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RIP Robert Bly

Johnson’s Cabinet Watched by Ants

I
It is a clearing deep in a forest:
overhanging boughs make a low place.
Here the citizens we know during the day,
The ministers, the department heads,
Appear changed: the stockholders of
large steel companies
In small wooden shoes;
here are the generals dressed
as gamboling lambs.

II
Tonight they burn the rice supplies;
tomorrow they lecture on Thoreau;
tonight they move around the trees;
Tomorrow they pick the twigs
from their clothes;
Tonight they throw the firebombs;
tomorrow they read
the Declaration of Independence;
tomorrow they are in church.

III
Ants are gathered around an old tree.
In a choir they sing,
in harsh and gravelly voices,
Old Etruscan songs on tyranny.
Toads nearby clap their small hands,
and join the fiery songs,
their five long toes trembling
in the soaked earth.

Robert Bly

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My Latest Literary Obsession: Bring on the Bard

I’m flying high in the arms of caffeine. I’ve been avoiding coffee because my gut has been twisted, but this morning I was feeling the urge. Green tea is nice, but I like that full on blitz, frantic fingers on keyboard, that only a strong cup of coffee or two can deliver. Bang. There it is.

I’m smitten with the Uncited podcast. The two women behind it, young, goofy, at times misdirected, often spot-on, are a hoot, and it’s interesting to hear their takes on works I view through a much older lens. I recently picked up a recommendation from them. I was looking for something akin to Borne, a bonbon book easy to devour but still packed with literary calories to stay the guilt (the so-many-books-out-there-why-am-I-wasting-my-time-on-this-rubbish guilt). Their pick, Station 11, is filling the bill so far. It opens in the fourth act of Shakespeare’s Lear and then rolls briskly into an end-of-the-world pandemic story, hitting all my major buttons. I’ve obsessed about end-of-the world stories since I was a wee Yinzer, probably from the time I first saw Omega Man, Charlton Heston at his defiant sci-fi finest (fuck all that Bible shit; Heston’s greatest work was filled with deserted streets and apocalyptic visions that put Revelation to shame … Omega Man, Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes). Station 11 is off to a fine start. I actually had to force myself to put it down on this 19-degree morning, waiting for the wood stove to do its thing, flipping pages on my Kindle in rapid succession and envisioning a day lost in a book, something I don’t indulge with nearly enough frequency these days and that I’m still not convinced I’ll manage today, having closed Kindle to junk surf (check Twitter, review Reddit, make sure the social presence for the nonprofit I work for is copacetic, check email — why the fuck is Google claiming the business page for one of said nonprofit’s subsidiaries in being put in some sort of limbo because of some unspecified problem on said business page?). Then I jumped into this moment. I’ve missed only one day in the 30 that have passed since I started doing these daily exercises at the behest of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It’s been transformative, from a writing and psycological perspective, and I have been meaning to send her some sort of communication saying thanks for that. She advocates a Zen approach to writing, just pounding your thoughts into the computer (well, not computer, actually, since she published Bones in the 1980s and seemed a tad ambivalent about even typewriters at that point). This has helped me turn it into a system as I follow her guidance to begin a writing exercise each day with the words “This Moment” and then dash off into whatever I’m obsessing about in that instance. I’ve produced a few things I’m quite proud of, though they constitute a microscopic percentage of the 31,000+ words I’ve churned out in the process (yes, my monkey mind can’t stop from making it a bit of a competition … how many total words, how many consecutive days … ). But creature of habit that I am, I sit here in the predawn Ohio morning, candles lit, Brian Harnetty’s amazing Shawnee, Ohio, playing low enough through the Sonos system to keep my mind rooted in Appalachian Ohio while I let my consciousness (no, not false class consciousness, that’s an entirely different suffering of the benz) drift from Pittsburgh to Albuquerque to Tennessee, to forests, to flying squirrels, to the Globe Theater, to all points along the timeline of my increasingly fading memories. Why the Globe this morning? Shakespeare is on my mind this moment. During the pandemic, I’ve been devouring plays on a pay-per-view basis, phenomenal theater that rivals the works I was privileged to see live at the Folger and the Shakespeare Theater Company in D.C., which recently produced Patrick Page’s incredible All the Devils are Here monologue/meditation on the Bard’s villains that I watched last night and finished with a standing ovation when it concluded. Brilliant. Simply brilliant. Page traces the Bard’s bad guys throughout the plays, from the stereotype-steeped Moor in Titus Andronicus to the more complex, nuanced villains of his later plays. It got me thinking. I’ve been looking for my Big Book of 2021, the whale of a work that I try to consume and get my head around each year. In the past, I’ve tackled Ulysses, Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, In Search of Lost Time, Don Quixote … why not the Bard this year? So my new obsession is born, thanks in part to that transcendent moment watching Page shift from one villain to another, especially during his discussion of what, exactly constitutes a sociopath in a discussion of Iago’s dastardly deeds in Othello. Page reads the traits of a sociopath, then makes a connection of said traits to a whinging orange sociopath more than four centuries removed from Shakespeare’s Iago. So during this morning’s junk surfing, mentioned a few hundred words earlier in this predawn diatribe, I subscribed to the subreddit for Shakespeare, where I intend to seek guidance on sources of insight to aid my efforts to plow through Shakespeare’s plays this year. I read the sonnets a few years ago to the sound of howler monkeys awakening in the jungle dawn cacophony of Costa Rica. It’s time to dive back into Shakespeare, steeped in memories of my undergrad work (a key reason, no doubt, that I’m smitten with the Uncited  pod — Amy and Chantelle’s undergrad-inspired rambling about the literary works they studied in school, reflecting on a golden era in their literary lives, much as do I, though my glance backward extends decades while theirs covers only a handful of years. A vision comes to mind of my battered-brown Riverside Shakespeare, purchased used in 1984, spine on the verge of breaking, pages grimy from the paws of countless previous owners, margin notes so cryptic I don’t know how the original notetaker understood them. I wonder what happened to it. Probably disintegrated somewhere during my cross-country travels. Dr. Charles Glendinning’s voice is next, a bit posh, pontificating on the plays, putting them in context, explaining the philosophy and history that infused them so that even when I had spent the previous week drinking and drugging, neglecting to read the assignment, I still emerged with key insights that remain with me 37 years removed.

This same professor gave us the best academic advice I’ve ever received as he patted us on the ass and sent us forth into the world at the close of our senior year: “If you come out of here thinking you know a lot, we’ve failed you utterly. But if you come out realizing how little you know, how much more there is to master, then we’ve given you a good start.”

Bring on the Bard.

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Of Walking In Ice … from Berlin to Paris via Athens (Ohio)

I’m wading through a dreary winter rain, bound for Paris with Werner Herzog. Today dripped into existence more than dawned. From the cabin window, I watch water course through the diamond-patterned bark of a nearby ash that’s slowly succumbing to boring insects. More distant trees are a jumble of twigs floating in a cloud crowning invisible Peach Ridge Road.

Through the fog I hear Herzog’s voice, that iconic, unemotional German-accented English, while I read Of Walking In Ice: Munich-Paris, 23 November-14 December 1974. He was hiking toward the winter solstice 46 years ago, days growing shorter, world growing colder, while this morning I’m on the other side of the darkness, perched on the last day of February after a brutal cold spell, welcoming warmer temperatures and longer days while sodden with the knowledge that winter likely isn’t done with us. I picked this book up for two reasons: (1) It was highly recommended on the Backlisted literary podcast, which I’ve become a big fan of; and (2) I’ve been devouring nature books since feasting on Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek a few years ago. And there’s a third reason: (3) I love Herzog’s films, those strange mixtures of fact and fiction hybridized into an alternative reality at once recognizable and completely foreign. Whether he’s slogging through the Amazon jungle with a bat-shit leading man or slicing and dicing the video testimony of a nature nut who became grizzly food, his films never fail to leave me deeply affected as they bubble up in dreams and random thoughts for the next several days or even weeks afterward.

Of Walking In Ice is a nature book, sort of. It’s also a pilgrimage that he embarks on in the belief that his ailing mentor, Lotte Eisner, will not, in fact cannot, die until he arrives by her bedside in Paris and grants her permission to do so. It’s vintage Herzog in that regard.

I said that this must not be, not at this time, German cinema could not do without her now, we would not permit her death. I took a jacket, a compass, and a duffel bag with the necessities. My boots were so solid and new that I had confidence in them. I set off on the most direct route to Paris, in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot. Besides, I wanted to be alone with myself.

His ambling meditations pull you along, pull you in, refuse to let you come to solid answers about the veracity of what’s being reported. He breaks into houses along the way, seeking refuge for the night. Is this metaphor? Is he really shoving open dilapidated doors, hoping no one is home? Or is this just his forced entry into some small village’s consciousness as he plods from Munich to Paris. Imagine, coming home to a soggy German filmmaker dripping all over your threadbare carpet …

And it is a nature book in its way, paced by diesel fumes and lumbering trucks, populated by ravens, jackdaws, crows, sparrows, livestock, vagabond dogs. Wild nature is kept at a distance. The forest appears far off, on the horizon, but he doesn’t enter it. Not physically. It’s more of a mental construct, a preserve where his mind is free to range and rage in reaction to his current environs.

When I looked out the window, a raven was sitting with his head bowed in the rain and didn’t move. Much later he was still sitting there, motionless and freezing and lonely and still wrapped in his raven’s thoughts. A brotherly feeling flashed through me and loneliness filled my breast.

In this Appalachian winter rain, I find a like mind, 46 years removed. I struggled with Walking in Ice initially, trying to get into the flow as it bobs and weaves while walking through the ice and rain. Once I realize it mirrors the way I think while hiking, I fall in step. The rapid bursts of non sequiturs, the fragments and fleeting thoughts. It is sometimes sublime, sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious, as when he starts obsessing about the words “millet” and “lusty,” convinced he never could find a sentence that would accommodate both. Then he shoots off in another direction before landing the following punchline several sentences later:

“My output of sweat is prodigious, as I march lustily thinking of millet.”

Bang. There it is.

The conclusion is incredible, a warm embrace of Lotte Eisner’s impact on German cinema and acknowledgement that this movement is now ready to fly under its own power, carrying forward a fledgling rebirth of a tradition that had been ripped apart by Germany’s Nazi era. Eisner, in fact, lived several more years after Herzog’s arrival at her bedside in Paris, and the book provides the text of a speech he delivered in 1982 when she posthumously received the Helmut Kāutner Prize for her contribution to German film. It’s the perfect coda.