diary of old and new books #2

Calamities and I Remember

Jan 8-13

Title: Calamities Author: Renee Gladman Publisher: Wave Poetry Years elapsed: 5 Representative quote:  ‘I began the day connected by several moving points on a grid, in a constellation of live objects, in a house of memory’

I spent most of the weekend and week reading around and writing an essay about this book so most of the days passed by in a haze. I slept, I wrote, in the evenings K and I rewatched the entirety of Broen/Bron, I ate, I fussed the cats, I walked a bit but less than usual and, alongside articles and chapters of ‘academic’ books, I close read Calamities.

I recently read the first three books of Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series in as many days but after reading Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge I felt I needed something different to chew on, and so read Conundrum and Detransition, Baby, and haven’t yet finished the series. Unlike a lot of my friends, I don’t feel like I really have a foothold in speculative fiction, which in some ways explains my trouble there, but even though I’m a little more at ease reading Calamities—which I’ve now read at least three times—than I am reading the Ravicka books, I still find it difficult to say what I like about it or why I keep returning to it. 

The book comprises over fifty ‘calamities’, or ‘ditties’ which Gladman says are distinct from essays because they fail to make an argument or go anywhere, and each of them begins ‘I began the day.’ Like other instances of constrained life-writing (A Year from Today, Memory, Midwinter Day or Tanka Diary, to name a few) Calamities is hewn from the routines of daily life and so doesn’t follow the familiar narratological structures of e.g. Freytag’s pyramid. From the outset, she ruminates on books in which ‘the world where one takes a bus or walk[s] through snow to buy eggs’ is never mentioned and then turns that into the book’s structuring device: she wants to eat gluten, she drinks caf and decaf coffee, she eats a snickers bar, she wants to meet up with and then does meet up with friends, she goes to work, and all the while she moves in, through, and out of the city.

In certain hands, I can imagine the kind of programme of daily writing suggested by the text could produce work that placed a romanticised emphasis on confession or an account of inner turmoil, but Calamities never retreats from the world. To me, the book is at least in part interested in expressing the ways desire and need are mediated by infrastructure, class, race, capital, the climate, and so on: whether there exists in your town public transport to get you to the grocery store, how far she has to travel to share space with other black people, and what happens to residents and their architectures when, because of climate change, the Atlantic Northeast becomes the Pacific Northwest. I think her project of making the familiar unfamiliar in the smallest turn of phrase—‘A car was crossing the earth on a highway’—is exciting to read, as is her troubling of the ideologies that would cleave humans from the natural world, but I still feel I don’t quite have a good grip on how I’ve come to these feelings (I can’t even call them conclusions).

I spent the past week or so trying to think about things like pro-social life-writing, the civic space of the sentence, public space, and climate change in this book but I still find it extremely opaque and then I know opacity is also obviously part of the point. I don’t know: I think it has a lot to say about the configuration and production of space, the spatialisation of language, as well as about architecture, cities, and bodies. I think it presents a useful, extremely possible model for thinking about and writing through crises like climate change. And I also find her desire to write herself ‘into a new territory’ extremely hopeful. The book helps me envisage places that aren’t so much organised around e.g. fossil fuel extraction and where relations between humans and the natural world are altogether more harmonious and workable. Sometimes I hear echoes of Reclus. Anyway, I think I love it, I’ll probably read it again next year.

Jan 14
Title: I Remember Author: Joe Brainard Publisher: Penguin Years elapsed: 51 Representative quote: ‘I remember that Rock Hudson and Charlie Chaplin and Lyndon Johnson have "giant cocks."'‘

As of today, I’ve been off twitter for a month. As well as reading more, I’m enjoying the active communication of texts, phone calls and emails and certainly I’m less cross than I was when I was on there because I don’t so often see stupid takes about how long books are ‘disrespectful of people’s time’ like I did on instagram this morning, but nevertheless I do miss people. I spend the day making a few outlines for a couple of projects, I arrange a couple of meetings, one about returning to work, and another with a fellow union rep about gathering membership feedback and info. Now that the redundancy period is largely over where I work, it’s incumbent on us to figure out how many members we’ve lost. I’m dreading this task. I watch a bit of TV and fold laundry and try to relax a little bit after quite an intense period of work, and in the evening read Joe Brainard’s I Remember on my phone in the bath. 

I’ve got an epub of but haven’t read Brainard’s Collected Writings, so this is my first time reading anything of his, despite him and I Remember in particular being pretty well established in the Gay Canon. I recently found out he grew up in Oklahoma and because I went to school there for a while and feel a weird sort of attachment to the place this fact immediately endeared him to me. Brainard’s book is a kind of memoir that consists of mostly unconnected memories detailing growing up queer in the forties and fifties in Tulsa and spending the sixties and seventies in New York. Each of the more than one thousand memories begins with the declaration ‘I remember’:

I remember when a piece of hair stands up straight after a night of sleeping on it wrong.

I remember before green dishwashing liquid.

I remember a free shoehorn with new shoes.

I remember never using shoehorns.

I remember not finding pumpkin pie very visually appealing.

I remember the pale green tint of Coca-Cola bottles.

I remember not really trusting mince meat pie. (What was "in" it.) And dressing too.

A couple of entries are chunky, full paragraphs but few are more than a sentence long. Some of them are matter of fact, others banal, and still others are profoundly personal. 

It’s not really anything like Calamities, and if I hadn’t read them in the same week I doubt I’d have made any connection at all, but as well as their mutual resistance to the narrative or thematic conventions of popular life-writing, I start to think that maybe both books demonstrate that the repetition and incantation of a particular phrase—‘I remember’ or ‘I began the day’—enables a certain capaciousness. Like anything’s ripe for inclusion. Just as one of Gladman’s calamities can be about sitting in a room with a person in a particular way and another can be about a category 5 Atlantic hurricane, the memories in I Remember can encompass and juxtapose anything from the minutest recollection of ‘the little balls of ink that would accumulate on the point’ of ballpoint pens to the shooting of JFK. The relentless, accumulative mode of the book feels like a good way to capture in writing both the white noise of the day-to-day and the signal of major incidents, as well as the variety and randomness of emotional association and experiences that fibrillate on the boundary between past and present.

The book travels between Tulsa, where he grew up, Dayton, where he won a scholarship to the Art Institute, and New York City, where he found old friends, opportunities to exhibit his art, and a vibrant gay urban lifeworld. But a clear picture of these places never really builds up. What emerges instead is a particular feeling tone, a sensory hodgepodge of spam and taffeta and transgression, professional failings and early, heady sex all set against the social and cultural backdrop of contemporary brand names, celebrity, and various political crises. 

I think it is a great reading-writing/writing-reading book and I found it quite impossible to resist the cascade of my own corresponding recollections: our local queer elder in Oklahoma City who was also ‘always “around”’ (Mick), Tornados, including "The Earth" and "The Universe" on envelopes, S snapping cigarettes in half at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa in a fit of despair etc. Not all of our memories are shared though, in one he remembers trying to paint an oil painting using his dick as a brush which, sadly, I’ve never tried.