Friday, August 25, 2006

Friday Poetry: Wendy Cope

Wendy Cope
The Orange

At lunchtime I bought a huge orange—
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave—
They got quarters and I had a half.

And that orange, it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment. It's new.

The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I'm glad I exist.

Friday, August 18, 2006

August/September Preview

I'm well aware that there are substantive political issues and matters of interest on which I haven't posted; I'm jet-lagged (okay, not as much any more, but I have been) and juggling a lot of searches in reality. But I'm working on a number of posts, most of which I hope to get through with by the close of the month of August (watch me eat my words), and among them are:

Terrorist Threat de Nouveau
The concept of racial profiling
Male authors writing in the voices of female characters and vice versa (to quote a high-school classmate, "I think there are male authors that are female . . .")
Twentieth-century Irish history and some observations on social revolutions extrapolated therefrom (the observations being extrapolated, not the revolutions)
Serial writing and why it matters
Why art needs to portray more than the truth of the moment
Public definitions of maturity

And my blogospheric audience snorts and says, "Good luck with all that."

Friday Poetry: Christopher Smart

Christopher Smart
Of the Spiritual Musick

For the spiritual musick is as follows.
For there is the Thunder-Stop, which is the voice of God direct.
For the rest of the Stops are by their rhimes.
For the Trumpet rhimes are sound bound, soar more and the like.
For the Shawm rhimes are lawn fawn moon boon and the like.
For the Harp rhimes are sing ring, string & the like.
For the Cymbal rhimes are bell well toll soul & the like.
For the Flute rhimes are tooth youth suit mute & the like.
For the Dulcimer rhimes are grace place beat heat & the like.
For the Clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like.
For the Bassoon rhimes are pass, class and the like. God be gracious to Baumgarden.
For the Dulcimer are rather van fan & the like and grace place &c are of the Bassoon.
For beat heat, weep peep &c are of the Pipe.
For every word has its marrow in the English tongue for order and for delight.
For the dissyllables such as able, table &c are the Fiddle rhimes.
For all dissyllables and some trissyllables are Fiddle rhimes.
For the relations of words are sometimes in oppositions.
For the relations of words are according to their distances from the pair.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Once More, I'm It

Every now and then I give in, mostly 'cause I'm flattered to be tagged. I'm jet-lagged, and there will be many slightly more contentful and coherent posts coming. But this meme's kinda awesome, anyhow.

I got tagged by Connor.

1. One book that changed my life:
Just one? I'll go with 1984 by George Orwell; it's the first that changed me in ways I can fully identify.

2. One book I've read more than once:
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey. I'm in the 10-15 readings range by now.

3. One book I'd want on a desert island:
Connor's idea, the Bible, was a good one. However, I think I'd go with The Atlantic Book of British and American Poetry, edited by Dame Edith Sitwell. I'd need poetry much more than narrative on a desert island, methinks, and the fuller an anthology the better.

4. One book that made me laugh:
America (The Book), by Jon Stewart and the writers of The Daily Show.

5. One book that made me cry:
Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler.

6. One book I wish had been written:
Inside the Mind of Laura Bush. Call me weird, but I really wanna know.

7. One book I wish had never been written:
I would like to say Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil, by Inga Muscio, because it was fucking godawful, but I do know it's changed a couple of very decent people's lives for the better and far be it from me to take it away from them. Therefore, I'll go with Women As Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek. Also really, really, really terrible, a huge waste of my time, I had to read it because it was for my book club, and nobody offered me any even halfway-substantiated reasons why a reasonable human being might have considered it any good. Sigh.

8. One book I'm currently reading:
Michael Collins: A Biography, by Tim Pat Coogan. I got drawn into him and Eamon de Valera as characters while I was in Ireland. A longer post on that soon.

9. One book I've been meaning to read:
Again, just one? My bookshelf runneth over with things I have not read and really want to. But I just purchased, with the intention of reading it, Teaching Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom by William Ayers.

10. The Four People I'm Tagging:
#1. Tyromaven
#2. Milligan
#3. Sarah N.
#4. Textaisle

Friday, August 04, 2006

Friday Poetry: W.B. Yeats

Why Yeats? you ask. Well, in addition to the obvious answer, "Why not Yeats?" the answer is that in just a few short hours I'm getting on a plane to Ireland. I'll be gone for a little over a week, so next week there will be no Friday Poetry, and there will be no postings until August 13. Sorry.

And I know this poem's a little dark, but Yeats is. And I think it's pretty.

William Butler Yeats
Those Dancing Days Are Gone
from Words for Music Perhaps

Come, let me sing into your ear;
Those dancing days are gone,
All that silk and satin gear;
Crouch upon a stone,
Wrapping that foul body up
In as foul a rag:
I carry the sun in a golden cup,
The moon in a silver bag.

Curse as you may I sing it through;
What matter if the knave
That the most could pleasure you,
The children that he gave,
Are somewhere sleeping like a top
Under a marble flag?
I carry the sun in a golden cup,
The moon in a silver bag.

I thought it out this very day,
Noon upon the clock,
A man may put pretence away
Who leans upon a stick,
May sing, and sing until he drop,
Whehter to maid or hag:
I carry the sun in a golden cup,
The moon in a silver bag.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Mel, Odious

I still haven't seen The Passion of the Christ. For the most part I'm entirely comfortable with that. But in the wake of all this ludicrosity (because that's a word) surrounding our Mr. Gibson, I've started to be curious.

Elementary school teachers divide questions on a book into three categories: factual, interpretive and inferential. As I've emphasized on this blog perhaps sixty thousand times more than was strictly necessary, art inhabits an ethical universe; a movie can be anti-Semitic and its content does have implications about the authors involved. If The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn's place on the list of banned books in the United States proves anything, it's that American audiences have a rough time distinguishing a work of art that contains offensive views from a work of art that espouses them. Most of what I've heard about Passion of the Christ veers closer to the latter, but nevertheless based upon his work, until recently the question "Is Mel Gibson an anti-Semite and a misogynist?" was at its worst an interpretive question, at its best an inferential one.

Apologies or no apologies, I think it's fair to say that's the case no longer.

This cracks me the fuck up. If anyone should know from "in vino veritas," it would be Christopher Hitchens. But it is a simple point, and I've never heard it put quite that well: the reason that you don't say things while drunk that you don't want to say while sober (a view I've espoused for years without knowing why) is because when you're drunk, you're just not compos mentis enough to make the things up. They must, therefore, have been there already. The worst alcohol can do is cause leakage—drunk dialing if you're a college student recently dumped, anti-Semitic and anti-woman comments and epithets if you're Mel Gibson.

It does take some guts and some self-knowledge to check yourself into rehab immediately and publically. I will give him that.

There is, of course, the important question, do I want to live in a world where, Mel Gibson indeed being an anti-Semite and misogynist, he's not free to verbally express such hatred? As a writer, I've never been of the sticks-and-stones-may-break-my-bones-but-words-will-never-hurt-me persuasion, I'm fine with the existence of the term "verbal abuse," and I believe that Gibson's comments, particularly in today's political climate, are capable of doing actual harm. But is the severe chastisement of Mel Gibson de facto censorship of his views? I don't want to go the "the man's got so much money he *can't* be censored" route, whatever truth it holds; I will, however, say that statements and backlash therefrom are pretty much the cornerstone of freedom of speech. Offer freedom of speech as an absolute from a legal standpoint, and you're stuck with any number of views and conversations and humans that are fucked. We will, at some point, have to have a discussion about whether the capitalist system itself can fairly be said to limit free speech (Gibson's apologies must stem in large part from a desire to protect his paycheck), but the short answer is: I do not want to live in a world where Gibson can't express such hatred, but I want even less to live in a world where people can't respond to it.

And now our Mr. Gibson wants to reach out to the Jewish community for help in dissuading him from his anti-Semitic persuasions. I'm not sure what exactly the trajectory of this might be. If a good thirty years of working in an industry with a substantive Jewish presence, with Jewish associates, employees, and superiors a constant, have not dissuaded him from these views, it will be at best an uphill battle. It's also noteworthy that he didn't say much about his insults to the female officer present on the scene, though certainly "Sugar Tits" is much less sweeping and egregious than "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in this world."

As my stunningly wonderful sister put it on her Facebook profile, "Don't worry, Mel. We'll help you."

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Dearest Drifting Darling, or, Let Us Now Praise Russell Banks

About two years ago, I finished Russell Banks's Continental Drift. It was midsummer, and I was killing a half an hour before meeting a friend. After I reached the end of the novel, I sat, winded, honestly feeling as if I had been punched in the stomach. The book had filled me up and then knocked it all out of me.

I finished The Darling, his most recent novel, three weeks ago and felt similarly devoid of wind, but not as though it had been knocked out of me, more that the novel had been deflating me in the process. The Darling is as strong a novel as Continental Drift; it's less sweeping, more character-driven, has some of the same weaknesses and many of the same strengths.

Banks' lyrical prose and his ability to evoke settings are, in my experience, unparalleled. I've read five of his books (he's written thirteen or so); The Sweet Hereafter and Cloudsplitter are about as powerful as the two listed above and just didn't jerk me the same way viscerally, and while Rule of the Bone kind of sucks, it does the same beautiful job of evoking the Adirondacks and Jamaica that several of the others do. Banks makes experience into character, can show his characters developing with their understanding of and relationship to their settings, can humanize landscape and make humans into landscapes. Continental Drift takes place in upstate New York, Florida, the Caribbean, and Haiti, The Darling in New Hampshire and Liberia; I haven't been to all that many of those places, but Banks is one of those writers who honestly makes you travel. You're in the story, and you are where the story is.

He also writes about the non-neutrality of whiteness from a white perspective better than any other writer I've encountered. Continental Drift and The Darling are books of an explicitly, macrocosmically, contemporary political nature, which not all of his works are, and while I've only just now realized that the majority of my favorite works of fiction are explicitly macrocosmically political, that wasn't what drew me to them and wasn't what kept me in them. In the main, it was the specificity with which he engaged the whiteness of his white characters, and developed whiteness, particularly American whiteness, as something real and concrete beside characters of other races. In Banks' writing, whiteness is not a collection of absences, it's an aspect of many characters' lives that a white writer has taken the time to observe (within and without himself) and to develop.

Continental Drift, a third-person novel, alternates chapters between the experiences of Bob Dubois, a white man from the Adirondacks who's decided to run, with his wife and children, away from his circular, empty, midlife-crisis life as an oil burner repairman in search of something better, and Vanise Dorsinville, a young black Haitian woman who is running, with her baby, her adolescent nephew, no money, and no English skills, away from Haiti and towards America. The novel delicately demonstrates the way in which each creates the other's world, and the devastating consequences of the skewed levels of power in those creations. The Darling, by contrast, is a first-person novel telling the story of Hannah Musgrave, a white American woman born to wealth who joins Weatherman and spends years living underground. By an accident of fate, she ends up living and marrying in Liberia, raising sons and chimpanzees and inhabiting a world that makes no sense to her; Banks closely observes the danger in her lack of comprehension, and in her perceived control and actual lack thereof. Hannah believes, with some logic, her actions caused the vicious civil war that tears Liberia; when she's told that it was inevitable, that her choices were not themselves the tipping point, she's at least as disappointed as she is confused and relieved. Banks manages to question race relations, political affiliations and what smaller-scale human needs they serve, the uses of art and narrative, the expansions and limitations of sex and sexual attraction, and provide paths to address these questions without forcing answers upon us

Everyone needs a writer like Russell Banks, the world needs him, but in the context of my racial thoughts these days he's particularly speaking to my whiteness and to what it means. White people need someone proving concretely and viscerally to us, from our own perspective, that what we don't understand still matters. That is the assumption that drives white supremacy, in both the formal/distancing and the casual use of the term: the assumption that what we do not understand is unimportant and cannot change us. Continental Drift and The Darling both use subtle means to demonstrate how egregiously wrong that assumption is. While I can't say I've read the entire library, I don't see anyone else doing what he is in fiction, and I honor him for it. He's good enough to make us ask these questions, and he's responsible enough as an artist to do what he is good enough to do.