Image Credit: Thomas Deininger
Face it. Wallace Stevens was sucking up to death when he called her the mother of all beauty. I can’t blame him. My mother was a beauty too. She threatened me with death all the time. Usually, her threats were about 18% serious, save for the night she left a message on my answering machine promising to sneak into the house and stab me in my sleep. She was probably 65% percent serious on that occasion. I had boycotted Mother’s Day in retaliation for her calling my wife a lesbian. My mother had spent time behind bars for assault and battery, but she’d never actually stabbed anyone. Before bed, my wife and I locked the doors and closed the windows. It was the middle of July. Better to be sweaty and safe than cool and sorry.
Here I am fifteen years later, lying in bed at 3 a.m., wide-eyeing the bright worry of another impending death. Every window in the house is open. An altogether new wife nestled against my skin, summer heat wave be damned. Life has been loving me as of late, since my self-exile from Boston, since my ascension to the City of Angels. Life has leased me Sara, a kind, Midwestern goddess who loves me for my bland heterosexuality. Life has also leased me an angelic son straight out of Raphael. Usually, I’m like Sleeping Beauty on Ambien. Tonight, I am sprawled on pins and needles, a bundle of nerves cemented in memory foam. My jittery insomnia has just cause. There is a better than average chance that I will die tomorrow. A monster swell has arrived. Waves twice the height of our two-bedroom rented ranch are crashing along the shores of Los Angeles. I haven’t surfed waves that size since becoming a father, but come dawn, I will paddle out and ride them.
I am a highly skilled surfer. I can swim like a seal and hold my breath underwater for two minutes under duress. So, don’t get me wrong. My chances of surviving tomorrow’s surf session are beyond probable, but one never knows, especially when it comes to the ocean. My chances of dying in fifteen-foot waves are greater than king crab fishing off the coast of Alaska. Greater than operating a wood chipper. Greater than driving on the 110, 405, and PCH, but maybe equal to driving South Vermont Ave after dark. I can’t verify the math of these calculations, but they’re how I’m feeling. Scared for this dreamy life of mine, supercharged with adrenaline, and squinting into the abyss. Stevens got it wrong. My wife is the mother of all beauty. Death is the mother of all fuckers, but mostly likely, I’ll be reveling in the ocean’s preponderance tomorrow, which doesn’t mean I can’t fret. I want to fret. My mother neuroticized me right. She raised me to be a proper writer.
Art is the only remedy for death because let’s face it, there is no afterlife. You know it. I know it. Even the gods knew it. The Victorian maiden in Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning” basks in it. She’s home playing hooky on the Sabbath, indulging in the viscera of coffee, oranges, and silk negligee. A green cockatoo flaps about the sunny room, free as the proverbial bird as its owner catechizes against the illogic of devoting the impermanence of her mind, body and soul to a god who is either dead, or as Don DeLillo once put it, extremely reluctant to appear.
The sun. The sea. Any balm or beauty of the earth. These are divinities deserving of her worship. Surfing is another. She daydreams of her feet passing Over the seas, to silent Palestine. Jesus first spread the fever by hanging ten across the Galilee. Surfing has been soulful ever since, but surfing is not a religion, yet it’s a better religion than Christianity. Large swells are the afterlives of deep, organized forces, distant and indifferent, but wholly dependable. They not only reveal themselves, but crash and die before our eyes with a thunderous voice that is the dead opposite of despotic. For instance, none of the oceans would have told Abraham to knife his own son. The premier patriarch was at least 51% committed to slicing Isaac’s throat before some angel of the Lord parried the blade. Abraham should have been 0% committed to feeding God’s needy ego. He was either a tried and true psycho or a needy superego desperately seeking approval. In either case, he should have turned the blade on Jehovah just for asking. Reportedly, Abraham lived to be one hundred and seventy-five years old. I hope Isaac boycotted the celebration of at least seventy-five of them. An authoritarian is best penalized by his offspring.
Tomorrow’s waves will be the propagations of a storm that has already lived and died in the Southern Hemisphere, its dying pulses travelling thousands of miles to the shores of Los Angeles County. These waves will crash and roar ashore towards nothingness, but not before I take out my angst on them. My mother crashed and roared throughout my formative years. She punched me dumb and loved me to death, the crosscurrents swelling inside me for decades, cresting but never crashing. How big is my ocean? For three decades, I self-medicated by riding waves. I nearly drowned in anger, self-loathing, and Ketel One, but never the Atlantic or Pacific. Not even close. Not even an almost. Since falling in love with Sara five years ago, I’m not the same headcase. I’m a better, altogether different headcase with a new set of worries. What if I lose my family? What if I lose my job? What if this recovering Bostonian loses his gritty self-deprecation after too many sunny years of living happily ever married in La La Land?
Believing in an afterlife is the easy answer to anxious rhetoric, the fallacious notion of a bright, puffy kingdom where we reunite with loved ones as manifestations of our perfect selves. Sorry. I can’t go there. It takes a special kind of stupid to fall for that, the special kind of stupid that afflicted Abraham. Death is loss, plain and simple. Don’t put lipstick on her. Don’t dress her in negligee. She’s far from beautiful. Death is fugly. Those of us with high enough GRE scores are wise enough to accept it. Those of us who like color field abstraction. Those who can hear the harmonic phrases in free jazz. Those of us who’ve read our Dostoevsky. We can accept nothingness. Sure, we have our restless hours, but we know how to deal, by engaging in artforms that play with futility and create an even deeper meaninglessness from it. This is the closest we come to prayer. Art is not a religion, but it’s a better religion than Christianity. Art is the afterlife of creative forces. The premier postmodernist Jorge Luis Borges believed that those who recite Shakespeare become Shakespeare. Not figuratively. LITERALLY. If Catholics can believe in transubstantiation, we can believe in this—we don’t just communicate with dead artists while engaging their work. We become them.
Art is impervious to loss, and in this sense, artists are godlike, or eternal as humanly possible. The maiden of “Sunday Morning” evokes the literary gods of her fancy (Wordsworth, Keats, and Coleridge), ensconcing for herself, a secular and self-ruling paradise, real as any other paradise, real as sunlight, negligee, and green cockatoo feathers. This paradisiacal space is bright and citrussy, but altogether radical. Her séance with the Romantics is an act of civil disobedience, a protest to the ugly realities of her time and against time ad infinitum. In her there and then, she is protesting the 19th century Christian obligations of Sunday church, and doing so as a woman sans man and kids, happily home alone reading and reciting unchristian verse, and being all smart and sensual about it. This would be iconoclastic in itself, but her larger defiance is against the dark backward and abysm of time. Shakespeare’s phrase, but its terror belongs to everyone who recites it. Like surfing, “Sunday Morning” has always been an effective anti-depressant for me, its protagonist a personal hero. She’s talked me from the ledge during my darkest moments. The maiden is a role model for those who wish to gaze into the abyss without metamorphizing into Nietzsche’s presumptive monster. She ponders nothingness with the poise of a surfer dropping down the face of a bottomless wave cresting over a razor-sharp coral reef, staring down death like the badass bookworm that she is.
“Sunday Morning” sort of saved my life one Wednesday night in Paris. I was twenty-two years old. It was my first trip outside of New England, my first time on an airplane. For two years, I’d been remedying the mental ills of my childhood by studying French at Cape Cod Community College, living out of my girlfriend’s (soon-to-be first wife) candy red GEO Storm. As a graduation gift to myself, I booked a backpacking trip through Europe with my best friend, the artist Thomas Deininger. I wanted to see Camus’ angst, nausea, and absurdity for myself. I wanted to bask in it with a tiny espresso cup in hand, pigeon feathers squalling about. We arrived at our hotel just before sunset. I opened the shudders and was absolutely bitch-slapped by that breathtakingly suicidal visage of Paris rooftops, a jumbled alphabet of copper planes and limestone edging that spelled the word JUMP. I was overtaken by the panic of being far removed from my place of origin, excised from the comforts of my everyday anguish. Free of context or meaning, a loftier anguish emerged, a cubist, multi-persepctive image of my past, present, and future selves. I didn’t like any of them. I placed both hands on the railing and considered vaulting myself into the void. At most, I was 33.3% serious. I hated every angle of Eugenio Volpe, but I loved riding waves. Thomas and I were scheduled to surf Biarritz the next day. Instead of murdering myself, I took to bed, curling into a catatonic fetal position, reciting the maiden’s unsubdued elations when the forest blooms while Thomas spooned me in the most friendly, heterosexual way possible.
Tonight, 110% of me wants to live. It’s a highly compromising position, loving life that much. For a depressive neurotic like me, it takes some getting used to because like you I’m smart enough to understand that a person owns 0% of their joy. Death, the mother of all fuckers, owns it. We are mere lessees. I am not afraid of a dark and meaningless abyss. I am afraid of losing my family. Talk about an indulgence of viscera, their love has woven a one million-count silk cocoon around my heart. I also dread the loss of art, music, and literature. Death means no more “Sunday Morning.” It means that I’ll never hear Miles Davis again. I won’t read DeLillo’s White Noise for the umpteenth time. I could just not surf tomorrow, but what fun would that be? I’d have nothing to fear, and thus nothing to write. The best I can do is lie next to Sara and pray. Pray in the fashion of my heroine by taking company with immortal masterminds.
I close my eyes and summon my inner despot. I play authoritarian by thinking up a bedtime story starring three of my favorite dead artists—jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, painter Richard Diebenkorn, and author Joan Didion. Didion isn’t actually dead, but she’s better than alive, her writing more California than the Sierra Nevada, more Hollywood than the actual word spelled in forty-five-foot capital letters. Aside from her Franklin Ave stint, Didion also resided in two of my favorite L.A. communities, Portuguese Bend and Malibu. I surf Malibu regularly, and often hike Portuguese Bend with my family. After Ronan, Sara, Caravaggio, and the ocean, Diebenkorn’s abstractions and configurations are my favorite things to view. He grew to fame as a Bay Area Figurative artist from Berkeley, but in his later years relocated to Santa Monica, spawning his Ocean Park series, the most important American paintings since John Singer Sargent. When I first moved to California, Sara lived two short miles from his Ashland Ave studio. I’d sometimes walk there just to stare at the outside of it, imagining Diebenkorn staring out at whatever sky, water, or light that might have existed. Lee Morgan only existed for thirty-three years, but in 1964 he resurrected jazz with “The Sidewinder.” He might have continued resurrecting the artform from its recurring deaths had his common-law wife not shot him in 1972. On July 10th1970, Morgan recorded one of the best live jazz albums of all-time at a bar in Hermosa Beach. The Lighthouse is still alive today, a scant mile from this very bed upon which I fret.
These three artists have resided in my pantheon since those days of camping out of a candy red GEO Storm, but not until moving here did I learn of their L.A. inhabitancies. When visiting or relocating to a new region, I always conduct an inquest into its dead artists. Within my first few months of living in coastal Los Angeles, I unearthed the spirits of Didion, Diebenkorn, and Morgan. By then, Sara and I had already conceived Ronan. L.A. was staking me a family and trinity of personally beloved gods. I had love. I had three Virgils. I had the most essential of contexts. Only an ingrate would respond with anything less than ecstatic gratitude. Sure, I had some sleepless moments of angsty self-doubt during Sara’s pregnancy. Would I fuck our kid up? Would I fuck our love up? Would I plain old fuck up? When Sara was too zonked to de-neuroticize me, I’d pray to Didion, Diebenkorn, and Morgan for consolation. I would author an invocation wherein they interacted with each other, conversing on matters of beauty and death as they inhabited our favorite L.A. County locales. I still rely on this invocation when feeling edgy about my student loans, or a slurry Facetime exchange with my mother (she has proven to be a drunker albeit better grandmother than mother). In those cases, the invocation is equivalent to half an Ambien. It’s all I need. I’m not addicted. I use the somnolent sparingly, but tonight the stakes are greater than my 90k Nelnet debt, more daunting than my mother wielding a chef’s knife. Without a proper night’s rest, I won’t be at my physical best in fifteen-foot Southern Hemisphere energy, but I’m paddling out in the morning regardless. It’s more irresponsible than suicidal, which won’t be a problem if I can just calm my nerves and fall asleep. It all depends on the invocation, and how real I make it: transubstantiating myself into Didion, Diebenkorn, and Morgan.
So much depends on the supernatural properties of creative forces.
So much depends on the dead outliving death.
So much depends on tiny Joan Didion driving her laughably yellow corvette down PCH at dusk on the Friday of July 10th, 1970. Her signature sunglasses are laughably large. They protect her from the hell of other people, but greatly endanger the surfers parked along the highway. They’re fresh out of the ocean, shedding their wetsuits as the frenzied energy of a monster south swell drips from their skin. Joan barely sees them. The darkness of her shades, and the height of the dash. She buzzes them with her side mirror. She is energy in her own right, sightless, and totally encapsulated by 1.5 tons of American steel en route to delivering a prophecy. The surfers want no part of it, the irony of surviving fifteen-foot waves only to be offed by a lead-footed Tiresias (stunning as she may be). They matador Joan’s horsepower with their towels, making a sport of the near-deathfulness. They don’t take her almighty disregard personally. They expect sociopathic objectivity from Joan Didion because in this idealized world, every surfer in California has read and admired her work.
At Santa Monica, PCH morphs into the 1. Joan exits. She turns onto Ocean Ave, a left at Pico, and then right onto Main Street. After ten blocks of nearly killing everything out of sight, Joan parks in front of Richard Diebenkorn’s studio and kills the engine. She enters the studio wearing her laughably large sunglasses. Diebenkorn is there sitting in the wet aftermath of a productive painting day. It’s all over his Brooks Brothers shirt and hands, a cigarette in his left, a highball glass in the right. He’s transitioning moods, artist to listener. Lee Morgan’s “The Beehive” swarms through the whole of the space, like music does in a wide empty studio, distant yet loud, coming from everywhere at once.
“Bourbon?” Diebenkorn asks.
“I’ll take a Coke and a Dexedrine.”
She approaches some paintings leaning against the far wall, and regards them through her sunglasses. They are the best paintings by an American since John Singer Sargent. The paintings put Pollock to shame. Joan Didion thinks so because I think so. Diebenkorn feeds her a Dexedrine and places an ice-cold bottle of Coke in her hand. They exit out the back of the studio, the music slipstreaming behind them into silence. Diebenkorn’s candy red Porsche is parked in the alley, spotlit by a streetlamp. Joan raises her sunglasses and takes a wowed look before returning them to her eyes.
“Can I drive it?” she asks.
Diebenkorn underhand tosses the keys. Joan misses them by a mile. She can’t catch for shit, and it has nothing to do with her sunglasses. You just know that Joan Didion has always had horrible eye-hand coordination, but she’s not living in this world to play shortstop. Diebenkorn modern dances his tall frame into the passenger seat, holding his highball glass like a vigil candle. Joan hops behind the wheel and places the ice-cold bottle of Coke between her thighs. It warms instantly. She turns the key and revs the engine. The power goes right up her ass. She loves it. You just know she would.
Neither feels compelled to speak, but Diebenkorn is the one who first reaches for the radio knob. “The Beehive” resumes where it trailed off at the studio. Diebenkorn sucks bourbon out of his mustache before taking another sip. When the industrial dread of Lincoln Blvd sparsens into wetlands, they roll down their respective windows and light up. The brackish funk enters and overpowers the tang of tabaco and vinyl. Joan veers hard onto Culver, jostling Diebenkorn. He bumps his head against the windscreen pillar without spilling a drop of bourbon.
“Don’t kill me yet. I’m just getting going art-wise,” he says.
“An aortic valve gets you,” Joan answers. “Pulmonary failure. That’s how you go. Sometime in the spring of 1993.”
“I can live with that.”
The turbo roar of a jet is heard as they enter Playa del Rey.
“Don’t quote me, but I think this might be the non-fictionalized town of Amy Hempel’s “Tonight Is a Favor to Holly,”” says Diebenkorn.
“I think you’re right, but she hasn’t written that story yet, and she’s still very much alive. Otherwise, I’d stop and pick her up.”
Joan screeches left onto Vista del Mar and floors it along Dockweiler Beach. The vicious draft and another turbo roar drown “The Beehive.” A procession of parked cars with surfboards strapped to their roofs line the side of the road. It’s too dark to see the ocean, but the beach is punctuated with sizable bonfires, jagged silhouettes grooving and raving around each.
“Surfers,” Diebenkorn says.
“Bunch of assholes,” Joan answers.
“No soul. All pomp and circumstance.”
“They think they’re God’s gift to repurposing energy.”
“That’d be us artists.”
They roll up their respective windows. Joan turns the radio off and then on. “The Beehive” restarts. Ten minutes into its panicked trumpeting, they arrive at The Lighthouse, a weak-armed stone’s throw from Hermosa Beach pier. Joan hasn’t even killed the engine yet, but they can already hear Lee’s horn blowing through the building and into the Porsche, bleeding over the radio edit, one consequential beat ahead of it. Joan puts the radio out of its misery and relinquishes the keys to Diebenkorn. The ocean choruses outside. Fifteen-foot Southern Hemisphere energy crashing against the pier pylons.
They enter The Lighthouse. Lee is playing out of their minds. His horn sounds the opposite of how it sounded at the studio. It sounds like music does in a cramped space, coming from a specific spot in the brain, like an inchoate migraine. Joan feels it, ice-cold Coke poured all over her cerebrum. She’s caffeinated to high heaven. She and Diebenkorn stand at the bar and listen, holding their breath for the next sixty-odd minutes.
When the show ends, Joan signals for Lee to meet them outside. Lee follows them out the exit, gripping his trumpet like a sawed-off shotgun. They cross the street and gather under a stand of palms. Joan begins to mouth Lee’s prophecy but is interrupted by an obnoxious chorus of squawking parrots. They’re perched high atop the fronds, feuding over the phenomenological psychology of imagination. Some of the parrots have not read Sartre, so they fail to understand the concept of an analogon, which is nothing more than the mental image we conjure when thinking of a person or thing. The argument becomes uncommunicable, and the parrots resort to pecking the ever-living-shit out of each other, a blizzard of green feathers squalling upon the three gods.
“Are those motherfucking parrots up there?” Lee asks.
“Hermosa Beach is home to the largest wild parrot population in the world,” Joan answers.
“Is that why you’re here? To clue me in on wild parrots?” Lee asks.
“I’m here to stop you from fucking up,” Joan answers.
“Fucking up what?” Lee asks half-knowingly.
“Your wife,” Diebenkorn says, surprising himself with the information.
“She’s on the edge. You’re pushing her. If you don’t stop fucking around, she’s going to pump you full of lead.” Joan plucks a green feather from her hair.
“She’s going to shoot me?” Lee asks now knowing full well.
“The shots won’t be fatal, but it will happen late at night, during a snowstorm in the East Village. It will take the ambulance forever to reach you. You’ll bleed out before getting to the hospital.” Joan brushes green feathers from Lee’s shoulders.
“That sounds better than murdering myself with heroin,” Lee says.
He puts the sawed-off shotgun to his lips and blows their brains out. An entire ocean comes gushing out of the brass bell, flooding the entire Los Angeles Basin, refracting the Southern Hemisphere swell towards its origin, filling Diebenkorn’s lungs in the process, sinking the painter like a stone, but moreover, the almighty crosscurrent carries Joan Didion to the brightest whitest reaches of Antarctica where her sunglasses are truly needed, where they can object to a perfect manifestation of nothingness.
Eugenio Volpe is author of the eBook The Message. His stories have appeared in Salamander, New York Tyrant, Post Road, Contrary, The Nervous Breakdown, BULL, and dozens more. His recently completed novel won the PEN Discovery Award. He teaches writing and rhetoric at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.