Hilton Obenzinger, Busy Dying
“[He] takes a trip to heaven and talks with all sorts of dead people. It’s like some kind of travel book.” In Busy Dying, a character’s offhand comment on the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg’s Spiritual Diary may as well describe Obenzinger’s fictional memoir itself: only in an apocalyptic 1968 could heaven and hell converge. Life is rhythmically punctuated by death, just as memory is punctuated by moments of revelation, in which the characters are transformed by sudden glimpses of the world beyond knowledge or language. A young handyman believes he sees the finger of God; a girl confined to bed by a nervous disorder feels blessed by the splendid visible and invisible worlds; a college student dives out of his ninth-floor window to, after a poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez, “catch the stars more quickly.”
Obenzinger, like Conrad and Woolf, is attracted to the dark, unknown realm of which our daily life is only a mirror image. The Columbia strike in 1968, the centerpiece of the memoir, represents such an effort to reach the beyond. The students fail to write poems during their occupation of the president’s office, realizing that the breach of social semantics needs “a language no one had yet invented.” For Obenzinger, in particular, the search for a new language has tangible implications. The son of Polish Jewish immigrants, he has lost Polish, his mother tongue, and Yiddish, his father’s language. Haunted by his brother’s untimely death as well as all the deaths before and after, Obenzinger inherited his father’s “survivor’s guilt” reminiscent of Lord Jim. With the Dada practice of inflicting the Biblical ten plagues on Columbia campus, he was reenacting the history of his lost ancestors.
The travel to the other world ultimately confirms life. The memoir starts with the death of Obenzinger’s mother, which, to the author’s amazement, transforms her back to a pretty young girl at peace. It ends with the discovery of his father’s youthful poems, where, alone in the strange New World, the father recognizes himself in his son.
Nathaniel Mackey, Bass Cathedral (New Editions, 2008)
Bass Cathedral, the fourth installment in Nathaniel Mackey’s ongoing work, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, is a difficult but rewarding novel. Studded with surreal moments, slangish dialectical monologues and musical transportations, Mackey’s most recent work blends fiction, poetry, and essay into a melodious, incisive book.
Bass Cathedral follows the development of a group of jazz musicians during the early eighties through a series of correspondences between a man named N. and someone referred to as the Angel of Dust. Beneath this ostensible story arc, Bass Cathedral also functions as a critical essay on the history of jazz, an exploration of race and a cultural critique. The most impressive aspect of Bass Cathedral is that these various levels of discourse coincide and catalyze each other in Mackey’s musical prose.
Mackey, a professor of literature at UC Santa Cruz and a 2006 National Book Award winner, has tied jazz (or at least musicality) and poetry together throughout his career. Language guided by musical principles of composition is the overriding aesthetic in Bass Cathedral, but Mackey is also concerned with the matters of history, race and culture that lie beneath the music. It is the jazz-like aspect of Mackey’s style that allows him to quantify and explore these knotty areas that threaten inexpressibility. Reading Bass Cathedral, one gets the feeling Mackey is experimenting with language, improvising from period to period in order to see what type or types of meaning can be elicited or provoked. It may be that this type of writing requires a great deal of trust between reader and author, but this is a trust that Mackey has earned over the course of his career. For any other writer, Bass Cathedral would seem like an overextension of their abilities. Mackey, however, seems in his element. We read his sentences the same way we listen to a tangential horn solo, that is, with the hope that the man playing the horn is going to transport us somewhere epiphanic, as Mackey often does.
Bass Cathedral allows one to experience language as an improvisational performance. The book is deeply perceptive, able to condense history, the present and the future into a few sonorous sentences. In any case, anyone who starts in on Bass Cathedral can be assured they are in the hands of a skilled artist and that they are about to experience something new.
Louis P. Masur, The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America (Bloomsbury, April 2008)
I had never seen the photograph that is the subject of Louis Masur’s The Soiling of Old Glory: the Story of a Photograph That Shocked America, but I recognized it immediately, viscerally, on some unconscious level. Boston: that photo was taken in Boston. Although I moved there some fifteen years after Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer-winning photograph put an indelible face on the fury and racism of the anti-busing riots, I felt that it was part of my inheritance, part of the air that pooled, fog-like, in hot summer nights of my adopted, and adoptive, hometown.
I knew people in South Boston, where, Masur quotes Forman as saying, “I was shit.” Not well; but an Irish family-owned press printed the jackets for the books my company published. I would go down there, and we would stand on the press floor, looking at proofs, and then they would take me for drinks in places where the sense of shared community was palpable. They were honest, kind, patient. They weren’t racists. They didn’t go around beating unarmed black lawyers with flagpoles. You can say I was naïve; I was. The men I drank with in Southie might have known Joseph Rakes, the flag-wielding image of bigotry run amok.
Louis Masur understands this. The Soiling of Old Glory is a good book, scattered and over reaching at times, but genuinely nuanced about Boston’s messy history, and legitimately insightful about the nature of mass-disseminated visual imagery, its power to shape perceptions and change lives. Its power to make us see, and to remember.
Michael Lindgren is a bookseller and musician whose writing has appeared in the L Magazine, Rain Taxi, Public Illumination Magazine, and American Book Jam. He lives in Manhattan.Lu Chen
LU CHEN is a contributor to the Rail.Ben Mirov
Mirov is editor of pax americana. He is also poetry editor of LIT Magazine.