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Defeated Despair

1 Mar

A few weeks ago Caravan published After the Last Sky, my first paid publication in almost three years. I wrote it for Caravan because I’m a completist, and I wanted to close a circle that opened three years ago with Darkness Visible.

After the Last Sky was written just as I was transitioning from one of the darkest periods of my life into the sort of smack-dab happiness that is impossible to channel into language. It’s odd how that happens, this chiaroscuro of emotion, but without that joy, or the pain that came before, this would have been a very different essay and perhaps a feebler one. This was an essay written, as John Berger once said in “Undefeated Despair” from a familiarity with every sort of rubble, including the rubble of words. It is an essay about ruin.

Here is a simpler formulation: I wrote an essay about women who learned to live without love even as I was falling in love. If that makes me a hypocrite, all I can say is it makes an excellent change from an earnest despair. But there is despair in that essay, of course there is, it’s all over the place. Despair with prescriptive, idealized feminisms; despair with structures that exalt and oppress women; despair with explanations that remain trapped in clichés, despair with myself, with the smallness and uselessness of my words in the face of totalizing narratives. Perhaps, then, all that my tiny satisfaction offered me was a way out of defeat, and with that I must move on. And so I will.

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Return to Hebdomad.

27 Feb

In the fall, as you know, I stalked several bands as part of my folk beat. PigPen, described below, was the one I chose for my finals essay.

It was the night Bette Midler came to see  The Old Man and the Old Moon. An hour before the house opened, the only visibly excited people were the stage managers, David and Allyson. Allyson was constantly bursting into “The Rose” during warm ups, while David pirouetted across the tiered stage as he set up. The seven performers that write, sing, play, act, and direct themselves as PigPen Theatre Company were remarkably impassive, their apprehension only betrayed by occasional fumbles whilst tuning their instruments. The mood was convivial, as it is each night they perform, but this saturday night was special: not only was Bette Midler coming, but the house was full, a luxury for performers in theatre-saturated New York City.

 “You’ll love tonight” PigPen’s understudy Nick whispered to me “In a full house, there’s space to laugh… the audience gives each other permission to enjoy themselves. Smaller houses are intimate… but you can’t rely on adrenaline to carry the technical stuff, like timing or scene breaks. In a full house you can just tune into the audience and it’s a high like no drug I’ve never done.”  True to his prediction, that night the show was mesmeric, even after Bette Midler left at intermission.

Everyone who sees PigPen’s play The Old Man and the Old Moon leaves the theatre with a different memory. It is not a tale, the narrator tells the audience as it begins, that you can carry away with both hands.  The story itself is simple and fabulist:  an old man sails across the world following a melody and searching for his wife. Across eternity his job has been to fill the leaking moon, and once he abandons his duty the world comes apart at the seams. The moon and the oceans disappear; the stars fall out of the sky. The Old Man finds himself in paradise, in the belly of a fish, on a dirigible, in a sunken city made of light. He travels with adventurers, sailors, ghosts, milk-bottle dogs and talking planks. Ultimately, as in the way of any fable, he finds himself back at home, surprised to find that the world keeps going round and round and round. Their barebones story is told, the New Yorker’s critic said, with  a “perfect combination of original bluegrass-style music, stunning shadow puppetry, and vigorous physical comedy.”

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The Dying of a Light.

27 Jan

On 27th January 2010 I had just finished setting up my first apartment. I was 23, I was in love, the world awaited my storm. I had an independent study in which to be an Intellectual. I had a boyfriend who did the dishes. Nothing could stop me now, this was It. It was perhaps the last time in my life I would be incorrigibly optimistic.

That was the day Howard Zinn died. That was the day when, though I didn’t know it then, I set out to be a writer. Was that a fair trade on the universal balance? Probably not. But this is how I began. I restrained myself from tinkering too much with this elegy, and not only because I’d end up rewriting it entirely. It might be verbose and a little pompous, but it was written for love, and that is rare in this writing life. Besides, as it turns out, I did spend 2010 researching the Reformation and (in)direct democracy, and there is a lot to be said for beginning a new life with an act of mourning. In the darkest part of this silent Sunday morning, as Barthes might have said (but did not quite), I was vigilant. And all of him leaped before my eyes.

Zinn

An Encomium

Professor Howard Zinn died on 27th January 2010, a fortnight ago at the time of writing. Apart from the resigned rage one feels about the mortality of one’s heroes, my primary emotion was anticipation. I had recently procured, with some difficulty, a copy of Zinn’s Passionate Declarations. I now had good reason to ignore boring daily life and work my way through Zinn’s legacy, a project as inviting as it is daunting. After a month spent separated from my library, the prospect of a reading list soothed me.

In the fortnight since his death was announced, I have spent many nights listening to his lectures, mining his books, locating his prolific journalism. I spent even more time tracking Zinn within a maze of historiography: all great scholars spin a web around them that can prove as revelatory as dissecting the shape of the beast itself. I gave myself a week to “get a grip” on Zinn, and have never underestimated a task more.

It was not the sheer profligacy of his work, as I never expected to read all of it, but the amazing variety of subjects that his writing suggested that ultimately did me in. It’s difficult to chart matters in an organized fashion when a single book (Passionate Declarations) can make you want to research everything from the Reformation to direct democracy. When one ventures into the vast terrain of work inspired by or transformed by Zinn’s historiography the project looses all moorings in rationality. It becomes epic, spawning academic cottage industries.

I have no doubt such a fate lies in store for the late, great Professor Zinn. I suspect he would be amused by all the posthumous interest, considering he spent his lifetime languishing in academia’s back closet, but he wouldn’t be surprised. Genius is historically betrayed by the grave.

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Relief

17 Jan

This fall I assigned myself a beat: folk music. It wasn’t an official requirement, but one of my professors suggested that I might find the discipline useful once he figured I haven’t a fucking clue where my life is headed. It was incredible: I’m no closer to a Plan, but I wanted a footloose semester and by the gods I got me one. My beat led me several interesting places and down a few dubious alleys, but I certainly felt  supremely professional. Even when I used it as an excuse to escape deadlines, or (arguably) stalk people. I went to some amazing gigs; from Keb Mo’ at BB King’s to Jalopy Wednesdays out in Red Hook to a Dominican dance-box up in Harlem.

I met some beautiful people, of whom the 198 String Band described below are indisputably the most respectable. I met them at the “Imagining America” conference; attending that was an official requirement. This was one of the longer pieces I wrote off my beat — most of my “reporting” consists of squiggles and squeees. I had fun writing this, tight word-count and all, and it is (you might notice) a new style for me. I call it my school voice, because bogey wouldn’t be caught corpsified assumin’ y’all need this much explainin’.

But that’s why bogey’s dead, see.

tea

We’d rather not be on the rolls of relief.

One friday in early fall, a small band of Occupy Wall Street protesters were busily organizing Columbus Day insurrections in Zuccotti Park. They were planning rallies and writing protest music, oblivious to the minor miracle underway in the Westinghouse Building a few steps across Broadway, where an equally tiny tribe of genteel New Yorkers were gathered for an evening sponsored by the New York Council for the Humanities. There, in offices that shared space with bankers and accountants, the 198 String Band resurrected Woody Guthrie.

The 198 String Band began in tribute to the “other” Guthries, the forgotten minstrels of the Great Depression. “Unlike Guthrie and Steinbeck, these people didn’t choose to be in the Dustbowl” one member of the band said, “they just picked up the family banjo and played from the land”. Alongside each song, they curate photographs from the Library of Congress archive, choosing images that chronicle the lives of migrants during the depression. The inspiration behind the presentation is to provide audiences a textured history of the folks that the late, great historian Eric Hobsbawm would have called “uncommon people”.

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Conversations with Dead Folk.

10 Jan

Fellow twitterers will know there are multitudes within chaosbogey. What began one diary amidst many became the metadiary, a distillation of my (very dull) existence. Din would read for bogey, she’d think for me, then I’d write for someone else. It clarified my analysis, this messy divorce, yet its memory still stings and I remain hesitant about how well we succeeded. I do know why we fragmented into a halt. IRL, I rarely summon the energy to be this long-winded. or angry. or honest. or curious. or wise. IRL, I’m occasionally funny. Bogey’s peculiar personality is her own, and I’m almost convinced this is a good thing. In my apps to grad school, I call chaosbogey a palimpsest; pompous as it sounds, ’tis closest to the truth as I read it. It’s either that or insurrection/orgy/mutation, and to call her any of those would be an unkindness.

Sanya Glisic, Der Stuwwelpeter.

A hefty bit of bogey’s composite is an absent ally.  On behalf of every ghost within the works, his pledge for 2012 —

Listen carefully,

Neither the Vedas

Nor the Qur’an

Will teach you this:

Put the bit in its mouth,

The saddle on its back,

Your foot in the stirrup,

And ride your wild runaway mind

All the way to heaven.

Kabir

(trans. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra)

In the final year of college, as my friends went about the business of ambition, I spent my nights adapting The Coast Of Utopia for the NLS playfest. Stoppard credits Isaiah Berlin as an inspiration, and so I started Russian Thinkers. Here my theatrical pretensions quickly quailed, for Berlin was my window into a tradition far removed from everything an Indian legal education teaches you about the world. He showed me the ‘tangled undergrowth’ of modern history, enticing me into an alien universe populated by folk my textbooks only accorded footnotes to. Three years later, I documented the journey in the first mystic myna column.

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