The night after tomorrow a strangely dark asteroid more than 400 meters in diameter, 28 times bigger than the Chelyabinsk meteor, will pass the Earth (followed by another on Halloween Night). It might be in danger of hitting our planet between 2185 and 2196. Whatever else happens in the meanwhile, I like to think of its long, silent, looping orbit through the solar system, past us, Venus, Mars, drawing away from the sun and returning.
Back in New York. Hello again.)
His name came from the Russian word for “lighthouse,” and he stood like one, with a big swiveling head projecting sound out into living rooms, railway platforms, concert halls, ship decks, factory floors, in Moscow-St. Petersburg-Chișinău-Berlin-Paris-Mexico City-New York, hands in his pockets and one foot beating time. (“Quiet, my kittens,” he says.) He was sublimely arrogant – in Germany, he orders two beers, “one for me and one for my genius” – and desperately insecure, anxious, forlorn, pleading in his letters to Lili for some reassurance. He was a hypochondriac, traveling with his own soap and folding rubber bathtub, who could smoke a hundred cigarettes a day (though he didn’t really smoke: what mattered was the ritual, the rhythm, of lighting each from the butt of the last and parking it in the corner of his mouth to smolder down). He was an artistic and political radical in a complex ménage – something like an open, polyandrous marriage with Lili and Osip Brik – who was also a lifelong prude, distressed by “indecency,” blushing and ill-at-ease in the presence of bohemian eroticism. A seriously skilled cardsharp who was more interested in the thrill of outrageous bets and crazy stakes than in patiently piling up chips, he could lose six months of a travel stipend in the first night out on the ship, taking the sick, dizzy pleasure in ruin that Dostoevsky described (Dostoevsky, who once had a spontaneous orgasm at the roulette table as he lost everything). He made most of the money for their shared household, regardless, but largely lived in his studio on Lubyansky Passage, a narrow room that looked like a blunt-nosed boat, with a cot and a fireplace and a window onto the courtyard – and two men across the passageway who had a Gillette razor he could borrow every morning to shave. Enough room to hold meetings of the Moscow Linguistic Circle in those hard years, when “specialists in Persian literature found ways of frying horsemeat in soap.” To put poetry in the service of revolution, he and Rodchenko devised jingles and ad campaigns for state manufactured goods in the 1920s (akin to Marianne Moore coming up with automobile names for the Ford Motor Company): for pacifiers, biscuits, books, butter, galoshes, macaroni, light bulbs.
He looked like a brute, a burly roustabout with a mouthful of rotten teeth, but in his poetry he is a man so gentle he’s a “cloud in pants,” and he and the Sun have tea and talk shop; he signed letters to Lili with a doodle of himself as a setter puppy, and would ask her when she got home if she’d encountered any interesting cats or dogs. He knew Akhmatova (“You will hear thunder and remember me, / And think: She wanted storms”), Goncharova, Cocteau, Picasso, Rodchenko, Mandelstam (who claimed to leave the mark of his breath “on the glass of eternity”), Khlebnikov (who carried his manuscripts around in a pillowcase, studied and drew birds and bird language and the “Tables of Destiny”) … He was at Proust’s funeral. He watched the desert horizon from a train crossing from Mexico at Laredo. At 36, he shot himself with a Mauser loaned by one of Stalin’s secret police, and left a suicide note with a poem and a pun.
He was in New York – in this neighborhood – almost exactly ninety years ago now. He composed orally, mumbling to himself, building up the poem in his head, and he would walk up Fifth Avenue by day and down Broadway by night, keeping time with the clack of the metal fittings on his shoes, a click track for assembling the internal structure of his poems. (He called himself – in his film script for How Are You?, a 24-hour tale – a “factory without chimneys and smoke.”) Thinking about him, shabby and murmuring, eating at cheap Russian and Armenian restaurants (and a “restaurant for children” on Fifth; what could that have been?), clicking his metronomic way down Broadway like a waterclock that fills a bowl to the brim (tap, tap) with new heartbreak, new loves, new words, “slanting rain,” the universe asleep with “its huge paw curled / upon a star-infested ear,” new suns.
In About This, he addressed future scientists, petitioning them to return him to life:
Your thirtieth century
the trifles that tore our
had not time
to love properly
of future nights
So much music has accumulated to share with you! Meeting new people, hearing new things, and starting here: Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes, “Jusqu’à Ce Que La Force De T’aimer Me Manque,” off Paix. Her voice! Adorno has this wonderful line about listening to Schubert, that “tears spring from our eyes without first consulting the soul.” That’s Ribeiro, for me. As a plus, she and Alpes were also the heaviest of heavy-prog space pioneers, lighting out for unexplored country somewhere between medieval Provençal ballads and Alpha Centauri. She and Patrice Moullet (they met on the set of a Godard movie!) built new instruments for new music, like the cosmophone, a 24-string electric lyre – with an effect between Joanna Newsom’s harp and a bowed bass – and the amazing percuphone, which is like a single-string pedal steel played with an electric fan. (For real. And it sounds great, like an expressive drum machine, a driving pulse.) Check out this wonderful video of the band at their most dreamily cosmic and exquisitely early–1970s, complete with an awkward group interview on the grass. Something happens at about 5:25 that I just love – where the layered patterning of the psychedelic style opens into the bright, lucid sunlight of minimalism to come.
(On a personal note: the book Helen and I wrote came out, and we’re doing a talk at CSAIL next week. Related (in German): a conversation with the delightful Hannes Stein. A talk at UC Davis is coming up, and will be a lot of fun, if you’re in the Bay Area or near Sacramento.)
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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