Tuesday, September 1, 2009

watching your universe


While you watch your universe
as it cracks above your head
remember that it could get worse
before it’s been pronounced as dead.
I recommend you make this choice:
just shut you eyes and never look
to see what’s happening, your voice
as silent as an unread book.
This seems to work for me. There’s not
much point in watching out for cracks;
once they have boiled, all pots are hot,
and you can’t ward off stealth attacks
by keeping guard to see what’s next
in line for you––it’s something bad,
for sure. Don’t pray to God, but text
your friends or Him when you feel mad.

Inspired by Dwight Garner’s review of Paul Bowles’s “The Sheltering Sky” (“Trusting a Sheltering Sky Even as It Scorched,” NYT, August 31, 2009):

Paul Bowles’s first and best novel, “The Sheltering Sky,” published 60 years ago this fall, was a book few saw coming. Its author was better known as a composer. Doubleday, the publisher that had paid Bowles an advance, rejected the manuscript, telling him it was not a novel. “If it isn’t a novel,” Bowles said angrily, “I don’t know what it is.”When the book appeared, in fall 1949 (it was finally issued by New Directions), no one else knew quite what to make of it either. But they knew this bleak, spare story about a young couple from New York who drift from city to city in the North African desert marked the arrival of a different kind of American voice. Tennessee Williams reviewed “The Sheltering Sky” in The New York Times Book Review and wrote that “it brings the reader into sudden, startling communion with a talent of true maturity and sophistication of a sort that I had begun to fear was to be found nowadays only among the insurgent novelists of France, such as Jean Genet and Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.” Norman Mailer caught the sinister undertones in Bowles’s work, writing in “Advertisements for Myself”: “Paul Bowles opened the world of Hip. He let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square ... the call of the orgy, the end of civilization.” This fall will mark a double anniversary of sorts for Bowles, not just the 60th anniversary of “The Sheltering Sky” but the 10th anniversary of his death, at 88, in 1999. You can’t help wishing he’d lived longer, if only so we’d have known what Bowles — a longtime resident of the northern Moroccan city of Tangier and the writer who did perhaps more than any other in the last century to introduce the Arab world to Americans — would have made of the events of Sept. 11...
Bowles was charming and attractive, and he quickly seemed to meet, either at home or abroad, everyone who mattered, including Gertrude Stein and Christopher Isherwood. The composer Aaron Copland took him under his wing and helped his music career. Bowles was bisexual, and the two also had a sexual involvement. In 1938 Bowles married the mercurial Jane Auer, who as Jane Bowles published her only novel, “Two Serious Ladies,” five years later. He was envious of her freedom: she needed only a typewriter to work during their travels; he required a piano. He too soon began to write, publishing the short stories that led to his contract for “The Sheltering Sky.”The glamorous couple lived like exotic cats, together but separate. Jane Bowles was also bisexual, and took female lovers. “We knew that we loved each other no matter who else might be in our lives,” Paul Bowles said. Among her nicknames for him were Bupple and Gloompot…
When he was stuck on an important scene in “The Sheltering Sky,” Bowles turned to hashish, which helped him keep writing. Bowles would come to be known for his cannabis use, which was one of the things that led Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs to Tangier in the 1950s and ’60s.Bowles had his issues with the Beats. “Every day one sees more beards and filthy blue jeans, and the girls look like escapees from lunatic asylums,” he wrote in 1961. Bowles’s career had many tentacles. He not only composed music but also, as a translator, gave the title “No Exit” to Sartre’s play “Huis Clos.” In the late 1950s he spent months recording Morocco’s indigenous music. Jane Bowles died in 1973, at 56. Bowles himself lived another quarter-century, mostly in Morocco, and he ultimately published dozens of books, including novels, poems, books of stories and translations. He remained distant, just out of sight. He mostly turned down his editors’ requests to do book tours or appear on television. Bowles’s best work remained dark. “If I stress the various facets of unhappiness, it is because I believe unhappiness should be studied very carefully,” he told an interviewer. “This certainly is no time for anyone to pretend to be happy, or to put his unhappiness away in the dark. You must watch your universe as it cracks above your head.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 8/31/09

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