Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Identité as Metonymic Significance: Piri Thomas’ Memory as Imperfect Vesselage

The present project attends to de-stabilize the text of Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets (herein, Streets), and seeks to do so in a three-prong process; first, the position and subject of memory shall be analyzed and appropriated to the mémoire that is Streets; second, the metonymic significance of Piri’s travels shall be examined via the “ship” motif of Gilroyan observance and the position of “space” as bridged by the physical and mental streets embedded within the novel itself; lastly, I will privilege select passages in order to conduct a close reading analysis on Streets in hopes to support my thesis: memory as recall and recollection is at once subject to the waves of an [im]perfect mind, and just as a ship can be carried by such vehement waves, the mind too faces similar subjugation; Piri Thomas’ Streets then, is an example of this striated “fiction,” embedded within the “real-time” event phenomena of existence, as a Black Puerto-Rican attempts to make sense of his and our world.

In the May/June 2006 issue of Poets & Writers, a magazine dedicated to their subheading: “From Inspiration to Publication,” a featured article “promoted” the rather distinguished career of Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate and Nigerian Maven. The article, written by Trent Masiki, introduced yet another installment of Soyinka’s ever-expanding [re]collection of thought; the text, You Must Set Forth at Dawn marks his fourth attempt at what Masiki asserts as: “his relentless pursuit of freedom in his homeland” (38). Moreover, the article privileges Soyinka’s thought on the matter of private/public cognition in the genre-writing framing of the memoir [con]text. As Masiki states: “You Must Set Forth at Dawn is more than the story of one man’s private life; it is a political record—the story of a nation” (40). Of interest here then, is whether or not such a view is privy to the memoir style of writing? That is, can someone comment on the interior of another’s ontological supposition? Put another way—can one know the purist and purest intent alongside the prurient writer within? In this latter inquest, it is the voice of Soyinka himself who comments:

I think it is impossible to bare one’s interior completely. I think what defines us as human beings is our sense of privacy, and while we are social beings, and political beings, and therefore public beings—whether we like it or not—there is a very viable, very valid core in the human personality which keeps certain things to itself. (42-3)

Recall, that the nature of this present section singular, and the present project proper is to de-stabilize, or to deconstruct what is meant by memory and the position of mémoire, as privileged within the embedded framing of the interior psyche that is Piri Thomas’ Streets. As Soyinka dmonishingly suggests, “whether we like it or not—there is a very viable, very valid core in the human personality which keeps certain things to itself,” and it is these “certain things,” which interest us here. For the present, however—we return to Masiki’s terminal statement concerning Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn, as he posits: “It is the story of a man who has dedicated his life to the cause of social justice, and the story of a nation that has yet to make him proud” (43). Comparatively then, la langue est un écho in the voice of Piri Thomas, at once the subject and the subjugated fractal of Spanish Harlem, as Soyinka, arguably, may have been in and for and even toward a Nigerian presence singular and Africa proper. Moreover, does Piri speak toward nation, or colonial dissension? In the “Afterforward” to Streets Piri has this to say:

Writing Down These Mean Streets was a soul-searching experience for me, in which I forced myself to go back into time to see the sees, do the dos, hear the hears, and feel the feelings over and over and over again, at times feeling certain past traumatic experiences seven times stronger. (327)

Is this not wriiten in the spirit, in the tenor, and in the likened-vein of Soyinka’s admonishment toward baring the interior of one’s soul? Further, could this be what Soyinka alludes to in terms of the “human personality” as compared alongside Piri’s “forced” to feeling “certain past traumatic” events? Again, these fascinating connections help to validate my earlier claim of travel, if not of mobile travail, within the physical and mental space[s]. What follows then, are additional views on the position of memory. The purpose is to create a varied lattice-work of the subject of memory, albeit a non-exhaustive list here, and then approach Thomas’ Streets not with trepidation, but with a well-armed reading that may elucidate more of the motive for memoir [re]visitation in the first place (after 30 years). I remind the reader here of Thomas’ intent, written under the euphemism of “hope,” which was recorded on January 1997:

In writing Down These Mean Streets, it was my hope that exposure of such conditions in the ghetto would have led to their improvement. But, thirty years later, the sad truth is that people caught in the ghettoes have not made much progress, and in fact, have moved backwards in many respects—the social safety net is much weaker now. Unfortunately, it’s the same old Mean Streets, only worse […] I propose we remove the blindfold from the eyes of Lady Justice, so for the first time she can really see what’s happening and check out where the truth lies and the lies hide. That would be a start. (337)

How do we “read” Thomas’ statement then in light of Soyinka’s earlier claims of “political being[s]”? In other words, how do the private holdings of one man’s psyche produce the necessary affectation into the public cauldron of the Spanish Harlem space, and beyond? Both Soyinka and Thomas share a similar ideology toward improving their world’s view, not their world view mind you, but their world’s view—and yes, the distinction is worth exploring—but I digress, slightly. In moving forward then, I too would like to propose and echo Thomas’s claim of “Where do we start?” His answer is also my answer, because I too “am concerned with words, names” (336).

According to the late twentieth century political philosopher Hannah Arendt the subject of “memory,” as tackled in her seminal work, The Life of the Mind, suggests that “memory, the mind’s power of having present what is irrevocably past and thus absent from the senses, has always been the most plausible paradigmatic example of the mind’s power to make invisible present” (“Willing” 11). This perception of the unseen to be seen then is of strong interest for this present project.

Arguably, Piri Thomas had this in “mind,” forgive the pun, when suggesting his desire as a forced position upon himself; again, wherein he states: “I forced myself to go back into time to see the sees” (327). This rape of time and violence of the mind suggest a faulty approach to recall, and one that warrants suspicion as to the “full” story of authenticity. Did Piri Thomas tell all, or did he pre-set his mind to private? As we move along in this examination I hope to unveil the potential answers to such inquests. For the present they will remain. In further solidifying her position on memory, Arendt continues to argue that “memory is our mental organ for the past,” and that moreover, when invoking that great Patristic father of the Church St. Augustine, she asserts: “In On the Trinity, the most important mental triad is Memory, Intellect and Will […] the Will tells the memory what to retain and what to forget” (13, 99). Though this project does not concern the latter two members of the “mental triad,” we can still note their influence and significance on the mind proper. Still, Arendt distinguishes the Memory from the other two, the Will and the Intellect. She states: “nowhere in our philosophical tradition does Memory again attain the same rank as Intellect and Will” (117). Why? The transient nature of human recall is subjective and subject to factors beyond cognitive control. Arendt suggests the reason is the loss of the “sense of the thoroughly temporal character of human nature and human existence, manifest in Augustine’s homo temporalis” (117). Arendt up until now has given her definition of memory, and its importance, but how can such an examination by a political philosopher assist us here in this present argument toward Piri Thomas’ intent, “hope,” recollection, et cetera? Is his memoir authentic, or is it that the memoir itself is a symbolic trope, or a metonym toward identité? We close with Arendt’s greatest and most relevant quote yet: “the faculty of memory (the innate lest-we-forget, which seems to belong to a temporal culture as much as the ability to form projects for the future) had never been broken” (212). How might this align with Thomas’ use of the word “forced” then, and more importantly how do we read “the ability to form projects for the future” as Author function rather than authorial intent? Is this not what Piri Thomas attempted—a future outlook toward change, distinct improvement, social awareness, all enveloped in his [re]telling, [re]capturing, [re]framing of story within the codified and striated genre of memoir.

The body, or physical corpus as center, and its adherents, that which influences the senses, serve as both conduit and conductor in the deciphering terrain of relevant memory. Utilizing the French critical thinker and social philosopher, Henri Bergson, in his Matter and Memory, we find a rather interesting position between the body and the “mental organ,” the mind. Bergson is useful to our present project because he quantifies the position of memory in two forms; in his own words then he states:

The first records, in the form of memory-images, all the events of our daily life as they occur in time; it neglects no detail; it leaves to each fact, to each gesture, its place and date […] (the second), always bent upon action, seated in the present and looking only to the future […] has retained from the past only […] it no longer represents our past to us, it acts it […] Of these two memories, of which the one imagines and the other repeats, the second may supply the place of the first and even be sometimes mistaken for it. (92-3)

Bergson’s ideology of memory and the bisection it represents suggests a possible separation from a memory, which I will here label as A, that imagines the events to be, and a memory, which I will here label as B, that in turn performs it into existence, albeit repetitiously. In terms of Piri Thomas and Streets such a dual distinction may in fact serve us here in terms of what I will label the framing of narrative schizophrenia; i.e. the selectivity process of what to include, and what not to include necessitates a future examination, and as such may suggest Thomas’ work of “memoir” to be nothing more than pre-meditated annotation. At the risk of sounding essentialist and reductive here, I am only suggesting a possible “reading” of the novel in inquest; however, in the latter section we shall entertain this ideation in full. Departing from Bergson’s ideology of dual-memory (icon and mimesis, or put another way—imagio and repetition) we move into the written encoding of yet another Nobel Laureate in Literature (1950); namely, philosopher, mathematician, and social critic Bertrand Russell. For Russell then, memory went beyond the external senses, and warranted a more careful study than behaviorists employed.

In the Analysis of Mind Russell argues for a different externalist account in terms of memory as an episteme amidst other factored influences: credence, desire, convention, denotation and causal law. He states: “MEMORY, which we are to consider to-day, introduces us to knowledge in one of its forms […] memory-knowledge, both as introduction to the problem of knowledge in general, and because memory, in some form, is presupposed in almost all other knowledge” (93). What concerns us here in this project, is the position of imperfect recall, due to a mind that is ever-always on the sea, like a ship, or a mind on the streets of transition, wherein static memory is moot, and dynamism, albeit of cultural, social, political, economical influence, yields a knowledge that is at once tangible, but tangible as fog. It does exist, but attempt to close your hand around it, and to accept that you have “fog” in your hand, is a suspicious claim at best. The subject of memory becomes cloudier still when we attempt to recover identity within such an already frail structure. Russel states it best, as he states: “Can we constitute memory out of images together with suitable beliefs? We may take it that memory-images, when they occur in true (whatever this means) memory, are (a) known to be copies, (b) sometime known to be imperfect copies” (95). It is this latter position of imperfection which situates our present concerns. We must then suggest, or rather to soften the assertion here, offer another possible reading of Streets. By utilizing the trope of metonymic semiotics one can begin to construct the genre form of memoir as the moving vessel of Piri Thomas’ imperfect mind. Moreover still, such an imperfection of memory warrants a closer investigation via the magnification lens powered vis-à-vis metonymic significance.

In this section we attempt to look once more at Paul Gilroy’s use of the ship to de-stabilize the text that is Piri Thomas’ Streets. This section looks to de-stabilize, briefly, the title to Thomas’ memoir: Down These Mean Streets. To begin, by default the position of “streets” suggests mobility in an idealized direction respective to forward and backward progression as well as regression. However, I offer a different reading in terms of mobility, and in fact borrow from the media res motif as privileged by Dante Alighieri’s famous Comedia Divina. We are here interested in only the first part of three, or the Inferno section, wherein Dante’s movement is to proceed through concentric circles of hell, sheol, hades, et cetera. The “image” is of one slowly walking down an ever-winding staircase to some sort of end in sight. As a disclaimer, we are not to read Thomas’ Streets in terms of the eschaton, or the end of all ages and times motif, but for Piri there is a familiar terminus, which begins his travels on the streets, both of the mind and in the physical locus, or space privy to NYC geo-political locus. Taking the image of Dante’s travels then, we note the linguistic measure of both the term “Down” and “Mean” with reference to “Streets,” respectively. How are these to be read exactly? Let us return to the metonymic significance of streets in terms of Gilroy’s “ship” imagery. Gilroy offers, and I quote it here at length:

I have settled on the image (emphasis my own) of ships in motion across the spaces between Europe, America, Africa, and the Caribbean as a central organizing symbol for this enterprise and as my starting point. The image of the ship—a living, micro-cultural, micro-political system in motion—is especially important for historical and theoretical reasons […] Ships immediately focus attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artifacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs. (The Black Atlantic 4)

How then might the position of the ship reflect the memory of Piri Thomas, and prove an [in]adequate vessel over the streets as space? Piri, the novel-memoir’s protagonist, begins at the “Prologue,” but does memory carry such a distinction, or rather is such a privilege fit for what Wole Soyinka has determined not as fiction, but as the embellishment of facts, or “faction”? Moreover, the “ship,” like the “streets,” appears to provide movement, and cannot exist otherwise than mere object, that is a ship and a street are still these identifiers regardless of whether they function in their intended capacity or not. But once more, we digress—slightly. Recalling specific scenes as images within the embedded mind of Piri Thomas then, we proceed, but with the awareness that such a narrative is fraught with imperfection in terms of selective memoria. Also, if “ships” for Gilroy offer metonymic significance in terms of political ideology what can the “streets” offer the reader as a rhizomorphic space, wherein the multiplicities of self as subject is at once served, examined, weighed, re-examined, re-weighed and so on? The novel that opens with a shouting and exhaling Piri, is also the novel which ends in like manner with a Piri that is a lot older stating with the same strain and tenor: “Viva the children of all the colors! Punto!” (Streets 337). Piri’s mind then, is that Gilroyan system of political ideology as fleshed out in the movement of himself throughout the streets of memory, or the identité as metonymic significance. Armed with the competing discourses and philosophies and theories concerning our subject of memory and identity we progress into textual analysis as a whole, privileging some scenes over others. The method here has been to select scenes which privilege the themes raised in this rather brief analysis regarding the Streets of Piri Thomas.

Amongst the many descriptions afforded to reflect the text of Piri Thomas’ novel, memoir, fiction, et cetera the position of testimony and recorded witness have yet to enter this discourse proper. Why? Because of the justification of the “Afterword,” thirty years after its inception. Immediately what become of interest are the text’s authenticity artifacts similar to what Gilroy mentions as: “tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs” (4). In terms of Streets then we will begin with the “Prologue.”

Piri Thomas’ coming-of-age novel is representative of the struggle of a young man’s identity as reflective of the space which is Spanish Harlem. Piri begins the book with: “YEE-AH!! Wanna know how many times I’ve stood on a rooftop and yelled out to anybody” (ix). Such an inquest appears to be seeking for an answer, but upon closer analysis one realizes this inquiry is rhetorical in nature. What is more, Piri notes, “This is a bright mundo, my streets, my barrio de noche […] Sounds of joys and sobs that make music” (ix). Under the trope of an apostrophe the reader is first introduced to such a distinct voice, only to culminate in the metaphor of sound, a cadence of image and repetition. Recall, these were the Bergsonian tools and ingredients, which question the soundness of memory to begin with. Yet, how does he, that is Piri, describe himself? He states:

I’m a skinny, dark-face, curly-haired, intense Porty-Ree-can—Unsatisfied, hoping, and always reaching […] Yet when I look down at the streets below, I can’t help thinking It’s like a great big dirty Christmas tree with lights but no fuckin presents. (x)

The prose here adheres to a cadence much like the swells of a given ocean: turbulent, uneasy and tossed. This is reflective of the mind of Piri—a system of instability attempting to make sense of the world around him. And before we enter Harlem proper, we share with Piri his point of view, like a demi-god, with a grander scope of vision, albeit a rooftop, and armed with a me-against-the-world rant that asserts his position as: “Unless you cop for yourself!” (x). As scenes in a movie, frame by given frame we navigate through the “streets” of Piri’s recall, or mind—that mental organ, which Arendt so appropriately labeled, and yet, this organ is [dis]eased. In the opening chapter, “Cutting Out” to the first section labeled Harlem we discover a Piri who is in his element and on foot traversing what else but the streets. He states: “I had been walking around since 9 p.m. My thoughts were boiling,” (3) and again:

As I came out into the street. I saw the same shining badge. I just kept walking toward him. Man, I was going home. The cop came up to me and passed me without even giving me a second look. After all, a twelve-year old kid walking the streets at 3 a.m. was a nothing sight in Harlem. (6)

This occurrence with the policeman is not an original one, and in fact, the scene occurs in Ralph W. Ellison’s Invisible Man, wherein his nameless protagonist also encounters a policeman who passes him by; moreover still, one can trace this event of invisibility via municipal authority in the work of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (also called the Underground Man). The point here is that the subject of “invisibility,” addressed by other authors, critics, writers ad nauseum is better left out of this present project, which regards memory as unsafe knowledge. What is of serious concern, however, is the phrasing: “a nothing site” in Streets. This line can be read in two ways; first, the term nothing, nihilo is suggestive of an ante-space, wherein in terms of volume and displacement, existence is warranted in the absence of what use to be; second, ex nihilo, or out of nothing suggests that a “sight” had occurred, but it was of no relevance to the political, social, economic awareness of the authority that particular evening; i.e. the cop was in a different world, realm, eorðan, et cetera outside of the scope and space, which is and was Piri. Lastly, such an observance of a twelve-year old child in the dark streets of Harlem at an early morning hour suggests a de-sensitized policeman who apparently may have witnessed an event of a similar degree in his years on the police force. At the risk of further speculation then, we depart from this scene and shift toward the hardships that memory affords and the levels of performance within the subtext of the 1930s depression, a historical artifact within real-time struggle, as Piri’s mother [re]collects her mental organ imaging of Puerto Rico, the utopic ideal space as contextualized against the space that is New York City proper, and Spanish Harlem singular.

Piri’s mother is his only “true” attachment to a more pure state of existence, wherein the “ship” that is the street of memory is imperfect. Why? Her children cannot “imagine” nor “repeat,” what their mother, a link to the past within their present, amidst her heavy and nostalgic accent of homelessness can conjure—seemingly, at will. One might even argue that her longing is reminiscent of Ovid’s poetic cries from exile, but I digress once more. Piri’s mother recalls an earlier time as “Momma talked about Puerto Rico and how great it was, and how she’d like to go back one day, how it was warm all the time there” (9). This utopic space is privileged, but only in the mental organ of Piri’s mother, and as it continues to unfold, the children cannot do otherwise than inquire. Here the narrator speaks, like Langston Hughes, but not of rivers, but of another metonymic significance tied to the identity of the self—the streets of recall. Nostalgically, Priri’s mother cries: “Dios mio,” she said, “I don’t think I’ll ever see my island again” to which Miriam mispronounces Puerto Rico as “Porto Rico” (9). This disconnect is quickly rectified by her mother’s correction as she states: “It’s not Porto Rico, it’s Puerto Rico,” and continues with the mimetic refrain: “I remember,” which occurs twice within the second chapter, “Puerto Rican Paradise” (9). Shifting gears, scenes and even ports, Piri’s travels take him toward the section in the novel called, “Suburbia.” This section opens with a subheading: “This Long Island ain’t nuttin’ like Harlem, and with all your green trees it ain’t nuttin’ like your Puerto Rico” (79). Piri, unsettled, selects to “tell” of his disfavor with the move from Harlem to Long Island. He states: “My face tried hard not to show resentment at Poppa’s decision to leave my streets forever. I felt that I belonged in Harlem; it was my kind of kick. I didn’t want to move out to Long Island” (81). Again, the reader encounters a Piri who is [dis]eased with the idea that Harlem is, for him, a sense of belonging, or home, and anything else, like Long Island, is mere counterfeit. This position finds green pasture when Piri decides to leave and head back into Harlem on his own [terms]. Before he leaves the house, his mother shouts after him, “Adios. Escribe!” And yet, it ends with Piri stating: “I didn’t look back any more” (91). Of interest is the intensity of such pathos; it is simply striking, and somehow reminds me of my Puerto Rican mother—and her painful cry at seeing her son pick up trash as a construction worker—who for whatever reason could not afford to go to college until the following year. The position to recall is a painful one then, and one can only wonder if such a recollection was set up to fail in the first place. When charged to “Esribe!” by his “moms” I wonder if such a charge is without merit, and if the result of Streets is not simply the fulfillment of a son’s obedience. Such a reading, although an interesting one, shall be left for another, more gifted critic and writer—at present what concerns us here is Piri’s travel spaces amidst the “streets” of memory.

In the nineteenth chapter entitled, “Las Aguas del Sur,” Piri finds himself a seaman; specifically, a Coast Guard hand. In terms of memory and recall, the chapter opens with a flashback to the figure of one Gerald Andrew West, a rather “conscious” brother on matters of race and passing beyond the [in]famous “one-drop rule.” Piri narrates: “At breakfast our heads cleared a little bit and our memories began to focus through the haze of a thirty-six hour hangover […] it wasn’t the chicas we remembered, but Mr. Gerald Andrew West, the blended wonder” (179). Turning to a more dark and sinister shade of the lunar side of Thomas’ Streets we note that such initial cynicism has a way to convert itself within the mental organ, and give birth, or produce a genesis accounting of inevitable and self-generative vice. Here, we get to view the interior, or what Winston Churchill once called, The Inside of the Cup, with respect to the inner sanctum of the mind’s invocation toward prayer, and I quote it here at length and without shame:

I learned more and more on my trips. Wherever I went—France, Italy, South America, England—it was the same […] My hate grew within me. Dear God, dear God, I thought, I’m going to kill, I’m going to kill somebody. If I don’t kill, I’m going to hurt one of these paddies. I was scared of the whole fucking world. (191)

What more can be mentioned about Piri’s story and the times in jail, the hospital, or jail and the “smell of the streets,” as a trope for freedom. Better still, what of the trope that is linked to imperfect memory, and why after thirty years did Piri Thomas come back, back, back like Milton’s Lucifer who remains falling, falling, falling, and never felled. Is memory like a ship, or different? More importantly, who decides, which of the legs, if not toes, of memory to keep, to handle, without emendation? For a last mental image we return to the Streets as Piri himself speaks and states:

Thoughts walked into each other through my mind—Everything happened yesterday. Trina was yesterday. Brew was yesterday, Johnny Gringo was yesterday. I was a kid yesterday and my whole world was yesterday. I ain’t got nothing but today and a whole lot of tomorrows. (330)

I have attempted here to offer a more informed reading of Piri Thomas’ “memoir” as existing within the creative parameters of metonymic significance. His identity is commensurate with his movement amidst the fluidity that is the “streets.” This brief analysis then, attends to the words, the cataloging of memory, the shifting in imperfect recall, and the need to return; to reclaim; to reconstruct and to re-deconstruct that which became image and mimesis. For Piri Thomas then, the adjectival position of “mean” prior to streets pales in comparison to the direction the “streets” have taken him—a place at once familiar and, like a ship is tossed on the sea, so too the mind is a frail vessel, selective and active in its fabrication[s] and fiction[s], and faction[s]. The Streets are of this “mean” constitution.

Can a Man Live--two lives?

Human: The Intent Thereof

Can a man live?

For a period of time without
Life attacking
And consuming the other?

Part the First

I have begun a life in the Spirit and am
Finishing in the flesh; my end is destruction,
And death awaits me-for after this…

I am such a man in pursuit of the
Winds of ambition;
They are indeed fleeting and after all
Is said and done-
Is vain!

Is there an example I should follow;
A High Priest and Bishopric to my soul;
A man who knows my pain, suffering, and

My creed is Catholic,
Universal suffering in need of complete

He is, that High Priest
In the line of Melchizedek;
He is the one to whom
God, that Prime Mover

And Play-Do Maker, said,
‘You are My Clay.
I have become your Hasbro’.

And again, ‘You are
A Priest forever
In the line of

Then Justus, this Clay-Maker, is both Divine
And made in His own

He who offered prayers, delivered:

Pleadings, with love, cries and tears;
Is the
By You it is!

To re-present, in wrapping,
Being in their dealings

With God?

In my folly, unlike Erasmus,
I had rather praise Wisdom and
Know what is
Know what is

Through obedience I have learned
The art of suffering;
Through suffering I have learned
The human chase for the skirts of obedience;

I have taught others
The Way,
But have lost my own;
I am-


Like a babe who desires the milk of the
But still content to drink milk
Beyond my well-tuned years of experience;

I can preach solid food,
But cannot partake of it;
I know about much and much is expected
From me;

Here then is the
Of the whole matter:
One is to follow

After God,
His Christ, true freedom,
With Salem’s Shalom-
Repeated Peace!

The Father in His Liberty,
Draws me upon the Son;
The Son, in turn, grants affinity to
The Father;
The Spirit acts between them.

Part the Second

God provides;
His literature to the masses;
His messengers, aflamèd;
His Spirit, with much grace and truth-

I reject such fruit-for the hand that picks it,
With original dust,
Wills me to treason,

My flesh lusteth;
Earthly pleasure inflames my heart;
Scabbed I be, calloused from birth;
Engenderèd is the flow of youth;

Like Chaucer’s Reverdie,
In April’s showers of lost soul-gazing;
I have
In common with Luciferius,
Than Satan,
With Judas, than Justus;

I am a mess.

It is impossible to restore to
Those who were once enlightened;
Impossible to bridge the chasm of the
‘What if’ soul;


I am,
To this world or the next;


I have,
Of things to come:

Deus Pater.

Our Father?
Piacere, mio!

I am like Odysseus passing through the
Kingdom of the Dead,
By Circe’s wind;
Oh! How far indeed have I

Not unlike the Wandering Jew in
Search of Lost Tempus;
In search of the Prince of Barters crying-
‘Take, take! My life for a life!’

What then is man that thou,
Deus Pater,

I take interest in the stars,
ignoring Socrates’ diatribe,
‘a Waste of time’!

Indeed, fairest Muse, there are many wastes,
Lands untreated,
But, He who placed such twinkling sights,
is due
Our praise, with
Up! Lifted orbs and bloody hearts;

Part the Third

I long for peace and harmony;
They are for War;
I long for the rhythmic workings and underpinnings of
Logic and Faith;
Fact and Fiction;

These are Foxe’s Martyrs,
Recorded with shaky hands,
Of a time past,
It is finished;

If words hold Power,
Then I shall be remembered,
My diatribe and song,
From a discourse of a
Vita Nuova
But one score, nine, and counting.

Fickle then, the man,
Designed to sip from the caffeine of
The opiate of the being;

In this way La Vita Nuova
Del Mezzo Cammin, a middling
Of hope and repeated

The Blakian contraries discovered in
The Ancyent Marineare’s woes;
The yield?
This present realm, an Age, where there is nothing
Under the Sun!

Part [at] the Last


My poetic Edda;
My heapings, congeries, like Shakespeare, Milton,
Or Aquinian Philosophia;

From my stable, very stable hand;
My wayward, very wayward heart;
My electric, saucy, pedantic mind;

And these three exist as one,
In hope,
But the greatest of these,
Is the least of these.

I shall write a fiction and
Shall read it!


She trembles in her shawl,
Cigarette in tow;
Writing, withdrawing, and
Ever Beautiful.

She is a drawing in motion,
Created in the image of my

No, she is Psyche, tied to no man,
Independent to her need,
Dependent to her want;
She is the opiate of my desire.

My Psyche is strangely familiar,
Resplendent in womanly
How now can I be of service?

Psyche is a gift from the gods of love
And chance would have her be
A friend, a lover
Of people?
Of me?

Her psychology feeds me,
Necessitating response;
Such is my plight and my

It thirsts in a dry realm,
Where normal is unfit and the fittest,
Are mere images of themselves;
Images of Psyche?


She is a pleasant dream;
A reality attainable through her

I tremble at her presence and long
To know her, yes, to know her.
In knowing Psyche I can really know…

Part the second

Where comes my help?
My help comes from Psyche,
That patron Muse of love,
Sweet as honey
Passionate ambrosia!

She suggests to the man
Of laughter-
The gods need to think!
Does genius reside in inquisition?

The answers are to be found in
Ambush our hearts oh gods of chance
And time!

Batter my soul!
Psyche’s tears replenish
My thirst;
My hunger;
My own demise;

Yet wisdom is mine to wield,
Or at least mine to apply.
To what?
To the praise of Folly!

Psyche is charmingly aloof;
Existing in mystery;
Enshrouded in enigma;
Yet, I am her sleuth!

Oh! Psyche let me into your forbidden realm;
Trust your angels,
Feelings and Instinct,
Aflamèd with fire, messengers of

Be my salvation;
Be my reality;
Be my fiction;
Be mine damn you!

Part the Third

Psyche is falsehood’s bane!
She is truest purple,
And my envy is true green!

Her love of color?
Deepest black!

My words affect her heart,
The blood that pumps it,
Sacred, youthful,

My Psyche has left,
A void, chasm-deep,
In need of filling,
Her Person, the balm.

My wound?

Stayed by her curled lip;
A smile ensues, or is it
My presumption that she laughs,
But silently?

Will such happiness return?
Will inordinate affection

From her smile she melts me;
From her voice, the flowers bow;
Clovers, four-leafed bend and part,
From her touch, simply

Her hands, fingers, warm,
Inviting me in.
I am to be a gentle man;
Her fellowship-becoming!

We are to meet, talk, and hope
The fates of chance return us
Similar grace;
Caught up in the moment?

No! Such passions…last
And last….and last!
What if we were the only two?
Soul survivors on this blue orb?

Our planet, a playground of pastel beauty:


Our selfish lust would populate
Our priorities, yielding much!

End in the beginning.
For me, Psyche?
These three exist then:

But like our poets of old,
The greatest of these is…Psyche;
Her love, my desire and my


Part the Fourth

I caught a glimpse of the night
Glow worm ‘till the end;
Psyche is my Beatrice as
I am her Dante!

Then terrorize my theory:
Foster my Foucault,
Battle my Bataille,
Laugh at my Levinas,
And Synchronize my Significant
Monkey’s sycophant?

Our music, of high affinity,
Shared likes in need.
Our chorus, much like Orpheus’s
Lyre to the masses?


It is a pliant sound of rhythmic heartbeats;
It is the flow of a mighty rushing,
A mighty, mighty, deluge of expressed


Each framed in fearful symmetry;
Captured, captive, and catalogued
In the annals of my memory;
Oh! My Psyche do not let go of such
Heavenly hell.

We are mere pieces to
Puzzling, riddling, primal movements
Of which my pen is servant to the ink gods,
And they, in turn,
Subject to the pages…

I will immortalize you in such
Pages, stemming from a heart, though
Scabbed and calloused by experience;
Beats for more expression!

Psyche’s body, milk-white

I can only imagine, but she did touch my
Hand, which followed after my heart-hard!

I hope to touch that which is beyond her flesh;
Spurring hope and blush in other, deeper recesses of her

Her nose, quaint, cute, up-turned only
To ward off the weak of heart;
I am of the persistent clan though,
And in such an aim I would be the cheese,
She the beauty mouse, but with a razor-like

My mind races, faster, faster, with more resolve
Than Herculean Achilles at the battles of Troy!
I await my next visit to
Il Paradiso?

The Italian heaven, scent of my

Part the Fifth

Is there such a thing as a

I await Psyche to find out.
Until then:

And be merry doing it all over again.

Diary of a BAD Year--really?

Looking at the hardcover copy of J. M. Coetzee’s novel, Diary of a Bad Year, one cannot help but to first notice all of the accolades used to sell the work of such a seasoned writer. “WINNER OF THE NOBEL PRIZE,” and “author of DISGRACE,” are emblazoned on the cover, along with my favorite identifier, which comes right after the title, the smaller, all-capped font that reads--“FICTION.” This diminutive word sets up the reader for what promises to be an inventive story and a challenging read. Coetzee’s writing in this installment then is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Sand who in his twilight years, captures the emotive response to old age and fleeting, youthful desire.

The book is narrated from the perspectives of three characters: a Cartesian named Señor C, or Mr. C, a clever euphemism for Coetzee as well as Senior Citizen; Anya, the Filipina lust interest of Mr. C; and Alan, her white, Australian cynic and beau. The pages themselves recount this tri-partite style quite uniquely, so that each page contains a passage of narration from the point of view of all three characters, the segments themselves separated by two thin lines. Here, the reader is faced with two main choices: read all three narratives at the same time, or read one narrative strand and then return to the subsequent narratives. Reading the narratives together provides a much richer experience; it allows the book to excite as it entertains, offering political philosophy amidst the running thread of sexual tension, old male desire and youthful, female performance.

The structure allows the text to engage with itself, presenting a varied discourse that bleeds, or travels from the top of the page down. At the top of any given page is an offering from Mr. C’s commissioned book on “strong opinions,” which is heading into press release in the German language. Such offerings from Mr. C’s book include: “On the origins of the state,” “On democracy,” “On Machiavelli,” “On national shame,” “On paedophilia,” “On the body,” and even “On Zeno.” Mr. C is seventy-two years of age, living in Australia, and has “commissioned” Anya to type-edit the work. She is twenty-nine, and quite attractive. The true brilliance of the book, however, is not all of its philosophical entries within the embedded textual frame, but the way Coetzee allows the reader to “see” the formation of Mr. C’s book. He not only talks about the book project; we are front and center observers of his smaller text forming within the novel’s larger [con]text. Again, such a creative move makes for a challenging, but rewarding read. To add more tension to the narrative, Alan, 42 years of age, provides what seems to be the cynical voice of Coetzee, as if the writer is speaking to the aged version of himself, Señor C. He reminds Anya of the true and shameful intent of Mr. C’s lustful designs. When Mr. C commissions Anya as a type setter, Alan is quick to suggest a motive:

Why not? Maybe that is how he gets his kicks: making the woman read his fantasies
about her. It is logical, in a back-to-front way. It is a means of exercising power over a woman when you can’t fuck any more.

Our aged protagonist, Mr. C, indirectly fires back at this indictment with the rhetoric of a writer’s craft, revealing that the power dynamic inherent in writing a book is even more complex than either Alan or Anya tend to believe:

To write a novel you have to be like Atlas, holding up a whole world on your shoulders and supporting it there for months and years while its affairs work themselves out.

Diary of a Bad Year is truly a God-like feat, managing to create a space for “strong opinions” and self-indictment alongside classic story-telling. Mr. C lusts for Anya, but carefully frames his intent via employer—employee relations; Alan, the misanthropist, blames Mr. C for his disgraceful mannerisms, and Anya is the love/lust interest of both men. As readers, it really does feel as if Coetzee is holding the world on his shoulders while it works itself out, and the author reinforces this by claiming that “Stories tell themselves, they don’t get told.”

In addition to the triptych narrative on each page, as mentioned prior, the novel is further divided into two sections. The first section is entitled: “Strong Opinions: 12 September 2005-31 May 2006”; the second section follows with the softer label: “Second Diary,” and is non-dated. The first half of the novel introduces the book project and Mr. C’s strong, philosophical assertions. In the second half of the book, however, Coetzee seems more concerned with mortality and ontology. He begins with the chapter, “A dream,” wherein the “I” has “died but had not left the world.” This perhaps is Coetzee’s attempt at coming to grips with his own mortality, while at the same time hopeful for some type of legacy. This “I,” assumed to be Mr. C, is not alone in this section, but “was in the company of a woman, one of the living, younger than myself.” Though Mr. C is old, aging and closer to death—he is not unaccompanied, for in his dream the young woman represents some sort of tie to the living world. In this way, his existence finds contextual meaning in her identity. The old exists in the context of the young, the aging with the youthful, and the dying with the living.

Those who have read Coetzee’s earlier works, especially Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace, will find his pathos concerning unrequited love/lust between the old male and the young female quite familiar. Waiting for the Barbarians is framed between an old, male Magistrate and a young, female barbarian captive; Disgrace concerns an old professor who falls from the Ivory tower due to unwise sexual relations with a much younger student. Both set up the similar character and theme positions of Coetzee’s familiar binary: old male lust alongside youthful female capture and pity. As Anya puts it in Diary of a Bad Year: “I was the one he was in love with, in his old man’s way, which I never minded as long as it did not go too far.” This attempt by Anya to place some sort of boundary around Mr. C’s flirtatious attempts is typical of Coetzee, but here we have the added context of a writer’s craft. Recall, it is Alan who suggests that Mr. C is getting his “kicks” by writing her [Anya] into his book project. The message: a writer has no true boundaries. Coetzee illustrates this repeatedly through the style, structure, and content of his narrative. And as such, Diary of a Bad Year has no boundaries—only multiple centers.

Read this book then, in light of its irregular framing, and its colliery for reflection. Appreciate its pathos and weigh its message: the importance of recognizing your station in life, albeit from an old or young perspective. Coetzee asks us all to be grateful for what we will leave behind, whether it be documented, [mis]interpreted, or judged. In short, although Diary of a Bad Year feels altogether unfamiliar and provides a challenging territory—like a minefield—there is something equally disturbing in its morose ability to capture truth. Tread accordingly.

J. M. Coetzee
Diary of a Bad Year
Viking Penguin Group, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-670-01875-8
231 pages
U.S. $24.95