field report lucky 7

There is full sun and little wind. No cloud cover.

The pedestrian suspension bridge is open. Yesterday it was closed. Criteria for closure unknown, but suspected to be related to wind speed.

Tourists abound on this day in early February, a month not known for its tourist activity.

The habitat islands offer less mystery in the winter, having lost much of their greenery.

A child wearing a leash crosses the street. The leash, dragging on the ground, protrudes from an animal-shaped backpack.

An oversized police officer fiddles with his phone while purporting to guard the building.

Birds observed: several Ring-billed Gulls, a small flock of House Sparrows, and one European Starling. An unimpressive count, but not unusual for this time and place.

the tanners [book review]

Recently I began reading Robert Walser’s novel The Assistant. I associate Walser with the winter season, and particularly the month of December, likely because that was when I first started reading his work. Walser also died in December; he was found lying in the snow on Christmas Day 1956, having suffered a heart attack during one of his frequent and much-loved walks.

The Assistant has been a joy to read so far, brimming with Walser’s off-kilter cheekiness and his typically exuberant scenic descriptions. And so, with my enthusiasm for his writing in its current heightened state, I thought I’d share another of my Walser reviews from the archive, with the hope of encouraging others to investigate this still tragically under-read writer.

____________________________________________________

The Tanners by Robert Walser

I don’t want to go running down some career path—supposedly such a grand enterprise. What’s so grand about it: people acquiring crooked backs at an early age from stooping at undersized desks, wrinkled hands, pale faces, mutilated workday trousers, trembling legs, fat bellies, sour stomachs, bald spots upon their skulls, bitter, snappish, leathery, faded, insipid eyes, ravaged brows and the consciousness of having been conscientious fools. No thank you!

Robert Walser was an odd fish and I like him a lot. Even though he once said, as W. G. Sebald reports in the introduction to this book, that he was essentially always writing the same novel, one which he said could be described as “a much-chopped up or dismembered Book of Myself,” I will continue reading his same-as-before novels because they captivate me. I like to think of him up in his stuffy attic room, frantically writing on borrowed paper with stolen pens, gripped in the passion of that writing, of hurling his herky-jerky version of the world down onto the page.

The Tanners is the disjointed story of the Tanner siblings: Simon, Klaus, Kaspar, and Hedwig (oh, and the mysterious Emil, who later randomly shows up in another character’s anecdote). Primarily, the “plot” (such as it is) follows the adventures of Simon as he bounces around from job to job while basically pursuing the sublime. From the start, Simon reminded me of Jakob from Walser’s anti-Bildungsroman Jakob von Gunten, with his similar tendency toward mockery traced with veins of sincerity. Or maybe it was just straight mockery, maybe I imagined the traces of sincerity—it’s really so hard for me to say for sure. When Simon refers to his own cheekiness, I couldn’t stop thinking about that Saturday Night Live sketch where Mike Myers plays Simon, the kid in the bath making drawings who calls people “cheeky monkeys.” It’s always unsettling for me when pop culture and literature suddenly collide in my head. And yet the two Simons do share a similarity, if only a superficial one. But I digress. Simon is a self-described ne’er-do-well prone to walking all night through the mountains to visit his artist brother Kaspar, his closest sibling. Simon’s gleeful flippancy is infectious and makes him a likely candidate for the reader’s sympathy. Hedwig is the only sister in the bunch, a small town schoolteacher who Simon also stays with for an extended visit. They bond, but she suspects him of being a freeloader, which he sort of is. Hedwig is an interesting character, and Walser allots her some good speeches. Finally, Klaus is the oldest brother, a stodgy straight-arrow type who thinks he knows what’s best for all of his siblings. He is annoyingly overbearing, though probably well-meaning.

In the introduction, Sebald draws some parallels between Gogol and Walser that I found to be relevant, having just finished a book of Gogol’s short fiction. Like Gogol, Walser has a tendency to introduce characters who at the time seem like they may come to play important roles in his narrative, only to either suddenly kill them off or fade them into the background. Sometimes they also reappear later, just out of the blue, and fill us in on what they’ve been up to for the past year or however long they’ve been gone from the narrative. The aimless plot wanders down side streets, dead-ends, turns around, leaves the city, climbs a mountain, walks off a cliff, gets a concussion, and turns up back in the city again a few chapters later with a new lease on life. Or something like that. I was anthropomorphizing the plot just then. I would imagine that the general unreliability of Walser’s prose could easily become maddening for some readers. The key is to float along with Walser wherever he chooses to take you. One must surrender completely in order to enjoy reading; there is no fighting it because Walser will always win. Always. We are on an adventure with him, as he discovers his own truths in his writing. In this way he is also very much like Gogol, who eschewed the narrative traditions of the time and instead went off happily exploring in his prose.

Throughout the book, Walser spins a gauzy web of natural beauty around his characters who, when not walking around outside enjoying the weather or laying stretched out in the forest, very much tend to spout off lengthy monologues in the general direction of each other, not seeming to expect responses and, in fact, rarely getting them. Walser’s prose is so sensual, his descriptions of both urban and rural settings sparkle with crisp detail clearly borne of a sharply observant mind. Half the novel one falls into a reverie, while the other half one stares at the closest wall, noting the intricate cracks in the plaster with genuine interest.

Despite the lack of plot, there are certain themes to pick out. With Simon and Hedwig, we find themes of youthful self-discovery, the search for meaning and happiness in one’s life, and the ever-painful plight of the daydreamers among us. With Kaspar, there are the ideals of art and the difficulties inherent in one’s pursuit of those ideals. In Klaus, we see a rather sharp critique of mainstream society and the trappings of materialism and the pursuit of wealth. Readers who have siblings, particularly multiple siblings, will also likely enjoy the novel on another level less accessible to those who don’t, for Walser does an admirable job of portraying the complicated and contradictory dynamics that often characterize sibling relationships.

As Simon opines late in the book, “How tedious it was always to be doing exactly the same thing.” Some books always do the exactly the same thing, what we expect them to do, over and over. Not with Walser. Even if he did claim to be writing the same novel over and over, his prose is always worth reading, because it’s granular yet dissimilar; it’s made up of life’s strikingly mundane and spectacular moments, as pointed out by the likes of Simon, who, after all, claims to be “an outlandish figure in my own homeland.”

scoop loses his way

Scoop had lost all passion for reporting the kind of news that his employer, the venerable Jonestown Gazette, saw fit to print. Over time, his supervisor, an aging aardvark named Burt, had grown increasingly vexed at the nature of the stories he was turning in. Take this one, for example:

______________________________________

Plastic Milk Crate Castle Still Stands

(Jonestown, USA) – Since January, an overgrown empty lot in blighted South Jonestown has been the site of a castle constructed from plastic milk crates. Someone took great pains to build this castle, but to what end. As a shelter, it is inadequate. As an art object, it is of marginal appeal. Attempts by this reporter to find the architect of this mysterious structure by canvassing the neighborhood have failed. Many residents were in fact unaware of the castle’s existence. Others refused to even open their doors to answer a few simple questions. Why, the nerve of those [REDACTED]

_______________________________________

Burt appeared at Scoop’s desk gripping a printout of the story in his hoof-like claw, disgust plastered across his long, drooping face. He took a deep breath.

“Scoop, you know I can’t print this. I don’t even know what to call it, ah, but it’s certainly not news.”

Scoop shrugged. He no longer cared what was considered “news” and what wasn’t. The classification seemed largely arbitrary to him.

“Well, do you have anything to say?” Burt asked.

Scoop was a solitudinarian (an actual word), which sometimes made it difficult to understand what people wanted from him. As a last resort, he kept a splendid array of exit strategies honed and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

“Burt, you’ve figured me out. I can’t do this anymore. I quit.”

Burt stared at the slumped shadow that used to be his all-star newshound.

“What are you going to do, Scoop? You’re a total mess.”

“Thanks for the ego boost, boss. I guess I’ll figure things out once I walk out that door.”

As Scoop cleaned out his desk, he mulled over his loss of interest in investigative reporting.  At one time, he had routinely worked three or more stories concurrently, chasing leads all day and sleeping only a few hours each night. But then one day, it all disappeared. His curiosity withered to dust with no advance warning. All that remained was a ring of distance between himself and everyone and everything around him.

Scoop picked up his small box of belongings and walked toward the door. The next day anything could happen or nothing could happen. He could spend the day lying on his side, staring out the window as the winter wind whistled its secrets to those willing to listen. Or he could look for a new job. Neither option held much appeal.

Burt waved at him as he passed by the old newsman’s office. Scoop nodded back. Burt was not a bad guy, he thought. Just not the type to understand the sort of crisis Scoop felt burning within him.

The door shut behind him for the last time as he exited onto the street, where people moved from place to place like chess pieces, slow and deliberate, braced against the early winter’s cold. This particular section of town reflected the burgeoning trend of an immediate post-Halloween retail transition to the commercial smorgasbord known as Christmas.

“Whatever happened to Thanksgiving,” Scoop muttered. He had to admit, though, that the twinkling lights in every window held a certain appeal. Yes, indeed, an extra few weeks of festive lighting might just help smooth off the sharpest edges of his seasonal depression.

He tossed his box of stuff into the bed of his truck and climbed in the cab. Cranking the heat up, he tuned in the old-time bluegrass station on the radio and sat for a few minutes, staring out the windshield at the chess pieces moving about the board.

I never liked chess, he thought.

Sample questions for discussion

  1. What will happen to Scoop?
  2. Will he find another job?
  3. Will he change his name?
  4. Will he ever learn to love chess?
  5. Is he going to disappear just like the ghost did?
  6. Does anyone care? [I’m on the fence myself-ed.]
  7. Why is an aardvark working at a newspaper?
  8. Do aardvarks live in burrows or what?
  9. Why does this story end so abruptly?
  10. Does this question serve only to make an even 10?

peering out from dormancy

The recently sliced up confetti of old words sifts through my fingers as the primitive beats of old heavy music pulses in the other room. Winter is upon us, oh yes, with the wind and the snow and the sleet and the penetrating coldness. Every year the shock of how slowly real winter arrives here beats me about the head with a large stick come late December, early Januaryish. Cold fingers tapping on the keys, the chill of the glass in these windows, how reading in the sunroom suddenly means reading in the ice fishing shack. And how I become a grumbly old man, rug thrown across my lap, scarf encircling my neck, unwashed hair standing on end, burning words in my brain to stay warm somewhere, if not on the outer surfaces, then at least on the inner ones.

I still prefer it to the stifling madness of a city summer. I find it easier to get warmer than to get cooler. The lack of mosquitoes in winter thrills me. Sometimes I loiter in my front yard, teeth chattering, for the mere joy of not being eaten alive by those tiny flying demons.

The bitter cold purifies. Most living things die out there. Or go dormant. I go semi-dormant myself, though this state is not dissimilar from other times of year for me.

On cold days, humans appear on the street as rapid bundles of fabric. On hot days, humans appear on the street as languid loops of flesh. Take your pick.

I’m making good use of my vacation from the-place-that-shall-not-be-mentioned-by-name. In addition to copious reading, I’m indulging in a bit of paper management, something which I tend to ignore the necessity of for months at a time. This activity chiefly entails clearing off a desk I no longer use, famed dumping ground of mail that may or may not require saving and paper scraps scrawled with cryptic notations that I must now decipher in order to determine their value. But it also extends to shredding old writing: abandoned manuscripts, hard copies of blog entries, failed stories, and handwritten pieces that have since been either typed up or rejected. Destroying my own words gives me secret pleasure (well, it’s no secret anymore). So much of what I’ve written is dead to me, and I am merely finalizing that. The end of the year is a good time to do this. One desires a clean slate, at least on some levels. We are of course multi-slated individuals, and not all slates require erasing.

Yes, so here I am talking about the weather and my fascinating domestic life. It’s not what I wanted to write about, but I have not figured out yet how to write about what it is that I want to write about. Oddly enough this past summer was more fertile for that, so perhaps the heat is good for something after all.

Playlist for above activities and subsequent transposition into words:

Universal Order of Armageddon – Discography
Sleep – Volume One
Charles Mingus – Mingus Moves

mr. skeleton

I feel the skull, Mr. Skeleton, living its own life in its own skin—Anne Sexton

Mr. Skeleton stood at the window staring out at his small empire. It was the middle of the day and the street was quiet. The bare branches afforded an uninhibited view…of nothing. Mr. Skeleton sighed. He felt cold, but he always felt cold. Dead plants sagged in the yard as sparrows capered in the dry fallen leaves, deftly overturning them to search for hidden insects. Mr. Skeleton watched the dancing sparrow shadows, filled out with flesh and feathers. As he was about to turn away, he saw motion on the sidewalk. It was her. She peered up at the window, holding the skull aloft for him to see. Ah, he thought, there it is. He watched as she got in her car, carefully placing the skull on the passenger seat next to her. Before she drove off she turned back, raising her hand in a wave. His bones shook with epidermal yearning as he held fast to the window, clacking against the thin glass.

february coming spring*

*nod to Samhain

The daffodils are rising as the robins trickle back into the city. Last week I heard a male cardinal testing out his pipes, gearing up for courtship rites. And today, as I rolled my bike out the basement door, a Song Sparrow belted out his bright song from an undisclosed location secreted within the old cottonwood tree.

These signs of spring feel unwarranted. We have not endured enough of winter’s harshness to deserve such rich pleasures so soon. It makes me want to move farther north, where the extreme cold and steady snow sweeten the coming warmth of spring’s new life.

As the temperature wavers, still my mind wanders, far from here, never where it’s paid to be. This dreamer role, this aqueous nature, it is equal parts curse and blessing. It becomes harder every day to reel myself back in to accomplish the tasks at hand. Perhaps one day I will unravel all the way, cut loose to float wherever the wind will take me. But for now routines strangle me, each of them a single lead weight in my pocket, rooting me to this unfamiliar patch of land I struggle to call home.

To John Haines

A chickadee calls
outside my window
from the bare winter branches
of the crape myrtle.

Inside, your poems speak
to what already
I suspect.

Words sown through a lifetime,
telling us not to leave,
once what is needed
has been found.

The answers in each poem:
the wind, the seasons,
a hard and simple life.

shadow forecaster

The wind rises and scatters my attention span. How to greet a late January day warmed to the low 60s on the Fahrenheit scale? I feel a twinge of guilt enjoying it, knowing how unnatural it is and wondering much of this is our fault. Birds are migrating sooner, only to find food not yet abundant in their summer haunts. Southern insects are expanding their ranges northward. [Gardeners, take note!] Mother Nature’s long-established cues are failing her denizens. Are these little and not-so-little signs of impending ecological collapse? Perhaps. It would make sense. And surely we deserve it. Too long have we moved at the speed of profit, with blinders plastered to our fat heads. Our slavering consumerist jaws know no bounds. We think with our wallets, and we don’t remember any other way. We forgot how to mend and learned instead how to slide cards through readers. The problem is colossal in scale. The solutions too little, too late. So maybe all we can do now is pull up some chairs and wait for the end of this chapter of life on our planet. Bleak, perhaps, but it could just be my shadow speaking out again. Some days I let it do all my talking for me, and I just sit back and stare at the clouds.

recycling with the mayans

Straighten your papers, the ones you never look at. Never touch a paper twice, that’s what they say. Avoid information overload! Never touch a paper twice. Look at it and file it or throw it out. Don’t straighten your papers then, see if I care. Log in. Er, try to log in. Oops, forgot your password. How many are in your head. How many are the same. You fool! Don’t use the same one twice! You must use a combination of four numbers, three symbols, and no less than six letters. We will not accept anything less. Also we’ll need you to change it again as soon as you begin to remember it. Forget it the first time you try to log in. Request new password. Make up new one, but not the same as your email password. And don’t use your pet’s name. Your neighbor might hear you calling him outside and hack into your account. Throw a few papers out to make yourself feel better. It’s okay, I know you touched them already. Just throw them out so you won’t touch them again. There, isn’t that better? Now go outside and breathe in some car fumes. It might be better than recycled office air but honestly science hasn’t bothered to find out. No corporate funding would touch that kind of study. So it’s still up in the air. [Don’t laugh at that!] Walk around and pretend you’re not an insignificant speck, not just another cog in the machine (you are, even though you purport not to be by affecting a continuous broadcast of apathy and cynicism to the world, and to yourself– the worst and most damaging lies are always to yourself. We learn this over time.). Return to the office. Pick up another stack of paper from your mailbox. Leave it on your desk for weeks to gather the appropriate office patina. Then recycle it. Or think you’re recycling it. Everyone knows the cleaning staff just throws it all in the trash anyway. It’s common knowledge. It doesn’t matter. Recycling can’t save us, Derrick Jensen says. Only complete destruction of civilization will save us. Would you prefer that? Read The Road by Cormac McCarthy and check back with me. I’ll make tea and we can pontificate. Then we’ll pack our emergency preparedness kits. Leave work behind now. Go home and attend to the needs there, the ones behind the scenes of everyone’s public life. Nourish your body. Attempt to nourish your mind but mostly just numb it and then maybe squeeze in a little bit of nourishment before sleep. If you’re lucky when you’re out late walking you’ll look up and see Venus glowing above the rooftops. Or maybe a full moon. If you’re lucky a breeze will rustle the cottonwood leaves and leave you breathless. But you won’t be lucky tonight because it’s winter and the branches are bare. So go to sleep and dream of spring. Dream about the end of civilization. Dream of anything at all. Like Amy Hempel says, that’s where most of us get what we want.

where silence reigns*

*stolen from Rilke, not that he cares now

Late summer music coming through the speakers now. Confusing with such snow pouring down at streetlight level. A week is long; a week is time like saltwater taffy stretched as far as you can swallow. Not as far as the years you’ve seen. Delve into the past and balk at words since forsaken. Self-censor then and hope for the best. Look to fire’s cleansing fangs for answers you cannot give. Dreams, it’s always been dreams that fuel those flames. Conquer them and you’ll rid yourself of answers. Thus ridden will you fall. Thus ridden will you never wake. Even yet, what words we write. Words in spite; words dull, not bright.

  • Recent Posts

  • Navigation Station

    The links along the top of the page are rudimentary attempts at trail markers. Otherwise, see below for more search and browse options.

  • In Search of Lost Time

  • Personal Taxonomy

  • Common Ground

  • Resources

  • BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS