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The Recruiter: a story

Introduction: I offer up this dystopian tale – wrapped, as it is, in the fragile hope of the literary-rhetorical theme that suffuses it – as protest against the world as we presently find it and as it threatens, imminently, to become.

I offer it up, also, in support of the progressive movements for peace and justice that presently struggle against the brute forces of oppression, but that promise, if they are allowed to breathe, the sort of revolutionary change that still might create a world that we and our future generations can inhabit in relative harmony.

But I also hope that it will stand up on its own merits – as it has struggled through countless drafts and revisions to do – as a piece of literary art. A special thanks to Jill Adams, at The Barcelona Review, whose generous critique will certainly have helped me bring it a bit closer to that ideal.

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The Recruiter

by Brett Alan Sanders

And we become true lovers each one of the other’s freedom …

 

So I’ll just lay it out straight. The memory’s still fresh in my head, no less vivid than ever. Despite all the troubles been raining down on me and Rose since we left our proverbial pot for this urban frying pan and joined up.

The central and undeniable fact is the murder of that black recruiter. It happened just as things were really starting to heat up, nationally and planetarily, at the commencement of these great conflagrations that were about to bring our precarious and fractured Union to its knees for maybe the last time. Going on a century and three quarters after the first of America’s civil wars when Abe Lincoln was supposed to of freed the slaves for once and all.

It was then that the good soldier thought to bring his wife and their children to live with him there in that backwoods community of mine. His black wife and their three black children. To live with him there in that almost lily-white county where he quickly lost his own life. The mom and dad were both good-looking, the cute-as-buttons children like yea high to a grasshopper. I knew he’d brought them because we saw when they did their moving in. Me and Rose saw them, that is, Yolanda and Rosie who were joined at the hip since forever. Me with my lopsided fro and cafe-latte complexion, Rose with her fair freckled skin and red bangs, together we saw the movers unloading all their stuff into the old farmhouse across the way from my Scots-Irish grandma’s house. The only grandma I ever knew.

Some would say backwards community instead of backwoods, and I can’t deny there was more than a smidgen of truth to it still, but at least we weren’t all ignorant and intolerant bigots. What happened to this one man seemed to of woke some folks, too, though it wasn’t enough to stop the reckoning that was circling down on us.

And there’s always those few that were wide awake to start with. Like, for one, Rodriguez, the only person of color on the whole frickin’ faculty and maybe the only dyed-in-the-wool liberal, my red-eyed Kennedy-Democrat grandma said. Or call him progressive, like even then in their politically neutered state they liked to call themselves. Or maybe even socialist, or democratic-socialist, or radical-nonviolent revolutionist, though didn’t anyone hardly say those words anymore without a real careful glance over both shoulders.

Rodriguez mostly taught Spanish, but they also gave him a class or two of junior-high English, and it’s there I learned Martin Luther King’s speech about that dream he had of little black kids holding hands with little white kids in harmony and shit. We learned it because he made us watch it twice, once before and once after taking it apart and practically memorizing whole snatches of it, and then get up and give our own orations, he called them, all the while using pathos and logos and ethos just like all his ancient heroes.

He called it a class on the good lost art of rhetoric, he said, the kind makes for good citizens and constructive yet impassioned civic speech and action but that sadly we didn’t practice anymore in a meaningful way. And that was his big thing and, little punks that we were, we didn’t care to know squat about it. But he drilled it into our heads anyhow.

And then, in co-conspirator Kochenheimer’s World History, we were back at it again. She had us reading a speech by some dead Roman orator name of Cicero. Or Sissy-Row-Your-Boat-to-Shore like some of us preferred, Lord knows he was no barrel of monkeys. While good old William Shakespeare, on the other hand, long as you had one of those simpler and more modern texts like I preferred to read on my own, now there’s a guy could spin a tale!

So I was a freshman that year, not yet a decade ago when what I’m fixin’ to tell you occurred. Like I said, I was living across the road from where the protagonist of this story and his little family moved in. And this protagonist dude, like I said, this black man with his black wife and black kids all lined up and pretty, was an Army recruiter that’d been out to the school quite a lot schmoozing around in hallways and classrooms and in the cafeteria and trying to recruit juniors and seniors during their lunch, and plant seeds with the younger ones.

He’d made it out to football games, too, and volleyball and basketball, and  even attended a track meet and wandered down to the shot-put area where he talked to one big lug of a senior who’d been charming him off his feet since football season. Talking the talk about maybe joining up so he could go shoot ragheads in Syria or Lebanon or rebel Palestine, in Turkistan or Pakistan or Iran. Now as the first and mostly nonviolent wave of national resistance was about finished being crushed and the tanks back off the streets, our loudest dissidents in their cages or their graves or in hiding and the build-up over yonder picking up speed again – with full conscription of men and women, from eighteen to thirty years of age, beginning to be entertained in that farce of a Congress with its pale remnant of radical or semi-radical voices.

That was our antagonist, as a matter of fact, that big-talking football and field-and-track star, and that’s what he said: ragheads. I heard it from Rose who was there and hearing the whole conversation. And who of us hadn’t heard Mr. Antagonist Boy throw the N-word around while jostling our way through the senior hallway, where he used to hold forth with his fellow know-nothing rednecks? I was trying to get through there one morning, for example, when he saw me and said Talkin’ ’bout …. And just left that next word hanging there like a lynching rope off a ten-foot-high tree branch.

I was a country girl, too, but I didn’t like being called a redneck since, for one thing, I associated that word with Confederate flags they all wore on their T-shirts and on their ratty old cars and pickups. And for another I was a mixed-race kid with white mother in prison for dealing in opioids and meth and with part black, part American Indian father I never knew. So with Rodriguez and a smattering of black and Latinx kids I was one of roughly a dozen people of color in the whole frickin’ building.

As for the raghead thing, why it bothered me so much? Since the first occupations more than a quarter century ago after those towers went down? Before I was even thought of, but that Rodriguez showed some clips of the year before to the extracurricular film club. After he’d showed us a contraband copy of Dr. Strangelove from way back in the Sixties. And then, after the Contra Wars and the Persian Gulf, all the fresh fighting, us and our European allies with Israel in a decades-long regional wildfire that no one had the guts to call what it was: frickin’ World War III, if you’d asked me! It was Rodriguez, anyhow, got me thinking along those lines. On those evenings when you might sometimes catch him preaching, to his choir of oddballs and contrarians and misfits, that Mexicans and Central Americans and what precious little was left of our so-called illegals and our refugees, hither and yon, had their own perspectives and struggles and fears as valid as ours – and were no less human. So what got me, like my teacher said, was why didn’t we tally up Arab people’s deaths like we did our own? Like it didn’t matter that for their brown skin and their religion, for their bubbling crude or whatever else the hell it was we had against them, they were dying every day by hundreds and thousands beneath our predator drones and our bombs and missiles?

And yet, otherwise, except for our teacher’s cautious hints and a few unexplained “disappearances” of other outspoken dissidents, the uncivil war taking place almost at our county’s borders – heavily filtered and narrated on our mobile devices, computers, and big-screen TVs – seemed to hardly faze us.

But all caution aside, how Rodriguez lasted as long as he did I’ll never know. Got himself disappeared not more than a week after that liver-lilied administration had closed down his film club without a moment’s warning. It was early spring before I was supposed to of graduated, after I’d passed all the college entrance exams and earned an academic scholarship to the University of Louisville. Scattered bursts of guerrilla warfare already broken out around the country during the previous infernally hot summer.

But enough of that backstory and shit. Let’s get down already to the main mystery of this narration, to where Mr. Protagonist Man got himself to when he didn’t come home one evening.

Did that make someone else the protagonist if he wasn’t to turn up alive? And if not him, who else? Surely not me, Yolanda Ann Gilmore, though there was no one more caught up in this mess than that girl!

As it was, the recruiter didn’t tell anyone exactly where he was going, but chances were it was out into the boonies about a thousand county-road miles from where I lived, where at least we had a general store and some crumbling asphalt and not just endless woods all around with barely a rut to drive on. Mr. Gonna-Shoot-Me-Some-Ragheads was telling him, telling the recruiter, that is, to come on out to his neck of the woods if he really wanted and go ahead, talk to his momma and daddy and granddaddy, and there was a mess of a’nts and uncles, cousins and sisters and brothers out there, too, some of the boys bigger than him and already graduated or dropped out.

And so when Mr. Recruiter Man’s wife was down to the general store and the school and near everywhere asking frantic-like if anybody knew where he’d got to, me and Rose started to worry he might of actually gone out there. Nobody knew – well almost no one, I reckon – but rumors were flying fast and frenzied and some of them centered on Antagonist Boy and his family or neighbors out there in the middle of nowhere and with certain racist, Klan-like tendencies that had got themselves noted by folks visiting those parts. And that he and his people surely didn’t have their hands too clean in those affairs.

Rose, who was a sophomore and attended second lunch, said she heard from  some metal-head type during the days right after the recruiter went missing that he, that is the metal head, had taken our recruiter in his confidence and told him he mightn’t want to make that trip – inasmuch as people of color wandering out those parts on innocent sightseeing adventures had related some real hair-raising tales when they got back to the county seat safe and sound but majorly spooked. Said he heard one of those stories himself, sitting down one evening in some greasy local eatery, and it about gave him the heebie-jeebies.

Well, by that afternoon there were Army people out at the school asking lots of questions, plus National Guard from the nearest base and, by next morning, more Army from Lord knows where and all sorts of military vehicles combing the school environs, copters in the air flying real low over national forest lands and every bit of earth, wooded or clear, within this and the next county up and over. And even some plainclothes federal agents from Homeland Security, FBI, maybe even CIA – everywhere you go you couldn’t miss some trace of them. Local law enforcement, I heard, been told to keep their ears to the ground, their eyes open, and report anything suspicious, but otherwise to stay out of the way.

It was about a week later me and Rose almost got ourselves raped or killed or just beat up, or maybe all three, when at the start of study hall we grabbed a restroom pass and walked around the wrong corner at the wrong time as our familiar redneck and possible antagonist, after several days absent, was whispering something real confidential-like to one of his buddies. And we barely heard something like out back the house a couple mile when all a sudden they both spotted us and everything fell dead quiet. They pushed us inside the girls-room entrance, one of them grabbed me and the other one Rose, they slammed us both into the braces between the open metal doors of a couple stalls, the one who’d got me with his body pressed hard against mine like a lover gone psycho, like some reverse White Othello against his Dark Desdemona, his aroused sword not too short of inside me and him breathing foul breath into my mouth and nostrils.

He leaned into me, anyhow, put one hand on my breast and squeezed, then his other hand pushed into my throat so I couldn’t hardly breathe. Rose’s captor, I learned later when we mustered the courage to speak of it to each other, had both hands around her neck and slowly lifted her from the floor. The one who’d got me, our chief antagonist and potential rapist-murderer of previous mention, this choking sweating slobbering piece of chicken shit said between his teeth, one grunt at a time, sword-like exclamation points like bookends holding up both sides of his every utterance, he said one effing word out of me, or even look like we’re either one effing thinking about it, and we’re both effing meat for effing buzzards. But only after serving a few seconds as meat for the satisfaction of someone else than those vultures’ lusts, I have to believe.

We didn’t hear nothing, we coughed, won’t breathe a word, we softly sobbed once they’d loosened their strangleholds enough so we could verbalize our terror, our bodies all a-tremble like dry stalks of corn in an August windstorm. Then, before letting me go the rest of the way, my attacker smirked like some mad Klansman behind cone-shaped white hat and mask and hateful do-him-the-honor-of-attending-his-lynching-party gown and, while the other one landed two or three swift sucker punches to Rose’s gut, took both my nipples between thumb and finger and twisted inward till it felt like he was gonna rip them off, muttering That’s my pretty little brown-skinned girl – only he didn’t really say brown-skinned, if you get my drift – and landed a wet tongue all the way up my face.

So when they’d turned us loose and disappeared and we could hear their voices fading and laughing their way down the hall, we rushed into one of those stalls and, both of us already begun wetting ourselves, Rose all the more for those wallops to the gut, we took turns at finishing peeing in the same toilet, then to take away the smell and the slobber and the throbbing we flushed away the piss and dabbed and caressed at ourselves with toilet paper and clean toilet water over and over again, then pulled up our pants and for the longest time just held onto each other in that same stall, its door closed and latched, while long scarcely-audible sobs wrenched their way out from our deepest inner regions.

Some girl who happened in there during the next passing period ran to a teacher and hauled her over to our hiding place, this teacher lady then begging us out so we could go down to her classroom and talk in private – it just so happened to be her free period. We opened the door and slunk out but immediately we said no, we don’t want to talk, but then she noted bruises on our arms and necks and asked are we having some boyfriend trouble. No, we told her, and that girl still standing off to one side looking like she might bust out crying herself we told no, we can take care of ourselves, thank you very much. So that then out in the hall, the girl just standing back by that entranceway all somber-like, Teacher Lady still pressing, I finally croaked in my pathetic piercing drawl to just leave us the fuck alone.

And then everyone and her cousin droop-mouthed and staring and we looked at each other and turned and took off crying to Rose’s own redneck car, with no rebel flag or other shit like that but redneck all the same in a not-so-bad country sort of way, and we squealed those frickin’ tires and got the hell out of dodge.

Over the last couple weeks before their graduation and the commencement of our summer break, we were careful to wear scarves and long-sleeved men’s shirts when we did come to school and not go anywhere outside of passing periods – and then always in groups. But still they managed to keep running into us and lick their chops and leer at us in some sort of goddamn frickin’ follow-up warning. Like we could of ever forgot the first. And then through the summer we slept over at each other’s house most nights and lay in the same bed drifting fitfully to sleep, in the meantime whispering to get the courage to tell or else stick with our fear and convince ourselves we didn’t have any choice but to keep the secret.

Or maybe mail an anonymous note? And then cut and dye our hair and get big-ass sunglasses and rapper-style stocking caps and baggy pants? And get as far away as we could from that lousy place? Or instead, maybe just kill ourselves – Londie Ann and Anna Rose – in a suicide pact like some despairing Thelma and Louise? Drive over some frickin’ buzzard’s roost or other after eluding our tormentors just long enough to beat them to that fatal cliff?

Or, less likely, attack the bastards in their wilderness lair. Like a pair of crazed Furies with axes or scimitars and send them to a well-deserved and bloody Hell before they even know what’s hit them.

As time passed, anyhow, and we were back in school and the number of resources unleashed for that old manhunt mostly dried up, we took a sudden determination to come clean and tell what we knew even if it did mean our torture and death – at least we wouldn’t keep dying those thousand cowardly deaths the British Bard’s un-cautious Caesar warned against. But maybe it wouldn’t mean all that after all, those bullies by now fled the building and to us long gone. Or at least so we could hope, since we knew they were still at large in the county and might could still find us and finish up what they’d promised.

Before we ended up scaring ourselves out of it again I wrote a note with both our names on it and that we might know something about the missing officer, and right away slipped it into the hand of one of the recruiters still roaming the halls, a female veteran just back from one of those countries Rodriguez said we’d blown halfway to Hades and where an IED almost ended her life.

By now the handsome black wife and pretty children were gone for good, off in some less backwoods and benighted locale, I reckoned, where they could be with their families and be all sorrowful together. In our next passing period, anyhow, the soldier slipped her own note into Rose’s hand and we read it and ripped it up and headed to our separate classes where after five minutes or so we got the nod from our teachers who’d been discreetly contacted by administrative messenger. And we slipped out and both ended up one after the other in the same room where the principal and his assistant and a pair of soldiers awaited us with assurances that they’d protect us.

The military, we figured, were the ones most likely able to pay that promise more than lip service, but we kept that opinion to ourselves, afterwards ducking into separate restrooms and wandering the hallways a while before waltzing back to class. Each one’s tracks sufficiently cold and our hearts beating only at just a few degrees above their normal relaxed-time paces instead of twice or three times, like before.

The rest I know and can tell only from what I heard through the local mill of fact and rumor and what a couple of unauthorized internet sites put up, temporarily flying under the government censors’ radar – official media being eerily silent, like I’d overheard Rodriguez observe the previous spring just after the murder, dripping with an innuendo and irony that I took my time mulling over. Anyhow, those variously rogue facts and rumors were either confirmed or corrected or dodged later by that same lady soldier before she deployed again to Middle Eastern Hell.

If I was Shakespeare’s frickin’ daughter or something, I could maybe fill out  the story and imagine the scene of the murder and cover-up and all the rest, and pepper it with witty dialogue and an air of timeless tragedy, and make it stick with an underlying wisdom so people would be remembering it three or four centuries down the road, if our species even makes it that long. But I’m not. And I can’t. I’ll have to just tell it as best I can.

But what mattered, Rose kept assuring me, was what we did to make sure of those bastards’ being captured and punished, though the punishment we didn’t know how or when, or whether assisted in their homicidal plot by Turkish Caliphate or stateless Muslim terrorists or Mexican drug lords like some folks said. Or by the resurrected Aryan Goddamn Nation. Or all of the above. Or none.

What best might of happened, anyhow, and I couldn’t help feel sick to my stomach about certain parts of it – like maybe the cure’s somehow worse than the disease? – what seems to of happened is after sitting for a while and re-gathering military resources and making careful plans and studying topographical maps and maybe Google Earth, a military elite first hiked up into the furthest reaches of our national forest lands in a constant autumn drizzle and found the muddy pond, out back the house a couple mile from Perp-Number-One-and-Main-Antagonist where it was thought the recruiter’s car and body had been dumped. There they were, as it turned out, and once both their skeletal remains – the car had been disassembled and brought up in pieces, minus the engine and other usable parts – once all that metal was hauled out of the slime and muck and the body’s remains finally claimed and put in a bag and hiked back over and across and down the same hills they’d followed up, soon as that was done, the rain gradually dissipating, the sky clearing, part of the original elite party and reinforcements perched in their spot above that racist compound, guns carefully aimed on it – and here’s the part our lady soldier most vehemently denied, her denial as vehemently contradicted by all variety of voices including some that might of known – Army-green jeeps and trucks blazed up the broken dirt one-lane at the blood-streaked crack of dawn, and copters converged overhead, and troops swept down and in on them with murderous blasts of fire and fury like we’d never seen in those parts, until first three or four men came out, still in their underclothes and hands in the air, my assailant out front of them according to one version, shouting until a lull in the shooting and they could be heard over the din, pleading that they, the soldiers, not hurt the women and old people and little ones, that they, the men, the maligned, the defeated, offered themselves up courageously and without aiming to murder a single soul.

In that same version of the tale, I don’t know if I believe it or not, my assailant wasn’t even involved in the recruiter’s death but only in the disposing of evidence, since he was sure he would be a suspect or maybe just out of chivalrous intention toward whoever really did the deed, or maybe both of those motives together.

And then a woman came out carrying a child that was hit inside, where uncounted other corpses lay crumpled in pooling blood and shattered glass and splinters of wood and metal from the makeshift roof. Meanwhile all Kingdom Come’s right there on top of them, rifles pointed every which way and into every crack and cranny of every feebly standing structure, the woman with the dead baby pushed down in the mud alongside her valiant men who in her defense shouted bloody murder, the loudest of them promptly silenced with a rifle butt to the head so the work of getting everybody tied and gagged and possibly hooded could be accomplished with greater efficiency. That labor done, the compound’s cache of weapons was lifted up to hovering copters. Bodies in chains were scattered right and left across the ground, the living rounded up and the dead left under guard for later evacuation and cleansing of the place of killing – or field of slaughter.

And while all this was going down, before those all-terrain vehicles sped away with their human cargo tossed helter-skelter on the floorboards, at some other extreme of the county Perp Number One’s buddy, who in fact hadn’t been near the scene of the crime on either one of those fateful days, was lifted right out of his bed and packed away for his own conspiracy of sedition and silence.

After I’d managed to piece that horrific story together, my mind lingered like a hovercraft over the befouled place right before the first evacuation, the sound of children still bawling and women raging through my splitting skull, calling down vengeance from the bloody-cloaked God of the Apocalypse before their bodies join the others either shot-through or beaten unconscious, still alive for the purpose of enhanced interrogation. The stench of rancid corpses, meanwhile, baby corpses and old-people corpses, inside or out no longer mattered at this roofless, blighted homestead beneath a scorching early-April sun still wet from rains that wouldn’t return in more than spits or sprinkles for the devil knew how long, since they brought down on us the curse by those unholy prayers.

The reckoning that maybe all of us might of brought crashing down on ourselves, the whole cosmos disintegrating around us in a perpetual climate event to beat all hell while our leaders just sit in their frickin’ huddles, dreaming the blood and profits they can’t give up on. All mortal creatures’ end-times that still might or might not be partly averted.

I wondered about all that one afternoon as I took shelter under a mighty but fading oak, its shade seeming ever fainter as I looked out on the sloping fields behind my grandma’s house, waiting for the fire that in the coming dry-hot months might descend from heaven or from that horizon of woods with its drying leaves and needles just itching for a burn. Bodies of sweating cows, laid out in some sliver of a shadow at the edge of a puddle that was once a pond, vultures spinning overhead like infernal angels of dread and death, circling demons burning bright.

The remains of that black recruiter, anyhow, absent protagonist of this unhappy tale, were taken away in a coffin draped in red-white-and-blue to his mournful widow, awaiting bravely with her grieving children whose upper lips I imagine trained and firm like the pictures I’d seen of JFK’s kids all the way back in November of 1963 – or like MLK’s in the spring of ’68. And who might or might never witness a day when the rains of forgiveness fall on this earth in torment and such hatreds are finally put to rest. And we become true lovers each one of the other’s freedom, as Rodriguez liked to say before he got himself disappeared and me and Rose ran off to join this righteous revolution. So that Dr. King’s prophecy and Mr. Lincoln’s promise might at last be fulfilled for black and brown and white folk and rednecks and ragheads and reformed racists and every damn last one of us in a post-racial, post-apocalyptic, post-police-state American Frickin’ Paradise at last redeemed.

 

© Copyright 2020 by Brett Alan Sanders

On the “appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”

What follows – drawn from my journal of September 24, 2015 – is, I think, one of the more inspired pieces of literary criticism that have appeared in its voluminous pages. I offer it now as soothing balm for our sorely troubled historical moment, in the truly catholic (universal) spirit of Graham Greene’s novel.

Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene. 1938/1977. New York: Penguin Books paperback. 248 pages.

This is a Catholic book in the same sense that Don Quixote and Greene’s Monsignor Quixote are great Catholic books in the very best way – because of the enlightened, humanistic faith of the authors (Greene a convert, as a quite young man). In the same way, and for the same reasons, this is also a wonderfully Quixotic novel – in the same manner, I say, but of course differently. At first glance one might think its content considerably harsher (Nabokov would argue that the cruelty of the suffering that Cervantes’s hero endured is quite harsh enough!), but from early on it is leavened by a good sprinkling of humor and a great respect for human life and possibility.

The action is set in motion in the first chapter of Part One by the cold pursuit and murder of a man who himself is only incidental to what follows. The killers are a small contingent of petty gangsters, representative of the harsh underbelly of urban life in pre-WWII England, led (after the violent death of the older man who plucked him from obscurity and impoverishment) by a maniacal-diabolical seventeen-year-old referred to narratively as the Boy, but going by the name of Pinkie. He proves to be, in fact, essentially conscienceless and sociopathic, capable of acts that make all his dwindling crew of associates profoundly uneasy. More than that, given that very youth and inexperience, living in the shadow of the bigger gangster / businessman / potential political figure who really rules the roost, given all that, and the resultant insecurity which he expends so much energy denying (who, me? afraid?), he is a figure all the more dangerous because he is wholly out of control. And being, by birth,, a nominal “Roman,” as Roman Catholics were evidently called (and called by themselves) in that place and time, he has absorbed just enough theology or doctrine to be convinced that he has irredeemably chosen the Dark Side: that he is, to all intents and purposes, one of the damned.

Aside from him, the essential characters are a buxom, sensual bar singer / gentlemen’s escort (high-range prostitute) named Ida Arnold, who thinks of herself as a “sticker” (if she starts something, she sticks to it) who knows the difference between Right and Wrong and isn’t afraid to do something about it; and the sixteen-year-old girl Rose, a waitress and product of the same poverty as Pinkie’s and is also a Roman, but good-hearted and easily manipulated, who is swept into that Boy’s paranoid control and what she is willing to believe (and he, not too convincingly, to pretend) is love. In truth, by an unfortunate fact of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, she is in the gravest danger. But blustery, confident, determined Ida Arnold will spare no effort – despite Rose’s refusal to cooperate in her own salvation – to save her. Why? Because at the outset her path has crossed with that cipher of a man who by Pinkie’s order is killed for something he unfortunately knew. And when she figures out that he was the victim of foul play, because she had felt some instinctual sympathy for him, she determines to avenge his death – by her own initiative, if the police won’t help.

Beyond that I will reveal no more significant detail of plot than that poor mixed-up adolescent Rose does survive. While Pinkie, primarily by his own accidental contrivance, does not fare so well. In the final chapter of Part Seven, the final section, we find Rose in a confessional unleashing her convoluted story to a good priest who isn’t shocked by her insistence on being herself of the damned, that she does not want absolution but wishes she had kept her trust with the damaged man-boy who she thinks loved her. In true adolescent fashion, and with all the complications of her troubled upbringing and her basically useless parents, she is sure that she has discovered all to be known about love and that neither Ida (the bothersome busybody) nor the presumably celibate priest know anything about.

Rather than doctrinal lecture or contradicting what she feels with such passion and, there is no reason to doubt, genuine love, the good priest tells an exemplary story. “‘There was a man,’” he said, “‘a Frenchman, you wouldn’t know about him, my child, who had the same idea as you. He was a good man, a holy man, and he lived in sin all through his life, because he couldn’t bear the idea that any soul should suffer damnation.’” (“She listened with astonishment,” the narrator interrupts at this moment.) “‘This man decided that if any soul was going to be damned, he would be damned too. He never took the sacraments, he never married his wife in church. I don’t know, my child, but some people think he was a saint. I think he died in what we are told is mortal sin – I’m not sure: it was in the war: perhaps […] You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the … appalling … strangeness of the mercy of God.’”

He adds this, which must all have been great medicine to her soul: “‘It was a case of greater love hath no man than this that he laid down his soul for his friend.’” And further, among other things, he repeated this refrain: “‘We must hope and pray, hope and pray.’” Then to her question that what if, due to the mortal sin that she had already committed with this Boy, there should be a baby, he uttered this perfectly wonderful and transcendent counsel: “‘With your simplicity and his force … Make him a saint – to pray for his father.’”

I have to confess that, by the time he got to that phrase “‘the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,’” I was flat-out weeping. And even now, copying the line about making a saint of their hypothetical child, I was tearing up all over again. It is a powerful piece of literary mastery that provokes such a response. Even from an aging agnostic like me, who is so deeply moved by humanity’s spiritual instinct and longing for transcendence, without having to go out now and convert to the Roman (or Mormon) faith [I am myself a lapsed Mormon]. But at this point I could deeply appreciate whatever instinct it was that made the author a Catholic. Blessed are we his readers by the richly tolerant interpretation that he has lent to his faith. For all our benefit who read his words.

If only all our religious leaders (so-called) would counsel as generously and as wisely! We could dispense with the hateful counterfeit religiosity that gleefully assigns to hellfire all Muslims and homosexuals or liberal socialists, while celebrating that they themselves are “forgiven” – even those who, slipping down from their high horse, are caught in mortal sinning of their own. God save us, if I may use that rhetorical device, from the false religionists who haven’t even given a second thought to the souls of their enemies who are consigned to damnation. The true “saints” – saved, despite everything, by the “appalling strangeness of the mercy of God” – are the ones who aren’t out there just for themselves. They are the true representatives of a Judeo-Christian or Islamist or any other genuinely merciful God.

As for my own nation’s “political leaders (so-called)” – taking advantage of the shock of the pandemic to further shower the wealth of the country’s laborers on the corporate masters (the only ones whose fortunes are increasing at the moment) – I guess we should be raising up little saints to pray for their souls. I confess that I am not that saint; I should rather damn them. But instead let me raise this prayer on behalf of all our future little saints: may they inherit a more humane economy (social and political) – and an inhabitable planet on which to love and pray and work. Amen.

A pandemic-related satire, with afterword

If I had ever read the dark “fantasy” called “The Mask of the Red Death,” it might have been in junior high in one of those Scholastic Book anthologies: Tales of Dread and Mystery by the Inimitable Poe,” or something of the sort. Be that as it may, I didn’t really remember the story when I encountered some citations from it in a pandemic-related commentary on the Consortium News website a couple of weeks ago, more or less.

The commentary and the allusion were compelling enough to me that I immediately rushed downstairs, grabbed my copy of The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe, and browsing the Table of Contents swiftly located it. Turns out that, while the story itself has been consigned to the shadows and cobwebs of my cluttered literary memory, the title had once sounded familiar enough to underline.

So: “The ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country,” Poe begins rather promisingly. But, if I may skip over the gory details and speed things along a bit, only when “his dominions were half depopulated” did the “happy and dauntless and sagacious” Prince Prospero finally do something about it.

And so what did he do about it, you ask? Did he, in his great and wise sagacity, send forth all the resources at his command – to tardily succor and assist the suffering masses? Well, no, of course not. No one, in those benighted times would have known what to do about it anyway. So let them die, if they must. Culling the heard, you know. Let them eat cake.

No, instead he “summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.”

A gated community, you might call it, stop-gap on the road (enter Jules Verne, here) to first settlement on Mars, which surely the novel red-death virus could not penetrate.

“The abbey was amply provisioned,” Poe writes. “The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori …”

Stand-up comedians: “Two phantoms walked into a bar …”

“… there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there were cards, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were theirs. Without was the ‘Red Death.’”

Until, of course, it was not. And of all times the phantom might have chosen to make his bloody appearance (“bloody” in every sense of the word, British oath included), it was the great masked ball which was to have been everyone’s delight. And was, until the uninvited presence of another masked figure was noted, and “at length” produced a general reaction “first of disapprobation and surprise – then, finally, of horror, of disgust.

In a gathering of ghastly phantoms such as Poe’s narrator paints (the description of which, with the layout of the great chambers, I hasten to pass over), you might well think that anything would be allowed. And so it would have seemed to everyone present, had this intruder not gone too far.

The figure “was tall and gaunt and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave,” we are told, the face-concealing mask “made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse” that you couldn’t have told the difference had you come right up against it. And yet still, all might have been almost forgiven had he not had the audacity to dress up as the Red Death himself, clothing “dabbled in blood” and face all “bespeckled with the scarlet horror.”

Allow me to pause, dear reader, while I gather my bated breath and give you the space to gather yours. And while doing so, perhaps we can all stop and consider who this masked invader might be.

Some illegal pilgrim, perhaps, foul cockroach from one of those pestiferous regions outside the Insurmountable Walls built up along our borders – who somehow found the means of over-leaping or under-tunneling them?

And how, pray tell, will the ever “happy and dauntless and sagacious” host respond when he beholds the sight?

“‘Who dares?’ he demanded hoarsely – ‘who dares to make mockery of our woes? –’”

Wait, whose woes? Aren’t all the woeful ones outside in that “external world,” somehow fending for themselves?

“‘ – Uncase the varlet – that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements. Will no one stir at my bidding – stop and strip him, I say, of those reddened vestures of sacrilege!’”

But no one dare touch him. Until the prince, embarrassed by “his own momentary cowardice,” rushes at him with drawn dagger. But confronted with the reality that, only appearing to flee, suddenly turns to face him, our Naked Emperor – (oh, pardon! I’m dipping into someone else’s fantasy, mixing metaphors) – I mean, our not-so-dauntless prince screams, drops the drawn dagger, and falls prostrate in bloody death.

“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death,” our undaunted narrator concludes. “He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall…. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

*

Thus endeth our dreadful tale. But without beating the horse dead, if you will, a brief afterword:

Am I hallucinating, or did the U.S. government just hand an almost bottomless slush fund to the same financial institutions who tanked the economy a dozen or so years past? With the Foreclosure King himself, Wall Street criminal extraordinaire, in charge of the Treasure? With toothless oversight by a token watchdog assigned from the Naked Emperor’s own court?

So, a dozen years ago we bail out the Top Dogs, the same ones whose greed and predation crashed the economy in the first place – and that worked out so well that we’re doing it again, only on steroids?

And how much of that ill-gained lucre trickled down to you? How much of it’s in your wallet?

Wait. Isn’t that the Naked Emperor, Himself, cozied up to the Socialist Trough? He and his emperors- and empress-in-training, looking after the bottom line of their Imperial Emoluments Foundation? (And why didn’t the opposition party’s leadership impeach a year or two earlier on the utterly obvious violations of that Constitutional clause?)

But we can’t direct the nation’s factories to mass-produce some protective gear and other important stuff for our nurses and doctors because that’s – what’s the word – Socialist? And we can’t have healthcare for all (whether we want it or not) because that’s Socialist, too?

Isn’t it funny how the ones who get shaken down and accused of theivery are always the ones on the bottom – the underdogs; los de abajo, as they say south of that Beautiful, “Bloody,” Border Wall –while those at the top make out like bandidos?

And how the ones leading the way and helping their neighbor- and even distant-countries in these times of pandemic are poor and/or Socialist ones like Cuba and Venezuela, or Iran and China? While the United States of America remain in various states of confusion, denial, and unpreparedness?

How is it, again, that my “Honorary Uncle” Bernie can’t be President because he refuses to say how he’ll pay for his Socialist programs? Even though he’s had a list of options up on his website for, like, ever?

And why can’t we let some lowly American workers get away with being paid a few dollars more on pandemic-related unemployment than they earned on the job? Or why can’t we spare a couple thousand per person per month until all the dust on this crisis has clearly settled?

Forfend that we even speak of canceling mortgage or rent payments and student loan debt and anything else that might make the average Jane’s and Joe’s lives easier!

Yet no one asks how we’ll pay to continue bombing foreign countries into submission for decades and decades on end? Or how we’ll pay for that Great Tax Cut for the Plutocrats? Oh, and that other one? And the one coming up? And …

Maybe it’s just a matter of “survival of the fittest,” of “culling the herd,” as leaders from our own Naked Emperor to his friend across the Pond have been heard whispering? And even some of our European partners on the Continent – inevitable deaths and all, but what’s to be done about it?

And how is it that we tell when a Socialist experiment has failed – like Venezuela’s, say; or Chile’s – when we kill it in the cradle and fight it in the jungles and choke it off with our brutal economic sanctions and blockades (which, pandemic or not, we only ever hunker down on!) and raise obscure opposition leaders to the throne – sorry, I mean seat of government?– well, you get the drift.

Is that how we build democratic nations, too? Is that what our planes or our drones are doing when they drop missiles on weddings in Afghanistan or finance the bombing by Saudi murderers of schools and hospitals and orphanages in Yemen?

Oh, and from the vantage point of that kid whose whole family perished in that drone attack in Afghanistan, who would you say are the terrorists and who the freedom fighters?

Have I left anything out?

Anyway, just asking. Because in the era of fact-free governance and timid, corporatist journalism, it may seem that we have no answers.But it’s the questions, then, that really matter, right?

Asking the right ones, I mean – “rude” as they might sometimes seem to Naked and/or Oblivious Power.

“… a multitudinous, joyous, and peaceful march …”

These momentous words – spoken this Saturday morning, October 26, 2019, by Chilean president Sebastián Piñera – come in response to the more than a million peaceful citizens who yesterday, October 25, swarmed the streets of the capital, Santiago, and other cities throughout the country in protest against rising inequalities and punishing economic policies. I have just had the pleasure of listening to the crucial part of his speech in Spanish. Here my rough translation:

“The march that we all saw yesterday, a multitudinous, joyous, and peaceful march, opens great paths and hope for the future. We have all heard the message. We have all changed.”

He goes on to speak of giving “true, urgent, and responsible answers to these social demands from all Chileans”; he also promises, “that if circumstances permit, it is my intention to lift all states of emergency within 24 hours of next Sunday”; and then, perhaps most significantly, he has asked all government ministers to step down so that he can put together a new cabinet best able to put into effect policies to best address those “social demands” of the people.

There are a couple of caveats there. But before I get to them, and to some pertinent background, I want to make clear my reason for this writing: because I am incredibly inspired by this latest action of more than a million Chileans – an action now praised by that the same president who, days earlier, had declared that the police and military forces he had unleashed on protesters were “at war with a powerful and implacable enemy” (Wikipedia, “2019 Chilean Protests”). Now, having discovered that his government, through its social and economic policies, was actually at war with the Chilean people, he has had a change of heart. It moves me deeply to see what an ultimately peaceful uprising of citizens can accomplish.

Particularly inspiring to me is the glorious picture of the masses surrounding and ascending a statue, holding up flags – mostly, Chile’s national flag – against the brilliant colors of dawn, at the bottom of my primary source-article at commondreams.org (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/10/26/over-1-million-chileans-take-streets-demand-political-reforms-change-countrys ).

And naturally I hope that similar millions (millions and millions, consistently and persistently) can produce similar results in my much larger and more populous country. The climate strikes on September 20 and 27 brought out six or seven million people around the world; can we get as many in Europe alone, and more than that in the U.S.? I was a small part of the climate strike, traveling to Evansville, Indiana from my small town in mostly rural Perry County; my ability to travel is at present restricted, so I can’t join the masses in much larger cities: perhaps my writing, at least, will have greater impact, if only for a few.

So I am also inspired by the mass movement that Bernie Sanders has started, and that has been taken up in their own manners by such as the much-maligned and proportionally effective Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib; and I hope that a mass movement of bodies in the streets and at the ballot box will fill the House and Senate, not to mention the White House (and the many state and local races from which change percolates up!), with progressive Democrats and/or Democratic Socialists: show me some progressive Republicans these days and I will root for them, too. But what makes the movement successful – aside from the radical commitment to nonviolence – is the eloquence and the clarity of the rhetorical argument: and I don’t think there are many greater or more eloquent communicators, at the moment, than Bernie, Alexandria, Ilhan, and, of course, Greta Thunberg.

But to get back to the caveats in the Chilean president’s statement: first, the “if circumstances permit,” which must refer, I imagine, to the unfortunate destruction of property and violent confrontation with the police and military. I have read that some civilian death came of people dying in buildings that protesters had set on fire, and I find that appalling. Again I emphasize that the only revolution I support is nonviolent revolution such as occurred in the streets of Chilean cities yesterday. And I regret the unleashing of violence and death from either side. I wish it were not so.

But a couple of points about that. One, violence against people is, according to my set of values, a greater wrong than violence against property; though it would seem, according to many courtroom sentences, that life must be considered much cheaper than property: in particular if the property is owned by the wealthy and powerful, such as when climate protesters destroy the machinery involved in building the pipelines that threaten the safety of their water and our air. Even if they only turn off the valves, or like the recently convicted Plowshares 7 who “‘prayed, poured blood, spray-painted messages against nuclear weapons, hammered on parts of a shrine to nuclear missiles, hung banners, and waited to be arrested” – and who were not allowed, in court, to speak of the moral and ethical reasons for their action; such as, for example, that even limited nuclear warfare, as our own government is quite stupidly considering, could easily lead to the destruction of all humanity (“Because Federal Government Is Allowed to ‘Weaponize the Law,’ Plowshares 7 Found Guilty for Anti-Nuclear Protest,” by Eoin Higgins, Common Dreams) .

Two, in respect to the senseless destruction of even the rioters’ own neighborhoods – of their community’s limited wealth – in riots, I think of James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son” about, in part, the 1948 Harlem riots, where he also considers the waste of all that destruction, that “It would have been better to leave the plate glass as it had been and the goods lying in the stores”: “It would have been better,” Baldwin writes, “but it would also have been intolerable, for Harlem had needed something to smash. To smash something is the ghetto’s chronic need” (see my blog essay of Sept. 21, 2014 for a much fuller treatment of Baldwin’s essay).

Likewise in any community boiling with barely suppressed resentment over the vast income disparities that exist in places like Chile, Brazil, and even the United States: when it boils over, destruction is probably inevitable. Thus the necessity of a strong rhetorical argument, as I mention a few paragraphs above, coupled with strong community outreach and organization to channel and redirect that rage in directions – nonviolent directions, one would hope – that might actually yield a more positive result.

If conditions permit,” then, is a possible escape clause that Piñera’s government might use to go back on his promise: any slight occurrence, even one provoked by police or military forces, or by saboteurs posing as protesters.

Then there is also the caveat of time. It isn’t clear to me if the “next Sunday” means tomorrow or the Sunday after tomorrow, but most likely the latter. That seems to me like an unnecessarily long time, one that adds to the possibility of some excuse not to go through with the promise. And there is always the question of who will the new cabinet consist of, and then what measures (or half or quarter measures) they will take to address those socioeconomic issues.

I remember how disillusioned I was when, at the beginning of 2009, Barack Obama assembled an economic team that consisted of the very criminals who had created the financial disaster: on the precarious assumption that, since they broke it, they were the ones to fix it. Even so, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and kept hoping for the best. Now I hear how he continues to boast to the oligarchs about how his policies sure delivered them the goods.

So the Chilean resistance will have to stay alert. Do everything possible to keep from a resurgence of violence, but also to call the government – with more millions back on the streets – on any bogus retreat from its commitment to change.

As do all of us. One of the sad lessons of history is that the same rhetorical arguments in favor of progressive democratic governance have to be reiterated, re-taught, and reinforced with each new generation. Because, without any doubt, the forces who oppose the people’s interest will be out in power to repeal any gains that we might have made.

That is the ultimate “forever war,” I suppose. The one that cannot possibly be escaped.

“All for one, one for all!”

One of the great pleasures of being a grandfather, for me, has been taking the grandkids to the theater. The latest of these excursions took place on the afternoon of Sunday, October 20 when Nadina, our middle child, and her two oldest, Adria and Max, joined Anita and me to see the University of Evansville Department of Theatre’s presentation of Megan Monaghan Rivas’s play – inspired by the novel of Alexandre Dumas – The Three Musketeers.

And the early reviews are in, starting with the youngest: “That was a great play!” said Max, who at almost-eight can be easily distracted, but was enthralled with the numerous fencing scenes – just as I had anticipated, which is why I thought this would be an ideal play for him. He is quite engaged himself in the martial arts.

Adria, for her part, at ten a more thoughtful and reflective viewer, commented to me afterwards: “It should really be named The FOUR Musketeers”; and to my comment that, well, d’Artagnan only became a musketeer in the final scene, her rather mature response: “But didn’t we all know from the beginning that she was going to be?” The girl does have a point; she isn’t a bad reader of the dramatic (con)text.

And to the alert reader of this essay I now answer: Yes, that was a she that we all knew from the beginning was going to become Musketeer #4! For, as Diane Brewer explains in her “From the Dramaturg” note in the program – in the spirit of Dumas’s comment that he had written “‘history as imagination would have it, not history as it really was’” – Rivas’s characters “live in a version of 1625 that accepts 21st-century possibility: the workplace is categorically open to all women.”

The play is infused with this 21st-century idealism. A particularly moving scene to me is when d’Artagnan first sees Constance and stops in her tracks: love at first sight, beyond any doubt, and later there is that sweet exchange of furtive kisses between two young women. How good and how natural that all felt to me! How happy I was to see it! (I have always been, for good or ill, something of a romantic.) And isn’t a woman’s or a man’s right to love whomever they will love, regardless of gender, as good and as natural as a woman’s right to equal status with a man in the workplace?

Be all that as it may, it is no small matter to find among the original three musketeers one woman, and in the fourth another. And then there is the heroic and ill-fated Captain Treville, who ably commands the lot of them, but loses her life in defense of their creed: “All for one, and one for all!” – she, too, is a woman. (The contract represented by that slogan, incidentally, does not apply solely to each other, but also to king and queen and to their realm: the all of their community.)

Which leads us to the bigger question, the larger one for which Captain Treville dies. In a late scene, when d’Artagnan has been unjustly slandered as a traitor to the crown, one of the musketeers tests her; and she answers eloquently, ingenuously, utterly convincingly, of her faith in that communitarian spirit of one for all, and all for one that is so absent in the corporatist individualism and economic tyranny that today deflect attention, from the profiteers’ theft and their warmongering, by turning the tread-upon masses against each other.

Perhaps most notable is this play’s distinct anti-war and anti-violence ethos. This is evident in the queen’s repeated admonitions to prevent France, her adopted nation, from being drawn into a disastrous and destructive war, but first of all in the early scene where one of the musketeers teaches the new applicant to control her temper, to learn to use her head and always to exhaust all possibilities in the effort to avoid bloodshed. I have not read Dumas’s novel; I suppose that something of this must originate in its pages. But in any case, the frequent bursts of sword-fighting practice among musketeers and musketeer-in-training exude a great sense of play, of competitive sports and sports(wo)manship, albeit in preparation for the negative potentialities of the bearing of arms.

Twenty-first century possibility, indeed, is colored by the increasing divisions and uncertainty of the present reality. “All for one, and one for all”? We seem to be a long way from any such communitarian ethic today, but then, so was the reality of Dumas’s and the historical King Louis XIII’s France; though at least they didn’t have to worry about the apocalyptic threats of nuclear war and climate suicide.

Brewer comments, anyway, toward the end of her note, on the specific historical moment of Rivas’s work on this play:

Rivas was in the midst of writing her version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS during the contentious aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential election. The triumph of a leader who pledged to build a wall between ‘us’ and ‘them’ infuriated her. She saw the idealistic value of ‘all for one, and one for all’ slipping away. But, like Dumas, she foiled the pressure of despair and returned to her writing with a vision of a world that could – and should – exist.”

And so must I return to mine. Presently I am at work on some fragments of what might become a novel. We shall see. The writing itself is an act of hope, a sword-thrust against despair. Perhaps there has never been a better chance than now to reshape society into something resembling what it should be. While my contribution is small (I did also make the hour-long journey to Evansville on September 20 to attend the climate protest, though that is the least I could do), the writing has always intended to make a meaningful contribution to the artistic record of our times – to shine light on human meanness and frailty, to be sure, but also to illuminate the possibilities of a better collective future.

Never mind that we never quite realize that ideal and perfect society: if we imagine it together, why can’t we do far better than the dark path down which the moment’s prevailing powers have us careening?

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.

Borders

“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 https://the-otolith.blogspot.com. 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

THE PETREL FLIES NORTH

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:

mirrored

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.

 

COUNTING TIME LIKE LOOPS OF ROPE

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.

 

BLIND FORWARD

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

Bloom

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:

Rings

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

Stainless

Trenchant

An unmistakable knife.

 

FLASH POINT a liquid’s lowest temperature of ignition

I step thru day, with the permission

Of heartbeat,

Genes,

Limbs:

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:

Unwavering

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.

 

IF YOU HAVE TROUBLE OPENING YOUR EYES on waking

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.

 

I AM HERE TO DEFEND my toys

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.

 

BELIEVE IN GOD THE WAY YOU BELIEVE IN ICARUS & starlight

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.