“[With Ronald] Reagan, Joan Didion wrote, “rhetoric was soon understood to be interchangeable with action.”
As quoted in Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser
Forty years later it has reached its apotheosis.
(Many people have been waiting expectantly for 2020 to come in anticipation of some change, but I can’t know if we’ll be better off or worse come this time next year.)
But enough about that.
I want to talk about Kevin Barry’s brilliant new novel Night Boat to Tangier. A friend said that when he heard it described, it reminded him of Martin McDonagh’s film In Bruge, and sure there are two Irishmen, hapless criminal types philosophizing on their lives, past and present, and on their long relationships with each other. For me, however, I kept imagining the two protagonists as Estragon and Vladimir, not waiting for Godot but for a long lost daughter on a ferry on which they themselves used to run drugs twenty years earlier.
As Maurice and Charlie sit in the ferry terminal in the port of Algeciras, Spain in October 2018, watching the passengers boarding and disembarking on the night boat to Tangier, their pasts comes burbling up–outlining and shaping their lives for the past twenty five years. It is a past full of lost love, violence, adventure, betrayal and exile.
But it is not necessarily the plot or the characters that is the focus of this book. It is the language itself.
Ye’d be sleeping out on the beaches.
Like the lords of nature, Charlie says.
Under the starry skies, Maurice says.
Charlie stands, gently awed and proclaims–
“The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue friut.” Whose line was that, Maurice?
I believe it was the Bard, Charlie. Or it may have been Little Stevie Wonder.
A genius. Little Stevie.*
Of the dozen or so unreliable narrators narrators left in the room at this small hour, all would claim to have seen what happened next–except for Nelson, who considered himself fortunate to be on the other side of the bar–and, in fact, Jimmy Earls would claim even to have heard what happened next…and it was this ripping sound that Jimmy Earls vowed he would carry with him to the deadhouse, and with it the single dull gasp that [was] made.
October. The month of slant beauty. Knives of melancholy flung in silvers from the sea. The mountains dreamed of the winter soon to come. The morning sounded hoarsely from the caverns of the bay. The birds were insane again. If she kept walking, toe to heel, one foot after the other, one end of the room to the other, the nausea kept to one side only. The pain was yellowish and intense and abundantly fucking ominous. Cynthia knew by now that she was very sick.
To be sure, neither of the men is of admirable moral fiber. In fact, they are violent, treasonous, disloyal, cowardly, unfaithful drug runners.
And yet, it is the language that makes these two likable. They see the world with a sort of poetic vision–from the gutter to the stars. It is the language that gives them a method for coping with an ever-disappointing, fearful existence.
Language has always been Kevin Barry’s forte. His first novel, City of Bohane presented a post-apocalyptic Ireland which is described in a patois of street slang, Irish, and invention. In its originality it might remind one of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Beatlebone–-the novel previous to Night Boat to Tangier–takes perhaps the most public of lives–John Lennon’s–and places a western Irish mythology upon it that is dazzlingly beautiful and outlandishly comic.
The words “daring” and “original” and “beautiful” and “brilliant” are often sprinkled around reviews of Barry’s work. They are both appropriate and insufficient. He is much more than that.
*(By the way, it was neither Shakespeare or Stevie Wonder whom Charlie was quoting. It was James Joyce.)
At 6:30 a.m. on the Friday after Christmas, I found myself fully inserted into a large MRI tube. For 45 minutes I had to remain completely still while an icy course of “tracer” pulsed through my veins and a cacophonous symphony of beeps, clanks and rumblings sneaked through the noise-reducing headphones that were provided. Forty-five minutes in odd isolation gives you a lot of time to think…about pretty much everything, but certainly about one’s own mortality, about creativity and about finishing the work that one has started.
I don’t know if I am unconsciously seeking out these type of things/thoughts or that I am just noticing them more and more. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a Rodney Crowell song titled “It Ain’t Over Yet” which deals with not giving up despite what age and time and others might tell you. I’ve played that song at two separate gigs since then. Today I finally saw a film that I had been wanting to see since it came out a month ago: Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory.
Almodóvar’s film deals also with the subject of mortality. (Though a two-hour film can certainly uncover many more layers than can ever be exposed in a four-minute song.) The protagonist, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is a film-director/screenwriter beset by pains and various medical conditions who has completely stopped working and who–when not self-medicating–slips into fond memories of his past, memories triggered by the slightest moments of the present. There are memories of his mother, of his early home, of his childhood. And, at the moment, he feels that they are all he has.
Yet his film career is now the subject of art house retrospectives and a memoir piece is currently being staged by an old colleague/nemesis. But he has stopped working. There is nothing new.
He has a wonderful, solicitous secretary (Nora Navas) who continues to answer the many requests for interviews, conferences, etc–always with a “no” response. She is also charged with taxiing him to doctors and hospitals. (A wonderful throw-away line is when he asks why he is so popular in Iceland, after the umpteenth Icelandic request for him to visit.)
I have loved Almodóvar’s films since I was quite young. And if asked what it is about all of them that I remember, I might say–beside the passionate storytelling–the color. His eye for color is startling. There are many vivid reds and electric blues–Mallo’s apartment is a designer’s dream–and even the white-washed caves that the young boy and his mother (Penelope Cruz) live in pop off the screen in memorable brilliance.
There has been much written about how Pain and Glory is Pedro Almodóvar’s most personal film. And that is easily understood. But since I am often teased for being a “spoiler” in any posts that I write about movies and books, I will do my best to restrain myself here. However, I will say that whatever Pedro Almodóvar is thinking, he should listen to Rodney Crowell’s song “It Ain’t Over Yet.”
Because this film is wonderful.
A few years ago, in an attempt to be a cutting-edge, high-tech institution, the powers-that-be decided that the school I teach in didn’t need a library. The library is superfluous, they claimed. Students have all the information they need on their phones in their hands. (As if information was all that students need.) And so, quickly, the library was gutted, the librarian dismissed, and the books were donated, destroyed, or “disappeared,” From its ashes rose a Maker-Space and a Learning Commons. (If you are not currently involved in modern education, don’t ask.)
A few colleagues and I couldn’t imagine a school without a library, so we built our own. A “little library” it was, and ones like it appear in neighborhoods, towns and cities throughout the U.S. (I once was at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for such a library on the porch of a bar in Key West, although it was much more of a Key West celebration than a library opening.)
Anyway, the library thrived with people taking and leaving a variety of books, CDs, and even art works.
The library itself was located in an odd place in the middle of campus. There was a cement sidewalk that jutted into a swatch of grass and then just ended. When I would announce new additions to the library, I would refer to it as “the library WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS.”
And every student and every adult knew what I was referring to: the delightful first collection of poems by Shel Silverstein that every student had loved as a child and every adult of a certain age remembered reading to his or her own. The poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends are silly, irreverent, charming, and knowing. It’s the silly irreverence that children most love: as if the adult Silverstein—unlike other adults in their world— was clued into the fears, the joys, the silliness, the incomprehension, the absurdity with which they view the world.
Yet, Silverstein was more than a children’s poet. He began as a cartoonist, and a successful one. It was his cartoons that prompted his publisher to suggest a book of poems. He was also a playwright–David Mamet called him his best friend–with over 100 one-act plays under his belt.
And he was a prolific songwriter. He had a number of hits with what could be called novelty
songs: “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone,” “Sylvia’s Mother,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and the “Unicorn” song ( you know, “green alligators and long necked geese… .”) But he also had a solid stable of songs recorded by a slew of people: Dr. Hook and his Medicine Show, Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare, Belinda Carlisle, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Marianne Faithful, Johnny Cash among others. I remember the first Judy Collins’ album I ever bought featured a rousing protest song called “Hey Nelly Nelly.” I didn’t recognize the name at the time, but it was written by someone named Shel Silverstein.
And so it comes to a song I have recently rediscovered. I was buying tickets to see Todd Snider in concert and was looking for the one Todd Snider album I own. I couldn’t find it. So instead I pulled out a Robert Earl Keen album West Textures which features a charming Shel Silverstein song, “Jennifer Johnson and Me.” (Snider mentions a Robert Earl Keen song in one of his own songs which is what originally had driven me to this album.)
Anyway, the song tells the story of a man who finds in an old suit jacket pocket a black-and-white photo (‘three for a quarter”) from an arcade photo booth. The picture is of him and an old girlfriend, Jennifer Johnson. The singer is well into adulthood now, and the photo is of him when he was in late adolescence, sitting with Jennifer Johnson.There is a sweet nostalgia in his memories of their innocence, their hope, and the belief in “forever.”
It’s a sweet song, and I opened up with it on Saturday. I think I will keep it in my set list. Here’s the tune, by Robert Earl Keen:
I was listening to an old Tom Waits’ album recently–Mule Variations (1999). To be sure, Tom Waits is an acquired taste and is not for everyone. But he is a taste that I long ago acquired and enjoy each time I re-listen.
I once read a comment under a YouTube video that “Tom Waits is a pint of Guinness in a Bud Lite world.” And that statement makes perfect sense to me. (Whoever said this, fair play to you. I can’t find it anywhere now to give you credit.)
Anyway, the album Mule Variations continues in the style that Waits had started back with the album Swordfishtrombone, It has that clanky, cacophonous junkyard sound throughout much of it, except for one song in particular, “Georgia Lee.”
And it is this song that I can’t get out of my head.
“Georgia Lee” is based on a true story. A young girl, Georgia Lee Moses, had dropped out of middle school and run away from home at 12 years of age. Her disabled mother was simply unable to handle her. Ten days after she ran away she was found murdered near the exit ramp of a highway. She was 12-years old. The case didn’t make many headlines, and the murderer was never found. The community knew of her situation, knew of her plight. And it let her down.
I don’t want to imagine what her life was like on the streets. She was 12 years old.
And this is Waits’ chorus:
Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there
For Georgia Lee?
Now, a lesser songwriter could have easily slipped into Hallmark-esque platitudes like “Why do bad things happen to good people” or decide on some soap-box philosophizing on the existence of god, the nature of evil, or the fall of innocence.
But Waits’ doesn’t do that. Instead, he simply paints the picture, bleak and unforgiving as it is, and lets us figure it out.
And then in the middle of the song comes the bridge: an invitation to play hide-and-seek, a care-free activity that should be available to any child, but wasn’t to Georgia Lee.
The song is a good one: a sad one, but a good one.
Below is a nice version of the song from an album of female singers covering Tom Wait’s song. Give it a listen.
It ain’t over yet, ask someone who ought to know
Not so very long ago we were both hung out to dry
It ain’t over yet, you can mark my word
I don’t care what you think you heard, we’re still learning how to fly
It ain’t over yet
“It Ain’t Over Yet,” Rodney Crowell
I recently discovered this song. It’s a few years old. But it spoke to me…and probably speaks to a number of my friends as well. It’s about second chances. Regrets replaced by hope. About “keeping on keeping on.”
I and a number of people I know and love are either going through some big changes or preparing to. I had one friend quit her job to spend more time with her adolescent daughter, only to be blindsided by her husband’s abandonment. She went looking for anything that could pay the bills. Another lost his job when some powerful people complained about his style of teaching. He landed on his feet, heartbroken but resilient.
Then there are others who are voluntarily leaving their jobs. A teacher friend of mine is quitting to be a full-time photographer. Another returned to Ireland.
They are all of a certain age. I could go on and on.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said “there are no second acts in American lives.” Rodney Crowell would dispute that idea. Throughout his song he lists his faults and his regrets, his successes and failures, his highs and his lows. But he insists in the “hook” of the chorus: it ain’t over yet. And by the end of the song, he’s in a good space.
I am quitting my teaching job in June. I quit once before but came back to it eleven years later. I’ve been doing it a long time.
A lot of people ask me worriedly what am I going to do with myself. I have plenty to do. I have my writing, which has been on hold for a few years–a novel needing a final draft, dozens of poems and short-stories to polish. (There’s a reason this is first post in 2019.) I have my painting, which I had been working hard on and then just ceased.
And then there is my music. (Click here for future show dates.)
I’ve played about 35 gigs in 2019 and I am enjoying them and I think I’m getting better with each of them. I started out doing only covers but now am including 5 or 6 originals in each show. As I said, I think I am getting better.
And at my gig today, I am covering the Rodney Crowell song, “It Ain’t Over Yet.” I think of it almost as a fight song, fist in the air defiant: IT AIN’T OVER YET.
Here’s a wonderful video of Rodney Crowell performing with John Paul White and Roseanne Cash. I don’t know about you, but I think the words speak to a lot of us.
One of Seamus Heaney’s later collections of poetry was entitled Seeing Things, and indeed the Irish poet was a master of detailed observation. His career was built on seeing and noticing things.
Andrew Barker, in his on-line lecture on Heaney’s early poem “Digging,” comments on the phrase “seeing things,” saying that we usually mean one of two things when we say it.
The first is what he is emphasizing in Heaney’s poems, the art of closely observing detail: in the case of “Digging,” the sound of a spade sliding through gravel, the squelch of the turf being sliced from the bog, the coolness of potatoes fresh from the ground.
But, Barker points out, there is also another meaning of someone “seeing things”– where it does not refer to someone with keenness of perception, but to someone who sees things that are not there. “He’s seeing things” quite often means that someone is seeing things that are not visible to others, someone who is delusional or fantasizing.
And then Barker names the poet William Butler Yeats as one who sees things that are not there.
I’ve let that percolate in my mind for a while. And then I thought of Yeats’ poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” perhaps my favorite poem of all and one that I can recite at will.
The poem goes like this:
The Song of Wandering Aengus
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread.
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name.
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
Apart from the subtle rhymes (“wand” and “wood” or “moon” and “sun”) or the beautiful images of “moth like stars” and “a glimmering girl/with apple blossom in her hair,” the poem is notable because Yeats is seeing things that are not necessarily visible.
(Do I need to mention that a silver trout transforms into a human female as the speaker turns to “blow the fire a-flame.”)
And yet there is a larger truth sitting on that cottage floor and running out the door. A larger truth that has the speaker spending his lifetime chasing that vision–and believing that he will catch it.
I used the word “vision” purposefully, for it is in that unseen vision that Yeats reveals a truth, a truth about passion, aspiration, dreams and goals. It is the dream of what one wants and the dedication of following that dream, of chasing that dream “till time and times are done.” For it is in chasing the dream–not in catching it– that a full life resides.
Yeats saw that truth…and saw it in a way not visible to most. (Never mind, that Yeats actually spent much of his life chasing after his “glimmering girl,” Maude Gonne. That’s beside the point!)
Certainly, we are all not going to fully realize our dreams; we will not all achieve what we set out to do. And often times not attaining what we thought we wanted may be the best thing to happens to us. But the chase must continue –and it defines our lives. If we are not looking forward–through “hollow lands and hilly lands”–if we have given up on that “glimmering girl,” then we are merely alive.
As I have said, this is one of my favorite poems–and it has often been put to music. If you search YouTube for “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” you will find scores of versions done by everyone from Christy Moore or The Waterboys to Dave Van Ronk and Judy Collins. Donovan did a version, as did Don MacLean on banjo.
Anyway, below is my favorite version, by Christy Moore. Give it a listen…
Grumpy younger old man casts jaded eye on whipper snappers
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