Samuel Beckett liked his whiskey regularly. Toward the end of his life he had to forego alcohol for a time while being treated for a vitamin deficiency. His biographer and friend James Knowlson commiserated. "That must be a bit of a bitch, Sam," said Knowlson. Long pause. Beckett replied, "No, Jim. It's not a bit of a bitch. It is a bugger of a bastard of a bitch! I'll make it up later." (Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett, ed. by James and Elizabeth Knowlson)
2021 was a bugger of a bastard of a bitch. January 6. Faction, discord, unraveling of the social fabric. Republican assault on rule of law and constitutional government. Pandemic. Isolation. Bizarre resistance to vaccines and other public health measures by the numbnuts brigade. Afghanistan debacle. Build Back Better debacle. Crisis at the border. Ravages of climate change. The brief moment early summer when things were looking up on the pandemic front so fleeting it came to little more than a wishful thought. Delta variant. Omicron. What happens when we run out of letters in the Greek alphabet? Will midnight Friday usher in a new dawn? Or descent into a deeper dark?
I shied away from commentary on politics and current affairs as we moved into the heart of the holiday season. Yet stuff continues to hit the proverbial fan. Iterations of grim themes. Republicans took to heart the lessons of the 2020 election and January 6. They intend to prevail next time by any means necessary. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is wrecking itself. Hotheads and Twitter celebrities command the spotlight. Cooler heads are ineffectual, unable to figure out how to gain traction. The party's penchant for assembling into circular firing squads is on daily display. The Congressional Progressive Caucus comes off like a Republican false-flag operation whose mission is to discredit Democrats as raving ideologues oblivious to the sentiments of vast swathes of the body politic whose votes they need and should be courting, votes they could conceivably get if they can bring themselves to accept that people of good will may harbor good faith differences on matters of policy and principle. Maybe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Abigail Spanberger are talking to one another, hashing out areas where they can work together, but if that is happening, they are doing a bang-up job of keeping it under wraps. No doubt there will be ample occasion to weigh in on these and related topics in the weeks and months ahead.
Year's end is a time to look back at what I have been up to. A time to reflect on whether I have kept faith with that dream of being a poet and stayed true to values that have animated me for the duration. The art for art's sake aspect and pursuit of the intellectual adventure are interwoven with the ethical imperative for engagement. The poems seldom take up social and political concerns in explicit fashion. The blog essays often do. Both go to make up this mess of a self that goes by my name.
Over the past few years engagement has for the most part come by way of participation in protests and demonstrations, volunteer efforts with Indivisible Oregon and Vote Forward, bombarding elected representatives with advice by email, letter, phone, taking a public stand in whatever ways are open to me, voting. On days when my eternal pessimism is at high tide I fear these efforts amount to little more than bandages for my conscience. At sunnier moments I see them in terms of doing what one can.
In some respects it might appear that I am well constituted to endure pandemic life. Literary and intellectual pursuits demand a measure of solitude. Getting the measure right is the catch. A single visit to the art museum, a handful to Park Avenue Cafe for espresso and journal sessions, none to movie theaters, takeout at India Oven where they treat me well, this is better than not at all, but it does not get the measure right. Backyard happy hour with the old office gang in June, a weekend with Sylvia and Pete in Eugene end of August, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with Hollye, Vince, Nigel the Airedale Terrier, and Nigel's squeaky toys, each was a joy. I cherish every one. But over the course of a year, the measure is not right. Sometimes it gets to me.
For all that, days tend to be full and the weeks fly away. Multnomah County Library, with a branch a few blocks from my apartment in SE Portland, reopened for holds pickup after a brief closure early in the pandemic and has been open for browsing and other uses since last summer. Online orders from Powell's bring welcome additions for my bookcases while supporting a Portland institution. Film viewed on my laptop is a lesser experience than in the theater but better than not at all.
For going on forty years running has been part of my life and runner as much part of my identity as reader, cinéaste, poet. Running helped me through the first year and more of the pandemic until a succession of injuries laid me low, an ankle in mid May, a knee at the end of July just as the ankle was rounding back into shape. Walking is still good and I hope to run again. For now there is frustration but as my old French teacher Marie Laure used to say, so whacha gon' do? Rehab. Exercise hip muscles, quads, calves. Stretch. Walk, don't run.
Fancying myself a poet, a writer of any fashion, means putting time in at the desk. Another solitary affair. At year's end I tally up word counts for essays and newsletters. The numbers serve as an indication of the discipline with which I have gone at the work. They are silent as to quality, which it goes without saying is never what I wish it to be. The consistency is pleasantly surprising, upwards of 90,000 words each of the past four years. The total for 2021 will approach 100,000, approximately 400 pages, estimating 250 words for a typical double-spaced page with 12-pt font and standard spacing (per Word Counter), the most since 2018.
Much newsletter content and more than half of the blog essays are concerned with politics and current affairs. My perspective is not neutral or disinterested. I make no bones about thinking of myself as a man of the left, going back to my teens, Irmo, South Carolina, the 1960s, influenced by the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and my friend Phil who listened to Radio Havana and Radio Peking English-language broadcasts on his short-wave radio.
The political terrain is treacherous. Perhaps too often I let myself go, spewing venom and invective that distract from what aims for decent critique and commentary. My leftist sensibility is tempered by some old-fashioned conservative virtues that have no more place in what passes for conservatism today than in progressive circles. People who have known me for years and longtime readers may be surprised by venom and invective sometimes directed at the contemporary left. For me this comes down to integrity. I try to engage in good faith criticism of allies, and if not exactly allies, the adversaries of my adversaries, when called for without falling into the dreaded ditch of false equivalence or trying to have it both ways. I may not always be successful.
The black hole of political muck exerts a gravitational field from which there is no more escape than from the astrophysical phenomenon. Even so, even in this grim era, that is only part of life and only part of my Portable Bohemia. A few essays from 2021 offer glimpse of another side of your oft humbled scribe:
Literary Adventures with Larry McMurtry, reflections on McMurtry's memoir A Literary Life
The poetry work is episodic. Poems begin as they always have with phrases and lines that come during long walks, while at my desk staring at the blank page, at any old odd moment. Typically they are first written by hand on notepads or in my journal. Sometimes they come while lying in bed at night. It is almost invariably a mistake to trust that I will remember the next morning. Better to drag myself from under the covers and write it down. Revision is incessant, by hand over a period of days, weeks, months, then while typing on the computer, revising as I type.
The submission phase of poetry work is drudgery. It begins with scrolling through the Poets & Writers listing of literary magazines soliciting poetry submissions. Some are obviously not a fit, for instance, those devoted to feminist, LGBTQ, or BIPOC writers, indigenous peoples, the wokescenti, etc. On principle I refrain from submitting to magazines that charge a reading fee. This disqualifies many of the more prestigious journals whose names readers here might recognize. I can understand why they do it. Even the most obscure small presses are inundated with submissions. The fee whittles them down by at least one.
The revision process continues as I prepare submission packets, so something comes of it even when a submission is rejected. Early this month I was surprised by how many poems in files from 2018 to the present may be keepers. Not a large number by any means, because the poems do not come as frequently or easily as they once did, but more than anticipated. Perhaps another sign of age: Poems written since the beginning of 2018 are thought of as the new ones. I recall fondly the open mic days when new poems were those written since last week's or last month's reading or, for some, while waiting for the night's reading to begin.
At present I have eight submissions outstanding, awaiting a response. For the past few years I have been diligent about keeping that number between five and ten. Last summer I had an exchange with a friend from the Atlanta Little 5 Points era who wondered what publications have the balls to reject my work. Quite a few, as it turns out. The fact is that I simply do not put enough time and effort into submission to have a shot at more than sporadic, teetering on rare, publication. The numero two-o fact is that publication is no more reliable measure of quality than the word counts.
My friend went on to advise that I "take a break from sending submissions to a slew of ungrateful little publishers & feeling their rejections" and rather target "1 or 2 publishers
with an established track record of publishing books of single poets (not anthologies)
& who have the ability to market them, the contacts for serious readings, seminars, sales." I took the advice to heart and compiled a tentative manuscript and from that a selection of poems for a query but got no further, despairing of the futility of it all and caught up in study and other writing projects. Maybe 2022. If nothing else it might bring a different flavor of rejection.
The year's end exercise would not be complete without mention of books read and films reviewed. What follows is not of list of new books and films that might be up for annual awards, Pulitzers, Oscars, and whatnot. Nor is it comprehensive. These are some of the books and films that stood out for me, a taste of my idiosyncratic taste, among many more that I enjoyed.
Samuel Beckett, Selected Letters 1929–1940 (2009)
Beckett Remembering Remembering Beckett, ed. by James and Elizabeth Knowlson (2006)
Ruth Brandon, Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917–1945 (1999)
Matthew Josephson, Life Among the Surrealists (1962)
Jamal Mahjoub, A Line in the River: Khartoum, City of Memory (2018). Mahjoub has written some fine mysteries under the pen name Parker Bilal.
Larry McMurtry, Literary Life: A Second Memoir (2009)
Louis Menand, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (2021)
Roberta Reeder, Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet (1994)
Sean Wilentz, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation's Founding (2018)
New mystery writers (new to me, at any rate)
Zoë Ferraris, Finding Nouf (2008), Kingdom of Strangers (2012). Set in Saudi Arabia.
Louisa Luna, Two Girls Down (2018), The Janes (2020).
Jane Harper, Force of Nature (2018), The Lost Man (2019), The Survivors (2021). Set in small, remote towns in the Australian Outback.
Sujarat Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill (2018), The Satapur Moonstone (2019), The Bombay Prince (2021). Perveen Mistry Bombay novels set in the 1920s. Perveen is Bombay's first female solicitor, employed in her father's law office. The action takes place against the backdrop of the Indian struggle for independence from Britain.
Mes provinciales (A Paris Education) (2018), dir. Jean-Paul Civeyrac
Deux moi (Someone Somewhere) (2019), dir. Cédric Klapisch
Ce qui nous lie (Back to Burgundy) (2017), dir. Cédric Klapisch
My Little Sister (2020), dir. Stéphanie Chuat & Véronique Reymond. With Nina Hoss, who is as always exceptional.
L'arbre de Guernica (The Guernica Tree) (1975), dir. by "renegade surrrealist" Fernando Arrabel, with Mariangela Melato, who some of you may know from Lina Wertmuller's Swept Away.
Along the way I happened on a number of fine actors with whom I was previously unacquainted. I will make an effort to see them in other films if opportunity presents itself.
Emmanuelle Devos as Violette Leduc and Sandrine Kiberlain as Simone de Beauvoir in Violette (2013). And in altogether different roles, Devos in Perfumes (2019) and Kiberlain in Elle l'adore (Number One Fan) (2014).
Anna Geislerová in Beauty in Trouble (2006) and Anthropoid (2016)
Noémie Schmidt in L'étudiante et Monsieur Henri (The Student and Monsieur Henri) (2015) and The Light of Hope (2017)
Natasa Stork in Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (2020)
If my memory serves me well, some volume or other in Beat section of my bookcase has an interview with Gary Snyder where he spoke about his experience in a Zen monastery in Japan as a young man in the 1950s. Snyder was a practical sort. He offered suggestions for ways to do work around the monastery more efficiently. The monks listened patiently, he said, then ignored him. Finally one of the younger monks explained that it's not about efficiency. It's about living the life. Besides, the monk said, if you get the work done quicker there is more time to meditate and your knees hurt more.
Living the life. I do not always get that right or do it well, but I keep at it and I have my moments. The most satisfying essays are the more substantive ones where I research a topic and write and rewrite and rewrite more until something comes of it. The adventure can be frustrating when it is unclear if I can pull it together, as it often is until the very end, going at it furiously for three or four days as if I were at the office on the clock with deadline looming. Those are the best days. On a recent day I devoted the morning to something for Portable Bohemia, then poured myself into the poetry work throughout the afternoon. It must have been a weekend because afterward I settled in for a happy hour beer and a mystery novel before dinner. At some point I put down the novel and gazed out the window at the evening sky and just felt good. Life was okay. I look for more days like this in 2022.
Happy New Year, my friends, and thanks for dropping by at my Portable Bohemia.