wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: July, 2016

james Merrill (and David Jackson), THE CHANGING LIGHT AT SANDOVER.

Brief remarks in lieu of a proper review:

It took me more than three years to read Sandover — I’d take in 20 or 50 pages over a few nights, then set it aside for weeks or months. That’s a long time to live with a single reading of a single poem, but then Sandover is a lot to read, not in terms of pagecount (though it is awfully long) but rather in scope. It is a vast poem, an old-fashioned epic of sorts, whose subject after all is the nature of man’s relationship to the cosmos.

It’s also, paradoxically, a claustrophobic one. By the end, Merrill and his love David Jackson have all but withdrawn from the world into their strange visionary game, their folie à deux. The Coda, ‘The Higher Keys,’ has Merrill setting up the Ouija board at Sandover in order to stage a reading of the poem itself for an audience of the dead — Proust, Jane Austen, Dante, Ephraim (revealed to be possessed by the archangel Michael). When a friend named Vasíli intrudes, Jackson and Merrill are embarrassed rather than eager to share (‘…lest anguish take its lover’s leap / Into the vortex of credulity,’ an astonishing verse considering what’s come before), but Vasíli has bad news (more death) and needs his mind taken off the real world. JM and DJ welcome him to the table (‘silver urn, / Cucumber sandwiches, rum punch, fudge laced / With hashish cater to whatever taste’) and Merrill begins to read. The final stanza is lovely and sad:

DJ brighteyed (but look how wrinkled) lends
His copy of the score to our poor friend’s
Somber regard—captive like Gulliver
Or like the mortal in an elfin court
Pining for wife and cottage on this shore
Beyond whose depthless dazzle he can’t see
For their ears I begin: “Admittedly…”

Merrill returns to the beginning of the poem, how (or where) he now lives, performing his sacred/profane work for a room full of imaginary corpses, or ‘familiar spirits.’ Having broken the mirror which they set up for the benefit of their dear departed friends Wystan, George, and Maria (who turns out also to be Plato, among other people), the poet now reads for his literary forefathers and -mothers — for posterity, you might say. If it weren’t so self-consciously melancholy (‘but look how wrinkled’) it’d be almost…arrogant, which Merrill surely was, though he seems to’ve been many other things besides.

Ultimately the poem is less about cosmic wisdom and angelic bureaucracy (though some of Sandover‘s comedy comes from what a goofy workplace heaven seems to be) than about the experience of loss and longing — and of lifelong love, though longing and loss seem to be essential elements of that strange compound as well. JM and DJ spend their time in the company of the dead, channeling remembered and imagined voices to create a world that’s fuller, larger, and stranger than their own: by poem’s end, bat creatures and unicorns and gods and angels and a chorus of witty historical literary types share the stage with two troubled middle-aged men and their shrinking circle of earthly friends. But all this heavenly lunacy crowds out real life a bit. It’s telling that Jackson’s health concerns and Merrill’s family (and the trips to Athens which introduced both men to the complex Greek practice of taking adolescent male lovers) seem to fall away as Sandover reaches its revelatory/expository climax — DJ and JM are very much alone, in physical terms, during these cosmic experiences, no matter how many voices they conjure.

If I’m emphasizing the sadness of the story, it’s partly because of my recent reading of Alison Lurie’s Familiar Spirits, which coloured my experience of ‘The Higher Keys.’ (I wish I’d held off.) But more than that, the poem itself has a twilight shade in the end. The mirror-breaking scene is harrowing and deeply sad; the cast of characters whom I’d come to love depart, then, for other lives, and DJ and JM have begun to let go of whatever it is they’d become through these Ouija experiences. Let go of each other, too: their relationship didn’t long outlast Sandover. Loneliness threads through the poem — its ecstatic-melancholic peak, God Biology’s deep space transmission, is one of the loneliest things I’ve ever read. Knowing that Merrill’s circle of friends shrank over the years, partly as a result of the tightening hold this work had on DJ and JM, deepens the sorrow of the last two volumes, but the poem is (in part) about losing friends and family twice over, first from the material world, then from the paracosm which exists through the board.

But it’s not only sad. It’s also funny, wise, sharp eyed, and (this is the least interesting aspect of the poem for normal readers, but an important part of the sales pitch) absolutely expert as verse. Merrill seems to’ve had an effortless mastery of verse forms as, say, Pynchon does of prose. The poem’s revelations aren’t Cosmically Significant to me, but I smiled and laughed at Merrill’s loving evocations of friends and his sly comedy a lot more often than I wept at the sheer beauty of the heavenly paracosm. I think of my Sandover reading experience as this waterfall of tears, which for a time it was, but along with stretches of boredom at the cosmological infodumping, I mostly felt happy to be in the company of the ‘spirits,’ whose beautiful humanity testifies to the imaginative energy and empathy with which Merrill and Jackson imbued them at the board.

I recently admitted to a friend that, while Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow and Little, Big and Douglas Adams’s books are essential parts of (the idea of) me, while the Big Books I read in my teens and 20s are pillars of this identity I’ve made, my ‘favourite novel’ is probably Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett; I come home to it and feel totally at peace. Sandover isn’t my favourite poem; I’m not sure what is. (Cummings? Neruda? Robert Penn Warren? Shel Silverstein?) But I’ve now lived inside it longer, at a stretch, than I’ve lived in any other book. It consumed me. It changed the way I think about literature. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read, and one of the strangest. It’s all questions. It’s a love poem (about a long marriage) and a metaphysical comedy and a record of two men’s experiences imagining their way into the world of the dead. I’m so grateful to have had this experience.

There’s more to say about Sandover but not here.


Briefly praising the ENCYCLOPEDIA MAGICA.

The Encyclopedia Magica, in four volumes, is the quintessential D&D book. The idea of a complete and definitive listing of D&D magic items is, of course, stupid. The items are totally inconsistent in tone, backstory, and magic-system implications — not to mention stats. The only place you could possibly use the whole collection is in a deeply relaxed/ridiculous D&D game; ‘it’s just D&D’ is the only way to explain both the existence of the book and the magical nonsense inside it. It’s tacky. It’s beautiful, in its way.

And it’s the perfect guide to the whole glorious patchwork ‘expanded universe’ mythos of D&D. Two decades of unfashionable creativity, most of it written dirt cheap or on spec by daydreaming obsessives and dweebs building a shared private universe. It’s like every time someone asked ‘Hey what if…?’ over a set of funny dice, they then wrote down the answer, and bound it up like a multivolume grimoire because why not. It gives you a taste of every D&D setting ever squeezed between two covers. You can open to any page (that’s a hell of a lot of pages, too) and find a night’s worth of adventure, or a year’s.

It’s the record of an awkwardly passionate 20-year conversation between gamers.

More than the 1e DMG, more than any ruleset, it’s the meaning of D&D: the theme song, The Whole Point. At least for me. Every D&D player should be given a copy at birth.

Watching EMPIRE STRIKES BACK with my son.

My wife had only seen Empire once, my son had only seen A New Hope (once). I’ve seen them a hundred times. OK, press play.

They loved it. You forget what a visually striking film it is — the colours are dazzling, ‘painterly,’ Hoth bleached white crosshatched with livid red and green lasers, Bespin startling sunset orange, Dagobah an organic riot despite being shot in a studio. The fight in the freezing chamber is shot half in silhouette. And that final tableau…

Great film. A peculiar one as well. The middlest of middle chapters, ‘unsatisfying’ in theory but exhilarating and unsettling in practice. Two hours of unremitting tension and trouble (40ish minutes of nonstop movement to begin), culminating in about three minutes of ‘relief’ as the heroes, hanging around in a hospital, vow to fix things. Best dialogue in the series, best direction, richest material design. Contrarians are, in this case, merely wrong — Empire is straightforwardly the best thing about Star Wars.

My son’s reaction was interesting. He made me turn off the sound at two points: hand-removal and ‘Noooo!’ Turns out he has a really hard time watching film of grownups in terrible pain and confusion. (During Finding Dory he went to pieces when Dory spied her mom crying, right before she got lost.)

When we say kids have a hard time separating reality and fantasy in film, that’s partly (mostly?) because we do a poor job explaining what ‘acting’ and ‘filming’ and ‘special effects’ are — there’s so much we adults take for granted in film, never mind the up-down curve of a narrative… How would a kid figure out what a cartoon is, without being carefully told? It moves, it speaks. It feels pain.

Now we’re ready for Return of the Jedi, which he’ll love and I’ll have mixed feelings about. If my son wants to watch the prequels, we will, but I won’t push them. They’re a bit much.


Prequel to the prequels, its title character briefly mentioned in Revenge of the Sith as the villain who taught the Emperor and created (or caused to be created) Anakin Skywalker — it’s hard to imagine Dark Plagueis making sense or holding interest to anyone who isn’t already something of a Star Wars obsessive. For them, for me, it’s a (minor) revelation, assembling the scattered ‘prequel trilogy’ into a coherent narrative and imparting a real sense of mythic heft to Palpatine’s behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

This is a better book than Labyrinth of Evil, better in many ways than the Thrawn books (especially the later volumes), and has me thinking Luceno is a genuinely strong writer overall. On the merits, I find myself happily recommending it to anyone who cares at all about the films. But that ‘on the merits’ is doing a lot of work there — after all, the merits of a movie tie-in novel providing century-deep background to the prequels to one of American mythology’s recent holy texts are…difficult to determine ‘objectively.’

I enjoyed it. It crosshatches the Star Wars ‘Expanded Universe’ superbly. It will, I secretly geekily hope, become relevant to the Rey/Ren trilogy.

Enough about the book.

The prequel trilogy, the Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker and the Rise of Emperor Palpatine, takes more abuse than it deserves. Yes, the dialogue’s terrible; yes the acting and direction are flat and wooden despite the massive reservoir of available talent; yes, the pacing is all wrong; yes, the edits cut a coherent story to pieces and turned Episode III into a hyperfocused all-Anakin-hour instead of the proper finish which the political plots demanded. And yes, yes, yes, the love story is an embarrassment which even Natalie Portman couldn’t save.

But as 2012’s Darth Plagueis makes clearer than ever, as I’ve contended for years, the story of the prequels is substantially richer than Lucas has ever been given credit for. The prequels’ political story is opaque the way The Wire‘s fifth season is opaque — asking the viewer/reader to pay attention to what’s not happening is a weird way to go about the business of drama. The point of the prequels is: How does Anakin become Vader, and how did the Republic fall? But scene to scene, for viewers who care to get invested in Silly Plot Stuff, the mystery of the prequel series is: Cui bono? Why is Palpatine supporting a Trade Federation blockade that undermines the Republic Senate? Why did a Jedi Master (Sifo-Dyas, briefly mentioned in the film) commission the breeding of a clone army more than a decade before the events of the trilogy? Why is Dooku pushing the Separatist agenda while working with the guy who’s trying to take over the Republic? Why does Palpatine tell Anakin a snippet of Plagueis’s story? Nerd-viewers tend to throw up their hands and say that the prequels simply make no sense. But Luceno’s novel paints a different picture: Palpatine’s plot isn’t incoherent, just complicated and something like a century old, stretching much further into the storyworld and deeper into that world’s mythology than the films are able adequately to depict.

You might say Lucas failed twice over, then: failed to make films that hold together as films, and — sadder, I think — failed too to bring the full scope of his conspiracy plot to the screen. But that conspiracy plot is actually pretty groovy.

Clarificatory nerdery: Dooku was tempted to leave the Jedi by Plagueis, acting ‘on his own’ but with a little help from bad friends, and his character suddenly makes all kinds of sense set against the political situation of the final years of the Republic. Sifo-Dyas’s commission of the clone army was suggested by Plagueis, but it was necessary because the Republic had demilitarized years before, and the Senate was wary of authorizing local planetary/systemwide militias. Dooku’s involvement with Palpatine was a complex mix of self-interest (Dark Side curiosity) and a kind of burn-it-to-save-it noble interest in remaking the Republic. The Trade Federation was an actual galactic mover&shaker, illegally armed, whose attempted entry into the Senate as a non-planetary voting member is actually a compelling political story/allegory on its own.

Luceno, writing Darth Plagueis in the middle of the Obama presidency, had the luxury of going beyond the histrionics of Bush-era political discourse — and while it’s weird to say this about a Star Wars novel, I can tell you that the political parallels between the prequels and the current state of USA politics are compelling and long planned. (This shouldn’t be news: Star Wars itself was, remember, partly a cry against Nixon and Vietnam.)

My point here is that the movie prequels just scratch the surface of a political narrative that’s of interest in itself, and which transforms Star Wars from a simple hero/villain pulp story into a century-spanning tale of backroom intrigue in which laser sword fighting (though Cool) is actually something of a distraction. The Sith are in the middle of it all, not just as cackling sorcerers but as political schemers whose Grand Design succeeds precisely because it’s carried out on both the metaphysical and ‘mundane’ levels — in other words, the ridiculous notion of an Evil Vizier manipulating the galactic legislature for a century actually makes a lot of sense if the vizier is actually a political frontman and a banking clan bigwig funding a sort of Trilateral Commission over the better part of a century. In other other words, the prequels turn out to be the story of, if you’re willing to play fast’n’loose with history a bit, Henry Kissinger and Nixon taking over the galaxy.

Which is exactly what Lucas wrote on the first handwritten page of his first draft of Star Wars: ‘a band of Nixonian thugs’ engineering race riots and capitalizing on political chaos to sweep into power.

Again: this isn’t Great Literature. It isn’t even great filmmaking, except in terms of visual imagination. But when people talk about George Lucas’s vision, this is part of what they mean: his ability to conjure a universe that feels real, lived in, despite containing centuries-long wizard conspiracies and laser space monks and such. I’ve written before about Lucas as the Chris Carter of film, or vice versa — gifted with a remarkable creative vision, but lacking some of the technical skills (in both Lucas’s and Carter’s case, dialogue writing especially) to bring it fully into being.

Luceno’s novel, as a culminating text in the Star Wars Expanded Universe (which is ‘no longer canon,’ though it’s hard to tell why anyone should care), helps realize that vision. It makes Star Wars better. That’s not such a big deal, despite my word count here, but it’s not nothing.

And y’know, maybe it’s not such a small thing either.

It’s only sex.

Almost everyone has it — frequently and for fun; it’s one of the defining features of our species — so it should be all over the art we make. It should be as strange and varied as it is in life, i.e. endlessly so. It may as well be sexy. And since it’s art, it should be beautiful.

In other words, sex should play as wide a range of roles in art as violence.

It strikes me as pitifully sad to have to put it in those terms.

Two words about three black guys in CIVIL WAR.

Started this weeks ago, before the IRON MAN news. Incoherent, sorry.

When the Avengers and company first sit down to debate whether to accept government oversight in Captain America: Civil War, the first (somewhat pedantic) back-and-forth goes to Don Cheadle (Rhodes/War Machine) and Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon). They play decorated combat veterans who spend most of their onscreen time as second fiddles to the film’s main characters, Iron Man and Captain America — they’re sidekicks, honestly, and are called on to act as the protagonists’ outboard conscience. But their status as (relatively) ordinary public servants thrust into a superpowered godswar gives them a certain morally elevated status in the storyworld, and the first thing we see when the Plot Engine starts turning is two African-American actors politely but energetically disagreeing — leading the superhero discussion — about a legal/moral matter.

Meanwhile, the ‘Who is this masked man and to whom does he pledge allegiance?!’ character is King T’challa of Wakanda a/k/a Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman. He spends the movie as an avenging angel chasing the Good Guys after his dad’s killed, but in the end he sees them ‘consumed by vengeance’ &c &c and finally joins up with Captain America. He is, by a large margin, the ‘coolest’ new character in the film, and the mid-credits scene sets up his solo film (due in, what, 2018?).

I mention this only to make the point that while Civil War — an ‘excellent superhero film,’ though we must avoid making ‘superhero film’ a standard of quality as well as a genre — does require a bit of Africanesque Cultural Mumbo-Jumbo to power its plot, it also casually places three black guys in major roles without feeling the need to be either delicate or ostentatious about it. And this is easier in a superhero film than elsewhere, precisely because of the capes and cowls and rocket packs.

Remember the scene in (the actually diverse-in-conception) Global Frequency, when the parkour runner Sita Patel is climbing up the side of the ferris wheel, and a little south-Asian girl calls out, wide-eyed: ‘Daddy, look. Spider-Man’s a girl! And she’s just like us‘…?

That’s the secret of superhero comix: the costume, the role, is an idea. It’s a dream. The person inside is someone and something else entirely; it could be you, no matter who you are. When these things work, I think that’s why. The story is set up to encourage identification across identitarian lines.

The prominence of three black actors (plus one actress, in a much less interesting stock role) in Civil War is a small step for casting agents everywhere, whatever, but it’s also a reminder of the way these stupid capes and cowls can level the playing field for the people wearing them. The way sports can, or theatre. (You might say superhero stories are a mix of the two — the team’s ‘costumes’ are ‘uniforms’ and so on.) The imagination works in four colours, not two.

But then again: these changes have already taken place, in Perfectly Safe Hollywood Tentpole Films. And yet the world is as it is. Indeed, you might say these changes are one reason why


Representation is not justice. And though we kid ourselves otherwise, it is not economic opportunity. (The first 15-year-old black female MIT-undergrad miracle child Iron-Man will, I think, be written by Brian Michael Bendis.) I wonder, would you have cared about that character’s story if she were taking over a generic superhero role in an indie comic, and not a Marvel Property?

Come to think of it, would you have cared about Tony Stark’s?

Anyhow, if you settle for comics about black girls written by Brian Bendis then that’s what you’ll get. But you don’t need to.

Handy guide to telling whether someone’s a hipster asshole.

If they talk for more than five seconds at a time about a corporation’s font choices or complain about the method by which their coffee was poured into their cup, they’re probably a hipster asshole.


A zombie novel set aboard a Star Destroyer. Its cover image: an Imperial stormtrooper helmet dangling from a meathook, a severed head still inside.

Sold. Give that commissioning editor a big raise.

Unfortunately, the book’s only passable — the characters are competently sketched in, the setting is irrelevant, Han and Chewie are effectively but not interestingly rendered, and the Climactic Revelations (the Empire created the zombies!) don’t have any heft or resonance. Labyrinth of Evil is a more effective page-turner, though admittedly that’s a low bar, and the Thrawn Trilogy has far more to say about the Star Wars universe. That’s a low bar too, come to think of it.

I’m 0-for-2 with zombie novels. World War Z fell apart less than 2/3 of the way through, when its Interesting Metaphor stopped being interesting and Max Brooks’s tin ear became an unavoidable and unforgivable liability. And this one…well, it kept me entertained for a couple hours. What more can you ask? Hordes of zombies are, I think, a ready-made cinematic subject but a harder sell on the page. I wonder if Patient Zero is any better…? Bah. Time for some grownup books.

Kudos to all involved for even attempting a Star Wars survival-horror novel, though. It was, and remains, a great idea.


Two nights in a row now of bad trouble sleeping — capped w/an early morning courtesy of our son. Up & at them. The kind of sleep deficit you think might kill you. Homeostatic sleep pressure is real, I think; should I nap? Must I sleep in order to want to sleep? To want properly — I really really wanna sleep of course, just can’t translate that desire into action, if ‘action’ is the right word.

My wife bought him a cactus, which for various reasons has taken up residence on the kitchen counter. She bought it at IKEA. As one does. The whole store is a giant greenhouse, if you’ve never been. All the carefully packed KILBY bookshelves are badly water damaged. MAZE OF THE BLACK SVØLBØRG.

At lunch yesterday over veggie sushi (warm sweet potato sushi yes yes) I read Maze of the Blue Medusa awhile.

Now it’s too early. I’m on the couch. Head lolling back, eyes closed, typing fingertipwise only while hoping not to sleep exactly but to drift off. Mind halfconnected. In Strunk & White they say to avoid using hyphens when compound words are available, which finewithme. Humorous anecdote about two newspapers merging & foolishly taking a hyphen into their bed to become the News-Free Press. Oh strunkwhite, you scamp.

Apparently ‘Phish Twitter’ is up in arms about something. But I don’t seem to be connected to the right people anymore, because I didn’t see any of it — only people giving thanks for one another and for the good times they had at the show. Plus maybe a little (gentle) sarcasm about recent Trey butchery of the writtens. Do I need angrier acquaintances?

I’m not alone in my preoccupations, which paradoxically makes me less inclined to write about them. I needed that feeling of isolation to have something to push against.

Or but then maybe not.

I’m now aware of dozens of people (or anyway usernames) who share my reading interests and who indeed read more widely in the ‘eliptonic’ and the Weird than I do. Suggesting there are of course thousands of them. I mean ‘us.’ What I could do is join the world and talk to them. That seems like so much work, though.

Antonin Scalia on Clarence Thomas.

Scalia was asked about how his judicial philosophy differed from Thomas’s. ‘I’m an originalist,’ Scalia said, ‘but I’m not a nut.’ (via)