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Posts Tagged ‘prison’

Skyscrapers and Everything

June 5, 2015 | by

The trouble with gazing upward in New York.

Don’t look up, Stevie!

About four minutes into Stevie Wonder’s 1973 classic “Living for the City”—a surging, seven-plus minute thumper track about racial injustice, migration, and the failure of the latter to cure the former—the song emerges from its second chorus and breaks down to its sparest parts. We hear the quizzical staccato of the synthesizer flit in and out like lingering sunlight; the dry drums, which just seconds ago were rolling out an elaborate fill, tap quarter-note rimshots on the snare; all the other instruments stop playing. Welcome to New York.

This interlude, barely a minute long but seemingly much longer, is a marvel within an already marvelous song. It’s an early example in popular music of that moment when a song recognizes its limits and turns, momentarily, into something larger and stranger. After all, Stevie could’ve just tagged on another verse about New York, keeping the song’s structure intact, but wouldn’t there be something thin and dreamy about that? New York collects anthems like medals: “New York, New York,” “On Broadway,” and “Empire State of Mind” are all, in essence, odes to skylines, with outsized grandeur to match. Their scale grows out of proportion; aphorism replaces emotion; the music hits its mark and no one gets hurt. The lesson for songwriters tackling New York has always been this: if you’re going to sing to the city, sing big. The skyline, as more than few writers have reminded us, can even look like musical notation if you squint hard enough. Read More »

They’re Fucking Skulls

June 3, 2015 | by

Leon Golub’s haunting “Riot” and the aloof politics of the art world.

Leon Golub, Napalm I, 1969, acrylic on linen, 117 1/4" x 213".

Wounded Warrior, 1968, acrylic on linen, 76 1/4" x 111 1/4".

In a discussion at Hauser & Wirth, Hans-Ulrich Obrist told of the time he and Leon Golub were discussing a book of the artist’s collected writings; they discovered afterward that Clement Greenberg had died during the conversation.

It’s a morbid art-world joke—but so are Golub’s canvases, which hang, as he referred to them, like “flayed skins” around the gallery. They complicate the sweet bedtime story of American postwar art, passed down for generations, in which power is an inner force wielded by artists, and art self-consciously demanded attention for its physical materials: paint and the square of the canvas. Written with Greenberg’s theory, this tale established art as an alternate reality, without mimetic or social context.

Golub, who died in 2004, was a staunch and consistent critic of Abstract Expressionism, calling it “bad for the artist. These painters were essentially turning away from the world in their work,” he said, “giving up on the idea that an artist might have a social role.” As Pollock’s last drips dried on his studio floor, the country was pounding the pavement and bodies were hitting the ground. For the artists of that era, as of this one, the realities beyond canvas were merciless. Friends were being shipped off to shoot guns in Vietnam, police batons and dogs brutalized black protesters in bright, American daylight, and the dark of black-and-white newscasts too often signified blood. Read More »

Odysseus in the Yard

June 16, 2014 | by

Celebrating Bloomsday in prison.

Poldy

An illustration of Leopold Bloom from Joyce’s notes, ca. 1941.

The man I affectionately termed Odysseus, though never to his face, was sixty-five and ailing. He was Philip Rubinitz, a onetime actor who had served about twenty years by then for the crime of stabbing his best friend through the heart with an antique SS dagger. Nevertheless, he was the facility rabbi’s clerk. His liver was failing and his back hurt, but he took laps with me around the yard of Green Haven Correctional Facility, observing our simulated Dublin through cataracts in his eyes. It must have been hard for him to keep up with my much younger legs, but he tottered around our Nightown seeking out a way home to his long-lost wife with the same fervor that Leopold Bloom had. His parole date was still five years away. I followed around full of the overconfidence and energy of youth and insecurity, much like Stephen Dedalus. It was June 16, several years ago now, and little did Rubinitz know that he was helping me celebrate Bloomsday in the yard.

After I’d been convicted, my father had said, “Good. You’ll finally read Joyce.” But it took a few years inside to finally come to it. Having initially avoided Ulysses, my mind was blown when I finally gathered the fortitude to read it—the scales fell from my eyes, and from then on I decided I had to celebrate Bloomsday with the rest of the converts.

None of whom, it seemed, were anywhere near me. Working as a prison librarian, I had seen a few men attempt A Portrait of the Artist, but our edition of Ulysses always stood on the shelf gathering dust. Grim, thick, and foreboding, it was too imposing in reputation for even the most ambitious of convicts. Finnegans Wake wasn’t available at all. The civilian librarians knew better. Read More »

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How to Photograph the Inside of Your Body, and Other News

March 18, 2014 | by

body photo

If this digestive tract thrills you, imagine what a kick you’ll get out of your own! Image via Beautiful Decay

  • The eccentric poet Bill Knott once faked his own death, but last week he really died. (Unless this is one hell of an elaborate ruse.) He wrote of himself: “my poetic career is nugatory … no editor will countenance my work; i’ve been forced to self-publish my poetry in vanity volumes; i am persona non grata and universally despised or ridiculed by everyone in the poetry world.”
  • The truculent, condescending subtext of the word actually.
  • Checking in with Alejandro Jodorowsky, everyone’s favorite cult filmmaker: “‘Maybe I am a prophet,’ he said in 1973. ‘I really hope one day there will come Confucius, Muhammad, Buddha and Christ to see me. And we will sit at a table, taking tea and eating some brownies.’”
  • One way to get a glimpse at the inside of your body: swallow a frame of 35 millimeter film, “folding each piece in a brightly colored capsule that allow[s] for the acids and bodily fluids to process the film with minimal risk of colon damage.”
  • Punishments of the future: “What happens to life sentences if the human lifespan is radically expanded?”

 

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Maximum Sentence

February 28, 2014 | by

How prisoners perceive—and misperceive—life in the outside world.

Richard_selfportrait_cl_w

Richard Robles’s self portrait, 2013

I mailed a copy of my book Among Murderers, about the struggles three men faced when they returned to the world after several decades behind bars, to Richard Robles, a pen pal serving an indeterminate life sentence in New York’s Attica Prison. Prison reading and mailing policies are designed to reinforce the feeling of punishment. Family and friends cannot simply send books; they have to come directly from the publisher or an online bookstore. Most prisons only allow paperbacks—Attica, a rare exception, permits hardcovers. I couldn’t find detailed mailing instructions on Attica’s website, so I called the prison. “Send it through the publisher—and don’t hide no weapon in it,” the employee blurted. Richard wrote me that he almost had to return the book.

[My] name wasn’t on the “buyer’s side” of the invoice. The guard said something about a new rule that prisoners have to buy the book. But as you can see I did get it, after another guard said something to him. Miracles, right?

I did consider it a small miracle when, a few weeks later, I began to receive letters from men who had borrowed the book from Richard. Prison is a dark world far away from ours, and communications travel slowly. We may have forgotten “them,” but they never forget us. My book quickly made its way around Richard’s cell block; several prisoners mailed me their reviews, chronicling their ambitious attempts at self-improvement and their struggle to prepare themselves for a world that doesn’t want them back. Read More »

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Opulence of Twaddle, Penury of Sense, and Other News

February 19, 2014 | by

Ambrose_Bierce_1892-10-07

Bierce in 1892, barely containing his rage. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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