Burmese Days

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Burmese Days is an extraordinary work. I don’t know why I had never read it before.  Did I think perhaps that it would be merely an autobiographical account of Orwell’s days in colonial Burma?  I don’t know. In fact it is an utterly engaging novel that balances satire and poignancy to create a fierce picture of human folly.
Flory, the main character, is a cut above the rest of the “pukka sahibs” at the club. Marked (it’s too easy to say, “like Cain”) by a huge birthmark over half of his face, he is already set apart from the other colonials in terms of “color,” and unlike those others, he is able to identify to some degree with the Burmese people, and evinces in parts a love of the landscape and culture there. But he is not perfect. He keeps a Burmese mistress whom he throws off when it is convenient for him. He does not rally to the defense of his friend, a virtuous Indian doctor, when the doctor is sabotaged by a power-hungry, unctuous, rotund vermin of a local bureaucrat.  He is torn, truly, between his nostalgic love for his homeland, whose atmosphere he despairs of ever experiencing again, and his affection for the land that gave him a place when his own country displaced him. More than anything, he craves books, deep conversation, and close companionship, since he cannot relate at all to the racist, ignorant expat idiots with whom he is obliged to socialize.  I understand all too well that deep loneliness of the expatriate, and this understanding helped me all the more to identify with Flory’s character, with whom any sensible/sensitive reader must identify, even as he makes terrible mistakes in judgment and even as his ethics seem not as well-developed as they ought to be. He is in part a portrait of displacement and dissolution.  Orwell describes him as sunworn and liquor-pickled, with a beard that is too heavy, and the shame around his facial marking dominates his consciousness.
When he meets a young Englishwoman who arrives in Kyauktang orphaned, lost, and husband-seeking, he projects upon her all of his dreams for connection and conversation.  He, in his desperation, fails to notice it, but she is a silly and conventional woman, with no interest in books, art, social justice, or, most notably of all, the culture and people of Burma.  It is fascinating to me to read Orwell’s account of Flory’s projection.  He thinks they are having conversations, but in fact, he is doing most of the talking.  When Orwell lets us inside Elizabeth’s head, we see how horrified she is to be there and how “beastly” she finds Flory’s involvement with the “natives” to be. One wants to shout to Flory, no! Don’t do this! But he becomes too deeply invested in his own projection, and feels that to marry Elizabeth is the only thing that can save him from total decadence and isolation.
I won’t spoil anymore of the novel for you by recounting any more of its action, in case you are thinking to read it. Orwell’s descriptive powers generate memorable moment after memorable moment (the silk of a longyi shining stretched over the bureacrat’s fat buttocks,  Flory’s cocker spaniel foraging about a crowded marketplace, Elizabeth’s cropped hair and round glasses) and by the end my heart hurt with the idiocy of human mistakes.

Breeze, Burma, Baroqueify!

Glorious cool breeze blowing into the Saturday. I’ve washed my hair, eaten my oatmeal, straightened things up, cleaned the catbox. Nemo is sitting in the catbird seat (on a pillow on the bed) staring at me as I type. In twenty-six minutes I shall go to pick up the CSA vegetables and think about how to transform them into tasty comestibles. The fan whirrs.
I’ve been nibbling at different sides of the mushroom, figuratively speaking. Today I feel a bit more equilibrium than in recent weeks. It’s been a rough time, but I think I have a few things figured out. I won’t bore you with them, but let me say this: I don’t believe in reincarnation, but if in fact I do reincarnate as a human being, and if the “force” that “decides” that is “listening” to this blog post, could I maybe please come back as a less sensitive one? Like maybe the kind of person who can have a drink after work without feeling like the world is going to end? Or who can eat an egg without the body saying DOES NOT COMPUTE, ALIEN INVADER, ALERT. I mean, come on. This is ridiculous, being an HSP. If I were not myself I would mock myself.
Now Nemo’s eyes are closed. I guess he got tired of staring.
There are so many exciting things happening for me right now. One is my upcoming workshop at the Poetry Project.  There is still space in it, so please do consider joining! Here’s the description again.  
 What if more actually is more? How can we create writing that is more sumptuous, more intense, more curvaceous, more elegant, more obscure, more grotesque, and more beautiful? Let’s traverse the ornate forms of the baroque in pursuit of a more intensely ornamental language. Using others’ texts as starting points, we will supplement, enhance, copy, modify, twist, mangle, and decorate words, syntax, structures, tropes, and concepts to maximize sublime bewilderment. We will read some essays on theories of ornament (and anti-ornament) to inform our investigations.  Writers whose works we will explore may include Rabelais, Donne, M. Cavendish, Loy, Huysmans, O’Hara, Koch, and Coolidge, as well as Stacy Doris, Lisa Robertson, Brandon Brown, Adeena Karasick, Dana Ward, Corina Copp, Julian Brolaski, Charles Bernstein, and Julie Patton. “Nonpoetic” sources for poem construction will be encouraged. Not a traditional “poetry workshop,” Baroqueify! will mainly focus on analysis, discussion, and reverse-engineering of texts by others, as well as mindcurling writing exercises. Our seminar will conclude with work on performance strategies to enhance the baroque sensibilities of the writing. Come decorate this fucked-up world with me!
 It starts October 5 and runs for ten Fridays from 7-9 pm. It’s going to be amazing.
I’m also preparing another MS for publication (slated, goddesses willing, in the spring). Working title:  VILE LILT. What do you think of that title?
My students now are wonderful; I’m having a great time helping them learn English.
Most exciting of all is this: I am planning a trip to Burma in December. I have my ticket, and my hotels and domestic flights are booked. I know that I shall be one member of a massive horde of tourists descending rather suddenly on this lovely and somewhat benighted country – a horde that, indeed, threatens to overwhelm its tourist infrastructure. I’m sorry about that, but glad that it means more contact and connection for the people of Burma, and more prosperity for them, too. My desire  for the trip, though, is that it be more than just a vacation. I’m looking for intercultural inspiration exchange.
As I’ve been saying over and over on this blog, there are poets there! Curious, passionate, innovative, engaged, tightly networked poets. They seem to know a lot about the literary/intellectual world we (Western) poets inhabit, but we know comparatively little about theirs. I’m so intrigued by the vortex of energy they seem to have created that I feel I have no choice but to go there and find out more about it for myself. They have asked me to give a talk about the terrain of contemporary inventive poetry, and I’m excited to do that, but even more than that, I want to hear from them why it is that this sort of literature is exciting and meaningful for them.
I’ve had a lot of anxiety around the trip, but I think that has been more because of my general state of imbalance and fragility around health. Now that I’m starting to feel better, and so much of my effort is going toward being healthy, the anxieties are falling away.  It’s true, I can’t really afford it, but more money will come. There will be things for me to eat there, even if they don’t involve dairy, eggs, wheat, avocados, or soy. (Oy.) My nutritionist tells me there may be ways to detox from the vaccinations I guess I should have (ugh). My bookings are made. I will stretch a lot on the long flight and think more about my talk. And when I get there: such interesting people! and golden pagodas to boot! Different sounds, smells, feeling of air.
I won’t be traveling the way I did when I was younger.  Midrange hotels. Flights – no busses, boats, or trains. I’m staying strictly on the tourist path.  I’ll spend nearly a week in Yangon so that I can hang out with the poets.
Then I will fly to Bagan, the old city of temples. It’s like the Kyoto or Angkor Wat of Burma. I’ll stay there for four nights, and then go on to four nights on Inle Lake. Then two days more in Yangon before coming home on New Year’s Day. The cool thing is that since I will be flying out on New Year’s Day I shall have two of them.  That strikes me as very lucky, to have two such chances to restart the year.
Oh, OK, the CSA distribution is starting. My vegetables are calling me.

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