In Dante‘s Canto XXV of The Inferno, Virgil showcases the seventh level of hell where individuals (politicians perhaps) suffer the consequences of the disingenuous behavior in which they participated during the course of their lives. These unique persons actually morph and combine body-parts until their individuality (represented by their faces) is utterly distorted. “The two heads now were one, and we could see/ two faces fuse in one blear visage, where/ no vestiges of either seemed to be… Four forelimbs now combined to make a pair/ of arms, and strange new members grew in place/ of the bellies, legs and chests that had been there” (R. Wilbur’s translation)…
These two very distinct candidates for the office of the Presidency of the United States are already (before our mortal eyes) merging and splurging into the same “blear visage.”
Having flopped so many times in his attention-getting-bed-wetting-record-forgetting-over-betting campaign, the one-time governor of Massachusetts appears smug and entitled. And perhaps, in the warped realm of Republicanism, he and his slicked back hair has waited in line like the dutiful servant of the party. Never mind that Romney’s idea of ‘looking out for the little guy’ is a hearty-hand-shake, a photo-op and lift to the unemployment office (a charitable act he makes the servants perform with their pick-up trucks) — he ranks among the elite and has made his money the old fashioned way: he’s inherited it! And so, if that doesn’t qualify him to lead a country, teetering on the brink, well, who would you rather have?
Newt? The name suits him, eh? Not quite the salamander. Not enough integrity to be a chameleon. At any rate, Newt, like overly sensitive, but braggadocios bully at recess, has thrown his butter-ball buttocks into the proverbial hit-parade of conservative idealogues and demands that he be taken seriously. Seriously!?? The former Speaker of the House of Representatives wants to take credit for all of the goodies associated with the 1990′s and the Clinton presidency, but brushes off the ethics violations, the extra-marital affairs, the government shut-down and most recently, the Fannie and Freddie paycheck he received for services rendered as a “historian.”
The point, and I do finally have a point, is the sad commentary that these two possible nominees makes about the Grand Old Party, the party, after all of Abraham Lincoln. And I don’t just mean boo-whoo, quit-your-whining kind of sadness. I mean sadness that borders on shrill despair and may take us to the edge of a real economic and cultural abyss.
I watched one of those specials on television, dealing the the Mayan calendar and the supposed end of the world as we know it — in 2012 — and the narrator’s voice-over mentioned something about how the Mayans believe that epoch-beginnings need lots of help. And consequently, the rulers of that now-defunct society (over 2,000 years ago) had cultivated the notion of killing off as many of the under-class as they possibly could. They sacrificed them… chopped off their limbs… And the reason? Well, to start over again afresh! Of course! Don’t you see?
In the logic of the dominant class, the scapegoats have been born for only one purpose, and that purpose is to preserve the proper order are designed to be. And so, it makes sense, in this skewed calculus that Barack Obama could be the rightful leader of this country in 2012 and beyond… because he’s… he’s not like the Newt Romney and Mitt Gingrich. He’s not, in the words of the latter, a Kenyan anti-colonialist. He’s not, in the words of the former, an appeaser of foreign governments who are out to get us.
Now, I need to beg your forgiveness for the ironic tone of the last two paragraphs and simply state the fear and apprehension that I have regarding the delusional state of debate in which many of us are immersed day in and day out.
To accomplish this, however, I will have to resort to a poetic device with which the moderns and postmoderns are not too familiar. It may sound a bit jarring to the ear at first. But stay with these… O’s…
O, would that the Republicans or some yet-to-be-named party would nominate a true partner in the discussions that we need to have!
O, would that we would linger long on the substance of morality and not simply its shimmering layer of plastic!
O, would that the weak and the weary and the wounded and the wandering might find care and compassion in a federal government, which could be both effective and efficient!
O, would that the powerful (in terms of health, wealth and stealth) would take note of the possibility that other powers are at work in this Universe and that a comeuppance is not as unlikely as they imagine!
The Retractions of Stories We Took As Truth: The Famed Psychiatrist Who Wanted Her Quintessential Case
There’s something disturbing about the truths that are being retracted in a seemingly constant flow.
For example, the famous case of Sybil, a person diagnosed with multiple personalities, has been debunked. Sybil didn’t have multiple personalities at all (she didn’t even know her multiplication tables). All of her personalities have been exposed as “fake,” and this revelation exposes an even greater revelation.
That is, Dr. Connie Wilbur, who discovered Shirley Mason (Sybil’s real name), had a passionate interest in the disorder and her patient, learning of that passion, presented for the psychiatrist what she wanted. The next thing you know, not only is old Jed a millionaire, but there’s a 1973 best-selling book and in 1976, a film, starring Patty Duke or maybe it was Sally Field. And then, consequently, we cannon avoid the torrent of copy-cat disorders — which produce, in turn, a statistical spike in multiple personality disorder.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
But what we have here is not, let it be understood, “a failure to communicate” a’la Cool Hand Luke, escaping from prison. What we have is a brilliance of interpersonal communication with the goal of authoring a 1970′s truth, which must be propped up and maintained like any human construction (or fabrication). A cover-up, which is interesting in prospect but not so much in consummation.
Ultimately, the issue is not why Shirley Mason did what she did — in suddenly delivering the goods and launching into a bunch of phony voices, etc. — but why Connie Wilbur WANTED her to, and essentially willed her ward into this splintered and fictitious mode of being in the world.
Wanting, of course, is not a straightforward topic. We are told repeatedly (or were told repeatedly) that the heart wants what it wants. And that these wants include men who are not our husbands, women who are not our wives… ahh… men who are not our wives, women who are not our husbands… as well as all that slick stuff that accompanies the sale of a valued commodity. If that commodity happens to be “Sybil,” so be it. What else are we going to do with our lives? (Don’t answer that just yet.)
How do you explain why elephants
appear to move their unwieldy hulks
with greater dignity than most humans do
in their finest moments,
as if they had evolved beyond wanting
anything but what they have? …
Have we made too much of our own?
And did you notice afterward the dawn
opening up with a tentative eagerness
as if there were something crucial to illumine,
as if we would wake up early just to see it? …
Once again I’d like to return to the theme of truths which have been retracted. There’s a trend if anyone’s paying attention — a veritable cycle in which we go with the spin of the immediate news flashes and then keep going until a book and a movie come out… At that point, so many people are making so much money, and living in a lifestyle to which they’ve grown accustomed, that the original story cannot fail. It’s too big to fail.
Then again, to paraphrase Robert Frost, something there is in the universe that does not like a lie. Something there is that will not tolerate a load of crap and will eventually sniff it out and break it back down into its constituent, organic parts. Something there is that will not leave Sybil lay dormant and unexposed forever.
The current story is that Shirley Mason, as disturbed as she was, moved into a home near Wilbur’s. She died in 1998. Whether or not she ever felt known is a matter of debate. But I will refrain from debating it here.
A fascinating possibility that we may consider, however, is as follows: What if those news items and factoids we cherish turn out to be utterly vacuous in a ten, twenty or thirty years? Does that mean, ipso facto, that these tall tales did not point elsewhere toward some deeper truth about ourselves and the cultures in which we are embedded? No. On the contrary, I think it means there is a truth to be found, or a truth that actually finds us…
In the short term, there are things to learn and to learn well about Dissociative Identity Disorder and the struggles of those who are born into a sort of mental wrestling match with angels and demons. These mythic ways of understanding or conceptualizing the trauma are useful at times. And yet, as we’ve seen there are myths like Hercules and Harry Potter and there are myths like the need for a quintessenital patient of our professional dreams… Beneath or beyond them, however, the dichotomies between healthy and unhealthy folks go away. The truth, that poets have known for quite some time, is we’re always ordering our disorders.
So, I’m helping to teach a class of undergraduate students, and on the book list for the series of lectures are both Moby-Dick and The Vagina Monologues, back to back, one week after the other… This, it seems, is the nature of survey courses in literature. When we’re dominated with male writers and want to throw in a token female, among a series of classics, the 10th anniversary edition of Eve Ensler‘s screenplay works well…
Then, of course, comes the snickering and the under-your-breath, sneaky asides, those remarks that play on the title-images. ”Moby Dick,” as you may know, is a whale. But when the proper name for a man’s phallus isn’t readily available, there’s always some dick nearby to get the word on the public record.
By contrast, it’s nice to hear a woman’s bare essential characterized with a little decorum on a book cover. (When my younger six-year-old son, however, first heard the word in casual conversation, he thought my wife and I said “China,” and proudly blessed his parents with this health education ditty: ”Boys have Penis. Girls have China.”)
At this juncture, you see, the reader may appropriately expect a transition. That is, a hinge or a bridge or a nexus by which one idea or theme or description links with the next. And yet, lo and behold! We’ve already experienced at least one transition in the parentheses in the prior paragraph: we went from books, to whales (not to mention great literary archetypes), to the phallus, to one of the female reproductive organs… to an up- and-coming economic powerhouse, the People’s Republic of China. Isn’t this awesome?
Transitions, like these, are often called intuitive or implicit, as opposed to logical or explicit. And I’d like to make the case that we need many more of the former to be bantered about in academia today. And if these types of obtuse turns seem too much trouble, you might stick to reading cereal boxes and directions for putting together some Ikea furniture (although have you seen the eclectic bookshelves that can be built with an Allen-wrench?).
I will admit to having some hugely embarrassing moments lately.
Like the time we were reading some Kokinshu love poems aloud. About twenty of us in a circle went round and round, reading these brief, five-lines pearls of delicate beauty, and here’s mine:
does the beribboned
cock of Meeting House share my
is it for love alone that
we raise our solemn voices
Now, please understand. I’m not always this immature when discussing Japanese poetry from the 9th century or so. And probably, if I had made the effort to speak the original language, the verse wouldn’t have done what it did, which was send me into a seizure of junior high giggles. Alas, where to go from here?
My sense of things — first hand experience as well as second hand literature — is to make this broad and sweeping claim: IT’S ALL ABOUT IDENTITY. Transitions happen in wild and wonderfully creative ways, given the fact that we engage various moment with a unitary frame of reference. We ourselves — I myself and you yourself — relate Moby-Dick and The Vagina Monologues and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida lying about when his parents moved from Cuba to Florida (not 1959, fleeing Castro, but 1956, two years prior to Castro coming to power). You see how painless that was?
Anyway [transitional word de jour] — here’s an identity soliloquy on the lips of Captain Ahab, coming all the way from chapter 132 of Melville’s novel:
What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not himself; but is as an errand boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does the beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.
And, without further adieu, p. 87 of the Monologues:
I eventually named all the parts of my body. My hands–Gladys. They seemed functional and basic, like Gladys. I named my shoulders Shorty–strong and a little belligerent. My breasts were Betty. They weren’t Veronica, but they weren’t ugly either. Name my ‘down there’ was not so easy. It wasn’t the same as naming my hands. No, it was complicated. Down there was alive, not so easy to pinpoint. It remained unnamed and, as unnamed, it was untamed, unknown [sort of like Moby Dick].
I added that last part myself. Couldn’t resist.
Yes, yes, yes, for the sake of clarity and not blowing up the world and doing stupid acts of stupidity unto ourselves and unto others — some explicit, well-signaled moves are necessary!
Ah, but the identity which moves about the universe in the blink of an eye, aye, there’s the mystery that’s worth pursuing. Is it a great white whale, beneath whose blubber beats the eternal verities? Or is it the enigmatic parts of our anatomy, which send us wildly into the existentialist’s void?
Almost any transition can get you there.
Does the formula hold up? Are we guaranteed to find a person of spiritual depth at the root of a beautiful masterpiece? Is it a truism to conclude that a magnum opus — a great work — always proceeds from a great man or a great woman?
These very questions came up recently a classroom discussion I had; and believe me when I say that I so appreciate these discussions. However, when I offered the possibility that a poet who writes well may have received this skill/finesse-set as a gift, the response came like so: “That’s not a very intellectually satisfying answer… You’ve just replied to a spiritual question with a spiritual reply…” To which I say, “And so what?”
At various times and under certain conditions, I am not sorry to leave our cerebral cortex, cerebellum or whatever lobe or hemisphere you choose, unsatisfied. Greatness does not have to belong to a human being. Greatness may be granted to a soul and find expression in a soul… And therefore we ought not be surprise when that same soul spews out anti-semitic crap. Or when that same soul does something really stupid in public.
The other side of this dilemma has to do, of course, with the understanding of the self, which is a more contemporary term that has been applied to the soul since Sigmund Freud. Namely, the self or the soul may not be as unified as we suppose. The self may be splintered. And perhaps, one of these splinters of self produces the greatness and another produces the vacuous stuff that makes us what to vomit…
Mark Strand is a poet, who is familiar with this kind of back-and-forth exchange on the nature of the soul.
I thought of him today because last night in the aforementioned classroom, his name came up. My conversation partner said that as an undergraduate student he and his buddies traveled five hours by car to hear Mark Strand read his work. They, of course, had his work in print. They could read them for themselves and not bother with the transportation arrangement. But they want to go and see this great soul read:
“The Dreadful Has Already Happened”
The relatives are leaning over, staring expectantly.
They moisten their lips with their tongues. I can feel
them urging me on. I hold the baby in the air.
Heaps of broken bottles glitter in the sun.
A small band is playing old fashioned marches.
My mother is keeping time by stamping her foot.
My father is kissing a woman who keeps waving
To somebody else. There are palm trees.
The hills are spotted with orange flamboyance and tall
billowy clouds move behind them. ”Go on, Boy,”
I hear somebody say, “Go on.”
I keep wondering if it will rain.
The sky darkens. There is thunder.
“Break his legs,” says one of my aunts,
“Now give him a kiss.” I do what I’m told.
The trees bend in the bleak tropical wind.
The baby did not scream, but I remember that sigh
when I reached inside for his tiny lungs and shook them
out in the air for the flies. The relatives cheered.
It was about that time I gave up.
Now, when I answer the phone, his lips
are in the receiver; when I sleep, his hair is gathered
around a familiar face on the pillow; wherever I search
I find his feet. He is what is left of my life.
Martha Stewart’s Daughter, All Hallows’ Eve And The Darkness Of Wall Street — One Of These Things Belong With The Other!
Once we get beyond the sixth grade, however, the patterns become more complicated — and more personal.
And you remember that the “Occupy Wall Street” movement has renewed momentum among, not only “hippies” and “hipsters,” but even your average under-water home-mortgager.
But did you know that Martha Stewart’s daughter, Alexis, has written a tell-all book, in which she describes how mommie dearest never liked to celebrate Halloween, that, rather than primping and preparing with all kinds of decorations, they turned off the lights and pretended no one was home???
The point of today’s ramble/rant is to declare that all things are related. That would not be such a huge revelation except for the fact that so many political leaders and media moguls feel as if they have a beat on what’s happening in today’s multi-cultural maelstrom. Shhh! Don’t tell anybody!
Increasingly those who are most prominent in Washington, D.C. — or anywhere along the grapevine that is ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and MSNBC — don’t have a clue about the level of unrest. Moreover, I don’t think it all hinges on economics, so much as, maybe interactive, dialogical modes of communication… And so, as the 70-year-old mother of Alexis Stewart barks out her disapproval regarding the spacing of nicknacks and the proper way to set up the dining room table, we have a generation of men and women who resent the whole superficial display of alls-right-with-the-world.
This is also how Martha relates to the ancient tradition of dressing up in costumes on October 31 — and may also be tethered to the so-called vagabonds who picket the corporate offices of nearly every major city!
Masks. Or Masques.
Halloween, of course, has wild associations with the agrarian life and the seasonal change. Yet, when Christian thinkers began to stalk the pagan cultures to which they felt called, they supplanted the autumnal holiday with a holy day. The new rationale for the festivities then revolved around “All-Saints” Day (November 1st), in which catholic believers would acknowledge any sacred leader in the history of Christendom who had not been named in a previously designated day on the calendar. On the night prior to November 1, therefore, church-saturated communities set out to rid themselves evil spirits and inclinations — virtually anything that might distract them for their focus on the saints.
The whole idea of wearing and then not wearing a mask, I think, corresponds to both the original dynamic of pumpkins and full moons coupled with the pious rituals and mind-sets of the Christian faith tradition. That is, your mask covers up your true identity in the same way that ghouls and goblins seek to twist and pervert that identity in Christ. Go ahead and wear the mask on All Hallows Eve, but then be prepared to shed it at midnight.
A mask, in the sense that I mean above, differs from the notion of some medicine that masques the symptoms of a major disease — one that might otherwise be discovered by an astute physician.
If some news anchor on one of the major networks should then masque the dire dynamics of “Occupy Wall Street,” that dude or duddete ought to watch out, lest the true social disease sneak up on us by surprise.
The following are cinquain-poems, written prior to the roaring twenties and the collapse of Wall Street in 1929; Adelaide Crapsey is the author:
With faint dry sound
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
Old winds that blew
When chaos was, what do
They tell the clattered trees that I
Refuge In Darkness
Dim veil and blue
I will cover my eyes,
I will bind close my eyes that are
This next one is dedicated to Alexis Stewart and her mother:
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Gene Simmons and Shannon Tweed have been married for almost a day now. After twenty-eight years of living together, and “raising” two children, and hosting their cable show, something about Family Jewels, they’re finally ready to commit. Amen.
TMZ has the exclusive details from Beverly Hills — so I’m going to spare you. Spare you the pomp and the pageantry. Spare you the glitz and the glamor. There’s nothing like nuptials when money’s no object.
But, for the sake of redeeming all that tongue-wagging, fire-breathing, “I wanna rock-n-roll all night” swagger, I offer Robert Burns:
A Fond Kiss
A fond kiss, and then we sever;
A farewell, and then forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.
Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerfu’ twinkle lights me;
Dark despair around benights me.
I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy,
Nothing could resist my Nancy;
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love forever.
Had we never lov’d say kindly,
Had we never lov’d say blindly,
Never met–or never parted–
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.
Fare thee well, thou first and fairest!
Fare thee well, thou best and dearest!
Thine be like a joy and treasure,
Peace. enjoyment, love, and pleasure!
A fond kiss, and then we sever;
A farewell, alas, forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee!
A kiss, of course, is just a kiss. Humphrey Bogart taught us that. But then again — not really.
The other day, in a lecture hall, a studious professor tried to explain metaphor in all its glory. He made use of the Shakespearean phrase, “My love is a red, red rose,” and then broken things down like so:
- a rose, as a literal thing, is beautiful and fragile
- the female sex, for the most part, cannot bench press 200 pounds
- therefore, the poet is comparing his female love-interest to the flower.
The problem with this analysis, I realize, is that it took place in a class of about 300 undergraduates, and when teaching to a horde of non-English majors, it behooves the teacher to tame the ambiguity. Nevertheless, as we moved onto discussions of symbol and archetype, a mild-mannered occupant of a second row seat raised his hand and challenged the “red, red rose” synopsis. He observed, for instance, that Shakespeare may have been referring to the tenuous and delicate condition of his own “love” for another human being — how that emotion, so elusive and so much the cause for anxiety, may be compared to a rose. He went on to say that, in his humble understanding, a metaphor takes an abstraction and then relates that ornery, vague thing to something not so abstract with thorns. And then, while the rest of the class stirred and cavorted among themselves, it occurred to me: maybe this guy’s in love and maybe the feelings he has aren’t directed at a former Playboy centerfold. You know what I mean, Vernadeen? Am I coming through?
Stephen Dunn, I think, gets it:
She pressed her lips to mind.
How many years I must have yearned
for someone’s lips against mind.
Pheromones, newly born, were floating
between us. There was hardly any air.
She kissed me again, reaching that place
that sends messages to toes and fingertips,
then all the way to something like home.
Some music was playing on its own.
Nothing like a woman who knows
to kiss the right thing at the right time,
then kisses the things she’s missed.
How had I ever settled for less?
I was thinking this is intelligence,
this is the wisest tongue
since the Oracle got into a Greek’s ear,
speaking sense. It’s the Good,
defining itself. I was out of my mind.
She was in. We married as soon as we could.
Hugh Hefner, who attended the hitching of Simmons and Tweed, once declared a correlation between conservative politics and conservative sexual morays. On the History of Sex series, he claimed that he launched his magazine, featuring Marilyn Monroe, because he wanted to live life with a certain sense of “style.”
Okay. I guess so. We’ll give you that rationale. But over fifty years later, it’s all “style” and the kisses mean a lot less than they used to mean…
Well, it’s time to start wipe the slate clean and break out a new thing of lip balm. And for inspiration, there’s this scene from Spiderman, hanging upside down and having his mask pulled back, that’s just the stuff. No, nothing kinky. Metaphor. Take this image. Go ahead. Take it, and allow the significance of two faces, clasped at the mouth, to waft over you. Smell the aroma of Pepe Le Pew and believe once again in the tragic, comic kiss, that it actually goes somewhere, some secret place we might want to call… you know, wink-wink, nudge-nudge… love.
So I admit it. I will confess that when I heard of Holly Madison‘s breast-insurance policy, “I Sing The Body Electric” did not immediately spring to mind. On the contrary, I tried to imagine the Lloyd’s of London adjuster trying to re-evaluate their worth in decade or two. (Here’s the Reuters article.)
Okay, re-focus. A few snippets from section five of the Walt Whitman classic follow:
This is the female form, A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot, It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction... Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands all diffused, mine too diffused... Be not ashamed women, your privilege encloses the rest, and is the exit of the rest, You are the gates of the body, and you are the gates of the soul. The female contains all qualities and tempers them, She is in her place and moves with perfect balance, She is all things duly veil'd, she is both passive and active, She is to conceive daughters as well as sons, and sons as well as daughters.As I see my soul reflected in Nature, As I see through a mist, One with inexpressible completeness, sanity, beauty, See the bent head and arms folded over the breast, the Female I see.
Now, although Whitman would be the very first to emphasize the spiritual nature of both male and female bodies, I wonder if he ever imagined the necessity of insuring his poetic observations. That is to say, Holly Madison wants to protect and preserve a valuable commodity, and the fact that that commodity happens to be a visual glimpse of her surgically enhanced chest makes no difference. (The price is probably set along the lines of ticket sales to the Las Vegas show in which the Playmate performs.) And yet, consider the unfading quality of the descriptive (and for the Victorian Era, salacious) verse that the poet penned for posterity.
What’s it worth to ya, ladies? Gentlemen?
Think of it. If some wild and crazy bard can somehow capture — or perhaps set free — the essence of your physical form, would you consent to actually being the subject matter? Would you permit the writer to sketch with the English language or with any language how your taut flesh is firmly fitted to your adroit bones? And wouldn’t that gesture in and of itself pay out more than what State Farm or Geico could ever promise to pay out?
No, I’m not inviting anybody to pose in the nude…
But, once again, I am suggesting that our pre-occupation with sexuality is out of kilter. It’s not that anything’s bad or sinful or dirty when it comes to our certain expressions of masculinity or femininity. It’s not that we can’t be honest about our proclivities, our anxieties, our orientations and fetishes. It’s simply that we need to get over trying to “insure” our value — and especially our innate value as it relates to a particular youthful exuberance that we might like to maintain well into our twilight years.
Get over it. The aging of the human body is part and parcel of its charm — a huge component of its “soul,” as Whitman might have said.
O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you, I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are the soul,) I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and that they are my poems, Man's, woman's, child, youth's, wife's, husband's, mother's, father's, young man's, young woman's poems, Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears, Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eyebrows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids, Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges, Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition, Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue, Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the ample side-round of the chest, Upper-arm, armpit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones, Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, forefinger, finger-joints, finger-nails, Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side, Ribs, belly, backbone, joints of the backbone, Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round, man-balls, man-root, Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above, Leg-fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under-leg, Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel; All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body or of any one's body, male or female, The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean, The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame, Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves, sexuality, maternity, Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman, The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings, The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud, Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming, Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening, The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes, The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair, The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body, The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out, The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees, The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones, The exquisite realization of health; O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, O I say now these are the soul!
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking poetry like that is tame compared to the pornographic stuff of the novelist (John Updike is excluded). And maybe you’re thinking that a strip tease has more of the titillating charm that you’re looking for… Ahh… Maybe… But I would question the fact that you’re ultimately looking for that in the first place. You have to admit — reading the above (section nine of ”I Sing The Body Electric”) — does have certain esoteric charms that also include more than one carnal or enfleshed view on the subject. And that subject is what I believe we’re all looking for.
Anne Sexton wrote “In Celebration of My Uterus,” and perhaps, after you read it, you will agree that it’s hard to objectify any part of the female body:
Everyone in me is a bird. I am beating all my wings. They wanted to cut you out but they will not. They said you were immeasurably empty but you are not. They said you were sick unto dying but they were wrong. You are singing like a school girl. You are not torn. Sweet weight, in celebration of the woman I am and of the soul of the woman I am and of the central creature and its delight I sing for you. I dare to live. Hello, spirit. Hello, cup. Fasten, cover. Cover that does contain. Hello to the soil of the fields. Welcome, roots. Each cell has a life. There is enough here to please a nation. It is enough that the populace own these goods. Any person, any commonwealth would say of it, “It is good this year that we may plant again and think forward to a harvest. A blight had been forecast and has been cast out.” Many women are singing together of this: one is in a shoe factory cursing the machine, one is at the aquarium tending a seal, one is dull at the wheel of her Ford, one is at the toll gate collecting, one is tying the cord of a calf in Arizona, one is straddling a cello in Russia, one is shifting pots on the stove in Egypt, one is painting her bedroom walls moon color, one is dying but remembering a breakfast, one is stretching on her mat in Thailand, one is wiping the ass of her child, one is staring out the window of a train in the middle of Wyoming and one is anywhere and some are everywhere and all seem to be singing, although some can not sing a note. Sweet weight, in celebration of the woman I am let me carry a ten-foot scarf, let me drum for the nineteen-year-olds, let me carry bowls for the offering (if that is my part). Let me study the cardiovascular tissue, let me examine the angular distance of meteors, let me suck on the stems of flowers (if that is my part). Let me make certain tribal figures (if that is my part). For this thing the body needs let me sing for the supper, for the kissing, for the correct yes.
Evidently, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite — as big as a school bus — has finally penetrated the atmosphere and come crashing down to earth. Welcome home!
It’s been a while since NASA launched you as an entirely intact apparatus, and now that you’re back, in fragments, strewn out like drift wood in the vast Pacific Ocean, we’ll have to catch up… So what’s it like to go from the benign six tons, hanging loose and free-floating and going round and round, to the dangerous debris that’s simply falls until it hits the bottom of the sea, or makes a dent in some barren stretch of Siberia?
God, so much has changed since you were sent away twenty years ago… the rise and fall of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell… Enron’s collapse… Duke basketball’s not as good… Brad Pitt‘s become a decent actor… Rachel Maddow is the new Peter Jennings… Keith Olbermann is on his second Countdown and maybe his third meltdown… R.E.M. has disbanded… Joe Paterno‘s still coaching, but nearly every one of his joints is made of titanium alloy… Lots of new coffee shops are springing up all over the place… there’s free wifi (except at Chicago’s O’Hare)… Jerry Falwell‘s kicked the bucket… Congress may shut down the government again… the skyline of New York City looks different… the polar bears are missing a few slabs of ice… a man with a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother has been elected president and may be again… But, can I confess something to you, O Personified Space Junk? Would you mind?
Well, ah, the fact is… We’re in a state of re-entry too. That is, much of what has comprised our wholeness has been burned off and disintegrated. And so, Fragments R US… You should take comfort in that — which is to say, you’re gonna fit right into things. You probably won’t miss a beat. Wherever you land, you’re going to land on your ass. Sideways. Bent. Bruised. All fucked up. And eventually the barnacles will be all over you like groupies on Justin Bieber. You’ll look a little bit like that other hunk of technological debris that we cast off back in April of 1912… There won’t be any deck chairs that we can salvage. But hey! — the Titanic has nothing on you. Nothing but the memory of a few thousand lives scarified, not to mention, sacrificed, to our collective hubris. And, as far as we know, not a soul will even be maimed by your flaming re-entry of assorted 300 pound parts!
As far as we know…
I guess what I’m trying to say is THANK YOU. You’re like this giant metaphor that is yet to be discovered. You’re so close to declaring something that really matters, something true about us and what we strive for, who we aspire to be and those disparate particles we will all ostensibly become.
Am I stretching this too far? Am I reading into your plight what I want to see? Hell, no! I don’t want to see more fragmentation and deconstruction. I’d like to experience some sort of cosmic unity. The sad thing is I’ve made various efforts and overtures; and when I have a chance to catch my breath, I’ve got souvenirs of a place where I’ve never vacationed. I’ve got heirlooms from relatives who aren’t that familiar. Anyway, I really appreciate you listening. For a defunct satellite you’re not so bad a conversation partner… Better than most.
The Second Coming
THE SECOND COMING
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
As technology continues to tantalize and taunt us, the big news from the Techland column of Time Magazine is that researchers at the University of Berkeley have used brain scans to generate images on a screen. Those images, however, are not your ordinary MRI scan of the hypothalamus or the cerebellum. Oh no! That’s kid’s stuff compared to the latest re-make of The Pink Panther, starring Steve Martin. Evidently, what’s going on is this: test subjects watch a movie and have their cerebral cortex stimulated, the corresponding “brain voxels” are then translated onto another screen, where they show up as blurry simulations of a simulation. You follow?
I’m not sure I do… But from Matt Peckham‘s article alone it would seem that the movie industry has some hard choices to make. For example, do the major studios get the rights to Steven Spielberg’s MRI, and is it even necessary to cast the actors and have them attempt to act their parts? That is, couldn’t scientists just tap into the creative genius without the rigamarole? Moreover, when it comes to the proprieties of Netflix or Direct TV or On-Demand, the potential of this work should scare the hell out of you! We’re talking one designated viewer who then makes him or herself available for others to access the movie imagery and voila! No need for a clunky download. No need for the Comcast middle-manager to muck things up… Probably the only element we’d be missing is the theme music or the score from composers like John Williams.
And yet, I have to wonder what this new fangled brain-scan-into-movie genre might mean for the poets. Poets have certainly benefited from the motion picture portfolio in a number of dynamic ways. Cross-pollination, of course, abounds. Even so, it’s the very definition of image that concerns me at this manifest moment of gadget-destiny. And by calling that out I don’t intend to diminish the importance of visual stimuli whatsoever. It’s just that words, by contrast, are more than a conglomeration of pixels on a page. The preeminent mode of words happens to be sound and speech, and because of that the images poets evoke may go in lots and lots and LOTS of directions that even the original author does not consciously perceive.
The dilemma, therefore, in the brain-scan technology is that it may limit the image-associations or at least inhibit them from occurring between sender and receiver. Poems, you see, are two-way streets. Images come and go. Personages are sent from a stanza and invited towards a closing couplet. Readers go places the poet had not imagined them going, but must allow them to go (in order to succeed as a poet).
There is, of course, another issue that I haven’t mentioned thus far.
What happens if we attempt to use the brain scan of a person whose witnessed a crime? That individual sees what she sees and represents those images in some kind of narrative sequence that makes sense to the wiring of her brain… But maybe there are other explanations and scenarios for what occurred and for the events that have been observed. And maybe that other-oriented context is what the supposed sovereignty of the visual image always overrules. And maybe it’s the interpersonal character of image-sound-associations that democratizes our communication as well as our creativity.
“Now You See It” is a poem by Kathy Fagan. As you read it, I wonder what volumetric pixels are being generated in your brain. Will it be possible for others to view them like the movie we take in at AMC Cinemas’ multiplex? I doubt it. I doubt I’d be able to follow exactly where you’re going and why. You’ll have to tell me later.
Am I wrong, or were you
the galoot who bitter, blighter
scatter were. Were the dark
that dawned, that hit, that had me
rue the day, then duck, then hide,
then turn away. The bowls
of my hands made a seashell,
cracked, you could hear the ocean
run through, shell game,
shell shock, after-, electro-, -treat,
I mean wheat, shock of
copper where the penny’s
nicked, your molars
human size but otherwise
exactly like a mastodon’s.
No Dogs Were Harmed In The Writing of This Free Verse, But Just In Case… Keep An Eye Out For Michael Vick’s Old Compadres!
That is, Atlanta. He will travel there with his new teammates, where many animal-rights advocates may bemoan the professional athlete’s release from prison, where he spent 21 months for pleading guilty to various felony counts related to a dog-fighting ring. They may bemoan the injustice of the whole ugly scenario, showing up with placards and bullhorns and organizing boycotts of the game. But inasmuch as Vick has “paid his debt to society” — we’re left with something more damning to worry about. Given that he’s apologized and actually begun advocating for the canines that he once abused — we may want to turn our attention toward those “friends” who bankrolled the illegal activity back in 2007 and who may still be out there.
Ashley Capps is a poet with lots of friends, and among them are guys with names like “Shane,” who breeds Pit Bulls… Of course, Capps herself may not associate with the dubious character that’s mentioned in one of her poems, “Shane Says,” but it’s curious that she doesn’t include an epigraph.
Something like, no dogs were harmed in the writing of this free verse:
Shane says he used to breed pit bulls back in the woods off his yard–
thirty dogs, thirty lengths of three-foot chain.
All they wanted to do was bite each other.
And there were plenty of people who wanted them that way.
One night, he heard a racket like the Gates of Hell.
Blue lights everywhere, knew he’d been found out.
He practiced saying, A man’s gotta make a living
as he grabbed his gun and walked out back.
But the officers they were just laughing their asses off,
saying, Buddy can you call off your dogs?
We been chasing this fucker for over an hour,
and he made the mistake of running into your yard!
And there was a man lying on the ground
with each of his legs in a pit bull’s mouth.
Shit, said Shane. They don’t let go–
There’s a special tool -- so he got the tool,
straddled each of the dogs, cranked open the jaws –
Says, after, It looked like a couple of bowls of spaghetti
attached to a man.
What’s the name of that tool, I ask.
Breakstick. Only thing that’ll pry ‘em off.
That so, I say, and the woods and the fields
and the roads disappear and it’s quiet in the dark.
Now, let no one who associates with the poet/educational therapist assume that she’s guilty of any collusion with “Shane.” Unlike Barack Obama’s ties to the professor, later convicted of domestic terrorism, Ashley Capps does not pal around with those who bet on which doberman is the toughest. The breeding of pit bulls, to which she alludes, may just be a ruse for talking about the shady parts of town and the seedy suspects who make their living there.
However, the syntax alone raises fascinating questions about the “fair game” of our friendships and associations. May we draw upon them with or without changing their names to protect the innocent? Is poetry subject to the same unwritten rules that allow Carly Simon to sing, “You’re so vain… You probably think this song is about you”?? (Who was that loser anyway? Mic Jagger? Could be. James Taylor? I seriously doubt it. Tommy Chong? Hey, someone’s reputation’s at stake!) Anyway, I think the answer is Yes to whatever question we may want to go with. We can, and ought to sink our vampirish fangs into our relationships — and then we ought to allow whatever we suck out to dribble on the blank pages before us and our potential readers.
I’m not pushing for a libel suit and don’t want to smear just anybody. But if Michael Vick’s buddies are going to use him to build their clientele and if Ashley Capps’s acquaintances are going to write about her — I say, have at it!
Reading an Ex-Lover’s First Novel
I don’t mind if you say, her blouse
fell open like thunder, or if you recall
the amethyst veins inside her eyelids, the sand
in the delicate ditch of her neck. Go ahead
and compare the strung lights of the pier
to white streamers behind a black wedding car.
And those sea oats, scraping
under the constellations, did console.
But I have a problem
with the way you describe the body
of the crab washed up that morning
as an orchid, as a music box, as
if it were intact, when in fact
the thing was pink chunks of meat
that floated away from each other,
blue broken pieces of shell on a gut string.
You saw it. You
were there –
that enormous claw, dangling
like a polite, ridiculous teacup.
You see, there’s not a dog anywhere near this poem (although the seafood has been obliterated). And that’s probably what I’m learning from Capps: Vary the target.
Make reference to “Shane,” if the mood calls for it. And yet, don’t obsess. The chances are not always so good when it comes to any single friend really reading this stuff. But if he or she does, the line endings offer a glancing blow or a slight poke in the ribs. Nothing to get in a tizzy over. Nothing to be indicted about. Nothing to get Roger Goodell’s attention…
By the way, I’m hoping the Eagles win big time! And I’m hoping that Vick has a great game, passing from the pocket and scrambling until his heart’s content and his mind is cleansed… Ashley Capps has this great opening line in “Washing The Brain.” She writes,
But first I must tie up the dogs.
I am washing my brain
because, while relatively small,
it has been much handled:
There was a cook who borrowed it
to flavor the chowder; it was better
than garlic or bones, and it sang
from the bottom of the pot. Thus,
they survived the shellfish shortage.
There followed a priest
who rubbed it like a lucky marble
between sermons; a sequined circus
performer who juggled it with steak knives
in the dark; a ranger
who used it to bait the traps
for bears that bit the tourists; and
a florist in want of oasis,
who pierced it with wired roses.
All along, the brain
was memorizing the names
of crustaceans and flowers, wrestling
with Jacob and the angels, lamenting
the grizzled silver fur. It might have stayed
with the cook forever, fevered
and brothed; but when, on behalf
of the brain, I have called, the cook
hangs up, or doesn’t answer.
The shocking insights from the recently released Arthur Schlesinger audio tapes are these: Jackie Kennedy didn’t think women had the constitution for politics. Jackie Kennedy said that JFK feared for the country if Lyndon Johnson were to become president. Jackie Kennedy called Martin Luther King, Jr. a “phony.” Jackie Kennedy had a snobbish view of Pat Nixon‘s hair style. Jackie Kennedy loved her late husband and tolerated his philandering. And finally, if the Cuban missile crisis had spiraled out of control, Jackie Kennedy wanted to die with her “elusive man” and her children rather than survive in some underground bunker…
And there we have it. The princess of Camelot sounds downright catty, and by today’s standards of discourse, scandalously backward. But perhaps the only thing we should say about anyone whose been taped in 1964 is that she’s merely stuck in her time (and had no other recourse but to be stuck).
Stuck, of course, may seem a little pejorative. I don’t intend it to be. Jackie Kennedy, like all of us, had to move with the flow of history and respond to her interviewer with the upper-crust elegance in which she had been born and raised. She had a bias, if not a prejudice, that came silver-spoon society of New England and saw no reason to shake loose from it. But, I would argue that the bulk of Jackie Kennedy’s provincial take on the world had its source in a time that had its time and is now long, long gone.
We should remember that when we assume the posture of speaking for future generations — as if this time of 2011 has the pinnacle point of view from which all timeless truths may be uttered. Not so. We’re stuck too. Consider the “Recent Changes at Canter’s Deli,” by Ed Skoog:
The telephone is no longer upstairs.
Cut fruit in cold cup will never be whole.
Nothing is where it was. The plate
is beside the bowl. My mind’s all fucked up,
distorted, pale light reflected on stainless steel
of the walk-in cooler. It is not where it was.
Here’s the spike to build a body of receipt.
Sweat collects on the water pitcher lip
like the goodbye of a woman I loved.
The clerk bends his body to pray the miracle
of the hand washing station, turns knife to loaf.
The present pours into the pepper shaker.
It settles on the silk ivy of the now. Odds fade
in the sports section fallen between the counter,
where paying my bill I orphan a dime
for a silver mint, and the window snows sun
brilliant on Fairfax, demanding the commute.
They are not letting me drive anymore
and turning onto Melrose on the bus,
the driver, I overhear, has another job,
one he doesn’t know the name for.
Up in the haze some undiscovered animal
watches us, its plan mapped out, fire
swinging up the canyons, unfolding
until flame may flicker tip of sabertooth fang
in the museum where rare finds are hidden.
I, too, am a dinosaur. Rawr. My little claws.
I’m the dredge flopping for tar from the pits.
Click. I am a kind of David Bowie
in the Amoeba everything’s-a-dollar bin.
I have four fingers and a thumb on my right hand,
equal representation on the left, and fourteen
billion toes. I’m a windup rooster. Who I am
and what I feel are irrelevant enough to be central
to the project of contemporary American poetry.
Or perhaps any art. Poetry’s just the form
of unimportance I teach teenagers above L.A.
under slanted windows that kill, by surprise,
the birds we then write about, gathering bonfire
around the small corpses, because it’s cold here.
Ed Skoog, I think, may be onto something. Being stuck in history makes for the best poetry. Without it we launch speeches into the public domain that sound over-confident as to our overall impact upon the civilized world. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t reach for eternal things. I’m not saying the sublime verities aren’t out there “blowing in the wind.” Rather, let’s just search for poetic ways and artistic disciplines by which we might keep ourselves in check.
In fact, we may discover that while not even trying to stand the test of time, some wise reader from the year 2061 will boil down a grandiose thought that we ourselves never had. Go figure. By paying attention to our own stuck-ness in our time we help the George Jetson family of tomorrow recognize their own finitude.
Even Canter’s Deli can be put on the endangered species list. Apparently, the Dodgertown Deli has displaced the franchised vendor at Dodger Stadium and will serve arugula salad with goat cheese. (Now, that’s more Jackie Kennedy’s style.)
It’s the Sunday just before Labor Day, and I’m awake to the sounds of hash browns and sausage being cooked on the skillet. Last night, at The Gorge in George, Washington, the Dave Matthews Band rocked my world. Last night I heard a saxophone solo that seemed to pry loose an ancient lava flow. Last night guitars combined with drums, violin and flute to poke a peep-hole into the next universe. Today, however, I’m not going to worship anywhere — which is strange given that for nearly twenty years what I did last night would have been impossible without me, as pastor, falling asleep during the prelude.
So this is strange, to say the least. And if I were to try to say the most, my mind might easily confuse the outdoor venue of The Gorge with the abyss in Monty Python’s Search For The Holy Grail. You know, the one with the bridge keeper who asks three questions of the wayward knights of the roundtable. If any knight fails to respond correctly, that gallant suit of armor is exposed as a mere facade, a fraud perpetrated by those who’ve nurtured the Arthurian legend and who are now cynically flung into the darkness of the void. Anyway, that’s where I am, or was on the evening of September 3, 2012 and I’m sticking to that story. That is, for the first time in a few decades, it’s as if the bridge keeper inquired as to my “favorite color” and I didn’t hesitate.
The abyss, in my humble estimation, can only be approached and breached like this: subjectively. Consider the following song lyrics which Dave Matthews sung at the edge of the Columbia River. The first was originally written by Daniel Lanois:
Oh, oh deep water, black and cold like the night
I stand with arms wide open
I’ve run a twisted line
I’m a stranger in the eyes of the Maker
I could not see for the fog in my eyes
I could not feel for the fear in my life
From across the great divide, In the distance I saw a light
Of Jean Baptiste’s he’s walking to me with the Maker
My body my body is bent and broken by long and dangerous sleep
I can’t work the fields of Abraham and turn my head away
I’m not a stranger in the hands of the Maker
Brother John, have you seen the homeless daughters
Standing there with broken wings
I have seen the flaming swords
There over east of eden
Burning in the eyes of the Maker
Burning in the eyes of the Maker
Burning in the eyes of the Maker
Oh, river rise from your sleep
Oh, river rise from your sleep
Oh, river rise from your sleep
You Might Die Trying
To change the world, start with one step
However small, the first step is hardest of all
Once you get your gait, you’ll be walkin’ tall
You said you never did, cuz you might die tryin’
Cuz you might die tryin’, cuz you…
If you close your eyes cuz the house is on fire
And think you couldn’t move until fire dies
The things you never did, oh, cuz you might die tryin’
Cuz you might die tryin’, you’d be as good as dead
Cuz you might die tryin’, cuz you might die tryin’
(sax solo) I still remember I woke up and all ran away
If you give, you begin to live
If you give, you begin to live
You begin, you get the world
If you give, you begin to live
You get the world, you get the world
If you give,YOU BEGIN TO LIVE, YOU MIGHT DIE TRYIN’
Oh you might die tryin’, you might die tryin’
The things you never did, oh cuz you might die tryin’
You’d be as good as dead
The things you never did…
You might die trying… Gotta love that. I think I’m finally at that point where I genuinely want to try.
I read recently that Matthews used to tend bar in Charlottesburg, Virginia. A friend suggested that he record some of his songs, and the rest is sheer creative brilliance and passion! At The Gorge, before 20,000 or so screaming fans, it’s clear that he loves what he’s doing with words and with the skilled musicians that surround him… “Bartender, you see,” he cries into the canyon, “The wine that’s drinking me/ Came from the vine that strung Judas from the Devil’s tree/ It’s roots deep, deep in the ground.” Last night, the song ventured far afield, closing out to the melody from The Wizard of Oz tune, “If I only had a brain…” The crowd nearly genuflected, and I guess that’s the point.
Is it possible that God shows up, more often than not, when we don’t name him explicitly? I’m all but finished with church as it’s popularly conceived in North America, and I think the Dave Matthews caravan understands why. That is, the abyss teaches. The abyss reaches into our hearts and minds better than any puppeteer and more powerfully than any pollyanna worship leader could ever dream of reaching.
Some of my old colleagues, of course, would beg to differ. The clergy guild might accuse me of copping out. They might even feel that I’ve committed career-suicide, or that I’ve wandered in the general vicinity of the pig sty. Those whose livelihoods depend upon the theatrics (i.e., the liturgics) of institutional church might even use me as a sermon illustration and pray that I return home like the prodigal son… I can honestly say, however, that church has never been my home. Not for a hundred years, maybe more.
Here’s a snippet of religious news from the editors of the Spokesman Review who harken back to something that went to print on September 4, 1912:
Spokane’s ministers “threw down the gauntlet” regarding a question that they clearly regarded of the utmost gravity: Should Spokane’s Interstate Fair be open on Sunday, the Sabbath rest? The ministers had previously asked the fair organizers to honor the Sabbath, but received no response. So now the ministry, showing their displeasure of the slight,” issued an ultimatum… They said that either the fair close on Sunday or else it would “suffer the loss of patronage through the influence of all the pastors in the Inland Empire.”
Oh God! If those men of the cloth could have only seen the vibrant display of passion and the sincere spiritual pilgrimmage that I experienced last night, and that presumably will happen again today, the Lord’s Day. Take note, you peddlers of pedantic and rehashed powerpoint presentations! You whitened-’or sepulchers!
–By Pierre Reverdy
I was ready for all that might happen Head lowered Feet touching my head And everything that moved in the corner Against the wall Opposite me and beside me The mirror as it faded had begun to tremble There was a light Long ago and the face that I see Midnight Would this be the hour Under the roof the rain-pipe weeps And a far-off train that was calling The room stretched beyond the walls At that moment they might have caught me Or I could even have stumbled World was falling over and over into slumber
So NPR’s Neal Conan is interviewing a former NFL agent regarding the financial kick-back scandals in various NCAA football programs. Apparently 20 teams have been sanctioned since 2010 for infractions related to certain players who receive certain expensive perks. And in the course of this conversation, Josh Luchs says this:
I think the NCAA is just – and all those folks are trying to keep all the money that they can for themselves. Release enough so they can live on it comfortably. They are – just as people are writing poems or playing music are going to be musicians or writers, they should be allowed to proudly exercise their skills. They’re not going to be – if they’re scholars, that’s great. But let them live comfortably on a scholar – on a full scholarship that gets the soil money out of the way. And the ones that are lucky enough to go on to a professional career, they will make their millions later.
Now, I don’t know what this sports agent knows about “writing poems,” but it doesn’t seem that the practice in and of itself is very lucrative. But what galls me is the comparison in which creative writing seems so well-endowed with funds, if not fans, and football players are living on Macaroni and Cheese. Ahh, I don’t think so.
Or perhaps I’ve misunderstood the context of these remarks. Context makes a difference, which is to say that if someone doesn’t give a rip about college football then the obscene amount of revenue that it reaps would not register as a true scandal. On the other hand, if one did care about the sport and appreciated the spectacle and the traditions of each collegiate alumni association, well then, that person might want to insure the integrity of amateur athletics from this point on.
And yet, do you remember that episode of When Harry Met Sally, in which Harry is depressed. He and his buddy go to a New York Giants game and sit in the midst of this rowdy crowd of spectators. Every now and then, “the wave” starts up and the stadium rocks with successive sections standing and sitting back down. Round and round goes “the wave,” and Harry has been doing it with everyone else. The only problem is — he doesn’t care anymore. He’s doing “the wave” with the sell-out crowd, but his first wife has had an affair and he’s about to get a divorce. You see, for him, the context has totally changed — although it doesn’t appear like it, given that he’s still there, among the 90,000 people in their jerseys and their sheik home-team apparel.
Anyway, the point being — although I love college football — I believe that every potential player at The Ohio State University or The University of Miami should be schooled in an alternative context. Rather than money, money and more more, let these talented jocks share their “star power” on campus with the aspiring poets. That is, for every pep-rally, insist that the starting backfield show up at a poetry slam or a reading. For every interview on ESPN, make it a prerequisite that each 300 pound lineman read some Billy Collins (the literary equivalent of Bret Favre).
And, speak of the devil, here’s an Introduction to Poetry:
I ask them to take a poemand hold it up to the lightlike a color slideor press an ear against its hive.I say drop a mouse into a poemand watch him probe his way out,or walk inside the poem’s roomand feel the walls for a light switch.I want them to waterskiacross the surface of a poemwaving at the author’s name on the shore.But all they want to dois tie the poem to a chair with ropeand torture a confession out of it.They begin beating it with a hoseto find out what it really means.
This Much I Do Remember
It was after dinner.
You were talking to me across the table
about something or other,
a greyhound you had seen that day
or a song you liked,and I was looking past you
over your bare shoulder
at the three oranges lying
on the kitchen counter
next to the small electric bean grinder,
which was also orange,
and the orange and white cruets for vinegar and oil.Alll of which converged
into a random still life,
so fastened together by the hasp of color,
and so fixed behind the animated
foreground of your
talking and smiling,
gesturing and pouring wine,
and the camber of you shoulders
that I could feel it being painted within me,
brushed on the wall of my skull,
while the tone of your voice
lifted and fell in its flight,
and the three oranges
remained fixed on the counter
the way that stars are said
to be fixed in the universe.
Then all of the moments of the past
began to line up behind that moment
and all of the moments to come
assembled in front of it in a long row,
giving me reason to believe
that this was a moment I had rescued
from millions that rush out of sight
into a darkness behind the eyes.
Even after I have forgotten what year it is,
my middle name,
and the meaning of money,
I will still carry in my pocket
the small coin of that moment,
minted in the kingdom
that we pace through every day.
Again, I’d like to emphasize CONTEXT. What’s the context — the mysterious ultimate context that has a bearing and a poignant influence upon the pen-ultimatecontext???College football is fantastic. The chill in the air. The roar of the student-section. The mascots doing push-ups for every point being scored. Joe Paterno standing on the sidelines of Penn State until his knees are replaced by titanium joints, left over from the last Space Shuttle mission. The invocation of “God” as if the deity were a big fan of Auburn and had blessed them with a National Championship… All this hoopla and hubbub has a place in my life and in the lives of every red-blooded American (we’ll leave the blue-bloods out of this for the time being). But I never want to forget the larger context of NCAA football, not for a minute, not even for a split second.
Rainer Maria Rilke… Herman Hesse… Don’t leave home without them. Take them to school like a pen-n-pencil set or like a three-ring binder, (maybe even instead of a three-ring binder). Stuff Rilke and his Letters to a Young Poet in the side pouch of the backpack with a bruised banana. Slip Herman Hesse and Siddhartha into the zippered pockets of your parachute pants (and keep the cellphone on vibrate in case somebody calls).
Rilke and Hesse are the original homeboys, the dreaded posse that I and many others need as we make the transition into autumn and back, yes, back to school.
So what is it, you may ask, that qualifies these hoodlums (originally from Prague and the Black Forest region of Germany) to watch our collective and unconscious backs? Well, I’m gonna tell ya. Rilke’s mother dressed him in girls’ clothes until the age of five and called him by the name, Sophia, after his deceased little sister. Hesse’s father suffered severe bouts of depression and according to his son, “always seemed like a very polite, very foreign, lonely, little-understood guest” in his own home. Rilke entered and was discharged from an Austrian military school in his early teens. Hesse once ran away from the Evangelical Theological Seminary (Maulbronn Abbey), settling, of all places, in a field before being discovered and sent back to school:
Lying In Grass
–by Herman Hesse
Is this everything now, the quick delusions of flowers,
And the down colors of the bright summer meadow,
The soft blue spread of heaven, the bees’ song,
Is this everything only a god’s
The cry of unconscious powers for deliverance?
The distant line of the mountain,
That beautifully and courageously rests in the blue,
Is this too only a convulsion,
Only the wild strain of fermenting nature,
Only grief, only agony, only meaningless fumbling,
Never resting, never a blessed movement?
No! Leave me alone, you impure dream
Of the world in suffering!
The dance of tiny insects cradles you in an evening radiance,
The bird’s cry cradles you,
A breath of wind cools my forehead
Leave me alone, you unendurably old human grief!
Let it all be pain.
Let it all be suffering, let it be wretched-
But not this one sweet hour in the summer,
And not the fragrance of the red clover,
And not the deep tender pleasure
In my soul.
Words like these, of course, aren’t always taught in school. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? That — coupled with the fact that we often spring from parental units that do the best they can with what they themselves had been given.
So, on this late date in August, I propose taking it all with you into the classroom. Take Rilke and his longing for childhood, and take Hesse and his rebellious addiction to red clover. And yes, take the unresolved memories of a family of origin that is peculiar to you and to me. Think of it. No student would truly be prepared for the grueling regimen of private or even public education without the spillage of milk from home. There’s no use crying about it — the spilt dairy product, that is. Might as well, let it drip from your lips… like poetry. Rilke’s poetry:
All this stood upon her and was the world
and stood upon her with all its fear and grace
as trees stand, growing straight up, imageless
yet wholly image, like the Ark of God,
and solemn, as if imposed upon a race.
And she endured it all: bore up under
the swift-as-flight, the fleeting, the far-gone,
the inconceivably vast, the still-to-learn,
serenely as a woman carrying water
moves with a full jug. Till in the midst of play,
transfiguring and preparing for the future,
the first white veil descended, gliding softly
over her opened face, almost opaque there,
never to be lifted off again, and somehow
giving to all her questions just one answer:
In you, who were a child once — in you.
At first a childhood, limitless and free
of any goals. Ah sweet unconsciousness.
Then sudden terror, schoolrooms, slavery,
the plunge into temptation and deep loss.
Defiance. The child bent becomes the bender,
inflicts on others what he once went through.
Loved, feared, rescuer, wrestler, victor,
he takes his vengeance, blow by blow.
And now in vast, cold, empty space, alone.
Yet hidden deep within the grown-up heart,
a longing for the first world, the ancient one . . .
Then, form His place of ambush, God leapt out.
Priscilla Dunstan, a McClatchy-Tribune reporter, offers an interesting take on the transition into the realm of academia. In her article, “Child Sense: Smoothing out the highs and lows of back-to-school,” she notes the following differences in the youngsters:
- Tactile children need more physical contact and cuddles;
- Visual children benefit from a visually based school schedule;
- Auditory children will need talk about their day;
- Taste & Smell children…? Allow your child to bring a small comfort item to school…
Bingo! I’m assuming that Rilke and Hesse had to be “Taste & Smell” children. What else could they have been? Is there another sense that we’re missing? (Not The Sixth Sense of sniffing out dead people a’la Bruce Willis and M. Night Shyamalan!) Is there, for example, a poetic sense? Some extra-thin skin that makes everyone a poet? Some aura that we have to unlearn if we’re going to fit into the curriculum? Some word-to-thing coordination that’s both our beginning and our ending?
Rainer Maria Rilke to the rescue! Hurry up, Herman Hesse! The summer days are fading.
Well, depending upon what roads we travel, it’s nearly 2,500 miles or 4,024 kilometers. And, by car that’s a haul. By plane, with a few cocktails in first class and a good headwind, we might go from one destination to the other in approximately three hours (give or take a delay for baggage check). But, you see, another way by which we might calculate the (metaphysical) distance between the likes of Taylor Armstrong and Snooki is to look at the television ratings.
Television, as we all know, takes us places. In 1952 it took us to both the Republican and Democrat National Conventions in Philadelphia, PA. During the years of 1957 and ’58 CBS took us to the Beaver’s very doorstep at 385 Mapleton Drive in Mayfield (fictitious suburbia). And then, from 1959 through ’63, coincidental with the move to ABC, the Cleaver family hauled all their belongings to 211 Pine Street (although no episode depicts the actual hassle of packing up and resettling). We’ve been to big cities with exotic criminals like Metropolis and Gotham. Once we got detoured by rough weather and had to spend several seasons on an uncharted isle with a gangly actor by the name of Bob Denver. Dick van Dyke got lucky; he had been offered the role of Gilligan, but eventually landed in Manhattan where he lived with his wife and son, and worked as a television writer. And all this nostalgia is not even to mention our trips to Korea in MASH, to the Twilight Zone, to the Vulcan home of Mr. Spock, to Queens with Archie Bunker, to Hawaii (Five O), to Milwaukee with Happy Days and those slutty girls who worked in the brewery, to Hill Street in San Francisco, to Dr. & Mrs. Huxtable’s posh home in Brooklyn, to Twin Peaks in Washington State, to Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment (to his Uncle Leo’s retirement condo in Del Boca Vista), to the West Wing of the White House, to Survivor Redemption Island… and now to the affluent Beverly Hills and the bawdy Jersey Shore. And thanks for traveling in HD (High Definition)!
But, of course, it should be noted that — authentically — we’ve not been to any of the aforementioned places (even if we’ve been tangibly there). Through the medium of T.V. the assorted producers, directors, writers and actors have only simulated such settings for our viewing and listening pleasure. And that’s the key that fails to unlock the door, isn’t it? That’s the crux that sticks in our amorphous crawl, doesn’t it?
Increasingly most Americans live and die through the simulated environments which have been represented for them on the screen. In fact, it could be argued that we haven’t really lived or died or experienced life and death UNLESS the cameras have been rolling to record it, unless the satellite dishes haven’t conveyed the transmission with a few seconds delay. It could be argued…
But I’m not going to argue. Rather, I want to reinforce, through poetry, how the recent suicide of Taylor Armstrong’s husband lifts up a profound dilemma that we might face. And I’d like to approach Roald Dahl’s polemic in “Television,” with a little more nuance when it comes to Nicole Polizzi and her cohorts who got wasted and brawled through last season in Italy. He writes:
The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set –
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotised by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk…
This is where we’ve been and this week’s research confirms it: After the age of 25 years, for every hour of television we watch we lose nearly 22 minutes of lifespan. That may not seem like much, maybe a episode of Two and A Half Men, but it’s also the time we might spend reading what Gwedolyn Brooks and Dylan Thomas have encountered:
We Real Cool
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Crafted words like these strike me as more authentic than anything that Reality TV can broadcast and re-broadcast in case we missed the show where Jennifer Farley cheats on her steady boyfriend with Paul Del Vecchio.
More pointedly, our attempts at savoring life and death poetically are similar to ways we might strip an antique piece of furniture. That is, layers and layers of ugly, brain-cell killing stuff has been caked on our souls for too long. When Brooks conjures the imagery, however, we see. When Thomas evokes the music, we hear. And the distance we feel from our particular place and our particular time vanishes in an instant of wondrous insight. Who needs that dusty flat screen anyway?
A few nights ago, Stephen Colbert did a Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger spoof on Adam and Eve. Apparently, some evangelical scientists have their doubts of the primordial couple’s existence — that is, their literal existence at the dawn of time and space. And the reasons they give include the complex variations of DNA, which, in all likelihood, did not spring from a single mating pair…
Anyway, the comedic spin of this “news” made me and the live-studio audience chuckle. And then, I got to thinking — a dangerous thing I know! Why do so many religious experts insist upon the historicity of Adam and Eve as a prerequisite to faith in the salvation story of Jesus? Why do they get so much attention in the media? And wouldn’t it be refreshing for a change if we allowed the whole Joseph Campbell “myth” thing to get some traction in our public discourse?
At the same time as these questions ransacked the drawers of my drowsy consciousness, I noticed a posthumously published chapbook by the surrealistic poet, Adam Hammer. No Time for Dancing went to print around 2010, although the author died tragically back in 1984. And yet, in perusing poems like “How Does It Feel to Be a Nun?” and “As an Intellectual,” I began to wonder if this was not the way the Book of Genesis had been originally scribed many seder-feasts ago.
My point here is not to discredit Historical Criticism when it comes to the Bible, but to suggest that Literary Criticism may take us down paths with more panoramic views. Moreover, when it comes to the crafting of literature, I’m not at all convinced that logic is all its cracked up to be. Here’s a definition of surrealism that, I think, nails the poetry of Adam Hammer (not to mention chapters 1–3 of Genesis:
SURREALISM, noun, masc., Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.
ENCYCL. Philos. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to its substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life.
“The true function of thought…”
How we think without the “control exerted by reason…”
“The disinterested play of thought…”
Sisters and Brothers — it’s time to have a little fun:
How Does It Feel to Be a Nun?
I can see them even now, staying up and cruelly reading
The Guns of Navarone to each other, all night.
I see them in their religious nightgowns
and I see them in their religious kitchens.
I would like to see them in their religious bathrooms:
What do they do in there? I wonder.
It doesn’t seem fair
that nuns are allowed to wear eyeglasses.
I think instead they should be made
to wear thick black shutters made of slate, or quartz.
How does it feel to be a nun?
Why do nuns always wear those really gaudy necklaces
in the shape of a T?
What does the T stand for?
Tortoise, tornadoes, thermos, tampax, tarpaper …
the T could stand for none of these.
How does it feel to be a nun?
Poor, for one thing–
but how poor are nuns really?
Their well-stocked ovens containing baked goods
constantly are cooking.
Did you ever see a nun with elbow patches?
Or a hole in her socks?
The little nun-helmets they wear
are also very clean.
This is not a sign of poverty.
Rather, it is a sign of promiscuity.
Once I picked up a nun at a discotheque.
My cloister or yours? …
This poem ventures on, making association after association, pondering absurd and perhaps offensive scenarios. And at the end I feel almost light-headed, as if I’ve just ridden all the roller coasters at Busch Gardens while chugging two pints of beer!!! Is it legitimate to read through the creation stories (plural) in a similar manner? The four (or more) gospels? I wonder.
And I wonder about Eve Merriam, an obscure writer of children’s books, who also penned amusing verse like this:
Catch A Little Rhyme
Once upon a time
I caught a little rhyme
I set it on the floor
but it ran right out the door
I chased it on my bicycle
but it melted to an icicle
I scooped it up in my hat
but it turned into a cat
I caught it by the tail
but it stretched into a whale
I followed it in a boat
but it changed into a goat
When I fed it tin and paper
it became a tall skyscraper
Then it grew into a kite
and flew far out of sight…
You see, it’s like lolly-gagging. It’s mildewing. In the words of Simon & Garfunkel, it’s “feeling groovy…” Plus, I’d like to point out, it’s an all-out assault on modernity’s push for linear, formulaic answers. We may be frightened of the deconstructive tendencies of Adam and Eve, but why can’t we simply admit that creatures like us are involved? Why can’t we grant that, even for the original human authors of Genesis, there was and is and ever will be, no unbiased, objective place to stand?
Hammer’s poem, “As an Intellectual,” hits me right between the eyes. I am stunned, bewildered and given the ride of my pseudo-scholarly life:
I’m a total flop
I don’t admit, even to myself, that I have never read Pearl S. Buck
I find myself chanting strange, Peruvian chants in the cafeteria
But not understanding what they mean
Even my friends suspect that my Pound On Donne album is a total fake
And is really just a tape of Gerry And The Pacemakers played backwards
I have claimed, officially, to be familiar with all the topless bars
In Tacoma, Washington, but I have never been there, in this life
I do know that Lisbon is in Portugal, and have said so publicly
But I have never understood the principles of gravity, entropy, enthalpy, or optometry
Though I discuss them frequently with my colleagues here
At the Institute Of Earth Behavior
Over drinks we discuss the future of aerogram
I tell them that in the future all events will be predictable
And then I preface a few words with “neo-” and “quasi-”
And am immediately offered a promotion
I become the chairman of the Modern Syntax and Punctuation Association
I am given a grant to do research on the exclamation point
But my first announcement totally negates the efforts of 150 years of other research
Yes, that was pretty stupid
But of course I don’t realize this at the time
I assume that all my followers understand me…
This metaphysical fun park continues as well (for another 25 lines), where we hear the speaker refer to himself as “George Jetson” and pose bogus interrogatories like: “What did Dickens mean by all the owl imagery in Moby Dick?”
And, of course, Moby Dick was written by Herman Melville, who probably wouldn’t mind the confusion. After all, he dealt with the big issues of Good and Evil and killed off Queequeg. Bad move, I think.
But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”
I just discovered poet Marge Piercy, and that’s great! Her work thickens as it’s read, taking on a social substance like a regal statue at the center of town. Piercy challenges convention. She articulates a feminist point of view without any apologies. She celebrates the body and seemingly begs us to accept the fact that we are embodied in precious ways that need no gaudy embellishment… I just discovered poems like “What Are Big Girls Made Of?” and “Barbie Doll” and “The Woman In The Ordinary.” But I discovered these free-verse stanzas right next to the news of yet another missing person in Aruba… and yes, this missing person happens to be a beautiful woman.
Robyn Gardner, from West Bethesda, MD, is the tattooed and tanned epitome of what Vogue, Entertainment Tonight and a thousand infomercials peddle as the desirable female. The dental assistant is the 35-year-old version of the previously reported “disappeared” Natalee Halloway. Halloway, recently graduated from high school in Alabama, had last been seen at a bar in Aruba with Joran van der Sloot, who has been convicted of the young woman’s murder. Whether or not the Aruba authorities can find enough evidence to charge Robyn Gardner’s traveling companion hangs in the balance. The 50-year-old Gary Giordano evidently took out a $1.5 million life insurance policy on the pair and tried to cash it when Gardner went missing. And so, connecting the dots of this tragedy is the obvious horrendously sick and nihilistic behavior of the male gender. Of that there is no doubt.
Amid the vaporous pornographic matrix that passes for the real world, it’s easy for men to objectify women and therefore to discard them as objects when they don’t conform to certain demands. (I’m sure that women can reciprocate in their treatment of men, as well as men their treatment of other men and women in their treatment of other women.) And yet, what poets like Marge Piercy bring to our attention are the ways that women sometimes embrace and cultivate their own false self-imagery.
By pursuing this tack I am in no way trying to blame the victims or to justify the criminal acts that have occurred in Aruba or anywhere. What’s crucial, however, is that we begin to reflect on the poetics of beauty and the mystery of what cannot be possessed — namely, an embodied soul. Here’s Piercy at her best (at the beginning of “What Big Girls Are Made Of?”) negotiating through the traffic of sleek mannequins and anorexic models:
The construction of a woman:
a woman is not made of flesh
of bone and sinew
belly and breasts, elbows and liver and toe.
She is manufactured like a sports sedan.
She is retooled, refitted and redesigned
Cecile had been seduction itself in college.
She wriggled through bars like a satin eel,
her hips and ass promising, her mouth pursed
in the dark red lipstick of desire.
She visited in ’68 still wearing skirts
tight to the knees, dark red lipstick,
while I danced through Manhattan in mini skirt,
lipstick pale as apricot milk,
hair loose as a horse’s mane. Oh dear,
I thought in my superiority of the moment,
whatever has happened to poor Cecile?
She was out of fashion, out of the game,
disqualified, disdained, dis-
membered from the club of desire.
Look at pictures in French fashion
magazines of the 18th century:
century of the ultimate lady
fantasy wrought of silk and corseting.
Paniers bring her hips out three feet
each way, while the waist is pinched
and the belly flattened under wood.
The breasts are stuffed up and out
offered like apples in a bowl.
The tiny foot is encased in a slipper
never meant for walking.
On top is a grandiose headache:
hair like a museum piece, daily
ornamented with ribbons, vases,
grottoes, mountains, frigates in full
sail, ballons, baboons, the fancy
of a hairdresser turned loose.
The hats were rococo wedding cakes
that would dim the Las Vegas strip.
Here is a woman forced into shape
rigid exoskeleton torturing flesh:
a woman made of pain…
There’s more, but “made of pain” is an apropos place to come up for air. Every decade — and perhaps every year — we become bored with ourselves and invite the latest style to cheer our ennui. How sad for us — both women and men! How sad that we can’t seem to escape the powers and principalities that keep us enslaved in a hall of cosmetic mirrors!
Moreover, if we assume that in the physical appearance — in the prurient interest — resides some spiritual incantation, think again. With Whitman we might croon about the “Body Electric,” but the photo-shopped stuff of cyberspace is not the same thing. The plastic surgery industry depicted in the Nip/Tuck cable series does not deliver goods. And this is the point of Piercy’s poem, “Barbie Doll.” She continually unmasks that veneer of “life” that is not life at all, but death:
In the casket displayed on satin she lay
with the undertaker’s cosmetics painted on,
a turned-up putty nose,
dressed in a pink and white nightie.
Doesn’t she look pretty? everyone said.
Consummation at last.
To every woman a happy ending.
The only escape from this madhouse, it seems, may be the redemption of the ordinary and the plain. Piercy pushes us to believe in what blooms in time. As far as I can tell, she’s not asking anyone to boycott Mary Kay cosmetics or to forgo the close shaving of a leg or an armpit. Yet, in “The Woman In The Ordinary,” there’s a volatile and restless radiance that any woman, traveling to Aruba, may want to nurture:
The woman in the ordinary pudgy downcast girl
is crouching with eyes and muscles clenched.
Round and pebble smooth she effaces herself
under ripples of conversation and debate.
The woman in the block of ivory soap
has massive thighs that neigh,
great breasts that blare and strong arms that trumpet.
The woman of the golden fleece
laughs uproariously from the belly
inside the girl who imitates
a Christmas card virgin with glued hands,
who fishes for herself in others’ eyes,
who stoops and creeps to make herself smaller.
In her bottled up is a woman peppery as curry,
a yam of a woman of butter and brass,
compounded of acid and sweet like a pineapple,
like a handgrenade set to explode,
like goldenrod ready to bloom.
I once heard Gary Snyder in State College, PA. It was 1984 and nothing close to George Orwell‘s novel by the same name would make a dent in the Ronald Reagan trickle-down malaise. Snyder rolled onto the Penn State campus and immediately criticized the one-horse-town milieu: “What a great name for a town,” he said. “You’ll never have to worry about someone trying to steal it!”
That quip stays with me today, I think, because of the fear of un-originality. It bothers me, for example, that the Middle-East still flares up with no peace in sight. It bothers me that Michele Bachmann refers to the Renaissance as a corrupting influence. It bothers me that newscasters debate whose better — the Philadelphia Phillies or the Philadelphia Eagles. (Let the Eagles win something like a Super Bowl and we can talk!) It bothers me that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the President of the IMF Bank, can even be accused of raping a maid, or forcing her to give him oral sex. In short, I’m bothered. None of these more recent peccadilloes seem very original. They are redundant. And I’m bored with the mid-August chatter. And that leads me to this ghost, this apparition of Gary Snyder…
Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain LookoutDown valley a smoke hazeThree days heat, after five days rainPitch glows on the fir-conesAcross rocks and meadowsSwarms of new flies.I cannot remember things I once readA few friends, but they are in cities.Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cupLooking down for milesThrough high still air.
Gary Snyder, as I remember him in 1984, would kick Perry’s ass — both verbally and physically. Moreover, for anyone, for any lonely traveler, venturing home to sleep and rest, may I offer you “True Night,” and nothing “Good…”
True NightSheath of sleep in the black of the bed:
From outside this dream womb
Comes a clatter
Comes a clatter
And finally the mind rises up to a fact
Like a fish to a hook
A raccoon at the kitchen!
A falling of metal bowls,
the clashing of jars,
the avalanche of plates
I snap alive to the ritual
Rise unsteady, find my feet,
Grab the stick, dash in the dark -
I’m a huge pounding demon
That roars at raccoons -
They whip around the corner,
A scratching sound tells me
they’ve gone up a tree.I stand at the base
Two young ones that perch on
Two dead stub limbs and
Peer down from both sides of the trunk:Roar, roar, I roar
you awful raccoons, you wake me
up nights, you ravage
our kitchenAs I stay there then silent
The chill of the air on my nakedness
Starts off the skin
I am all alive to the night.
Bare foot shaping on gravel
Stick in the hand, forever.Long streak of cloud giving way
To a milky thin light
Back of black pine bough,
The moon is still full,
Hillsides of Pine trees all
Whispering; crickets still cricketting
Faint in cold coves in the darkI turn and walk back slow
Back the path to the beds
With goosebumps and lose waving hair
In the night of milk-moonlit thin cloud glow
And black rustling pines
I feel like a dandelion head
Gone to seed
About to be blown away
Or a sea anemone open and waving in
cool pearly water.
Fifty years old.
I still spend my time
Screwing nuts down on bolts.
At the shadow pool,
Children are sleeping,
And a lover I’ve lived with for years,
One cannot stay too long awake
In this dark
Dusty feet, hair tangling,
I stoop and slip back to the
Sheath, for the sleep I still need,
For the waking that comes
With the dawn.
In Contact, Jodi Foster plays Dr. Jane Arroway, the rebellious scientist who fights tooth and nail for continued funding of the S.E.T.I. program. And, according to an MSNBC report, the actress puts her money where her mouth is, which means pledging $200,000 in support of the ongoing effort to listen for communications from the farthest reaches of the galaxy.
I love this and would only be more glad to hear the news if Ms. Foster had stipulated this requirement as part of her gracious funding: Ms. Foster should be true to the line that her character delivered upon witnessing the sheer beauty of space. Dr. Arroway says, “They should have sent a poet…” and that’s one position that the Search For Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence needs to fill before contact is actually made.
The implications of this scene are crucial for astronomers, physicists, mathematicians and scientific engineers of all disciplines. That is, it will not be enough for us to explain ourselves to others in terms of prime numbers; nor to have an alien life-form conform to the algerythms of earth. What’s required in relational mysteries such as these is the language of awe.
With this in mind, I would like to nominate Mary Oliver. She should go. She should be the poetic emissary to describe contact with other worlds and the space between them. Here’s an example of her work in which such descriptions run rampant:
die for it–
or the world. People
have done so,
their small bodies be bound
to the stake,
fury of light. But
climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought
for everyone just
as it rises
under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many!
What is my name?
What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it
whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter
You see, what Oliver does in mentioning “China” and “India” and “Europe” she can also do for those entities that may exist at fantastic distances, at distances that can’t be calculated or imagined… The poet will bring them close. As close as our own eye-lashes.
And for this incredible effort I think Jodi Foster and others might want to chip in. Think of it. A poet like Mary Oliver can teach in the M.F.A. program at the university. She can get a flamboyant publisher to market her verse and draw rock-star crowds at the local amphitheater. But what about that interdisciplinary stuff that can happen between artist and scientist?!! Isn’t possible contact with an extraterritorial civilization reason enough to broach the “Breakage“ between us?
I go down to the edge of the sea.How everything shines in the morning light!The cusp of the whelk,the broken cupboard of the clam,the opened, blue mussels,moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.It’s like a schoolhouseof little words,thousands of words.First you figure out what each one means by itself,the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallopfull of moonlight.Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
This, I believe, is what the S.E.T.I. funding puts on the line. Yes, keep those 42 massive satellite dishes pointed to the sky. Yes, pay the men and women who listen for vibrations in the cosmic web. But, let’s pay the poets too. Let’s not simply force them to enter every literary contest from Albuquerque to Zephyrhills High School…Let’s prepare the poets for CONTACT, and then let’s send them in style to the other worlds that await our most descriptive metaphor. And then, “the whole story.”
“Imagine a city,” writes Adrienne Rich.
And this morning, as I read and re-read an Associated Press article, I did. I imagined a city — Tehran, Iran — where a woman had been terribly disfigured and blinded by a man who threw acid upon her face. Ameneh Bahrami lost her ability to see the city in which she lives because her suitor said No. Majid Movahedi apparently had proposed marriage. And when Bahrami made her feelings plain, she became the victim of this most bizarre and heinous crime…
So imagine. Rich, in her poem, Rusted Legacy, invites us:
Imagine a city where nothing’s
forgiven your deed adheres
to you like a scar, a tattoo but almost everything’s
The city, of course, is a potent and popular image. From the “New Jerusalem” that’s envisioned by the Hebrew prophets… through Saint Augustine’s masterpiece, “The City of God…” then staying to the right on the circle at “Camelot…” and all the way to San Jose — artists of every stripe have aspired to get there. Are we there yet? Has the Atlas or the GPS failed us completely? Have we arrived at that mythical metropolitan area without blight and where gentrification is unnecessary?
It seems like this trip has taken forever, and without bathroom breaks, the toll road has truly taken its toll on our hearts, minds and kidneys. And now, in an age where The Bachelor and The Bachelorette slither their way into the American Psyche, we learn about the televised broadcast of this: a blind woman, standing over the man who tortured her, seeking revenge under the laws of the government. And here’s the most surreal kernel in the whole scenario… Just as this “doctor” is about to enforce the Islamic law and exact an “eye for an eye,” Ameneh Bahrami shouts, “I forgave him, I forgave him!” And before the viewers, watching in the comfort of their own homes, Movahedi is spared.
I tell you — there is trouble. Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with V and that stands for Vengeance. What in the world is going on?
Adrienne Rich, please help us:
Imagine a city partitioned divorced from its hills
where temples and telescopes used to probe the stormy codices
a city brailing through fog
thicket and twisted wire
into dark’s velvet dialectic
sewers where are also rivers…
You see, the drama going on for Iranian voyeurs is, of course, unspeakably sick and sad. I love the “forgiveness” that’s on display. But the broadcast-culture itself is what may never forgive. That is, even here, you and I may find ourselves on the receiving end of a corrosive caricature of our true selves. The acid may not render us literally blind, but blind at least to the mysterious depth of the people we dismiss as mere entertainment.
Iranian State TV is in league, I think, with that Science-Fiction Game Show, starring Richard Dawson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Running Man is about convicts who must run through a series of deadly traps while the audience at home makes wagers. Is this where we’re headed? Is this the destination of our secret dreams — rather than the City of God? I confess a fascination with Gotham City, with its Batman lore, and the way that caped crusader must do battle with himself as well as the Joker. But “Holy #$%@!!” Batman!
And here’s where I have to take a stab into my own darkness…
The whole relational mystery should rip our insides out and put them back again, just a little out of place. In other words:
I have forced myself to come back like a daughter
required to put her mother’s house in order
whose hands need terrible gloves to handle
the medicinals the disease packed in those linens
Accomplished criminal I’ve been but
can I accomplish justice here? Tear the old wedding sheets
into cleaning rags? Faithless daughter
like stone but with water pleating across
Let water be water let stone be stone
Tell me is this the same city.
Much, much more can be expressed in a variety of ways about forgiveness and vengeance and our resilience to endure. But suffice to say that Muslims don’t have the market cornered on the bizarre belittling of human hurts. I once read a bumper-sticker: ”Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven!” — and then realized how flippant that would sound if the driver got drunk and killed someone I’ve come to know and love.
So, Adrienne Rich has taken us closer. Closer to the city, I think, than we’d like to be. Her final stanza concludes: “This I — must she, must she lie scabbed with rust …”
crammed with memory in a place
of little anecdotes no one left
to go around gathering the full dissident story?
Rusting her hands and shoulders stone her lips
yet leaching down from her eye sockets tears
–for one self only? each encysts a city.
I tell my therapist that I want a seat at the Big Person’s Table.
I draw out an elaborate comparison between my current mid-life accomplishments and the memory I have of that Thanksgiving Dinner that never really happened the way that I remember it. You know the reminiscence. It’s the one in which two levels of holiday revelry are happening at the same time. One takes places on the surface of this mahogany antique-edifice and the other on the metal card-playing contraption that we’ve yanked out of storage for the occasion… So I say to the counselor: I’m tired of sitting with the kids, of cutting jokes about farts, of making mountains out of mashed potatoes. And apparently what I want is an intelligent conversation, one in which I can contribute substantially, one in which I can sip a little wine (holding the glass at the stem) and not let it all go to my head.
Well, as it turns out, I should be careful what I wish for.
My therapist offers some concerned eye-contact. She’s been at that Big Person’s Table and, although glamorous from a child’s point of view, the venue is not all that we assume it to be. She informs me of this in so many words and I know intuitively it’s true. First of all, not many of the dinner party are feasting in a spirit of gratitude. And secondly, the work that they’ve performed has ultimately been rendered for purposes of self-validation. That is, at the Big Person’s Table, there are rewards for narcissism and nepotism. There are huge trophies given in honor of Donald Trump and Paris Hilton. And every now and then, a sicophant-host will rise and propose a toast to the inventors of the latest Attention-Getting Device. Alas.
Now the upshot of wanting a seat at the Big Person’s Table is this: once we’ve been invited to sit our pampered bottoms down on the embroidered chairs, we’ll want to get away from it all. And once the paparazzi tracks our whereabouts on some yacht floating in the Mediterranean we’ll realize that we’ll need to hire a firm that specializes in crafting the cool and collected image that we’d like to present to the public. Then, of course, we’ll feel so isolated and empty inside, we’ll do something stupid. So stupid in fact we might lose our place at the Big Person’s Table.
With all this in mind, I am indebted to the poet, Galway Kinnell. In his collection of poems, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, he shares the following:
Saint Francis and the Sow
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing:
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
So, here’s the thing, actually several things that keep me up nights and that move me to tears in the morning:
- The gospel writers record Jesus as talking about a banquet, a magnificent delicious extravaganza; see Luke 14:7–24 and Matthew 22:1–14;
- I still wonder why the institutional church does not pursue this party-theme to its logical and illogical conclusion;
- For all of our talk about God-blessings, the most intransigent hang-up we face is our inability to believe in “self-blessing” in the manner of the sow.
“There are things I tell to no one,” writes Kinnell in another piece.
Those close to me might think
I was sad, and try to comfort me, or become sad themselves.
At such times I go off alone, in silence, as if listening for God.
“Oh, I get it,” I hear someone say. Kinnell believes in “God” — and that’s the same old spiel that’s been peddled about the Bible Belt for generations. End of story. God. God. God. Blah. Blah. Blah.
That’s not what I’m fumbling around to say at all. In his poem, There Are Things I Tell To No One, Kinnell goes back to the word, God, and he digs into it:
I say “God”; I believe,
rather, in a music of grace
that we hear, sometimes, playing to us
from the other side of happiness.
When we hear it, when it flows
through our bodies, it lets us live
these days lighted by their vanity
worshipping — as the other animals do,
who live and die in the spirit
of the end — that backward-spreading
Yes, the Big Person’s Table is not all it’s cracked up to be. Nor is it entirely bad. It’s just that beneath all the intelligent conversation and the highfalutin hoi-polloi there is a dog begging for table scraps. And I’ll be damned if I don’t let that blessed creature lick my nine fingers.
Here’s the scuttlebutt from Reality TV … from the simulacra of celebrity lives to which we should all aspire … from the lawyers who represent Kim Kardashian: apparently, the curvaceous 31-year old (former) friend of Paris Hilton is upset that someone else resembles her. Someone else looks like her and has the audacity of showing her face and body in public.
And so, she is suing Old Navy for lots of money, claiming that its Super-Cute commercials violate her rights and do damage to the fame she has carefully crafted. Mind you: this has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the actress/model in question — Melissa Molinaro — is now dating Reggie Bush, who was Kardashian’s old flame. And likewise, none of these legalities over image and public persona has anything to do with Theodore Roethke‘s poem, I Knew A Woman.
But I wonder if it should.
You see, what the daughter of the deceased attorney for O.J. Simpson doesn’t know is that simply reading the four stanza work can go a long way to healing her wounds. Here it is:
I Knew A Woman
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)
How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)
Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)
Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)
Now what Kim Kardashian and others may notice is the elegant rhyme scheme of each seven-line block of verse, which follows the subtle pattern of A-B-A-B-C-C-C.
That is to say, “bones” resonates nicely with “one”… “chin”… with “skin”… “goose” with “loose”… and “hay” with “eternity”…
You may note that a few of these pairing don’t precisely match up in terms of their exact sounds, but they are hopefully close enough for the reader to spot something more compelling than a model’s cup-size. Namely, we can sense how the poet admires more, much more, than a woman’s beauty. He admires Beauty itself. Not discounting the obvious eroticism of the vocabulary, he points beyond her “full lips pursed” toward “circles” and toward “a motion not my own.” And the effect, I believe, is to really disavow any prurient interest whatsoever.
The reason I say all this is that I wonder if Kim Kardashian (and assorted Playboy Bunnies and Pamela Anderson and Rachel Welch and Marilyn Monroe) — I wonder if ”she” or anyone who makes money off of their voluptuous appearance — can appreciate what they’re missing. What I think they’re avoiding is that NO BODY owns the eternity in which a physique participates. Moreover, the more we recognize the ephemeral quality of our cheeks, our hips and our knees the more we can actually see another mode of Beauty (for which we don’t have to file suit).
Here’s a photo of Beatrice Roethke, whom the writer of I Knew A Woman married in 1953. And what seems abundantly clear to me is that she lived a real life as far away from Reality TV as possible. The poem may or may not be inspired by her relationship with her husband of ten years (Theodore Roethke died in 1963). And yet, as various documentaries suggest, her “bones” were there as the poet joked, “I was only mildly depressed today.”
I’d like to extend my sympathies to Old Navy and to its parent company, The Gap, who will bear the brunt of this latest litigation. I spent many of my teenage years buying over-priced jeans at your stores so I hope that you’ve saved some loose change and will fight the good fight.
Melissa Molinaro is also deserving of our best wishes as she begins to age and as plastic surgery fails to preserve the beauty to which “Her several parts could keep pure repose…”
However, there’s still time. And “What’s freedom for?” A woman, of course, need not necessarily sell her soul along with her celluloid image. Nor, for that matter, a man. Yet, just as there are poetic opportunities to pierce, to puncture and otherwise expose the veneer that we mistake for substance — there are dangers inherent in each photo-shoot. Plus, what often passes for “freedom” — the freedom to paste your portfolio on Vogue, Cosmopolitan and even Self magazines — may finally enslave us.
Therefore, I say, look for the cracks. Look for the wrinkles. Look for the blemishes. Look for the scars… They may provide the best means of escape.