I HATED TAKING out the skin-stinging trash, an adventure in snow and civics. The path in front of my house led to the driveway the plow guy shaved too close too much. Him, the wolf at my door. The plow man my wife was paranoid of. Him, who kept plowing because every time’s another thirty bucks. She pointed out how he’d come even when it hadn’t snowed. I know, I know. First world problems. Thing is, she was right. Not only did he knock on the door to collect thirty bucks when it snowed, but he also started to make it snow. Why so much? Why such a big plow blade? And why bee sting yellow? For answers, observe the snow in piles. Mountains of it. A class tax of snow. A-lean-on-my-house of snow. It was as if the plow guy put my lawn under one of those self-serve ice cream machines. He circles the landscaping Styrofoam slow, snowing up the sides, leaving the middle for last. I imagine the plow guy trying to whip the top of his hypothetical sundae (my lawn, mind you). But it’s hollow underneath. And if you can imagine all that, then you have an inkling of what I saw as I looked at the snowbank ten feet high—the top of which was sinking ever so perfectly in place, falling into itself. I heard a broken yell. Many plunged trumpets were ready to play within the snowbank. From the top, smoke curled up to the stars. I dropped my trash bag then. There, within Snow Mountain—put on my driveway by my plow man to freak out my wife—was a little family. They had a little fire going in a wee fireplace. It was gooseberry cheerful with matchstick rocking chairs and bottle cap Dutch ovens. A little one was reading a miniature book on the rug. Another was on its back fast asleep. You could hear faint snoring over the ice screaming in your ears. There was a sense, too, of others. Sight unseen. Ready to defend the home fires. I backed away. Anybody would have. This wasn’t about fighting. This was about that goddamn plow guy. No wonder he came all the time. Built himself a little igloo condominium for little families to live in, did he? Test my patience (and politics), would he? My wife and I would tell the plow guy not to come any more, wouldn’t we? Yes, we’d insist that he take down Snow Mountain, never letting on about how lucrative the rents are here. He didn’t come back around for a while. Probably at that “second” job he’d lingered to tell us about that one time. Many days passed with trash to take out, the hideous path to shovel, fatal icicles in the eaves to menace with a broom (closing your eyes each time you make contact, flecked by cold razor dust). One night, I was holding the ladder for my wife. She’d gone up on our roof with her new telescope aimed at the plow guy’s house. In between her shouting down at me to keep the ladder steady, I heard a little sound. TV noises coming from the snowbank. Funny thing, what with all that yelling and the TV, I spilled my canteen. Champagne froze the ladder in place so I didn’t have to hold on anymore. My wife was still on the roof, looking through her telescope as I tracked the noise, stepping careful to cover the crunch of my boots. I sanctioned the whole thing in my head as I crept. This is my property. I’m a human being and just look at them. They’re squatting in a snowbank beside my house on my driveway and it’s all been engineered by a plow guy who’s making a killing. I thought I would get the shovel and end it, the snowbank with them inside. Everything was blue, the color of darkness whispering your ear off with the cold. The same kind of blue, as it turned out, was coming from that tiny TV set when I looked in on them. Silver shadowed the room as those little ones danced their legs in its shine. They were lying on their bellies on the dog hair rug watching the TV. Snow sparkled where it peeked through their birch bark paneling. The hair on their heads caught the light filament-thin like silk worms suspending from summer trees. So they had a nice living room. So what. I had a shovel. But something in me wanted a flurry of boots instead—a big bad wolf kicking to blow down this precious Norman Rockwell bullshit in my driveway, all brilliantly finagled by the fucking plow guy. Enough! I would end it. But then PGL. Plow Guy Lights. I shouted to my wife using our code. PGL! She didn’t answer. Her telescope was trained on me. I could tell by her silhouette against the moon. PGL went the way predicted for our sun—bursting into a giant cymbal crash of whiteness. When you walk through the portal, you wonder momentarily about sand until there is nothing but yellow and all that tidal waving snow.
< Originally published in The Los Angeles Review >
It was not dead but dying. They had been on the path for a mile, through snow bleating under their boots. They wore frozen air as halos. One walked a dog that nosed the rough, foraging icicles. One drank coffee from a mug. One was made jealous by the sipping. His cupboards were full of mugs with missing or mismatched lids and usable only as dribble cups. The aroma of coffee went ribboning by as they crunched along. All of them now condemned him quietly for all his Adam’s appling and all that promiscuous vapor, thick as medieval tapestries hung from clouds—hanging monogamously for Mr. Fucking Tidy Cabinets over here but not for anyone else—not even the damn dog, who would gladly trade any jake-ass hill of beans for a paw full of dash-and-go, that grey zipline taking chances with trees. Perhaps the squirrels chittered away their resentments by the time they got to that part? It was that part of the path that rose far above the road. It was that part that was high enough above the road that you could not hear the cars anymore. It was that part where you could look across the fence and power-line latticework, out across the road humming below, and you could hear the waterfall. All that was left was that part where everyone had to turn around and go back. Does anyone like that part?
Of course the dog smelled it first. Its owner was first to be horrified at the thought: fangs ripping giddily into it right there by the side of the path. And the bleating snow is such a precise documenter. And the dog did indeed go for it, seeing it lying there on an undisturbed pillow of snow, a dog offering. Its pink underbelly showed through its odalisque of sacrificial fur. The others noticed then too.
Their noticing came at that part in the conversation that is both awkward and profound. One had been telling about life and pain. He claimed to have found something in the telling that would make him see it all anew, as they seemed to in their frosted affirmations and woolen nods. It was then they all noticed. One pulled back hard on the leash. One spilled coffee. One laughed sneeringly at that. Another hung fire in his epiphany. All hastened forward, hatching algorithms with every step to calculate whether or not that small body—mammalian gray, cream, and ashes-to-ashes brown—was dead or alive. If dead then good. If dead, a correct silence is to be observed for the transformation before them of something once-living to something soon-dead. Flesh to fiction. But if dying, more was needed. Dying is dialogue, is it not?
It is and they know that it is because it was not dead but dying. There, by the side of the path, it stretched its little body as far as it could go, as if it had taken a nap and had been woken up by their approach but was still too sleepy to do its dash-and-go tango for the trees. So it moved its eyelids slowly instead. No blink is that overcranked. A sliver of frosted breath crawled out of its rotten blueberry lips. Had it seen those canines coming for it in that one, slow-mo, languid, half-closing eye? Because even the dog backed off after that blink, slow as old gods. Their mercurial herald: the last breath, a cone of frost. All of these things wrecked their wintery walk, so that only the crumbs of themselves were left scattered beside this dying on the path. There was no trace of blood, but noting the proximity to the road, they deduced an impact. And though they were only crumbs of themselves, they knew and they had to acknowledge that they knew, for the dying obey no metaphors. So it looked into their eyes in spite of the crumbs they thought themselves to be and that was enough. What else do dying eyes say? When you look into them, all you think is I’m sorry.
< originally published in Epiphany >
Beauty happens in the rain. <The duck lisps, patting mud with an orange webbed toe.> The wet yellow of the sleuth’s slicker. <He wrangles his bill around the sibilants.> Or singing a number to a maiden in yonder windowpane. Bravo. <whistles> Roses? I’m allergic! <The duck swats the messenger bee with the bouquet.> It’s hard, Mac, hard I tell ya, to enjoy life’s rich pastries when the rain cloud makes ‘em soggy, get me? You try pulling out that sign with a picture of the screw on one side and the ball on the other with your own personal tsunami hanging over your head, making the ink bleed. It’s a helium-filled puppy. Can I come with you? Can I? Huh? Watch out for my thundertail! ZAP. Sheesh. Down boy-ee with the X-ray-eez. Good, Cloudy! Good boy. Just between you and me, Brother, <The duck whispers,> I’m not big on cats either. Go, Cloudy. Fetch! <The duck throws a stick. Traffic. The rain cloud chases. The duck pushbrooms the honking collision away to reveal a map of Europe.> It was the French who saw it in me, if you must know. They stacked me alongside Jerry Lewis and Edgar Poe. I’m more popular than the rabbit, which is more’n I can say for the good old US of A, if you are sniffing the odeurs I am le stinking, napalm? I notice the stench has shooed the raven that was perched on gloomy Eddy’s shoulder. Whoo-hoo, his mustache’s spinning. Anyhoo, there’s my slap-boxing-with-the-pencil shtick. I paid my dues. Primetime didn’t catch onto my motivation for years: the selfish duck, three feathers ahead of the pond with elasticity and all the song and dance jazz. Pork, he had his production gig and the rabbit was always into the politics even before the scandal. (He had to return all those philanthropic achievement plaques we did lines of carotin on.) But me? This is all I ever had. That’s why I’m always trying to die and getting it wrong. How would you feel? Jackknife triple-Lindying off the diving board, a Shazam-striped helmet on your head heavy like an anvil—the only thing heavy in this world—and there’s nothing but you and the ladder that goes to infinity. You know because you counted on the way up, and now you’re doing somersaults and coming in hot on that teacup. You see from the fireball an adorable silkworm on the rim of the teacup. It’s got puppy dog eyes, and it’s tuxedo-tapping along the rim. And I’m the Red Baron, Mayday! Outta the sky, a meteorite, Trojan horsey (inside are Martian invaders nasally warsnorting)—that’s how galactic I am, hungry for wormtatter and teacup and THWOW WHEEEE, Houston, do I hit it, Man! Do I ever crash. We’re talking stars and little chirping bluebirds each with its own orbit of stars and mini-bluebirds, a whole baby crib mobile of them circling around every chirping head. Fadeout. Any of that ‘Come into the light’ business? No sir. Wings and a harp maybe. Why not? It’s only another mask to become for a funny second to prompt laughter on the other side of the rabbit hole. When you return from the explosion, Saint Peter always sounds suspiciously from Brooklyn. Soda why? ‘Cause so do I, that’s why, Fizzdrinker. Hey, what’s with all the questions, Egbert R. Murrow!?! Truth is, we’re all drunk on suicide. We keep getting it wrong. Maybe it’s only my catch-23. I can be shot out of a cannon and I’ll rain down singing a song from the radio dressed up like a drop to keep the theme going. Death is something quieter for me. Sometimes, even my silent presence, maybe next to the rabbit—I’d have one arm over my belly and the other hand scratching my chin, as one of my flipper toes would tap impatiently—even that would ruin the shot. A six-minute life-limit suffers no rumination. Get me? Death is minute seven. Maybe I’ve said too much, Buster. You trying to get me erased? Not with these. <The duck steps back to brandish what is assumed will be an arsenal. It turns out to be two steaming plates of food: delicate entrées cooked to perfection in the Gascony style—confit with butter noodles.> Scratch that! <The duck stows his dangerous hands.> Where was I? Oh yeah. The thing about getting dying wrong is that you forget. That’s how you keep getting it wrong, I think. The forgetting. Does anyone care? Anyway, I know it was already a part of everything I did. Even the good stuff. Duck Dodgers and the early days with Pork. Mention the word “season,” Brother, and you’ll regret it to the very last day of your life—today. As I was saying. . . wait a minute. You said season, didn’t you? No, I didn’t. You did. Think I’m as dumb as the bird on your TV, that it? Wiseacre, eh? Well now it’s your birthday. Ready to sing it? Maybe you don’t know the lines. I’ll help. ‘Not that. Anything but that.’ Put more dread into it, Dorothy. ‘Not happy birthday! Anything but HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!’ Now, sing the tune. Da dum dum Da dum dum. <The conveyor hums to life.> Let’s strap you in. One buckle. Two buckle. My shoe? WHACK WHACK and you’re off. After the shoes across your face and the birds and stars, you see a contraption of hijinks. You doubt you will witness the rest of your six minutes. <Daffy in full regalia now fires a rifle, plays a bugle, and salutes. Up ahead, a propeller. Then, rain.>
< Originally published in Fourteen Hills >
Where? Reflections on Richard McGuire’s Here and the Spatial Ontology of Comics
Soon after entering the window of the textual house Richard McGuire builds for us in Here, we may recognize just how profoundly the architecture of place pervades our reading and seeing. In many ways, Here offers an alternative to the autographies studied throughout Reading Lessons in Seeing. McGuire’s premise enables a departure from the tyranny of the human altogether, presenting instead a series of images representing various moments of time. The year each image is taken from is dutifully reported in accompanying captions. The year comes to figure as a reading anchor, stabilizing our navigation through vastly disconnected images. Most grounding of all is the image of a corner within a house, the very spot from which all the scenes of the graphic novel are taken. That corner undergoes momentous change over the decades, witnessing history remixed, as visual mélange. By reducing humanity as well as history to so many discreet units of possibility, Here presents captivating alternatives not only to comics narrative but also to the presumed subjects of autography. In its pages, place seems able to possess a life worth recounting, but not always according to the same standards of human reason or emotion common to autobiography.
…For more, see the rest of the talk I delivered to the International Comics Art Forum in lovely Columbia, South Carolina on April 14, 2016.
And see the book from which this talk emerges–Reading Lessons in Seeing coming soon from University Press of Mississippi in 2017.
I was joking to some people younger than myself about a friend who had the most interesting ‘mishearings’ of popular but barely audible song lyrics. Michael Stipe from early R.E.M. was basically a voice made of fog. Words. [I think he was singing words.] To Stipe, the microphone was a poetification machine.
Once anyone said they liked that one song, you know the one [insert that signature way of reporting melody and music to others we all have–I’m a room-clearer]… You know the tune. It came on college radio last night. Only you had to turn the rabbit ears jimmied to the radio antenna with extra coat hanger wire.
Here, let me sing it for you…
Try it, and here I begin a (now shameful upon retrospect) rendition of “Perfect Circle” in which I vacillate from Earnest Angely levels of speaking in tongues to Jim-Morrison-on-many-redbulls (et. al.) droning on about all things hip or ‘lizard’ with spin-wheel eyes and ‘hey man’ predictability.
Was that funny?
If you had been there, you’d wonder about humor maybe. Or you’d laugh on the inside. Because on the outside, the listeners of my Michael Stipe joke are beginning to look like Friday market if you catch my drift. Get it? Friday? Fish? Remember when so many meat-buying Christian Americans helped to make eating fish on Fridays a shopping reality for everyone? Plus, there’s that old visual joke about astonished or astonishingly insipid people looking like fish for sale with mouths agape, right?
Still don’t get it?
Indeed, my joke bombed because I expect to be surrounded by people who might know just who in the hell I am talking about half the time. The resulting awkwardness has less to do with the quality of my no-chair turning vocal performance than the age-difference between myself and the audience. I’m convinced of it!
When I mention it to people my own age, I feel an instant recognition. There’s a shared urgency around the issue of the generation gap and its likely role in making our humor the stinky garbage of a younger crowd’s corner. We’re usually so winningly funny.
Proof, you say?
Proof Shpoof. I told a joke back in 1993 that some dude is still laughing at–albeit through a lip ring scar now tucked under a ZZ Top blanket of facial hair, but still–And shut up, anyways wise guy, I’m talking here. Like I was saying…
If it’s true that a word is not just a sound or a symbol or even the combination of the two, but conceptual potentiality, then the best equivalent I can see for it comes to us from a long time ago (relatively speaking) from an old American family of letters–Harriet and Catherine Beecher’s brother, who said a word is a peg to hang an idea on.
Just imagine the conceptual possibilities if we were to add to our lexicon the term B.I. and its analog (A.I.) or Before Internet and After Internet respectively. Just imagine the new coats we might hang on them?
There are whole chasms of generational miscommunication we might all stop routinely falling into if we were to adopt these terms and the potential for conceptualizing difference that they engender.
So in that song by Rage Against the Machine, when he sings:
I’m a soloist on a solo list
All live, never on a floppy disk
Or when Beyonce –I mean– Destiny’s Child sings:
You make me wanna throw my pager out the window.
Tell MCI to cut the phone poles
MCI? Nope. Just B.I. No need for confusion.
At the same time, we should always consider what might be lost as a consequence of our linguistic ambitions. What do we lose if we all start using these terms of discrimination? An assumption–even in the face of its absence–of a shared origin.
Still, most of our dearest held thoughts–the ones we call beliefs–tend to be enormous incongruities, improbable to their precious black holed-up hearts, where all laddery myths start–in miscommunication, of course, the dragon bone shop of my art.
< originally published in Crack the Spine >
On what exactly? Just ask the googles. They’ll tell. Plumb those tubes, you. You’ll see. There’s one of this guy flipping himself near watermelons. By gardenias that won’t grow when you get them home. The title says ‘High on Bath Salts’ and the Scorsese who’s phone shooting it says so too at the start (in case you missed it) but that caption won’t hold. The real subject is the people who bascart by, trying hard not to notice him flopping wheeze and stammer, for the whole epileptic world to see.
I’m struck by the freedom of unattended melons in bins. Planets of summer juice ripe for the taking. I’m struck by the elderly couple in slow cybernetic indifference. Their oxygen tubes stretch to resperate it all coolly in. I’m struck by the invisible man whose basso profundos prison and street, but here on the wild apron of the supermarket, his voice is a patient mother’s brush on tangled hair, saying over and again how it’s all right, it’s okay and it’s going to be okay.
I’m struck by the possibility of children. At minute two, I fear this video may be pregnant. I fear (and wish) that this violence of guttural zombie lurching will become the unlikely backdrop for a passing child. But this is a supermarket. Childhood sorrow happens here, crowding up the express lane. Crying cycles the mist on the broccoli. It spawns old ladies on Saturday with morsels of breakfast sausage skewered on paper plates. You don’t need fifteen items or less to get a taste. Look harder and you’ll see. The interior beyond the video, not past its fourth wall but its second, is full of slow roaming loud wailing supermarket children, for which this man—now ripping off his hoodie the way a snake exuviates last season’s skin—is merely the metaphor. All of them are lost or smacked or unrequited of wanted things. Their tears magnify dirty lips neon-lined in purple or aquamarine. Or cheek freckles. Fresh lobsters pinned under fluorescents. Fat and balmy. Rembrandt’s nose. Eighty cents a peck.
And then I wonder about the cell phone Scorsese as my scrubber crawls towards the end. The icon for exit full screen is an open iron cross. Is that the medal he sought? Do they give awards to backyard Ernie Pyles? How fresh the story headlined High on Bath Salts. Supermarket Loses War on Drugs. Or Zombie Apocalypse, Melons Keep Watch. We’ve lost more than our healthy sense of apposition, those commas that caesura our history with wit, that slice up events not just to break them down but to break them open. And then I am not so safe anymore lost on my laptop milk carton in supermarket attics of abstraction. The crazed man finds uncertain footing. The scrubber is a legless millipede. And the sensitive gangster hurls his last it’s okay just as that corner watermelon proves it is not a handle and that gravity watches too.
< originally published in JMWW Review >