Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Revenge of the review - Moby Dick (or, the Whale) Part 2: What do you do with a drunken sailor?

When there’s no land around you, you look to the horizon to keep from getting sea sick, an old sailor’s trick, but when a towering Melvillian wave of words comes rolling toward the Pequod, you really have no choice, you're going to go green. And neither do Melville’s characters, they have no choice but to spill their guts, and their secrets, into the sea and onto the page. The men dry heave both body and mind, whispering sweet nothings of spit into the sea. Into the great gaping maw of the South Pacific Sea they spill forth their silent reverie. Horizon and equilibrium gone, it’s always the same, this song. It ends with a man and a whale, an inevitable destiny for one, just another day for another:

“Soon they through dim, bewildering mediums saw her sidelong fading phantom, as in the gaseous Fata Morgana; only the uppermost masts out of water; while fixed by infatuation, or fidelity, or fate, to their once lofty perches, the pagan harpooners still maintained their sinking lookouts on the sea. And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.”

But it also starts, and ends with our narrator. Enter Ishmael, a “quiet ghost with a clean conscience.” It is through his eyes that this story unfolds. He’s an innocent, ignorant of the ways of whaling, and, to a certain extent, the world. Excited for the adventure of the thing, he surveys the scene with a keen eye. He really is a ghost, blending into the background of the story, disappearing completely at times, haunting the narrative. In this respect, Melville is master. Ishmael makes fast friends with Queeqeg, and this theme of friendship and fellowship runs like a strong undercurrent throughout the rest of the story. These lives are intertwined, not only Ahab and Moby Dick, but Ishmael, Queeqeg, Starbuck and all the other crew members.

Melville’s prose is highly elaborate, with imagery and metaphor wound tight like the coils of rope attached to the harpoons Melville so loves to present to us, as if they were nothing but harpoons. Sometimes a harpoon is just a harpoon. But sometimes it isn’t. These aren’t just porous wet dreams, though. They are dense, heavy dreams. Soaked through and wrung dry and soaked solid. Layers of symbolism unfold in a holotropic manner, begging for interpretation and dissection. Most passages are labyrinthian and very easy to get lost in, but in a good way. It’s a good kind of lost to be. The imagery is indelible, once it enters your eyes:

“It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea…”

Ahab throws almost as big a shadow as Moby Dick. Before we even see him, it becomes clear just how unhinged he is, this captain. Oh captain, my captain. Then, when we do meet him, he becomes something more than just a man hell bent on revenge, he becomes an archetypal figure, tall and grim, hyper vigilante, wiry and distant. His dialogue often contains philosophical, possibly metaficitonal asides:

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?”

Etched upon his brow is the truth that he carries, the pain and loss he’s endured at the hands of the Whale, and this is something that Ahab uses to gauge others and feed his obsession and paranoia. He looks to their brow; he inspects them for signs of understanding, of acquiescence. But, the men respect him, Starbuck and the other crew members swear by his word, and, though they don’t understand his intentions, they still go along for the ride. Starbuck has a brief moment where he considers putting an end to the man, and, therefore, potentially saving the lives of everyone aboard, but he doesn’t. He takes a rifle to where Ahab sleeps but he doesn’t pull the trigger. Buy the ticket, take the ride. So, what is it about, then, but a Folie à deux, a shared delusion, a willingness to follow their captain to the bitter end, to go down with him, and the ship, as it were?

“And when he glanced upon the green walls of the watery defile in which the ship was then sailing, and bethought him that through that gate lay the route to his vengeance, and beheld, how that through that same gate he was now both chasing and being chased to his deadly end; and not only that, but a herd of remorseless wild pirates and inhuman atheistical devils were infernally cheering him on with their curses;-when all these conceits had passed through his brain, Ahab’s brow was left gaunt and ribbed, like the black sand beach after some stormy tide has been gnawing at it, without being able to drag the firm thing from its place.”

Ahab’s descent into madness is a failure of revenge. His obsessions ultimately doom everyone aboard the Pequod, save Ishmael, who ends up floating to safety aboard Queeqeg’s coffin. The White Whale, too, lives. He descends into the deep with his new chew toy in tow, Ahab on a stick. But Ahab’s memory is indelible; a lasting impression, a mark upon the stone of memory, that blackened tablet. Like the man himself says, presciently:

“I am immortal then, on land and on sea,’” cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision;-“Immortal on land and on sea!”

So, Ahab and Moby Dick live on. Fitting, that, for they are something more than just characters, more than a man and a whale. They are all encompassing symbols and forces of nature. But, the whale is ultimately impenetrable. We aren’t privy to his thoughts or consciousness. He is the unknown. He is the other. In New England and beyond, in our cultural imagination, there will always be that white whale, lurking in the deep, just below the surface of our lives. No matter how much oil is loosed upon the Gulf, he will remain white, pure, and untouched by man and all his pride and obsessions. He will forever remain Ahab’s nemesis, Queeqeg’s murderer, Ishmael’s muse. He will remain.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Vote BULL!

Putting out a free literary magazine, we know it's tricky to get funding. That's why we're stoked to support BULL's efforts to win a Levi's grant. Here's what BULL editor Jarrett Haley has to say:

BULL is now one of five finalists up to win 100K in funding through Dockers’ (Levi’s) “Wear the Pants” Contest. It’s an unprecedented sum for a lit journal, and an unprecedented chance for the literary community to show its strength in numbers.

—one a day, every day this week. Here’s why you should care about this and take action:
  • Your votes are a statement—that reading and writing matter, that journals and small presses are deserving of funding, that stories are important to people and their authors should be compensated.
  • The money will go straight to writers. No one’s getting a salary out of this. All funds go towards expanding BULL as a journal and small press. This funding will go into the pocket of artists like you.
  • The exposure will bolster the indie lit scene, engaging and informing the public of what’s happening on all these pages, on all these sites. Independent literature is too good to be kept a secret. We want to make more readers in the world, and we’re starting with men.
  • This is not a handout, not a Kickstarter campaign, and we’re not asking for a dime. All you have to do is click a button on Facebook. Those clicks alone can create a paying fiction magazine, one with a proven commitment to working closely with writers and building editor/author relationships.
  • The opportunity is unprecedented! This is the first time a journal and small press can be founded and well-funded simply by enough people clicking their mouse.
If this is your first time voting, you’ll have to “allow” the voting app and “like” Dockers. There will be boilerplate permission notices, but I assure you it’s legit. Dockers sees only your most basic profile info—what’s already public, what any old stranger can see. They won’t use it for evil and they won’t bombard with you ads. It’s a legitimate contest through a legitimate company.

A chance like this comes along never. BULL wants to win this with, and for, the literary community. We can’t do it without YOU. Just one click a day and you’ll have done your part. Vote today, and every day, here:


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Congratulations to Brian Baise!

Brian Baise's story "The Coyote" is a storySouth Million Writers Notable Story of 2010. Major props to Brian and to NOÖ Weekly guest editor Gabe Durham for picking Brian's story.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: Moby Dick, or the Whale

All hands on deck. It’s thunderstorms in February and the pelting hail of shared silence. It’s the deep rumble of thunder overhead that you feel in your feet. A little lightning to dance to huddled close together in the cellar. Maybe we should build an Ark someone said. A little Port later and we built a miniature one instead, and set it sail inside the vast empty sea inside the bottle. That was a good ship. But now, a sea change, an anchor, a drag on reality, a dragon in the sea, a hungry leviathan coming for you.

We all have our own white whale. It’s out there, under the surface of the sea of our lives, massive in every definition of the word. Could it be used to fuel your imaginative life? Could the oil drained from its corpse light your way? Chase down your white whale and “look him straight in the eye,” as Mastodon would say. Search those irises for evidence of enmity. Enlist the TSA if need be. I say make friends with your inner white whale, but, as Lorca said, “Beware!” This is not your father’s Fudgy the Whale.

Until this past winter break, all I’d known of Melville’s opus, Moby Dick (or, the Whale) was peripheral at best. As a Native New Englander, born and bred, this might seem like sacrilege, but I don’t know, I guess I just never got around to it. It seemed like a bit of antiquity, nothing more. I vaguely remembered that movie with Gregory Peck, and wondered why Atticus Finch was playing at Ahab; I’d known of Ahab of course, who doesn’t have at least a cursory knowledge of Ahab? Paranoia, personified, an ivory leg to walk on and a monomaniacal thirst for revenge. But even my experience of that movie was second hand. I had never seen the whole thing. I just knew about it. But I had read Green Shadows, White Whale, by Ray Bradbury, his travelogue of the trip he took to Ireland to write the screenplay for that failed film. There’s yet another layer of removal, of separation, between Melville and me. Strange that I had read the book about making a movie about the book that I hadn’t read. It was a bit like seeing your reflection repeated on to infinity, what the French call mis-en-abȋm. Still, all roads led to the whale. It’s funny how we come to books, sometimes.

So, shouldn’t I be getting to the point already? Here’s the weird part, I am. I feel like I’ve soaked in so much of this novel merely through living in New England that I wanted to contemplate this work, and the impact it’s had on me, and the area, from a cultural perspective. Even before I got into the words, before I cracked the cover, and before I’d felt that first break of the binding, like oars hitting the water, it was like I knew it inside and out, somehow. This, I believe, is a phenomenon worth exploring. Before I consider the source, I sometimes like to consider the connections. Sometimes, I like to trace my way back to the start from the finish. Sometimes I like to tinker with reverse engineering. And that got me thinking, what else did I know about Moby Dick, without knowing anything about Moby Dick? Well, there was that Mastodon Album Leviathan, with the chorus of Blood and Thunder that goes “White Whale, Holy Grail.” That bounced around the insides of my brain case like Queeqeg’s coffin in the open sea for quite a while, planting the seed.

There was also that summer that my family had set out on our boat, off the coast of Cape Cod, in search of whales. Out on the open ocean, some thirty miles out, enormous whale watching boats dwarfing our own little Pequod (a 25 foot miniature, anyway), dolphins splashing and jumping out ahead of us. I remember thinking, this is adventure. Into the quiet of the ocean we drifted. The whales were near; I could hear their presence before I could see them. They exhaled and heads turned 360’s, hands raised to blot out the sun, fingers pointing like English Pointers. More exhalations - their breath, palpable spurts of salt water spray. Still, from a distance, they were camouflaged, hidden by the sea. Mostly tails. I was in charge of the video camera and, as a whale approached, my hands began to shake. A baby humpback and still it dwarfed our little boat. It swam right up to us. It turned on its side and gave me a knowing look. It was sizing me up. I saw it see me. The tides turned in that moment, and I remember wondering, is this whale-watching, or people-watching? Who’s watching who? The camera shook. Easy there, Fellini. Then the whale dove under our boat, disappearing below. Still, I held my breath. It could’ve overturned us with a flip of its tail, but it didn’t. We had a moment of shared silence, that whale and I. A metaphorical precursor perhaps, to my first encounter with Melville’s whale. The white-green of the underside of the fins shone through the deeper blue of its hide and the water surrounding, and that was the last thing I remember seeing before it disappeared, that white-green glow of its face and fin.

That was an adventure; that was true “Mad Christmas.” The whale watching boats squawked at us over the radio, telling us to “stop disturbing the whales.” What they really meant was stop hogging the whales. But we didn’t choose that whale, it chose us. And I, in turn, chose this book for this quasi-review. Finally, a decade or so after that day, I got the book and it saved me during those long interminable January days when the blue was traded in for white; just like Queeqeg’s coffin saved Ishmael. Buoyant stuff; like Joe’s steamer trunks in Joe vs. the Volcano. Plus, I found, it was contemporary, kind of, but not really - they just found the Pequod, or an analogue, so that’s something, at least.

Look, people are sponges. We soak stuff up, that’s what we do. But sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes we need the real thing; we need the experience, downloaded direct to our hearts. We need to plug right in. So I did. And I found out that Moby Dick is an exhaustive, exhaustingly elegant book. Meticulously detailed, there’s a savage beauty in the way Melville frames Ishmael’s journey, soaked in brine and blood and madness. Gross and soggy as that may leave you once you’ve finished, it’s well worth the price of admission. It’s all encompassing in its scope and depth, and, of course, there’s that memorable opening line, “Call me Ishmael.” Call me enlightened.

It’s an undertaking, no doubt. It’s heavy on every detail of the whaling industry, things you never thought you’d care to know, and probably don’t. It’s exhaustive about the beast itself, chapters devoted to taxonomy, autonomy and philosophy. This is not hagiography here. Nor is it for the weak of heart. Humanity is stripped apart, like a carcass, with each piece separated, cleaned, and weighed out like so many crew members, histories and myths. The bas-relief quality of the chapters about the “high and mighty business of whaling” may stand back against the meatier, character driven ones and that might tempt you to skip ahead, but don’t do it. The devil’s in the details. The beauty is in the depth, and the journey is the thing, not the destination. The narrative, once it strays from Ishmael’s sympathetic point of view, does lose something, only to find it later, amidst the sea spray, blood and thunder and blubber. Haunting refrains will stick in you like rusty, tetanus inducing harpoons. You will find yourself pulled down, in that final death spiral, along with Ahab, freezing black waters covering over you like the biggest blanket the world has ever known. But then you’ll be done, but we’re just getting started, so let’s get on with it, as Ishmael says:

Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.”

So, I’m hoping that this kind of thinking is something that ya’ll do, too. Is it? If so, maybe you’d care to share? This is all about the experience, and, hopefully, the conversation. This doesn’t have to be just about Moby Dick. What books make your brain shake this way, if any? What we’re after with this post is chatter, talk, not chowder, not chalk. No schoolyard stuff here, just good honest cheer.

to be continued....

(thanks to José María Pérez Nuñez for the art - to see more, check out his homepage)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

rad poetry #24: for amanda sabo



for Amanda Sabo

A man, duh, will do the things of love he
learned from his favorite songs. Often, this
involves him spilling a bag of red lentils or
losing your cat, then turning to lines like God
is a place you will wait for the rest of your life

for advice. Forgive him. At thirteen he wore
pooka shells. From this it takes decades to
recover. Other times he will sew a tambourine
skin with your face on it from the pages of your
favorite children's book, which he found your
copy of. You guessed it: forgiveness. On planes,
he won't even put his phone in flight mode
in case you call, even though your father's a
pilot and you've explained over and over how
precariously information contains itself in the
air. Let's say I do this, you say, kissing a tissue,
ripping it up, tossing the shreds his way as he
ducks. You sigh. He takes your guitar into the
bathroom and closes the door. Yeah, but listen
to this,
he calls. He is in there playing. He's in
there and you can hear him but he's not
staring at the mirror, I swear. He's between
the song and you, with only a little ways to go.

Friday, April 1, 2011

New NOÖ Weekly!

So maybe it shouldn't be called NOÖ Weekly anymore, but you should call on it, because this Melissa Broder edition is sporting stuffed Saint Peter, a pill of shark cartilage, a t-shirt of a body, summer brains, supreme gentleness, a shoulder shimmy for the soldiers, measured selves and kindly butchers, a sequence of sequins and an archipelago of names. A hefty ten poem event to tide you over. Read up!