Flesh made word

Looking for a good specimen of typewriting, I found myself rummaging through a box of my old papers. There I recovered a rubber-banded stack of 3×5″ index cards on which I’d once catalogued the vestiges of dreams that I could dredge up the morning after — mostly nightmares, like this fragment of tortured adolescence:

Dream notation (detail)

At the time I had a small manual typewriter whose slightly balky keys required that I strike them forcefully enough to propel the letters against the raised ink ribbon, imprinting slightly splattered black marks on the white paper.

The sharp report of my early morning typing was so loud as to jar awake whatever part of me still lingered in sleep. This routine was not only my daily mental exercise but also, to the slight degree befitting the gaunt teenager I was at the time, my physical exercise too. For typing demanded at least a few exertions:

  • rolling the stiff index cards into the platen straight.
  • striking the keys at an even rhythm that was fast enough to keep pace with my thoughts, but not so fast as to jam the letters.
  • tugging the carriage return lever to bring me back to the left margin while pushing me one line space down the page.

Typing is such a loud and forceful action that an iconic image of the early- to-mid 20th century is of a writer at his typewriter pounding out urgent dispatches, often from the front. Writing was a kind of battle with the page, and the writer figured as either an actual or a symbolic war correspondent, his inner tortures sometimes seeming as brutal as any combat swirling around him on the battlefield.

I say “Him” not only because the grammar I grew up with made the third person singular male by default, but also because as a teenager I chose my literary heroes from a pantheon of men. Eliot, for example.

This detail from his typed draft of The Wasteland illustrates the violence of revision:

Wasteland manuscript (detail)

The typist at teatime evoked by Eliot in these lines, however, is not a man but a woman — and not a writer, but a secretary, on whom the typewriter confers the altogether different social role of female subservience.

Her job is to take down the man’s dictation in shorthand and then type up a fair copy for him afterward, his hands never having touched the machine (though perhaps having touched her, at least implicitly).

No secretary would ever dare eviscerate a page the way the author did; only another writer would (as in this most famous of cases did Ezra Pound to Eliot’s actual draft).

Visual vehemence

What’s particularly striking is the look of visual vehemence that typing gave to raw pages. It was as if with this particular machine a writer felt he could physically pound some sense into his draft, asserting his muscular dominance over words that might otherwise go their own evasive ways.

Seeing a word or phrase gone wrong, he’d correct it with crude and impatient directness — x-ing it over with the x key, covering it up with Wite-Out®, or scribbling all around it with pencil or pen.

Until the time when a writer’s text was finally typeset and printed, there was no way he could keep his doctoring of the page under wraps, and so the manuscript never lost its sense of immediacy, never seemed completely done. The writer as reviser always threatened a return, the corpse still so warm that it could be shocked back to breath anew.

Sometimes the writer resorted to more violent surgery of his pages. Wielding a razor-blade like a scalpel, he’d cut whole limbs of his draft and then Scotch®-tape them back into a newly Frankensteined body, stitches showing.


If all the foregoing seems to push its metaphorical readings too far, they at least report accurately the sense I had of things as an impassioned young man, when writing seemed as if it might be turning into concrete and heroic action the way that painting had in the hands of Jackson Pollack. I took this notion not so much from Kerouac’s celebrated amphetamine-fueled typing of his On the Road manuscript (“spontaneous prose”) as from Burroughs’s razor-blade cut- ups.

I tried forcing parallels between verbal and filmic syntax, as described in an earlier entry, Succession.

For cutting as a physical act engrossed me in those days: I was as immersed in filmmaking as I was in writing. (Also, though this scarcely belongs here but would be dishonest to omit: at a couple of moments of extremity, I turned to self-cutting, but thankfully with fingernails not razor-blades).

The editing of Super-8 film was a literal cut-and-paste procedure, which began with my cutting the acetate film footage into different shots. I’d hang these strips from the little nails I’d hammered in rows near the top of my bedroom walls and then lie on my bed while pondering how to combine them. When I’d chosen two shots to splice together, I’d use a mechanical film splicer to scrape the emulsifier off the edge of one strip and bond it with film cement to the edge of the other (the glue’s acrid smell and its lingering stickiness on my fingertips now comes back to me for the first time in many years).

Since I couldn’t afford work-prints and had to operate directly on my original footage, the physical act of cutting constituted what we’d now call destructive editing: each cut would consume at least one frame of film and could not be undone without additional damage. This meant that making a cut was never a decision I could take lightly nor execute automatically.

While this is not quite so true of cutting up and then pasting different typewritten pieces together, it’s certainly the case that writing and editing in what’s fast receding as the mechanical age was necessarily a slower, more deliberate, and above all more visible process than in the word processing of our digital age.

Since to cut-and-paste on the computer is easy, fast, and invisible, writers now leave no trace of their efforts.

It once occurred to me that this contemporary version of cut-and-paste has many of the same consequences (except pain) as the nip-and-tuck of contemporary facelifts, a thought that led to this text from _Other Bodies _:

text from Other Bodies


Inside the Exhibition and Admit the Peacock. 2006, Roundy Wells Press: Massachusetts.

Several years ago my cousin Rebecca Kaiser Gibson sent me two chapbooks of her poetry, which I carried with me on a trip to Austria and read carefully in my cramped barracks-like hotel room at night.

(By day, among other things, I came across an audiotour that sent me walking over the underground slave labor factories of Mauthausen-Gusen, an experience I wrote about elsewhere).

For some reason, I never opened Rebecca’s books at home here in Manhattan until recently, when I looked up the poem that had had lingered so long with me and triggered the thoughts now finding voice in this piece of writing.

The poem is entitled Exhibition: The Books of Kells, and the middle of its fifteen lines, reproduced below, muse on the materiality of this sacred medieval tome, which had once been buried by thieves to hide evidence of their crime:

from Exhibition: The Book of Kells by Rebecca Kaiser Gibson

The closeness of Rebecca’s observations, it seems to me, puts the reader in nearly the same relation to the page as the original scribes, whose thoughts may have wandered along similar lines as they spent their days in the inscription or illumination of the gospel passage entrusted to their care. What boat from what plant on what shore had brought this particular color to their brush?

Wonderings like these are to explain visual things, which is fitting, for the Book of Kells was more to be seen than to be read. As a precious sacred object, its purpose was to inspire churchgoers from afar rather than to be pored over by a pious parishioner in the library.

Or by a monk in his cell. But he had no need for it there, where his practice of slow reading had him humbly absorbing a very short passage of Scripture to the exclusion of all other words (and fleshly temptations) over the long spells of self-inflicted solitary confinement.

The rhythm of the words must have come to rule the rise and fall of his breath, even the pumping of his blood; and as for their meaning, it must have enlarged to fill all the space left vacant in his solitude.

This, I think, is what poetry wants; wants and now rarely gets — the inwardness, slowness, and spaciousness of contemplation.

These are conditions that poetry still commanded in the days when the memorized lines of Shakespeare and Keats could be effortlessly called to mind and to tongue. But now ever less so.

Even these lines of prose want something similar, though they’ll never have it. Here on the screen the eye skids off of in every direction, the hand reaching for this or that other window or hyperlink, the mind ever distracted and distanced.

Henry / Husky

The first I learned of my cousin’s poetry was about twenty years earlier when she’d started reading me drafts of the pieces she was writing — almost transcribing — at her father’s bedside. Rebecca called these the Henry poems, Henry being her father, though he went by that name only on such things as his law firm’s letterhead and the briefs he signed.

The world knew him as Husky: the right name for this larger-than-life great- uncle of mine, who at that time was being felled by a cancer that had begun in his lungs and moved to his brain — likely caused by his heavy cigar habit, if not by his wife’s second-hand smoke which joined with his in pervading every nook and cranny of their sizable home.

This property, which stood just over the District line in an old Maryland suburb of Washington, had white colonial columns flanking its front door; a living room dark with heavy drapes and Persian carpet; and a bright blue swimming pool in back that would half-blind me as a boy after too many hours playing Marco Polo in its chlorine.

Facing the house across Bradley Lane was the high fencing of the Chevy Chase Country Club, a place Husky regarded with special scorn, refusing to forget the days when its rules barred all Jews from joining. Husky would time his celebration of American independence with the club’s, which often meant July 3rd rather than the 4th. After a big hotdog-and-hamburger barbecue, family and friends would lean back in their lawn chairs to watch the country club’s fancy fireworks exploding in the wide-open skies over their well-guarded fairways and sand-traps.

Part of our pleasure was in paying no dues for the bigots’ rockets’ red glare.

My father has only recently stopped hinting to his children that the Constitution nowhere requires the possession of a law degree for an American to become a Supreme Court justice. Since none of the three of us ever showed the slightest interest in law school (but rather downright contempt, at least on my part), this was his wry way of conveying his idea of a citizen’s highest aspiration.

It was from a similar feeling that he would often relate to us the perhaps fanciful story of Husky’s near-nomination to our highest court. In those days, however, I paid scant attention to such family history, not wanting my future to be projected from their past … which has meant that few of the details I’ve now wanted for this account are in my immediate possession. Several east-to- west-coast phone conversations with my parents have helped, and I’ve also tried my luck on the web.

But there I’ve been surprised to find so little. After filtering out hits for no-relations Henry J. Kaiser the industrialist and his grandson Henry Kaiser the experimental guitarist (whom I once encountered as he prepared for an odd artist-in-residency in Antarctica), I found few links to follow.

The Washington Post’s obituary — overseen, I think, by that paper’s writer and editor Robert Kaiser (Husk’s nephew and my cousin once-removed) — proved to be hidden online behind quite a paywall: a frameable paper reprint was the only option, an exorbitant $74.95. Meanwhile, the New York Times’s archive, though free for the reading, yielded a cursory notice that told me nothing new.

Google Books returned a set of better results: scanned pages from an unlikely source, “The World’s Foremost Amusement Weekly,” The Billboard (a publication that still exists, minus the “The” in its name). Husky appeared in several articles of the late 40s, all concerned with the recently passed and much detested Taft-Hartley labor law. The newspapermen were evidently in Husky’s corner, as revealed for example in this sentence (its phrasing straight out of a post-war film noir):

Variety, June 18, 1949

It was from a brief article on June 18, 1949, that Husky’s own distinctive voice has come back to me most clearly, a gruff quick-witted rumble that sounds across the decades:

Variety, June 18, 1949

This barb was pure Husky. Given his own habit of plain speaking and direct dealing, he must have had trouble stomaching the convolution and cant of his field, not to mention the high-mindedness that often masked its self-serving methods (— the more incomprehensible the statute, the more numerous the billable hours, as I once learned in a different context).

Imagine Husky’s fury over the Tea Party’s union-busting tactics in Wisconsin (headline news as I write this paragraph). It was in liberal Madison in the Great Depression that he earned his law degree.

Husky’s belief, I gather, was that management and labor should just be allowed to duke it out (Husky looked like an ex-boxer) — the opposing parties’ naked interests should be plain for everyone to see, and government bureaucrats should have no business meddling (“mediating”) in the fight other than to referee it.

It was an outrage to labor that the Taft-Hartley legislators had limited the rights of workers to call a strike and walk out on their bosses. Let the two sides be free to go through the rounds, and may the best man win. (The best man, it went without saying, would be the worker.)


Husky had a long memory for shape-shifting hypocrites. No one aroused his scorn like a phony (his favorite term of disparagement), and he skewered phoniness in whatever form he found it.

Case in point — He was one of few liberals who didn’t fall for John F. (Jack) Kennedy in his so-called Camelot days, for why should he let down his guard for so obvious a phony? He wouldn’t turn a blind eye to the man’s father Joseph Kennedy, that anti-semite and Nazi appeaser who’d channeled his own ambitions through his boys’ political careers and who’d succeeded in buying his second son a presidency.

As for the slightly later legend of Robert (Bobby) Kennedy — embraced by the so-called youth counter-culture and, like his brother, sanctified after his assassination — Husky would have none of him either, unwilling to forget that Bobby had once served his father’s pal Joseph McCarthy with no small show of zeal. Even after resigning his post as a senior staff member of McCarthy’s red-baiting Investigations Subcommittee, Bobby’d never repudiated the demagogue, who also escaped any denunciation by Jack, a Senator at the time, which confirmed at least to Husky the phoniness of both brothers’ liberalism.

Strange attire

Husky’s manner of dress bewildered my parents as much as it did me, for with his loud shirts (often bright red) which he wore with collar wide open around his powerful neck, he looked more like a Mafioso than he did the usual bloodless buttoned-down DC lawyer. Looking different was almost certainly his point, though given the widely rumored and too often actual corruption of organized labor by organized crime, it was still a weird choice for him, even if it signified nothing real (his beloved American Federation of Musicians was never suspected of being mobbed up the way the Teamsters and the Longshoreman’s unions were proven to be).

In the late 60s and early 70s, Husky drove a bright red Pontiac convertible (buy American), its top down whenever possible. I remember his second daughter, Tamara (or Tammy, the nickname she still went by then), telling me that Husk had a touching habit of giving rides to any hitchhikers he encountered on his daily commute downtown, getting into good-natured but disputatious conversations with his passengers, who tended to be college students or drop-outs — hippies as they were called early on, then freaks as they came to call themselves a few years later when the Flower Power dreams of peace and love had wilted.

Young fashion reflected this disillusionment, shifting from bright exotic psychedelia to working-class drab: thrift store work-shirt, blue jeans, and boots. This is what I wore on the breaks from prep school that, with our parents posted abroad, my brother and I would often spend at Husky’s; and if his mafioso clothing looked perverse to me, my workman’s outfit must have struck him the same way. Like the middle and upper class youth of my generation who followed this fashion, I’d never done a bit of manual labor in my life, so surely I counted as a phony too, though my uncle for once bit his tongue and didn’t say so outright.

(He did once insist on buying me a tailored pair of trousers, with shiny beige fabric [double-knit?] and permanent creases running down each leg. But this I wore not even once.)

Social aging

Social aging is Jean Améry’s term for a cultural obsolescence that he took to be at least as dismal as the body’s inevitable decline. Améry — anagrammed from his given name Mayer to put him at a linguistic remove from anschluss’d Austria, though he never stopped writing in his native German — was an unwilling expert on torture, having been schooled first by the Nazis in its Gestapo interrogation rooms and concentration camps and then, as he attested, by the betrayals of his old age (which he terminated in suicide at age 66).

As you get older, Améry observed, one of the deepest betrayals is that of your own thinking as it starts to date. Not that your ideas necessarily strike you as any less vital than they’ve ever been, but that they no longer mesh with whatever’s on the collective mind of the ever-younger world slipping away from you. When the times move on, they leave you behind in the increasingly irrelevant, or at least disregarded, past.

A telltale symptom of this loss of sync is that new terms and phrases start sounding wrong to your ears and positively ridiculous coming out of your mouth — so that as far as updating yourself goes, in this and in many other ways (clothing, to pick an even more ludicrous example), you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Even if you remain true to what comes naturally to you, you start second-guessing yourself, wondering whether the way you’ve been putting things now strikes others as quaint or stale, either option equally mortifying.

As for your store of accumulated wisdom, said to be the reward of maturity, but no longer so regarded by the young (and certainly not by an earlier version of me where Husky was concerned) — that wisdom is scaffolded by a once-common frame of reference that’s aging at least as fast as you are.

(I imagine that the older Améry must have found this cultural outmoding even more painful than Husky did, for he’d suffered through the inverse experience when young, which must explain his having written so profoundly about each.

(A secular Jew, Améry had been steeped from birth in German culture, but with the rise of Hitler this culture was no longer his but only his Nazis persecutors’ — who robbed him not only of Nietzsche, whose philosophy they cited, but even of Novalis, about whose poetry their periodicals could still publish not-wholly-obtuse appreciations. Even a certain German word — Jud — had become a stamp of death, for he saw how the word became flesh and how the incarnated word finally led to a heap of cadavers.)

No fork taken

I mentioned earlier my parents’ perhaps wishful belief that Husky was once nearly tapped for a judgeship on the Supreme Court. I think they might stress this possibility not only because of the great honor it would have brought him, but also — perhaps a subconscious thought — because it might have changed who he ended up becoming.

There are few areas in American life where so-called seniors can still command respect (or, failing that, exert force). With no fixed term or mandatory retirement age, and in confident possession of absolute autonomy, Supreme Court justices can continue working long into their old age — never facing the threat of irrelevance since their considered opinions still weigh as heavily as ever in the scales of justice.

No hope of that happening anymore with Reagan- or Bush-appointed justices, all chosen by ideological litmus tests.

At least during Husky’s years, the tendency of judges was to move to the left in their thinking; conservatives appointed by Nixon or Ford ended up taking much more liberal positions than anyone could have expected, not excluding themselves.

Confined to private life, Husky did the opposite, moving not so much toward the right as away from the left — not in his political ideas, and certainly not in his championing of labor, but in his general outlook on society, which he regarded with mounting bile. And if his scorn for the phoniness of many liberals was very often justified, this had the unfortunate effect of focusing his criticism more sharply on those who betrayed the cause than on those who’d never espoused it to begin with. I wonder whether Husky might even have succumbed unawares to the perverse logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

So far as actual rather than figurative friends went, Husky had ever fewer, for he grew estranged from those contemporaries who didn’t share his skepticism about phony liberals but instead stuck cheerfully to the party line (Democratic, of course).


In 1999, ten years after Husky’s death, I found myself standing in the projection booth of the State Theater at Lincoln Center, where we were setting up our projections for the New York premiere of BIPED. Working with me were two others: my colleague Shelley Eshkar, who was configuring our playback computer, and Jack Young, who’d spec’d our equipment and was now setting up the projector.

A fourth man was also with us in the booth, sitting in a corner and reading the sports pages. He had no job to do but was well paid for not doing it — by week’s end, he’d have collected a paycheck far greater than those of the Cunningham dancers, even though their performances were to meet with standing ovations.

Union contract required this shadow’s presence, and while it insured the man’s excellent salary, it was at the cost of his actual worth, by which I mean his dignity.

The perversity of this situation made me think of Husky, who’d had a hand in establishing the principle behind it. For he must have negotiated such things as the house minimums of Broadway, which required that a large number of live musicians be present for every show no matter how many were actually needed to perform the music. Not so long ago, many such superfluous musicians simply had to show up to be paid. They were known as walkers, so named for their daily perambulations from home to theater and immediately back again.

If earlier on I suggested wishful thinking on my parents’s part as they looked back on Husky’s life, the same is likely true of me when I speculate that for a temperament as adverse to bullshit and procedure as Husky’s, the unintended consequences of the inflexible and quickly outmoded union rules he set up, however well-meant originally, must have given rise to a growing unease in his gut that was all the greater for his having (for the sake of his own self- regard) to suppress.

Diet and exercise

At home Husky’s diet relied increasingly on midnight raids on the fridge (for club sandwiches bulging with cold-cuts) and on television, which was almost always on. His running commentary was gruffly amusing and often incisive, but answering the fools on TV doesn’t do much to sharpen your wits. Other than the newspaper, I didn’t see him reading much else, and so the deeper arguments to be found in real books stopped challenging his habits of mind.

Just as your arteries tend to harden with age, so too does your thinking. Exercise of mind and body is said to go far in counteracting both effects of aging, but Husky was getting little of either.

Pain and soliloquy

As my memory brings Husky’s final scene into sharper view, I see that it was probably not at Husky’s bedside that Rebecca took down the lines for her Henry pieces. Instead she must have sat next to the substantial leather chair in which I always found Husky as he suffered through the protracted days of his dying. So agonizing was the pain of his cancer that it sometimes drove him temporarily out of his mind.

When I visited, I’d already hear his loud groans from the ground floor, so it was with dread that I climbed the stairs to his study, a dark room with a large television and desk. Next to the desk, a second door opened to a little bathroom connecting his study to the master bedroom he shared with his wife, my aunt Paula, to whom I was not related by blood and for whom I was not named.

Paula was an anesthesiologist who as a young lady had braved medical school to become a doctor in an era when women didn’t do that. They were meant to enter medicine only to become nurses, and then to be constantly at a male doctor’s beck and call.

Husky’s groans were not answered with the painkillers one would have expected his doctor, or his wife herself, to prescribe. His untreated agony was agonizing to witness, and I could not find it in my heart to forgive Paula for just standing by, still smoking her cigarettes. She insisted on not having her husband sedated into incoherence, and even mentioned fears of his getting addicted, as if that could possibly matter for this mortally ill man.

Only very recently did I learn more to account for Paula’s strange stance. As my parents tell it, Husky had earlier suffered a kind of psychotic break from his brain cancer, which his doctor had attempted to treat with thorazine only to provoke an even more intensely unpleasant reaction from him. Now Paula resisted giving him all but the most minor sedation, and the man was left on the rack of his body, subject to its unpitying torture.

By then Husky had lost most awareness of others and no longer talked much to us. Instead what poured from his mouth was long stretches from Shakespeare, speeches that he must have learned by heart as a youth and which had now come back to him with an astonishing intensity and eloquence.

If I could pretend to greater erudition than I possessed at the time, I would identify some of the lines that erupted from Husky in his anguish, no doubt opting for Lear. But because I recoiled from all the hamming-up of stage productions — from the feigned emotions overplayed by thespians — I kept myself then and for a long time afterward in ignorance of the Eternal Bard.

Still I was sure that Husky channeled Shakespeare more truly than had any actor declaiming to the far balconies. He may have mumbled and for all I know mixed up many of the lines, but his were true soliloquies — not stage- whispered to the complicit eavesdropping audience, but directed only inside himself, the sound rumbling around in his damaged lungs and the sense flaring up in his failing brain.