When you're nothing but motion: Apocalyptic Swing

Saturday, February 11, 2012

I'm trying to work more poetry, non-fiction, and drama into my not-for-work reading.  God knows I read plenty of it for my teaching and research, but it tends to be the same great works, read again and again, deeper and deeper, more and more ornately.

So what better place to start than with the 2009 volume by poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi, whom I first met about a decade and a half ago.  I was a moon-eyed high school student visiting my friend at Sarah Lawrence, and star-struck by her friends, who all seemed to be poets (like Gaby), musicians, and dancers.   Years later I found myself sitting next to her at that friend's highly memorable wedding (it will go down in the annals of my life as the evening I Bollywood-danced with Annette Bening, but the conversation at our table was delightful all 'round) and also teaching her The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart in a course I taught on Document and Reality.  It's a work of brilliance, filled with teachable resonances and infinite pleasures, and my students dug into it like they were ravenous and I'd placed a feast of a thousand courses before them.  In the long poems that are the core of that volume, Calvocoressi takes historical events (Amelia Earhart's last flight or the Hartford circus fire of 1944) and uses a constellation of perspectives on each to triangulate the emotional site of the event.  If you haven't encountered it yet, seek it out.

This volume has a title, Apocalyptic Swing, that's a pleasure to speak and a quicksand of implication to contemplate.  It's main subject is boxing, whose aesthetics and poetics I had never really recognized, I have to admit, tending to view it, like the philistine I am, as rather a bludgeoning, exploitative form of athletics.  If even the rather brilliant documentary about Mike Tyson (which finds him lengthily quoting from Oscar Wilde on the destructiveness of desire) hadn't dissuaded me of this prejudice, I doubted anything would.

But although I did find this volume more elliptical than Amelia Earhart (maybe I need to teach it to feel it unfold for me), it absolutely did convince me of both the dignity of the sport, and its metaphorical richness in describing a world of pride, alienation, and ferocious grace.  "We're all so beautiful / with our face against the mat," says the last line in "Box Fugue," and how Calvocoressi gets away with this portrait of elegant abjection without merely aestheticizing suffering is a matter of admiring mystery to me.  Perhaps it is that there's so much resilience in the people and places she describes, the most in the unlikeliest sources.  In "Blues for Ruby Goldstein," she lays out the strategic (and philosophical) position of a slight and canny welterweight faced with opponents well above his size:

All heart.  That's what most little guys are.  
But that counts for a lot.  In the gym or
the ring all you gotta do is get up
one more time than the other guy thinks you can. 

It's not an elegy but a paean to the quotidian, to the slight who endure, who persevere, who stand in the face of improbable odds and endless punishment.  But that makes it sound more sentimental and abstract than it is.  In many ways it's also an impression of the delicate, almost meditative sensory glories of the physically extreme:

                                  here's something

no fighter will tell you: there's a sound 
you make when you hit and you hit and you're 
nothing but motion.  It's not like sounds 
you make with your wife or a girl, it's rougher

and darker and sometimes it feels better 
and after you feel so relaxed.  You can't
really explain it and make it sound

It's rougher and darker, and you're nothing but motion.  The last thing I'll note is that the erotic and the painful engage in a careful, assessing dance throughout these poems, longing and endurance being two sides of the same coin. I can't help but suspect that this link has its roots in that sense, that almost Dionysian pleasure, of intense dissolution of consciousness, of losing one's awareness of self in the discipline, the endurance, and the sensations of the fight.

Allusive Parenting

Friday, February 10, 2012

I can never read Lear without remembering all the (many, many) times in my childhood when my mother declaimed, in arch tones and in my general direction, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth...!". She would trail off meaningfully, casting an imperative look my way, as if to say, "I won't belabor the point; we all know where I'm going with this."

Let's be clear: I was about four at the time. I wouldn't see Lear for another decade and a half, when it would come as something of a shock to find that the aphorism had an extrafamilial origin, not to mention a second half.

To this day, if asked about that line, I will ring out the first line with biting, declamatory pomp, only to tumble into a second half that sounds something like this: "How SHARPER than a SERPENT'S *TOOTH* it is to blah blah something something ungrateful child. You know."

And it's that kind of attention to parental lessons that makes me a pelican daughter.

On a not entirely unrelated note, "This is a brave night to cool a courtesan" is my new go-to way of describing Haligonian winter weather.

On Heartbreak and Breaking Plates

My friend recently marked the anniversary of the day her beloved called her from a trip and told her, with no advance warning or discussion, that he wasn't ever coming home, and that she could do whatever she wanted with the belongings (the life, really) he'd left at their shared apartment. It was besotted love to abandonment in one fast, long-distance leap. I still find this story enraging, but I think she is kicking this year's ass, despite all traumas. There's something my mother always says to me in situations like this one: Battle on, Xena.

My grandmother, on the other hand, was once known to say this: 

"When I was young, and my boyfriend broke up with me, I cried for the first time in my life. Then I shook myself, and went over to the sideboard where we kept our big, old-fashioned nutcracker. I pulled up a giant bowl of walnuts, put one in the machine, and gave the lever a furious wrench. Then I picked up another, and another, and I just cracked those nuts all day long. I felt a lot better afterwards." 

She looked at me assessingly before adding, "I don't have any walnuts here, but I do have a pile of plates I don't much care for. Would you like to spend today breaking plates with me?"

[Editor's note: the second time my grandmother cried was when she was held up at the border between Israel and Jordan as a retiree, and after hours of interrogation, she finally burst into crocodile tears and moaned, 'This is probably the last chance my husband and I will have to visit the Holy Land before we DIE!'.  They immediately let her through, little knowing that she has absolutely nothing but skeptical hostility for religion, and that she would still be going strong a decade and a half later.] 

To Hate Like This is to be Happy Forever

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"Duke fans believe spending 196 hours in a tent indicates passion and devotion. Carolina fans believe 196 hours in a tent indicates a telling lack of other social engagements."

-Adam Lucas, Tar Heel Blue columnist

"You may remember that moment on the first day of class," I said by way of opening to my students this morning, "when I asked you to have patience with me, since I was enduring the emotional roller-coaster of basketball season this term. Well, as you can see," and here I stepped from behind the lectern to reveal a Prof. Sycorax dressed not in her normally academivamp attire, but rather in jeans and a North Carolina sweatshirt, "today is the most wonderful time of the year, and I need your indulgence.  It's the day of the Dook game."
Best Trophy Ever:
The Beatified Dean Smith's
Sportsman of the Year Award

"I was asked to speak here tonight," Charles Kuralt said at the golden wedding anniversary of Julia and Hugh Morton lo those many years ago, "because during the bicentennial I was the guy who stood there in front of the President of the United States and said that I was there to speak for all of us who could not afford to go to Duke . . . and would not have gone there even if we could have. We have great affection for Duke University. All of us in this room know how important it is to our state, and know how important the rivalry is. And if there had never been a Duke (which of course there was not, during most of the distinguished history of the University of North Carolina); if there had never been a Duke, we would have had to invent it. We would have made it a place with severe gothic arches and ivy growing on the walls, to persuade the more naive undergraduates that they had been admitted to Yale after all. And we would have given it a towering national reputation (in some odd things, like parapsychology and the rice diet), but a national reputation. We would have sent Richard Nixon there to study constitutional law. Best of all, we would have sent one of our own, the beloved Terry Sanford, over there to keep an eye on things. And finally, we would have built the campus close to our own, so that those over-serious people, heads of great utilities, and rich people, could come here for parties. And I say that Julia and Hugh have shown true Carolina spirit in inviting them to this one. We should all thank them for this, for bringing us together. There aren't many things that bring us together, but Julia and Hugh can do it. But I can not help adding that this is the same Julia Morton and Hugh Morton who had a dog named Dutchess. Dutchess would roll over on her back, and stare blank eyes at the ceiling, and raise her four paws stiffly into the air, when asked, 'would you rather be a dead dog or go to Duke.'"

Preach it, Kuralt.  Earth hath not anything to show more fervent than the Duke-Carolina rivalry.  My Dookie friend wrote me to tell me that he thinks that the Earl of Grantham would be rooting for his team.  Well, obviously.  That argument defeats itself.

What I love about the rivalry is undoubtedly what everyone outside of it hates about it: that the derision, the disdain, the furious antagonism, brings with it a sense of exceptionalism, of the closeness and respect that comes from being locked in a battle of wills for decades.

The feelings run deep, and are etched with the scars of post-Civil War history: in the agon between the patrician Duke and Carolina ("it was, as it was meant to be, the University of the people," Kuralt said on another occasion) we find the whole self-shaped narrative of Reconstruction, of migration, of Big Tobacco, of Southern populism, of public-private schism.  My students sometimes make the mistake of thinking that basketball is a game to me.  They tease me about the team's failures, thinking that there must be hipster irony in my love of college sports.  I'm sorry, Oscar, but college basketball is the one area of life in which I am painfully, searingly earnest.  Irony-free.

Today, one of my students looked at my Carolina sweatshirt and said, "We can't be friends."

"If you are a Dook fan, don't tell me," I replied, "I grade you; there are some things I shouldn't know."

[They also thought that they could sidetrack me from a discussion of Wilde and aestheticism by bringing up Facebook, but I responded with a lengthy analysis of Facadebook as a crisis of Bunburying, in which one finds that all of the fractured identities one performs to employers vs. ex-girlfriends vs. grandparents vs. sorority sisters have to be subsumed in one tortured master-performance, lest one's grandmother be privy to the photos of drunken debauchery from last weekend.

"I don't know," my student said, "My grandmother really enjoys those pictures."

"My grandmother basically *is* Lady Bracknell," I replied.]

There's no part of Dook Game Day that's not steeped in quasi-religious observance for me.  I have a strictly observed costume I don for the occasion, all the more vital if I'll actually be going to work and teaching on game day. I have special foods that I eat, including, on one occasion, Blue Velvet Cupcakes in the form of wee Tar Heels, looking as if they'd just stepped in a vat of chocolate chips as gooey as pitch. I hold fast to the belief that I have the magical ability to turn the tide of luck in Carolinas favor at a crucially low point in the game, if only someone turns to me and spontaneously offers me a single dollar to make Duke lose.  I've done it several times.  And yes, I consider myself a rational human being in every other aspect of my life.

Here's how the day ends today: 

I'm picking up my ritual barbecue from a place in Halifax where the walls read "You'll Eat It and Like It" and "A Butt Rub Makes Everything Better." There's a man-sized, double-wide, stainless steel fridge on my right with "My name is Charmless" scrawled in giant letters across its face. Its brother to my left proclaims, "My name is Without Couth."

I'm ready to go home, where the moon is a searchlight over desert Farfara, to continue the endless struggle of good against evil.

And then, God willin' and the creek don't rise, there will be a Dook loss, may their names live in infamy.