In Which We Drown Out Everything Else

Gentle Oddity Of A Person

by JENNIFER RUSSO

The grass came from a gentle oddity of a person, a man deftly bearded, given to long monologues about music. “Is this your first time?” he asked, and embraced widely in benediction. My child. Sniffing at the mouth of an unlabeled prescription bottle, we clasped hands in childlike anticipation, formed a circle around the remains of birthday cheese and crackers, half-emptied bottles of wine. For the two menthols smoked earlier in the day – lungs clinging to the damp palm of an early winter afternoon – I felt a twinge of guilt. For this twist of green inside orange on the coffee table, we considered nothing except (naively): pipe or paper?

Paper.

If you smoked in high school, you were confined to a yellow square in the courtyard. The people inside of this square did not exist. If they did, we simply conceded that they could not be smoking anything other than tobacco, a single cigarette no doubt filched from their parents’ pocket-crushed packs. I was twice invited to step inside the square, both times by a girl in my class with a proclivity to arrive at school in slippers. I declined twice, too keen on existing, fonder still of the triangle beyond the yellow square where the smoke wafted, intoxicating those of us who believed ourselves more saintly.

Now, they passed the joint to me – thin, wrinkled, illicit – and I smacked pious lips dry, pinched them to the end of it. Inhale. Hold. Hold. Hold. Cough. Yes? Again? An orange, stabbed with cloves, simmered on the back of the stove. Water whistled in the kettle. The apartment reeked. Nearby, a friend with a face pink like wine made snow angels on the hardwood floor. “Are you with me?” – she wept.

My brother had smoked once, alone in his room, hanging out of his window into a Saturday afternoon. When I knocked on his door, he yelled huskily, too quickly, “I’m burning a candle.”

“Wait, wait,” cautioned the more experienced voice as I begged for another hit, impatiently grounded. I had taken four in the space of fifteen minutes, twice stood up to go relieve myself nervously of tea and judgment. The deepest pleasures are prohibited; the only true saints are martyrs.

Since we firmly believed that smoking marijuana would be an entirely communal experience – not unlike sex, a joining, an instance in which mind, body and spirit collide – we found, with surprise, that rapidly elapsing time and appetite and tension fell like weights, pushing us until we were awkwardly seated or lying on large cushions, half on the floor and half on the sofa, separate. We had not speculated beyond our fabricated truth. I went to the bathroom mirror and inspected, in the dark, whether or not my eyes had closed to slits.

What happens when saints burn? A slice of brain just behind my forehead unpeeled itself, like lazy adhesive, from my skull. As the gray matter between my ears pressed first near the back of my head, then forward to heighten the pressure behind my eyes, my skeleton stiffened further, hung skinny as from a hook in a sleepy biology classroom. A right forearm resting gently on the burgundy leather of the sofa appeared to be detached from the rest of my body. Seated, body down to my knees buried in the recesses of a tired couch, arms resting heavy at my sides, I did not believe that I could move if I wanted to. Below the altitude of scrunched-up sweater sleeves, hair rose curiously in response to a passing draft. Otherwise my hand looked small and white and completely made of marble.

Is this what they mean? – Stoned.

“I can’t move,” I told my friend, voice lowered. She twitched; I took on faith that I was high. Cynicism, which replaces guilt in the brain for pleasures felt in the body, prevents me from believing I truly sense anything. For example: it was not love that I felt at the age of twelve, that soft twitch at the center of myself in the not-quite-gut but not-quite-groin, palms resting on electrified knees, watching a boy’s face cast a man’s shadow on the wall. Truly Drunk, toes dancing bare across spiky grass into a summer evening, would not wonder rationally at the degree of her intoxication. Guilt produces nothing, says my brain, but cynicism produces a sort of false wisdom, a wobbling spirit at the edge of a cliff that believes it knows what it is like to fall.

My head hovered, disembodied. Gravity pulled neatly at the center of my forehead and at the shadows underneath my eyes. I stood up to walk to the kitchen and undid my muscles when I sat back down, movement forgotten. Not unlike (rationally, I sketched similes) drinking really strong tea while sexily hungover on an unchurched Sunday morning. That, and the summer-camp feel of pool water in your ears, drowning out your friends’ shouting and crying and the music on the radio.

If it was the drug that chiseled me out of a corner of the couch, lifelike, then it was the presence of others that confirmed my non-presence, the blank of my curves against the backdrop of the apartment. In the halo of lamplight, I knew that I could remain without life or motion for years. Around me, couples would kiss for good luck; children would drop pennies on my stone toes. Wax dripped poetic from a candle onto the coffee table. Unmoving, my eyes greedily thumbed off a pinch of crusty baguette.

One of my uncles, an alcoholic, golfed. When I saw him, polo and khakis pressed, I could not imagine him true – violent, uncontrolled. In the wastebasket of his bathroom trash there were bottle caps, cigarette butts. He smelled cleanly stale. His face was tanned, an unmoving mask.

There are a number of safe things that can bring, you back into awareness of an untrue self – the expanse of a green lawn, the neat swing of metal. But loneliness colors every true intersection of mind, spirit, and body; in your fullness, you cannot join to anyone else, unaware as you are of yourself. There is no opening. When my friend began reading the Tao in soft tones – when we had consumed poem after poem, pita chip after pita chip loaded with hummus or some other non-descript, pre-packaged dip – we thought we had come off the high, as if it would wear off immediately. Once again we cared for each other enough to join hands. Once again, we veered slightly off in the aftershock of full self. What we had understood intuitively moments ago, we spoke awkwardly into memory.

When saints smoke pot, there are rules to be followed: lips as dry as prayer, hold the smoke sacred. Fullness, in art as in life, is the over-edited: a concept best represented by sculptured altar pieces which the wax candles adore. Know the raw silk, hold the uncut wood, implores Lao Tzu. Move.

Jennifer Russo is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Ann Arbor. This is her first appearance in these pages.

“Head Under Water” – Flyleaf (mp3)

“Well Of Lies” – Flyleaf (mp3)

In Which We Find This Inexorably Tough To Explicate

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to justhardtosay@gmail.com or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.

Hi,

In recent weeks, my girlfriend Maria and I have begun talking about getting engaged, a conversation that she initiated. In the course of our discussions about whether it is the right step for us, she mentioned that she has no interest in taking my name or having our potential children take my name. I was a bit surprised but I said nothing.

After thinking about it more, I can’t help but feel a bit bothered by this. She has no professional reason not to do it, but my main concern is that kids would find it confusing to be called by different or hyphenated names. Should I bring up this concern to Maria and how should I do it?

Roberto T.

Dear Roberto,

Modernity has equipped us with a phenomenon called concern trolling. It’s actual a quite ancient method. It allows people to offer a series of hypothetical statements intended to shit all over a topic without actually saying what is meant. In your situation, a concern troll might suggest, “Is it really the best for a child to be concerned about her name?”

Nothing actually has a name. These are simply made up designations. You are no more a Roberto than you are Matzoh Ramshackle. You’re just a thing that exists, a thing that spends hours and hours concern trolling yourself, asking, “What should I call things, and what should I call myself?” in a high voice that sounds like Minnie Mouse.

If you really loved Maria, you’d take her name. However, she has not asked you to do this. If you offer, she might take yours, but probably not, because Maria Ramshackle sounds like the name of a prostitute. If you ever have a child, let your wife name it. It came out of her body after all. You can give your most raucous bowel movements your last name.

Hey,

A friend of mine, Andrea, recently split with her boyfriend, Steven, of a year. (We all live in Park Slope.) They have stayed on good terms and he sometimes says hi to us both if he sees us, and once he caught a mouse in her apartment with his bare hands when I was there at a screening of The Prince of Tides.

Needless to say I was extremely turned on by this event and I would like to see more of Steven. You asked me why they broke up: it was a mutual thing but I think the main deciding factor was that she felt a bit too domesticated by the relationship and wanted to go out more.

I feel weird asking Andrea’s permission to pursue things with Steven, and I’m worried he will feel weird too if he hears I have asked, or even if I suggest hanging out together in general. What’s the best way to approach this?

Megan P.

Dear Megan,

If he’s still running the pest control game at his ex’s apartment, Steve doesn’t seem like the most headstrong fellow. Nor would I ever be able to fully divest myself of the notion that the hands stroking my body had touched a mouse’s corpse, although I believe that is more my problem than yours.

What you need to do is get Steven to ask Andrea for her permission. That could be a bit farfetched on both their parts, but it will only happen if you can get alone time with Steven on some other pretext. Tell him an endangered condor accidentally flew into your apartment, and you would like him to remand it to a local animal shelter equipped to deal with large birds. Or maybe he knows Spanish and can teach it to you.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

“Swimming Lessons” – Honig (mp3)

“Leave Me Now” – Honig (mp3)

In Which We Bathe In The Shadows Of The Masters

The Great Jean Renoir

by ALEX CARNEVALE

There is a special and essential cachet attached to unfinished books. Despite their incomplete nature, the tomes naturally have an affinity with puzzles or codes, and because of this the texts themselves are often subject to more than one reading. Also because they are not whole, other individuals feel more assertive about adding or subtracting writing from the original, under the supposition that they are putting together the work the way the author imagined. It is this way with Andre Bazin’s seemingly innocent 1971 appreciation of his favorite filmmaker, Jean Renoir.

Even Truffaut’s introduction to the volume he edited completely obfuscates the book itself. He writes,

No one should expect me to introduce this book with caution, detachment or equanimity. Andre Bazin and Jean Renoir have meant too much for me to be able to speak of them dispassionately. Thus it is quite natural that I should feel that Jean Renoir by Andre Bazin is the best book on the cinema, written by best critic, about the best director.

Andre Bazin, whose health deteriorated year after year, found the strength to look at films and to comment on them until his last day. The day before his death he wrote one of his best essays the long analysis of The Crime of M. Lange — having watched the film on television from his bed.

Renoir’s work excited Bazin more than any other. He was working on this study of his favorite director when he died. His fragmentary manuscript has been reconstructed and completed by his friends with the assistance of his wife, Janine Bazin.

I am responsible for the final organization of the work, for its division into ten chapters approximating the chronological development of Renoir’s work. Obviously Bazin would have done it differently if he had had time. I think he intended to devote a chapter to the themes treated by Renoir, another to his work with actors, another to the adaptation of novels.

In one of his last letters, Bazin wrote me,I am circling around Renoir by reading the life of Augustus, the novels of Zola: La Bete Humaine and Nana, Maupassant… I will eventually have to approach him more directly but I am now at a point where I know either too much or not enough. Too much to be satisfied with approximations, not yet enough to fill in all the variables of his equations.”

I am not far from thinking that the work of Jean Renoir is the work of an infallible filmmaker. To be less extravagant, I will say that Renoir’s work has always been guided by a philosophy of life which expresses itself with the aid of something much like a trade secret: sympathy.

Before Bazin’s book even begins, Jean Renoir weighs in with a foreword of his own:

The more I travel through life, the more I am convinced that masks are proliferating. I have difficulty finding a woman whose face looks as it really is. Our age is a triumph of make-up. And not only for faces, but more important, for the mind as well.

The modern world is founded on the ever increasing production of material goods. One must keep producing or die. But this process is like the labor of Sisyphus. Forgetting Lavoisier’s dictum, “In nature nothing is created, nothing is lost; everything is transformed,” we convince ourselves that our earthly machines will succeed in catching up with eternity. But to maintain the level of production on which our daily bread depends, we must ever renew and expand our enterprises.

It turns out that Renoir does not know Bazin very well, other than by his little French beret. He struggles with the same problem the author of Jean Renoir has — knowing too much or too little about his subject. For the final version of Jean Renoir is as much an obliteration of its subject as a celebration.

Almost every section of Jean Renoir contains the same blandishment about the director. Each section begins, “Renoir is the greatest living French director” or “Renoir is unmatched” in such-and-such field. This kind of repetition would be the first accessory sacrificed if the author had been alive to revise his work; here they serve as eerie reminders that the admiration is rehearsed.

The second part of Jean Renoir amounts to lame defenses of The River and Paris Does Strange Things, two films that for various reasons seem to have offended Bazin’s sense of the cinema in some way. He waves aside his own objections and Truffaut replaces them, in the book’s third section, with Renoir’s own autobiographical reminiscences of his days as a young, inexperienced directors, film treatments, and interviews.

Renoir writes, What I know is that I am beginning to understand how one should work. I know that I am French and that I must work in an absolutely national vein. I know also that in doing this, and only in doing this, can I reach people from other nations and act for international understanding.

I know that the American cinema will collapse because it is no longer American. I know too that we must not spurn the foreigners who come to us with their knowledge and talent; we must absorb them. It is a practice which has served us rather well from Leonardo da Vinci all the way to Picasso. I believe that the cinema is not so much an industry as people would have us believe and that the fat men with their money, their graphs, and green felt tables are going to fall on their faces.

Jean Renoir never made another film after Jean Renoir was published. No one would give him the money.

The best part of Jean Renoir is the book’s filmography, an appendix in which Renoir’s various projects are taken up by a variety of critics and directors. (Truffaut himself writes the majority of them.) These short discussions of the films innovated the concept of a “recap,” for they prove that simply describing a cinematic plot reveals vast differences in character and perception. This is most evident in Truffaut’s rundown of The Rules of the Game:

The nine principal characters of The Rules of the Game have a sentimental problem to resolve, and since the film shows them on the eve of a crisis, we will see them behave at their worst. The only sincere person the pilot Andre Jurieu awkward in an unfamiliar milieu, unleashes a tragicomedy in which he is the only victim, precisely because he has not followed the rules of the game.

Ludicrous skeletons, the characters of The Rules of the Game, viewed at a critical moment in their decay, forsake the farandole (“It’s nice but it’s a little old-fashioned”) for a danse macabre which assaults the senses. For the ostensible purpose of a party, they are led to disguise themselves, which is to say, to take off their masks. The shadows of the masters and servants mingle and merge in an image of a sybaritic life style which cannot last: man is imperfect, he is a born liar, and besides, “If love is endowed with wings, is it not to flutter?” The Rules of the Game is a profoundly pessimistic film, a bitter and prophetic carnival in which friendship itself is exposed as just another empty game.

The word game is used over 200 times in Truffaut’s two page description.

At some point in any hagiography, the idolatry itself becomes absurd. In Jean Renoir, there is no evidence of insincerity on the part of Jean Renoir’s admirers. No doubt he was their very favorite, the person whose artistic work can be credited in part for giving birth to their own, whether it be new movies or essay-length film criticism. But there is also a movement just as strong away from what Renoir has accomplished; it equates to the difference between the sympathy they admire in Renoir and true empathy.

Admiration, especially the deeply ingrained kind, eventually distances the ardor from its subject. The act of writing a book in celebration of their cinematic hero feels like filing him away in history. None of their work would exist without Renoir, Bazin & Godard & Truffaut find themselves admitting, and having said this, they have finished with the man, eight years before he died in Beverly Hills. As Eric Rohmer puts it in his review of Renoir’s Madame Bovary, “the roads that lead to art and truth are different, and it is the point where they cross which has always fascinated Renoir. Each perspective is true, each is false. They complement one another.”   

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

“Oxygen” – Marie Fisker & Kira Skov (mp3)

“I Lost Something In The Hills” – Marie Fisker & Kira Skov (mp3)

 

In Which We Attempt To Revere Anna Akhmatova

The First Exchange

by JANE KENYON

As we remember Keats for the beauty and intensity of his shorter poems, especially the odes and sonnets, so we revere Akhmatova for her early lyrics – brief, perfectly made verses of passion and feeling. Images build emotional pressure:

And sweeter even than the singing of songs
is this dream, now becoming real:
the swaying of branches brushed aside
and the faint ringing of your spurs.

I love the sudden twists these poems take, often in the last line. In one poem the recollection of a literary party ends with the first frank exchange of glances between lovers. Another poems lists sweet-smelling things – mignonette, violets, apples – and ends, astonishingly, “…we have found out forever /that blood only smells of blood.” These poems celebrate the sensual life, and Akhmatova’s devoted attention to details of sense always serves feeling:

With the hissing of the snake the scythe cuts down
the stalks, one pressed hard against another.

The snake’s hissing is accurate to the sound of scythe mowing, and more than accurate: by using a snake for her auditory image, Akhmatova compares this rural place, where love has gone awry, to the lost Eden.

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Akhmatova was born Anna Gorenko near Odessa in 1889. Soon her family moving to Tsarskoe Selo, near St. Petersburg, and there she began her education. Studying French, she learned to love Baudelaire and Verlaine. At the age of ten she became seriously ill, with a disease never diagnosed, and went dear for a brief time. As she recovered she wrote her first poems.

Money was not abundant in the Gorenko household, nor was tranquility. Akhmatova did not get on with her father, Andrei Gorenko, a naval engineer who lectured at the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg – also a notorious philanderer whose money went to his mistresses. (We know little of Akhmatova’s relationship with her mother.) Akhmatova’s brother Victor recalls an occasion when the young girl asked their father for money for a new coat. When he refused she threw off her clothes and became hysterical. (See. Akhmatova: Poems, Correspondence, Reminiscences, Iconography: Ardis.)

Andrei Gorenko deserted his family in 1905. A few years later, hearing that his daughter wrote verse, he asked her to choose a pen name. He wished to avoid the ignominy, as he put it, of “a decadent poetess” in the family.  She took her Tartar great-grandmother’s name.

When Akhmatova was still a schoolgirl she met Nikolai Gumilev, a poet and founder of Acmeism who became her mentor and her first hsband. Nadezhda Mandelstam has said that Akhmatova rarely spoke of her childhood: she seemed to consider her marriage to Gumilev the beginning of her life.

She was slow to accept his proposal. He sought her attention by repeated attempts at suicide until he finally married him in 1910. The bride’s family did not attend the ceremony. Having won her at last, Gumilev promptly left to spend six months in Africa. On his return, while still at the train station, he asked her if she had been writing. By reply she handed him the manuscript of Evening, her first book.

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Their son, Lev Gumilev, was born in 1912, the same year Anna published Evening. By 1917, when she was 28, she had brought out two more books, Rosary and White Flock. Despite the historical tumult of World War I and the Revolution, her poetry quickly became popular. But tumult was private as well as public: by 1918 her marriage had failed; Akhmatova divorced Gumilev and the same autumn married the Assyriologist V.K. Shileiko. This unhappy alliance – Shileiko burned his wife’s poems in the samovar – lasted for six years. Ordinary family life eluded Akhmatova, who went through many love affairs. Before her divorce from Shileiko, she lived in a menage a trois with Nikolai Punin and his wife; Punin later became her third husband. Motherhood was not easy. (“The lot of a mother is a bright torture: I was not worthy of it….”) For the most part, Gumilev’s mother raised her grandson Lev.

In the years following her early triumphs Akhmatova suffered many torments, as the Soviet regime hardened into tyranny. Gumilev was executive in 1921 for alleged anti-Bolshevik activity. Early in the twenties Soviet critics denounced Akhmatova’s work as anachronistic and useless to the Revolution. The Central Committee of the Communist Party forbade publication of her verse; from 1923 to 1940, none of her poetry appeared in print. The great poems of her maturity, Requiem and Song Without a Hero, exist in Russia today only by underground publication or samizdat.

During the Stalinist terror of the 1930s the poet’s son Lev and her husband Punin were imprisoned. Akhmatova’s fellow Acmeist and close friend Osip Mandelstam died in a prison camp in 1938. (Punin died in another camp fifteen years later.) During the Second World War the Committee of the Communist Party of Leningrad evacuated Akhmatova to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. There she lived in a small, hot room, in ill health, with Osip Mandelstam’s widow Nadezhda.

In 1944 Akhmatova returned to Leningrad, to a still-higher wave of official antagonism. In a prominent literay magazine, Andrei Zhdanov denounced her as “a frantic little fine lady flitting between the boudoir and the chapel…half-nun, half-harlot.” The Union of Soviet Writers expelled her. A new book of poems, already in print, was seized and destroyed. For many years she supported herself only by working as a translator from Asiatic languages and from French, an activity she compared to “eating one’s own brain.”

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The final decade of her life was relatively tranquil. During the thaw that followed Stalin’s death, the government released Lev Gumilev from labor camp and reinstated Akhmatova in the Writer’s Union. She was permitted to publish and to travel. In Italy and England she received honors and saw old friends. She died in March 1966, and was buried at Komarovo, near Leningrad.

1984

There is a certain hour every day
so troubled and heavy…
I speak to melancholy in a loud voice
not bothering to open my sleepy eyes.
And it pulses like blood,
is warm like a sigh,
like happy love
is smart and nasty.

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Twenty-first. Night. Monday.
Silhouette of the capitol in darkness.
Some good-for-nothing — who knows why–
made up the tale that love exists on earth.

People believe it, maybe from laziness
or boredom, and live accordingly:
they wait eagerly for meetings, fear parting,
and when they sing, they sing about love.

But the secret reveals itself to some,
and on them silence settles down…
I found this out by accident
and now it seems I’m sick all the time.

1917

translated by Jane Kenyon

“Those Dreadful Hammers” – Esben and the Witch (mp3)

“Dig Your Fingers In” – Esben and the Witch (mp3)

In Which You Get What You Want From Me

Run of the Play

by MARK ARTURO

New York at the start. Windswept jack-o-lanterns, the mighty gamble.

She wore all kinds of things. Prim dresses, outdated lingerie. I saw her on stage. She was in Cyrano at the National Theater. I always hated that play. It didn’t make any sense to me, in a world where everyone generally knew who everyone else was.

I waited for her, expecting other admirers. There were none. The play closed at the end of the month, the newspaper said it was “a spirited revival in the way that a glass of tap water can also be said to have spirits.”

She let me into her apartment and she assembled herself on the rug Indian style, breathing deeply, before she changed. I had a bottle of something she had put in a cooler for me. My shirt was almost soaked through. As soon as she was in her new things, I was undressing her, like that. She stopped me when I was having trouble with a certain latch, and she explained that if she screamed No! it meant keep going, but if she said anything in French, I should leave.

I finally got the latch, so I said, “The more costume changes there are in an act, the less likely I am to be interested in it.”

Fucking was like a high-wire act for the first bit, until she relaxed. She could really control her breathing, and she was athletic – not like, limber, but she could slam down on my cock from almost any angle, and she always did me the courtesy of pretending I was so big it hurt. I knew immediately that nothing like this was possible with the third lead in Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.

When we came back to her flat after that, she never changed. Her sweat was redolent of chamomile. I did like that she would listen to me, but I never got a big head about it. I knew she had other men, but she did not see them after her performances. I was there, I know.

It felt like most people we knew were actors. She possessed loads of friends, she would wave to them along the avenue. She did not stop to talk to them, and when I asked her why, she said, “Je sais les hommes de un autre existence.” Her French was poor. I spoke it better, but not in front of her.

Her apartment was a hole but mine was not much better and if I suggested taking her there she would pretend to cry. I did not really want to, so I said okay.

One day I came in late. She had a very severe look, the sort where you know apologizing isn’t going to get you to the place you want to go. I thought she was going to tell me to be on the other side of the door, but instead she asked me if I knew the story of the man with the golden arm. I shook my head, so she said, “He lifted everything, until he could not even lift his own arm.”

Figuring if she wanted me to get lost, she would have said so in her perverted French, I said, “Who’s troubling you?” It turned out to be some lope who lived a few floors above her. I went to take care of it, but she held me back and brought me to bed. You know what happened after that.

More often than not she was a mess when I got there. I couldn’t tell if it was to add spice to our sex, or for some other reason. Her stomach got a little larger, but I did not know what that meant either.

Finally once when she was asleep, and the night had been a particularly bad one, I tiptoed upstairs to find this wretch. I make it sound like it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, when I have never once decided something like that lightly in my life. For one, I had been looking at the ceiling all night, thinking of the man with the golden arm. And also, I had already half-unscrewed every doorknob in the building – in case I had the wrong room, or I had to hide.

Once I saw the light I knew whose room it was. I lowered myself to the ground, carefully unscrewed the doorknob and peeked in. A man held a small boy, perhaps only three or four, in his arms. He rocked the child back and forth, singing a lullaby. His voice, low and soft, kneaded up in itself. He sang,

La lune trop blême
Pose un diadème
Sur tes cheveux roux
La lune trop rousse
De gloire éclabousse
Ton jupon plein d’trous

An older child came out from a bedroom, holding his little sister’s hand. He asked where his mother was.

Mark Arturo is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

In Which We Pay Attention To Our Breath

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The Virus

by ELIZABETH BARBEE

2002 was my freshman year of high school. It was also the year my family bought a computer. Until that point I had composed essays on an electric typewriter and collected rocks for fun. My parents were neither cheap nor obstinate; they were just blind to the benefits of modern technology.

I took to the Web right away. Myspace was still cool, primarily a place for musicians and artist types to show off tattoos. In order to have an account, it seemed you needed a pair of horn-rimmed glasses or Converse All Stars. I had neither but knew a boy who did. His profile replaced TV as my primary source of entertainment. I checked it obsessively, looking for evidence of a girlfriend, of course, but mostly just wanting to immerse myself in a world that seemed more creative and exciting than my own. Eventually I got up the courage to message him on AIM.

Our conversations were uneventful and exhilarating. We swapped favorite lyrics and book titles. Occasionally, he suggested we grab coffee, but we never followed through. Though I knew nothing would come of it, I lived for the hour we spent each evening, typing back and forth. He had just started initiating contact when our computer contracted a virus, stranger and more debilitating than any I have seen since.

For months, my romantic efforts were undermined by midget porn. The moment you logged on to the Internet, videos of small men pounding even smaller women filled the screen. The pop-ups were so detailed there was no point in buying the full-length movie. More than horrified, I was livid. Web access had come to feel like a basic human right. Rather find something else to do, I stared at the screen and sulked.

My mother found the whole thing hilarious. When I had visitors, she insisted I take them to the computer room. “Make sure they see the midget porn before they leave!” she said, “That’s not something anyone should miss.” For many of my friends, this was probably their first experience with sex, and I wonder sometimes if it had any affect on their long term preferences.

I remember one actress in particular with Shirley Temple curls and a butterfly tattoo above her left breast. Her moves were acrobatic and graceful. It was clear that as a child someone had carted her to and from gymnastics lessons. I was saddened by her lost innocence and suddenly desperate to hold onto my own. I flushed a half smoked pack of cigarettes down the toilet, vowed to focus more on my studies, and toyed with the idea of joining student council.

I was aware that I would not always be young and sheltered, that time would eventually thrust me into gritty adulthood. I struggled to embrace the moment and failed miserably. At sleepovers, instead of enjoying myself, I thought about how someday I would be too old to play Truth or Dare. I was experiencing, for the first time, something I now feel everyday: premature nostalgia.

I am haunted by the impermanence of things. Dinner parties, jobs, relationships – they all seem so fragile. To remedy the problem, I take meditation classes at the local Hare Krishna temple, where a man in an orange tunic urges me to pay attention to my breath. I obey, but the rise and fall of my chest makes me frantic. I imagine myself gasping for air on my deathbed, all the people I have met and places I have seen fluttering through my mind. This is going to take either a lot of practice or a lot of SSRIs.

Elizabeth Barbee is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Dallas. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about her vital signs.

“Body” – Karen O (mp3)

“Sunset Sun” – Karen O (mp3)

In Which Gregory Peck Marries His First Serious Girlfriend

 

greg peckles

Henpecked

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

He married his first serious girlfriend, Greta Konen. At 31, she was five years older and a hairdresser at a travelling theater company. She reached up to about the midpoint of his chest. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, in a fit of pique, he proposed. Greta had refused to sleep with Gregory Peck until he made it legal.

Their wedding reception occurred at the 1942 World Series in St. Louis. They moved to California shortly thereafter, renting a small pink home in Beverly Hills. He had originally seen her standing on a Philadelphia train platform; the same woman was now his wife. It was her second marriage.

with his sons and stufff

Groomed for stardom because of his bellicose palate of expressions and unique charm, Peck begn to take movement classes with Martha Graham. (Tony Randall and Eli Wallach were also students.) “She was in the prime of her prime,” Peck once said of Graham. The woman was merciless to her charges, even once pressing down on his back so violently he slipped a disc.

As Peck was cast in more prominent roles, a congregation of women nearly always surrounded him. Greta at first tried to take the change in stride, reminding herself, “I should remember a movie star shouldn’t have a wife.” It was traditional in those days to minimize how much information about the star’s private lives reached the public. Since Greg could charm any woman, why not the gossip columnists as well? They rarely wrote of his indiscretions, unless they were so obvious they could not be ignored.

not father of the year

Once he had asked Martha Graham if he had moved properly. She said, “Tears are running down the insides of my cheeks.”

He attempted in vain to behave himself until he met his co-star on the set of Spellbound. This was Ingrid Bergman, herself married to a Swedish dentist. All caution hit the wind. As the film wrapped up, Bergman had enough of Peck and moved on to her next leading man. Peck was a bit hurt, but tried to take it in stride. His wife watched these events with circumspection.

The question of whether or not he had sex with Ava Gardner is an open one. They were close friends and neither admitted to any indiscretion. Dark, large and possessed, he could not have chosen any differently than his tiny wife.

 

roman holiday snap

Peck drunkenly cheated on Greta with whoever was available, but his infidelity with the actress Barbara Payton constituted something of a turning point. After the affair, she talked openly to magazines about hard fucking him in their dressing rooms. She told everyone she knew about how big he was. In gratitude, he banned her from the set of her own movie. Years later she became a prostitute on Sunset Boulevard.

In 1948 an organization named Peck Father of the Year.

in the miimdied

In 1952 he met a 19 year old Parisian journalist, Veronique Passani, in the company of his wife. He did not really care. On the set of Roman Holiday, newspapers reported his liasion with Audrey Hepburn. It helped the film’s box office for sure, but it was barely true. “Everyone on the set was in love with her,” he later said. Hepburn was herself engaged.

In Italy Greg’s main mistress was actually June Dally-Watkins, 25, an Australian model. He asked her to join him in Paris and pretended he was separated from Greta. June was a virgin, and her mother advised her to return to Australia, which she did after some soul-wringing.

getting off the plane

One night Greta and Greg went to the home of her family friends. He suddenly decided to leave, and when she caught up with him, she asked him, did he want her to come with? He told his wife, “It doesn’t make any difference.”

With his Australian dalliance safely in her home country, Greg was free to focus on Veronique. He conveyed her to Rome and romanced her mercilessly. The game was already won, however; she told her mother the first day she interviewed him and and his wife that she would marry him someday.

with deser kids

In Veronique Peck found a like mind despite their age differences. Or perhaps he really wanted to see things this way: “Veronique and I have the same tastes in arts, sports, everything!” he sometimes cried out, either to the media or breaking out of a dream in the middle of the night. Greta returned to America once it became clear this fascination was no simple affair. Peck married Veronique the day after his divorce from Greta was finalized.

Once wed, the new couple socialized mostly with Cary Grant and his wife, and Greg’s benders reduced in their frequency. It was easy to be affected by Greg’s insane charisma and appeal, but Veronique took it a step further. She seemed to see him as he truly was: an introverted, semi-haunted sconce. “He is a man of strengths and weaknesses,” his second wife noted. “If I had to paint Greg, I would need a whole range of colors to do a portrait because there is great variation.”

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. She last wrote in these pages about the early days of Ingrid Bergman. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

peck as ahab