Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Jonathan Galassi, Andre Aciman, "Across the Great Divide," Tiny Bathing Suits and the Left-Hander's Advantage in the Ad Court --

Date: April 19, 2012
Author: Jonathan Galassi
Venue: 192 Books
Neighborhood: Chelsea
Lit Celebs in Attendance: Wayne Kostenbaum
Free Drinks -- no
Q & A --  yes, but I chickened out
Book signed -- no  
UE Check Number -- benefits expired

First of all, let's remember that I am the book critic for Long Island Tennis magazine so when I, in the course of this wide-ranging essay, address Jonathan Galassi's reading two weeks ago, the death of musician Levon Helm, the advantages of being a lefty in tennis and why people younger than 60 shouldn't even bother having sex, that on the tennis parts, at least, I am a recognized authority.

Galassi's reading from his new book of poetry "Left-handed" was at 192 Books.  It happened to fall on the day rock musician Levon Helm died, but I didn't learn about that until later. 

A few months ago I was at 192 Books waiting for a reading to start and I read a passage in somebody's book about how Helm's bandmate, the then 17-year old Robbie Robertson rode a bus for two days from his home around Toronto to live with Helm's family in Arkansas. This was the beginning of the collaboration that resulted in the Band. Robertson found himself in a new environment. He'd never met many Americans, and now he was hanging around and playing music with white and black Southerners.

The story I read on that previous visit to 192 Books said the Band's song "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was Robertson's thank you note and love song to Helm and his family and the culture of the American South they introduced him to. But on subsequent visits to the store, I was never able to find the book I'd read this passage in. Still, evanescent as that page in whatever book it was became, I hadn't forgotten it when I got to 192 Books for Galassi's reading. For me, all stories and evocations of the South, including those that note or celebrate positive aspects of the Confederacy, are always linked to the Southerner in my family, my daddy, Theodore Howard Shearer.

So when I was at 192 for the Galassi reading two weeks ago, and 192 Books employee Patrick was playing some Band songs, I was already primed for a deep emotional experience before Galassi read from his sublime book of poems "Left-handed" or before I'd learned about Helm's death.

Because I always get to readings too early like a doofus, I'd spent about a half hour in the park just up Tenth Avenue from 192, where, since it was April, I'd been able to sit on a bench and watch cherry blossoms drift down. Oh, mortality, Oh, the evanescence of passages in books we can no longer locate. Oh, the treachery of bookstores that are willing to, and might have, sold the book I wanted to revisit the story about "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in. 

My father, who died in 1980, said upon Jimmy Carter's election, that it was nice to have a president without an accent. Between my thoughts about him, the Band songs Patrick played, the blossoms coating the paving stones in Clement Clark Moore Park and Galassi's poems, I found myself, again, in some kind of state of aesthetic overload. After all, from whom do we learn what it is to be a man, if not from our fathers?

For previous generations of dads, perhaps my own, their response to the news that their son has switched from loving women (right-handedness in Galassi's metaphor) to loving men (left-handedness), might not be greeted with joy, but that is part of the reason that some men come to their left-handedness later than others. Galassi's poems about coming out later than most, earlier than some, would be strong whenever he published them.
But because the book was released this year, when Galassi was 62, presumably sparked by events that took place when he was in his late fifties, they are tinged with an appreciation of his own mortality as they chronicle his change in sexual affiliation.

"I want spring to come because
I want upheaval, flooding
the excitement of the primal rite.
And I don't want spring to come
because it means another, one less spring."

I don't know what the first sign was for Galassi that he was becoming interested in men, but for a former friend of mine's family, it was when their dad started wearing tiny bathing suits  to the beach. As I first listened to, and later read, the poems in "Left-handed," I wondered why it isn't uncommon for a man to switch in the direction Galassi has, but how you never, or rarely, hear about a man switching from being a lefty to a righty. For a lot of people, some obvious answers to this question may exist. By now, I've moved on to a secondary question, which may also suggest some obvious answers, namely, why is the frequently, younger person, who inspires the switch, always so cute?

To have listened to Galassi read his poems, with the faint echo of the two or three Band songs played before the reading started, only underlined the linkage of my own mortality and my version of the search for love and sex that Galassi addresses in "Left-handed." Some of us geezers are still seeking love even as our contemporaries, our heroes, are dying. "Kill the Rock Stars" was a perfectly fine name for a record label in the eighties, but even more deadly for our generation's heroes than regular rock star debauchery and drug use is the passage of time.

What is more central than sexual desire and the fear of death , more human than to seek out some small respite from the onrush of death, now all the closer since these age spots have popped up on my hands. What is more touching than the process of seeking out new love, either as a righty or a lefty, when you know your chances of achieving the moments of illumination it provides are becoming fewer and fewer. "The Last Waltz" is only a couple of dances from now, certainly. 

So you could hardly find a reader more attuned than me to Galassi's theme, one of them, anyway, of late middle-aged desire.  As I think about it, the enhancing effect of being close to death while still seeking out love and trying to find a place for the fulfillment of desire is almost the only thing that matters.
"Left-handed" is a tour de force description of the painful change the author went through. For all of us who are Galassi's age, it is less a question of righty v. lefty, though that brings its own challenges, but how do you make peace with the knowledge that there's going to be a last love and it might have already happened?

And even if it hasn't, surely we aren't going to get too many more attempts and this bittersweet knowledge is only reinforced by cherry blossoms falling off trees and the songs Patrick played before the reading. At what point does the pursuit of love for us geezers become a lost cause, more suitable for being turned into myth as the waning days of the Confederacy were in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" than for realization ?

Maybe we can meet people and socialize, but it all takes place against an unseen, but omnipresent Lenten background of purple and black with the difference that although this is Palm Sunday, Easter will be the end. The cherry blossoms will fall from the trees in Clement Clark Moore Park next April, make sure you check them out if I miss them.

What readings should I go to this last, this holy week? In any case, why would anyone bother seeking love or sex if they have decades more to frolic in, what would be the rush, it's beyond me now, though this isn't an insight I had at a younger age, oddly.

But now that Levon Helm and sax man Clarence Clemmons, who I actually hung out with decades ago and had hoped to meet again, have died, there's little sense in not making some effort, however feeble (I know I'll write about it on my blog that nobody but Lou and Chris reads.), to connect with other "rock stars" while you guys are still around. These men are my contemporaries who as Galassi's poems make clear, it would be easy to miss for the same reason I'm never going to be able to amuse Clarence with my story about how he brought us all back from that bar in Deal, in the seventies to hang out with him at his apartment in Sea Bright.

So that's why I'm inviting Galassi, Jimmie Atlas, Andre Aciman, and Sven Birkerts to play in a doubles tennis match at my home court in Tribeca. Any tennis court and some other sports settings are one place, lefties have big advantages. Don't forget, I'm likely to be right about the tennis parts of this essay, my daddy taught me how to play. I know Atlas plays tennis, Andre used to, whether or not Birkerts or Galassi plays doesn't really matter much because my court in Tribeca is also an excellent place to drink outdoors on warm summer nights while contemplating the nearby Woolworth Building. And if booze has left an potential guest's life, we can always admire the city's prettiest skyscraper and compare notes on Lipitor doses.

You might ask how Birkerts earned his invite. He is, among other things, an out-of-towner. It is because as I assemble this DreamTeam of readers, I have to get some man to pinch hit for Andre. No, it’s not your second serve, bro. It's because Andre didn't grow up here. So the bits about the dull, green T-shirts young women wore in the seventies and the blue, plastic diaprahgm boxes found in their dorm rooms and off-campus apartments, along with copies of "Our, Bodies, Our Selves," will be lost on him. If I had to choose between perfect French and knowledge of the infield fly rule, well, it's an obvious choice, but I'll need sometimes to substitute someone as a fourth for this match-up who knows why there's no point letting the ball drop with a runner on base when the batter pops it up.
Birkerts will also be a better audience than Andre for my story about going to see the Band in 1969 at Madison Square Garden. It snowed that night and to have been 17 and loose on Eighth Avenue, well, you guys get the idea, right? Birkert's essay about the time he played his guitar for a much more accomplished musician is a reminder that there was nothing bigger than being a "guitar hero" for those of us who came of age in this country in the seventies.
One of the first and funniest boomer generation evocations of decline and the presence of death was the Firesign Theater skit about members of the Dead and the Airplane in an old age home arguing about some important topic from our prime years, whose drugs were best, whose groupies the more comely. This was a skit from our long-gone years in which desire was unfettered by mortality.
Google Alerts, do your damnedest. Feed my ideal readers' heads and don't doubt for a moment that because all the big points tend to come up on the ad (left) side of the court, a lefty's slice serve nearly always produces better results than a righty's. I say this, ex cathedra, with the full authority of  my position as the book critic for Long Island Tennis magazine.