Craig McGregor on Living in the Bush

This morning, as I rummaged through my bookshelves in one of those periodic, vain attempts I make to try and organize them, I came upon my copy of Australia Fair?: Recollections, Observations, Irreverences (edited by Russell Braddon, Methuen, London, 1984). I had purchased it in 2000, in Sydney, at the Berkelouw’s bookshop on Oxford Street in Paddington, shortly after I moved to Australia to start my post-doc fellowship. Australia Fair? includes–as might be expected–from the title, a series of essays which attempt to flesh out, through the personal memoir, some notion of what an ‘Australian identity’ might be. An elusive task, no doubt, but certainly an intriguing and entertaining one. I was under no illusions  this collection would make me an expert on Australia, but I was keen to experience more of the distinctive Australian writerly voice, and to see what it made of its own land and peoples.

Among these essays, and one that I read with great gusto, because its subject matter seemed so close, is Craig McGregor‘s ‘Growing up in the bush’. In it, McGregor describes his childhood and early adult life in: first, Jamberoo, on the New South Wales coast, south of Sydney, then Gundagai, in south-west New South Wales, and then finally after an interlude in Gundagai township and Sydney, to ‘a farm on the North Coast at Repentance Creek, near Mullumbimby, not far south of the Queensland border.’ McGregor is unambiguous: the bush life, despite the natural beauty that encloses it, is hard scrabble, often lived on the margins, nature is unforgiving, and as adult sensibilities and responsibilities (including children) make their appearance, the bush appears ever more to afford only a tenuous hold for human habitation.

This point is illustrated quite colorfully by McGregor’s final passages:

I think it got to me, finally. We all loved it, and I rarely thought the bush was hostile, even when I was picking a tick off my balls or slashing lantana for hours on end with a brush-hook. We walked naked through the long grass and climbed rocks up to Minyon Falls, swam in the creek, and once when I startled a bronze-wing pigeon below the cow-bails and felt, rather than saw, it go flapping and swooping through the dark tree-trunks and hanging vines, the sun trickling through the leafy canopy onto the forest floor, I thought: I will never leave this place. Yet the sense of being exposed and vulnerable never went away. We weren’t used to it, of course; many people spend their entire lives in the bush, and wrest a living from it, whereas we weren’t even farming the land, just living on it. I came to realize however, that living so close on the land and its elemental nature can grind away at your sensibility until, over the years and or perhaps generations, someone like the familiar Australian countryman is fashioned: stoic laconic, unimaginative, and possibly cruel.

One summer’s day, sitting on the front verandah, I heard this terrible howling and screaming, half-human, half-animal. Our farm dog was rushing around and round under the house, as though chasing something, yelping; it took me a while to realize it was her, and that something was wrong; she kept banging into things. The children managed to catch her and bring her up to the verandah steps, but she was trembling like a child with fever and biting at them, and foam was starting at her mouth; she got to her feet and staggered drunkenly across the verandah, her legs giving way every few steps; fell down the back steps, ran off down the hill, stumbled into the barbed-wire fence; we ran after her but she kept running and falling over and howling and snapping at us when got near; she had a mad, glazed look about the eyes. We chased her all the way down to the creek, calling to her, trying to comfort her; she finally collapsed in the dry grass, jerking in fits and spasms, legs kicking, neck stretched out. When she had calmed down enough we wrapped her in a towel so she couldn’t bite us and drove for half an hour to the nearest town with a vet, but she was dead when we got there. It was the most shocking and pain-wracked death I have ever seen.

Brown snake.

We couldn’t find it. It was probably living under the house. The house was up on stumps, and the kids played under there.

We stayed on another three years.

I’m writing this in Bondi Junction.

The Subway: Let the Love-Hate Clichés Roll

When I first moved to New York City, I lived on 95th Street in Manhattan and rode down to 42nd Street for my graduate seminars.  My first commute on the subways was blindingly quick: I took the 2 or 3 downtown express at 96th and Broadway and one stop later (at 72nd Street) I disembarked at 42nd Street. Later, commutes grew more esoteric: when I briefly lived on the Mid-Upper East Side and worked in the Bronx, I walked west from 1st Avenue to Sixth Avenue to catch the D train uptown till Fordham Road. The ride was long and the subway cars were invariably empty, having disgorged their loads of passengers at Rockefeller Center. I had ample time and space–riding to and fro from work–to read the New York Times; I’ve never managed to read it as comprehensively ever again. Once I moved downtown, to the Lower East Side, my commutes changed again. I taught as an adjunct at Brooklyn College  and Queens College; travelling there required long subway rides and occasionally inefficient transfers. The Brooklyn College commute was worse: I taught on a Saturday morning and often had to deal with the surprises that the MTA often hands out on weekends to unwary train riders. When I returned to New York after my post-doctoral fellowship, I lived in Harlem and took the 2 downtown all the way to its terminus at Flatbush Avenue. I stood till Wall Street and then after procuring a seat, could finally settle down to reading.

Now, I walk to work and have been doing so for seven years. I miss the subway commute once in a while; mainly for the reading and the opportunities it provided for people-watching. I still ride the subway, of course; you cannot live in New York City and disdain it (unless you are driven around town); but now my rides are mostly quite short; they do not possess the quotidian sense of a daily ritual.

Thanks to walking to work, I do not miss: the rush-hour jams; the ‘sick passenger ‘ , ‘police incident’ and ‘track work’ delays, which occasionally resulted in the momentary, yet terrifying thought that immurement in a tunnel underneath the city would be my final fate; , the reroutings late at night and on weekends; the malodorous reminders of the City’s unfortunate who occasionally choose to make subways cars their home; the men who aggressively sprawl out over two seats and look askance at your suggestion that more space be created; the parents who bring gigantic vehicles on-board, which are ostensibly baby strollers, but which in appearance and girth resemble the kinds of motorized armoured vehicles that might have been used to invade Poland in the autumn of 1939; the incomprehensible squawks, er, announcements about service changes; the too-cold cars and too-hot stations in the summer; the open-air stations in the winter; the loud chattering on cell-phones; the harsh, tinny sounds emanating from a personal music player’s volume turned up too high.

That said, I still love the subway. It’s great and grand and old and tired, yes, but it still keeps the city running. If you didn’t know that you found out during Sandy or during the MTA strike a few years ago. If there is one thing in this city I feel almost warmly paternal towards, it’s the subway.

Note: In a future post, I hope to describe my first encounters with the New York subway–some twenty-six years ago.

The Police as Paramilitary Force: A Problematic Conception

It is rare to find a police force—anywhere in the world—that enjoys cordial relationships with the community it polices i.e., a police force that is viewed and treated inclusively as a member of the community, one not so much against the bad guys as for the good guys, and which conceives of itself as providing a friendly, courteous neighborly service to a non-adversarial entity. The familiar reality is strikingly different: in village, town and city, police forces are often viewed as lackeys of the state, engaged in active repression, handing out rough justice tinged with brutality, all the while protecting the powerful, the wealthy, the corrupt, and oppressing the poor, the disenfranchised, the politically weak. The widespread collusion of police with repressive political forces and regimes ensures that a police force—once again, almost anywhere in the world—is inevitably the speartip of most measures of political oppression, whether it be quelling demonstrations, assaulting detainees in custody, or sloppily enforcing unjust laws with careless disregard for judicial process.

A full analysis of why police forces’ relationships with their communities break down and degenerate into the current mix of fear and loathing on both sides of the divide is likely to involve the recounting of a very complex story involving intractable relations between groups of widely varying and differential power, theories of criminology, punishment, masculinity, and class-ridden socio-economic relationships; the efforts of many competent and literate political scientists and sociologists are devoted to precisely such a task. But a small hint at what goes wrong can be seen in the most basic, common and widely accepted descriptions of police and policing.

The police have traditionally been understood—in theory and practice—as a paramilitary force. They are designed as such and operate thereby, right down to their rank structures, uniforms, gallantry medals, training, command hierarchies and descriptive language; they wear stripes and badges on uniforms in military color schemes and use firearms, often indiscriminately. As a telling example, consider that in some urban police forces, traffic police often use cars or scooters or motorbikes that bear the legend ‘Interceptor’; these carry policemen from site to site as they enforce traffic control and ensure its smooth flow. But ‘interceptors’ in military parlance refers to vehicles used to disrupt and destroy enemy vehicles and forces making attacks on defended territory. It is most commonly used in military aviation to designate aircraft that attack bombers attacking high-value targets. These police vehicles are thus only “interceptors” in the mildest sense of the term. But when we designate a traffic police automobile with a term with far more offensive connotations than this ground reality, we reinforce an image of the police as engaged in warfare with ‘hostiles’; the police are now ‘defending us’ against hostiles armed to the teeth; they are operating in ‘hostile territory’, where the slightest wrong move could cost them their lives. But the police are supposed to be policing communities, not war zones; the people they police are supposed to be their fellow community members, not armed hostiles; the ‘bad guys’ are, more often than not, also members of those same local communities. Using this language transforms police work into a variant of military activity; it shades it with all the problematic hues of the battlefield.

Importing militarized language into our descriptions of policing reconfigures how police view their work and the community they service. Thinking of the police as a paramilitary organization quickly breeds an adversarial attitude on the part of the police, and toward the ‘criminal element’, which is only too conducive to the aggressive behavior sadly associated with policing. When viewed and acting as a paramilitary force, police resemble nothing so much as an occupying entity, perhaps a counter-insurgency unit dealing with a hostile population in a hostile territory. And we all know how beloved those forces are in the territories they seek to “control,” for almost invariably paramilitaries have a horrific human rights record when it comes to patrolling and ‘controlling’ domestic populations. Torture, deaths in custody, random, brutal, blunt violence directed against the weak; these are common enough occurrences in this domain. But that is only to be expected when the battlefield comes to the street, the lane, the village byway.

The problem with military and paramilitary language in the context of policing is not that this language has a simple, direct, causal relationship with police behavior; the problem is that this language is part of a packaging of police activity that causes police to reconceive themselves in a manner bound to create the civil rights problems we are sadly familiar with. The constant use of militarized language for the police devises a very particular operational culture, one bred in its academies and training and reinforced by daily operations and modes of interaction.

Words and descriptions find their applicability in networks of meanings that trigger particular associations. So, self-conception by the choice of language we use to describe ourselves and others makes a difference to our eventual activity and theirs. That is why we choose to tell particular stories about ourselves, to construct particular narratives, framed in highly specific ways; this is why we insist people describe us in certain ways and not others. Remember the old joke about the young man who worked at a gas station and told everyone he was a “petroleum transfer engineer”? A police “force” that thinks it is a basically a paramilitary organization is off to a bad start; conflict, often armed variants of it, is now part of its raison d’etre; as it continues to deploy the language associated with the military it is setting itself further down the road to an essentially adversarial, hostile relationship with its community. Buildings in which people live cease to be “homes;” they become “territory” to be controlled. In hostile territory: one kills or is killed; everyone is to be suspected; it is us-against-them. There is no community here, no fellow-citizens. Interrogations are now occasions for brutal testing of the ‘enemy’s’ resolve; any methods may be deployed to neuter his threat.

It is a sad commonplace observation that in any domain where the language of ‘war’ and ‘battle’ is thrown around freely, the standards of behavior decline. Consider sport, where the all-too frequent reliance on military tropes and metaphors results in the condoning of illegitimate play, questionable sportsmanship, pernicious, xenophobic nationalism, the ludicrous equation of sporting skill with national worth, and more generally and relevantly, the attitude that games, like wars, must be won by any means necessary. Or, as in policing, where the constant reference to war zones results in a ‘shoot or be shot’ or ‘strike first and hard’ mentalities that takes the lives of many innocents each year. The trigger-and-baton-happy policeman is already convinced he is a soldier on patrol, well behind enemy lines, surrounded by hostiles ready to take him out. The outcomes that result are grimly foretold.

Note: This post draws on–i.e., often directly plagiarizes–material from three earlier posts on this blog: ‘Traffic Interceptors and the Militarization of Police‘; ‘Police Militarization – Contd.‘ and ‘Academic Arguments, Sports, and Urban Policing as War‘ . I’d wanted to combine some of the points made therein into one note.

Twenty20 Franchises and the Evolution of Modern Cricket

As the fixing-scandal ridden sixth season of the Indian Premier League ended on Sunday, I thought it might be time to revisit the opening section of my concluding chapter in Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket, where I had attempted to assess where the world of cricket might be headed in response to the presence of the Twenty20 franchise:

Cricket’s future need not be a zero-sum game, where every gain for the world’s growing Twenty20 leagues can only be paid for by a loss to Test cricket. And grow these leagues will, for given the presence of the IPL and the BBL—whose members are likely to form international partnerships once Indian investors begin to participate, and where the BBL might even conceivably consider inviting an IPL franchise to participate—it will not be too long before England and South Africa consider leagues similar in structure, organization and possibly pay scales. These Twenty20 franchise-based leagues will offer many more cricketers a chance to make a living from playing the game and could even point the way to a possible judicious reconciliation of  the now-competing—and possibly cannibalizing—situation of multiple formats and club–country conflict.

One possible trajectory of cricket’s future path could see cricket emulating football’s current arrangements. Professional cricketers could play franchise cricket in Twenty20 and one-day formats all year long, in domestic, quasi-international leagues, with non-overlapping windows to maximize movements between labour markets, and then be called on at specific times of the year for a small number of international Twenty20 and one-day encounters, which serve as qualifying matches for quadrennial World Cups. Hopefully, clearly specified union-and-labour lawyer-vetted contracts signed by franchises and national boards will safeguard interests all around. Test cricket’s place within this scenario will be a function of player and fan interest alike. It might be that only some countries will show the desire and the wherewithal to field Test teams. In this scenario, arbitrarily arranged bilateral encounters would be sharply limited, as will triangular one-day tournaments.

Cricket should be prepared for some seminal legal disputes if clubs and countries are unable to resolve their disputes via co-operation. In particular, player–board conflicts like those of Shahid Afridi and the PCB in 2011 will bear close scrutiny. Much like Grieg vs Insole did, future club–country–player clashes in court will clarify many power relationships and establish important legal precedents. Much lucrative employment awaits sports and employment lawyers as cricketers in India and elsewhere seek professional representation in dealing with franchises and in clarifying the nature of their contracts so that they can artfully juggle club–country commitments. And if the power of the franchise grows, players will need legal representation in dealing with their new paymasters and in evolving a wholly new set of labour relations. The need for a players’ union will not diminish; it will only grow as the game moves on to the next level of professionalization.

Given the importance and continued growth of Twenty20 leagues, franchises might come to be entrusted with domestic scenes in each of the cricket-playing countries. Co-operation between national boards and the new franchises could be enhanced in a manner similar to that suggested for the domestic scene in India, where franchises could revitalize domestic cricket by demanding the availability of  international players for their competitions, and seek representation on joint administrative councils with national boards.

The most extravagant possibility of the franchise-based world, that national boards will be replaced by franchises who might go on to stage Super Tests similar to those of the WSC, played between either multinational collections or even national outfits, needs to be seriously entertained, especially if fans make clear that they are only interested in watching the highest quality Test cricket. From the current ten Test sides playing today, it would be possible to put together fewer high quality sides that could play at a higher skill and competence level.

Some Test sides might have more players in their ranks than can be accommodated into their national teams; they could find employment in the new franchise system when not confined by national boundaries. Some countries might not have eleven genuine Test-class players to field a national eleven but they might be able to offer at least a couple of quality players to one of the Test-playing franchises. These players could  serve as an inspiration for others in their local systems and thus boost its development. If plans for a Test championship—staged amongst franchises’ or nations’ teams—come to fruition, cricket would offer three world championships of interest to two non-disjoint fan demographics.

The primary worry for Test cricket will remain the interest of players themselves in the longer forms of the game. If the desertion by players of Tests turns from a trickle into a flood, the game might well and truly be over. But if cricketers still find the legend of Test cricket an inspiration and consider their performances in it a true test of themselves, especially against top-class opposition, then Test cricket will prosper. But it will still need careful stewarding and the possibility of subsidizing attendance at Tests, and the willingness to incur losses subsidized by other formats should be seriously considered. The primacy of the television rights deal makes these loss-leader solutions possible, and it would be a shame to ignore them.

Nothing will improve cricket’s lot more than the professionalization of its management, whether by changing the  personnel of national boards, or by introducing new administrative bodies. If franchises are able to both provide better remuneration and more professional management to cricketers, the contrast with national boards will be a pleasant one, lessening any desire a cricketer might have for dealing with their vagaries.

Does Explanation Constitute Justification? Geras Contra Greenwald and Eagleton

And does it thereby also run the risk of shading into apologia when the event being explained is one that would strike some as a heinous act? In response to the Woolwich killing of a British soldier by machete-wielding assailants, Glenn Greenwald thinks not. Terry Eagleton agrees (in a fashion). Norman Geras disagrees. (As the links in that Geras post and his responses in this interview will show, this is not a new concern for him.)


I know exactly how some people reflexively try to radically distort the argument beyond recognition in order to smear you as a Terror apologist, a Terrorist-lover or worse, all for the thought crime of raising these issues. To do so, they deceitfully conflate claims of causation (A is one of the causes of B) with justification (B is justified). Anyone operating with the most basic levels of rationality understands that these concepts are distinct. To discuss what motivates a person to engage in Action B is not remotely to justify Action B.


It is rather because [those who would condemn apologia] imagine, in their muddled way, that to explain an event is to excuse it. Those who point to the dead of Iraq and Afghanistan are surely doing so as a devious way of justifying the slaughter of a young soldier outside his barracks.

Do they also think this about the crimes of Hitler or Stalin? Are they really suggesting that historians who delve into the origins of fascism are secret Nazi sympathisers, or that to lay bare the causes of the Gulag is to exonerate its architects? The problem for these commentators is that if an event can be explained, it must be rationally motivated, and that sounds uncomfortably close to endorsing it. To call an action rational, however, is by no means to justify it.


First, Eagleton is right: you can explain a bad event without being an apologist for it. But, second, you can also purport to explain something precisely in order to excuse it. Or: To understand is not necessarily to condone, yet it just might be. The logic here isn’t difficult to grasp; not all people are academics, but some people are academics. Etc. It is also the case that what presents itself as historical explanation can sometimes have a plainly apologetic function. I recommend to Eagleton’s attention the so-called Historians’ Dispute – the Historikerstreit – in West Germany (as was) in the late 1980s, and the contributions to it in particular of Ernst Nolte.

Geras goes on to draw an uncomfortable analogy:

Imagine men who commit rape and say, ‘I did it because she was asking for it; you should have seen how she was dressed, and flaunting herself, etc.’ [But my interlocutor] says that one must concede some rationality to these men and to their explanation for their acts of violence against women, otherwise one has denied the possibility of rational explanation as such – even though plenty of men don’t rape women, however dressed, and even though those who do do so justify their actions by reference to a pernicious belief system…[my interlocutor] always quick to explain (without justifying) the likes of the Woolwich killing or of the Boston bombings, nearly never, if they ever, make any effort to explain (without justifying) the use by Western governments of torture and extraordinary rendition. They do not urge upon people the need to understand torture as a response to what the jihadists do, on the grounds that if we fail so to understand it, we’ll lose all grip on rational explanation…

But, you know, to explain is not to justify. Well, sometimes it isn’t. But sometimes it is to condone or attempt to mitigate or get people to look away from what you don’t want them to notice.

Geras is right that some explanations function as excuses; after all our anger at a miscreant does often ebb once he explains why he did what he did. Why else would we offer explanations for actions of ours that meet with disapproval?  That said, the disagreement between Greenwald, Eagleton and Geras is perhaps at a more fundamental level.

To provide an explanation of something is to make it more comprehensible in the light of beliefs already held. An ‘explanation’ of a comet’s tail in language comprehensible to a graduate student in physics will not be one to a schoolboy untutored in the barest notions of astrophysics; an atheist looking for  an explanation of his beloved’s death will not find a theological explanation couched in terms of God’s ‘plan’ satisfactory.  This definition also implies merely providing the cause of an event will not be sufficient if that cause itself is incomprehensible; one convinced that a malevolent terror is on the loose will not be convinced that the medical cause for a loved one’s death provides any explanation whatsoever.  For these unsatisfied folk, the world retains its inexplicability even after the explanation is provided, one that might be satisfactory to someone else. The subject of an explanation has an active role to play in making that explanation a good one.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Geras does not consider these particular recountings of the causes and motives of the Woolwich killer to be explanations at all: they do not locate the event in the proper or correct network of causes, motives and actions; the killings remain mysterious on their accounts. The correct explanation, for Geras, of the Woolwich killing must include explicit reference to a host of factors left out by Greenwald and Eagleton; it is the incompleteness, the lack of comprehensiveness of the explanations offered by Greenwald and Eagleton, that for Geras turns them into apologia. In the rape and torture examples, those who reject the putative explanations as apologia are doing the same; they don’t consider them explanations at all. Consider, for instance, that someone had ‘explained’ the Woolwich killings in purely biological/physiological/physical terms (if this was at all possible).  We would scarcely consider this an explanation; we understand the right language of explanation for this act will be drawn from elsewhere (politics, theories of violence, history and so on). That ‘explanation’ would sound like apologia to Greenwald and Eagleton.

Freud, Pointing to Poets

Some distinctive features of Sigmund Freud‘s writings are: a clarity of exposition–at least in works intended for more general audiences–which offset the density and novelty of the subject matter; a tendency to philosophize while simultaneously disdaining philosophical speculation; an unswerving overt commitment to science, scientific probity, virtue, and methodology; and lastly, and most entertainingly, a keen pleasure in allowing readers access to his polymathic explorations of literature, legend, poetry and art. I have noted this last feature in an earlier post on Freud where I pointed out his invocation of Goethe in discussing the nature of human happiness; all too often, for Freud, poets most succinctly illustrated the conceptual point currently at play in his writing.

These aspects of Freud’s work are on display in this deft conclusion to the always-entertaining Beyond the Pleasure Principle:  

From within, our consciousness conveys to us feelings not only of pleasure and unpleasure, but also of a particular tension which itself can be pleasurable and unpleasurable. Is it the bound and the unbound processes of energy that we should distinguish by means of these feelings? Or shall we relate the feeling of tension to the absolute quantity, or perhaps the level, of charge, while the series of feelings of pleasure and unpleasure points to a change in the quantity of the charge per unit of time? We will also notice that the life drives have so much more to do with our internal perception since they act as disturbers of the peace and continually bring along tensions whose release is felt as pleasure, while the death drives seem to do their work inconspicuously. The pleasure principle seems to serve the death drives directly. It does guard against external stimuli, considered dangers by both types of drives, but guards especially against increases in internal stimuli aiming to make the task of living more difficult. Connected with this are innumerable questions that cannot at present be answered. We must be patient and await further means and opportunities for research–and be prepared as well to leave a path we have followed for a while if it seems to lead to no good result. Only those believers who demand in science a substitute for the catechism they have renounced will take it amiss if a researcher develops or even transforms his views. Concerning the slow advances of our scientific knowledge we are also comforted by the words of a poet [the final lines of ‘Die beiden Gulden’ (‘The Two Coins’) Friedrich Rückert’s rendition of the third of the Maqamat (Assemblies), ca. 1100 by al-Hariri of Basra]:

Was man nich erfliegen kann, muss man erhinken


Die Schrift sagt, es ist keine Sünde zu hinken

[What one cannot fly to one must limp to….the Scriptures says that limping is no sin.]

Note: Excerpt from: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, edited by Todd Dufresne, translated by Gregory C. Richter, Broadview Press, 2011.  Incidentally, this is the first non-Strachey translation of Freud I have read; Richter’s preface contains an interesting discussion critique of the standard Strachey texts.

Viscusi and Queneau: The Combinatorics of Poetry

Reviewing Daniel Levin Becker‘s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (‘Anticipatory Plagiarism‘, London Review of Books, 6 December 2012) allows Paul Grimstad to take a tour through the wild and wacky world of experimental literature by way of some of the usual suspects. Most notably, Georges Perec and Oulipo (‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’; ‘workshop of potential literature’) The latter, ‘the group devoted…to inventing, analysing and sometimes applying constraints for the making of literature’ was founded by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau; Becker is the newest member of their now-fifty three year old collective.

It  is Queneau’s work that most interests me today. Grimstad points out that:

Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes is a set of ten sonnets, such that latent in the design are 10^14–or one hundred thousand billion–potential poems. Queneau said that if read a sonnet every minute in eight-hour shifts every working day it would take a million centuries to finish the book.

Queneau’s work finds resonance in Robert Viscusi‘s epic poem, Ellis Island, which is ‘about’ immigration, America, places in the mind and in the heart. (I have blogged about Viscusi’s work on this blog before, especially his ‘novel’ Astoria.) It exists in two forms: a stable text and a dynamic, generated, evanescent one. The former is divided into fifty-two books each containing twelve sonnets of fourteen lines each. That makes for a total of six hundred and twenty-four sonnets; from this ‘raw material’ new sonnets are generated by picking a book, a sonnet, and a line fourteen times. The result is a new sonnet, which ‘goes away’ once a new sonnet is generated. The number of possible combinations, 624^14 sonnets, is staggeringly large. (Viscusi acknowledges his explicit debt to Queneau in his introduction to the book’s two forms.)

The following is a random sonnet I generated for this post. The numerals in the left column indicate book, sonnet, and line numbers that identify the source of each line in the stable text.

38 4 1 you see soon a great narrative paisley spermatomorph on the face of the silk tie
7 3 2 lights came up in the theater
46 7 12 we need to make a great nation we said to one another
12 8 6 when the sea is death he says polish your shoes
17 6 8 play with their musical gifts when you can and expect a visitor
36 5 9 the audience enjoys it because wife and husband both end happily
21 2 3 on the way home it fell on the sidewalk and broke leaving a stain
22 5 1 each of these persons has another side as you have
19 1 6 each such routine constitutes a remaining wall of your prison
49 6 10 thus taught beato roberto and this i have in my own life repeated in brooklyn
29 7 11 i was lying on the ground trying to remember times i used to be happy among beans
45 9 7 flies to new york returns five days later finds his daughter speaking italian
6 1 3 each one endowed with an epic willpower
50 7 1 one of the main things about freedom is it’s hard to enjoy without money

The potential for serendipitous discovery of a ‘new’ poem is immense’ more to the point, for a moment, we become poets ourselves.

Note: By a lovely coincidence, George Perec wrote a novel called Ellis Island.