Sunday, December 25, 2011

2011 Readings

Since it is that time of year when we make lists, here is my list of readings for 2011. It is full of old favorites, new voices, and fascinating discoveries just waiting to be made in each and every book. (I will try to provide links later.)

1. Kusamakura–Soseki Natsume

2. The Heredity of Taste–Soseki Natsume

3. The 210th Day–Soseki Natsume

4. Kokoro–Soseki Natsume

5. To The Spring Equinox and Beyond–Soseki Natsume

6. My Individualism–Soseki Natsume

7. The Anatomy of Melancholy–Robert Burton

8. Coriolanus

9. World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era–Donald Keene

10. The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches–Matsuo Basho

11. 4 Plays: Amphitryon, Menaechmi, The Pot of Gold, The Haunted House–Plautus

12. Mother Clapp’s Molly House–Mark Ravenhill

13. Techne’s Clearinghouse–John Foy

14. Seven Studies For A Self Portrait–Jee Leong Koh

15. 4 Plays–Ben Jonson

16. Collected Satires of Juvenal

17. Satires of Horace and Persius

18. Turn–Wendy Chin-Tanner

19. Road Work Ahead–Raymond Luczak

20. My Life As Adam–Bryan Borland

21. Burnings–Ocean Vuong

22. The Satyricon and Apocolocyntosis–Petronius and Seneca

23. Collected Poems of James Merrill

24. The Gift–Vladimir Nabokov

25. Strong Opinions–Vladimir Nabokov

26. Pale Fire–Vladimir Nabokov

27. The Common Reader, First Series–Virginia Woolf

28. Nothing Like The Sun–Anthony Burgess

29. The Young Michelangelo: A Biography–John Spike

30. QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter–Richard A. Feynman

31. Paradise Lost–John Milton

32. The Birds and Other Plays–Aristophanes

33. Selected Poems–James Fenton

34. Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 1–Ben Bova, editor

35. Pompeii–Robert Harris

36. The Difference Engine–William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

37. Collected Short Stories–Rudyard Kipling

38. Selected Short Stories–H.G. Wells

39. Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form–Helen Vendler

40. Collected Short Stories–Ambrose Bierce

41. Selected Essays of Montaigne

42. Areopagitica–John Milton

43. Broca’s Brain–Carl Sagan

44. The Dyer’s Hand–W.H. Auden

45. Satori Blues–Cyril Wong

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Looked at from the street, Comedy and Tragedy are relatives, who—for reasons of economy—live together, side by side.

For now, all you really need to know about the characters depicted in the unfolding drama is that two families have been cast here by Fate. The set consists of a duplex dwelling that was converted from a carriage house early in the 20th Century. Our family purchased their palace (It needs a little work. But you will love it.) in 1970, the year my brother was born. We live on the left, at number 139, my grandparents on the right, at 137.

On the right side, the audience will see a victory garden, less ambitious than the one tended by Mr. Crockett on PBS, perhaps, but full of treasures nevertheless: cucumbers, peppers, rhubarb, carrots, parsnips, tomatoes, onions, and chives. This is where I dug up a crusty dime minted in 1857.

Beside the garden, there is a pleasant patio full of potted plants sheltered by a large corrugated aluminum awning. Here, men with aquamarine anchors tattooed to their hairy forearms are invited to smoke—veterans of campaigns in the Pacific—exiting with a discrete cough through a side door.

They would never be left alone with their cigarettes, however. These men were always carefully attended by my grandfather. He would excuse himself from the living room like this:

“If all you gals are going to do is gossip, I’m going outside to smoke with Jim.”

“Francis, one of these days, I am going to hit you over the head,” my grandmother would hiss.

Francis was not a smoker himself, or a drinker, or a veteran anything, actually, except for my grandmother’s rolling pin, Chinese checkers and the vinyl chloride vapors of Goodyear. (Enlarged heart, flat feet, 4F. Sorry, son.) Still, he played the role of gracious host to perfection. He will succumb to cancer while I am holding his hand.

With that same hand, on a rickety wooden gardening table, beside the clean blade of a spade my grandmother used for transferring her plants to larger pots, he would habitually place a chipped ashtray decorated with tiny pink and purple pansies. On the reverse side, the glaze bore the legend, ‘Made In Occupied Japan.’

For some reason I could never fully fathom—maybe because he was more ornery than everyone else—the only visitor allowed to smoke in the house was my uncle John, a recently retired shoe salesman. When he insisted, nobody resisted.

When my grandmother tripped, running up the stairs, shouting, “Dad, Dad!” I smiled. When she was forced by grief to complete her journey by crawling on aching knees, bawling like a baby, I almost laughed. I had never seen my grandmother act like a child before. I thought my grandfather agreed. He stood—dentureless—in a pair of periwinkle pajama bottoms and a V-neck t-shirt on the second floor landing—trying to make sense of things.

He was getting ready for work. Third shift.

“Ma, Ma, what is it?”

He lifted her gently by her elbows from where she knelt. While I am sure it took only a few seconds, it seemed like an eternity had to pass before my grandmother could gather her wits together sufficiently to blurt out, “Oh, Francis, John is dead. He had a heart attack.” I had no idea what a heart attack was, but it sounded pretty serious to me, even worse than death.

Suddenly, I felt like crying, too.

In fact, I did cry. So did my brother. I think we were watching Jeopardy! when the phone rang. The tangy scent of fried liver and onions hung in the air. My grandmother was in the kitchen, singing something incomprehensibly lovely, as was her habit, when doing anything dull, like washing dishes.

We had no idea what was going on. Uncle John had never died before. Nobody in our family ever had died until that day—not to my knowledge. What are you supposed to do under such circumstances?

After my grandfather inserted his clean teeth—grimacing in the mirror, pressing a thumb against his upper plate, making sure it was sealed against his gums strongly enough to resist the forces of gravity and permit difficult conversations—he closed the door. I sat on the stairs. I heard a tap gushing into the sink. He emerged a few minutes later clad in a pair of dark slacks, a white shirt and a sea-gray acrylic sweater with a Greek meander design dancing up the sleeves. He smelled ever so faintly of Barbasol.

After making a few quick phone calls, my grandmother drifted off to her bedroom, sobbing again, selecting something suitable to wear to my Aunt’s. My grandfather tied my brother’s shoes while she took her turn in the bathroom.

He took us next door and explained the situation to my mother, before driving my grandmother to stay with her sister, Aunt Midge, and then on to work. He always kept an extra pair of work clothes in the trunk of his car.

As I had already eaten dinner, I rejected the trembling dish of goulash my hysterical mother offered to calm me down. My brother was not a liver fan, so he may have sampled some. That, I don’t remember.

You see, I was confused. I wanted an explanation. Unable to articulate my actual desires, I asked for a Windmill cookie instead. Only my grandfather ate those, of course, and he was backing down the driveway: we didn’t have any.

By way of a compromise, my mother peeled a Ho-Ho and placed it on a plate, still half-wrapped in tinfoil. I didn’t want a Ho-Ho. I was told to stop being a brat or go to bed. I opted for brattiness and went to bed. It was already after 8:00pm, anyway. I saw no reason to sit in the kitchen and sulk.

48 hours later, a prophylactic whisper in the funeral home foyer informed me that my favorite uncle had passed away quietly on his porch, napping beneath The North Tonawanda News, after eating fish and chips at Arthur Treacher’s.

I may not like liars, but I have always admired a lie told with élan. This is part of the appeal of fiction. My mother plucked a pen out of the air that seemed to be swinging rather too freely in space and time from a chain of brass BBs fixed to little a pulpit. She signed for all three of us: Kathleen, Eric and Kyle. She carefully laid the pen to rest in the shadowy valley between the pages of the Visitors Book before she led us to the casket.

My father was at work. He would be dropping by to sign the book and pay his respects to Reality later.

Friday, December 16, 2011


The shadow of a spectacular sunset seems to be following me. Let us call this apparition a sliced mandarin—a cross section—the fruit of memory—an orange orb whose radial interior segments resemble a star—or—for the purposes of this disjointed memoir—Exhibit A.

From my perspective—my plane of reference—the sunset never occurs. The blade never falls. Although, of course, from where you sit, it does. It must. The frozen moment exists in a rectangular wooden frame, where past and future elide into the present—your decision to continue turning pages—to pull the rope and release the guillotine.

I hope you will continue reading. The end of this book will come as a tremendous relief: even the smallest stars can weigh quite heavily upon the shoulders. But whatever you decide to do, the scene I am describing will remain—for me, anyway—the last lovely thing I see: perpetually visible in July, through the northwest quadrant of a pane of glass (second floor, double-glazed window on the extreme left, mine) at an angle of 20 degrees above the western horizon.

Our source of illumination resides at the center of an obscure planetary system approximately 93 million miles from the world I inhabit—hardly a bunny hop through the void—yet an incalculable distance from the walnut tree lit by those long fingertips of light caressing my face. What I cannot understand is why my green and gold friend should have been marked for execution. What kind of crimes against nature must a tree commit to be cut down—to be turned into poetry: pulp, toilet paper, trash—that worst of all possible worlds—Art?

I imagine that arboreal being produced nuts edible only to squirrels. I assume that the immense crowd of furry creatures which gathered beneath its boughs autumn—hypnotized by hunger—presented a menace to public health. So, in the dead of night, an ordinance was passed: that tree must die. I can only scratch my ass in wonder and move on.

Although I am sure a transcript exists on microfilm somewhere in Erie County—evil decisions are always reached and recorded in excruciating detail by The Authorities—I must confess that I was not privy to the deliberations of our City Fathers in 1970, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, or 78—the last year I occupied the front bedroom I am presently haunting.

In other words, I am 5. I am a shadow of my former self. I am not a reliable witness to subsequent events. I peer at them like Alice—through the looking glass—darkly. I cannot be called to testify in court—either for the prosecution or the defense. I take no sides in the dispute between The Town of North Tonawanda and the squirrels, my mother or my father, their divorce, up and down, forward and back, left and right.

I am sorry to be so evasive, but as you can see, this was an unusually hot summer. I couldn’t help tossing and turning. Since my three-year-old brother was constantly whimpering after his surgery (glittering scalpel, baby-blue eyeball,) I spent most nights perspiring in bed next door, wedged between my grandmother and the moon.

Each morning, the nosy scent of coffee would nudge a door open, and discover me sitting Indian-style in her pastel dressing room, reading random entries aloud to myself from a 10 volume set of books, A Child’s Encyclopedia, that once belonged to my mother.

[Turning back a page.]

The spot of doom handed down by the Aldermen—in this case, Exhibit B—was in reality a dark blue circle spray-painted on thick rough bark. I know the circle was round and that it was blue because it looked like the bumpy steering wheel my grandfather’s soft hands gripped in his Buick while I sat next to him, spitting the pits of sour cherries into a glossy brown paper bag.

I know the bark was rough because it scratched my arms whenever I embraced the trunk as a child, seeing if could comprehend its entire texture. I never could. I was too small. I lacked the reach. Now that I am older—I am 43 as of this writing—I notice that my embrace is wider. I am tempted to try the walnut again today.

Nobody is here now, except us ghosts, so let’s see what happens.

Hold on.

Here goes.

We see from the street view on Google maps that the tree has disappeared. The squirrels have scattered. The new residents of Bryant Street have dipped my delicious chocolate house (there is no more tempting form of cocoa, in my experience, than those last few peeling flakes of lead paint) into a vat of hideous vanilla siding that tastes today—more or less—like total oblivion.

Which is all just my elliptical way of saying—apart from a pair of geographical coordinates—a general shape around the eyes—everything familiar about me is gone.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pearl Harbor at 70

70 years ago today the Imperial Japanese Navy struck the Pacific port of Pearl Harbor.

7 years ago today, with the help of my Japanese boyfriend, Takaaki, America and Japan settled the last few lingering issues of the terrible conflict that began that placid Sunday morning in Hawaii. We did it with words. We did it with poetry. Here is how we achieved a lasting peace.

Takaaki, Part II

Becoming human takes a bit of time.
Nobody knows exactly how we do it.
We classify the clock as the enzyme—
the universal catalyst. Through it
we cease to be that seemingly divine
lump of life we call ‘a child.’ Fine.
We can cope with children pretty well.
What gives geneticists heartburn from Hell,
however, are the differing results
we get. When something evil as a rule
shows up with a small army at the pool,
shooting all the judges, most adults
completely fall to pieces. Like that helps.
Now, evil can compete with Michael Phelps.

The cruel careers of our worst instincts are
Olympic in brutality, but short—
if measured by the life of stone or star.
Were we less human, we might not resort
to good or evil. They’d be words—like stones
and stars. The sea would not be free of bones,
but bones would be more beautiful, like sand
twinkling between alien toes stand-
ing on Coney Island, where the old Cyclone—
the roller coaster—clatters up and down.
The salty waves would still drift in, surround
small feet. Bad children would be taken home.
The sea would sparkle—conscience cold and clear.
Only you and I would disappear.

Some distance back time in this scene is set,
inside a vast apartment—glass, concrete
and steel—accessed by elevators. Let
the windows start in Brooklyn, stretch to meet
The Empire State behind a candle, where
I swivel in a large black leather chair,
while your eye continues traveling
along gray glass, skyscrapers unraveling,
until the pointy tip of the Chrysler Buil-
-ding gently lifts Lexington Avenue,
piercing a silver nitrate mist. Now you
must let this scintillating picture fill
the space before your eyes: that is New York.
Here, I transfix a carrot with a fork.

“I will never tire of this view,” I say,
blowing on my steaming vegetable,
adding, “Totemo oishikatta ne,”
confidently in Nihon-go, able
to tell Takaaki I enjoy his curry
without entangling my tongue in worry.
“It’s okay,” he shrugs, quietly deferring
my compliments—as usual preferring
a tilted head, a seated bow, the nicer
show of manners honored in Japan
which can seem strange to the American
inclined to linger too much over dinner,
allowing food to cool and candles run.
Before I’d started, Taka-chan was done.

Except for these two mushrooms which
he pushed off to one side—not even tried—
two huge shitakes that he didn’t wish
to eat. Or share. They looked okay. I’d
eat them. From a Doraemon candy tin,
Takaaki took a cigarette. A thin
wisp of smoke and hiss rose from his plate
to celebrate our ninety-seventh date.
“What should we do tonight,” I inquired,
“Go bowling? I’ll do anything you like.
Get drunk? Get naked?” [Silence.] “Steal a bike?”
“I swam forty laps today. I’m wired.”
He exhaled, emitting a dry laugh,
“Shall we play Scrabble, then, and then have bath?”

The carrot on my fork released a drop
of curry with a thick and oily splash.
The very second my utensil stopped,
I discerned, across the table, a flash—
something which I hadn’t seen before—
metallic—worth investigating?—or
maybe not: a passenger aircraft
hovering above New Jersey as it passed
behind Takaaki’s silhouette, gliding in
to Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark—
nothing necessary to report.
A zero. Nothing nasty hiding in
those pink puffs of lead behind his head—
those distant thunderclouds, I should have said.

“Have bath sounds good. But Scrabble, I will pass.
You always win, you creep. You clearly cheat,”
I said, “It’s obvious. You won the last
nine times. You’re not going to defeat
me for time number ten tonight.” I put
my foot down firmly. There. Takaaki’s butt
he then extinguished in the blob of sauce
that recently had claimed his match. “You lost
because you play without strategy.
There is no need for me to cheat,” he sighed,
as if I were an insect on his thigh
too insignificant to crush—a flea.
“You waste time making interesting word—
not the word that wins.” My mouth conferred

a moment with a chunk of chicken dyed
cadmium by turmeric—the curry.
Then I swallowed. “I have always tried
to think of Scrabble with you as purely
educational. It is my wish
to help you in enlarging your English
vocabulary. And defeating you—
too easily—as surely I must do—
would only be embarrassing. I know
how sensitive to that Nihon-jin are.
Destruction on a Scrabble board would mar
our beautiful relationship.” “Honto?
It sounds like Maru-chan’s afraid to play.”
“If you want to play with words, okay.”

(Maru-chan, or “Little Maru” is
the new nickname by which I’m known
in Japanese. I really don’t exist
in English anymore—except at home.
Maru works best for me as a suffix
to Kobayashi—a fictitious ship—
the bane of all Starfleet cadets, but one.
The Kobayashi Maru ranks among
his greatest triumphs. Though Kirk’s victory
pales before my own: I am the first
to turn the Kobayashi into verse—
in one of those strange twists of history.
Present me a no-win scenario,
I get the rules. Then change the game. Let’s go.

“The Kobayashi Maru is a test
of character. There is no way to win.
We simulate a vessel in distress,
hull breached, an icy vacuum pouring in.
During rescue operations, a surprise
Klingon assault destroys you—Enterprise.
The purpose of this mission is to face
fear—certain death. Logic indicates
we should get started. This is Judgment Day.
You will be graded by computer. I
am the computer. Any questions? Try
to die with dignity. Dismissed.” Okay,
Takaaki, you be Spock. You are aware
computers can be—hmm—re-programmed?) There

Takaaki tapped a second cigarette
on Dora-chan’s bountiful blue tin.
I went on eating, watching the sun set
like some enormous, obvious omen.
A hungry hush settled on our table
until a tulip petal quite incapable
of hanging on fell to my straw placemat
softly. Ten long minutes passed like that—
so painfully they felt more like twenty.
I drew bananas in my curry sauce
while Taka-chan established who was boss.
Then he offered, “More?” “I’ve had plenty.
Thanks.” I roll the tulip petal from
the mat between forefinger and thumb

contemplatively as Takaaki takes
dishes to the kitchen. In the glass—
his picture windows—I assessed the stakes.
I watched Takaaki work—efficient as
a machine—feeding things to Tupperware
containers, fridge and freezer over there.
I should be helping to put things away.
But I am lazy—what else can I say?
When I see him stationed at the sink,
I drink the dregs of my cold barley tea,
then saunter to the toilet for a pee,
leaving the door open while I tink-
le, shouting with some disgust, “Ew.
You didn’t flush.” I lied. I sometimes do.

Before we get to Scrabble, we must first
prepare our space for battle. Wet dishes
rest in a rack while bubbles rise and burst
around Takaaki as he calmly swishes
cutlery though the hot suds. Each plate
I plan to dry I first inspect. I scrape
a shred of gray organic matter loose
from the light, lilac pattern. I peruse
both back and front and add it to the stack
of china in the cabinet above—
enraging him with all my heart, my love.
This underhanded method of attack
earns my palm a pair of scalding forks
falling from the sky with deadly force.

“God damn it! What is wrong with you?”
I thundered to a non-existent jury,
“You stab me with hot forks out of the blue—
I promise to play Scrabble and—” And fury,
rage crystallizing in Takaaki’s eye!
“I know when you’re mocking me.” I
do not reply—permit my mask to slip—
seeing I’ve destabilized his lip:
it jiggles like red Jello in a mold
before the gelatin’s had time to set
sufficiently. Our glances briefly met,
calculating how long we could hold
some fresh profanity from breaking out.
He placed his boiled hands beneath the spout

allowing a cascade of cold to run,
so his corpuscles had a chance to cool.
But were they? Something horrid had begun
with Scrabble at sunset. A kind of duel:
a test of tempers turning letters—tiles—
into finely calibrated dials.
I followed a cylindrical, stiff ping,
a hollow contact in my sonar ring,
the sound of flesh, not schools of frightened fish,
darting down into the icy depths.
I sensed his anger out there, sliding West,
enveloped in the velvet dark. I wish
he hadn’t tried to lecture me before
about my Scrabble game. Now, I abhor

violence like any veteran
who knows what horrors in his soul may lurk.
But I’m American, and human, and,
against a submarine, depth-charges work
well—like words—if you deploy them right.
But using double-meanings in a fight
is regulated largely by extent
of your technology. Intelligent
tacticians will grade every syllable
according to its true explosive power,
testing new artillery in the shower,
walking, waking, working—if capable—
gathering the forces to make love.
Love is where things get a little rough.

Love is not a game like Scrabble, is it?
It’s more like dominoes. With rubble. War
may be our best analogy. I pick it
because war has no ceiling here, no floor.
I make love without limits—not sky,
the stars, the earth, the sea. I’ll tell you why.
The language I command is so advanced
it now permits me to transform romance
into a weapon. Watch as I revoke
each kiss, caress, all pretense of pity.
Watch me turn your face into a city,
blow your eyes to atoms—balls of smoke.
Watch me fly from love to Nagasaki,
deliberately incinerate—. Takaaki

frowned. He turned the faucet off. He dried
his swollen fingertips on a dishtowel
with ‘It’s Thanksgiving’ printed on one side,
a turkey, goose—some kind of cooked, brown fowl—
emblazoned on the other. He withdrew
another cigarette. (There were just two
cigarettes remaining in Doraemon.)
“Are we still playing games or are we done?”
I left when he invited me to go.
Reluctantly. No goodbyes were said.
I understood. I even expected
this. Nagasaki went too far. To show
how bad I felt, I called him—to surrender—
unconditionally—the 7th of December.