Fragments: An Essay by Alan Catlin
Fragmentary: OED, Of the nature of, composed of, fragments.
There were rumors in the world news reports
Of a virus overseas.
It was always in China.
The diseases these days.
Except when they were in Africa.
They were never here.
Not when the dissimilator was president.
He would make things disappear, “Like magic.”
Fragmentist, OED, A writer of fragments or of work that only survive in fragments.
It was going to be a plague year.
We just didn’t know it yet.
Europe was besieged.
We’re safe here.
Business as usual.
Even when person zero turned up in downstate New York.
The president gestures hypnotically.
Our case numbers are very low.
They’ll get better.
The virus will be gone.
Plague ships, formerly known as cruise liners, are forbidden to land even though the passengers are American and many are very, very sick, dying, dead.
Don’t let them land.
They will be bad for my numbers.
For those of us who wondered, for three hellacious years, what would happen when a real crisis was unavoidable, how would an unstable, narcissist personality who happened to be the world’s most powerful person deal with it?
We’d soon find out.
Forgive me for saying it; you just knew it was going to be bad.
Worse than bad.
He can’t politicize a plague, I said.
Well, he could, couldn’t he?
It was always all about Him.
How could I overlook such a simple fact?
It was easy.
Other made-for-TV politicians jumped in front of the camera dollies and went to town.
Andrew “the toucher” Cuomo actually won an Emmy for the best performance by a man impersonating a proactive leader on TV.
He was damn good at it.
Many of us believed.
I know I did.
One piece of advice he endorsed was useful: stay home, isolate in place, wear masks, pray for a vaccine.
And we did.
Fragment, OED, A part broken or otherwise detached from a whole; a broken piece, a (comparatively) small detached piece of anything.
How did I know the pandemic was real?
How did I know this was serious?
Albany cancelled its St Patrick’s Day Parade.
As did Boston.
This was the end of the world as we knew it.
Fragment, OED, A detached, isolated or incomplete part of anything.
I had several scheduled readings for a new book.
I thought, okay we’ll settle in.
And use the time wisely.
Narratives are what I do best.
Riffs on art and books that use a kind of story line.
Cohesive units of thought.
But I couldn’t do it.
Usually, I read, take notes, when thoughts/poems won’t come and won’t be translated onto the page.
I read and took notes and still, nada.
I watched TV.
It was like reality shows gone berserk.
Madmen stream of consciousness that led directly into an abyss.
The numbers were soaring.
Everything shut down.
The economy stopped cold.
It was a painful but necessary solution to a worldwide problem.
But it was bad for MY numbers.
We questioned the scientists.
We refuted hem because they advanced a narrative that was not to our exalted leader’s thinking.
Then we manipulated them.
Selectively enforced rules meant to insure public safety.
People were dying by the cartload.
It was like the guy in Pulp Fiction who said, “I’m going to go medieval on your ass.”
In this case, the president was going medieval on the world.
Mass graves were being dug in big cities.
Refrigerator trucks full of dead people hummed all night outside hospitals.
Health care workers were beyond stressed.
So, let’s deny what’s happening and open up.
People were dying saying I can’t have Covid.
The president says it doesn’t exist.
We learned new meanings for cognitive dissonance.
#45 says everything is cool, don’t wear masks, take bogus drugs for the cure of the plague that doesn’t exist and oh by the way, we’ve fast tracked vaccine work to get a cure for something that we say doesn’t really exist.
Now wonder narratives proved elusive.
Fragment, OED, a part remaining or still preserved when the whole is lost or destroyed.
That Summer a book I ordered arrived.
It was Memory by Bernadette Mayer.
Was a reprint of a multi-project from 1970 where she shot a roll of film every day of whatever: recorded whatever she heard, wherever she happened to be, in this case, mostly at a vacation place in Massachusetts.
And she wrote.
The writing was an amalgamation of personal, familial concerns, visits from friends, day trips, long peregrinations in her mind on subjects ranging from poetry, esoteric literature to baseball and basketball, to art and everyday stuff.
She would codify her writing prompts, journal suggestions, and writing philosophies many of which are on full display in this month-long project that spans the full range of the human experience as only she could know it.
Particularly, “The uses of journals. Keep a journal that is restricted to one set of ideas, for instance, a food or dream journal, a journal that is only written in when it is raining, a journal of ideas about writing, a weather journal. Remember the journals do not have to involve “good” writing-they are to be made use of. Simple one-line entries like “No snow today” can be inspiring later.”
As I write this, my weather journal entry for today is: “It’s clear and unseasonably warm. The snow melting sounds like rain.”
Memory is many of these journals all packed together.
Bernadette has several books of these fascinating journals; one in different colored pencils to distinguish them from the other entries, to differentiate topics.
Those journals were with regard to her visits to a therapist.
I’m not sure what the point for seeing that analyst was beyond seducing him as no one seems saner than Bernadette Mayer was.
Unconventional, though, goes without saying.
But that’s what makes her work fascinating.
Unconventional can be a very dangerous thing for a creative mind in uncertain times during which people simply don’t understand the difference between original and crazy.
Bad things can happen to unconventional thinkers in repressive, bad times.
Lobotomy was still a very real thing in the middle of the last century.
So, look what conventional thinking has given us now: reality TV.
And a raging plague.
“Review the statement: ‘What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations which I try to avoid, goes into my poems.’”
One of the great things about rules for writing is you can postulate them but you don’t have to follow them.
In lockdown, I read Bernadette and other books by her.
I took notes from Memory.
I’m not sure where I began taking these notes but they looked like this:
Every dream the same. The bullet train
bringing the night. Snowpiercer. What
the name is. Of night trains. Night Train
Lane. Night Train Sax. Trains that stop
for no one. Conducting lightning fizzles
on the tongue. Electric Eucharist. Burnt
flesh of the one. The only. Neither rain,
nor sleet, nor. No one knows which
dream this is. Always the same. As.
No wine in the battle of the bricks.
Not even the yellow light that takes
all those thought pictures. Weird
scenes inside the goldmine. Like.
Chantal Akerman. World Trade Center
endless farewell of. By water. Not like
Handke. Like a 50’s movie magazine.
Rebel without a cause. Photo collages
of boys and girls undressing. Dennis
Hopper photos. On the cliff and over.
Smoking Pall Mall longs. The red packet
The white letters. Like subtitles that
can kill you. Wacky like tebacky.
Letters from prison are like that.
I didn’t think they were anything but after I started reading them and thinking about Bernadette’s methods and how all things were related, seemingly disconnected and fragmentary but in the subconscious, where these came from, everything was connected.
There were all kinds of associations that went beyond a random piece of information.
Juxtapose these with other random connection and you start to have something.
Something that could be a poem.
I gave these numbers instead of titles.
And started writing.
Soon I had dozens.
Dozens became a hundred.
A hundred became hundreds.
They aren’t narratives.
But there is a kind of narrative.
A narrative of the subconscious.
That was connected with what Bernadette had written.
These would expand and morph into something else entirely though they retained (mostly) the short prose poem size
Methodology used by Carole Maso and then David Markson expanded the directions the poems were going in.
But that’s another story.
A complicated story.
X marks the current spot I am at.
X as in ten.
But these pieces don’t necessarily mean anything.
It should be noted that interrogative and statement are equal.
Question marks become irrelevant as do most punctuation marks except for periods which are essential.
It’s all part of the overarching theme of false equivalency; a concept that derives from a reality show world we live in but that’s another story as well.
“Pick a word or phrase at random, let mind play freely around it until a few ideas come up, then seize on one and begin to write. Try this with a non-connotative word, like “so” etc.”
So let us examine one if these notes, that could be a poem, for content (associations.)
Bewildering at first, they can yield unexpected results.
So, we cherry pick and image, and association, an object, some thing.
From notes, anti-narratives.
A dream sequence
Maybe, as first line suggests
A Korean English language movie featuring a bullet train endlessly traversing the earth.
Now a frozen, snow-covered wilderness.
On board a hierarchical society of haves and have nots.
Segregated on cars by class.
Presumably the last humans left alive.
Moving forward car by car to reach the controller’s car.
The conductor’s car.
A civil war in progress.
On the night train.
The milk train.
The graveyard shift train.
Snowpiercer the movie
A streaming service show as well, I gather, though I haven’t seen it.
Once was enough.
There is such a thing as overkill.
On and off the screen.
Night Train Lane
50’s Detroit Lions D back.
Hall of Famer.
When the Night Train hits you, you stay hit.
I saw him play.
Night train the cheap fortified wine.
Favored by derelicts on Skidrows everywhere.
Do they still make it.
The night train doesn’t stop here anymore.
Just like O’Neill’s funeral train.
Night train the sax solo.
Referring back to Snowpiercer.
Creating a new image association with lightning.
Odd Janus Head juxtapositioning with Eucharist.
The one, the only, savior.
JC Superstar, maybe.
Snowpiercer the train that is undeterred by severe weather.
Until it is.
They always deliver.
Until they don’t
A dream sequence.
With no end in sight.
Why there are no notes to these.
A Pale Fire.
And so on.
So, moving along.
Understanding what’s going on might be aided by knowing who and what Chantal Akeman was and what she did.
That she directed whole movies with no story no plot, no dialogue, just running images of place, people, and things.
Cameras following people inside things.
Outside of things.
Going to and fro.
One of those movies takes place in New York.
Ends with a long static shot of Manhattan taken from a boat on an overcast day, clouds and mist and smog encircling the World Trade Center.
The camera lingers and stays there and watches for several minutes.
A kind of long goodbye
What would happen to the WTC later on.
Handke, Austrian author winner of Nobel Prize for Literature.
His short often autobio fiction.
Short Letter, Long Farewell.
A kind of love letter to the USA.
Sorrow Beyond Dreams.
Chronicle of a housewife, a WWII survivor, who commits suicide much like his own mother’s death.
Handke’s books often involve journeys.
Sometimes to actual places.
Sometimes like one’s life passing before one’s eyes as they die.
And so on.
Chantal Akerman lived with her mother until her death.
She couldn’t go on without her.
She killed herself.
We all know what happened to James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause, don’t we.
So it goes.
Seeing no one outside of grocery stores.
Zoom gets old after a while.
The reality Show on National TV reaches clear points of insanity.
The injecting of bleach as a deterrent to disease…
All I can think of, is we need new script writers.
Other than some poems about the cognitive dissonance of living during a plague year when the director is certifiably insane, narratives are impossible.
All we have now is fragments.
Fragments of civil society.
Satan holding a Bible upside down outside a church after forcibly clearing peaceful protesters in DC.
It’s clear outside now but rain is forecasted for later.
Rain here in midwinter and epic snow fall in places where it never snows.
A reader says my Memories sequence is rooted in the 60’s and the 70’s.
News of the weird.
Parts of poems.
So it goes.
They are my Memories.
And I came of age in the 60’s and the 70’s.
It really doesn’t matter to me if they are coming knowledge or not.
That’s what the Internet is for.
Look it up.
If it didn’t bother Bernadette when she wrote her Memory, it won’t bother me now.
The narrative impulse will return.
It’s a gift.
Sometimes it’s available.
And sometimes, it’s not.
When all else fails there are always fragments.
An epic journey through the subconscious.
Decades of retained stuff.
Access it will it can be reached and rendered.
We live in Beckett’s world.
Waiting for Godot or something worse.
The Iceman Cometh maybe.
We can’t go on, we go on.
Thank you, Bernadette. Thanks for the Memor(ies)y