BOOK NOTES: Apollo & Athena; River; Brewer’s Odyssey

Apollo and Athena Walk into a Bar (Art Meets Science) is the title and theme of volume #22 of the Southern Indiana Writers’ Group’s Indian Creek Anthology Series. The members of the group are, more or less annually, invited to write on a particular theme, which is reflected in the title. As a relatively new member of the group, I have had work appear in this and the previous two volumes. For the last two of those three I have also been the editor (see Dec. 19, 2017 and Oct. 31, 2016 blogs), though without the technical and artistic skills of T. Lee Harris, who is responsible for this beautiful cover and much else, the physical book would not exist.

As I write in the introduction to this volume, the boundaries between fact and fiction, like the border that divides science and the various arts, are often blurred:

“The success, for instance, of any prophet, or physician, or atomic physicist, might be fired as much by inspiration as by reason; as the invention of any fabulist or poet might be touched by reason as well as by imagination. The borders that seem to separate these and all things – including the many faces that we and the gods wear, over the course of a day or a lifetime – are confused, fluid, flexible.”

In respect to the many faces of the gods, the title story by Eli Cobb (author of The Guardian Series: Sacred Words; Lucifer’s Tears; Neptune’s Poison; Raven’s Conspiracy) is most direct, as I write after the asterisk:

“The Apollo and Athena who occupy the shadows of master-fabulist Eli Cobb’s title story would seem to be a more plebeian sort of god or goddess than those ancient inhabitants of Olympus. And Cobb’s Neptune (or Poseidon), who in her story has opened a bar ‘centuries ago, back when the Old Gods first fled the Mortal Realm,’ spends his evenings bringing wine glasses to a perfect shine and fulfilling the bartender’s roles of listening to woes and telling jokes. At center stage and no less vividly drawn is an all-too-human Cambion lawyer who, while continually interrupting Neptune’s joke, presents a mirror image to the joke’s subjects who remain offstage, never uttering a word but exuding, nevertheless, a distinct aura.”

My own contribution to the set is a hybrid story-essay called “The Map Is Not the Territory”: “whose uncommon mix of components includes the American Transcendentalist philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; the perspectivist literature of Miguel Cervantes; the paradigm-shattering science of quantum physics; and the mystic yet profoundly pragmatic secrets of Eastern religion. But if that mixture sounds intimidating, relax: it all begins with the anonymous ramblings of a certain Everyboy, whose journey from boyhood to the dawning of old age provides the glue that holds all of those unruly elements together.”

It was by no means certain, as I entered into the thick of this story-essay’s content, that I was going to be able to make it work, but somehow – at least according to its readers, so far – it seems to have largely succeeded. The interweaving of this loosely autobiographical character and some of the texts that have mattered to me along the way (including my own early prose poems in a chapbook called Quixotics, excerpts of which appear on this website under “Publishing History / Book Excerpts”) was a deeply personal exercise woven into a fabric of internationalism, in much the same way (I hope) that Greta Thunberg’s very personal campaign for climate sanity has grown to such worldwide significance.

Certainly I am here concerned with the same big issues; and I have to tell myself that the tiny drop of my writing might have 100th of the significance of that wonderful young woman’s reasoned yet emotional activism. As I write, I am planning to attend an event in Evansville, Indiana or Louisville, Kentucky (I am situated about half-way between those cities, in the midst of mostly rural or small communities).

But I digress.

“The Map Is Not the Territory” is a piece of my writing that I have been quite pleased with. So I hope that a few of this blog’s readers will take a look at it and the other fine material in these pages. The anthology also includes work by Jen Selinsky, T. Lee Harris, Brenda Drexler, Andrea Gilbey, Bonnie Abraham, Marian Allen, Jeannine Baumgartle, and Janet Wolanin Alexander.


(from my personal journal for 9/7/19; edited / adapted):

Waters of the Amazon

River, by Esther Kinsky, translated by Iain Galbraith. 2014/2018. Oakland, California: Transit Books. 357 pages.

This novel caught my attention, recently, by means of a review at the Reading in Translation website. It stood out to me because of the reviewer’s emphasis on its slow, meandering pace – a pace that gives precedence to close observation over plot. Indeed, it is definitely a book for slow, thoughtful reading. One of my first impressions was its being a worthy exercise in Thoreauvian mindfulness. Close observation, close reading. Read too quickly (or fail to stop and look back a couple of paragraphs – or even further – to clarify something: that is an important part of mindful reading, as good teachers of reading comprehension remind their students!) and you will miss some subtle transition from the present moment on the margins of bustling London to an earlier moment in the Big City itself, or some other memory of a childhood in Germany, on the Rhine – and back again, as often as not. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is a book that demands to be re-read – as I hope to do in the not too distant future. I am anxious to capture it whole, if still not swiftly, uninterrupted by the other books I was already into as I started this.

The plot, such as it is, the plot of the present moment, at least, involves an unnamed narrator who for vaguely defined reasons has abandoned her previous life in the city and disappeared into the semi-wild hinterlands, more or less between country and “town” among marginal beings living marginal lives in their poor neighborhood and in closer proximity to nature. The central plot, simply stated, is her life (and its intersection with a few others) from the perspective of this outsider among outsiders; her gradual and unassuming integration into that community and then its dissolution in a series of leave-takings, including her own to an undefined somewhere in Eastern Europe.

But this story is told in fits and starts, in seemingly but not entirely random order. And as happens in the real rhythm of ordinary lives, the past intrudes: the narrator’s memories, which can occupy whole chapters as jogged by circumstances and reflections. She reflects on her past, to be more clear, as she takes long strolls along the River Lea and its environs, in relation to other rivers where she has spent time. The central conceit, then, is a narrative that flows somewhat in the manner of a river’s rush toward the sea – and ours, transient beings as we are, toward death – which along with war and its resultant displacements and the question of borders, among other things – is a constant concern.


“Every river is a border; that was one of the lessons of my childhood,” our German-born narrator says, through the median of Esther Kinsky, our German author. “It informs our view of what is other, forcing us to stop in our tracks and take in the opposite side. […] What if the river, beyond its capacity as a border created solely by its own course, is also a border between countries? Could its flow, the incessant press of its water toward an estuary, be more powerful than its significance as a line fixed to determine belonging? Does the water carry something away with it, leaving the stateliness of state-borders diminished and apparently subject to depreciation? Isn’t it saying that what we really belong to is the gaze toward the other side?” (pp. 167-8)

Later, in a similar vein but from a different angle, our author / narrator writes:

“[…] I stood in the estuary between the sea and the river, between the rows of lights that were Sheerness to the south, and the gay blaze of colour that was Southland’s lit-up amusement park on the northern shore, between the enormous cupola of unbroken darkness over the sea in the east, and the distant glow of London in the west. Nothing began here, and nothing ended, and maybe that had been the message of the blinking lights I had seen from Sheerness” (p. 343).

Nothing began here, and nothing ended. The borders – arbitrary lines – between here and there, between river and estuary and sea, between one shore and the other, are blurred. The Río Grande (not one that our narrator visited, but what more vital one is there in our own national discourse today in the U.S.?), beyond its capacity as a border created solely by its own course, is a border between Global North and Global South. But could its flow be more powerful than its significance as a line fixed to determined belonging? Isn’t it saying that our gaze, in El Norte, toward El Sur – toward other – is what we really belong to? Isn’t it time we realize that our national boundaries are as arbitrary as the divisions we make of the human race into fictional races? Isn’t it time we realized that we are all inhabitants of our only planet Earth (there is no planet B – forget about Mars!) and that we drown or burn or go up in a nuclear haze together?

Into the ears of our national and international leaders, not to mention the media and the general public that is so busy (in Neil Postman’s words) “entertaining ourselves to death”? (That is, if not working to “make a living” until we drop.)

The real star of this literary show is the beautiful language. Iain Galbraith, in his translation, certainly captivates. Esther Kinsky’s German original, for its part, has won a number of prestigious prizes. It is comforting to know that there is still a market for thoughtful literature in no particular rush to reach its destination. And at least some market for literary translation in this country. We surely do need a broader range of perspectives than is presently allowed into the national discourse. River, for those who have mindful ears to hear, is a vibrant contribution to that potential dialogue. And perhaps, when or if I do get around to that second reading, I will stop on more examples of that beautiful language and on some of the episodes that have most touched me.


(from my journal for 9/8/19, edited and with additions):

Brewer’s Odyssey, by Michael Corrigan. 2019. 336 pages.

My personal acquaintance with Michael Corrigan (though we have never met in person) goes back close to a decade and a half when he was a fiction editor at New Works Review and my essays, fiction, and translations began appearing in its pages; and he continued to be during the year that my son Jonathan and I took over for a few issues. During those early years, I read an essay Michael published in those electronic pages and which would grow into his memoir A Year and a Day, about the initial year of grieving over the sudden death of his beloved wife. I found the essay, and later the book, profoundly moving. Subsequently I also read his earlier autobiographical novel, Confessions of a Shanty Irishman, which I also enjoyed (see my blog for Aug. 14, 2012).

This new book is fiction – a novel – though intimations of those other books are present: the protagonist, Thomas Brewer, has lost his wife, also suddenly; he, too, is Irish American; he too is based (when not in the United Kingdom) in California where Michael grew up, went to university, and learned about all the cut-throat decadence of life in and around Hollywood, where both have tried their hands at screenwriting (Brewer with one spectacular success, though he abandons that life fairly quickly; Michael, I don’t recall what modest success or failure).

Anyway, quite opposite of Kinsky’s slow-paced, meandering book, this one is action-packed, at its core a thriller-police drama involving, among other things, a couple of terrorist plots and violent conflict with the hired thugs (motorcycle gang members, who finally come over to Brewer’s side) of the movie mogul and transparent Trump figure who runs for and briefly becomes governor of California. There is also plenty of sex, love, and what ends up being a very poignant story of selfless and sacrificing friendship. I also appreciate all the allusions to literary writers from Shakespeare to James Joyce and from Homer to Virginia Woolf and even Franz Kafka, to name a few. But the novel reads like a popular one without putting on literary airs, though the protagonist is also toying with the idea of writing a serious literary work.

“‘They say my book-in-progress,’” we read at one point, “‘was neither a popular novel nor great literature but something in between’” (p. 64).

I wondered, at this point, if this passage might fit the present work. And perhaps it does, though by the end its literary heft has come through rather powerfully. I am persuaded that it is something of a literary novel in disguise. Though it probably does not rise to the level of great literature. Not in the way that Mario Vargas Llosa’s little police drama ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (Who Killed Palomino Molero?), for example – in my inexpert judgment – does.

But the main thing to know about Thomas Brewer is that he is a man who violently dreams and whose dreams sometimes seem to predict an imminent future. It turns out, as neurologist and love interest Susan Fredericks helps him to see, that this condition may be partially explained by a neurological ailment called REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, which might lead to the debilitating condition – similar to Parkinson’s Disease – called Lewy Body Dementia; which is what Robin Williams had and which led him, rather than go down the terrible road he faced (and that he didn’t want to put his wife through), to commit suicide. But the neurological diagnosis does not explain the weird prescience, which seems to have something of old Celtic magic in it.

The novel’s first paragraph presents, in a sense, a perfect microcosm of all that will follow, and is mirrored by the epigraphs (by Shakespeare’s Hamlet who has bad dreams; by Bob Dylan who dreams of mermaids; and by Stephen King who fears losing his mind) on the facing page:

“Thomas Brewer has done this before, moving like a pinball through a surreal nightmare only to awake in a different physical place. In this dream, he is drowning in a natural rectangular pool until a dolphin pushes him toward the light surface and onto a board. Then Brewer lies in a fishing boat at sea, an old man watching as a topless woman with seal-like skin pulled up around her waist and legs breathes into his mouth, bringing an ocean scent. Something warm fills his brain. With a gasp, Brewer wakes up on the floor ten feet from his hotel bed. Feeling groggy, Brewer slowly dresses and packs. On the nightstand, a photo of Brewer’s late wife, Ruth – astride a white horse – looks back at him. In his mind, he hears Ruth’s voice: ‘My God, Tommy, these nightmares will destroy you.’ He will pack her photo last” (p. 3).

Some readers have found the introduction of the REM Sleep Behavior Disorder and Lewy Body Dimentia distracting. Indeed, when I first read the synopsis on the back cover, I wondered if it didn’t sound a little like a slightly moralistic movie on the Hallmark channel or something, which is faithfully followed by a public service announcement about where to go to get help or to read more about these terrible conditions.

But, aside from introducing the character of Susan Fredericks, psychologically intriguing in her own right, I think I have discovered a more important way in which the inclusion of this particular diagnosis is justified: the fact of all that the diagnosis does not explain adds depth and complexity to the plot; the particular dream that comes true in the good doctor’s life, and which may have helped her to avert a personal tragedy, is one example. Together, the inexplicable and prescient dreams are what – in juxtaposition to the medical diagnosis which proves true, in its progression in Thomas Brewer’s mind and body – fortifies the feeling of other-worldliness that ties the scientifically knowable to the Celtic mythology that becomes so vital: to matters of the heart and of imagination, in other words, from which science also takes some inspiration.

So, despite my early misgivings, I am not bothered by this medical intrusion into a story that seemed to be about clairvoyance: the trick is in the juxtaposition and then the reconciliation of the two. Nor am I concerned with the lapses of time that occur in Book Three, the novel’s shortest section and which serves the function, more or less, of epilogue or denouement.

Finally, it should be said that this is not a book without a social and political conscience, though this consciousness never overtakes the story itself. And while the Trumpian figure of Donald Morrison may seem a bit too transparent (at one point he even repeats, verbatim, one of Trump’s more infamous statements), the objective tone of the narration, and the distinctness of this figure from the one we know so well, save it from mere political caricaturizing and even show a bit of restraint. Likewise, while Brewer is himself horrified by the justifications people give for buying into Morrison’s authoritarian campaign, this segment of our population in the run-up to the 2016 election is given their voice and even their dignity.

Again, as with the juxtaposition of medical diagnosis and mystical / mythical perception, the novel’s presentation of characters within their sociopolitical condition is extremely complex. The CIA agent who at first afflicts and then seems to befriend our protagonist is one example of that complexity. Brewer himself is a complicated fellow, shaped as much by his near death in a terrorist attack as by his profoundly affectionate love and respect for several women, one of whom – a bisexual, but principally lesbian (perhaps pansexual?), Irish woman with a notably Celtic name – will become his end-of-life caretaker.

One of those women, too, his British literary agent, is a black woman who dies in childbirth and whose infant daughter might also be his. But she also might belong to a black African and Parisian student who is thought, initially, to be a terrorist. Without giving away any more than the back-cover blurb suggests, the question of whether he was – and if so, when he became – a terrorist is a disturbing plot element that lends much sociopolitical significance to the novel. The frank depiction of how black Muslims in France are racially and religiously profiled – distant mirror, perhaps, of the afflictions of black and Muslim people in our America – is excellently drawn.

I only worry that the way things do play out in Paris might only reinforce the prejudicial attitude toward every black Muslim as potential terrorist threat, worthy of constant surveillance and harassment, however circumspect and well-mannered they might seem. But the degree that Brewer is haunted, throughout the rest of his life, by his responsibility for those events might tend to redeem both himself and the novel from that weight of conscience. His actions are completely understandable and perhaps even partially excusable, within the complex web of circumstance in which he finds himself trapped.

Thomas Brewer, then, flawed and troubled as he is, emerges in my judgment as a man of integrity. Likewise, whatever the book’s flaws might be, I think that by all reasonable standards Michael Corrigan’s novel holds up pretty well. It is itself a book with a moral or ethical conscience, one that strives to be more than just another popular thriller, and for the most part succeeds in that endeavor.

So if a thriller-police drama with a heart and a touch of literary sensibility sounds like something you would like to curl up with of an evening, or if it sounds just right for someone you love, I think that Brewer’s Odyssey would make a fine holiday gift – for yourself or that other someone.


Saturday Afternoon Taffetas: new poetry by Lynn Strongin

Note: Today I am doing something out of the ordinary and giving my space over to Lynn Strongin, whom I worked with in my days as managing editor of New Works Review about a decade ago and whose work, since then, I have occasionally commented on in this blog. I have always found her poetry, in particular, stunning in form and beauty as well as full of significance. Beyond that, I will let the poet’s own brief introductory notes – and this wonderful series of linked poems that follows – speak for themselves:

Poet’s comments and credits: I got the inspiration for this from the Monterey Senior Centre’s flyer for summer. “Saturday Afternoon Taffetas” is the name of one event, or group. so it is nostalgic in impulse. But then I take a good hard look at that bland-land of the fifies and see it with an ironic sharper eye than nostalgia would encourage. As Roethke says, “I have stolen these things from sleep, partly”: This feeling exists partly in time, partly in dream. One floats thru the poems. There is the nickelodeon. There is also the desire to live “transcendently” or slicing thru time but not with a knife: with a soft rustle of taffetas so that the rainbow colors on this particular type of silk can shine over the whole scene. But the transcendent always slips away and we are left here on earth “to defend our toys” which are our books, our bicycles, our paintings: all that composite of earthly pleasures which holds us together.

I have had poems published this past year mainly in Australia’s Otoliths, edited by Mark Young Brett Alan Sanders and Mark Young have chosen poems which have a strand of vision in common: these are poems which try for transcendence of earthy things by representing a visionary view of the whole. Call it magical realism in poetry. One of the poems in Otoliths (Issue fifty-one, part one, southern spring, 2018) is “Foundling Hospital,” which begins: “FOUNDLING HOSPITAL STANDS in Lamb’s Conduit Field / London” and this echoes my own hospital stay in 1951 upstate New York.

Saturday Afternoon Taffetas


Feelings exist in time, and in a dream

The things I steal from sleep are what I am.

                                                             — Theodore Roethke 


SATURDAY AFTERNOON TAFFETAS , the fifties, blandland opening out into depression

In wave upon wave

The carousel even greyed out:

An ash bloom covers all we love as if the war blew over from Europe and sifted its crematory ash upon us

Moving forward, passionately, desperately wielding pastel balloons like swords:

Here are boys with bright red ones like the blood they draw from a nail on a fall.

Here are pale pink ones for girls with rag curls a black nanny took half an hour to put in.

Put another nickel in to the Nickelodeon

All I want is loving you like music mowed music.

Nausea, the child clutching her stomach after the fair.

The Kewpie doll never greets to be hers

Nor does she ever

Ever grab the gold ring from the carousel’s center.

Always bridesmaid never bride:

Buck teeth

Which a mouthful of metal is too much for daddy to afford.

In fact, mummy can’t afford daddy any more

& shoves him out the back door

to be piled with the garbage in vast black bags.

Where is the gold?

Mother came home tired & took off her hat at the stove.

So the wrath, the colors Saturday afternoon taffetas

petrel flying south

like the deepest shove toward love may tire, but never grow old.


Credit: Pinterest


Beyond birth

Before death

Old skills curling up like dried apple rings.

Your face darkens tenderly at what you see in me:

A quality of devotion that can make the secular sacred:

The lamp with rip in silk shade which mother bought in one of my bouts

Tearing in the shape of a country, what country? Maybe Italy, maybe Spain

Pay truly strict attention.

My poems just manage to be unwavering

As the quality of love’s gaze.

If it weren’t for you, the yearning for connection,

The instant of love I would want to lie down forever & a day with only iron city’s crown.


LIGHT DISAPPEARS IN YOUR EYES like an island, sinking:

Love’s strict, small land

Unwavering as a lit match

Its reflection a palsy, silvery tremor.

Compelling dramas come out of small moments, living as a foundling, “Is it true, a priest is a house lit up?”

Trying to become visible

After a life dependent on not being stared out.

Cattedrale de Redemptor

My recollections blur:


by silver-nitrate water.

To endure vision one must burn.

To receive love one must turn

From all earthly things

Unto the road to Emmaus where Christ will be crucified

Until one realizes in a split-second it is the tawny, the barefoot poverty-stricken redeemer who has been casting a shadow, a holy linkage

finger tips touching, beside them all along,


I KEEP having visions re-visions:

Orangeries, southern country: France to the lower parts, Spain

Turning one page of my life from Italic back to Garamond, then Iowa book face

Yes! Nail on the head, hit the jackpot:

Plainness, like good stout Indigo cloth, is my home, my core.

Weather turns rain into ice leaves fail

The whole land is carpeted in brilliant chain-

Mail darkening at dusk.

There is a musk to the peach smell

Is it

In this room?

Thing links to think.

Voice to noiselessness

A caress to loss:

Like a monk’s almost barren life

Devoid of person

Aside from the one writing who will never see the self except in reflection.



I recall braiding my cousin’s hair, large curls of shiny coal.

This is the quiet that follows the storm session

Like shadow the child.

Congealed ice makes another child: the one I held

Now melted by early sun

But can be resurrected again at first touch of warmth.


Young Lynn

Once when I was free, unbroken

The words need hardly be spoken. . .

I turn back my French cuff you phone

Like the fool I must find the button: but instead am half-

Finding the right

Light bringing it home

(we are the shadows where the bees swarmed)

we are the smoke burned:

Counting loops of rope

Circle locked in circle

Like hope.



All thoughts of love which should, but do not, bring reprieve.

So, leave:

Misery, pain in the butt a rifle pointing me out of this room

Into an annex a messenger:

Like Carrie Ten Boom who was butted out & crouched for years till she re-formed her spine

Deformed into the letter “S” for Sorrow, for Salvation

By the time she unfolded herself like a giraffe from a nap

Like a tall person from a chair she had memorized a lexicon of poems

On cigarette-scarred vellum paper. Hence, she learned

The alphabet backward & forward

Stark bloody naked: and Carrie, she

went for the time in years having served her term

To enter the remains, blind-forwarded, to freedom.


I AM IN SEARCH of the transcendent,

Because I almost found it once as a child.

Slippery as a trout it would slide away.

That rare person, a quiet American, am I

Destined to live among shadows, be counted one of them

As I enter the labor of little roses to bloom

Musical tone, a voice with character

Skinny shadow like the kid I was: destined to


By a sickbed

In a darkened room.


I MUST DO what I was born to do:

Make lightning flash with a question.

Why do we see each other so little?

Thru glass, thru morning, thru evening’s lightning

& nightfall’s burning off the chill sorrow with lamplight or oil.

But oil can ignite.

You are young in that you can lift a sparrow woman filled with oceans of love

Small lakes now

But shrunk as only velvet or silk does.


Can we ignite sand paper?

My virus is six-sided a crystal with voice

Like that of a choirboy before it drops

The crystal sings. His hands circling his mouth, his voice box unshattering:


Is the difference between human beings & God that God cannot stand continuance

Needs variety

Yet repetition

Makes the heart beat

The waterwheel sweep water blue as sky

Run, run.

No sooner were you a young man, happy than the nature of things rushed into fatherhood, martyrdom, now old age

Which is a disease.

All your life you were striving to hold fast the moment

Up against a major force: the art nothing but the trying to catch the one moment

Mood, one light, momentary beauty of one flower, one woman. You can still fish. Can still love.

In the true spirit of the Lord, leap up amid a whirlpool of change.


THE TRANSCENDENT ALWAYS SLIPS AWAY slides as silk, as the doe in your hands while you try to rescue her

Thus threatening the mother will fright & light away into further bushes.

Is God in back of it all?

Am I threatened with a fall?

A call from the beyond

Made me, as a girl, bound

Into boyish ecstasy.

Now at eighty

I count hoops for zeros all years: fears, tears

The transcendent slips away, a vapor, like a cup of tea.


On one side of the mirror me

On the other—do I know that thee

Less solid than vapor

But shimmering:

Must I step into the ring

Of cooling fire

After the burn of a life

Is scalded away:

Only the solid remains



An unmistakable knife.


FLASH POINT a liquid’s lowest temperature of ignition

I step thru day, with the permission

Of heartbeat,



Two lost in childhood one gained

Making memory freeze frames everlasting.

It is all wrong to imagine paradise as never-changing bliss:

It is the table set for two

Evening falling like a ladder we must climb

To get out of haze

Into light:

Two knives, two forks, two spoons:

It is anger cooling at loss running, a grayish thread, thru the hours:

It is hunger at nothing but bread & tea.

It is one memory after another climbing the tree

Like a celestial monkey.

It is the ponder

Heart which will rise

As the lover flashes on the eye:

Without tease

Or host but love

It is invitations:

Green lawn

Starched devotion

Pure allowance

Lower than longing:

Kiss, another kiss: it is nothing other:

It is this.


Tapestry, by Sofia Rodionov

ANY THOUGHT OF HUSBANDS vanished long ago

An elegant stave The Saturday Afternoon Taffetas:


Almost fixed

But not like iron.

Give me your undivided attention

Father said.

I did.

What came true was one of the tales in “Canterbury” but nun, cleric—all combine now

To tell me one brilliance, a stained glass fairy story.


I climb down the remaining one story of childhood

Into cool air

Milking over

Like mist on the limbs of a lover.

I ride the dream pony of night toward land further than sight:

These imagined gospels are not four

But many more.


I would not be outfoxed by paralysis.

I rose I rise I give a lover’s kiss:

I sink

I seize the tree branch as it cracks

Till broken

We both float in water: hair of coal, of flax:

Am I son? Or daughter?

By my voice, daughter. By my ardor something utterly other.



I do too.

If anxiety peaks like a roof I do too:

I have a slur in my speech, a halt like a boy readying to leap a hurdle, pumping energy

Heart hard-beating, a trip hammer.

When my speech broke was it a mini stroke?

That closet you flash open which looms & lights back a field of gold garments

Is collected against despair;

I bought, after a bout of spinal pain, that

Gold silk vest from twice-around assembled, like index card to read, quite near sweaters of every color for every soul food, each mood: in a mustard color from “My Sister’s Closet.”

I wear my tunic on dark days walking straight toward the rain:

It’s like two people falling in love separated by a border.

Couplets are like lovers: I speak the lines again & again.

Am I a Francis at heart, the holy fool?

To be the spiritual dumps requires energy: pumping biceps to pull yourself up

Where there is a glory like a halo about: here,

Holy weeds line my grandmother’s attic:

Each shot is a mystic’s dream-prayers, dream-shout.



The petrel must fly north

Thru storm

Thru south

Thru birth.

We are born to die: you and I.

The kids here just discuss how to paint the past

Over a campfire

Flames reflected in canvas

Death on its way

But who could see

The stallion start & snort?

It was an ashen cindery day:

I could taste both.

We are the smoke when the bees disappear:

Saturday Afternoon Taffetas

Legs that walk before polio took soap to a pure reflection of a child

Her legs cut off like a paper doll’s

Yet I am here

At eighty still to defend my joys:

The Kewpie doll I never won

The boys untaken the untaken boys

The final gasp of a child crying, she could still walk

Her windpipe was being born: it was nonetheless God coming close, closer, ecstasy’s broken toys.



Foolproof reading by authors for prize.

Who will be my companion on this grief journey?

Not thee, nor thee, nor thee

Eating Pride week pancakes: doted with sugar crunchies, rainbow speckles.

Send my roots rain.

We need each other.

Pilgrim, you are bruised & wounded

I am dreaming of stones

The heavy shoulders of a life with the cello.

After my year as a mystic I remember praying, why part?

She writes, aged over seventy “You never got over me. I thought I got over you.”

Is this a game of silence? Or throwing stones, small ones?

A heart which relents

observes Sundays which still exist in time:

We are moth-lovers

We pray in & outside. We pray in snow, in rain:

Between midnight & dawn

There are small talks with God

Until the belief in God & Icarus takes a plunge

Scatters stars of foam.


Lynn with birthday lilies

Lynn Strongin 

British Columbia, Canada

July, 2019

© Lynn Strongin 2019

Rumors of the blogger’s death have been exaggerated

Brett with Books

The author among his books, ca. 1990

With apologies for my months’-long silence (I will not burden you, dear reader, with excuses or explanations), and with a promise of more frequent communications, I offer this potpourri of short pieces for this Independence Day holiday. The first three were published in or intended for local and regional newspapers; the fourth, excerpted from a book review in an old journal entry.

Perry County News (Tell City, Indiana / July 1, 2019)

On the state of our nation

On and around this July 4th, perhaps we could pause from our celebrations to reflect on the actual state of our nation.

It does us no good to wave the flag and chant “USA! USA!” while refugee parents and children wash ashore on the Rio Grande; while infants and toddlers shiver on the concrete floors of concentration camps in our own southwest; while the chaos we’ve sown in the Middle East continues to spread like a cancer.

Before you dismiss me as a traitor to our republic, please know that I speak as a father and a grandfather whose heart breaks continually when I consider the future that we’re making for all of us.

When children misbehave, responsible parents don’t look the other way and pretend they need no correction. Nor should we for a nation in the throes of our more base and violent instincts. Instead of on the wings of our better angels.

Perhaps we have always been two nations, one that welcomes and absorbs the world’s downtrodden and the other that responds with fear and force of arms. One that nourishes and assists those already among us and the other who locks them up and casts them off.

Maybe it’s time we reconsider our thirst for empire. In how many countries do we need military bases? Why must we control everything and every place from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf and China Sea?

How many hundreds of thousands (or millions) have to die before we consider the 3,000 dead on 9/11 fully avenged? How many cities do we have to “liberate” by reducing them to rubble?

George Washington advised his successors to avoid foreign entanglements and wars. President Eisenhower warned us about the dangers of our “military-industrial complex.”

Yet here we are, after almost 18 years, in an ever-widening and apparently endless conflict. Who are the profiteers in these forever wars? Why have we ceded to them the power of our national wealth and well-being?

What if, instead, we brought home those trillions of dollars to pay for all the social programs that we’re endlessly told we can’t afford?While the military budget gets yet another blank check. Is the value obtained greater than the value of free public education and medical care?

What if we were to stop making machines of war and instead build the infrastructure for a new green economy?

Because yes, there is a climate crisis. We’re already in the midst of it. The science is in. The Arctic is thawing, water levels rising, and the intensity of storms increasing – all of this more quickly than science predicted.

Instead of hiding our heads in the sand, what if we were to mobilize against this threat with the same energy and patriotism that we mobilized for WWII?

Perhaps we could even empty those concentration camps and our for-profit prisons; embrace our refugees and our better angels; become a nation to truly celebrate.

June 8, 2019 (unpublished)

On control of one’s body and one’s vote

Edith Hamilton, in her Mythology, tells of a time in ancient Athens when women could vote. In a contest between Athena and Poseidon to see which would be the city’s patron deity, the women’s vote went to the goddess and the men’s, to the god. Thus ended that feminist franchise.

So it goes. Now in Indiana, rules Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court, it’s okay to force women who have miscarriages to bear the expense of burying or cremating the fetal remains. Women in Indiana and around the country have already been prosecuted and jailed for miscarriages that may or may not have been deliberately or accidentally induced.

Likewise, in both northern and southern states,the effort to make it more difficult to vote – especially for black, brown, poor, and student populations – is rampant.

All of this is about power. About who gets to exercise it over whom. Do we want to live in a theocratic republic in which 6-week-old fetuses with fictitious heartbeats have more power than the women who carry them?

I wonder what would happen if, instead of waging endless global war and padding the pockets of profiteers, we showered that wealth on those who need it. If we make women and children more secure in their lives, might the problems of abortion and feticide take care of themselves?

Perry County News, December 31, 2018

Picasso’s Guernica was inspired by the bombing by General Franco’s forces, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39),, of the town by that name in Spain’s northern Basque region.

No room at the inn?

I will be glad if our troops do come home from Syria. I will be happier if they return from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other foreign places as well. But I will truly rejoice if we give up the whole pretense of peace by perpetual war and really have a go at diplomacy, at respect for international law, and at laying the foundation for a moderate prosperity for all of our people – in a world presently threatened by massive economic inequality and by nuclear and climate extinction.

Yes, I know. I’m talking like a red-eyed liberal, a religious Utopian, even a democratic socialist. But consider that it was a Republican president and WWII general – Dwight Eisenhower – who warned us against the encroachments of the military-industrial complex that has all but swallowed our politics. And I challenge the masterminds of post-9/11 foreign policy to demonstrate how their bloody schemes have made us a more secure nation – or how the past century of wars to end all wars, or to save democracy, or for peace by show of brute force have made our world more safe for anyone.

So I agree with the President’s stated intention of bringing the troops home from Syria, if not with his murky logic. I remain horrified by the illogic of his “America First” doctrine, tinged as it is by fascist and white-nationalist history and ideology.

Let’s be honest about one thing: we cannot at one and the same time be a “Christian nation” and one that proclaims, to refugees the world over, that there is no room at the inn. How ironic that, after a century of battling the real or perceived threat of Communist totalitarianism, so many of us now clamor for the erection of our own Berlin Wall across the entirety of our southern border – migratory wolves, butterflies, and wretched humanity be damned!

The “caravans” of mothers, fathers, and children leaving places like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – countries that our foreign policy, military and economic, has helped to ravage – have banded together for mutual support and as a legitimate act of nonviolent protest against the hopelessness of the lives they flee. They have never been the band of rapists, murderers, and thieves that the President and others have claimed. They are scapegoats and political distraction from the real sources of our trouble, not least of which is a military budget that serves the interests of war profiteers before those of regular citizens and our all-volunteer armed forces.

The truth is that these problems and others are inextricably related. The longer we rely on a culture of punitive “criminal justice,” race and class bias, and military adventurism, the more remote and unlikely any chance of creating the kind of social and economic security we claim to value.

As our political leaders pretend that we cannot pay for social “entitlements” that benefit our elderly, our children, and our poor – yet somehow no sum is too much to throw at an already bloated military budget – we should remember President Eisenhower’s identification of guns made and rockets fired as “a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

excerpted from Personal Journal (August 8, 2009)

The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalism, by Rinku Sen, with Fekkak Mamdouh, 2008, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 248 pages.

Where we enter this world,” Rinku Sen writes toward the end of this important treatise on U.S. and world immigration policy, “is an accident of birth; where we are when we leave it is equally unpredictable” (p. 120). Which leads to this equally vital summative point: “We are all accidental Americans in some way” (p. 221).

Rinku Sen, an Indian-American woman, editor of Color Living magazine and director of the Applied Research Center, is, I gather, the shaper and framer of the book, with Mamdouh’s collaboration. He is a Moroccan immigrant and co-founder, first, of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) and, later, co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC-U), the first national organization for restaurant workers. Much of the book’s narrative structure is centered on Mamdouh’s experience as an (at-first) “illegal” immigrant, and the dramatic change it took after 9/11/2001. His life, through a gradual awakening to the need for activism for immigrant workers, in particular, and for all workers, generally, becomes linked to community organizer Saru Jayaraman, a first-generation Indian American.

A secondary, but no-less essential narrative follows the political work of Cecilia Muñoz, who, while Mamdouh and Saru are working for worker and immigrant rights within the restaurant industry, is working in Washington to push immigration reform on a larger scale as the national mood takes a sharp and hostile turn against it.

Referring to Mamdouh’s and Muñoz’s stories, Sen writes in her introduction: “Together, these two stories reveal an ironic truth: even as Mamdouh’s work on the streets of New York continually broadened his community, the discussion of appropriate federal policy went the opposite way” (p. 10).

The central thrust of the book’s argument is that while neoliberalism has globalized markets, it hasn’t done the same for people. The very concept of illegal people is flawed, she argues, and globalization won’t be complete until the borders are open for people and power equalized between industry and workers.

Seem like a naive position? Read the book’s well-researched and well-articulated argument – and consider with new eyes the unsustainable fantasy of a neoliberal economy that privileges markets over people and allows for that market’s deliberate distortion by and on behalf of the most powerful and moneyed interests.

Vision of the Children of Evil: poetic prose from the shadow of Argentina’s “dirty war”

9781947918023Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. / From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. / Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

As I contemplate Lucina Schell’s scintillating new translation of the Argentine symbolist-poet Miguel Ángel Bustos’s Vision of the Children of Evil (2018. Normal, IL: co•im•press. 304 pages), I find myself thinking of the late-eighteenth, early-nineteenth-century artist and poet William Blake.

Not that there is any direct connection between the two poets. Bustos’s particular muses are the French poètes maudit – in particular Antonin Artaud and Gérard de Nerval, whom he specifically honors with epigraphs, and Arthur Rimbaud (not to mention Edgar Allan Poe, who by means of Baudelaire’s French translation is similarly honored).

Still. Blake was himself, after all, something of a cursed or damned poet, working against the grain of his society’s version of social and religious respectability. I am making note, merely, of a correlation. My tendency, as a reader, is always toward synthesis, toward a recognition of likenesses and even a reconciling of contraries. And that – the reconciling of the sacred and the profane, for example – is what Blake is struggling toward even in his more palatable and popular Songs of Innocence and Experience (“Tyger Tyger burning bright …”), though most vividly in his strangest and most obscure work like the The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Visions of the Daughters of Albion.

Speaking of the Daughters of Albion, one more thing: another correlation, if you will. I am quoting from the editors’ introduction to the poem, as I encounter it in their anthology of Blake’s artistic and poetic work:

Although Visions is primarily a critique of constraints on love and sexuality, it also denounces the enslavement of Africans and laboring children; and insofar as Oothoon is ‘the soft soul of America,’ it symbolically condemns exploitation of the unspoiled American land, its resources, and – by implication – its native people. […] Oothoon comes to recognize oppression as an interlocking system of the sort that the Chimney Sweeper of Experience identifies as ‘God & his Priest & King.’ Liberty, by contrast, is absolute: there is no such thing as freedom for only certain people, like white men.i

Serie foto carnet 1

Miguel Angel Bustos

That is Miguel Ángel Bustos’s project, precisely. As Schell writes in the translator’s note following the bilingual text, the two books contained in this new volume – Fantastical Fragments(1965) and Vision of the Children of Evil (1967) – “represent the same grand project”:

a sweeping critique of colonialism and the horror of the postcolonial political and social situation in Latin America through the motif of divine descent. […] Bustos’s critique reverberates throughout the Americas – certainly into the United States, with our own parallel history of indigenous genocide. Innocence becomes the underlying subject of these books: repurposing biblical rhetoric, Bustos compares the conquest of the Americas to our own paradise lost. His is a quest to recuperate innocence, but also an interrogation of the false innocence implied by national mythologies of countries like Argentina and the United States that define their culture as white European and Christian – mythologies that are currently experiencing an ascendance like that in Bustos’s time. (pp. 284-85)

And part and parcel to this anti-colonialist project, Schell explains, is the poet’s linguistic task, in which he

takes up Rimbaud’s quest to discover a universal, synesthetic language. “All language being idea,” said Rimbaud, “the day of the universal language will come… This language, the new or universal, will speak from soul to soul, resuming all perfumes, sounds, colors, linking together all thought.” Bustos is aware of the violence of language as a colonial tool – but also the rich possibility of interlinguistic encounter. Like Rimbaud, Bustos is a symbolist poet, but his symbols – metals, moon, sun, night, heart, soul, earth, water, and biblical verses such as the repeated, “Why have you forsaken me” – take on different inflections in his postcolonial context. This linguistic in(ter)vention – and its underlying politics – make Bustos a very exciting poet to translate, and also extremely challenging. Across both books, Bustos experiments with different forms and voices, mixing the conversational and cutting edge with the hyperbatonii of Golden Age Spanish poetry and the high rhetoric of religion. Bustos unmakes the inherent power structures of language to create a supremely powerful language of his own. (pp. 288-89)

An important figure in the Argentine Generation of 1960, Bustos was also a literary and cultural critic and a talented illustrator, as is evident in the darkly luminous art that decorates the covers of this volume. But then, in 1976, within the first months of the existence of Jorge Rafael Videla’s military junta, he was “disappeared” and promptly executed. “His physical disappearance,” as Schell writes, “was followed by a symbolic disappearance; his work was suppressed, his name erased” (p. 284).

Only in 2008 was that work fully restored, when his son, the poet Emiliano Bustos, who was only four years old at the time of his father’s disappearance, published his collected poetry. And now, thanks to Schell’s translation – she discovered the work in 2010 while studying in Córdoba, Argentina – we have in one volume (for the first time in English) both portions of this “grand project” of poetic interrogation of our imperial myths.

Bustos’s form is the prose poem. It may read sometimes like flash fiction, but its principal device is what Schell calls “the broken logic of fragment” (p. 291). Sometimes it might drift into a sort of verse: a verse constructed, nonetheless, on a scaffolding of fractured speech, never far divorced from some sliver of narrative. Other times it might lurch from thought to thought, bedeviled by that inverted syntax of Spain’s Golden Age of poetry and a more modern absence of punctuation, landing in the oddest and most unsettling paradoxes. Or its story may flow along smoothly, in perfect sentences and paragraphs, occasionally even going on for pages. But even so all the parts fit together imperfectly, like pieces of a puzzle that can never be completely solved: a riddle wrapped up in an enigma.

Such a book – even more so than a book of poems by Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson, which invite slow reading and thoughtful reflection – is not an easy read, but is at once challenging, exciting, and rewarding. It invites more than one reading. In my case, on the first time through, I would read whole passages and sequences in both languages, then go back to make careful comparisons of the original and the translation. I might suggest a similar strategy to the English-language reader: read through the whole segment or section or chapter to get the feel for the whole, then go back to puzzle out the smaller details.

Lucina Schell photo_Paul Crisanti

Lucina Schell

However you approach it, in any case, Lucina Schell is an able and perceptive guide through those subtleties and nuances. And in her translator’s note, she elaborates at considerable length on the linguistic challenges that she faced in bringing Bustos’s language through the necessary transformations into an English that can still do justice to the juxtaposition and reconciliation of Old World and Bustos’s “new and universal” language in Spanish.

As to the “divine descent” of Miguel Ángel Bustos’s children of evil, it occurs to me that all of us who have ever benefited from regimes of purported good foisted upon those who call them evil – beneficiaries, say, of White North America’s manifest destiny upon the children of African slaves and still-oppressed First Nations; or those of Milton Friedmanian economics on the willingly socialistic political children of Allende in Chile or Chávez in Venezuela; or of the Israeli State’s ongoing genocide against Arab Palestinians imprisoned in the bloody Gaza, against all pretense of international law or the morality of Hebrew prophets – it occurs to me that those children of evil are really angels of the purest light. Like mischeivous devils in the false dualism of Blakeian Heaven/Hell, angels of light whose demented blasphemies – wielded once more against all the religious and political pieties of our benighted national mythologies of conquest and subjugation – illuminate this ascendant darkness a full half century after the initial publication of these luminous books. Which, along with their author, in the shadow of Argentina’s own “dirty war,” were almost disappeared from human memory.

iBlake’s Poetry and Design, selected and edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. 2008, 1979. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. A Norton Critical Edition (Second Edition), p. 55.

iiHyperbaton: “A figure of speech […] using deviation from normal or logical word order to produce an effect,” from The American Heritage Dictionary. 2000. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company (Fourth Edition), p. 863.

Iphigenia and Her Sisters: On the Crisis of Perpetual War and Sacrifice

imagesShortly after my essay “On the Rights, Dignity, and Independence of Women” appeared in this space a few weeks ago, I received an email response from Mónica Prandi, who said that she had enjoyed it and would I mind writing another essay on the same subject for the Spanish-language journal Letra Urbana. I am happy to report that the new essay, “Ipigenia y mis hijas en los tiempos de Kavanaugh,” is online now in issue #40 of that journal (a previous essay appeared in issue #33). Those of my readers who are conversant in Spanish and would enjoy reading it can find it at – just scroll to the bottom of the page where the link to my article appears.

While much of this essay is adapted fairly closely from its predecessor, I have structured it around my recent visit – with daughter, Stephanie and her wife, Rachel – to a small theater at the University of Evansville (Indiana) where we saw a production of Ellen McLaughlin’s play, Iphigenia and Other Daughters. Without going into detail here, it is a feminist interpretation of the episode of the sacrifice of King Agamemnon’s young daughter so that the winds would blow again and he and his famous crew could proceed to their bloody conquest of Troy. In this version, the men are mere shadows; what matters takes place in the private thoughts and words of the women, including those of the virginal sacrifice in the before and the hereafter of that crucial event. Iphigenia’s ultimate triumph lies in her conscious rejection – echoing her sister, Chrysothemis’s well-articulated resistance to Electra’s planned vengeance against their mother for the murder of their father – of the patriarchal logic of perpetual war and sacrifice.

A principal advantage of using Iphigenia’s story is that it brings the ugly patriarchal bullying of the Kavanaugh hearings into direct conversation with our own bloody spectacle of a now seventeen-year war against terrorism. There Iphigenia is, alongside the hundreds of thousands of murdered children in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

Not that anyone over here is counting. But if we were counting, how many times over have we avenged ourselves for the three thousand dead in the crashing of those planes into the Twin Towers? If the fruits of our sowing of democracy in the Middle East is ruin and the spawning of new terrorists to replace the old (not to mention the further enrichment of our war profiteers), isn’t it perhaps time to bring our experiment in “benevolent” imperialism home? And shrink our military budget by some hundreds of million dollars – at least.

And this without mentioning all the havoc we have wreaked in Latin America, where in the name of democracy we have put down numerous democratic movements over the last century. This is nowhere more evident than in Central America, where we have intervened against democratic movements and installed or bolstered the regimes of militarists, gangsters, and autocrats numerous times over the past hundred years. Hence those threatening “caravans” of poor brown people heading for our land of promise, to save their own or their children’s lives; like the displaced Mexican farmers and their families who came, after NAFTA, to re-build their lives (or to die in our deserts).

The racism also strikes closer to the national heart, as illustrated by the Charleston church massacre in June of 2015 and the more recent murder of two Black shoppers in a supermarket in nearby Louisville, Kentucky – by a man who had just been trying to get into a Black church to shoot it up. I have just read Jesse Hagopian’s interview with Louisville teacher Michelle Randolph (for Common Dreams: “A Climate of Racism Took Two Lives at My Kroger,” 11/19/18: One thing that startled me was the discussion of HB 169, “the gang bill,” which allows Kentucky police to classify any group of youth walking through a mall (or elsewhere) as a gang – I say “any group of youth,” but as happened in Mississippi after the passage of a similar law, the primary target (especially for the enhanced sentences that it allows) is bound to be those Black youth who, just by walking around like any of our own children, make so many white people uncomfortable just for the fact of their being.

I recommend that article to any of my readers who might still believe that we have no race problem in America. We do, and we have had it since before the American Revolution when we brought African slaves to this land. It is embedded in the Founders’ “Originalist” Constitution and has survived in changing forms, over the century and a half since the Civil War, in our criminal justice system.

Plenty of other evidence exists to establish the point, but the obstacles to knowing are great. It is not that the haters are monsters; the truth is more complex, more close to the bone. A man who was helping to save the life of the recent shooter at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh – a Jewish man, member of that very synagogue – observed that it was not evil he saw in his eyes but ignorance, fear, and confusion.

Who has been stoking the flames of that fear and confusion?

Donald Trump and Sarah Huckabee Sanders may call this fake news, but hateful words do have consequences. And while the Stoker-in-Chief and his Messenger are hardly alone, they bear a tremendous deal of responsibility for the deteriorating state of our present union.

On the Rights, Dignity, and Independence of Women

th[3]After the dignified, incredibly moving, and by-all-accounts credible testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday morning – and the obscenity of the incoherent, self-pitying, entitled rant and political performance that followed in the afternoon – it seems necessary to address the rights, dignity, and self-determination of women.

It is, in fact, necessary in this moment when a President, a majority in Congress, and an impassioned minority of my fellow citizens might be favorable to legislation (or judicial fiat) that criminalizes, not only all abortion – from the moment of conception – but also reduces or eliminates access to contraceptives.

Not the Gilead of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps, as encountered in her book or adapted on the screen, but some version or other of a Theocratic Republic of America. And this is not merely some dystopian fantasy, but the most extreme version of anti-abortion policy under discussion within the halls of power.

If our politicians really care about the health and welfare of our women and children – as they emphatically proclaim – they should consider the words of the activist Benedictine nun, Sister Joan Chittister:

            “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

But let’s put those sermonics aside, for a moment, while I entertain you with an anecdote and some light-hearted “book talk” as drawn – and mischievously adapted – from my journal of 6/29/03.


th[8]Last night at Capers while waiting on Anita, I created a stir by reading Loose Woman, by Sandra Cisneros, over a sinfully rich piece of rum cake with ice cream. Given the title – it hadn’t occurred to me to concern myself  about it – they were teasing Anita: “Hey, your husband’s over there reading about loose women!” Chris, the owner, approached me in his usual jocular manner and asked me if there weren’t any pictures in that book, folks were confused, they thought I might be reading pornography. Oh, just poetry. Though Lois, one of Anita’s waitress friends and an aspiring writer, had approached me earlier and said, “Oh, I like her books!”

Well, no, its not porn, then, but her poetry is certainly erotic, and isn’t shy of the extremely intimate. Not a book for the prim and proper, or for the matronly women and patriarchal authorities in Church and State who tell girls and young women how not to behave. But the verse is splendid, as anyone who reads her prose would expect. I thoroughly liked it. In places it is quite moving, a tender glimpse at the poet’s soul. Almost always it is really funny, full of exuberance and Latina flair.

Here, among many, is a personal favorite, erotic and playful, though the real subject is not what the careless reader might originally think:

I let him take me

over the threshold and over

the knee. I served and followed,

harbored up my things

and pilgrimed with him.

They snickered at my choice

when he took over

and I

vigiled that


my life.

I labored love,

fierce stitched

and fed him.

Bedded and wifed him.

He never disappointed,

hurt, abandoned me.

Husband, love, my life –


thGIW5PNEYIn other places Cisneros further explains her refusal to be tied down into marriage, which might ruin friendship, a fear learned from seeing many marriages of older women. The poem, superficially, might seem to be also about those women; but on the deeper level, the place of the writing’s heart, it is just the poem, which to her is husband, love, her own and sovereign life. It is perhaps both of those things, but mostly and surely the latter.

So instead – instead of good girl, obedient daughter, married and controlled and programmed woman – she’s wild. As in the title poem, of which I cite beginning and end:

They say I’m a beast.

And feast on it. When all along

I thought that’s what a woman was.


They say I’m a bitch.

Or witch. I’ve claimed

the same and never winced.


I’m an aim-well,







loose woman.

Beware, honey.


I’m Bitch. Beast. Macha.


Ping! Ping! Ping!

I break things. (pp. 112; 114-15)

In sum: Loose Woman is a fun read, linguistically and conceptually stimulating. But not for your stereotypical Sunday School teacher.


And let’s be honest: some things do need to be broken. None less than the base corruption of power and the moral turpitude that dominates our political reality and discourse, in these dis-United States of America, at this moment. The spectacle of what took place in the Senate this past Thursday – while Paul Ryan and his allies in the House pushed through another tax giveway for, primarily and most grandly, the billionaire class – is sufficient to make my point. Though countless disasters come to mind that fill out the picture and clamor for our simultaneous and no less urgent attention …

manifestacic3b3n-feminista-en-nueva-york-1970[1]… the chipping away at social-welfare programs in order to pay for the continued detention of nearly 13,000 immigrant children in desert prison camps, without education or legal aid; our continual failure to confront the dark history, and present reality, of race in America; the dismantlement of every regulatory agency that stands in the way of unlimited greed and profit; the related and redoubled assault on the environment and casual indifference to the suffering of victims of Climate Change from Puerto Rico to Bangladesh to the Philippines, not to mention the melting ice cap and increasingly brutal storms, floods, and fires on our mainland; an ever-expanding military budget that supports the wanton murder of children in Syria and Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe additional and undisclosed places hither and yon; the false equation of anti-Semitism for criticism of the State of Israel for its ongoing genocide in occupied Palestine …

But I digress.

My immediate subject is the rights and dignity of women, the much-disputed principle of their sovereignty over their own bodies – even if some of them behave in ways that our pioneer ancestresses might not have approved of.

My real subject is the actual sham and political theater of Thursday’s proceedings, which was the barest pretense of “listening” to the voice of a remarkably composed and collected woman (a prosecutor’s ideal witness, according to many observers).

My subject is the afternoon’s swift descent into the dominant politcal discourse of the day:  a bullying demeanor, a shaking of fists, a refusal to give straight answers to straight questions, an obnoxious and evasive sense of entitlement – the bluster, in the end, of a tribunal of privileged and dangerously powerful white men, some particularly old and, most, abundantly crotchety.

(And I use that word advisedly, with deliberate attention to its regular usage and dictionary definition – no crotch-related pun intended.)

From Kavanaugh to Grassley and countless others (and Grassley, at 85, fits the “old-and-crotchety” characterization marvelously well) – from this tribunal of arrogant power come, drip drip drip, the requisite commonplaces (paternalistic; dismissive) about how Dr. Ford was a credible witness and that something had probably happened to her sometime and someplace; but that, obviously the Immaculate Anointed One cannot have been present at that place, at that time, on that occasion: in that role; and the armchair psychologizing about displaced memory or whatever else – while the real psychologist in the room, who has testified convincingly about issues of trauma and memory, is ignored.

patriarchy-134102395x-56aa23945f9b58b7d000f9de[1]It has been pointed out many times that when a woman speaks of sexual assault – though she is usually telling the truth – her attacker’s version of truth is almost inevitably believed over hers. And she will inevitably be dismissed with the idiotic question (just open your ears and heart and you will have your answer!) of why she didn’t make her accusation 30 years ago.

I could go on about all the lies the Honorable Judge Kavanaugh has made in the course of these weeks and in 2006 when he was interviewed for his present job in the federal judiciary, but others have covered that topic relentlessly. As for the profusion of falsehoods committed during his Thursday Afternoon Tirade – if you have time time – see the dispassionate and detailed article by Nathan J. Robinson at Current Affairs, where he is the editor: []. I owe that link to my good friend, Charles Allen.

But the central fact of our political life at this crucial moment – the essential and monumental problem – is the sad state of civic discourse and the ancient arts of rhetoric (good, not mere rhetoric). Because, at the end of the day, at least in the eyes of those crotchety members of the Senate Judicial Committe (variously old or not so old), the testimony of that brave and embattled woman did not matter at all.

To those men, most of whose judgment was already set in stone, she was a mere prop, an appeasement to the liberal Democrats and unsettled masses. There was never a real intention to listen, to engage in a process of honest inquiry, to honestly strive to determine what is true or most likelely true in the matter before them.

That was clear from the moment Lindsey Graham opened his mouth and destroyed any pretense of civility and order, opening up the wave of bellicose rants and posturing that followed in defense of their man – the real bullies in the room, intent on the effective erasure of the woman who had spoken her inconvenient truth.

That entrenched and arbitrary power is the Leviathan that must be broken: at the ballot box, yes, but more importantly by an increasingly vigorous and honest practice of rhetoric – or of sustained dialogue, which requires a listening ear and an empathetic heart.

512px-Feminism_symbol.svg[1]In the face of such a fractured media and so many contradictory voices, I suspect that much of it will have to happen face to face, citizen to citizen – with our neighbors who might not agree with us, but with whom we can find common cause – the harmony necessary to sustain, or to build, the structures of a functional democracy (as Paul Woodruff argues in his book First Democracy, which I have recently discussed in this space).

So bring on those loose women and the men who support them, the ones with spirit and verve, as well as (among so many other things) the wisdom to entrust women, not a bunch of power-mongers in our state or national centers of political power, with the governance of their own bodies.

enhanced-24361-1400969325-1[1]Feed, educate, and house them and their children, too (along with a few other small matters), and imagine what forgiveness and harmony might begin to sprout.

As Cisneros also writes, in an especially tender mood:

You Called Me Corazón

That was enough

for me to forgive you.

To spirit a tiger

from its cell.


Said corazón

and the word blazed

like a branch of jacaranda.

[Poetic excerpts Copyright © 1994 by Sandra Cisneros]

On the Ideal and Fragile Reality of American Democracy (Part 4)

Wednesday, September 20 – “Democracy has this advantage over other forms of government,” Woodruff writes in …

Chapter Eight: Reasoning without Knowledge:

“It is designed to work as well as possible on the basis of fallible reasoning. In democracy, there is always a critic around, always a competing leader with argumentative policy. More than that, democratic ways actually promote the kind of reasoning that we need to use when knowledge fails” (pp. 175-6).

“Knowledge does not always fail, of course. Sometimes we know very well what an outcome will be, or at least we are able to predict with a high degree of probability: Plato restricted the word ‘knowledge,’ and allowed it only for people who know something so well and so deeply that they can never be refuted. The reasoning that government requires, however, yields results that are always open to refutation, always to some degree uncertain.

“Some uncertainties are better than others…. the intellectuals behind First Democracy cultivated rhetoric and good judgment for their power in sorting out the better uncertainties from the weaker ones” (p. 176).

“Greek speakers in the age of democracy aimed at something called eikos, usually translated as ‘probability.’ Because this has nothing to do with numerical probability, I prefer to translate it as ‘reasonable expectation’” (p. 177).

“First Democracy encouraged debate. But I must admit, also, that the Athenian people sometimes shouted down unpopular views, and this is the fault to which democracy is prone, as Plato pointed out. When the majority acts like a tyrant, it is cruising to be destroyed by its own mistakes – mistakes that serious debate might have prevented” (p. 180).

“Rhetoric, as practiced in the age of democracy, brought together the main themes of reasoning without knowledge. Teachers of rhetoric aimed at achieving eikos (reasonable expectation) in their speeches, at bringing forth good judgment in their students, and at leaving them with the ability to argue both sides of a question. Plato attacked all three aims. Rhetoric was a major target of the opponents of democracy, because it was large, obvious, and easy to hit. Besides, it was widely enough practiced that the public knew plenty of bad practitioners.

“Rhetoric (according to Plato) is the art of persuasion, in any context in which words are used. Plato’s most famous attack on rhetoric is a dialogue called Gorgias, in which he shows Gorgias and two of his followers defending rhetoric and its uses. Because teachers such as Gorgias claim to teach nothing else, they isolate rhetoric from all substantive knowledge on any subject, isolating rhetoric even from ethical training. Plato shows Gorgias claiming that rhetoric is purely a formal tool, entirely neutral as to whether its uses are good or bad.

“For two main reasons, this account of rhetoric cannot be right. First, any tool invites certain uses; when you give people tools you are inviting them to use those tools. If all you do is teach your students to win arguments, you are teaching them to win at all costs. So your teaching is not morally neutral. You are teaching that winning is good, and nothing else matters. So rhetoric cannot be morally neutral, and Plato’s Gorgias must be wrong. Second, Gorgias is unusual. If we set him aside, we see many teachers of rhetoric who did not regard their subjects as purely formal. Most of them did not isolate rhetoric from other areas of instruction. Protagoras seemed to think that in teaching the art of words he was teaching good judgment. Only Gorgias claimed to teach nothing but the art of words” (pp. 182-3).

This, in fact, is why Professor Rivers places rhetoric at the center of all the disciplines, since the understanding and communication of all of them depends on the ability to use words well. The spectacle of Donald Trump addressing the United Nations this week with bellicosity and ignorance, leaving even his own chief of staff, John Kelly, holding his head in dismay, is witness to the truth of this principle. The advisability of making war or privileging diplomacy cannot be argued effectively without effective and informal (and honest) rhetoric, nor can the maths and sciences, behind which we put all our financing (or did, before the present war on science, which, in its honest forms, is in process of being defunded, hijacked by ignoramuses and ideologues – who are, often enough, the same people).

Rhetoric, as Woodruff demonstrates, does not always win the day. So, while popular sentiment distrusted fancy speaking, it did not, as the opponents of democracy feared, give an automatic advantage to orators. It “did not put special powers into the hands of wealthy people” (a disingenuous argument, anyway, as its promulgators were generally the wealthy enemies of democracy). “It simply is not a special power. Rhetoric has more to do with setting up the conditions for good judgment than with persuasion” (pp. 184-5). Likewise, Woodruff adds: “The danger of demagoguery has been overstated by the enemies of rhetoric. History shows that masters of rhetoric do not manipulate people with consistent success. Again, the main point is that rhetorical debate is not a device for manipulation. By bringing out the best points on both sides, rhetoric serves the cause of good judgment” (p. 185). Do not blame the defense attorney, who was just dong his job, if the prosecutor does not make his case, as Professor Rivers writes in context of the O. J. Simpson trial.

Likewise, Protagoras’s habit of teaching his students to argue both sides of an argument was not a matter of “making the weaker argument stronger,” as his critics said (by which they meant, “making the wrong argument win”), but has to do with what I always taught (or tried to teach) my English students: that “the ability to make equally good arguments on both sides of an issue would help them account for a wide range of factors before making decisions” (pp. 186-7).

Most importantly: “Do not confuse the rhetoric of debate with lying. But leaders often lie about what is and isn’t known, in hopes of quelling debate.

“Lies are not a consequence of debate; they usually come from fear of debate. Before a debate has developed, the authorities weigh in with false stories – for which they declare they have secret sources” (Trump, for instance, with his reckless accusation of massive immigrant voter fraud, designed to stir up  fear to allow further restrictions on the vote: the true voter fraud) “– and so foreclose the possibility of open discussion.”

“Lies in politics are an old story, but do not blame them on rhetoric. Blame them on human credulity or our tendency to believe authority. But counter them whenever possible by campaigning for open discussion. Lies act on the market of ideas as subsidies do on commodities – they undermine our ability to choose on a rational basis” (pp. 188-9).

And now we are almost done with this accounting. Next: Education. Then: An Afterword that asks the vital question: “Are Americans Ready for Democracy?”


Thursday, September 21 – “Paideia is the kind of education that makes for better citizens, or (as we would say now) for better human beings,” Woodward writes in …

Chapter Nine. Education (Paideia).

“To the Athenians, ‘better’ meant ‘having more arete,’ and arete meant ‘excellence’ or ‘virtue.’ Athenians believed that good education would make young people better able to use good judgment, to live reverently, and to make decisions with justice” (p. 193).

The point about “making for better citizens” is an important part of what I have tried to convey in much of my post-2000 short fiction and essays. Even prior to my studies with Tom Rivers, I think I always thought of the English classroom as, in part, a civics classroom; that is surely what I had when I taught persuasion and began by showing the kids the documentary Incident at Oglala, presenting them with Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” and inviting the Greywolfs [friends at the time: neighbors and parents of one of my Spanish students: I write of them in my recent collection of old newspaper columns / essays, Confabulating With the Cows] as living representations of those ideas.

“First Democracy assumes that the community can teach the virtues that sustain it. Plato and Socrates rejected that assumption; to make matters worse, they rejected much of what Athens was trying to teach and many of its teaching methods as well. Socrates died over those differences. His view was based on a bad analogy between goodness and technical skill. A good community won’t make you a better doctor, but it can help you become a better person” (p. 195).

Protagoras, as represented in Plato’s Apology, schools Socrates on the nature of the education that Athenian children get from their community: “Starting from early childhood, and for as long as they live, they teach and admonish their children … fighting hard to make the child turn out to be as good as possible … when they send the child to school, they put much more weight on their concern that the children learn good conduct (eukosmia) than that they learn to read and write or play music.

“The teachers take this to heart. When the children have learned the alphabet and are ready to read, then the teachers put works of good poets before them and require them to learn by heart poems that are full of good advice, and stories and songs in praise of good men of old. Musicians do much the same … try to foster Soundness of Mind, and they keep the youngsters out of mischief. Then they set the poems to the music of the lyre, and make sure that rhythm and harmony dwell in the souls of the children, so that they will grow more gentle and their speech and their behavior will improve as they gain grace in rhythm and harmony, for all human life needs the grace of harmony and rhythm” (pp. 196-7).

            Continuing, after some further words on the civic instruction they get from the city, “Protagoras completes his point with a stunning analogy between language and ethics,” Woodruff writes:

“But as it is, Socrates, you’re spoiled: all of us are teachers of arete so far as we are able, and you don’t make any notice of us. It’s as if you were looking for a teacher of the Greek language [in Greece]; you wouldn’t notice a single one.”

Or, as Woodruff paraphrases: “Specialized teachers of Greek are not required because Greek children learn Greek from everyone. In the same way, the children learn Athenian standards of behavior from those around.”

Protagoras concludes his rebuke of Socrates thus: “‘If any one of us is even a little bit better at helping others advance toward arete, he should be welcomed. I believe that I am one of these, that I do a better job than others do in helping a person become fine and good, and that I am worth the fee I charge’” (pp. 198-9).

Reading this, I wondered why Plato, disagreeing so vehemently with this project, made Protagoras’s reasoning so eloquent and persuasive; generally, the figures he presents as Socrates’s interlocutors are really straw figures who are made to look foolish before Socrates’s false modesty (recognizing one’s ignorance is the beginning of wisdom; I don’t know the answers – yet, he sets himself up as the superior thinker). But I suppose Plato thought the whole argument, in defense of his making a living by charging people for his specialized instruction on the rhetorical arts, as self-evidently crass and self-indicting.

(Clearly, there is some irony in the fact that Protagoras “teaches only the sons of wealthy men. We do not know whether he was conscious of this irony. Plainly, Protagoras is right in what he says, though not in what he does. Education must be for all citizens” – p. 208.)

Woodruff goes on, in any case, to elaborate further on the elements of Greek education that Protagoras neglects to mention in this speech that Plato put in his mouth, but which does seem to fairly reflect his ideas. Prominent is the public performance of dramatic poets, already emphasized in earlier chapters.

Dionysius Theater in Athens

“Athenian theater was available to all citizens,” Woodruff writes. “Large numbers of citizens from all classes were involved in the production of the plays. When Cleocritus says ‘we were fellow dancers’ to the army of the aristocracy, he is speaking from the army of democracy. Poor men were fellow dancers with rich men, year after year in Athens. This sort of experience was a large part of what enabled Athens to come together after civil war. And this – not the expensive education of the well-to-do – was the real general education of Athenians” (p. 200).

“What is paideia good for?” Woodruff asks. “Consider the debate in Athens over whether to go to war. But will victory bring more good or evil to Athens? To the larger community of the Greek cities? These questions the general is not specially qualified to address. For educated debate, the Athenians needed citizens who see more broadly, more deeply, beyond the question of how to win, all the way out to distant consequences, all the way down to hard questions about good and evil.

“Years ago,” he continues, “I asked I. F. Stone whether education could ever do so much – could ever make us better citizens. After I counted the obstacles, he answered, ‘But, Paul, it should.’ He was right. It is what we need. Although experience does not encourage us, and we cannot hope for complete success, we must work the hardest for education, if we care about democracy. Like harmony, paideia is among our most idealistic goals. The two together, harmony and education, calls for us to reach beyond what is easy, beyond even what we can realistically expect” (p. 207).

A crucial obstacle, in ancient Greece, was the general population’s fear of what effect the “new learning” might have “on traditional values.” (Consider today’s “culture wars” in the U.S.A., where Zeus with his thunderbolt – in the guise of a cruel distortion of the Old Testament God – still reigns supreme in some circles!) “This,” Woodruff writes, “is the paradox of general education – that it must provide both continuity and challenge for the culture it is trying to sustain. First Democracy was committed to justice and reverence because these are essential to civic harmony. First Democracy was also committed to nourishing a homogenous culture, so that all citizens would be prepared to take part in governance. But these two goals clash with one another. The quest for justice and reverence does not end with the status quo. How to harmonize continuity and challenge? After the death of Socrates, no more philosophers were killed. Some were nervous, but Plato was left in peace to write his criticism of democracy. Athens seems to have settled into a kind of balance on this point. But the underlying question, like many about democracy, remains unanswered. How can a community maintain harmony while still inviting challenges to its conception of reverence and justice?” (p. 209)

            Afterword. Are Americans Ready for Democracy?

“What a patronizing question to ask anyone!” Woodruff writes. “Of course Americans are ready for democracy … if by ‘ready’ we mean ‘eager.’

“Suppose we give ‘ready’ a more sophisticated meaning, however. What if ‘ready’ means having a culture that can respond to the demands democracy makes? Does American culture meet the need? Not now, not entirely, not unless it changes” (p. 211).

“Pride points to the past, but I am asking about the future. Since World War II, the United States has fallen behind in the journey of the free world toward the ideals of democracy. Consider the seven ideas I have discussed in this book. The United States has not put any of them into practice with complete success, and in some cases the failure is glaring. In all cases, the United States seems to be moving away from ideal democracy. This point is not partisan; close observers of government have been warning us of slippage from democracy during several recent administrations, and under both of the leading political parties” (p. 212).

In the body of this last section, Woodruff delineates aspects of our decline in relation, one after another, to the seven ideas he has discussed. I will not list these observations here, though they are well marked in the book. I have touched on the same or related concerns, anyway, in my asides in these pages. In closing, I will only cite the last three paragraphs of his brief “Coda” at chapter’s end:

“Well it was long ago, but ancient Athens was not ‘unimaginably different.’ Modern America is dirty (it is the world’s leading polluter, after all), plagued by frequent warfare in far-off places, plagued by demagogues, its economy carried on the backs of illegal aliens and exploited workers in the third world.” (The allusion is to Louis McNeice’s lines in his Autumn Journal: “It was so unimaginably different / And all so long ago.” The truth, MacNeice went on to say, “is that Athens was dirty, dogged by constant warfare, / plagued by demagogues, its economy carried on the backs of captive slaves” – p. 231.) “The gap between our ideals and our practices is not so very different from the gap we have diagnosed in ancient Athens.

“The greatest difference is that the Athenians had ready access to ideas that could guide them to democratic reforms. They knew what democracy was supposed to be. And they did improve their democracy as they learned the lessons of failure. Few of us in modern America really know what democracy asks of us. The experience of Athens offers clues that should help us find our way – the success of the lottery in politics, the value of holding leaders accountable, the importance of curbing the power of wealth, the vigor that grows in a state when every citizen feels part of it. But Athens is not the blueprint for us. The best Athens has to give us is the challenge of its example. I do not mean the example of what it was, because it was never static. I mean the example of its dynamism, its untiring quest to realize ideals in practice.

“Are we ready to shake off the idea that we are already a perfect example of democracy? Are we ready to put the goals of democracy foremost in our political minds, as many Athenians did? Are we ready to admit our mistakes and learn from them, as they did? Are we ready to have a national conversation about democracy? Most importantly, are we ready to keep the great dream alive, the dream of government of the people, by the people, and for the people?” (pp. 231-2)

Of the Athenians’ use of a lottery to fill certain civic bodies and juries, I have had little or nothing to say, but in the body of this afterword he does propose ideas of the sorts of things we might try of a similar nature. Though exactly what they did is not something we could or should replicate. Rather, what they did is an appropriate springboard toward our own experimentation.

The notes and other materials that follow Woodruff’s text are scarcely less valuable than the text itself, but again I will not elaborate.

            As for the likelihood of our nation’s rising to the challenge, while there are some good signals in the air of possible changes, I rather expect that the most radical transformation will come after much further affliction and even the collapse of much that we consider essential to our national and global civilization. Let’s hope that the nuclear holocaust is averted, and the climate crisis mitigated enough so as not to prove the extinction of humanity itself. Our apocalyptic literatures themselves, perhaps modern texts like A Canticle for Leibowitz, more than Isaiah and the Hebrew prophets from their postures of religious certitudes. But I should not sell those prophets short; they were much more radical than we give them credit for being. If we can just put aside the doctrine and the dogma, the millennia’s weight of interpretation, we could do much worse than apply the spirit of egalitarianism and community that they preached. Theirs was not a community without its measure of diversity and tolerance. Except when the Israelites were invading Palestine and eradicating whole villages of men, women, and children, they looked with compassion on the strangers or foreigners among them, treating them with hospitality. In that sense, at least, they too have something to teach us. Though by now in my life, fed up with the downward pull of extreme fundamentalist religion, I look with more confidence to these ideas of the ancient Greek democrats. May they live again in spirit among us.


[Note: It has been a number of years since I read Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I am overdue to re-read it, but I offer it as a vivid and visceral memory that seems appropriate to the moment. For a discussion of the novel in terms of its theme of responsibility, I recommend my friend and fellow writer Marian Allen’s blog: