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Cocks crowing; dogs barking.

Five days after 9/11, I got my birthday presents. They Might Be Giants were supposed to play the Crystal Ballroom that night, so there was something of a theme: Mink Car and McSweeney’s no. 6, the one they did the soundtrack for. That McSweeney’s came as a long, low, hardbound book, and the front cover is stamped with the following:


I still get shivers.

So I open it up to Breyten Breytenbach’s essay, “Notes from the Middle World,” which, he says, “is, and is not, the same as the Global Village.

Let’s say that those of the Middle World—I think of them as uncitizens, the way you have un-American activities as opposed to non- or anti-American—are global village vagrants, knights of the naked star. They are defined by what they are not, or no longer, and not so much by what they oppose or even reject. They ventured into zones where truths no longer fit snugly and where certainties do not overlap, and most likely they get lost there.

Which was rather shockingly rendered obsolete five days before I first cracked the cover. (Except it wasn’t: nothing was changed that day, not anything like that, because the terrorists didn’t win after all, not yet, and the Middle World is still very much where we left it; what else is Eastern Standard Tribe about, if not life in the Middle World?) —Breytenbach quotes a letter from a West African poet named Ka’afit:

The word “peace.” Ah, how voluptuous. Like “democracy.” It just fills the mouth with its familiar, well-sucked, inoffensive, satisfying taste. As if one were experiencing one’s goodness. No indigestion. No burnt lips. It won’t cause constipation and you won’t grow fat on it either. In fact, it carries no nutritional connotation whatsoever. And guaranteed to have no secondary effects: it won’t provoke a rash of freedom, let alone the aches of justice. Ah, “peace,” “democracy,” soft drugs of self-absorption—how we love to talk sweet nothings with them tucked in the cheek hard by the tongue, chew them, take them out at international conferences to lick the contours before plopping them back in the mouth…

And then I close the book, because that’s about all I’d want to say to anyone who seems to think it’s somehow unseemly to have an election as scheduled after a terrorist attack. —They’re sucking on different words, but the effect’s much the same.

Always remember that genre lies; that a division is made to keep apart that which would naturally flow together; that something there is that does not love a wall. (“Art in life is not life,” Ad Reinhardt is kind enough to remind us, at the end of that McSweeney’s. “Life in art is not life. People in art are not people. Dogs in art are dogs.”) The 60-year-old and the 16-year-old are the same person, really, for all that they’re at each other’s throats. I’ve put aside Breytenbach’s cosmopolitan utopia so I can read you some Dennis McBride—this is a poem called “The Future of Rome,” and I keep it clipped up on the commonplace board above my desk:

Let’s say having increases hunger,
that light makes it harder to really see.
Then suppose, like me, you don’t have eyes,
suppose you don’t have ears to hear
and there is no nose.
Imagine, like me,
you don’t even have a mouth
to put the sweet soft black berry in.
But suppose there are Red and Green and Yellow,
that you feel them.
Then suppose you had a lamp
bigger than you are to lean against,
a dark maroon red carpet to sit on
and a blue teacup large as your chest.
Then imagine, like me
you were made of gold,
that you were willing to be idle
and were the one to come after Man.
Think of having only to sit,
of the heart’s thoughts,
of fear leading finally to safety,
speech to silence.
Think of enough.

And so I do, I close my eyes and suppose for a minute, and then, well, that’s enough, right? And so I get up and head back out into—what?

I don’t know. It’s after midnight. I’m putting off other work.

But I’ll let you know as soon as I figure it out.

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