Author Archives: Brian

Everyday Music

I love this 5-min video by Serbian multimedia artist Miloš Tomić. Like John Cage, he hears the music in everyday life. What to some might be an annoying racket is transformed into a celebration of banging, clanging, guitar tuning, and impishly drumming on every dang thing in site. Check it out here.

Linger, Renee

O my foregone conclusions, O my
ache of Spain, you’re gone
lay me low old Queen Coal: I thought
you would linger, Renee. Face
darkens under skies torn asunder,
I wear your foot-a-bed stockings
like a lace bandage and sniff
at the rain as it begins to fall.

Bayard St., San Diego, c. 1987

Joe Cocker, Out on a Beer Run

Sometime in the mid-1980s, Don Colvin (1960-2014) sent me this poem. I’ve given it a title and, because Don wrote in an architectural all caps hand, used lower and uppercase in the idiosyncratic way I think he would have liked. On the back of the sheet of computer-printer paper he wrote, “If you publish please refine, rewrite, and edit freely.”

Joe Cocker, Out on a Beer Run

by Donald Colvin, Jr.

It feels like I want to write like the singing

Star Joe Cocker’s yogurt-like, satiric-commemorative, residual latex type rendition of: Consequence, the Remaining Imbalance. Never, Have I heard of that.

I’m sure about one thing about Joe Cocker, that I cannot share.

No other time ago, the Poems were gone. None had been seen or heard from in some time.

The people (Poems) could not stand still for this. They cried out, “We must find them!” And went about it.

It started, well, like a scream, knowing all along that it would be like a scream, but all the while pretending to be one. It wasn’t a scream at all. I twas a force we resist, and stare at each other for. A force we have, still.

The colors streaked past the frightened faces, repelled by their acknowledging expressions, free to soar past in a glancing represent sweep.

“Love to!” The Shrieked and Sped by the mirror of a local sunset.

It feels like Joe Cocker came by, while I was making a beer run. It isn’t the same as when I left.

Linda Marie Cordell and Don Colvin, Jr. together in my notebook c. 1981

My lover, Linda, and my brother, Don Colvin, are both dead these years now. But I just discovered this! I’m pretty sure the initials “L.D.M.” are for Linda Don Colvin. This pen sketch, then, c. 1981 in an old notebook of my horoscopes and songs, is, I think, a marriage of Don’s and Linda’s vision of “A Place We Might Like to Live.” Something the three of us, close as thieves, thin as a Bose-Einsteins condensate, chewed on constantly.

“a quiet place in the country we might like to live” by (?) Don Colvin, Jr. with additions by Linda Marie Macartea-Cordell, c. 1981, Riverside or Highland, Calif. Or Maybe Yucca Valley, or Yucca Mesa….

Post-humanism, “Black Betty” writes a novel?

In my last post, I wrote about a cool short story by Nisi Shawl. It’s written from a dog’s point of view but, as I say, retains the cognitive center of a human. Not surprising at all because, again, to repeat myself, Shawl was writing for humans, not dogs.

But what, I wonder, what sort of story would a dog (or any other animal) tell? Would we recognize that telling as a story? Put another way, could a human truly write from an animal’s point of view? Is it possible to decenter the human in favor of an animal’s consciousness?

The question is framed up nicely by Jane Rawson in a LitHub piece:

But how would you even go about writing a novel from an animal’s perspective? There has been a lot of discussion lately about whether authors have the right to write from the perspective of people different to themselves, and those who argue yes generally emphasize how important it is to do your research, to understand the community, the history, the thoughts and feelings of your protagonists. But do we even have any idea what animals know, think and feel?

It’s a question most of us have asked ourselves, particularly in relation to the animals we raise for food. How much do cows suffer when we slaughter them? Do fish feel fear when they’re pulled from the water? Does it matter?

Rawson is arguing in this piece that the only way to save animals from extinction is by considering them as persons, as individuals. She writes:

When we think of animals as a species rather than as individuals, not every rhino death is equal. The last one has to carry the full weight of our self-involved concern.

But for the northern white rhinos themselves, the death of the last male was no more traumatic than the deaths that came before. Potentially, it was less traumatic, in fact. Sudan, as we knew him, died at 45—the upper end of rhino life expectancy—from old age. You might call it a good innings. He died surrounded by those who loved him—his keepers—though sadly without much comfort from other rhinos. Most northern white rhinos over the past few centuries, on the other hand, died in horrible circumstances, forced from their homes and killed for their horns. They passed unmourned on Facebook.

I’m not sure where to take this, but the Rawson piece is worth reading. Plus, yay, she quotes Richard Powers, the author of The Overstory, my favorite book of 2018 (and one of my favorites ever), and that seems to be a good place to leave this:

“Every form of mental despair and terror and incapacity in modern life seems to be related in some way to this complete alienation from everything else alive. We’re deeply, existentially lonely.”

Post-humanism, the Nisi Shawl edition

My latest, new (50+-year-old, so renewed) obsession is looking for writing from non-human perspectives. In non-human voices.

Because, humans. Very tired indeed of them right now. Nothing personal. This guy, this dog you see, is attached to me by this piece of thread. He is wild, strong, I go where he wants. Mostly. We work on it together, for I am fairly massive as well, so can actually get my way pretty easily. Still, where once a five-year-old was the captain of my ship, I now give the helm as often as possible to a middle-aged Mixit Hound.

But, I digress, because: Nisi Shawl! A human one does not grow tired of, her imagination ranging out beyond us normies squirming on the griddle of quotidia. She is way finding, probing the differences and nurturing them with languages of justice: she and her fictionable voices are charming, funny, alarming, actionable…. I’m still trying to figure out my own post-humanist words, so this is hard, but it’s also the reason I read. And was so happy, in a some-how search, to stumble here:

Black Betty” is a Nisi Shawl short story told from Betty the Dog’s point of view. Betty already knows what we’re saying; like a reader, or a child, Betty understands so much more than she can say or pronounce. (“I don’t have your tongue,” snips the cat.) Which is precisely nothing, until Betty the dog is modded through a diet addition that gives her the power to articulate human speech.

A twist on dog food leads to a talking dog and a linguist’s delight: is dialect a sign of–anything? Because… Betty is different. She talk funny, Betty do. Shawl does a fine and interesting and genuine job of adopting something very much like what I suspect a dog’s mind might articulate, if a dog chose to articulate like a human and realized that, hey, this whole pack thing is super complicated. And fucked up and weird. So while there’s still that adherence to a normative (human) core of cognition–as with Spencer Quinn (though in a totally different way)–Shawl is, after all, telling us a story, not her dog. Humans need to mind other-critters as well as dogs do. We are probably much poorer at it than we think, but respect to all who try.

Shawl cuts to the chase (no pun, it’s not really Betty’s thing, though her first whiff from a car window of possible-rabbit gets an exclamation), and covers a lot of ground, some thoughtful, deep, touching, some funny and touching (but: sucker for dogs here; and Shawl’s writing is, often, like an atomic force microscope, brushing the surfaces and depths with the lightest but most discriminate of touches), and all of it curving on a lovely narrative arc that has, I can’t believe I’m saying this, a cat teaching a lesson. That’s not a spoiler dammit! But those killers, those house cats let out, that one could be right and inspire such an act of insurrection!

Go Baby Boo, go Black Betty.

And then, when it’s done and I’m chewing on my thoughts, I am left with these questions:

If you spun a dog a story, what would that sound like? Would a dog tell this story differently? Is there a difference in degree or quality between the socialities, the cultural mores and forays, of dogs and humans? (Well, of course there is, stupid: but has that ever been described in any useful sort of way? Perhaps by Elizabeth Thomas? [review by me]) Maybe it’s humans what needs the mods?

I know I sure do.

Can Democrats Learn from Narrative Theory?

I really like Madeline ffitch’s essay, “The Problem of Neoliberal Realism in Contemporary Fiction,” in LitHub, as much for its ideas about fiction as for the application of those ideas to political and other narratives.

As I’ve written before (along with many others), we are deluged and deluded by a cult of happiness. You see this, too, ffitch writes, in fiction workshops:

In a fiction workshop, a graduate student asks why we have to read “depressing” stories. “Why do we read stories that are so bleak,” she asks, “when what people really need to hear are stories of hope?” But where and how do people find hope? If we can’t take the bad news, do we deserve the good news? If we can’t take the bad news, will there even be good news? The student was tired of the grind of “literary” fiction, yet it seems to me that such fiction often uses its most difficult material as a formula for familiar meaning-making. Marked by formal unity, the quest for authenticity, and the belief that the self is a “bottomless pool” full of cogent meaning and redemption, Zadie Smith calls this style of writing “lyrical realism.” Skeptical, Smith wonders, “Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?” If bleakness is our concern, what could be more bleak than the sunlit prison of hope without honesty?

This bedtime story is one of redemption and hope and, when conflict is resolved along those lines, it is “American.” “If they see something they don’t like—hatred, bigotry, violence, oppression—they say it’s not American”:

Storytelling that relies on guaranteed meaning fits neatly into a national project that seeks to bring into alignment any story that diverges from a unified whole. Neoliberal realism only tolerates conflict if it’s immediately useful, if it has clear meaning, if we can see why it’s there and how it will be resolved. Even the legacy of slavery can be made to align with a unified national narrative, once it is filled with meaning and viewed through the lens of redemptive struggle.

When we try to wrest clear meaning out of the abyss of brutality, we are refusing to imagine the real. The rush toward hope is ripe for cooptation. This is one way that a politics of domination finds neat support in the very craft of most lyrically realist novels. The political problem is a narrative problem. It is a lack of imagination. It is a problem of storytelling.

And here’s the question that got me thinking about how liberals media-manage their political ideas and candidates: “What is the cost when we diminish conflict, when we aim to manage big stories instead of letting those stories roam free?” Because what we see, over and over and over again, is that the candidate on the left–Bernie Sanders, AOC, even Elizabeth Warren (a neoliberal in the vein of Biden, Obama, and every president since Reagan), is too dangerous, too far out of the mainstream, to be viable.

The DNC and other party rulers must quash debate and dissent in order to appear to be promoting the one candidate who is acceptable to all liberals, despite the fact that the whole point of left politics is to promote dissent, debate, and diversity. But those divisions can’t be aired less they be used against the candidate the way a crowbar might be used to bash apart an already busted up old sidewalk. Write ffitch:

What is the cost when we diminish conflict, when we aim to manage big stories instead of letting those stories roam free? During the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, the private security firm TigerSwan—in the pay of the pipeline and using military-style tactics—collaborated with law enforcement to derail water protectors. One internal TigerSwan document reminds personnel that the “exploitation of ongoing native versus non-native rifts, and tribal rifts … is critical in our effort to delegitimize the anti-DAPL movement.”

If we hide our divisions under a guise of unity, they become vulnerable to exploitation. If we claim them, our stories not only might resist such exploitation, but become bigger, uncontainable, more real.

Real Politik, of course, is not about to let the story run rampant. Everything about life in America is about control, managing expectations, and normcoring diversity until we are all skinbags of varying colors marching in lock step. 

In a response to her essay, Bianca Lynne Spriggs wrote to ffitch, saying, “‘happily ever after’ narratives where all ends well and the suffering of marginalized peoples is transmuted into some sort of cultural badge of honor … is a result of the historic modality of patriarchal consciousness (either/or, this/that, right/wrong).” And then ffitch quotes Sarah Schulman, the author of Conflict is not Abuse, who concurs that such binary thinking is “the embodiment of patriarchy, racism, and the enforcement of the US class system.”

“Conflict,” ffitch writes, “is urgent unanswerable questions. Conflict is attachment, misunderstanding, mistake, reluctant connection. Conflict is the particularity of people in community. Conflict is the terror and joy of responsibility. Conflict is knowing other people—not observing them—and it is letting them know you.”

If representing conflict as a binary is, as ffitch says, a failure of imagination, is there any hope of imagining a politics that is anything other than a failure?