Friday, July 18, 2008


Allow me to tantalize you with a taste of something so delicious you will crave more – but more of which is not to be found. Not unless you know something that only about one millionth of the world’s population knows – the proverbial one in a million.

Let’s start with a 22-year-old poet named Lise who has never been published before. Lise begins thus:

I shine like icing on a layer cake
like jazz and wet granite

but would rather go down
you know
despite the very long
working hours
it can also be quite a comfortable position…

That’s Lise Møller Schilder, and she goes on for two intriguing pages that most readers of this blog will not, alas, get to read.

Then we’ll take an 80-year-old named Knud Sørensen, who says:

The starting-holes
are a little worn, coal
from the edges has sprinkled down to the bottom

Or a 72-year-old named Poul Høllund Jensen –

The moon’s grimace
is due to the sparrows
introduced by astronauts

or the 43-year-old Ege Schjørring who proclaims that

The navel smells of rain
still wet

or young Peter Bo Andersen whose opening goes like this:

Watch out
that ruffled bathing cap
doesn’t start
to mess with your head

and still later who interjects in the King’s good English,

“We wanna fuck you Eazy,”
and Eazy answers, “Yeah
I wanna fuck you too”

Or Hans Karup, 40, who begins:

I remember nothing

Now how can you resist that? A poet who proclaims that? Don’t you just burn to know the nothing he remembers?

Or Karsten Bjarnholt, born the same year as I (’44), who wants to tell about a man who stepped in shit and when he tried to get it off his sole got it on his fingertips and was wearing a white shirt and…

And on it goes right up to a concluding six-page “Conversation between a Man and His Soul,” which is in fact 4,000 years old but translated recently by a 31-year-old named Mikkel Thykier who makes accessible these words from Egyptian, starting:

I opened my mouth and replied:
“This is too much! My soul exclaims I disagree with you!”

Tell me, can you resist that? And in between are many other poets, too – twenty-one in all (I will probably get knocked on the head for not including them all but one can’t include everyone and everything, right?). And there is also a cover and several works of art by a man named Ferdinand Ahm Kragh, and a conclusion on page 63 by another artist named Uwe Max Jensen. Uwe salutes farewell with a well-wrought graphic middle finger. Goodbye, goodbye and up yours, he seems to say, the magazine seems to say, Up yours, up mine, up all of ours…

Now what exactly is this, and why can the majority of my blog readers not have access to more? It is the latest issue of the Danish literary journal named Hvedekorn (Wheatgrain), number 2, 2008, edited by Lars Bukdahl and Christian Vind and published by Borgen ( This journal has been around since the 1920s, doing its excellent work for more than 80 years.

And why can you not – unless you are one in a million upon this earth – find your way to more than the tiny taste of it offered here? Because it is all written in the Danish language (except for the “fuck you’s” in Peter Bo Andersen’s poem), and Danish is only practiced by about a millionth of the population of this earth.

And what can you do if the above taste of Wheatgrain left you yearning for more? You can:

(1) Learn Danish. If you are more gifted than I, that won’t take long.
(2) Urge the editors to see to it that this issue or selected works there from are translated into English or some other language in which you would wish to read it.

You can do this by writing to Borgen or even directly to Lars Bukdahl ( But how can you write to Lars Bukdahl if you are unable to express yourself in Danish? Well, I feel confident that you can write to him in English. Most people in this ancient country function as well or better in English than I do in Danish.

Why not give it a try? As Jack Torrance Nicholson says to his wife after she has knocked him over the head and locked him in the walk-in freezer in the Overlook Hotel; “Check it out, Wendy! Check it out!” See what happens.

PS: While I am talking about literary journals, let me urge you not to miss the newly minted issue of Perigee: Publication for the Arts (Issue 21), which is completely in English (including one translation from the Danish). And I am not urging you to do this because there is work by this author in it. No, please feel free to skip the work by me with my blessing, but do not miss all the other wonderful stuff – including the awesome photographs! And access to this magnificent on-line literary journal costs not one red cent – go right on-line to:

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Monday, June 30, 2008

Dangling Man Behind a Fence

Alan Pary is one of six hundred refugees corralled behind a fence north of Copenhagen in Sandholm Camp. The Camp is situated across the field from a training ground for military maneuvers, set off by another fence of rusty metal. It looks like a combat zone. Alan Pary is perhaps thirty years old and has been in the refugee camp for more than nine years. His application for asylum has been rejected twice by the Danish authorities, and he is awaiting an exchange agreement with his home country that will send him back where he fled from, although there is still a slim chance that his application will be reconsidered.

Meanwhile he dangles there, behind the fence.

We learned about Alan Pary from a Danish playwright named Michael Svennevig, who wrote a chronicle about him in the Copenhagen daily newspaper, Politiken.

A Kurdish Christian, born in northern Iraq, Alan Pary fled from threats of death for an offense against his society. His offense? Poetry. He was writing poetry about women, his fascination with women and their bodies. What young man is not fascinated by women? What man is not? But in Alanpary’s society, to write poems about women is offensive. Fearing for his life, he fled. To Denmark, a country with a well-earned reputation for the high quality of its humanity and its democracy.

In Denmark, he was given a bed in a room just large enough to hold three other beds and a small coffee table. In that claustrophobic room he lives with sometimes two, sometimes three other men in a barracks with many rooms flanking a claustrophobically narrow hall in a camp with many barracks, holding in all six hundred men in a country with many camps holding in all, according to the Danish journalist Karl Johan Mikkelsen, 8,000 refugees.

Who wait.

While they wait, they are not allowed to work. Every fourteen days they are given $120 – about $8.50 a day – for food and incidentals. They are not allowed to earn more than that. “Good thing I don’t smoke,” says Alan with a smile that reveals a missing tooth. They are left to their own devices. They are not allowed to leave Denmark except to go back to their home countries, where death or torture or both awaits most of them.

Alan Pary dreams of a future where he might get an education, a job, where he might contribute to his society, pay taxes, find a wife, make a family, friends beyond those in the camp with him.

Aside from dreams, Alan also has patience. Waiting for nine years teaches patience. He maintains his humanity by writing poetry. He writes in Arabic rather than Kurdish because he is inspired by the long Arabic literary tradition, although after his many years in Denmark, he has begun to write in Danish as well.

Circumstances put Alan Pary into contact with Michael Svennevig, a playwright and member of the board of Danish PEN. Michael Svennevig and Karl Johan Mikkelsen visited Alan Pary in Sandholm Camp to make a recording of his poetry, but having discovered the conditions under which Alan Pary has been living for all these years, behind the fence of Sandholm, Michael’s focus shifted to a broader scale. This is what is happening on the dark side of the otherwise so humanistic Danish society.

Michael Svennevig paid repeated visits to Sandholm and wrote a play – Fence – based on his observations there and on Alan Pary’s poetry. Fence premiered in Copenhagen for three days in late June – and hopefully will be staged again, many times, throughout Denmark, to call attention to this situation.

Fence consists of a monologue written by Michael Svennevig and performed by Niels Vigild with music and songs composed and performed by the Danish musician and sound technician, Thulla. No one involved in the play receives any monetary compensation for his or her work.

The little theater on the west side of Copenhagen where we saw it last weekend – Den Sorte Hest (The Black Horse theater) – was filled to capacity, perhaps a hundred people. The dramatic experience is strong – a naked stage, three walls painted black, a black door in the far wall through which two actors emerge, a man and a woman, fixed lighting. On the stage, two chairs, a keyboard table, a sound mixer.

The one actor (Niels Vigild) wears a dark suit, white open-collared shirt, his hair dark with strands of silver, his face large and strong. He is, in fact, Danish, but that is not apparent – he might as well be middle-eastern, and in the course of the monologue, one does not doubt that he is. The other actor is a woman (Thulla), slender with a glory of golden curls. She is barefoot, wears only a thin white sleeveless cotton gown to just below her knees, on one upper arm and shoulder an ornate abstract blue tattoo. Her face is long and slender, speckled with a trace of glitter, and her eyes seem to glow. She looks rather like an angel, and when the actor begins his monologue and you learn how in his youth, the man portrayed dreamed of angels, the connection is made.

The monologue is just under an hour, but in that time, you learn what you need to know about this man – about any man. That his dreams are simple really, much like our own: he dreams of love, of being part of a society, of family, of being able to work and having a home and being able to express himself freely. But there is one thing separating him from us: that fence.

Why must he stay behind the fence, dangling, waiting, struggling to maintain his own humanity? Michael Svennevig suggests the answer; that fence is there, he says, those six hundred people are corralled behind it, as a message to others who might think of fleeing here: Stay away!

After the performance, we met Alan Pary, and he gave me permission to translate one of his poems into English for this blog:

Just do it – kiss me
by Alan Pary

Kiss me
Before time ends
Kiss me
To end the war

Kiss me
So I can become a flame against the cloud
And dance gently upon the earth

Kiss me
Because we must teach others to kiss and forgive
Kiss me and make me happy
Come with your red lips
and smile…smile…smile
because when you smile the world falls so still

Kiss me
because there are those who hate kisses.

Alan Pary is a gentle-mannered man with a gentle smile, tall and slender. How does he maintain that gentleness through all his waiting?

When will we ever let him out from behind that fence?

Greetings from the ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Taste of Literary Denmark & One of its Painters

In mid-June, Walter Cummins crossed the ocean to this ancient kingdom to join me in launching an anthology issue of The Literary Review entitled "New Danish Writing" – 211 pages of contemporary Danish poetry, prose, interviews and reviews of recent Danish books in English: 9 prose writers, 13 poets, 2 further sets of poets interviewing one another, and half a dozen review essays.

From the dynamite opening poems by Janus Kodal and Jørgen Leth, the "unreal traffic" of Martin Glaz Serup, the wandering mysteries of Benn Q. Holm's new novel and Naja Marie Aidt's picking of strange berries on through five heart-breakingly beautiful poems by Pia Tafdrup and ten of Henrik Nordbrandt's awesome linguistic prestidigitations and five of Niels Hav's charmingly erotic lyrics through to Suzanne Brøgger's tale of animal abuse written specifically for this issue – and so much more – the anthology issue is, if I may say so, a powerful taste of Danish literature now. To read the rationale behind the selection process, please see my introduction to the issue.

On the cover is a striking and unusual painting by one of my favorite Danish artists, Wiliam Skotte Olsen, who – until he died an untimely death in 2005 – had been living in the Free State of Christiania in a construction wagon decorated inside and out with his own murals. Someone should write a book in English about Skotte – or translate the couple that exist; he was a tragic, enigmatic figure who, despite all, continued to paint until the day he died, at the age of 59. Skotte had been hurt some years back by dropping too much acid and in a night of what could only have been terrible hallucinations set fire to a tent in which two children were sleeping. The children, thank the gods of little ones, were saved, and Skotte was put away for some years. He was never quite the same. But through it all, he never stopped painting. I recently met an artist who knew him well and told me that he died with his brush in his hand.

The picture on the cover of The Literary Review Danish issue is one that Lady Alice discovered at an exhibit at Bredgade Art Dealers in Copenhagen about a year ago. I arrived after she had already looked at all the pictures, and I asked if there were any we might want to make space on our walls for.

"There's one," she said.. "But you have to find it yourself."

So I wandered the exhibit, saw many I liked but not any that made me feel we needed to make room for another Skotte – we already had half a dozen. But then I peeked into an illuminated alcove and saw it! It could only have been that one. A six square foot oil of a staring face – red eyes, red face, yellow-green nose and brow, lips parted slightly over dark teeth, as if in amazement at what it is seeing, or awe, or horrified incredulity. And what the face is seeing, of course, is me, you, us

I had never seen a Skotte like this one. It could only have been from his peak period in the '70s and early '80s.

It was a bit pricey for me. As is the case with most artists, ironically, the value of his pictures has risen since his death. But it cost only a little more than, say, an Armani suit and topcoat and gives me far more – is the word pleasure? inspiration? – than any such wardrobe additions would.

So we have it now, mounted high on the wall above one of the door lintels in our living room, diagonally across from the place where I most like to sit and write. And when I sit there, spilling out words from the nib of my Montblanc on the lined pages, from time to time I glance up at Skotte's powerful staring face, the red eyes. If what I am writing is as good as I can do and true as I can make it, those eyes share my awe at the privilege of being a worthy instrument. If I am groping toward what is as good and true as I can write, the eyes urge me not to turn away from the place where the stories are. But if I am working badly, indulging my wish for ease, the whole face radiates horror.

This is the face on the cover of TLR's Danish issue which I had the privilege of guest-editing and the further privilege of being joined by TLR Editor-in-Chief Walt Cummins and his wife Alison for the launches. Many people came to the two events – the first in the excellent premises of the bookshop and café Tranquebar, the other in the outstanding Paludan, also both a bookshop and café. For more information about these visit-worthy places, see my earlier bookshop post on this blog and for more information about Wiliam Skotte Olsen, see as well as Skotte's richly illustrated biography, Like a Rolling Stone: Wiliam Skotte Olsen and His Art (in Danish) by Ole Lindboe (Big City Books, published by Galleri Henrik Kampmann and Bredgade Kunsthandel, 2005.)

If I may be permitted an aside here – also about Skotte – the cover of the story collection I published last year, Cast Upon the Day (Hopewell Publications, 2007) is also a Skotte. It depicts 11 figures – 5 grinning, leering, unclassifiable creatures (are they men? living candles? evil saints?) and 6 multi-colored houses with wide-eyed windows and gaping mouth-doors. What attracted me to this picture for the cover of my collection beyond its colorist qualities is that the 11 figures were numerically and perhaps thematically equal to the 11 stories in my book. The cover can be viewed on my website ( End of aside.

However, this blog is less about covers than content – specifically the content of TLR's "New Danish Writing" ( The anthology is an attempt to give the readers of The Literary Review the possibility of sampling a taste of newer contemporary Danish writing – which is ordinarily not possible because Danish writers, naturally, write in Danish, a language that is not accessible to more than a few million people in the world.

I have done several mini-anthologies of Danish writing over the past twenty years – one in 1987 in Frank: An International Journal of Writing & Art, published in Paris, others in 1990 in Cimarron Review and in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1995 – as well as publishing translations of individual Danes in a variety of literary journals: In American Poetry Review (a selection of Henrik Nordbrandt poems, 2008), in Absinthe: New Danish Writing (which has published half a dozen Danes in the past couple of years), in Agni (2007), in TLR, in New Letters, and forthcoming, a Nordbrandt chapbook in MidAmerican Review. While TLR has published a scattering of Danish work, particularly in recent years, including an interview with the dean of the Danish writing school, Hans Otto Jørgensen, we must go back 44 years to the last all-Danish issue of TLR – to 1964. The authors included then are now the seniors by far of Danish literature – and some are no longer with us.

Such anthologies and mini-anthologies, unfortunately, always require a process of selection. There are so many good writers one would wish to include, but the limitations of space and economics always require that some who might have been there are not.

Although there were a few sour words on behalf of all the excellent writers I did not have the possibility of including in TLR's "New Danish Writing" (including a complaint by a Danish lady philologist that a writer had not been included who was, in fact, very much present –but of course some find it hardly necessary to read something before criticizing it), the anthology issue was generally welcomed with reviews in three of the leading culture organs in Copenhagen, on Danish radio and in the local press.

Some of the writers not included in the TLR anthology are, however, included in current or coming issues of other journals – most notably Absinthe: New European Writing which I am also privileged to be associated with as an Advisory Editor.

Others not included – Ib Michael, Peter Høeg, Christian Jungersen, Carsten Jensen, Klaus Rifbjerg, to name but five – are already sufficiently well known in the US that they hardly need showcasing in a literary journal.

But instead of bemoaning the absence of some writers, I hope that readers will take advantage of the presence of those who are there – a fine array of the younger generation of Danes and on up to those in late middle-age (or, as one of my professors liked to refer to it, "Late Youth").

I would welcome feedback from readers of the Danish issue either through a comment on this blog or by email to

Greetings from the ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


At the end of April I made an unexpected trip from Copenhagen to New York because I learned that I was one of six finalists for a so-called "Ellie" Award – the National Magazine Award 2008 for an essay I had published in New Letters magazine.

We were up against essays in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper's, Elle, and Entertainment Weekly – all magazines with millions or at least hundreds of thousands of circulation while New Letters has about 3,000. Among the other five essayists was Stephen King, the irony of that being that I am a "literary" writer, with very few readers, while Mr. King is a "commercial" writer read by millions all over the world. Augmenting the irony was the fact that Mr. King's essay was about J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books – millions upon millions of readers.

Surprisingly I won. Or the magazine that published me won. Or we both won. It was a heady evening at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall where for $480 a ticket (fortunately I didn't pay!), we ate canapés of the gods (bits of goat cheese and beef on chips of toasted rye, shrimp to die for, lobster tails – all served by handsome young people who looked pleased to please us), drank from an open bar (three kinds of vodka) and rubbed tuxedo sleeves with the magazine magnificos of America. The "Ellie" itself is a large, many-bladed sculpture designed by Alexander Calder, and it looks like something you could hijack a plane with.

Bob Stewart, editor of New Letters, and I sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the theater for nearly two hours stuffed into our penguins, speculating whether it meant something that we were trapped on the inside end of the row, and I don't know about Bob, but I needed to micturate and didn't dare. At the urging of Lady Alice, I had worn my tux – fortunately I could still button it after 20 years (I must have already been fat back then) – but not a black tie; instead I wore a black tee shirt with a Sheela na Gig pendant she had silversmithed for me and my "leopard skin" pillbox hat (no red paint, please – it's synthetic), which she had commissioned the Danish Queen's hat-maker to design for a birthday present.

Finally, Charlie Rose was on stage to present the award in the essay category, and we experienced this surreal moment of having the pages of Bob's magazine with my essay projected up on a huge screen on the stage while 500 people looked on and the voice of a woman who sounded equally educated and merry was saying over the sound system, "Wince-inducing, outrageously honest and wickedly funny, Thomas Kennedy's account of his prostate-cancer scare is essay writing at its most original…"

Then Charlie Rose was saying, "The winner is New Letters, Robert Stewart, and Thomas E. Kennedy's essay, 'I Am Joe's Prostate.'" Bob yelled in triumph, pumping his fist in the air, while his wife Lisa and staff members Betsy and Amy screamed from the balcony (that scream was reported by the New York Observer), and I muttered, "Holy shit."

Then we were on the stage in the spotlight, and Charlie Rose was shoving the big-bladed "Ellie" at me and saying, "I'm gonna give you this!" as blitzes flashed, and Bob was making a speech of thanks, and we were coming down the stage steps again. I asked Bob, "Who was that?" and he looked incredulously at me. "That was Charlie Rose." I've been away a long time.

As all 500 of us bottlenecked out of the theater toward the post-ceremony champagne, people kept nodding, smiling, saying, "Congratulations," and "Love your hat!" and "Is that a leopard skin pillbox hat?" In the men's room, the guy at the next urinal smiled at me – something a man is never supposed to do! -- and said, "Congratulations!"

As we entered the reception area, I saw Albert Goldbarth, standing with the contingent from Virginia Quarterly Review (they also won, in the single-topic issue category), and he beamed and said, "If only I were drunk, I would kiss you!" A woman came over and introduced herself as the editor of Reader's Digest and another as editor of Good Housekeeping and then a tall dark-haired man shook my hand and said, "I haven't read your essay but I hear it is very funny and I look forward to it. And I hope your health is okay." I thanked him and then looked at Bob. "Who was that?" Bob smiled incredulously. "That was David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker !" I've been away too long.
I phoned Alice in Copenhagen where it was four in the morning and said, "I won." She began to cry. "I knew you would." It's true. She had assured me I would win – as had my friends Duff Brenna and Greg Herriges and Mike Lee and even Bob Stewart had seemed pretty confident.

I did not really think so and had been assuring everyone who would listen that I did not expect to win at all, that I was content with the honor of being a finalist – although the evening before, at another reception for the event, in the New York Public Library, somebody with a high position in the proceedings asked if my essay was available for Best American Magazine Writing, and another had looked at me in a certain way that seemed to intimate she knew something I didn't.

Then when Charlie Rose was going down the list of essay finalists, suddenly my nostrils were filled with longing to savor that famous sweet smell of success, and I knew that if I did not win, I would be disappointed, perhaps seriously so. The transformation from content-to-be-a-finalist to lust-for-victory had been instanteous. Suddenly I wanted it. Bad!

I would be a liar if I denied that it was nice to be called, but soooo much nicer to be chosen.

This prize is described variously as the Oscar of the magazine world and the Pulitzer of the magazine world. Oddly I bought the NY Times next day and took it to breakfast, to scan the pages for any mention of the "Ellie" – all except the real estate and the business sections, which I dumped in a refuse basket. There was not a word – but I found out later, there had been an article in the business section, I had even been mentioned by name, also in the Washington Post and some other places as well. Even some of the newspapers in Denmark reported that their American-in-residence had won the most distinguished prize in the American magazine world.

When I got back to this ancient kingdom, dear Lady Alice and my kids, Isabel and Daniel, had a "surprise" party waiting for me with about thirty guests. I was feted with flowers and wine and champagne and gifts. Tonny Vorm of the Danish magazine Euroman came bearing an amazing three-liter bottle of finest ecological beer in a gala wooden case – a gift from Euroman which offered to buy Danish rights to the essay for a nice fee. A journalist from the prestigious Weekendavisen scheduled an interview. There were scores of emails of congratulations. I was invited to read the essay at a bookshop in the city center – more flowers and champagne. Fairleigh Dickinson University invited me to be visiting writer in creative nonfiction for another nice fee. Apparently the essay will be reprinted in Best American Magazine Writing 2008. And I don't know if it has any relation, but I received word that a novel I published in 2007 was also a finalist for ForewardMagazine's Book of the Year. Ripples keep rippling.

But let me put this into perspective. I was lucky. As Ken Kesey said when he wrote the phenomenal Cuckoo's Nest, "I caught lightning in a bottle." I certainly do not mean to compare my 5,000-word essay with that world-changing novel, but I know what Kesey meant. I had something I wanted to write about and this voice had occurred to me – this second person voice of extreme irony and wicked humor was handed up to me from wherever it is that our words come from and it began to say outrageous things to me that made me snicker, and all I had to do was write them down. Maybe the King of the Word Factory within had decided it was time for me to get a good shot of encouragement after 47 years of trying and decided to give me that voice with which to tell that essay.
So, my profound thanks to the King of the Word Factory for giving me the ammunition for this little coup. And my thanks to New Letters and Bob Stewart for their support and encouragement over many years and my thanks to Lady Alice for the leopard-skin pillbox hat and to my prostate for keeping on – and a salute to the other essay writer finalists – Walter Kirn in the Atlantic, Katrina Onstad in Elle, Sallie Tisdale in Harper's, Tim Page in the New Yorker, and most particularly Stephen King.

One of the local newspapers in Denmark ran an article about my winning the award that was entitled, "Kennedy Dethrones King." But I didn't dethrone Mr King. He still has millions of readers all over the world who have never heard of me and will never read my stuff.

Pst! Stephen - -could you loan me about a hundred thousand readers for my next book? No? Twenty thousand? I promise I'll be good to them. I promise to show them a good time.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Thursday, April 24, 2008

That Big Yellow 'M' -- I'm Hatin' It !

That big yellow ‘M’ with its loopy humps – like breasts really. How diabolically ingenious. The word for mother in practically every language – Mom, Mommy, mere, mor, moder, mama, mutter, mamasita, even in Korean! – begins with an ‘m’ sound – the sound an infant makes when hungrily moving its lips toward the nipple, the sound we make when something is delicious: Mmmmmm….

And those mother-jumpers have commandered it – just as the jingoists would commandeer our flag.

It is a cancer on the earth, franchises everywhere, in every capital city of the world and in the smaller and medium-sized towns, too. Not just in the U.S. but everywhere, Paris, London, Rome, Moscow, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Beijing… Destroying the health of the poor, of kids, ruining the architectural symmetry of ancient cities, adding their ugly emporia to the urban sprawl along with all the other franchise burger, chicken, taco and coffee joints.

Where are the great old American diners, the one-of-a-kind places owned by one man or woman or couple? Where have they gone? Starved out, that’s where!

Okay, mabye twice a year – because I’ve got a bodacious hang-over which craves grease and fat – I skulk into the gaudy red and yellow joint behind its gaudy ‘M’, cap pulled low, and order one, even two cheeseburgers and wolf them down, get a belly ache on top of my headache and go home to crawl into bed.

Why do I do it? Why do I support this junk food factory which plants its fat ugly butt and shows its ludicrous Ronald clown-face on the best, most historic corners of my beloved ancient capital?

I mean it would be okay if there were one or two of them around and if they would low-profile their gaudy facades, but no. They want to be everywhere, to be seen, they want to fatten themselves with big bucks behind their ugly signs that say, I’m lovin’ it – 200 meters.

Well I’m hatin’ it! And I’m hatin’ what they and their kind do to our world. And I hate the fact that this has become the face of American culture throughout the world. What we are most famous for “culturally.”

Why don’t we boycott those fuggers? All of them. Starve them out. Or at least pinch them hard as we can. We Americans can do a hell of a lot better than that!

Let’s put a big black X through that ugly yellow M!

Greetings from this ancient capital!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Farewell, Varvara; Farewell, Sweet Baroness

Today I escort Lady Alice along the sunny cobblestoned courtyard of Kastels Church in eastern Copenhagen for the funeral of our friend, the Baroness SoniaVarvara Hasselbalch Heyd – just four days before she would have been 88 years old.

Varvara was one of the last of the Danish nobles, a direct descendant of the Russian Princess Varvara Gagarin. Varvara’s life was long and rich in experience – ambulance and truck driver and spy for the allies in World War II, portrait photographer of royalty and of African tribes, award-winning equestrian, author of several books. Death, at her age, is a natural event. Still, it is sorrowful to say farewell to an admired friend, to know that we will never again hear the chuckling music of her laughter or see it twinkle in her brown eyes.

Her only son, Eggy, and his wife Olivia and son Nicholas, stand at the church doors, greeting the mourners of this great woman. Eggy is tall as his mother was, and you can see her in his face, his strong jaw, his smile; Nicholas is even taller, also smiling gently, in his mid-twenties. Eggy thanks Alice for the obituary she wrote for Varvara in the local newspaper.

Unlike the dark and gloomy churches of my youth, this one – built in 1704 – is light and bright, walls and ceilings and pews and pulpit painted white with gold trim. From the ceiling hangs the large model ship one finds in all Danish Lutheran churches, giving a sense of wordliness, a worldly journey, to the surroundings, and the windows are tall and clear – no gloam of stained glass; bright sunlight slants in through them behind the altar which is decorated with three colorful religious paintings, one above the other, within a massive, delicately carved and gleamingly gilded wood frame. Through the windows behind and to either side of the altar can be seen strollers, joggers bouncing past on the high green path. Lady Alice touches my arm to be sure I’ve seen them and I know we are thinking the same, that this suits Varvara’s spirit and love of life.

The central aisle is strewn with a variety of flowers in many colors. Varvara didn’t like cut flowers, felt it a shame to kill them slowly that way. But what is a funeral without flowers? Alice has chosen to honor Varvara with a bouquet of peacock feathers which we give to the church attendant to add to the display.

I remove my Borselino as we walk down the aisle, and it occurs to me that the hat – and my shoes, too – belonged to another friend, Ole; he purchased them shortly before his death at 75 and were given to me by his widow, Bente. His funeral was also from this church, just a year ago, and it feels a bit as though Ole and Bente are with us for this funeral. I’ve never owned a Borselino before. I hold it to my heart as we gaze at the casket which contains Varvara’s body.

The casket, too, is white, heaped with white flowers and adorned at its foot with three of the medals Varvara was awarded in her lifetime – the Crois de Guerre with two bronze stars and Légion d’Honneur for her valorous service to the wounded under fire as an ambulance driver during the Second World War and an Italian decoration for diplomatic service to Sweden. Varvara was a truly international woman, with Danish, Swedish, Russian, and German blood in her veins, the master of half a dozen languages.

We find a seat in a pew not too far back amidst the 150 or so mourners. Varvara had many friends from many places in society. I remember her replying once, when interviewed by a journalist who asked what it was like to have been in company with monarchs and nobles. “What were they like?” he asked, and she said, “Oh pretty much like you and me – but not quite as snobby.”

The organ begins with Schubert’s Opus 100 then mingles with some other theme. The music seems to embody in a remarkable manner a combination of a purposeful procession with a melody at once uplifting and deeply and sorrowfully moving.

Then the congregation rises and sings with the choir the three psalms which Varvara had stipulated – 19th century psalms by Grundtvig, Ingemann and Christian Richardt:

We vision a mansion, fair and good
Where joyously friends are waiting…
Lovely the earth it is!
Splendor in God’s heavens!
Never fear the power of dark.
The stars will give us light.

We sit and the priest steps up with his back to the altar and speaks about Varvara’s life, why it is so fitting that her last service be held here, just a walk from the great mansion in which she was born, the opulent apartment to which she moved after the war, and the peaceful cemetery in which she will be buried. He talks about the things she did with her life, her courage and her pain, her three husbands, the child she lost, the one who survived and how she loved him and his son. He talks about how fully Varvara lived, how she tried everything, how in her childhood she had lost her father very young and had been called upon to make her inner feelings give way to expectations from her mother…

Then son and grandson and four other men hoist up the coffin and carry it in slow procession down the aisle as the mourners file out behind them and the organ plays something which does not sound quite religious. Alice whispers to me what it is – a popular song from the 1940s, from a Danish musical comedy staged during the German occupation of Denmark – “Close Your Sweet Innocent Eyes.” It was written by Aage Stentoft (1914-70) expressly for Varvara when she was 22-years-old. The six-year older song-writer had a crush on her.

We proceed to Garnison’s cemetery, a lovely green place where Alice and I plan to be (,
buried together when that time comes. The six pallbearers lower the casket into the grave, and the priest steps up with a small shovel and throws earth in upon the casket three times, speaking with each shovelful: “From earth you have come. To earth you shall return. From earth you shall rise again.”

The priest leads us in the Our Father, and then the mourners one by one step up to cast a single red rose in on top of the coffin. My thoughts turn, I feel certain, in a similar direction as Alice’s, remembering times we spent with Varvara, sharing champagne and oysters, snaps and chocolates, cigars, how Alice researched and wrote and published a book about the mansion in which Varvara grew up (A Noble House for Doctors, 1995) and in which Alice and I worked for 30 years, how Varvara insisted on doing portraits of Alice, how she would come to my readings and read my books and count the number of times the word ‘fuck’ appears – “Thirty-seven times in that book. Time to find a synonym perhaps?” Once she sent me a copy of Tom Wolfe’s new novel with a note, “You’re falling behind. This Tom uses the word ‘fuck’ three times as often as you do!”

I am remembering what Alice wrote in her obituary of Varvara – that strong and impressive as she was there was a tiny plea in her eyes that said, Please love me. I put my arm around Alice’s shoulder and give a squeeze – in thanks that she introduced me to Varvara who had been her friend for many years before I ever met her.

The burial beer is on the indoor balcony of the elegant La Boheme on Esplanaden – a short way from Varvara’s apartment. The food and drink are elegant, too, fully in the spirit of this elegant woman. Among those attending we see many whom Varvara helped forward in the world with, as Alice noted, her diplomatic powers of bringing people together for their mutual good – a young goldsmith, a journalist, a hospital aide, a film-maker…

We chat with Varvara’s grandson, Nicholas, and his beautiful fiancé, Kristina, a Danish-Canadian who is an art dealer in London. We ask Nicholas what he is doing, and he tells us that he has now completed his degree in French literature and entered upon a career as a film-maker. He is on his way to Brazil for a new project. Alice tells him how Varvara once said about him, “Oh please don’t make him be a banker!”) He laughs.

He and I have met a few times but I am not certain he remembers me. Still there is some spark of recognition and he seems to make a connection. With a curious smile he asks, “Have you seen this…this blog that has a picture of my grandmother holding a…a petrified whale penis?”

My own smile is sheepish. “I wrote it,” I say. “With her blessing and permission.”
( But that blog has many other pictures as well and many amusing stories that Varvara shared with us about her life and times.

The get-together is just under two hours. At one point as Alice enjoys a cigarette in a chair on the sidewalk outside La Boheme, I keep her company, and one of the other guests comes bustling out, fumbling into a pack of fags – the 77-year-old Ingeborg, slender and sprightly. “What a horror it is,” she says, lighting up,.“that a Dane can no longer even smoke a damn cigarette at a reception anymore!”

Alice and I laugh, and I am sure our thoughts are identical – remembering the sign that Varvara had in the entry to her huge apartment: Thank you for smoking. And the first time I visited her, when I asked if she minded if I smoked a cigar, she lifted a leopard-skin trimmed cannister from a side table and removed a cigar of her own, “Only if you don’t mind if I do!”

At that moment I can see her twinkling eyes, hear the chuckle of her laughter. Goodbye, dear Varvara. There will never be another like you.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Envelope, Please? National Magazine Awards 2008.

One of my old professors was fond of saying that when the gods elevate you it is just to get better leverage to kick you in the gonads.

Not quite three years ago, my GP sounded the alarm because a blood test indicated I might have prostate cancer, even though I had no symptoms and no pain. Consequently, I spent two years undergoing about 20 blood tests and 34 biopsies, the last three of which were surgical. And I learned the ugly word “catheter.” The doctors were convinced I had cancer because the indicative number in my blood (PSA) kept rising. But finally they decided that in my case the indication was wrong. I just had a high PSA, that’s all. It shouldn’t be higher than 4 but mine was up to 20. They let me go, pronounced my prostate healthy in January 2007.

I had kept a journal of all this and wrote an essay about it which New Letters magazine published last summer. Apparently I had succeeded in striking a humorous note in the essay because despite the gory details, a number of people wrote to say how funny it was. It even won a prize and was nominated for another, and a couple of weeks ago, I was startled to learn that it was also a finalist for a National Magazine Award.

Ignorant as I am, living in this distant kingdom, I didn’t even know what a National Magazine Award was until I started receiving emails congratulating me. Apparently the National Magazine Awards are the Oscars of the magazine world in the U.S., the highest honor in the field. You even get a statuette if you win, an “Ellie.” Along with five other writers I was a finalist in the essay genre, up against writers who had published in the New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper’s, Entertainment Weekly, and Elle. I was, I learned, up against Stephen King’s essay about Harry Potter. There would be a black tie award ceremony at Lincoln Center in New York City on May 1st.

Nervously, I got my tuxedo out of mothballs (unnecessary – it is a semi-synthetic fabric, of no interest to moths -- I bought it for like 95 bucks about 20 years ago). Thank god it still fit! I must have been fat back then, too. Lady Alice suggested that I wear it with my white suspenders over a high-quality black T-shirt, that I don my Sheela na Gig pendant and leopard-skin pillbox hat for the ceremony. And that I polish and wear my Giglio running shoes. Lady Alice always knows the right thing to do.

I bought a plane ticket, reserved a room in a 1½-star hotel on West 43rd Street ($116 a night including tax – the very same hotel where Joe Buck stayed in Midnight Cowboy), began fantasizing headlines: Kennedy Dethrones King! even as the butterflies in my stomach whispered, Don’t worry, asshole – you ain’t gonna win!

Meanwhile (and here’s where the gonad kick of the gods comes in), I had been invited to take a routine follow-up blood test which showed my PSA had shot up even higher, to 25, so high that the cancer which had proven not to be there would now have begun to spread to my bones. So I was called in to the hospital for more tests.

Up the arse with the ultrasound wand again for 11 zaps with the needle, fiery micturitions and bloody gism. There is no polite way to describe these things. Into the bone scanner (scintograph, if we want to be Latinate about it) where you lie on a narrow table and the nutsy nurse tries to be cute by hovering over me like a vampire and saying, “Now I am going to tie you up!” as she binds my arms in Velcro bondage. I consider chortling and flirting back, but I really don’t feel like doing that. So I lie there and contemplate my itchy nose, making anagrams out of the name of the company that manufactured the machine, printed in block letters on its side – PHILLIPS. HILL LIPS ILL LIPS PILLS HI LILI PLIP SHILL SIP SILL SHIP SLIP for half an hour, with radioactive serum running through my veins – drink plenty of water, please! – while the narrow table to which I am strapped moves infinitesimally slowly through a big metal doughnut.

When I am out the other side, the nurse returns to tell me I will have to change my underpants. “There is a spot we don’t like on the picture. It might only be a spot of urine. The machine is so sensitive. We put a pair of hospital panties over there for you to change into.”

That’s what she said. “Panties.” I consider saying, “You just want to see me naked, admit it.” But I really don’t feel like saying that so I just go and change from my black Calvin Klein’s into a pair of sexy white hospital drawers. I wonder how they knew my size. The nurse must have checked out my butt, I think to amuse myself, but I am not actually amused. In fact, I am thinking about that spot they didn’t like on the picture and wondering how a freaking radar machine or whatever it is can see through my jeans, zipper, and Calvin Klein’s but not through a spot of urine? Whatever.

To my relief, I learned today, the bone scans proved normal as did every one of the 11 new biopsies as well. (I am now a fully biopsied man, with 45 of the buggers – not to put too fine a point on it – to my credit!) So the gods didn’t want to position me for a kick in the gonads after all. Sometimes they only kid around with you, and they have a creepy sense of humor. But one of these times – comes to all of us! – they will come for real and cut me down. This time they let me off with a warning and a wink.

Oh I forgot! There’s also the bladder probe – don’t forget the bladder probe, another coming attraction in two weeks time. The picture showed something they didn’t like there in the bladder, too, so they want to do a probe. That’s real fun.

I began to think, Damn, couldn’t it be a different organ this time? I already wrote an essay about my prostate gland. Pick another, non-urological one – but not the heart, please. And not another kidney stone. Not even the hope of an Ellie would make me want to endure another kidney stone.

A friend enquired whether I have some Faustian pact with the devil in which one by one I sacrifice my organs for essays that might win prizes.


Before I answer that : May I have the envelope, please?

(Tune in after May 1st for the final installment of this cliff-hanging serial! Orchestra: Accelerando con moto! Organ sound-track, please… Penguins in a line now!)

Greetings from this ancient capital!
Thomas E. Kennedy