Ted Greenwald, Clearview/Lie, a memoir (United Artists Books, 2011)
Ted Greenwald does not live in a subordinate clause. His life, as they say, is an open book. Clearview/Lie is palpable evidence of that. His writing speed is in sync with his mind speed. There is nothing subordinate about it. The writing is ascendant in its handling of a set of problems inherent in autobiography.
There is the problem of time. Chronology is an illusion, a mental organization. It is natural to give time a line, a timeline, as it were, but this would be false. Time does not go in a line. I was invited once during an Indian sweatlodge ceremony to think of time as a broad landscape extending to the horizon; those people and buildings in the far distance are people that no longer exist in our time, but still have an existence. They are not outside of time. Nothing is outside of time. History is continuous. What Gertrude Stein aptly phrased a “continuous present.”
Augustine wrestled with problem of temporal order in his autobiography, what may have been the first written autobiography, and developed an interesting theory. In book 11, Augustine writes: “It is now, however, perfectly clear that neither the future nor the past are in existence, and that it is incorrect to say that there are three times - past, present, and future. Though one might perhaps say: ‘There are three times - a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future.’ For these three do exist in the mind, and I do not see them anywhere else: the present time of things past is memory; the present time of things present is sight; the present time of things future is expectation.”
Then there is the problem of self. How does one stand back, zoom out like on a Google map, to get a bigger picture of one's personal geography?
“I hate the self,” writes Blaise Pascal, “because it is injust in wanting to make itself the center of everything. Briefly, the self has two characteristics. It is injust in that it makes itself the center of everything. It is pernicious to others in that it wants to subjugate them, for every self is the enemy and would like to be the tyrant over all others.”
This is putting it pretty harshly. I prefer Whitman’s notion: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And What I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Greenwald disburdens himself of these problems with a simple solution: the fragment. He has strategically gone outside time and the tyrannical or celebratory self by fragmenting his history in small blocks of prose. Roland Barthes, who used a similar technique for his Roland Barthes By Roland Barthes, writes: “Liking to find, to write beginnings, he tends to multiply this pleasure: that is why he writes fragments: so many fragments, so many beginnings, so many pleasures… The fragment (like the haiku) is torin: it implies an immediate delight: it is a fantasy of discourse, a gaping of desire. In the form of a thought-sentence, the germ of a fragment comes to you anywhere: in the café, on the train, talking to a friend (it arises laterally to what he says or what I say): then you take out your notebook, to jot down not a ‘thought’ but something like a strike, what would once have been called a ‘turn.’”
That’s it, then. That’s what makes Greenwald’s autobiographical prose poem such a pleasure to read: it is full of turns. It is not bogged down in a linear narrative. Each fragment is a vivid aperçu gleaned from memory. A limpid pool or lens through which we gaze telescopically into Greenwald’s boyhood in Queens, New York, in the vicinity of the Clearview Expressway. We see snippets of basement, piano lessons, Paris, movies, books, family, Sky King, Howdy Doody, at least one louche uncle and Wilhelm Reich and the orgone box. Life as it was lived by a teenager growing to manhood in Queens in the 50s and 60s. Growth of a poet’s mind.
The recollections are remarkably vivid because they’re charged with the kind of details that would be overlooked in a more conventional autobiography. “The sense of being a controlling center of consciousness or a unified source of causal efficacy is an effect of language,” writes Louis A. Sass, “one that, paradoxically enough, can only be experienced if one lets oneself be taken over by this pre-existing, transcendent transpersonal system.” Greenwald loses himself in language, but more like a dolphin than a log bobbing downstream. The trick is to write as far into the accidents as one can before collapsing into statement. “Insouciance,” writes Alice Notley, “is a freeing quality that can open poetry to truth.”
It is Greenwald’s eccentric, slightly off-balance language I find so alluring. Sentences are densely constructed though leavened with a curiously offhand style, as if spontaneously created, which they may very well have been. Phrases are delightfully idiosyncratic and halting at times, spurting forward spasmodically, reflecting the mind’s convulsive operations in fresh new words as mental images pop and dive in one’s consciousness.
Peculiarities of phrasing charm the attention and thicken Greenwald's aperçus with a discreet adhesiveness. In jazz, this quality of dissonance is called syncopation, the deliberate upsetting of the normal accent. Instead of falling on what is supposed to be the strong beat of the measure, the accent is shifted to an off-beat. Sometimes these syncopated prose rhythms are hurried, blunt, and telegraphic, as in this paragraph: "School, school yard hang out with friends, listen to radio stories, dinner, homework, bed. It's a week night and school's tomorrow. Halloween. Christmas, pea shooters, yo yos. Then, it's summer."
Or, as in this paragrah, there is a more irregular, chromatic texturing, as if the words were like the sharps, flats, and accidentals in a musical composition: "To augment piano lessons I'm taking going nowhere fast. The bios make sound interestng and set me on the way to being Beethoven, love his work. The lessons go nowhere, but I buy some music paper and compose a short song (in fountain pen)."
Accidentals are alterations of pitch, sharped or flatted notes that diverge from the prevailing key and might also serve to exemplify Greenwald's chromatic ingress into the terraced dynamics of memory.
It is no accident that Mnemosyne is the goddess of poetry, the mother of the nine muses by Zeus. Memory is, after all, an odd phenomenon, and when we fish in its waters for remembrances of a previous time - sensations, feelings, discoveries, epiphanies, disappointments, romances - we don’t always get fish. Sometimes we get an odd creature like a squid or an octopus. Or parakeet:
I have a pet (it’s probably the family pet), a parakeet from Woolworth’s named Admiral. We leave the cage open, he’d fly out and
hang out up on the curtain rods, eventually would light on the edge of a glass of water in front of me, dips a beak in for a drink.
He lets me hold him, bites me lightly with his beak. Periodically, for no apparent reason, he freaks out, flies around weirdly,
jumps around the cage. One morning wake up and he’s lying still on the bottom of the cage, the inside of his throat visible, he got
caught between the bars and the perch. He died.
Greenwald is fond of ending blocks of reminiscence with the word ‘anyway.’ The word takes on a variety of value, sometimes dismissive, sometimes a relaxed dissipation of energy after a concentrated effort, sometimes a ball tossed to resume a story, bounce down the page to the next paragraph, flight of steps, hallway or block.
Humor abounds. Greenwald’s early life is informed largely by the movies. From which he learns some things gleaned from the silver screen, practiced in real life, produce dubious results. As, per instance, his take on Broken Arrow:
One Saturday afternoon, come home after seeing Jeff Chandler in Broken Arrow. He plays Cochise trying to work things out in
the Old West, with James Stewart and, lurking Debra Paget, opposed to the idea of compromise by Geronimo, played by Jay
Silverheels (the real-life Tonto).
After eating I guess buffalo meat sitting around the campfire Ira Gossel, from Brooklyn, who is Cochise finishes eating with his
hands and uses his biceps as a napkin, wiping off the fat rubbing it into his arms, opines how it wards off the chill.
That night for dinner we have chicken. I pick up a piece, munch away from my hand, finish, put down the bone, proceed to rub
the grease from my fingers into my arms, dignified with a thousand mile stare. My parents, everyone at the table, don’t all talk at
once, what the hell are you doing. Just rubbing the fat in, I say, it’s good to ward off the chill.
Go wash. Don’t do that again.
The next Broken Arrow I see (for the name of the earlier one) is John Woo’s with JohnTravolta. Wonderful, two A-Bombs go missing. Someone says the only reason for John Woo to have two, you know, for shit sure, and he does, he’s going to blow one up. It’s great!