Reviews of the book
Walter A. Davis
Carletta Joy Walker
Meredith Sue Willis
E-mails and letters
"Readings from Health Proxy"
Ordering the book
I greatly appreciate the thought and care that people have given to writing these remarkable reviews of my book.
Robert Roth’s Beautiful Lesson
by Richard Crasta
I met Robert Roth, the writer and magazine editor, in New York in 2004, and stayed at his tiny apartment in Greenwich Village for nearly two weeks. He was a good friend of my good friend Ralph, and that fact itself was enough for him to share his tiny living space with a man who had been, until then, a stranger. I soon realized, from photographs on the wall, that Robert had known many literary celebrities, and I asked Robert a question book-lovers often ask each other: “Who is your favorite writer?”
He answered. Arlene, and Arnie, and Elizabeth, and Ruth, and others—writers who, in many cases, had written for his magazine “And Then”, and were not “big names.” I replied, “Yes, yes, but who are your favorite writers?” He replied, “Well, as I said, Arnie, and Arlene, and Elizabeth, and John . . .” The kind of answer I had been expecting was something like “Allen Ginsberg, Noam Chomsky, Hemingway, Garcia Marquez.” And Robert Roth, even though he had formidable intellect and could have recited a Who's Who of Writers, refused to humor me with that kind of answer. And in the process of knowing him, over a long time, I realized it wasn't a trick answer or a put-on attitude: he really meant it with all his heart, you could see how his face lighted up with pride when he talked about these people, how his appreciation and love showed.
In the process, Robert Roth taught me a beautiful lesson. To appreciate the people and the writers he personally knew, to appreciate the gift of their friendship, of Fate having brought them into his life. Not some list of remote writers which showed what a well-read, cosmopolitan, erudite person he was, with such highbrow, impressive tastes. In fact, Robert’s magazine, And Then, often published writers who had never published or even written before—as writers: they were waiters, secretaries, nurses, designers, sometimes blue collar workers. He saw that all writers were unique, and equally valuable—there was no such thing as a hierarchy of writers, as Rushdie could not write Arlene’s story any more than Arlene could write Rushdie’s stories. Everyone was a potential writer, had a story to tell, and there simply was a barrier to his or her expression: the barriers coming from diffidence, a lack of practice or education, anxiety, self-doubt, a sense of awe about the writing process, and false comparisons.
All comparisons of writers are false comparisons, he would say, as I see it.
In July last year, Robert published his new book, “Health Proxy”—and I have read it, but have yet to write my review of it—so many things to do recently, so little time. However, here is his publisher Ralph Nazareth’s speaking: “a personally gripping account of a particular time and place . . . an embracing book—at once angry and desperate as well as experimental and whimsical.” I urge you to consider buying a copy for yourself and your friends/lovers.
How to get it: You may order the book by visiting the web site www.yuganta.com.
I give below three random reviews of the book which Ralph quoted in his letter to me.
I wrote a bit earlier about Robert Roth’s beautiful
lesson—appreciating the people you personally know,
and how much they mean to you—and I want to add that
his book shows a practical example of this
connectedness: his Acknowledgments page is three pages
long, and includes around a hundred names, including
Margaret, who lives in the apartment opposite, and
about whom he says, “thank you, Margaret, for being
the first person I usually see when I wake up.”
A reader complained to me that your book was a lot of "sex and death."
I told her that if that were the case, it clearly belongs in the class of great texts!
I love your book. I started reading it today and I don’t want to put it down. I was going to weed my garden this afternoon, but I read instead.
And I love working in my garden.
I just wanted you to know that I am reading your book again, and that I am completely absorbed in it. It is unusual for me to be able to read a book so many times with real enjoyment. It’s a magnificent work. I like the additions.
Robert Roth, Health Proxy (Stamford, Conn.: Yuganta Press, 2007).
by Walter A. Davis
The style is the man. That old adage is here true in its deepest sense – style as the discipline through which a fascinating individual, as he faces the onset of old age, struggles with the issues and activities that have defined his life as a man of the left. The book defies summary. It’s about the experience of acting as a health proxy for friends and relatives who are now deceased. (A health proxy is one who has legally accepted responsibility for making medical decisions for someone who is no longer able to make them. Two deeply moving examples here involve a friend dying of AIDS and an aunt suffering fatal burns.) It’s also a book about a man of the left engaged in a critique of the left: of our brand of conformity; our false as well as real solidarity; our hysterical competitiveness and compulsive status-seeking and all the other ways in which our “alternative world” so often mirrors the society we would overturn. Some of the sharpest observations in the book focus on this topic.
Roth is especially keen on puncturing the postures of academics, especially their need to affect a condescending superiority. Roth is perfectly positioned to develop this critique because while he is a deep and widely read man of considerable theoretical sophistication he is not an academic. In fact, the primary way he makes (or made) his living is by delivering newspapers at NYU. That fact, which the reader learns roughly 1/3rd of the way through the book, is disarming to some readers I suspect, given the sophistication of Roth’s thought. It also reveals, I think, the primary source of the book’s honesty and its critical power. Roth is that rare leftist – the one Doris Lessing calls for: a man who is a socialist in his instincts. As a result everyone is treated as an equal: Professor X with all his titles and awards and Joe, the janitor who cleans his office. And as a result no idea escapes the right kind of inspection: does it actually arise from and contribute to our collective struggle for a humane existence or is it a self-gratifying posture?
The result is a frequently sharp critique of all easy, ideologically correct views and a willingness to give a hearing to views that it would be easy to dismiss for the same reason. The book is written primarily in vignettes, which are often brief, aphoristic, charged with complex and often conflicting feelings. The primary impression this book gives is that Robert Roth would be the ideal companion for an evening of serious discussion. As I read the book, the Andre Gregory of My Dinner with Andre often came to mind. Roth’s is an intelligence that ranges freely over diverse topics in a way that is always independent and provocative.
But in all this richness is there also a unifying thread? Yes, the one that binds us all: Death. The book’s title initially puzzled me. Roth’s work as a health proxy is treated early in the book then drops out as he turns to other topics. Or does it? Consider the possibility that we are all finally our own health proxy, becoming so being one way to describe the process of aging and the bitter realization that one will die. That’s the true subject of this book.
Roth’s book begins with an experience that comes to all of us if we manage to live on into our sixties and beyond – the death of friends (eight here by my count) and with it what Derrida called “the duty of the survivor”: to do for the friends what they’d have to do for us were the roles reversed; to remember each life in a way that sums up its meaning. What Derrida didn’t add is that the shadow of our own death is the reality that enables us to do this – by complicating the task. Though always without a trace of self-pity, Roth is preoccupied with his aging – with each sign of it as it intrudes on a once attractive, sexually active and athletic man who now finds that he has become afraid of sexual contact. But with that change comes a deeper recognition that most aging people unfortunately avoid: that long overdue act of calling into question the meaning of one’s life and what for lack of a better term we call our “self.”
Roth has led an active, deeply committed political life and has had countless friendships marked by mutual humanity. One of the great pleasures in becoming Roth’s friend as one reads the book is that of meeting his other friends, people of substance committed like him to the left. And yet the present is for Roth defined by doubt and frequently painful memories, because as he now reflects on his life he becomes a scrupulous observer of character flaws that now preoccupy him because they suggest the real terror of aging: the recognition that one has never lived or has failed to live fully because one has been afraid to risk oneself. I think Roth is too hard on himself; many of the political acts he’s taken in his life provide eloquent refutation of the charges he brings against himself. But in terms of the issues that now weigh on him, that is irrelevant. The demand for total self-honesty is all that matters. My own experience (at 64 and thus a year older than Roth) is that most people as they age become less honest with themselves, especially with respect to qualities that don’t flatter their self-esteem. The opposite obtains here. Here is a man who is willing to face defects where most people are concerned only to find narcissistic reassurance.
This theme enters the book unobtrusively. Imagine someone telling you what a wonderful fellow he is for serving as a health proxy. Roth tells a different story - not only of his own ambivalence about being called on to play this role (and the ambivalent motives of those who ask him to do so) but also of his failures to do the job properly. No major drama here. Just the usual failures and fears: to be insistent in dealing with doctors and other hospital personnel; the curious decision to Fax the form that will enable a doctor to take a friend off a life-support machine rather than delivering it personally. For Roth however such failures have a deeper source that must be confronted. As he puts it in the first of many unflinching confessions: “In ways deep and often constant I engage other people’s pain, their panic. Never letting myself fully be touched.” Not just now, when faced with the death of friends, but his whole life – that’s the level of self-knowledge Roth seeks, even though it reinforces the fear that he’s never lived. And consequently the need to deepen the critical self-analysis. At first in the third person: “His life has brought him to a very strange place. He can only connect with people when he is reading in front of a large audience.” The rest of the time one plays roles because real human contact is unbearable: “My anger seems subdued into a melancholy lament. All my emotions seem subdued into this melancholy sound.” What makes this melancholy so devastating is that it takes away any chance to risk and even leads to the self-deadening tendency to see those who still risk, despite their age, as pathetic and deluded. But that’s a conveniently self-serving attitude Roth realizes. Get beneath it and one discovers the bitter truth: “my whole life I have not allowed the full force of experience to affect me. I have always been too numb, too frozen by life-shock.”
All of us, but especially those who cut our teeth on the political struggles of the sixties, like to look back on our lives and congratulate ourselves on all that we risked. Roth, who has led a life of exemplary activism, will have none of it. Aging and the coming of death cast a cold eye back on his entire life. His erotic, creative, and political energies are blocked now, he realizes, because they were always blocked. (He adds a prescient comment: “This blockage is, in fact, a communal affliction.”) Is it possible that the most honest reflection on one’s life will reveal that it was not what you thought it was; and that, in fact, the claims you made for it were essentially compensatory? This is a painful question for the left because it suggests that our activism is often an attempt to fashion a self-conception that will deny a condition we don’t want to face. Pursuing this line of thought brings Roth to the deepest place in his psyche: “Beneath the repression, beneath the fear...beneath the trauma, there is an interior world where I am too afraid to enter. I need to open up that door and see what is there. What do I need to do?” That, as Hamlet would say, is the question. And for Roth it reveals that his basic problem as a writer and as a man has been the same. (This is also, I would suggest, a problem that defines all of us.)
Whenever he opens up – to anxiety, love, writing, interaction – something in Robert Roth shuts down. Anxiety triumphs over the possibilities of experience. As he puts it in a telling sentence: “Any insight becomes arrested by a tiny catharsis.” There is a single word of criticism that must be added here. This insight comes only a few pages before the book ends. Like so many brave acts of self-examination – Rilke’s Malte is one that often came to mind when reading this book – the book ends where it really should have begun. Or where Roth’s next book must.
But this sentence also summarizes the book’s essential theme. Its often stunning critique of leftist ideologies and its narrative of painful self-discovery is marked by an even more painful arresting of insight. And Roth knows it. Which brings me back to the title. We are all our own health proxy and for the most part we do a bad job of it because we let our anxieties, our fears, our defenses and our “identities” control us. Insight is thus constantly sacrificed for “a tiny catharsis,” i.e., that feeling of well-being one gets not when one has resolved a problem honestly but when one has banished it. Knowing that about us is the beauty of this book. It shows the ways we delude ourselves ideologically and why as death comes toward us we must now find these ways untenable. That is the only way to be a genuine health proxy for oneself; by making the hard decisions that one is no longer able to make because one is so the creature of habit that “a tiny catharsis” has become an overriding necessity. The title thus points to a fundamental psychological self-division: the ill and dying animal losing the ability to do anything about its state and the health proxy intervening to insist that the demands of human existence will remain the law we follow until the moment we die – especially when it means that we must face things we don’t want to see or admit about ourselves. In that sense this book aspires to what few books do – wisdom.
In focusing on this theme I fear I’ve given one incorrect impression. This is not a gloomy or self-preoccupied book. Nor does the view Roth has of himself match the way he comes across in his interpersonal interactions, which are all marked by honesty, respect, and caring. Friends reading the book will, I suspect, hotly debate Roth’s self-criticisms. Personal insight comes slowly and intermittently in a book that is alive with incidents, memorable characters, acute political perceptions, all done in a style that is tough, economical, full of humor and irony and often with a concentrated power to say the most painful things in the way they must be said – in well chosen words that impress themselves indelibly on the reader’s mind. As in: “National liberation is not human liberation. The two are often confused.... The university is called contested terrain by people trying to justify their location and often their complicity in an oppressive institution.... My own death lurks somewhere off to the side as I comment on everything and everyone.”
Walter A. Davis
Robert Roth. Health Proxy (Stamford, CT: Yuganta Press, 2007).
by Howard Pflanzer
Robert Roth's Health Proxy is a meditation and a provocation. These seemingly antithetical states of being propel this work and involve the reader in a personal journey that begins in the sixties and ends tomorrow. This open-endedness is suggested by the last words of the book: "But only for now." Before we reach those final words, we are carried along by Roth's engagement with the large and small issues of a life, experienced deeply and profoundly reflected on. Roth, when not writing, worked for thirty years as a newspaper deliveryman for several small distributors, with occasional stints in the educational field. He is fiercely independent and made a decision many years ago to earn a modest living at the margins of the corporate capitalist marketplace. Not wanting to become enmeshed and imprisoned in a hierarchical organization, or a quasi-corporate institution, such as a school, university or a non-governmental organization, was a major choice in his life.
This is a book that makes us aware of death and our own mortality, but it is shot through with stories that make us laugh aloud. His serio-comic recounting, "Trickle-Down Economics," of his job delivering newspapers at the famous university "LKU" (NYU) is both telling and hilarious in its unfolding.
It is an elegantly written book that grabs us slowly as we move along with the flow of disparate stories that Roth relates. Seemingly ordinary events are taken by Roth and viewed from an unusual angle, making us rethink our perceptions of everyday occurrences. Days later, after reading a section of the book, I've found myself recalling a story that Roth tells about people's desires that has embedded itself in my psyche: "Some people want sex, some people want power, I wanted that story for And Then" (the magazine he co-edits). The stories in his book prompt me to look at "accepted" aspects of my life in a different way. Rather than describing his personal and sexual life in high flown and lurid prose, Roth speaks directly to our concerns and insecurities in our greatest moments of achievement and pleasure.
The book is divided into three sections: Health Proxy, Manna, and Wild Berries Singing. The first and last sections are long, while Manna is a short, poignant interlude about the death of Roth's father. The stories in Health Proxy are diverse, but they cohere in a vivid way to provide us with an emotional portrait of Roth's life. The leit-motif of the entire work is the various appearances of the "health proxy." Roth describes how he became the health proxy, the person who could make life and death decisions about his friend Pete Wilson, the gay rights activist, who was dying of AIDS, and the intricate ramifications of this emotionally charged role he had to play. Then in a shift, later in the book, Roth imagines someone else being his health proxy, and what this person would have to contend with knowing Roth's own fears, insecurities and confusions about making critical life decisions. "Still I fear everyone's secret judgment of me." The book is filled with similar "what if" situations, which Roth views from shifting personal perspectives.
Glorious experiences of sex and intimacy that Roth describes always become "petit morts," way stations on the road to death. We are engulfed by the feelings of voluptuous pleasure, and then dashed on the deadly rocks of the world. Roth broaches the controversial subject of intergenerational sex widely condemned by mainstream society. He explores its positives and negatives in a bold and illuminating discourse and points out how the subject is hidden away in locked closets, not open to revelation or discussion.
Alternations of pleasure and pain in Roth's book establish a peculiar dialectic that keeps the reader wanting more of Health Proxy. In its subtle way, reading Health Proxy almost becomes an addiction. In the piece, "Journal Interruptus," Roth describes the pleasure of keeping a journal and writing in cafés and then suddenly we are caught up short in his abrupt fear and his move towards self-censorship: "It was written in a café after I had been writing about some sensitive personal and political matters and felt a shadow looking over my shoulder."
In another part of the Health Proxy section, Roth graphically describes an identity crisis: "One night, many, many years ago, my head started spinning. I did not know who I was or what I was. A man? A woman? What was a man? What was a woman? None of this made any sense. Totally unhinged I bolted down six flights of stairs, frantically looking for someone, anyone to hug me." He witnessed vivid frozen tableaus of male-female relationships in various bars he poked his head into. Finally he found someone to hug him and he calmed down. The reader is left with the thought of the dark alternative: what if he never found anyone?
"Dislocation is the feeling I want to look at," Roth tells us bluntly. Issues of power, privilege, hierarchy and racism haunt Roth. In the ferment of past social movements, Roth found explanations for people's behavior. Now he feels he has no compass to guide him through the thickets of current mystifications. "I don't get what needs to be gotten."
"The punitive ethic is what hardens the heart and further dehumanizes a dehumanized society. The hardness and harshness and brutality of the society are reinforced and the violence continues," Roth tells us. He goes on: "I would say, Open up the prisons. People would get upset and I would take a small secret pleasure in their lack of imagination." His insights, at times, make us uneasy. Roth gets us to scrutinize our own prisons of the body and the mind. His provocations are refreshing in an era when too many experts and pundits pretend to tell us exactly what we need to do to improve our lives and our world. More examples of creative anarchy like Roth's would help to revitalize our stagnant society and moribund culture. Emma Goldman would have certainly approved of Roth's ethos fueled by his artistic creativity. Roth sorrowfully notes that most instances of resistance today become institutionalized, and ultimately reproduce and bolster the culture they are trying to change.
Graphic descriptions of deaths of friends and family punctuate the book. Shortly before his death from AIDS, Pete Wilson tells Roth that "taking me to the hospital was like taking a Jew to a concentration camp." His Aunt Claire, burned over sixty percent of her body after being scalded by ultra hot water in the bathtub, shouted that "she would despise anyone who wanted to keep her alive. She did not want to live in such pain." As the health proxy for his aunt, Roth says: "I didn't fully remember that I was Claire's health proxy. It was easy to go along with the momentum to let her die." About his friend Diane, Roth tells us: "Diane used every bit of her energy, her imagination, her vast ability to do research to fight her illness. She was in the grip of total panic. Total fear. The total mobilizing of energy. In truth it was a rapid race towards death."
"We die, hurled into an eternity, disappear, into the vastness of an empty universe, fall into a dark hole, and the world immediately seals itself up and we're gone forever and in some way it is as if we were never here." After his father's death, when he went to the synagogue to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, Roth ruefully concludes: "I was startled how easily the world went on without him. Really I was startled that the world went on without him at all."
Roth tells us how he avoids the terrors of the night. "I feel when I make up basketball teams, baseball teams, no dread will swim over me, no harm can come to me. It is like a structure, a foundation that keeps me from falling into an abyss. And God help me if that structure collapses. At times I have a glimpse into the abyss. . . . The teams I make up usually don't cause strain or anxiety, just enough intrigue to keep me interested until I fade into sleep."
The most moving part of Roth's book is the short section called Manna. When his father came out of a coma in the hospital Roth recounts that his father scrawled "kosher" and "roll and coffee" on a sheet of paper. "The only thing he was allowed to eat was ice. Here's your roll and coffee, I said. His tongue thirstily drank in the ice. You know this is manna from heaven, I said to him. And whenever I or my brother fed him ice we could imagine it to be the most delicious of foods."
In the Wild Berries Singing section of the book Roth tells us: "My first interview in forty years." It was for a tutoring job at Touro College in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Roth is not prepared to enter into the process as required. He has no photo ID or formal resume with a list of references when he is interviewed by a "forlorn-looking Orthodox Jewish woman, who is a dean at the school." He has copies of the magazine he edits, And Then, to show her pieces he had written, but after seeing a photo of Ronald Reagan hung on her wall he steers her to less controversial material in the magazine. Roth asks bluntly: "How do you present yourself to someone who is deciding whether or not you will eat or where you will live? How do you present yourself with any degree of honesty or friendliness in a situation like that? I don't feel friendly at all."
Commenting on being judged, Roth says: ". . . I don't want people judging my work. Obviously, I don't like it when my work is rejected by a publication, for example. But in truth, I dislike it only slightly less when it is accepted. Although probably at this point it doesn't much matter. But I know I'm not as inured to disappointment as I might think. It registers if not as a searing pain then as a kind of vague disaffected backdrop hostility." Roth's ultimate honesty is incredibly refreshing.
In his brilliant piece, The Museum, Roth presents four museum goers, including himself, on two different occasions. The first time, when he attends an exhibit with his linguist friend Miriam, he sees the iconic figure Allen Ginsberg. The second time he accompanies his mother and father to the museum where his mother is a volunteer docent. Roth interweaves the complexity of responses to art with the way the various participants respond to an exhibit. "Ginsberg, taking it all in . . . Miriam (using headphones), didn't want to take in the work in ignorance. . . . My mother guided me through the exhibit. It helped me to respond to the work. . . . My father was exhausted and he was bored." Roth incisively presents the museum as a deeply stratified cultural zone, where each of the participants -- Ginsberg, Miriam, Roth and Roth's parents -- has a particular social place and individual reaction to this institution where some artists are privileged for inclusion and others are not. Different people, different responses, a kaleidoscopic portrait of the varieties of this experience for all the participants, vividly presented by Roth as cultural and social commentary.
Roth takes us from the museum to the street in Wild Berries Singing. On a humid summer evening on St. Mark's Place in New York, Roth recounts a moment when he experiences the feeling of sexual harassment that women undergo all the time. "The attention, the comments, the hostility, the abuse by men in the street came raining down on her. . . . Monster faces lurched towards her, howling insults. I had never seen anything quite like it before. It is an experience that women are often subjected to, out of the sight and hearing of most men, even men standing nearby." In Roth's world, he can take that leap and put himself in the place of another person. It is a rare gift.
Roth has a unique take on the educational process. In the sixties he worked in an alternative school. He relates this story: "Monville Waters was seven years old. I remember one time he was totally immersed in what was marketed as an 'educational' game. . . . The teacher came over and asked him what he was learning from it. There was a pause and Monville said: 'Every fucking time I'm having fun, you try and teach me something. . . . The teacher to her everlasting credit said, Monville you're right. He nodded his acknowledgement and without another word went back to his game." A quotidian interaction between a student and a teacher becomes a landmark of understanding for Roth.
A highlight of the book's third section, Wild Berries Singing, is an entertaining account of the genesis of a brief video opera, Smart and Tart Juicing, and the libretto Roth created with Carletta Joy Walker for an online competition for somedancersandmusicians.com. I had written a piece, Baa, Baa, Baa, for the competition, which would involve a recording by a children's chorus. I realized the piece was too pointedly political for the contest. When Roth asked about the competition, I encouraged him to enter. His delightful entry with Carletta Joy Walker was one of the contest winners, and as Roth relates, my piece, Baa, Baa, Baa, as a poetic text had an ongoing life in various venues at political performance events. As a chorus of sheep, Roth had no equal in presentation.
Roth's Health Proxy is a unique book, which has no readily comparable equivalent. Anyone who has experienced the oscillating trajectory of life in the last few decades will enjoy viewing their own life through the prism of Roth's recreation of his. To order this book click on www.yuganta.com. I urge you to read it, and revel in the important resonances it will trigger for you about the events in your own life and the thoughts that fill your mind.
Copyright © 2007 by Howard Pflanzer and Cultural Logic, ISSN 1097-3087
Guest Book Review
by Carole Rosenthal
I give you a high recommendation of a book I read this summer in both gulps and sips, Robert Roth's HEALTH PROXY. It's not a long book, but I found myself often putting it down while I thought about its ideas, even as I was gripped by its urgent self-questioning voice. Roth's observations about life and death, social and economic hierarchies, and the nature of our responsibilities to each other form a jittery, loving, and conscience-ridden record of his fierce engagement with the lives of friends and family from the 1980's to the present. "In ways deep and often constant, I engage other people's pain, their panic. Never letting myself fully be touched," Roth writes. "What at once shields me, simultaneously allows me to be open. But my openness also creates a constant state of low-level trauma that further creates . . . distancing in myself from myself."
Creating its own form, halfway between a memoir and a chronicle, this is a book of tremendous immediacy that begins with Roth's appointment as the "health proxy" for a friend dying of AIDS, a role he also assumes for his gravely ill aunt. A sixty year-old socialist/anarchist who consciously defies the limits of convenient labeling, Roth narrows the space between narrator and self--a space which can only be narrowed, never eliminated. For this narrator, all issues are intimate and personal; all issues are moral questions. Yet HEALTH PROXY is playful in part, or at least ironic, in its examination of what we see and how we are seen in large and small scale. The author discusses his low-status job delivering the largely unread New York University student newspaper, the hearty unrecognized condescension of academics reassuring themselves of their own good will towards laborers, the tacit institutional scams furthered by the printer and the distributors. He introduces his own bemused reaction to his waning good looks, his health fears, his lusts for women, his identification with socially and sexually disavowed segments of society. Despite the gravity of Roth’s central material, lives dwindling ("I watch myself age/before my friends' very eyes,") while "friends socialize each other into old age," the real subject matter of this honest, unpretentious, freely associative book turns out to be an affirmation of life ongoing. In this more celebratory vein, HEALTH PROXY concludes with a section called "Wild Berries Singing," which is about the writing and performing of an exhilarating children's opera in Great Britain. (HEALTH PROXY is available from Yuganta Press, 6 Rushmore Circle, Stamford CT 07905-1029 or http://yuganta.com/health.html.)
Under the Radar Screen
by George Snedeker
According to the literary Establishment, there is no such thing as a progressive culture in the United States. Maybe they’re not looking in the right places.
Within every major city in the U.S. there are communities of cultural workers whose work never makes it onto the radar screen. It lurks somewhere just below the surface of recognition. Last summer I went to a book party for Robert Roth’s Health Proxy. It was held at the Brecht Forum in Westbeth, a longtime artistic community on West Street, near the Hudson River in New York City. I was literally amazed by the number of people in the room who are in one way or another involved in the writing or producing of very critical works in the areas of visual art, music, literature and theatre. They present their work in unfashionable venues like bars and in small literary magazines. Their books are published by small presses. You can’t even order most of their books on Amazon.com.
The Brecht Forum is a radical school for people who want to gain a better understanding of the way the world works. It does not issue college credits so people go to classes there after working a 9-5 job because they are actually interested in learning something that they don’t already know. There is also a lecture series on local and global political issues at the Brecht Forum as well as events like the screening of new documentaries and book parties like the one I attended there last summer.
My friend, Eric Whellis and I had been reading Robert Roth’s book Health Proxy and I had brought him to the book party to meet the author. While waiting for the reading of selections from the book to begin, Eric and I sat next to D. H. Melhem, an Upper West Side poet and novelist. She has published seven books of poetry, three novels and a critical study of Gwendolyn Brooks. Her latest book contains volumes two and three of her trilogy called Patrimonies and is entitled Stigma and The Cave. The first volume called Blight was published in 1995 and is in development as a movie. We had been communicating via email but this was our first face-to-face meeting. It was very hot in the room even though the air conditioner was on full blast. Soon there was little space to move to even say hello to people because of the number of bodies in the room.
Robert came over to me to introduce me to Joel Shatzky, whose science fiction novel, Intelligent Design, I had been reading. Joel had taught for many years up at SUNY/Cortland and also has a satirical novel called Option Three, which depicts what would happen if corporations were to totally take over universities and buy up academic departments. The novel is patterned stylistically on Catch 22. In this novel, Shatzky imagines what would happen if a corporation were to buy an English Department at one of the SUNY campuses. Joel defines himself as a “radical pessimist.” Eric wondered if this is not one step away from being a Rightwing Republican. If you begin as a socialist and then move to being an anarchist and end up as a radical pessimist, you’ve got to wonder where the next step will lead. Joel’s a good guy so I don’t think he’ll end up as a neocon. He told Eric and me about his new play called “Orphans” which was soon to open in a small off-Broadway theatre on West 13th Street and asked us both to come to the opening night performance.
D. H. made her way back through the crowd and we talked for a while about her ideas as to how the journal I work on called Socialism and Democracy could publish poetry along with its more analytical essays on politics and culture. I had sent her a couple of back issues of the journal that she was currently reading, one of which has a translation of Brecht’s poem of the Communist Manifesto. I had been reading her New York Poems with great interest as well as her trilogy Patrimonies. Carletta Joy Walker, emcee for the evening, moved onto the stage in front of the room, so I could tell that the readings from Health Proxy were about to begin.
Roth stepped up to the microphone and introduced Ralph Nazareth, the publisher of Yuganta press and then began reading some of the more humorous sections from Health Proxy. The audience listened attentively. Between bursts of laughter and applause they urged him to read more. What struck me (and probably most of the other people) about his book is its astonishing honesty. His poet’s eye reveals his needs, flaws, his family relationships, his milieu of friends, and his broad, free-floating range of interests and perspectives. The Arts Editors from The New York Times should have been there. They might have seen a new literary movement in the making.
by J. Stefan-Cole
The foreword calls Robert Roth’s reflective book, Health Proxy, Yuganta Press, a "collage of consciousness." This is a good description. Like a remembrance of things worried over. Such as questioning if he did the right thing at the deathbed of a friend—Pete Wilson—dying of AIDS.
It becomes pretty clear pretty fast Roth is the not optimal guy to invite to your final curtain, at least not without a back up in place. What are the emotional complexities of a deathbed obligation anyway? What’s the code of behavior?
Excluding squeamishness, or a sudden qualm—like some right wing religious scruple against death with dignity that dictates a person must hang on by no matter how cruel a thread, the question becomes what happens to the living at the final moment? We tend not to factor in future feelings. Perhaps for good reason. You only have to loose a favorite cat or fish or bird to start wondering just how much more you can take. How about a sickly child? Best not to think about it. Dying can be a long gruesome process, each passing unique. Beyond, it’s the right thing to do, even the noble thing, Roth’s introspection forces questions like: how much does our superpower society prepare us for death? Or sickness. For life. We prefer to sweep such downer topics under the rug. Aside from bedside plants and well-meant utterances what can we really offer the dying?
Depressed yet? Now jump into Robert Roth’s head. He weaves between the well and the fatally unwell. Part One takes place during the height of the AIDS epidemic, but there is a breast cancer and a Hep C and a murder or two (later in the book, within a slightly different context). Roth hung by his friend, but at the last moment blinks, leaves the hospital, fails to hold hands for the last grasp. And genuinely wonders what difference it would have made, not only to the dying, but, importantly, to himself. This is a valid question, if one that lacks—etiquette.
“As a health proxy you are a conduit for the other person’s wishes. You are not supposed to act according to what you think should be done but what the person you are representing would want done…if they were capable...” About not holding Pete’s hand, Roth is haunted. That he might be even more haunted if he had is his point. And would Pete have known one way or the other, or cared? At that point? What does it mean, dying? Some turn rubbery at the sight of blood, never mind face to face encounters with mortality. There is something nerve deep funny here.
The dying are not saints just because they are dying. A person isn’t grand just because he sticks around. Roth is a little like Sheriff Bell in the Coen brothers’ movie of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men. Tommy Lee Jones’s cragged sheriff meditates on the pointlessness of his job, and the good he meant to do, mostly finding he comes up short. He’s not about to chase down Javier Bardem’s serial killer, knocking people off like flies at a picnic. Is this cowardly? How many problems is an introspective cop in a nowhere Texas border town supposed to solve? It’s a no win set up.
Part Two—two pages long—called Manna, is about Roth’s father’s death and the prisoner from Riker’s Island lying comatose in the next bed. Part three is almost upbeat by comparison, Roth’s world sans the peering Grim Reaper. He turns out to be a guy stricken with all manner of conscience. And regret: for old love, mother’s love, father’s love, lack of new love (“One lover said I was the only person she knew who was working towards the end before the beginning.”), the demise of radical politics, the loss of a way of life artists once lived on the cheap in a friendlier (at least real estate-wise) New York City, a reward system that has largely left him out.
For twenty years he delivered the NYU newspaper that nearly nobody read. He dropped heavy bundles to locations all over downtown, and then retrieved nearly as heavy bundles a couple of days later. A Sisyphean job with lousy pay, no benefits, zero security. New York University is a mega corporation, his job was a loophole. He writes of professors chatting up the prole delivery guy. Lines like: Hot off the press, huh? Ha ha. Roth would answer with an erudite challenge and ask the surprised profs if they wanted to contribute to his literary magazine, And Then, which he and his partners independently publish.
He examines behavior. “One friend in a need to impress someone he was in love with brought obituaries of close friends of his to show how important his friends were.” He touches the kernel: friends who bail out preemptively if they think they might be hurt, fixed patterns and reactions, emotionally stiff responses, contortions to make the world fit preconceived ideas. Even him: “My whole life I have not allowed the full force of experience to affect me. I have always been too numb, too frozen by life-shock.” A shaming memory of his father paying for his passport before a trip to Israel, pretending he forgot the money rather than admit to having none, his father’s hurt disappointment, not about the money but the ruse, which has been played out before.
He turned sixty without sounding mournful or jaded; tired maybe, but I have the feeling he sounded tired at six. There is free floating anger and neurotic angst, but freshness and warmth. Without the usual markers of children and a normal working life, a man whose parade of friends is his family, he seems timeless. Having brushed radicalism, and danced his hippie moment, he’s kept an ironic but never jaundiced eye on the world around him as investment brokers move into his Greenwich Village mouse-infested tenement, renamed and slightly renovated. His is a healthy rancor at the sanitized lifestyle of invading Yuppies, at an educational system that wants everyone “to wind up in essentially the same place.” There is resentment: “I see the rationalization, the guilt trips, the strange ways in which people’s values increasingly merge with those of the dominant culture. I resist this in my own way. But it can take the form of a sour internal gripe.”
Robert Roth serves up the artist in the Norman Mailer sense of heroic, against the odds, no cheap shots. Not a tepid salesman of the self, but one to expose the good the bad and the not so pretty.
© December 2007 J. Stefan-Cole
Health Proxy by Robert Roth.
Yuganta Press, 6 Rushmore Circle, Stamford, CT 07905-1029.
by Carletta Joy Walker
Quintessential! It's almost impossible to talk about Health Proxy without talking about Robert Roth. Health Proxy captures the essence Robert Roth has captured and reveals his being as it navigates his world and the world. Often writers see out; see, hear and can comment insightfully on the events and interaction in the social geopolitical world they dwell within. And then there are writers who see the inner world, the substance beneath, the insightful phrase, articulate summary and informed opinion, beneath public demeanor and behavior. They see and write the world of the slight and ego, fear and reward, hurt and contact that creates emotion informing opinion, conversation and politic. There are writers who do outer or inner well. In Health Proxy, Robert Roth has and shares powerful insight and equally powerful response to the inner and outer world of thought, feeling and behavior.
I remember a scene right after the 9/11 attacks. It was during a demonstration from Union Square to Times Square protesting the impending attack on Afghanistan. The cops had just come up from the World Trade Center where they had been searching for bodies. They were wearing jeans that were smudged with dirt. Many had lost friends or colleagues. Most looked brittle and tightly wound. And here they were sent to contain a demonstration. I remember thinking that we should not push too hard. Not exactly back off, but not push up against the limits. How to share our common sorrow, respect their particular pain and yet not lose our own sense of the world was not an easy task. One woman asked a cop if he had lost anyone. His voice soft and appreciative answered, “Not directly. Thank you for asking.” [pg 64]
Robert Roth creates a text that invites you to join the discussion, join the musing with your own story or with one he has given you to chew on. The readers then have Robert's voice and their own voices playing off each other and the work becomes a duet, a choral piece, a symphony of response to self and other. The passage continues,
Within Health Proxy Robert Roth touches upon and explores illness, loss, legacy; he looks at, sits with hurt, humiliation, desperation, hope and fear. He walks inside of job security, insecurity, power, shame and competition. He is alive in the world filled with sex, race, gender, class, weight and height, blond hair, brown hair, toothless; true beauty and brilliance emanate from his consciousness and is evident even in his bitter.
This passage is palpably painful in its honesty and the truth it opens and, in my thinking, gives permission to is potentially transformative to the person reading it and taking it in.
What is Health Proxy? A long essay; vignettes, diary; memoir, tell-all:tell-some, how-to; social-political commentary, love letter, history, ourstory, fact and fiction, all of the aforementioned. Health Proxy is thoughtful and well crafted, it examines and has opinions without arrogating correctness or being smug. Health Proxy is a compassionate work.
Health Proxy is a work of art and beauty, a trip with Robert Roth, and because he is who he is, many of his friends have their voices on the pages and all readers are invited to engage and join the conversation, start another conversation, write and sing.
Verdi reported that while walking in Venice he heard his tune on everyone's lips. I have a fantasy of me walking in Brooklyn and hearing some girls around a corner skipping double-dutch singing words that sound vaguely familiar. 'We are wild berries singing....' And then I recognize it as our opera transformed by being passed from child to child, 'We are canter berries lying...,' street to street, blackberries brooding... neighborhood to neighborhood, 'Robert is one thirsty man' village to village, city to city, country to country, continent to continent - all across the globe. Until finally here in Flatbush they own the song, 'we are girls with braids flying.' [pg 148]
Books for Readers #107
by Meredith Sue Willis
I also read HEALTH PROXY by Robert Roth, which was recommended here by Carole Rosenthal in Issue #104. It’s really pretty stunning– all about life in tiny gray apartments in the Village among people who were (and still are I suppose) cutting edge and political and full of talk. It is extremely gripping, that in-your-face quality of the ancient mariner stopping you and holding you with his extreme honesty. It’s the insistent scrupulousness with which he examines himself, his friends, and his failings that engaged me. I really couldn’t put it down. See Carole Rosenthal’s comments.