It’s a fascinating irony. Or perhaps a “luxury,” in the ironic sense that Monty Python suggests from the Hollywood Bowl: the more human beings, via our various cultures, move and mingle around the globe, the more military manuevers threaten our extinction … and the more we discover about the tenacity of microbes at the bottom of a lake … What is up with that?
Researcher David Pearce, after boring a hole into the sediment of Lake Whillans, says this: “We can start to build a picture of what limits life in extreme conditions and then start thinking about what might limit life on other planets.” And, of course, we hear that innocuous remark and begin to look for practical applications. Maybe we don’t have to work hard for peace… Maybe we don’t have to inhibit major industry from polluting the environment… Maybe the answer resides with those microbes and those unknown cultures and DNA sequences that we’ve never seen before… And maybe, just maybe, if we crack the code, many of us can move to Europa and establish our own colony of like-minded life forms…
Aren’t we predisposed to make these very inferences? And if you would agree, that we are, that we’d rather bypass the dialogue incumbent upon a free society, then you know the next question coming down the pike: Why not stay here, with the microbes at the bottom of that luxurious lake?
Or consider this…
It’s twelve years and counting since a group of well-organized terrorist-cells sprang into action and devastated the western world’s sense of security. At the time, I recall how people would watch the news and crawl into fetal positions, and how they began to question the ways that we work and the ways that we play… And they’d talk about it and wonder if there weren’t other ways to be in the world. And consider how the average blue-collar guy or administrative assistant responded to horror of the World Trade Center crumbling to the ground. Many, in my experience, didn’t reduce the meaning of this tragedy to mere patriotism. Nor did they rush into conversations with the rhetoric of defending our God-given freedoms. News commentators, like Cokie Roberts, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, lost their objectivity, and became puddles that reflected the depth of the country’s loss … only it wasn’t just an open wound for the United States; it was a confrontation with the doctrine of secular salvation that Enlightenment philosophers had propagated alongside the competing ideologies of Christianity and Islam… That is, the greatest thinkers of the age–Immanuel Kant and Wilhelm Hegel–made us believe in the sanctity of the autonomous individual and the inevitable progress of history, and voila!
There it is. The dynamics of 9/11 debunk both over-arching paradigms (the preeminence of the self and the prowess of history) and send them, with those notorious flights, to the ground… And yet, here’s the place where the microbes survive and have survived. Here’s the place where we can mutate into something more than new and improved DNA sequences. Here’s the place in which we devote ourselves to more than a Sci-Fi solution to the massacres and mayhem, going on everywhere but Antarctica…
That’s the promise of the Richard Branson venture, and I hate to be such a luddite, but has anyone pondered what we’re not doing on good ol’ planet earth while Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber are booking their commercial flight beyond the stratosphere…? Anyone?
Oh, wow! I can see how cool it is. I can appreciate the challenge, and the temptation for the Virgin Galactic owners and stockholders. And I can even recognize the correlation (and the correlative argument to be made) with the early automobile’s displacement of the horse-drawn carriage. What’s that? Just prior to the mass production of the Ford Company’s Model-T, the stench of manure in Central Park seemed more pressing than the visionary highway system!
Yes, yes, yes… this blaze of glory is just like that… Let the analogies fuel the entrepreneurial spirit. Except that, with the foul odor of the equine waste, the ozone layer had no holes in it (yet), the epidermis of the earth had not (yet) been smeared with asphalt and slicks of motor oil, and perhaps most importantly, people were not (yet) compelled to move around so quickly to accommodate a pseudo-sense of transcendence.
And again, I’m not interested in holding back the inevitable progress of technology, or in being a thorn in the side of every imaginative CEO… My concern is that, given the expenditure of resources (both financial and cerebral), our priorities seem a little bit like those of Caligula and his first century Nemi ships. Is it that we want to make that mark in history? Or is it that we’d like to escape the crush of history that doesn’t care about the elaborate investments we make in our pet projects?
Osseous, aqueous, cardiac, hepatic–
back from bone the echoes stroke back
fromt he halved heart, the lungs
three years of weightlessness have cinched to gills.
From a leather chaise, the astronaut’s withered legs
dangle, as back they come, sounds
a beaked percussion hammer startles into shape.
The physician cocks his head and taps–exactly
as a splitter halves his slate, the metamorphic rock
chisel-shocked, then shocked again, halved
and halved, until a roof appears, black as space.
I’m gaining ground, he says, the astronaut,
who knows, from space, earth is just a blue-green glow,
a pilot light he circled once, lifted, swiftly flown
above the rafters and atmospheres, half himself
and half again some metamorphic click,
extinct as memory. I’m gaining ground,
he says, and back it comes, his glint
of cloud-crossed world: a pilot light
or swaddled leaf, green in the season’s infancy.
When Seamus Heaney wrote on The Tollund Man, the locale of the ancient remains seemed remote and off the beaten path of most Americans; that is, a peat bog on the Jutland peninsula of Denmark… which interstate do I take? Is a left turn at Albuquerque? Or a right turn beyond the coast of Maine? Oh, never mind…
Never mind–because, as of 1996, when two boys were playfully wading the shallows along the banks of the Columbia River, we discovered our own inspirational figure of prehistoric lore. Call him Kennewick Man, and whether I can use the plural pronoun, “our,” as I continue to refer to his well-preserved skeleton, is a matter that the Confederated Tribes of Colville would like to discuss.
Yes, the indigenous peoples of the south-central region of Washington State want the approximately 10,000 year-old bones blessed and buried as their ancestors have long been interred for centuries. The Yakama, Nez Perce, Wanapum and Umatilla have also thrown in and claim their cultural rights preempt the curiosity of scientists and archaeologists with the Army Corps of Engineers. Moreover, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you where Kennewick Man is now?
Right now, in Copenhagen–that’s right, Copenhagen, Denmark–DNA analysis is underway on the five-foot, seven-inch remains, and the consensus is that he’s not from this neck of the woods after all. In fact, he’s not from any woods or old-growth forests or peat bogs or Hanford Nuclear Waste dumps in the vicinity… According to Smithsonian Institute anthropologist, Doug Owsley, this ancient dude loved to eat seafood. His bones (metaphorically speaking) wreak of it. It’s as if he packed 300 miles from Astoria and snacked on nothing but sushi and shrimp cocktail. Kennewick Man, therefore, either came from the coast… or… is it possible that creatures from the sea came to him?
That’s the argument of those native peoples who insist that Kennewick Man come home–not to the United States–but to his ancestral burial grounds, which once burst at the seams with ocean-running salmon and the seals who followed them up river and into the estuaries of the Snake and Clearwater rivers. And, when the tribal representatives put it that way, I’m lost and bewildered by the notions of genetic membership and an over-arching story in which I too would like to get my bearings. Have we really lost that much? Was the sea life around the Columbia River watershed so bountiful and so beautiful that Kennewick Man just wanted to lay down and take a nap in the middle of it? Wherever he’s from… 17 years of analysis is probably enough. It’s time to write some poetry about him.
I have questions about the sun-
melt on the river,
and what life you saw through those shadows.
You speared with sharpened stones
and a shaft of light. Into
flame would it plunge
and drawn out of water, you’d savor a choice
in flesh-gifts and bake them with silt
into your skull.
I am the envious one,
who hungers for your smoked meat.
Come! Without money!
I will sacrifice.
There is something shameful about recent legislation that would declare the boundaries of a national park where the Apollo missions left debris on the surface of the moon. Shameful because it perpetuates the dynamic that motivated Columbus to set sail on the evening of August 3, 1492…
No, I’m not suggesting that communities like the Aztecs and the Mayans already occupy the space around the Sea of Tranquility. No danger of genocide exists to draw the stark contrast of conquistador ideology. And yet, it’s ironic that Representatives Donna Edwards of Maryland and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas have introduced House Resolution 2617. I guess these Democrats are looking for common ground and think the moon qualifies as a non-partisan issue. Well think again! If the sequester means a reduction of funding for Yellowstone, Glacier and other national parks on earth, and if Republicans continue to push for the rights of corporations to drill for oil in the pristine wilderness that had been set aside in Alaska, why in the cosmos would we spend taxpayers’ money on a cordoned off lunar landscape?
Homer Hickam, author of the Rocket Boys (aka, the film, October Sky) is even quoted as saying that he favors the protection of this national heritage. Can you say, Sputnik? Worrying about commercial ventures that may run rough-shot over the place where “one step for man” meant “a giant leap for mankind,” the NASA engineer makes the inevitable comparison:
They have to be careful and not run over, say the Apollo 11 footprints, specifically. That would be like running over Columbus’ footprint on the beach when he landed in the New World…
Okay, I have a few problems with that remark and it breaks my heart to go against the guy who fought his way out of Coalwood by winning the 1960 National Science Fair… Or, maybe they’re not problems, maybe they’re more like episodes of nausea. First, is the lesson to be drawn from Columbus’ landing site, that we should have preserved his footsteps? Homer, you’ve got to be kidding me! And second, ought we to regard any area of the moon, or any area of space as somehow belonging to a country as a matter of sovereign right? Really? (Quote from the movie: “Coalwood doesn’t own Welch…”)
My sense is that we need to look seriously at the territoriality we seem to wield like a ten-year-old calling dibs on a bedroom. As the future looms, and as our various factions hunker down and lob verbal grenades into each other’s camps, the ownership-mentality is now on its last, amputated legs… The time’s ripe, I think, for poets and philosophers to challenge the flag-planting hubris of each nationality that seeks to push its own agenda into space… and to especially challenge the ethos of the United States. I don’t have much hope for Homer Hickam’s generation anymore, but let the notion of Gift begin to seep into our conversations. And let what we all hold in common–time & space–become something other than landing sites or property deeds.
Most of this is true, especially the part about the hardware store…
A woman, last name, Alfred, has died.
But not many parishioners cried.
She was ninety-four
and ran the hardware store
in Lambert many moons ago.
And before any fool would know
she got herself hastily resurrected.
Her nieces, having respected
Auntie Babe’s wishes,
made the casserole dishes to go.
I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.
Are you surprised? I know you may have been expecting, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past…” And I’m about ready to discuss those nine words from Requiem for a Nun, and how they remain applicable to the Battle of Gettysburg and to that fault line of moral conflict that continues today with displays of the Confederate flag and talks of succession.
And yet, it’s important for any writer or any reader (of this blog even) to comprehend the significance of facing failure. Faulkner has no problem saying it: he had wanted to be a poet and couldn’t do it. Take that, Stephen King and John Grisham! Take that, J.K. Rowling and Joyce Carol Oates… And take it all the way to the bank, because you probably wanted to be a poet and get paid in subscriptions to the Iowa Review, but had to settle for cash and lots of it. Alas. You’re a slave to the system. Ha!
Faulkner, it seems, thought long and hard about the culpability of individuals in relationship to systemic evil. That is, he understood that a conscientious human being would have no problem living an ostensibly good life, remaining faithful, honoring commitments, saying please and thank you… and yet, that very same human being could acquiesce to a broader cultural malaise that perpetuates a demonic and callous disregard for anyone who’s not from around here…
Here’s another quote from The Sound and the Fury:
I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
What’s intriguing about the pomp and circumstance of the Fourth of the July and of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the famed Civil War slaughter is that we still can’t seem to budge on the issues. The past, being the past, doesn’t have to mean that we’re doomed to despair in reenactment after reenactment of Pickett’s Charge. It means that we can confess its power over us and ask for help in overcoming it… That is, can Bible-belt regions who still invoke the Almighty for their side truly hear and engage the concerns of a highly secular locale? Can Mississippi or either one of the Carolina’s work on that constructive conversation with Connecticut or New Jersey without trashing the other’s real-life experience?
Over and over again we hear about legislative groups and lobbyist who try to manipulate and make clumsy grabs for power. We see elected leaders planning for the next election as if we haven’t elected them to deliberate with others… to compromise and to help us hang together like one of Faulkner’s novels… or like a chicken coop in the middle of a hurricane.
The sad fact is not many public figures understand what those veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg understood in 1913 (on the 50th anniversary of the conflict), and that has to be REMORSE, coupled with COMPASSION. In the Ken Burns documentary above, the narrator describes how the surviving soldiers couldn’t contain their groans and how, instead of play-acting the assault of one another, actually embraced one another. God! That’s exactly what I want from every conservative and every progressive in every ennobled office we offer. I want them to stop striving to showcase strength and bravado and bluster, and start admitting the awesome failures. Next, I want the recognition of those failures to lead to fundamental acts of RECONCILIATION.
Rights? The assertion of individual rights is today so abysmally abused and confused, we can’t see straight. What Independence Day and Gettysburg get-togethers invite us to consider is how the present is the opportunity to come clean about the past.
We will probably never stumble upon another protagonist as full of himself and his own concern for posterity as Norman Mailer in Armies of the Night. What I mean is–the author of the 1968 classic is a unique hybrid: both full of himself and empty of himself… Mailer is the epitome of what Charles Taylor once called subjectivist expressivism.
And yet, do we hold him in contempt for the perspective that seems only too natural for us today? Do we despise his insecurities and the way they are both disguised and revealed as the creative non-fiction writer bullies, among others, the poet, James Lowell? Do we simply read through two-part saga and sigh because we ourselves will never have to endure his impulse to play the part of Don Rickles (or for those of you, born after 1980, Bill Maher) on his march to the Pentagon again?
Or… or… or…
Do we genuflect at this “third person” for its (his) leaps into the moral maelstrom, and perhaps look around to see if the damage of the Vietnam War turned out, and is turning out, as he predicted?
We don’t really have to answer any of these questions on the grounds that they may incriminate us as both writers and as human beings… on the grounds that we might, at any moment, reduce the source-authorities upon which we rely to the most infinitesmal motes in one’s own eye… (Prey tell: is the spirit of Norman Mailer somehow infused in the sophistry of the World Wide Web itself? In its persona-driven blogosphere? He did get into one rather public tussle with Gore… That is, Gore Vidal… not Al Gore. And let the misinformation abound!)
This is what Norman Mailer does to us: in Freudian terms he manages the id, the ego and the superego like a triple-whammy-barrage of fisticuffs. Occasionally, our narrator has to duck his head to get out of the way, but it’s obvious that his testicles swing from side to side, and that he flaunts this bravado in the service of refurbishing history:
Lowell looked most unhappy. Mailer, minor poet [italics mine], had often observed that Lowell had the most disconcerting mixture of strength and weakness in his presence… he might be fragile, he might have the sort of farm mechanic’s strength which could manhandle the rear axle… But physical strength or no, his nerves were all too apparently delicate” (40-41).
Who is this “minor poet” if not the secret love-child (or hybrid-clone) of Ernest Hemingway and Anne Landers? My guess is that the true motivation for the book arose with a disgruntled reading of himself–the stuff of “barroom bathos”–in Time magazine. Given this starting point, however, I confess to a deep admiration for the historian/journalist’s commentary that hoists giant suitcases of cultural baggage with the greatest of ease:
“It was to a degree incredible, as every paradigm of the twentieth century is incredible. Originally the demonstrators were saying in effect: our country is engaged in a war so hideous that we, in the greatest numbers possible, are going to break the laws of assembly in order to protest this impossible war. The government was saying: this is a war necessary to maintain the very security of this nation [Read: Global War on Terror], but because of our tradition of free speech and dissent, we will permit your protest, but only if it is orderly. Since these incompatible positions had produced an impasse, the compromise said in effect…” (240).
To say “in effect” only works in this context because the characters, scene and interior drama have already produced the effect. Still, it’s Mailer’s prerogative to confiscate his own observations and to make them into a series of summary statements, almost like a warrant-bearing police raid.
Other adroit moves include the descriptions of the middle class as well as the psychological discriminations made by that class, as they occur before Mailer’s eyes:
“the urban middle class was the last class to arrive at respectable status… But the working class bothered the sons of the middle class with their easy confident virility and that physical courage with which they seemed to be born–there was a fear and profound respect in every middle class on for his idea of that most virile ruthless indifferent working class son which would eventually exterminate them as easily as they exterminated gooks” (258).
Maybe, these excerpts–brief blurbs of time-travel to the late sixties–will be enough to prepare a new generation of full, but empty-of-self witnesses to this age. My sense is that things are coming around… and when they do, let the writers who’ve made a few bucks spend a few nights in jail… just for the hell of it.
Fox News and Rick Perry have stirred the pot again — complaining about the growing pluralism in the United States, and consequently how wishing folks “Happy Holidays” is a sign of western society’s decadence and decay… Hmmm… I’m not sure about that. Or — let me re-phrase that. I am sure that the minions of conservatism feel utterly under assault and that they fear a world in which ‘spirituality’ cannot be controlled and manipulated to their powerful advantage. Having cleared that up, however, I’d like to propose a parallelism to this commotion that’s apparent in the very gospel record account of Jesus’ birth.
What I suggest is that the words of King Herod (quoted above) are similar to the words of those who make cynical use of Christianity. These contemporary Herodians in effect abuse that testimony of the first century Christians and attempt to mandate a faith commitment that is thereby reduced and whittled down to the least common denominator. Soren Kierkegaard with many of his pseudonymous works and his Attack Upon Christendom had this dynamic pegged back in 19th century Denmark. Those who attempt to “get fat off the blood of Christ” do the genuine transmission of the Jesus narrative no favors. On the contrary, by removing the offense and by trying to instill in all others (from agnostics to zoroastrians) an inferiority complex, my claim is that the propagators of a one-monolithic civil religion are the heirs of Herod himself.
Of course, the ante-dote for the rambling rhetoric is sometimes difficult to come by. Bill O’Reilly is so inflammatory (in the self-promotionally, narcissistic sense that an arsonist might be inflammatory) — railing away at all the Gas ‘N Go’s. Sean Hannity has a ubiquitous kind of cowardice about him — like the time he vowed to get ‘water-boarded’ and show us all how it wasn’t torture (and then, of course, failed to keep his promise).
Phew! Smell those fumes. Plus, there’s the latest morning trio of ventriloquist-puppets on the network of Rupert Murdoch — the old Aussie who made phone-hacking standard journalistic protocol in Great Britain…
Yes, to truly celebrate the claims of Christmas in terms of the Incarnation of God – the Divine Other fully enfleshed as an ancient Palestinian Jew — an outcast — a peasant carpenter’s son — the off-spring of a teenager from Galilee — to really get at this mysterious stuff will not be easy. It’s nothing like Sunday School for toddlers or Catechism Class for those threatened with rulers (or bribed with expensive gifts) . A rite of passage in Christendom, where everyone who breaths the air is Christian, in no way corresponds to what believers in Jesus endured during the three or four decades after his crucifixion among many rebellious Jews of the time. And that’s kind of the point… when it comes to Christmas!
The actual date of Jesus’ birth — and even how that birth took place — is irrelevant to the essential stories that swirled around the Nazarene, most of which involved his activities (teaching & healing) after he turned 30 years old. And so, when the ratings gurus insist on keeping the “Christ in Christmas” — they fail to point out that neither the Apostle Peter, nor Paul, would argue the issue. Neither, it seems, would St. Augustine of Hippo (a fourth century African bishop):
He, through whom time was made, was made in time; and He, older by eternity that the world itself, was younger in age than many of His servants in the world; He, who made man, was made man; He was given existence by a mother whom He brought into existence; He was carried in hands which He formed; He nursed at breasts which He filled; He cried like a babe in the manger in speechless infancy -- this Word without which human eloquence is speechless!
Obviously — the author of The Confessions and The City of God has more to say on the paradoxical nature of the God-Man, Jesus. But, let’s be clear about what’s absurd here. It’s absurd and utterly ironic to declare that THE Uncreated Maker OF THE UNIVERSE can simultaneously exist as a human being, among a plethora of other organisms, all of which are made. And if a person is asked to agree with Augustine — or Martin Luther or John Calvin or Karl Barth or Mother Teresa — the onus should be on us. We should be among those who risk and who are put at risk. We, by virtue of the absurd truth-claim, must not turn what requires “faith seeking understanding” into a no-brainer, into banality at which the elite yawn and to which they say, “What else is new?”
I totally enjoy that scene from Talladega Nights, in which the Will Farrell character, Ricky Bobby, prays to the “baby Jesus” because he simply likes the eight pound infant-god best. I totally enjoy it, but my laughter may morph into tears if too many of the population don’t appreciate the humor. What’s so funny about that prayer is the domestication of the deity, the god who becomes a figment of our imagination and that’s all, the sacred saccharine-sweetness of sublime-sentimentality…
Ugh! Is that the matrix of our belief system? Is that what Christmas has become — a mere defense of how quaint the Bethlehem birth is?
Recently (the exact situation I will leave obscure) a person got upset with me for referring to the Bible as “boring.” This individual in my circle of acquaintances said something like, “Do we really have to disrespect the Bible?” He made this remark with a straight face as if to imply that if the Bible is perceived as exciting, that more people may believe it… that if the Bible shares the reputation of Charlie Sheen, who is always “WINNING,” that all unbelievers and skeptics will find every jot and tittle so compelling they will come to faith in droves… Again, I’m not so sure faith, or an authentic spiritual search, works like this.
Well, maybe the “homage” that Herod wants to pay works like this.
But that’s why the witness of Matthew’s Gospel tells the tale the way it does. The magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who is only interested in the foretold child because he wants to make use of him.
Please tell me that when we open presents and sing carols and drink egg nod that we are NOT playing his part perpetually in the world. Tell me the old, old story… But tell it with a life — your life — that’s put at odds with the culture-wars, with a life — your life — that can’t be sure, can’t be one-hundred percent-without-a-doubt, but certainly can be passionate about the mere possibilities:
-- By Wislawa Szymborska I prefer movies. I prefer cats. I prefer the oaks along the Warta. I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky. I prefer myself liking people to myself loving mankind. I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case. I prefer the color green. I prefer not to maintain that reason is to blame for everything. I prefer exceptions. I prefer to leave early. I prefer talking to doctors about something else. I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations. I prefer the absurdity of writing poems to the absurdity of not writing poems. I prefer, where love's concerned, nonspecific anniversaries that can be celebrated every day. I prefer moralists who promise me nothing. I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind. I prefer the earth in civvies. I prefer conquered to conquering countries. I prefer having some reservations. I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order. I prefer Grimms' fairy tales to the newspapers' front pages. I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves. I prefer dogs with uncropped tails. I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark. I prefer desk drawers. I prefer many things that I haven't mentioned here to many things I've also left unsaid. I prefer zeroes on the loose to those lined up behind a cipher. I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars. I prefer to knock on wood. I prefer not to ask how much longer and when. I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility that existence has its own reason for being.
I’ve Observed these Seasons from a Certain Hemisphere, but am Leaving the Premises
“the right hemisphere towards cohesion… the left hemisphere towards competition…”
–Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary
Mount Vesuvius erupts. Pompeii citizens die encased
in mud-flows and ash. Herculaneum is the sister city
where decomposed bodies also leave cavities. Loaves
of bread harden in ovens next to bakers on August 24th.
King Cyrus of Persia conquers Babylon. A few years
later and Jews, who’ve grown cozy in exile, may head
back to rebuild the Jerusalem temple. Messiah calls
the occupation Yehud. Vanity of vanities tops the charts.
Canned beer first goes on sale. With Prohibition over
and labor-costs cheap, the American Can Company coats
tin, pressurizes Gottfried Krueger’s creamy ale. To open
the heavy-gauge-steel top, consumers use church-keys.
The Civil War begins. Confederate batteries bombard
Fort Sumter’s five-foot thick walls for 34 hours. The
Pocahontas and Pawnee have already come and gone,
steaming supplies. Abner Doubleday’s first to return fire.
The Wadda Wurring people of aboriginal Australia push large basalt stones
into place, forming a vast oval near present-day Wurdi Youang, Victoria. As
they lift their heads toward the dark patches of night — everywhere Milky Way
stars are not — each child, woman and man spies the Great Emu, and knows it’s
the season to gather eggs (among other things). I’m telling you this not to be
smart, but because the Great Emu also bakes, builds, brews and bats left-handed.
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.
Bob Hicok‘s poem, “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down,” is playful — playful like that old toy that was entirely safe for toddlers. And yet, baam! The poet’s words are the stuff of revolution, although he probably wouldn’t admit to it:
I know a woman about to lose her house.
It’s not missing, she’s certain
where the water shutoff valve is
and which stair squeaks when she goes up
at ten to rise at four. I promised myself
I wasn’t going to do this, no one listens
to this kind of poem anyway,
it might as well be a sermon or the side
of a cereal box: “The Lord
has heard my cry for mercy,” “contents
may have settled during shipping.” Now
she has to “Self-Store” her stuff
but doesn’t have the moolay to do so,
and her brother’s stuff from his repo’d house
is already in their mother’s basement, so she’s sold
what she can and given the rest away
or left it on the street for neighbors
to pick at through January. Ever watch
the woman who backed over your cat
hold one of your dresses
across her winter coat, pinning it
with her chin and turning
as if in a mirror before rejecting
your sunflowers, dropping them
into the curbside thaw and moving on
to a pair of black pumps she’d be a fool
to wear, given the apples of her ankles?
Now caption that image “Redistribution of Wealth“
and write down on a piece of paper
how you’d change the world. You never
have to show that paper to anyone, not even
yourself, the god you are inside or pimp, the ax
in case of, the glass, to break, if fire
is emergency, is now. It’s hard
being a Wobbly these days, like the head
of Marx if not the fist grafted on, there’s nowhere to go
to belt out “Look for the Union Label,”
an admittedly crappy, anachronistic song
I miss like I miss the sense
of being together in this, there was Rockefeller
and there was the rest of us, there was Aristotle
being right: we are political, we are animal,
we are lost.
I, of course, have no way of knowing if what we’ve just read (from pages 71 and 72 of Words For Empty and Words For Full) will even make a dent…
And yet, it’s worth believing that cyclical things like toys and social trends have a prophetic sort of feel to them.
That is, what we remember nearly sticking in our mouths — the dreaded oral fixation — may be what saves us in our old age. Weebles, unlike the Barbie and Ken Collection, have a future. Are you one of them? No one is asking you to choose up sides just yet… But the writing is on the wall of the proverbial dollhouse at Toys R Us (reverse that R). The majority are not able to own what once had been owned with no forethought by the biggest bailed-out banks. Moreover, the conflation of capitalism and democracy has failed to the degree that now veterans from the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan are lecturing the police, telling them not to brutalize those who peacefully protest in the streets. What is it that we want to say to the world at large? That the United States has promises you a good return on your investments? Or that this experiment in human freedom will risk the freedom of expression and the daring dialogue that all other empires of the past had shunned or shut out?
Apparently, the sun may not set in the west after all. Apparently, Marilyn Monroe may have been a cross-dressing dude. Apparently, Y2K did happen and we are presently living in a pseudo-fully-computerized matrix in which The Matrix Trilogy was like a decoy to throw us off the trail, and apparently Keanu Reaves is really an android as we suspected from his acting… And apparently there is some debate about who wrote MacBeth, Hamlet, A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing — not to mention assorted sonnets like Sonnet 29 (which I will quote below)…
You may be shocked to find out, of course, that William Shakespeare may have merely taken credit for these works of art, and that the true author is an aristocrat, a person of means and property: Edward de Vere.
Huh? What’s gives?
Well, Roland Emmerich has made a film. And the film, to be released on October 28, is called “Anonymous.” And in that First Folio Motion Picture, the whole, weird diabolical charade is coughed up once again. Did the famous bard truly put his pen to paper? Did each iambic foot come from his own creative genius? It’s not possible, or not probable, say the skeptics, inasmuch as Shakespeare had been the son of a glover and a money-lender (one of those bi-vocational guys). His mother, although not mentioned, was perhaps a hamster and smelled of elderberries. And the thrust of the argument is that only a well-to-do man-about-town could have crafted such intricate, in-depth narrative arcs. Only a wealthy Earl or Duke could have pulled off the magic… And do you smell what I smell?
When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone be weep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoyed contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee; and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
I will be among the first in line when it comes to doubting the semblance of things and when it comes to piercing the clearest veneer that shines and and all but ruining the cherished fables and cultural myths we hold dear.
Let me take a moment and say I don’t believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I think maybe Oliver Stone had some interesting and worthwhile questions to raise about the whole investigation and the Warren Commission. Arlen Specter is probably the biggest ass ever to hold office in Pennsylvania or any state (and where was he when Anita Hill made her case against Justice Clarence Thomas?).
Let me also take a little time to affirm the X-Files and the notions of conspiracy and cover-up that surround Roswell and the U.F.O. that crashed. Plus, I did enjoy that episode about the monster dwelling in the drainage system of that suburban gated community — the one in which Fox Mulder pretends to live there with his wife, Scully, and then Mulder plants a pink flamingo on the lawn and dares the monster to come to papa. “Bring it on,” I think the F.B.I. agent blurts as he keeps the weedless front lawn under surveillance.
(Pardon these digressions… And yet?).
Are these digressions? You should be comforted, O blog-reader, that I practice a hermeneutic of suspicion regarding every text (sacred or not) under the sun.
Methinks, there is something rotten in Denmark…
Or among the gentry of English society, where, apparently Edward de Vere died a full ten years prior to the plays of William Shakespeare were written.
Could the fact that stuff like this gets any traction be related to the class struggles we are having now? Could it be that oligarchic regimes do actually believe in their superiority in all things (not simply liquid assets)?
Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate.
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting,
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving,
Thyself thou gav’st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav’st it, else mistaking,
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter –
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.
W.H. Auden has some things to say. Still. Even now. The poet has turns of phrase and syntax that haunts both all the religious and secular sensibilities that we bifurcate and keep carefully separated to this day.
And yet, Auden is nothing like Joel Osteen, which is odd. Don’t you think?
Osteen preaches, without drawing a salary from his 30,000 seat stadium-congregation, and starts each message with a joke. Auden has at least that many readers.
Osteen does in-depth analysis of difficult biblical passages. The literary giant (again, not Osteen) returned to the Anglican Communion after experiencing the trauma of war in the early part of the twentieth century; he in turn wrote a little something called “The Quest,” which scholars have criticized as naive… Alright, so they don’t have EVERYTHING in common.
But you get my gist, eh?
In Osteen’s most recent book, Every Day A Friday, he draws out the nuances of Psalm 2:4. That’s where we read “God sits in the heavens and laughs.” Pastor Joel then has the intelligence to ask, “Can you envision that?Right now God is on the throne. He’s not mad. He’s not worried about the economy. He’s not upset with you and me. God is on the throne, full of joy.”
- Interesting — considering the fact that the context in which God is laughing includes “the nations.”
- Interesting — considering that verse three, just prior to verse four, says, “Let us burst their bonds asunder and car their cords from us.”
- Interesting — considering that verse five, just after verse four, says, “Then he will speak to them in his wrath and terrify them in his fury…”
In other words, God is laughing as the nations conspire and plot in disingenuous ways (see verse one) and that means, huh?, that God is NOT “not upset,” as Joel Osteen suggests in his book.
Wow! I guess I’m getting a little disoriented.
Who’s naive now, you scholars who once picked on W.H. Auden?!!
The fact of the matter is — we don’t know what we’re missing.
Joel Osteen’s verbiage is about as close to poetry as the mold in a mayonnaise jar, the one buried at the bottom of a back-alley dumpster, is to pati de fogroi.
Moreover, compared to Auden’s series of twenty sonnets, Osteen’s principles for How to be Happier 7 Days A Week resemble the gum that might accumulate at the bottom of your shoes if you attend the Lakewood Church‘s megachurch venue.
If Osteen’s teaching is a beacon of light and truth, Auden’s is a flaring meteor that’s about ready to pummel your world and mine seven days a week:
I. The Door
Out of it steps our future, through this door
Enigmas, executioners and rules,
Her Majesty in a bad temper or
A red-nosed Fool who makes a fool of fools.
Great persons eye it in the twilight for
A past it might so carelessly let in,
A widow with a missionary grin,
The foaming inundation at a roar.
We pile our all against it when afraid,
And beat upon its panels when we die:
By happening to be open once, it made
Enormous Alice see a wonderland
That waited for her in the sunshine and,
Simply by being tiny, made her cry.
II. The Preparations
All had been ordered weeks before the start
From the best firms at such work: instruments
To take the measure of all queer events,
And drugs to move the bowels or the heart.
A watch, of course, to watch impatience fly,
Lamps for the dark and shades against the sun;
Foreboding, too, insisted on a gun,
And coloured beads to soothe a savage eye.
In theory they were sound on Expectation,
Had there been situations to be in;
Unluckily they were their situation:
One should not give a poisoner medicine,
A conjurer fine apparatus, nor
A rifle to a melancholic bore.
III. The Crossroads
Two friends who met here and embraced are gone,
Each to his own mistake; one flashes on
To fame and ruin in a rowdy lie,
A village torpor holds the other one,
Some local wrong where it takes time to die:
This empty junction glitters in the sun.
So at all quays and crossroads: who can tell
These places of decision and farewell
To what dishonour all adventure leads,
What parting gift could give that friend protection,
So orientated his vocation needs
The Bad Lands and the sinister direction?
All landscapes and all weathers freeze with fear,
But none have ever thought, the legends say,
The time allowed made it impossible;
For even the most pessimistic set
The limit of their errors at a year.
What friends could there be left then to betray,
What joy take longer to atone for; yet
Who could complete without the extra day
The journey that should take no time at all?
IV. The Traveler
No window in his suburb lights that bedroom where
A little fever heard large afternoons at play:
His meadows multiply; that mill, though, is not there
Which went on grinding at the back of love all day.
Nor all his weeping ways through weary wastes have found
The castle where his Greater Hallows are interned;
For broken bridges halt him, and dark thickets round
Some ruin where an evil heritage was burned.
Could he forget a child’s ambition to be old
And institutions where it learned to wash and lie,
He’d tell the truth for which he thinks himself too young,
That everywhere on his horizon, all the sky,
Is now, as always, only waiting to be told
To be his father’s house and speak his mother tongue.
V. The City
In villages from which their childhoods came
Seeking Necessity, they had been taught
Necessity by nature is the same
No matter how or by whom it be sought.
The city, though, assumed no such belief,
But welcomed each as if he came alone,
The nature of Necessity like grief
Exactly corresponding to his own.
And offered them so many, every one
Found some temptation fit to govern him,
And settled down to master the whole craft
Of being nobody; sat in the sun
During the lunch-hour round the fountain rim,
And watched the country kids arrive, and laughed.
VI. The First Temptation
Ashamed to be the darling of his grief,
He joined a gang of rowdy stories where
His gift for magic quickly made him chief
Of all these boyish powers of the air;
Who turned his hungers into Roman food,
The town’s asymmetry into a park;
All hours took taxis; any solitude
Became his flattered duchess in the dark.
But, if he wished for anything less grand,
The nights came padding after him like wild
Beasts that meant harm, and all the doors cried Thief;
And when Truth had met him and put out her hand,
He clung in panic to his tall belief
And shrank away like an ill-treated child.
VII. The Second Temptation
His library annoyed him with its look
Of calm belief in being really there;
He threw away a rival’s boring book,
And clattered panting up the spiral stair.
Swaying upon the parapet he cried:
“O Uncreated Nothing, set me free,
Now let Thy perfect be identified,
Unending passion of the Night, with Thee.”
And his long-suffering flesh, that all the time
Had felt the simple cravings of the stone
And hoped to be rewarded for her climb,
Took it to be a promise when he spoke
That now at last she would be left alone,
And plunged into the college quad, and broke.
VIII. The Third Temptation
He watched with all his organs of concern
How princes walk, what wives and children say,
Re-opened old graves in his heart to learn
What laws the dead had died to disobey,
And came reluctantly to his conclusion:
“All the arm-chair philosophies are false;
To love another adds to the confusion;
The song of mercy is the Devil’s Waltz.”
All that he put his hand to prospered so
That soon he was the very King of creatures,
Yet, in an autumn nightmare trembled, for,
Approaching down a ruined corridor,
Strode someone with his own distorted features
Who wept, and grew enormous, and cried Woe.
IX. The Tower
This is an architecture for the old;
Thus heaven was attacked by the afraid,
So once, unconsciously, a virgin made
Her maidenhead conspicuous to a god.
Here on dark nights while worlds of triumph sleep
Lost Love in abstract speculation burns,
And exiled Will to politics returns
In epic verse that makes its traitors weep.
Yet many come to wish their tower a well;
For those who dread to drown, of thirst may die,
Those who see all become invisible:
Here great magicians, caught in their own spell,
Long for a natural climate as they sigh
“Beware of Magic” to the passer-by.
X. The Presumptuous
They noticed that virginity was needed
To trap the unicorn in every case,
But not that, of those virgins who succeeded,
A high percentage had an ugly face.
The hero was as daring as they thought him,
But his pecular boyhood missed them all;
The angel of a broken leg had taught him
The right precautions to avoid a fall.
So in presumption they set forth alone
On what, for them, was not compulsory,
And stuck half-way to settle in some cave
With desert lions to domesticity,
Or turned aside to be absurdly brave,
And met the ogre and were turned to stone.
XI. The Average
His peasant parents killed themselves with toil
To let their darling leave a stingy soil
For any of those fine professions which
Encourage shallow breathing, and grow rich.
The pressure of their fond ambition made
Their shy and country-loving child afraid
No sensible career was good enough,
Only a hero could deserve such love.
So here he was without maps or supplies,
A hundred miles from any decent town;
The desert glared into his blood-shot eyes,
The silence roared displeasure:
He saw the shadow of an Average Man
Attempting the exceptional, and ran.
Incredulous, he stared at the amused
Official writing down his name among
Those whose request to suffer was refused.
The pen ceased scratching: though he came too late
To join the martyrs, there was still a place
Among the tempters for a caustic tongue
To test the resolution of the young
With tales of the small failings of the great,
And shame the eager with ironic praise.
Though mirrors might be hateful for a while,
Women and books would teach his middle age
The fencing wit of an informal style,
To keep the silences at bay and cage
His pacing manias in a worldly smile.
XIII. The Useful
The over-logical fell for the witch
Whose argument converted him to stone,
Thieves rapidly absorbed the over-rich,
The over-popular went mad alone,
And kisses brutalised the over-male.
As agents their importance quickly ceased;
Yet, in proportion as they seemed to fail,
Their instrumental value was increased
For one predestined to attain their wish.
By standing stones the blind can feel their way,
Wild dogs compel the cowardly to fight,
Beggars assist the slow to travel light,
And even madmen manage to convey
Unwelcome truths in lonely gibberish.
XIV. The Way
Fresh addenda are published every day
To the encyclopedia of the Way,
Linguistic notes and scientific explanations,
And texts for schools with modernised spelling and illustrations.
Now everyone knows the hero must choose the old horse,
Abstain from liquor and sexual intercourse,
And look out for a stranded fish to be kind to:
Now everyone thinks he could find, had he a mind to,
The way through the waste to the chapel in the rock
For a vision of the Triple Rainbow or the Astral Clock,
Forgetting his information comes mostly from married men
Who liked fishing and a flutter on the horses now and then.
And how reliable can any truth be that is got
By observing oneself and then just inserting a Not?
XV. The Lucky
Suppose he’d listened to the erudite committee,
He would have only found where not to look;
Suppose his terrier when he whistled had obeyed,
It would not have unearthed the buried city;
Suppose he had dismissed the careless maid,
The cryptogram would not have fluttered from the book.
“It was not I,” he cried as, healthy and astounded,
He stepped across a predecessor’s skull;
“A nonsense jingle simply came into my head
And left the intellectual Sphinx dumbfounded;
I won the Queen because my hair was red;
The terrible adventure is a little dull.”
Hence Failure’s torment: “Was I doomed in any case,
Or would I not have failed had I believed in Grace?”
XVI. The Hero
He parried every question that they hurled:
“What did the Emperor tell you?” “Not to push.”
“What is the greatest wonder of the world?”
“The bare man Nothing in the Beggar’s Bush.”
Some muttered: “He is cagey for effect.
A hero owes a duty to his fame.
He looks too like a grocer for respect.”
Soon they slipped back into his Christian name.
The only difference that could be seen
From those who’d never risked their lives at all
Was his delight in details and routine:
For he was always glad to mow the grass,
Pour liquids from large bottles into small,
Or look at clouds through bits of coloured glass.
Others had found it prudent to withdraw
Before official pressure was applied,
Embittered robbers outlawed by the Law,
Lepers in terror of the terrified.
But no one else accused these of a crime;
They did not look ill: old friends, overcome,
Stared as they rolled away from talk and time
Like marbles out into the blank and dumb.
The crowd clung all the closer to convention,
Sunshine and horses, for the sane know why
The even numbers should ignore the odd:
The Nameless is what no free people mention;
Successful men know better than to try
To see the face of their Absconded God.
XVIII. The Adventurers
Spinning upon their central thirst like tops,
They went the Negative Way towards the Dry;
By empty caves beneath an empty sky
They emptied out their memories like slops,
Which made a foul marsh as they dried to death,
Where monsters bred who forced them to forget
The lovelies their consent avoided; yet,
Still praising the Absurd with their last breath,
They seeded out into their miracles:
The images of each grotesque temptation
Became some painter’s happiest inspiration,
And barren wives and burning virgins came
To drink the pure cold water of their wells,
And wish for beaux and children in their name.
XIX. The Waters
Poet, oracle, and wit
Like unsuccessful anglers by
The ponds of apperception sit,
Baiting with the wrong request
The vectors of their interest,
At nightfall tell the angler’s lie.
With time in tempest everywhere,
To rafts of frail assumption cling
The saintly and the insincere;
Enraged phenomena bear down
In overwhelming waves to drown
Both sufferer and suffering.
The waters long to hear our question put
Which would release their longed-for answer, but.
XX. The Garden
Within these gates all opening begins:
White shouts and flickers through its green and red,
Where children play at seven earnest sins
And dogs believe their tall conditions dead.
Here adolescence into number breaks
The perfect circle time can draw on stone,
And flesh forgives division as it makes
Another’s moment of consent its own.
All journeys die here: wish and weight are lifted:
Where often round some old maid’s desolation
Roses have flung their glory like a cloak,
The gaunt and great, the famed for conversation
Blushed in the stare of evening as they spoke
And felt their centre of volition shifted.
Newly published findings reveal what we long suspected, which is that science and mytho-poetics have much in common — that each discipline often strives for truth that is edgy, interactive and utterly elusive.
First, to ruin the suspense, here’s what researchers have found and made known through assorted media outlets today:
And second, let this be a lesson to us. What words we craft into poetry, legend and song very often have their snags still in the living or dead bodies of creatures and events that gave rise to those forms. Am I being naive? When you look up ‘gullible’ in the dictionary, is my face next to the definition? Moreover, even if the scientific confirmation never really comes (with 100 percent certainty), isn’t it intriguing that our minds seem hard-wired to go there? That is, we have evolved not only to ask the big WHY question regarding existence itself, but we also want to picture ourselves enmeshed in mysterious and sometimes monstrous things.
All I can say, at this point, is what Elisabeth Barrett Browning writes at the end of her poem, Human Life’s Mystery:
And sometimes horror chills our blood
To be so near such mystic Things,
And we wrap round us for defence
Our purple manners, moods of sense—
As angels from the face of God
Stand hidden in their wings.
And sometimes through life’s heavy swound
We grope for them!—with strangled breath
We stretch our hands abroad and try
To reach them in our agony,—
And widen, so, the broad life-wound
Which soon is large enough for death.
And so, the kraken argument goes like this: apparently Giant Squid and Octopi are in the habit of rearranging the bones of their victims. Biologists have noted how octopi at the Seattle Aquarium have attacked sharks and then hauled their corpses to a sort of cache. In the depths of the Pacific they do likewise, messing with the deceased prey and playing something akin to linking-logs with their cartilage. At any rate, now a paleontologist has brought that observable phenomena to bear when it comes to the pattern with which we have found the bones of ichthyosaurs, as they were air-breathing reptiles who swam in the Triassic seas. Apparently, the creature who made these configuration would have to be like the Giant Squid, only twice the size, about 90 feet long, with a nasty beak, designed to break an animal’s neck — and that’s not even to mention the terrible tentacles that could tear off limbs and fins and keep you trapped in an under-water lair (for 248 million years) until… until now.
Whatever excites us about these soft-bodied beasts of the deep, however, may pale in comparison to the so-called “95 percent certainty” with which scientists boast of hard evidence of the Yeti, Siberia‘s abominable snowman — a Russian version of Bigfoot. What they’ve found, of course, is hair and footprints and both are being tested as we pontificate on what’s actually happening in those vast stretches of tundra, where temperatures get a little chilly, especially at night, when we really can’t see too well and where things go bump and no one can be sure that we’re alone out there.
You see, I hear these wondrous reports and cannot help but pay attention. “Finally comes the poet,” once said Walt Whitman, “after all the oceans have been crossed.” Well, maybe the poet does come then. Or maybe there’s room to declare that not everything everywhere has been conquered or tamed or tamped down like a noxious weed. If that’s the case, well then, the poet might regroup with others and buck up. Reality may not be as advertised as we might think. And death may not be the only frontier left to explore. There may be more life than we know what to do with — imagine that. And if there’s more life than we know what to do with, what does that say about life? Is there something beyond the doing of life, the next thing on the list, and the thing after that…
of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,
it lies ‘in grandeur and in mass’
beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes;
dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined
made of glass that will bend–a much needed invention–
comprising twenty-eight ice-fields from fifty to five hundred
of unimagined delicacy.
‘Picking periwinkles from the cracks’
or killing prey with the concentric crushing rigor of the python,
it hovers forward ‘spider fashion
on its arms’ misleading like lace;
its ‘ghostly pallor changing
to the green metallic tinge of an anemone-starred pool.’
The fir-trees, in ‘the magnitude of their root systems,’
rise aloof from these maneuvers ‘creepy to behold,’
austere specimens of our American royal families,
‘each like the shadow of the one beside it.
The rock seems frail compared with the dark energy of life,’
its vermilion and onyx and manganese-blue interior expensiveness
left at the mercy of the weather;
‘stained transversely by iron where the water drips down,’
recognized by its plants and its animals.
Completing a circle,
you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed,
under the polite needles of the larches
‘hung to filter, not to intercept the sunlight’–
met by tightly wattled spruce-twigs
‘conformed to an edge like clipped cypress
as if no branch could penetrate the cold beyond its company’;
and dumps of gold and silver ore enclosing The Goat’s Mirror–
that lady-fingerlike depression in the shape of the left human
which prejudices you in favor of itself
before you have had time to see the others;
its indigo, pea-green, blue-green, and turquoise,
from a hundred to two hundred feet deep,
‘merging in irregular patches in the middle of the lake
where, like gusts of a storm
obliterating the shadows of the fir-trees, the wind makes lanes
What spot could have merits of equal importance
for bears, elks, deer, wolves, goats, and ducks?
Pre-empted by their ancestors,
this is the property of the exacting porcupine,
and of the rat ‘slipping along to its burrow in the swamp
or pausing on high ground to smell the heather’;
of ‘thoughtful beavers
making drains which seem the work of careful men with shovels,’
and of the bears inspecting unexpectedly
ant-hills and berry-bushes.
Composed of calcium gems and alabaster pillars,
topaz, tourmaline crystals and amethyst quartz,
their den in somewhere else, concealed in the confusion
of ‘blue forests thrown together with marble and jasper and agate
as if the whole quarries had been dynamited.’
And farther up, in a stag-at-bay position
as a scintillating fragment of these terrible stalagmites,
stands the goat,
its eye fixed on the waterfall which never seems to fall–
an endless skein swayed by the wind,
immune to force of gravity in the perspective of the peaks.
A special antelope
acclimated to ‘grottoes from which issue penetrating draughts
which make you wonder why you came,’
it stands it ground
on cliffs the color of the clouds, of petrified white vapor–
black feet, eyes, nose, and horns, engraved on dazzling ice-fields,
the ermine body on the crystal peak;
the sun kindling its shoulders to maximum heat like acetylene,
dyeing them white–
upon this antique pedestal,
‘a mountain with those graceful lines which prove it a volcano,’
its top a complete cone like Fujiyama’s
till an explosion blew it off.
Distinguished by a beauty
of which ‘the visitor dare never fully speak at home
for fear of being stoned as an impostor,’
Big Snow Mountain is the home of a diversity of creatures:
those who ‘have lived in hotels
but who now live in camps–who prefer to’;
the mountain guide evolving from the trapper,
‘in two pairs of trousers, the outer one older,
wearing slowly away from the feet to the knees’;
‘the nine-striped chipmunk
running with unmammal-like agility along a log’;
the water ouzel
with ‘its passion for rapids and high-pressured falls,’
building under the arch of some tiny Niagara;
the white-tailed ptarmigan ‘in winter solid white,
feeding on heather-bells and alpine buckwheat’;
and the eleven eagles of the west,
‘fond of the spring fragrance and the winter colors,’
used to the unegoistic action of the glaciers
and ‘several hours of frost every midsummer night.’
‘They make a nice appearance, don’t they,’
happy see nothing?
Perched on treacherous lava and pumice–
those unadjusted chimney-pots and cleavers
which stipulate ‘names and addresses of persons to notify
in case of disaster’–
they hear the roar of ice and supervise the water
winding slowly through the cliffs,
the road ‘climbing like the thread
which forms the groove around a snail-shell,
doubling back and forth until where snow begins, it ends.’
No ‘deliberate wide-eyed wistfulness’ is here
among the boulders sunk in ripples and white water
where ‘when you hear the best wild music of the forest
it is sure to be a marmot,’
the victim on some slight observatory,
of ‘a struggle between curiosity and caution,’
inquiring what has scared it:
a stone from the moraine descending in leaps,
another marmot, or the spotted ponies with glass eyes,
brought up on frosty grass and flowers
and rapid draughts of ice-water.
Instructed none knows how, to climb the mountain,
by business men who require for recreation
three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year,
these conspicuously spotted little horses are peculiar;
hard to discern among the birch-trees, ferns, and lily-pads,
avalanche lilies, Indian paint-brushes,
bear’s ears and kittentails,
and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi
magnified in profile on the moss-beds like moonstones in the water;
the cavalcade of calico competing
with the original American menagerie of styles
among the white flowers of the rhododendron surmounting
upon which moisture works its alchemy,
transmuting verdure into onyx.
‘Like happy souls in Hell,’ enjoying mental difficulties,
amused themselves with delicate behavior
because it was ‘so noble and fair’;
not practised in adapting their intelligence
to eagle-traps and snow-shoes,
to alpenstocks and other toys contrived by those
‘alive to the advantage of invigorating pleasures.’
Bows, arrows, oars, and paddles, for which trees provide the
in new countries more eloquent than elsewhere–
augmenting the assertion that, essentially humane,
‘the forest affords wood for dwellings and by its beauty
stimulates the moral vigor of its citizens.’
The Greeks liked smoothness, distrusting what was back
of what could not be clearly seen,
resolving with benevolent conclusiveness,
‘complexities which still will be complexities
as long as the world lasts’;
ascribing what we clumsily call happiness,
to ‘an accident or a quality,
a spiritual substance or the soul itself,
an act, a disposition, or a habit,
or a habit infused, to which the soul has been persuaded,
or something distinct from a habit, a power’–
such power as Adam had and we are still devoid of.
‘Emotionally sensitive, their hearts were hard’;
their wisdom was remote
from that of these odd oracles of cool official sarcasm,
upon this game preserve
where ‘guns, nets, seines, traps, and explosives,
hired vehicles, gambling and intoxicants are prohibited;
disobedient persons being summarily removed
and not allowed to return without permission in writing.’
It is self-evident
that it is frightful to have everything afraid of one;
that one must do as one is told
and eat rice, prunes, dates, raisins, hardtack, and tomatoes
this fossil flower concise without a shiver,
intact when it is cut,
damned for its sacrosanct remoteness–
like Henry James ‘damned by the public for decorum’;
not decorum, but restraint;
it is the love of doing hard things
that rebuffed and wore them out–a public out of sympathy
Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.
‘Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,
its arms seeming to approach from all directions,’
it receives one under winds that ‘tear the snow to bits
and hurl it like a sandblast
shearing off twigs and loose bark from the trees.’
Is ‘tree’ the word for these things
‘flat on the ground like vines’?
some ‘bent in a half circle with branches on one side
suggesting dust-brushes, not trees;
some finding strength in union, forming little stunted grooves
their flattened mats of branches shrunk in trying to escape’
from the hard mountain ‘planned by ice and polished by the wind’–
the white volcano with no weather side;
the lightning flashing at its base,
rain falling in the valleys, and snow falling on the peak–
the glassy octopus symmetrically pointed,
its claw cut by the avalanche
‘with a sound like the crack of a rifle,
in a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall.’
‘Bereft’ and ‘Barefoot’ in “Beowulf” are Inter-Changeable: Conversations with Anonymous Old English Bards
What follows is to me a classic — a classic misreading of the anonymously written old english, epic poem, Beowulf. I’ve tried, with limited time and effort, to present it in a manner which might lend gravitas to the event that occurred yesterday in a college classroom:
Misread bereft in Beowulf
and win your fate back again.
I saw it happen paraple-
gic-style as the student,
so stricken, sat ensconced
upon his regal apparatus.
His helper, severed hand
and wrist herself, leaned
all the way into passages
assigned at night and said:
Barefoot without blinking
a nervous eye. Barefoot with-
out so much as I beg your
pardon as I never promised
you a rose garden, or even
the semblance of stumble.
Barefoot as bold and bra-
zen as graffiti holding
up crumbling over-passes
out of ruined towns.
Barefoot without a hiccup
from guzzling mead-hall
ale, not even the slightest
tinge of turning pale. Bare-
foot as Geats must brawl.
They miss not bereft
and have worn out their shoes.
I tried to pass on a few easy rhymes because the original nordic material didn’t so much rhyme as bear a drum beat into the darkness. Moreover, alliteration (often ridiculed today as trite-sounding, purple prose) has a way of driving that rhythm further and further into the abyss.
Now the reason, I think, this misreading didn’t bother me so much is that the one who perused the words could possibly relate to all the butchered body-parts that Beowulf, the hero, boasts, and that Grendel, the monster, leaves strewn around the sturdy benches of Heorot. This young woman, offering assistance to another incapacitated individual, had lost an extremity.
“I could do naught with Hrunting in the fight, though that weapon is worthy, but the Ruler of men
vouchsafed that I should see a huge old sword hang gleaming on the wall — most often He has guided those BEREFT [read BAREFOOT] of friends — so that I swung the weapon.”
Classic. The actual context of this line involves the heroic figure’s conflict with Grendel’s mother, a kind of watery demon with a hankering for vengeance. No one will escape the conflict unscathed, least of all the non-human fiend, whose head is chopped off.
Anyway, as I consider the context of on-going life and on-going death and the students who continue to put their minds toward such words, it occurs to me that we do them a dis-service by not emphasizing how great literature is great because of the brute depiction of chaos and our grappling with it. This tedious muck-and-mire mayhem still lingers. That is, even with the technologies of swords (Hrunting is a sword) and Apple computers and more, we can easily become stuck. Teachers, in this predicament, endeavor to pass on a few details from the tale. They may even succeed in bequeathing some of the love for the eloquent turn of a phrase. But, I say, if we don’t deliver the linkage to our own blood, sweat and tears, we’re not engaging the literary giants of yesteryear; we’re merely memorizing them; or we’re writing books on them to get tenure; or we’re making movies about them to generate a box-office bonanza for Hollywood studios.
I’ve come across a poem by Robert Frost, entitled, of all things, “Bereft.” Mary Oliver explains how this verse exists for the reader, not just “literally and intellectually, but palpably.” She’s a good teacher:
Where had I heard this wind before
Change like this to a deeper roar?
What would it take my standing there for,
Holding open a restive door,
Looking down hill to a frothy shore?
Summer was past and day was past.
Somber clouds in the west were massed.
Out in the porch’s sagging floor,
Leaves got up in a coil and hissed,
Blindly struck at my knee and missed.
Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known:
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.
Likewise, here’s a poem that Anne Sexton called “Barefoot.” Although appealing less to form and to the four-beat count, we’re getting at the same stuff–the corporeal, mandible-chewing, deliberative stuff.
And you see, whether bereft or barefoot, there is a meaningful conversation that we’re having:
Loving me with my shoes off
means loving my long brown legs,
sweet dears, as good as spoons;
and my feet, those two children
let out to play naked. Intricate nubs,
my toes. No longer bound.
And what’s more, see toenails and
all ten stages, root by root.
All spirited and wild, this little
piggy went to market and this little piggy
stayed. Long brown legs and long brown toes.
Further up, my darling, the woman
is calling her secrets, little houses,
little tongues that tell you.
There is no one else but us
in this house on the land spit.
The sea wears a bell in its navel.
And I’m your barefoot wench for a
whole week. Do you care for salami?
No. You’d rather not have a scotch?
No. You don’t really drink. You do
drink me. The gulls kill fish,
crying out like three-year-olds.
The surf’s a narcotic, calling out,
I am, I am, I am
all night long. Barefoot,
I drum up and down your back.
In the morning I run from door to door
of the cabin playing chase me.
Now you grab me by the ankles.
Now you work your way up the legs
and come to pierce me at my hunger mark
I’m spent nearly the entire day working on a sonnet, a Petrarchan sonnet (so-called). And I must confess a kind of mental/spiritual fatigue. What happens when we wrestle with the ancient and time-honored forms — forms like sonnets, like sestinas, like villanelles, like pantoums, like ghazels, etcetera, etcetera…?
Etcetera, you realize, is not a proper form — not that I’m trying to win a prize for identifying every possible form!
But I am now very curious about the disciplines to which many poets give themselves, given the fact that there’s aren’t many in other aspects of their lives.
So here we go. I’m sweating. And yet, unlike the times I used to sweat when it came to conformity to certain doctrinal formulae or certain implied evangelical code — I am willing to work hard at formal poetry because of what it reveals in the long, long run. That is to say, writing a sonnet actually forces the writer to identify and empathize with those who have tried to tackle or to dance with the 14 line, iambic verse with the abbaabbacdecde end rhyme. Don’t necessarily try this at home (because there are several variations on the sonnet which defy the rules of the form, but which are still considered sonnets). Hmmm.
Well, you might imagine a baseball game in which an outfielder tried to catch a ball off the wall and call it an “out.” You might picture running back in football who gets turned around and runs in the “wrong” direction; what if the athlete then spiked the ball and assumed that he scored pseudo-touchdown? You might take in a hockey game, in which a fight breaks out along the boards (no surprise there), but then, suddenly, those who engage in the fisticuffs dare to ask for the points they’ve scored with each blow to the head. You might see a forward slam dunk a basketball and shatter the backboard; suppose he then turns to the scorekeeper and expects five bonus points… Imagine playing any number of sports, which boast a set of rules or guidelines and simply flouting that what predecessors to the game have done.
This, you see, is what various variations on formal verse seems to suggest about the whole genre. But it differs in this respect. Unlike competitive athletics, as a tradition, poetry cooperates with all generations of experience and all expressions of culture. Moreover, this cooperation means that, yes, we go off the tracks but at least we recognize how those tracks get us to other wild encounters from which we might have remained utterly isolated. Sort of like trying to get to the rugged Oregon coast without I-5…
I apologize for the metaphor here, in which trains, planes and automobiles miss a lot of good, down-to-earth stuff. A sonnet is not a train, running on time from the Rhine to the Thames. A sestina is not an Italian sports car. A villanelle is not a Concorde flight from Paris. A ghazal is not a Persian carpet… But writing according to these prescribed patterns actually gets me to the Jutland bogs. It allows me to taste the wines of Tuscany, to smell the cafes of the Chanselise, to feel the sands of the Iraqi desert and more. More and more details and experiential insights are available to us via the forms that may appear initially restrictive.
–By Edmund Spenser
- One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
- But came the waves and washed it away:
- Again I wrote it with a second hand,
- But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
- Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
- A mortal thing so to immortalize,
- For I myself shall like to this decay,
- And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
- Not so (quoth I), let baser things devise
- To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
- My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
- And in the heavens write your glorious name.
- Where whenas Death shall all the world subdue,
- Out love shall live, and later life renew.
- Passengers–By Denis Johnson
- The world will burst like an intestine in the sun,
the dark turn to granite and the granite to a name,
but there will always be somebody riding the bus
through these intersections strewn with broken glass
among speechless women beating their little ones,
always a slow alphabet of rain
speaking of drifting and perishing to the air,
always these definite jails of light in the sky
at the wedding of this clarity and this storm
and a woman’s turning — her languid flight of hair
traveling through frame after frame of memory
where the past turns, its face sparking like emery,
to open its grace and incredible harm
over my life, and I will never die.
- Winter Thirst
- –By Gerald Stern
- I grew up with bitumous in my mouth
and sulfur smelling like rotten eggs and I
first started to cough because my lungs were like cardboard;
and what we called snow was gray with black flecks
that were like glue when it came to snowballs and made
them hard and crusty, though we still ate the snow
anyhow, and as for filth, well, start with
smoke, I carried it with me I know everywhere
and someone sitting beside me in New York or Paris
would know where I came from, we would go in for dinner—
red meat or brown choucroute—and he would
guess my hill, and we would talk about soot
and what a dirty neck was like and how
the white collar made a fine line;
and I told him how we pulled heavy wagons
and loaded boxcars every day from five
to one A.M. and how good it was walking
empty-handed to the no. 69 streetcar
and how I dreamed of my bath and how the water
was black and soapy then and what the void
was like and how a candle instructed me.
What’s to become of all the convenience stores? You know, all the little consumer-venues at busy intersections, selling six-packs of Bud for $4.99, compact cases of chewing tobacco, plus all the beef-jerky you might ever need for the road… All the Qwik-Marts, all the Gas-n-Go‘s… all the WaWa‘s with the barricaded booths for employees who speak through vents in the Plexiglas… What’s going to happen when the zombies take over?
I don’t want to alarm anyone with 30 days to go before Halloween, but let me invite you to ponder what may be even more frightening than the possibility of a pandemic or the detonation of a dirty, nuclear bomb or any other catastrophe of which a Hollywood blockbuster may conceive. And that is, of course, the aftermath of such an occurrence.
Visually speaking, you see, the landscape will be laden with boxy, nondescript buildings with lots of computerized cash registers that no longer work — not to mention rack upon rack of foul-smelling cartons of expired milk. It’s going to be ugly. Much of the remaining population will grieve the loss of life and the degradation to the environment in which surviving generations must make a new “go” of it. But, if you ask me, one thing we might do for them while we have the imagination is to jettison the whole category of “quick and easy” architecture. Once this category is dumped we might then replace it with a renewal of concern for aesthetics, community and spirituality. The essential criteria here would involve beauty. We’d want whatever remains (after the plague or after the radioactive flash) to be almost bucolic and somewhat quaint.
How beautiful and vast and bright and empty
inside the quick-stop’s inextinguishable glow.
Night has just begun to have its say.
The being in the checkered frock is free
to read the tabloids with a face like a broken window
and dream of being known and extraordinary
and towel the handprints off a jar of murdered jerky
and feel like a moviegoer in the very last row.
Night has just begun to have its say,
the pickled eggs seem older than all creation this Monday
or Tuesday or Wednesday, and years from now
how beautiful and vast and bright and empty
it may feel to be alive and mildly happy,
to walk between the aisles of a brand-new Stop-N-Go.
And when the century has its final say
may the tiny motels of our voices pray
that all the neon sings and wonders so
beautiful and vast and bright and empty
won’t even have begun to have their say.
Yes, this is admittedly disturbing. But the earth’s ecosystems have always been very resilient. And I have every confidence that what might be one age’s graffiti might be another’s sacred artifact or retro-kitsch. The point is, when we uncover the seedier locales of the first century they always appear more wholesome with the years of erosion, corrosion and sediment piled against it.
I’m thinking now about the Life After People series and how its viewers evidently find the human population of zero extremely fascinating. I don’t. What’s more fascinating to me is that human consciousness will survive with a vague sort of memory. It would be sad for future enclaves of people, however, to remember our ethic of convenience and try to emulate it again. And again. And again.
I would, therefore, argue that architects owe us something when it comes to those generic places where we spend most of our lives. What they owe is ironic, isn’t it? They must create and leave behind a milieu that speaks of specific mountains and specific rivers and specific kinds of grass and maybe a little dew on each blade of grass to boot.
Mark Wallace, in his poem, “Prediction,” makes some wondrous turns:
In the future, we’ll plan the future better.
In the future, you can just become your TV.
In the future, your sexual partners will meet all the qualities on your checklist.
And this anxiety you’re feeling now? In the future you won’t feel it.
In the future, technology will always work, and there won’t even be weekend downtime for systems repair.
In the future, Friday night parties will never be boring.
In the future there will be less deadlines and they’ll be easier to meet.
In the future, all pollution will contain its own self-cleaning element.
In the future, if your house burns down, you’ll have another house by the time you get home.
In the future, your insurance policy will actually pay.
In the future, your friends won’t talk so constantly about everything they think they should already have.
In the future, no good deed will go unrewarded.
In the future people will like you just for who you are.
In the future, everyone will have their own sky marshal.
In the future, fires and floods made worse by ecologically damaging overpopulation will lead to photo-ops for everyone.
In the future, that eleventh-rate doctor you married who’s seeing a nurse in Oceanside behind your back will stay home more often and cut the grass.
In the future, people will fart less.
In the future, corporations will pay you for gas. …
It’s official: the objective reality of yesteryear has been superseded and supplanted with no-reality whatsoever. We don’t even have the reality of the present to sooth our anxieties and keep us warm on those chilly autumn nights. What am I talking about? Well, the flipping United States Postal Service, of course.
The institution that receives no federal tax subsidies and that has functioned for six days a week, if not flawlessly, at least relentlessly, since the time of Benjamin Franklin, has been rendered…. wait for this…
Isn’t that harsh? And doesn’t the fact that Congress will consider reducing mail delivery to merely five days a week make you want to question the whole mechanism of interpersonal communication? Damn. I understand how awesome it is to give and receive e-mails. Social media like Facebook and Twitter have distinct advantages in today’s world of bloated-information-overload. And yet, mark my cyber-space words — when hand-written, ponderous confessions are reduced to high-speed depressions that we make with our thumbs alone, we’ll miss the way our fingers used to cramp up. When assorted glossy advertisements no longer arrive at our doors, and from there, into our waste-paper baskets, we’ll have to search high and low for something we can literally tear into little pieces — with our hands.
You see, it’s not that I feel bad for the dudes and dudettes who deliver my mail — that their pensions have been handled so sloppily — it’s that obsolescence itself is not to be trifled with. Here’s a poem by Tracy K. Smith that summarizes the issue:
The Museum of Obsolescence
So much we once coveted. So much
That would have saved us, but lived,
Instead, its own quick span, returning
To uselessness with the mute acquiescence
Of shed skin. It watches us watch it:
Our faulty eyes, our telltale heat, hearts
Ticking through our shirts. We’re here
To titter at the gimcracks, the naive tools,
The replicas of replicas stacked like bricks.
There’s green money, and oil in drums.
Pots of honey pilfered from a tomb. Books
Recounting the wars, maps of fizzled stars.
In the south wing, there’s a small room
Where a living man sits on display. Ask,
And he’ll describe the old beliefs. If you
Laugh, he’ll lower his head to his hands
And sigh. When he dies, they’ll replace him
With a video looping ad infinitum.
Special installations come and go. “Love”
Was up for a season, followed by “Illness,”
Concepts difficult to grasp. The last thing you see
(After a mirror — someone’s idea of a joke?)
Is an image of the old planet taken from space.
Outside, vendors hawk t-shirts, three for eight.
Obsolescence refers, of course, to practices that have become outmoded in style, design or construction. We now supposedly have better and more advanced ways to pay the water bill, which will never be late again. Letters that record our deepest hopes don’t have to wait for a quiet moment of reflection. Send. Send. Send. And if the system bogs down with too much traffic, Ctl Alt Delete.
But here’s where I part company with all that would hurry along my communication: The mail.
Is there anything for me in the mail today? Well, is the Pope still Catholic after paying a visit to Erfurt, Germany — after acknowledging that Martin Luther wasn’t such a bad guy? Do bears still maul unsuspecting hikers in the woods? Let there be a linkage with the leaflets of Thomas Paine, lest pain be subdued by the marketers who make the case for no pain at all. Let there be some semblance of a place where we wait and wait in line and where the packing tape makes this incredible noise. And let those who embody sending continue to walk their routes in snow, sleet and Seattle.
Just imagine. Christopher Howell writes from the perspective of some sleuth who found “Three One-Hundred Year Old Postcards And Two Letters…In An Envelope At An Estate Sale.” Here are two of the items in poetic form and keep in mind they were never delivered:
We are having a fine old time in
Billings, Pat Rogers is up here too I guess
this is the poor hitting the high places, going
out for a ride on a automobile. Couple of fine
kids from Miles City & my good boy
setting proud as cats and then the rain come
all over purple in the sky and we hide out
in a barn. Mable hugged up with Clemons
that was there and me and Jessup did too and it was
fine with the rain coming all day
we didn’t see but one other person going on
down the road.
They brit Jessup and the others in today all
bloody. The other ones died right off I guess but Jessup
had breath in him still and they let me in to
this room where he was flat on a big table
and he tole Sherif Dobbs we didn’t know nothing
and said hes sory and loved me and wisht
he never had done it all. I was holding
his hand when he left this earth smiling
and peaceful. Billings is a awful place now
but me and Mable wonder can we come home
after all the trubble and foolery and shame we
brung on we are lost soles I think like lanterns
that is broke and don’t have no more light or
good times in us. Please pray for me and tell
the folks in Forsyth not to come here or ever
leave there families and there good names.
Goodbye dear Addie you was always my best
There’s a way of reading the Wall Street Protests as something more than training for the NYPD.
There’s a way of looking beyond the lack of a parade permit and the pepper spray and the 80 arrests — and it’s the way of The Odyssey:
“… and there is now this greater evil still:
my home and all I have are being ruined.
Mother wanted no suitors, but like a pack
they came — sons of the best men here among them –
lads with no stomach for introduction
to Ikarios, her father across the sea;
he would require a wedding gift, and give her
to someone who found favor in her eyes.
No; these men spend their days around our house
killing our beeves and sheep and fatted goats,
carousing, soaking up our good dark wine,
not caring what they do. They squander everything…”
So says Telemakhos, the son of Odysseus, in Book II of Homer’s epic narrative. And the reason I bring this up now is that the squandering continues. To this day, the corporate elite lives off the resources that we have stored for the vulnerable of this vast household, known as the United States of America. And to this day, the conniving of Penelope’s suitors threatens to dismantle those structures that protect us from avarice and greed and gluttony.
An avid watcher of the news may take a dim view of the clashes with police, dismissing the peaceful marchers as freeloaders. Not so! Here’s a quote from Chris Hedges, former reporter with the New York Times and author of The Death of the Liberal Class:
The real radicals have seized power and they are decimating all impediments to the creation of a neo-feudalistic corporate state, one in which there is a rapacious oligarchic class, a thin managerial elite, and two-thirds of this country live in conditions that increasingly push families to subsistence level… They want us to remain passive and to remain frightened. And as long as we remain passive and frightened, entranced with their electronic hallucinations, we are not a threat. … The moment people come out and do this [kind of protest], the corporate state is terrified — and if you doubt me, look around you at the huge numbers of cops, and not only that but the kind of brutality the cops have visited on peaceful protesters.
You see, the point is not that we should simply work hard, keep our noses to the grind stone and take whatever wages trickle down to us from on high. Protestantism’s ethic also implies that we pay attention, and that we debunk the protocol by which our households are abused. What is it that we want? High-paying jobs by which we can subjugate others before they subjugate us? Or meaningful and generous opportunities to serve and to be served?
The poetics of the past prove very enlightening as we venture a response to these core questions. Classic literature, we like to think, is classic because of the truth that it bequeaths from one generation to the next, from one culture to the next. That is, we don’t memorize verbiage from The Iliad and The Odyssey for the sake of passing a pre-requisite at the Community College. Rather, we engage its artistry at a subterranean level. The so-called “primary world,” to which literary critics refer with occasional disdain, may be read heroically from the perspective of the “secondary world” of the creative genius. The masterful work of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, may speak with eloquence and insight at a table where the evil Sauron is the least of our problems.
Wake up, you English Majors! You Interdisciplinary Humanities Scholars! We may have a role for you after all.
–By Warren Slesinger
Liftboat (lyfe.boht) n-s 1. A small boat
for saving lives at sea with a centerboard,
two or more sets of oars, and a rudder;
it’s capacity depends on the ratio of men
to women and children, and its safety on
the height of the waves and the strength
of the wind: a dazzling white lifeboat with
“America the Beautiful” stenciled on the side.
2. A means of escape in a crisis. See lifeboat
ethics. 3. The situation of someone fortunate
enough to find a seat in a lifeboat surrounded
by splashing, sputtering people too numerous
to be take on board, the occupants cursing
and clubbing the knuckles that clutch the side.
See Third World.
In the wondrous tale that Homer tells, Telemakhos goes in search of revelation. He leaves the confines of his home, which is being plundered, and seeks word of his father’s life. Telemakhos travels by ship, over treacherous seas. He’s sort of like the biblical character, Jonah, in that respect. Or even the Apostle Paul, getting shipwrecked on Malta… and on his way to trial in Rome.
And so, here’s our metaphor. Not just a lifeboat. But ultimately a lifeboat that takes us to shore, where there is news, good news!