Friday, January 29, 2016

Death of a Bookseller




If, like me, you can’t pass a used bookshop without going in, to emerge at least an hour later with as many titles as you can carry shoved into your bag and your jacket pockets, then you’ll know that such establishments come in two kinds: the carefully curated variety, with titles categorized precisely and books wrapped neatly in protective mylar; and the other kind, where you wander among heaped mountains of books, ready at any time to be stunned by either a rare first edition or an avalanche.  Chicago’s Aspidistra Bookshop, which held down a spot on Clark Street for close to thirty years before closing in 1998, fell into the second category.  And I should know: I had the honor of working there for a couple of years while I finished writing my doctoral dissertation.  The place had two owners—Darrell Simmons, who only stopped in from time to time and who knew more about Yeats than anyone I’ve ever met (and I’ve met several Yeats scholars), and Ron Ellingson, with whom I worked.  Yesterday I attended Ron’s funeral, and I’ve been thinking about him and his bookshop all day.

A lot of people who came into Aspidistra asked about the name (on one occasion a woman told me she liked it so much she planned to name her daughter Aspidistra).  The Aspidistra is a plant, but not just any plant: it’s a plant you can abuse or ignore, but not kill.  You can put your cigarette butts out in its soil and it will keep growing.  You can put it in a coat closet for a month with no light and no water and it’ll laugh the experience off.  For Ron, it was an apt symbol not just for his bookshop, but for literary culture as a whole.  Ron was also a big fan of George Orwell, whose Keep the Aspidistra Flying cast a hard, cynical gaze on the entire literary system, especially the world of bookshops.  Only once did a customer come in and ask if Orwell had inspired the name—and Ron dropped the copy of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book he was putting into a locked glass case, strode around the counter, and kissed the man on both cheeks.

Ron grew up in Decatur where, as his wife Kathleen said at the funeral, no one wanted to talk about anything interesting except Ron, who was always reading and always wanted to talk about what he read.  She married him and they talked for decades, and had a troop of children who talked books too, when they weren’t hauling crates of them around Ron’s Lincoln Park store, or to the second shop he briefly opened in Uptown, or to one of the many weird little attic or cellar book caches he had around Chicago.  Like too many young men of his generation, Ron was sent off to Vietnam.  A clerk in the Marine Corps, he never saw combat, but he had the unenviable task of shipping a great many dead bodies back to the U.S.  “I like what they’ve done with the Vietnam memorial in D.C.,” he once told me, “but there’s no way I’m ever going—I’d cry until my eyes bled.” He took an attitude toward authority that I’ve seen in a lot of veterans: it could go and fuck itself, in all its forms.  That may be why his lawyer, a strange little guy who looked for all the world like Ron Jeremy in a cheap suit, was always coming by the shop with something to sign or be faxed.  I don’t think Ron and the tax system always played well together.  Another time I remember an old-school Chicago ward politician coming by and telling (not asking) Ron to put up a poster for the mayor’s chosen candidate for Alderman.  That guy was lucky to get out without being hit on the head with a thick volume of the Oxford English Dictionary.

A bookshop is many things—at least a good one is.  And Aspidistra, in its scruffy, scrappy way, was a very good bookshop, and served a number of functions.  Firstly, it was a crucial part of my education.  I was living a few blocks north of the store when I worked there, and taking the electric train out to South Bend, Indiana every week to meet with my doctoral advisors and take care of whatever grad school business I had to address.  Grad school was very good to me, but doctoral study tends to make one narrow and deep—the logic guiding one’s study is that of specialization in a field, and concentration on particular problems within that field (for me it was poetry, and questions of poetic influence). But Ron’s bookstore was an exercise in intellectual breadth.  You never knew what books would come in the door—anything from out-of-fashion historiography, philosophy, and literary criticism from the libraries of deceased academics to the books printed locally by the Chicago branch of the Surrealist movement to old Wobbly tracts to large collections of (shall we say) special interest erotica.  And Ron had an opinion about all of it.  In a way, the exposure to the forgotten, the weird, and the academically untouchable has been a kind of secret weapon for me as a poet, critic, and writer—it’s always been a kind of ballast against the winds of academic fashion.

Of course Aspidistra wasn’t just about me and my education—though Ron certainly saw that as one of its functions.  He was always asking me about how my dissertation was going, and I think he hired people largely on the basis of whether he thought it would be mutually beneficial to be in conversation with them.  I remember my job interview: he saw that I studied British literature, and asked me to name three of the best English novelists writing.  It was the mid-1990s, and I said “Martin Amis, Jeanette Winterson, and Julian Barnes.”  “Two out of three,” Ron replied, with a grunt of disapproval (he would hold Barnes against me for the rest of his life).  He also asked me to lift a very large cardboard box of books, and when I told him “that’s too big—you can’t lift it, and if you did the box would break” he said “you pass—you start tomorrow.”

When I came back for work the next day, I discovered another of Aspidistra’s great functions: as a kind of ongoing salon for the interestingly weird.  I didn’t see a lot of the old Aspidistra crowd at Ron’s funeral—I think because a lot of them have passed on.  Fred Burkhart, for example, has died—a giant of a man, an outsider printmaker and photographer who used to come by to hang out with his tiny young daughter, and who’d crash on hot days in air conditioned comfort on the floor of one of the less-visited sections.  As, I’m sure, has the man I only knew as “Snowman,” an ancient African-American gentleman from New Orleans who had been a reverend, a jazz musician, and filled every other conceivable sort of interesting role in the world (including, it was rumored, a cocaine dealer, the putative source of his nickname).  I remember others who came by—art dealers, collectors of odd books, Situationists, left-over Black Panthers who’d pull Machiavelli off the shelves to argue over passages, a homeless man who had once been on the Existentialist Party ticket as a vice presidential candidate, a tall astrologer and ladies’ man called “Startouch,” two old cross-dressers who were always pleased to be called “ma’am”, a uniform fetishist (I once asked him which branch of the service he was in, since I couldn’t quite tell, and got a lecture on each part of the hodgepodge of military gear in which he paraded around), and so on.  One of Ron’s sons told me at the funeral service that some of these people are still around, but fringy people are hard to get hold of, so they hadn’t got the news about Ron’s passing.

Once in a great while Ron would feel a sudden urge to throw a party in the store.  “Let be be finale of seem!” he’d shout, quoting his favorite poem, Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “I’m throwing a soirée!” I’d be sent out to lay in a supply of Guinness and fried chicken from the joint down the street, and he’d keep the doors open late for a gathering of all the regulars.  It was always great.


I think what got me choked up at the service was the memory of those moments— it hit me hard when Ron’s son Colin stood up next to the flag-draped casket and read “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” just as Ron would have wanted.  And then the service was over, and the music came on: "Crimson and Clover" by Tommy James and the Shondells.  I remembered Ron putting that song on at one of his soirées, and could see him, Guinness in hand, dancing among the bookshelves among all his friends.  It was a bit much for me, and I headed back to the cloak room, where I reached into the pocket of a jacket I hadn’t worn for years and found a little Grove Press paperback of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera that Ron had given me when he closed the store. I couldn’t quite bring myself to go home after the funeral, and I was a bit too shaken up to stay and talk to the others who’d come. I spent the evening riding the El wherever it took me and reading the copy of Brecht that Ron had placed in my hands so long ago.




Thursday, January 21, 2016

Charles Simic and History; Karl Larsson and Embodiment; Belgian Surrealism



Hot news! Two of my favorite journals, the eminently respectable Boston Review and the eminently raffish Toad Suck Review have new issues out.  Both include things I've written (that's not why they number among my favorite journals, and I'm no longer sure where I fall on the scale leading from raffishness to respectability).

There are two pieces of mine available in the Boston Review, the first, "A Strange and Quiet Fullness," is about Charles Simic's poetry and prose, and begins like this:
Shop windows empty except for a dusty mannequin or a boy's suit long out of style; abandoned city streets; a seedy magician doing his threadbare act in an unpopular theater; a fat fly in a matchbox clutched by a lunatic—Charles Simic has been the primary purveyor of images like these in American poetry for close to half a century, importing them from some mysterious region rumored to lie somewhere between the former Yugoslavia and the monstrous mountain passes of Simic's private dream kingdom. A specialist in the uncanny, in objects removed from explanatory contexts, in stories gestured at but left untold, Simic describes his orientation as cosmic rather than historical or natural. He distrusts the tribalism inherent in history, with its chains of "begats" and its stockpiles of grievances, and he sees a direct link between the Romantic idealization of nature and a dangerously naive utopianism. He would rather reach beyond history and nature to deep enigmas of the cosmos itself—"the brain-chilling infinities and silences of modern astronomy and Pascalian thought." He finds unsettling enigmas not just in the vastness of space, but in the scenes and objects nearest to hand. When Simic looks at it, even a dog heading up the walk with the newspaper in his mouth becomes eerie and touches on an aspect of infinity. 
The irony is that this turning away from history to the cosmic is itself the product of history, of the collision of Simic's life with some of the most brutal events of the past century. A child of war-ravaged Belgrade, Simic tells us "I've seen tanks, piles of corpses, and people strung from lampposts with my own eyes." Although they could not have known it, Hitler and Stalin were, according to Simic, "hatching an elaborate plot to make me an American poet." There is a truth to this, and not just a truth about Simic as an immigrant to the United States: Simic's commitment to lyric poetry has everything to do with a skepticism about the certainties of ideologies, whether of the right or the left; and his orientation toward the cosmic and the uncanny comes, too, from his traumatic childhood...
At the moment it's available only in the print edition, but will be online soon. UPDATE: HERE IT IS ONLINE.

The other piece is up now on the Boston Review website.  It's called "Meditations on Embodiment," and discusses the work of Swedish artist and writer Karl Larsson, whose Form/Force I listed as my "book of the year" for Partisan magazine.  It begins like this:
A Mexican man sewn into a car seat to confound American border guards; the published prison memoirs of leftist German revolutionaries; the destruction of ancient statues in Iraq: what do these things have in common? What about the nine tracks of a Joy Division concert recording, the rubble where two great statues of the Buddha once stood in Afghanistan, and Andy Warhol’s interminable experimental film Sleep? They all provide rich material for Karl Larsson’s meditations on embodiment, on the ways bodies, artworks, and texts enter the material world and maintain or lose presence there. 
It shouldn’t surprise us, given these concerns with spatial experience, that Larsson is both a poet and a visual artist. As a sculptor and installation artist, he has exhibited extensively in Europe, especially in his native Sweden, and taken a keen interest in both the physicality of texts—palimpsest, erased, and overwritten writing is a favorite theme—and the ways in which bodies interact with environments.

Finally, in Toad Suck Review, you'll find some translations of the lovably weird Garbriel and Marcel Piqueray, midcentury Belgian Surrealists I've been reading forever.  It's a series of poems called "The Sproks," and you can read the whole thing in Toad Suck Review (I love typing that title), or check out a few of them here.