This bird, the mamo, was killed for its plume; one of the astonishing number of Hawaiian birds that have become extinct. The “settling” of other countries were not only disastrous for the human inhabitants, but for the animal life as well.. “Settling” means you kill everyone and steal their shit. Then you declare the place, “civilized.”
Shortly before his death in 2004, Roberto Bolaño, the great Chilean novelist, mailed off the manuscript for 2666, his sprawling, frustrating, multi-layered masterpiece about a world coming apart in many locations and time periods– all at the same time.
Central to this story–stories, actually–are the murders of women in the fictional St. Teresa, which is actually Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Authorities fear there may be as many as 5000 unsolved murders of young women and admit that there are at least 1200. The Mexican government blames the outlaw Narco-Mafias, as well as members of Los Rebeldes, a notorious Juarez street gang involved in drug and human trafficking. Police have also arrested itinerant workers and bus drivers known to drive the routes where some of the women’s bodies have been found, all to no avail. The murders continue as well as an eerie proliferation of corridos, or “murder ballads;” songs circulated about killings of unfaithful lovers, hookers and “bitches.” It is a horrifying phenomenon that has been going on since around 1993, with the indifference or incompetence of police forces too afraid of the gangs to adequately protect the young women, mostly from other parts of Mexico and Central America.
What resonates from all of the conflicting stories are ugly tales of sexual mutilation and violence accompanying each murder. Rape is almost always a component of these crimes. Bodies are found in vacant lots and trash dumps as well as by the sides of the roads. What is shocking is the cavalier nature of this brutality. Women are murdered routinely and with impunity, with no fear of consequences. At the center of Bolaño’s messy novel is the idea that someone or something in the air suggests these are “sacrifices” for a world devolved into a degenerate state. There are lots of other ideas ventured as well, but the sickness at the center of the world’s heart is never more acutely rendered in this novel than the murders of these women. That it is based in concrete fact gives the novel a chilling moral authority.
Before Bolaño died and his novels were published, he traveled widely throughout Mexico and South America and Spain for a time, embracing Marxism and then abandoning it, all the while bearing witness to down-at-the-heels governments unable (and in many cases unwilling) to help those they govern. He seems to have adopted a mordant gallows humor about the condition of mankind.
I’ve read 2666 once and am re-reading it now. I’m not now convinced this was ever supposed to be one book. It’s always felt to me like a combination of books. That Bolaño died before this book was ever in galleys tells us that he was not the final voice in deciding what exactly went into this book. Of course, once 2666 was published, the posthumous Bolaño became a critical fetish-object; the praise being hurled from every quarter, for this door-stop tome full of digressions, contradictions and multiple stories; some having very little or even nothing to do with the others.
The underlying thematic device, for me, seems to be the world’s rapid untethering from any idea of sanity. The murdered women part of 2666 is where we hear Bolaño at his most ferocious. the murder of innocents is still a thing of incomprehensible sadness; well-worthy of moral outrage even in an insane world.
I’ve heard people describe this book as “apocolyptic” or “millennial,” whatever the fuck that means. I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure about anything with 2666–even as to whether it was completed or not. Oddly enough though, I was convinced I’d read a great book–in fact, a great few books.
I love the literature of Mexico and South and Central America. As a young man, I felt as though books like Eduardo Galleano’s Genesis: Memory of Fire and Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold and One Hundred Years of Solitude kind of set me free with their magic and their shape-shifting. In a lot of Mexican-Indian cultures, birds like sparrows, starlings and blackbirds are interlopers between worlds, often carrying the spirits of the dead from this world to the next, or in Haitian literature, to the “gray world”–a kind of way station between the living and the dead. These authors and those stories warned us that the natural world stood witness to our evil and our folly; that in daylight or in darkness, to some living entity, we are always visible. This thought used to give me comfort. And now, I am not so sure.
The ongoing murders of women in Juarez are still largely unsolved. There have been many arrests for individual murders but better than 99 percent of them are still without resolution. Ciudad Juarez, in fact the whole state of Chihuahua and its governing body, stand as a black mark on the earth; unholy ground marked evil by its own inaction.
Last year I was quite fond of saying that there were only three magical cities in America–New York, Chicago and New Orleans; the rest of it was fucking Cleveland. I said this in my effusiveness to rally support for New Orleans and it was a funny, if cheap, laugh at the expense of Cleveland.
I’m going to stop saying that. A great many of my friends from Cleveland didn’t appreciate it, and have fond memories of that city like I do of Chicago and New Orleans. And the more I read about the city of Cleveland, the more I realize it is not very different than Chicago. Dumb luck has made us the sexier city. Dumb luck, geography and machine politics is what kept Chicago from sharing the fate of Cleveland. My studio director, Stan Klein, is still a Cleveland Indians fan,which lately is a lot like being a Cubs fan; thankless, joyless exercises in the absence of reciprocal affection.
There is a longing about the city of Cleveland. Many citizens groups are fighting the banks in the wake of the mortgage crisis, where banks and lenders fucked citizens with mortgages and interest rates that they knew the folks they sold them to could not repay and then getting even richer by selling “reverse mortgages.” Clevelanders have not taken this lying down. They’ve pushed back and tried to wrest some of the primacy of their neighborhoods back.
There are beautiful parks in Cleveland. Cain Park, in Cleveland Heights, on the east side is a place loaded with birds, gardens and hills for sledding, as well as a theater and art studios. My friends from Cleveland remember this place with great affection.
I wanted to make a metaphorical songbird for Cleveland and some months ago I bought a collage from my friend Alpha Lubicz. She is my favorite collagist right now and last September she accompanied my crew to Japan. In almost every flea market, Alpha and I went after the same kind of stuff. She has an amazing eye for scraps and makes astounding works. She is the goods. For those of you reading this on Facebook, look her things up in my friends list and get one.
For months, I looked at this beautiful bird-woman collage and finally called Alpha and asked her if she’d mind if I drew it into my new piece. After getting her blessing, I made this piece. I changed it a bit, but make no mistake; it is a case of out and out theft and generosity on behalf of my friend Alpha. I’ve learned much from looking at her work and so should you.
I gave her a bluejay’s body just because I love the fuckers. They’re obnoxious and noisy and operate like gangsters; and they are so beautiful. They, like starlings, often steal their nests by muscling the occupants out of it. They just kind of show up and chirp, “Fuck You. Leave.” And the other birds comply. Bluejays are badasses and don’t take any la-la from other birds.
When I was a kid, I caddied and every once in a while would find a bluejay feather on the golf course and I don’t know why, but these were real treasures to me; simply because of that paralyzing blue. . .somewhere between cobalt and cerulean. . .a blue you saw nowhere else in nature. A jazz blue. A story blue. A midnight kind of blue. . .carved right out of the holy sky.
There is a part at the end of No Country for Old Men, where Tommy Lee Jones’ character, a sheriff, gives up and, over his morning coffee explains to his wife, that he is out-matched by the evil in the world. It is a weary, resigned and grim assessment of the world around him.
In my Catholic upbringing, all evil was neatly ceded to the devil or the Communists who, of course, didn’t believe in god. Years later, reading philosophy. I was told that evil is a small, banal thing. I think one must become a grown-up to realize that it is volitional; it is a choice, and it is very human. In nature, I believe there is no right or wrong, merely consequences. With us, it is an action and we know it when we do it.
I kissed off the idea of a merciful god in about 4th grade. I’d found a skunk that had been hit by a car and was suffering and dying. I picked it up and brought it into the Catholic school I was attending (there were a few). I rushed down the hall to find a nun or better, a priest, to bless the skunk before it died. I believed all of the horse-shit the brides of Christ had said about “all god’s creatures. . . yadda, yadda. . .” At the entrace of the church, I found Sr. Anisia and presented the skunk to her, explaining that he needed to be blessed before he died so god would know he was a solid skunk and let him into heaven. I was sincere. I wanted this skunk to latch onto a little mercy on his way off this mortal coil.
The nun lost her fucking mind, screaming at me to remove that filthy creature at once. I told her that I would after she blessed his ass and said “Really Sister, how hard is it just to bless him?”
She had the custodian carry me and the skunk outside and I decided right then they were liars; the whole merciful god fairytale was one big hand-job. They tossed my ass out of school and the nun called my mother and had another melt-down. I told my mother I thought Sister Anisia was a lying sack of shit and that the skunk deserved a little kindness and Christian treatment. My mom didn’t say anything, but I’d noticed I didn’t get punished at home for this. My mom and dad had to go up and meet with the twat nun to get me back into school, and this crazy old bitch would light me up every chance she got. I didn’t take it laying down though. Many a bag of dogshit found its way into her Chevy Impala; usually under the driver’s side seat. Her side.
I started to make drawings of naked devil girls and leaving them out on my desk and also pictures of nuns being attacked by eagles only to be carried to a great height before being dropped like a bad sack of guts.
Needless to say, this would make the nuns spot their shorts and they sent me to the school shrink, who would leave his pack of Newports on his desk, only to have them stolen by me. He was also a religious dip-shit of some kind. A brother or friar or some shit.
I came to the decision that if this group of fuck-heads were God’s ‘A’-team, then he was truly screwed.
This piece is called, “The Devil’s Songbird.”
Nicholas Dandolos (Nick the Greek) was a professional gambler and high-roller of legendary repute in the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s. Rumor has it, he once broke the house in Vegas in the early ’50s. He is also the subject of a marvelous novel by the great Chicago novelist, Harry Mark Petrakis, whose Greektown-set novels illuminate that community for the rest of the city.
Dandolos was fearless. He is said to have won and lost over 500 million dollars in his lifetime, only to die in near destitution in Gardena, California in 1966.
He was born in Crete to wealthy parents in 1883. At 18, he moved to Chicago and pretty much cleaned up at the racetrack. He was a flamboyant and charming guy whose legend quickly grew until he was nearly as big an attraction at casinos as the headliners who entertained the swells were.
Petrakis’ novel, Nick the Greek, was published in 1978 and is a marvelous read. It chronicles the life of a man who went from rags to riches some 70 times; always with good humor and charm. At one point, after a marathon poker match, lasting some 5 months and down a couple million, Nick told his opponent (a man some 24 years his junior), “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.” Such was the good humor of Nick the Greek.
As a kid I was a caddy, which was where I first learned how to gamble. And Jesus, did we gamble; on cards, Ruts (a mutant form of miniature golf, played in the caddy yard on a stone parking lot), football, baseball, Pins, (where you bet on whomever’s golfer gets on the green first), how far you could piss, pitching quarters…you name it. No game in the caddy shack was without a gambling component. And it was a good thing; you learned how to hold your mud when you were down, how to win graciously, how to lose like a gentleman. . .or not. You learned a lot about who you were in relation to other guys; how to compete, how to bluff, how to stand, how to protect yourself, how to strut.
There were always assholes; the guys who won or lost badly, the braggarts and whiners, the badmouth guys, who were soon enough separated out from the elite gamblers who’d not make time for them or give them a seat at their game.
There was no small amount of social Darwinism in the rituals of caddy shack games of chance. It was frowned upon but tolerated. And in these games of chance we found out a little more each day, who we were going to be in the world.
“Mom–Look at the Boid!”
“It’s not a ‘boid,’ son, it’s a BIRD.”
“But Ma…it choips like a boid!”– Overheard in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.
My pal, Tony Judge, is an avid birder; a bird watcher. He is serious. He has traveled to Iceland to see birds the rest of us will never see. He recently bunked at my place for a while and nailed up a bird-feeder to my back porch. I will forever be grateful for this. Every morning, the congregation of starlings, cardinals, purple house finches, and all varieties of sparrows adds color and light and music to my day. I often tell people that my version of retirement will be making bird pictures–birds and naked women. Probably mostly birds since they’re less trouble. I’ll let the pointy-heads and the MFA’s worry about being “relevant.” The theory geeks can wait tables, wear trucker-hats, drink shitty beer and think great thoughts. I’ll draw birds and naked brunettes and be happy doing so.
I did go to an opening last night that I liked; a group show at Zolla-Leiberman Gallery that was unexpected in its humor and ferocity. A good bunch of young artists put on a show worth seeing. I bought a couple of things by young artists I’d never heard of and was really happy to see a rebellious, funny and fierce show in this town.
I also recently got another piece by Duncan Robert Anderson–who is not a kid–he is in his early 40′s and has been making art for a long time. His work is informed by funny, other-worldly, sci-fi touches and found objects as well as hand-made things that I really like. They are poignant, absurd, human, and geeky in the best way. Duncan loves Star Wars and King Arthur-type stuff I find unfathomable but it is his lingua-franca and in his work it really works. He is an odd creature for Chicago. He is from east Tennessee, and is a for real, no-shit, Southern gentleman. It’s not an act. He refers to my house keeper as “Miss Claire,” even though she is half his age. He is unfailingly polite and a genuinely good guy. He works at the MCA and the next piece he installs there ought to be one of his own. I have two of his things and can’t wait to get another. He is the goods. What is exciting in Chicago right now is that right around the periphery there are a bunch of wonderful artists. I’ve bought 30 pieces by young Chicago artists in the last year and I feel like I’ve scored. I don’t have a lot of money and for what I’ve spent, I feel really fortunate.
My pal, Ton hy came in my studio one day really amped. I thought he’d won the lotto. He told me, “At the feeder, we got purple house finches. I just saw’em. . .purple house finches.” Every day since then Ive been grateful for that feeder. I sit there in the morning, wearing my nicotine patch, gnawing on my tooth-picks and drinking my coffee and I watch them and listen to them. . .
“Hope is the thing with feathers.” –Emily Dickinson
In almost every text about hobos I’ve read they’ve mentioned the sounds of birds. For many of them it was the only music left for them. I have a special place in my heart for birds because they’re the first things I ever drew. I started making drawings as a little kid and I only drew two things at first; birds and naked women. Birds were easier to realize, because I’d not seen any real naked women yet, but I’d seen plenty of birds.
When I was a kid, my father had a heart-attack. It was a serious episode and it nearly killed him. For 6 or 7 weeks, my Grandmother Mae stayed with us, while my Mom worked and took care of my father. It was a huge job. There are 8 kids in our family and it exhausted our mother. Every morning my grandmother, Mamie, would toast a couple of pieces of bread and tear them into pieces (sometimes she’d put jelly on them) and she’d throw them off the back stoop to the birds and then she’d watch them through the window. I would always watch and be surprised by this. In our house it was a cardinal sin to waste food. We were by no means poor, but both of my parents were children of The Depression and those lessons stayed with them their whole lives. I asked my Grand mother why she was giving our bread to the birds and she quietly told me that, “For a piece of bread I could hear God sing.” Birds were music for poor people.
I am a rock -ribbed, non-believer, but I always believed my grandmother’s faith was of great comfort to her; as much as my lack thereof is to me.
It was then that I first started drawing birds and reading about them. The starling is an immigrant. They came over from Europe a couple hundred years ago and took over. They were never welcome in the new world, so they had to muscle their way in. They bred in great numbers and stole nests and got their share of the food supply and let other birds know they wouldn’t be fucked out of their new world. Like every other immigrant group, the European starling had to fight for its piece of this country.
Their song isn’t as beautiful, they are a little more crude of behavior, and there are a lot of them– but if you’ve ever seen one in the sunlight and seen all of the hidden purples, greens and golds, then you are glad they are here.