Archive by Author

Stone Song of Geroges Diode

7 Mar

A note in the margin I am reading The Gift Economy by Charles Eisenstein. I think he does a great job of contradicting the idea that destruction of ecology, wars, and poverty are inevitable due to human nature. Self-destructive usurpation of the collective commons is actually institutional and woven into money itself. Usury ensures that money will continue to mean that “more for me is less for you”. I am reading this book partly because it extends the ideas of Small is Beautiful and Cradle to Cradle Design, both of which I talk about with my students. Cradle to Cradle makes the point that “design follows intention”. I feel that artists tend to follow a bad design in that they believe in a process whereby success requires a Herculean struggle for a sliver of pie. The process that determines whether one deserves the sliver is not related exclusively to the quality of the work. For example, nobody is going to anthologize Amiri Baraka’s most effective poems, because they run counter to the interests of the powers that be, as he points out.

Stone Song of Geroges Diode

(from an ongoing novel)

*** Holes in the cistern lid permitted three dim, spreading beams, and Izati woke with his head on his bent arm, swamp mosquitoes whining and lifting heavy from his skin. Fat drops plonked the gutter beneath the spigot, and from the prison farm, roosters koockaroooed. Blasts indicated count then breakfast. Gates boomed and echoed. Mules beat the earth, and the wagons rattled and groaned, the lightspears dying and stabbing beneath their bellies. A work detail stamped and faded. In dusty radiance of morning marshes, politicos and bandits took up spades, shoved wheelbarrows over grassy causeways. The camphor trees would be dripping. The screws hollering halfheartedly or cupping cigarettes. Izati patted along the straw mat until his palm closed over the juggler’s ball. He shook it, and the glow awakened, green and vibrant and strong between his fingers, lighting up his arm and the glistening concrete wall. Who then among the screws, the chortling and pigheaded and supercilious, had dropped a juggler’s ball, this christchild of luminescence?

Izati rolled off the concrete shelf, concrete gritty and wet under his feet, and he hobbled to the gutter hole in time to squat and relieve himself. The spigot handle squeaked as it turned, and the water tasted clean and felt cool in the bowl of his hands. Izati lurched back to the straw mat and lay on his side and under the damp blanket shivered.

Three spears of light moved down the wall. For a while, chickens produced desperate squawks diminishing to ill-fated croaks. Izati lay with his arm stretched, ball in hand, the sweating concrete brightening and fading, brightening and fading. He slipped in and out of a soporific and difficult trance—interrupted now by a tumbling, a dumping of logs. His teeth chattered. His injured leg was glowing beneath the cover like pig iron from a kiln.

Within his belly still was the lump of desire, fevertight, grointhreaded, rooted like reed grass in black scrud—a yearning to pass through the desert reaches and fill his mouth with their juices and locate in untrammeled space the ineffable and rumored and to make himself someway in its legroom. And then? To moor himself, who knows, to a cottage, a pond with speckled trout and banana trees.

Three spots of light widened and moved within reach of his hand. He shook the ball, and it glowed and dimmed, a central nugget slowly extinguishing. The darkness behind produced flashes, uncertain vistas, soft and puffy ridges, horned and blackened burnscapes, transmogrifying, gelatinous, bubbling palaces. He held tight to and shook the woodhard ball. On the brick wall, a savage mask was chalked. The main prison gate crashed. Screws hollered.

So that was it. All flounder and doves were clapped in stone and became themselves fossils. The hardness of everything triumphant, gathering unto itself driftwood and beachgrass and camels in the raiment of childhood and light and even the famous killer who had drowned in one of the cisterns when the water rose. Geroges Diode. Stone laid claim to him as its own. He was taken, but his spirit remained to vibrate in brick and concrete, to partake in the recall of everything. He died and his demon remained to invite, to tempt, to repeat like a mantra, I am Mighty—I am storied and stone—I am the Bloody Bondsman.

Each veteran of the cisterns has heard this song.


Beat of the Bodhirukka

3 Mar

O may it be real.

Sweat is creeping down my flanks and between my buttocks as I shake just enough red powder into a spoon and then to the rising bubbles of the catalytic pot. I drop the lid and crimp the top of the foil package and slip it in a crack and slap at ants transporting particles of egg across the counter top toward their kingdom under the floor of the pod. Gnats whirl about my head as I grope among the dishes in the sink. Under the Flowmatic, I swirl out my vessel and place it beside the pot. The pod sways. Across the forest, a monkey hoots. A kulonbozik gigantus, or Rainbow-billed Toucan, whose wings extend ten feet, drops his head into the window space to rattle his bill.

I rummage among shells and rocks and limbs on my glossy-dark-wood-finish shelves and locate the Beat of the Bodhirukka. Rolling beneath my bunk in the high-backed, luxury-leather, executive office desk chair, I reach across the wood-and-metal, glossy-finish, gray-frame desk (and the dread Typomatic) to insert it in the twelvetrack. The Beat of the Bodhirukka blends with the catter of lorikeets, askaris, hornbills, trogons, and the pod fills with a scent of crushed cherry pits and aspirin.

I tip the pot, and a pink stream fills my vessel.

Saint John’s Selasian Blizzard. Favored of Berzandia’s entertainment crowd. Fuel for the youth dansolution. Familiarly known as bliz.

Be wary—imitations abound. I am told the active ingredient is rendered from the bark of the saffrol laurel tree. You can get it in tincture, gumdrops and blotters, in a tobacco mix, in crystals, powdered. The Berzandia crowd likes it as a rum liqueur. It does wonders for confidence, for focus. It is lovely with music. It improves scenery. It restores faith. It addresses man’s evolutionary problem. Of old, man is a loather of forests and darkness—paradoxically enough—since he issued thereof in evolutionary and metaphorical senses. Though you dwell in your tower of glass, you are still sharpening your spear, murmuring incantations against the forestdark beyond city lights. Saint John’s Silesian Blizzard. Purchase it from someone you trust. Take one fifteen minutes before settling down at the feet of your unfinished sculpture. Before taking your children to the park. Your wife to bed. A cautionary note. Eventually, you may need it for these functions. You will start to notice the malignancy of the mundane, the odiousness of your own ordinary state of mind. Carrion in a feedbag under your chin. Whatever position you occupy on the marketplace will become a form of torture.

And you will go back to bliz.

Through an assembly of bounding tree frogs, I bear the vessel to the rail of the deck. The shrill of birdsong—along with the babble of children and women scolding and frying breakfast and water churning in the ravine, rushing over the rapids—is unbroken. Boughs shuffle and uncover stilts, bridges between trees, ladders white in sunlight. The rope bridge curves to the vine-trailing central pod, where a girl bends over potted plants and a woman pulls a comb through silver hair. Like the spokes of a wheel, bridges web from the central pod to others among the trees.

The hot, hundred-proof bliz goes to work. Before my eyes, a veil attenuates and breaks apart and the tatters flutter away among butterflies. Fountains of steam reel from tumbling canopy, turning amber, then orange, then scarlet, and the ocean blazes, and the creatures of the forest burst into rapturous cacophony: holy, holy, holy. The sun, a shaman with the wing of a crow, fans dazzling sparks, and my lungs expand, and corpuscles multiply, and the bodibeat pounds, and in each single leaf, I know the fraternity of hearts human and bestial, the storehouses of gladness packed into every cell of creation, and I find my body following a sacred choreography, my feet shuffling, my hands like the branches of a willow raising to the sky and trailing.


Fiscus Apostina

18 Nov

Madame Cracey stretches for cigarettes and bumps the wine flute, which bursts against the floor. On a blue wave, fragments twirl and slide. Shaved cats gallop along two sets of windows. Among the potted trees at the edge of the floor space, they peek and stalk while in the kitchen cracks Berthold’s Utteringrish ditty. And in the front yard, an imperial pigeon with gray wings jerks off a fig: fiscus apostina. A number of species, including the Harlequin Fruit dove and Cresson’s Crowned Pigeon favor that fruit, and yellow seeds are scattered about the soil. A hand comes down from Madame’s face. Her shoulders are stiff, lips parted, eyes fixed.

Mais pas grave,” says Mr. Cracey.


“We have other glasses.”

“Don’t apprise me of our glasses. I order them.”

“Why, you are allowed to break a glass.”

That’s not the point.

“What is the point?”

“The point is.”


“The point is I was obliged to wait three months for that glass. The point is, as everyone knows, fifty-dolerais stemware should be placed at eleven o’clock. Not at five o’clock. There is a reason for that.”

At the head of her reflection Berthold fills the doorway, permanent smile deepening the puckerwork at the corners of her eyes. Across the glossy slab, she staggers like a golem, the bottle a weapon in gnarled hands, her foot dragging, apron slightly soiled. Across the glassblue floor of the Cracey dining hall she staggers, mindful of her brittle bones, a paragon of longevity, an embattled clipper outdistancing a cape of dead: lovers, husbands, comrades, enemies, children. She staggers free of care toward a grave that cannot be far off.

“Thirty-eight, sir.”

“Open it. Then fetch a broom. I’m afraid that we have a catastrophe.”

“Of course, Mr. Cracey.”

“And fetch Madame a glass.”

“Of course.”

Berthold clunks the bottle bottom first on the table, and Madame winces as her deformed hands wrench the corkscrew. The music machine exudes a monotonic dirge, and the emotodome covers Berthold in beige light. The bottle pops. Berthold drops the corkscrew into her apron and bears the trembling cork beside Cracey’s dessert fork. She treks back across the blue floor, and a cat, slashing its tail, follows her into the kitchen. Madame lights a cigarette.

“I cannot bear them any longer. Relics of your childhood.”

“We can’t dismiss our entire household.”

“Really, I cannot.”

“They have been with us since—”

“I haven’t the energy to keep tabs on your menagerie of crones.”

“No one is asking you to.”

“Meanwhile, our guests come trudging to the door on foot?

“I enjoyed the walk, Madame Cracey.”

“I should have checked the handhelds.”

“This all has to change. I cannot bear it. My health is at risk.”

Beamed onto Mr. Cracey’s face, which is sinking into his palm (I recall a man’s face crushed into his hand, just so, before us children) the flush of the emotodome has become a gray-yellow pall. Yellow of hysteria. Wild venom of deranged justice. Gray of defeat. Of crumbling, helpless masculinity . . ..

Or haze of blame, acrid and unmitigated, eroding the image of a man who longed for love like a child, who could not divest himself of carnal vitiation, who gave into it like a bed wetter, who purported falsely to be our exemplar of faith and stoicism, who was all Achilles heel and weak spine and craving, ready to sacrifice us all, every starch-shirted child frozen behind his plate at a glass table within a trembling, tipping house of glass—for another her.

Berthold, again, broom in one fist, tin dust pan in another, plugs our way across the glowing space, ankles wreathed in cats. She brings a smile that dawned across her face with a second childhood. Imbecilic, proud of accoutrements, she comes on, an emissary of the blithe menagerie of crones who don’t bother about roadcarts and handhelds. Berthold who remains like a camphor tree in the forest with the forms of almost everyone she knew fallen around her. She cracks to one knee and brings in glass and bluewine with jerks of the hand broom and tells us her thoughts, apropos of nothing, on reincarnation.

“Used ta tell Mr. Cracey when he was a bean. Don’t matter how big your house is or how much money ya got. Do the best ya know how this time around. Next time maybe you are going to be a snake. Sliding on your belly, ha-ha, boys lobbing rocks in your direction. Next time maybe you are going to be some Zipango with two heads and two mouths ta feed. Now, how would that be? Both heads saying, feed me. No, feed me. I prefer rice. I prefer porridge.”

“I don’t quite agree, Berthold,” says Mr. Cracey.

His chair screeches, and he leans over the table, the ivory buttons of his sleeve shining as he empties his glass, dribbling wine over the suckling pig.

“Two heads are not such a burden to the monster who sports them. They burden the rest of us. Especially those charged with care and feeding. Two heads might actually be an advantage. A man with two heads can never be lonely. You could devote one head to philosophy, for example, one to aesthetics. One to dalliance, one to drudgery. If I had an extra head, I would devote it entirely to the memorization of texts.”

He picks up the half-full bottle of bluewine by the neck and pours that also over the back of the piglet.

“What on earth are you doing?” says Madame Cracey.

“I am pouring out a weak vintage.”

“Over our meal?”

“Consider it an offering—”

“I consider it an outrage.”

“To the gods who punish hubris. Studebaker, which are those?”

Bluewine knocks the slice of tomato from the eye and runs between the squares cut in the flesh, adding to a greasy pool in the platter.

“All of them, I suspect.”

Bus Culture (The East is Red)

28 Apr

Trying to sleep is hopeless. 

 The voice drones on, a self-conversant logos giving rise to tile roofs in corn within an expanse rolling and half-darkened, somnolent and mist-sunken.  We are off to photograph the south slope of Changbai Shan.  Or I should say, I am off to photograph the mountain; the rest are off to photograph one another upon the mountain.  A great number of people I have met in China find landscapes, absent the human figure, a bit lonely, and the members of my “photography association” provide no exceptions.   

 Outside the bus, over scarecrows tilting, a red sun rises in mist, warming tarnished autumn fields.  Ridges follow one another in wash: reflections of nearer wooded humps with ponds in their crotches.  Hills gradually squeeze out fields while the fiftyish man just behind the bus driver intones tirelessly into the microphone.  A woman takes over.  She introduces herself and then belts out, “Welcome New Friends; Cherish Old Friends”.  She invites another to the front.  Each person sings or tells a tale or a joke. 

 Most songs are standbys.  “Bitter Coffee”, “The Moon Bears Witness to My Heart” “Play Happily; Play with Joy”.  It’s a medley: rose-scented chansons de tristesse, a few ballads that resound with the space and spirit of frontier areas, along with heady anthems forged during the era preceding the Cultural Revolution:    

 The east is red; a sun is



From China emerges Mao Zedong,

He the happiness of the people—

Shout hurrah!

He is the savior of the people.

 Chairman Mao loves the people.

He is our helmsman

Charting the course to a new China!

Shout hurrah!  Lead the way!

 The words, as if recalled from an almost imagined age, are often stumbled over.  I dutifully get up and try a song.  Nobody is familiar with my Chinese pop tune, but all clap along until I hit a wrong note and can’t recover.  We all laugh.  I choose someone.

 On the way back home, it all happens again, but this time washed in 140-proof baijiu and up ten decibels.  Out of bitter experience, I decline.  At the back of the bus, as drinks are pounded, they bellow, yi, er, SAN!

 Bus rides to and from the weekly destinations of our “photography” group always feature this Bus Culture, literally qiche wenhua

 Back at home I have a look at my photos.  I can almost re-experience the transcendent emanation of tranquility that emanated from tianshi or the lake within this cooled volcano.  On my desk now, I have a small bit of pressed ash to help me recall.  I couldn’t help but end up with a snapshots of figures that burst into my path and commenced posing.   I get to thinking about this word, culture.  Of course, few people in my own background would think of referring to bus-ride revelry, however colorful or ritualistic, as culture.   But then culture is like a scent in your own house.  You don’t notice it until someone else, stepping among your darling terriers, holds her nose.  “Experiencing” culture—as opposed to floating along in one’s own—tends to be a ride in a raucous wayward bus of miscommunication, minor mishaps, and discordant expectations.  

 For me, the novelty of living in a foreign place wore off after a year or two.  I felt like a battered tug on the bounding main.   Just the language provided daily confusion, turning simple tasks to hurdles.  The word “ma”, as a single example, can mean to belabor someone, a horse, mother, or spicy, depending on the tone used.  And if a fourth tone precedes a fourth tone, better change the first fourth to a second.  I have been guilty of repeatedly mispronouncing a word, with an increasing sense of frenzy, into the faces of bewildered listeners.  Once, I stalked through a market demanding mifan (cooked rice) when what I wanted was dami (the actual grain). 

 After a while though, the sounds of the storm become more familiar, a voice in the background that one understands that one does not need to understand. It strikes me, after all this time, that I am learning something important: at least for me.  That is, to sing and then laugh, with everyone else, at myself.

Unit 731

8 Mar

“Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.”
–Edward Said

Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China: a gritty metropolis.  Ice-crusted neighborhoods with baozi steamers billowing in doorways skirt expanding building projects.  Faces pass pinched and creased by time and Siberian winds.

Nowadays, the city’s main claim to fame is its International Ice and Snow Festival.  Someone once told me that part of the Chinese Zeitgeist is a taste for goofy, child-like fun.  The Ice and Snow Festival surely fits that bill.  Picture a Disneyland of glowing ice cubes, inhabited by dancing bears, bunnies, and the inevitable students posing for photos.

For those who favor museums over goofy fun, there’s Unit 731 Museum.  If you wish to visit, I recommend brushing up on the history.  Factories of Death by Sheldon Harris is an account of the Japanese Kwangtung Army’s biological and chemical warfare program in China from 1937 to the surrender of the Japanese in 1942.  A documentary can be found here.

Unit 731, also known as the “Epidemic and Water Purification Unit”, was a biological and chemical experimentation center for the Kwangtung Army situated in a suburb of Harbin called Ping Fang.  At the time, occupied Harbin was the northern industrial hub of “Manchukuo”, as the Japanese designated the northeastern region of China known as Dongbei.

In Ping Fang, in the heart of winter, a low pall fed by columns of coal smoke looms over battered factory buildings.  At the squat guardhouse, show your passport to enter free.  Before you, at the end of a wide, brick lane, extend the wings of an administration building: rusty-ashen and black-windowed.  As you approach, the aging bricks seem to exude a muted sense of brutality.

Within the administration building, exhibits are restrained.  Objects unearthed from the rubble sequestered behind glass.  Gas masks, test tubes, spent shells, and viscera hooks.  In the memorial hall, slate plaques bearing victims names line two, long walls.

The placards will inform you that Chinese victims at 731 were dubbed “logs” by the Japanese, a reference to the Unit’s official cover as a lumber mill.  Russian prisoners and later Allied prisoners were added to the Chinese, also to be injected or otherwise exposed to cholera, anthrax, bubonic plague, small pox, among other diseases.  As infections advanced, prisoners were selected for live vivisections that degeneration rates might be monitored.  In other experiments, the effectiveness of explosives was tested on victims staked out around detonation points.  Others were frozen, and limbs were sawn off in a macabre exercise in data-mining.

It was within Unit 731 that Japanese technicians developed a means of dispersing bubonic-plague-ridden fleas over a populace.  Subsequently, ceramic shells full of infected fleas were dropped around nearby Chinese villages.  Later, personnel arrived masked and gloved to perform autopsies on the dead and dying.

Besides Unit 731, lesser known units were imbedded in cities across China.  Notably, Unit 100, called the Warhorse Disease Prevention Shop, was established just south of Changchun.  Unit 100 was largely occupied with researching diseases and chemicals for destroying crops and animals, but human prisoners were also used.

In Nong An, a group of Japanese doctors established a clinic at Beiguan school, ostensibly to combat the plague, which had “cropped up” in Changchun suburbs.  Entire neighborhoods were called out for inspection, and each individual running a fever was taken.  Locals joked morbidly that anybody ushered through the front door of Beiguan School exited the rear a corpse.  In order to avoid being picked up, inhabitants attempted to reduce temperatures with potato slices under the armpits, while women applied heavy, pallor-disguising makeup.

Virtually none who worked within the walls of 731 or other centers saw justice.  A deal was made, and the American military came into possession of 731 documentation.

You might ask what value lies in dredging up such detestable history.  I would argue that the value of reminders like 731 is that they stand as antidotes against the self-congratulatory, paternalistic, but ultimately violent mindset at the root of imperialism.  Periodically, the publishing of Japanese textbooks reduces the Kwangtung Army’s incomprehensible ravages in China to a footnote.  The Chinese, understandably, become infuriated that an entire generation of Japanese may grow up completely ignorant of that historical context.  The bliss of ignorance is an opiate the modern world can scarcely afford, given the price paid for war and imperialism over the last century.

After viewing the museum, you may walk the footpath encircling snow-muffled craters remaining from the Japanese attempt to eradicate every trace of what had been done here.  Perhaps 100 meters away, battered incinerator stacks project from a disfigured wall.  Flanked by snaking trees, the administration building, too solid to demolish easily, stretches out before you.  Between you and the administration building, a pillar of rubble juts from the snow, an austere memorial to the innocents.  A sentinel standing guard against “The Dark Ages of the Mind” that would have the ghosts of tragedies past returning to shake man from his self-imposed stupor.