Monthly Archives: December 2013

A novella in pictures: Lives of Passion

I never wrote anything like this before, but now I have, and I do not like it much, but I liked the book, and the text exists.

Gene McCormick’s Lives of Passion: Edward and Antoinette (Rockford, Illinois: RWG Press, 2013), the author’s thirteenth book, is a series of interlocking prose poems that tell, in seventeen short pieces, the story of an ordinary couple–mid-century figures whose lives have run together–from childhood on. The meanings of “passion” here include a strong connection to life through physical experience and contact with things: the sensations of childhood, when everything touched is an experiment or discovery and time seems long, or the sensuality that persists in the characters even when only manifested through Edward’s mild voyeurism or Antoinette’s taste for wine. Passion also signals the slow erosion of their bond and their bodies as they struggle against, but also toward death.

The bright and impersonal light that bursts on the characters when, as children, they come up from play in a darkened basement, “back up the stairs, through the empty kitchen into the wide sunny yard” (II) is not mentioned directly but appears to break again after Antoinette’s lonely death in a dim apartment—

It is a broad avenue of young cars, of people of an age to possess them, of dusty dreams long ago set aside. Antoinette lived on this passageway, and so did Edward, but they don’t anymore.

(XVII)

These changes in light are also the indices of time that structure this collection in a complex rhythm. Between youth and middle age decades flash by, and we only catch glimpses of the couple’s lives. Sections of days, on the other hand, are slow and richly drawn, with a painterly emphasis on lines and dimensions, color, shadow, and luminosity:

On a straight-back wooden chair alone in her bedroom, Antoinette lifts her bare leg as high as it will go—not straight like a horizon line but bent sharply, knee-to-ankle hanging vertically as a faded orange swath painted on air.

                        …

The room is enveloped in dusk-gray, with dim white lights bordering the mirror. Focusing, she draws a Band-Aid on her right wrist with a mascara brush, rendering it not at all life-like.

(VII)

Painterly as well is the weight given physical objects, and the treatment of the characters as figures in a visual field. Textures are thrown into relief as our eye is drawn in close, while tableaux like photographs come into view as we step back. Subtle shifts in perspective work to create a thickly layered realism:

On Tuesday mornings the elderly lady shops for discounted fruits and vegetables, near-rotted and priced at a dollar a box. Other shoppers bump her ankles with their carts and reach and grab items from in front of her. It is terrifying.

(XVI)

Things have as much substance as people, and are granted equal weight. Visual tension is tight and the characters’ struggle with the material world (or the inanimate, or what comes before words and lies beyond them) is closely framed

. . . do you remember the primordial days of school . . . when teachers awarded gold stars for accomplishments and they had glue on the back you had to lick anyway and fell off . . . and when you tried to pick them off the ground . . . or even the top of your shoe, the corners would get bent because your stubby fingers weren’t adroit?

(I)

There are conversations in this book but we do not hear the characters reflect, or speak to themselves except, perhaps, in this passage, where Edward contemplates the Taiwanese girl he hired the night before:

A half-empty wine glass sits on the edge of the nightstand, her underwear is beside the bed and other clothes scattered about. Christ, he says to himself, running a hand through matted hair, Christ.

(XIII)

Instead we see them act and dissimulate. The scenes they set as mirrors in which to form themselves and later, to keep up appearances are also spaces of investigation, or frames for a kind of quest. Passion is this search, purposeful even if not explained as these complicit, isolated, only apparently aimless characters contemplate first each other, then the dark.

Edward disappears from the narrative before Antoinette, whom we last perceive in a precarious old age. The soup can in her cabinet is now the only object in the house etched clearly. The narrow dank of this life at its end makes the series’ last shot, of the avenue of “young cars” where Antoinette and Edward once lived, but “don’t anymore,” seem almost a spiritual revelation. It may not be news that the world is made of small lives and draws its depth from this, but the vista still startles.

These characters are not interesting or even particularly likeable as people, and there are sordid undercurrents in their life together from early on. Unlike Antoinette’s family friends (III) they do not entirely avoid interaction, do not keep things under control; this is why their wavering path through the world becomes an addition to it.

McCormick’s poetic prose hits no false notes, and he sketches the story out as quickly as we can follow it. Read straight through the narrative is heady, taking us in just a few minutes from the “primordial days” of childhood to the world as it appears after death. Each piece also stands on its own and entices the reader to look long and look again, as with a set of installations, souls built word by word.

Axé.

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2014

So I am now over it. Over the current bout of nostalgia for places and activities and lives I missed. Over my rage at having succumbed to the pressure to renounce these things.

I still say that what I do not like about professors is that they are not aware of any other interesting jobs–they think everything else is some sort of meaningless sales position, or something like that–which means they are not qualified advisors, I do note.

I also note that my anger about pressure to put up with bad situations is essentially the same as that of the adjuncts who are apparently now told they must keep on going.

I do insist, however, that my current no-wailing-allowed, no nonsense policy with my institution, forged over the summer and kept to all fall while being honed further, can have a distinct effect upon it. Is already having this effect.

I also reiterate, to those who claim that the problem with “education” is the faculty, it is not — it is the defunding of institutions and systems. Everyone should be able to see that, and it is shocking to me how many do not.

#OccupyHE

Axé.

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La grande bellezza

It may not be possible for all to see the epoch-making Hockney exhibit at the DeYoung Museum, as I have done, but more can perhaps see this film, which exists in a similar vein, the next generation of realizations and images. Seriously.

Axé.

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On Utah

The reason I am this irritated, of course, is that California is this beautiful and I am in exile.

In any case, it turns out that before becoming a teacher in California my grandmother was one in Washington, Oregon, and before that, Utah, all in the first years of the twentieth century. In Utah she taught for rural Mormon communities where wives would say, “You should marry my husband; he would give you a house.”

All of this was before college, which she undertook at Berkeley, graduating in 1912. She was very old, my grandmother.

#OccupyHE

Axé.

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And so you can see

…that I am really angry about being pushed to things by people who know nothing of what they are discussing and of me. They think that academic jobs are nice, that all other jobs are wicked, and that I have no skills. Yet it is very important to them that I have an academic job. I am seething at everyone who has lectured on at me like this for so long.

I am seething more the people who have seen that they were wrong about everything and are now pushing me to retire … all right, I was wrong, they say, why don’t you retire, then?

Well: to be able to retire so soon before retirement age, in the first place, I would have had to have a lucrative job, not an academic one, so that would be unrealistic even if desired.

Next: I wanted a career. An academic career was not my first choice once I found out what these were really like, but I wanted a career and did not want to be a housewife. I have committed to some research projects because others wanted me to have an academic job, and I will not have them wrenched out of my hands now just because people have finally understood that academic jobs are not what they thought and that my plans and skill levels were better and higher than they thought.

L’enfer, c’est les autres.

#OccupyHE

Axé.

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Now I see

One of the things about academic jobs is that you need to be a good caretaking type. I am not interested in this and would not go into it professionally but I can see that people who are interested in geriatric care, care of disabled children, and so on, are people better suited to most academic jobs than I.

You cannot be intellectually oriented or research oriented primarily. You need those skills, and you need to follow advice books to force yourself to use them sometimes, but mostly you need to be oriented toward butler type services and care of the disabled. Then you perform the kinds of tasks required with joy.

Furthermore, if you are a good, traditional wife type of person then you will not have difficulty with chairs, directors, or administrators.

#OccupyHE

Axé.

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Postscript and note to Dame Eleanor Hull, updated

3/- It’s gorgeous here, and Dame Eleanor should come back. I have discerned that “take a job, any job” means, to some, “you may have to take jobs in places as horrible as Madison or Ann Arbor.” I have also discovered that the people who think there are only academic jobs, simply have no information.

I wanted to walk off work the first week of my first professor job, move to L.A. and get some kind of research or writing work. I am sure I could have done it.

At the time I thought it very unwise to move away from where there was other work. That is a real bridge or ship burning and it is unwise, but professors push people to it, like pushing them off a cliff.

2/- I have finally understood why people keep repeating that publications are the only thing that count. There are people who do still not know this, do not believe it, do not expect it really to be true, or do not agree with it and want to make it untrue. It is to these people that those who keep on preaching that publications are the only thing that count, are speaking.

1/- I am in California, a superior place to many or most, and not worth renouncing unless for something else that is really good. People keep saying I am completely different from other professors and it is perhaps that I, unlike most professors, am not mean or supercilious or condescending or immature or ignorant of life. I keep finding that professors are stunningly unrealistic when not downright delusional.

A professor would say I should want to be practically bound, mutilated, and thrown into a Siberian cell just for the sake of a tenure track or tenured job, any tenure track or tenured job. Otherwise, one is not a real scholar, or serious about one’s work, or valid as an intellectual, or worthy as a person. If one takes a job that is not an academic job, one never deserved an academic job anyway.

I am sorry but those who say such things are low people. I mean, they are really low people. They should not be in the kinds of positions they have, or say such things to students.

0/- I am considered different from all other faculty because I am not interested in aimless discussion or rote memorization. This has been an issue in all my jobs except the R1 jobs. This really surprises me about the other places, but it is true.

#OccupyHE

Axé.

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