A Crowded Vacuum

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Melancholy and Mystery of a Street]

From whiskey river:

The River

This is my formula for the fall of things:
we come to a river we always knew we’d have to cross.
It ferries the twilight down through fieldworks

of corn and half-blown sunflowers.
The only sounds, one lost cicada calling to itself
and the piping of a bird that will never have a name.

Now tell me there is a pause
where we know there should be an end;
then tell me you too imagined it this way

with our shadows never quite touching the river
and the river never quite reaching the sea.

(John Glenday, from Grain [source])


The logic of emptiness is wonderfully air-tight. Like all simple truths, its clarity is immediately self evident. We are. And there is no moment in which we are separate and apart: we are always connected — to past, to future, to others, to objects, to air, earth, sky. Every thought, every emotion, every action, every moment of time, has multiple causes and reverberations, tendrils of culture, history, hurt and joy that stretch out mysteriously and endlessly.

(Norman Fischer [source])


An autumn night
don’t think your life
didn’t matter.


Not from whiskey river:

The invention [U-Write-It] had been in the air a good twenty years, and one can only wonder that it was not implemented eariler. I recall the first model of that “literary erector set.” It was a box in the shape of a thick book, containing directions, a prospectus, and a kit of “building elements.” These elements were strips of paper of unequal width, printed with fragments of prose. Each strip had holes punched along the margin to facilitate binding, and several numerals stamped in different colors. Arranging the strips according to the numbering of the base color, black, one obtained the “starting text,” which consisted usually of at least two works of world literature, suitably abridged… You take Crime and Punishment in hand, or War and Peace, and do whatever you please with the characters. Natasha can go astray before the wedding and after it, too; Svidrigailov can marry Raskolnikov’s sister, and Raskolnikov can escape justice and go off with Sonya to Switzerland; Anna Karenina will betray her husband not with Vronsky, but with the footman, etc….

The quiet hope of the publishers had been that a considerable number of people would develop a taste for the new game. [Said the instructions,] “U-Write-It allows you to acquire that same power over human lives, godlike, which till now has been the exclusive privilege of the world’s greatest geniuses!”

…No one cared to play with U-Write-It, not because he nobly forbore to pervert quality, but for the simple reason that between the book of a fourth-rate hack and the epic of Tolstoy he saw no difference whatever.

(Stanislaw Lem, from A Perfect Vacuum [source])


Looking For Each of Us

I open the box of my favorite postcards
and turn them over looking for de Chirico
because I remember seeing you standing
facing a wall no wider than a column where
to your left was a hall going straight back
into darkness, the floor a ramp sloping down
to where you stood alone and where the room
opened out on your right to an auditorium
full of people who had just heard you read
and were now listening to the other poet.
I was looking for the de Chirico because of
the places, the empty places. The word
“boulevard” came to mind. Standing on the side
of the fountains in Paris where the water
blew onto me when I was fifteen. It was night.
It was dark then too and I was alone.
Why didn’t you find me? Why didn’t
somebody find me all those years? The form
of love was purity. An art. An architecture.
Maybe a train. Maybe the shadow of a statue
and the statue with its front turned away
from me. Maybe one young girl playing alone,
hearing even small sounds ring off cobblestones
and the stone walls. I turn the cards looking
for the one and come to Giacometti’s eyes
full of caring and something remote.
His eyes are loving and empty, but not with
nothingness, not for the usual reasons, but because
he is working. The Rothko Chapel empty. A cheap
statue of Sappho in the modern city of Mytilene
and ancient sunlight. David Park’s four men
with smudges for mouths, backed by water,
each held still by the impossibility of what
art can accomplish. A broken river god,
only the body. A girl playing with her rabbit in bed.
The postcard of a summer lightning storm over Iowa.

(Linda Gregg [source])

One of my favorite songs in the You left a hole in my heart! sub-genre has always been “Since I Fell for You.” Like most Boomers, I assumed its history began and ended with Lenny Welch’s 1963 recording, which got up to Billboard’s #4 spot. But it was already eighteen years old then, and it’s still being covered now. Here’s a gem — from Bonnie Raitt’s first album, released in 1971 when she was twenty-one. (The mind reels.) Don’t expect any fancy guitar work here: with sidemen like she had at that session, Bonnie’s voice takes the lead.

[Below, click Play button to begin Since I Fell for You. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:06 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


Since I Fell for You
(by Buddy Johnson; performed by Bonnie Raitt)

When you just give love, and never get love,
You’d better let love depart.
I know it’s so, and still I know,
I can’t get you out of my heart.

You made me leave my happy home.
You took my love, and now you’ve gone,
Since I fell for you…

My life has been such misery and pain.
I guess I’ll never be the same,
Since I fell for you…

Well it’s too bad, and it’s too sad,
That I’m in love with you…
When you love me, and then you snub me.
But what can I do, I’m still in love with you.

I guess I’ll never see the light.
I get these blues most every night,
Since I fell for you…

Since I fell for you…

Note: Raitt does a live version of this song in a YouTube video whose soundtrack, apparently, was recorded from a 1972 radio broadcast on Philadelphia’s great WMMR. I actually prefer that version — where the guitar takes its more familiar place — to the one above, but it’s not available on MP3. Hmm… not yet available… Oh boy, kids: your lucky day. A RAMH exclusive: the downloaded YouTube video, converted to audio (with the applause/voiceover at the end faded to silence):

[Below, click Play button to begin If I Fell for You (WMMR/1972). While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:43 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

(And if you know the secret right-bracket-decoder-ring trick, you can even grab your own copy. :)]

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  1. I was grateful to have some Bonnie Raitt consolation and a puzzle to distract me at the end of this post (now, where did I put that secret right-bracket decoder-ring trick?), because the opening image jarred me silly and the first three pieces made it spookier still.

    You see, I had a recurring nightmare at age four that ran during most afternoon naps for at least a year. It took place on de Chirico’s street–or my street, which felt like de Chirico’s. In the dark angle formed by the column and the box in the lower right hand corner, a tall needle dressed in a tutu (see needle next to shadow of man?), which had been dancing and spinning in the sunny, empty street, came to grief by tripping over some old shoe strings left lying just off-canvas. No one noticed when she fell. Scene change to angry elves jeering and I woke up tasting fear every time.

    All of that came back and I then read,

    “Now tell me there is a pause
    where we know there should be an end;
    then tell me you too imagined it this way”

    Let me play that Bonnie Raitt number again and go looking for my decoder-ring to dispel the chills.

    • Recurring dreams are probably almost all a little creepy, aren’t they? Even if the narrative or tone itself is “good,” with every recurrence it becomes (apparently) ever more important to make sense of the thing. And every loose end which doesn’t fit the latest interpretation feels like a personal affront and/or failure.

      Er, not that I’ve ever experienced exactly that.

      You find the decoder ring? (Hint: it doesn’t spell out Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.)

  2. I was an art history major in college, but as a future psychologist, I very much favored the psychological Surrealists, though they were very out of fashion then. I have always felt a strong connection to that painting by de Chirico. As a daughter of concentration camp survivors, I related to the playing child amidst the empty spaces, the open doors that could close to trap, and the looming shadow. It’s still as powerful to me as ever. Thank you for posting it and also reminding me of this wonderful song sung by Raitt’s amazing voice. 21?!

    • Squirrel: Y’know, I’d never even remembered this painting at the time of constructing the post — although I remembered lots of de Chirico. Only now that I’ve seen yours and Nance’s comments do I realize how strangely fitting almost any of them could have been with this post’s title. I think I’m glad to have stirred up the personal association for you.

      I know. 21. When building this post I saw that she’d already been working professionally for a couple years at the time the album was released. And I was struck by the sweetness of her voice.

  3. The long, shadowy, lonesome characters throughout this montage makes me feel sort of, well, lugubrious. But it’s a gloriously sunny morning (finally!) here in little Rhody which which helps keep that mood at bay.

    I’m glad the crowded vacuum opened with Glenday’s poem–it’s calm, peaceful cadence reminded me of this morning’s light, which I’m hoping sticks around for a while.

    And the second Raitt (that doesn’t sound right, does it?) audio–lucky, indeed! Thanks for that. :)

    (Note to self: pick up Lem’s book!)

    • It’s not possible to even read — and I’m sure use — the phrase “little Rhody” and not feel anti-lugubrious. :)

      That’s one of only two Lem books I own. I got it entirely on the strength of the story called “Non Serviam,” which I’d first read in The New Yorker years before; it continues to haunt me. Maybe especially, now, because of certain analogues in the online world which weren’t available back then. (Like all the contents of A Perfect Vacuum, “Non Serviam” purports to be a book review. I say “purports to be” instead of “is” because the books being considered are all fictitious, products of Lem’s imagination. Ingenious device — it lets him play with ideas without writing entire books about them!)

      Anyway, “Non Serviam” reviews a book by a researcher in computer science/artificial intelligence, who uses software to create a world populated by little self-aware independent virtual beings he calls “personoids.” His software allows him to control the pace of the personoids’ existence; he can speed it up or slow it down. He can in general set all the parameters within which the personoids make life decisions — rather like a gamer does with the videogame called “The Sims” and its ilk. Thought-provoking… and disturbing pretty much in proportion to the thoughts it provokes!

  4. Oh, and I ordered the Lem book based on the quote. I love Lem. U-Write-It is kind of like those poetry refrigerator magnets, but more sophisticated and funny.

    • Oooh, good analogy.

      U-Write-It makes me think of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes. From one writeup about the latter:

      …a book created by cutting out chunks of text from Foer’s favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Polish author Bruno Schulz, rearranging the text to form an entirely different story. The die-cut narrative hangs in an aura of negative space for a beautiful blend of sculpture and storytelling, adding a layer of physicality to the reading experience in a way that completely reshapes your relationship with text and the printed page.

      Here’s a sample page from it:
      Tree of Codes: sample

      And here’s a “making-of” video, as fascinating (I think) as the book itself:

  5. Okay…so you posted some great lines and things up there, and I was thinking of something to say when I saw the “Tree of Codes” video… and you see, what you may not know–well, obviously–is that just a few moments ago I finished making my own handmade book… Ah, bookmaking… I’m not feeling the tiniest bit of jealousy.

    Of course not.

    All those machines would clutter up my apartment.

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