Well Rounded

I spotted an ugly sentence this morning.

It happened unintentionally; I found myself reading a column by Chuck Klosterman on Grantland. In it, he reviews an album by the Tune-Yards, which he confesses he hasn’t listened to, but still feels confident enough to explain that it’s the kind of music that will be mocked in the future for its silliness. Despite all the praise from critics, he accuses the album of potentially not aging well. Or something. The tone of it is mean-spirited and a little dumb. I was first exposed to him in 2011 while working for the Texas Book Festival; Klosterman was featured in the programming. I was assigned a promotional write-up on his new meta-novel thing at the time, The Visible Man. I haven’t really liked his writing since. His 2003 book of judgy pop sociology, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs was a coffee shop accessory in the early aughts. It sold a bunch of copies and was also occasionally read, I’m sure.

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Anyway, so I was going to tell you about this ugly sentence. It’s highlighted above.

The music <…> is focused around its percussive elements.

Okay. On the barometer of obvious statements, this veers pretty close to “this car is made of car parts.” Using it as a model, imagine what Klosterman might write about a Texas chili: “This southern stew is focused around its meat ingredients.”

But the thing that kills me is “focus around.” Focus around is such clumsy phrasing. I’m not a person who takes grammar all that seriously, and mine can be hurried. Santa is the clause I’m most familiar with, really. It’s not about that. There’s an inherent lack of harmony in it that… well, it just bugs the shit out of me, to put it plainly. Focus is a narrowing word, a word that has a certain sharpness. Focus evokes a view through a microscope, a calibration measured in hair-widths; it’s the official verb of the laser beam. On the other hand, around is a circular word, a loose, imprecise word. Around evokes uncertainty; it is a tourist’s approximation, a roommate’s reply, a way to soften the scheduling of a first date. Nothing in life is ever focused around. Many things are focused on. Your homework, the road, your breathing. No astronomer requests that an associate “focus the telescope around that star.” That makes no sense. The same goes for “centered around.” Geometrically, how can the center also be the perimeter? How can you center around something? A marksman’s aim is centered around the target? The company is focused around its values? It’s a persistent contradiction.

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Conversationally, we use the phrase all the time. “I need to focus on this project.” “He won’t even notice- he’s too focused on the football game!” The act of writing leads to overthought; sentences get expanded unnaturally; a perfectly fine sentence that you would blurt out unconsciously gets tinkered with, and all of a sudden you have “focus around.” Contemporary language tends toward puffy and non-committal, business-like. Expansive but without authority or directness. If I may summon the great avatar of management, Bill Lumbergh:

I’m going to need you to go ahead and come in tomorrow.
We lost some people this week and we sort of need to play catch up.

Go ahead and come in, because we sort of need to do something. The command words, “come” and “need” are insulated in layers of soft passive language to blunt their edge. Focus around: a product of the Lumbergh technique. “Around” gives you that extra syllable, and it sounds less firm. Focusing around a thing allows you to sound determined and avoid the issue at the same time, a common juggling act for upper management. plastics As an adverb, “around” is an all-terrain vehicle. Let’s drive around town- it’s the only way to get around. That guy is always screwing around with that that strumpet who gets around. They’re probably around here somewhere. They always meet around midnight. Throughout, about, everywhere, nearby, approximately. Around does a bit of everything. One might even say it lacks focus.

five days in Des Moines

I don’t get art, she says, with a chuckle,
at dusk on the river. Exclamation points
in concrete line its edge, glazed with spots,
or stripes, like examples of a species.
Artificial light too in colored blocks:
a television’s geometric plea for reception.

It is a reminder
of what we leave behind
in the living room
to be present in the city.

She resents the obscenity of the art market,
spitting the word “millions.” We’ve never talked
much before. I know she has two children,
a bad mortgage, and an ex-husband who fails.

Do not forsake the creations
because of those who would
exploit their scarcity.
I wish I had the composure
for such a reply, but I only shrugged,
perhaps muttered something pleasant.

Sometimes, with art,
the head gets involved
and muddies the sensation.
The “getting” is an ego
projected in illusion.

They are votives,
human offerings to nature,
these clumsy attempts at flowers.

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seven

i see a shadow

alone tonight the windows
are a digital signal,
a glowing instrument.

a shadow is a double
void of detail.

a shadow is a line
in a triangle
of light and surface
joined in stillness.

alone tonight the windows
are a glowing instrument
attuned in shadow.

does the nocturnal figure
obscure its features
for vanity…

or to vanish?

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north! to edge of The South

Our three-state odyssey concluded just before midnight on Sunday in the southern cosmopolitan country-fried city of Nashville, Tennessee. We stopped for gas in Jackson, and for fried catfish in Little Rock. If we imagine Arkansas as a sandwich, this shape is cut into two near perfect triangles by Highway 30: a long road with tall straight trees receding infinitely on each side. I met a man at a gas pump somewhere in all those trees; he introduced himself as an abstract painter. Canvas, he said, in a one sentence qualifier. He was leaning on his truck as I looked over at him, a dirty oil-covered sock in one hand, and in the other the ridiculous drooping saber of my Hyundai’s dipstick. He was trying to get together some funds to move to Austin. He wrote down his website on the back of a receipt. Aside from watching the line cooks hustle from my seat at the bar in a seafood joint, it was the only person I saw in the state. At any given moment, the most exciting thing happening in Arkansas is a forest fire or a rerun.

We approached Memphis after sundown, from the west via the de Soto bridge. The city is a jumble of lights and curved roads, edged by the darkness of the massive Mississippi river. It was nearly midnight when we explored the neighborhoods of Craftsman homes near Vanderbilt University, reading aloud the street names and numbers. To our curiosity, we drove past a man burning furniture in his front yard: “Emergency Moving Sale: Help If U Can.” I saw some vintage speakers at the curb but Patty pressed me to drive on.

My brother Kyle lives in a cluster of newly developed houses on a hill in midtown. I woke up early on the first morning, and the two of us glided on scooters down to Centennial Park. It’s home to a famous Parthenon replica, which was built for a city exposition nearly 100 years ago and has weathered many calls for its destruction. The ceilings are intricately painted, and the bronze entrance doors are the largest in the United States, according to a plaque. Their necessity is hinted at by the Pallas Athena inside, which has the distinction of being the “tallest indoor sculpture in the western world.”

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Spring was bursting all over the city. The pond behind the Parthenon was ringed with bradford pear trees and bright yellow forsythia… Continue reading

residual living

perpetual cyclonic forces, We,
reach needfully at things in weakness:
new shoes, cheap coffee, and other vices,
(we leave these in old lover’s apartments
and beneath motel beds and park benches.)
our food selected with precision
before the final voyage of the peel, the husk,
from the garbage can to the garbage truck
to the landfill. (we are afraid to call it
what it is: a land filled with what?)

spinning so softly, we fail to notice
the paper as it leaves our fingers
to reside in cash registers and commodes,
backpacks and boxes in attics.

Balance, pleading now, speaks its needs to us
(fidgeting mortals) in a motherly hush:
if we could only be still and touch nothing.

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strange as ever

The line extended out the door Wednesday night at the Marchesa Hall & Theater, whose beautiful art deco interior is concealed in an unassuming strip behind Highland Mall. On the marquee in plain black capital letters: Stranger Than Paradise, a 30 year old indie film by celebrated American director Jim Jarmusch. But it was Richard Linklater who drew the crowd. The film is the first in a series of four movies – #JewelsintheWasteland – curated and emceed by the self-described dropout punk and Academy Award-nominated director. The series is sponsored by the Austin Film Society. Linklater’s “wasteland” points to the state of American cinema and culture in the 1980’s, the hollowness of fast MTV cuts and blockbuster hype, of Reagan politics and yuppie greed. IMG_rickDuring his introduction, Linklater placed Stranger Than Paradise within a genealogy of minimalist cinema starting with Andy Warhol, and celebrated its release as a watershed moment for moviemaking. Attendees were treated to a projection of the original 35mm reel of the film; the celluloid images were romantic but revealed 30 years of abuse. The early apartment scenes writhed with squiggles and grain.
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