Elly McDonald

Writer


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Esplanade (25 June 1978)

At night, in winter, in St Kilda
the bayside highway forms a halo. Cars
like comets blazing at and into me.
Walking into lights, the cold, the hard clean bayside night,
their energy recharges me.

Melbourne at night, a winter night, has no sunsets, no stars.
Instead, a rose-tinted, glass-panelled airport and
the traffic current.
There are no stars in the bay. The water reflects
the grey mist ripples, smothered night, that functions as a sky.

In winter, Melbourne nights are tones of grey on black and red and
amber aura light.
An empty Brighton crossroad, tusk-like railway lines.
Each street-light traps a sparkling mist,
electric dew.

Melbourne
is a cage. Held down by tram-wire steel-nets overhead,
this city is straitjacketed,
sedated in the luminous haze of clouded sky and mist and bay.
Bright lights gleaming, flashing meteor
prison bar tramlines, wire sky leveller, cutting down…

By day the Melbourne summer sky
is violet tinged, not azure.
I remember
night-time skies as light,
when dull red dust clouds billowed down
escaped the gully, loomed above the dry town
I once called my home.

Five years, I said, and so with sentence up
I am glad to be on schedule.
Facing into lights, the world, the hard clean unchained wind…
I never called Melbourne home.

Written age 17 on the day I formally dropped out of university.


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Reviews: Seven Years of Darkness by Jeong You-Jeong (translated by Kim Chi-young 2020), and The Only Child by Seo Mi-ae (translated by Jung Ye-won 2020)

Two Korean psychological thrillers.

They’re both best sellers in South Korea and well-reviewed internationally. They’re neither of them particularly demanding, nor ambitious beyond the thriller genre.

I enjoyed Seven Years of Darkness better simply because it gallivants along at a ripping pace and is entertainingly told, focusing on So-won (Sowon), at age 11, when he survived a catastrophe that wiped out his community and removed him from everyone he cared for, and at age 18, when the events of seven years before come home to roost.

So-won has three guardian angels, which is more than most of us, but he needs them. There is a moustache-twirlingly villainous antagonist, some flawed parents, and a cat named Ernie.

The classic K-drama (Korean TV series) trope of The Drowning Boy features prominently. I learned some interesting things about Korean underwater rescue scuba diving. I learned a bit about safety mechanisms for giant hydroelectric dams. Having read this book and viewed the French TV series Les Revenants I’ll pass on ever living downstream of a hydraulic dam, thank you.

The final sequences of Seven Years of Darkness were ludicrous but satisfying. There are worse ways to pass time.

Next: The Only Child. I don’t know whether to blame the Korean original or the translation for the somewhat leaden writing style. But The Only Child has its virtues.

The Only Child features several only-children as main characters. There is Yi Seon-kyeong, a lecturer in criminal psychology who is likened by herself and others to a Korean Clarice Starling (in reference to the FBI rookie profiler in The Silence of the Lambs). There is Yi Byeong-do, the Ted Bundy-like glamorous serial killer. There is Yun Ha-yeong, an 11 year-old whose near and dear drop dead with statistically improbable frequency. Don’t let her near pets.

The novel alternates between first-person as told by Byeong-do and third-person, mostly from the POVs of Seon-kyeong or Ha-yeong. It says something when this reader relates more sympathetically to an adult male who has murdered perhaps a score of women than to a neglected pubescent girl.

The author isn’t really all that fussed to keep us in suspense about whodunnit. She’s more interested in psychological development, the unfolding understandings of the main characters. The real suspense is in how the plot will pan out.

To my great pleasure, the ending is a direct homage to Alfred Hitchcock, to his original ending of his film Suspicion.

Was that a spoiler? Whoops.

Joan Fontaine in Suspicion.


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Review: The Disaster Tourist (2020) by Yun Ko-eun, translated from Korean by Lizzie Buehler

The Disaster Tourist is a short (185 pages) novel, a surreal satire translated from Korean in a crisp tone. I was about to say it’s deadpan and heartless -“The deaths were unadvertised disasters, unexpected by the travellers” – but instead I’ll say it’s angry. Funny, but angry. Appalling and appalled.

It makes me feel much better about not being able to travel. And much worse about previous holidays in other people’s misery.

The Disaster Tourist looks at the contemporary (pre-COVID) model of Third World tourism, specifically Pacific island tourism, and lays bare the commercial drivers and marketing strategies, in catastrophically exaggerated form.

The premise is this: A disaster occurs. Lives are lost. But a catastrophe is also an opportunity. A sensational disaster will attract foreign funding (foreign aid) and put an otherwise obscure location on the map (even as it wipes it off the map). Righteous tourists will come to put things right. They will come to experience authenticity, what life is really all about (death). They will come to rubber-neck: to gape, to tut-tut, to experience shock and awe.

If a community has nothing else to offer, being poor, not scenic, its indigenous culture beaten down or dismissed as unremarkable, might it not make sense to manufacture a disaster? To script a catastrophe? To create spectacle? Might that not also provide vested interests an opportunity to rewrite the narrative, to rebuild to design, eliminating or minimising undesirable elements?

Ko Yo-na – or Yona Ko, as the translation insists – is clinging precariously to a ten-year career designing and promoting “Disaster Tourist” travel packages. She’s on the out at work, possibly for reporting her manager for sexual harassment. Her resignation is not accepted. Instead, management proposes she tests out one of their holiday packages, as a guest (expenses paid by the company), writes a token report, then reports back at work refreshed after her “break”.

Yona chooses the Mui package: an island off the coast of Vietnam where an ethnic massacre occurred decades ago. It has sinkholes and a dormant volcano.

Things go terribly wrong for Yona, her own personal disaster tour. But even more terribly wrong is the context: Mui is run by a shadowy corporation known as Paul, and the mechanics of what Paul has planned for Mui’s people and its future is something most tourists would wish to shut their eyes to.

By the time Yona realises she is living within the constraints of a script – an actual script, written by an actual scriptwriter – she’s lost all control of her circumstances.

What is her assigned role? What is the role of Luck? And what of the crocodiles?

The Disaster Tourist recalls for me Amy Tan’s novel Saving Fish From Drowning, and some of J.G. Ballard’s satire. Also the 1998 film Wag the Dog, and its precursor The Mouse That Roared (1959).

Did I enjoy reading it? Not hugely. It was hard and cold, like a pebble. Like a pebble in my shoe, it disturbed my comfort.


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Review: Severance (2018) by Ling Ma

Alfred Hitchcock said his films at essence addressed mundane issues, dressed up in a plot to make them entertaining. Reductively, Rear Window is about a man who can’t decide whether to marry his girlfriend. (This is separate from the McGuffin, a different concept. But layers within layers, like a Russian doll.)

In Severance, Ling Ma interweaves a post-apocalyptic narrative with the tale of a Chinese-American immigrant millennial making her way in New York.

At one level, Severance is about a woman conflicted over breaking up with her boyfriend when he leaves the Big Smoke. Leaving New York would mean leaving her career. Her mother lost her career accompanying her husband from China to the U.S. What is the value of a life without a career, without participation in the workforce and consumer culture?

Leaving New York City would mean leaving a place: a place of significance, a place that provides Candace with identity. She’s left places before – Fujian, in China, and Salt Lake City. She’s acutely conscious of identity dislocation. New York is her carapace. She wants to hunker down.

I suspect it’s no accident the central character in Severance is named Candance. Ling Ma peppers her narrative with brand names and pop culture references. When we think of a single woman in New York, we might think of Candace Bushnell, writer of Sex and the City.

My favourite paragraph:

In Jonathan’s apartment, we used to watch single-woman-in-Manhattan movies, a subgenre of New York movies. There was Picture Perfect, An Unmarried Woman, Sex and the City. The single heroine, usually white, romantic in her solitude. In those movies, there is nearly always this power-walk shot, in which she is shown striding down some Manhattan street, possibly leaving work during rush hour at dusk, the traffic blaring all around and the buildings rising before her. The city was empowering. Even if a woman doesn’t have anything, the movie seemed to say, at least there is the city. The city was posited as the ultimate consolation.

This paragraph seems to me to prefigure the ending (and “The End”, as the pandemic is termed).

Candace spends much of her time in her early months in Manhattan just walking the streets, taking photographs, posting her photos in a blog as NY_ghost. Similarly in her last months.

The subgenre of the single-woman-roaming-Manhattan gets spliced with the post-apocalypse dystopia genre, so Candace is also Will Smith in I Am Legend and Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later, the isolated survivor, the wandering civis post-civilisation. She becomes an urban ghost.

So to my mind this is a novel about place and identity. In the face of apocalypse, various characters are tied to place: Bob the crazy would-be New Order leader drawn to the mall of his childhood; Ashley the former fashion student drawn to her childhood home, specifically her wardrobe; Eddie the NY taxi driver forever bound to his cab. Candace, initially, encloistered in her office, before she realises the working life is redundant, an idea whose time has ended. As her boyfriend knew.

Severance is also, among other things, a critique of consumption and capitalism. In its post-apocalyptic dystopia, infected people – ” the fevered” – mindlessly, endlessly re-enact meaningless rituals from their former lives until their bodies give out, while the handful of survivors go on pillaging “stalks”.

The further I read the more I appreciated how ambitious Ling Ma has been here – it’s not just a post-pandemic dystopia, or a millennial generation satire, or a critique of consumption and capitalism, or a study in cultural dislocation, or an investigation of memory, the place of the past, the past of place, the role of routines and ritual… it’s all that, conveyed in beautiful – sensitive, intelligent, funny, chilling – writing.

What makes life worth living? Is it work? Is it place? Is it people we love?

My second favourite paragraph, an email to Candace from a colleague in China:

You are good at what you do. In these sad, uncertain times, however, it is important to be with people you love. I do not know the details of the epidemic in New York, but my suggestion to you: Leave. Spend time with your family.

Candace no longer has family.

When I ask myself, if Candace were to become fevered, as some of the seeming “survivors” do, what ritual or routine that defined her identity would she loop till death?

My guess: walking. She’d walk city streets till she dropped.

Even if a woman doesn’t have anything, at least there is the city.

At desk. On deck.


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Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins (2020) – The Hunger Games prequel

Kudos to Suzanne Collins for ignoring commercial imperatives and writing a Hunger Games prequel the fans will hate, not filmable as a blockbuster. Though it could make a terrific art-house film.

This prequel is set 63 years prior to the first of The Hunger Games trilogy: 517 pages thrashing out the Hobbes vs Locke Enlightenment philosophers’ debate – human darkness vs human optimism – through the making of a dictator, the unmaking of a man. I’ll attempt this blog post without spoilers. The biggest ‘spoiler’ is a given: Coryo Snow, a boy of promise, must in the end be Coriolanus Snow, the sociopath tyrant.

My sister and I both hated that sentimental, golden glow epilogue tacked onto the end of The Hunger Games film trilogy. We saw it as a betrayal of the novels.

“The point,” I glowered, “Is that heroes, if they survive, are maimed for life, irrevocably damaged.”

“No,” said my sister, who always knows best. “The point is that heroes become monsters. Heroes are killers. They can’t escape that.”

Coriolanus ‘Coryo’ Snow is the ‘hero’ of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a title explicitly referring to the Americana murder ballad tradition. He’s a ‘hero’ who over the course of his narrative becomes an anti-hero and ultimately, long before The Hunger Games trilogy kicks in, an antagonist.

In the C17th, philosopher John Locke contended that human beings are born into the common condition of humanity (which for him, encompassed a concept of human rights), but that each individual is born a “blank slate”, with the capacity to make moral choices that determine the kind of human they become: self-authored. Thomas Hobbes, in contrast, argued that human nature is base, brutish, a reactive amygdala wired to fear, aggression, violence, self-preservation: self-interested (no, Hobbes did not pre-empt neuroscience, my amygdala reference is anachronistic).

The Hunger Games is a battlefield where the ideas of Locke versus Hobbes play out. In Collins’ Hunger Games novels, every person fights through their own Hunger Games, in their own arena. The slogan is “May the odds be ever in your favour”. But when the game is skewed, and the odds are never in your favour, the outcome can only be Hobbesian.

The boy Coryo Snow starts, as all Hunger Games contestants do, with a set of resources (weapons), and a set of deficits. Coriolanus is the 18 year-old son of a dead war hero, from a patrician family whose antebellum wealth was immense. Their fortune was based on munitions, with manufacturing and research bases in District 13, nuked out of existence during the war.

Coryo was an 8 year-old orphan when the rebels were defeated. His people, in the Capitol, were ostensibly the ‘victors’, but his cohort grew up under blanket bombing, with constant gruesome death, starvation, even cannibalism. They endured their own “hunger games”, desperately trying to stay alive on the thinnest gruels, sparsely dished out. Even 10 years post-war, the streets are blocked by rubble, the poor still go hungry (very hungry), and the final year students at the Capitol’s elite Academy bear a huge weight of expectation to revive the Capitol’s prosperity. They also carry an immense legacy of bitterness.

Coryo has social capital (he is part of the elite), but no actual money. If the Snow family is to recover what he sees as their rightful place, he must attend university. If he is to attend university, he will need scholarships. He is battling for The Prize. The final year of schooling is an arena in itself.

Coryo’s personal capital (resources) include an exceptionally astute strategic mind. He grasps situations quickly, with clarity, and can formulate swift, effective responses. Excellent survival skills. But if you see things with clarity, and can see where they’re headed, and what it takes to survive is an unethical action, or actions, are you morally culpable? Is it more worthy to act in line with idealist morality and die?

What if the idealists by their actions endanger others, people who owe them nothing (unless altruism is a human absolute)?

Or: is seeing situations with clarity and acting pragmatically, in one’s own self-interest, the definition of sociopathy?

Coryo’s personal capital also includes charm. He’s an actor. He is constantly alert to the impression on others his behaviours make. Is he irrevocably two-faced, to be condemned, or is that good sense? What consequences follow being too honest, too open?

It’s important to register that although this novel is not told in the first-person, directly in Coryo’s voice, everything is presented from his perspective. That’s terrific, in that Coryo is awake to most of the information salient to his survival. But it is a self-justifying perspective. And he has pronounced blind spots.

Given how astute he is, and how obvious some of the information he filters out is to a reader, what determines these blind spots? Is it simply that he doesn’t want to see some things? Is this guilt? Or, again, is it sociopathy: he screens out distasteful data that serves his survival?

He’s certainly obsessive.

It’s fair to say Coryo is deaf to poetry and does not understand music. That’s a shame, as the person he believes he loves is a poet and musician. We have no access to who that person is beyond the poetry and music they articulate, because Coryo is stumbling blind there.

What he does know is this: ‘She’s onstage. You’re onstage. This is the show.’

The Capitol’s chief of weaponries research tells him, “You’re good at games. One day you’ll be a Gamemaker.”

The thought had never crossed his mind. […I]t didn’t seem like much of a job. Or like it required any particular skill, tossing kids and weapons in an arena and letting them fight it out. He supposed they had to organise the reapings and film the Games, but he hoped for a more challenging career. “I’ve got a great deal to learn before I can even think of that,” he said modestly.

Coriolanus is nothing if not a fast learner.

That’s his dilemma: what is he – nothing, or a fast learner?

Afternote: A 1799 poem by William Wordsworth is a key device in this narrative. It’s worth noting Wordsworth started out as a youthful radical liberal and aged into a conservative. I think there’s a point there.

The_Ballad_of_Songbirds_and_Snakes_Elly_McDonald

 

 

 


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Review: Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah (2013) translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2020)

I knew nothing about this novel when I opened the first page and for much of the following 152 pages I still felt I knew almost nothing.

Yet when I finished page 152 I was in love with this text. I kept reading and re-reading the final pages. I didn’t want it to end.

I read Untold Night and Day in 50 page chunks (yes, I’m obsessed with the numbers). To me it reads like a prose poem, so 50 pages was as much as I could take in at a time.

After the first 50 pages, I read Deborah Smith’s Translator’s Notes, at the end, which I found helpful:

Bae’s oppositions are emphatically not binaries. Her books are filled with repetition, mirroring, echoing, overlapping […] Simultaneously is another thread-word studding the text.

Many years ago, when I was a poet, an editor described my poems as “games of rhythm and repetition”, which was apt. I came to enjoy the circularity of Bae’s world in Untold Night and Day, and the chunks of repetition.

The quotes on the book jacket are similarly apt:

“As cryptic and compelling as a fever dream […] a vivid and disorientating exploration of identity, artifice and compulsion” – Sharlene Tao

“I loved its uncanny beauty, its startling occurrences. As it unravels you feel […] yourself unravelling too” – Daisy Johnson

“Haunting and poetic […] holds the reader in a suspended state, allowing us to explore the tension of the threshold” – Chloe Aridjis

Untold Night and Day is filled with oppressive heat and damp, small concrete rooms, dank alleys, circling traffic, recurrences, identity switches, blocks to communication, temporal distortions…

Very early on, I recognised the figure of a girl in a coarse white hanbok (traditional dress), wearing woven hemp sandals, with her hair tied back in a low pony-tail, as a figure from the Korean spirit world: the young girl ghost, or supernatural entity.

The main female character is called Ayami (and sometimes other names). Bae has explained that “According to Siberian shamanism [the forebear of Korean shamanism], ayami is the name for the spirit that enters the shaman’s body and communicates matters of the other world to them.”

But Deborah Smith rightly points out that Untold Night and Day does not proclaim or labor its “Koreanness”. She quotes the self-mocking Korean joke rejecting Other-ing: “Oh, let me go put on some hanbok.

So it’s contemporary experimental literary writing, rather than a hanbok tale.

What strikes me, reading during COVID-19 uncertainty and a wave of job losses and business failures, is that the narrative commences with two central characters being made redundant.

Ayami could be a spirit guide escorting a man to another world. Or they could both be casualties, on a more mundane level:

“Ayami [comforted him] for a long time, as though the repetitive gesture might conjure a shamanic power – the only way of keeping together, in the same place and time, two human beings in the process of disintegrating.”

Untold_Night_and_Day_Bae_Suah


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Re-blogs: Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata (trans Ginny Tabley Takemori 2018) – Literally Literary blog by Xi Chen; The Nakano Thrift Shop (2017) by Hiromi Kawakami trans Allison Markin Powell – LA Review of Books review by M W Larson

Convenience_Store_Woman_Sayaka_Murata

This is not the cover art of the edition I read #1: the edition I read had quotes from reviewers suggesting Convenience Store Woman is “irresistibly quirky”, “hilarious”, “intoxicating”, “exhilarating… funny”.
I loved it, but I found it dark and disquieting.

I hadn’t been reading for a while and felt the need to ease my way back in via very short novels.  These two – Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, and The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami – are both written in simple, deadpan styles that make for fast reads, the Murata novel in a somewhat mechanical tone suited to its themes, the Kawakami novel delicate, sometimes verging on twee. They’re linked thematically, both being told in the first person by young women narrators who work in retail, and both addressing sexual behaviours, relationship options, relationship to employments.

Both present contemporary young Japanese people shying away from sexual relations and intimacy, instead seeking identity in service transactions, workplace routines, and (at least in Kawakami) objects imbued with emotional significance.

Although I have visited Japan, and although I have a decades-long interest in East Asian arts and cultures, I am very far from being equipped to report meaningfully on these narratives. Instead, after organising my own thoughts I sought out reviews that opened up the narratives for me.

There is nothing I can write that could better present these two texts than the two reviews linked here. I thank both Xi Chen and MW Larson.

What I will say: Reading Convenience Store Woman, I occasionally laughed wryly, with some discomfort; reading The Nakano Thrift Shop, I quite often laughed out loud, screenshotting pages to text to my sister. Ultimately, The Nakano Thrift Shop was a feel-good light read. I couldn’t say that of Convenience Store Woman, but it spoke to me more strongly.

Convenience Store Woman as read by Xi Chen: https://medium.com/literally-literary/sayaka-muratas-parable-of-alienation-25a188337adb

The Nakano Thrift Shop as read by MW Larson: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-anxiety-of-intimacy-in-hiromi-kawakamis-the-nakano-thrift-shop/

The_Nakano_Thrift_Shop_Hiromi_Kawakami

This is not the cover art of the edition I read #2: the edition I read had an image of a hip bright young thing leaping onto a commuter train.
I loved the narrator, but she struck me as much more introvert than that image.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Reviews: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (2007, trans Deborah Smith); I am Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo (2016, trans Jamie Chang) – translated from Korean

The_Vegetarian_Han_Kang

I had formed the impression from publicity I’d seen that The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, was a novel about patriarchy pushing back when one woman attempts to make a relatively mild assertion of will: woman goes vegetarian, male state goes mad.

I suppose the first section, at least, of this book, can be read that way. Woman does indeed go vegetarian. Male relatives do indeed get mad.

But there are other things going on here. British novelist Ian McEwan sums it up well, describing The Vegetarian as “a novel of sexuality and madness”. Mostly madness, for me.

The narrative unfolds through three sections, from three perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband; her brother-in-law; and her sister. I found the final section, the sister’s perspective, most compelling.

In keeping with a feminist reading, neither of the two men have any interest in Yeong-hye’s personhood. She’s an object, for both. The book’s opening line is “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” The husband (“Mr Cheong”) goes on to innumerate the many ways Yeong-hye seemed to him entirely ordinary, and why this very ordinariness qualified her to be his wife. (In short: inadequate man seeks woman he can disregard.) He only ever refers to her as “my wife”.

Her brother-in-law, in contrast, sees Yeong-hye as distinct, even unique, and exotic.  For him, she embodies sexuality. Vitality.

Both men are projecting like crazy. (“Crazy” being a technical term.)

In her marriage, Yeong-hye goes mad. Pointedly, her husband reports this in terms of her ceasing to dedicate her being to his service. He has no feelings of concern or compassion. Instead he feels revulsion.

Witnessing Yeong-hye’s madness, her brother-in-law goes mad. He conflates his madness with “art”. He feels he’s come alive. The comedown is – how shall I say? – deflating.

In the final section, Yeong-hye is certifiably mad and confined to a secure psychiatric ward. Her sister is the only family remaining by her side, figuratively and in fact. Her sister meditates on the nature of madness, its origins, and concludes that only a fine string ties us to sanity. Any one of us could untie that string and be ”absorbed” by our dark dreams.

When Yeong-hye is asked why she rejects meat, she can only say, in a perverse of echo of Martin Luther King, “I had a dream”. As someone who watches Korean TV drama, I recognise this notion of “What is your dream?” as a catechism of aspiration. What do you want for your life? What is your ambition?

What Yeong-hye had (and has) is not a dream but a night terror. Her only apparent desire is to disappear into a forest, to join the plant world. This is her survival strategy, even if it kills her.

Yeong-hye’s older sister recognises she too pursued a survival strategy. In her case, she adopted the persona of the sane one, the capable, conscientious older sister. She had cosmetic surgery (double eyelids), promoted a pleasing demeanour, and built a business selling cosmetics. None of that ensures her psychic survival.

The most troubling character, for me, is the older sister’s young son. With the adults gone mad, he is abandoned. Who will protect his survival?

I_Am_Kim_JiYoung_Born_1982

The Vegetarian begs comparison with Cho Nam-joo’s controversial 2016 Korean novel, I am Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Cho Nam-joo is a former TV scriptwriter who took a career break after having a child. She wrote her book fast, apparently in just two weeks, using elements of her own experiences. Footnote sociological research citations firmly anchor anecdote and individual composite in statistics and legislation.

The novel is presented as a case study – a psychiatric case study, as we come to realise. Stylistically it’s a very straightforward, not to say clinical, read. By stepping us through Kim Ji-young’s life history, Cho shows the ways a female in Korea is disadvantaged from birth relative to her male peers.

Inevitably, the book prompted a backlash of ‘Whataboutism’, intergenerational beefs and male resentments, as did the film adaptation.

I lent the novel to my mother, born 1934, knowing some of Kim Ji-young’s workplace experiences mirrored hers. My mother read it, handed it back, commented wryly, “All women, all over the world.”

Like Yeong-hye, Kim Ji-young (a common name, a kind of Jane Doe) goes mad. As at the novel’s conclusion, her prognosis does not look good. The male psychiatrist who is purportedly writing her case study reflects privately on how her story relates to his own experience. He, like Ji-young’s husband, is a caring and intelligent man. He believes his desire to help is sincere.

The sting in the tail? Even recognising the structural and systemic inequities that resulted in his patient’s breakdown, as his attention moves elsewhere, the male authority figure disregards what he might have learned. Instead of being a change agent, he perpetuates the way things are.


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Review: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (1994 trans 2020) – translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

The_Memory_Police_Yoko_Ogawa

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa, was published in Japanese in 1994, then in 2019 in an English translation by Stephen Snyder (nominated for the International Booker 2020).

It’s a bleak, Kafkaesque piece of speculative fiction, or allegory, or dark folk tale.

A novelist, writing in the first person, recounts how on the island where she lives, over a period of 15+ years, there has been a series of “disappearances”: the population wakes up some days with a shared sense of loss, that something from their familiar lives has ceased to exist, has been erased.

The objects of these disappearances don’t physically cease to be manifest, or become physically invisible. Instead, they remain as tangible presences, at least initially, but they cease to have meaning – their associations, their functions, are lost to recall, and eventually the very concept of those objects ceases to exist for most people, except in occasional flashes of semi-recollection.

To aid in this process, to make this process efficient, a fascist squad called the Memory Police ensures people dispose of the tangible physical remains of these objects promptly. Retaining relics of disappeared objects is forbidden, policed by house to house searches. Individuals who retain memories, who are not subject to the collective amnesia and do not collude in erasure, are frogmarched away by the Memory Police and themselves “disappeared”. As are those who attempt to hide those who remember.

At first, the objects the novelist notes as having disappeared are objects of joy: ribbons, perfume, gemstones, millinery, roses, music boxes, boiled sweets, fruit. So at first I was thinking this might be an allegory about loss of pleasure, of anhedonia (loss of joy). I was thinking in terms of depression, especially as the novelist telling the story appears to be suffering from imminent writer’s block: her novel in progress starts out as a tale of a typist who loses her voice but is still able to communicate with her lover (her typing instructor) via typewriter, until her typewriter breaks down.

The narrator-novelist within The Memory Police has a close professional relationship with her long-time editor, who has nursed her previous three novels through to publication. She learns her editor is one of the few who retains memory of the disappeared objects, and her immediate thought is that she must hide him to protect him, and also to protect her writing project.

Typewriters themselves are however obviously a “disappeared” artefact in our contemporary world, so the novel seems to be asking us to consider what, in our lifetimes, has “disappeared” and been erased. In the way that the category “hats”, and therefore the concept “millinery”, has been disappeared within The Memory Police, whole categories of consumer goods and therefore work skills and workplaces have become redundant in real life, often all but forgotten.

Some reviewers have broadened that thought to consider how elements of our natural environments are disappearing: animals, plants whole eco-chains.

Other reviewers home in on cultural erasure: cultures where language and traditional practices are banned, forcibly suppressed, resulting in actual absolute or incremental erasure of cultural identity.

There is also a layer of gender-based allegory. The narrator within The Memory Police feels her way through her narratives through her fingers, through typing, and sometimes her stories takes unforeseen turns. Her work-in-progress switches from being a gentle love story, with a supportive lover, to a Bluebeard-like contemporary horror story of captivity, domination, perversion and erasure of a woman’s will, faculties and ultimately existence.

The perverted parallelism of the novel-within-the-novel vis-à-vis the narrative that is The Memory Police is troubling. In the novel-within-the-novel the captive is the female first-person narrator, the malevolent entity is her male lover/abuser. In the actual novel, the person imprisoned is the writer’s male editor, and his story is told from the female narrator-novelist’s perspective. Is her version, in which she is his ‘savior’, self-serving? We have no direct access to how he really feels about being removed from his wife and his newborn, never-seen son. The editor has been persuaded by his novelist that it is in his best interests to abandon his wife and newborn and instead focus solely on assisting her stalled manuscript through to completion. He is always represented as grateful and acquiescent – but he’s dependent on his novelist for food and sanctuary. How do we, as readers, feel about the writer and her editor as lovers, given the typing teacher enacts the role ‘lover’ towards his typist captive?

The captive in the novel-within-the-novel is imprisoned in a turret (like Rapunzel). The captive in the main narrative is imprisoned in a too-small cavity between house storeys (‘stories’), beneath a trapdoor. Is this gendered symbolism: the woman imprisoned in a tower by a man; the man imprisoned in a dark enclosed space by a woman?

The ‘love’ story elements were, to me, disturbing. (I kept thinking of John Fowles’ novel, The Collector.)

The novelist-narrator has, on the face of it, a less disquieting relationship with a surrogate father, an older man who assists (aids and abets) her. He doesn’t have a name, and nor does the editor: they are “the old man” and “R” respectively. But then, the narrator has no name, either.

There are layers. Ultimately, I read The Memory Police as an allegory about mortality, ageing, and death – at its most blunt, as an allegory of dementia.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

Life on the island diminishes through a series of small losses, loss of small joys; the loss of staples (food types, loss of appetite, as the remaining foods are increasingly unappealing); the loss of time and seasons, when “calendars” disappear, resulting in endless snow, snow that buries all it covers; loss of story-telling, of narratives, when “novels” disappear; then increasingly intimate losses. How does one adapt to the felt-loss of body parts – of a left leg, a right arm?

Once loss has progressed that far, how is it policed? If people retain the awareness of what was a left leg, but have no recall of its function, have lost any sense of relatedness, instead recognising the “disappeared” limb at best as a “tumour”, how is that policed? Can left legs be physically disposed of, the way rose petals can be? Can left legs be set free, as caged birds can be?

What will be the ultimate loss? What, at the last, will be left, will disappear?

I referred to “perverted parallelism” but in fact the relationship between the novel-within-the-novel and the main narrative is a chiasmus (if I remember Lit 101 Poetry correctly). It’s not parallel lines, it’s a ‘X’ cross-shape.

The first thing lost by the typist-victim in the novel-within-the-novel is her voice. More accurately, her voice is taken from her, as happens in totalitarian states and patriarchies, and as happens with writer’s block. But in the main narrative, the last element of the narrator’s being to be erased is voice. As her voice ends, so does the text.

As her voice evaporates, her editor climbs out of the cavity between floorboards.

He emerges to a ruined world, but he does not look back.

The_Memory_Police_by_Yoko_Ogawa


1 Comment

A few favourite poems, alphabetical by poet’s family name

Cento Between the Ending and the End
by Cameron Awkward-Rich

Sometimes you don’t die
when you’re supposed to
& now I have a choice
repair a world or build
a new one inside my body
a white door opens
into a place queerly brimming
gold light so velvet-gold
it is like the world
hasn’t happened
when I call out
all my friends are there
everyone we love
is still alive gathered
at the lakeside
like constellations
my honeyed kin
honeyed light
beneath the sky
a garden blue stalks
white buds the moon’s
marble glow the fire
distant & flickering
the body whole bright-
winged brimming
with the hours
of the day beautiful
nameless planet. Oh
friends, my friends—
bloom how you must, wild
until we are free.

Copyright © 2018 by Cameron Awkward-Rich. Originally published in in Poem-a-Day on August 30, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

son/daughter
by Kai Conradi

In a dream my dad fell

from the top of a steep white mountain

down into a blue crevasse
like the space between two waves
where the light shines through just enough
to tell you
you will miss this life dearly.

The falling took years.

I could hear him moving through air and then finally nothing.

In another dream my dad was an angel

his see-through body dangling in the air

floating above me face shimmery like tinfoil

and I cried and cried when he told me

I can’t come back to earth now not ever.

When my dad told me

You will always be my daughter

maybe it was like that.

Will I be allowed to come back to earth

and be your son?

Source: Poetry (January 2019)

Emily Dickinson

I’m Nobody. Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell. they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog _
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

The Embrace
by Mark Doty

You weren’t well or really ill yet either;
just a little tired, your handsomeness
tinged by grief or anticipation, which brought
to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace.

I didn’t for a moment doubt you were dead.
I knew that to be true still, even in the dream.
You’d been out—at work maybe?—
having a good day, almost energetic.

We seemed to be moving from some old house
where we’d lived, boxes everywhere, things
in disarray: that was the story of my dream,
but even asleep I was shocked out of the narrative

by your face, the physical fact of your face:
inches from mine, smooth-shaven, loving, alert.
Why so difficult, remembering the actual look
of you? Without a photograph, without strain?

So when I saw your unguarded, reliable face,
your unmistakable gaze opening all the warmth
and clarity of —warm brown tea—we held
each other for the time the dream allowed.

Bless you. You came back, so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you
without thinking this happiness lessened anything,
without thinking you were alive again.

From Sweet Machine, published by HarperCollins. Copyright © 1998 by Mark Doty. 

Autobiography of Eve
by Ansel Elkins

Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
When I came to those great flaming gates
of burning gold,
I stood alone in terror at the threshold
between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
My own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake–
at once alive in a blaze of green fire.

Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.

I leapt
to freedom.

Copyright © 2015 by Ansel Elkins.

The Colonel
by Carolyn Forché

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On
the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

May 1978

All lines from “The Colonel” from The Country Between Us by Carolyn Forché, Copyright (c) 1981 by Carolyn Forché. Originally appeared in Women’s International Resource Exchange. (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1981)

Grace
by Sarah Gambito

You won’t
kill me
because I
will not
oblige you
by dying.

I hold all
my hands
under
the cherry
trees.

Clusters of
shyest
pinks
joining
hands.

Laced
like this,

diadem
like this,

we live the
past/
present/
future/
all at once

and even now.

Wouldn’t we tear
seas,
cities,
money
to get to
each other?

The public
garden—

the books
of its leaves,

the leaves
of its books—

denotes privilege,
entitlement
gorgeous belief

that we’ll meet
again and
again
holding

this
feelingtone
of
flowers

Source: Poetry (July/August 2019)

Poof
by Amy Gerstler

Here on my lap, in a small plastic bag,
my share of your ashes. Let me not squander
them. Your family blindsided me with this gift.
We want to honor your bond they said at the end
of your service, which took place, as you’d
arranged, in a restaurant at the harbor,
an old two-story boathouse made of dark
wood. Some of us sat on the balcony, on black
leather bar stools, staring at rows of docked boats.
Both your husbands showed up and got along.
And of course your impossibly handsome son.
After lunch, a slideshow and testimonials,
your family left to toss their share of you
onto the ocean, along with some flowers.

You were the girlfriend I practiced kissing
with in sixth grade during zero-sleep
sleepovers. You were the pretty one.
In middle school I lived on diet Coke and
your sexual reconnaissance reports. In this
telling of our story your father never hits
you or calls you a whore. Always gentle
with me, he taught me to ride a bike after
everyone said I was too klutzy to learn.
In this version we’re not afraid of our bodies.
In this fiction, birth control is easy to obtain,
and never fails. You still dive under a stall
divider in a restroom at the beach to free me
after I get too drunk to unlock the door. You still
reveal the esoteric mysteries of tampons. You
still learn Farsi and French from boyfriends
as your life ignites. In high school I still guide you
safely out of the stadium when you start yelling
that the football looks amazing as it shatters
into a million shimmering pieces, as you
loudly admit that you just dropped acid.

We lived to be sixty. Then poof, you vanished.
I can’t snort you, or dump you out over my head,
coating myself in your dust like some hapless cartoon
character who’s just blown herself up, yet remains
unscathed, as is the way in cartoons. In this version,
I remain in place for a while. Did you have a good
journey? I’m still lagging behind, barking up all
the wrong trees, whipping out my scimitar far
in advance of what the occasion demands. As I
drive home from your memorial, you fizz in
my head like a distant radio station. What
can I do to bridge this chasm between us?
In this fiction, I roll down the window, drive
uncharacteristically fast. I tear your baggie
open with my teeth and release you at 85
miles an hour, music cranked up full blast.

Copyright © 2019 by Amy Gerstler. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 21, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Failing and Flying
by Jack Gilbert

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

Copyright © 2005 Jack Gilbert. From Refusing Heaven, 2005, Alfred A. Knopf. 

Wait
by Galway Kinnell

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become interesting.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again;
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. The desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a little and listen:
music of hair,
music of pain,
music of looms weaving our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

Copyright © 1980 by Galway Kinnell. From Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (Mariner Books, 1980), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

I Ask My Mother to Sing
by Li-Young Lee

She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and sway like a boat.

I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.

But I love to hear it sung;
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.

Both women have begun to cry.
But neither stops her song.

From Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., http://www.boaeditions.org.

From Blossoms
by Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Li-Young Lee, “From Blossoms” from Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., boaeditions.org.

The Hour and What Is Dead
by Li-Young Lee

Tonight my brother, in heavy boots, is walking
through bare rooms over my head,
opening and closing doors.
What could he be looking for in an empty house?
What could he possibly need there in heaven?
Does he remember his earth, his birthplace set to torches?
His love for me feels like spilled water
running back to its vessel.

At this hour, what is dead is restless
and what is living is burning.

Someone tell him he should sleep now.

My father keeps a light on by our bed
and readies for our journey.
He mends ten holes in the knees
of five pairs of boy’s pants.
His love for me is like sewing:
various colors and too much thread,
the stitching uneven. But the needle pierces
clean through with each stroke of his hand.

At this hour, what is dead is worried
and what is living is fugitive.

Someone tell him he should sleep now.

God, that old furnace, keeps talking
with his mouth of teeth,
a beard stained at feasts, and his breath
of gasoline, airplane, human ash.
His love for me feels like fire,
feels like doves, feels like river-water.

At this hour, what is dead is helpless, kind
and helpless. While the Lord lives.

Someone tell the Lord to leave me alone.
I’ve had enough of his love
that feels like burning and flight and running away.

Nucleation
by Sally Wen Mao

The harvesting of pearls, the very process, is a continuous systematic violation of flesh: insert the mantle tissue of a foreign creature into the oyster shell and wait for its insides to react. This is called nucleation. Panicked, the oyster produces nacre. Trapped in the nacre, the invasive agent—the parasite or mantle tissue—is subsumed by the pearl.

To domesticate, then, is to force-feed. Mikimoto, in his dreams, wanted a string of pearls to glow around the neck of every woman in the world. Like the bioluminescent waters of his youth, a deep-sea dive, the pearls became warm upon touch, upon being worn.

Women wear the trauma of other creatures around their necks, in an attempt to put a pall on their own. Adorn the self to be adored. What if we fail? What if we are failures at love? A man once called me “adorable” on a date at a museum. It was hailing outside, and we were wandering through the Death and Transcendence wing. I looked into a woman’s tomb, its mother-of-pearl inlays. A limp body looked back, into the gap around my neck. I had no 
amulet, I had no protection.

Source: Poetry (April 2020)

Occidentalism
by Sally Wen Mao

A man celebrates erstwhile conquests,
his book locked in a silo, still in print.

I scribble, make Sharpie lines, deface
its text like it defaces me. Outside, grain

fields whisper. Marble lions are silent
yet silver-tongued, with excellent teeth.

In this life I have worshipped so many lies.
Then I workshop them, make them better.

An East India Company, an opium trade,
a war, a treaty, a concession, an occupation,

a man parting the veil covering a woman’s
face, his nails prying her lips open. I love

the fragility of a porcelain bowl. How easy
it is, to shatter chinoiserie, like the Han

dynasty urn Ai Weiwei dropped in 1995.
If only recovering the silenced history

is as simple as smashing its container: book,
bowl, celadon spoon. Such objects cross

borders the way our bodies never could.
Instead, we’re left with history, its blonde

dust. That bowl is unbreakable. All its ghosts
still shudder through us like small breaths.

The tome of hegemony lives on, circulates
in our libraries, in our bloodstreams. One day,

a girl like me may come across it on a shelf,
pick it up, read about all the ways her body

is a thing. And I won’t be there to protect
her, to cross the text out and say: go ahead—
rewrite this.

Sally Wen Mao, “Occidentalism” from Oculus. Copyright © 2019 by Sally Wen Mao. Graywolf Press, http://www.graywolfpress.org.

Resurrection
by Sally Wen Mao

In the autumn I moved to New York,

I recognized her face all over the subway

stations—pearls around her throat, she poses

for her immigration papers. In 1924, the only

Americans required to carry identity cards

were ethnically Chinese—the first photo IDs,

red targets on the head of every man, woman,

child, infant, movie star. Like pallbearers,

they lined up to get their pictures taken: full-face

view, direct camera gaze, no smiles, ears showing,

in silver gelatin. A rogue’s gallery of Chinese

exclusion. The subway poster doesn’t name

her—though it does mention her ethnicity,

and the name of the New-York Historical

Society exhibition: Exclusion/Inclusion.

Soon, when I felt alone in this city, her face

would peer at me from behind seats, turnstiles,

heads, and headphones, and I swear she wore

a smile only I could see. Sometimes my face

aligned with hers, and we would rush past

the bewildered lives before us—hers, gone

the year my mother was born, and mine,

a belt of ghosts trailing after my scent.

In the same aboveground train, in the same

city where slain umbrellas travel across

the Hudson River, we live and live.

I’ve left my landline so ghosts can’t dial me

at midnight with the hunger of hunters

anymore. I’m so hungry I gnaw at light.

It tunnels from the shadows, an exhausting

hope. I know this hunger tormented her too.

It haunted her through her years in L.A., Paris,

and New York, the parties she went to, people

she met—Paul Robeson, Zora Neale Hurston,

Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein. It haunts

her expression still, on the 6 train, Grand

Central station, an echo chamber behind

her eyes. But dear universe: if I can recognize

her face under this tunnel of endless shadows

against the luminance of all that is extinct

and oncoming, then I am not a stranger here.

Sally Wen Mao, “Resurrection” from Oculus.  Copyright © 2019 by Sally Wen Mao.  Graywolf Press, http://www.graywolfpress.org.

 

Thanks
by W.S. Merlin

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

 

Notebook, 1981
by Eileen Myles

I was so willing to pull a page out of my notebook, a day, several bright days and live them as if I was only alive, thirsty, timeless, young enough, to do this one more time, to dare to have nothing so much to lose and to feel that potential dying of the self in the light as the only thing I thought that was spiritual, possible and because I had no other way to call that mind, I called it poetry, but it was flesh and time and bread and friends frightened and free enough to want to have another day that way, tear another page.

Excerpted from Evolution. Copyright © 2018 by Eileen Myles. Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. 

“Have Made Earth as the Mirror of Heaven”
by Alice Notley

my name is Alice Elizabeth, so am I
Allie Sheedy of the movie Short Circuits thus angry
or Elizabeth McGovern self-controlled?
This question is posited
on a television screen where I can’t quite identify
the actress shown—which is she?

I am Allie and I will continue to rant.
____________________

My voice rises in real life often—
because I am ‘passionate’ … that’s
a convenient word.
____________________

I’m still in the forest, darkening
wishing I were ‘nicer.’

Hardwood says, You should stand up soon
I’ll help you
I say, I have cramps
I say, I’m using my period, to get pissed off and to Know.
____________________

I dreamed, last night, about an immense Dead Seal
below the surface of the water in a harbor

pull the curtain down.
For months you would not break the spell
for eternities you have not done so, citing economic
exigencies; the whole thing is a mess.
I might rather be dead
than doing what it takes to keep the seal under water
whale-sized

E is for seal. For spell. For suppression.
____________________

To take part in you is to die
is why one dies
Have I said this before?
____________________

I am Alp the Dizzy.
____________________

The dead seal isn’t a person, it’s poetry the seal
the hallmark
of selfhood, dead grotesquely large and richly hardening.

“Hardwood it was someone like you
you drowned the seal”

“No I’m making both you and it ‘hard.’ ”
____________________

And I’m still in the forest.
____________________

And I’m still in the forest

Money’s more the real live poetry
abstract symbolic imaginary
trade your life for it and trade it for your life
so you’ll have something ‘to do’

Sink the whale
and sleep all day in the real world, up and functioning
more fully imagined and dreamed, in society’s
than in your own, imagination?

I’m standing
I’m standing up Hard
I keep being Hardwood myself, dark and hard.
____________________

Initiating a new ‘broken symmetry’ (spinning to the
Left, like a newborn neutrino)
so that we can have a new consciousness …
am I doing that? Yes I think so.
____________________

The forest contains a French restaurant
every meter or so …
difficult to fast in this dream vision.
We’re a very unpopular group today
We’ve shot off another great bomb
and we’ve shot down a terrorist,
an Arab, young, before
we even found out what he “knew.”
____________________

Tell me something beautiful, bitter
because we are somehow bitter, forever,
a taste included in origin, in love, in you.
So I don’t have to be cloyed.

… soul’s waters are reticent
sly swamps.
It had nothing in it,
that swamp; because I didn’t know how to look for
the parts of its obvious whole—death is
minute, flavorful parts—which are said to spin
as I’m said to walk, moving while else
mostly unconscious of that.
____________________

In the new consciousness

Alice Notley, “Have Made Earth as the Mirror of Heaven” from Disobedience. Copyright © 2001 by Alice Notley. Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

‘Wild Geese’, from Dream Work (1986) by Mary Oliver.

Kindness
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Red Brocade
by Naomi Shihab Nye

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.

Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.

No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.

I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.

Copyright © by Naomi Shihab Nye.

i swear to god i will solve the rack man case just give me two weeks
by Harry Reid

give me something to wail on
i want instant justice like fly-spray

this train carriage is a court-room
& i’m the judge, handing down

25 to life for the man wearing btk glasses
& getting off at south kensington

at home my kitchen’s a crime scene
i’m the sheriff of the group chat like

cooking dinner i’m mad at 70’s america
do the fucking dishes guys
& take the bins out it’s wednesday

cooking dinner i’m mad at 70s america
like what the fuck were you doing

letting rodney alcala on the dating game
right in the middle of his murder spree

& how come cheryl was the only one
who thought he was a total creep?

i wash up like forensically
leave a fork in the sink like a calling card

fall asleep listening
for footsteps outside my window

watching a documentary
on the hillside strangers

think about paving the driveway with gravel
so i can hear when anyone approaches

wake up & put tiny numbered markers
all throughout the house

march my housemate around the living room
showing him where he missed with the vacuum

he hates it but he lets me
keep these little rituals

like taping off my bedroom
when i need some time alone

or microscopically examining
all the hair in the shower

so i know no-one has broken in
& used all my shampoo

it’s only because i can’t walk
through the park anymore

without my phone in one hand
& my keys in the other

so i’ll keep gary ridgway’s 48 life sentences
in my pocket for good luck

light a candle for every one
of dudley kyzer’s 10,000 years

go home & thank god
i don’t live in california

from six gay bushrangers

What Kind of Times Are These
by Adrienne Rich

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

Adrienne Rich, “What Kind of Times are These” from Collected Poems: 1950-2012. Copyright © 2016 by The Adrienne Rich Literary Trust. Copyright © 1995 Adrienne Rich.
Source: Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995 (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1995)

Last on Earth
by Mary Ruefle

It is said that many have been cured of madness by drinking
of the spring in the orchard of this convent, but I
doubt it, for it is a very pleasant place and a surfeit
of pleasantries often leads directly to madness.
I do not have much experience of madness (once
a sister ran naked down the hall) but I have tasted
the water and it is clear and fresh, there is nothing
unpleasant about it. The Abbess said of a certain man
he is a drink of water—meaning he was a bore—
but I want to meet that man, he would be as welcome
in my life as Jesus in the orchard here, though the fat
old Abbess might shoo him away. I would be so glad
to have him drink, to serve him with a round of little glasses
on a painted tray, like the ‘cocktail parties’
in the secular world, and I the hostess, turning her cheek
to be kissed in the fray. I would wear white clothes and
my headdress, and he might carry a scythe and cut
the morning glories, or simply sit and sun his nose.
But they have taken my Lord away, lodged Him in the earth
somewhere, call Him leaves, vines, breeze, bird.
It cannot be true. Looking for Him in these things
condemns us to a lifetime of imbecile activity.
He has a face, arms, legs, a navel. He is a man,
for He is everything I am not. How can it be
otherwise? Before I leave the spring, I lean
over it and weep. I spit upon the flowers. I stumble
up the hill. We are somewhere below the Tserna Gota—
meaning the Black Mountain—and when I reach the top
I count the villages—there are two—where we
are the last on earth to think of Him as having a head.
Here, too, is the source of the spring, and crows
with lethargic dispositions circle and circle the spot.

Mary Ruefle, “Last on Earth” from Post Meridian. Copyright © 2000 by Mary Ruefle. 
Source: Post Meridian (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000)

The Wife of Mission Rock
by Mary Ruefle

Nothing curves at sea,
and the men there die abruptly,
in imitation of the fact, except
when the ship rises higher than necessary
and then they must drop suddenly
but for a long time,
so that their deaths appear natural
in the end, and the women sweeping the coutyards
pause, thinking the dust
to be the cause of a specific dryness
in the mouth. They leave half of a
pastry to harden on a plate.
They leave all of the lemons and figs
in bowls. They leave fuschia
splattered on the stone steps leading
down to the bay. They carry their brooms
with them, keep sweeping the air,
cleaning it back to the sea.
They sweep the sand from the shore,
feet standing in neat little rows of foam.
Each at the edge of something when
the foghorns remind them:
they will not clearly remember it,
they will not altogether forget it.
They will wait for something to emerge,
like a man at sea carving his children
from soap. One woman will start the rumor
that the sea is deeper than necessary:
Tell her, when has anyone ever come back
for one day’s effort on earth?

Mary Ruefle, “The Wife of Mission Rock” from Life Without Speaking, published by University of Alabama Press. Copyright © 1982 by Mary Ruefle. 

The Letter
by Mary Ruefle

Beloved, men in thick green coats came crunching
through the snow, the insignia on their shoulders
of uncertain origin, a country I could not be sure of,
a salute so terrifying I heard myself lying to avoid
arrest, and was arrested along with Jocko, whose tear
had snapped off, a tiny icicle he put in his mouth.
We were taken to the ice prison, a palace encrusted
with hoarfrost, its dome lit from within, Jocko admired
the wiring, he kicked the walls to test the strength
of his new boots. A television stood in a block of ice,
its blue image still moving like a liquid center.
You asked for my innermost thoughts. I wonder will I
ever see a grape again? When I think of the vineyard
where we met in October—when you dropped a cluster
custom insisted you be kissed by a stranger—how after
the harvest we plunged into a stream so icy our palms
turned pink. It seemed our future was sealed. Everyone
said so. It is quiet here. Not closing our ranks
weakens us hugely. The snowflakes fall in a featureless
bath. I am the stranger who kissed you. On sunny days
each tree is a glittering chandelier. The power of
mindless beauty! Jocko told a joke and has been dead
since May. A bullethole in his forehead the officers
call a third eye. For a month I milked a barnful of
cows. It is a lot like cleansing a chandelier. Wipe
and polish, wipe and polish, round and round you go.
I have lost my spectacles. Is the book I was reading
still open by the side of our bed? Treat it as a bookmark
saving my place in our story.

(here the letter breaks off)

Mary Ruefle, “The Letter” from Post Meridian. Copyright © 2000 by Mary Ruefle.
Source: Post Meridian (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000)

Blood Soup
by Mary Ruefle

The last time I saw father alive he was using
a black umbrella, closed, to beat off some pigeons
hanging outside the marble portals of a museum.
We were visitors, walking very slowly, so father
could stoop and examine everything. We had not been
in the museum, but were resting on its steps.
We saw it all—the fountains, the statues, the parks
and the post office. Cities are made of such things.
Once we encountered a wedding coming out of the cathedral
and were caught in a shower of rice; as the bride
flicked her veiled head father licked his little finger
and in this way saved a grain. On the next block
he announced he was going to heaven. But first let’s
go back to the hotel and rest, he said: I want my mint.
Those were practically his last words. And what did I want
more than anything in the world? Probably the ancient Polish
recipe for blood soup, which was finally told to me
in an empty deli in a deserted mill town in western Massachusetts
by the owner’s mother, who was alone one day when I burst
in and demanded a bowl. But, she said, lacing her fingers
around a jar of morello cherries, it requires one cup of
new blood drawn from the goose whose neck you’ve just wrung
to put in the pot, and where in these days can I find
anything as fresh as that? I had lost track of my life
before, but nothing prepared me for the onslaught of
wayfarer’s bliss when she continued to list, one
by one, the impossible ingredients I needed to live.
We sat at the greasy table far into the night, while
snow fell on the locked doors of the church next door,
dedicated to St. Stanislas, which was rumored to be
beautiful inside, and contain the remains of his beloved head.

Mary Ruefle, “Blood Soup” from Among the Musk OX People: Poems. Copyright © 2002 by Mary Ruefle. (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2002)

little city
by Sara Saleh

little city, on your scorched days Rania and I pool our

khamsmiyehs, buy Bonjus from baqqal abu Fadi, sell them

for triple the price, “dollar law samaht”, this country has us

believing we are so clever, so entrepreneurial, them

neighborhood kids should be grateful, “khalto, look at

us, don’t we make you

proud?”

little city, on your anxious nights we gather in

balconies, lighthouse beacons with little-to-no

light, wreathed in smoke, we wait, we

sit, we speak, we speak over each

other, “ya 3layeh inshaAllah”, no one

actually wants to hear the answers,

I can’t afford to trust the morning,

I am still learning to believe it when it

comes.

little city, we want to sing, want to giggle silly over

boys and simple things, but you have different

plans, young men on tanks cuss loudly, young

men on tanks whistle at us, eyes open

empty, this dark, this shatter,

we tell them we have God, but

I don’t think they believe

us.

little city, we climb to the top of the steeple

stairs, quiet and quieter, past jasmine

bushes, past bullet holes, confetti

of ‘86, no one bothers with

plaster, is it any wonder we don’t have

mothers and fathers, how long will you

hate yourself into something we can

love?

little city, trying to forget

little city, how did you survive,

what did they call you…

before Syria, before Israel, before France, before

Ottoman…

before, before…

little city, what becomes of history

if there remain no artists to write of it?

your pages are long, your patience

longer.

From bil 3arabi: 6 poems

Fairouz
by Sara Saleh

Fairouz …

The last one of us has left home…

Fairouz sings, “Oh wind, if you please, take me home …”

What does it mean to lose a person, to lose a country?

Whenever I write about mama and baba, I use ellipses,

I am not fond of endings, and we are a people

of kan zaman and kan ya ma kan…

“Upon the rumble of the bus that was carrying us from the village

of Hamlaya to the village of Tannourine, I remembered you,

and I remember your eyes”

Friday lunch we drape boney fish and

spiced potatoes on the table, fighting over

who is to blame for this mess, Amreeka, amo

says or we brought it on ourselves or some other or …

We stay seated for hours, with our oversized

plates and our oversized grief …

“The people have asked me about you, my darling

They’ve written letters and the wind took them

It’s not easy for me to sing, my darling”

We both come from a wartime where

there is only one hospital, and many shrines

to watch over our dead, their bodies inside out,

which is to say, we only know how to love inside out …

So many times I sent word when you were an island,

unsure if it reached you, my darling, and what if

we are not meant to survive everything?

Fairouz sings, and we are reminded,

every love letter is also an elegy …

“Until When, God?”

“Our land is being reborn”

The man on the TV says, burn the mosques,

burn the textbooks, burn our tender,

this city turns our curses to prayers,

our disciples to the wretched …

“My voice, keep flying,

whirlwind inside the conscience of people,

tell them what’s happening,

so that maybe their conscience wakes up.”

Sing to them, we are a free people …

And sing. and sing. And sing. And …

From bil 3arabi: 6 poems

Advice to a Prophet
by Richard Wilbur

When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God’s name to have self-pity,
Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.
Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?—
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on the stone’s face?
Speak of the world’s own change. Though we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,
How the view alters. We could believe,
If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip
On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,
These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken
In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.
Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.

Richard Wilbur, “Advice to a Prophet” from Collected Poems 1943-2004. Copyright © 2004 by Richard Wilbur. FB post by the Poetry Foundation 27 January 2019

Gone is Gone
by Mark Wunderlich

for Lucie Brock-Broido

I was there at the edge of Never,
of Once Been, bearing the night’s hide

stretched across the night sky,
awake with myself disappointing myself,

armed, legged & torsoed in the bed,
my head occupied by enemy forces,

mind not lost entire, but wandering
off the marked path ill-advisedly. This March

Lucie upped and died, and the funny show
of her smoky-throated world began to fade.

I didn’t know how much of me was made
by her, but now I know that this spooky art

in which we staple a thing
to our best sketch of a thing was done

under her direction, and here I am
at 4 AM, scratching a green pen over a notebook

bound in red leather in October.
It’s too warm for a fire. She’d hate that.

And the cats appear here only as apparitions
I glimpse sleeping in a chair, then

Wohin bist du entschwunden? I wise up,
know their likenesses are only inked

on my shoulder’s skin, their chipped ash poured
in twin cinerary jars downstairs. Gone

is gone, said the goose to the shrunken boy
in the mean-spirited Swedish children’s book

I love. I shouldn’t be writing this
at this age or any other. She mothered

a part of me that needed that, lit
a spirit-lantern to spin shapes inside

my obituary head, even though—
I’m nearly certain now—she’s dead.

Copyright © 2019 by Mark Wunderlich. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 23, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Say Grace

by Emily Jungmin Yoon

In my country our shamans were women
and our gods multiple until white people brought
an ecstasy of rosaries and our cities today
glow with crosses like graveyards. As a child
in Sunday school I was told I’d go to hell
if I didn’t believe in God. Our teacher was a woman
whose daughters wanted to be nuns and I asked
What about babies and what about Buddha, and she said
They’re in hell too and so I memorized prayers
and recited them in front of women
I did not believe in. Deliver us from evil.
O sweet Virgin Mary, amen. O sweet. O sweet.
In this country, which calls itself Christian,
what is sweeter than hearing Have mercy
on us. From those who serve different gods. O
clement, O loving, O God, O God, amidst ruins,
amidst waters, fleeing, fleeing. Deliver us from evil.
O sweet, O sweet. In this country,
point at the moon, at the stars, point at the way the lake lies,
with a hand full of feathers,
and they will look at the feathers. And kill you for it.
If a word for religion they don’t believe in is magic
so be it, let us have magic. Let us have
our own mothers and scarves, our spirits,
our shamans and our sacred books. Let us keep
our stars to ourselves and we shall pray
to no one. Let us eat
what makes us holy.

Source: Poetry (November 2017)

An Ordinary Misfortune [“She is girl. She is gravel.”]
by Emily Jungmin Yoon

She is girl. She is gravel. She is grabbed. She is grabbed like handfuls of gravel. Gravel grated by water. Her village is full of gravel fields. It is 1950. She is girl. She is grabbed. She is not my grandmother, though my grandmother is girl. My grandmother’s father closes the gates. Against American soldiers, though they jump over stone walls. To a girl who is not my grandmother. The girl is gravel grabbed. Her language is gravel because it means nothing. Hands full of girl. Fields full of gravel. Korea is gravel and graves. Girl is girl and she will never be a grandmother. She will be girl, girl is gravel and history will skip her like stone over water. Oh girl, oh glory. Girl.

Emily Jungmin Yoon, “An Ordinary Misfortune [”She is girl. She is gravel.”]” from A Cruelty Special to Our Species. Copyright © 2018 by Emily Jungmin Yoon. The Ecco Press (HarperCollins Publishers).

What Carries Us
by Emily Jungmin Yoon

First, there was the horse.

Imagine creatures as majestic,
standing. All their lives they stand, withholding.

Imagine being tamed. Learning to be still,
to be speed. Imagine birds as large

as horses. We would be flying, grabbing
a majestic creature by its collar.

In cylinders of metal, we are four-legged
beast-lives of liminal spaces.

One time I was so tired of flying I wondered
if I will spend all my life packing then unpacking.

A complaint of privilege. We are such spending
creatures. And when I say we are beasts,

is that a metaphor? Metaphor, according to Papastergiadis,
is also transportation, between absence and presence,

“articulating action.” Its “very process,”
in times of extremity, is “akin to prophecy.”

I like the idea of transportation
as articulation, that the end of metaphor is a kind

of arrival, like getting off the train at an unknown stop.

So when I say we are beasts, perhaps what I mean
to do is remember that predators

have forward-facing eyes, and we do
grab others by the collar, and we do fly

in metal, in preparation for the kill.

What I want to do is slow down time.

Imagine love as a horse.

Think about us—a distance
apart only a flying thing could connect us—

standing and pacing, tamed and watching,

then finally with each other, laughing
as if to collapse, unbridled as wild horses.

In this era of brevity in this era of metal in this
era of abbreviation, yes, I’m trying to make you

think of me longer. Yes, this whole time,

the bird, the train, the whole thing
about metaphor, I said to say this,

that this is what carries us, the slow
consideration of what each other is, can be.

And first, there was the horse.

Source: Poetry (April 2020)

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” from The Complete Poems 1926-1979. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, http://us.macmillan.com/fsg. All rights reserved.

Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: The Complete Poems 1926-1979 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983)


2 Comments

K-drama. I’m not addicted. It’s because…

Ever had that moment, that pseudo-intimate moment, when you give your heart to an actor, sincerely and fully, when you say (out loud) “I LIKE YOU”– then discover your discovery has a fan club numbering in the millions?

It happened to me. This may (or may not) shock those of you who know me. And Cho Seung-woo, I’m sorry, but I just don’t think it can work out between us. Us and those millions others. Even if time travel could make me 20 years younger.

I have become addicted to K-drama. It happened abruptly – not the drama part, I’ve been a drama addict life-long: the ‘K’ part. I have become a Korean TV series tragic.

K-drama_not_addicted

In a time-space continuum so short I’m embarrassed to admit it (okay, about 5 months), I have watched all or some of 47 Korean TV series and films. TV series completed: 22 (most K-dramas have a 16 episode run, but one went 50). TV series sampled: 18 (a couple I might revisit). Korean-language films viewed on Netflix: 7

그러므로 Therefore, despite not speaking Korean – yet, beyond the essentials (“Shit”, “Gosh”, “Thank you”, “I’m sorry”, “I like you”, ”Do you want to die?”, a few food items) – I feel qualified to bestow the Inaugural McDonald Korean Netflix Television & Film Awards. Even if not qualified, I intend to do so.

My first challenge is deciding award categories. A hallmark of K-drama is that series transgress genres. My sister, a K-drama novice, was watching what she thought was a comedy with me yesterday when the tone plummeted dark. “Suddenly we’re watching Gaslight?” she squeaked, alarmed. I nodded knowingly, in my best K-drama Big Boss mode.

I see via Google that most lists of Best K-dramas lean heavy on romance. Declaration of Non-Interest: Almost every K-drama features a romance, some more insistently than others, some more charmingly than others. The lovers are quite extraordinarily good-looking, blindingly good-looking. I did know some good-looking men men I was young, but they tended to be the type who’d force you to do hand-jobs in public places. The closest I got to K-drama style romance was my good-looking boss who tried to give me a CD of torch songs and nudged it into his desk-bin when I demurred; and the pop star who kissed me in the street. But that’s another story, or two, and only two. Generally K-drama romances cause me acute longing and make me grumpy.

k-drama_ridiculously-good-looking

Chaebols – the kind of filthy rich good-looking that forces hand-jobs in public

 

⭐ I like it

👎 Not for me

blank = no strong opinion unless otherwise annotated

Here are the categories I came up with, showing titles Viewed or Partially Viewed, with winners, annotated:

SAGEUK – historical costume drama
NB Does not include costume drama assigned to a different primary genre e.g. Comedy, Supernatural.
Titles listed roughly in historical chronological order.
Spoiler: Not all historical dramas are credible history.

Hwarang (P/V) 👎 – Let’s create a crack combat squad and let’s select warriors based on their good looks. Only in Goreyo/Korea.

CATEGORY WINNER: Six Flying Dragons (V x2) ⭐ – This is the one that started me, ended me. Obsessed. Charts the overthrow of the Woo kings of Goreyo and the founding of Joseon by the Yi clan. Great exploration of the mechanisms of power and politics, relative historical veracity (I said RELATIVE), with romance that got the tear ducts working. “This series is a GEM,” sobbed my sister. “This is the ending GoT failed.” Honorable mention to Yoo Ah-in as Yi Bang-won but really, cast is flawless.

My Country (V) – Covers the same historical events as Six Flying Dragons, with relative veracity stretched. Honorable mention for the fiercely sexy Jang Hyuk ⭐as a convincing Yi Bang-won. Fast forward and only watch sequences with Jang Hyuk. Priority to face-offs between Bang-won and his dad Yi Seung-gye (Kim Yeong-cheol). Also worth watching the always reliable Ahn Nae-sang, as the villain.

Deep Rooted Tree a.k.a. Tree With Deep Roots (V) ⭐ – Jang Hyuk again [big smile]. The Joseon dynasty’s finest hour: I give you King Sejong (not Jang Hyuk, the king is Han Suk-kyu, and excellent he is).

The Rebel (V) ⭐– Honourable mention, especially for final credits sequence. Structure and tone odd for those not familiar with Hong Gil-dong folk tales source material. Those unfamiliar with recent Korean politics might not get analogies.

The Empress Ki (P/V)👎 – Yeah right love triangle between Chinese emperor, Joseon king and transvestite concubine. The historical empress also known as Empress Gi.

The Royal Gambler (P/V)👎 – Might have to go back and watch throughout because it’s CHOI MIN-SOO [awestruck face]. How did a dark hairy bloke get to be a K-drama lead? (Answer: charisma. Sheer talent.) A royal scandal that’s been told and retold many different ways.

Love In The Moonlight (P/V) 👎Oh these transvestite girls-dressed-as-boys. Shakespearean. But not.

Mr Sunshine (P/V) – Very likely will resume and watch throughout, despite the lead actor’s extramarital scandal and the misery of Shinmeyangyo (“Western disturbance in the Shinmi Year”, 1871). Ain’t no sunshine…

K-drama_bromance

THE SUPERNATURAL: zombies, ghosts, ghouls, gumiho

Arthdal Chronicles (P/V)– It’s pronounced Arse? Really? Watch the UK series Britannia instead, if you must, for Bronze Age weirdness.

Diary Of A Night Watchman (P/V) 👎– Special effects bombast.

Kingdom (V) ⭐– High production-value zombie horrors and Bae Doo-na [hearts emoticon for Doo-na]. Magnificent opening sequence Ep1. Unusually, there’s a S2.

The Scholar Who Walks The Night (V) ⭐– Phenomenally camp, a live action webtoon. The hero is a vampire. The villain is a vampire. Lee Soo-hyuk (villain) is the bomb and if he’s messed with his nose or eyes it’s a crime. Lee Soo-hyuk’s nose and eyes are works of art.

Arang and The Magistrate a.k. The Tale of Arang (V) ⭐– Oh the Grim Reaper! Take me, take me! Funny and fey and hits the spot, despite the lead actor’s makeup.

CATEGORY WINNER: My Girlfriend Is A Five-Tailed Gumiho (V)⭐– Delightful in every way. A strong contender in my Best Comedy category, and maybe in my Best Romance too – for the older couple, not the kid and the gumiho. Fabulous ensemble: Korea’s favourite little brother Lee Seung-gi loves my girl Shin Min-a; Sung Dong-il loves Yoon Yoo-Sun (and Chow Yun-Fat).

Hotel Del Luna (P/V) – 9th highest rating K-drama in cable TV history so might resume watching, if only for Seo Yi-sook, my fave Korean female character actor.

Black (P/V) 👎– OMG even by K-drama standards this plot is convoluted and implausible (best not go near plausibility as a K-drama criterion).

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FEMINISM in a velvet glove:

CATEGORY WINNER: Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung (V x2) ⭐– costume drama, with THE most beautiful costumes ever. Sly and funny take on women entering male work domains. Political commentary on free speech and a free press. Female lead Shin Se-Kyung, who was wonderful as Bun-i in Six Flying Dragons. With Cha Eun-woo, perfectly cast.

Ms Hammurabi (V) ⭐– The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. The toolbox is full of tools. Very funny, nice romance, well-written drama. Go Ara has golden eyes and so do I. But I admit she’s prettier than me [wink]. My three faves in this category are all strong, hard to choose winner.

My ID Is Gangnam Beauty (V) ⭐– I didn’t expect to like this but loved it. Feminist critique of beauty obsession, wrapped up in a college romance. Did I mention it stars Cha Eun-woo, that one-man spawn pond of beauty obsession? Another live action webtoon adaptation.

Judge Vs Judge (P/V) – I can’t take it when girl characters screech.

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Cha Eun-woo as Do-won in Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung – pardon me objectifying but gotta admit he’s cute

 

ROMANCE:

Her Private Life (V) – She’s scared her new boss will find out she’s a stalker fangirl. Her new boss, the art gallery director, thinks her secret is she’s gay. Somewhere in here, a pop idol collects pop art. Some terrific screwball comedy, particularly in the earlier episodes, some interesting and oddly realistic insights into the art world, albeit caricatured (I speak as one who worked at an art gallery for six years), but fizzled out into unalloyed soap opera then saccharine with a very questionable takeaway.

CATEGORY WINNER: Chocolate (P/V) – Very likely will resume watching, just wasn’t in the mood. Wins category without being viewed simply for its title. Chocolate, mon amour

Beauty Inside (P/V) – Looks gorgeous, chance might resume watching

Any and all titles listed above and below

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ACTION:

Healer (V) ⭐– Gave it a second chance based on the amount of online love it receives, was worth persisting despite implausible ending (see previous comment re plausibility). Heavy on romance but this romance is sweet. One where I thought at first they definitely DO have sex. Not till near the very end, and they start under the doona wearing heavy winter outdoor clothes then wake up in white underwear (singlet, t-shirt), but was pretty sure It Happened. Apparently I was wrong.

Man To Man (P/V) – Too much man.

Vagabond (V) – Terrible prologue, terrible last episode. Everything in between entertaining and, again, quite sweet.

CATEGORY WINNER: Memories of the Alhambra (V) ⭐– Special award for best drama about Augmented Reality and gaming, and worst case of “Gosh I wish I had NOT killed that person” [horror face]. Stars Korea’s top-paid male star 2019, Hyun Bin (who immediately moved on to the popular romantic drama Crash Landing On You, not yet seen by me). Barrier to entry: a drawn-out sequence checking into a seedy hostel and the foulest clogged toilet ever shown on TV. After that it takes off 🏹  (After-thought: If you want feel-good, go with Healer.)

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TIME TRAVEL:

CATEGORY WINNER: Signal (V) ⭐– Outstanding. Based on the Hwaseong serial killings that began in 1986, ended 1994 and were only solved end 2019 (before this TV drama was made). Koreans must have wanted that c* I mean crim held to account so bad. Also the subject of an award-winning film, Memories of Murder (2003), by director Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite, Snowpiercer, The Host). And at least half a dozen other films and TV. Signal was remade in a Japanese version. Where Signal really scores is its innovative writing. There are popular tropes used and reused in K-drama, and time travel is one of them. This manages an original spin. It also packs a syrup-free emotional wallop, especially episodes where female lead Cha Soo-hyun is the focus. Don’t be put off by the opening episodes. Signal is worth it.

Tunnel (V) ⭐– More time travelling Korean cops, working to ‘solve’ the same real-life serial killings as the cops in Signal. This is essentially a more palatable rewriting of Signal: easier to follow, more conventional in every respect, often funny, more optimistic. Was that a spoiler?

Live Up To Your Name a.k.a. Worthy Of The Name (V) ⭐ – A time travel costume drama that hits all the right notes. Extremely funny. Touching romance. Some lovely, witty writing.

 

K-drama_Inadvertent_Time _TravelDRAMA:

CATEGORY WINNER: Stranger a.k.a. Secret Forest a.k.a. Forest of Secrets (V) ⭐ – Directed by Ahn Gil-ho, brilliantly. Stars Cho Seung-woo and Bae Doo-na, with exceptional support from a talented cast, not least Lee Joon-hyuk as a prosecutor more like malevolent feline. The ‘My head hurts’ stuff might not be neurologically plausible but the noir plot – more corruption, in politics and the prosecutors’ offices – is gripping.

Life (V) ⭐ – Same writer who wrote my fave series Stranger: Lee Soo-yeon. Similar themes of institutional corruption, this time a major teaching hospital and a corporation. Several same lead actors (Cho Seung-woo, Yoo Jae-myung, Moon Sung-geun, Lee Kyu-hyung). Great team 💚 Honorable mention to Moon So-ri as Director Oh. She fires all directions, like Brother Mark in that John Woo classic 💥

Pride and Prejudice (V) ⭐– At first I thought this might be a kind of sex comedy with humour that does not translate, then I thought maybe an office satire with humour that does not translate. I wondered why Netflix labels it “Dark. Unsettling”. By Ep4 I understood. A bravura turn by Choi Min-soo.

The Lies Within (P/V)👎– Nope, lead actress lost me.

Remember (P/V) – Revenge drama. From a kpopmap review: “Yoo Seung-ho’s crying and pitiful acting left viewers’ hearts in pain”. Never mind, I liked him as the Jade Emperor of Heaven in The Tale of Arang.

Distorted a.k.a. Falsified (P/V) – highly rated by Koreans who recognise the media-gagging scandal this refers to so chance might resume watching. See comment above about cannot stand the screeching. [UPDATE: I did go back. I’m still only a few episodes in but am hooked. The off-putting elements I saw as puerile fantasist stuff have given way to a more serious tale of investigative and tabloid journalism challenging corruption.]

Designated Survivor: 60 Days (V)⭐ – Remake of U.S. drama works better in Korean context. Highly polished, highly professional. Lead actor Ji Jin Hee is appealing.

Chief Of Staff (P/V) – Politics as soap opera. Again.

Suits (P/V) – Remake of U.S. drama, not needed in my life.

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Cho Seung-woo breaking my heart

 

SPECIAL AWARD for Uncategorisable Brilliance:

Unchallenged Winner: Misaeng ⭐– live action adaptation of a webtoon. You can view it as workplace satire, comedy, feminist commentary, inspiration (yeah well not sure about that last). Just disregard completely the prologue and the final episode. Or view them as absurdist.

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FEATURE FILMS:

The Great Battle (V) – I learned a lot about siege defence.

War of Arrows (V) – I learned a lot about archer technology.

The Proxy Soldiers (V) – I learned about the Imjin Invasions.

Rampant (V) – I was reminded about zombies.

The Fortress (V) ⭐– I learned about the later Qing invasion.

Inspector K and the Virtuous Widow (V)⭐ – Laughed.

Inspector K and the Living Dead (V) ⭐ – Laughed more.

CATEGORY WINNER: Train to Busan (V)⭐– Zombies. They’re BACK.

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Six Flying Dragons (Korea, 2015) and Tree With Deep Roots (Korea, 2011) – spoiler-free

All the virtues of adventure costume drama with the added value of surprise.

Incredible sets, costumes, gorgeous young actors, swashbuckling action sequences, revenge, romance… and the whole way through I was trying to imagine how Korean audiences, knowing the framework of historical fact, would be interpreting characters and events.

Then when I realised I was watching the two shows in reverse order – Six Flying Dragons is a prequel to Tree With Deep Roots, made by the same team – I realised Korean viewers watching SFD would already know the fates of key characters, removing elements of suspense I found excruciating, but adding poignancy.

The entire political history of Korea would inform Koreans’ understandings of these dramas. I don’t have that. So my responses are naive, in the sense of… uneducated.

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The FB diary:

“… starts off playing like a kids’ adventure yarn then turns into an examination of political morality, dissidents, the nature of power, the nature of courage, wrapped up in an origin story of the [medieval] kingdom of Joseon (Korea). (The actual founding of the Joseon dynasty differs in marked ways from the hero tale of Six Flying Dragons.)

“This is gathering in power episode by episode and the climactic sequences in Ep4 – the music! – are killing me.

“Some parts so far are so pertinent to what’s happening in Hong Kong but the political parable is encompassing.”

“Rock stars. Amazing. I think I prefer it to GoT.

“12 episodes into Six Flying Dragons and it’s striking to contrast its female characters with how women were presented on GoT.

“Not many female characters in SFD, but those there are, are strong and complex, and respected: a woman spy master, a woman master spy, a peasant village leader, a peasant family matriarch, a resourceful peasant in a player troupe, a very young political ‘genius’ (so described by her father’s retainer).

“There’s a dorm-full of women spy-assassins but no overt prostitution, no femme fatale, no fallen women, no nudity. No conniving queen. The only sex has been one implied rape, off camera.

“Plus one young woman who appears to have an orgasm when the [much higher status] man who is patiently courting her assists her in fitting her first real pair of shoes. But I’d lose it too if I were that particular young woman and that particular young man was fondling my feet.”

“Things are turning very bleak in the last 10 episodes of Six Flying Dragons.

“The essential questions: What constitutes a righteous action? Does loyalty to an ideology take precedence over loyalty to loved ones? Capitalism vs Communism?

“Does a person become evil by performing evil acts or were they evil already?

“And the perennial: Who will live? Who will die violently?”

“Traumatised by Ep48 of Six Flying Dragons then cried the whole way through Ep50, the finale. [And kept on crying for 24 hours.]

” ‘We are stronger when we have someone to protect.’ ”

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“In my quest to become an overnight expert in Early Joseon I have done a deep dive into art history books, Wiki and Korean film and TV series beyond Six Flying Dragons.

Tree With Deep Roots picks up in time where SFD left off. I was going to say it presents a very different interpretation of King Taejong/Yi Bang-won but actually, the characterisation has a certain continuity, for obvious historical reasons. From this perspective, it makes SFD a romantic origins story.

“TWDR a.k.a. Deep Rooted Tree (a nice ironic pun) is more Alexandre Dumas.

“I also tried the popular Netflix series Kingdom, which has the apt conceit of making a Joseon king a raving zombie. I applaud the idea – the entertaining Inspector K: Secret of the Living Dead turned Joseon nobles into vampires – but I couldn’t cope beyond the first ten minutes.

“However (Korean: honne), I am not surprised Kingdom has just been renewed for a second season. Maybe I’ll work my way up to it.”

Tree With Deep Roots turns out to be a conspiracy thriller about… literacy?

“Could you stake your life the pen is mightier than the sword, that debate trumps torture, that a good man can survive wielding power?

“Would you?”

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Seoul Broadcasting System


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Review: Then It Fell Apart (2019), by Moby

At end May, in reaction to controversy, Electronica DJ and author Moby cancelled all remaining dates of his book promotion tour and announced he was “going to go away for a while”.

There’s so much in Then It Fell Apart that is interesting and well written that it’s sad to dismiss the whole book due to its failings.

It does have manifest failings. I’ll outline them, but again, it feels sad to write off the whole project, and sad to lash an author who makes so naked his frailties.

In the Preface, Moby writes that after finishing his first memoir, Porcelain, “rather than go back to therapy, I kept writing”. That’s where the problems start. Much of Then It Fell Apart reads like therapeutic writing, best discussed between client and therapist, or as a starting point for meaningful private conversation between Moby and significant individuals in his life.

I don’t think Moby was well served by editors or publishers with this book. He’s keen to set out the full extent of his drug-fuelled behaviours and emotional issues. He recognises his desperate drive for validation, for affirmation. As readers, we did not need to know everything he chose to tell. Editors were needed to set boundaries. Publishers needed to put in place fact checks.

The most obvious area is how he writes about women. The controversy that resulted in Moby retreating arose from how he wrote about film actress Natalie Portman, introduced on p.30.

He wobbles on the tightrope for a few paragraphs before things fall apart.

‘She smiled again and looked straight into my eyes. “I’ll be in New York too. Can we meet up?” ‘

Moby remembers Natalie as “flirting”. Subsequently he remembers them as “dating”, albeit briefly. He writes sentences that can be read ambiguously, that read as disingenuous:

‘[…] he stared at me blankly and asked, “Are you with Natalie Portman”

“I guess so,” I said.’

‘I’d had an amazing night with Natalie in Cambridge […]’

‘At midnight she brought me to her dorm room and we lay down next to each other on her small bed. After she fell asleep I carefully extracted myself from her arms and took a taxi back to my hotel.’

He remembers himself as 33 and Natalie Portman as 20.

Natalie remembers things differently.

For starters, she’s clear she had just turned 18. She told Harpers Bazaar UK

“I was surprised to hear that he characterized the very short time that I knew him as dating because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I just had graduated high school”.

Fact checks conducted by the Washington Post confirm that across the few weeks Moby refers to, Moby was touring in support of his hit album Play and Portman was making a film. The two met up in New York a few weeks after the initial backstage meeting, not a few days. They both attended the MTV Video Music Awards.

As Portman recalls, it was not her suggestion that they “meet up”:

“I was a fan and went to one of his shows when I had just graduated. When we met after the show, he said, ‘let’s be friends’. He was on tour and I was working, shooting a film, so we only hung out a handful of times before I realised that this was an older man who was interested in me in a way that felt inappropriate.”

You only have to see the photo Moby posted in rebuttal, showing the two of them backstage, him with his shirt off, her with a small, uncomfortable smile, to know the truth of this. It’s a fan pic: Moby, with his jaw-wide, rectangular grin, is the fan; Portman, so young, is the star.

I recognise these photos. I have several where I look just like Moby does here: an ecstasy of adulation; an instinctive professional pose in response.

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This is part of the sadness of this book. Moby is a fan to the core, and some of the best chapters in Then It Fell Apart are accounts of growing up into fandom. The chapters that tell of teenage trips to New York nightclubs, the teen teaching himself DJ skills, even the chapters about his early exposures to music and the genesis of his record collection – all are wonderful.

As are accounts of having dinner with David Bowie and Iman, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, and singing on-stage with New Order, channelling Ian Curtis.

Moby as fan is endearing. Moby as creepy older guy is not.

But he keeps doing it. He keeps introducing us to beautiful young girls, some famous (Christina Ricci, Lana Del Rey), some not, salivating on paper as he writes of their exquisiteness, implying he slept with them.

Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. But he didn’t inform any of them a book was coming out with his version of whatever happened between them, or that his version implied sexual relations. His publisher didn’t inform them. Apparently no one had the opportunity to veto or correct.

In his Preface, Moby writes “I’ve changed some names and details out of respect for other people, but all the stories in this book actually happened.”

Memory doesn’t work like that. All recollections are reconstructions. Reconstructions are coloured by fantasies, desires, fears. Reconstructions are configurations of neural pathways. The neural pathways of a man who by his own account consumed massive quantities of alcohol and drugs on a daily basis for decades are shredded.

As for respect… is it respectful to recount an anecdote from a specific UK tour, where individuals can be identified, about a threesome on a tour bus with two female record company staff? Just how many female record company staff accompanied his entourage on that tour bus?

‘I looked down at my naked body. There was shit on my legs and on my stomach. Either I had engaged in messy anal sex that I didn’t remember, or somebody – possibly me, possibly one of the women – had shat on the couch we’d had sex on. It smelled like an open sewer, and I had to fight the urge to vomit.’

That anecdote goes on. And on. Did we need to read it?

Or

‘She looked at the sheets. “Oh, sometimes when I have sex I get these burst cysts in my vagina. Or I got my period,” she said with disconcerting calm.

There was more blood than I’d ever seen in one place. It looked like a cow had just given birth. There was blood on the sheets. On Pam. On me.’

 

There are other tales of menstrual mess on couches, on sheets, of explosive diarrhoea, of the aptly-named Andy Dick, a comedian, attempting to shit on Moby’s birthday cake, pissing into Moby’s champagne.

There’s a tale of “knob-swiping”, a game whereby a man is dared to wipe his naked dick against another person in public, without that person’s awareness. Moby knob-swipes Donald Trump. First time I’ve been on The Donald’s side. More particularly, Moby writes with courteous restraint of Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who is kind to him, then launches into telling about dick-wiping her dad. I bet Ivanka does not feel respected.

There are so many tales of hookers, strippers, desperate housewives, mobsters, molls… Did we need quite so many tales?

We get it. Moby was unable to sustain any kind of couple relationship with any woman. He panicked. He could only have promiscuous sex, sex with strangers, sex with what he calls “degenerates”, occasional sex (or implied sex) with women he idealises, sex that goes nowhere … except for that ex-girlfriend, the on-off girlfriend who lasted several years, who he calls Kellie. Kellie must hate this book.

My editing solution:

Condense the narrative about the boy growing up to two chapters: early childhood; then high school years and the brief attempt at college.

Condense the account of stardom and self-destruction. Keep the star-as-fan accounts of his brushes with fame, appropriately framed (fact-checked). Keep representative accounts of self-destructive behaviours and alienation.

The Lana Del Rey (Lizzy Grant) episode is good. If Lana/Lizzy is good with it.

Keep the context of Moby’s lifelong extreme anxiety disorder. Don’t over-egg it. Don’t let it turn into self-excuses.

I would much rather have read less about the hell of being an addict celebrity and had Then It Fell Apart be a three-strand volume: the childhood; the story of a crash; then the story of how Moby constructed an equilibrium, even if precarious.

I don’t need a happy ending. But I need more balance. As a reader, I know there is more to this story, because I made it to the final page. I imagine it was Moby’s intent to write a third volume, the volume of his recovery.

After the controversy prompted by how he wrote about Portman, and after his pledge to “go away for a while”, that book might never be written, or, if written, might never be published. Which is truly sad.

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As a reader, I’m left with the overwhelming impression of unmanaged anxiety, a man self-medicating with toxic substances, self-loathing, an eating disorder mentality (I don’t doubt Moby is sincere in his veganism on principle, but it does seem to me he’s a case-book male eating disorder), revulsion at bodily functions, and madonna/whore flip-flopping between idealisation of women and fury at women – ironic, given the feud that resulted when Moby accused rapper Eminem of misogynistic lyrics.

But then, he does say he had thought he and Eminem had much at core in common:

“Apart from misogyny and homophobia, I felt a strange kinship with Eminem. We’d both grown up in grinding suburban poverty. We both had complicated single moms. We’d both found refuge in music […] All along I’d assumed Eminem hadn’t really been that upset with me and that someday we’d meet up and have a friendly conversation […] We’d talk about growing up poor and scared, and maybe even become friends”.

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While I don’t doubt at all that Moby grew up scared and poor, especially in the very early years, neglected in a chaotic environment, acutely feeling the disparity between his circumstances and the prevailing norms in the prosperous Connecticut county that was home, he never discusses the elephant in the room: his mother lived in Connecticut because that’s where she grew up, and her affluent parents were just up the road in their 10-bedroom mansion, where she and Moby apparently lived for long stretches.

Moby writes of his grandfather with respect and love, writes less of his grandmother – but what was the deal? Why was the child experiencing grinding poverty while living under his grandparents’ roof and later, in a modest house purchased for his mother and him by his grandmother, with his mother earning as a secretary?

When he writes of their temporary relocation to a somewhat less prosperous Connecticut county, he makes the point that he moved from an all-WASP school to a school community that was 90% Black and Hispanic. But then he goes and adds that none of his Black and Hispanic classmates were as poor as he was. Which is just embarrassing. It pushes the self-pity meter way, way up. Words like “entitlement” spring to mind…

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So was Moby the little white prince, displaced? Is his rage and his desperate, driving need for validation a consequence of “I *should* have been pampered in the castle!”?

He does write at length about his envy of the billionaire set, despite seeing clearly at close quarters how wretched the billionaires are. And he writes of purchasing a castle, the top five floors of an iconic Gilded Era New York building with views all across Manhattan and the Hudson, and of how living in the castle failed to salvage his soul.

If we take the end page at face value, what salvaged his soul, finally, was AA.


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Mystify: Michael Hutchence – a documentary by Richard Lowenstein

Today I attended a Melbourne media preview for Mystify, director Richard Lowenstein’s documentary about his friend Michael Hutchence, lead singer of the band INXS, who died by suicide in 1997.

Michael was my friend once, too. We were a year apart in age and we met not long after we both moved to Sydney in 1979. Back then, I was an Australian rock music writer.

As a rock writer, I wrote a number of articles about Michael and about INXS. More recently, I’ve written two memoir pieces about Michael as I knew him [links at bottom]. Today, I was fortunate to attend the preview as the guest of my friend Jen Jewel Brown, a prominent Australian rock music writer (writing as Jenny Hunter Brown or Jenny Brown), who also knew Michael back in the day, and who co-wrote the 2018 Michael Hutchence biography Michael: My brother, lost boy of INXS, with Michael’s sister Tina Hutchence.

At the end of Mystify, Jen and I sat transfixed. Afterwards, we talked for hours.

I sincerely hope Richard Lowenstein’s sensitive, intimate portrait of Michael as recalled by the people closest to him reaches its audience.

It would be a travesty if Mystify got lost in the wake of the many previous accounts of Michael’s life.

In addition to Tina and Jen’s book last year, published biographies include: Toby Creswell’s Shine Like It Does: the life of Michael Hutchence (2017); Michael In Pictures – A Celebration of the Life of Michael Hutchence by Richard Simpkin (2015); Total XS by Michael’s brother Rhett Hutchence (2004); Paula, Michael and Bob: Everything you know is wrong by Gerry Agar (2003); Michael Hutchence: Just A Man: the real Michael Hutchence by Tina Hutchence and Michael’s mother Patricia Glassop (2000); Michael Hutchence: The Devil Inside by Vincent Lovegrove (1999); and The Life and Death of Michael Hutchence by Mike Gee (1998), also released as The Final Days of Michael Hutchence.

There have been TV dramatisations and documentaries: The Day the Rock Star Died (2019); The Last Rock Star (2017); the mini-series Never Tear Us Apart: The untold story of INXS (2014); Autopsy – The last hours of Michael Hutchence (2014); The Life and Death of Michael Hutchence (2014); Behind The Music Remastered (2010); True Hollywood Story – Michael Hutchence (2004); True Hollywood Story – Rocked To Death: Michael Hutchence (1999).

Some of these accounts are outright exploitation. Others are attempts by people who knew Michael to tell his story as they understood it, or as they want the public to perceive it. Michael’s story is highly contested: it’s been told many different ways.

In Mystify, Richard Lowenstein presents Michael through footage filmed by friends and family, and outtakes from live performance and music video shoots. His friends, lovers and bandmates provide commentary superimposed on images from the time.

Some of the footage, photos and mementoes are breathtakingly personal. Kudos to the women with whom Michael had significant relationships who have chosen to speak honestly and insightfully, and who gave permission for private mementoes to be featured.

That they do this from love, not from any self-serving motive, is abundantly evident.

Kudos to the band members and fellow musicians who speak about Michael as they knew him, for better and for worse.

Kudos to Lowenstein (director of numerous INXS videos, Michael’s director in the feature film Dogs In Space), whose voice is not heard but whose commentary is expressed through his editing choices and the narrative structure.

A few things are brutally clear. Michael’s life was irrevocably altered by Acquired Brain Injury (ABI). He acquired brain injury in 1992 when a Danish taxi driver knocked him down on a cobblestone street in Copenhagen. His partner at the time, Danish supermodel Helena Christensen, recalls blood coming from his ears and his mouth. She recalls him insisting on leaving hospital, being nursed by her at home for the following month. He kept the extent of his injury from others. Perhaps he never fully recognized the extent to which head injury damaged him. But the brain scans exist: Michael had frontal lobe damage, which will have affected his emotional regulation and behaviours. He lost the sensory perceptions of taste and smell, which, for a sensualist like Michael, was tantamount to losing who he was.

In truth, the Michael I see in footage from the last years of his life is not the Michael I knew. His bandmates say it isn’t Michael as they knew him, either.

The Michael presented in those final years is panicking, desperate, lost, humiliated.

For those of us who cared for him, it’s hard to watch.

Afterwards, I felt like I’d been hit by a cannonball. “I feel sick,” I said to Jen. She felt sick, too.

I told Jen the last time I saw Michael was during the recording of their mega-album Kick, in 1987. He was walking up William Street in Sydney, towards Kings Cross. I was walking downwards, towards him. He was wearing a long loose beige coat. I was wearing red. He invited me to join him at Rhinoceros Studios, to help him fill in time between takes, chatting.

Or maybe it was that time when he stopped by my table in a crowded restaurant, and everyone in that room craned to check out who he’d deigned to talk to, strained their ears to hear what we talked about.

But actually, that wasn’t the last time I saw Michael. The very last time was New Year’s Eve 1988, when we were both at the same party at a fancy harborside mansion. He arrived trailing his model of the moment, an Amazon with sky-high cheekbones. We nodded. But by then INXS were major international stars, and I turned away without speaking to him.

Michael Hutchence was a real person, very real. I’ve heard him dismissed as a poser, a wally, a twat. For me, he was a sensitive, talented, inquiring young man, entranced by glamour, dreaming big. For years I thought the life he lived after that New Year’s Eve epitomized success: Michael living happily ever after, in the sunshine of the south of France.

I was disabused of that belief when Michael died.

In Mystify, I now see those years presented as a drawn-out descent into exhaustion and eventual dehumanization, as the tabloids chewed him up.

In one of the Mystify reviews I’ve read, it’s suggested Michael made a Faustian pact: “success”, at the cost of a life worth living.

I’m not sure who it’s implied is the Devil in this pact. I don’t think it’s “the devil inside” (to quote the song).

I do know fame’s a bitch.

 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Link to my blog tribute to Michael Hutchence, with personal reminiscences – Someone Famous, With Girl (2014) https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/2014/06/05/someone-famous-with-girl-for-michael-hutchence/
  2. Excerpt from my blog post W for War (2017). In its totality, this piece is not about Michael and there is some repetition with my Mystify blog post and my blog post Someone Famous, With Girl, above. W for War is, I suppose, about my own personal disillusion with previously held notions of “success” and “glamour”. It’s quite naked and wasn’t really written to be read (true confession!):Let’s begin with Michael Hutchence’s death. That’s a cynical place to begin, because of course it – any “it” – began much earlier. But this is a cynical tale, so let’s start where Michael ended.One morning late in 1997 I arrived at my Knightsbridge [London] workplace – the office with W emblazoned above the reception desk – and the tabloids on the foyer table screamed that Michael Hutchence was dead. Found hanged behind a hotel room door. I don’t remember much of that day but I do remember getting home at about 7.30pm and crying hysterically for two hours.

    Michael had been an acquaintance, possibly a friend, of mine. He was a year or so older than me and we’d arrived in Sydney at much the same time. In my first week in Sydney I saw Michael and his band, INXS, play at the bottom of a four-band bill at the Stagedoor Tavern. I say “saw”, but the Stagedoor was so crowded, so dark, I couldn’t see the stage.

    I became a rock music writer, Michael became a rock star. I interviewed him when the band were unknowns, then when they achieved national fame; I hung out with him while INXS recorded their international breakthrough album Kick, I met up with him occasionally and we nattered.

    I wrote him a poem, at his request:

    stops at the sound of
    his name called by
    a stranger – then
    recalls
    who she is and forgets
    himself: it’s you
    he smiles (he always means it)
    he laughs (and feels abashed)
    her eyes mirror his
    she is his (they always are)
    they are both young
    veterans
    they both can
    remember
    moments of belief, of the only kind
    he’ll know
    all strangers
    his kind. He is
    kind, or he could be, this singled out
    outsider
    he takes her
    camera and asks
    Am I in there?

    Someone Famous, With Girl (1985)

    In 2014 I wrote a blog about Michael that stops at that poem and bears its title.

    The last time I saw Michael was New Year’s Eve 1988. I was at a party at a Sydney harborside mansion. Michael was there, with model-actress Virginia Hey. I was femme’d up – stiletto heels, a satin bubble skirt, ‘80s long hair – and we exchanged formal nods. My heels sank into the lawn and mosquitoes bit my shins.

    As INXS conquered the U.S. charts, and as stories about Michael’s jet-setting lifestyle cluttered the tabloids, I came to see Michael as symbolic of “success”: Michael was the one who’d made it. I envied him his home in the south of France, his London pad, his famous friends. I envied him the Good Life with the Beautiful People. Even when paparazzi ambushed him and Paula Yates that notorious Sunday morning on their weekend ‘getaway’ (as if), even as I grew anxious for his well-being, I still saw Michael as representing success, and I still saw success as luxury and celebrity.

    That night, after Michael’s death, I had a nightmare that another of my rock star acquaintance-friends, a peer of Michael’s, Marc Hunter, had hanged himself too. (Marc died a few months later, of throat cancer; I didn’t know he was ill). I wore black to work the next day, and a small cross, and Liza Minnelli sad eyes, and I told my boss and another workmate about my nightmare. Michael’s death was all over the papers, or should I say, the papers were all over Michael’s death. I worked at a media planning agency, with 50 young men, two young female media planners, and four admin support staff (all female). Almost all staff were aged under 30. There were jokes about rock star deaths.

    Rock star deaths proved such a hit that our Xmas Party Social Committee decided to make that the Xmas party theme: Dead Pop Stars. The 33 year old who headed up the committee announced his intention to go as Michael Hutchence, in blue face, with a rope around his neck. I said that if Dead Pop Stars was the theme, I – the marketing director – would not attend the Xmas party. The theme was amended simply to Pop Stars.

    My boss told me other staff complained I was making something out of nothing. They didn’t believe I’d known Michael Hutchence. My boss told me to buck up. I decided to use the shock of Michael’s death to make changes in my life. I took to jogging around the Serpentine in Hyde Park during my lunch break, a short-lived practice.

    On about my second run I emerged from the lift and stepped into the office foyer as my boss was waiting to take the lift down. I glared at him; I was embarrassed at being seen in lycra shorts.

    My boss asked, “You look at me as if you hate me. But I’m the only friend you have around here.”

    That, I think, is a truer beginning.