Tag Archives: The Nation Magazine

Memorial Day, Patriotism, and the Universal Soldier

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie

At the City Winery in Chicago on Sunday, May 17, scarcely a week before this Memorial Day weekend, my son Jonathan and I attended a concert by Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Those of you of a certain age (or of a particular convergence of life experiences) may know her as a Native American singer-songwriter, a Cree Indian from across the United States’ northern border in Canada. Her music is an eclectic and totally unique mixture of folk and rock influences with indigenous sounds and vocal stylings, as well as other musical and lyric forms from around the world.

I first learned of her – I must have been about thirteen, just learning to play the guitar – from a slim Scholastic Books anthology of socially and ecologically conscious song lyrics from mostly the Sixties and the first year or two of the Seventies. It included – along with material by the Beatles, Pete Seeger, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Joan Baez, and Cat Stevens, among others – Sainte-Marie’s classic “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone.” My severely battered copy of the book, missing both covers and some of the inside material, contains the penciled-in guitar chords that my teacher Keith Craddock would have helped me work out. I must have heard the song first on his voice; it would be decades, in fact, before I heard it as re-recorded on her 1996 album Up Where We Belong.

The title song on that album, winner of the Oscar for Best Song in 1982, was recorded most famously by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes for the soundtrack of the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. In her simple acoustic version it feels like a whole different song, not unlike others of her tender love songs and to my ears much preferable to the orchestral flashiness of the other.

Samantha Crain

Samantha Crain

Opening for her in Chicago was a young singer-songwriter of Choctaw heritage from Shawnee, Oklahoma. Samantha Crain, alone with her acoustc guitar, performed a brief set of maybe half a dozen songs about the often heart-breaking experiences of ordinary people. She clearly has as much professional talent and potential as her elder Sainte-Marie, who at 74 still has a remarkably spry, almost acrobatic stage presence. The audience (an extremely warm group!) had a hard time saying goodbye to Crain, but of course everyone was ready when Sainte-Marie came on with her full band with electric guitars, bass, drums, and keyboard – as well as, for at least one number, her own acoustic guitar.

The song I am thinking of, which she performed alone while the band took a break, is “Universal Soldier”; it appeared originally in 1964 on her first album and was made famous by Donovan – and subsequently recorded by others including, decades later, country icon Glen Campbell.

It is an antiwar song, of course. Or, to put it more postively, a song promoting what she calls “alternative conflict resolution” from the national to international level. The song came about from her experience at an airport in San Francisco, I believe, where she saw wounded soldiers being brought home from a war that the U.S. government still insisted was not being fought. So she started thinking about circles of responsibility and the essential role of soldiers, without whose sacrifice of their bodies the wars could not be waged in the first place. And about the insanity of believing that war can be put an end to in that way.

The song became a call of conscience, then, to the universal soldier who “really is to blame” but whose “orders come from far away no more.” Not that she in any way means to diminish the blame of the political planners who send other people’s children into war, often these days without having fought themselves. Rather, I think, her lyrical and literary rhetoric invites these soldiers, male and female, to turn inward, to reclaim a different sense of responsibility, to stir their conscience against and arouse their resistance to what President Eisenhower, on his way out of office, called the “military-industrial complex” which he saw rising up to maximize some people’s war profits. An evil that has grown exponentially since Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s own flirtations with war in Southeast Asia.

So what about Sainte-Marie’s song? What do we make of it on this holiday designed to memorialize and honor our war dead, our veterans, and those still enrolled in our armed forces?

A utopian ideal, perhaps; given our knowledge of human psychology and of the attractions, to some men especially, of the camaraderie and adrenaline associated with a warrior culture, it seems unlikely that masses of potential soldiers all across the world will decide in unison not to fight. Our notions of patriotism, and of national exceptionalism, make it difficult to even hold a rational conversation about it. I am painfully aware, as I take up the subject, of the anger that might be provoked by simply raising the subject. As if to do so were somehow insulting and dishonoring the legacy of generations of freedom fighters.

It is not my intention to dishonor or to insult, let me just say. But given the love of freedom that we cite as the cause for all our wars, why not debate how well our military actions abroad and the actions of government and we the people at home really serve to protect those freedoms? It is worth noting, for instance, that during the Johnson and Nixon administrations in particular Buffy Sainte-Marie was considered an “artist to be suppressed” and all kinds of extravagant efforts were made, then and in subsequent years, to suppress her and other members of the antiwar movement and other civil rights causes. The situation became so bad, in fact, that between 1976 and 1992, when Sainte-Marie recorded her album Coincidence and Likely Stories (it contained incendiary songs like “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which dealt explicitly with the continuing assault on Native life and culture by government, energy companies, and “the corporate bank”), she essentially stopped touring in the United States and did not record another album during more than a decade and a half.

Why all this fuss if the song – and the movement – did not carry some real weight? If its persuasive powers were not sufficient to contribute to a real disruption of the status quo? Do we really want to live in a country that, in the name of freedom, tramples on the dissenting opinions of people we may not want but possibly need to hear? Or in a country that, as is the case today in Obama’s tragically mixed legacy-in-the-making, persecutes whistle-blowers as traitors for revealing government actions that run against our most cherished ideals and illusions – of what we are taught to see as a basic American exceptionalism?

images6EUP1JNPIt is worth noting, too, that many of our soldiers have in the past (and continue today) to come home with awakened conscience and an antiwar passion quite their own. Among them have been the likes of Howard Zinn, controversial author of the provocative and profoundly readable A People’s History of the United States, which my former governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels was recently found to have tried, while he was still governor, to have removed from educational curricula at Indiana’s public universities. I noticed, the next time I walked into a Barnes and Noble, a table veritably stacked with copies of the latest edition, sales of which the attempt at censorship only fed. True, the book has its biases, but it helped to correct a serious imbalance in our official histories which previously had tended to make short shrift of the perspectives of our political and cultural losers.


Howard Zinn, in my book, whatever his personal or professional flaws, was and remained until his recent death an American patriot. And not in spite of his radical (and arguably polemical) scholarship, but because of it. He was out to tell hidden truths and to improve by his labor the nation and the world he lived in. He even makes a brief appearance, in his capacity as a young professor and participant in the civil rights movement, in Taylor Branch’s scholarly trilogy on America in the Martin Luther King years, which I spent the past few months reading.

King is mostly known, to white audiences, as the almost mythic disassembler of our own apartheid system of Jim Crow segregation – and by the most cited passages of a single speech with its comforting assurances of the great changes, real and superficial, that have occurred since his death in 1968. The dream of little black children and little white children playing together; of a day when people would be judged not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” – a sentiment, that last one, which has been used cynically by covert segregationists to kill Affirmative Action programs that sought to in small measure correct an educational and socioeconomic imbalance that still exists in our country as an inheritance from slavery. A deficit that most white Americans have had trouble understanding.

97806848571381[1]But studied in its entirety, King had identified already in that speech the problems of economic and educational opportunity that keep the imbalance in place. And he was always uneasy about the escalating action in Vietnam. That’s why I was especially anxious to get to volume three of Branch’s trilogy: At Canaan’s Edge, with its increased emphasis on that conflict and on the impossibility of fully addressing President Johnson’s ambitious domestic agenda while our economic and moral energies were diverted toward determining the destiny – by force of arms, bombs, and chemical weaponry – of a dark-skinned people on the other side of the globe.

From the beginning Dr. King’s advisors were almost unanimous in discouraging him from making public statements about the war. I have remained deeply impressed by his moral and ethical determination to be heard on that issue, nonetheless. Even though, as an almost universal lack of support made necessary, he then turned the main thrust of his organizing toward a Poor People’s March on Washington that did not take place, since a sanitation workers’ strike intervened to bring him to Memphis where he would be assassinated. The Poor People’s March, which sought to reach across all racial and geographical boundaries and was to include a contingency from the American Indian Movement as well as white Appalachian mine workers, was to his mind the next best way to get the nation’s attention on the depths of a pervasive domestic poverty. A poverty that, like problems of race and civil rights, could not be addressed while billions of dollars were being diverted to misguided foreign entanglements such as George Washington long ago warned us against.

King’s message on the Vietnam conflict was received well, at least, by those in attendance at the Riverside Church in New York where on April 4, 1967 he made his most complete statement on the issue. Outside of those walls, however, his message was roundly condemned – even among the black community that feared a backlash against the movement – and his patriotism put seriously in question.

“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight,” King said, “because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” Citing Robert McAfee Brown’s statement that “A time comes when silence is betrayal,” King said that his ministry had become “a vocation of agony … as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my heart.”

He said that Vietnam had “broken and eviscerated” the civil rights movement’s earlier momentum and pointed out the hypocrisy of sending black soldiers to fight, supposedly, for freedoms in Southeast Asia that their own government could not guarantee them at home. Likewise, he said he could not answer young rioters who questioned his calls for nonviolence “without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.”

Also, on a more explicitly patriotic note, he worried that his and the President’s common efforts toward a more perfect union could not survive the contradictory hardening of a national posture for war abroad: “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’” As for religious leaders’ excusing of the war’s violence: “Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? … We are called upon to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls enemies. No document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”

King’s own analysis of the historical and cultural roots of the conflict, explained in greater detail elsewhere in this book, impress me as quite astute. Certainly they have held up well to the judgment of history; or to history, at least, as related by Howard Zinn and others of a less polemical bent who have faced up to the self-delusions and official apologetics for a severely mistaken war policy and rationale. But most potent here are his words, to the congregants at Riverside, describing what it all must look like from the ground level of the South Vietnamese themselves:

“They must see Americans as strange liberators,” he said. “Now they languish under our bombs … and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, their real enemies. … They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps. … They wander into town and see thousands of children homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals.”

“Somehow,” he then adds, “this madness must cease” (pp. 591-93).


imagesT8KGXCKU In Corey Robin’s rather lengthy and convoluted article in the June 1, 2015 issue of The Nation – “The Trials of Hannah Arendt” – he discusses, in respect to arguments pro and con in a selection of other books and commentary, her famous (and to many Jews, infamous) book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt was a nonobservant Jewish political philosopher who, after witnessing the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, declined to see him as a monstrously outsized anti-Semitic monster, instead coining the phrase “banality of evil” to characterize the unquestioning acquiescence of him and others to the machinery of genocide. To dismiss Eichmann’s crimes as banality rather than evil, or as many readers misinterpreted, to allege that he was not anti-Semitic at all, offended sensibilities more complex than I have time to go into here.

Be all that as it may, Robin argues, whatever Arendt’s errors, she was essentially correct in her overall argument and her moral or ethical sensibilities were greater than her detractors acknowledge. In fact, according to Robin, part of the intention in using the word “banality” lies in 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, in which he argues for the need to “think from the standpoint of everyone else.”

Arendt cites several instances of the “thoughtlessness” evident in Eichmann’s complaints at his trial – in the context of millions of Jews sent to ignominious deaths by his and others’ order – about the unfairness of his own situation. “Arendt focuses on Eichmann’s cluelessness not to dramatize his inner life,” Robin writes, “but to externalize it, to give it objective form in the world.” In other words: “This inability, as Kant says … ‘to think in the place of the other person’ … ‘This kind of stupidity, it’s like talking to a brick wall. You never get any reaction, because these people never pay any attention to you.’ Such a person, she went on, is ‘infinitely worse’ and ‘incomparably more fearsome’ than a murderer who kills for passion or self-interest, ‘because he no longer has any relationship with his victim at all. He really does kill people as if they were flies.’”

Arendt elaborates further on this point in a letter to the journalist Samuel Grafton: “We resist evil by not being swept away by the surface of things, by stopping ourselves and beginning to think – that is, by reaching another dimension than the horizon of everyday life.”

I would like to suggest that in our own time, in our own place, we could use a bit less of the flag-waving patriotism that hears or sees no evil, where our great nation is concerned, and a great deal more thoughtful or mindful discussion that might bring us toward a more complete understanding of both our virtues and our vices as people and nation.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean to disparage or to minimize the sacrifice of those we memorialize on this day. But I think we better serve them by looking harsh realities in the face rather than shying away from them. We give their sacrifice greater meaning – we prevent those who have died in our name from having done so in vain – by accepting the fact of our people’s and our nation’s grave errors and by taking action to see that we don’t keep making those same mistakes.

Maybe by that process we will discover that Buffy Sainte-Marie’s utopian aspirations for a universal laying down of arms, unachievable as it might be, still makes infinitely more sense as an ideal to reach for than the previous century’s wars to end all wars.

Or in our case, as seems increasingly evident, unending and borderless wars that practically dispense – entirely – with any real hope for peace in our or anyone’s time.


GLEANINGS (Henry James on “Mr. Whitman”; new work by Lynn Strongin; a memoir by Joanna Foreman; audio books of Danish poetry, tr. Michael Goldman)

150th_issue_cover_otu_img[1]1. Received yesterday morning the April edition of the usually weekly magazine The Nation, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary with this 268-page anthology of some new but mostly historical material. In my initial browsing I came upon a November 16, 1865 review of Walt Whitman’s book Drum-Taps (one fragment, now, along with Song of Myself and much else, of his ever-evolving masterpiece Leaves of Grass). The reviewer is Henry James.

This is where I confess that I have never read anything by Henry James, though I am familiar with Henry’s brother William through The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, Louis Menand’s book about the American Pragmatists. Henry, according to The Oxford Companion to English Literature, “was a regular contributor of reviews and short stories to American periodicals” from 1865 on, so this review would have been one of his first. Some of his novels (like Portrait of a Lady, 1881) are “chiefly concerned with the impact of the older civilization of Europe on American life”; and in others, more specifically English in setting and content, “he analysed English character with extreme subtlety, verging at times on obscurity.”

I stop on this background on the reviewer for what it might explain of his negative take on Whitman, a less disciplined and mannered writer working in a distinctly American style: a new kind of poetry – ecstatic, ebulient, rough around the edges – that quite deliberately ran away from its European predecessors.

“Mr. Whitman,” writes James, “prides himself especially on the substance – the life – of his poetry. It may be rough, it may be grim, it may be clumsy – such we take to be the author’s argument – but it is sincere, it is sublime, it appeals to the soul of man, it is the voice of a people.”

In James’s view, Whitman’s poetry is quite simply “an offense against art,” and James has some specific advice with regard to it: “To become adopted as a national poet, it is not enough to discard everything in particular and to accept everything in general, to amass crudity upon crudity, to discharge the undigested contents of your blotting-book into the lap of the public. You must respect the public you address, for it has tastes, if you have not.”

image097[1]In the retrospect of 150 years, that dismissal might well strike one as a tad snobbish, but at least James has his standards. The general American public, in any case, from northern to southern hemisphere, seems to have had a different view of things – or perhaps just a different understanding of artistic taste. Be that as it may, Whitman is honored and imitated perhaps more than any American poet before or since. His chief imitator would have to be Carl Sandburg, who wrote no less ecstatically, in free and ranging verse, of his rough-and-tumble Chicago. And who, like Whitman, was a great admirer (and in Sandburg’s case, biographer) of Abraham Lincoln.

The poems that immediately follow Drum-Taps, entitled Memories of President Lincoln, include the much-anthologized “O Captain! My Captain!” This elegantly crafted poem, which I recall teaching to my eighth-grade English students, is surely proof that Whitman could write a perfectly disciplined poem if he chose to.

As for Song of Myself, while the poet does seem to go overboard from time to time, I have come to find it quite admirable in the sheer boldness of its scope. And where at times Whitman may seem a bit full of himself, possessed of boundless, perhaps excessive self-regard, it is at least partly because of the inclusiveness of his usage of the pronoun myself, which intends to include everyone. If perhaps not so much the more elitist, Europe-gazing Henry James.

The individual poems in Drum-Taps were unknown to me before a couple of years ago, more or less, when I finally got around to wading through the immense entirety of Leaves of Grass. I have to say that it particularly moved me. In part because for the first time, it seemed to me, the poet’s seemingly boundless optimism was brought to its knees, overwhelmed by the horrors of an internecine war whose wounds, this century and a half later, are still not completely acknowledged, let alone healed. And, in the face of this day’s apparently endless international “war on terror,” I needed him to acknowledge the limits of optimism.

That impression is perhaps most clearly expressed in the following short poem, which I cite in its entirety:

 Year that trembled and reel’d beneath me!

Your summer wind was warm enough, yet the air I breathed froze me,

A thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me,

Must I change my triumphant songs? said I to myself,

Must I learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled?

And sullen hymns of defeat?

It seems to me that our political discourse, of late, could stand a dose of this modesty. Before the present drum-beats to war with Iran turn the whole region, and perhaps the world, into a conflagration that is bound to decisively give the lie to all our exceptionalist triumphalism.

2. Have been acquainted with Lynn Strongin, strictly by long distance, since editing some of her poems during my year as managing editor of the online journal New Works Review. She has an extensive body of work since the Sixties and seems to have no intention of slowing down in her own seventies, having two new books (one just published, the other forthcoming) in 2015.

As she has herself pointed out, Strongin has been exploring essentially the same subject and themes for all these years, over and over and yet never the same: every poem, every particular narrative, seems completely fresh and original despite the familiarity. And by no means less skillful than earlier work.

Lynn Strongin as a childMost evident in all her work is her experience as a child victim of polio, which left her in a wheelchair but did nothing to inhibit her intellectual and artistic adventuring. This infuses her work with a particular sensitivity to young people of any day, whatever the specific troubles physical or emotional that sometimes isolate them. Additional themes that resurface in her work include the menace of the Holocaust and other forms of marginalization and prejudice manifest variously in our shared human experience.

In a sense, one might say, her concerns are at once universal and unifying, touching on the world of nature as well as on the varieties of human experience. I especially remember some moving passages, in previous work, on the recent nuclear disaster in Japan, connected as that inevitably is to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to nuclear talks today between Iran and much of the developed world, to traumas both physical and spiritual from the Middle East to urban and rural North America.

None of which is to say that her work is oppressively dark or depressing, quite the contrary. Rather it seems to burst with light and possibility. Her voice is distinct and wholly original. One might say that her words shimmer.

The following radiant poem (I love the closing image!) is from The Burn Poems, just published in time for International Women’s Day on March 18, by Headmistress Press (Sequim, Washington) which specializes in publishing chapbooks by lesbian writers:

Were those sorrowful times

Back on Cook Street?

Did it all melt down to kitchen?

That galley that hung

Me with gin?

Why should those times be more sorrowful than these? Ruined cities always were in my spine:

Fort Mason. Fort Saint John. Fort Spaceman.

To a child it was cruel. To be a woman? There are no words:

Instead I trap


Cup a bird in hand

And let my tears bathe him. 

The lyric novel, Fabrytius’ Chylde (Albuquerque, New Mexico: Casa de Snapdragon), forthcoming later this year, has the feel of an extended prose poem, its narrative comes forth in shimmering blasts that allow the story to emerge slowly, with repetitions of phrase and image that help reinforce it. At slightly over a hundred words, it begs to be read at least twice: once straight through to get the feel of it, and again lingeringly to take it all in more completely.

The title alludes to a 17th-century painting by Carel Pietersz Fabritius, “Rembrandt’s most famous pupil,” with whose subject (the painter’s daughter) this 21st-century narrator self-identifies. She is an older woman, looking back on a lesbian relationship of some fifty years. The painting is The Goldfinch (1654). The following passage, from the beginning of chapter one, helps to set the stage:

This is the story of Velvet and Angel. Velvet was the name given me when Velma-Sue was outgrown, just as Angelique, with whom I fell in love, became Angel, and these names remained ours for life. If I was a Dutch painter’s dream of a girl, Angel was a burly, Roman woman with brogue shoes, a broad-muscled soldier. Her years as instructor had developed her biceps. Her crop of chestnut hair, bangs glistening as though painted with thick oil paints made her resemble a small woman, Roman soldier who fought on burning bridges and canals by sun, lit like candle. She was a delicious woman, Hercules.

the-know-it-all-girl-joanna-foreman-sm[1]3. Recently joined, for support and companionship, the Southern Indiana Writers group, which meets occasionally in Indiana’s original frontier capital of Corydon, at about an hour’s drive from my Indiana home in Tell City. As a former Mormon missionary in South America, no longer practicing the faith but by no means hostile to it, I was interested to read group member Joanna Foreman’s The Know-It-All Girl: A memoir of a former Jehovah’s Witness. (2013. Madison, Indiana: Hydra Publications)

Our experiences have been very different, though both of us have turned against the patriarchal and doctrinal certainties of our former faiths. In her case, I think, the experience was on the whole more restrictive, mine less so given the existence within Mormonism of a distinctly more liberal and expansive wing in opposition or counterpoint to the anti-intellectual wing that, at least in my particular experience, came to suck the original joy from Sunday worship and daily practice. Some of that, both the positive and the negative, is at play in my new Young Adult novel, tentatively called Original Sins and still looking for a home, whose lead protagonist is a Mormon girl (as opposed to her classmates who are not Mormon) with a dilemma (what to do if her boyfriend turns out to really be gay). And who tries to solve the dilemma by drawing some risky lessons from the Mormon version of the Adam and Eve narrative. But that’s a whole other story, which I don’t need to get into just now.

Joanna’s narrative, in any case, is an affecting account of spiritual struggle and growth which should have large appeal to anyone who enjoys reading popular biography and memoir. While the Organization, as it is called by its members, became too restrictive a place for Joanna’s adventurous and inquisitive spirit, the story of her relationships within the faith with, in particular, her mother and a dear girlfriend, are for the most part positive. As is the overall thrust of her narrative, which ends in a good place and is related with appropriate and abundant humor. The title alludes to the illusion of sure knowledge that the faithful have through reliance on the church elders or patriarchal leaders: because, whatever question anyone could have, they claimed to know all the answers; so all you had to do was listen and obey.

The following passage, part of a chapter that develops her ultimate relationship with belief and doubt even more fully, I particularly admire:

 Most days, I don’t believe there is a god anymore. Occasionally, I think maybe there is, but for me, He or She or It is not a god who knows our every thought (or even cares what we’re thinking), who will strike a match and torture us forever if we refuse to follow specific, complicated and oftentimes silly rules. When I hold a newborn I believe there must be a god. When I see violent anger and hate among the human race I figure there cannot be a god. I walk outside on a spring day – birds sing and a fresh breeze ruffles my hair – or I witness a glorious sunrise; then I think maybe there is a god. But when I see the insensitive, unnecessary bickering and wars between people of various religions, I truly believe with all my heart that if a god exists, he is involved in the self-serving beliefs of the people only in their imaginations. I confess I want to believe in God, first of all because I followed that comfortable path for nearly half a century; second, I like the feeling of having a higher power watching over me. 

It seems to me that Joanna may be leaning toward the American Transcendentalists’ sense of God in Nature. Aside from Emerson and Thoreau, whom a high-school English teacher taught me to appreciate, I am also thinking of Emily Dickinson whose poetry I am presently reading. She has a Transcendentalist sensibility, anyway; and when Joanna speaks of appreciation being superior to worship, I think she means the same thing as Dickinson does as she re-defines worship: “My period has come for Prayer – / No other Art would do – ” she writes; but several stanzas later, at poem’s end, she has come to a new place:

The Silence condescended –

Creation stopped – for me –

But awed beyond my errand –

I worshipped – did not “pray” –

(poem # 525)

And then there’s this little jewel, one of my favorites (#23) in its utter simplicity:

In the name of the Bee –

And of the Butterfly –

And of the Breeze – Amen!

Benny Andersen

Benny Andersen

4. Finally, in passing, a note from my translator friend Michael Goldman, whose rendering of a poem by Danish poet / lyricist Benny Andersen I re-published here (it originally appeared in the Cincinnati Review) on October 23, 2013. It seems that he has some audio books out with Andersen’s poetry and that of a pair of other Danish poets. If relaxing to someone else reading fine, accessible Danish poetry sounds like something you would enjoy, then here’s your ticket to poetic bliss. I have not listened to these particular tapes, but I have heard Michael read his poems on more than one occasion – in person and online – and can thus assure you of their quality.

Here’s the link:  http://hammerandhorn.net/audiobooks-3/ Happy listening!

And as a bonus, here from Michael’s website is a short essay called “Translation is Like Carpentry” (his day job, by the way, is carpentry), a profound poetic glimpse at the craft of literary translation:

I was out on a snow hike last night,  imagining that a piece of Danish literature is not unlike a Danish house to which only someone fluent in Danish has a key.  As a translator and student of literature I have access  to enter that building and experience it in all its facets.  I perceive the building elements, the blueprint, the intent behind the construction.  And I can reconstruct that house, make a replica, though not an exact twin.  Not every screw and nail will be in precisely the same place.  It could be that the original wood is not available anymore.  But the building will appear and feel the same, inside and out.  It will be the American-English neighbor.  And the English reader can enter with their key and experience the same mood as inside the original house – experience the same rooms, the dimensions, the decor, the usefulness and the whimsy.  It takes an enormous amount of work  to replicate literature, of course, not unlike building a house.  And not just to build it, but also to find people who will come and enter, and stay for a while.

February 20, 2015


On the new Fabula Press and on the fabulist fiction of Gabriel García Márquez and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Fabula Press Homepage

From the Fabula Press Homepage

Anirban Ray Choudhury, my former editor at The Quill & Ink e-zine (where at his invitation a few years ago I published some essay, fiction, and translation), has recently informed me that he is reviving that project under a new name and in a different format. The Quill & Ink is now Fabula Press (www.fabulapress.com) and the plan is, with his partner Rajeev Pareek, to host a quarterly writing contest and, with the results of each one, publish a print anthology that will be available for purchase at a number of online bookstores. By taking a modest $10 entry fee for submissions they will be able initially to pay out between $100 and $150 to the top three stories and offer publication to a number of others: each issue may contain 12-15 stories.

When Anirban approached me about this new venture, he asked if I would volunteer to be one of the four judges. I have accepted and am anxious to see the project succeed. The first competition, the Aestas Short Story Contest 2014, is set to accept online submissions between May 20 and June 20 at 11:59 p.m. (Hong Kong time) on the theme of Summer (aestas being the Latin word for that season). The theme may be interpreted broadly on a range between strictly literal and strictly metaphorical and, after a first round determined by the editors, will be judged according to a 9-point set of criteria and the scores of the four judges taken together. The judges will receive the stories without authors’ names on the manuscripts, so anyone reading this who wants to submit should not worry about a conflict of interest. I encourage all of my fellow writers to check out the complete guidelines at the website and give the competition a shot!


Spain's leading newspaper report's the death of "a genius of universal literature"

Spain’s leading newspaper reports the death of “a genius of universal literature”

It hasn’t been but two or three weeks since I heard about the death of Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and acknowledged master of the magical realist style of writing which started in Latin America. A rejection of pure journalistic realism and objectivity, in a quest for the deeper significance of human experience, it instead starts from a core of the ordinary, the mundane, and the “real” and wildly exaggerates it, as Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman points out in a remembrance in the issue of The Nation (5/26/14) that just arrived this week in my mailbox.

Since I began reading García Márquez in Spanish some thirty years ago, I have been a deep admirer in particular of his short stories; and have also especially loved his historical novel The General in his Labyrinth, about the South American liberator Simón Bolívar, and the romantic novel Love in the Time of Cholera. Just a couple of months ago I finally polished off The Autumn of the Patriarch, which was recommended to me long ago by fiction-writing professor John McCluskey, Jr. and my former high school English teacher Margaret Meadors; and for most of three decades has been sitting on one of my bookshelves. It is indeed quite a remarkable achievement.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude

But I am embarrassed to admit – and all the more so after reading Dorfman’s account of devouring it in about 24 hours of marathon reading, just before its official release in 1967 – that I still have not made it all the way or even half way through One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is largely considered to be García Márquez’s masterpiece and one of the great literary achievements of the 20th century. I did, while still an undergraduate at Indiana University, read James Joyce’s Ulysses, in an extremely profitable independent study with Professor Brian Caraher (who has since then found his way to Belfast where he is a Chair at Queens University); and just recently I have finished volume two of the new translation of Marcel Proust’s monumental seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time (formerly In Remembrance of Things Past), which I have long intended to read. But I have never been able to get through more than a quarter of García Márquez’s most celebrated novel, which for whatever reason seemed to lose my interest after the initial excitement of it.

In any case, the result of Dorfman’s unintended shaming is that I have pulled it off the shelf and resolved to not put it back until I have conquered it. I had thought that maybe I should try it in Gregory Rabassa’s undoubtedly brilliant translation, but not having it at hand have instead pulled my Spanish copy off the shelf. Perhaps at this moment I am more prepared for it than I was all those years ago.

At some point, of course, there is still Joyce’s final novel, Finnegans Wake, that I hope to read before I die – after re-visiting, first, the early and more accessible works (Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and Ulysses. If I can’t get a professor to sit down with me and help me study it, I’ll have to have a good guide book at hand. But I have always enjoyed a good literary challenge. (I don’t have the patience, on the other hand, to do something as simple as thread a needle, which I have always found to be no less frustrating than the proverbial camel through the eye of a needle.)


Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Speaking of magical realism, I have just this past week finished reading – in the masterful translation of Keith Gessen and Anna Summers – a very accessible collection of Russian stories that might somewhat fit under that classification. The author is Ludmilla Petruvshevskaya and this selection of her stories is called There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. She also has already published (in Anna Summers’s translations) a couple more collections of short fiction, more strictly realistic in style; and a novel, supposedly her own master work, forthcoming in the fall — which already exists in a reportedly inferior earlier translation, so beware! (my source for that is an article, also, in a recent issue of The Nation).

These selections have a particularly mystical quality, and perhaps to some extent have more in common with the moral folk tales that Tolstoy invented or re-told in his later years than with García Márquez’s (one story in particular, “The Old Monk’s Testament,” brings the best of those Tolstoyan folk tales to mind). Her style is more sharp-edged than Tolstoy’s and more spare than García Márquez’s, but they are always rich in voice and description. Of course all such comparisons are at best approximations.

Petrushevskaya, whose work as a dramatist helped to support her in the years that her other work was banned (though none of it explicitly political), is certainly the most critically renowned living Russian writer after the death of the more internationally famous Alexander Solzhenitsyn; in fact, her first story published in Russia, “The New Robinson Crusoes,” which appears in this volume, was published alongside Solzhenitsyn’s famous account of the Stalinist prison camps called The Gulag Archipelago.

While no longer banned, Petrushevskaya remains controversial since as the translators comment, “Many Russian readers cannot forgive the unremitting bleakness (even if it was always mixed with profound sympathy and hope) of her early work” (perhaps that is also why she was originally banned, since the vision of Russian life she revealed did not reflect so well on that particular Utopia of the Proletariat). I might add, in any case, that the stories in this selection certainly transcend any bleakness as they reflect what, at the risk of falling into a cliché, I will call “the triumph of the human spirit.” I highly recommend them.

On Reading Juan Gelman’s Poetry

Dark_Times_cvr_large[1]Note: I have decided to take the following review verbatim from my personal journal, so pardon its rawness; also pardon  the misalignment of lines that should be indented in the excerpt from “Watching People Walk Along.” Since writing this I have researched a bit more about Gelman’s life, but rather than add information or clarifications I will leave you, gentle reader, with the impressions of the moment. For further review of his work I refer you to Lucina Schell’s excellent review at her Reading in Translation blog (www.readingintranslation.com).

Friday, December 6

Dark Times Filled With Light: The Selected Work of Juan Gelman. Translated by Hardie St. Martin. 2012. Rochester, NY: Open Letter. 187 pages.

Simply stated, some of the most significant and remarkable poetry that I have read in my life: and to think that, though I had heard his name, before now I scarcely knew he existed! Frequently mentioned as a candidate for a Nobel Prize in Literature, I can’t imagine anyone who more deserves it. He is Argentine, like Borges who was also frequently mentioned for it but passed over – perhaps for the unfortunate decision to accept an honor from the Chilean dictator Pinochet. Gelman is significantly further to the left, and after the “disappearance” in 1976 of his son and pregnant daughter-in-law – victims of Argentina’s triumvirate of military dictators – he became an exile himself and remained out of the country for many years. In 2000 he finally located his graddaughter who had been given to supporters of the regime in Uruguay. What a terrible thing to have to suffer! But as he said (quoted in Paul Pines’s introduction): “There are losses. The important thing is how returning to them transforms them into something new.”

Juan Gelman

Juan Gelman

In respect to the “equipment for living” metaphor, Gelman’s equipment is of the best. Burke would probably have considered him a good and eloquent Marxist, though I don’t know if he was ever a member of the Communist Party. But his poems are full of references to fallen “compañeros” and “comrades,” to images of struggle and defeat and hopes of future victory. As early as 1961, he uses the word “revolution”:

… we make our way back to the fire, the anger, the injustice

after making love.


In this city moaning like a madwoman

love quietly counts

the birds that died fighting the cold,

the jails, the kisses, the loneliness, the days

still left before the revolution. (“Winter,” p. 16)

This selection contains work from well over twenty collectons, with sometimes as few as one representative and as many as fourteen, written between 1956 and 1992. The single representative from the first, “Watching People Walk Along,” from Violin and Other Questions, is a stunning opening poem: I sat here and read it over and over, pronouncing each word aloud, savoring it, deeply moved. He speaks early on of “watching / people weep in the most hidden corners / of the soul and still be able / to laugh and walk with dignity.” At the end he gives us these wonderfully bracing and poignant lines:

I tell them,

it’s beautiful to walk along with you

I tell them, it’s beautiful, what a great mystery

to live treated like dirt

yet sing and laugh,

how strange! (p. 5)

The book’s beautiful title comes from the collection Facts (1974-78), the poem “Things They Don’t Know,” which begins thus:

dark times / filled with light / the sun

spreads sunlight over the city split

by sudden sirens / the police hunt goes on / night falls and we’ll

make love under this roof … (p. 70)

It appears to be in this collection that he began using the slashes within lines of verse (in the short excerpt above, from “Watching …,” I have inserted the slashes as per standard practice to indicate line breaks).

Among the book’s most moving sections (out of so many affecting poems in each excerpted collection!) are Open Letter, 1980, which is dedicated to his son:

Crestfallen my burning soul

dips a finger in your name / scrawls

your name on the night’s walls /

soul to soul it looks at you / becomes a child /

opens its breast to take you in /

protect you / reunite you / undie you / (“Crestfallen My Burning Soul,” p. 81)

and Com / Positions, which takes its inspiration from 10th and 11th-century Sephardic poets (he has Jewish ancestry). “i call the following poems com / positions,” he writes in the opening “Exergue,” “because i’ve com / posed them, in other words, put my own things in texts great poets wrote years ago…. their vision of exile shook me up and i added – or changed, went through, offered – the things i myself felt …” In the second stanza / paragraph he continues: “in any case i talked with them, as they did with me from the dust of their bones and the radiance of their words….” And in the third (of five): “such is the mystery of the human word. it has its origin, whatever the language, in the same flight between darkness and light and thus it consubstantiates them: its light is dark, its darkness bright….” (p. 153). I will cite the last four lines (of ten) in the poem called “The Moment,” whose subject I would say is evanescence (I think of The Tale of Genji):

in this world this hour alone is mine /

this now that i am /

shows its face and

like a cloud / passes on (p. 161).

He cites in attribution of source / inspiration poet Samuel Hanagid (993-1056, Córdoba-Granada-the battlefield). In the next poem, also inspired by the same poet, this closing statement about the lust for war, a theme I wish our nation of leaders and patriots would ponder:

my men laughed at life / at death /

each wound on their faces a crown /

oh young lions /

to die /

they believed / is to keep the faith /

and to live without faith / they thought / against the rules /

(“Moments During the Battle of Alfuente,” p. 162).

There is so much more that I could cite, but I am running out of pages in this journal and I imagine that what I have already cited and said will do enough for a sampling and a response. I have never read verses that have affected me more profoundly.


imagesSFFRY0NP12/9/13: I have myself never belonged to the Communist Party or any officially Marxist organization, but I did make the painful migration from my conservative Republican upbringing to the “radical” left wing of the Democratic Party – even voted twice for the “socialist” Barack Obama! And, yes, I sympathize with Marxist ideals, if not with the excesses of some of its proponents and practitioners.

Anyway, I have just finished reading the December 9, 2013 issue of The Nation and, in particular, Sophie Pinkham’s review of some works by and about Victor Serge (in particular Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, which I think I want to read). “From a socialist perspective,” Pinkham writes, “Serge represents the path not taken, the democratic revolution that never was.”

I think that something like that was going on in Chile, with Salvador Allende’s democratic election, until Pinochet (with the aid and counsel of our CIA) murdered him and overthrew that government. I remember reading Allende’s niece Isabel Allende’s novel La casa de los espíritus (The House of Spirits), which included some horrifying description of a conservative anti-democratic revolution very closely modeled on Pinochet’s historical one. I have since read nonfictional accounts that closely mirror her fictional one. I was shocked at the time by the political sabotage that went on, before the coup, with the clear intention of destabilization of Allende’s government: the image from the novel that still stands out in my mind is of perfectly good food rotting in store windows because the interests of wealth refused to sell it at a price that the working class could afford.

I have often thought of that when I hear people say that “Socialism” has been discredited and that Capitalism represents the “best of all possible worlds.” And I have thought about it throughout Obama’s years in the White House as Republicans in Congress have openly sought the destruction of his agenda, with dishonest epithets with Marxist and Racist overtones.

And while in my dark moods I often despair of our ever overcoming the deep-seated American assumptions that keep us from a humane and rational blend of capitalistic and socialistic economic strategies (I have always been of a melancholic temperament), every now and then there is still a glimmer of hope: whether it is Bill de Blasio’s mayoral win in NYC, or Elizabeth Warren’s campaign to make Wall Street honest, or any number of little signs of populist / progressivist activity.

In the spirit of that hope I modestly say: ¡Viva la revolución democrática! May it be resounding, aggressive, and peaceful.  

On the “Redlighting” of Our Domestic Economy

A few nights ago I was reading the new issue (#53) of Rosebud; this is the journal that in issue #52 published an excerpt (“The Gentleman and the Willow”) from my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s novel La pasión de los nómades, or in English: Passionate Nomads (www.aliformpublishing.com). It’s a print magazine whose website, at www.rsbd.net, is worth checking out.

Veterans Occupy Washington, 1932

Veterans occupying Washington struggle with police, 1932

Anyway, I read Kitty Baker’s story, an excerpt from her unpublished novel Dandelions of Spring, called “The Occupiers of 1932.” The excerpt centers on the occupation of Washington D.C. by a mass of homeless and hungry veterans, and then-President Hoover’s use of military force to remove them. For a journalistic account of this Occupation see the article “History for Kossacks: The Occupation of Washington, 1932,” published in the Daily Kos on November 6,2011: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/11/06/1033841/-History-for-Kossacks-The-Occupation-of-Washington-1932

Washington Occupation 1932

Veterans bring their grievances to the Congress

The historical events are made all the more poignant by the fictionalized presence of a teenage girl – daughter of a veteran who is there with her, and wishes he could be sure he would ever be able to afford to send her to art school – who is there to observe and draw the scenes around her.

At one point, as the troops have gathered and begun their attack, one of the veterans comes to understand what is happening and says: “We’re the enemy. Once we were heroes!” When the removal was complete, General MacArthur is reported to have said: “The rioters lost heart in the face of a power they could recognize as overwhelming, even though numerically their advantage was some five or six to one.”

This “official story” seems cynical at best, the distorting and biased word “rioters” aiming to de-legitimize the validity of the veterans’ complaint and of their aggrieved humanity; the latter part of the sentence obscuring the fact that this ragtag bunch of protesters had come to petition their government non-violently, and in return faced the overwhelming military might of the very country in whose name they had previously fought in WWI.

"Hooverville" shantytowns burned by MacArthurs's army

“Hooverville” shantytowns burned, veterans evicted

The parallel to the recently squelched “Occupy Wall Street” movement is unmistakable and chilling: the images of police attacking non-violent protestors, burning the books donated to a portable library, etc. It is all the more chilling in this political season of the 99% versus the 47%, when we face the possibility of electing a President who’s avowed agenda (though he pretends the opposite in the campaign’s final weeks) is to dismantle the entire safety net – along with what’s left of a regulatory system of economic and other protections – which has been created in the disastrous wake of the first Gilded Age and subsequent Great Depression.

But rather than descend into a merely political debate, a flurry of claims and counter-claims and questionable statistics, let’s allow the narratives themselves – literary and actual – to influence our affective and reasoned response to the monumental choice that faces us on November 6.

In that spirit let me share the following portion, very slightly adapted, from a 2008 essay posted to my “Arte Retórica” column in the blog “Tertullian’s Corner”, in the online journal Tertulia Magazine which only recently ceased to publish. What I wrote then, in this the essay’s core, strikes me as entirely pertinent to what we face these four years later as we lurch further into a new Gilded Age that may still be reversible.


The truths that most affect us – and potentially transform us – are sometimes better revealed within the passion and subjectivity of a well-told narrative (whether factual or fictional or even mythical) than in the mere accumulation of data. All utterance is subject to interpretation, after all, and thus to argument. A truly valid rhetorical practice must therefore transcend the mistaken objectivity of mere “facts” (or “factoids”) lined up by polemicists on either side of a political divide.

Vintage Circus Poster

Vintage circus poster

One such narrative, for me, is the one that Sara Gruen weaves in her novel Water for Elephants (Algonquin, 2006), whose subject, briefly stated, is an old man’s remembrance of his Great Depression-era stint on a circus crew. It is arguably as harrowing in its revelations of humankind’s potential depravity and grandeur as, say, The Kite Runner, whose demons one might carelessly dismiss as merely exotic, or pertinent only to those barbaric lands to which our nation’s best and bravest are presently bringing civilization and democracy.

In Gruen’s novel there is everything: from the most sordid to the most redeeming and love-saturated sex; from soulless violence and cruelty to courage and heroism, to a powerful commitment to the keeping of promises – a simple human endurance, in short, never wholly erased by the humiliating anti-climax of crushing poverty and oppression, or of old age. The particular love story at center is deeply poignant, as is the nuanced characterization of the protagonist as an old man. And from the opening sequence, in which what one thinks has just happened has not happened really (or at least not as imagined), the suspense never wavers.

In short: a fabulous novel, deeply imagined and researched, revealing our not-so-distant national history in ways that our real and imagined progress tends to obscure. The story is firmly rooted in the facts and down-to-earth realities of a cruel era, all of which it transcends. The particular, the immediate, the national and local, is made universal. And closer at hand to Khaled Hosseini’s Afghanistan of fewer decades past than we might have wished to imagine.

New Orleans Ninth District

Ninth Ward seven years after Katrina

For that matter, as I read Lizzy Ratner’s article (in the February 25 [2008] issue of The Nation) about the homeless and maimed in the deepening shadow of New Orleans’s post-Katrina face lift, Gruen’s Depression-era America seems frighteningly current.

“This is a Dickens novel that we’re living in right now,” says one of Ratner’s journalistic protagonists. “It’s like A Tale of Two Cities.”

While Donald Trump’s International Hotel and Tower New Orleans (“number one address for elegant living”) rises heavenward like its mythic Babylonian counterpart, the huddled masses down below are cast out of the housing market, which is being rebuilt for a whole other demographic. In a city whose housing market, pre-Katrina, was over half rental, and in which 52,000 rental units were destroyed in the flood, (not to mention another “4,500 relatively unscathed public housing apartments” bulldozed by HUD), a whopping 85 percent of federal aid has gone to home owners while the fair-market rate for rental properties has soared out of the working class’s means.

“The result,” Ratner reports, “is that the funds allocated by Washington’s recovery gurus to rebuild the Gulf area are expected to restore only 43 percent of Louisiana’s rental apartments – and only 37 percent of the city’s most affordable rental housing, according to PolicyLink, a national advocacy group promoting social and economic justice.”

“Poor people just have not been the priority in this recovery,” says another of Ratner’s sources. “And I think the fact that this situation hasn’t been treated with the urgency it deserves is exactly why we’re seeing these huge homeless camps in New Orleans, why so many people are living in abandoned buildings and why so many people are suffering in Third World conditions in the United States of America two and a half years after Katrina.”

In Gruen’s novel, the most vulnerable members of the circus crew are simply “redlighted,” a euphemism for being thrown off a moving train under cover of night. Isn’t what is happening to the vulnerable in New Orleans (not to mention Mexico’s corn farmers, or countless victims of Bush-Cheney’s “homeowner society” in the present foreclosure crisis) simply a more sophisticated form of the same practice?

“As for local leaders,” Ratner reports, “they have sometimes seemed less interested in resettling the poorest Katrina survivors than in finding ways to keep them out of their neighborhoods. In numerous instances […] elected officials have pushed bans on multifamily apartment complexes – measures that would effectively freeze poor, often African-American renters out of those ZIP codes.”

Woody Guthrie, writing of Mexican Americans’ plight in an era of cheap bracero labor, sang it like this: “Some of us are illegal and some just not wanted.

Unrepaired home in Ninth Ward

A Tale of Two Cities of New Orleans