Luke Irwin

Luke is pursuing an MDiv at Covenant Theological Seminary. His poetry and stories have appeared in a handful of publications, and "A Bow from My Shadow," a chapbook he co-wrote with Alex Miller Jr., was recently published by Ecco Qua Press. More poems are at thirdcardinal.wordpress.com

A Review: ‘Glitter Bomb,’ by Aaron Belz

 

watch out for the wack kings,
clanking in their armor,
riding their dope horsies over the hill.

 

‘Wack Kings’ has been stuck in my head for six years. I first read it in an email Aaron Belz sent to one of his cousins, and now it has found its way into Glitter Bomb, Belz’s third collection from Persea Books. I do not know why I am supposed to “watch out.” I still don’t, but I find myself repeating ‘Wack Kings’ like a wack prayer during moments of outrageous fortune. In Belz’s world the rough side of outrageous fortune is likely to be a recurring nightmare in which one watches helplessly as velociraptors eat the last of one’s Vegenaise on the day when terrorists have bombed all the vegeinaise factories in the world and one’s girlfriend has decided to start brushing her teeth with smoked oysters. It’s weird; watch out. Glitter Bomb will lead you through hilarious terrors.

Undoubtedly this is because Belz’s poetry is (maybe mostly) about hard times. Glitter Bomb’s hard times are occasionally truly hard, but the hard times he writes about, and which (ostensibly) seem to inspire him, are the daily incongruities, hang ups, and hassles which exacerbate our more significant anxieties.

Sometimes even the weird poems are borderline contemplative. ‘Scattered Showers’ is one example: (preface with more explanation to get strip malls).

 

Like, I might be driving along, and the
iPod might shuffle to that one Coldplay song:
why now? Here, where the road
….gracefully descends to Steak ‘n Shake,
where the trail ends

in

I can’t remember. That part is blacked out.

 

This, too, is hilarious. Is it hilarious because Aaron’s life is so boring? Actually, it’s because your life (most likely if you are a human—and this book will question that) and my life share the inanity of routine, complete with meaningless soundtracks.

The inanity is enough to make one claim, along with Aaron:

 

What’s interesting about you
Is the unique ways in which
You fail to distinguish yourself.

 

In ‘Michael Jashberry’ he reveals he’s talking

 

to the man in the convex mirror.

 

Glitter Bomb is like a convex mirror. It reflects the despair underlying our busyness and caricatures the ensuing confusion. Belz appears to be asking us by way of himself: how much of your daily life are you actually aware of yourself living? Step back from weeks or months of surviving daily life and take a look.

It is the closing poem ‘Accumulata,’ which takes ‘Scattered Showers’ and, as Aaron claims, turns the despair of busyness into a sort of rain:

 

…and see, can’t you see
that this is your ordinary?

 

We live lives in which breakups, errands, work (see ‘Starbucks’), children, mothers, horses, and smoking intersect. Aaron is not just writing whatever pops into his head, a criticism some might level (see ‘Gleff’), as he is charting the mental course of confused, tired, frazzled, occasionally happy (but kind of excruciatingly so) people: people in familiar difficulty who continue to get up and live each day. You can laugh about it, or weep about it, or do both. At its heart, Glitter Bomb is goofy fey—a lot of “alas, poor Yorick” with extra jowls.

Indeed, the poem that is, perhaps, most essentially, the glitter bomb at the heart of Glitter Bomb answers Hamlet’s request of Yorick’s skull:

 

Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that.

 

That poem is ‘Big Face/M4W/Hollywood (Amoeba Music),’ which continues:

 

Mostly I remember your aroma which was super sweet and glamorous, but come to think of it was laid on so thick that it might have been masking a rather more natural odor given off by your caricature of a feminine physique, my tulip, my honeycomb….

 

Dress the ordinary in the absurd it deserves. Now laugh at it because you know what’s actually going on; namely, it’s still ordinary. Get it? I’m not always sure I do.

In fact here I take issue: I want something more to watch out for than the ambiguous wack kings and their retinue of caricatures. At their worst, the poems in Glitter Bomb are poetic collagen; they maintain the stiff upper lip of a generation of disillusioned liberal arts majors commuting to and from the jobs they loathe with a kind of sneering empathy. I enjoy this, but it isn’t particularly substantial. Surely some beauty still lurks on the edges of the mundane. If this is true, then the greater challenge is to face the beauty.

However, I may be overshooting my mark. Belz is most likely unconcerned with “challenges.” Glitter Bomb is a success insofar as the humor and the desperation have not only improved but grown increasingly indistinguishable since Lovely, Raspberry. ‘Lone Star’ is a near perfect example (Frost’s ‘Birches’ meets Vietnam).

In short, here is a book about the mundane with a fitting title. Buy it. Also, people who know Aaron or have heard him read will tell you his poetry is best when he is reading it. They are usually right, so go see him if you get the chance. He’s serious about his art right to the edge of stupid and rescuing it with a joke that stabs you in the heart (see ‘Ice Cream’).

 

THE GREAT BEAUTY

This year’s Golden Globe and Oscar winning The Great Beauty opens with Stendhal Syndrome: faced with the majesty of Rome, and hearing an ensemble singing David Lang’s “I Lie” on a balustrade above him, a tourist collapses. The Great Beauty has uneven moments, but the film is so gorgeous it seems calculated to produce similar reactions in the audience.

Paolo Sorrentino, co-writer and director, gives us a film about Jep Gambardella, a novelist and journalist whom Rome has bewitched for forty years. The morning after his sixty-fifth birthday, he learns that the love of his youth has died. In the film he reckons with his life and whether there still exists a beauty strong enough to cure him of nostalgia, redeem him, and teach him to write again. As I watched I felt that two ideas formed its mold. The first, from Tertullian, considers culture and religion. In De Praescriptione Haereticorum he asks: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? The second is from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: “Who can unravel the essence, the stamp of the artistic temperament! Who can grasp the deep instinctual fusion of discipline and dissipation on which it rests!”

Sorrentino answers Tertullian with images of a third city. His shots of Rome imbue everything they capture with a kind of Catholic sacramentalism. Here is the nightlife, here is a convent, here they are intertwined, and here is the protagonist in love with all of it and consequently, as he says, on the brink of despair. At every encounter with the sacred and the profane a representative from each asks him: “Why didn’t you write a second novel?” The deeper question is: why have you only been pretending to be alive?

Toni Servillo as Jep answers this question by answering Mann. He plays the gentleman author with poise and elegance. At first I was worried because he looks like an Italian Joe Biden, but after five minutes I realized that if Joe Biden had spent any time with this man he wouldn’t have had to settle for Vice President. The film is almost worth it for Jep’s suits. But notice the dignity of his nightly strolls and even his easy smile. The decadence of life in Rome has not erased its grace or compassion. He has the discipline of sprezzatura, a practiced indolence that mixes best with the dissipation of raucous nights.

Athens and Jerusalem, the sacred and profane, discipline and dissipation—they impress us most when they are gold-plated. Some may resent that this film is about rich people, but I go to movies to enjoy them, and it’s more fun to watch rich people survey the wreckage of their lives because the wreckage is much more extravagant than mine. You and I have our own wreckage, but it’s probably on a different budget. Sorrentino succeeds because he never forgets that the wreckage in both instances is still human. Hence the twin failures of the recent films The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street: All ruin, no people. A balance is necessary between the whirl of the high life and true contemplation of what it means to be alive. Otherwise a man who wakes at noon only to lie in a hammock with a glass of bourbon until the party resumes will not enchant us. Even if his jacket is by Kiton.

Sorrentino achieves this balance like Fellini before him. The nightlife is full of screaming, pulsing, intoxicated people: harridans, supermodels, dwarfs, eccentrics. But like an older, less mischievous Guido in 8&½ or Marcello in La Dolce Vita, Jep endures the post-party melancholy with his own self-proclaimed sensibility and humor. He goes for walks. We see what he sees: the nun picking oranges with her habit extending beyond her shoes so that she appears to be hovering, suspended from the tree like a white fruit. The Muslim couple eating pasta and the flash of dark eyes under a burka, children running in the gardens of the convent beneath his apartment. Sorrentino gives Jep a poet’s eye.

Jep claims he is the king of the high life, but it is also at his apartment, not the papal palace, where a visiting saint will dine. Of course, this is the same apartment where we watched a washed-up TV star spend the evening sucking up cocaine only to find herself awake at dawn, touching the blood rivulet on its way to her upper lip, watching passenger jets make contrails. But then there is also the profound moment when Jep and his consort encounter the man who has the keys to all of Rome’s monuments. There is even a magic giraffe and a visit to the wreck of the Costa Concordia (Does it stand for Jep? For Rome? All of Italy?). We’re forced to consider whether the waste can or cannot catalyze meaning.

I’m no technician, but to my eye the camera work throughout is pristine. And, like Fellini, the humor consistently drives deeper themes. If you see the film, look out for the “royals for hire” scene.

Good balance also requires a good soundtrack. Sorrentino deftly transitions from techno to Gorecki, Tavener, Bizet, the Kronos Quartet and back again. I had a difficult time understanding the addition of a Damien Jurado song midway through the film, but it’s a hiccup in a score that captures wide-ranging emotion without becoming a crutch.

While The Great Beauty is complex, it never lacks for grace and it never preaches. The final scene steals the final shot from La Dolce Vita while redeeming it in a way Fellini would likely have dismissed. It almost (but not quite) agrees with the final lines of Czeslaw Milosz’s “One More Day:”

And when people cease to believe that there is good and evil
Only beauty will call to them and save them
So that they will still know how to say: this is true and that is false.

Caveat emptor: This film might play a joke on you. The morning after I watched it I found myself reading through Ecclesiastes and ironing all three of my pocket squares with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake blaring. Also, there’s nudity.

On Part-time Jobs

On the night I arrived in St. Louis, the gentlemen in my house asked me if I would be interested in dealing. And could I count to twenty-one? 21 Kilos of Cocaine retails up to thirty grand per kilo in St. Louis. I only needed one to solve significant tuition issues. I still only need one. But while Blackjack may be as cocaine to some, it only pays me around fifteen an hour. I began my Master’s of Divinity with a lesson in it and have dealt sporadically for the past year. Borrow a tuxedo shirt and a clip-on bowtie, and you may discover that dealing (of any kind it seems) opens a window on subsets of humanity you never knew existed.

If you have been sweating over texts by Papias of Hierapolis since the early morning, it feels almost like a suspension of reality to enter into the scripted roles of the part-time job that allows you to eat. It is easy to learn Greek, Hebrew, and theology by day while dealing Blackjack or Hold ‘Em by night. But it may be startling to find that you are the same person in both scenarios, that the roles we fill do not confer identity. We always bring ourselves to them. My purpose is not to complain about how unfulfilling it is or lament the lost time (I need the money, and I’m grateful to get it), but simply to acknowledge how weird it can be to spend the day pursuing a graduate degree with its heavy reading and technical writing and then deal blackjack to, say, a sorority.

I have dealt for the Illinois Water Commissioners Board. The water boarders each had a massive paunch, a flannel shirt, a beard, and a hat. They roared; they drank. The more southern of them leaned in close to each other and whispered things like “Roll Tide.” They raffled off shotguns and beer barrels.

I have dealt for a group of engineering and astrophysics majors at St. Louis University. They could count and shuffle so much better than I could that I eventually paid them chips to do it when the pit bosses were absent.

I have dealt for the young professional donors to the Boys and Girls Club. Key sponsors included: Chanel, Tory Burch, Christian Louboutin, Prada, and Hugo Boss. Each time the middle-aged woman at my table busted, she smirked like she expected me to make it up to her after the gig. I believe it was here that I was asked if this was to be “Strip Blackjack.” Eventually the man to her right intervened, pointing out a certain discrepancy in age.  I nearly embraced him as a brother, a father, and a savior of innocents, but the clip-on signifier of my professional office restrained me, and as I dealt I contemplated two discrepancies: the one between 15 and hour and 30k per kilo, and the other between memorizing verb paradigms and remembering what “double-down” means.

I have also dealt at the National Dalmatian Dog Show at the Purina Convention Center west of St. Louis. It was here that I dealt to an aged uncle with a wilting boutonniere and to both of his nieces. He was convinced he knew the game well enough for himself and his wards, but he failed. His nieces drank skinny margaritas from their purses; one failed to say “hit me” without going into convulsions. They wore dalmatian-patterned hair clips, dalmatian-patterned jackets, and, like the spawn of a Cruella DeVille they wore dalmatian heels that would have allowed even Tom Cruise to hug LeBron James’ midsection. I cleaned them out. I’ve never gotten dealer blackjack so many times (for the uninitiated this essentially means that they lost before they could even play).

Later, at the same table, a grizzled old woman growled godammit with the conviction of a nun each time she busted. She had bare arms and ordered bourbon and sprite with the same flourish of wrist she used for “hit me.” Her voice was in the kind of lower register that one expects from chain-smoking marine drill sergeants after a tour in Fallujah. None of my professors have this voice.

On the way out of the Dalmatian gig, I snagged a neat shot of bourbon from the bar and hastened to the escape vehicle. But I had left my jacket inside. Because of a mistaken communiqué, I found myself waiting on the sidewalk for something much much less than an Escalade ESV with all the chrome apparatus of a 30k/k situation. The bourbon was just beginning to take hold, and who should approach me but an old woman and a dalmatian pup.

“He’s beautiful,” I said. “Is he competing?”

She took four minutes to recite technicalities about class and age. And then:

“His breed is extinct. He comes of a pure, refined pedigree, and he comes from a stock of frozen sperm. His sire died at least 25 years ago.”

“Wow,” I said. “I have to go get in that car.”

Blackjack at a Dalmatian Speciality Show may be an extreme instance, but it is an instance that underscores a fragmentation most of us experience. A second job may seem auxiliary to our true purpose. It may shock us that we have to spend real time performing it, but it may be worth realizing that life defies our attempts to categorize and control. I seem to require a borrowed tux shirt a size too large with only one shirt-stay, bourbon, and a little retrospect to appreciate this.

 

photo by: micora

Throw a Frisbee

In early October Tyler Huckabee of Relevant Magazine published a list: 20 Things Every Twentysomething Should Know How to Do. Mr. Huckabee only published half of the truth. It took many Easter baskets to buy their way into Relevant’s Hall of Records; but Luke Irwin, Alex Miller, and Aaron Belz finally discovered the hidden half. It was like recovering Aristotle’s lost Second Book of the Poetics. Here is the lost list in full:

1. Throw a Frisbee

Sometimes we all just need to throw the Frisbee. It’s fun! Put on your J-Crew and put off the iPhone Commemorative Jobs Editions 37 for some good old fashioned down time. Don’t forget to blast Mumford and Sons while you’re doing it, as long as your mentor isn’t around for the F-Bombs. Try it barefoot just to orient yourself toward some contact with the earth. More than fun, a Frisbee can be incarnational.

2. RHTM

The next time you hear Kanye rap about porn, Molly, and having an orgy, be ready to defend it as transformational. THIS IS KEY. I cannot STRESS how important being able to do this is. If you can’t do this, other people will not want to hang out with you and if you aren’t hanging out with them, they will not be able to know that Kanye is redemptive-historical transformational missional. They might not know that you are really nice. And they might not get to know what you think about Drake.

3. Know the Names of Magazines

Reading articles can be intimidating, time-consuming, and might force you to engage topics that a week of morning devotions will not nip satisfyingly in the bud. No worries! To sound cultural, all you need to know are the names of the magazines that most people think contain important ideas. At a moment of awkward silence, begin a conversation with “Did you check out the New Yorker this month?” or “Woah, ballin’ edition of Relevant this week, am I right-yes?” Or, if you want to sound edgy, “I totally disagree with The Atlantic these days. But I kind of LIKE disagreeing.”

4. Don’t be a Poser: Keep the Circle Closed

Talk to people who look like you. Sometimes we don’t talk to people who look like us because we feel like we already know their whole story. Stop that. Talk to people who look like they shop at Target but are desperate to be shopping at Banana Republic. You should be able to make them feel like they look like you for a reason. Hear their story because story is important for knowing our own story and can bring clarity to ourselves and help us navigate the challenges of, say, crafting a KILLER breakfast.

5. Stop Pretending Money Isn’t the Answer. It Totally Is.

Remember that getting money is the best way to combat existential angst. No one wants existential angst! If you lie awake questioning your existence because you can’t parallel park then find a way to get all the stacks.

6. Craft a Killer Smile

Never flossed? Start now. It’s easy, it’s fast, and will prove to your friends that you care about your body and your mind. At least YOU are aware that you are a synthesis of body and soul that should be resting eternally in light of the eternal. Remember: making people feel guilty is a form of encouragement.

7. Go Running. But Not Too Hard.

Sure, you have gobs of free time, and not enough people depending on you to constitute anything like a busy or responsible schedule. Luckily, the heavens have provided you with a built-in way to SIMULATE business and responsibility: An obsession with long, low-impact exercise. No need to train toward any meaningful goals. Get to know the exhilaration of waking up at 10:00 am to take a half-jog stroll around the park near church. Scatter some pigeons, listen to Katy Perry on repeat in a Private Spotify Session, and then head back home for ANOTHER KILLER BREAKFAST.

8. Suck

Invest in vacuum cleaners. Your life probably feels like a mess sometimes. But when life is confusing for you because you struggle to stand up for yourself because you can’t articulate yourself because you can’t read or buy sweaters or make a breakfast or parallel park or know about flossing, think about vacuuming! It will clean up your carpet and help you think about cleaning up your life. That’s good for the good.

9. Dabble in Evil–As a Theory

Sometimes a pithy article isn’t going to cut it. Realize that people far smarter than you think about stuff sometimes and various humans have been doing this for as long as there have been humans. If you don’t want to do this then learn that C.S. Lewis quote about God’s megaphone so that in the future you’ll have something to say to bereaved mothers and poor people.

10. Frag Away that Free Time

Remember that video games are probably fine for you at this stage in life, and that no moral barriers exist with them, because they are not books or people. Also, know that they are even better for you if you talk about them with your peers. Talk to people about fragging, upgrading, and the redemptive elements of GTAV. It will help you build meaningful community in your church body. That’s important. That’s more important than being alone. Which is also important.

11. Tip the Grief Away

If grief or lost love or death or illness or poverty are devastating you then think about tipping generously with more frequency. This will help get your mind off of your problems and might make someone else’s day! Carry around extra dollar bills with your tissues.

12. “Beef Up” Your Facebook Vocab

Know about using the right words on Facebook. This will help you navigate the fact that you are being trained to think of yourself as a vehicle for consumerism. You are becoming an ontological category that defies actual humanity. You are a member of the herd. Fortunately, knowing about the right words can help pump the brakes on all of this. Remember: being nice is real nice.

13. Parents

If you have parents, think a happy thought in their direction every couple of days. That should do it.

14. Cover Letter Bedtime

Go right to bed if you write a cover letter because working can be really exhausting and being tired goes against a lot of what you hear in the New Testament, which is worth acknowledging from time to time. I’m serious, friends. Having kids is one thing, writing a cover letter is another. Just know the difference and be responsible for your limits!

15. Less Isn’t More, but it Might Also Not Be Less

Know about settling for less. If reality is something you don’t want to face and don’t want to bother God with, then know how to re-construe it as something that a friendly parallel park will solve.

16. Myers-Briggs is Always Right

Continue making all of your life decisions based on the four letters a free test you found online has assigned to you. Continue interpreting all of the actions of other people in light of these letters. This will be foundational.

17. Build Community

If you know what this means then do it! Build it up. But be watching The Wire in the meantime. But don’t watch it with the Youth (#JK!). But notice the redemption that comes from black people and white people working together. But. Seriously. Baltimore.

18. Authenti-City!

If you know what this is then be it! Find your parent’s collections of Francis Schaeffer and instagram the covers. Your 20s are a great and unique and important transformational time in your life to know stuff like this! Let’s get out those phones!

19. Become a BariStar

Because you view the Christianity as essentially idealistic, you majored in the humanities. You will be working a low-paying job with entirely unpredictable hours and cripplingly expensive (but still extant) healthcare for the next five to seven years, almost certainly as a barista. View this as your mission field—a chance to drink beer after work with people who don’t share your tobacco-free background. Sure, the work may be degrading, thankless, and without upward mobility, but remember that in your early thirties you’ll be able to look back on these as the “struggle years.” Sitting in your gazebo at night, over an imported lager, you will listen to your wife sing the doxology to your ten drowsing children, and ponder whether you could succeeded as an author of micro-fiction if you’d stayed at The Doge’s Coffee Palace a few more years and chased your dreams. Either way, you can be sure your mission-mindedness changed your co-workers, even though you never mentioned your faith to them explicitly in any way. Like Hamlet says: The sensitivity is all.

20. Church

Learn how to go to church, preferably in an urban or at least urbane setting, and preferably in a high church rather than megachurch venue. Your involvement in church should be enthusiastic but minimal, with priority given to work or continuing education. Your enthusiastic presence at church will result in many new friends who are equally thoughtful, prayerful and zealous for Kingdom Culture. They might later turn into career allies. It will also result in community, which is more than a byword: It is a way of life. Community involves food, games, and discussions.

 

photo by: c_thylacine

Tumblr Crusher

She had posted nothing on her Tumblr for a month until tonight. Here I am, half an hour to go until the hard deadline for bedtime, and I’m thrilled. I’m astonished that the set and style of images together with their accompanying posts, the things I take to represent her, could make me so pleased. But what were they doing in the interim?

Attend for the post bestiary of a grand Tumblr:

Here is the YSL Mondrian. Here are Cate Blanchet, Melanie Laurent, and Michelle Dockery in equal parts Chanel and Valentino. Printed in neat captions beneath each one: ugh, I can’t, I hate you, this face has destroyed my life, who allowed this. And interspersed among them Whistler’s “Nocturnes,” Turner’s ships, obscure Sargents, Wyeth, numerous interior photos of impossible villas. Here are stills from Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Here she has lifted from The Sartorialist. Here the glitzed homemade collages are offered on the Mads Mikkelsen altar, and here are pictures of Dan Stevens’ face. It has been cut from a magazine, glued to a toothpick and photographed while stuck in a cupcake. Beneath it, in tiny print, appearing at the wave of a cursor: fun with Chins Stovens (pet name for Dan) this afternoon. Hemingway is quoted, Fitzgerald is quoted, Proust is quoted, and so are Game of Thrones, Rahm Emanuel (ohh Gurrrrl) and various obscure celebrities whom she has caught insulting Tumblr, noble Tumblr. Idris Elba appears exclusively in stills from Luther (she’s that kind of cool). Numerous photographs of swords. Laborious Photoshop collages and compilations from Boardwalk Empire. Lines from Milosz, complaints concerning Lithuanian potatoes. Under each the clever, clever quip. Her anonymous admirers she calls “grayface.” Napoleon, Andrew Bird, Sigur Ros (my Icelandic princes), and Michael Shannon have standing invitations to her bedroom…for tea. She likes Lucien-Victor de Scévola. She pours contempt on Monet (Manet 4lyf). For a long time she could only post peacocks. Her reblogs include Michael Fassbender, Don Draper and a series of knit ties for which the “ughs” seemed to lie in glittering piles. She claims to have emptied various accounts for the obtaining of authentic German helmets circa WWI. She announced the trailer for Oslo, August 31st with glee.

She almost made me a stalker (lol).

Because for one month all the energy, wit, taste, and complete silliness that she spent on a nearly meaningless website were diverted elsewhere. But where? Insofar as the set of things I have come to associate with her is actually a set of things I should have been careful to associate with a website and not a human being, my suspicion is that the most vibrant parts of her personality make their way through the microblogosphere’s promise of anonymity. But to meet her in person would cloak her in another kind of anonymity, not the revealing kind (as we are all aware the internet reveals enough), but the careful, contrived everyday kind in which we seek to mold our demeanors, our feelings, our tastes, and our expressions in accordance with the models around us. In both cases I realized I was missing the true her. Indeed, where was the woman who would tell me that, above all things, she desired to wear a chain mail blouse?

The heart of the matter (Bro, I’m sure she’s read the Green’s entire ouvre. chills.): The capricious, ironic tones she fires for effect on her blog do much more in the way of conveying her true loves than a hipster sensibility (or nonsensibility). Scattered and silly as they are, she infuses them with real longing for sincerity beneath the veneer of a century’s worth of fashion, art and literature. Simultaneously she maintains an organizing aesthetic, cooky but rigid, and this unifying concept, which I doubt she herself could define, raises the quality of her posts without squashing the nature of her character. The combination of high resolution, rich color, and a notable absence of GIFS elevates her Tumblr to Louvre-quality, at least relative to its fellows.

I doubt her month’s absence has allowed her to do this anywhere else. To me it is irrelevant.  More than anything I want to see the Tumblr aesthetic, what I suppose to be the hidden, true side of her nature, at work in her everyday self. How would it manifest itself in her walks, the cadence of her speech? In the fashion she chooses for everyday wear in 2013 as opposed to the gown she loved from 1932? Can a careful reader spot his secret Tumblr crush in traffic? Dangerous, dangerous thoughts but consider the blogs you love. You can’t help but wonder about the person. You feel chummy about the post of caviar at Versailles; it blooms out at you in the full-flower of high def glory when you are at boring work. And you really lose it with that cat picture.

How much work would it take to win the kind of trust that would elicit from her speech and actions the physical equivalent of the long sets of images and quotations I have at my fingertips everyday, even though I am a stranger? Which anonymity betrays the truer person? And which would I have to overcome if wanted to gain answers, at last, to the question of her stellar being? I make myself out to be obsessive. But curiosity remains. I believe it is driven by more general forms: the riddles of communication in a time of fractured personhood where it is in our power to observe each splinter if we try but increasingly difficult to reassemble them. She was missing for a month, but in reality she was not missing at all. For my part, I am glad to have her back. I like seeing that picture of old Hemingway kicking the can down the road (omg, need this again).

photo by: eblaser

Bonaventure’s Proposition

Redolent and obstreperous are two words
Spring light, midmorning brings to mind.
A light whose heavy rollers and rip tides
Pull houses to its sea all sheets to wind.
Strange to watch the stoic rows unmoored
With trees made fo’c’sles, whose raucous lookouts—
Starling, finch, and jay—become reborn
Under nautical genus with seabird’s titles:
Spring is a careless evolver; a Heraclitan,
Who surfaces her flowing daffodils to glow
As phosphorous to muted, plankton lawns.
So my suburb is armada loosed to Lux,
The lordly current, both corporeal and spirit,
Who gives lyric charter to winter’s still,
Whose earth is roiling flux beneath the sun.
Thus existence, essence, listing light conjoin
Three and also one, whose river ocean
Suffuses seaborne gold and bacchanals of grace;
Permits no word to taste of it beyond abstraction;
Renders each a helpless hand to catch its flow.

photo by: krystian_o

Intercessory Models

I guessed who she was before I saw her wearing mimosa tweed. On my way up the stairs I looked and she was there, tall and blond. She smiled a slight, quick smile. Her face was avian.  Her nose reminded me of Oriane Guermantes, and France was present in the drooping corners of her lips. It created an ambiguity from her smile not so much alluring as bashful. She wore a gray wool skirt with black leggings disappearing into slim, black leather boots. She wore a tiny belt with a shining buckle. A black satchel sat across her shoulders, over a long-sleeved, black shirt. The Neiman Marcus taxonomy put her clothes into the paradoxical category of designer sportswear. If modeling is a sport, these were her warm up sweats.

I spent the next hour forgetting our encounter. I boxed up the cosmetics: Bvlgari aftershave, Bobbi Brown lipstick, Dior bronzing spray. I was half asleep when the announcement for the morning meeting summoned me to the Chanel boutique on The Plaza.

The Plaza is Neiman’s bottom floor and devoted to women’s clothes. Its lighting is perfectly artificial and exposes every thread. Small squares emerge from the walls: glass partitions their congregations. The faithful would be mute except for the light that makes their fabric sing. The names are in silver above each boutique, chapels on The Plaza’s nave: Jil Sander, Georgio Armani, Armani Collezioni, Akris, Escada, Etro, Donna Karan, Loro Piana, Brunello Cucinelli, and Chanel. I walked to Chanel alongside sales associates clicking across the marble in heels and wooden soles. It made a sound like the release of a firing pin with no round to fire. Thirty games of Russian Roulette converging.

It was October, but Chanel had decided it was high summer on the French Riviera in 1950. The touring representative explained that the prêt-a-porter clothes and accessories were an intentional nostalgia for Rita Hayworth and her court. I heard the click of heels and looked up.

Instead of the black and gray, she wore a yellow jacket, white underpinning and skirt. We were informed the yellow was, in fact, mimosa. The jacket sat perfectly on her slim shoulders, and its sleeves tapered down her arms toward a chic revelation of wrist. The skirt reached past her knees while accentuating her hips. Somehow it had more to do with geometry than sensuality. She smiled the slight smile. I was beginning to understand that clothing can be realized, finished art only when it is worn.

The representative announced that Chanel burns its tweed patterns every year in order to force the creative effort of the next. She also wore Chanel. Her leggings were a second, sheer black skin; let up and padded just enough in the front. I noticed this as she explained Mr. Lagerfeld’s belief that the shoulder is the sexiest part of a woman’s body. The low cut of her taut underpinning beneath the high cut of her knit blazer, whose edge grazed the curve of her round, sable rear indicated that such givens are not always free. In defiance of the revelations, the model’s bare shoulders and her careful, searching eyes remained transcendent. The quest for profit had turned, for a moment, into the discovery of a new world. The lecture from the old one resumed as soon as the model disappeared into the changing room.

“Can anyone tell me about the Promenade de Croisette?” the representative asked our little class.

The model returned. She wore a high-cut white, knit sweater left unbuttoned to show the black single piece bathing suit beneath it. Crystals glared in oblique patterns against it. She moved like a bird that thinks it is alone, with comfortable grace. I wanted to know what was shining through her, feel the supple reality of being the way I felt the black silk of the Balenciaga dresses I had packed that morning. We long for sense perception of the things we know to be outside the range of empirical experience. The representative made sure we knew the swimsuit was strictly for poolsides.

The model appeared for a third time. She wore a black and white evening gown. The white hugged her body, the black draped over it and fish tailed in the back: a dress within a dress. When she turned, the white plunged in a V. Her right shoulder blade had a small mole on it. As she walked back and forth, the sales associates applauded. She turned and walked into the dressing room. I never heard her speak. I had six hours of packaging clothes to consider what her performance might mean.

1. The genius of a designer lies in his ability to see the complete word he is building. He is like a painter, but a painter only needs his model once for a portrait. Without the constant intercession of a body, a word communicating its idea or at least as much of it as possible, clothing is only pieces of fabric. I realized what silhouette means to fashion. Without her, the gown was inanimate, expensive fabric. It made no difference whether it was rolled, folded, piled, or hung, but on this woman it became art. It takes humanity to give form to clothes before they can give any definition to humanity.

2. On the runway haute couture nears pure form, and pure form always requires sacrifice. The most recognizable is that the clothes are not usually functional and rarely look comfortable. But that realization leads to the deeper question of what the model needs to do in order to make the clothes beautiful. Hence the intercession: the model must be mute and her perfect movements must speak for her, the designer, and the pieces. She cannot speak for herself. The sacrifice is to conformity for the sake of a novelty that, in the best cases, leads to beauty. The models must present similar silhouettes; they must be uniform in order for the designs to have their effect. Form gives birth to beauty, which in turn gives birth to form. I realized that just as a text must be subject to grammar and word placement before it can become a poem, fashion requires submission to rules.

3. Fashion, as text, can never separate itself from its model just as poetry requires a reader, and a score requires an orchestra. To experience fashion as text, we have to see it worn, whereas, with a poem, we can read it to ourselves without the poet present. Full perception of a silhouette never permits us to be the designer or the model in the same way a poem opens itself up to interpretations. A designer deploying models is choosing and placing single words with strict referents. To best perceive the piece requires seeing it modeled. Our motives and perceptions are never pure enough when we are dressing ourselves.

4.  I was after both physical presence and form, i.e. an ideal of beauty to be communicated in reality. My anti-realism restricted her to being a text. My idealism required her to be a concept. I needed her to be both, and I wanted proof. But what is beauty in a game that most of us regard as sexual or power driven? I conceived of it as an ethical category: loyalty to a set of common perceptions that requires a sacrifice of models before iPhones and cameras. Mute flesh and blood silhouettes marching away from themselves toward a form that eludes them precisely because it is pursuing an individual beauty in the varied pieces each unique body has created. Each model in her gown is the best word the designer can find for the poem he is trying to create. But each model cannot help being a poem in herself.

5. Of course, it may be that the only general ethic involved is the fear of breaking laws about indecent exposure while getting as close as possible. Any true deconstructionist would have to advocate nudity. Then suicide. I thought briefly of Alexander McQueen. Fashion so quickly dissipates into cycles of kitsch and money. I felt guilty looking for transcendence in a sales pitch.

6. Here was another problem. Can the model take the silhouette to a place beyond commodity? Fashion off the rack is expensive reification; but humanity, no matter how muted, is not a thing. A salesperson might define a human being as a thing to be clothed and nothing else. But fashion, in quest of beauty, especially if it is original, cannot afford to bypass actual humanity. At its best, it acknowledges the place where clothes, physical presence and personality are indistinguishable. The price tag is meaningless because such interplay is beyond material wealth. And it starts to become play instead of poetry the moment money is involved. The beauty of even our daily wear is measured by the degree to which we can sacrifice our personal desire for money, sex, and power and still maintain conformity with form, our body, as an expression of originality.

 

 

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Starbucks Lifestyle: A Poetic Reflection

“It’s just coffee,” we baristas said. Not a big deal. But it was never just coffee; it was human beings clustered around the coffee: their emotions, perceptions, fears, and loves like so much artillery. It pounded the careful facade of stability our espresso-scented, coruscant steel Galley of Efficiency and Comfort suggested. The ideal of the Third Place is a castle in the clouds built on the premise that we can derive our humanity from an economic exchange as simple as buying coffee. But it is humans who constantly threaten to make the exchange something more; it is never the exchange that makes us ourselves. Starbucks has difficulty making these distinctions.

Readers from Corporate will object: the human factor is precisely what gives Starbucks its charm. Look at all the happy baristas. But when the human factor is something purchased, it loses the greater part of its integrity and becomes just as affected as my Brunello Cucinelli paratrooper trousers.  I refuse to believe it is possible to pay people to exude genuine human feeling unless they first believe in what they are doing. The money is secondary to a kind of faith commitment.  Much depends on creating an ethical system exclusive to the company. They call that system a lifestyle. Once established, the company needs to force feed the lifestyle to its employees. Starbucks is especially good (or at least persistent) at this repulsive aspect of corporate pedagogy. We had group sessions where management encouraged us to share our feelings about serving coffee and communicating hospitality. It was strange how condescending Corporate could be when it sponsored these events.

Even more bizarre was the strict moral framework imposed on the weird marriage of elevated sales and satisfied customer reviews.[1] According to Corporate, it was unethical for baristas to believe that any kind of ethics should apply to customer behavior; moreover, Starbucks had to be the same kind of third place everywhere even as it tolerated everything. The lifestyle was one-size-fits-all, but it claimed to be all sizes. Often the customer happiness-or-bust ethos was separated from sales as if it were somehow more important to the corporation that these ideals existed regardless of financial success. We were expected to be fervent believers. Fortunately, most baristas sensed the silliness or saw through it. But a few people didn’t and converted; they were all on the far end of extroversion. I hope they got baptized in a vat of eggnog latte.

So the Starbucks lifestyle was its own fundamentalism. Its central article: Customers are always right. Our mission was to affirm their gluttony and ignorance, their boredom and complaints, their narcissism, their anger, hysteria, nose picking, and violence.  Affirm their love, their joy, their kindness, integrity, graciousness, honor, and nobility. It’s the Third Place: where customers pay money to people who pretend to understand them when they act like children and pretend that Starbucks is a pleasant, tolerant, and virtuous place. Or, and this is the terrifying part, it’s a place to pay for the pursuit of a life that goes no deeper than going around and being only physically present for transactions of various magnitude.

At Starbucks I encountered the people. I saw a lot of men in suits. I watched families of obese people, who had just been through the drive-thru at Krispy-Kreme order venti frappucinos with extra whip. I watched women wield handbags by Milly, Tory Burch, Marc Jacobs, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Chanel, Prada, Balenciaga, VBH, Nancy Gonzalez, Michael Kors, Marni, Coach, Louis Vuitton, et al.  My picture was taken. I saw rats at four in the morning crawling on the wet curbside in pale orange streetlight. I was flirted with and cursed, but the majority of the time I was politely ignored. Don the green apron, and you make yourself a talking vending machine. This is why most baristas conceive of their customers not as the other to be served but as the herd to be processed. At Starbucks the herd and I worked hard to remember and forget that we were human beings in a transaction made more efficient the less humanity was involved. It made the operation of the Third Place a kind of mediocre charnel house for the soul.

 

 

 

 



[1] E.g., the customer reviews had something like “satisfied,”  “very satisfied,” or “exceedingly satisfied” printed on them, which I supposed could have been followed by “Sitting on a Golden Yacht with Heidi Klum in my Lap Satisfied. “ Except it wasn’t. And our manager told us that Starbucks, i.e. corporate, was only concerned with “exceedingly satisfied.” I have never experienced “exceedingly satisfied” in my life, and, given the longevity of the Rolling Stones’ hit single Satisfaction, most people have not even experienced regular “satisfied.”

 

photo by: mcclanahoochie