Saturday, December 24, 2011

Weirdest thing happened

Yesterday I was awoken in the morning by the sound of the doorbell, which chimes in the hallway right outside my childhood bedroom. It dinged once, then again after a pause, then three or four more times, and so on, until it became evident that whoever was there was not going away. In my sleepy haze, I started to wonder if my parents had somehow gotten locked outside, so I got up to see what was the matter. Instead, they'd been occupied or undressed or some such, but my dad finally made it to the door, and it was some neighborhood kid, offering to clean up our front courtyard (it had snowed, maybe half an inch and was already melting; we turned him down).

Then last night around 2 am, I woke up to the same sound: the doorbell ringing in sporadic bursts. At first I thought it must be the same kid, returning to further terrorize us. Every time I thought surely he was going away, it would ring again. I was lying there awake thinking someone would have to answer it and get his parents' names so we could call and tell them to keep a tighter rein on their kid, when I heard my parents and John conferring in the front hall about what to do or not to do. John had still been up, night-owling on the other side of the house with a book, so a light had been on. There was no one visible through the peephole, but John peered out the big window in our dining room, which faces  the courtyard, and said, "There's a woman out there!" She was hiding in the shadows near the door.

At this point I was fairly terrified. Remember that old story about the guy who's being followed by someone who keeps flashing their brights? And finally it's revealed that someone was hiding in the backseat with a weapon? I'm thinking one of two things is true: this woman is a psycho killer, or she's hiding from a psycho killer, and if we open the door he's going to get us too. I'm not at my most rational in the middle of the night, wearing pajamas and no contacts. But no one else wants to open the door either. She sees that John sees her, but she won't step out in the light or shout that she wants to be let in. It's freezing out there by the way, and she's just wearing a sweater. So finally we call the police, and tell them there's a woman outside our door and we're not sure if she needs help or we do. After about five minutes, she's still periodically ringing the doorbell frantically, so we call back in an effort to up the urgency. Within two minutes of that, two cop cars pulled up.

We spent the next hour sort of watching the scene unfold. One of the cops came to our door and said that she was hiding from her husband, and that she wanted us to call the cops. So, I guess, we did the right thing? We think her husband may have been driving down the street in his truck with the lights off, looking for her, but we didn't see the truck until the lights on the police cars lit up the street. It looked like the cops tried to facilitate a reconciliation, but ended up arresting the guy. The cops eventually escorted her back home. It didn't take very long; they live right down the street, but we're not sure which house.

I never got a good look at her; John thought she looked young, 25 or 30. The whole time the cops were here, she was just standing under a tree across the street, waiting, in the cold. My dad says "Nothing good ever happens at 2 am." Isn't it scary to think that you might need help at 2 am, and the nearest potential savior might be too scared to help you?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review of The French Exit

Hello, hello, from El Paso, Texas. There's a very lovely new review of The French Exit in MAKE Mag, which was such a nice surprise, since I kind of figured there would be no more reviews, the book being well over a year old now. A bit from the review:

Like the title, many of these poems employ a sly brand of humor to temper the painfulness of goodbyes, though Gabbert’s cleverness and wit belie the seriousness of her project; at its heart, this collection is a relentless examination of exits and all that comes after them—memory, nostalgia, longing, questioning, regret. But close examinations of such hazy realms prove necessarily difficult for this poet, and so like the cover-woman’s face, many of Gabbert’s poems have a certain pixellated quality—she zooms in so close that things lose their meanings .... 
And because Gabbert strikes such a perfect balance between heart and head, between cleverness and earnestness, between language that demonstrates its own fallibility and language that is surprisingly, perfectly precise—this book, too, amounts to a great deal. Contrary to the quick, clean getaway implied by its title, The French Exit is a kind of quantum goodbye, a gnomon of a book the very presence of which is defined by all the exits it keeps trying—and charmingly fails—to make. 

Isn't that wonderful? Thank you to Ali Shapiro and MAKE Mag for the review.

Friday, December 16, 2011


This was the first poem I wrote that made me feel like a Real Poet, something like 10 or 12 years ago:

It was long since morning
but the city was quiet, whited,
and I was starting to think 
in words again. Long
lines got longer. I chased you
to the park, tread worn  
off my shoes. I tripped
behind you, bounding,
my heart skipping,  
clenching like a fist
to hold you in. And I gasped
through the freezing  
air, How can it be so
bright and so cold?  
Remember where
you kissed me on the shin, we sat
and waited on the bleeding,  
our jackets getting wet,
and stared into the trees.
That wasn’t a blackbird,  
just a black bird.
But I couldn’t tell you no.
And you were covered in  
crystals, the smallest snow.

I recognize some of this as sentimental or cliched now (hearts are always fists, aren't they?) -- and the line breaks somewhat inscrutable -- but I do still like that linguistic flourish of the blackbird versus the black bird. That's very me. I also still remember that one of the girls in my college workshop said it "breathes," and she "loves poems that breathe."

I had to dig through my MFA thesis to find that. I also found this one that I still like, though again, the sentimentality alert is at orange.

I was crossing the Harvard bridge, sun low and beaming,
when I remembered my dream—not the plot,
but a still frame from it: standing on a kind of plank
about two stories up, with the explosion behind me,
blooming out white and expansive like a nuclear rose.
I know I have to jump to the concrete below
but I hesitate, imagining the sound of my knees breaking,
though the scorching air shoves at my back. 
I stopped halfway across the bridge, and wondered
what I’m dreading. One end of a long, slender ribbon
from an audio tape someone had torn apart
was caught on the railing. It waved out shimmering
over the river, like a streamer thrown off the deck
of a departing ship, trying to kiss the shore goodbye.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Kitten jokes

What was the kitten's favorite movie?
Apocalypse Meow (big Coppola fan)

What's the kitten's favorite candy?
Meow & Laters -- the grape kind

What kind of ailment befell the kitten?
A cute rhinitis

What was the kitten's best subject in school?
Fuzzy math

What's the kitten's favorite 80s song?
Careless Whisker

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Who's crazier:

The guy who walked a tight rope between the Twin Towers on a windy day:

Or the guy who parachuted from space?

That's Philippe Petit and Joe Kittinger, respectively. Kittinger started way higher up, and had farther to fall if his parachute failed. I mean, he had farther to fall either way, but it would have been a long time to face his own death. Still, if I had to do one or the other, I'd pick the parachute, no question. The tight rope thing? That's just fucking crazy.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Joan Didion on Woody Allen

Manhattan is one of my favorite movies, but I still expected to enjoy on some level Joan Didion's 1979 pan of the movie from the New York Review of Books (you can read the whole thing online), to which I saw several references today, thanks to a Slate piece on dismissive replies by literary heavyweights. Instead I find it surprisingly petty; she seems to willfully misread Woody Allen throughout:

It was a summer in which the more hopeful members of the society wanted roller skates, and stood in line to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a picture in which, toward the end, the Woody Allen character makes a list of reasons to stay alive. “Groucho Marx” is one reason, and “Willie Mays” is another. The second movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues.” Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. This list is modishly eclectic, a trace wry, definitely OK with real linen; and notable, as raisons d’ĂȘtre go, in that every experience it evokes is essentially passive. This list of Woody Allen’s is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary.

This is an interesting point to be sure, but I'm not 100% convinced by Didion's apparent contention that this "new class" is defined only by a fear of liking the wrong thing. The class in question seems to be artists and wannabe artists or general art-obsessives, people who define themselves through aesthetics rather than, say, a sport or an active hobby like cooking. But so what? The ultimate reason to stay alive is programmed in our DNA. Any other reason is what we tell ourselves and others in order to appear interesting or unselfish. What if the list included "active" items like skiing and making bread? Is that really any less bougie? Ask someone dying of malaria what they want to live for, what if they say "to see the sun rise another day," are you going to point out that watching the sunrise is passive?

When Natalie Gittelson of The New York Times Magazine recently asked Woody Allen how his own analysis was going after twenty-two years, he answered this way: “It’s very slow…but an hour a day, talking about your emotions, hopes, angers, disappointments, with someone who’s trained to evaluate this material—over a period of years, you’re bound to get more in touch with feelings than someone who makes no effort.”  
Well, yes and (apparently) no. Over a period of twenty-two years “you’re bound” only to get older, barring nasty surprises. This notion of oneself as a kind of continuing career—something to work at, work on, “make an effort” for and subject to an hour a day of emotional Nautilus training, all in the interests not of attaining grace but of improving one’s “relationships”—is fairly recent in the world, at least in the world not inhabited entirely by adolescents.

I'm not sure what her point is here either. Analysis is a recent phenomenon, yes, but so are movies and tiramisu. Again, so what? Analysis exists to address "first-world problems," of which America, fortunately or unfortunately, has plenty.

These faux adults of Woody Allen’s have dinner at Elaine’s, and argue art versus ethics.

I eat dinner and talk about art and ethics, I just don't get paid six figures to do so. Didion's life actually feels just as "faux" to me as anyone in a Woody Allen movie (movies are "fiction" by the way, so of course the characters are faux): sitting around writing all day in the same room as her husband, writing movie scripts, drinking scotch in glamorous Bohemian dresses etc.

In Manhattan [Diane Keaton] is a magazine writer, and we actually see her typing once, on a novelization, and talking on the telephone to “Harvey,” who, given the counterfeit “insider” shine to the dialogue, we are meant to understand is Harvey Shapiro, the editor of The New York Times Book Review. (Similarly, we are meant to know that the “Jack and Anjelica” to whom Paul Simon refers in Annie Hall are Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, and to feel somehow flattered by our inclusion in this little joke on those who fail to get it.)

Or maybe we're supposed to laugh at how pretentious the comment is? Annie Hall is after all a comedy. This seems to operate in the same way as the scene in Manhattan where Diane Keaton talks about "the academy of the overrated" and we're meant to understand her as insufferable. Also I never knew who "Harvey" was and don't feel I missed anything by not knowing; it just sounds like the name of an editor.

Surely Joan Didion isn't entirely humorless, so can someone explain to me what her problem is here? Woody Allen has of course created his share of shit but I think Manhattan and Annie Hall represent a peak in his career (late 70s through mid-80s) when he transcended screwball comedy without becoming unbearably pretentious. (I'd put Hannah and Her Sisters in the same category.)

Art in America

When we moved to Denver we went on a little rampage of purchasing memberships to all the museums and to the Botanical Gardens (usually, if you're going to go to a museum more than twice per year this makes sense). One of the perks of our Denver Art Museum membership was a $20 deal for an annual subscription to both Art in America and Artforum, so we pounced on it. I initially assumed that these are the kind of magazines you don't read per se, but keep on the coffee table for guests and flip through now & then like picture books. In fact I find the prose pretty readable, even accessible, though it's interesting to see what knowledge is taken as a given. Like poetry, the visual arts constitute a subculture and insider references abound.

Just for fun here are some excerpts from the December 2011 issue of Art in America:

It almost goes without saying that art openings and booze go hand in hand, especially during schmoozy events like this month's Art Basel Miami Beach. And Austrian prankster Erwin Wurm is making sure of that with his new exhibition, "Beauty Business," at the Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach. Known for his humorous works, such as his "One-Minute Sculptures" that have participants strike ridiculous poses with props, Wurm has created a series of "Drinking Sculptures," which he says are completed when the participants are drunk. Bay Area conceptualist Tom Marioni was on to something similar with his 1970 performance piece The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art (ongoing), though he mercifully doesn't require such excess.

From an obituary on Richard Hamilton by Gillian Forrester (as an example of the aforementioned insider references, the first paragraph uses the acronym "YBAs," which I correctly guessed stands for "Young British Artists"):

He was a founding member, in 1952, of the Independent Group of painters, sculptors, architects, and critics, who met regularly at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts to discuss science, technology, mass media, consumerism and critical theory, issues that were to preoccupy Hamilton for the remainder of his life. He collaborated with John McHale and John Voelcker on an installation for "This is Tomorrow," the seminal 1956 exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, for which he made his influential collage Just what is it that makes today's home so different, so appealing? [see above] It remains, for better or worse, his best-known work. 
The following year Hamilton produced his celebrated list of the defining characteristics of Pop: "Popular (designed for a mass audience); Transient (short term solution); Expendable (easily forgotten); Low Cost; Mass Produced; Young (aimed at youth); Witty; Sexy; Gimmicky; Glamorous; Big business." 

From "Denial" by Mark Handforth (part of a series called "Muse" which I take to be artists writing about an important influence):

There's a firmly rooted belief in British art schools -- and I really do believe this -- that their project is not only to produce traditional artists. It's also to foster musicians, rock 'n' rollers like Bryan Ferry, graphic designers and so on. The schools produce a wider world of people who make the planet worth living on -- artists who are non-artists, if you like.

Are there hobby or trade magazines you like to read that have nothing to do with what you "do"? I assume Architectural Digest exists mostly for this reason; architects don't read it, do they?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

New issue of Open Letters

I've got two little things in the December issue of Open Letters. First up, my latest perfume column: "On the Scent: A Dip in the Mainstream," in which I review stuff you can get at big chain stores for under $100 a pop. I talk a little about the problems with mainstream perfumes:
New mainstream releases tend to suffer from a tedious adherence to trends (we’ve been stuck in a cycle of thin fruity florals, super-clean musky florals, and Angel-esque fruity-patchouli numbers for a good decade now) as well as a certain cheapness that belies their price tags. This cheapness usually manifests as a bare minimum, or complete lack, of natural materials, which give body and complexity to perfume. Simple, mostly synthetic formulas can smell pleasant at first, but get boring very quickly, since they don’t offer all that much more than the fragrance in your $10 shampoo.  
Also problematic is the fact that even if you are looking for something in particular – say you’ve set your fancy on a green floral – the sales assistants often can’t guide you to something that properly fits this description. It’s not entirely their fault – they’re encouraged if not forced by management to push the newer releases, so they’ve got to find something relatively green among this season’s batch of fruity florals; they can’t or don’t think to show you perfectly serviceable green florals of decades past, such as Chanel Cristalle or Estee Lauder Alliage. “Green” simply isn’t in these days.
Nonetheless, there were some solid releases in the past couple of years. You'll find reviews of scents including Bottega Veneta, Cartier Baiser Vole, Tom Ford Violet Blonde, and Diane.

Also, I contributed to the "Our Year in Reading" feature (Part 1, Part 2) along with the other contributing editors (including John Cotter, Steve Donoghue, Adam Golaski, Lisa Peet, and Sam Sacks). I wrote about the most memorable novels I read this year:
In 2010, my hands-down favorite reads were Howards End by E.M Forster and A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. This year, I only managed to cross one classic off my list: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I started this book about a month before moving 2,000 miles across the country, and what with the packing and unpacking and everything in between, I might not have finished it, were it not for Mick, surely one of the best young female characters in all of American literature. This novel starts off feeling like linked stories, until you realize the chapters are cycling through a handful of major characters, all misfits in a small Southern town. Each has an interesting story, but I fell completely for Mick, a fierce, protective tomboy with a secret passion for music. Struggling against hate and poverty, she eventually succumbs, unwillingly and almost unknowingly, to the banal horror of an ordinary life. The fifth chapter in Part 2, in which Mick’s little brother runs away, is twenty pages of utter perfection, a self-contained wonder I’ll keep coming back to.
To read about some of the great poetry books I read this year, see here and here.

The issue also includes cool art by Pattie Lee Becker (the above is her print "Ramona's Bright Idea") and lots of good book reviews as always. Go read!