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Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Snake and the Fire

When summer's over, I drive over to a rented studio in West Haven where I make pots, sculptures, and the occasional painting. Often I'll just sit surrounded by all my clay and instead write bits of rhyming poetry. Or I'll stretch out on the blue rug, and do yoga.

Cannabis is extremely helpful in the production of rigorous abstract poems, either rhyming or free verse. Combined with yoga, this herb is really superb for the mind. Smoked alone, it can lull the brain, and body to sleep. I've discovered the other side of the plant - it's a stimulant of thought.

My wife and I bought a house for the first time in our lives just last year. Working on it has taken over my life recently, and this summer, when West Haven temperatures at the studio made potting really uncomfortable, I've been up north, working on the new place. It's a 'fixer-upper', sold to us by a cousin. A lot of my family referred to it as a 'tear-down-job". All spring long I've been there cutting massive trees which the previous owners let grow so close to the building that some of the branches were threatening to break inside. I bought a chainsaw and have been at it hard, weeks on end.

Felling a tree is easy when compared with the work of dealing with the fallen wood. Limbing, splitting firewood, and hauling away brush is exhausting work. I'm a believer in cutting up everything that can be used as fuel, and not running good wood through chipping machines, which is a tendency in northern climates these days.

Make your own pact with the petroleum God. I use him to get there, then get back. Then I turn him off. He uses me to help get the carbon out of the earth. High cost in the short run, but man is doing his job.

I don't run a generator for electric lights though I could. We're off the grid, too far from the main road. I therefor do my reading by daylight. I rise early, and I enjoy the first few hours of darkness in the evening, sitting and looking into the fire, listening to the sounds each log telling it's life history as it burns, or the loons goofing around on the lake if it happens to be a moonlit night.

Recently my pottery hit a high point. For years I've made the same forms again and again, plates and teabowls, and I've let the wood fire at the co-operative kiln in Cold Spring decide how they should be different. Sometimes I'll splash on a little iron oxide with a brush and see if that changes the outcome but by in large I'm submitting blank pages for the fire to write on, preferring not to compete with a writer that has a whole lot more experience than me.


About a year ago I made a large one of a kind vase by first constructing a square four sided vase out of four slabs of damp clay and then using a rib and curved wooden spatula to distend and stretch the form into shape from the inside with pressure from my hand inserted through the top. The giant vessel looked so much like so many others thrown by potters all over the globe. It needed something. I remembered that just a week earlier, on my way returning from a previous firing, I ran over a stick in the road, but when the car rolled over it I realized it wasn't a stick, but a giant black snake, that had crawled onto the road.

I stopped the car and turned back. The wheels had broken it's back, close to its tail. Hissing at me angrily, it mustered the strength to crawl off the gravel and into the leafy moist undergrowth.

I felt terrible.

The American Racer, or Coluber constrictor, is non-venomous, extremely fast moving, and like the King Cobra, deadly to other snakes.

So I decided, in memory of the snake which I most likely had killed, to put an image of the Racer upon the top of this giant vase, the biggest pot that I have ever made.

The pot was biscuit fired, and sat about in my studio for the past two years. I'm a believer in energies. I waited for a sign that it was time to fire this piece. If it turned out, somehow the spirit of that snake would be brought to heaven. I would be absolved of my crime. No cobra in India would seek revenge for it's brother in New York State because I had not been caring enough to honor it's passing.

Sure enough two months ago my son and I came upon no less than three different snakes of different species at our Adirondack place within a few days. I resolved to glaze and fire the big pot at the next opportunity.

I took it to Tony Moore's kiln to glaze and ready it for the firing. It was exactly the same kind of damp rainy July during which the black racer snake had been run over by my car. I felt almost haunted as I took the large pot out of the back of the car and brought it into the studio.

I decided to give it a heavy application of Shino glaze, request that in loading it be put on the top shelf of the main chamber. Tony, the owner of the kiln, very kindly complied.

The following week I showed up for my eight hour stint stoking the kiln from midnight until eight in the morning. The entire firing took over three days. A large number of potters were involved, an orchestrated event which Mr. Moore had superbly organized. All through the night I thought about the snake inside the kiln.

That week I researched cobras. I wanted to know if the energy caused by my accidental injury of a sacred creature had been released through fire. I learned cobras (the black racer is not a cobra) have a remarkable memory of individual people, and their faces. I learned that a person who has harassed a cobra when he looks through a peephole into the snake's cage, will be greeted by a flared hood and hissing, whereas a stranger would be ignored.

Meditating upon these discoveries I realized that this pot, and these researches were all part of a mediation, a ritual of sorts, that had started early in my childhood when I read Kipling's short story Rikki-Tikki-Tavi about the vengeful king cobra, Nag, that plans on exacting revenge on a young family. The family mongoose saves the day.

There is another angle to this complex of superstition in my mind:

Somewhere in my adolescence I began to upend this primitive mythology. And as fate would have it my wife bought a place near Ahmedabad India where snakes live in relative abundance. Common Cobras, King Cobras, Russell's Vipers, Common Kraits, all live around the house. I became fascinated. Obsessed even. I read all I could about snake worship in India. In parts of Bengal, to this day giant King Cobra's are coaxed from their holes by priests, and paraded around town amidst the din of a hundred drums and chanting villagers. The snake is anointed, touched with sacred herbs, ghee, and red powder. He is fed milk and butter. A serpent with venom enough to kill an entire village bites no one. The King is a friend of Man.

Most of the time.

I realized I would need to find a way to make peace with the cobras in order to co-habit.

During my last visit to the place a few years ago I walked the property with the driver who had brought me out. Large Nilgai roamed about, grazing on the low hanging leaves. I took some pictures. The dry season was ending.

We spotted a large black cobra sunning on the dirt path. Immediately we gave chase. The intention was to afford me a chance to take a picture, but the snake moved too fast. All I could do was run through the bush alongside it and try to snap a shot as it fled past me. The photo posted here shows a tiny fragment of the snake's partially flared hood and body as it made a beeline for cover.

Later I realized what a dangerous thing I'd done, and now I wonder - will this snake remember me?  Will it lie in wait for me or one of my family just as Nag in Kipling's story waited on the cool tile floor for the Englishman?

Into the fire I sent my best wishes to snakes everywhere, vowing, that when I get back to India, I would pour this particular serpent, a bowl of warm milk to lap up on a warm winter day.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


I re-inhabit my apartment on Mott Street, and feel like a child who has grown, trying to put on an old shoe.

New York is the only home possible at this time. So I've applied myself once more to cleaning walls and floor, making them mine even if only for a few months, before my life as wanderer and mercenary tears me away. Thankfully, I can write anywhere. Sometimes even the discomfort, noise, and dirt, of which this place has plenty, helps.


A changing life accelerates the passage of time - I am nearly thirty! I look at letters friends wrote when I was in Paris working on "Quartet". That seems an age. Now when I revisit Boston, or New York, or Paris, I feel London, or Rome, or Calcutta sandwiched between them, like a pea between sheets.


Where does time go? I roam the streets and wonder about the fates of the people I knew. Their lives are moving, changing, giving birth to new lives, ceasing, starting over.

MF and I saw Goddard's new film "Passion". We ate gumbo and cornbread at a place on Eighth Ave called "Barking Fish" and on the way home I walked past the old New York City Police Department building and thought of my grandfather's early years there cutting his teeth as a reporter.


The world crackles with small wars.

Fires ignite in the heat of a crowded planet. Grenada, Lebanon, Pakistan, El Salvador. TOn the outcome of these vicious and bloody conflicts, ride the fates of millions of souls, powerless to affect the outcome. As giant nations, faculties too large, too clumsy to meddle with the destinies of small countries. Yet inevitably we get involved, and where our hand goes to assist, it crushes.

Our capability to sort out ideologies in the third world are paralyzed by our own overwhelming capacity to destroy. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R have turned mechanisms of global politics into a bomb, as if with a desperate threat to end all wars. Ironic because wars haven't ended, ironic if the only way to end all wars is to end the world.

History mythologizes victory as an achievement, as a passage, as progress, a release of surplus energy and a legitimate means of settling disputes between  rival ideologies.

So our collective consciousness excuses war as necessary evil. We are the species that kills itself, consumes what the other has built or made, and destroys everything in a flash of fire. Out of war we forge values that supposedly carry a stronger society into peacetime. Stories by old warriors, valor, bravery, courage, morph into hubris. Every larger piles of ego, to burn and lay waste.

Homo sapiens as a species needs to generate values from within, without testing them on the battlefield of mutual destruction. That's a naive idea to most historiographers. Progress would be a wholesale elevation of the human mind, bringing our species to a time when wars are not be necessary, when myths evolve through processes that are creative, not destructive.

Golden Topaz Dreams

A golden topaz dream. Precious. I was living in the M_____ house. G___ and I fornicate almost every day. For me this is very difficult to live with. I eat his food in the morning, sit at his table at night, sleep beneath his roof. Often, just before I doze off, G___ comes running upstairs in her nightgown. She pulls it up and straddles me lying in bed, and encourages me to go ahead. R____ must be in the shower. The situation is desperate.

Still in the dream, one morning I find him listening attentively to my complaints about money. The next day amongst my things I find a package of new one-hundred dollar bills. There are more than a thousand of them. There is no note, but the message is clear. Let me have my wife back. There is something tragic about this. I sense his love, but also his dependence on her. How had he raised this sum. Recently all his theaters were foreclosed by the banks. The sight of this cash fills me with an overwhelming sense of guilt. It stains the delicate fantasy that G___ and I have created.

I awake, bathed in sweat.


Another dream, red fighting clocks.


A dream of a conversation with a sea-captain. Thrown into the oceans after his ship went down, nearly eaten by a butcher whale (I know what a butcher shark is but what is a 'butcher whale'?). H was saved by the butcher whale baby, which tried to swallow him whole, but couldn't, instead he got his wrist caught in the corner of its gaping mouth. He said, "And all the Jaws were there waiting their turn," meaning sharks. I don't remember how he got out of the water that day, but he did.


Sunday January 15, 1984


On Saturday morning, the second weekend of the new year I make a trip up by taxi in the wet squelching snow to the office of Charles Gomez, my accountant. Once a year I do this.

He's moved office a number of times in recent years, now works in a building opposite one of those giant hanger-like structures built by the army, for the National Guard. A year ago Gomez's office was opposite a giant air-inflated tennis court.

Gomez himself is tall, always taller than I remember. He has very black skin, but short curly grey hair. This Saturday, as if noting the snowy conditions outside, he wore a red-checked wool flannel shirt.

It's a ritual we go through. How are you Mark. Fine Charles. Thank-you for your Christmas card. I think you were the only one to send me one this year. Can you hang on a moment, and I'll be right with you.

This is all part of it. I make use of his Xerox machine to copy my tax notes. This year I am organized. Everything Charles will need is typewritten onto one piece of clean white paper. In past years I've had to sit at an empty desk in his office for an hour, adding long lists of numbers.

This year I talk with his secretary about Weight Watchers. She lost twenty pounds, a lifetime member.

Come on in Mark, I'll just get your file.


Outside, Lexington Avenue is quiet. People walk carefully in the snow. Vehicles move cautiously along. I turn down toward Gramercy Park, and pass by the entrance of the old hotel. Ruth and I were there once. We went up to check the room that her parents had reserved and were going to stay in. We put some flowers and magazines on the bedside table. She took her underwear off and we made love for a little while. Then we locked up the room and took the key back down to the front desk.

Another time I sat in the Park sifting gravel through my hands, lying in the the sun with Sean. She lived at the Woman's Evangelical Residence on Gramercy Park. It was a home for good girls and single women, run by the Salvation Army. A tall building, many floors, it resembled a hotel. Men were excluded. An imposing woman with a white uniform sat at a desk near the front and stopped me and called up. I met Sean's father in the waiting room. We sat and talked, then he went on his way. Her parents were divorced.

One Sunday morning Sean and I went up to an empty lounge in the Residence, and recorded dialogue and sound effects for Jim's film "Jane Austen in Manhattan". I had a Nagra tape recorder and a long boom microphone. When I asked her to do footsteps I kept picking up the sound of her bluejeans rubbing together. So she very nicely took them off. She was naked. I was very nervous the matron would come up and see her and kick her out of the Residence. We were just recording sound.

We went a couple of times to the movies, and almost became good friends. I was madly infatuated with her, though, and she knew it. I must have also been impatient. We stopped seeing each other. I left messages for her but she never returned them.

Slowly down through the snow and puddles of slush to Fourteenth Street. Hey man want some sesamia? What's that? Smoke man, smoke!

No, I don't want any smoke.

Snow. Peace. Time. A yearly event. Gomez's gravelly voice was filled with that ease that comes after a winter's rest. Each year his office is littered with construction equipment, never ending improvements. He stopped bugging me about the projector he wanted me to buy. I wonder if he sold it.

Last night Barney came down to Mott Street, and shouted outside my window. On his way to Paris again. We ate a quick dinner at the Milon Indian Restaurant on 1st Avenue and just made a showing of Hitchcock's "Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt". We were the last ones they sold tickets to. The theater was jammed, but we found a great spot against the wall. The girl who played the part of Charlie, and was almost murdered by her uncle, was beautiful. We wondered who she was.

Red Bar. Got talking with the waitress there. When we came in she said "Rolling Rock or Becks?" I figure she's said it about a million times. "Hey that's an Austrian hat isn't it?" she said to Barney. "How'd ya know?" he asked her. "I've been to Austria once, with my mother." She told us all about her two week trip through Europe. In all she was only three days in Vienna. Her powers of observation must have been tremendous. She told us about her parents, hoarding things. Boxes filled with shoes, floor to ceiling. Her brother's about to become a priest, he's studied in Rome since he was fourteen. In a bus in Rome she said, "Mama, that man's rubbing himself against me, I swear." Italian ladies brought them food when they learned they were a mother and daughter travelling together.

Chris came in. We'd arranged to meet him. Barney and he started making drawings of paintings by Diebenkorn. Our waitress friend supplied them with some index cards to draw on.

Barney and I left to go check out the Pyramid Club. Freezing night, people standing in line to get in. A girl emerges from the club, high standing blonde hair, leather cycle jeans cut away at the back, leather cycle jacket, see-through lace panty hose, nothing else. Image of her luscious ass on that freezing night, with everyone else shivering in the snow.

First Day of Friction

Friday December 30, 1983

First day of friction in the editing room.

Cathy attacked my cut of the first reel, and I responded badly. She was probably right.

Nevertheless, in order for "The Bostonians" to succeed, it is essential that we get along. Two editors, one of lesser experience (myself) working with a woman of greater experience. Quite the reverse of the film and novel which depicts a man of years and accomplishment courting a young woman. I find it interesting, to watch my reactions take a position within the greater scheme of Henry James' project, which all of us, Jim Ivory, Ismail Merchant the whole team, writer,, camera people crew and editors, are finishing.

James's story is split into two competing roles, an Southern gentleman with old fashioned ideas about a woman's place and his alter ego in the form of Vanessa Redgrave who plays the feminist Bostonian firebrand, Olive Chancellor. Together they compete for the affections of young Verena Tarrant, an impressionable idealist, who in my opinion, was badly cast. Christopher Reve, though just off Superman, is a talented actor - he plays the role marvelously. However nature makes him less convincing in scenes where he is required to fake attraction for Verena Tarrant, played by Madeleine Potter (no relation).

"The Bostonians", as an effort to express James, is beginning to flag in it's attempt to illustrate the workings of the male and female principle, and the deterioration of that attraction has acquired a load of hostility. It may have been what James meant all along, but Cathy and I may have been a little too successful at mirroring the story into our cutting room 'relations', especially where the task of editing reflects the male and female in equal parts, virtually at war with each other.

It is disappointing that warmth and affection, of a fatherly sort, which Chris is supposed to feel for Verena, does not succeed as well as his portrayal of rivalry with Olive Chancellor. Instead the male/female violence bred into the novel feels more a sort of repressed attraction for an older woman on the part of Superman, ala Stendhal or Flaubert. That is the aspect of the film we have stressed the most, men and women at odds, rather than in sympathy. The idea for the film as a tiny seed, which  develops at every stage of its growth, to work, must find female and male principles equally matched through to the final cut.

Cathy and I will have to be equally matched. I must get my cutting up to a level where she envies my work.

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