Spears Jones reviews STUDY by Yuko Otomo

  • Book: STUDY & Other Poems on Art
  • Author:  Yuko Otomo
  • Press: Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, NY 2013
  • 288 pages


Strolling Through a Life in Art—Review of  STUDY & Other Poems on Art

 by Patricia Spears Jones

Yuko Otomo has been writing and performing poetry and texts for three decades printing many in limited edition chapbooks.  Her poems offer a range of perceptions about art from her vantage as an artist, as a viewer, as a poet.  Reading the poems in STUDY is to relive the art world and its contents and discontents through those three decades. As she remarks in an epistolary poem, “A Letter to Christine”: “How visual I am!”  And yes, she is very visual.

As someone who has seen many of the same shows and/or artists she considers in these poems, I am intrigued by her approach.  Her well-trained observant artist’s eye pairs with psychological observation—deepening our understanding of image and image making.  As she notes in her introduction, “I noticed two things . . . One is the lack of poems of my “favorite” artists (e.g. Matisse; Goya; Pollock . ) & an abundance of poems on art I care less personally for.” Moreover, she sees how some work such as Louise Bourgeois invites her to enter both the poetic and critical world. As she looks at her output, she realizes that “I’ve learned one of the most vital truths: ‘liking’ & ‘disliking” have nothing to do with art.”

What her poems do is meditate on images or image-making to expand her artistic vision.  “10 Poems for “The Americans” by Robert Frank” concretizes in language the stark, erotically charged photographs that Frank is known for.  Otomo looks sideways at his images in these stanzas in “Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey”:


LOVE meta-morphed

into different shapes

stands still

by the (window) frames.


Arms of a woman

Palms of a boy


An afternoon breeze waves

a flag of IDEALS, DREAMS & the VOID

rectifying HAPPINESS


But of course, this is Frank whose images of Americans are deeply engaged in his subject’s complications and the poem ends:


As cheers fill the streets,

a new sense of HUNGER

nails the interior darkness down.


Otomo is comfortable with exploring the abstractions : ideals, dreams, the voids in artists’ work.  Also, she is fascinated by the fluidity of identity especially gender in the artists’ work:  “a man is a man, a mother, a brother” is a line from “Joseph Cornell in his Garden (Hans Namuth 1969)” and in the Cornell Box Poems, she dynamically explores androgyny.  It seems to this reader that the poems about the photographs of Cornell’s studio are more expressive than the ones on the actual Cornell boxes.  It may be that focus on image making-what did the studio look like; what were the items he would use; how did the photographer orchestrate these images?  Indeed, “Studio Details of Storage Racks (Hans Namuth 1973)” is a delicious list poem that ends: snow flakes, birds, nest, feathers which pretty captures the basis for a Cornell box!

While many of the poems are lyric or meditative, the most notable texts here are epistolary—letters to specific persons both living and dead.  These pieces offer the reader a more intensive view of Otomo’s own artistic practice-how she thinks through her work and the work of others. “A Letter to Christine (for Christine Hughes)”  is a piece de resistance.  Back to the strolling—Otomo uses that well worn New York writer’s exercise, a walk around the city—and here the stroll sparks one side of what appears to be a very long and useful conversation between two artists. But more importantly, the letter considers Otomo’s own creative inspirations: that stroll; her love of music; the issue of location (where is one when one works) and her enthusiasm for her friend’s “botanical art” which leads her to a book on wildflowers.  Much like Maureen Owen and others who use lists to illustrate a particular point—she finds the wildflowers that grow in the city: “Loosestrifes; Milkweeds; Purple Cornflowers; Asters; Blazing Stars; Vervains; Bell Flowers; Gentians; Dayflowers; Chicory; Golden Rods .   . .”  and in the next stanza she notes: “Nothing is so mesmerizing as the colors and forms of plants”.  This letter allows the reader to enter into the intimacy of artistic conversation-the ways in which one artist recognizes and encourages the work of another and simultaneously, recognizes and advances her own.  I don’t know the work of Christine Hughes, but after reading this piece, I really wanted to see what she does with her “botanical art”.

A more poignant piece is “Myself: Self Portrait (for Emma Bee Bernstein).   This elegy for the beloved young artist who took her own life in a kind of last “self-portrait” responds to the extraordinary body of work Emma Bee Bernstein made and to the issues raised by Bee Bernstein’s artistic practice.  Moreover, she interrogates that practice in light of her own well-considered self-examinations and how the younger artist made her consider the desire to see one self mirrored, reflected in control of one’s image.  “I don’t particularly/ like to face my reflected self in a cornered room with harsh/ artificial light  . . . but, for some reason,/ the situation always takes place in this kind of imagined space./Ah, how much I wish I wee a Narcissist, but I am not.” As she shies from the kinds of staged works the young artist made, she also notes: “I know that she knows me better than I know her”.

Throughout the piece she lists titles of Bee Bernstein works, which go from abstractions “Faith/fate” to nature “a Tree/Trees”.   In the second and most complicated stanza of this text, she offers the artist’s view of  boundaries—going from abstract to concrete and back again:  “I once told my dear friend that I was not curious/ about what’s behind the wall, but about the wall itself & what I/was looking for was not who/what I was, but what I was made/ of.”  Bee Bernstein’s important conversations with older women artists offered her a way into audacity.  That she left the world so early confounds and in Otomo’s delicate re-working of her ideas in this text, we see what the art world lost.

Otomo’s often works with her partner, Steve Dalachinsky and Study includes a major collaboration entitled “Arena”, based on a Joseph Beuys artwork.  It has moments of clarity, hilarity and occasional frustration—one can hear the marriage of two different, but equal voices, a true rarity (Steve Dalachinsky =sd and Yuko Otomo ==yd).


sd                    you listen to air through copper tube & wax

yo                    I see the heart beat of the air

a perfect loop, a perfect malice, a perfect dust


sd                    the wildlife on stilts is frozen by removing its innards

yo                    I am crossed with an triangle & my bones ache

to be with time is tearing me apart


sd                    I hang like a hand like a hangar on a hand on a nail

on a cross where I hang


yo                    a perfect bath tub, a perfect profile



As one can see, Otomo is in search of that perfect line, the perfect loop, the right word to say what she needs to say about Sarah Sze, Bourgeois, Caravaggio, Beuys, Cornell, Bruce Nauman, August Sander. At times, that word is not found—the poems in response to Nauman’s exhibition don’t quite work. But when she goes into depth, it can be startling.


In one of the last and most ambitious poems in this book, she delves even more deeply into women’s lives and art—the poem “Intra-Venus” that is in part dedicated to Hannah Wilke. I met Wilke before cancer began to destroy her almost other-worldly beauty, so I am always interested in the ways in which people approach her work, not only her early work, but also her end of life portraits that are harsh and powerful.  Otomo does not disappoint here.  In deft stanzas she catches the artist’s work, but also that decay and in her own way, the particular significance of women, women’s bodies and how they are used in art.  Here are excerpts from “Intra-Venus (for Hannah Wilke and Lona Foote)”


time to timelessness

you witness

your physicality

assaulted & forced

is it your eyes that we are facing?

is it your navel that we are looking at it?

is it your thighs that we are marveling at?



in a sense of metaphysics



how a raw road leads

to the bottom of the well

where all those inspirations

for life pour out





in a sense of metaphysics


a river

a morning


a luster

a monument

a flower petal—


remember that


to be or not to be


in the Origin


the sun was a woman


The poem in many ways sums up Otomo’s sensibility-she seeks the eternal in art, but always is in touch with the ephemeral-art may endure, but each of us will die.  Wilke, Beuys and Bee Berstein’s art endures.

Ugly Duckling Presse has made it possible for readers to see a poet’s confidence grow as she considers art in our time.  Yuko Otomo’s  Study is a great addition to the proud New YorkSchool sensibility of connecting poetry and visual arts.  Her strolling through galleries, museums, in and out of friends’ studios and in and out of her own is a major document of the past three decades.  It was a pleasure to join her.

James Turrell Reviewed by Norman Douglas

James Turrell at the Guggenheim June 21–September 25, 2013

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street) New York, NY 10128-0173

212 423 3587

Review by Norman Douglas

All that any critic can do is to articulate the chain of referents that occupy the mind as a result of a particular experience. Some pretend that this is a variation on cause and effect, the object observed being the cause and the critical subject, its effect. Such a position follows a host of assumptions that writers like me no longer subscribe to. While one may behold an object, that object hardly causes one's response to it. What's in the eye of the beholder is the sum of lived experience, a known quantity we call subjectivity. At the same time, the subjectivity of the object equally derives from its conception. Further, its "experience" incorporates the subjectivity of its creator. In this way, subjectivity is shared experience: this text intersects with subjectivities that share this moment, this event. Think of mythic characters, whose personae are wrapped as much in their own experiences as in their forbearers' — Minerva, goddess of wisdom, is born from Jupiter's head, Aphrodite, goddess of beauty is mother of Eros, god of love. Subjectivity is effectively a contemporary way of revisiting the mythic, essential approach of natural philosophers — think Socrates and Bacon, daVinci and Bruno, Galileo — who practiced before the modern Arts and Sciences schism gave us the specialist. This conflux of time and space expresses itself through a symbol set following the hidden laws that pertain to the light shed thereon: informed observation transforms viewer and viewed. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out: "electric light is pure information."

When I first encountered the sky room at PS1 in Queens about twenty years ago, I had no idea who had created this singular piece of art. Hell. I wasn’t really sure that it was an artwork. To my eyes, it resembled a beautiful accident. Incomprehensibly, a room void of the roof that should have completed it — an "empty ceiling" looming overhead — transported me directly into the presence of an intangible entity. Previously the sky existed outside the range of ordinary experience, hovering high above the space of our daily activities, the place wherein we draw each breath, the air between heaven and earth. Now, the same sky reached all the way down to the unseen rooftop and continued straight through it. This opening offered all who entered this "sky room" a fleeting — and entirely robust — taste of the infinite.

Knowing nothing of the person who had pondered and successfully calculated the means of lowering this intractable and nominally inaccessible expanse to a locus so tangible, I — and several of my art-influenced peers — assigned him the same art-pedigree as Gordon Matta-Clark. Both men sectioned architectures in ways that brought to mind Henri Lefebvre's thesis that there are no borders in space. What borders exist are imposed by economics, which perpetuates the lie of scarcity through delimitation, by naming and the assignment of values. By reconfiguring our experience of architecture, removing its limit, infinity now felt as if within one's reach (though, in fact, and of course, it was not)... Imponderable impossibilities became possible without taking any real shape; the very rectangular airway actively defied its quadrilateral. Well, it was hard to know what to think: apparently, a simple hole not only underscored the porous quality of its subjectivity — rendered diffuse — literally shot through the roof.

Predisposed to view the contents of PS1 according to its architectural descriptor (museum), my mind hung fast to the army of superlatives traditionally reserved for the proven ranks of storied painters. In particular, Turner came to mind, unbidden as painter while remembered for his studies in light. For months thereafter — maybe years — I told others about the experience, this strange, quasi-miraculous, occasional installation guaranteed to blow some corner of your mind (induce vertigo, or cause you to reflect on the color of the sky or force you to reassess the infinite or the tangibility of light or the confinement of infinite space)... It took a while to remember the guy's name, the man responsible for an oddity as technically simple as an hour of demolition work that precedes renovation. Only here, the renovation stopped at the demolition, highlighted it, framed it; this renewal added nothing new, instead renewed the available perspective that remained after the physical subtraction of a ubiquitous infrastructure, unveiled the sky as the hyper-connected superstructure that somehow anchors each rooftop to the imponderable regions above. Once out of the city, the sky unites us, the light gives us shape, and the name of James Turrell fit into my selective memory.

Turrell never struck me as an artist. Beyond art and science is the aesthetic realm the Greeks understood as an awakening—not aesthetics as a matter of taste, but as an instant of total consciousness, a moment in which light and being trump time and space to expose the holistic sensation of life itself, an integrated interstice that links all, the way valences exchange across organic chemistry, a doorway through which we apperceive the unspeakable. Having discovered his name, the PS1-moment could be recounted with certain authority. Unwittingly, I fell into the trap I feel most recently laid for me inside the doors of the Guggenheim and its sanctified offering of the natural philosopher’s eerily truncated creation.

The contemporary media is full of Turrell’s story of late. The New York Times magazine endeavored to publish an exhaustive profile of Turrell as artist on the eve of this three-venue, cross-country exhibition ("How James Turrell Knocked the Art World Off Its Feet," by Wyl S. Hylton, The New York Times Magazine, June 13, 2013). Nearly ten years ago, a friend and I stopped at Marfa on our own cross-country jaunt, where we inquired about access to the famed Roden Crater (as well as DeMaria's lightning fields), but no invite was extended. Here in NY, I ventured to the Guggenheim to gaze at Turrell's centerpiece. A site-specific intervention that embellishes Frank Lloyd Wright's Rotunda with LED lights. What strikes me is the absence of any sense of chance. The effort seems contrived, a set-up, a well-executed hoax to obfuscate the depth and breadth of what concerns him. It puts me in mind of David Hammons' "Concerto in Black and Blue" at Ace Gallery, when another young aspiring artist wondered if Hammons could "fill the space." With thumb-activated LEDs as the only light source, spectators were free to make of the darkened, cavernous and multi-chambered gallery space and their lights what they would—chance encounters, trysts, misdemeanors all went on in the gallery for the show's run, all enacted by the visitors. "Turrell's the guy who gave me the Prix de Rome," Hammons told me recently (The Prix De Rome for Sculpture, 1991, awarded by the American Academy of Rome). "I was so nervous, I squeezed my hands together under the table so no one could see me shake." He need shake no more.

Infusing his title with the name of Aten, ancient Egyptian representation of the solar deity, Turrell's "Aten Reign" feels like a top-down experience of light that vigorously compels the visitor to assume a submissive position reminiscent of the atmosphere of cathedrals across Western Europe during the height of tourist season. The glut of tourists when I attended—early on a Wednesday—may have had something to do with this, their eagerness to plan the next attraction ever-apparent, even as they furtively or boldly took photos destined for facebook (defying the guards’ imprecations to the contrary). Not that the piece seems more compelling than a slow animation through the half-dozen colors in a prismatic spectrum, each subjected to the Photoshop gradient scale. Not that there is an absence of technical expertise and precision. On the contrary, the work is clearly exacting.

Unfortunately, my visit took place during the week that one of the side exhibits was closed due to technical difficulties. That closure may account for why the line for the other work stretched out into the hall and around the screened-in balcony. Somehow, the few moments I attempted to queue up in the rear filled me with more dread and apprehensiveness than anticipation of the meditation the museum brochures herald with self-laudatory pride. Whoever has an interest in art cannot begrudge the institutional contribution to culture, but the canonization of Turrell was a representation of something far afield from the subjective realm of "Meeting" (the name of the permanent PS1 piece, from 1986). It seems the quiet Quaker has thrown his lot in with the pomp and pageant of exotic and remote imperial culture. A pharaoh and his followers — or even his elite opposition — may comfortably reclaim the spectacular view atop the ziggurat, but the mythopoeia eludes us here, and we experience the line above all. The tourists are put in mind of last night's line for the theater, of beating tonight's line for dinner, trade ill-timed punch lines from old jokes.

Raised in a Quaker milieu, Turrell talks about how his grandmother’s insistence that he close his eyes to witness the light within never made sense to him. Instead, he focused on the light around and between us. One can clearly go on forever about light – both religion and quantum physics maintain that all is but light, remind us that light unifies us from horizon to horizon and beyond, the way stars that may no longer exist shine on us from a distant past. In the end, Turrell’s subject matter – the light – reaches beyond his lifetime and ours, and concerns the immortal stuff that binds us as it promises to set us free. A man like Turrell is not constrained by the success or failure of source material that few bother to investigate. With lost loves and seventy years behind him, this is not the output of an artist, but the province of those once called natural philosophers, “cryptographers studiously deciphering the works of nature... in a post-Newtonian universe.” (From the editor’s “Notes” on “Eureka” by Edgar Allan Poe, collected in The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, Harold Beaver, editor, Penguin Classics, 1976)

Thanks to Samantha Weiss Media & Public Relations Associate Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

James Turrellis organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The Leadership Committee forJames Turrellis gratefully acknowledged for its generous support, including Lisa and Richard Baker, Pace Gallery, Almine Rech Gallery, Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte, 425 Park Avenue/Simone and David W. Levinson, and those who wish to remain anonymous.

Additional support is provided by the Affirmation Arts Fund.