Essays and Memoirs
Now, Where Was I? On Maggie Nelson's "Bluets" Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Jet

(TriQuarterly February 2011)

The author Maggie Nelson, born in 1973, has authored half-a-dozen books, among them poetry collections, memoirs, and nonfiction. Bluets may be her finest work. It is a set of two-hundred-and-forty loosely linked fragments. Each numbered fragment is either a sentence or a short paragraph, none longer than two-hundred words. The book totals some nineteen-thousand words. The work hybridizes several prose styles and verges on the lyric essay. The themes of lost love and existential aloneness come to dominate, bathed in a kind of blued longing.

Nelson utilizes memoir, philosophy, quotation, analysis, scientific exposition and query, meditation, and more, each in stylistic miniature. Subjects include an ex-lover and a friend who’s been paralyzed, but the majority of the text features her analyzing her reading, often deferring to others’ comments (including Leonard Cohen, Joseph Cornell, and Joan Mitchell) on blue. She’s not the only one so smitten by a color. Nelson combines spiritual inquiry with erotic obsession, searches for beauty and gets hung up on memories. As she criss-crosses sorrow and wonder, doubt and desire, her tone darkens.

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Music and War's Grief Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Platoon_village_scene(San Diego Union-Tribune, Veterans Day, November 11, 2010)

The degree to which we mourn our war dead as a nation is matched by the music for mourning our composers have given us. In America’s case, it’s virtually none. The reason our composers have been so stingy with writing elegies—contrast this with the Irish ballad or the fiddle dirge, keening traditions that go back 1,000 years—is that our culture has not demanded they write sad music.

We attend to public loss with private grief. We have a funeral, a memorial, a wake; we pay tribute, shed tears, tell stories and play a brief, favorite tune to remember the departed and to evoke a modicum of sorrow. We grieve not for the dead. We lament the individual who lost his or her life. If the remembrance has a religious bent, someone sings “Amazing Grace.” If it’s military, the tune is “Taps.” We watch the casket lower or the ashes scatter, and return to our separate lives, changed only in personal ways.

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The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Graham_Jackson_Warm_Springs_FDR_DeathAdagio for Strings: Leonard Slatkin, BBC orchestra, September 15, 2001, perhaps its longest and most emotional performance ever.

The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," Pegasus Books. Hardcover, September 2010, paperback, March 2012.

The first and second chapters of Saddest Music are excerpted in the Fall 2010 Issue of The Missouri Review.

A YouTube video of my one-hour "Saddest Music" multimedia presentation at Warwick's Bookstore, La Jolla, CA, Tuesday, November 30, 2010.

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Love Song to a Psychostimulant Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Tergrugghen_Flute_Player(Written February 2010)

What is it that’s so annoying about VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab”? It’s the reality show that features the good-souled Dr. Drew who ministers—and really listens—to those fallen stars, mostly talent-less one-hit wonders, throwaway children like Mackenzie Phillips or love-starved sex toys like Heidi Fleiss.

What’s so annoying is their helplessness. Being on drugs or being off drugs doesn’t matter. They can’t function; they’ve got addictive personalities; nothing works. The two stock dramatic bits are will he/she pass the drug test or will he/she bolt before the “treatment” is over. They’re forever unstable because life on drugs or in treatment is a hell of denying the self what it wants. Watching adolescents in adult bodies is the saddest thing of all.

It’s also irksome that the cameras roll on and on, “catching” the celebs off-guard, when, in fact, this clan (Dennis Rodman, Tom Sizemore, et alia) is so media savvy and comeback-minded that it’s obvious they crack up or cry on cue, which is hardly caught-in-the-act. Maybe we should have a show called “Film Rehab” for those who emote only when a camera’s present.

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Leaving Music, Leaving Marriage—A Memoir Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

dead20wolf(San Diego Reader February 24, 2000; Revised 2006-2009)

I was trembling, tearing open the biscuit-colored envelope, its official return address, University of California, San Diego, Department of Music, Graduate Division. "I am happy to inform you," it began—but didn’t I know the rest, hadn’t I known it in my gut for months, ever since I kissed and mailed the application, that my (our) westering dream would come true?—"The Department of Music is recommending that you be admitted," and then I couldn’t see the words since I was crying and running to tell my wife Annie and four-year-old twin sons: we’d be leaving Santa Fe, our home since 1975, and moving to southern California.

I didn’t say that last bit right off. I read out the very sweet "offer": full tuition scholarship, a teaching assistantship at $5,000 a year, and the Ph.D. track in composition. In five short years, I’d be a bona fide Doctor of Music!

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Fiction, Fact, and Faked Memoirs Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Triumph_of_Death_Bruegel(New English Review July 2009)

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story is the claim every storyteller is admonished to believe. What our ten-thousand-year-old tale-telling tradition (most of it oral) instructs us to do is to be good dramatists and let the story have its sway. This law of the tale, and our drama-loving DNA, is why the Bible has survived so long: its well-told stories were the means by which its morally sound messages were delivered and, tellers and scribes hoped, stuck. When disputes about a story’s authenticity arose, the Bible authors were less keen to preserve history or embrace veracity. Instead they made the drama central, via legend, fantasy, parable, and the fictionalized life, based on Egyptian mythology, of Jesus Christ. The Bible is a work of narrative literature and a work of fiction. But, the problem is, its fiction has almost always been thought of as fact.

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A New Kind of Narrative Truth Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

A New Kind of Narrative Truth, by Thomas Larson(Book Review, Special Issue on "Memoir Now," March/April 2009, Volume 30, No. 3)

Lately, I’ve been brooding on the word remember whose mystery for the memoirist is all-important. From the late Latin, the word originally meant "to call to mind" or "to be mindful," implying a mind full of what it’s been called to. Breaking it down further, we trace the re in remember to the Latin ablative of res, which means from a thing, object, or circumstance, the re also referring to repetition. Then there’s member, which comes from the Latin membrum, as in "part." Remember may mean one’s mindfulness of the past and one’s putting the parts of a past circumstance together through repetitious recall—that ever-occurring now in which we brood over past events again and again.

When I re-member an incident, I re-assemble its parts—the elements of what happened and the times I’ve recalled it. That which I recall one hundred times is much different than that which I recollect once. For deep memories, the parts I re-assemble are themselves re-assemblages of parts already assembled. It would seem then that the nature of memory is equally creative, constructive, and confusing. How is a memory composed of a single past experience as well as the piled-up/piled-on memories of that experience?

The rest of this essay is available as an eBook: What Exactly Happened: Four Essays on the Craft of Memoir, $2.99.

 
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