A Look Inside William S. Burroughs’ Bunker

When everybody had one or two vodkas and smoked a few joints, it was always the time for the blowgun. —John Giorno

From 1974 to 1982, writer William S. Burroughs lived in a former locker room of a 19th-century former-YMCA on New York City’s Lower East Side.

When he moved on, his stuff, including his worn out shoes, his gun mags, the typewriter on which he wrote Cities of the Red Night, and half of The Place of Dead Roads, a well-worn copy of The Medical Implications of Karate Blows, and a lamp made from a working Civil war-era rifle, remained.

His friend, neighbor, tourmate, and occasional lover, poet John Giorno preserved “The Bunker” largely as Burroughs had left it, and seems to delight in rehashing old times during a 2017 tour for the Louisiana Channel, above.

It’s hard to believe that Burroughs found Giorno to be “pathologically silent” in the early days of their acquaintance:

He just wouldn’t say anything. You could be there with him the whole evening, he wouldn’t say a word. It was not the shyness of youth, it was much more than that, it was a very deep lack of ability to communicate. Then he had cancer and after the operation that was completely reversed and now he is at times a compulsive talker, when he gets going there is no stopping him.

According to Burroughs’ companion, editor and literary executor, James Grauerholz, during this period in Burroughs’ life, “John was the person who contributed most to William’s care and upkeep and friendship and loved him.”

Giorno also prepared Burroughs’ favorite dishbacon wrapped chickenand joined him for target practice with the blowgun and a BB gun whose projectiles were forceful enough to penetrate a phonebook.

Proximity meant Giorno was well acquainted with the schedules that governed Burroughs’ life, from waking and writing, to his daily dose of methadone and first vodka-and-Coke of the day.

He was present for many dinner parties with famous friends including Andy WarholLou ReedFrank ZappaAllen GinsbergDebbie HarryKeith HaringJean-Michel Basquiat, and Patti Smith, who recalled visiting the Bunker in her National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids:

It was the street of winos and they would often have five cylindrical trash cans to keep warm, to cook, or light their cigarettes. You could look down the Bowery and see these fires glowing right to William’s door… he camped in the Bunker with his typewriter, his shotgun and his overcoat.

All Giorno had to do was walk upstairs to enjoy Burroughs’ company, but all other visitors were subjected to stringent security measures, as described by Victor Bockris in With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker:

To get into the Bunker one had to pass through three locked gates and a gray bulletproof metal door. To get through the gates you had to telephone from a nearby phone booth, at which point someone would come down and laboriously unlock, then relock three gates before leading you up the single flight of gray stone stairs to the ominous front door of William S. Burroughs’ headquarters.

Although Burroughs lived simply, he did make some modifications to his $250/month rental. He repainted the battleship gray floor white to counteract the lack of natural light. It’s pretty impregnable.

He also installed an Orgone Accumulator, the invention of psychoanalyst William Reich, who believed that spending time in the cabinet would improve the sitter’s mental, physical, and creative wellbeing by exposing them to a mysterious universal life force he dubbed orgone energy.

(“How could you get up in the morning with a hangover and go sit in one of these things?” Giorno chuckles. “The hangover is enough!”)

Included in the tour are excerpts of Giorno’s 1997 poem “The Death of William Burroughs.” Take it with a bit of salt, or an openness to the idea of astral body travel.

As per biographer Barry Miles, Burroughs died in the Lawrence Memorial Hospital ICU in Kansas, a day after suffering a heart attack. His only visitors were James Grauerholz, his assistant Tom Peschio, and Dean Ripa, a friend who’d been expected for dinner the night he fell ill.

Poetic license aside, the poem provides extra insight into the men’s friendship, and Burroughs’ time in the Bunker:

The Death of William Burroughs

by John Giorno

William died on August 2, 1997, Saturday at 6:01 in the
afternoon from complications from a massive heart attack
he’d had the day before. He was 83 years old. I was with
William Burroughs when he died, and it was one of the best
times I ever had with him.  

Doing Tibetan Nyingma Buddhist meditation practices, I
absorbed William’s consciousness into my heart. It seemed as
a bright white light, blinding but muted, empty. I was the
vehicle, his consciousness passing through me. A gentle
shooting star came in my heart and up the central channel,
and out the top of my head to a pure field of great clarity
and bliss. It was very powerful—William Burroughs resting
in great equanimity, and the vast empty expanse of
primordial wisdom mind.

I was staying in William’s house, doing my meditation
practices for him, trying to maintain good conditions and
dissolve any obstacles that might be arising for him at that
very moment in the bardo. I was confident that William had
a high degree of realization, but he was not a completely
enlightened being. Lazy, alcoholic, junkie William. I didn’t
allow doubt to arise in my mind, even for an instant,
because it would allow doubt to arise in William’s mind.

Now, I had to do it for him.

What went into William Burroughs’ coffin with his dead body:

About ten in the morning on Tuesday, August 6, 1997,
James Grauerholz and 
Ira Silverberg came to William’s
house to pick out the clothes for the funeral director to put
on William’s corpse. His clothes were in a closet in my
room. And we picked the things to go into William’s coffin
and grave, accompanying him on his journey in the

His most favorite gun, a 38 special snub-nose, fully loaded
with five shots. He called it, “The Snubby.” The gun was my
idea. “This is very important!” William always said you can
never be too well armed in any situation. Of his more than
80 world-class guns, it was his favorite. He often wore it on
his belt during the day, and slept with it, fully loaded, on
his right side, under the bed sheet, every night for fifteen

Grey fedora. He always wore a hat when he went out. We
wanted his consciousness to feel perfectly at ease, dead.

His favorite cane, a sword cane made of hickory with a
light rosewood finish.

Sport jacket, black with a dark green tint. We rummaged
through the closet and it was the best of his shabby clothes,
and smelling sweet of him.

Blue jeans, the least worn ones were the only ones clean.

Red bandana. He always kept one in his back pocket.

Jockey underwear and socks.  

Black shoes. The ones he wore when he performed. I
thought the old brown ones, that he wore all the time,
because they were comfortable. James Grauerholz insisted,
“There’s an old CIA slang that says getting a new
assignment is getting new shoes.”

White shirt. We had bought it in a men’s shop in Beverly
Hills in 1981 on The Red Night Tour. It was his best shirt,
all the others were a bit ragged, and even though it had
become tight, he’d lost a lot of weight, and we thought it
would fit.  James said,” Don’t they slit it down the back

Necktie, blue, hand painted by William.

Moroccan vest, green velvet with gold brocade trim, given
him by 
Brion Gysin, twenty-five years before.

In his lapel button hole, the rosette of the French
government’s Commandeur des Arts et Lettres, and the
rosette of the American Academy of Arts and Letters,
honors which William very much appreciated.

A gold coin in his pants pocket. A gold 19th Century Indian
head five dollar piece, symbolizing all wealth. William
would have enough money to buy his way in the

His eyeglasses in his outside breast pocket.

A ball point pen, the kind he always used. “He was a
writer!”, and sometimes wrote long hand.

A joint of really good grass.

Heroin. Before the funeral service, Grant Hart slipped a
small white paper packet into William’s pocket. “Nobody’s
going to bust him.” said Grant. William, bejeweled with all
his adornments, was traveling in the underworld.

I kissed him. An early LP album of us together, 1975, was
Biting Off The Tongue Of A Corpse. I kissed him on
the lips, but I didn’t do it .  .  . and I should have.

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How William S. Burroughs Influenced Rock and Roll, from the 1960s to Today

William S. Burroughs’ Class on Writing Sources (1976) 

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday

Dial-a-Poem: The Groundbreaking Phone Service That Let People Hear Poems Read by Patti Smith, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg & More (1968)

Thanks for allowing me to be a poet. A noble effort, doomed, but the only choice. —John Giorno, Thanx for Nothing

Dialing a poem today, I’m connected to Joe Brainard, who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1994, reading an excerpt of “I Remember.” He stumbles over some words. It’s exciting. There’s a feeling of immediacy. When the reading ends in an old-fashioned dial tone, I immediately think of a half-dozen friends I’d like to call (assuming they respond to something that’s not a tag or text).

“Take down this number,” I’d say. “641-793-8122. Don’t ask questions. Just call it. You’ll love it.”

And they probably would, though they wouldn’t hear the same recording I did.

As Dial-A-Poem‘s founder, the late John Giorno, remarked in a 2012 interview:

 A person asked me the other day: “What happens if I listen to a poem and I want to tell a friend to listen to it?” I told him: “Well, she can’t.” [laughs] That’s the point. What happens is, when things are really successful, you create desire that is unfulfillable. That’s what makes something work.

Giorno established Dial-A-Poem in 1968, placing ten landlines connected to reel-to-reel answering machines in a room in New York City’s Architectural League:

I sort of stumbled on [the concept] by chance… I was talking to someone on the telephone one morning, and it was so boring. I probably had a hangover and was probably crashing, and I got irritable and said to myself at that moment, “Why can’t this be a poem?” That’s how the idea came to me. And we got a quarter of a page in The New York Times with the telephone number you could dial. 

In its first four-and-a-half months of operation, Dial-A-Poem logged 1,112,237 incoming calls, including some from listeners overseas. (The original phone number was 212-628-0400.) The hours of heaviest traffic suggested that a lot of bored office workers were sneaking a little poetry into their 9-to-5 day.

Dial-A-Poem reconceived of the telephone as a new media device:

Before Dial-A-Poem, the telephone was used one-to-one. Dial-A-Poem’s success gave rise to a Dial-A-Something industry: from Dial-A-Joke, Dial-A-Horoscope, Dial-A-Stock Quotation, Dial Sports, to the 900 number paying for a call, to phone sex, and ever more extraordinary technology. Dial-A-Poem, by chance, ushered in a new era in telecommunications.

Featured poets included such heavy hitters as William S. BurroughsPatti SmithAllen Ginsberg, Ted Berrigan, Robert CreeleySylvia PlathCharles Bukowski, and Frank O’Hara (who “only liked you if you wrote like him”).

The content was risqué, political, a direct response to the Vietnam War, the political climate, and social conservatism. No one bothered with rhymes, and inspiration was not necessarily the goal.

Unlike Andy WarholJasper Johns, and other career-minded artists who he hung out with (and bedded), Giorno never made a secret of his homosexuality. Sexually explicit and queer content had a home at Dial-a-Poem.

Meanwhile, Dial-a-Poem was featured in Junior Scholastic Magazine, and dialing in became a homework assignment for many New York City Public School students.

Two twelve-year-old boys nearly scuppered the project when one of their mothers caught them giggling over the Jim Carroll poem, above, and raised a ruckus with the Board of Ed, who in turn put pressure on the telephone company to discontinue service. The New York State Council on the Arts’ lawyers intervened, a win for horny middle schoolers… and poetry!

For anyone interested, an album called You’re A Hook: The 15 Year Anniversary Of Dial-A-Poem (1968-1983) was released in 1983. Vinyl copies are still floating around.

If you dial 641.793.8122, you can still access recordings from an archive of poetry, notes SFMoMA.

via Messy Nessy

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday

Langston Hughes’ Homemade Christmas Cards From 1950

Who doesn’t treasure a handmade present?

As the years go by, we may begin to offload the ill-fitting sweaters, the never lit sand cast candles, and the Styrofoam ball snowmen. But a present made of words takes up very little space, and it has the Ghost of Christmas Past’s power to instantly evoke the sender as they once were.

Seventy years ago, poet Langston Hughes, too skint to go Christmas shopping, sent everyone on his gift list simple, homemade holiday postcards. Typed on white cardstock, each signed card was embellished with red and green pencils and mailed for the price of a 3¢ stamp.

As biographer Arnold Rampersad notes:

The last weeks of 1950 found him nevertheless in a melancholy mood, his spirits sinking lower again as he again became a target of red-baiting.

The year started auspiciously with The New York Times praising his libretto for The Barrier, an opera based on his play, Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South. But the opera was a commercial flop, and positive reviews for his book Simple Speaks His Mind failed to translate into the hoped-for sales.

Although he had recently purchased an East Harlem brownstone with an older couple who doted on him as they would a son, providing him with a sunny, top floor workspace, 1950 was far from his favorite year.

His typewritten holiday couplets took things out on a jaunty note, while paying light lip service to his plight.

Maybe we can aspire to the same…

Hughes’ handmade holiday cards reside in the Langston Hughes Papers in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, along with holiday cards specific to the African-American experience received from friends and associates.

via the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her latest alter ego, L’Ourse, wishes you a very merry Xmas and peace and health in the New Year  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An Introduction to Rap Battles: Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #71

Pretty Much Pop hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt are rejoined by our audio editor and resident rapper Tyler Hislop (rap name: “Sacrifice”) to discuss a form of entertainment close to his heart: Two people staring each other in the face in front of a crowd and taking lengthy turns insulting each other in a loud voice using intricate rhymes, references, jokes and even some cultural commentary and philosophical spit-balling.

So what are the rules? How does modern battle rap compare to free-styling, the beefs aired on rap albums, and classic insult comedy? What’s the appeal of this art form? Is it because of or despite the aggression involved? Battle rap is regarded as a free speech zone, where anything’s fair game, but does that really make sense?

A few relevant films came up in the discussion:

  • Bodied (2017), a film written by Alex Larsen (aka Kid Twist) and produced by Eminem, featuring several current battle rappers doing their thing along with discussion by the characters of the ethical issues involved
  • 8 Mile (2002), a semi-autobiographical film starring Eminem, which displays the older, free-styling over a beat type of battle rapping
  • Roxanne Roxanne (2017) a biopic about Roxanne Shante depicting hip-hop rivalries of the 1980s.

Here are some matches Tyler recommended that also get mentioned:

More resources:

Hear Tyler talk about his many rap albums on Nakedly Examined Music #24.

Hear more of this podcast at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion you can access by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

Watch How to Be at Home, a Beautiful Short Animation on the Realities of Social Isolation in 2020

I think, as social primates, we want to feel a strong sense of belonging either in a relationship or to a community—or both. But also intrinsic to our humanity is a feeling that we are truly alone.

—Filmmaker Andrea Dorfman, 2010

When they first became friends, poet Tanya Davis and filmmaker Andrea Dorfman talked a lot about the pleasures and hardships of being alone. Davis had just gone through a break up, and Dorfman was just embarking on a relationship after four years of flying solo.

These conversations led to a collaboration, 2010’s How to Be At Alone (see below), a whimsical videopoem that combines live action and animation to consider some of solitude’s sweeter aspects, like sitting on a bench as signal to the universe that one is available for impromptu conversation with a stranger.

That bench reappears in their 2020 follow up, How to Be At Home, above. Now it is cordoned off with black and yellow caution tape, a familiar public health measure in 2020.

As with the earlier project, a large part of Davis’ purpose was to reflect and reassure, both herself, and by extension, others.

Although she has become a poster child for the joys of solitude, she also relishes human contact, and found herself missing it terribly while sheltering alone in the early days of the pandemic. Writing the new poem gave her “an anchor” and a place to put her anxiety.

Dorfman notes that the project, which was commissioned by the National Film Board of Canada as part of a short film collection about Canadians navigating life during the pandemic, was “essentially catalyzed by COVID.”

As she embarked on the project, she wondered if the pandemic would be over by the time it was complete. As she told the CBC’s Tom Power:

There was this feeling that this could go away in a month, so this better be finished soon, so it’s still relevant. So as an artist, as a filmmaker, I thought, “I have to crank this out” but there’s no fast and easy way to do animation. It just takes so long and as I got into it and realized that this was going to be a marathon, not a sprint, the images just kept coming to me and I really just made it up as I went along. I’d go into my studio every day not knowing what lay ahead and I’d think, “Okay, so, what do we have up next? What’s the next line? And I’d spend maybe a week on a line of the poem, animating it. 

It appears to have been an effective approach.

Dorfman’s painted images ripple across the fast turning pages of an old book. The titles change from time to time, and the choices seem deliberate—The Lone Star Ranger, Le Secret du Manoir Hanté, a chapter in The Broken Halo—“Rosemary for Remembrance.”

“It’s almost as though the way the poem is written there are many chapters in the book. (Davis) moves from one subject to another so completely,” Dorfman told the University of King’s College student paper, The Signal.

In the new work, the absence of other people proves a much heavier burden than it does in How To Be Alone.

Davis flirts with many of the first poem’s settings, places where a lone individual might have gone to put themselves in proximity to other humans as recently as February 2020:

Public transportation

The gym

A dance club

A description from 2010:

The lunch counter, where you will be surrounded by chow-downers, employees who only have an hour and their spouses work across town, and they, like you, will be alone.

Resist the urge to hang out with your cell phone.

In 2020, she struggles to recreate that experience at home, her phone serving as her most vital link to the outside world, as she scrolls past images of a Black Lives Matter protests and a masked essential worker:

I miss lunch counters so much I’ve been eating [pickles and] toasted sandwiches while hanging unabashedly with my phone.

See How to Be at Home and the 29 other films that comprise The Curve, the National Film Board of Canada series about life in the era of COVID-19 here.

How to be at Home

By Tanya Davis

If you are, at first, really fucking anxious, just wait. It’ll get worse, and then you’ll get the hang of it. Maybe. 

Start with the reasonable feelings – discomfort, lack of focus, the sadness of alone

you can try to do yoga

you can shut off the radio when it gets to you

you can message your family or your friends or your colleagues, you’re not supposed to leave your home anyway, so it’s safe for you

There’s also the gym

you can’t go there but you could pretend to

you could bendy by yourself in your bedroom

And there’s public transportation

probably best to avoid it

but there’s prayer and meditation, yes always

employ it

if you have pains in your chest ‘cause your anxiety won’t rest

take a moment, take a breath

Start simple

things you can handle based on your interests

your issues and your triggers

and your inner logistics 

I miss lunch counters so much I’ve been eating [pickles and] toasted sandwiches while hanging unabashedly with my phone

When you are tired, again of still being alone

make yourself a dinner

but don’t invite anybody over

put something green in it, or maybe orange

chips are fine sometimes but they won’t keep you charged 

feed your heart

if people are your nourishment, I get you

feel the feelings that undo you while you have to keep apart

Watch a movie, in the dark

and pretend someone is with you 

watch all of the credits

because you have time, and not much else to do

or watch all of the credits to remember 

how many people come together

just to tell a story

just to make a picture move

And then, set yourself up dancing

like it’s a club where everyone knows you

and they’re all gonna hold you

all night long

they’re gonna dance around you and with you and on their own

it’s your favourite song 

with the hardest bass and the cathartic drums

your heart pumps along/hard, you belong

you put your hands up to feel it

With the come down comes the weeping

those downcast eyes and feelings

the truth is you can’t go dancing, not right now

not at any club or party in any town

The heartbreak of this astounds you

it joins old aches way down in you

you can visit them, but please don’t stay there

Go outside if you’re able, breathe the air

there are trees for hugging

don’t be embarrassed

it’s your friend, it’s your mother, it’s your new crush

lay your cheek against the bark, it’s a living thing to touch

Sadly, leave all benches empty

appreciate the kindness in the distance of strangers

as you pine for company and wave at your neighbours

savour the depths of your conversations

the layers uncovered

in this strange space and time

Society is afraid of change

and no one wants to die

not now, from a tiny virus

not later from the world on fire

But death is a truth we all hate to know

we all get to live, and then we all have to go

In the meantime, we’re surrounded, we’re alone

each a thread woven in the fabric, unravelling in moments though

each a solo entity spinning on its axis, forgetting that the galaxy includes us all

Herein our fall

from grace from each other from god whatever, doesn’t matter

the disaster is that we believe we’re separate 

we’re not

As evidenced by viruses taking down societies

as proven by the loneliness inherent in no gatherings

as palpable as the vacancy in the space of one person hugging

If this disruption undoes you

if the absence of people unravels you

if touch was the tether that held you together

and now that it’s severed you’re fragile too 

lean into loneliness and know you’re not alone in it 

lean into loneliness like it is holding you

like it is a generous representative of a glaring truth

oh, we are connected

we forget this, yet we always knew.

How to Be at Home will be added to the Animation section of our collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Sean Connery (RIP) Reads C.P. Cavafy’s Epic Poem “Ithaca,” Set to the Music of Vangelis

This video combines three things that make me happy: the voice of Sean Connery (who passed away today), the music of Vangelis (Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire), and the poetry of C.P. Cavafy. Put them all together and you get a blissful soundscape of rolling synth lines, rolling Scottish R’s, and a succession of Homeric images and anaphoric lines. And the video’s quite nice as well.

Cavafy, whose work, I’m told, is really untranslatable from the original Greek, always seems to come out pretty well to me in English. “Ithaca,” one of his most popular poems, expresses what in lesser hands might be a banal sentiment akin to “it’s the journey, not the destination.” But in Cavafy’s poem, the journey is both Odysseus’s and ours; it’s epic where our lives seem small, and it translates our minor wanderings to the realm of mythic history.

Anyway, it seems rude to say much more and drown the poem in commentary. So, follow along with Sean Connery.

Find the text of the poem after the jump. (more…)

An Animated Reading of “The Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s Nonsense Poem That Somehow Manages to Make Sense

“I can explain all the poems that ever were in­ vented—and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.” —Humpty Dumpty

“The Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s classic poem from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There—the second installment of the most famously nonsensical adventure in literary history—is “full of seemingly nonsensical words that somehow manage to make sense,” says narrator Jack Cutmore-Scott in the animated reading above from TED-Ed Animation. That word, nonsense, is associated with Carroll’s fantasy world more than any other, but what does it mean for a story to be nonsense and be intelligible at the same time?

Carroll, a mathematician by training, understood the fundamental principle of nonsense, which “T.S. Eliot reminded us, is not an absence of sense but a parody of it,” as J. Patrick Lewis writes at The New York Times. “Some of the portmanteau words Carroll invented—chortle, burble, frabjous and others—are now fully vested members of the lexicon. And the verse’s structure is a mirror, as Alice discovered, of classical English poetry.” Carroll composed the first four lines ten years before Through the Looking Glass, as a parodic “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry” to amuse his family.

It may help, or not, to keep in mind that Carroll is not only mocking English poetic forms and conventions, but a particular historical form of English that is mostly unrecognizable to modern readers, and certainly to Alice. But the poem’s syntax and structure are so familiar that we can easily piece together a monster-slaying narrative in which, as Alice remarks, “somebody killed something.”

The ever-humble Humpty Dumpty is happy to explain, as was Carroll in his original composition, to which he attached a glossary very similar to the egg’s definitions and gave “the literal English” of the first stanza as:

“It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill side; all unhappy were the parrots, and the grave turtles squeaked out“.

There were probably sun dials on the top of the hill, and the “borogoves” were afraid that their nests would be undermined. The hill was probably full of the nests of “raths”, which ran out squeaking with fear on hearing the “toves” scratching outside. This is an obscure, but yet deeply affecting, relic of ancient Poetry.

Does this help? It does explain the mood Carroll is after, and he achieves it. The Jabberwocky is funny and playful and all the rest, but it is also deeply unsettling in its obscure mysteries and frightening descriptions of its title character.

In John Tenniel’s famous illustration of the beast, it appears as a scaly, leathery dragon with a face somewhere between a deep-sea fish and an overgrown sewer rat. The animation by Sjaak Rood gives it a more classically dragon-like appearance, in the crazed style of Ralph Steadman, while the Bandersnatch looks like something Paul Klee would have invented. The choice of artistic influences here shows Rood connecting deeply with the nonsense tradition in modern art, one which also turns familiar forms into nightmarish beings that fill our heads with ideas.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

In 1183, a Chinese Poet Describes Being Domesticated by His Own Cats

Here in Korea, where I live, cat owners aren’t called cat owners: they’re called goyangi jibsa, literally “cat butlers.” Clearly the idea that felines have flipped the domestic-animal script, not serving humans but being served by humans, transcends cultures. It also goes far back in history: witness the 12th-century verses recently tweeted out in translation by writer Xiran Jay Zhao, in which “Song dynasty poet Lu You” — one of the most prolific literary artists of his time and place — “poem-liveblogged his descent from cat owner to cat slave.”

The story begins in 1138, writes Zhao, when “Down On His Luck scholar-official Lu You gets a cat because rats keep munching on his books.” The eight poems in this series begin with praise for the animal — “It’s so soft to touch and warm to hold in bed / So brave and capable that it has ousted the rat nest” — and goes on to describe the cats he subsequently acquires, who selflessly vanquish the household rats while indulging in nothing more than the occasional catnip binge.

Or at least they do at first. “Night after night you used to massacre rats / Guarding the grain store so ferociously,” Lu asks one in “Poem for Pink-Nose.” “So why do you now act as if you live within palace walls / Eating fish every day and sleeping in my bed?”

As time goes on, Lu finds himself “serving fish on time” to his cats only to find them “sleeping without worry.” As the rats rampage, he poetically moans, “my books are getting ruined and the birds wake me before dawn.” Has it all been nothing more than “a ruse to get food from me?”

Yet it seems that Lu has no regrets about cat ownership, if ownership be the word. “Wind sweeps the world and rain darkens the village / Rumbles roll off the mountains like ocean waves churning,” he writes in 1192’s “A Rainstorm on the Fourth Day of the Eleventh Month.” Yet “the furnace is soothing and the rug is warm / Me and my cat are not leaving the house.” This is relatable content for the cat butlers of Korea (a culture thoroughly influenced by China in Lu’s day), or indeed anywhere else in the world. The patriotic poet would surely be pleased by the modern-day ascent of China — and perhaps just as much by the high and ever-rising status of the domestic cat.

via Xiran

Related Content:

An Animated History of Cats: How Over 10,000 Years the Cat Went from Wild Predator to Sofa Sidekick

Two Cats Keep Trying to Get Into a Japanese Art Museum … and Keep Getting Turned Away: Meet the Thwarted Felines, Ken-chan and Go-chan

Medieval Cats Behaving Badly: Kitties That Left Paw Prints … and Peed … on 15th Century Manuscripts

T.S. Eliot Reads Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats & Other Classic Poems (75 Minutes, 1955)

What Ancient Chinese Philosophy Can Teach Us About Living the Good Life Today: Lessons from Harvard’s Popular Professor, Michael Puett

Free Chinese Lessons

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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