Monday, November 18, 2013

Nathaniel Brodie: Before the Infinite Play of the World

Northern Burma, a gang of bricklayers blasting traditional folk music out of an antique boombox. I stood there, my ears agape. Utter disbelief. Is this…music? It wasn’t so much the strange stringed and wind instruments but that the sound lacked what I associated as rhythm or harmony. It was all jangly discord, tinny chaos, alien tonalities, composed by a mind that worked at different angles and slants.  I was to hear it for months and never quite get it, never understand it. Once only, hanging off the back of a passenger lorry, did I catch myself enjoying it, understanding it, and then I realized that it was a Chinese cover of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.”

Dream: a boy with flies for teeth.

The Myth of Hermaphroditic Hyenas “undoubtedly arose when people noticed that hyenas with large pendulous udders (indicating they were obviously females) could suddenly develop impressive phallic erections such that they also looked like males. Interestingly, although a female spotted hyena has a uterus and ovaries internally, externally she does in fact appear to have “masculinized” genitalia. That is, the female’s clitoris is enormously elongated to form a fully erectile pseudopenis through which she urinates, copulates, and gives birth. “

Amygdala: part of the brain pinged by, say, the word “fuck.” 

 “The fact that I myself do not understand what my paintings mean while I am painting them does not imply that they are meaningless.” –S. Dali

Fiona Wren’s first day of daycare and she can’t stop hugging the other kids.  Like that part in Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, when Jane placed a bunch of bananas in a clearing and two chimps came ambling up and spied the trove and stopped and broke out in huge grins and threw their arms around each other and started jumping up and down and hooting in delight, their arms still around each other, the celebration going on for a good couple of minutes before they even moved towards the bananas. But not really like that: the other kids don’t hug Fio back. They just stand there, and then eventually both of them topple over, and the other kid cries, and Fio’s like, what?

 “...a woman who was born with only stumps at her shoulders, and yet, as far back as she could remember, felt herself to have arms and hands; she even feels herself gesticulating as she speaks…People who for years had been unable to unclench their phantom fist suddenly felt their hand open; phantom limbs in painfully contoured positions could relax”—Atul Gawande, New Yorker, 6/30/2008

Sam Cooke played a Bob Dylan album to Bobby Womack and Bobby didn’t get it and Sam had to explain to him that it was no longer about how the music sounded or the singer’s voice but about believing that that voice was telling the truth.

Idiom: “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.”

When I fish I catch everything but fish. This doesn’t bother me, as perhaps the catch is not the point, but perhaps I should not call it fishing. Searching, maybe. Once on the slow brown Chehalis River I caught a river mussel. It had clamped its shell around my wormed hook. The same river, different day, I caught a rough skinned newt, though it was just stubbornly clenching the worm as I reeled it in. Today, as white-bellied swallows skimmed the surface of the lake, I cast and cast and caught a leaf. A brown, decomposed, soggy leaf that ever so slowly sank back down and out of sight. Searching.

Chinese eunuchs traditionally preserved their “bao”—their severed, pickled genitals—in a jar and carried them in a bag hung on their belt. This way, if a eunuch died he had his genitals on him and could be buried with them and be reincarnated as a "full man."

Airplaned next to a man whose mustache resembled a cumulonimbus cloud.

Barthes: “the writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world  is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages.”

Listening to James Brown, Live at the Olympia, Paris, 1971, good stuff, and just realized that those moments when he is not gasping, grunting, shouting, or singing, but the band is still laying it down thick and the roar of the crowd picks up…it’s because he’s dancing. And it’s wonderful, ‘cause you can’t see it, don’t need to see it,  what’s lacking in the medium is present in your head: James Brown dancing the Buttered Popcorn or The James Brown, that fancy footwork, that effort, that sweat, that’s enough, that’s always enough, one of those emissions that is in fact a universe, an opening…

Dream: fucked her upsidedown.

Hungover. Something is disturbing the crow in the bigleaf maple outside the window—the morning light on yellow leaves against its black feathers, perhaps. It won’t stop screaming. Maybe the dump truck will scare it away. No, crows know dumptrucks. It barks anew. 

Watched Godfather II again last night. So many classic scenes, but the one sticking with me this morning was when Vito Corleone is sacked from his job as a grocer’s assistant because the local gangster wants the position for his nephew. Vito, confused at first, quickly grasps the situation and stops the grocer’s hand-wringing apologies with a firm “I understand; you have been good to me, and I thank you.”  No sniveling, complaining, self-pitying: nothing but calm, gracious, masculinity. Being a man might be confused with giving it, but taking it is the true measure of a man. Like Jesus. That’s what I aspire to, even if, every so often, I feel like Fredo whining “I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says…like dumb. I’m smart and I want respect!”

Howlin’ Wolf, classic 1950s Chicago Bluesman, 6’6 and 300 lbs, real name Chester Arthur Burnett.  His childhood idol was Jimmie Rodgers, and it was by trying to mimic Rodgers’ blueyodel that the Wolf developed his howl. Sam Phillips, of Sun Records fame, said:"When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.' That’s how I felt when I read Hoagland’s “Learning to Eat Soup.” This is for me. Like a window thrown open wide. Like, “here, relax.” I didn’t care what it meant or didn’t. Later I read that Hoagland just selected various quotes and passages from his twenty-years-in-the-making, 500-page journal. The soul of a man.

Marx assumed that the notion of reconciliation was obsolete and added that all we can expect of our artists today is their acknowledgement of the impossibility of resolution.


Nathaniel Brodie received his MFA from the University of Arizona. Brodie served as an Agricultural Extension Agent in the Peace Corps (Paraguay) for two years, and has worked as a carpenter, farmer, backcountry stone mason, journalist, and beekeeper. His essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, High Country News,, and other publications. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon. 


  1. Thank you, Kirk. I tried to resist touching up the language of my journal entries and I tried to select entries at random, as (supposedly) did Hoagland. I failed, especially with the latter.