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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.

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On Reading Rilke: The Delight and Terror of Mortality

And how bewildered is any womb-born creature
that has to fly. As if terrified and fleeing
from itself, it zigzags through the air, the way
a crack runs through a teacup. So the bat
quivers across the porcelain of evening.

— Marie Rainer Rilke, Duino Elegies, No. 8

I’ve been reading Rilke, driven by a bungled attempt to taunt Ray Wylie Hubbard on Twitter. I noticed Ray dropped the poet’s name from his version of “The Messenger” on Co-Starring. The lyrics originally were:

And the message I give you is by this old poet, Rilke
He said, ‘Our fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures.’

Suddenly, poor Rilke was reduced to “this old poet.” No namecheck. I promptly switched my Twitter profile to Ghost of Rilke and jabbed at Ray, which, heavyweight badass Tex-ahoma singer/songwriter that he is, he didn’t even dignify with a reply. But through that process it dawned on me that I’d never read Rilke. Had no real idea what he was about. I thought, mistakenly, that he was French, for that matter, not a German whose mother dressed him as a girl for the first year or two of his life, named him Marie Rainer, and took some perverted solace in the echo she felt of an infant daughter she’d lost previously.

Being me and being diligent, I researched a bit and settled on reading a collection of Rilke’s work with a forward by poet Robert Hass and extensive footnotes, largely primary source explanations from Rilke’s journals, letters, etc., that explicate the poems. I tried running headlong at them but bounced off, for the most part. There are sections that seem crystal clear, bristling with sharp imagery and brisk pace. Others, not so much. Like many great poets, his work is infused with a lot of his personal, first-hand experience, and you have to peel that back to really see what he’s getting at. Trying to sum it up, no doubt too broadly and with a blunted spear tip, I’d say he grapples with the core ideas of existentialism, but there’s an embrace of the eternal nothingness as a force to be embraced, something worthy of worship, worthy of, well, elegies.

So after reading Hass I decided my best approach would be to start with the Duino Elegies. I’ve come away impressed, but I can’t say I fully have my head around them. I’m chipping away, each reading revealing some new nuance. There still are stretches where I’m bewildered, but it’s worth the time. The words are gorgeous (I’ve not read other translations, but based on Hass’ praise and my first-hand experience, this one is good. Each poem appears in both German and English, so anyone who’s interested in the subtleties of the translating process can dig in).

I love the way Rilke throws his arms around our mortality, embracing it lovingly and then smiling as it slowly slides away, back into the nothingness of eternity. The work spawns associations in my head with Alan Moore’s amazing tome Jersusalem with its Builders and the living and the dead all wondering around simultaneously on different plains of existence. And in December, as I do each Christmas, I revisited James Joyce’s “The Dead,” only this time I zagged a bit and listened to the audio version. Very rewarding, mulling these themes of mortality and death and remembrance. Gabriel watching the swirling snow fall across all of Ireland at the end of The Dead is an image that sits atop all of the other scribbling on my palimpsest brain. I also conjure Samuel Beckett, whose response to the existential abyss was a sort of Irish jig with the absurd.

Why all this? I’m looking ahead at 20 summers, and wondering what I’ll do with them. How will I spend this time I have left? I recently listened to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, where he was interviewing Wendell Pierce, hands-down one of my favorite contemporary actors (The Wire, Treme). This is where I was introduced to the 20 summers idea. Pierce mentioned it, can’t recall whom he attributed it to. He and I are about the same age, and this is the point where you realize life is finite. I’ll turn 59 this summer. Genetics and fortune willing, I have 20 summers left. Tops. I catch myself realizing the list of things I’ll get to comes with an expiration date that’s fast approaching. It’s already 2 years since I spent a summer in Costa Rica. Six years since I moved to Athens. Forty years since I staggered out of Swissvale High School, stoned, clueless, and utterly unprepared for reality. I’m honestly not sure how I’ve gotten this far. I’ve learned a lot along the way. But I want to learn more.

* * *

As COVID-19 grabbed us by the gonads and twisted, I retreated inward, a familiar route for me. My main realization has been that I am, at heart, a hermit. I really, genuinely prefer to be alone. I hate small talk. Socializing. Putting myself out there. I’m fine in my own head and for all those years that I was an exec or leader, it was excruciating to get out there and put on a gregarious grin. Even then, I failed as often as not. But I gave it the old college try, and overall the career went much better than I’d ever dreamed, a mix of good luck, good timing, and opening the damned door when opportunity knocked.

* * *

December 23 dawns in a bruise of purples and red teetering toward sun or gloom, still undecided. The nights are long, each now getting incrementally shorter. The wood stove is humming. After having lost my wood-stove mojo between seasons, I’m back, better than ever, cutting kindling and building coal beds that keep the house warm 24×7 without resorting to the grid. I no longer get up in the middle of the night to feed wood to the fire-belching beast. I let it go out and hop around in a hoodie in the 50-degree cabin while I reignite it each morning before dawn. Sydney the Cockatoo still slumbering in the Forest Room, his home and locus for destructive fun. Since Sunny’s death I’m letting him stay up later (He used to harass her mercilessly as sunset neared so I’d cover his cage and put him to bed for both canine and human peace of mind. Now he’s often up till 9 p.m.. And one thing we learned: He definitely needs his 12 hours of beauty rest or things can get pretty ugly.) This morning, 8 a.m. clicking into view, he is quiet. Not a peep. He’ll generally start clucking and making sweet, soft noises when he wants to wake up. This morning, all’s quiet on the cockatoo front. At least for now.

And I’m thinking. Taking stock. Wondering what the fuck the next 20 summers hold. Been thinking about Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality. But I guess my mental meanderings in this warming forest cabin that I call Innisfree are more accurately framed Intimations of Mortality. Intimations? Nah. More like that punch in the mouth Mike Tyson warned us about, the one that leaves all plans in a heap of blood and rags on the floor of a sweat-soaked boxing ring.

But the intimations, the punches in the mouth, they’re here. They’re constant, infused in everything I see. Everything I read. Life is ephemeral. But does it matter? Who really gives a fuck? Maybe Rilke has the answer, buried somewhere in elegies percolating with acrobats and Egyptian ruins and bats and all the baggage he built up in gathering the material for them.

I’ll keep looking. And keeping those 20 summers top of mind in everything I do …