Solar Solace

FullSizeRender 2 late September sunset in the Ozarks

“Some days are diamonds… some days are rocks.”  -Tom Petty

There’s no two ways around it– some days are just harder than others.  This past week has been absolutely abysmal.  I’m getting to the point where I can’t even watch the damn news– I’m consciously tuning it out like the numerous neglectful mothers I’ve witnessed ignoring their crying children in public.  I just don’t want to hear it anymore.

I’m tired of reading headlines about mass shootings and natural disasters and neo-nazis.  I’m tired of feeding my misanthropy with stories of how awful and cruel human beings can be to one another.  And I’m tired of hearing that yet another one of my heroes has died.  Social media and celebrity “news” culture has never been my thing, but it’s been impossible to ignore the in memoriam tributes over the last year or so, as it seems that damn near all of my childhood heroes are dying off.  I guess it’s just a part of growing older… I dunno.

Which is why I want to share a little beauty with everyone today.  We had a marvelous sunset here in Northwest Arkansas a few nights back– it carried a painterly quality with the colors of a Maxfield Parrish palette, so I snapped a few pics with my phone for posterity’s sake.  I’m thankful now that I did, as I’ve returned to those photos numerous times in the last few days for a fleeting moment of solace, and I’m hoping I can provide someone somewhere else the same.

IMG_5776closeup of said sunset

 

Babysitting Gig

Babysitting Gig“And He Was…”

Found myself thrown into an impromptu babysitting gig for a friend.  Seems her chain of emergency back-up babysitters all came up empty, and I was her last resort.  Needless to say, I’m a sucker for sacrifice, and since she’s one of the few people I’d do anything for, I said, “sure– what the hell.”

Her children were delightful.  The baby boy is the most cherubic child I’ve ever seen, and he was an absolute hoot.  Give that kid a napkin or a paper towel and he’s dancing around the room as if he’s doing a ribbon-twirling gymnastics floor exercise.  The little girl is also a sweetheart, despite the fact that she threatened to pour root beer over my head.  (I would’ve let her, honestly… I have no shame anymore.)  She was playing an iPad game at one point, and when the obligatory in-game purchase opportunity appeared, she shouted, “I DON’T WANT YOUR GARBAGE!”  Good girl.  I did feel for “Fabio,” the virtual chef in her culinary game, though… he was trying so hard to teach her how to make an omelette, in his over-the-top stereotypical Italian accent (“Mama Mia!”) when she dismissively said, “Fabio’s a failure.”  Damn, girl… that’s cold.  I immediately thought of one of my favorite moments from Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, in which Anthony (Luke Wilson) visits his grade-school-aged little sister shortly after his release from a “nervous hospital.”  After the visit, Anthony tells his friend Dignan (Owen Wilson) that his little sister thinks he’s a failure.  Dignan replies:

“What?!?  She said you’re a failure?!?   What has she ever accomplished with her life that’s so great, man?”

Brilliant.

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So anyway, in a moment of respite (shortly after the baby boy went down for his nap) I snapped the above photograph on my phone– an homage to both Julie Blackmon and The Talking Heads, I guess.

How Soon Is Now?

There are plenty of great rock anthems out there, but there are only a handful of nearly perfect singles in this world, and this gem by The Smiths is one of those tracks.  I’m old school, so I come from the line of thought that, much like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, you have to choose either The Smiths or The Cure– it’s theoretically impossible to like both bands equally, so you have to pick one.  Well, I choose The Cure because when it comes to emo angst, I’ll take Robert Smith’s sincerity over Morrissey’s any day of the week.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now” as one of the most iconic songs of the 1980s and also one of the greatest recordings of the last thirty years.  With Johnny Fuckin’ Marr’s hypnotic reverb riff and Morrissey’s haunting vocals, this is a song that sticks its hand right into your chest and grabs hold of your beating, bleeding heart just long and tightly enough for you to fully comprehend the pain of loneliness.

“I am human and I need to be loved– just like everybody else does.” 

Yup.

I am the son
and the heir
of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.
I am the son and heir
of nothing in particular.

You shut your mouth–
how can you say
I go about things the wrong way?
I am human and I need to be loved,
just like everybody else does.

I am the son
and the heir
Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.
I am the son and heir
of nothing in particular.

You shut your mouth–
how can you say
I go about things the wrong way?
I am human and I need to be loved,
just like everybody else does.

There’s a club if you’d like to go–
you could meet somebody who really loves you.
So you go and you stand on your own,
and you leave on your own,
and you go home and you cry
and you want to die.

When you say it’s gonna happen “now,”
well when exactly do you mean?
See I’ve already waited too long,
and all my hope is gone.

You shut your mouth–
how can you say
I go about things the wrong way?
I am human and I need to be loved,
just like everybody else does.

(apologies to The Smiths)

The Prairie Troubadour

vachellindsayquote

My previous post about poet Stevie Smith got me thinking about one of the other prized volumes in my poetry collection:  Vachel Lindsay’s Collected Poems.  Discovered by chance while browsing the poetry section of a used bookstore in Knoxville, Tennessee [note: used bookstores in academic towns are the best places to find fantastic yet forgotten books of poetry], it was the first (and only) time I’d ever encountered the volume, and I bought it immediately.

One of the first things I noticed about the book (other than its wonderful illustrations) was its dedication page:

IMG_1093“this book is dedicated to Sara Teasdale, poet”

For those who don’t know, Sara Teasdale was a poet with whom Vachel was romantically involved and very much in love.  A man whose means were as modest as his self-image, Vachel was far too worried about his ability (or inability, rather) to provide for Sara, and over much hand-wringing managed to convince himself that no matter how much she might also love him, he just wasn’t good enough for her.  So she, of course, ended up marrying a wealthy businessman with whom she was ultimately unhappy.  (Ain’t life grand?)

For lack of a better term, Vachel was an “interesting” dude.  Handsome, brilliant, and too artistic for med school (he dropped out to pursue his calling as an artist/poet), he was a romantic at heart as well as a bit of a politico.  Nicknamed “The Prairie Troubadour” for the impassioned poetry readings he delivered as he travelled the midwest, he was known as a nationalistic progressive, which seems something of an anachronism now (believe it or not, there was a time when patriotic people could both love their country and want to change it without having to be labeled a Communist).  Never to be mistaken for a cynic, Vachel was an extremely sincere man who stood for his convictions and among those convictions was fighting for equality, especially among racial and socio-economic divides, as evidenced in both his writing and his life (he was an early mentor of Langston Hughes).

Vachel also believed strongly in the musical roots of poetry, most of his verse carrying an undeniable musical rhythm within its meter.  I’ve often wondered what he would’ve thought of the last forty years or so of musicians who fancy themselves poets, particularly the more progressive songwriters such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, et al.

vachellindsay“my precious,” as Golem would say

Like Stevie Smith, Vachel was also a draftsman (and a talented one, at that), and his art is scattered throughout his Collected Poems.  And like Stevie, he, too, suffered from depression.  But Vachel didn’t handle his depression nearly as well as Stevie did.  On December 5, 1931, he killed himself by drinking a bottle of Lysol.  I can remember reading about Vachel’s suicide when I was a child, and that image haunted me then just as much as it haunts me now– I cannot imagine a more particularly terrible or horrific way to go.  [note:  two years after Vachel’s suicide, Sara Teasdale would kill herself by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills]

I’ll finish this post with one of Vachel’s poems.  It’s not his best poem, but it’s one I have always enjoyed for shallow and superficial reasons.  Though Vachel was from Springfield, Illinois, the woman he loved was from St. Louis, Missouri, and I’ve always identified with this poem as a writer from Springfield, Missouri.

vachel lindsay springfield

“it was too cold always…”

Stevie Smith, circa 1969

Stevie Smith was a tiny thing.  A diminutive poet of tremendous talent with a truly unique and wonderful voice, her Collected Poems remains one of my favorite volumes of poetry I own in part for its uniqueness (her Thurber-esque line drawings scattered throughout the book are particularly priceless).

Stevie Smith Collected PoemsStevie suffered from depression (as many poets and creative types are want to do) and yet she never seemed to let that depression get the better of her, channeling that sadness into a prolific writing talent whose lighthearted and humorous tone belied the loneliness and melancholy at its roots.  To this day, I never cease to be amazed at how she managed to accomplish that.

Below is perhaps her most famous poem, and also (admittedly) my favorite.  

2015/10/img_0856.jpg

Every time I read this poem, I can’t help but recall a family vacation to Ha Ha Tonka when I was a child.  My younger brother Cole, who was about eight or nine years old at the time (and who couldn’t swim), had waded out from the lake shore far enough for my father to take notice.  Seeing that my brother’s head was just above water, my father called out to Cole to stand up.  My brother yelled back, “I AM standing up!”  Dad quickly dived into the water to retrieve my brother before he drowned.  Sometimes family’s good that way, I guess.

Aunt Jane

My brother called me the other day while I was in the shower and thus unable to answer my phone, leaving me a message stating that he had some “shitty news” and asking me to call him back.  I envisioned a dozen different doomsday scenarios for what he had to report, but when I spoke with him, none of those fears were realized.  Rather, in typical fashion, the bad news was something completely unexpected– straight out of left field (but isn’t that always the case?).  His news was that an old family friend had died, and he wanted to tell me over the phone before the information would inevitably (and impersonally) reach me through the grapevine via text or e-mail.  I’m thankful that he did, because when a family member dies, that’s a loss you need to be able to share with someone on a much more intimate level.  And Jane (or “Aunt Jane” as we called her) was family, goddammit.

Jane Hoogestraat (pronounced “Hogue-eh-straht”) was a poet and an English professor at Missouri State University.  My father was on the search committee that originally hired her at MSU, and she would later become a close friend of both my parents (particularly my mother).  Looking back, I’m proud to say that my brother and I had the privilege of spending some (but not enough) time in her company.  Aunt Jane was one of the handful of genuine and truly decent human beings in this world with a heart almost as big as she was.  She was a giant of a woman at over six feet tall, but that tall frame belied her soft-spoken and sincere personality.  If you were to look up the word “staid” in the dictionary, it could easily read “see also: Jane Hoogestraat.”

IMG_0562“Aunt Jane”

Jane was an intelligent, quiet, and kind woman.  While she may have battled a handful of personal demons (namely depression), she refused to allow her dark thoughts to cloud her eternal optimism.  She believed in the goodness of others, often in spite of any meanness she may have been shown.  She was a hard luck woman and was no stranger to experiencing hardship or being mistreated by those she put her faith and trust in, but that just seems to be par for the course when it comes to people with good hearts– the nicest folks are oftentimes the ones who are taken advantage of or trodden on the most.  Life has a funny way of dealing the worst cards to those who have the best intentions, but Jane always chose to play the bad hands she was dealt rather than fold, and she did so with the same brand of optimism exhibited by Candide or Job.  And she deserved better. 

I have many fond memories of Aunt Jane.  My favorite memory comes from the Christmas she chose to spend with me and my mother in Fayetteville, and how happy she was when we accompanied her to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to see the Christmas service.  Jane had fully expected to attend the service alone, but we weren’t about to let that happen, and I know that it meant the world to her to have us there.  During that same visit, Jane also played a small role as matchmaker in reuniting me with the woman I would eventually marry, and that is something for which I will always be grateful.

And I’ll never forget the time she asked me and my brother to house sit for her.  “Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” she told us, and when we opened her fridge, it was stocked full of nothing but hummus and black beans– foodstuffs we would only ingest if we were literally starving to death (I believe we ate a lot of Hardee’s that week).  That same week we witnessed Helga (one of her morbidly obese cats) nonchalantly watch a mouse run along the baseboard of the living room without batting so much as an eye.  We were incredulous, and we let Helga know it.  “You call yourself a cat?!?” we yelled, but the incredibly fat Helga just stared up at us, then glanced back at the mouse, and promptly laid her head back down.

IMG_0514dinner at Jane’s (Diet Coke did not pay for this product placement)

I loved Jane’s house– it was an older home just down the street from the house I grew up in, so it always held an extra sense of familiarity to it.  It was your typical English professor’s dwelling:  small and modest with a couple of cats, close to campus, lots of books, and very little else in the way of material possessions with a few exceptions.  Jane was particularly fond of her original set of turquoise FiestaWare, which we shared a meal or two on, and she was even more proud of her collection of black depression glass.  My mother simply couldn’t understand Jane’s fascination with that ugly glass (“It’s hideous,” she would say. “I mean, it’s fucking BLACK!”).  But my brother and I understood, because when you held that black glass up to a bright light, you could see the deep purple sheen shine through at its thinnest and most fragile parts, and I think that’s why Jane loved it so much.  I believe Jane was one of those folks who appreciated the little bits of beauty hidden amongst the ugliness of the world, and I think that appreciation came by her honestly, as it’s a theme that shines through with the same subtle loveliness in her writing.

IMG_0518enjoying fried chicken with an old flame on Jane’s FiestaWare

I’m one of a handful of human beings left who believes there are few things more important in this world than poetry, and I would be remiss if I didn’t write about Jane’s work.  I’ve always enjoyed Jane’s poetry despite the fact that it runs contrary to the style of poems I’m typically drawn to.  I’m a sucker for gritty poems about the human experience, full of passion and raw emotion, with the kind of profound volta that either punches you in the stomach or leaves you clutching your heart.  Jane’s work is far more understated and pastoral– lots of topographical references and glimpses of nature with plenty of descriptive lines about flora and fauna, but almost always with the profound and human turn that transforms a poem into a poem.  Her words are well-chosen and her lines are often eloquent and beautiful.  You can get a glimpse of her work (as well as listen to her read one of her poems) by checking out this brief write-up PBS did on her by clicking here.

Jane was a strange and marvelous lady who carried herself with a special kind of stoicism.  I didn’t know just how special that stoicism was until her death, when I learned that she had been quietly continuing to battle the cancer that most of us thought was in remission.  She had many of us fooled as to the severity of her condition, and I myself had no idea how sick she was.  She endured a tremendous amount of pain and suffering in her last year, and yet she didn’t see any point in complaining about it– she preferred to keep that information to herself, and I’m not sure that anybody had any clue as to the extent of what she was going through.  She shouldn’t have had to shoulder that like she did, but that’s just the kind of person Aunt Jane was.  And she deserved better.

I’ll leave you with one of Jane’s poems, as I think it wraps up this remembrance beautifully.  “Near Red Lodge, Montana” is a poem not just representative of Jane’s poetic voice (with her fondness for the pastoral and her acute attention to detail), but also emblematic of her soul and how she always chose to acknowledge hope in the presence of despair.  Oddly enough, it’s the final poem from her last publication, Border States, which won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry.  I regret (infinitely more so, now) that I wasn’t able to attend her last poetry reading, but my brother was there and he told me she received a standing ovation.  And she deserved it.

*************************************

Near Red Lodge, Montana

Are even the field stones charred, the rugged sienna clay
on the road, the white rocks along the creek bed,
are they darkened like snow in a late urban winter?
Can a part of the past be torched, just like that,
by a lightning strike that has you hanging up the phone
on a year, a summer, on the green fields leading in?

Here’s how it happened. Days earlier, near East Rosebud,
in isolated country behind Shepard Mountain
a lightning fork caught a tree, a patch of needles,
smoldered for days in its remoteness, then started
back drafting and blew, a fire that funneled the ravines,
jumped the smaller creeks, took out the grassy plains.

The sweet grasses lost in that fire, alfalfa, short grass,
buffalo, the trees, juniper, lodge pole, spruce, willow,
become only some residual sifting down from time to time,
ash of memory, dust of trivia, the unlabeled pictures
of the year … to whom was this year lost? Fire crews
will tell you they train to recognize what they can’t save.

And here’s how it comes back, when it does, new growth
from scorched earth. The fireweed spreads its roots,
then paintbrush or crocus. Spring snow cover melts away
over the first juniper seedlings, a start of mountain ash.
Lichen returns to a blackened trunk, spreads to the fragile base
of a lodgepole pine that has needed fire to seed.

Far from human fear or desire, the water rinses a little soot
from the edges of a still-charred rock, the kind a hiker
might pluck, polish like a talisman to carry home and hand
over, shyly, stupid and late, another one for your collection,
maybe for those rock gardens you’ve been designing,
dreaming of, from a little part of the world you used to know.

You Know You’ve Made It When…

My brother Cole is in The New Yorker.  The.  New.  Fucking.  Yorker.

Françoise Mouly, the magazine’s art editor (and wife of my hero, art spiegelman), called my brother up to ask permission to run some excerpts from his new book, Black Rat, which is hot off the presses from Koyama Press.  You can see the online feature here:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/cole-clossers-black-rat

I had the privilege of reading the galleys for Black Rat a while back, and I told Cole then that not only did I think it was the best thing he’s ever done– it was arguably the best “graphic novel” (who are we kidding here– it’s “comics”) I’d ever read.  To borrow a line from The New Yorker’s own snobbish television commercial, “it’s the best comic in the world… maybe the best comic that ever was.”  And I meant it, too.  It checks off all the boxes in everything I’m looking for in comics/comix/commix:  it’s beautiful, irreverent, clever, intelligent, avant garde, absurdist, interesting, low-brow, high-brow, existential, heartfelt, human, honest, and just goddamn good.

bowwhiteone of my favorite pages from Black Rat

In a graphic novel market dominated by simple and mediocre middle school narratives or trite and narcissistic autobiographical masturbatory fodder, Black Rat manages to transcend the garbage and detritus that is representative of the current state of comics publishing to bring something unique to the table that is at once both new and old school.  I honestly can’t remember the last time I enjoyed reading a comic so much– it’s been that long.  This is what comics should be.  This is art, goddammit.

I’m real proud of you, bro.  Real proud.