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Afternoon of the Ode: a failed attempt to dispense with the unique soul and write in the style of Kenneth Goldsmith

Perhaps, then, the copying exercises Kenneth Goldsmith talks about in his address to the White House workshop come at a moment when students badly need tools to make constructs more satisfying than their attempts to bare their unique souls.

Marjorie Perloff, Towards a conceptual lyric, From content to context / Jacket  2

- 14h20: just finished eating lunch with L and the maid (an old woman with encroaching dementia who smells of mold and who, instead of cleaning, simply rearranges the dirt. She's L's charity case. Since she can't read, even a single letter, she often tries to clean the bathroom with plant fertilizer. She has to be watched very closely at all times, and reminded to put water in the iron, empty the vacuum cleaner bag, not throw dirty water into the street, or shake the rugs beneath the freshly drying laundry). All day I've been, for some reason (I never know quite why), depressed and saddened by everything: spoons, newspapers, drawers full of papers, plants, etc.

- 15h40: by now I've fled the house because of the maid, but not before cleaning my worktable of all its papers, putting my fountain pens and my grandfather's lovely Schaeffer pencil away, re-shelving my dictionaries (all five of them), and then hiding my dear Mac in the bottom drawer beneath the sweaters, as a precaution against the unpredictable movements, jerking motions and flailing broom of the maid. My hope is that while I am gone she will dust my desk. Of course she never does. I go to the shopping center. First I spend a lot of time considering different tuna steaks in the fish department, then I linger over the wines. I've been allowing myself to spend more on wine (1,50 Euros per bottle more, to be exact...not much, but it buys one six more months of maturation in hardwood casks, usually oak), a reward for foregoing my daily visit to the Scottish Highlands before dinner. Shopping done (wine, tuna, broccoli, udon noodles ((cheaper in the supermarket than in the natural foods store)), apple juice and some brown bread), I go to the tobacco store to buy some cigarette papers and nothing else, which makes the young girl behind the counter, her white t-shirt blossoming like a day lily against a large canvas of tobacco products, look at me as though I were from the planet Mars—perhaps this is because I'm wearing a very lovely tie, Liberty of London, a powder-blue oxford shirt, kakis, nice shoes and my silk Missoni jacket with a multi-colored herringbone pattern. Then I take the elevator up four floors to check out what's playing at the cinema...nothing, as usual, ten screens and not one film worth seeing. Then I walk slowly back down to the bottom floor, stopping on my way, in the bookshop, the photography shop to check their printing prices, and at one of those wonderful little free-standing café counters, where I have an expresso and an Água das Pedras. By the time I get home, 17h10, the maid is long gone, and L is going out the door for the whole evening. Alone, again, just as I like it...I consider briefly what a horrible, misanthropic hermit I am. Why have I lived for so long away? I guess auto-exílio—I prefer the term in my adopted tongue, even though it rhymes with AUTOEXEC.BAT—is just what happened to me. I found my environment variables had changed.  They stayed changed. Finally there was no way to change them back. Back no longer existed. I was happy at first. Of course it was what I wanted to do. Then slightly suspicious at what I’d done, especially after the first part of my life, the part in which I lived mostly on the coast, south of Boston, the American part, began to slip away. After that I attempted to be both things, one who had grown out of one thing and was still trying to grow into the other. After all, one could live in worse places than Coimbra, a hill town built over the Mondego flood planes in central Portugal and seemingly suspended above the river by ancient masonry and strands of ivy, famous for its University and its students who, even to this day, run around in black capes and knee-length skirts, streaming with ribbons, color coded to represent their particular school and discipline—red for law, blue for modern languages, yellow for medicine. It is a fine city to grow old in, or to be young in, or to hide in behind stucco façades, a city which still exists on a human scale, a lively city certainly, where, nevertheless, that silly invention, the modern world, has had little import. But it is a terrible city in which to suffer. For one thing, it is a city of false exits, whose avenues were designed to turn wayfarers back into its entrails, snakey narrow streets winding through low-hugged agglomerations of tenements with awkwardly bellying façades made out of shards and toothpaste just waiting for the next earthquake to reduce them to instant rubble; a city whose parks were planned after the great parks of Europe, the Tuileries, Hyde Park, the Tiergarten, but on such a small scale that one is literally crushed by sadness just to walk through them. Populated by stands of singly imported trees, an X from here, a Y from there, all of them from some distant colony, the arboreal orphans of an imploded empire; they are like miniature forests of the lost, these parks. Then there are the restaurants—the leathery old waiters and the misshapen maitre d’s, the sallow skinned senhoras who jut from kitchens swathed in pork fat and perspiration, whose judgment, after years upon years of ascertaining the tenderness of boiled turnip tops, has become the chosen instrument of the Devil. These people combine a lifetime of professional obsequiousness with monolithic disdain for those who wander through their doors and lean over their menus in sheepish anticipation. In fact, what is so maddening is that, among the Portuguese, these two qualities are inseparable, as though manservant and king had merged into one monstrous, apron-clad dictator: your waiter.  This admixture of regality and subservience is known as “the formal mode” and it is something that must be mastered if one is to survive the experience of living in Latin Europe. And the further south one attempts to tarry, the more formal one must become. Highly codified, and based in a combination of “subjunctive address” and a gestural system designed to support distance between individuals and guard against the need to admit publicly that one is actually human, the formal mode is, in its essence, an expression of humanity, a way to be both there for your fellow man, but protected from him at the same time. This is, of course, a necessary feature of hierarchy, and Latin culture is nothing, if it is not hierarchical. The maddening thing about it is not that everyone knows their place, but that the features of each “place” are exact, albeit more refined, replicas of the ones they supersede. People do not struggle to get ahead so much as spend their lives developing a form of ironic subservience towards those of higher station that both validates their excellence among their own, and exacerbates their perceived inferiority vis-à-vis their betters. And yet their “betters” are simply more exquisite caricatures of themselves. It’s maddening and you want to shout out in the public square that individuals have qualities apart from those tics and specialties that mark them out in the flimsy canons of social rank; for instance, the cultivation of the left pinky nail among middle aged men of usually arriviste tendencies in the neighborhoods closest to the river.

--17h10, I recall that I am 'having a bad day', but take comfort in the thought that, even if I hadn't been depressed, I would have had a bad day all the same, because of the maid. First I run my finger over my worktable to make sure that it hasn't been dusted. Then I dust it. Then I fetch my Mac from the sweater drawer (it looks rather happy there between an olive green pullover and a bright red zippered sweater jacket. I put it on my clean empty work table and, switch the wireless back on (which either the maid or the cat turned off, or perhaps even an intruder intent on preventing me from finishing my odes) and wait for everything to power up. First I check my mail, then I look at my agenda (to take stock of all the work I didn't do); then I read over my new poems once again. My spirits start to lift as I begin to see a way to correct, or at least redirect things. Then I put the Mac to sleep and go upstairs to get dressed for the gym. It takes me seven minutes and thirty or forty seconds to walk to the gym.

- 18h37 - On the rowing machine. My legs… I'll tell you later about my leg problem later. Or perhaps it would be better to tell you about it now, at least summarily. You see, lately I have been unable to sleep for more than six minutes a night, so that during the day I find myself straining to concentrate on my current project, rendering a 19th century disquisition on the Portuguese inheritance of Roman legal codes into English, not normal English—let’s say reinforced English. Usually, by late afternoon I’m so afraid that I will not be able to reintegrate myself into normal life by cocktail hour that I am seized with pain. As I have indicated previously (to friends and relatives, to one of my “colleagues” at the local café and, just yesterday, to my dental hygienist, a striking Norwegian beauty who looks like she was raised on milk toast and mackerel filets), I am never quite free of a pain just beneath the lowest rib on the right side, which is not so much a pain, as it is a misalignment of my breastplate with that “me”-sense, that futile cathexis, that illusion of uniqueness and indivisibility that blows through the mind like some inner mistral smelling of death, fear and of the south generally, of everything, as they say in my adopted country, beyond the Tagus. That said, as long as one closes the shutters by nine in the morning and is sufficiently chary with electric light, that is if one burns a bulb or two over the work table but leaves the rest of the house in utter darkness, and sets out cold water in basins at the foot of at least the major staircases, so that the updrafts and the down drafts are duly cooled, then these seasonal winds need not hinder one’s, well, work. Maybe this also has to do in some way with my legs, which, as I was about to say, before I got distracted by my ribs, are not feeling badly today, bending well, calf muscles fairly relaxed. As I row I watch the girls doing their "step" routine (the rowing machines face the "pista", as they call it). I make the usual comparative study between athletic prowess and probable intelligence, body-type and character, noting which girls are able to record the sequences quickly, and which ones never seem to get it, which ones exercise with their mouths mostly open, how many times a given girl will look at herself in the mirror compared with the girl next to her, how much water they drink, the cut of their t-shirts and which brand of training shoes they favor, and finally how each girl either seems to be fighting against her limitations instead of capitalizing on her strengths or capitalizing on her strengths and accepting her limitations, and from this data I can form my conclusions about how each one might behave in any number of situations outside the gym: what they might think about politics, the arts, men, sex, etc. I row for between ten and twenty minutes, depending on the time it takes for me to conclude my daily survey. Then I move on to the treadmill.

- 19h03 - The treadmills, all seven of them, one for each day of the week, are in a line facing a wall of mirrors, so that we can watch ourselves run and watch everything that is going on behind us (I have never fallen off a treadmill, but I have come close). This is the part I like the most, probably because it reminds me of how I am still partially fit, and how I am probably not dying of any of the various diseases that I might have. My twenty minutes of running pass quickly as I monitor my pulse rate, bringing it up gradually to around 155, ...6, ...7, holding it there for about five minutes, and then bringing it down again. Somehow, while running, I've discovered a way to completely revise my new poems, even if it means getting rid of the first six lines of the second Ode, the ones about my "tears" being flicked into the sun like "fasciculating pralltrillers".

-19h23 - I move on to the machines. This usually ends up annoying me, and lately I have been using less and less weight. It takes me about twenty minutes to go through my routine. I talk to different people as I go along: today Inês who is doing a doctorate in cell-biology—we talk about the neurological basis of depression; to Nelson, the gym owner, a former body-builder who is very sweet and frighteningly uncomplicated (at least in terms of complication as I know it) and wants to talk about "Barrak" and "Mitt", and then to the young man who I think might be courting me. He recently told me, using the Tu form, that he preferred me with short hair, and that if I cut my hair and did a depilation, I'd take at least ten years off. Finally it's time to leave the gym. I walk home the same way that I came, though it takes me more like eight minutes, or nine even, because I amble, and often stop to look at the wind farm on the distant hills, to see whether it's producing electricity or not. You can barely see the propellers turning....Then I remember to turn my cell phone back on. Message from K. (my English friend) wondering if I want to go for a drink later. Just the thought of it in my present state makes my stomach plunge. I can't image summoning even a single word of conversation. All I want to do is eat dinner and work on my odes and then read. I can't even bring myself to respond to her message.

-20h13 - I write back to K telling her I am too depressed to go out and besides am without a car. Then I get into the shower, with both cats watching. In the shower I try to relax, and almost do when the little light on my cell starts blinking orange, which means K has shot back something curt, English and to the point. Just thinking what she might have said ruins the rest of my shower. Her message reads: “the first problem might be a problem, but the second is a non-problem, your choice.” I dry myself and put on exactly the same thing I was wearing all day, minus the tie and go downstairs and pore myself a glass of white wine from the Monção sub-region. Then I make some toast and spread it with miso paste and add a sliced tomato with a little bit of olive oil, turn on the BBC, switch to CNN, then Sky, then Euronews, then Portuguese News, then back to CNN (it's 20h37...Business International with Charles Hodgeson, who recently married another CNN presenter, Anita Wadjpie). Charles is talking about the unexpected rise in the US consumer spending index, which has allowed the Fed to hold steady in terms of interest rates, but you can tell he's thinking behind that big toothy smile about Anita, who has lately been covering things like golf and style-of-life issues, instead of "real" news: bombs, natural disasters and political destinies. I write back to K and tell her to come by my house to fetch me at 22h30, which will give me almost two hours on my own. Then I boil my noodles and the broccoli in the same water (very effective, as they both take exactly five minutes and forty seconds). When that is done and drained, I heat the grill (it's really a kind of skillet, cast-iron, a stove-top affair). When it's ready I add a few drops of azeite (olive oil) and carefully lay the tuna steak onto the grill with the grain of the fish running perpendicularly to the ridges on the piping hot iron surface. I sprinkle in some tamari and lemon, and within twenty or thirty seconds flip the sizzling slice of Blue fin (an endangered species) onto its other side, another forty seconds or so an it's à point. I put everything on the plate, open the book I'm reading, pore myself a glass of...red wine this time, and start eating and reading—for the past few days I’ve been immersed in Volume IV of Diodorus Siculus’s Bibliotheca historica, which tells the story of a second Dionysus who was not only a sex addict, but suffered from migraines from over indulging in lunches of figs and wine and would often bind his head to stifle the headaches that resulted. As I read and eat, I wait and for Charles to finish and Finoula Sweeney (the World News anchor) to start. The final bell at the New York stock exchange rings, which happens every night at 20h59.99 and reminds me of P, my best friend in New York, a Wall Street broker, who would be, at this very moment, selling his last share. He used to meet "his broker" right outside the stock exchange at 17h05 New York time for his nightly eight ball, which lasted until it was gone at around four in the morning. These days he goes immediately to AA, where he's discovering the virtues of a "higher authority" and how, were it not for said authority, we would lose control of our fragile lives and end up disastrously surrounded by an array of shopping bags on the corner of Broadway and 97th Street. Finoula is wearing a black jacket with a discrete string of pearls. Black suits her, as she is what used to be called "solidly built." She has a wonderful Irish smile and a discrete wit and dominates world affairs with seeming ease. I listen to the news: they are still talking about Al Gore, who went into hiding after Climategate, and Al is now talking to us, once again about Global Warming, which, imbued with Nobelistic gravitas, has become a moral mission. I always knew he had an evangelical streak, but hadn't quite foreseen that an issue like the weather would transform a failed politician into the new Messiah. Al's ruddy cheeks and critically parted hair are suddenly transposed into rugby in France, with Michael Weeres on location. Michael had, at the beginning of the second war, been CNN's front man in Baghdad. A fierce looking character with a kind of John Wayne drawl, he pronounced "Green Zone" with about seven e's and an accent on the "n" and seemed to have  broken his nose at one point (it's starkly bent to the right (on television, left in real life)). I admired this guy for his cogent reporting from Iraq and the fact that he was putting himself at personal risk 24/7, just to bring me the latest political analysis, the complexities of which he had mastered along with everything else concerned with Hell on earth. He was excellent on rugby as well, having been a player at a pretty high level himself, hence the twisted nose and the slightly diabolical closeness of his two deep-set eyes. News over, I zapped the TV off and went back to my book and my noodles, all the time checking my watch to make sure I had enough time to clean up and look at my odes again before K arrived.

- 22h27: Everything cleaned up, trash out, doors locked, "fasciculating pralltrillers" reinstated, K’s car already coming down the street in the rain (when did that start?), her tires making that noise that duck tape makes when it’s pulled from the roll…



Originally Published: April 24th, 2012

Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...