Here’s a poem by this year’s winner of…

… the T.S. Eliot Prize.

The poem made me think of another poem, by James Merrill, probably because they’re both about art and air. Let’s take a look.

First, Philip Gross, this year’s winner.

Opera Bouffe

The count of cappuccino,
the marquise of meringue,
all the little cantuccini…
and what was the song they sang?

Oh, the best of us is nothing
but a sweetening of the air,
a tryst between the teeth and tongue:
we meet and no one’s there

though the café’s always crowded
as society arrives
and light glints to and fro between
the eyes and rings and knives.

We’ll slip away together,
perfect ghosts of appetite,
the balancing of ash on fire
and whim—the mating flight

of amaretti papers,
my petite montgolfiere,
our lit cage rising weightless
up the lift shaft of the air.

So the count of cappuccino,
the marquise of not much more,
consumed each other’s hunger.
Then the crash. And then the war.


Next, Merrill.

Farewell Performance

for DK

Art. It cures affliction. As lights go down and
Maestro lifts his wand, the unfailing sea change
starts within us. Limber alembics once more
make of the common

Lot a pure, brief gold. At the end our bravos
call them back, sweat-soldered and leotarded,
back, again back – anything not to face the
fact that it’s over.

You are gone. You’d caught like a cold their airy
lust for essence. Now, in the furnace parched to
ten or twelve light handfuls, a mortal gravel
sifted through fingers,

Coarse yet grayly glimmering sublimate of
palace days, Strauss, Sidney, the lover’s plaintive
Can’t we just be friends? which your breakfast phone call
Clothed in amusement,

This is what we paddled a neighbor’s dinghy
out to scatter – Peter who grasped the buoy,
I who held the box underwater, freeing
all it contained. Past

Sunny, fluent soundings that gruel of selfhood
taking manlike shape for one last jeté on
ghostly – wait, ah! – point into darkness vanished.
High up, a gull’s wings

Clapped. The house lights (always supposing, caro,
Earth remains your house) at their brightest set the
scene for good: true colors, the sun-warm hand to
cover my wet one …

Back they come. How you would have loved it. We in
turn have risen. Pity and terror done with,
programs furled, lips parted, we jostle forward
eager to hail them,

More, to join the troupe – will a friend enroll us
one fine day? Strange, though. For up close their magic
self-destructs. Pale, dripping, with downcast eyes they’ve
seen where it led you.


Both poets are getting at something having to do with the separation between art and life; both poets notice our immense pull toward fantasy, beauty, intensity, toward the distillation of real experience into imaginative perfection. Both caution us about the danger of that pull.

In the Gross poem, the frothy delicious escapism of light opera, light-as-air opera, sweetens the actual air, sweetens our lives. It’s adorable, yummy, we eat it up, this spectacle of counts and marquises warbling in bustling, brightly lit cafes.

But it’s all pretend, of course: we meet and no one’s there. The performers are ghosts of appetite, apparitions carrying in flight a reflection of their audience’s hunger for art to be life.

When the play’s over, when the performers float away in their absurd confectionery balloon, reality resumes in all its dark heft. Perhaps there’s the suggestion here that our addiction to fantasy weakens our capacity to survive reality.

The simple exact end rhyme, the Mother Goosey feel of the thing, lends a clever contradiction to the Gross poem. Its surface is as light as light opera, a happy sing-songy lilt; yet its content’s increasingly bleak – ghosts, ash, and then the final crash and burn. The contradiction captures our denialist draw toward art as escape. We don’t want to see what’s beneath these happy lines.

Merrill’s is an elegy; it’s written in memory of a friend of his. The poem has three acts, as it were: an opening act describing a dance company performance the poet attends not long after his friend’s death; a middle act recalling the poet and other people taking a boat out to scatter his friend’s ashes into the water of a sound (the word ‘sound’ allows the poet lovely pun-latitude); and a final return to the performance as the dancers take their bows.

As in the Gross poem, art both “cures affliction” and causes it — “You’d caught like a cold their airy / lust for essence.” Art changes us; its transformative alembics spin our lives into gold, and we desperately don’t want its magic to end, don’t want dismissal into the painful chaos of real life.

So the poet’s friend tried to import art to his life, to lead the life of an aesthete — “palace days, Strauss, Sidney…”

We too want to “join the troupe,” though truly living that airy essence exacts a toll – it “self-destructs.”

will a friend enroll us / one fine day?

Will our sublimate too be rolled out onto the water some sunny afternoon?

Wisconsin Death Trip

As we wind down toward December, this year’s fraternity-death totals are coming in, and they’re – as usual – awesome. Nothing kills eighteen year old American men in search of friendship and a college education faster than a night with the Sweethearts of Sigma Chi, professional sadists who have, over the long storied years of their chapter, perfected the art of murder by forced alcohol intake. Nothing bonds brothers like working together over many hours to make sure someone who’d like to join their club chokes to death on his vomit – unless it’s the scary manslaughter case that follows, a shared experience of adversity that brings together the boys, their adoring parents, and their supportive community, in another one of life’s tests of blood loyalty and the Greek way.

After a century packed with dead pledges, everyone agrees there’s not really anything our country can do about the Geertzian “deep play” of massive insane drunken football staging area universities like Penn State as they stagger from serial child rapist coaches, to post-game riots, to jock-on-jock homicide in the frat houses. The whole wild synergy put Penn State’s last president in jail, but this seems to have been viewed as the ultimate test of the school’s commitment to destroying the life of everyone who studies or works there without regard to status.

There are scads of universities like Penn State. There are scads of universities that make Penn State their role model.


Because the blood and the violence in these football/frat cultures are beautiful. Remember what Professor Murray Siskind, a character in White Noise who teaches a seminar on car crashes in the movies, says about these ever more violent collisions. He is talking to one of his colleagues.

“All that blood and glass, that screeching rubber. What about the sheer waste, the sense of a civilization in a state of decay?”

… “I tell [my students] it’s not decay they are seeing but innocence. The movie breaks away from complicated human passions to show us something elemental, something fiery and loud and head-on. It’s a conservative wish-fulfillment, a yearning for naivete. We want to be artless again. We want to reverse the flow of experience, of worldliness and its responsibilities. My students say, ‘Look at the crushed bodies, the severed limbs. What kind of innocence is this?'”

“What do you say to that?”

“I tell them they can’t think of a car crash in a movie as a violent act. It’s a celebration. A reaffirmation of traditional values and beliefs. I connect car crashes to holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth. We don’t mourn the dead or rejoice in miracles. These are days of secular optimism, of self-celebration. We will improve, prosper, perfect ourselves. Watch any car crash in any American movie. It is a high-spirited moment like old-fashioned stunt flying, walking on wings. The people who stage these crashes are able to capture a lightheartedness, a carefree enjoyment that car crashes in foreign movies can never approach.”

“Look past the violence.”

“Exactly. Look past the violence, Jack. There is a wonderful brimming spirit of innocence and fun.”

Look past the teenager on life-support to the high-spirited innocent fun of the postmodern American campus, where advances in recording technology and a booming liquor industry promise Americans years of morbid viewing pleasure.


For those who consider this a “problem,” which must be “solved,” UD says: Wisconsin. Concentrate the behavior in one state. Designate one American state whose universities may, with impunity, pick off their freshman males.

Why Wisconsin? It is well-located, right in the middle of the country, for ease of access. The state has a long glorious tradition of drunkenness, and is full of jock-centric state university campuses. All universities outside of Wisconsin would shutter their Greek houses, and they would make life so difficult for the remaining illegal off-campus fraternities that the lure of Wisconsin would become irresistible.

UD’s happy to see that…

… “Afghan human rights activist, ex-minister and burka opponent Sima Samar is …seen as a possible winner” of this year’s Nobel Peace prize. This would be spectacular publicity for the effort to get women and children out from under this grotesque garment.

Plus of course UD‘s beloved Don DeLillo is again being shortlisted for the literature prize. He and Philip Roth always show up together on this list.


I thought of DeLillo’s novel Mao II tonight while reading again – for the first time in forty or so years – Catcher in the Rye. Almost at the end of that novel, Holden Caulfield has a heart-to-heart with one of his teachers, the very smart, alcoholic, Mr Antolini. Antolini recognizes Caulfield’s intelligence, sensitivity, moral rigidity, and self-destructiveness. He understands how the trauma of Holden’s beloved brother’s death has set on him on a nihilistic, existence-loathing path. He also sees how this rage, combined with Caulfield’s restless intellect, could make him some sort of dangerous fanatic. Here’s one of the things he says to Holden:

“Something else an academic education will do for you. If you go along with it any considerable distance, it’ll begin to give you an idea what size mind you have. What it’ll fit and, maybe, what it won’t. After a while, you’ll have an idea what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing. For one thing, it may save you an extraordinary amount of time trying on ideas that don’t suit you, aren’t becoming to you. You’ll begin to know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly.”

This know-yourself haberdashery put me in mind of a very similar piece of advice DeLillo’s hero, the totally Salingeresque writer Bill Gray, recalls having read and heard growing up:

He remembered the important things, how his father wore a hat called the Ritz, gray with a black band, a raw edge and a snap brim, and someone was always saying “Measure your head before ordering” which was a line in the Sears Roebuck catalogue…”

As he’s dying, Bill repeats this phrase to himself.

Know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly. Measure your head before ordering.

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