Train Car Graffiti
The tags have largely disappeared from the urban canvases of subway cars and commuter coaches. Metal alloys were employed to foil the paint’s adhesion, the cars and yards surveilled. No, now the art is affixed to the pristine sheets of steel herded along the desolate rusting right-of-ways, the corridors of ruins, owned by the few remaining national railroads stretching across the nation.
Boxcars and reefers, grain hoppers (with primer coats of paints the color of after-dinner mints), gondolas hauling scrap metals to mini-mills, and well-cars stacked with containers (not painted as the containers never dwell long enough to be tagged), flat cars, tank cars, litanies of letters, hieroglyphics, camouflages, ideograms, and the punch of punctuation. Their connecting knuckle-couplers could be commas, I think. Look! See what is done to the perforated siding panels (white cliffs to coat!) that protect the sky-scraping covered auto-racks! The fossil records written there!
The economies of rail and scale are such now that the trains are longer and slower though they are express, stopping only in major cities and ports and mines or along long sidings to wait for longer trains to pass by. These drags are handled now by only one or two humans (an engineer, a conductor) stationed on the headend of the train. No way they are taking any notice about what is going on on the train they pilot. Their bosses would have them gone as well. Robotic trains would maximize profits….
It once was the paint, the varnish and the livery of the cars, that ID-ed the companies (there were hundreds), advertised their speed and service, made proprietary their trademarks, illustrated the flanks of their rolling stock with maps, plastered with place names their cars, polished and edited, connected. But that’s all gone….
Cars now are free-floating thought balloons, galleries on wheels, font books and follies, scrolling essays penned by some Pascal (in primaries and pastels) somewhere far away (the infinite spaces between the cars!) from where I am, here on this forgotten siding, reading these imaginary languages, in scripts that are at once organically expressed (in contrast to the framing machined edges beneath) and constructed in such a way (shading and chiaroscuro) the animated letters, trundling by, jump off their pages of steel like depression-era harlequin hobos.
There are regions of the human genome that contain strands of DNA that are not coding, that are noncoding. That is to say these long sequences of the genetic basic base nucleotidal bits of alphabet (A-T and C-G) seem to be just there…. There? Fallow? Scrapped? Forgotten? They express no protein that creates eye color, say, or the tenth cranial nerve, the vagus, that wanders through the gut, the heart, and the larynx….
Junk sequencing then is a kind of debased basic babble of inarticulate nitrogenous bases, neutered nucleotides. The proportion of coding to noncoding DNA swings significantly from species to species. The bacteria’s detritus makes up a mere 2% of its genome. In humans, the clutter we carry, the trash we horde makes up 98% of genomic static. No one knows. No one knows. Or maybe the bacteria know what all this material is there for. Leftovers from some long-forgotten shell of the former beings we were being? The drafts of essays that were written and never erased, shelved, stored? Juvenilia? Marginalia? Glosses that have grown dull? Scribbles that are part of our “papers” we will donate to the Lilly Library when we retire?
I attended The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. My mother, back in Indiana, would tell her friends that her son attends The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore not saying what I was studying there, allowing the implication that I would become a medical doctor or biological researcher to float on the air, allowing that to go unspoken, a given. I was, of course, attending The Johns Hopkins University, where the human genome was then first being mapped, to “study” writing in its Writing Seminars, a long way from its laboratories and surgical theaters. I let it go….
Though I did, one time, assist a friend, a graduate student in microbiology, as he practiced the new technique of gene splicing, gene editing. I watched as he introduced a junk sequence from a frog’s gene into the waiting arms of a random E. coli.
Gertrude Stein too attended The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore “reading” in medicine to become a medical doctor. I still have a clipping taken from the SUN newspaper that advertises a house for sale where she once lived. Have you read her books? Have you seen how thick they are? How many pages of text? Word after word after word? How much had she had to write, the noncoding coding, to produce this this: “A rose is a rose is a rose?” Or this this: “There is no there there?”
“There is no there there” is, by the way, the epigraph attached to my unpublished thesis, written over forty years ago, that now resides in the Eisenhower Library at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore called Cardinal Numbers, Ordinal Lives.
There are websites where you can buy a bomb or a missile, a shell, an artillery round. The transaction is with the Ukrainian military. They will then send the round downrange on its way toward the invading Russians to stem the tide, to cover a friendly advance, or even do retaliatory damage behind the enemy’s lines, a kind of potluck of targets. With the purchase (everyone likes to think of it as a “donation” to the cause), you have the chance to have a message of your choosing penned, chalked, or painted on the ballistic flanks. The messages need to be pithy, brief, graphic, specific of course. There are pictures of the bombs bedecked. Soldiers snap a shot before the shot is shot. There are rifled cheers and jeers, puns and wordplay, obscene wishes and concrete descriptions of the target, the explosion, the aftermath of the pain on its way. Special delivery is a theme. The idea of a gift is turned inside out like a kernel of popcorn, iconic, ironic. Around Easter, the season of resurrection, “Here is an Easter Egg that finds you.” They are, in their way, elegant projectiles of ragged raw spontaneous anger. And I am trying to end this paragraph with some way to explode the notion of the pen being more powerful than the sword or how lethal language can be especially when applied to the skin of a shell made up of a high energy propellant and a depleted uranium slug, a projectile that projects physical rage, fury swaddled in a barbwire net of text.
This is not something new. The British Museum has in its collection a lead slingshot (# 1851,0507.11) from the Golden Age of ancient Greece, almond shaped with a winged thunder bolt on one side and the high relief inscription DEXAI “Catch!” on the other. There are spent missiles from a Roman siege that tell the recipient to “relax your ass” and another taunts “you can’t hide from me,” decorations of penetration from a distance.
Sticks and stones can break bones but words? I ask my writing students if they know about shaped charges, how modern munitions are constructed to “pierce” armor, concentrating the explosive expanding energy all into one tiny narrowed focus, a jet of sun-scalding plasma. I warn them! I use a trigger warning before I start up with this metaphor, adapting it to the way one might think about one’s writing, writing that selects minute details and then hyper-amplifies them. We do talk about the power of the written word, its energy, the focus. Its ability to pierce through, to devastate, to deliver. I warn them. It is on the way. I warn them, a message on a bomb I am about to hurl: “Catch this!”
Visible Invisible Prisons
I have a lot to say about the postcard. I have thought a lot about the postcard. How it is an analog Tweet. How I think of it as a kind of prayer, not a vehicle of correspondence. One does not expect a return message. Tom Phillips, the creator of The Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, died a few days ago so I am thinking of him (a postcard cliché!) and of his other big book, The Postcard Century: 2000 Cards and Their Messages. But the postcard, for me is always about edges and sides (the front and back), borders and frames. “Your message here.” “The address here.” “The stamp here.” There is even now a box along the bottom that is for post office use to print its barcode clearly to be scanned for sorting. The postcard by design is always about limits and fit. It is a puzzling box of boxes, quarantined, and partitioned off. As this essay about postcards is as well. I am always already running out of room….
Now, when I do receive postcards, I have noticed how the writers (most of them new to the form) are novices to the particular problems of postcard composition. They send messages I must decipher not on purpose, mind you, but because for them to write a postcard is unlike any other writing they have ever done. They’re handwriting, for one, perhaps for the first time in a long time. They could type the card but what are the chances they have a typewriter? They assume if they sign just their first name, I will be able to suss out their identity. I know many Susans, Sarahs, Davids, Dans. They neglect adding a place where the card was written or sent, assuming, I assume (if they even know about the postmark and cancellation) that the PO will address the issue of routing. But the PO is all robots now and centralized distribution. No help helping me pin dowm the where of the person whose penmanship I am trying to detangle. No place for return address! Besides the PO’s mechanized intervention is overprinting much of the scribble (the barcode, the cancellation) if the mechanical teeth feeding the mail through scanners and sorters haven’t already eaten away at the card itself.
In “Postcards from the Maginot Line,” W.S. Merwin recounts the strange liminal space created when he receives intimate messages from someone he does not know or remember. Who is sending these semiprivate semipublic billets-doux? It is perhaps this particular space, this special theater, the occasional occasion, this whispered public address that attracts me to this kind of essay, the postcard. Even more than “purloined” letters with their obscuring envelope, the postcard hides itself in plain sight. Every kind of writing may be a collaboration between the writer and the reader in the making of meaning. But the collaboration that takes place within the confines of the postcard creates this unique and concentrated emotional escape and, strangely, this sublime imprisonment.
I enjoy meandering through the office buildings of the university where posting is usually prohibited on hallway walls, restricted to bulletin boards. But the office doors of professors provide a blank canvas to install ephemeral collages of all kinds. Texts and images create (in their recontextualization) found poems, juxtaposed jokes, startling defamiliarizations. To read the office doors is to do a kind of archaeology. You delaminate the layers and work the grid. It is also a mental documentation of the eccentric academic documentation of the absurd, the Kafkaesque giggles adhering to thresholds between high-functioning insanity and measly manufactories of meanings inside the offices. I always find when I read a well-encrusted, thoroughly scaled, and chain-mailed door, that I am often a tweedy Zeno enroute to paradoxical, Escheresque illusions. I riffle through the slips of foxing paper, paper consuming itself with the leftover acid it took to make the pulp into paper in the first place that now crumbles into crisp burned curling edges.
The Marxist, in the office next to mine who would work while listening to public radio classical music played loudly, would not speak to me. I asked if he could turn the music down. He wouldn’t answer. He didn’t speak to anyone. He didn’t speak, he let us know in a written memo, because speech could not be critiqued. In my office next door, I’d compose elaborate theses about communal space, privacy, what is meant by the “ringing” in the ears and the “wasting” of time. I would type these critiques up on an old manual typewriter, hammering the keyboard as loud as I could, making a racket. When I finished, I’d slip the bruised and battered paper under his door.
Attached to the doors of many offices were slips of fortune cookie fortunes. I think the size of the little strips often worked in the overall door design while indicating the popularity of SWEN’s (the nearest Chinese restaurant) lunch special. The slips were counter punctual, a contrast to the letter and legal-sized sheets elsewhere, to the four-panel comic strips, to the posters with the frill of phone numbers, to the printouts of spreadsheets and memes. For me it isn’t so much about the fortune per se (the parodic aphorisms and obvious predictions) but the fortune cookie fortune writer. As a writer, I think about the fortune cookie fortune writer. I picture the writer in some cramped minuscule office somewhere typing out the pithy pronouncements, a pantomime of “The Literature of Exhaustion.” The running out of words. The inevitable probability inherent in the endless act of creation, the dwindling ability to imagine another improbable probability. The writer, exhausted, staring at a screen, slipping down in the chairs, stacks of empty slips of paper spilled all around, the reeking smell of burnt sugar emitted by nearby assembly lines, always already baking cookies, seeping under the closed office door.
An aphorism is a short “saying” in need of interpretation according to Andrew Hui in A Theory of the Aphorism. Maybe. In all the years I have haunted the hallways of English Departments, Creative Writing Programs, Textual Studies, Rhetorics and Compositions, Communication Schools, and Media Colleges there have been plenty of theories of language and meaning bandied about, scalloped and overlapped like the pith of paper bark on a pithy door. Interpretation? No. One never quite reaches an end to the reading-into of the reading into. I have always liked better the slipperiness of words, the play in their meanings the muddy banks of a river I can’t step into the same twice. You know, the slip in the poetry’s transmission that makes the nothing in nothing happening happen.
Often after a famous writer gives a public reading and before the dismissal to the author signing books or the reception, there is a brief period set aside for questions and answers. The questions are pretty standard. How did you get your start? Where do you get your ideas? Do you write every day? What are you reading now? That last question (all of the questions, really), posed by an audience member who might also be an aspiring writer, is really hoping for a shortcut or some direction to “good writing,” good writing that might rub off on the writer who is reading that “good” book or story or essay.
John Barth anticipated that question— “What are you reading now?”—at a Q&A I saw. He lifted to the podium an old over-large leather attaché case, pried it open, and, like pulling rabbits out of a hat, produced a whole series of things he was reading. He started with SUN newspapers, the mail (junk mail, bills, postcards, letters, flyers, offers, coupons), magazines in the mail, catalogues, advanced reading copies of books he wouldn’t blurb but still read, galleys, books he was reading for pleasure, the books that were texts for classes he was teaching, papers his students in composition classes produced, fiction typescripts his creative writing students had turned in, a thesis a graduate student was working on, a brochure on a sailboat he was thinking about buying, journals that his former students sent him of their published work, books by the same, one of his own published books, a book by a friend. He pulled out a cereal box saying he liked to read all the different things printed on the box while he ate the cereal. Then he said, of course, he reads every day his own writing, what he had written the day before, before he begins writing today. And then out of his pocket he pulled out a little slip of paper, a fortune cookie fortune, saying he got this after dinner before the reading. And read it to us. That was what he was reading now.
In a way he was poking fun at the desperate unasked question of the question, “What are you reading now?” But at the same time, he was making a serious point. That one never knows what writing one reads will be useful, instructive, inspirational even. There is no “good” writing one can cozy up to to become a “good” writer. Notice all that you are reading all the time, and welcome, every day, everything you read as necessary and, yes, as “good.”
Memory Foam Moon
On the nightstand (nightstand! I never noticed the word until now) a notepad and pen are no longer provided by this hotel. The pushbutton (pushbutton!) telephone and alarm clock remain, objet d’art, obsolescent curiosities now that the phone, the alarm are folded into the handheld (handheld, another word to notice!) device that also provides (without a pen, a pad) a place to write a note and even a nightlight (nightlight! compounding compounding words) that ignites when a message arrives, an illuminated notepad (notepad!) on the nightstand (nightstand!).
I am allergic to down. And I forget when I make a reservation for a hotel room to request a foam pillow or one stuffed with polyester fill. I forget, and the first thing I do is wrestle with the pillow’s sham and slipcover (slipcover!), extract another sleeve, a shell this time, its zipper stuffed into the cover opposite the opening, and open the pillowcase (pillowcase!), flipping the pillow, searching for the tag, the tag, that should never be removed, to inspect the contents enclosed. Often, by then, some feathers have found ways to surface, float in the air, a cartoon of struggle. I have knocked the stuffing out of the stuffing.
I use the ancient phone to call the desk and request a hypoallergenic pillow, and they oblige, a clerk knocking at the door, telling me to have a good night, it is memory foam (memory foam!), the pillow, and before my head hits it, I remember you in bed next to me, the moon in the window, its light landing on the nightstand (nightstand!) next to you sleeping, illuminating the notepad, a moon in the moonlight, the glint of the nib, the barrel, the pen’s button, the tangled sheets, your breath, all of it, it must be written down so I never forget what I just remembered, within the paradox of a sheet of paper, even within this bounded space it contains an infinite number of points, and will I even recognize what I have remembered to write, written, will I even remember that I have written this in the night the next morning, this lucid dream of lucid writing, and I reach over you for the pen, the paper, not wanting to wake you but then not wanting not to wake you.
Four buildings, you are told, survived the burning of the University of Alabama’s campus at the end of the Civil War. You are told that one book was rescued before the burning of the library, a copy of the Quran, and that the president’s wife saved the president’s mansion by refusing to leave the house. The observatory is still there with a plaque that mentions the telescope either being scrapped for the war effort or tossed into Marr’s Spring to keep from falling into Federal hands. Oddly, the last building to avoid the torch was the only military structure, a guardhouse. The campus today is studded with plaques spelling out what happened here, the running battle, the strategic burn. The bronzed embossed letters cast shadows, foiling the stories and statistics. 
Writers have come from all over the country to study writing here in the MFA program. They have their own received narratives about what has happened here, here where they now find themselves, what is happening here now. All the buildings, even the ones finished yesterday, camouflage themselves in fluted columns, in limestone metopes and triglyphs, decorative capstones and stuttering dentitions, disguising themselves, in whitewash and Alabama red-clay brick, as antebellum buildings.
And plaques are everywhere addressing the biography of the names naming those building, the history of a tree, the footprints of football players, this well, that bell, the heralding of philanthropy. The lettering seems to levitate, jumps off the stern sheet metal page. One of my favorites is a modest tarnished tile saying simply that the new library was built by the WPA, another visit from the North. It doesn’t tell the story I heard when I got here that President Denny petitioned President Roosevelt for the library’s funds only to be told that there was no money left for such construction, only emergency money for acts of God and war. Denny made his case by reminding Roosevelt that the Yankees had burned the library, and Roosevelt, amused, released the funds. I don’t know. I am not sure. It is a good story. It’s something I heard. It isn’t, like so much else, set-in stone.
A fact is a thing done. A fiction is a thing made. A fact having happened is finished. It leaves behind a residue, records of its happening, its occasion, evidence of the event. Even nonfiction, an essay, say, is a fiction in this sense. A made thing.
I walk with the writers through a forest of plaques and carved stones, on paths of bricks inscribed with messages, the thick atmosphere of texts, a weather of words, reading the inscribed essays cast across campus.
At the doorway of Foster Auditorium, a plaque that recounts the integration of the university. It is surrounded by others, newer plaques, revisions, edits. The writers read closely all that remains of that day, stamped in metal. I point out that the original plaque calls what happened here “The Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.” I think about, and I ask the writers gathered around me to think about, those floating quotation marks. Who “wrote” this? I wonder. Who wrote this and when? Who added the “quotation” that is buttressed by those marks? The writers deal every day in abstraction, using language to make those abstractions concrete. I tell them to go ahead and touch those raised letters, read by feel. Feel those slugs of punctuation, feel the prick of the periods worn smooth by the concentrated touch of others.
 Of course, more than four buildings survived. The president’s mansion’s slave quarters survived. They are still there behind the big house. There are no plaques. There is a warning not to trespass. The last I looked, it was being used as a garden shed (hand-tools and hoes, rakes, a lawn mower, gloves, sunhats, clippers and pruners, a wheelbarrow) to tend the mansion’s property, its rose gardens and azalea hedges.
One Hundred Frogs
Universities stage annual fairs to introduce their international students to the community, the community to these students from other countries who now find themselves in Iowa or Central New York or Alabama, Below the Bug Line. Each booth a new food or craft, a loop of music, a slide show of landmarks, accented by unique accents. Often at the Japanese table there is origami, and I am encouraged to fold a crane or two. Other paper is used to demonstrate calligraphic talent, the students offering to write your name in kanji. I always thank them, but then I request their take on Basho’s frog haiku:
Furuike ya/kawazu tobikomu/mizu no oto
“Old pond,” I say, I don’t dare the Japanese. “A frog.” “Splash,” I say, gesturing with my hands. They know instantly what I am asking for and are always willing, eager in fact, to take a break from the name-writing and paper-folding to attempt to capture again the most famous seventeen syllables on earth. Every student there takes up a brush, pauses, and jumps in. I do love the way the letters spill down the page, how the composing and the composition mimics the flight of the frog, the disturbance of states, the stirring of liquid stillness, the slight sigh as the writer breathes out at the conclusion. The physical performance of writing that is so often passive, private.
We think of haiku as poems. It’s the syllable count, the line breaks, I guess. But I think of haiku as a kind of essay of course, an attempt, a meditation. Place is there. And motion contrasted with stillness from the microscopic to the cosmic. But also, season, time, a second and, then, a second second.
In the anthology One Hundred Frogs, Hiroaki Sato collects over 100 attempts at translating Basho’s moment in time. I think as a writer of essays I worry time, worry it too much in that linear way, wishing in the next new essay for the next new thought, a next new insight. The existential nature of the art of writing is that it is linear. It wants to go someplace. Beginnings, middles, ends. It leaves a straight wake in the water and not the radiating ripples, circles after a frog jumps into….
In what way does the essay, does this essay, think the same thought, nothing new, over and over again and again? Nothing new! This essay, a practice, a practice of practice.
Parasitic Texts or Enabling Apparati
I started teaching a class called “Contemporary Rural and Agricultural Literature” in Iowa where most of the students were from Iowa farms. Later, when I taught the same class in Boston, Syracuse, and Tuscaloosa none of the students had any real connection to farms or farming. I asked them to draw a picture of a farm. And they all drew a gambrel roofed haymow barn with an attached silo, a water-lifting windmill, and board or barbed wire fencing corralling mixed livestock—cows, goats, pigs, chickens and, often, a horse. My students in Iowa who had lived on farms, who still lived on farms, would never have pictured their farms like that—the barn, the bungalow, the garden, the picket fence—the idealized landscape of the American farm. The tableau exists if you stumble into the Amish community of Kalona, but it is mainly gone. For my purposes of teaching a class on contemporary rural literature, it was interesting to ask the urban students why they think a farm looks like this and/or why they desired farms to look like that.
I could go on about that class, but mostly here I want to talk about a bag of potato chips—the bag more that the chips—Miss Vickie’s, Sea Salt Original. Each meeting, I would bring in food to my Farm class. One of the lurking questions in the class was “What is food?” so I would bring in examples of things purporting to be food. I could go on with that. Or I could go on with just doing a close reading of the various banners and headlines of the potato chip package—Made with Love and Care (a handwritten font), No Artificial PRESERVATIVES OR FLAVORS (a rubber stamp font), guaranteed fresh (in a crisp Helvetica)—but what most interests me is the body copy on the back.
Every bag of chips began somewhere, but ours began with someone. Miss Vickie wanted better chips for her family so she made them using ingredients fresh from her family’s farm.
In her kitchen –where work was respected, family loved, and honesty was a must—she spent years getting just the right crunch and flavors to put big happy smiles on every face in her farmhouse….
It goes on.
I don’t remember when I began to consume words like this with my consumption of “food.” I don’t remember when they began printing essays on packaging, but I do know that the practice has grown, expanded, become ever more elaborate in my lifetime as the companies making the products became larger in scale, more anonymous, and well, less artisanal. They actually plagiarized the hand-made rhetoric to promote the handmade-ness of the product, borrowing from the competing actual artisanal artisans who were deploying the essay sincerely, not cynically, to reveal ingredients, craft, traditions, and histories they were attempting to revive.
The “ours” above is the Frito-Lay PepsiCo Company. The package disguises the connection. The only tip-off being that someone or something in Purchase, New York, manufactures the chips for Miss Vickie. So, a snack company owns the copyright of the little personal essay and the trademark to “Miss Vickie.” Now, you might regard it as a fiction, but it is a fiction in the form of an essay, an essay of a particular kind.
There are four times as many words in that parasitic essay as there are sea-salted chips in the bag. I counted. How many bags and boxes now come to us fortified or invested with the ingredient of language, a season of syntax?
Lastly, Lists, Listicles, Litanies
It is that time of year again, the season of countdowns and the tallying of lists. This short essay is the short essay that is about lists and will be contributed to The Essayist’s annual Advent Calendar’s list of essays. Originally, I imagined the larger essay to be made up of 24 short essays (for the 24 days of Advent—though the days of Advent in the western church tradition can range from 22-28 days), but I ran out of time.
When one is not, as I am not, a narrative writer and does not depend on the skeletal structure of beginning, middle, and end (a little list right there!), one often employs a numerical scaffolding, cartilage instead of bone, to give the writing shape, structure, a sense of an ending. The number of minutes in an hour, the hours in a day, the days in a week, the weeks in a year…. I could go on…. But I’ve run out of time.
Here is my original list, taken from my notes, of the short essays I was going to write for this essay about short essays:
- The Subtitle: The Colon or Titles: The Subtitle
- The Blurb (this Advent essay is due December 15th and that same day two blurbs are due too—the clock ticking)
- Last Words
- Nose Art/ The Writing on Bombs
- Fine Print
- L’esprit de l’escalier
- Understatement: Sighted sub. Sank same.
- The Memorandum. The Extinction Layer?
- The Quip
- Junk Sequencing
- IKEA Directions
- Dance Steps
- The Postcard
- 30-Second Ads
- E.B. White’s Rowboat
- Kurt Vonnegut’s Typewriter
- Those Church Billboards
- Train Car Graffiti
- Side Effects
- Candy Sampler Box
- Tattoos and Body Copy
- Fortune Cookie
- The Advent Wreath
- The Faculty Annual Report or FART
It was only after I started writing these short essays and when I mentioned to Theresa that I was running out of time that she suggested I add “Lists” to the list of short essays after seeing all the year-end lists online, on the TV, in magazines, and in newspapers.
If there was time, I would write a little essay about the invention of the listicle and its connection to blogging and clickbait. I made a note to find Borges’s “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” again and to read Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists. I keep Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities on my nightstand, used it as a backing when I woke up thinking of a list of short essays I could write. Invisible Cities was a model for Michael Martone, my memoir, a list, a list of “Contributor’s Notes.” But how to fit all that in?
I took the time to re-read Henry Reed’s poem, “The Naming of Parts.” I was going to do something with that. “The Naming of Parts” is one of six poems in a cycle he called “Lessons of War,” a list inside of a list.
The first edition of David Wallechinsky’s, Irving Wallace’s and Amy Wallace’s Book of Lists made the list of books that were banned in 1977 because it contains a list that described popular sexual positions and the pros and cons of their use. I thought, maybe, I could do something with that too.
The nouns (the persons, places, or things) of the list are like little essays, just the names of names, written out after bullet points, behave like four-handed carbon, a bristle of bonding points, a schematic of out-of-the-box thinking, all juxtaposition and glancing associations.
The writer of lists is not so much a composer of music but the music’s arranger. It is a kind of writing that dramatizes the collaboration between the writer and reader. The list presents as some kind of direct (my computer program is calling for concision here, but that’s the point of lists—you think they are channeled but they soon begin to meander) route going to a particular destination, yet it also gives you the unfolded and unfolding map as well on which the route is inscribed. The side trips and scenic byways, the periphery that draws the eye, the detours to the places you didn’t know to know.
I know about the Great Lent, 40 days leading up to Easter, that practice of fasting. As a joke, I’ve posted on Facebook a list—40 days of Fish Sandwiches. Something to pass the time. You would not believe, or maybe you would, how many images exist of fish sandwiches and where my fishing took me on the internet to find them. And just now I discovered that Advent is the Little Lent, 4 weeks instead of 40 days of fasting in preparation for the Feast of Christmas. Instead of fish sandwiches I am posting short essays.
Church Litanies were the bee’s knees in the Middle Ages. The prayer, made up of lists, a prayer of listing, became so popular (close to 100 different versions) that Pope Clement VIII forbade, in 1601, the publication of most of them.
Here is a list of the litanies approved by the Roman Catholic Church for public recitation:
- The Litany of the Holy Names of Jesus
- The Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
- The Litany of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus
- The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- The Litany of Saint Joseph
- The Litany of the Saints
A lot o’ litany.
I don’t know what to make of these little scraps I have assembled here, lists of lists. I think it has something to do, for me, with time and our sense of how time moves. Time moves in a direction. We sense that direction is forward, toward something. The litany, the list, is a kind of prayer. It suggests a direction, a destination, but, as I said, it begins to spread, to resist the relentlessness, the relentlessness of time.
We mark the time of Advent with a calendar, yes, but also by a wreath that is circular. It and the season will come back around. There will be another round of essays about essays.
After Advent and the twelve days of Christmas, after Epiphany, we return, again and again, to Ordinary Time, another kind of time that is anything but ordinary.
Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and educated in the public schools there. His newest books are Plain Air: Sketches from Winesburg, Indiana (Baobab Press) and The Complete Writings of Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, Edited by Michael Martone (BOA Editons, Ltd). The Flatness and Other Landscapes (University of Georgia Press) won the Nonfiction Book Award from the AWP. His memoir, Michael Martone (FC2), is a collection of contributor's notes like this one. After teaching for 40 years in four different universities, he retired to garden and to attempt his first novel, Fort Fort Wayne. He lives in Tuscaloosa, Below the Bug Line, with the poet, Theresa Pappas.