Tag Archives: Walt Whitman

Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, Bound and Free

images02r1k9dfThree decades after reading, in the original English, Herman Melville’s famous novel about Captain Ahab’s mad quest for a Great White Whale (and about so much else besides!), I have lately been enjoying the exercise of re-reading it in José María Valverde’s Spanish-language translation. I had chanced on the paperback some time ago at some library book sale or other—who can remember how many years ago? Or perhaps it was in Bloomington at Caveat Emptor, my favorite used-book store? I picked it up, anyway, and said to myself something like, Why not? And much more recently, with no less randomness, casting about for something new to read in my second language and stumbling on this long-neglected treasure, I said something like, Why not NOW?

So here we are. I turn to the English text as retrieved from Wikisource, to an extended passage from chapter 89 of Melville’s classic—a pause in the narrative cycle so that our encyclopedian Ishmael can elaborate on maritime legal concepts regarding the capture and possession of whales or other large, fishy creatures.

The established legal principle was this: “‘a fast-fish belongs to the party fast to it’”; and, “‘a loose fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.’” The question, then, comes down to the difference of definition between a “fast-fish” and a “loose-fish” (pez sujeto and pez libre, in the Spanish, which might also be rendered captured, bound, or subjugated fish and free, escaped, or fleeing fish). The reader can imagine how interpretation and application might vary in the mind of plaintiff, defendant, or judge—and by means of the socioeconomic and political lenses of the interpreter.

images9w3sincy“First: What is a Fast-Fish?” Ishmael / Melville asks? “Alive or dead,” they answer, “a fish is technically fast, when it is connected with an occupied ship or boat, by any medium at all controllable by the occupant or occupants,—a mast, an oar, a nine-inch cable, a telegraph wire, or a strand of cobweb, it is all the same.” Or, technically speaking, it remains captured or subjugated as long as it bears some “recognized symbol of possession” and the party fishing or pursuing it is in a position and showing intention to take a more permanent hold of it.

Ishmael then relates a judicial case (some fifty years old at the time of telling, he parenthesizes) of aggrieved whalers who, having first succeeded in harpooning their prey, “were at last, through peril of their lives, obliged to forsake not only their lines, but their boat itself”; and of another ship’s crew who took it out from under them and, on top of that, at once taunted them and kept their “line, harpoons, and boat, which had remained attached to the whale at the time of the seizure.”

Which leads to a highly questionable, even regrettable analogy that places a husband in the position of accusing whalers and his divorced wife in that of their escaped fish; and, though the comparison be obnoxious in the highest degree, let’s put aside our twenty-first century moral disgust at the chauvinist’s choice of words and image (and such arguments as Mary Wollstonecraft might have made, at that crossroads between eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in vindication of the insulted woman’s dignity) in order to get at the substance of the argument itself.

images423fso9xIt seems that a “gentleman,” in the defense attorney’s analogy, “after in vain trying to bridle his wife’s viciousness” (ungovernableness, perhaps? unruliness or independent-mindedness?) “had at last abandoned her upon the seas of life”; but afterwards, “repenting of that step, he instituted an action to recover possession of her”; all well and good, the lawyer argued, the gentleman having abandoned her only under great stress and because of her own nastiness, as Candidate Trump might have had in mind when he insulted Candidate Hillary (the two terms, viciousness and nastiness, oddly connected, in etymological terms)—all good and well, the lawyer said, “yet abandon her he did, so that she became a loose-fish; and therefore when a subsequent gentleman re-harpooned her, the lady then became that subsequent gentleman’s property, along with whatever harpoon might have been found sticking in her.”

Again, setting aside the unpleasantness of both thought and image, let’s move on to the judge who has clearly taken the point “that the examples of the whale and the lady were reciprocally illustrative of each other.” In which case he felt compelled to lay out these terms: “to wit,—That as for the boat, he awarded it to the plaintiffs, because they had merely abandoned it to save their lives; but that with regard to the controverted whale, harpoons, and line, they belonged to the defendants; the whale, because it was a Loose-Fish at the time of the final capture; and the harpoons and line because when the fish made off with them, it (the fish) acquired a property in those articles; and hence anybody who afterwards took the fish had a right to them. Now the defendants afterwards took the fish; ergo, the aforesaid articles were theirs.”

While a reasonable man might disagree with both sexist analogy and esteemed judge’s ruling, Ishmael contends that in these two laws “will on reflection, be found the fundamentals of all human jurisprudence”; and he proceeds from there to the heart of the matter, which is the commentary that justifies the original digression from Melville’s principal fictive narration:

images6“Is it not a saying in everyone’s mouth,” Ishmael asks, verily dripping with Melville’s intentional ironies, that

Possession is half the law: that is, regardless of how the thing came into possession? But often possession is the whole law. What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law? What to the rapacious landlord is the widow’s last mite but a Fast-Fish?  […] What is the ruinous discount which Mordecai, the broker, gets from the poor Woebegone, the bankrupt, on a loan to keep Woebegone’s family from starvation; what is that ruinous discount but a Fast-Fish? What is the Archbishop of Savesoul’s income of 100,000 pounds seized from the scant bread and cheese of hundreds of thousands of broken-backed laborers (all sure of heaven without any of Savesoul’s help) what is that globular 100,000 but a Fast-Fish?  […] And concerning all these, is not Possession the whole of the law?

But if the doctrine of Fast-Fish be pretty generally applicable, the kindred doctrine of Loose-Fish is still more widely so. That is internationally and universally applicable.

What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish standard by way of wailing it for his royal master and mistress? What was Poland to the Czar? What Greece to the Turk? What India to England? What at last will Mexico be to the United States? All Loose-Fish.

What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish?  And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?

#

images2gobz36vArriving again at these last and cogent lines—such fitting interrogative and exclamation points at the end of Melville’s chapter—I do so with a strong impression of having just dreamt them. For here we all stand, bewildered and divided citizens and humanity after the first month since the inauguration of an American President whose election I lamented at last writing for this blog. For, while history does not precisely repeat itself, its echoes and reiterated patterns are always present, instructive like the parables of Jesus to those with ears to hear.

I do not want to belabor the issue; you, my readers, can make your own associations between the biting sarcasm of Herman Melville’s literary critique of the predatory nature of human history from whose nightmare James Joyce’s young artist, Stephen Dedalus, so famously was trying to awake.

As for myself, in these times of dark national affliction, I have been unable to pass a day without a piercing and sorrowful consciousness of some of the fast and at least temporarily loose fish within the aim of the new president’s or any one of his harpoonists’ aim. And trying to strike the right balance between political resistance and activism and the more particular labors of my literary profession.

Primarily, I have been writing a monthly column for the new Hoosier newsletter Progressive Indiana; and, more irregularly, my letters or commentary might appear in Evansville, Indiana’s daily Courier & Press or, more frequently, in the twice-weekly local Perry County News. These things, accomplished not without some creative and emotional anguish, are natural enough to my twin vocations of writing and teaching; and, I consider, a part of my civic responsibility. Likewise with these essays and others, as well as my fiction and literary translations which inevitably bear a moral or ethical or social and political texture.

Dust Bowl migrant with children

Dust Bowl migrant with children

Originally I thought of my literary intention as a priestly vocation, though by now only in a metaphorical sense, unbound by creed or doctrine but planted within a common terrestrial soil that contains both the gritty reality of Darwinian evolution and the more transcendent and mysterious realities of humanity’s more religious or spiritual (or philosophical or ethical) aspirations. Perhaps a better word—and more flexible than priestly—might be prophetic, which can be applied as comfortably to fantasy or science fiction that allows us to see true patterns of what has been in the world and what might yet come to be. Sometimes, in fact, the most prophetic work is what has the potential (for those with ears to hear) to reveal what we as a people are, by the reflection of what humanity has already been or might yet become.

This may be true of any artistic form, though I speak here in terms of the written and spoken word. In the realm of political and social resistance, which is also Constitutionally protected speech, certainly the ideal is to meet each other in a state of shared inquiry and dialogue that is at once civil and civic.

Louis Menand, in the excellent historical narrative and analysis in his book The Metaphysical Club, writes about the American Pragmatists (not metaphysicians at all, really, the title deliberately ironic, though William James did write with particular intelligence of religious experience) who, after the horror and bloodshed of the Civil War, sought a philosophy that would help us transcend the dangers of absolute certitude that lend no space to such civic virtues as tolerance and compromise. They had lost confidence in the American Transcendentalism of their most immediate philosophical forebears, most famously Emerson and Thoreau, who were so drawn to the radical abolitionist and religious fervor of John Brown of the bloody rebellion against that “peculiar institution” of Southern slavery. The novelist Marilynne Robinson, particularly in the first two volumes of her Gilead trilogy, deals elegantly and perceptively with that history of Bleeding Kansas and its aftermath in the Civil Rights era of the Fifties and Sixties.

Mediterranean boat refugees

Mediterranean boat refugees

Should the Civil War have not been fought, then? The lessons of history are nothing if not ambiguous and contradictory. “Do I contradict myself?” the Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman asks? “Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Emerson himself concurred: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

Thoreau himself, for all his praise of John Brown of the raid on Harper’s Ferry, was no friend of war; the Henry David Thoreau who went to jail rather than pay his war tax in protest of the United States’s imperialist Mexican War—which led to his essay (“On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”) that inspired the Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent protests that ended up defeating the British Empire, and which in turn inspired the transcendent campaigns and rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr. Melville, too, who in the above-cited passage alludes to that campaign to seize Mexican territory in the name of Manifest Destiny, was heavily influenced by Emerson’s Transcendentalism; and in Moby Dick, with his (or Ishmael’s) investigation of the darkness as well as the light within the human soul, may have arrived closer than Emerson could to the Pragmatists’ loathing of that dark underside of the soul, which has led humanity to the fratricidal bloodshed of un-civil war from ours a century and a half ago to Syria’s today.

Whitman, too, who in the course of his war poems in Drum-Taps (included in the ever-expanding volume Leaves of Grass) loses, over the grinding dreary crush of Lincoln’s war, much of his initially fervent idealism at the great cause. Among the hymns to heroic Lincoln that follow, I have loved “O Captain! My Captain!” and taught it with some success to elucidate the concept of the paradox: the nation’s simultaneous relief at war’s end and grief at the loss of their beloved president.

imagesDE5PBV63Contradiction and ambiguity, then: paradox. To the momentous and haunting question posed above, there are no simple answers; the only thing we know for sure is the weight of the suffering on both sides. It is harder to determine whether the Emancipation was worth the price of so much misery, but then, how does one measure the weight of two centuries of suffering beneath the whips of oppression and four years of travail in order to end that particular evil? And yet, even so, the freedom won was as quickly lost to the tyranny of Jim Crow. The wounds that too many of us thought healed with the signing of the Voting Rights Act—for all the apparent progress made—still lie open, festering beneath the perceived permission of white supremacists both Southern and Northern to rise up again in defense of their racial and historical privilege. Here we are half a century later, re-visiting the same battles.

Whatever imperfection, then, that may exist in the Pragmatists’ philosophy of conciliation and reasoned agreement, they were certainly prophetic in terms of the apocalyptic choices that are thrust on us today by the hawks, both Republican and Democratic, who continue to stir up seemingly endless war—if not with ISIS or Al-Qaeda, then with Iran or Russia or China, as if the option of diplomacy and peacemaking were not even remotely (or even humanly) possible. So for every dollar spent for growing the already bloated war machine, we’ll cut two from the arts and humanities; just as two regulations for every new one, for every billion dollars added, two cut—from climate science, from guaranteed healthcare and other social programs, from everything, in short, that might really make the homeland more secure, less paranoid, and even bequeath to our own and future generations a livable planet.

Moors' (North African Muslims') expulsion from 15th-century Spain

Moors’ (North African Muslims’) expulsion from 15th-century Spain

Without belaboring the point and while acknowledging that the present Administration is only the culmination of a process that has been underway for decades, aided by a rising and un-compromising Republican extremism and abetted by a Democratic establishment that has thrown little more than hollow symbolism at their popular base, I cannot escape the nightmare image of all the fast and loose fish at the mercy of a terrifying, merciless, punitive regime that to my mind promises only heartbreak and sorrow. So I am heartened by the continual resistance, which will do all it can to deny the president and his self-acknowledged wrecking crew the chance to disassemble the basic structure of our democratic republic.

What I was coming to, anyway, before drifting into this by no means impertinent digression, was my personal struggle to achieve a workable balance between the urge to be a part of that resistance and the calling that I have always felt is mine: the literary vocation. As the former concern begins to swallow the latter, which if I am not careful seems likely to drown itself in the continually escalating series of political shocks, news, and analysis to be processed and devoured, it occurs to me that my contributions as a writer, literary translator, and occasional editorialist—however obscure and invisible—really are the central task that I must attend to. My enjoyment and production of literature has always been, after all, my strength and my resistance against the madness that I continue to encounter in this world.

First Olympic team of refugees, in Brazil 2016

First Olympic team of refugees, in Brazil 2016

By the way, if anyone reading this is interested in receiving free copies of the monthly Progressive Indiana, let me know or contact the editor at guy@guytownsend.net or at 9609 Wolf Creek Dr., Lexington, IN, 47138. The project exists primarily to facilitate the coming together in the state of the various segments of an already emerging progressivist movement, with the purpose of establishing among us—and, we hope, with honest-minded neighbors of all political orientations—the conversation and collaboration that might end up saving the very fabric of civil society.

Small Graces in the Valley of the Shadow of Trump (with malice for none, if you’ll pardon the pun)

"We won't be silenced."--Jorge Ramos, Univision journalist and newscaster

“We won’t be silenced.”–Jorge Ramos, Univision journalist and newscaster

In an essay still forthcoming in Hourglass Literary Magazine (see 8/17/16 blog), I speak of certain “small graces” that help us wade through whatever intervening darkness might otherwise engulf and drag us down in life. Indeed, for those readers accustomed to these occasional scribblings of mine, it will come as no surprise that the electoral results of November 8 did send me into one of those spirals toward the Land of Despond, although my intuition had been warning me all along that it might well happen. When it did, I was more disheartened than really surprised.

Trump to Ramos as he signals to his people to have him removed from the premises

Trump to Ramos as he signals to his people to have him removed from the premises

So I ask those of my readers who might have voted for Herr Trump—for whatever variety of motives; with hopeful heart or held nose—to indulge me any signs of that honest discontent while I give thanks for the small graces that do continue appearing to me. Which give me reason, as well as strength, to struggle on.

First, to those closest to me who were my initial support:

  • Anita, near tears of her own and startled by mine, who hurried to notify our daughters and son that their father needed comforting (I had been trying to express in words the sadness I felt for all the children who were already so fearful of the wall that might soon separate them from their parents—all the more since watching Jorge Ramos’s documentary, Hate Rising, on my computer the previous night: his interview with a classroom of those children, in particular; and also with some white supremacists just up the road from me inPaoli, Indiana—the virulence and unreason of their hatred, pre-existent but newly vindicated by authoritarian demagoguery, so overwhelming);images2T8B1O1V
  • My daughters, both of whom answered, for my sake, their mother’s call to share a dinner out with us the following evening: Stephanie, conscientious and empathetic social-work therapist, who also cried that night thinking of her own unorthodox family (two wives/mothers, one teenage son), the struggling people she counsels, and so many others, known to her and unknown; and her sister, Nadina, who marveled at the ubiquitous and vindictive Facebook rants of otherwise kind, generous, loving, even upright and church-going people;
  • Their brother, Jonathan, who called me on the phone from his home three hours north in Indianapolis; and who sent a card bearing a message about love—received a couple of days later—from that radical dreamer John Lennon;
  • My vivacious and good-hearted cousin, Jeri Lynn, to whom Jonathan had confided on Facebook that I was feeling low, who also sent me a card with her own personal sentiments of shared commiseration and condolence; as well as the women of the Southern Indiana Writers group who, whatever the content of their individual perspectives and politics, lifted my spirits at our weekly Thursday-evening meeting—
L to R: Brett Alan Sanders, Luis Alberto Ambroggio, Ana Ona

L to R: Brett Alan Sanders, Luis Alberto Ambroggio, Ana Ona

But then, on November 29, the event I have been leading up to: on a stage on the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus (IUPUI)—I, American-Argentine poet  Luis Alberto Ambroggio, and fellow translator Ana Ona—in front of an auditorium full of almost two hundred people, mostly students, where we discussed and read from two of Ambroggio’s recent books; as my readers may know, the one that I translated for him (who I met that evening in person for the first time) is Todos somos Whitman/We Are All Whitman, his Latin American response to the “Song of Myself” and tribute to that Great Bearded Bard, published this year by Arte Público Press in Houston, Texas.

I had been to the Lilly Auditorium before, visiting it about five years ago with Buenos Aires writer María Rosa Lojo to discuss and read from both versions of her novel La pasión de los nómades, or Passionate Nomads (Aliform Publications, 2011). And now, for this second time, I was invited by Professor Rosa Tezanos-Pinto, whose published work includes a separate anthology of literary criticism about each of those writers’ work; and who also edited an impressively thick volume of roughly thirty years of Ambroggio’s poetic production.

To say that this was a moment of no small grace for me is perhaps an understatement. I would say, in fact, that no single book event that I have participated in has been a bigger one.

Dr. Rosa Tezanos-Pinto (front, in dark suit); Dr. Ambroggio, (behind her), and students

Dr. Rosa Tezanos-Pinto (front, in dark suit); Dr. Ambroggio, (behind her), and students

Why? For the gracious enthusiasm of this group of students, for one thing, several of whom shook my hand and thanked me effusively for my contribution and for even being there; and who later, after the meal that they had prepared in honor of the three of us (each dish representing the country of their families’ origins), were among those purchasing the Whitman book and asking for mine and Luis Alberto’s autographs.

And then—not to mention the usual graciousness of Dr. Tezanos-Pinto and her husband, José Vargas-Vila—there was Liz Goodfellow, friendly university employee (and non-Spanish speaker) who had arranged our hotel accommodations; and who also asked me, with credible signs of having been touched by my translations, if I wouldn’t also sign her copy.

Ambroggio and Sanders, the Whitman reading

Ambroggio and Sanders, the Whitman reading

So with all of that, in particular hers and others’ repeated and insistent praises, like Don Quixote after an unexpected victory I may have gotten a slightly inflated head. But not to worry: it was only a mildly intoxicating feeling, not on the whole unhealthy and, if I may say so, quite delightful. When I fell asleep a short time later in its fragrant mists, just imagine that it was into the most pleasant dreams of literary glory; and which appear, after all, to have done me no lasting harm.

#

Speaking of unlikely Quixotic victories, can it be possible that, as I was composing the rough draft of these words last night, the Standing Rock Sioux scored at least a temporary victory against my good knight’s evil magicians and the determined capitalists and enforcers of the Dakota Access Pipeline? Who had so lately taken to showering them—water protectors, or agitators, or “bad, bad people,” as I seem to recall our triumphant president-elect having characteristically dismissed them—with blasts of icy water in already sub-freezing temperatures? Blowing off an arm, here, with a concussion grenade, and taking out an eye, there, with a rubber bullet, for good measure?

Militarized police drenching peaceful water protectors in freezing weather, during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Militarized police drenching peaceful water protectors in freezing weather, during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

To protect them from the ravages of hypothermia, I suppose; so that now, to prevent that from happening to them (or for whatever official reasons or unofficial intentions), the Army Corps of Engineers decides to call for the environmental study that may or may not force the “big snake” of the oil barons to direct its path around Native lands—as it had already been re-routed before from Bismarck, with far less spectacle and show of force, when the good and respectably white residents of that city had previously petitioned.

For such graces large and small, in any case, let us rejoice! And lay praises on the brave community of nonviolent resisters who fought on in the great tradition of their ancestors—as well as of Henry David Thoreau, the Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Palestinian support for Standing Rock Sioux protesting DAPL.

Palestinian support for Standing Rock Sioux protesting DAPL.

And, from however near or far they came, those others from the populous and diverse United States of America and beyond, including those who just sent money, made phone calls, or wrote letters; but none more so than the courageous American veterans of foreign wars, whether of Native or Immigrant stock, who came this time by the thousands to really defend the freedoms (for perhaps their first time) of the American people.

So let’s not allow the dividers to divide us, my good neighbors and kith and kin, from those who might become our faithful allies. Together with whom, if we dare imagine it, through whatever darkness may lie ahead, we might still become the more united … mutually reliant and peaceable … and truly democratic people that our better angels would have us be.

Blessèd, as scripture says, be the uniters and the peacemakers!

"Vict'ry?" said Don Quixote to Sancho Panza. "Vict'ry!"

“Vict’ry?” said Don Quixote to Sancho Panza. “Vict’ry!”

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

Momentarily

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

(http://hammerandhorn.net/)

“I am large, I contain multitudes….”

images79QYH704Before I come to Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, I begin this long overdue blog-essay in the parking lot of my eleven-year-old grandson’s elementary school, across the river in Kentucky where I had just witnessed the first couple of rounds of his academic-bowl team’s quick-response rounds. As I turned on the radio for my return trip to Indiana’s southern shore, switching from the opera on my regular NPR station to a neighboring one playing folk music, I was pleased to recognize the strains of an old Woody Guthrie song called “Deportee.”

Another song about our immigrant nation immediately followed. All of which led me, no doubt, to reflect on the U. S. Congress’s still-unfolding saga (as of this writing) of holding hostage the Homeland Security budget in order to be seen determinedly and heroically fighting President Obama’s executive actions on immigration – executive actions, by the way, that are not significantly different than executive actions on immigration taken earlier by Presidents Reagan and both George H. W. and George W. Bush; and only necessary, on this occasion, because of Congress’s inability or refusal to pass its own more extensive and permanent plan.

Personally, whatever differences I may have with the President on this or that issue, I am impressed and pleased by his refusal to play the role of “lame duck,” a label in his case that seems to have been rather more liberating than restrictive. I would also point out, in respect to all the Opposition patter about “the American People” having spoken in the last election – and that this indefinable and impoverished mass (in a midterm election with even lower-than-usual turnout) has clearly, absolutely, and decisively spoken for the vast majority of Americans; in favor of each and every one of the most reactionary of Opposition goals – I would remind them that the Opposition minority in both Houses at the time of Barack Obama’s 2008 election said precisely the same thing in their defeat. And set out with unbounded arrogance to be sure that this scary African American Socialist Islamist President from Kenya would only be a one-termer. If they couldn’t deport him first.

The President, for his part, was at least more circumspect in his response to the latest election: It is clear that the American People are not satisfied with our [not just Opposition] failure in Washington to get the People’s business done; which is more or less what I think he said also after the 2010 midterm election.

But as I was saying, anyway, I was thrilled to catch that old song that I had occasionally shared, guitar in hand, with the high school students in my Spanish and English classes. The song, like all of Woody Guthrie’s populist singing, aims to give voice to the voiceless; in this case the countless Mexicans who, under the Braceros program of the 1940s and beyond, were recruited to do the heaviest of agricultural labors at precious little pay and with constant humiliations. Then, no longer needed, they were as likely as not to be run out of the country and out of sight.

The song narrates the incident – inspired, I seem to recall, by an actual radio news report that the singer-poet heard – of a plane crash around “Los Gatos Canyon,” its human cargo all killed; whose victims, as the lyrics bitingly put it, were “just deportees”: expelled from the country and, in effect, of no real importance to us, completely disposable, scarcely even human.

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita, adiós mis amigos Jesús y María; you won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane, all they will call you will be deportee.

***

 imagesYHF8J17GWith this I come to Walt Whitman. It turns out, happily, that since last time I wrote I have been recruited, by Argentine American writer Luis Alberto Ambroggio, to translate his book of poems called Todos somos Whitman (in translation, tentatively: We Are All Whitman). The Spanish edition was published in 2014 by Vaso Roto Ediciones in Madrid.

Whitman, aside from being richly beloved and widely popular in these United States of America, is perhaps equally adored throughout Latin America for the vast reach of a poetic embrace that, particularly in the Song of Myself, seems clearly extended to all of the Americas with equal respect and with his characteristic passion. Ambroggio’s book is, at once, homage to Whitman’s Song and a Latin American’s literary response to it, from a distinctly Latin American perspective.

Listening to Guthrie’s song, in any case, I thought of a single passage from one of Ambroggio’s poems, which in my translation, as it stands, after the citation from Whitman that heads this essay, reads thus:

They will not manage to deny me or ignore me or declare me undocumented:

I am written in you, in all,

as all are in me,

in clay and in the breeze’s gentle sky […].

***

There exist, undoubtedly, numerous examples of a literary rhetoric (literature as “equipment for living,” in Kenneth Burke’s trenchant phrase) that gives a sensitive and nuanced picture of the immigrant experience in the United States. In closing I will mention, in passing, a slight few that spring to mind most immediately:

images4PUXLM3VMy Ántonia, by Willa Cather. This outstanding and undeniably American novel, published in 1918, illustrates the multiplicity of our linguistic history, showing the reader an immigrant community in which the European language remains a vibrant part of communal and civic life – at least for the first generation or two. A good corrective to the simplistic view that whoever comes here should just speak English, end of story.

… y no se lo tragó la tierra / … And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, bilingual edition, by Tomás Rivera, translated into English by Evangelina Vigil-Piñón. This very short novel, or collection of inter-connected tales, is set in roughly the era of Guthrie’s song lyric and may best be described as a miniature Grapes of Wrath with Mexican American migrant workers in place of Dust Bowl-era Okies. The characters and their situations are deeply affecting.

The Devil’s Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea. This book of nonfiction recreates the lives and tragic road of a single group of undocumented Mexicans, in 2001, to hoped-for jobs in El Norte; better than half of them died in the desert where their coyote, or smuggler, took them to avoid border control. The book also has the virtue of following the stories of the border agents themselves and treats both sides of that deadly cat-and-mouse game with dignity.

6163[1]The Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses; The Crossing; Cities of the Plain), by Cormac McCarthy. The setting is the rather porous U.S. / Mexico border just after WWII, at a moment when that border is on the verge of great change. The heroes in these almost Biblically epic, darkly romantic, realistic yet larger-than-life, subtly allegorical tales, are a couple of young cowboys who roam back and forth across the border – their trajectories only intersecting in the third novel – in a slow encounter between good and evil.

In closing with this trilogy, I am thinking principally of the long opening section in The Crossing, in which the boy-hero’s life intersects with a Mexican wolf that has crossed the border into our own American southwest, and gotten its foot caught in a trap. Without giving away the episode’s heartbreaking conclusion, I will just say that it happens that the boy takes a mind to fixing its leg and taking it back to its originating mountains in Mexico. Having made the crossing, he encounters a community of people who stand in the way of that purpose. The following passage, which sprinkles a little bit of Spanish with the English, picks the story up there:

 You think that 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 wasnt botherin nobody. Queríamos pasar, no más.

Pasar or traspasar?

The boy turned and spat into the dirt. He could feel the wolf lean against his leg. 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 knew or did not know was irrelevant and that if the wolf had crossed that boundary it was perhaps so much the worse for the wolf but that the boundary stood without regard. (pp. 118-19)

That last part about the wolf’s not knowing anything of borders should certainly be taken allegorically, in relation to our present immigration dilemma. Put the recent influx of children and teenagers from violence in Honduras and Guatemala – refugees, really – in the place of the wolf who knew nothing of borders. Put the enraged U.S. congressmen and women, and the mob of citizens in California turning back a busload of  invading “illegals,” in the position of the young landholder who claims the wolf’s ignorance of the law, or defiance of it, is perhaps just the wolf’s tough luck.

The dividing lines between opposing forces, in real life, are not neatly good or evil. The anti-immigrant congressmen and women may be, to varying degrees, cynically calculating or truly worried about national security, in any case viewing the borderland as a great battle zone. The citizen mob is made up, likewise, of flesh-and-blood people whose hearts, at that moment of confrontation, are variously full of fear and / or a whipped-up, blinding hatred (isn’t hatred always blinding, after all?).

If we are truly the Judeo-Christian nation that we so piously claim to be, then McCarthy’s prose calls on us to reflect on what that means in relation to human beings and wolves, undocumented immigrants and those who would just turn them all back, no questions asked or answered.

Think of all the world’s refugees, whom countries far away from us and with fewer resources are compelled by necessity, if not pure goodwill, to absorb. And ask ourselves how the proverbial “land of the free and home of the brave” looks in comparison.

The devil is in the details, okay, but in broad strokes we can learn a few basic truths about ourselves, and not all of them exemplary. We should know that our national ideals are aspirational, and that we do not ever wholly live up to them nor should we pretend to do.

We are any one of us no more exceptional than the next human being. Except to the extent that one of us or the other is struggling toward peace and justice or laboring for the dark side.

At least that is, in broad terms, how I look at it.