Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: 'Zazen' by Vanessa Veselka

Fire Sermon: Thoughts on Zazen by Vanessa Veselka (Red Lemonade, 2011)

 In her debut novel, Zazen, Vanessa Veselka catches the deeply unsettling atmosphere of the North American urban drosscape better than almost any of her contemporaries I can think of. In an edgy, lyrical prose and dialog that is smart and sharp she gives us a brilliantly accurate vision of both the U.S. mainstream and its countercultural other swirling in that shared predicament we call late capitalism. And indeed, the hour is very late: in Veselka’s novel ecological and economic disaster hover in the wings; the religion of consumer ecstasy raises its gigantic cathedrals on every available space; our distant wars flourish like well-fed plants; the violent police state expands inexorably; the TVs are on all the time.
 What is to be done in this world where holding on to your humanity and individuality is a constant struggle, perhaps a losing battle? It is this question that preoccupies several of the novel’s characters and positively haunts the main character, Della, through whom we wander this teetering place and time.
 Della is a remarkable fictional creation.  In her late 20s, with an advanced degree in paleontology from Davis, she finds herself waitressing at Rise Up Singing, a flexibly-vegan restaurant, and living temporarily with her brother, Credence, and his partner, Annette, who is pregnant with twins.
 Della is a human seismograph, uncannily sensitive to the world’s pain and injustices. At Davis she had almost been undone by how deeply she felt for the child victims of a terrorist attack on a Russian school; now, back in the familiar city of her earlier years, back within the orbit of her left wing parents and her activist brother, she is driven by a desire to understand the whole mess, to do something. After all, “[A]nybody with any sense knows what’s coming”. Bombs start going off in the city.
 The people around Della mostly know something of what’s coming, and react in a variety of ways. Some are getting out, fleeing to Mexico, Bali, or, like her girlfriend Jimmy, to Honduras; some pour their energies and organizational skills into sex parties and noise bands; some, like Credence, persist in the thankless tasks of community organizing and consciousness raising; and some, like her new friend Tamara from an eco-community called The Farm, may have darker designs.
 Della is pulled in all these directions, and Veselka does an amazing  job of making her confusion and anguish credible and of engaging our sympathy  for her contradictory impulses.  However unique,quirky, and damaged she is, there is a Della in “anyone with sense”, anyone who can look squarely in the face of what Yeats called “this preposterous pig of a world”.  And yet, most wonderfully, Veselka refuses to let this novel rest in in a faddish weltschmerz. Della has the ability to draw us into a perspective which might, just might, give us a chance at a crystalline clarity after we’ve philosophized with a geology hammer,  a chance at loving the world’s improbable beauty  after all our rage.
 There are two intertwining sets of ideas and images in this novel which prise open a door to authentic hope. The first comes from paleontology, the second from Buddhism, and they are the occasion of Veselka’s most exquisite writing and compelling thinking. They are connected by the concept of Deep Time, the vast aeons of earth history in comparison to which the span of human civilizations, never mind a single human life, is almost nothing:
Out of a desire to understand, I began collecting maps and putting them on the walls. Gift shop maps with sea monsters on them and beveled, unfamiliar coastlines, cold war maps with the Soviet Menace spreading like leprosy. Pink East Germany. Red China. Maps of Pangaea and Gondwanaland from back before the seams pulled apart when we were still all one big continent—Deep Time, where countries turn to silt, silt turns to stone and we can now tell time by comparing the rates of nations collapsing—Biostratigraphy? Patriastratigraphy? Following the law of superposition, one thing always follows another: map of the Trail of Tears, bike map, subway map, and one I drew when I was twelve and wrote “Della’s world” in scented marker at the top. Historical, geological, topographical, ideological and imaginary. Sitting in Credence’s attic I tried to figure out if culture was just geology. Maybe Rwanda was caused by mountain building. And the Russo-Japanese War by glacial till. Maybe you need pirated rivers in the headlands before you can have a Paris Commune. (p.4)
DeepTime, a sense of which is integral to Buddhism, might, however, be redeemed, made humanly relevant  by compassion. The Buddha in his ‘Fire Sermon’ declared that the whole world is endlessly burning, ablaze in the fires of passion, aversion, delusion and suffering. Recognizing this fire is the first step on the path to liberation from aeons of suffering,  it is a wisdom that generates compassion for all sentient beings. Della is obsessed by the images of people who set themselves on fire in terrible protest at the delusion driving injustice. She collects pictures of self-immolators, eyewitness accounts of their immolation, makes a map identifying the places where they go up in flames:

 I found a picture online of a man setting himself on fire. It didn’t say where he was or what he was protesting. Next to his leg was a gas can. He must have just dropped the match because I could still see his clothes. His arms were raised and flailing. I thought of Buddhists who can sit, quiet as wellwater, and burn like candles, like in that famous photo where the Zen monk is sitting cross-legged on fire in the middle of an intersection while cars drive past and people watch. Everything near him is blurry, the cars, the people, because they’re moving. But he’s not. He is absolutely sharp because he is absolutely still. Every detail of his robe, his eyelids and the oil from the smoke is absolutely clear. (p.5)
 Della’s one place of being centered is a yoga studio, however much she might turn her acid wit on some of her neighbors on their mats. Through Della we begin to see the poin of the Zen quip “Don’t just do something, sit there!”:

She seated herself and took several deep breaths.
“Breathing out the day as we’ve known it until now and creating space for something new to arise. I invite you to let go of the expectations you came with and open to the experience of your body on the mat. Imagine a golden light coming in through the crown of your head with each breath, drawing it deeper into you and letting it go on the out breath.”
My shoulders quivered. I saw Credence sitting in a field surrounded by katydids. They looked like leaves but when I ran over to him they all flew away. I thought this must be how it feels to speak in tongues. Right before, when no one knew you were about to.
“Letting it fill up each place that speaks to you.”
Like abandoned airfields broken by weeds and baking in the sun.
“And bring special attention to those areas that may need noticing. Your hips, or your belly, or maybe a part of you that needs forgiving, that part of you that needs gentleness. And create a space for that gentleness to come in with your breath.”
Mom used to say you have to look sadness right in the eye but I’m done with that. My body came alive. My fingers tingled and I could taste the salt in the air. I held my arm up and where once a sharp outline delineated me from the rest of the world there was a gradation. I was still myself, but my edges faded and when I moved I felt the Black Ocean give. (p. 38 -39)
 Sitting there doesn’t mean drifting into a brief moment of narcissistic bliss, or a higher form of existential paralysis. For Della it opens the possiblilty of connection, of community, of forgiveness, of compassion for the brokenness of us all.
 In such a political novel as Zazen it would be remiss of me not to comment on its filiations with some contemporary political philosophy. Veselka critiques so many of the ways people attempt to evade “the system”, the ways some people contest its shallow definitions  of goodness, sustainability, happiness, beauty and community, that one might wonder if she leaves us with any reasons for political action at all, or should we retreat into a kind of personal no-go area, in the system but not of it?
 I would argue that far from leaving us in the lurch, Zazen opens up ways of thinking about ourselves as political beings which are deep calls to action, to an ethic of boundless compassion, to a spiritual agility that can outmaneuver the dehumanizing forces around us. The world of Zazen illustrates what Giorgio Agamben calls “the state of exception” where the rule of law is suspended and special laws are enacted which undermine democratic institutions.  Agamben characterizes the USA as having instituted a global state of exception with its war on terror; with this state of exception “the juridico-political system becomes a machine which may at any moment turn lethal”; it is “leading the West to a global civil war”. For Agamben there are no quick and easily identifiable solutions to this dangerous impasse, no list of tasks, no apocalyptic moment precipitating “the” revolution. And yet, he writes, “the absolutely desperate state of affairs in the society in which I live fills me with hope.” Why? Because “[t]here is something that humans are and have to be, but this something is not an essence nor properly a thing: it is the fact of one’s own existence as possibility or potentiality”. The coming community is now and tomorrow.
 Della would understand:
Annette says I’m too hard on the world, that I only see one side.
Grace says I’m afraid of my own longing.
I looked around at the smoke and people. I couldn’t find any hate in me anywhere. The world is a violent child none of us will get to see grow up.
I decided to love it anyway. (p.256 -257)

This astonishing novel might make you love the world even more and yourself even less.

(c) Ger Killeen


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Review: 'True Stories from the Future' by A. Molotkov

Adoration of the Sprouting Question: Some thoughts on True Stories from the Future by A. Molotkov
In his collection True Stories from the Future (Boone’s Dock Press, 2011) Anatoly Molotkov writes a poetry that I can only describe by means of paradoxes: the work is genially unsettling, laconically digressive, enigmatically limpid, serenely Kafkaesque. From its first pages it opens up some big philosophical issues, and invites us as readers to enter a space of questioning. Each and every poem in this book is remarkably lucid in its expressive gestures, but wonderfully, the book is constantly questioning its own apparent transparency, reminding us that all acts of attentive reading are acts of endless translating.
 If this book had an epigraph, it could easily have been these lines from Wallace Stevens’  poem ‘On the Road Home’: “There are many truths, /But they are not parts of a truth.” Molotkov gives us his version of this idea in his opening poem ‘The Truth’:

            maybe flawed hands
            exert a perfect touch
            maybe the truth
            is a lot of lies
            mixed together
There is no place in Molotkov’s vision for the truth, for some grand narrative that does violence to the small provisional truths of dailiness; there is no place for an inhuman perfectionism. On the contrary, he acknowledges what the title of another poem names as ‘The Painful Impossibility of Correction’.  As another poem ‘Broken Birds’ says, “we go on tangents/  and get defensive” ;  we are all “people with cracks”, as he puts it elsewhere.
 I am tempted to read Molotkov’s short lyric ‘Questionless’ as a kind of ars poetica for his work:
               when my life was empty
               I planted question marks along my path
               now that leaves have sprouted
               I can no longer recall
               what my questions used to be
 This is a poem which both extols the value of rigorous questioning but also suggests that poetry can take us beyond an openended skepticism, that the act of writing poems (and reading itself, perhaps) is restorative, nourishing,  and vivifying; that each strategic answer is a strategic cure for the corrosive, glittering flow of the official Truth (i.e “ a lot of lies”). In ‘Hunger for Information’ Molotkov concludes with a wish:
              may your story remain
              may it be
Endless?  Yes, in the sense that the narrative of a finite life lived authentically may keep going on into the future and retrospectively illuminate the past by the sheer ethical force of its authenticity. As Molotkov says in the poem ‘Invitation’ with which this book concludes:
if there is a room
at the end of your life
with its door open
its windows
its butterflies
are you coming?

are you there yet?

are you here?
This lovely book, as Molotkov might say,  involves us in the rhythm of the truth that is many truths.
© Ger Killeen


Monday, November 14, 2011

PsycNET - The Bipolar Economy?

PsycNET - Display Record

Here's an interesting article from 1935 about the social psychology of the business cycle. I think the thesis needs refining, and perhaps a bit more underpinning by hard economics. Nevertheless...

Monday, October 31, 2011

Poem: Original Eve

Original Eve

From this vantage she
says it’s hard to believe

now in a god’s blunt urge
to assume what must

always have been the world’s
strangeness into one order

into endless rededications
of nouns arcing

tribally through the milky
collusion passing

for experience. I went
after something (some thing?)

nameless though not caring
finally if it were only

a flung clump of fatted night
or a blue orb of rain.

One noun, one thing,
one verb, one action:

everything sheathed cosily
under one skin:

do you know she says
in those days just

like my arms my clitoris
was under voluntary control

I could make it swell
and quiver like raising

a finger, a stint
of pleasurable oddity

that never came close
to outshouting that unsafe

bristling I sensed
I was formed around.

As for the serpent tale she says
serpent my eye I

just watched myself
thinking in a river

until one of us said
if you walk away the world

will discover you uncover
you recover you just

decide if you want to know
a new word pain.

I did.
I do.

© Ger Killeen

Friday, October 28, 2011

The End of Days that is every day

“The End of Days that is every day”[1]
How to characterize the meaning of the Occupy Movement has become, among sectors of the mainstream media,  a genuine fetishizing of “clarity” with respect to who the participants are and what they want. The relief at being able to get a handle on the movement is palpable on both the right and the left: from the Daily Mail’s fearless undercover operative’s description of Occupy London as a “Rabble without a cause” to the earnest research in the Huffington Post which found the Occupy Wall Street protesters to be “a population more motivated by reform than massive overhauls of existing systems, a group well-educated and well-versed on relevant policy issues rather than a radical movement likely to resort to violence”, one sees the same desire: to define the movement as the latest incarnation of  already existing political agendas which may or may not or not for long cohabit harmoniously.
 Surely we have a better way to think about, and through, the Occupy Movement, conceptual tools which allow us to account both for its uniqueness and the degree to which it unsettles or should unsettle all of us (a positive thing for me). I’m talking, of course, about the work of Giorgio Agamben, particularly his notion of “the coming community”[2], a community not to be defined in terms of essence, but which names new forms of sociality, strictly unthinkable in terms of the political identities I mentioned above.
 In his essay ‘Tiananmen’[3] Agamben writes:

 “The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the conquest or control of the State, but a struggle between the State and non-State (humanity), an insurmountable disjunction between whatever singularity and the State organization. This has nothing to do with the simple affirmation of the social in opposition to the State that has often found expression in the protest movements of recent years.”
 I believe the joyous specter of ideas such as these haunt both the Occupy Movement itself as well as opposition to it. For me the Occupy Movement is an image of what Agamben calls “potentiality”, “which no identity and no vocation can exhaust”[4]. Human existence is pure possibility, and thus fraught with terrible dangers and potential liberation and joy. For those of us who support any aspect of the Occupy Movement we are reminded that this is not “the Revolution” or any kind of political end process. It is not the advent of a single transformative event but a whisper of a possible future community which could incarnate justice and equality. Nothing is guaranteed. Ever. It could be utterly otherwise. Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow the tanks could roll in. But today is the end of days that is every day. “At the point you perceive the irreparability of the world, at that point it is transcendant”, writes Agamben[5]. It is in this way that all who make up the Occupy Movement are together beyond the imposed and self-imposed political identities which preoccupy the media, the pundits and the professional politicians. The anti-Capitalists, the anti-Big Bankists, the Jobs Now marchers, the End The Wars activists, the Legalize Pot groups, the Stop Foreclosures groups, the drummers and the singers, the dancers and the meditators, we look at each other and see something we can hardly name but which we sometimes recognize. “Seeing something simply in its being-thus—irreparable, but not for that reason necessary; thus, but not for that reason contingent—is love”.[6] This is our Occupation.

[1] Giorgio Agamben, ‘Profanations’
[2] Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Coming Community’, Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1993.
[3] Giorgio Agamben, ibid. 85, 6
[4] Giorgio Agamben, ‘Potentialities’.
[5] ‘The Coming Community, 106.
[6] ibid. 106

© Ger Killeen

New Poem


It was a sound
the size and color

of a ripe almond.
I took it in,

breathed it out
day after night after day.

I follow the rain;
I run towards the thunder.

© Ger Killeen

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Terrorist As The Letter T

The Terrorist As The Letter T

#1.       I toss this into the mix from outside
            the high-voltage trammel lines.
            I wouldn’t want to be tardy, if I were you.

#2.       It’s a graven invitation to the marriage
            of Terpsichore and Trinitrotoluene,
            two distant branches of the one tree.

#3.       Tanzania or Togo will always pick up
            the tab, so don’t keep a tally,
            tally-ho, tally-ho.

#4.       Such tidings! Until now the trajectory
            of my bloodline was a tractrix,
            tomorrow it will tend towards a catenary.

#5.       (This is taboo. They are taping
            all your tangents,
            taping them off.)

#6.       ‘Time Ain’t On Your Side’,
            intone Tiresias and the Thebans.
            It’s topped the charts for ages.

#7.       Tranquility
            is armed
            to the teeth.

#8.       If your troops are T-cells
            in the immune system of the body politic,
            I’m reverse transcriptase.

#9.       Wedding bells: I say
            tintinabulation, you say tocsin.
            Here comes trouble, time for toil.

#10.    I toss up a theme
            and topple your towers. Tada!
            I’m ten public enemies in one.

#11.    Tragedy! Thunderbolt!
            Titanic throes!
            Tumult! Tyburn trees!

#12.    If your tropes are T-cells
            in the constitution
            I’m reverse transcriptase.

#13.    My tell-tale traits are on the tube.
            Not to worry, hard to tell: Toulouse-Lautrec’s
            mugshots touched up my good side.

#14.    I leap in my Chevy Tahoe
            with my tommy-guns and my tra-la-la,
            take the low road towards Tiajuana.

#15.    My tracks and traces
            are everywhere,
            top-notch disguises:

#16.    a topiarist
            of erotic tableaux
            in the tawny privets;

#17.    a translator
            of Tibetan mantras
            into Telugu;

#18.    a tippler
            of fine teas
            in tenebrous tasting rooms.

#19.    Township
            to trembling township.
            Tragedy! Tyburn trees!

#20.    All night the tom-toms thump
            in Terminus Alley, east L.A.
            Tlingit Indians are chanting

#21.    ‘All the way
            all the way
            all the way with Tokay’.

#22.    The silent c in Tucson
            is a trap in the tarmac,
            a shibboleth.

#23.    /tu:ksn/
            means death,

#24.    Time is not on my side.
            Who’s that tearing down my door?
            The tetrarchs of trouble.

#25.    Tie, truss, torture,
            trick, twist, turnscrew,
            torque, test, truncheon.

#26.    “Take a vacation from temporality;
            trail the Templars through
            the tropics of televised fabliaux”.                          (Good Cop)

#27.    “A Tazer is a sex toy
            for exhibitionists.
            Je t’adore, ma tazer”.                                           (Bad Cop)

#28.    If your traps are T-cells
            in our tête-à-têtes
            I’m reverse transcriptase.

#29.    Tie, torque, Tonton Macoute,
            Thus can one trust
            the testimony of tarantulas.

#30.    Where was I
            when the first tower tottered?
            I was babbling about tragedy in Timbuktu.

#31.    Truss, turnkey, truncheon,
            tunful of turds
            and all the time in the world.

#32.    On live TV
            tumult and tribute
            under the Ty, under the burn, under the Tyburn tree.

#33.    I’m not theatrical,
            I’m not weeping,
            it’s the gas, the teargas.

©  Ger Killeen

from 'Studies In Starlight'

4. Sidereal time is mixed up with the rest of the time

    In defiance of collection there are the random pickings and discardings. Unlike cliché, this is not an idyll. On Sundays it stinks of burning twigs. On Mondays it stinks of Sundays. The rationale of my week is wreckage and not destruction? Dream on, dream on the input. The consequences are very unfunny: phantom limb, exact change, torture. They neither sow nor reap, neither tendon nor recipe. I strain from it, from out of the frying pan and into the soup of the symptom. It takes ages. It takes rocks. It takes me back.

© Ger Killeen

What kind of writing is this?

This is a link to some thoughts of mine on Elizabeth Willis from whom I learned to write prosepoems.
Optimism of the Will

from 'Studies In Starlight'

3. Star trek

  What relief. Serene Columbus among the branes, remember-me-nots sprouting in the accretion discs, sanctus sanctus sanctus Lord God of onwardness and recentness. All around, the optative anthem without recoil fills the air, augments the lungs. The cool eschatology of blip and blink sinks in and rises through me in dreams of gyndroids: this is my own planet, this is the bliss of being alive among the compliant undead.  To have bet on the Schwarzschild equation and escaped, one beautiful plus among the minuses. Like a surgeon, I explore. Purely.  Hier ist kein wahrum.

© Ger Killeen

from 'Studies In Starlight'

2. star without atmosphere

 Dark archipelago sensed from inside, such expansive poverty! Wind you can never get a fix on, veering from one impossible dimension to another. I drift past a boutique selling emotions, ‘The Tears of Things’, am splashed by a lorry where the mopped up leakages from memory slop about in blue plastic barrels. A sneer draws a line in the air, dares me to cross. The magazine’s probably empty, but I make a show of taking the safety off. Everyone gets lost. The best subscribe to the soundtrack while the worst scavenge for missing photographs among the middens of their native transit camps. I believe I can hear and smell the ocean. In the thundery weather of always being hidden in plain sight I perfect the assassin’s flit. I’ll take what I want, riddle the glee, slip behind the sentences like rain.

© Ger Killeen

from 'Studies In Starlight'

1. when the morning stars sang together

  TV in the bedroom, TV in the kitchen, TV in the bathroom, TV in the livingroom. In defense of sullenness I stake a claim on the dawn, plant myself in between the cranked-up speakers wringing out the hired mourning of Joy Division.  It makes a big difference to me. The Haiti earthquake becomes earthquakier, various senators become more pitiful and pitiless, buckets of fried chicken glisten like coldsores. Gods are being whiplashed all across the spectrum, everything detransfigured from within. From within this very day.

© Ger Killeen