A cheeky election video, yet …

I feel bad getting down on Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and current Libertarian presidential candidate. For one, he’s a pot-smoking New Mexican, which practically makes us family. For another, as an erstwhile subscriber to Reason magazine, I feel for those ideological sticklers among them who haven’t yet accepted that their movement only values them as future Republicans and current useful idiots who can spread the Koch gospel that bureaucracy is somehow worse than plutocracy.

But the details have to be discussed. Everybody loves this cuddly Johnson/Weld ’16 video, and I do too, but the card at the end has to disqualify the ticket for being unable to delegate tasks to competent people.

Johnson-Weld 2016. Our best America, yet. You in?

The fucking slogan below the logo—I want to slap the shit out of it. Check out the word spacing: of five chances to put proper spacing between words, it never uses the same spacing twice. You can’t get shitty, inconsistent spacing like this by leaving “Justified Text” on, you have to do it by hand, deliberately. Which means they paid someone to fuck this line up. Furthermore, our liberty-loving graphic artist only comes close to visually balanced spacing once, between “America,” and “yet”.

And that spot is exactly where the huge fucking problem happens. Some dipshit soi disant wordsmith—whom we may presume made enough of a show of valuing language to wear a blue blazer to high school forensics events—somehow wasn’t fucking aware that plopping that dumbass comma down there ruins the entire sentiment the sentence is trying to convey.

Because without the comma, “Our best America yet” means “the best America that we have been part of so far,” which is generic but hopeful and peppy in the spirit of the spot. However, with the comma it suddenly means “the best America that we have been part of—except [unstated reasons that the reader is welcome to fill in or just accept the innuendo of].” It becomes a leading unfinished thought pointedly hanging out an unattached conjunction that rhetorically says “Our best America—NOT.”

This isn’t difficult stuff to get right. Any competent editor is trained to blue-pencil both of these things, and libertarians should know that editors—their wages depressed by free-market disruption of their industries—come cheap.

I don’t even want to get into who thought “You in?” in two different colors made any sense at all.

There’s no excuse for this in big-kid politics. Libertarians, you might ask that your organization try to look a little less like a feckless third party. Or at least don’t put this stuff where I can see it. I’m embarrassed for you.

Robin Williams, Frank O’Hara, and brand-name specificity in mourning

Every time a notable death hits me hard, I end up thinking about Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” his elegy for Billie Holliday.

Thinking about it today, after Robin Williams’s death, makes it seem a very strange poem, and a kind of amazing contrast to the way we lived with and reacted to the news about Williams.

The speaker of “The Day Lady Died” spends most of his lines limning his lunchtime errands with notable checking of names and brands, a lot of them even more notable for being set in small caps. To me, this feels like an intoxicating consumer fantasy of a life in the arts in 1950s Manhattan: to spend one’s (considerable) money on lunch, books, booze, and smokes while looking forward to dinner with friends and strangers. It descends into what seems like parody as he considers buying “Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore” and other things blatantly boho and blatantly phrased with pretention, like “Les Nègres / of Genet.”

I’m probably reading incorrectly or offensively how much names and brands, and the purchasing of names and brands, serve to make the speaker seem like a grotesque of the postwar cultured New Yorker, but the catalog of things he buys and considers buying make this part of the poem seem like it comes from a lifestyle magazine, from a slightly Atlanticized riff on “What Sort of Man Reads Playboy?” It feels much more like the kept life of George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s than an actual life. It is absolutely captivating.

And it is on top of this Midtown fantasy of everyday boho life that the inescapable oppression of Holliday’s death sits. When the speaker finally acknowledges the subject of the poem, finally breaks the tension the reader has felt waiting for the part about the dead person, It feels as if the title itself has been applying the unacknowledged weight to the lines below it. It becomes clear as the speaker “casually ask”s for cigarettes and, oh yeah, a newspaper carrying the reality and finality of what has happened, that all the purchasing and futzing about which status-signaling literature to purchase has been in the service of avoiding this moment.

Seen against the absence of Holliday’s name—even in the title, her sobriquet “Lady Day” is hidden in reversal, and in the text she is only “she” and “her”—the focus on proper nouns and brands can be seen as a welcome distraction. Consumerism is being used to avoid the ache of loss and terror of death. But the devastation of the memory of her at poem’s end suffuses everything, makes names—and the power man thinks he wields with his naming—puny.

In contrast:

williams-trending

Here’s a screen capture of trending topics tweeted by Mike Monteiro about an hour after the news about Williams broke wide. And it’s the polar opposite of the poem: One brand name and like a dozen references to the deceased.

Here, the presence of an unrelated corporate brand is presented and understood as a sick joke. There is no comfort in Chicken Fries, there is only the friction created by pre-programmed content trying to horn in on the discussion of the day and the recognition of its absurdity. Rather than drowning our mourning selves in consumerism, there’s a recognition that only a contextual consumerism is appropriate (my roommates right now are watching The Birdcage) and that it forms only part of our response.

The brand names that we on social media distracted ourselves with were no distraction at all—they were “Robin Williams” and the names of his works. I don’t think anyone will disagree that we all felt the magnitude of the event, and that we or people we know are as moved by the death of Williams as the poem’s speaker was by that of Holliday. But clearly we have vastly different ways of coping with loss than our poor speaker does.

O’Hara’s speaker attempts to note—in proper-noun specifics down to the proximity of the nearest holiday—the details of a day that have names attached to them and can be taken as a (fantasy) version of normality. He attempts to locate himself in this specific name-branded day to avoid engulfing, timeless loss.

On the internet, though, we brought together immediate feelings, memories of Williams and his work, and clips from throughout his career. We located—or lost—ourselves in a kind of timeless, borderless soup of recognitions of his absence and recreations of his presence. It’s hard not to think of this as the healthier of the two responses.

It’s also hard—even if we stay away from cultural criticism—not to pick up on echoes of menace and the death instinct in “The Day Lady Died” that O’Hara probably didn’t intend. His speaker is buying four hundred cigarettes for the weekend, for Christ’s sake (probably for two people, sure, but still, damn). His version of normality is already soaked in death even on days when Billie Holliday has not died.

And I am sure similar accusations can be leveled at us as we stare at screens in our coping. In that spirit, here is footage of Frank O’Hara reading “The Day Lady Died” and I want you to watch it with the knowledge in mind that (as is stated earlier in the video) this performance was filmed just weeks before O’Hara’s own death from an auto accident.

Invocation

As new endeavors should be marked with a bit of ceremony, but shouldn’t roll eyeballs, I’m opening this place up with a poem, but not a painfully earnest and hopeful one.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Alchemist in the City” is as much about ambivalence as ambition–to my admittedly uninformed ear, anyway–and seems (thus) to capture a bit of the experience of Los Angeles. It’s about inaction and awe and failure, but also about the seemingly instinctual stance we take against them (yes, yes, while also contemplating giving in and and dying–like I said, ambivalent).

The Alchemist in the City

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

My window shews the travelling clouds,
Leaves spent, new seasons, alter’d sky,
The making and the melting crowds:
The whole world passes; I stand by.

They do not waste their meted hours,
But men and masters plan and build:
I see the crowning of their towers,
And happy promises fulfill’d.

And I – perhaps if my intent
Could count on prediluvian age,
The labours I should then have spent
Might so attain their heritage,

But now before the pot can glow
With not to be discover’d gold,
At length the bellows shall not blow,
The furnace shall at last be cold.

Yet it is now too late to heal
The incapable and cumbrous shame
Which makes me when with men I deal
More powerless than the blind or lame.

No, I should love the city less
Even than this my thankless lore;
But I desire the wilderness
Or weeded landslips of the shore.

I walk my breezy belvedere
To watch the low or levant sun,
I see the city pigeons veer,
I mark the tower swallows run

Between the tower-top and the ground
Below me in the bearing air;
Then find in the horizon-round
One spot and hunger to be there.

And then I hate the most that lore
That holds no promise of success;
Then sweetest seems the houseless shore,
Then free and kind the wilderness,

Or ancient mounds that cover bones,
Or rocks where rockdoves do repair
And trees of terebinth and stones
And silence and a gulf of air.

There on a long and squared height
After the sunset I would lie,
And pierce the yellow waxen light
With free long looking, ere I die.