Judd Apatow’s Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

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LAST NIGHT I finally came to the end of Judd Apatow’s extraordinary four-hour film about the late Garry Shandling – the so-called Zen Diaries of said comedian.
As the director of There’s Something About Mary read aloud a letter that Shandling had written to the older brother who’d died, as a child, of cystic fibrosis, I completely lost it – I broke down and sobbed. I’d come to the close of a remarkable, hilarious, neurotic life haunted by the loss of Barry Shandling (a death never explained to the little brother) and felt overwhelmed by compassion for the witheringly brilliant creator of the meta-show about host Larry Sanders.
It made me realise how much Shandling and his Comedy Store peers – a particular strain of American-Jewish humour that slices through to the heart of the human condition – have meant to me. And it prompted this short distillation of gratitude for the sheer fearlessness of Shandling, Seinfeld, Silverman, Larry David – and of Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason and the many who came before them. Out of such pain has come the purest comedic joy I’ve ever known.

 

comedy store

Always I’m in awe of them:

unsparing men and salty women

lancing my illusions

and my gentile self-delusions.

No hugging and no learning,

nothing left to lose:

ancestral agony of pogroms

and the terrors of the Zyklon B.

The balls it takes to work that space,

illusion of a mastery that masks

the backstage whimper of a fevered need:

  “You think they liked me?”

“Man, you killed out there.”

for mary p

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What does it mean for us that life, for you,

became too bleak to bear?

By your not ending it, your life as such

would not have changed.

The room would be the same,

the world would still have gone about its restless business.

You might have seen it differently.

But three days later it might still have been

as dark and fruitless as before,

regardless of the love we heaped on you,

the testaments to all you did for us.

 

How could a woman who had given all give up?

Where did those sinking lows take you?

We could not reach you there. We were irrelevant,

were talking loud and only speaking air.

Did you believe that it would change you

in transforming consciousness to naught,

in jolting you from day to night? Well, you were right.

It leaves me questioning my own diminished appetite,

however schooled I’ve been to stop the plunging lows,

to put one foot before the other

and to give this life another go.

 

A poem and some pix from Ithaca

 

 

No one knows I’m here, or cares especially,

and if I close my eyes I hear

the distant things Odysseus would have known

if he indeed existed in this place.

 

The chittering birds,

the muted bonging of the bells

on necks of goats,

like finger-chimes of monks in monasteries.

 

I smell the wafted perfumes he’d have breathed:

the mix of earth and herbs and warmed-through stone,

the pines and cypresses in this ravine

so high the clouds are stealing softly past.

 

A giant bowl of human silence,

fecund stadium indifferent to me,

except the cats that track my every move,

their hungry eyes on high alert.

 

One might just say the silence deafens

when compared to planes that track the Thames

on their descent over my London roof,

assaulting me in morning meditation every working day.

 

I climb and cannot quite believe

there are no yells or honks

or whoosh of traffic on the bridge,

but just the softest wind.

 

The bells now nearer through the pines,

the sounds of life on earth for one who watches,

listens, still as he can be,

expecting nothing more.

 

Exogi, September 2017

Commemoration

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My paternal grandfather Chandos died in June 1940 of the wounds he received at the Siege of Calais. Herewith a few sheepish thoughts about a man I never knew.

 

To understand from whence I came,

I’ve said I’ll look into some papers

and some ancient clippings from The Times

as yellow-grey and dry as bones.

 

I finger through the pale blue letters sent

from farms in Gloucestershire and Kent:

the hardened stance of all of us in this together

who’ve lost a brother, lover, friend.

 

But then a sprig of chestnut hair, as little as a fishing fly,

that Chandos Hoskyns clipped, intended for a locket

should he fall, now twisting in between

my forefinger and thumb.

 

And further on I fall upon

the letter that my father John wrote home at 12

from school in Scarborough, begging Mother

to “cheer up” and not to be “too awfully sad”.

 

And now I’m spruced and suited in the Calais sun,

a hundred yards from where the C.O. fell,

a wreath clutched in my hands, and ready here

to lay it with the other rings.

 

I’m thinking what my grandfather would make of me –

this milksop pseudo-intellectual who cannot glorify

the wars of fools, yet here must halt

to mark the life he sacrificed.

 

We will remember them

and then we’ll return across the sea.

We may be home in time for tea.

 

 

For Christophe Edwards (1954-2017)

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spared

 

One, and then another, taken out.

A father gone, and then a friend.

The space they took now voided

when you thought they always would be there,

breathing somewhere far or near.

 

But keep your head down, get the job done,

keep the blinkers on.

Try not thinking what they’d think

if they could see you, see that life goes on

to no great purpose after all.

Olfactory lines

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They say you can’t describe a smell,

but when I’m in the bath or shower I want to say

where these scents send me:

to a special place in memory, or merely to the hotel room

where first I was suffused by Templetree or Silver Birch

or where the drenching of sweet Bushukan

transported me to honeyed glades or back

to other hotel rooms where odours spoke of luxury, enchantment,

and the softening thighs of dreaming girls.

 

These colours and these scents combine at 7.25 am

and for a moment drug me with perfume and with turquoise,

or drown me in their glowing amber pools.

Later comes the plunge in milky waters with a book:

I’m all but drinking the elixir of Fenjal,

an oil of blueish green that speaks

of foreign nights and vintage Vogues,

of willowed women in exquisite robes.

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Poem for Ron Sexsmith

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Long Player

 

The name’s a strange one:

Sexsmith by trade or by vocation

with voice of plummy angel and sad child’s face,

distilling pitfalls of our frailty,

miniatures of moments,

reveries of sorrow and of fate.

 

Friend in need

when I have need of tender mending,

I love that you don’t strut and are not smug –

are sweetly vulnerable instead,

self-effaced Canadian

with nest of hair and doleful eyes.

 

Ghosts of ’60s harmonies

haunt every song and well-honed phrase

repurposed and reclaimed:

Your former glory in a flash,

Now lost in thought or thought out loud.

 

Who cares if you’re not hip.

These songs will sound around the world

through my remaining days.

 

Us and Them

Donald Trump Campaigns Along SC Coast One Day Ahead Of Primary

I told my friends I wouldn’t say another thing,

for really what more can be said

of something so beyond belief, except it hurts

that millions blind themselves so willfully to what he is:

a lacquered pig who peddles venom

and a puffing pride in something called “America” –

what is that gross abstraction anyway? –

but who has never done a thing to aid the working stiffs

who grope between the legs of battered chicks.

 

Now all right-thinking lefties who despair of “them” –

the Muslim-bashing truckers

with their God ‘n’ guns ‘n’ strung-out sons,

the trailer trash without a hope in hell

of getting through December –

get to choose who we hate more:

the Wall Street masters of the universe,

eviscerating industry with algorithmic skill,

or monstrous demagogues who stir

the bubbling undertow of human fear.

Things to Come – A Francophile writes

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MY WIFE OFTEN mocks my penchant for austere Euro art movies. So when we went to see Mia Hansen-Love’s L’Avenir (Things to Come) at one of London’s inevitable Curzons, it felt like slipping into an old pair of espadrilles. I remembered liking Hansen-Love’s Le Père de mes enfants (2009) and figured – on the basis of the inevitable reviews by Peter Bradshaw et al. – that I’d like L’Avenir.

And guess what, I did. Apart from anything else, Isabelle Huppert was superb: bustling, unsentimental, alone and ultimately atomised. Yet I wasn’t entirely moved by her late-middle-aged losses, however many of them I’ve shared. That’s partly because her character (Nathalie Chazeaux) so effectively seals herself off from compassion, retreating for comfort into the pensées of Pascal, Rousseau and the many other philosophers whose work she teaches to her Parisian students.

But it’s also partly because L’Avenir felt familiar to the point of generic staleness: with a few changes of wardrobe and automobile, the film could have been made 30 years ago by, say, the great Bertrand Tavernier. The arthouse tropes were reassuringly non-Anglo-American: the endless bookshelves, the coffees and the baguettes, the jagged Alpine mountains and the Brittany coastline, the sardonic political banter à table.

En route home, my wife inevitably asked if I’d enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure. I’d admired it; it wasn’t pretentious; its absence of catharsis was, in many ways, admirable. But had it really just been another fix for my Francophile snobbery? Some residual belief that French intellectuels think more deeply about the human condition than Brits or Yanks do – even when all the pages of Pascal and Rousseau (or, for that matter, Adorno and Schopenhauer, who also get regular namechecks in L’Avenir) offer so little comfort to Hansen’s heroine?

In that connection, here’s a poem I wrote a couple of years ago about, well, my penchant for austere Euro art movies:

Art House

Plusher seats and fancier snacks,

Guardianista dreaming in the dark:

No popcorn here, no CGI,

just quiet scenes of bourgeois desperation,

suites in Paris or Milan,

the quaint and crumbly farmhouse,

tension and baguettes,

father, daughter, in a Citroen,

not even speaking.

Four-hour films without a single gun,

occasionally a breadknife raised in anger.

Haneke, Almodovar, Zvyaguintsev's The Return.

Films of slow release for middle-aged and middle-class,

waiting for catharsis as we crunch Wasabi nuts.