Autoportrait was one of the most surprising and enjoyable books I read last year. It reads like not just an exercise in personal and identitary memoryAutoportrait was one of the most surprising and enjoyable books I read last year. It reads like not just an exercise in personal and identitary memory, but one in the forgetting of inhibition, self-censorship, and the interrupting mediation of the writing act and the text itself. This makes it often seem more similar to a spoken record, in the perpetuation of rapid-fire rapid-fire mnemonic decisiveness and forgetting of the private-public divide.
It also encouraged some productive writing experiments of my own in Levé's style, I must admit (and I know for a fact I am not alone in this modeling). While engaging this style, it seemed like a kind of next level of Frank O'Hara's I-do-this-I-do-that aesthetic that can also be so exciting to read and write in.
But it is the reading mode that sticks a fortuitous memory/forgetting balance, pushing and pulling on one's own mnemonic and identitary reflection (i.e., reading while wondering, "now, what I would write in this mode? do I agree with him here, and here and there?"), and on the potential of forgetting that same self-absorbed perspective as Levé's own personal declarations take conscious root, however momentarily.
The apparent simplicity of Levé's approach belied so many melancholy juxtapositions, sometimes joyful and other times devastating first-person aphorisms, and intriguingly fresh autobiographical angles, it will stick with me for a long time. Some favorite passages on forgetting:
"My memory is structured like a disco ball."
“I do not forget to forget.”
"Jack Kerouac makes me want to live more than Charles Baudelaire...When I make lists of names, I dread the ones I forget."...more
One of the most intriguing bearded characters in this slim zine-styled volume, Colossus of Roads, describes boxcar art in this way: “At first approachOne of the most intriguing bearded characters in this slim zine-styled volume, Colossus of Roads, describes boxcar art in this way: “At first approached desultorily, incidentally, the process of drawing with wax crayons a character of comic proportions, who began to take on aspects of a legend in the fraternity of railroaders, began to reveal the possibilities of the ideas involved.” And what are these ideas, scattered amongst old-timer rail vernacular and photos of freight graffiti out of Laredo, Texas?
The graffiti as a mark of presence, an identity search chalked in rust, a daily communication to dissolve in the static here to random there, “derived from alienation, an attempt at transcendence” according to Colossus of Roads and intended to meet as many eyes as possible throughout North American crossings and train yards. The railroad as the system for disseminating the art, a rolling screen of familiar or mysterious icons calling out stoically from industrial anonymity to passerby in towns both unremarkable and classic. Through southern flats and midwestern plains, this is individuality making a stab at continental eternity and coming against lashing rain, chemical erosion, aggressive aerosol youth, scorching hazard but subsisting through word of mouth, name, and number.
Hobos, tramps, poke-about vagabonds, crust punks, liars, alcoholics, possible criminals (the F.T.R.A. – Freight Train Riders of America – an acronym bedded down with urban legend and media fear), and rail workers of all stripes contribute to this network of roving symbols, this graffiti binding and dividing, fraternal and aggressive, spontaneous and repetitive, claiming space to be immediately abandoned, mythologizing its own movement, recording some degree folk hero, American romanticism, fringe "freedom," underclass and economic bottom, cliche and posturing, you name it.
Authenticity, sought, overwrought, and perennially American, is marked and erased with the graffiti as closed system, as specific rail nomenclature, as tension between the boxcar and the artist and the copier and the liar. Development of moniker and sketch is the stake, then expansion of the legend across Texas up to Reno and beyond, then risk the moniker is stolen and distorted onto other freights heading opposite directions, and finally hope the sketch (Bozo Texino’s cowboy, Herby’s palm tree) is recopied and life-span extended. The photos are the best part of Mostly True, and thus the authentic versus lie versus copy versus cliche tension develops between name and image but takes an appreciative turn after barreling through South Carolina and Washington crossings and ending up documented in this volume, supported with stories ("You're Nuts; There's No Bozo Texino") handwritten far and wide to make your head spin.
Cause if Grandpa did indeed copy J.H. McKinley to become the prime purveyor of Bozo Texino, there are still a million and one stories (mostly Texan) as to the work of transformation. Our interest is encouraged not only by the material evidence of the photos, but by Grandpa’s tough-old-timer defense of his art, as when his boss at the yard tells him to quit marking the cars and he explains, “Sure enough, I told him to go fly his damn kite, you know.” Grandpa is a staunch defender of the dividing line between hobos and bums as well, always a point of interest, and he warns, “don’t you ever call a hobo a bum round me ‘cause I’ll, you know, I’ll get in your eyeball,” referring to a hobo code of ethics that (from what I’ve read) focuses on organization, self-reliance, generally positive attitudes to work and cleanliness, and skills in thriftiness. This freight graffiti reflects too the classic hobo codes thrown up on fence posts and barn sides to alert travelers to “angel food” or “homeowner with gun” or “kind lady lives here” or “talk religion to sleep in the barn” sort of statements, also an interesting component of a rail culture that I, admittedly, have had no real contact with.
Mostly True is fascinating for its languages and images buried deep in the American grain, and I'm talking about that fascination with trains, that desirable movement and romanticized freedom, a freedom maybe never there and easily hackneyed and tiresome, but a loss thereof reconciled somewhat through this rail art text. For paralleling the anonymity of these tags, in-jokes, long lost references, and obscene doodles is a certain record of American memory and forgetting. For instance...
If left-handed Grandpa did 60,000 Bozo Texino drawings in a year and 573 on January 18, 1981 specifically (according to his records presented here), who am I to be filled with anything but admiration? But if Grandpa only counted his drawings when he hit both sides of a train – despite doing “a jillion of them” overall, as he says – where are the uncounted ones, lost to some post-industrial ghost world, some folk scrap heap? Those are the images that keep you wondering how many are still making their circuit. Picture some classic Bozo Texino – the infinity hat, smart yet gentle eyes, and trusty pipe (McKinley’s style) or cigarette (Grandpa’s style) – from years back that had lost its sheen in the sleet and dust after ten-fifteen years, but then here comes an admirer to sketch it back in, revivifying it for future runs. That's the inexplicable drive and mysterious enthusiasm traced and retraced through Bill Daniel’s volume.
By the end of Mostly True all of these monikers – Herby, Coaltrain (John Easley, the original?), Matokie Slaughter, Water Bed Lou, “Tex”-King of Tramps, Bozo Texino (Grandpa + J.H. McKinley), J.B. King, Road Hog, Cardboard, Mud Up (Tommy Green: “I don’t lie, cheat, or steal”), Ho-Bro, and, most especially for me, Colossus of Roads (Gypsysphinx, Slay Spray, Buz Blurr, Breakman of Monotony) – are ever more legendary, bearded, approachable yet distant, knowable yet long gone, but from hereon to be considered every time I’m on a Polski Koleje Państwowe pociąg osobowy snaking through the Polish countryside or during the nights I dream of the sound of a Conrail freight running past Columbia Station, Ohio.
Consider what J.H. McKinley wrote in 1926: “I worked in the shops, on bridge gangs, watched engines, hostled, and in fact I did everything known to the railroad profession. I was promoted from a call boy at Pleasanton, to night roundhouse foreman at Crystal City. This was the longest distance jump I ever took in railroad circles. I finished my course in the school of experience, bitter and sweet as locomotive fireman, where the saddest words are not good bye, but do you recollect.”
What is it, really, with trains and recollection? Is it something in the toy-like tension between the rail structure and the locomotive as sheer power? What secrets do trains hold to an American promise and industrial deterioration? “Good bye” can always be replaced with an old-timer “so long,” but “do you recollect” never falters, only increasing in pulse, growing with the numbers of Bozo Texinos and Colossi of Roads crisscrossing the land. So what to recollect while you’re reading Mostly True but your own movements away and back home, raising up from Kerouac’s “October in the Railroad Earth” to think deeply about such movements, to watch those monikers and images barrel along and fade into night on the other side of the country, other side of the world, circling endlessly the infinity sign of Bozo Texino’s hat? ...more