The Public, a Buffalo, New York, alternative newspaper and web site with a circulation of 35,000, published my article about José Coyote Pérez, an immigrant laborer and labor activist in upstate New York, who was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), earlier today.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Kampf zwischen Fasching und Fasten (The Fight Between Carnival and Lent) depicts today, the day before Lent. Today is an important enough day in the Christian calendar to go by a few nicknames: Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” “Pancake Day.”
Any day that is associated with food, whether because restrictions are about to be imposed or restrictions are to be erased for one special day, by rights ought to have as many nicknames as it can bear.
The Invention of Love …
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Because of the rampant commercialism associated with the holiday, Valentine’s Day is considered a “Hallmark holiday,” a day selected by a blindfolded intern at Hallmark HQ and pegged as one we consumers are told to celebrate by spending. It isn’t.
In the grocery store last week, the center of which is holiday-red right now and overstuffed with heart-shaped balloons and streamers, as if the store manager himself demanded a ticket-tape parade for Cupid, I walked past a fellow shopper who, shaking her head, declared out loud, “Valentine’s Day! Already?” because that is what we say when we view holiday decorations in stores nowadays. (Each reminder of time’s passage is responded to as a newly experienced emotional trauma in our culture, each time we encounter it.) It was February 10, the decorations had been up in this particular store since January 2, and there was no hint of irony in the person’s exclamation.
Starting in the late 1700s, publishers started to print and sell Valentine’s Day-oriented books, usually guides for young men to use in composing their love notes. On this much, most cultural historians seem to agree. The disagreements begin with who Valentine might have been and why February 14 is his feast day and extend to the question about what any of this has to do with chalky heart-shaped candies and smooching.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.—James Joyce, the conclusion of “The Dead,” Dubliners
Cemeteries are cram-packed full with people who had other plans that day. Reservations for dinner, a movie ticket in the pocket. A refrigerator with new groceries. A sink with dirty dishes.
We all know this deep down, but the occasional reminders can nonetheless surprise. “Always wear clean underwear,” a cliché cartoon version of a mother tells a cliché cartoon version of ourselves in a cliché cartoon version of a conversation that never happens in real life. But the end comes in a moment, and it is always dramatic, even when it is mundane.
(I suppose it is never mundane for the person who experiences it, but I have not yet been there, not even been near it, and no one who has had the end moment has made a verifiable report about it. Tsk-tsk. Where are their priorities?)
“However.” Sometimes he spoke the word as an exclamation, sometimes as a half-question. He never connected it to anything that preceded it. It was not a reply, or it was a reply to everything the world had offered him up to the moment he encountered the audience on the other side of the footlights.
“Professor” Irwin Corey would shamble up to the microphone in an over sized suit, his shoelace necktie askew, his hair combed by a blender, and his first word to the audience in his role as “The World’s Foremost Authority” (topic always TBA) was always: “However.” What followed was always a stream of words that bore a relationship to English sentences that could be diagrammed, but the relationship appeared to be closer to a divorce than a marriage.
However one remembers “Professor” Irwin Corey, who died on Monday at the age of 102 and a half, one should remember that he and his act were embraced by activists, by anti-authoritarians, and by those who always take sides against pompous twits and those blowhards who love bureaucracy.
The poet and critic John Greening sums up the career of James Merrill, who conversed with the inhabitants of other planes of reality, in a 2010 essay, “Ouija”:
James Merrill made a point of breaking all the rules, of remaining recklessly formal when all about him were casting off their chains, of being incorrigibly discursive and elitist, shunning the rhythms of speech for something more refinedly musical, and unswerving in his determination to squeeze every last pun out of a line.—John Greening, “Ouija,” The Dark Horse, Summer 2010
Merrill was a rebel in his adherence to rules in a rule-breaking era. He wrote dazzling, perfect poems, and he employed almost every verse form available to him, as an actor might use accents. Greening quotes George Bradley: “Reading James Merrill is enough to make the rest of us suspect we’re not smart enough to write poetry.” Even at his smartest, he is engaging and not impenetrable. His pleasure in the sounds of words and the poetic effects he creates and his many puns are always evident. He compliments his readers in his implied assumption that we must know what he is writing about at least as well as he does.
“Ashley” from “Supplement Sidekick” wrote to The Gad About Town (me) last week: “I wanted to thank you for this wonderful read!! I absolutely loved every bit of it. I have you book-marked to check out new things you post… .”
She (or he) wrote her (or his) comment on an article that one could describe as “a wonderful read,” if accounts of a threatened beheading of a protester in Saudi Arabia strike one as a wonderful read. Perhaps she (or he) felt that my point of view (I would describe myself as being against beheadings in general, but this might not be the first thing I would tell you about myself on a speed-date) is “wonderful.” She (or he) did not elaborate.
February 2, 2017, is the 135th anniversary of the birth of James Joyce (above).
In his huge biography, Richard Ellmann notes in several places that Joyce found his own birthday to be a topic most fascinating (he made certain that his novel Ulysses was published on his 40th, in 1922) and he tells how this affected his relationship with another writer, James Stephens.