“The Sweetest Dish”: On the Healing Magic of Storytelling

51BBuzGzKIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Forgive me my absence of these several months. By way of apology, rather than excuses or explanations, I offer the following pages – on the art of storytelling – from last fall’s personal journal. It is only lightly edited.

Saturday, October 14 – It is arguable that the lead character in my friend Marian Allen’s book Shifty: Tales from the World of Sage (2016, Corydon / New Albany, Indiana: Per Bastet Publications. 125 pages) is Farukh, the storyteller, “from the distant land of Sule” (p. 54). He does make an appearance in five of these thirteen stories, and dominates the two mythic tales (“The Mountain Who Loved the Moon” and “How the Tortoise Got His Shell”); that’s more than the next two in line, the members of the Festival Players’ acting troupe. But while Farukh’s presence is made explicit in only two of those five instances, one must imagine that he or someone like him is implicitly there in the others from which he is apparently absent or invisible. Because, at its heart, each of these tales is, in its own way, a study of the art of storytelling. Now that I finally sit down to read them through in their final form – I remember several from her reading of the drafts at our writers’ group meetings – I really take the measure of Marian Allen as a specialist in that art. This only makes me more determined, someday, to read the Sage trilogy of fantasy novels from whose world these new, shorter tales are spun.

“Hear! Hear!” Farukh exclaims at the outset of the second and shortest tale, “The Mountain Who Loved the Moon.”

“Yes, it is I, Farukh Suria’ Apa-Dan , storyteller extraordinaire. Settle upon the cobbles of the marketplace, here, around my rug, and listen.”

And then, his story told, the request for coins: “Please toss them into my hat. If I find enough in there to buy something to soothe my voice, I’ll tell you another” (p. 18). He emerges as something of a rascal, a personality, a presence as permanent as the towns and countryside through which he travels, as vital as the bigger actors who populate the different tales.


Marian Allen

“There are two people who are always welcome in any village in rural Istok,” we read at the beginning of “The Sweetest Dish”: “a good cook and a good storyteller”; and, further: “Some say that feasts attract storytellers – pratiers, as they’re called in Istok – the way honey attracts badgers, but truth is, when a pratier shows up, forehead crossed by colorful beaded band, a reason for the feast is found” (pp. 85-6).

And, at story’s end, this wonderful line: “Everyone agreed that the sweetest dish is one that comes with a story” (p. 90).

At the end of the brief introduction to “The Warmth of Midwinter,” second to last story, these two paragraphs, which end with a similar sentiment:

“‘This story,’ said the storyteller, ‘ takes place in the land of Layounna, not far from the capital city of Kadasad, on the bank of the Fiddlewood River. The time was in that lean and cheerless passage of the season, and the year was such-and-such.’

“The audience chuckled. Who cared what year a story happened? In the mouth of a good tale-spinner, a story took place around you – to you – even as it was related” (p. 102).

The itinerant acting troupe, in their consecutive tales (“Heart’s Desire”; “The Planting of Evidence”; “Command Performance”) serve a similar function, with their theatrical productions. Though, like roving Gypsies and circus or carnival crews, they were not always trusted after certain hours: “A city supper and beds in an inn were rare treats,” we read early in the latter of these stories.” “Only large towns were sophisticated enough to risk allowing such rascals as actors to linger overnight” (p. 49).

But the open road, the freedom and the risk of the unknown path, are themselves fruit of much popular and even literary narrative. This is certainly the case in these tales, which often bring the protagonist up against the known borders of their worlds, landing them in mortal danger. Will they have the qualities of strength, imagination, and determination necessary to meet and prevail in the face of the uncanny and the shifting tales of fortune?

th9XH9XU5FI remember, in a television production of The Arabian Nights that I really enjoyed, the role of the old, white-bearded storyteller whose crucial task it was to coach an extremely vulnerable Sheherazade in the art of suspense, of leaving the, in her case, lunatic-psychotic listener on the edge of his seat, so that she could gain one more day to entrap him in the healing magic of her fictions. The importance of story was so well articulated there; I used the film to good effect with my English students.

Likewise, from literary writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and the wonderful Sholom Aleichem, I have learned the extent to which the story is central. It is central even in experimental works like Joyce’s Ulysses, though few readers will be able to get through the artifice to the narrative; Virginia Woolf does it just as artfully, but with a narrative simplicity – even as it flowed on the protagonist’s consciousness, on the stream-of-consciousness on which the larger narrative is woven in Mrs. Dalloway.

Marian has asked me what it is that distinguishes “literary” fiction from the genre fiction that she and other writing group members tend to work in. I don’t know how well I’ve been able to answer that, only to point to some of the techniques that I have used (in A Bride Called Freedom, for instance) to make the historical romance visibly pertinent to our present moment. Explicitly pertinent, I might say, as I do by juxtaposing the modern voice of Viviana whose emails become the frame through which 19th-century Argentine legend is made immediate to both North American past and present. Each work has its own method, which may be more subconscious than conscious. In “Courting Mel,” my romantic comedy that will grace the pages of the anthology that I’m presently struggling to put together, among other things there are a series of allusions to the immediate backdrop of build-up to war in Iraq that gives the romance some of its darker edge. Then there comes the allusion to Twain’s “War Prayer,” which puts (in Cameron’s mind) the story’s dilemma of love won or lost up against the dilemma of the one who prays for victory on his own nation’s field of battle – and, thus, blight and destruction on the enemy’s. Thus and so forth.

But I mention all that because, here, in the simple grace of Marian’s “genre” fantasies, the seriousness and importance and pertinence of the work are implicit in the craft itself. She who has ears, let her hear. There were at least a couple of moments in these stories – I won’t try to pinpoint them now (I read, as I rarely do anymore, without marking up the text!) – where it occurred to me that I wish a certain contemporary politician, not to mention a few of his more reactionary cohorts, could read this and reflect on its teaching. But, of course, some ears are not made for hearing, and I suspect that he is beyond comprehending, incapable of shame or self-revelation. But, there the wisdom lies, in all its simplicity and its nuance.

My present journey amongst Marian and her crew of southern Indiana writers has certainly helped me to push aside whatever snobbery might exist or might have existed in (especially my youthful) ambitions as a distinctly literary artist. Though, in fairness to that idealism, what I really felt a revulsion toward were the cookie-cutter Harlequin Romances and such. And, beyond that, I have always been open to instruction, as when I picked up Louis L’Amour’s memoir – Education of a Wandering Man, I think it was – which led me to take a respectful, if brief, glimpse at the art of his Western fiction. At the same time, I have always been attracted to the populist in literary fiction: John Steinbeck, for instance, read and admired by the common man. And that’s the kind of literary writer I have always wanted to be. Even in my wildest experimentation, I have been at pains to make the experimental form accessible and comprehensible.

th461VYQDSA new milestone in this evolving understanding of the subject occurred on Saturday, last week, at the Imaginarium in Louisville, where I attended a panel discussion on which sat Marian’s pseudonymous daughter, “Sara Marian” (well, her flesh-and-blood daughter, who uses that pseudonym). She, like me, had literary pretensions, and has abandoned her early efforts along those lines, viewing them as hopeless failures. But now, with her rather popular (one of Per Bastet’s top two sellers) The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn, in the writing of which she simply tried to write a good story, she feels that she has expressed a good deal of what she had hoped to say in a more deliberately literary fiction. Inspired, by the way, by the likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky! How could I not love her?

That book, I gave as a gift a couple of Christmases past to my daughter Nadina. Don’t know if she’s read it yet, but someday I must. As for me, while also having moved on from my early efforts, I continue to fashion a more deliberately literary body of work; and, at the same time, I have some faint hope of returning to some of that early but, ultimately, unsuccessful work and crafting something more palatable to a general public. If I succeed at that, I imagine that my present sojourn among so-called genre writers like Marian Allen and her charming daughter will have played a role equal to, if not superior to, my “literary” influences and models. This book – Shifty: Tales from the World of Sage – makes that ever so clear. The proof is not in the pudding so much as in the story, the narrative, dressed up however it might be in literary apparel. I don’t believe there is any need to look down one’s nose at this popular literature, so long as it is finely crafted and imagined. As this work is.


On the souls of men and horses: Cormac McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy”

Note: Rather than a polemic against my nation’s punitive society, reflected clearly enough in our benighted immigration policy, our broken justice system, our mad rush to ecological devastation and/or nuclear annihilation, our increasingly unequal economic regime that punishes our humanity and rewards selfishness and greed – need I go on? – rather than that, let me share a page from my journal (Oct. 3, 1999): an extended meditation on Cormac McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy” (All the Pretty Horses; The Crossing; and Cities of the Plain).

Martin Luther King, Jr. : “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It is my hope, as I reflect again on this classic American literature, with its austere yet not unhopeful vision, that the worst of whatever ill destiny beckons humanity today might still be averted. May life continue, for our children and grandchildren, in something resembling its usual patterns – its arc still bending slowly toward mercy and justice, however erratically and impossibly in the seemingly indifferent universe we inhabit.

While what follows does necessarily contain some spoilers, I can only suggest the wealth of detail that has made it, for me, such essential reading. I offer it in the spirit of the best of what we call (not pejoratively, I hope!) “literary criticism.”


These three novels, as I have already noted, comprise McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy.” The first volume, which I have read three times now, remains in my heart the most beautiful and perfect, though this latest re-introduces that original hero in an equally compelling story. Volume two introduces another recurring hero, the only one, as it turns out, who will survive into the new millennium where we last see him. As a series these novels constitute, in my estimation, the elevation of the genre “western” to serious literature that will stand the test of time and any comparison to classics of any time and place.

These are not happy stories. Their central themes concern violence and love and loss, perhaps primarily loss. And yet these are stories that, without the slightest touch of sentimentality, even as they are wrenching out your heart along with any last illusions you might have entertained that so-called “happy endings” are generally possible, have nevertheless enriched your heart in a way you wouldn’t want back for any of those illusions. And it is not, for all of its brutal darkness, a vision of humanity that is entirely bereft of hope. For every vision of senseless and hateful violence and betrayal, for instance, there is a counteracting vision of human goodness, even if it is of the sort that doesn’t prevail in historical-political terms.

The view of Mexican history and society that emerges, for instance, is nothing at all if not destructive, yet the generosity and open-heartedness of the common Mexicans encountered (the poorest and least society-bound of those) is everywhere evident. And this affects our heroes’ judgments of the world at least as much as the acts of violence do. It is this aspect of the novels that ultimately redeems that violence and supplies the reader with that modicum of hope that is still present through so much despair. For living, after all, despite all of its very real and inescapable disappointment, is not something we are generally anxious to be rid of.

All the Pretty Horses tells the story, primarily, of John Grady Cole, a young Texan cowboy with a great love for horses and at least as soft a spot for women. At age sixteen, after the death of his grandfather and the loss of the family’s ranch, he goes off with a friend to try his fortunes in a still more rugged Mexico. This takes place in roughly the late ’40’s (or early ’50’s), post-World War II, as the old ways on his Texas prairies are being lost. As he and his friend cross into Mexico, they are joined up by an even younger and more impetuous runaway, who ends up bringing them to considerable grief and himself to a desert execution. The story that really takes our heart like no other, though, involves John Grady’s passionate love affair with the daughter of the owner of the hacienda he and his orginal buddy work on for awhile.

Later, after being taken prisoner for that indiscretion and for their connection with Jimmy Blevins, after witnessing at some distance his dreadful death, after a brutal stint in a Mexican prison, John Grady meets up one last time with that lover and asks her to come to his country with him, promising (as we cannot doubt he would have attempted) to protect her and stay with her alone. My dad, who shared my initial enthusiasm for this book, told me that he was broken-hearted when, despite loving him, she would not go. In the end, John Grady engages in a dramatic gunfight to retrieve all of his own and his former companions’ horses (the other friend has returned home already by bus, from prison) and narrowly escapes death by gunshot, as he’d previously escaped it by knife wound in prison, before slipping back across the border. It’s a supremely heart-rending and beautiful story.

The Crossing tells the story of Billy Parham, who just slips across the border from New to Old Mexico on a quixotic quest (he is also about sixteen at the time) to return a pregnant wolf that has been hunting his father’s cattle and that he has trapped. This tale commences prior to our involvement in World War II, in the early ’40’s, so when he and John Grady Cole meet up for volume three, he is several years his senior. While on my first reading of this novel back in ’94 or ’95 I did not like it as well as the first, my appreciation for it has certainly deepened with this second reading. In any case, it is worth the price of the book just for that opening melody with boy and wolf, which stretches on for over a hundred pages and ends with boy disillusioned by the brutality of men and what he has to do just to bury that poor animal with its unborn pups in its native mountains.

“Doomed enterprises,” we read at the commencement of part two, as he has just buried it, “divide lives forever into the then and the now,” and indeed that is the tone of this story from then on: of resignation and despair. Billy goes home, eventually, only to discover his father and mother murdered, his horses stolen, his brother (age 14) orphaned. He and Boyd cross back into Mexico in pursuit of horses. In the end, they retrieve the horses, but Boyd is almost killed by gunshot and, after being nursed back to health, leaves Billy and runs off with a poor Mexican girl who becomes his sweetheart. Billy crosses the border again, tries to join the army and is rejected because of a heart murmur, works for awhile on ranches and then goes back in search of his brother who has disappeared into the mists of legend and song, where he and his bandit girlfriend have merged with others in a popular corrido. In the end Bill returns home bearing his brother’s bones, much as in the beginning he’d come to Mexico with a wolf – and then had to bury it.

In Cities of the Plain, Billy and John Grady are both working on the same ranch outside of El Paso, Texas, halfway between their separate starting places. In the opening scene, Billy is introducing the younger John Grady to a whorehouse in El Paso’s twin city, Juárez, Mexico. John Grady, while not wanting to approach her with the older men present, sees the girl he falls in love with. Perhaps she reminds him, at this moment, of the rancher’s daughter, but in the end it is she herself that he loves. He catches up with her, later, in another establishment, and he makes love to her there and learns that she returns his affection. He plans to marry her and almost sweeps her away but for the betrayal that necessarily befalls.

Prior to that, there is the tenderness of his preparations of the country cottage that he will take her to, and all the tenderness of his attention to her. In the end, though, they are betrayed and she is murdered. When he discovers her random body in the morgue (the tale of how she came to this captivity in a Ciudad Juárez brothel is horrible and pathetic), he goes almost mad with grief, then returns to either kill or be killed by the brutal slave trader who had her killed. In the end, after a battle that rages on for several pages, he kills the overconfident assassin and then slips off, it turns out, to also die from his own wounds. He dies as his older friend Billy Parham comes to his rescue, that closing image (prior to the epilogue) of Billy, grief stricken at the loss of a second little brother, carrying him across a Juárez intersection just as a Mexican woman is preparing to cross with a group of school children in their blue uniforms, is truly wrenching.

In the epilogue, Billy goes on to further wanderings and solitude, ending up at the beginning of the second millennium (year 2000 or 2001?) where he meets another wanderer who tells a strange and lengthy parable that winds up being, I rather think, the author’s transparent meditation on the nature of memory and stories and their various levels of truth. That part to me was puzzling and disorienting; I found myself agreeing with the character Mr. Parham, who says to his interlocutor at one point: “I think you got a habit of makin things a bit more complicated than what they need to be.” There was some meat there, no doubt, such that I might puzzle over to more effect on a future reading, yet perhaps the story might just as well have ended with the spare account of the older Billy Parham’s wandering, before and after that strange encounter.

The closing scene, less dramatic than that of him bearing John Grady’s dead body from a Mexican alley, is deeply moving for what it says to the more common disillusionments of all our lives, disillusionment met with still a touch of the sweetness of all of that living. In it the old man, who should have died years earlier of a murmuring heart but is left instead to remember those who died in his place, has taken up his winter’s residence with a family that gave him a place to sleep not unlike the place he had slept last in his parents’ home. He awakes from dreams of Boyd and is comforted by the woman of the house, who then asks him about Boyd.

 Boyd was your brother.

Yes. He’s been dead many a year.

You still miss him though.

Yes I do. All the time.

Was he the younger?

He was. By two years.

I see.

He was the best. We run off to Mexico together. When we were kids. When our folks died. We went down there to see about gettin back some horses they’d stole. We was just kids. He was awful good with horses. […] I’d give about anything to see him one more time.


She patted his head. Gnarled, ropescarred, speckled from the sun and the years of it. The ropy veins that bound them to his heart. There was map enough for me to read. There God’s plenty of signs and wonders to make a landscape. To make a world. She rose to go.

Betty, he said.


I’m not what you think I am. I aint nothin. I don’t know why you put up with me.

Well, Mr. Parham, I know who you are. And I do know why. You go to sleep now. I’ll see you in the morning.

Yes mam.

That moves me so much, perhaps, because, as young as I still am in years lived, I feel so much like that, of no great account and in the end unworthy of any particular remembrance. As if all I’d dreamed in my youth had come to nought, as if, as in these tragic lives, things had really turned out much differently from what was dreamed. As, in essence, they have, and of course must. Even if, as I still dream in unguarded moments, I’ll be like Frank McCourt, retired schoolteacher whose first book becomes a sensation. Even so, the lived experience of this world can be nothing like what I had once hoped. My marriage, for all its stubborn persistence, is far away from the youthful idyll that lent it such promise, and my loss of faith in any orthodox religion has marred the happiness that we had mapped out for each other. And so much else has happened. It really is as the character in Cities of the Plain said. What’s the hardest lesson to be learned? “I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that when things are gone they’re gone. They aint comin back.”

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.

The title of that last novel, Cities of the Plain, is suggested in a brief passage in The Crossing, in which a lone Mormon heretic comments on the justice of God in context of a Mexican earthquake. It is Biblical in origin, no doubt, referring subtly (never directly) to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins against humanity, their sexual perversions and terrible violence. This is a fair allusion given the inhumanity of the sex trade taking place in this Mexican city, fed by the lust of its twin American city and the violence done to the simplest of the residents on either side of the border.

One significant idea running through this trilogy, expressed most explicitly as the boy Billy Parham is trying to recover his stolen and brutalized wolf, is the arbitrariness of national borders and the price that is paid by the poor and powerless denizens that are caught up in their national or international politics. He speaks of this matter with one of the wolf’s captors, who are using it as bait in a public dog fight, from which agony the boy will ultimately have no choice but to release it by shooting it.

You think this country is some country you can come here and do what you like.

I never thought that. I never thought about this country one way or the other.

Yes, said the hacendado.

We was just passin through, the boy said. We wasn’t botherin nobody. Queríamos pasar, no más.

Pasar o trespasar?

The boy turned and spit into the dirt. He said that the tracks of the wolf       had led out of Mexico. He said the wolf knew nothing of boundaries. The young don nodded as if in agreement but what he said was that whatever the wolf did or did not know was irrelevant, and that if the wolf crossed that boundary it was perhaps so much the worse for the wolf but the boundary stood without regard.

[…] The boy only said that if he were allowed to go he would return with the wolf to America and that he would pay whatever fine he had incurred but the hacendado shook his head. He said that it was too late for that and that anyway the alguacil had taken the wolf nto custody and it was forfeit in lieu of the portage. When the boy said that he had not known that he would be required to pay in order to pass through the country the hacendado said that then he was in much the same situation as the wolf. (italics mine)

This passage reveals a quality of the text that I greatly enjoyed, the bilinguality of it. Indeed, whenever direct quotes involve spoken Spanish, the words are recorded as spoken in Spanish. In this case, the Mexican party does use some English. In other cases, where this is not so, a significant exchange may take place entirely in Spanish, but it is quickly followed with narrative in English and with the use of indirect quoting so that the non-Spanish-proficient reader will still not be lost. This is a technique that I find, together with the dispensing with orthodoxies of punctuation, makes the story more authentic and immediate than it would otherwise feel. In fact, it is through this authenticity that much of the novel’s central beauty is revealed, as in this exquisite and tender passage in All the Pretty Horses:

After awhile the two girls came back. The taller of them held up her hand with two cigarettes in it.

John Grady looked at the guards. They motioned the girls over and looked at the cigarettes and nodded and the girls approached the bench and handed the cigarettes to the prisoners together with several wooden matches.

Muy amable, said John Grady. Muchas gracias.

They lit the cigarettes off one match and John Grady put the other matches in his pocket and looked at the girls. They smiled shyly.

Son americanos ustedes?


Son ladrones?

Sí. Ladrones muy famosos. Bandoleros.

They sucked in their breath. Qué precioso, they said. But the guards called to them and waved them away.

Dust Bowl migrant with children

That simple  passage, the boy lying heroically to please the child, the child sucking in her breath and saying, “How precious,” moved me more deeply when I first read it than I can say. I hope the more sophisticated English-language reader, picking up at least on “famosos” and “bandoleros” and “precioso” would catch some of the reason for that. In any case, what is implicit here is explicit in other places, as in The Crossing where Boyd’s other life as a Mexican bandolero, an American Robin Hood casting his lot among his poorer brethren, is immortalized in popular balladry. The poor and powerless pitted against the rich (albeit only comparatively) and powerful countrymen who represent law and order: to them the famous bandoleros are naturally enough precious, worthy of their love and honor. So it is fitting, as John Grady and his friend are led off then, that those little girls were seen crying.

There are many other passages, in either of these novels, of supreme beauty and truthfulness. One of my favorites, if not my absolute favorite, is from All the Pretty Horses, when John Grady and his friend are working at the ranch. They go off into the mountains with a bunch of horses and the Mexican vaqueros and an old survivor of the Mexican Revolution named Luis. Luis speaks some truths about men and horses and the souls of both of them:

  … He’d loved horses all his life and he and his father and two brothers had fought in the cavalry but they’d all despised Victoriano Huerta above all other visited evils. He said that compared to Huerta Judas was himself but another Christ and one of the young vaqueros looked away and another blessed himself. He said that war had destroyed the country and that men believe the cure for war is war as the curandero prescribes the serpent’s flesh for its bite. He spoke of his campaigns in the deserts of Mexico and he told them of horses killed under him and he said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold. His own father said that no man who has not gone to war on horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said that he supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so.

Lastly he said that he had seen the souls of horses and that it was a terrible thing to see. He said that it could be seen under certain circumstances  attending the death of a horse because the horse shares a common soul and its separate life only forms it out of all horses and makes it mortal. He said that if a person understood the soul of the horse then he would understand all horses that ever were.


Y de los hombres? said John Grady.

The old man shaped his mouth to answer. Finally he said that among men there was no such communion as among horses and the notion that men  could be understood at all was probably an illusion. Rawlins asked him in his bad Spanish if there was a heaven for horses but he shook his head and said that a horse had no need of heaven. Finally John Grady asked him if it were not true that should all horses also perish from the face of the earth the soul of the horse would not also perish for there would be nothin out of which to replenish it but the old man only said that it was pointless to speak of there  being no horses in the world for God would not permit such a thing.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, windmillAs to why this passage moves me so deeply, I, who would not even know how to ride a horse, I can only say that it takes my breath away. So does this whole trilogy, which I place in my heart’s canon alongside the Quixote and the best of the Russian masters. Even as it breaks my heart, it has the power that only great literature can of repairing it. At least in that moment that I can hold it there, before sinking again into the banal struggles of my prosaic existence.


Confabulating with Cows and Herding Cats

Aside from my collection of essays, announced in the previous post, hot off the press at Per Bastet Publications is issue 21 (Herding Cats and Other Alien Creatures) of the Southern Indiana Writers’ Group’s Indian Creek Anthology Series. I happen to have short fiction in issues 20 and 21, the most recent of which I also edited.

My story for the present issue is briefly described in the volume’s foreword, which I excerpt below. My contributions to the previous issue (XX: SIW Goes Platinum) include a series of comedic short-shorts under the general title “Madcap Midwestern Mythologies” and scattered throughout the volume; and “Brotherhood of Man and Beast,” a comedy about the encounter and unlikely friendship between a conservative Christian preacher and a teacher of the literary-rhetorical arts of Charles Darwin. I have written about them previously.

Following, by way of introduction to the new volume, is the text of my foreword:

As I was reading the recent English translation of Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s The Farm in the Green Mountains, the chapter called “Confusion in the Chicken Yard,” I reflected on the theme of this twenty-first volume of the Indian Creek Anthology Series. Herdan-Zuckmayer’s book is a memoir about the author and her husband Carl’s experience, as political refugees from Nazi Germany during the first half of the Forties, running a farm in backwoods Vermont. Neither she nor Zuck, as Alice called him, were experienced farmers. So the account of their time in that American wilderness – with its echoes of some of the more remote rural communities in southern Indiana – was full of humorous adventures as they labored to herd those chickens and other farm animals into some semblance of order.

The “herdee” in question, in this passage, was Hermann, an ungovernable goose who was enamored of a duck and violently resisted their being housed every night in separate sections of the poultry shed. “Without the broom,” Herdan-Zuckmayer writes, “we could not have controlled Hermann, who was wild and dangerous. In fact, the broom often played an important role in driving the animals home, in separating fighters, and in self-defense.”

All the farm animals, except for the goats who liked “to nibble at the broom straw,” were afraid of it. All they had to do was “hold the broom in front of [them], like a witch who is ready to mount her broomstick to ride to the Blocksberg, and the animals scattered and took flight in the desired direction.

“Even the hair on the cats began to stand on end, and they arched their backs and started to spit when the stubby face of the broom approached them. It seemed almost like a magical fear of the witchly attributes that made the animals run away.”

A sort of writerly magic exists in the collaborative effort that has brought together the nine stories, two poems, and single work of creative nonfiction in this latest production of the Southern Indiana Writers’ Group. In “Herding Cats,” the poem that opens the volume, Jen Selinsky speaks of the magician’s act involved in bringing together such a “wild assortment” of writers and authorial visions, both in person and in these pages. She is followed in almost seamless transition by Marian Allen’s fast-paced, antic, police comedic-drama “By the Book,” which places the literary arts where they belong at the center of sentient life: the action unfolds on the planet Llannonn, in and around a “Living Library” (“a group home for people who chose to make careers out of memorizing stories and novels and reciting themselves to anyone of good character who presented a library card”) where quick-drawing and impassioned Assistant Librarian Holly Jahangiri leads the charge against a band of ruffians who have been waylaying some of the Living Books.

From across the pond in Great Britain, our own “alien” writer, Andrea Gilbey, contributes “A Furry at the Bottom of My Garden, or, The Cat Who Fell to Earth.” What, on the surface, is a charming comedy of errors, in Andrea’s deft hands becomes also a comprehending glimpse into the lonely experience of “otherness.” She does this with a lightness of touch capable of planting, in the garden at the bottom of her readers’ hearts, a resurgence of compassion in this world of competing nationalisms that are so quick to place human beings in boxes or shipping containers stamped with such dehumanizing labels as “illegal” or “alien” or “refugee.”

The two pieces that follow, J. Baumgartle’s fictional “Cat Power” and Janet Wolanin Alexander’s memoiristic “Humans: Herders or Herdees?” share the anthropomorphic conceit of being narrated by the little furries at stories’ center: in Baumgartle’s story, which shares some of the social consciousness hidden at the heart of Andrea’s tale, the narrating cat is instrumental in preventing a minor environmental atrocity; in Alexander’s, the series of cats who have insinuated themselves into the lives of “the Js” (Jim and Jan) make the case for a re-ordering of that power structure.

“Leader of the Pack” is Brenda Drexler’s whimsical recasting of the Shangri-Las’ 1965 hit, its feline dialogue connecting it happily with Disney’s anti-tragedy The Aristocats. Ginny Fleming’s hilarious “Cat-O-Strophic Spelling,” for its part, makes lemonade out of an almost-tragic metamorphosis that, through some seriously bad “spelling” (of the magical, not orthographic sort), takes an apparently mismatched pair of human lovers in a direction in part feline, but ultimately and rather sweetly canine.

The “wistful lion” that, in Baumgartle’s elegant poem, “hauls itself slowly upright from the pride-scented grass” to survey its landscape, would seem to beckon toward the guardian goyle and its kitten-goyles in the richly imagined fantasy world of Bonnie Abraham’s “Out of the Cabinet.” Mistress Playit Wrenmother and her “small covey of future mages” paint a subtly humorous picture as they traipse through the school of wizardry and surrounding city, engaged in some of their own at-once less catastrophic and more cosmically significant spelling than the lemons-to-lemonade spelling of Fleming’s story.

That fantasy, with its almost Biblical overtones, leads to the Lakota Sioux spirituality underlying the science fiction of T. Lee Harris’s “Ghost in the Machine,” in which Captain Miranda Morningstar, a United Americas Marine Corps Ghost Walker, is called on to investigate an explosion that shook the asteroid where they are based; only, in a process that her shaman called “the snapping of the tether between body and spirit,” her spirit leaves the body behind in anticipation of her mission. T. Lee’s story is full of darkness, light, and the vicarious thrill of mortal combat with some truly alien creatures.

Returning, at last, in “Covenant Restored,” to the familiar mortality of this present Earth, Glenda Mills explores the making and sundering of human relationships from a Catholic perspective; her narrative is one woman’s inner struggle that lands, with hope but no more assurance than any of life’s ventures, in a new romantic attachment whose initial promise is to be sealed with the purchase of a cat. And finally, I offer my own somewhat dark-edged (but ultimately exultant) romantic comedy, “Courting Mel,” whose struggling middle-aged lovers – heads of a colorfully eccentric Mormon family – find their way, before a backdrop of looming war in Iraq and a rebellious teenage daughter’s dalliance with a biker several years her senior, through their own crisis of faith and love.

I am much indebted, in this my first year editing SIW’s Indian Creek anthology, to Marian Allen and T. Lee Harris with their twenty years of previous experience; but also to the club’s other members, old and new, in particular those who have lent me their excellent writing. It is without the slightest hesitation that I recommend our combined labor to a reading public that completes our sister- and brotherhood of lovers of the incomparable magic of good stories. We hope that you will be at once entertained and edified by our work.




Confabulating with the Cows: Wit, Whimsy, and Occasional Wisdom from Perry County, Indiana: 1992-94

On the definition, worth, and “public purposes” of the arts and humanities

Roberto M. Ortiz

I have been reading, on and off for most of the summer, a book that I bought used in Buenos Aires when I was down that way in 2005: Ortiz: Reportaje a la Argentina Opulenta [Reporting on Opulent Argentina], by Félix Luna. I picked it up now, in my lingering post-Inaugural funk, in search of some insight—some mirrored reflection, perhaps, from WWII-era Argentina’s oligarchic society and presidential politics—into our parallel, if by no means identical, predicament in the latter years of this 21st century’s second decade.

Who knew that, at the book’s most climactic and poignant moment, I would happen upon an answer to conservative columnist George Will’s recent complaint in the National Review (in the context of the current president’s intention of fulfilling the long-nurtured dream of certain Republicans of eliminating all funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities) about the stubborn undefinability and dubious practicality of those suspect domains?

This from Ted Genoway’s “Mixed Media” report in the September/October issue of Mother Jones: “‘We subsidize soybean production,’ [Will] wrote, ‘but at least we can say what soybeans are. Are NEA enthusiasts serene about government stipulating, as it must, art’s public purposes that justify public funding?’” In a passage that might shed some light on the psychology behind Wills’s complaint, Genoway also cites novelist Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s statement about the president’s motives: “‘The NEA and NEH are in Trump’s sights because they promote the expression of the messy, complex American spirit,’ she wrote for Quartz. ‘Art is not tractable, containable, or even easily defined. That makes it the very opposite of what autocrats want: propaganda.’”

Félix Luna

Be that as it may, last night, as I finished reading the suspect pages in Félix Luna’s artful and innovative 1978 history of the brief, tragic presidency of Roberto M. Ortiz, I knew that I had the material for today’s essay.

A little background before I cut to the nitty-gritty:

I knew nothing of Ortiz when I stumbled on the brittle paperback. I had forgotten the little that I had read about him, decades ago, in Robert Crassweller’s Perón and the Enigmas of Argentina (1987), which consisted of little more than the fact that his strong-arm predecessor, Agustín P. Justo, who had assured Ortiz’s victory in the ridiculously fraudulent 1937 elections, “was doubtless surprised when Ortiz emerged as a throwback to Roque Sáenz Peña [famous for his electoral reforms of 1912] and established his administration squarely on the base of honest elections. But fate took a hand, and not for the better. Ortiz had advanced diabetes when he came to office and soon became almost blind. By 1940 he had to step aside while the vice-president took over in all but name.”

The mostly loose pages of my brittle copy of Ortiz, in any case, after having suffered the tender abuse of my scribbled marginalia and a spilled glass of water, have lost their spine and are held together by a rubber band. What drew me to the book was the author’s name. Félix Luna (1925-2009), a journalist, historian, and poet, was known to me as lyricist to a song that was the original inspiration for my novella, A Bride Called Freedom, and which I knew from the great folk singer Mercedes Sosa’s rendition of it.

Mercedes Sosa with composer, Ariel Ramírez, at the piano, and lyricist, Félix Luna, at work on their album Mujeres Argentinas [Argentine Women]. Among its songs was “Dorotea, la cautiva” [Dorotea, the Captive], which inspired the novella A Bride Called Freedom.

Luna also wrote the very useful A Short History of the Argentinians, which I purchased in its English translation during that same trip twelve years ago, and in whose pages I had also read (and then forgot) that particular man, Ortiz, who did not immediately stand out among the parade of more broadly known and less ephemeral characters.

Another point of reference is to María Rosa Lojo’s novel Las libres del Sur [Free Women of the South], with its allusion to the name of its subject, Victoria Ocampo’s famed literary magazine Sur [South], which, aside from the Ocampo sisters, Victoria and Silvina, and essayist and fiction writer María Rosa Oliver, boasted such male luminaries as the Argentine stylist, Jorge Luis Borges; the Spaniards, José Ortega y Gasset and Federico García Lorca; and, among many others, the North American Waldo Frank, author of the Ortiz book’s suspect passage with its prescient answer to George Will’s question about the definition and worth of the arts and humanities.

Of equal pertinence, if less directly, is Lojo’s latest novel, Todos éramos hijos [in my yet-unpublished translation: All of Us Were Children], which focuses on Argentina of the early-to-mid 70’s, in another parallel historical moment before, during, and immediately after Juan Perón’s brief return, after nearly two decades in exile, to the nation’s presidency.

In all three of these parallel universes—Argentina, on the verge of Perón’s first decade in power; and again, three decades later, on the verge of the generals’ infamous and brutal dictatorship, with its tens of thousands of murdered and “disappeared” citizens; and our own America of the Obama-Trump era—lies the specter of a rising authoritarianism that either is itself or closely resembles fascism. If any proofs of that association remain necessary, after the recent spectacle of enraged white-supremacist nationalism in Charlottesville, I recall the witness (reported by some media sources during the run-up to the 2016 election) of one or two Holocaust survivors, elderly women who said that the present mood in the United States was eerily reminiscent of Germany’s in the 1930’s. I would think that, if anyone knew, it would be they who had been present.

Spanish original of Luna’s Short History of the Argentinians

But, back to Luna’s Ortiz. Its subject, if I may elaborate a bit on the above-cited sentences from Crassweller’s book, was the son of Spanish immigrants, born in Buenos Aires, who, with a combination of political acumen and a reputation for knowledgeable, intelligent accomplishment and what we would call bipartisanship, became the compromise candidate for the winning coalition of conservative and associated parties in the 1937 election. His presidential inauguration in February 1938 came at a time—after the 1930 coup that had ended a decades-long period of constitutional governance and orderly elections—of blatant electoral fraud and political violence. The outgoing strong-arm president, who by law could serve more than one term, but not consecutively, fully expected that Ortiz would carry on with the old program and turn the reins over to him again in six years.

But Ortiz, hardly a fiery revolutionary but a convinced and genuine small-d democrat, located on a scale somewhere around Aristotle’s “golden mean,” instead began a determined campaign of electoral reform and accountability that quickly won him a strong popular support and love that would in little time, after his inevitable downfall, be transferred to the only-superficially democratic Perón (or “democratic” by a more authoritarian definition) and his charismatic wife, Evita. Aside from that, given the remarkable political skills that made him so resilient to all the dirty tricks his opposition threw at him, for a brief moment he seemed almost invincible.

By the climactic moment in this virtually Shakespearean tragedy—all that remains, after last night’s reading, is Ortiz’s resignation and immediate death and Luna’s closing synthesis of elements and conclusions—Ortiz is functionally blind and hoping for a surgical fix that might restore enough vision so that he could return to office. Meanwhile, in a pattern eerily similar to our current president’s feverish dismantling of Barack Obama’s nominally progressive legacy, the vice-president whom political expediency had forced on Ortiz has been busy dismantling all of his strategic victories. While in his personal life, aside from the political and medical travails that dogged him, and the dark, menacing backdrop of the European war that conspired against the whole democratic program, Ortiz was overwhelmed with grief over the unexpected death of his beloved wife, constant companion and confidante.

It was as if the painstakingly constructed walls of his public and private existence were falling in around him. Only an unwavering faith in that grand civic project and an indomitable commitment to carrying out, to the best of his ability, the people’s business, could have sustained him through the sinsabores, as he reportedly confided to a friend after abandoning the presidential abode for good: “Ay, Miguel! The presidency has given me many satisfactions, to be sure, but … so many tribulations!”

Finally, at the climactic moment of this tale of a virtuous power exercised and brought to ruin, after the tardy revelation by a visiting surgeon of the irremediable severity of his condition, feeling betrayed, then, by the local doctors to whom he had entrusted the honest accounting that, for whatever reasons, they withheld from him, Ortiz immediately steps down on the basis of this new clarity. He turns the reins over to his political successor with a quiet dignity and without drama. He takes his farewell from an adoring public with frankness and sorrow, but without a hint of self-pity or incrimination. So that for him, as Luna writes, “the episode is finished. More than finished. Because now, indeed, everything had collapsed around him.”

So it is here that I must pause on a note about the poet-historian’s narrative style. This has to do with the “disconnected, even absurd” fragments—actual texts from the national media of the day: newspapers and magazines, radio broadcasts, and so forth; the crass ingenuousness of its advertisements, the pretentiousness of its society pages, the celebrity gossip and reviews of theater and cinema, the spectacles of sports, crime, politics, science—that he inserted at the end of each chapter.

“The explanation,” Luna writes, “is that I have not found another artifice more capable of carrying the reader, intuitively, with the magical contact of flower against skin, to the surface of Ortiz’s country, of that Argentina still innocent, sentimental, and credulous, attached to conventionalities, words, and rites” from a traditional, local society on the verge of international significance and transformation. It is a literary device designed to give a more complete picture, than the personal and political drama itself can deliver, of this newly prosperous Argentina in transition, this nation with its increasingly confident working class and a critically dysfunctional political class (with its “miopic, egotistical leaders” who, out of pride and the love of power, would not make a single concession to the people’s apparent will and Ortiz’s visionary reform) and the oligarchy it represents.

Waldo Frank, mentioned above as a contributor to the literary journal Sur, is an important figure in this “novel about Victoria Ocampo.”

Each selection—and, together they serve as a sort of mirror held up to a whole society—is neatly designed to complement the political story that has been unwinding in the preceding pages. And it is thus that we come to the following “suspect” passage, the literary portrait that perfectly accentuates the pathos and the tragedy of this singular politician in his moment of overwhelming defeat (and which must be understood, in this context, along with the more brief transcriptions from the Spanish above, as merely the rough draft of a potential translation):

“SUR turns ten years old. The new barbarians, provisioned with technologies that they have inherited from European culture, are destroying Europe’s freedom and, as these lines are being written, hurling tons of explosives on the English populace, while all the world’s material resources and many of its intellectual resources are being employed on the perfecting of the means of destruction.

“I just wrote two sentences: one brief and the other long,” the essayist continues….

I wish to demonstrate that they are related. SUR represents a creative effort of the human spirit: it is a cultural organ in which all Americans should take legitimate pride, since it directs and projects the traditions of literature and art toward the needs and experiences of the present. Its origin is the great tradition of the Western world that began in the Mediterranean, and its life bears our dreams and our plans, our love, toward the future. The disastrous fact that I have consigned to my second sentence—the new barbarians’ war against the human spirit—also has an origin in the Western world’s past. It is not a coincidental horror. It is an inevitable fruit of the errors and immaturity of that world, in the same way that SUR is a consequence of the more-or-less fulfilled aspirations and endeavors of that world.

The springs, today, are more tense than ever. Paris, beneath Hitler’s obscene boot; London, a solitary battle field; Madrid, prisoner of the betrayers of Spain and of Jesus. It is difficult to continue thinking that we face a crisis of truth [or: true crisis?] and not a result of what has for ages been the world’s typical condition. But that knowledge is essential if we are to transcend said typical condition. And there lies SUR’s function. An entity like SUR never openly governs: it does its work secretively and obliquely in the hearts of men. But its work is the Word of human freedom and dignity.

There is no other literary organ in the Americas today whose devotion to these values is more intelligent than that of SUR. And Europe’s twilight confers on SUR a worldwide preeminence. Therefore, SUR is not a simple local celebration; it has worldwide importance in the vast American world to which history provides, in this moment, a decisive hour.

Waldo Frank, in Sur, Year X, December 1940.

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.

Leaving aside any modernist or romantic excess of the impassioned chronicler—we may, after all, learn as much or more about humane and democratic living from the Indigenous peoples of the earth, whom we have tended to rather thoughtlessly dismiss as barbarians or savages—the statement is good in its articulation of a practical and moral justification of the literary and other arts as they exist alongside governance and commerce.

What good are the arts and humanities, our civilization’s resurgent barbarians want to know? Oh, nothing much: it is just, given their origins within the spiritual aspirations and nascent religions, philosophies, and sciences of our species, that they are the basis of our humanity, the formation and nourishment of our conscience; in the eloquently utilitarian words of 20th-century rhetorician Kenneth Burke, “equipment for living”; they do not dictate, they do not propagandize (except, as Burke has also pointed out, in the pure sense of reasoned and impassioned persuasion), but reveal in all their nuance the complex and ambiguous realities that face us, from a virtually limitless variety of perspectives, in our own voices and in the voices of others, through our own eyes and through the eyes of others; so that, standing against the peddlers of division and fear, of hatred and endless warfare, we may learn the arts of tolerance and a common citizenship, even a universal citizenship (citizens of the world, as Borges would say)—maybe even in time to save ourselves and a livable habitat from the false determinism of a nature exclusively red in tooth and claw.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, windmillBut there I go again, tilting at windmills like Luna’s poor, noble, pathetic Roberto Ortiz, like Cervantes’s idealistic and lucid lunatic, Don Quixote, dreaming “impossible dreams” that might or might never be realized.

And yet, don’t those humane visions nourish our spirits much more than the deadly, broken logic of warmongers and the punitive masters of fear and austerity? Doesn’t noble Don Quixote—sprung from Cervantes’s imagination like Athena from Zeus’s head—still live in the human heart with the clarity of humankind’s most obstinate, enduring hopes? Doesn’t Ortiz’s failed but virtuous quest inspire beyond the apparent futility of death—and bear fruit in the labor of later generations?

Other dawns have followed other dusks, in Argentine as well as American history. Surely it is never too late to appeal to the better angels of our human nature. And even though we fail, who knows what bedraggled, wised-up phoenix might still be born from the ashes of our faith, our folly, and our love in action? For perhaps the coming apocalypse, if not wholly averted, might preserve a remnant capable of imagining a better civilization than this primitive one we left in tatters.

On viewing “The Handmaid’s Tale” with My Daughter

Note: What follows (with the aim of getting it out quickly, without the usual belabored perfectionism, a little rough around the edges) is adapted from this morning’s handwritten journal entry. As with the disclaimer attached to the TV series: Mature audiences only; readers’ discretion advised.

Invited over to youngest daughter Stephanie’s last night to watch the first three episodes of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I had read the novel years ago, introduced it, I think, to her and Nadina. I remembered the dystopian premise and mood without a great deal of meaningful detail. Some details, now, have been updated to make it resonate all the more explicitly with our historical moment, but without harm to the story’s integrity. The author (Stephanie pointed out to me, she and Rachel having already seen the whole series) was allowed a role in the script: she stepped forward and slapped the face of the lead protagonist and handmaid-in-training—played by Elisabeth Moss—for not taking her cues with sufficient show of hatefulness.

So many disturbing scenes in these first segments, there’s no point in enumerating them. The ritualized sexual intercourse of the “commander” and handmaid could not be more antiseptic or less erotic. His zipper is open, instrument properly inserted (one presumes, for sake of the narrative) at the precise and proper point of access, but otherwise both of them are covered in all modesty; her head cradled by the barren wife whose legs might someday again be symbolically spread for the ritualized act of childbirth by proxy. The ritual is only sensual to the degree that a bowel movement is sensual—from her standpoint, at least, who perhaps derives more satisfaction from the latter, while the man in his procreative labor does enjoy some rudimentary orgasm.

But the sequence that finally brought me past moral disgust to the verge of tears is the execution of another handmaid’s judgment of “redemption” from the crime of “gender treason” (read: lesbianism), played by the actor (Alexis Bledel) formerly known as Rory on The Gilmore Girls TV show that Anita and I used to watch with our daughters.

The closing scene in that segment is sickening enough: when that redeemed captive of Biblical sin awakens in a sterile white room to discover that she has been surgically (and genitally) mutilated; so that, as the hateful matron puts it to her, while she can still experience the great joy of impregnation and giving birth to someone else’s child, she will no longer be tempted by physical desire for what she cannot have. But the really gut-wrenching scene, the one that had already devastated the father (and father-in-law) of Stephanie and Rachel, occurs just previous to that: the woman’s abbreviated last parting from her lover, cuffed hands clutched in the back of the penal van until the beloved one is ripped from her and she left screaming at the spectacle of rope being placed around loved one’s neck, her body lifted into the air by a construction crane.

Atwood with actors Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley

Now, let’s be clear: whatever not-so-distant dystopia might actually threaten us, if the retrograde would-be theocrats and other powermongers of the moment get their way, it is unlikely that it will exactly resemble this one of Margaret Atwood’s imagination. But the defunding of Planned Parenthood; a return to back-alley abortions and increased maternal deaths (already the United States has greater child mortality—more in some states than others—than any other “advanced” Western nation); opposition, even, to the very concepts of contraception and family planning, unless for the wealthy and hypocritical and privileged; well, we already see how easily something like that might happen, and to no small degree already has happened to those women and families least equipped for survival in this country. However much American women might remain, superficially, free, they might be forgiven for feeling so perilously close to becoming—body and soul—tied to the will of the men who rule the roost at home or who pull the legislative and judicial strings in Washington D.C. and/or their state capitals.

But the real take-home here, from last night’s viewing, is the degree to which some women will stand against other women for their own security within an essentially and abusively patriarchal order. Not just the obvious fanatics like the hate-filled doctrinaire matron who seethes at the very thought of lesbianism, and enjoys the infliction of pain on other women with repeated, violent thrusts of a sort of electrical taser-stick to neck or shoulder or face. Nor just the genuinely religious women of our Heartland who, beaten down by economic and other exigencies, are persuaded to see the source of their problems in the liberal or culturally depraved other. But also the privileged wife (like the mafia wife on The Sopranos, who tries not to think about the murderous activity that underwrites her privilege) who is so pleased to flourish tender care on her husband’s almost subhuman sex slave so long as she might be going to bear her a child. How oblivious she is to the handmaid’s very human feelings as she listens to her mistress exclaim at how God-blessed she is to have her there to bear the child that, as soon as she’s done nursing it, will be ripped from her arms forever without a thought! And then, when it turns out that our protagonist is really not pregnant after all, how swiftly cooing wife turns into vicious hellcat, dragging the presumed tramp upstairs to her attic bedroom and throwing her on the floor, hissing: Things can get so much worse for you here!, or words to that effect.

Similar phenomena that continue to occur in the real world we inhabit include Blacks and other racial minorities who align themselves, however consciously or unconsciously, with the party or class of privilege. I suspect, too, that it is manifest, however precariously, in working- and lower-middle class individuals who still dream of winning the lottery or of acquiring celebrity status by means of reality TV. If we can still get rich, too, or can talk ourselves into still believing in that possibility, then what social or economic ill might we not tolerate in the spirit of selfish self-interest?

All of which brings me back to Orlando Patterson’s argument in his history of the making of the idea of freedom in Western civilization, which emerges from and is defined by its relationship to slavery. Numerous other writers and activists have made the point: that the relative prosperity that we defend was built on the backs of indentured servants and slaves. What has lately been unveiled (though not for the first time) as “America’s original sin,” which we continue to ignore at our own peril. The tragic secret of our history that resurgent voices of white supremacy—however rabid or muted the assumption of racial or cultural or class superiority might be, however conscious or unconscious.

This hearkens back to Jay-Z’s 2010 interview with Terry Gross, which I heard the other day on Fresh Air after he became the first rapper to be inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame; and what he said about his hip-hop version of “It’s a Hard-knock Life” from the Broadway musical Annie—and of why, despite the complaints of offended white pride by some detractors, there is nothing more natural than an African American Annie, given Black experience in the era between the post-Civil War overthrow of Reconstruction and the present era of police shootings of unarmed Black men and BLM.

The Handmaid’s Tale, in any case, is just one manifestation of humanity’s original sin of power and privilege built on the backs of others. And it is true original sin, if we may set aside the religious-mythological model that paints the woman as eternal temptress and authorizes condescending patriarchy to act on womankind’s behalf and for her good as established by the male to whom she is a help meet and proper. Take the issue of race and extend it universally, and we are likewise faced with our national sins of territorial and economic imperialism. The ecological sinning against Nature and against poor nations and Indigenous peoples whose mineral wealth we have robbed and will hold onto until it is pried (like Charlton Heston’s guns) from our cold, dead hands. The sin is original and sticks to us all to the extent that we stubbornly refuse to see that we are not a truly “exceptional” nation or “self-made” success story whose wealth and privilege do not depend to any appreciable degree on the labor and the exploitation of our fellow (and presumed lesser) humans.

This is the hard truth behind the increasingly—and inhumanely—punitive state in which our increasingly undemocratic handlers continue to sustain a perpetual-war economy by sending bombs to Saudi Arabia and by locking up the malcontents in our country, warehousing them in prisons rather than grant them the dignity of “socialized” healthcare and food and shelter for all. Even the squatters—“unworthy” poor, we are supposed to believe—who encamp in the house next door, with its overgrowth of grass and weeds, with its electricity and water cut until the state can finally evict them. If it were a national priority—if we were really pro-life instead of merely pro-birth, as the radical Catholic nun Sister Joan Chittister has put it—we could guarantee a dignified life for all our citizens. And might be surprised at how many hopeless bums become respectable neighbors. It has been demonstrated, after all, even in this land of hard-wired libertarianism, that given their dignity, seeing to their basic human needs and giving them a hand up, without drowning them in punitive bureaucratic regulations aimed at reducing or withdrawing those benefits, the members of that potential community will make it a functioning and mutually-reliant, democratically-run space.

Even in conservative Republican Utah, in Salt Lake City, and outside of the theocratic strictures of traditionalist “United Orders,” it has recently been proved that, if you give the homeless a home and a social system to help them get on their feet, they will become grateful and responsible neighbors and citizens. Give them their dignity first, without strings attached, without punitive regimes—African Americans, Latinos, the Native or Indigenous communities, downtrodden and homeless, even poor and struggling Caucasians everywhere—and we might become a healed and sustaining community. But as long as we insist on separation, on greed and war and death, on law and order, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later, on the punitive economic regime of privilege for the few on the backs of the many, we will continue to unravel as a civilization and as a coherent, once-relatively-functional society.

All things are related. We sink or swim together. The power of the oligarchs and the militarists will have to be overthrown, since entrenched power will not give itself up easily. One hopes that it might be done nonviolently, by means of firm and multiplying resistance to the wreakers of under-acknowledged violence who are amassed against would be, small-d democrats. The odds are against us, and pessimism may be the most sane and realistic attitude to have in the face of potential nuclear and climate catastrophe. Especially if that realism awakens us to the critical nature of the struggle we face. But if we leaven that natural pessimism with a modicum of hope joined to enlightened, collective action of the many, then Naomi Klein (with her call to action against the multiple shocks that the world’s political and economic powers continually unleash on us) is right, and our future might indeed still be redeemable.

Otherwise, it seems to me that we are royally screwed. If I may say so, not only bluntly, but in the most polite manner possible, under the circumstances.

Standing Rock, the Police State, and a Forgotten Quixotic Adventure

First, the latest news—truthful and unlovely as it is—from Indian Country:

Documents leaked to The Intercept’s investigative team of Alleen Brown, Will Parrish, and Alice Speri reveal how the company charged with building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) colluded with mercenaries from the War on Terror to surveil and suppress the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors and their friends in their lawful struggle against ecological degradation.

As you may know, since the new Administration’s cancellation of environmental review and its re-authorization of construction, the pipeline struck its first leak while still barely operational. No surprise for anyone who has paid even passing attention to the abominable environmental record of the extractive industry and its infrastructure. Once again, the prophetic fears of Indigenous peoples have been confirmed. The cynical assurances of Energy Transfer Partners and their governmental and corporate enablers, given the lie.

And now, fresh from Iraq and Afghanistan, the TigerSwan security agency—in collusion with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Marshals Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and state and local police in five states (forgive me if I have left anyone out!)—have brought the battlefield home. This is the reality that we saw live on our computer screens last fall: a brutal, militarized, domestic law-enforcement regime reminiscent of the occupying force that greeted protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Which only added legitimacy and momentum to the nascent and unduly maligned Black Lives Matter movement.

Yet we are expected to swallow the propaganda, as the President and others have conveyed it to us, that the protesters in North Dakota were “very bad people” and their oppressors, in their figurative white hats, pure and good. And that the victims and activists against police misconduct in Black communities across the nation are the moral equivalent of rioters, cop-killers, and terrorists.

This in the fabled “land of the free and home of the brave,” where hysterical public officials, politicians, and white supremacists feel newly emboldened to assault journalists (“enemies of the people,” as we are told) and where state and national legislators feel empowered to criminalize our First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly and protest.

While I have not dug into the multiple files of evidentiary documents, I have read in its entirety The Intercept’s extremely thorough (and unsensational) reportage. Those of us who value our own and our fellow citizens’ civil liberties—even theirs with whom we most vigorously disagree—have more than ample reason to feel incensed by the story it brings to light.

Consider these few passages that I scribbled in my notepad; I don’t know how to interpret them without feeling the encroachment of George Orwell’s permanent Police State:

TigerSwan Website Image

Passage 1: “TigerSwan’s relationship with public police agencies was not always harmonious,” we read fairly deep into the article. “The situation reports describe TigerSwan’s frustration with the amount of leeway some law enforcement gave protesters in Iowa and the company’s efforts to convince officers to use more punitive tactics.”

Passage 2: “Perhaps one of the most striking revelations of the documents is the level of hostility displayed by TigerSwan toward the camp protectors. TigerSwan consistently describes their peaceful demonstrators using military and tactical language more appropriate for counterterrorism operations in an armed conflict zone. At times, the military language verges on parody. More often, however, the way TigerSwan discusses protesters as ‘terrorists,’ their direct actions as ‘attacks,’ and their camps as a ‘battlefield’ reveals how the protesters’ dissent was not only criminalized but treated as a national security threat.”

Passage 3: “In one internal report, a TigerSwan operative describes an effort to amass digital and ground intelligence that would allow the company to ‘find, fix, and eliminate’ threats to the pipeline—an eerie echo of ‘find, fix, finish,’ a military term used by special forces in the U.S. government’s assassination campaign against terrorist targets.”

(Here I pass over some particularly chilling accounts of close surveillance and dangerously fanciful, paranoid, entirely unexamined, and freely disseminated assumptions about the most innocuous subjects of scrutiny. It’s like reading 1984, coming to the fateful hour of Winston’s and Julia’s arrests, and thinking: My God! There really is nowhere to hide! Big Brother and his Thought Police are everywhere! So that you catch yourself looking over your shoulder for the hidden drone with its precision camera.)

Passage 4: “In recent weeks, the company’s role has expanded to include surveillance of activist networks marginally related to the pipeline, with TigerSwan agents monitoring ‘anti-Trump’ protesters from Chicago to Washington, D.C., as well as warning its client of growing  dissent around other pipelines across the country.”

Passage 5: “In a March 24 report, TigerSwan writes, ‘Much like Afghanistan and Iraq, the ‘Fighting Season’ will soon be here with the coming warming temperatures.”

America’s economic empire—increasingly enforced by military might—has come home to roost, it would seem. Protecting the investments of our perpetual-war profiteers all around the globe: the art of the deal, and the privileging of property and profits over the moral needs of regular people, represent the prevailing socioeconomic and political ideology, after all. Which, with the unregulated exploitation of our planet’s natural resources, is the logical end-place of unrestrained capitalist greed.

But why are we surprised? The primary business of the American people, as Calvin Coolidge told us, and since the days of the recently lionized and celebrated Alexander Hamilton, has been business. And President Eisenhower warned us, when he left office in 1960, of the rapacious appetite of our military-industrial complex; which the brilliant and indomitable Canadian journalist Naomi Klein has more recently metamorphosed into the neoliberal regime of disaster capitalism.

Is this the promise of peace and prosperity that we all voted for? Winners and losers, both, in the past election?


Now, my patient readers, let me make a rhetorical turn to a more particularly literary terrain. Perhaps, in the end, the twain shall meet and lead us toward the seat of wisdom.

Reading, recently, Ilan Stavans’s charming book Quixote: The Novel and the World, I came upon an allusion to the 19th-century Ecuadorian writer Juan Montalvo’s posthumous novel Capítulos que se le olvidaron a Cervantes (Chapters that Slipped Cervantes’s Mind—or, Memory). “It imagines,” Stavans writes, “a continuation of Don Quixote and Sancho’s third outing. An independent-minded anti-clerical thinker, Montalvo had a remarkable ability to mimic Cervantes’s style and content. His narrative is the closest I know to a sequel that feels authentic.”

Juan Montalvo

I don’t recall how, more than a decade past, I came upon it myself, but doing so I translated the episode in which Don Quixote, were it not already taken by another knight, might have acquired a new title: The Knight of the Forest. The excerpted arboreal narrative, taken from chapter 16 and the beginning of chapter 17 of Montalvo’s work, I offer here in the spirit of the Standing Rock Sioux and their sacred waters. The translation first appeared online in The Quill & Ink, whose Indian editor, Anirban Choudhury, now resident in Hong Kong, was a consultant to Bosnian editor Voki Erceg’s  Hourglass Literary Magazine—about which, a brief note further on.

Don Quixote on the Ecology

As Don Quixote was saying this, he cast a glance to one side of the road and saw a man, rather well on in years, who was having two beautiful cypresses hewn down from a group that offered dark, fresh shade for a good distance around. He stopped and asked him why he was having such beautiful trees demolished, in an instant destroying the work for which nature had required so many years.

“I’m demolishing them,” the old man responded, “because they produce nothing and pointlessly occupy the estate. These and the rest, which are no fewer than fourteen, I’m bringing down.”

“Might there be a way,” Don Quixote replied, “to avoid this slaughter? If the value of these cypresses incites you, I’ll pay you for them. Then they may remain standing.”

“That would go part and parcel with selling the land, which isn’t what I have in mind,” the owner said. “Rather, I am clearing it. Not so much to take advantage of these trees, which aren’t worth a great deal, as to give the land over itself to farming.”

“Cut, they are worth nothing,” the knight replied. “Alive and beautiful as they are, they are worth more than the pyramids of Egypt. And thus I entreat and strongly urge you to consider whether it’s not better for you to change your resolution and make a gift to Mother Nature, who takes pleasure in her children’s shade.”

“All shade is harmful,” the bloodthirsty old man argued. “Shade gives me nothing. Rather it takes from me what this estate could yield. Today I’m leaving it as bare as the palm of my hand. I’ll plow it right away, I’ll sow lettuce and cabbage. And from now, just as soon as you return this way, Your Worship is invited to the banquet.”

“Cease all jesting, since that’s not why I’ve come,” Don Quixote said. “For the last time, I express and ask for what is already expressed and asked for. And take your lettuce somewhere else.”

“Elegant performance,” the man responded. And despite his age, because in his day he had been something of a roughneck; or perhaps because Don Quixote’s figure, along with his pretensions, moved him to make himself ridiculous: “Elegant notification. And in the event that I don’t go along with that, does Your Worship plan to threaten me with your lance?”

“In your own words!” Don Quixote replied, charging then at the old man. Who by way of defense let himself fall, feet up, from the stone on which he was seated. “Concur,” the knight shouted, holding him in check with his lance, “that these trees remain uninjured. Offer, promise, and even swear not to touch them nor a hair of their beards.”

“I submit to however much Your Worship should command,” the wag responded, seeing that menacing point glisten. “Come on, friends! Leave me those trees standing. And don’t offend them with another blow of the ax, since that’s this good knight’s will.”

There was nothing more urgent than to save his life, and afterwards establish what amends should be made. But the knight-errant spurred on his steed and took off without adding a word. While at the same time the vanquished was sluggishly picking himself up, hurling epithets against the madman who had put him in that position. Then Don Quixote returned and said: “Those grooves or wounds in the cypresses can be fatal to them. Fill them at once with wax, and spread a layer of moist soil over it so that there won’t be any risk of their withering and dying.”

At that time two horsemen were arriving on either side of a carriage pulled by four proud mules richly harnessed and wearing very tall plumes on their headstalls. It was not possible for someone like Don Quixote to allow anyone to continue on their way without some inquiry, much less a procession that smelled so much like an adventure. “Good man, stop and respond point by point. Who are these who are coming this way? From where are they coming? To where and to what purpose are they going?”

“It is the Most Illustrious Bishop of Jaén,” the postillion responded. “He is coming from Madrid and going to his diocese.”

“Welcome,” the knight responded. “Now advise the Most Illustrious Bishop of Jaén that Don Quixote of La Mancha wishes to take with him some of his episcopal blessings.”

“Who is it?” they asked from within the carriage.

“The knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, who wishes to greet the Lord Bishop,” responded one of the men on horse.

“Don Quixote of La Mancha? I know him. The famous knight whose history travels all over the world. Well, I would be glad to see him. Tell him, if he please, that he approach the carriage door.”

Don Quixote dismounted then and did what the prelate wished, greeting him with a bow.

“Is Your Worship, Sir Knight, the same Don Quixote of La Mancha whose deeds the historian Cid Hamete Benengeli has praised to the clouds?”

“I doubt there be two knights of that name,” Don Quixote responded with great assurance. “As for he who dared assert to me that he had conquered a certain Don Quixote in singular battle, I already proved to him that he was deceived, not to say lying.”

“That audacious individual was the Knight of the Forest,” said the Bishop. “What is Your Worship doing in these environs? We thought you to be in Trebizond, and have even heard that you had crossed over to the island of Lipadusa to engage in combat with whomever might possess the sword Durindana.”

“Should I have notice of that famous sword,” Don Quixote responded, “I will cross over, not only to Lapidusa, but to Estotilán and Norumbeca. And to win it I will go arm in arm with King Gradasso, and even with that bewitched Don Orlando.”

“Once that bewitched Don Orlando is subdued by Your Worship,” said the Bishop in his turn, “what obstacle will there be to your taking from him, not only his sword, but also his lady? In this way, Angelica the Fair will come as it were to supplant Dulcinea.”

“No, Sir,” Don Quixote responded. “Durindana and nothing else will I take from him. Nor what should I do with that affected, fickle damsel? Who takes off when it catches her fancy with some Moorish jackanapes, as inexperienced in war as in love? In speaking so, Your Most Illustrious Grace, you sully the reputations of champions like Orlando the Bewitched and Rinaldo of Montalbán.”

“If it doesn’t anger Your Worship,” the Bishop answered, “I repeat my question. What business brings Your Worship through these environs?”

“I am going about in search of adventures,” Don Quixote responded. “If chance hadn’t guided me this way, just now a deed would have been done that no knight-errant would tolerate. Your Most Illustrious Lordship should leave his gig. Come see with your own eyes whether my profession matters to the world. And whether those of us who follow it lose our time and win our fame at little cost.”

The Bishop got out, considering whether some crime might really have been attempted there, and whether even now it was possible to prevent some misfortune.

“Does Your Most Illustrious Grace behold this small forest whose dark green trees rise in the shape of pyramids and spread forth over the ground this dense, inviting shade? In truth I tell you that there was not going to remain branch on branch, because if I had not arrived to save them from the destroying ax, this inhuman being would have cut them all to earth.”

The Biblical form of speech used by Don Quixote seemed good to the Bishop. Understanding the situation perfectly, and to humor the knight, he expressed that such an outrage greatly displeased him. And he joined him in extolling the inhumanity of one who had thus wanted to kill those beautiful giants of creation. Perhaps the prelate was speaking in good faith, too, since every heart where noble sentiments dwell has hidden connections with nature.

A tree that has lingeringly received the mysterious virtue of the centuries, along with the recondite essence of the earth, is an object that instills an almost religious respect and love. Yet there are those who in an instant destroy the work of two hundred years to take advantage of the puny circumference that a tree makes useless with its shade. To greed nothing is sacred. If the Phoenix bird were to fall into his hands, he would eat it or sell it. What does not produce, the speculator does not want. To the miserly soul, beauty is a chimera. A fool with neither light in his mind nor music in his heart does not attain the ability to enjoy it, nor does his soul possess the requisites that are needed in order for the wonders of the universe to make an impression on it. Only the thoughtful man whose deity has him continually aware, marveling at the Omnipotent’s works and becoming mad about Nature’s graces, ever kneels before the Parnassus.

Don Quixote and his good squire, Sancho,                  who is not present for this adventure.

Whether for fear of the one or respect for the other, the old man apologized as best he could and confirmed his promise to not carry forward a work that he had in no way considered to merit censure.

“And why wouldn’t it?” said the Bishop. “If you didn’t have an imperative need, it wasn’t at all Christian to thus destroy, purely for the sake of it, such a beautiful effect of our Mother Earth’s virtue.”

“It seems to me,” Don Quixote said in his turn, “that the Gentiles were on many occasions more pious than we. That veneration of theirs for the sacred forests reveals a whole world of religion in their soul. The woods of Delphi, the forest of Dodona, were temples for them.”

“Your Worship shouldn’t claim authority for the Gentiles,” said the Bishop in his turn. “The patriarchs of ancient law rendered almost divine honors to trees. Abraham planted a cypress, a cedar, and a pine, which by the work of Heaven became a single tree. Consequently that tree was looked upon as a wonder and a thing truly destined for the Divinity. Therefore it was cut down for Solomon’s temple. And what does Your Worship say about the famous oak beneath whose shade that very patriarch of whom I’ve just spoken pitched his campaign tents? The people bowed before it, and they made pilgrimage to the plains of Mamre to see that witness of such great things.”

“I have read,” responded Don Quixote, “that the Japanese, despite being barbarians, respect trees as much as their gods. They plant them everywhere and with them give shade to the roads. Because of that it’s a pleasure to stroll, beneath those regions’ blazing sun, along those fresh, green routes.”

“Among some peoples,” the Bishop said, “those who destroy certain birds are rigorously punished. As in England where no one can kill eagle, crane, nor raven. Small wonder if the Japanese punish the killer of a tree.”

“If it’s not permitted to kill ravens in England,” Don Quixote answered fervently, “it’s not out of respect for that animal but so as not, through wounding one of them, to injure King Arthur, who now moves through the world under a spell put upon him by his sister, the enchantress Morgan le Fay, and who in due time must return to his real shape and rule over the English. For it was never her intention, when she put the spell on him, to annihilate so great a king and valorous a knight, but perhaps to free him from some danger, and make the days race past him until the time should be accomplished for returning him to his own being and person. Your Lordship knows that this can be done without difficulty, or time can do nothing against those who are under enchantment. A thousand years pass, and still they emerge with not a white hair nor wrinkle more than when the enchantment was worked upon them.”


Anonymous reader of first volume of                Hourglass Literary Magazine



Postscript: I will forego my translator’s note on names to mention, finally, the happy news of the previously promised publication, in the little country of Bosnia, of Hourglass Literary Magazine. A copy of this in-every-sense weighty book came to me some few weeks ago with, toward the back of it, my own essay called “Small Graces.” It is followed by its translation into the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian and now, in the reconstituted reality of four nations, at once Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin.

Those of you who have ever seen your own literary work rendered in a language you cannot read will understand the level of my excitement. And, while publication was delayed for some months (as is not uncommon, given the vicissitudes of modestly and irregularly financed literary journals), its material remains immediate to the concerns we face a year after my writing. And not just my essay, but everything I have so far encountered in the magazine. I continue to make my way through the rest of its excellent content.

As for “Small Graces,” should you have a chance to read it, rest assured that its musings of a political nature are surpassed by the most judicious and personal consideration of the liberal arts and human graces that become even more vital than ever in times such as ours.

We may be trapped in a world of cutthroat business and corporate practice, conscienceless deal-making and opportunistic politicos, but only through art, music, literature, and all the other liberal or humane arts do we learn how to live and conduct ourselves in the shadow of the valley of the imperial doctrine of Might-Makes-Right.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, windmill

Impossible dreamer Don Quixote,
tilting at windmills

The eloquent and honest wielding of letters, after all, or of the poetry and rhetoric of literature, is arguably no less necessary than the most righteously activist tilting at the windmills of extreme inequality, injustice, and ecological ruin. Perhaps even more so, we can only hope, than Don Quixote’s soldierly exercise of arms in the age of potential nuclear and climate apocalypse.