Friday, June 30, 2006

Friday Poetry: Kenneth Koch

Kenneth Koch
One Train May Hide Another
(sign at a railroad crossing in Kenya)

In a poem, one line may hide another line.
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one minute at
Least until after the first train has gone. And so when you read,
Wait until you have read the next line—
Then it is safe to go on reading.
In a family, one sister may conceal another,
So, when you are courting, it's best to have them all in view,
Otherwise in coming to find one you may love another.
One father or one brother may hide the man,
If you are a woman, whom you have been waiting to love.
So always standing in front of something the other
As words stand in front of objects, feelings, and ideas.
One wish may hide another. And one person's reputation may hide
The reputation of another. One dog may conceal another
On a lawn, so if you escape the first one you're not necessarily safe.
One lilac may hide another and then a lot of lilacs and on the Appia Antica one tomb
May hide a number of other tombs. In love, one reproach may hide another;
One small complaint may hide a great one.
One injustice may hide another—one Colonial may hide another,
One blaring red uniform another, and another, a whole column. One bath may hide another bath,
As when, after bathing, one walks out into the rain,
One idea may hide another: Life is simple,
Hide Life is incredibly complex, as in the prose of Gertrude Stein
One sentence hides another and is another as well. And in the laboratory,
One invention may hide another invention.
One evening may hide another, one shadow, a nest of shadows.
One dark red, or one blue, or one purple—this is a painting
By someone after Matisse. One waits at the tracks until they pass,
These hidden doubles, or, sometimes, likenesses. One identical twin
May hide the other. And there may be even more in there! The obstetrician
Gazes at the Valley of the Var. We used to live there, my wife and I, but
One life hid another life. And now she is gone and I am here.
A vivacious mother hides a gawky daughter. The daughter hides
Her own vivacious daughter in turn. They are at
A railway station and the daughter is holding a bag
Bigger than her mother's and successfully hides it.
In offering to pick up the daughter's bag one finds oneself confronted by the mother's
And has to carry that one, too. So one hitchhiker
May deliberately hide the other and one cup of coffee
Another, too, until one is over-excited. One love may hide another love or the same love
As when "I love you" suddenly rings false and one discovers
The better love lingering behind, as when "I'm full of doubts"
Hides "I'm certain about something and it is that"
And one dream may hide another, as is well known, always, too. In the Garden of Eden,
Adam and Eve may hide the real Adam and Eve.
Jerusalem may hide another Jerusalem.
When you come to something, stop to let it pass
So you can see what else is there. At home, no matter where,
Internal tracks pose dangers, too: one memory
Certainly hides another, that being what memory is all about,
The eternal reverse succession of contemplated entities. Reading A Sentimental Journey look about
When you have finished, for Tristam Shandy, to see
if it is standing there, it should be, stronger and more profound and theretofore hidden as Santa Maria Maggiore
May be hidden by similar churches inside Rome. One sidewalk
May hide another, as when you're asleep there, and
One song hide another song—for example, “Stardust”
Hide "What Have They Done to the Rain?" Or vice versa. A pounding upstairs
Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hide another, you sit at the foot of a tree
With one and when you get up to leave there is another
Whom you'd have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher, one doctor,
One ecstacy, one illness, one woman, one man
May hide the other. Pause to let the first one pass.
You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It can be important
To have waited at least a minute to see what was already there.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Tell Us About Real

More on environmentalism, then. Or rather, on art in the context of environmentalism.

I have several close friends who are serious environmentalists--serious in that they're working, actively, concretely, specifically, to change what's going on. I've learned an amazing number of things from them in the last year, some of which I've already shared here and some of which I will share as the information continues to seep into my consciousness, to the way I live in the world. They intend to, and I think they can, change things on a grand scale, change the way people interact with their environment and their thoughts about it, enhance knowledge, change thought. While I'm becoming more serious about my own environmentalism and that will only continue, I'm fairly confident I will never be able to change things/people/environmentalist thought on a grand scale, for any number of reasons. As a teacher or an artist, I will not create work that reaches millions or, in all likelihood, even thousands. And while I don't judge effect by quantity alone, in the face of impending global disaster I wonder. Should the coasts flood, should Europe face a new ice age, should we reach the point where cities languishing underwater can't simply be rebuilt "bigger and better" and have their residents return oblivious to future danger, our entire lifestyle is going to change. I mean, let's *hope* our lifestyle changes before all that shit happens, but it will change in manners beyond our control at that point or points. We're going to have a lot less leisure, and a lot more focus on fundamental survival. And I don't know how much of a difference my work, the work I'm passionate about and devoted to and need, and the legacy I want to leave with that work, will matter to that situation.

I really don't know how this post is going to turn out. I know I'll keep doing my work, in theater and education and the combination, because I don't know what else to do, but I honestly don't know if it's okay to do so.

The thing is that more than my friends, what's inspired this line of thought is a re-reading, in context of An Inconvenient Truth my friends' thoughts and my own, of Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. (Which you should read, right now--no, for real, I'm not sure why you're still sitting here reading this blog entry.) Published in 1993 and 1998 respectively, the novels follow Lauren Oya Olamina through the creation and development of her religion Earthseed, which believes that God is Change, the only constant reality of the universe. The books take place in California from 2027 to 2090; in creating that world, Butler makes use of every social ill and confusion towards which we seem to be tumbling right now, from global warming to the widening gap between rich and poor, human trafficking to the merging of church and state, prisoner torture to street crime. In the '90s she saw a trajectory that I believe we are still on unless there is dramatic lifestyle change. I mean, to be fair, Orwell saw that when he wrote 1984 and surely some of his readers in the '50s agreed, and 1984 clearly wasn't like that, but nevertheless Butler seems to see the complex interworkings of different political causes. These novels have given me, at least, a clearer view than any political tract, treatise or direct action ever could.

Certainly art is more important to me than it is to many people, in what it communicates to me and what I require of it on a day-to-day basis; it makes logical sense, given who I am, that a pair of novels would tell me more about the world than anything else I've encountered. But on the other hand, it was a rereading that made the political difference, a rereading in the context of new political knowledge, which itself came from my friends and my own nonfictional readings and film viewings. The novels were always powerful--this is the third time I've read 'em--but I wasn't able to place them in connection with my own reality in such an explicit way until this time around.

I don't want to be one of those essentialist artists who says that art imitates life, that, as Snowman teaches in Atwood's Oryx and Crake, "not real can tell us about real." The relationship of art to its social context is much more complex than that, and I think the "not real can tell us about real" philosophy ignores, as a lot of contemporary society does, the roles that pleasure and entertainment play, or at least that they can play. (As Bill Hurt so concisely put it--in Entertainment Weekly no less--"Entertainment used to mean 'entertain an idea.' Now it means evade your life.") I can find joy in the good execution of art, even when the art is as full of relentless misery as the Parable serial is, and that matters to me and to many viewers/readers/audience members as much as a message, as much as what we believe we've been told about real. We've also been told about not real, and I value that. Should I, when reality only gets more and more deafening the more I learn about it?

Using art to escape life is as treacherous as Hurt says, and only gets more so when one considers "issue" movies in light of Boal's critique of Aristotelian catharsis (if we've purged our emotions about a horrific incident or issue watching a hero or heroic action in a film, why do anything about said horrific incident in the real world? Our feelings about it have been purged already). But pleasure, and entertainment, and thought also feed life, and that isn't simply not real telling us about real. It's using art to *create* life. There are a thousand ways of doing that, and I intend to do some of them and teach some of them, to teach in a manner that has as many arms as it possibly can. I'll also live a more and more environmentally conscious life as I go on. If I know that I'm going to do my work anyway, I need to make it at the very least peacefully coexist with and at the most actively feed and support other things that I believe. So whether my work matters in the abstract needs to become irrelevant; I need to make it matter, matter holistically, in a concrete fashion. How am I going to do that? Well, I'll tell you: I have absolutely no idea. But it's good to know that that's the goal.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Friday Poetry: A.R. Ammons

A.R. Ammons
Their Sex Life

One failure on
top of another

Friday, June 16, 2006

Matters of Convenience

A few nights ago I saw the much-touted An Inconvenient Truth.

It is worth touting, it is worth seeing, and it is worth thinking about. The criticism I've heard most is that there's too many little Biography-style moments of Al Gore reflecting on himself, his life, his decisions. Which is fair on one level, but on the other hand, a relentless lecture on global warming would not make a good film. Not everybody is going to sympathize with Al Gore, certainly not the hardcore Bush supporters, but Gore isn't preaching to the converted exactly, and he's much more congenial and competent as a lecturer than e'er he appeared as a political candidate. Very few humans can start from the larger concepts and work their way in; most must, loath as I am to quote Ani DiFranco, start from the middle and work your way out. The biographical moments with Gore, though they succumb to certain Biography cliches (the still shots of empty hallways or newspaper articles accompanied by dramatic voiceover narrative), serve that purpose: we see him as a character in order to understand the significance of his lectures to him and by extension to ourselves, ourselves being other, individualized humans. Director Davis Guggenheim (*what* a name) also makes the powerful choice of using the exact same shots of natural scenes at the beginning and end of the film, making explicit what's at stake.

Dude, I cannot see a goddamn thing without making an artistic critique.

I'm okay with that.

To the more weighty matter and hand, the content of Gore's lectures. To be completely honest, I've always had a rough time connecting to global warming. I make an effort to be environmentally conscious, and have become more so in the past year, but I've never had the visceral connection to it that I've had to racial, educational, youth, artistic issues. We're either going to wipe ourselves out or we're not, and if we do we won't know the difference once it's over. But through this film and some friends (among them Milligan), I'm being able to see the nuances of it, nuances I should have seen but was not thoughtful enough to see ages ago. Such as the fact that global warming isn't apocalyptic per se, not in the Armageddon style I've always assumed. For reasons involving both resources and geography/geology, the nations that have caused the bulk of the problem (i.e. us) are not the ones that will suffer the most. We're not going to end up with tsunamis; only a small part of the nation will suffer from the hurricanes (making it easy for the rest of the nation to virtually ignore, as we have done with the victims of Katrina in many salient ways); we will hoard our profligate resources once problems begin; it is not our nation's fresh water supplies that are dwindling as the ice on mountains melts completely and evaporates. Should such densely populated areas as China and India become flooded when sea levels rise, the refugee crises will be overwhelming, and we, looking out for our own skin, will not treat the refugees any better than we've treated the relatively few Katrina evacuees--probably substantially worse, since these refugees won't have even the nominal U.S. citizenship rights. An Armageddon would not, ultimately, make any difference in the way I perceive the world, since by then I'd be done perceiving it. But the smaller (when you look at them beside Armageddon) disasters would make a difference, and the injustice in the world is disastrous enough without this next, deeper, in many ways more insidious level of destruction.

I don't present myself as perfect. I'm careless, I'm American, many aspects of capitalism are deeply engrained. I like to shop, and sometimes buying things makes me feel better. I buy new clothes without knowing the environmental or human conditions under which they're made. I buy bottled water when my Nalgene doesn't fit into my bag or I've forgotten it. If there's not a recycling bin around, I'll throw out the bottle. I waste food. I really do want a ride home, and I'm pleased that you'll go out of your way to give me one, however ridiculous the waste of gas is. I leave the light on in the living room and my bedroom while I'm taking a shower. I own an air conditioner; I take long showers. My eco footprint is still probably smaller than that of most Americans, and I'm finally getting some idea of the damage we're all causing.

From An Inconvenient Truth I was able to see what should have been obvious: that the issue of the environment, like any other issue when you're looking at it correctly, outside of the mini-polarizations of American partisan politics, is nuanced and holistic. Environmentalism is a human rights issue, human rights are an environmentalist issue is a race issue is a social issue is a political issue, separating issues as if they're color-coded is kind of ridiculous, and whatever Ann Coulter says (I've read the first chapter of Godless; I'll post again when I've developed the stomach to read it all) it is not our God-given right to destroy the environment because the Bible states that we are made in God's image. See the movie, and take as seriously as you can the recommendations in the end credits.

Friday Poetry: May Swenson

In the spirit of An Inconvenient Truth, on which I'll post shortly, I present one of my favorite poems from sixth grade that sounds even more sinister now.

May Swenson
Southbound on the Freeway

A tourist came in from Orbitville,
parked in the air, and said:

The creatures of this star
are made of metal and glass.

Through the transparent parts
you can see their guts.

Their feet are round and roll
on diagrams of long

measuring tapes, dark
with white lines.

They have four eyes.
The two in back are red.

Sometimes you can see a five-eyed
one, with a red eye turning

on the top of his head.
He must be special--

the others respect him
and go slow

when he passes, winding
among them from behind.

They all hiss as they glide,
like inches, down the marked

tapes. Those soft shapes,
shadowy inside

the hard bodies--are they
their guts or their brains?

Friday, June 09, 2006

Friday Poetry: Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn
The Vanishings

One day it will vanish:
how you felt when you were overwhelmed
by her, soaping each other in the shower,
or when you first heard the news
of his death, there in the T-bone diner
on Queens Boulevard, amidst the shouts
of short-order cooks, Armenian, oblivious.
One day one thing and then a dear other
will blur and though they won't be lost,
they won't mean as much:
that motorcycle ride on the dirt road
to the deserted beach near Cadiz,
the Guardia mistaking you for a drug-runner,
his machine gun in your belly--
already history now, merely your history,
which means everything to you.
You strain to bring back
your mother's full face and full body
before her illness, the arc and tenor
of family dinners, the mysteries
of radio, and Charlie Collins,
eight years old, inviting you
to his house to see the largest turd
that had ever come from him, unflushed.
One day there'll be almost nothing
except what you've written down,
then only what you've written down well,
then little of that.
The march on Washington in '68
where you hoped to change the world
and meet beautiful, sensitive women
is choreography now, cops on horses,
everyone backing off, stepping forward.
The exam you stole and put back unseen
has become one of your stories,
overtold, tainted with charm.
All of it, anyway, will go the way of icebergs
come summer: the small chunks floating
in the Adriatic until they're only water,
pure, and someone taking sad pride
that he can swim in it, numbly.
For you, though, loss, almost painless:
that senior prom at the Latin Quarter,
Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan, and you
just interested in your date's cleavage
and staying out all night at Jones Beach,
the small dune fires fueled by driftwood.
You can't remember a riff or a song,
and your date's a woman now, married,
has had sex as you have
some few thousand times, good sex
and forgettable sex, even boring sex;
oh you never could have imagined
back then with the waves crashing
what the body could erase.
It's vanishing as you speak, the soul-grit,
the story-fodder,
everything you retrieve is your past,
everything you let go
goes to memory's out-box, open on all sides,
in cahoots with thin air.
The jobs you didn't get vanish like scabs.
Her goodbye, causing the phone to slip
from your hand, doesn't hurt anymore,
too much doesn't hurt anymore,
not even that hint of your father, ghost-thumping
on the roof in Spain, hurts anymore.
You understand and therefore hate
because you hate the passivity of understanding
that your worst rage and finest
private gesture will flatten and collapse
into history, become invisible
like defeats inside houses. Then something happens
(it is happening) which won't vanish fast enough:
your voice fails, chokes to silence,
hurt (how could you have forgotten?) hurts.
Every other truth in the world, out of respect,
slides over, makes room for its superior.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Today I'd like to send you over to Tom at Purple Scarf, a blog that follows the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. He's publishing many of the Senate speeches regarding the Federal Marriage Amendment, including a thorough and admirable one by Russ Feingold. Take a look.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Friday Poetry: Rita Dove

I should add here that I will respond to the comments on "Alfalsism," I promise; I've been opening a show this week so things are a little crazy.

This poem, however, is lovely.

Rita Dove
Demeter, Waiting

No. Who can bear it. Only someone
who hates herself, who believes
to pull a hand back from a daughter's cheek
is to put love into her pocket --
like one of those ashen Christian
philosophers, or a war-bound soldier.

She is gone again and I will not bear
it, I will drag my grief through a winter
of my own making and refuse
any meadow that recycles itself into
hope. Shit on the cicadas, dry meteor
flash, finicky butterflies! I will wail and thrash
until the whole goddamned golden panorama freezes
over. Then I will sit down to wait for her. Yes.