At Dulles airport last year I chatted with a young woman who asked where my accent was from; I told her New York via Copenhagen and asked about
hers. “We don't hay-ave accents whare Ah was born ’n bred,”
she solemnly informed me.
—From “Life in Another Language,” by Thomas E. Kennedy,
in The Literary Review, Fall 2003
Short Works: Excerpts
I cannot explain the music’s composition, have only the most rudimentary knowledge of its history, know nothing of its experiments with time, say, or the significance of its improvisational riffing, or of what Tram meant for Prez or Prez for Bird or Bird for Trane, and so on. I wouldn’t know a modal implication if it bebopped me on the nose, and polytonality might as well be the name of an island in the South Pacific. Half the time I have to listen twice for the difference between an alto horn and a soprano if I even think to wonder what instrument is creating the effect entrancing and unlacing me: The pounding, lilting, screaming lyrical streams of sound-feeling that lead you out onto thin ice of emotions that might any second break and let your ego drop.
I am pure audience. A passive appreciator who places himself in the charge of the music.
How did it start for me, a child of rock and roll? I came in on the tail end of Rhythm & Blues, a few years after it picked up that new name from Jerry Wexler of Billboard to replace the race music label and just as Alan Freed grabbed the black slang for sex, “rock and roll,” for his Moondog show, in the days when if it didn’t have a sax it didn’t have a heart. All the other sounds and the words moved your feet and your arms and bobbed your head and played with your mind, but the sax tore open your trunk from heart to groin, inclusive. There had to be a sax. A yakkety saxety sax. Al Sears and Sam “The Man” Taylor and Wilbert “Red” Prysock on his back, kicking like a Kafka beetle as he squawked that axe. (As Stan Freeberg said, “Easy, man! You’re attracting geese!”) Of course there were also the great ones who were saxless — Chuck, Bo, Elvis, Jerry Lee — but the sax must have been the key for me, what sent me forward into jazzland.
—Two excerpts from “A Rumor of Jazz”
Appears in RondeDance, Wordcraft of Oregon, Fall 2006
Short Works: Excerpts:
“David Applefield, On a Flying Fish”
A young man liquidates his holdings, retreats from New York, and withdraws to a tropical island to write. Call him Ernest. He has “the book gene floating in a dark vein, wishing sightlessly for some way out … the blind aim of so many, less universal than the urge for orgasm but its spasms were longer and measurably more enduring.”
But wait! Young Ernest’s book is already in manuscript by the time we come into contact with it, in the hands of an older, unnamed, first-person narrator who has abandoned a promising job in “early mid-career flight” and who has been hauling Ernest’s “heap of deserted typewritten pages” around with him “like shoes you can’t throw out … like a framed picture of Jesus or Mom that occupies every move.” The narrator’s name is “I” while Ernest is “he.” “I” is the present, “he” is the past. The narrator is now in Frankfurt, Germany, living with “the girl” and his dog, making one more desperate effort to turn the failed pages of his past into some kind of success — or at least art.
The result is a novel which consists of two simultaneous novels, the interweaving of a life-in-progress and a novel-in-progress, the present and the past, life and art — all of it being, of course, one complex piece of art, one book, which is a little bit like a tapestry whose sub-weaves comment with such arresting irony on its central pattern as to modify and transform it, enlarge and diminish it.
The main question at the heart of this remarkable novel seems to be, in its own words, “Is the instinct to frame life as it is being lived ‘art’ or a perverse subversion of the original? Or both.” The answer it offers is itself, the manner in which it captures and dramatizes the process in dynamic clarity. And the result is one of the more exciting, mysterious, heart-breaking, howlingly funny, painfully honest, suspenseful, powerful, and original novels this reader has had the pleasure of immersing himself in for quite some time. It combines the tickle of humor in high and low places, sometimes both at once, simultaneous with an arresting story and solid aesthetic nutrition.
… Applefield has a rare gift — a bit of Miller, a bit of Mailer, a bit of Graham Greene, all driven by the pure, careful, courageous, and expansive voice of Applefield himself, taking time out now and again from his engaging tale to spin riffs on the moon, on the jungle, on sex … The sex scene that occupies pages 89 to 92, for example, has to be among the most unusual, original, strangest sex scenes in the history of the genre, “written in dick on a Fed Ex electronic pad,” while another scene of discreet masturbation by the narrator — excited over one of his own novel’s blue moments and glimpsing himself like a gorilla in the mirror while the girl, making dinner in the kitchen, calls in to ask where the capers are and he stills his breath to call back, “Second shelf on the refrigerator door” — rivals anything in Portnoy. “There are some things you must never ever share with anyone,” the narrator writes later, after having shared such a thing.
—Two excerpts from “David Applefield, on a Flying Fish”
Appears in The Literary Review, Spring 2005
Full text at LookSmart Find Articles
Short Works: Excerpts:
“I Am Joe’s Prostate”
The woman in white is waiting outside the door for you. You notice that she has beautiful eyes and very sensuous lips. You caution yourself not to occupy your imagination with such details in your current situation, and the woman in white with sensuous lips turns you over to another of her sort, though larger of build and darker of complexion. She leads you into another room and instructs you to undress. You have never been naked in front of a strange woman unless the object was hanky-panky.
Everything? you wonder, but trust she will say stop at the appropriate moment.
“You can leave your shirt on,” she says with a half smile, and you think of Joe Cocker and wonder if she is teasing you.
She pats an examination table, indicating that you are to lie there. Face up, you presume. You do as you are told, noting distantly how passive you have become.
She takes your penis in her fingers — Your penis! — and sprays something into it. You say, “Ow!”
“Yes,” she whispers and begins to stuff some manner of wire down your penis. You are rather amazed that such things go on so close to the civilized streets on which you until today so innocently dwelt. It reminds you of a scene in an Alfred Hitchcock film. Frenzy. It occurs to you that some men would no doubt pay a great deal of money to have a woman perform this kind of act, and curse your imagination, turn your eyes away from her sensuous lips. You concentrate on not noticing the sensation of her fingers touching you, but anyway there seems no real danger that the jaunty head of Eros will poke up here.
She says, “Tell me when you feel the urge to micturate.”
You felt the urge to micturate the instant she started stuffing that wire into you. Now you notice that the remainder of the wire is attached to another machine, the nature or function of which you are not destined to come to know.
You say, “Now, please.”
She encourages you to stand before another metal vase and says, “You may micturate now.”
She taps her foot.
She says, “Would you like me to wait outside?”
She withdraws. Still nothing happens.
When she returns she looks into the empty vase and sighs. “It would seem you didn’t really have to micturate,” she says.
“I thought I did.”
She hums. “Well, we’ll just have to try again.”
It seems to you this would be an appropriate moment for her to stroke your hair and say, “You poor guy, you, it will all be over shortly, I promise,” but instead she says, “Back on the table.”
At length, two other women come in, and you are instructed to open your pants. Why does this not surprise you? And why are you not surprised not to know their names or professions? You might ask, but there have been so many nameless people by now that it hardly seems to matter.
The taller, dark-haired of the two women seems to be in charge. She tugs your pants down to your pubis, applies some oil and lays a flat round metal thing the size of a small saucer on your pubic hair. She slides it around a bit. You notice she is looking not at you but at a screen alongside.
“Excellent,” she says. “Your bladder is completely empty. Nothing is left. Excellent.”
You ask, “May I go home now then?”
“Won’t be long,” she says. “Please wait here.”
Presently another woman in white enters. “You’ll have to take off all your clothes except your shirt,” she says.
You wonder about your socks, but think, Fuck it! Back on the table, naked but for your unbuttoned shirt, and suddenly half a dozen people, men and women, tramp in and surround the table you are on. No one is identified, but a familiar face appears amidst them — that of the very large First Resident with very large fingers. All things considered, you are glad that you are lying on your back. To put you at ease, he peers down into your face with a terrifying smile and says, “I bet this won’t be nearly as bad as you fear.”
Then he is inserting a wand the thickness of three or four pencils into Private Johnson while he and the other unidentified people peer alternately at you, at a screen, at you, at a screen.
The wand seems to have been plunged into the very pit of your soul where it is being stirred around. You groan, but it elicits no attention or relief. You cross your arms and groan louder. Someone, a woman, tries to uncross your arms and pin your hands down which seems to you a very odd thing for her to want to do. You decide to make a stand. Your arms are crossed and will stay that way, and you set free all the groans within you, listening with some obtuse comfort to their melody, flooding from your chest in minor key.
The very large First Resident peers unsympathetically into your face and snaps, “Would you please stop that!”
But you and your groans are working together now, at last you have a partner and you will not let him go until that wand is removed from your inner sanctum.
When the thing is out, you lay groggily on the table. A woman in white hands you a pail. “You may have to micturate,” she says.
How can I micturate when my bladder has just been pronounced excellently empty? you wonder, but micturate you do. It comes in pints and quarts. You note the level of micturition rising toward the lip of the pail and croak, “Nurse! Another bucket, hurry, please!”
—Excerpts from “I Am Joe’s Prostate”
Appears in New Letters, Volume 73, Issue Number 4
NOTE: This essay is winner of the 2008 National Magazine Award in the Essay category. More details...
Short Works: Excerpts:
“Introduction: Author! Author!”
Experience flows through us like cheap wine, leaving us high and dry and, for want of alternatives, looking for more. One of the highest functions of fiction is to sharpen the focus — even if that sharpening is upon an uncertainty, an ambiguity: One thing is clear; nothing is clear. And that process is not only the process by which a writer composes a fiction, but also very similar to the process by which a human being composes an identity, “a face to meet the faces that he meets.” Or a tale to explain the meaning of where he or she has been.
Perhaps one of the most important reasons that fiction interests us is because it helps explain our past for the enrichment of our present and future. A person who is unable to retain experience lives an impoverished life. Without a past, we are nothing, for what is the present but a continual deepening of the past as the future melts back into the present?
—Two excerpts from “Introduction: Author! Author!”
Appears in The Literary Review, Fall 1998
Full text at LookSmart Find Articles
Short Works: Excerpts:
“Life in Another Language”
I wish that some of the wonderful phrases in Danish would be adopted by English. Consider a term like kæreste sorg — literally “sweetheart sorrow” — an expression to denote the sadness one feels when a love affair is over or in danger. In fact, “sweetheart sorrow” can be an acceptable excuse for a late school assignment or for missing a day of work. It gives an idea of the humanity here.
Perhaps the most essential quality of Danish is the way in which Danish speakers employ irony, understatements so dry that even an outsider who speaks the language might miss them. Irony — and perhaps especially self-irony — is an important component of the Danish language and nature, just as it is important here not to be too enthusiastic. Danes value calm and understatement.
And irony is not to be confused with sarcasm — a mean-spirited cousin of the more playful irony in which one speaks in reversals: “Lovely weather,” a Dane might say when it is cold and rainy. Or, “That wasn’t the worst dinner I’ve ever eaten” to mean it was delicious. Or if something is very unclear, a Dane might say, “Klart nok,” meaning literally, “Clear enough,” although the message is, “Murky.”
Recently I heard a Danish fellow describe a pleasant experience by saying, “It was not pure suffering,” and once, in a Danish serving house late at night, I heard a Danish fellow try to express his admiration for a woman by saying, “You are not the ugliest woman I has ever seed.” In some parts of the country, in northern Jutland for example, I am told that if a person goes to the doctor and says, “I think I have a kind of uncomfortable feeling in my stomach,” he must be rushed to the hospital.
Self-irony is important here just as self-seriousness is bad form. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. If a Dane falls in the street, he or she will likely laugh or smile. But more likely than not, one or several hands will reach to help.
The special character of the language and the near untranslatability of some Danish can be demonstrated by rendering a very literal version of some of the most Danish of things, the songs of the poet Benny Andersen, for example: The refrain of one of the best-loved of them would translate literally: “Life is not the worst thing one has / And soon the coffee is ready.” And, “Nina comes naked from the bath / While I eat a cheese sandwich.” Of course, in Danish, these lines rhyme, but something simple and sound about the sentiment expresses an essence of the Danish joy of life.
There are other things that sound utterly mad in translation. For example, a not uncommon thing to hear in response to the giving of a gift is, “Hold da kæft, er du rigtig klog?” Which literally means something like, “Shut your mouth, are you really stupid?” I guess the spirit of it is, “You must be stupid to give me such a wonderful gift!”
It is also enchanting how direct Danish can be: In English, we have the delicate word “brassiere” whose Danish equivalent, “brystholder,” is literally, “breast holder.” The Danes do not believe in calling a spade a shovel. Some words are rather poetic, though: Midwife in Danish is literally “earth mother” (jordemor). Nor does Danish tend to prettify itself with Latinate words: A dentist is a “tooth doctor,” gingivitis is “tooth meat infection” and a vagina in common Danish parlance is a tissekone — literally, a “piss-wife.” The “lavatory” or “sanitary arrangements” are the “toilet” — nor do you “go to the bathroom” in Danish; you go “on the toilet.” But Danish can also be circumspect. To be in “vældig godt” humor (very good humor) or to have “a couple under the vest” is to be pretty drunk.
—Two excerpts from “Life in Another Language”
Appears in The Literary Review, Fall 2003
Full text at LookSmart Find Articles
Essay also appears in Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America, a quintet of essays by Kennedy scheduled for publication in October 2008.
Short Works: Excerpts:
“The Baboon Dream”
I slept last night. I dreamed. I do not know if I dreamed. One by one, the others rose on their knees from their mattresses and crept slowly across the floor towards me. It was horrible to see them coming so slowly from all directions, descending upon me. Still on hands and knees, they surrounded my mattress and peered at me with shining strange gleeful merciless eyes while I dreamed I was an antelope on a huge plain, bounding away from a hunting cheetah. My flight was doomed. It was only a matter of time before the cheetah overtook and felled me, before one of its claws hooked into my flank, and I stumbled, and teeth were at my throat. But then, all at once, I was the cheetah; I was the teeth sinking in through the muscles of the throat so that blood smeared my maw red while baboons watched in a wide circle around us, hopping and jabbering.
Then the dream faded, and I slept blankly surrounded by the others peering at me. Or I dreamed them as well, for if I was asleep how did I see them, and if I saw them, how could I be asleep? Unless things are other than I have come to think.
Off in the corridors, my father watched silently, gazing, and one of the baboons, his eyes so strangely human beneath the ridge of his brow, spoke: -It is but a vapor, he said, that appeareth for a little time and then is gone.
Then my sleep deepened, and I found the relief of not existing for a time.
Until I woke again, to this place.
The Cruel came to see me today, flanked by two of his attendants.
He stared at me for some time, his face so devoid of expression it was frightening, as though he gazed with utter dispassion at some meaningless object. I trembled.
Finally he said, -You are nothing.
I nodded. What he said was true, became true as the words were formed by his mouth.
-You do not even know what nothing is, he said, or what it means to be nothing.
This was true. He reached for me and as he reached my fear was so great I lost control of my bladder. His fingers closed around my nose and drew back sharply from my face. I screamed. The pain was rending. He had torn off my nose and held it, a bloody raw lump, in his fingers.
-You see? he said. -If you knew what it meant to be nothing, you would have felt no pain. You still have a lot to learn, my friend. You still have a lot to learn.
Then he reached again and returned the nose to its place, and my face was whole again.
-You see? he said.
Who sanctions this?
The ancient crooked woman returned today while I slept. Tonight it must have been. She lowered herself to the edge of my mattress, and my heart oozed fear that she might crawl in beneath the filthy cover with me and breathe her hag’s breath into my face. She reeked of stale tobacco and the rotten bits of food decaying between her yellowed teeth, but then she took my hand in hers, and I was startled at its softness, the tenderness of its touch, the way the fingers curled around mine with gentle intimacy. She became that touch then, and I no longer could see her, but perhaps that was merely because my eyes were closed, because I slept. Perhaps she was not there at all, only an echo of a touch I once had known or only another image formed by thought, engineered for me perhaps by Susquanna to entertain those who fill his greedy pockets.
—Three excerpts from “The Baboon Dream”
Full text appears in Perigee, Issue 18 (Nov/Dec 2007 / Jan 2008)