Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Sacrifice

"Had to sacrifice all to earn favor" 
            - Ka, "Eye of a Needle"

One night back in March of this year, I was struck by a vision about sacrifice. I was laying in a hammock in my backyard, looking up at the stars. Soaking in the pleasures and privileges of my existence, appreciating my comforts yet realizing that I was not at all satisfied with my life, I was aching for something new. 

At that point, I had accumulated everything I could have ever wanted in life---I owned a house on a nice big piece of property, with a canopy provided by a dozen oak trees, the property peppered with colorful flowers and paddle cactus plants, succulents, and a big vegetable garden. The property was surrounded by a tall privacy fence, the backyard was renovated, spacious, peaceful, comfortable. Inside the house I had a library full of books, walls covered with art, comfy couches to sit and read on, a fireplace to sit next to with my dog, and a desk to do my writing. I had a big, playful puppy, a pittie-German shepherd mix who always kept me feeling safe, whose energy always brought me joy. And I had a woman who I'd been with for many years, been to hell and back with, she a professional and accomplished nutritionist who also maintained our big vegetable garden and did much of the work to make our house feel homey and nice. I had all of that and yet I felt completely unsatisfied with this life, felt myself becoming obsessed with a new craving for adventure and exploring the unknown. I was feeling like the creative energies in my life had become dulled and dormant. Felt like my life and whatever youth I had left, was slipping away day by day. I'd been depressed for a while after three of my friends passed away unexpectedly during the pandemic lockdown. Then that night in March, I started thinking about Tarkovsky's 1986 movie The Sacrifice

I had seen The Sacrifice a couple years prior when a friend, who's a devoted scholar of Tarkovsky, brought me to a screening at the Austin Film Society. I remember being totally awed by the film's visionary qualities, impacted by the scenes of the house rattling from warplanes overhead, the scenes of stillness and nature and especially the famous scene of the burning house. But after seeing the film I didn't have much of any appreciation for what it meant, what it was conveying. That is, until that night back in March when I was overwhelmed with thoughts about the meaning and importance of sacrifice. I started replaying scenes from the film in my head and I read synopses online and I realized that the main character was stricken by a feeling that the world was out of joint, that he needed to sacrifice everything he loved in order to restore peace. I started dwelling on the meaning of sacrifice---as in, a sacrifice to God or to the gods or to the universe, in order to earn favor and fortune and restore creative energies. To bring balance to the universe. The more I dwelled on it, the more it made literal sense to me. The notion of sacrificing what you love, renouncing possessions, giving up what makes you feel secure and comfortable in order to, in some symbolic way, feed the creative fires of the universe---this mythical, primitive idea suddenly made sense to me on a deeply personal level. The meaning of sacrifice felt real. 

That night I realized the only way I could fix my aching depression and dissatisfaction with life was to dismantle and demolish the life I had built, to sacrifice it all and plunge into the unknown with the faith that things would all work out for the better, that the creative energies of my universe would be restored by my sacrifice and guide me to a new, more fulfilling life. This was a terrifying realization because it meant I would need to give up everything that made me feel secure and comfortable. I would have to endure the suffering of separation from what I had become attached to, which was a feeling of security. For ten years I'd been living in tiny apartments until finally I'd been able to buy a nice big house, then over several years we invested so much work and energy into the house to make it comfortable. Then we added the big puppy dog into the mix and the house became his home too. And now I had reached the realization with certainty that I needed to give all that up to go seek happiness in the unknown. I knew then that to restore balance in my life I needed to sacrifice everything that made me feel secure to instead go off alone, in Joyce's phrase "wandering among the snares of the world." I had to destroy the life I had built so I could eventually rebuild my life in a better way. 

*   *   *

"As soon as I emerged from a self-made prison
My own ambitions made way for the decision of a lifetime, of a lifetime
It ain't sit right with me that I might die
No, I can't go, I got work to do
The never-ending life cycle, how a circle do
This is personal
This is personal"
              - Navy Blue, "Light"

During the peak of the pandemic lockdown, some of my friends died unexpectedly. I wrote about this earlier this year. Adding to the pain of those sudden losses was being unable to process their deaths properly with any sort of wake or gathering to memorialize them. The shock of those deaths made an impact on me that eventually changed my life. I found it especially difficult to process the death of my old friend and coworker Scott who was the same age as me and had been in good health, only to be found dead in his apartment one night in late October 2020. After that I began to develop a craving to get out and see the world, to go try and fulfill my dreams and dream big, to no longer defer any of my ambitions into the future but to try and live life now since it had become abundantly clear to me that I could die at any moment. Scott was a deep philosophical thinker, a passionate mind with a love for literature. We often talked about life and death, he loved getting into heavy discussions. Feeling a bit of guilt over his sudden death, I also developed an ambition to live big and embark on exciting adventures in his honor. He (along with many other friends of mine) had insisted for years that I go visit Ireland because of my love of James Joyce's art and because Scott had been there once before and felt it was a special place. So, when I was at the beginning of my recent overseas adventure and found myself getting drunk on whiskey while hanging inside a stone tower built in 1804 on the coast of Dublin, I was toasting to Scott and communing with his spirit. 

A recent NYRB article about Dostoyevsky discusses how the Russian novelist was sentenced to a Siberian prison camp as a political prisoner and while he was there, was the victim of a "mock execution." He and the other prisoners were condemned to death, given their last rites, taken outside to face a firing squad, and at the very last possible moment the execution was called off. Some of his fellow prisoners went insane in reaction to this and never recovered while Dostoyevsky went on to compose some of the most profound novels ever written. One of his biographers posits that the experience of the mock execution left Dostoyevsky "with a completely different view of time and ethics, which Frank calls 'eschatological [apocalyptic] apprehension.' Dostoevsky concluded, he says, that 'every instant takes on a supreme value,' and 'each moment of the present is when a decisive choice has to be made.'" Although I did not experience anything nearly as harrowing as Dostoyevsky, the death of some people close to me left me with a similar feeling about the importance of each instant. I became increasingly uneasy about wasting time. I felt whatever youth I had left was being wasted in the exceedingly comfortable yet quiet existence I was living at my nice house with my ex-girlfriend and my dog. I was consumed by an urgent need to get out and experience the world. 

So I made the decision to give up everything I had, to downsize my existence, donate or sell off most of my things and place all my books into storage, pack up a couple suitcases and go off into the world. Originally I planned to drive around the United States visiting everyone I know in different states, but once I was out of the house and away from my dog I found it too painful to be anywhere near my old place, so I decided to go faraway and flew overseas to Ireland. There I was blessed to meet a Brazilian girl, a lawyer and a deep, passionate thinker who I connected with on a level that made it seem like she'd known me for a long time. Eventually she brought me to meet some of her extended family in the South of France and it became one of the most incredible adventures of my life. When I was dismantling my previous existence, moving out of the house and putting all my stuff into storage, I felt a strong sense all of that, even though it was painful and difficult, was just a preparation for a future more exciting than anything I'd previously conceived of. Months later, when I was zooming around the Mediterranean Sea in a boat with Brazilians, diving off the boat into pristine waters off the coast of a small town near Marseilles, floating in the sea, drinking lots of champagne, staying in a penthouse in Cannes, visiting the Picasso Museum in a 14th century castle in Antibes, driving through the mountains of southern France, drinking the best wine in the world and eating like a king at a restaurant in a small French town on some Anthony Bourdain shit, I knew then that my earlier visions and realizations about sacrifice were meaningful and important. I knew that my premonitions about taking a daring leap into the unknown had manifested, my determination had paid off. My new future was being constructed and it was indeed more incredible than anything I'd ever imagined. 

While the process has already been rewarding, none of this has been easy. I'm having to figure things out week to week. As I write this, my latest European adventure has recently concluded, I went to six countries in a span of eight weeks and had enough amazing experiences to write about and talk about for the rest of my life. But now I'm back in Staten Island, NY, staying at the house I grew up in, sleeping in the same bedroom I was in since I was an infant. Maybe in some way I'm connecting with my inner child and healing some old wounds. Above all I'm trying to recompose myself and plot a new future while continuing to heal from past loss. I know the pandemic era has been difficult for many people and that my deconstructing of my life to build something new is part of a larger pattern in which many people are quitting their jobs or getting divorced and going off into something new. For anyone who's suffering, I hope you can feel inspired to hold on and to be brave and to grasp at your dreams. 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Baseball in the Works of the Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

The American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away in March 2021 just a few weeks shy of reaching his 102nd birthday. Last year I wrote about Ferlinghetti in a few places: the James Joyce Quarterly published my review of Ferlinghetti's final book, I also wrote about Ferlinghetti and Joyce at my other blog, then I wrote more about Ferlinghetti and his incredible final book on this blog.

April is both National Poetry Month and the opening month of the baseball season, so as April comes to a close I'm going to pay tribute to the late poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti by looking at how he wrote about baseball in his works. Ferlinghetti grew up in Yonkers, New York (located right above Manhattan Island) and after spanning the globe on manifold adventures he settled in San Francisco right around the time the Giants baseball team moved their home base from the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan out to the Bay Area of San Francisco. Reading through Ferlinghetti's books, one gets the impression that baseball was a ubiquitous aspect of his life. His writings on baseball also tend to intersect with his political diatribes, proving once again that you cannot separate baseball from politics in America.

Ferlinghetti's "Baseball Canto" (1972) is the most well-known of his writings on baseball. You can listen to him reciting the poem in the video below. American history and its manifestations in present day contexts often figures into the works of Ferlinghetti. His perspective was that of a fiercely dissident poet yet he was also a WW2 vet who commanded a ship at D-Day in 1944 and later turned into a staunch pacifist following his visit to Nagasaki in late 1945. His "Baseball Canto" foregrounds what truly makes America great, its diversity and inclusiveness, but for Ferlinghetti the gameplay on the field finds metaphorical resonance with the struggles of marginalized people for empowerment and freedom within what he calls "the Anglo-Saxon tradition." Themes of racism, colonialism, and exploitative capitalism are observable in the poem. The umpires become Irish cops overseeing the action. He envisions Willie Mays as "a footrunner from Thebes." Tito Fuentes becomes a bullfighter being cheered by the Latinos in the stands. Sort of ironically, the poet is reading Ezra Pound's Cantos while sitting in the stands. Ferlinghetti's "Baseball Canto" opens this way:

Watching baseball, sitting in the sun, eating popcorn,
reading Ezra Pound,
and wishing that Juan Marichal would hit a hole right through the
Anglo-Saxon tradition in the first Canto
and demolish the barbarian invaders.

Ferlinghetti once published a bizarre little book called Tyrannus Nix? (New Directions, 1969) where the text is presented in the poet's own handwriting with minimal punctuation. A satirical work, Tyrannus Nix? deploys baseball metaphors to mock and satirize then-president Richard M. Nixon. "Nixon Nixon I'm singing you this baseball Diamond Sutra from way out here in New Left Field in the International League." Nixon was from Whittier, California and Ferlinghetti writes:

This is one national sport we hope is on the way out The Whittier White Sox we hope are all washed up It's time for a new umpire and a new Hall of Fame Throw out a new ball and a new uniform and a new flag too while you're at it and make the flag green this time instead of bloody red and black-and-blue (p. 7-8)

Later in Tyrannus Nix? Ferlinghetti observes, "things are really tightening up out here And there's no relief in sight for you or us although it occurs to me that we are your relief if you'd only admit it." (p. 12) He determines Nixon to be a pitcher wearing a mask and throwing with a deceptive delivery: "But I never saw a pitcher with a mask before What've you got under it That's what I've been trying to fathom ever since they brought you up from the minors Did you learn that windup with the Whittier Quakers It's the most deceptive ever seen in a World Series a windup that gives away nothing and telegraphs nothing so that nobody still knows what's coming We hope not a fast change-up One wild pitch and you've blown it Your windup is so weird." (p. 13-14)

I would not consider Tyrannus Nix? among Ferlinghetti's best books, it feels dated and many of the jokes fall flat, but as a time capsule and example of the prominence of baseball in Ferlinghetti's work it's kinda cool. It's also an especially polemical display of Ferlinghetti's attitude about the poet's role in society, from the same guy who went on to publish the handbook Poetry as Insurgent Art (2007). Ferlinghetti also wrote a two-part epic poem on the history of America, the second part of which is surely one of his best books. In that book, called Time of Useful Consciousness (Americus, Book II) (New Directions, 2012), he quotes this line from the poet Philip Lamantia: "Baseballs lost among the Pleiades (quoth Lamantia)." (p. 7) Ferlinghetti made no bones about taking lines from other poets, many of his writings are loaded with literary allusions and borrowed phrases, he liked to celebrate that TS Eliot or Pound tradition of poetry, "summarizing the past by theft and allusion" he called it. Some of his books have helpful notes in the back with sources for these allusions. His last book, Little Boy: A Novel (2019), is filled with literary references but does not have any footnotes. I'm hoping there will eventually be an annotated edition of the book, but some lines are identifiable via Google, especially when he provided them in quotes. One that sticks out to me is this sequence from the poem "Truth" by John Masefield which he immediately follows with a baseball reference:

"Man with his burning soul has but an hour of breath to build a ship of Truth in which his soul may sail---sail on the sea of death for death takes toll of beauty, courage, youth, of all but Truth" and it's three strikes and you're out at the Old Ball Game 

(Little Boy, p. 122)

Little Boy: A Novel contains numerous baseball references, everything seems to return back to baseball. It was his final book and seemingly all the major themes of his previous works are gathered in Little Boy, a densely-packed word-hoard that goes into American history, his own life story, with lyrical escapes into mystical contemplation of the cosmos and the precariousness of life in our present existence on Earth. The latter half of the book often reads like Ferlinghetti's mind swings on a pendulum between despair over the dark state of affairs and ecstasies of blissful poetry about life. Somehow these oscillations often seem to involve baseball. For example, on p. 150 he wonders: 

And so why am I watching baseball to escape the pain or ecstasy of existence and the Reds are beating the Yankees and should I be happy It's all relative and life depends on the simplest things to yield a crop of happiness as if it were something you could harvest (p. 150)

Despair and happiness waver back and forth. One beautiful sequence on pgs 154-155 revels in "the jet streams of light in the upper air of the spirit of man in the outer space inside us Endless rubaiyats and endless beatitudes endless shangri-las endless nirvanas sutras and mantras satoris and sensaras Bodhiramas and Boddhisatvas karmas and karmapas! Endless singing Shivas dancing on the smoking wombs of ecstasy!" and so on and on until just a few lines later his perspective again shifts. It seems like he remembers who the president was at that moment (the same president who was booed at the World Series) and suddenly he's back to thinking about baseball:

and the Man without Shoulders who can't lift his weight in butterflies is now in charge of the world And is there any reason to watch the World Series on TV while this is going on as if the fate of the world were on the Men with Shoulders out there on the Field of Dreams as if a bases-loaded home run could change the fate of the spinning world spinning with a curveball or one-hundred-mile-an-hour fastball to wipe out our enemies and save the world from whatever Yeah play the 'Star-Spangled Banner" and sing about "bombs bursting in air" to show "our flag was still there" 
(p. 155-156)

Later towards the end of Little Boy, there's a dream sequence presented in italics where the poet drifts off into the depths of memory in search of his earliest moments of consciousness, seeking the roots of his existence, the exact place where he was born. The book is partly about Ferlinghetti's difficult childhood, he basically grew up as an orphan who bounced around different homes and never truly had a family. In this dream sequence he's simultaneously dreaming of going to and recalling when he physically went back to find the house where he was born, the address on his birth certificate, a house located just north of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. The tiny details recalled of life in that house at that time then summon up more vivid memories:

All at once, an incredible overflowing feeling of happiness surges up from nowhere. Born here!. . . some three hundred yards north of the northwest corner of Van Cortlandt Park. It must have been all country back then. The kids must have played ball in this green park with its worn diamond and its ancient rusted screen behind the batter's box. I can hear the bat hit the ball (perhaps pitched by Pop). And my brother running for first base ended up in Baltimore forty years later . . . Shouts and laughter tears and whispers fill the air. (p. 174)

Little Boy: A Novel is so many things at once, a perfect culmination for Ferlinghetti's prolific career as a poet. It's really more of an epic poem in prose than a novel, plus it's sort of an autobiography. In a flourish of wordplay on page 119, Ferlinghetti describes his project this way: "I unlock my word-hoard of ruminations meditations exhortations celebrations condemnations excitations lamentations liberations and ecstasies plotless as a life." The one precursor to the style of Little Boy (2019) was the novel Ferlinghetti published almost sixty years prior called Her (1960), a plotless word-stream of prose wherein the reader swims from one dream vision to the next, following Ferlinghetti in search of his soul or his muse or his anima. Just as in Little Boy, the visions of the poet veer into baseball themes:

Perhaps I was merely a dumb member of the audience strayed onto the stage by mistake, looking for some printed program he had dropped under a seat. I had somewhere dropped the key that explained the action, and one could not tell the players without a program, for the faces interchanged, fused together. There they moved on their dark illuminated field, playing their curious night-game, bounding after stray balls, winding their pitches on grassless mounds, or squatting behind a batter in their tools of ignorance. I was a world's catcher, I crouched there, wearing my tools, a fat receiver. I received signals, sent out signals to others, squatting with a signal fingers hanging down between my legs, crooking a penis finger now and then, calling someone in. They all moved too far out, other figures ran, white celluloid shadows, as in a strip of film held up to a light, and the film running away with them. I could not catch them, and they ran off through the streets of the world, until only one figure was left, a white clay figure I had started with, who might have been myself. It was not. It was a her. (Her, p. 10-11)

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Hypnotic Mountainscapes of Nicholas Roerich

He Who Hastens (1924) Nicholas Roerich


Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was a Russian symbolist painter, and a writer, archeologist, philosopher, spiritualist who was born in Saint Petersburg. He developed a deep interest in hypnosis and other spiritual practices and his paintings are known to sometimes induce a hypnotic effect. This past year, when needing to center my focus and un-distract myself, I've spent a lot of time staring at some of Roerich's landscape paintings. He definitely had a knack for capturing the essence of being up in the ethereal realms of high altitude mountains. Last September, we took a road-trip from Austin, TX up to Breckenridge, Colorado and stayed in a cabin situated way high up in the peaks. I'd been to Colorado before but never spent so much time at such high altitude (nearly 10,000 ft). There's a distinct vibe up there and every moment of the daytime it seems there's a unique shade and texture of light reflecting off the mountains that surround you. Staring at Roerich's paintings takes me back there to that quiet sense of tranquility and the mindfulness summoned by staring at the light hitting the mountainside.

At one point in his life, Nicholas Roerich was convinced he was receiving psychic messages from beings living in the Himalayas. So he gathered a crew and set out on multiple harrowing excursions into the Himalayan mountains, where he presumably did a lot of painting while also seeking out the Tibetan Buddhist monks. Read more about Roerich at his Wikipedia page. He's got a really interesting backstory, but besides that I've been enjoying spending time staring at his incredible mountainscapes. There's definitely a meditative effect about them. See more of Roerich's paintings here.

Here are some of my favorites:

The Hunt (1937)

Way to Tibet (1925)

Sword of the Gesar (1932)

Rocks of Ladakh (1933)

Lake of the Nagas (1932)

Message from Shambhala (1931)

She Who Leads (1943)

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Baseball 2021 Predictions

The whole world changed in 2020, and baseball changed more than it has in more than a century. 2020 was the shortest MLB season ever, the shortest season of major league baseball in America since the 1800s. Watching the short 60-game season last year, I felt grateful just to have any baseball on TV and the playoff rounds were often thrilling to watch, but it's hard to take the results of the 60-game regular season all that seriously. Now as the schedule goes back to 162 games in 2021, the big question across baseball is how much the load of this innings increase will wear down pitchers. MLB has implemented some new rules, some of which are unfortunate like adding a runner on second base in extra innings and 7-inning double-headers but at least these changes might actually mitigate the innings load on pitchers and lead to fewer injuries. I'll be watching the games regardless, but baseball needs to figure out how to tweak some aspects of its gameplay to make the basic flow of things slightly less boring without further disturbing the sport's core equilibriums. Most agree the problems boil down to one thing: the ball needs to be put into play more, give fielders more chances. That's always the most potently contingent instant of a game when a ball is hit into play and there's a mad scramble around the bases while fielders rush to react. 

Going from a 60-game season to a 162-game season for the first time ever ensures 2021 baseball will be full of surprises. Then you factor in the expected changes made to the baseball in attempt to make it less bouncy and the league potentially cracking down on Trevor Bauer types who covertly use substances to increase spin rate on pitches, plus the impact that could come from the new rule changes. There's so much we don't know about what's gonna happen in major league baseball this year. On the other hand, there are some things we can be sure of---the Dodgers will be really good, the Yankees will be really good, the Pirates will suck, the Orioles will suck. The league has become noticeably stratified with very obvious bottom-feeders, an upperclass of likely power-houses and a group of higher variance teams in the middle. But injuries and your typical baseball weirdness can throw everything askew, this is why we watch. I'll be rooting for the weird and unexpected stuff to happen because that makes it watchable, but some results to consider for six months from now do seem predictable. 

In this post I will share the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projection for each team and pick an over/under for each. (Note that the PECOTA projections include decimals in the win numbers, but I'm rounding those up.) More than ever I think nobody has any idea how this MLB season will turn out because of variance and all the new contributing factors but baseball fans always enjoy making their picks before the long season and the same goes for me, so here are my picks for how each division will stack up with my thoughts about the chances for each team in 2021. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Three Interviews with Master Craftsmen on the Art of Hip Hop

Producer Madlib recently appeared on BBC Radio 6 for a lengthy convo with Gilles Peterson, talking about his friendship with MF DOOM, his latest album Sound Ancestors, his crate-digging exploits, his love of Sun Ra and spiritual jazz music, and Madlib even played a bunch of records on the show. 

Producer/emcee Bronze Nazareth appeared on the podcast From the Desk of Lo for an in-depth interview detailing his whole background as a musician, how he linked up with the Wu-Tang Clan, stories of staying with RZA while working on Birth of a Prince, how he heard tons of unreleased Wu material from the early-2000s, growing up with his longtime friend Apollo Brown, and plenty of other interesting stuff here that I have never heard him discuss with this level of detail. They even get into the million-dollar Wu album which Bronze had some music on. Interviewer does a great job asking informed questions. (At the end of the interview Bronze mentions a book project I have been working on with him. It's progressing toward final stages now and I'm excited to get it out to the world soon.)

SkillastratorLO aka Sunez interviewed underground emcee Rome Streetz on the Power Write Show podcast. Sunez is perhaps the most in-depth, insightful, and knowledgeable journalist writing about hip hop these days and his interviews with artists are always intriguing. In this talk they get into a level of detail on the writing of rap lyrics that you rarely hear in artist interviews. I especially dug the discussion of writing in a "concentrated" style, embedding so much meaning and interconnectedness in rhymes that it takes the listener several listens to catch on. They talk about the new album Rome Streetz made with DJ Muggs, the intricacies of Rome's writing process, what it's like to work with a legend like DJ Muggs, how Rome's music fits into and outside of the underground rap genre, how his approach differs from other rap artists, etc. Real informative discussion here.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Album Reviews: Pandemic Era Rap Elixirs Curated

"Ghost Hammurabi" is a new track from Killah Priest, it also feels like the latest installment of the style heard throughout Priest's 2020 project Rocket to Nebula, with a drum-less beat and mesmerizing, evolving tempos overridden by rapid-fire lyricism evoking epic, cosmic scales. It's a track that might take some getting used to, or it might speak to you instantly. For me it was the latter. So it seems like a good way to start off this assemblage of reflections on my favorite rap albums from the past year. 

These are short reviews of some favorite albums from this pandemic era, last year and into 2021. Not exactly trying to provide objective criticism or a ranking of best albums, just giving my opinion on the albums that brought me excitement, enjoyment, or inspiration during the pandemic year. Not listed in any particular order, this is a curated list of rap elixirs I've been soaking in with thoughts on the merits of each. 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Life and Death During the Pandemic Era

The last several years I've written annual recap blog posts sharing things from the past year that inspired me (places I traveled, books I read, pieces I wrote, music I loved, etc), but up until now I couldn't bring myself to do so about this past year because, well, fuck 2020. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Notes on Delmore Schwartz (Part 1)

The young Delmore Schwartz, probably sometime in the late 1930s. 

A couple years ago I became interested in the American poet Delmore Schwartz (December 8, 1913 - July 11, 1966) when I learned that two of his greatest passions in life were Finnegans Wake and major league baseball which struck me since those are probably my two favorite things in the universe. At the time I was working on my big compendium of notable figures who loved Finnegans Wake. The Brooklyn-born poet Delmore Schwartz was a Wake-head as devoted as anyone on that list---he was known to always keep a battered, heavily annotated copy of Finnegans Wake with him and he'd often pull it out and recite pages. His copies of the book would fall apart from overuse, he went through several. Peter Chrisp wrote a wonderful blog post going into detail about Delmore Schwartz's surviving copy of Finnegans Wake which is archived online by the Beinecke Library at Yale. There I discovered this historical nugget which blew my mind---biographer James Atlas notes that Delmore Schwartz would annotate his copy of Finnegans Wake while sitting in the stands at the Polo Grounds watching his beloved New York Giants play baseball.

    That one anecdote really captivates me. Envisioning Delmore Schwartz, the self-proclaimed poet laureate of the Atlantic, sitting in the Polo Grounds, that legendary old ballpark in upper Manhattan, watching the Giants of the 1940s and 50s while jotting notes in his tattered copy of Finnegans Wake, conjuring that image brings me immense joy. It's a potent conjunction of really interesting and important things in my universe. Part of why I am writing this series of posts about Delmore Schwartz is as a way to process why this is so meaningful to me. 

    Delmore Schwartz is most well-known for his short story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" which was published in 1937 when he was 24 years old. Vladimir Nabokov considered it among his half dozen favorite stories. The story first appeared in the Partisan Review and then was published as part of a collection of Delmore's work (entitled In Dreams Begin Responsibilities) that included poems, short stories, and a verse drama. That first book made him famous at a young age and while he never quite matched those heights again, he had a productive career as a poet, short story writer, literary critic, film critic, poetry editor, and literature professor. In 1959 he became the youngest person ever to be awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry for his collection of poems Summer Knowledge (which included poems from his entire career, thus the award was a sort of lifetime achievement recognition). 

    While I had some fascination with Delmore and his work, it wasn't until I read his biography Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet by James Atlas that I got really drawn in. I found his story to be very inspiring, fascinating, and sad. I was really moved by that book. He had a shitty childhood, at a young age he was often dragged into the middle of ugly quarrels between his parents. His father was having affairs and then ditched the family and died young. Delmore (and you'll notice it's the habit of anyone who writes about him to refer to him by his first name) was brought up by his mother who had her own set of issues. Once you learn these stories from his life then his writing takes on new significance because so much of what he wrote was autobiographical. The story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" is all about a dream where the main character watches a film of his parents' courtship in Coney Island and hollers at the screen trying to stop it. "New Year's Eve" was another story I enjoyed and it helps to know that the partygoers described were all real people in the Partisan Review crowd of NY intellectuals in the 1940s.  Another example, the verse drama "Shenandoah" is about a bris where a child was to be given the bizarre name Shenandoah and the child's uncle tries to intervene to protect the kid from a lifetime of abuse for his ridiculous name. Delmore wrote with a great sense of humor and this story plays out a little bit like the bris in Seinfeld---but it's based on his own life and the shock of family members when his mother bestowed on him the unusual name Delmore, which his uncle really did try to prevent. 

    Reading in the Atlas biography about how the older Delmore eventually descended into paranoid psychosis, lashed out at his friends, ended up in a straitjacket in Bellevue, and eventually suffered an untimely death in 1966 at age 52 alone in a seedy Times Square hotel, it was depressing and sad not least because it brought to mind a writer friend of mine who just recently died at a young age after lashing out at friends and spiraling downward. One thing that really struck me was how, even during the worst periods of his manic psychosis and alcoholism, Delmore still managed to hold down a job as a professor, was still surrounded by adoring young women competing for his affections, and he still made an enormous impact on those who met him. His friend Saul Bellow went on to write Humboldt's Gift in 1975 (which won him the Nobel Prize for literature) which was all about how much his beloved buddy Delmore had inspired him. Lou Reed, who studied under Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University in the early 1960s, knew the man during his crazy years yet was so deeply inspired by him that he wrote a poem "O Delmore how I miss you" and wrote a song about Delmore's ghost visiting him on his 1981 album Blue Mask.

    Since finishing the James Atlas biography I have been reading all of Delmore's published writings, plus his letters, journals, and the aforementioned fictionalized account by Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift. Again, this research has all taken place in the aftermath of me losing a friend who died in late October. That friend of mine actually published several novels, and as I've been reading about and contemplating Delmore Schwartz I've been dwelling on the fact that, even though we can read things written by the dead and hear recollections from their friends, there's no way to really experience what that person was truly like to be around. So while I'm grateful that there's so much extant material I can dig through to learn more about Delmore Schwartz, what will always be lacking is the ability to hear the man in conversation, his specialty, the forum in which he was always such a huge inspiration to everyone who encountered him. 

To illustrate my point, here is how Saul Bellow described his old friend in Humboldt's Gift:

Orpheus, the son of Greenhorn, turned up in Greenwich Village with his ballads. He loved literature and intellectual conversation and argument, loved the history of thought. A big gentle handsome boy he put together his own combination of symbolism and street language. Into this mixture went Yeats, Apollinaire, Lenin, Freud, Morris R. Cohen, Gertrude Stein, baseball statistics, and Hollywood gossip. He brought Coney Island into the Aegean and united Buffalo Bill with Rasputin. He was going to join together the Art Sacrament and the Industrial USA as equal powers. Born (as he insisted) on a subway platform at Columbus Circle, his mother going into labor on the IRT, he intended to be a divine artist, a man of visionary states and enchantments, Platonic possession. He got a Rationalistic, Naturalistic education at CCNY. This was not easily reconciled with the Orphic. But all his desires were contradictory. He wanted to be magically and cosmically expressive and articulate, able to say anything; he wanted also to be wise, philosophical, to find the common ground of poetry and science, to prove that the imagination was just as potent as machinery, to free and bless humankind. (p. 120)

*   *   *

Reading about Delmore Schwartz and reading his journals, it quickly becomes apparent that no matter what was going on in his life, no matter how manically depressed he may have been at times, he would reliably return to two distinct lifelong passions to provide relief: major league baseball and Finnegans Wake. These two things are what I want to focus on in this series of posts because they serve the same role in my own life. 

    This passage from Delmore Schwartz: The Life of An American Poet by James Atlas perfectly encapsulates Delmore Schwartz the baseball nut:

Delmore's eager accumulation of knowledge was by no means confined to literature. He had a mania for baseball, that "drama in which the national life performed itself," and acquired over the years a compendious store of statistics on the New York Giants, who rewarded his attentions by winning the pennant every year from 1921 ("My first year as a fan," he once noted) through 1924. The memory of that triumphant era never faded from his mind, and toward the end of his life he was still capable of dazzling an audience by recalling the Giants' lineup and batting averages of some forty years before. In a late notebook, he remembered the excitement that had overwhelmed him in 1927, when "suddenly, in the depths of melancholy, electrifying news transformed my entire attitude toward existence. The Giants had acquired Rogers Hornsby, the greatest hitter by far in the National League, from the St. Louis Cardinals." As a child, he would race to the newsstand on 181st Street for a glance at the standings, and he used to spend hours loitering in a radio store on Broadway to listen to some crucial game. Twenty years later, when Delmore was living at Yaddo, the writers' colony in Saratoga Springs, he stood in a field admiring "the immense winter sky, crowded with the stars in constellations, but desiring all the while to get to the World-Telegram and read of the winter baseball news."  (p. 17)

That last line is especially relatable right now because I've spent many nights lately looking at the stars in the winter sky while also pining for some Hot Stove baseball news. 

    While reading through the book Portrait of Delmore: Journals and Notes of Delmore Schwartz: 1939-1959 (edited by Elizabeth Pollet) there was a passage that stood out to me for its beautiful and vivid description of him attending a baseball game in the spring of 1942. It's short and compact but there's so much to take from it so I want to try to unpack it here.

April 19, 1942:

The calculated disarray of the garage region, the railroad yards, and the used-car lots. The painted lines of the bridge, the murals of the fences. 

    "Our country is now at war..." said the announcer over the public-address system. Directions for going away, and hiding under the grandstand or bleachers.

    Much feeling against Stengel and Paul Waner. The Giants scored three in the first. Mize hit the wall twice with doubles, thinking the first time that he had hit a homer. Melton argued with the umpire in the first, Witek looked pathetic, Tobin disgusted. Werber had a rooting section loudly against him.

    A purple-black curtain of cloud, like a quilt or like a great Assyrian army with chariots, was over the sky. The crowd was pleased that the Red Sox had defeated the Yankees.

    A strong wind blowing, much smoke, much soot from the railroad yards, the fragrancy of Pittsburgh. I admired the strength of the locomotive, the instruments (what are the names?), pistons, which drew up and down, and moved the wheels. So, too, a child might be given a toy railroad train, Industrialismus. (p. 56)

Now, when I first read this I thought it must be a description of him attending a game at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan to see his beloved Giants. Delmore was born in Brooklyn but he grew up in Washington Heights very close to Coogan's Bluff and the Polo Grounds. He attended many games at the Polo Grounds and he used to invite his fellow writers to come watch games with him. He once told his publisher James Laughlin, "It has been observed that anyone who has not seen me at the Polo Grounds has not seen me." (from Letters of Delmore Schwartz, p. 272)

    But when I looked up this game on Baseball-reference it turns out this actually took place in Boston (at a different defunct historical ballpark, the home of the old Boston Braves), which makes sense because Delmore was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and teaching at Harvard during this time. Here's the game he attended, the NY Giants visiting the Boston Braves:

 has the full play-by-play where you can see that Delmore indeed had the details correct. Let's go through it line by line:

The calculated disarray of the garage region, the railroad yards, and the used-car lots. The painted lines of the bridge, the murals of the fences. You can easily envision from this description what the surrounding area of the ballpark looked like. The murals on the fences were the big advertisements all over the outfield walls at Boston Braves Field as seen here

"Our country is now at war..." said the announcer over the public-address system. Directions for going away, and hiding under the grandstand or bleachers. This game took place just four months after the United States officially entered into World War II in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Pretty crazy to imagine they were already warning fans about being prepared for possible attacks and hiding under the grandstand. Big league baseball would soon be impacted when several players across the sport were drafted into military service, including the Giants' #4 and 5 hitters from this game, Johnny Mize and Willard Marshall.

Much feeling against Stengel and Paul Waner. I love this note. The kind of thing you don't see in a box score---the home crowd was really getting on Braves manager Casey Stengel and Paul Waner. Looking at the context it's easy to see why. Mind you, this was the early phase of Casey Stengel's career before he became an icon as manager of the championship dynasty Yankees in the 1950s. When Delmore was at Braves Field for this game, Stengel's stewardship of the Braves had led to three consecutive seasons of 7th-place finishes and they were on their way to a fourth consecutive 7th place finish. The hometown fans were also probably angry that the Braves had blown the previous day's game against the Giants when they gave up 3 runs in the 9th to lose 8-5. The other guy who the fans were apparently giving a hard time was future Hall of Fame outfielder Paul Waner, the team's best player who had taken an 0-for-4 in that previous day's loss and came into this game batting .188 (he fared no better in this game, going 0-for-4). 

The Giants scored three in the first. Mize hit the wall twice with doubles, thinking the first time that he had hit a homer.  Johnny Mize, another future Hall of Famer, had been traded to the Giants the previous December so this was one of his first games in a Giants uniform and he made a good impression. Mize mashed for the Giants in that 1942 season, finished fifth in MVP voting, and then got pulled into military service and went off to fight in World War II, missing the next three full seasons. 

Melton argued with the umpire in the first, Witek looked pathetic, Tobin disgusted. Werber had a rooting section loudly against him. Interesting that he notes Cliff Melton, the starting pitcher for the Giants that day, was arguing with the umpire in the first inning---maybe because he walked the first batter?---he didn't get into trouble in the 1st and ended up pitching a complete game for the win. The comment about Mickey Witek, the Giants second baseman, seems pretty harsh! Then you notice Witek went 0-for-4 and grounded into two double plays. The keen-eyed baseball evaluator Delmore was clearly picking up on something because Witek would go on to lead the major leagues in grounding into double plays that season. "Tobin disgusted"---that would be the Braves starting pitcher Jim Tobin who failed to make it out of the 1st inning. "Werber had a rooting section loudly against him"---this one is interesting to try to figure out. Werber was playing third base and leading off for the Giants, but he wasn't an impactful player and while he had a couple hits in the game he didn't do much else. My guess is these well-informed and cranky Boston fans remembered Werber when he played for the Boston Red Sox for four seasons during the 1930s.

A purple-black curtain of cloud, like a quilt or like a great Assyrian army with chariots, was over the sky. The crowd was pleased that the Red Sox had defeated the Yankees. This is the type of magnificent description you get when a gifted poet journals his experience at a baseball game. Also funny that he notes the crowd cheering when the out-of-town scoreboard showed the Boston Red Sox had defeated the Yankees in New York that day, 5-2. 

A strong wind blowing, much smoke, much soot from the railroad yards, the fragrancy of Pittsburgh. I admired the strength of the locomotive, the instruments (what are the names?), pistons, which drew up and down, and moved the wheels. So, too, a child might be given a toy railroad train, Industrialismus. Another set of fascinating first-person details. The Society of American Baseball Research website has a very informative article about the old Boston Braves Field (the Braves moved to Milwaukee before the 1953 season then bounced over to Atlanta in 1966) where they note the ballpark's close proximity to the Boston & Albany Railroad which eventually led to deterioration of the ballpark structure. You can see in the below picture (click to expand, see bottom right) how the rail yards were just beyond the left field fence. Delmore describes the experience of being there with such exactitude that you can smell the steel. Not bad for a brief entry in his journal.  

Boston Braves Field (from here)

Couple more notes about this game:

- This game featured no fewer than five future Hall of Famers: Mel Ott, Johnny Mize, Paul Waner, Ernie Lombardi, and Warren Spahn.

- Incredibly, this game actually featured the major league debut of the great lefty Warren Spahn. The 21-year-old entered the game in the 5th inning, retired both batters he faced, then was removed and only appeared in three more games the whole rest of the season (Casey Stengel got mad at him because he refused to throw at batters on purpose). Like Johnny Mize, Spahn enlisted in the military and spent the next three full seasons in military service. He fought at the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded a Purple Heart. Upon his return in 1946 he went on to pitch for 20 full seasons in the major leagues, finishing his career as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. And the poet Delmore Schwartz just so happened to witness his big league debut at Boston Braves field on a random Sunday afternoon in April 1942. 

Read Part 2 here.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

RIP Dick Allen (1942-2020)

Dick Allen batting for the Chicago White Sox.
Playing for Chicago in 1972, he won the AL MVP Award.

One of the most dominant hitters in major league baseball history, Dick Allen, died earlier this week a day after he should have been elected into the Hall of Fame. It's sad and shameful that baseball's Hall of Fame committees didn't manage to vote him in before he died. Although he didn't have that long of a career, Dick Allen was a fearsome offensive force and put up huge numbers during the lowest-scoring years of modern baseball. He also did this while having to withstand the bitter racism and bigotry of 1960s Phillies fans who would pelt him with garbage so often that Allen wore his batting helmet in the field for protection and was even moved off third base into left field to keep him safe from the wrath of his team's home-field fans. 

I became interested in Dick Allen when I was a teenager devouring books about baseball history. He stood out as a fascinating figure, a name I'd never heard of before whose performance ranked him among the best baseball players ever. I wondered why he wasn't a household name like some of his contemporaries. The dude did nothing but mash. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 1964 with one of the best rookie seasons ever, when he led all of baseball in runs scored (125) and triples (13), while topping the National League in Total Bases (352). He kept putting up big numbers for the next decade, eventually winning the AL MVP with the Chicago White Sox in 1972 after he had demanded to be traded out of Philly and bounced around St. Louis and Los Angeles. His career Adjusted OPS+ of 156 ranks him right up there with guys like Willie Mays, Frank Thomas, Hank Aaron, and Joe DiMaggio as the best right-handed hitters ever. From 1964 to 1974 he essentially put up Mike Trout numbers, perennially hitting 30 homers with a .300 batting average and tons of walks---all of this during the worst era for hitters in modern baseball history. In what became known as the Year of the Pitcher in 1968, when the entire league saw scoring sink to Deadball Era levels, Dick Allen crushed 33 homers and put up an .872 OPS (the average OPS in the NL that year was .641---for comparison, the average OPS in the 2020 MLB season was .740). 

As a sensitive black man playing in the 1960s and 70s, nothing was ever made easy for him and sometimes in the midst of conflicts with management he didn't make things easy for himself. Sportswriters almost uniformly turned against him and crafted an image of him as a bad teammate. It would take decades to set the record straight. Former teammates Goose Gossage and Mike Schmidt have been especially vocal in speaking the truth about him. Despite being a popular player with fans, an MVP, a Rookie of the Year, and seven-time All-Star, he was portrayed as a pariah and even Bill James mischaracterized him as a selfish player. All of this contributed to him being left out of the Hall of Fame. Thankfully, the Phillies franchise finally commemorated him this past summer, retiring his number 15.  

To go back and read about why Dick Allen was considered such a controversial player---Bill James once wrote that he did more to keep his teams from winning than any player ever---you would think there must be a distinction in opinion between those who followed his career when he played and those who didn't. The stories of Dick Allen as a malcontent seem no worse than the stories about Manny Ramirez during his career as a controversial player. You would think if the negative affect of their bad behavior was that meaningful it would show up in the stats. How much better could Dick Allen have hit though? He wasn't a good defensive player (like Manny), but just looking at the production at the plate it's hard to see where he could've improved. Manny had more success in the postseason than Dick Allen but the latter would probably have appeared in the playoffs more with the expanded postseason format we've had the last 30 years. And both Manny and Dick Allen did nothing but rake year after year. If not for his steroid suspensions, Manny Ramirez would be a lock for the Hall of Fame. His career was shorter than Manny's, but Dick Allen should be a lock for the Hall of Fame, too.

Allen broke into the league with one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history in 1964 and had his best season in 1972 when he won the AL MVP with a monster season (37 homers, 113 RBI, with his .420 OBP and 1.023 OPS both leading the major leagues). He consistently mashed during a low-scoring era while playing in pitcher-friendly home ballparks, competing against some of the greatest players in the history of the game. From 1964 to 1974 he was the most dominant hitter in major league baseball and look at some of the guys he outranked by Adjusted OPS+ (via

Dick Allen   165 OPS+

Willie McCovey 161 OPS+

Hank Aaron 159 OPS+

Frank Robinson 159 OPS+

Mickey Mantle 156 OPS+

By the way, Manny Ramirez has a similar career OPS+ (154) as Dick Allen (156) but while Ramirez had a longer career he never had a 10-year stretch as dominant as Dick Allen was from 1964 to 1974. 

Sadly, the Hall of Fame has screwed him over just like they did with Cubs legend Ron Santo. The third baseman Santo for years had a strong case to be elected to the Hall but they never actually voted him in until shortly after he died. There's a good chance they will do the same now with Dick Allen (he fell one vote short in 2014). Several famous and beloved retired baseball players have passed away in this horrible year of 2020 (among them Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Joe Morgan, and Jimmy Wynn) but losing Dick Allen when he was on the verge of finally getting elected into the Hall of Fame really stings. Baseball's Hall of Fame has gradually sacrificed any legitimacy or respectability it once had, with the stars of the 90s-00s era locked out because of performance enhancing drugs and guys like Dick Allen and Ron Santo seeing their lives end before they could get elected in. Meanwhile, inarguably far inferior players have been voted in recently, watering down the criteria for election to the Hall and just making the whole thing seem pointless and ridiculous.

If you'd like to read more about the life and career of Dick Allen, I direct you to some pieces written by authors with a much better understanding of this complicated saga: Steven Goldman at Baseball Prospectus and Jay Jaffe at Fangraphs wrote especially insightful pieces about the passing of Dick Allen this week. And this piece at Fangraphs by Shakeia Taylor from 2018 "Is Baseball Ready to Love Dick Allen?" was also helpful in learning more about the man Dick Allen was and what he dealt with. Also see Tyler Kepner's piece in the NY Times

During his MVP season with the White Sox in 1972 he appeared on this phenomenal Sports Illustrated cover:

Earlier this year, Brian Kenny on MLB Network broke down the statistical case for why Dick Allen deserved to be in the Hall of Fame:

Friday, November 27, 2020

New article in the James Joyce Quarterly on Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Front cover of JJQ volume 57.3-4. Cover art by David Nowlan.

I am excited to have a new piece that was published in the latest edition of the James Joyce Quarterly. This piece is a book review of the newest book from the legendary American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a fascinating and entertaining text called Little Boy: A Novel. The full article is behind a subscription wall, but you can read the first half of it here

Here's the opening paragraph: 

The American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned one hundred years old in 2019. To mark the occasion, he published Little Boy: A Novel, a compulsively readable feast for the mind stuffed into a breezy 192-page text. Though calling itself a novel, it is hardly fiction. The book reads more like a memoir written as an epic poem in a lyrical thought-stream prose style devoid of plot, bereft of punctuation, laced with literary criticism, and seared with socio-political commentary. It is a novel in the truest sense of the word: Ferlinghetti made something new.

If you're wondering why this review of Ferlinghetti's latest book was in the James Joyce Quarterly, it's because Little Boy is a sort of homage to Joyce. You can find Ferlinghetti quoting from Finnegans Wake and Ulysses from his earliest published works like A Coney Island of the Mind (1958). He continued to bring Joyce into his poetry for decades and Little Boy is a sort of culmination or capstone of Ferlinghetti's career, an epic poem in the form of a stream-of-consciousness in which he quotes and imitates Joyce frequently (among countless other literary allusions). Over at my "Finnegans, Wake!" blog I shared a post with a bunch of examples of Ferlinghetti alluding to Joyce in Little Boy.

Besides the prominent Joycean element, the reason I wrote the review is because I absolutely loved Little Boy: A Novel. It has to be one of the best books I've ever read. Little Boy is both moving and laugh-out-loud funny, the language is incredibly rich and engrossing with sentences that go on for pages and build up momentum, mixing lyricism and mysticism with memoir, literary criticism with social commentary, the author's earliest memories and experiences with his observations on modern society while sitting inside a cafe in San Francisco. There are reflections on several famous literary figures Ferlinghetti was friends with like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, etc. Ferlinghetti has had a very rich century of existence---he commanded a sub chaser in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day in 1944, he went to Nagasaki in 1945 after the atomic bomb dropped and was so horrified he became a staunch pacifist and activist for the rest of his life. In 1953 he founded City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and went on to publish Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems which led to him going to jail for obscenity charges. He's published dozens of books of poetry, novels, and plays and is also a talented painter.

In January I randomly picked up A Coney Island of the Mind from my bookshelf and started reading it. I had discovered the book back in 2018 on a trip to the Bay Area where the title had caught my eye as I perused the bookshelf of a friend I was visiting. Didn't know anything about it at the time, but having grown up in NYC and played hockey at Abe Stark Arena in Coney Island for many years, the title of that dog-eared slim volume intrigued me. So when I later visited City Lights bookstore on the same trip, I picked up a brand new copy of A Coney Island of the Mind. At the time I didn't know was Ferlinghetti's most famous book and that I was standing in Ferlinghetti's own bookstore purchasing it. Once I finally started reading it earlier this year, I got hooked immediately. 

For the next few months I read and re-read several books by Ferlinghetti, my favorite being the second volume of his epic poem on the history of America called Time of Useful Consciousness (published in 2012, the title is derived from an aeronautical term denoting the time between when one loses oxygen and when one passes out, the brief time in which some life-saving action is possible). Then I picked up his newest book, Little Boy: A Novel (2019), and it just blew me away. While I haven't read every single one of Ferlinghetti's books yet, I have read most of them now and I can say with some certainty that Little Boy is his greatest work. A perfect distillation of all the knowledge and experience he's acquired over a century of existence neatly packed into a relatively short book. The structure is economical because there are no chapter breaks and after the first 15 pages or so there are even very few sentence breaks. The text becomes a rushing river of poetic prose. The language is full of informal dialects, street talk, puns, and idioms. Ferlinghetti is a (now) 101-year-old poet who has owned a bookstore for more than six decades so his knowledge of literature is virtually unsurpassed among those walking the earth. He's also an old New Yorker with a great sense of humor. This creates an irresistibly rich and entertaining gestalt that never seems to leave anything out. 

I enjoyed it so much that when I finished reading Little Boy: A Novel, I immediately turned back to the first page and started reading it again. Then I finished it a second time and immediately read it again a third time. Reading books has been my main hobby for a while now and I can't recall having that kind of experience where I read one book cover-to-cover three times in a row. 

Trying to summarize why I love this book so much, I come up this: as a NY native, I relate to Ferlinghetti with all his memories of Yonkers where he was born (and where I played many hockey games at an outdoor rink where I once scored a hat trick); I relate to Ferlinghetti's obsession with Joyce, especially Finnegans Wake; the informal, playful language he uses makes him a joy to read; there's so much to learn from his literary allusions and stories; he also loves baseball and refers to it frequently in this book; Ferlinghetti views the world thru the eye of a mystic; with all of his experience, knowledge, and wisdom, he is exactly the person whose perspective I am hoping to learn from as he comments, in longwinded jeremiads, on our current political and environmental predicaments. 

The review I wrote for JJQ was restricted by a word count so I had to keep it short and here I am going on about this book and I've barely touched on its most moving element as a memoir. Besides all the cultural-political-social commentary and piles of literary allusions, the core of Little Boy is about the little boy Lawrence Ferlinghetti who had a difficult upbringing which impacted him the rest of his life. His father died shortly before he was born. His mother couldn't handle another child and ended up in a mental hospital so she gave the baby to her sister. Ferlinghetti was raised by his Aunt Emilie and learned to speak French. For a while they lived with a wealthy family who his aunt was working for until suddenly she just left with no explanation, never to be seen again, and young Lawrence grew up without any real family around. As the book carries on we get more insight into the imprint of his childhood in which he never received real love or affection.

There are so many passages in this book that I've starred, underlined, and annotated and I'm tempted to quote from it at length. As I describe in the JJQ review, the style of this book is totally unconventional. Sentences span several pages with no punctuation and he jumps from one thing to the next and back again. I will share a long section here from pgs 93-96 where you can get an idea of how this book works. Note: A big block of unbroken text ensues. Not always easy to follow, but always richly rewarding to read.  This selection begins immediately after Ferlinghetti quotes from an unusually profound Levi's advertisement he saw in San Francisco one recent summer: 

And who was that speaking if not Whitman or every common man on earth or elsewhere who else if not an American certainly not a European with all his baggage of centuries like Pasolini said when he came to New York in the 1960s and met the New Left rads and wrote that he envied these Americans who could act without first having to wade through thirty centuries of intellectual baggage like what would Heidegger do or what would Descartes do or what would Plato say or Plutarch or Herodotus or Gramsci or some other great looming intellect haunting their old Euro heads yeah you can imagine what with the European Communist parties tied up in knots and eventually destroying the student revolution or revelation of 1968 And what Tarquin said in his garden with the poppy blooms was understood by the son but not by the messenger and so today the messenger embodied now as the media spreads confusion and doubt as to any eternal verity as indeed so do the philosophers or other heavy-headed thinkers who spread doubt in every direction even as Socrates did So that so that today there is a veritable clearance sale of ideas strained through the semiliterate media which ends up giving us a kind of Gazpacho Expressionism or cut-up consciousness as in William Burroughs' Naked Lunch or in John Cage's cut-up of any classic text as he did Finnegans Wake annihilating the beautiful hushed talk of Irish washerwomen gossiping in the gloaming while doing their washing on a riverbank where field mice squawk and dusk falling and night descending into doubt and despair and fear and trembling O lord save us Blind in our courses we know not what we do or where we go O the semiconscious existential despair of not knowing who we are and the boy all his life looking for himself and where he came from Father lost Mother in a madhouse and he the little kid wandering around knowing nothing having been told nothing of where he came from and who was to tell him the little kid plunked down on earth somewhere alone like a stray cat or pup without a collar or name tag and how was he to find himself in this twirling world spinning to the music of the spheres which is the sound of Om in which all sound is absorbed in which all thought all feelings all senses are absorbed yes and Om the sound of living itself the great Om of all our breathing the voice of life the voice of our buried life the voice of the voice of the blood then coursing through us through even the penis that strange appendage a peninsula of sorts a third arm or leg that so imperiously asserts its authority and inopportunely rises up and inserts itself into affairs personal or worldly and then so arrogantly lets us down at critical moments at the very gates of paradise or Nirvana or hell and refuses all our incitements "of mind and hand" as some Frenchie philosophe said even as he let down his pants in the queen's chamber indeed indeed and we are left with the perpetual astonishment of man on earth when confronted with himself or his penis indeed what a piece of work is man and this his daybook his nightbook and I am not writing some kind of Notes from the Underground as if I had any idea where any underground is these days if I ever knew since I've always been off in my own burb in some suburb of consciousness dreaming away or otherwise goofing off or picking my nose in hopeless cellars with fellow travelers or their ilk imagining I'm going to change the world or something and so I'm just some kind of literary freak and my mind the constipated thought of the race all too shallow to be called nihilism while all the while all I want to do is walk around the earth cooking the Joy soup What else is there to do with the rest of eternity and would you tell me what it is we're all supposed to do on earth anyway I mean truly just sit right down and think of an answer to all that while there's still time just give me a concrete answer as to what humans are supposed to do with all our time what on earth that is are we just to sit around like blobs of perspiring protoplasm or like chimps in trees scratching our fleas or whatever I mean maybe in fact it's just dreaming that we're supposed to do after everyone is fed after all is said and done oh no that's just a big evasion of the basic burning question What I want to know is what in hell are we here on earth for anyway baby baby Am I your bedroom philosopher or Doctor of Alienation Am I a willing well-fed participant and protagonist in our consumer society a consumer-gatherer or a rebel antagonist revolutionary an enemy of the state or something in between neither fish nor fouling-piece Tell me tell me the night is young and you're so beautiful pardon me if I am overdutiful Babeee and that's what he was asking himself as he grew up into something new and strange at least in the eyes of some totally objective journalist sent down here to earth by some managing editor with a low tolerance for malarkey who wants the truth and nothing but the truth so let 'em have it tell us what is what and who we are and what we are doing down here anyway The top-dog editor wants to know the straight story and are you man enough to tell it or are you brain enough to tell it and are you man enough to say I love you man   (Little Boy: A Novel, pgs 93-96)