Jim Carroll, We Salute You, Brother


My voice has a quiver.
A quiver is where you keep arrows until you shoot them.
–Jim Carroll, “The Child Within”

Punk rock poet and memoirist Jim Carroll, best know for The Basketball Diaries and his band’s morbid 1982 hit single “People Who Died” just died of a heart attack in his Manhattan home on September 11th.

He was a prolific talent who led a fascinating life, and a true NYC iconoclast. The body of work he leaves behind is a bristling brew of  passion and nihilism, low-balling humor and highbrow intelligence.

You gotta admit, sixty full years of life yielding an illustrious career in writing and music ain’t a bad inning for a scrappy juvenile delinquent who got hooked on heroin at 13. I’m glad he made it. Rest in peace, Catholic Boy.

Golfing With Joyce And Beckett

I’d like to give a shout out to all my English major peeps with this “Pitch ‘n’ Putt with Joyce ‘n’ Beckett” a short film so rife with literary gravitas and pretentious humor that it nearly succumbs under its own weight. So load up your Calabash, ease into your favorite chair, and chuckle at each and every joke, satisfied that you are only one of a minority who could possibly grasp the humour found therein. Just don’t think about all the time you had to waste reading Finnegans Wake.

Political Poetry Or: The Bard Of Florida’s 23rd

OK, so about that interview with Ross the other day. Despite the fact that some of you seem to have found it amusing, we don’t do that sort of thing for shits and giggles. When we ask a man if he prefers sushi or tacos, we mean business. That, friends, was a Coilhouse job interview. And he’s hired. Ladies and gentlemen, put your tentacles together for our newest guest blogger, Ross Rosenberg!*

Few subjects are as tiresome to discuss in a public forum as politics. It is an arena which I make a concerted effort to avoid whenever possible. Indeed, should I have the urge to debate matters of a political bent I do it alone, in the privacy of my own cave. So devoted am I to the idea that I have cultivated a rather well-conceived alter ego; a personage of conservative persuasion who I merely call Dermot. This personality, combined with the hand-puppet I fashioned in secret just for these occasions, provides the perfect foil for my decidedly liberal views and many times I have debated, long into the night after everyone has retired for the evening, in a dual toned, hushed and angry whisper, subjects ranging from stem-cell research, to corn subsidies, to what I should have for breakfast.

The reason for disclosing this tedious and potentially embarrassing information is to assure you, dear readers, that I do not dwell wistfully on this area of our society; that I do not haunt the same vicious corners of the internet as the detestable and frail “political junkie”; and that I certainly do not watch C-Span.

All Tomorrows: Parable of the Sower

All creeds spring from catastrophe.

The late Octavia Butler, as keen an explorer of the human soul as ever trod a future-scape, understood that far better than most. In plain, well-turned prose she charted the bonds that hold (or fail to hold) us together through time, space and tragedy.

Perhaps the pinnacle of this search is her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower (also: read Kindred, trust me). The tale is framed as the journals of Lauren Olamino, a woman who might one day be revered as a prophet or messiah. For now though, she’s just a terrified teen in the middle of an apocalypse, praying for survival.

Dystopian fiction, along with its post-apocalyptic sister, is a popular genre these days, and with the fractious times we live in it’s not hard to see why. Since I’ve begun writing this column, I’ve had more than one reader comment how energizing rebelling against a dystopia would be or how freeing it would be to “see it all burn down.” The recently departed J.G. Ballard was right when he noted that “The suburbs dream of violence… they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world.”

In Parable Butler strips any bit of glamour away right out of the gate: dystopian times are mostly death, fear and desperation (ask anyone who’s ever lived through a warzone). But while she topples down one dream, she gives the reader a wondrous and utterly rare thing in novels of a dark tomorrow: hope.

Mikhail Vrubel and The Demon

The angel bent his gaze severe
Upon the Tempter, eye to eye,
Then joyful soared … to disappear
Into the boundless, shining sky.
The Demon watched the heating wings
Fading triumphantly from sight
And cursed his dreams of better things,
Doomed to defeat, venting his spite
And arrogance in that great curse
Alone in all the universe,
Abandoned, without love or hope

– from The Demon by Mikhail Lermontov

Long ago I promised to return to one of my favorite subjects: madness.  Currently I’m fueled by days of non-stop drawing, surviving on coffee and deviled eggs alone. In other words – the time is right. We’re looking at the madness of prolific Russian painter Mikhail Vrubel. When we left off some months ago, Vrubel was living in Moscow with his beloved wife and son. His massive works in oil, based mostly on Russian folklore, had earned the prolific painter a fair degree of fame and success. The illustrations to Lermontov’s poem The Demon that launched Vrubel’s career receded into the past. Mikhail was working in the theater alongside his wife, painting and designing costumes for her operas, immortalizing the beautiful singer as each of her fairy tale characters. His life was the epitome of creative and family bliss. His new paintings were glowing, as well, due in part to the subject matter and in part to iridescent bronze powder Vrubel mixed into the paint.

The Seated Demon

Nevertheless, Vrubel was compelled to return to the enormous portrait of the Demon. Slowly he began reworking the brooding features, even after the work had been exhibited. Painting thick layers upon layers in an attempt to convey the demon’s pure despair drove Mikhail further away from life, deeper inside himself and his work. The poem’s nihilistic themes seem to have struck the very heart of the artist. Despite his success and marriage, was there a sense of ultimate loneliness permeating Vrubel’s reality? Did the poem reveal a world as he secretly saw it, confirming his latent misery? Was he never genuinely happy, resenting his family life and fame? Perhaps, instead, there was an overwhelming fear of losing what he treasured most, triggered by the loss of his siblings as a child and fermenting inside ever since. Or was it The Demon‘s contempt for the Church that struck a chord? Vrubel’s obsession grew, taking over his body of work and eventually producing a dozen paintings and sculptures dedicated to The Demon. So much paint has been compulsively applied and re-applied that many details of these paintings are nearly indistinguishable, but the Demon’s large, restless eyes and dark features stand out, thoroughly spellbinding. Burning through the viewer, this is Vrubel’s best work, stunning, unhinging and unforgettable.

Details of Demon In Flight and Demon, Downcast

in 1902 Vrubel was briefly hospitalized due to failing emotional and physical health. The Demon had had left him powerless against reality and he was beginning to crumble. Home from the hospital, his health was improving, but recovery was short-lived. Just a year later Savva, Mikhail’s beloved son, died. With grief aggravating an already fragile mind, Vrubel continued his slow decline. He also continued to work, finally abandoning the demon that caused so much agony and returning to portraits and fantasy. I’m particularly fond of this drawing – the concerned visage of the artist’s psychiatrist.

Portrait of Psychiatrist Fiodor Usoltsev

Several years passed until the first signs of every artist’s worst nightmare showed themselves: Vrubel was losing his sight. This was the final blow to his health and spirit. Mikhail Aleksandrovich Vrubel, one of the greatest Russian painters, met his end in the clutches of pneumonia at the age of 54. He purposely made himself sick by standing in cold spring air earlier that year, the Demon, surely, at his side. If you visit Moscow’s Tretyakov gallery, be certain to complete the tour – at end, after halls upon halls of classic Russian art, in Vrubel’s room he waits.

Jacques Barzun and Culture’s New Face

Jacques Barzun, as illustrated by Jean-Claude Floch

“Let us face a pluralistic world in which there are no universal churches, no single remedy for all diseases, no one way to teach or write or sing, no magic diet, no world poets, and no chosen races, but only the wretched and wonderfully diversified human race.”

“Finding oneself was a misnomer; a self is not found but made.”

-Jacques Barzun

Last November, historian and cultural critic Jacques Barzun turned 100. In his time, he’s written 37 books on a wide range of topics (38 is in the works), led a prestigious university and received a warehouse full of accolades. He is one of the world’s last living links to the intellectual life of the Belle Époque and the Roaring ’20s (he began teaching when Calvin Coolidge was in office). The word eminent is usually attached to any description of him, no matter who’s writing. It seems to fit.

He thinks the current time is decadent. Not just any decadence, but the sort that ends eras. But it’s not in the signs the usual staid wielder of that word might see: sex, uppity women, kids on the lawn. No, Barzun’s decadence is the end of motion, it is when scholarship becomes “the pretentious garbled in the unintelligible” and “the feeling of being hemmed in by rules matched that of being hemmed in by people.” Above all Barzun’s decadence is a failure of nerve: an unwillingness to face the future and what it demands of us.

For these observations and others, he has been often dismissed as a relic, a snobbish champion of the dead white male tradition. Even among his admirers, he might well go down in history simply as the guy who said that thing about baseball.

But it’s worth taking a look around, at the constant stream of imitative art, at politicians with heads firmly planted in the same tired sand — and at philosophies that serve mainly as elaborate excuses for doing nothing.

So, when Barzun sees things finally running down, with the grand ideas that have driven our culture since the Renaissance crumbling, it’s time to consider something else: he may be a curmudgeon, he may be old-fashioned, he may even be out of touch. He may also be right.

Ghosts in the Burning City: Benet’s Prophecies


We thought we were done with these things but we were wrong.
We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom.
We thought the long train would run to the end of time.
We thought the light would increase.
Now the long train stands derailed and the bandits loot it.
Now the boar and the asp have power in our time.
Now the night rolls back on the West and the night is solid.
Our fathers and ourselves sowed dragon’s teeth.
Our children know and suffer the armed men.

Stephen Vincent Benét, Litany for Dictatorships

These days, Stephen Vincent Benét is remembered, when he’s remembered at all, as the author of modern tall tales like The Devil and Daniel Webster, the epic Civil War ode John Brown’s Body or his reams of sentimental young adventure stories. Much of his other work is out of print.

That’s a shame, because after 1935, spurred by fascism, war and depression (his own as well as the country’s) Benét produced a series of brilliantly haunting works, both poetry and fiction. These oft-apocalyptic visions — which he did not hesitate to label nightmares — laid the groundwork for what we often expect the End to look like. Anytime a fictional future humanity looks out over the ruins of familiar landmarks, sees the birthrate tank or gets betrayed by its machines, there’s a debt owed to Benét.

An mp3 of an old radio program based on one of his apocalypse poems:

Click Here to Listen

Whatever Happened to Weldon Kees?

…But even here, I know our work was worth the cost.
What we have brought to pass, no one can take away.
Life offers up no miracles, unfortunately, and needs assistance.
Nothing will be the same as once it was,
I tell myself. –It’s dark here on the peak, and keeps on getting
It seems I am experiencing a kind of ecstasy.
Was it sunlight on the waves that day? The night comes down.
And now the water seems remote, unreal, and perhaps it is.

excerpt from “A Distance From the Sea”
by Weldon Kees
(born February 24th, 1914 – presumed dead July 18th, 1955)

A poet, a novelist, a painter, a jazz composer, a photographer, an art critic, a radio personality and a filmmaker, Weldon Kees wore many hats. Always dapper, always daring without compromising his accessibility, he was a true mid-century Renaissance man: the twitchy post-war poster child of avant garde America.

On the rare occasion that I meet folks with knowledge of Kees, it’s all I can do not to grab their ears and plant a big, wet one on ’em. Despite his brilliance and polymathic output (perhaps in part because he’s hard to pigeonhole) Kees isn’t too well known outside of a small, devout cult of literati who seem to want to keep his legacy a secret. Personally, I wish his work would receive more wide-ranging attention.