Ari Figue’s Cat

Ari Figue’s Cat


Reposting this pre-review of my novel from Goodreads.

We cannot know both the reality of the Snow Angel and the trajectory of our desire. The one will erase the other, opposite poles of attraction we cannot hold together. But somewhere, (who cannot believe it will be so!) we may hear a Voice that will lead us to some greater freedom, from the prisons of memory, to visions of the Peaceable Kingdom, lead us on a Winter’s Night, t, even to the Left Side of the World, and grant us the gift of a new name.
So it was for Jacob, who first saw the angel on the Frankford El, and where she fell in the snow–a photograph, a note, an address to the house of Nacht. What could he do, but follow the signs? Ah, but there will be fire to pass through if you are to meet the messenger, with riddles, like koans that have no end. Follow the cat. Run your finger over the alphabet–feel where his teeth have left their marks, close your eyes, draw pictures in the dark, let your fingers tell the story, like reading brail, that it may unfold, not in words, but out of the unfathomable silence of the body.

Paperback, 233 pages
Expected publication: May 25th 2015 by Deep Sett Press

Jacob Russell’s Ari Figue’s Cat does what few novels do: grabs you and won’t let go, without resorting to the cheap gimmicks New York agents rave about (explosions, long lost siblings, incest, and other soap opera tactics).

The Cat is the multiplicity of consciousness, a la Schrödinger, but Russell never lets the scale of his art’s inquiry overshadow the simple humanity of his characters; each is painted delicately and humanely– appropriate, as the author is also a painter.

This book provides no easy answers; if it had, I would not have read it. It is the kind of art we have always needed: questioning, beautiful, full of soul.
Robin Dunn

On Being a Late Bloomer


In April, 1988, standing in our kitchen in NE Philadelphia, it came to me that for the rest of my life I would follow whatever course best served my desire to write. And by that, I meant–to make art, to be an artist, though I wasn’t yet ready to accept that name for myself

I was 47, two months short of my 48th birthday. It wasn’t that I hadn’t done these things before, I had taken courses in art from childhood, at the Chicago Art Institute, Nelson-Aitkins Gallery of Art and Kansas City Art Institute. Later, majored for for time at Wichita State University. I had written stories and poetry from the time I could write, but this was new. This was something else. Like a conversion experience. A sense of accepting a calling, making a commitment. If I could live to work another 20 or 30 years, I told myself, I would have as much time as many who had begun in their youth–to leave a body of work.

Maybe it was the feeling that time was running out. Or was it that to my mind, being an artist was something too grand, that I wasn’t worthy? I thought of what Cezanne had written: ” Why so late and with such difficulty? Is art a priesthood that demands the pure in heart who must belong to it entirely?”

Yes. I thought. It does.

Though not so sure about the “pure in heart” stuff. A bit too 19th Century.

But with humor, yes. And this new sense of freedom from any judgment not my own–this was what I was going to do.

It will be 27 years come April. Some of them–pretty rough going. But I can call myself an artist now–a novelist, a poet–and not cower in shame lest I be found out as a fake. And I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.

I kinda like this, being a Late Bloomer–of just warming up when most people are winding down, of not having to hang it up, rest on the laurels of what I accomplished in my youth. Life is just beginning. Every day. Every day, a new beginning!

The Imposibility of Art

imagesA blog post is as ethereal as the trace of dancing particles though a cloud chamber, and yet in the universe of the web, seemingly always there, as though cyrogenically frozen beyond time, perhaps sprung to life at the mistyping of a search word, or preserved on old UBS drives at the bottom of a landfill, like mineralized imprints of the first self-replicating cells that drifted in Precambrian seas.

I don’t trust the impulse to preserve. nursing as it does, a delusional wish for immortality, and yet, like: Shakespeare’s 64th Sonnet, the wish to have that which we fear to lose, nudges aside good sense, and I go back into the old blog, searching for scraps–what, had I not written them, would have been likely nothing more than trains of thought, passing time on the el waiting for my stop, forgotten as soon as my foot touched the station platform.  Here, then… from my birthday, June 22, 2008.

Ulrich went on: “Every great book breaths this spirit of love for the fate of individuals at odds with the forms the community tries to impose on them. It leads to decisions that cannot be decided; there is nothing to be done but to give a true account of their lives. Extract the meaning out of all literature, and what you will get is a denial, however incomplete, but nonetheless an endless series of individual examples all based on experience, which refute all the accepted rules, principles, and prescriptions underpinning the very society that loves these works of art! In the end, a poem, with its mystery, thousands of words in constant use, severs all these strings, and turns it into a balloon floating off into space. If this is what we call beauty, as we usually do, then beauty is an indescribably more ruthless and cruel upheaval than any political revolution ever was.”
From chapter 84 of The Man Without Qualities.

Continue reading “The Imposibility of Art”

Mother Earth, Life Boat Adrift in the Entropic Universe


We are not immortal. “We” absolute.
No universal multiplication of “I”
All of us, here now and to come. Not one by one our extinction, but in the end, all, all. Even–should we evolve to something that survives past the death of the sun, our solar system, past the the universe recalled to its origin or dissipated to the logical version of entropic “forever;” we will have become something else–as radically other as we are from the replicating chains of RNA before they made room for the generations of the double helix, of which we, in our expanded consciousness, are the descendants and heirs.
No longer: “I am going to die,” but we… Ivan’s question demythologized.
This comes to mind when I hear fantasies of lifeboats to other galaxies… the need to populate the stars lest “we” (a version of “we” that has not overcome the most primitive version of imagined survival at the expense of everyone “other”… nevermind all those left behind… that is, there is no “we” there…
If there is to be any survival worth imagining, this would be its antithesis.
To conjure values suited for a new age, the starting point is imagining… as it always has… our mortality… our common mortality, and our solidarity in the face of it–human solidarity against the idea of the sacrifice of the many for the sake of the few.
How little has changed.

from December, 2008, Barking Dog

Jacob Russell’s Barking Dog

R.I.P Barking Dog
Do I bury her
her faithful head always
at my finger tips
so many 1’s and 0’s–
or keep her stuffed &
tie poems to her tail
her eyes reflecting the titles
of the books she loved
her last bark
echoing in the libraries of forgotten blogs

I think what I’ll do for the time being, is use the old blog for an archive: recycle what seems worth another look, delete the dated and ephemeral posts, transfer photos of my art here, a few at a time.

Artist and Critic: a Question of Authority: Art as an Event

searchFrom This Space, Nicholas Murray, in a comment on Steven Mitchelmore’s post,  Some thoughts on the death of criticism: (From Jacob Russell’s Barking Dog, 2007)

Is it worth scrolling back to Hegel who argued that art would gradually become displaced by philosophy as we, as it were, grew up intellectually unlike those Greeks who had to take important truths in intuitively through their art. I see this as the beginning of a road that leads to conceptual art, a progress from the sensual, tactile, visual (visceral?) enjoyment towards abstract contemplation of the idea or Geist. The critic in this scheme becomes less a servant of art, an explicator and evaluator, than a fellow-creator, whose intellectual function is equal to that of the artist. Critics who argue that authority comes from being a creator are in the rearguard of this movement. The “space” identified by this blog I take it to be one in which both kinds of mind meet and explore things together, ultimately abolishing the distinction. I am warming to the idea having been a bit of an artist-knows-best fundamentalist hitherto.

I began to reply as a comment but it kept growing, and thought it would be better as a free standing post.
I asked Nicholas: What do you mean by “together?” As one thing? Or in conjunction–in dialog, in relationship? If conceptual art marks a progress toward something like abstract contemplation of the idea, would one not expect this art, not only through its appropriation of abstract ideas, but in itself, to be a kind of philosophizing? I certainly don’t find that to be the case. Conceptual art, rather than becoming more like philosophy, seems rather to be challenging philosophy and abstract thought on its own ground, appropriating ideas to its own, quite different ends.

I think you go wrong when you view this as an issue of authority, or rather, as a competition for authority, as though there were One Sort of Authority, and artist and critic were fighting for its blessing–Jacob and Essau at the feet of Isaac. Authority as Nobadday.

The authority of philosophy is not that of the artist, and the authority of the artist, not that of philosophy (the definite article with ‘artist,’ but not for philosophy) Through art, we orient ourselves in relationship with others, individually and collectively: collectively, because I don’t think of individuals (us) as discrete units apart from our relationship with others, but as beings who build a world we can have (and know) in common, a world (like the gorilla fashioning its arboreal nest) as a humanly habitable place in space and time.

What happens to us when we read stories, stand before the images we make, listening to the ordering of time and tone in music? What do we do when we experience art? We orient ourselves in reality, by selecting out of the incomprehensible totality, what we need to paint a picture of the world, to tell the story that–does not tell us, but places us–such that we “know” where and who and what sort of creatures we are.

Neither philosophy nor science do that. They can’t give us a world to live in. They examine and explain and take apart what we believe we know and experience. They can show us the artifice of our belief–in what we are, in the fabricated world we inhabit.

Art emerges from the primal effort to live as conscious beings in a reality that knows nothing of our existence as we experience it: whatever it is that drives the brain to integrate the competing and separate systems of perception, memory and interpretation into an unshakable belief in the semblance of our Selfhood.

Science can name the parts and explain their mechanisms; Philosophy can remind us that it is a semblance, that what is real lies outside our power to possess, by either experience or knowledge. Art happens. As our sense of Selfhood happens. The difference is, that art is a happening that we make. It happens in relation to a natural world filled with the many other worlds we have made. That is, it uses whatever materials it needs to give us what we need, natural and humanly fabricated: the Romantic painter using the colors of sunset and sunrise, the conceptual artist using the ideas of philosophers and critics. And here is exactly where the critic comes in. It’s not as if the critic has only one authority, one opposed to or other than that of the artist. Rather, the critic draws on multiple authorities. He examines, disassembles, names the parts–so we can better appreciate the artifice, the art that went into the making. But he also–if he is a good critic, an honest critic, enters into what happens, into the happening, and draws on that in what he writes. In this, in his drawing on what happens, he is like the artist, is an artist, and at the same time, remains other, secured to a way of knowing that frees us from the illusions we cannot help but make and need, lest we vanish into our own dreams, even as the subversive power of art frees us from the chains of knowing.

Finding the Poem’s Generative Voice


What matters in a poem is beyond reach. What remains (language, cultural associations, representational content etc etc… ) is interesting to talk and think about–more than just interesting: may or may not lead (by exhausting the compulsion to classify argue establish hierarchies and judge to … to what? where?

A transformational encounter. That might leave us for a few seconds free of the need to talk about it, the need to kill what has happened by turning it into a traceable abstraction… trade-able… an aesthetic commodity. A tool of politics and culture. A mirror we pretend has power to reflect our invisible face.

What lives in a poem is not fixed in place. It is generative. It is of nature. A return to nature (as though it were possible to leave — as though there is anything ‘outside’ of nature, that is not at most, nature looking back at itself, imagining that it is other than what it beholds).

What matters is what happens, all of it. Mind. Affect. Idea. The generative event. The encounter. The trace that remains.

Must we then remain silent? The irrepressible urge to think, speak, write–impossible to resist. And there’s no need to do so. But let what is living in the poem speak–a continuation of the generative voice–using and breaking through, as the poem itself both uses and shatters the cumulative shells of culture and convention. We can’t pass judgment on a poem any more than we can pass judgment on the wind or a mountain. The poem is nature’s judgment of its own artifice–which is the artifice of our multiple identities… political, sexual, personal, national, species. The sound of laughter–of what we are laughing at, of what we think we have become.