Mar. 30, 2011

Homicide Detective: A Film Noir

by Dorianne Laux

Smell of diesel fuel and dead trees
on a flatbed soaked to the bone.
Smell of dusty heater coils.
We got homicides in motels and apartments
all across the city: under the beds,
behind the doors, in the bathtubs.
It's where I come in at 5 AM,
paper cup of coffee dripping
down my sleeve, powdered
half-moon donut in my mouth.
Blood everywhere. Bodies
belly down, bodies faceup
on the kitchenette floor.
¿Donde esta? Que Sera.
We got loose ends, we got
dead ends, we got split ends,
hair in the drains, fingerprints
on glass. This is where I stand,
my hat glittery with rain,
casting my restless shadow.

These are the dark hours,
dark times are these, hours
when the clock chimes once
as if done with it, tired of it: the sun,
the highways, the damnable
flowers strewn on the fake wool rug.

These are the flayed heart's flowers,
oil-black dahlias big as fists,
stems thick as wrists, striped, torn,
floating in the syrupy left-on music
but the bright world is done and I'm
a ghost touching the hair of the dead
with a gloved hand.

These are the done-for, the poor,
the defenseless, mostly women,
felled trees, limbs lashing
up into air, into rain,
as if time were nothing, hours,
clocks, highways, faces, don't step
on the petals, the upturned hands, stay
behind the yellow tape, let
the photographer's hooded camera pass,
the coroner in his lab coat, the DA
in her creased black pants.

Who thought
to bring these distracting flowers?
Who pushed
out the screen and broke the lock?
Who let him in?
Who cut the phone cord, the throat,
the wrist, the cake
on a plate and sat down and ate
only half?

What good is my life if I can't read the clues,
my mind the glue and each puzzle piece
chewed by the long-gone dog who raced
through the door, ran through our legs
and knocked over the vase,
hurtled down the alley and into the street?

What are we but meat, flesh
and the billion veins to be bled?
Why do we die this way, our jaws
open, our eyes bulging, as if there
were something to see or say?
Though today the flowers speak to me,
they way they sprawl in the streaked light,
their velvet lips and lids opening as I watch,
as if they wanted to go on living, climb
my pant legs, my wrinkled shirt, reach up
past my throat and curl over my mouth,
my eyes. Bury me in bloom.

"Homicide Detective: A Film Noir" by Dorianne Laux, from The Book of Men. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1858, Hymen Lipman of Philadelphia patented the first pencil to have an attached eraser. The eraser-tipped pencil is still something of an American phenomenon; most European pencils are still eraserless. The humble pencil has a long and storied history, going back to the Roman stylus, which was sometimes made of lead, and why we still call the business end of the pencil the "lead," even though it's been made of nontoxic graphite since 1564.

Pencils were first mass-produced in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1662, and the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century really allowed the manufacture to flourish. Before he became known for Walden and "Civil Disobedience," Henry David Thoreau and his father were famous for manufacturing the hardest, blackest pencils in the United States. Edison was fond of short pencils that fit neatly into a vest pocket, readily accessible for the jotting down of ideas. John Steinbeck loved the pencil and started every day with 24 freshly sharpened ones; it's said that he went through 300 pencils in writing East of Eden (1952), and used 60 a day on The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Cannery Row (1945).

Our common pencils are hexagonal to keep them from rolling off the table, and they're yellow because the best graphite came from China, and yellow is traditionally associated with Chinese royalty. A single pencil can draw a line 35 miles long, or write around 45,000 words. And if you make a mistake, thanks to Hymen Lipman, you've probably got an eraser handy.

It's the birthday of playwright Sean O'Casey, born John Casey in Dublin, in 1880. Although he grew to have a reputation as a "slum dramatist," O'Casey was born into a middle-, not working-, class Protestant family. His father died when he was six, however, and money troubles soon followed as his large family moved from tenement to tenement. As a child, he had an eye condition that interfered with his vision, and so he wasn't able to get a formal education for several years, but eventually he taught himself to read by the age of 13. At 14, he left school and went to work, taking jobs as a newspaper delivery boy and a railwayman. In the early 1900s, he became involved in the growing Irish nationalism movement; in 1906, he joined the Gaelic League, learned to speak Irish, and changed his name to Sean O'Casey.

Though he'd put on plays with his brother in their family home since childhood, he wasn't moved to write in any organized way until 1917, when his friend Thomas Ashe died during a hunger strike. O'Casey wrote two laments for his friend, one in prose and one in verse, but then turned his attention to writing for the stage. He was the first Irish playwright to put the lives of the working class in a central role. He produced his three most famous and influential plays, known as his "Dublin Trilogy," over a brief span of time in the 1920s: The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926). They all portray the effects of war and revolution on the city's working class and its slums, and cast a jaundiced eye at the Irish nationalism movement's leaders, refusing to romanticize them. The plays were presented at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, which was run by W.B. Yeats. The message of The Plough and the Stars was not especially well received by audiences, however, and sparked a riot during the fourth performance. Yeats was not entirely surprised by this, having lived through it some years earlier at a production of Synge's Playboy of the Western World, and had his remarks prepared ahead of time. He took the stage and berated the audience: "You have disgraced yourselves once again; is this to be the recurring celebration of Irish genius?" Although, or perhaps because, the play was so controversial, it was a box office success.

While in London to supervise a production of Juno and the Paycock, O'Casey met and fell in love with Eileen Carey, who was cast as Nora. The two were married in 1927.

Yeats turned down O'Casey's next play, The Silver Tassie, for production at the Abbey, and this began a disenchantment with his homeland that persisted for the rest of the playwright's life. He declared himself a voluntary exile and remained in England with Eileen, where he lived until his death in 1964. At one point, he went so far as to ban production of any of his plays in Ireland. His work would never again deal directly with his country and her history; he turned away from the realism he had been known for, and adopted allegory and expressionism. In The Flying Wasp (1937), a collection of essays on theater, he wrote: "We do not want merely an excerpt from reality; it is the imaginative translation of reality, as it is seen through the eye of the poet, that we desire. The great art of the theatre is to suggest, not to tell openly; to dilate the mind by symbols, not by actual things; to express in Lear a world's sorrow, and in Hamlet the grief of humanity. Van Gogh, and particularly Cézanne, took from the extravagance of Cubism its possibilities and, uniting these with the greater possibilities of Realism and Impressionism, burst into a new art of painting. Now that is what I want to do in Drama!"

It's the birthday of the artist who wrote, "To do good work, one must eat well, be well housed, have one's fling from time to time, smoke one's pipe, and drink one's coffee in peace": Vincent van Gogh, born in Groot-Zundert, Holland, in 1853. Not much is known about his childhood, except that he was one of six children, a quiet boy, not especially drawn to artistic pursuits. He worked for a time in an art gallery in The Hague as a young man, then left to follow in his clergyman father's footsteps as a sort of missionary to the poor. His behavior was erratic, and his family supported them as best they could, and while he didn't last too long as an evangelist, he felt a kinship with the working classes that would come out again and again in his painting.

It was his brother Theo who urged Vincent to become an artist. Vincent had never had any formal training, nor displayed any overt talent, and he was doubtful about his chances for success, as were his parents. But Theo was persistent, and he would prove to be Vincent's unfailing source of financial, emotional, and artistic support. Vincent taught himself to draw, and later took lessons. By 1886, he moved to Paris to live with Theo, and discovered that the muted palette he had used in his early work was woefully out of date. He adapted without too much trouble to the more vibrant hues of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and it wasn't long before he began to view color as the chief conveyer of emotion, even using it to illustrate abstract themes.

In 1888, he moved to the south of France, to Arles, in search of light and sun, hoping to form an artists' colony with his friend Paul Gauguin. He began painting sunflowers to decorate Gauguin's bedroom, and later, Gauguin would write of their time together: "In my yellow room, sunflowers with purple eyes stand out against a yellow background; the ends of their stalks bathe in a yellow pot on a yellow table. In one corner of the painting, the painter's signature: Vincent. And the yellow sun, coming through the yellow curtains of my room, floods all this flowering with gold, and in the morning, when I wake up in my bed, I have the impression that it all smells very good. Oh yes! he loved yellow, did good Vincent, the painter from Holland, gleams of sunlight warming his soul, which detested fog. A craving for warmth. 
When the two of us were together in Arles, both of us insane, and constantly at war over beautiful colors, I adored red; where could I find a perfect vermilion? He, taking his yellowest brush, wrote on the suddenly purple wall: I am whole in spirit. I am the Holy Spirit."

He wrote to Theo constantly from Arles, describing the landscape and his work in vivid terms. In 1888, he described his work on his painting "Night Café": "I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can destroy oneself, go mad or commit a crime. In short, I have tried, by contrasting soft pink with blood-red and wine-red, soft Louis XV-green and Veronese green with yellow-greens and harsh blue-greens, all this in an atmosphere of an infernal furnace in pale sulphur, to express the powers of darkness in a common tavern."

Van Gogh committed himself to an asylum in 1888. His behavior is consistent with what we now call manic-depression or bipolar disorder, and he also suffered seizures due to temporal lobe epilepsy. He worked at an incredible pace during this time, although painting for long stretches was difficult for him, and he produced "Starry Night," one of his most famous works. Two years later, he left the asylum but his frenetic pace continued, and he produced a painting almost daily. He believed himself a failure, although he never gave up hope of success; he wrote to Theo: "What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart." He walked out one July afternoon in 1890 and shot himself, dying of the wound two days later. Theo died six months later, and the two are buried side by side in Auvers-sur-Oise.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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