Thursday, March 27, 2014

“How does this even work?”

In a moment of deep despair, I grabbed a knife and toyed with ending my life. … I took the knife into the bathroom … I walked to the shower, slid the glass door open, and sat down inside, sliding the door shut behind me. … [T]he room just beyond was a blur, obscured by soap scum. … I ran the dull side [of the knife] along my left wrist, like I was taking it for a test drive. The metal, like the shower floor, was cold. … How does this even work? I asked, almost aloud … I couldn’t will myself to go through with it. I was too afraid - of the selfishness of this act and how my family would react to it; of the physical pain involved; of failing at this, too; but most of all of the fate I was sure would greet me after death.

That’s Chris Stedman’s low point, according to his memoir Faitheist, which recounts his spiritual journey, from culturally Christian as a child to his born-again experience as a teen to his accepting himself as a gay man and rejecting Christianity’s monstrous god.

Stedman says the main reason he didn’t kill himself in the shower that night was the expectation he would face the terrible tortures of hell, suicide being one of those sins that park a soul in that unfriendly place. In a post earlier this month I wondered if many people were dissuaded from killing themselves out of fear of the afterlife. In the above passage Chris Stedman says that fear was what, “most of all,” made him choose life.

Maybe so. Stedman lists other reasons, though. And by the time he crouches in the cold shower he is already convinced that his same sex desires have reserved him a boiling pot of torment in God’s ugly cellar. Stedman has prayed repeatedly over the Bible verses that supposedly condemn homosexuality, and God hasn’t piped up with any relief. He isolates himself from his family and his Christian friends. He is in pain and sees no way to alleviate it.

Considering the rest of the memoir, its testimony to Stedman’s need for social engagement, his sense of justice, I’m not convinced that imagining post-death torture is what stops the knife. I suspect it had more to do with the poverty of the Christian version. This Christianity is empty of love so his empty heart yearned for something beyond it.

I know I contemplated the permanent pain killer and hell was no factor. Nor, for that matter, was another of Stedman’s reasons for living - what he calls the “selfishness” of suicide. Rather, if I can come up with any particular reason why I’m yet alive, if one really can look into that tunnel-vision state of mind and say much coherent about it, I’d say I could imagine a better life. I could imagine not hurting so much. I could even imagine being happy. I didn’t know how or if a better life would be mine, but it was not out of the reach of my dreams.

source: Faitheist: how an atheist found common ground with the religious by Chris Stedman

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Are we ‘the people’?

[M]any indigenous cultures refer to themselves as the people, implying that everyone else is not the people. [Derrick Jensen] asked whether, then, some form of xenophobia is inherent in all of us.

[Richard Drinnon responded,] “The name strikes you and me as xenophobic since a cardinal principle of our Western civilization has been what one anthropologist calls ‘the negation of the other.’ By contrast tribal cultures affirmed ‘the other who affirms you’ and this principle always carried with it the possibility of extending the people outward …’”

I’ve wondered about this “the people” business. I remember encountering it first in a PBS documentary about the people of the American Southwest. The Navajo call themselves Dine, which the narrator said translates as “the people.” I think I was a teenager when I saw the program. As I read more about Native American tribes I came across others who referred to themselves as “the people.” What does that make the rest of us?

Richard Drinnon thinks the contrast between us/the people and them/not? the people for tribal societies and us and them in modern Western culture is that the us of the tribe is open to adoption, whereas the us of modern Western culture is essentially race based, which makes becoming one of us in modern Western culture extraordinarily difficult, and frequently impossible. In this discussion curated by Derrick Jensen in his book The Culture of Make Believe Richard Drinnon says the adoption principle can extend “outward, beyond family and clan and tribe to all other beings and things in a universal embrace.” If true - and common - then calling one’s group “the people” wouldn’t have much meaning.

source: The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen

Monday, March 24, 2014

brushing your teeth with birds screaming on your head

A few years ago I watched the documentary version of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (you can see a snippet here, and loved it.

Finally I got around to reading the paperback. It’s almost as engaging as the film.

Mark Bittner was living in San Francisco’s North Beach when he found a position as caretaker for an elderly woman on Telegraph Hill. She didn’t need him much so Bittner was able to turn his attention to the wildlife of the neighborhood. With visions of being an amateur naturalist Bittner started studying - and feeding - a wild parrot flock. Gradually he gained the flock’s confidence and in the years that he knew them met each spring’s babies. An illness struck many and Bittner took a few into his house to nurse with some success, releasing each when it had regained its strength. Here’s a charming excerpt featuring two of those babies:

Dogen and Paco had developed an odd little enthusiasm that was part of the nightly household routine. The moment they saw me heading to the studio’s tiny bathroom to brush my teeth, they’d stop whatever they were doing and zoom over and land on my head, where they’d begin an intense round of play fighting. While I stood in front of the mirror brushing, they’d be crawling around my head and shoulders trying to bite each other and screaming in my ears. I have no idea what the appeal was. I got so accustomed to it that while they were fighting I’d be brushing and thinking about something entirely different, as if they weren’t there.

Mark Bittner keeps a blog, Views from a Hill.

source: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill by Mark BIttner

Sunday, March 02, 2014

“Hogan” a poem by Archie Washburn


Sitting against
The flying dust of wind.
Here and there flows the old raggy
Long johns.


A hogan is a traditional Navajo circular mud and stick house. Having visited the Navajo reservation and seen a hogan in real life, its low, reddish brown form fitting in well with the red brown sweep of desert vistas, having felt the wind blow across the rocks and around the Monument Valley towers and buttes, I can see the flag of underwear in Archie Washburn’s poem shaking out its white story, making almost homey that human-dwarfing expanse.

With “Hogan” Washburn has crafted a cinquain, an American verse form inspired by Japanese verse forms like the haiku and tanka. Two syllables go in the first line, four in the second, and so forth.

source: Voices from Wah’Kon-Tah: contemporary poetry of Native Americans edited by Robert K. Dodge and Joseph B. McCullough

Saturday, March 01, 2014

“he can shuffle off his present”

The narrator of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon is a good Christian who discovers a hidden but European-like country where no one knows his religion. His efforts to evangelize are met more with bemusement than interest. In one argument the narrator quotes from Shakespeare to bolster his faith in an afterlife: “[I]t is the fear lest worse evils may befall us after death which alone prevents us from rushing into death’s arms.” As suicide is a terrible sin for Christians, when you kill yourself you condemn your soul to eternal torment in hell. Thus you might as well suffer a little longer in your mortal existence to save yourself from greater pain later. The Erewhonian scoffs:

If a man cuts his throat he is at bay, and thinks of nothing but escape, no matter whither, provided he can shuffle off his present. … Men are kept at their posts, not by the fear that if they quit them they may quit a frying-pan for a fire, but by the hope that if they hold on, the fire may burn less fiercely. [One hangs on with the hope] that though calamity may live long, the sufferer may live longer still.

Erewhon is often a sort of mirror-version of England and I suppose Samuel Butler is critiquing the conventions of England via his creation. I’m afraid I don’t always get it. In this instance I do think the Erewhonian gets the better part of the argument. Have many suicides been stopped out of fear of hell? Doesn’t seem likely to me. Christian opprobrium, rather, just comes across as mean-spirited, like beating a horse with a broken leg to make it pull an overloaded cart. The cart isn’t going anywhere and the beating isn’t doing anybody any good.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Details, details

In 1977 I turned twelve. My parents had divorced when i was three, but Dad came to visit a few times despite the distance - my mother and brother and I lived in California, Dad in Alaska. Dad remarried, choosing a woman with two sons roughly the ages of my brother and me. Then he had another child, a daughter. For two years running Dad sent me and my brother tickets to join him and his new(er) family for a vacation in Hawaii. I have fond memories of the experience, even if my stepbrothers and I didn’t always get along; the little sister was five years younger, if I remember right, and a charming bundle of energy.

Lately I’ve been reading Barack Obama: the story, which is less a biography of Barack Obama than it is a collage of details, all sorts of people and places, with Obama (and his ancestors) weaving through them. Obama was born in Hawaii and spent most of his childhood there. He attended an elite school on Oahu called Punahou. This passage about the graduation ceremony connected with a couple of my own life’s details:

[S]eniors had to sing for their diploma. Since the end of April there had been six weeks of rehearsal for the entire class, mandatory … Classmates had written some of the songs and chosen the others. … One of the contemporary songs they performed was “This Day Belongs to Me” by Seals and Crofts, from the soundtrack of One on One, a Robbie [sic] Benson movie about Barry Obama’s favorite sport.

One on One was shown on the plane to (or from) Hawaii. I remember not wanting to see it because it was about sports, the sort of thing I hated at school and was quickly bored by as a spectator. A whole movie about basketball? Ugh. Plus wasn’t Robby Benson kind of funny-looking? But I remember liking the movie all right. I just looked up the song “This Day Belongs to Me” and it doesn’t sound familiar but it’s a pleasant ditty. I would have liked it as a kid, probably more than now. I bet it sounded just fine coming out of teen throats at Barry’s graduation.

Robby Benson is better looking than I remembered, but this scene I found on youtube makes me uncomfortable now with its calculated bullying by the authority figures and I’m sure it enraged me at the time. Surely Robby got his revenge?

source of quote: Barak Obama: the story by David Maraniss

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The dream that inspired Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain”

I recently read an interview with Peter Gabriel in Mojo Magazine. His big break-out album So has been rereleased with special features. I bought So when it was new and have listened to it many times. “Red Rain” was inspired by a dream. The lyrics allude to that dream:

I am standing at the water’s edge in my dream
I cannot make a single sound as you scream

But that’s as far as the song goes. In the interview Peter Gabriel describes the dream more fully:

The sea [was] parted by two walls. There were these glass-like figures that would screw themselves into each wall, fill up with red blood and then be lowered across the sand … to the next wall, where they’d unload the blood on the other side.

source: Mojo #238, September 2013

source for lyrics: azlyrics

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Links? Why “Links”?

When we visited Oahu last fall Kent and I drove past another one of those signs that announces the “Links,” by which we are to understand we are passing a golf course. Kent offered his version of the origin of the term - the holes are linked, therefore, the Links. While not without logic this explanation didn’t seem enough. But I didn’t remember to look it up. Nor have I on other occasions. So when I came across an explanation in The New Yorker, I had to show Kent. And now, I’ll show you:

[I]t’s actually a geological term. Linksland is a specific type of sandy, wind-sculpted coastal terrain - the word comes from the Old English hlinc, “rising ground” - and in its authentic form it exists in only a few places … the most famous … in Great Britain and Ireland. Linksland arose at the end of the most recent ice age, when the retreat of the northern glacial sheet, accompanied by changes in sea level, exposed sandy deposits, and what had once been coastal shelves. Wind pushed the sand into dunes and rippling plains; ocean storms added more sand; and coarse grasses covered everything. Early Britons used linksland mainly for livestock grazing.

When sheep graze linksland the result, apparently, is a lawn suitable for golf. The lawn-covered dunes provide gentle slopes and curves to knock a ball over. Nor, it seems, was there much competition for linksland. With all the sand under its thin topsoil, it’s no good for planting.

Golf, says the author “was permanently shaped by the ground on which it was invented.” The word for the kind of terrain on which the game is played has become a golf term.

source: “The Ghost Course” by David Owen
The New Yorker, April 20, 2009

Monday, February 17, 2014

“Language is not a diamond”

In introducing a translation of a work by Jose Manuel Prieto, Esther Allen says this:

Language … is not a diamond, its super-hard molecules permanently ordered in a fixed pattern … it is, rather, … inevitably illusory and impermanent, dissolving into an ungraspably fine powder when any determined will is brought to bear on it.

It’s fun riposte to those who believe there is only one way to say anything. And that goes for translation, too; there is more than one way to bring over meaning from one language to another.

source: Two Lines, vol. 16: Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed edited by Margaret Full Costa & Marilyn Hacker. 2009. The Center for the Art of Translation

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

word of the day: slazy

context: Bucky and his friend Davy Jones the Wooden Whale are careening down a slippery slope. Bucky is clinging to the deck rail on the whale’s chin when he realizes that the slick surface consists entirely of soap. “At the moment of his discovery, they were bounding through a slazy ravine, shut in on either side by cliffs of soap stone.”

source: Lucky Bucky in Oz by John R. Neill

definition: Couldn’t find one.

“Slazy” appears in some online dictionaries as an alternate form of “sleazy,” which doesn’t seem at all to be the way John R. Neill uses the word. It may be a coinage of Neill’s own. Perhaps he is putting together the words “slick” and “mazy” …

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Best Poems of 2013

If you’ve visited one of my “Best Poems of” posts you know the deal. I read a lot of poetry. When I’m working my way through a book or magazine I have at hand a stack of placemarks. If a poem strikes me, strikes me in a particular way such that I really want to come back to it, I slip a placemark in. If, upon revisiting the poem, it still works for me, seems, indeed, as fresh and interesting as the first time, I read the poem again. If, after a few reads, I am increasingly reluctant to see the last of it, I hand copy the poem onto loose leaf binder paper and add it to the personal anthology I’ve been gathering since 1989. Some years I copy out many poems. Some years, no. This is very much a personal selection. I’m not looking to be representative or comprehensive or to highlight a period or movement or style. My selections may include poems written by children and by Nobel Prize winners, by the living and by the long dead.

I read about 50 “sources” in 2013, books, chapbooks, magazines. I culled at least one poem (usually just one poem) from 21 of them. I discovered and fell in love with Taneda Santoka, the Japanese haiku poet. I read through Alicia Suskin Ostriker. As with last year’s read of Denise Levertov I found Ostriker less simpatico than I’d hoped, but there were certainly rewards. I’m always pleased to like a local. Kit Kennedy, Jan Steckel, and Julia Vinograd live nearby and I’ve attended their readings.

Maria Banus …..Wedding
Ellen Bass ….. Tigers and People
Jim Cory ….. Memoir: Spring ’77
Horacio Costa ….. XV: Black Hole
Gavin Geoffrey Dillard ….. Orange Kitty Bleeding
Stanford M. Forrester ….. haiku: “summer afternoon”
Kit Kennedy ….. “each room”
Matilda Koen-Sarano & Ester Navon Kamar ….. The Girl Who Was Born from an Apple
Elizabeth Searle Lambe ….. haiku: “the sound / of rain …”
Joan Larkin ….. Rape
Marcus Larsson ….. haiku: “autumn colors”
Martin Lucas ….. 2 haiku
A. A. Marcoff ….. haiku: “the way / the temple”
Joseph Massey ….. a “lune” from Bramble: a gathering of lunes
Joseph Massey ….. A Line Made by Walking
Joseph Massey ….. No Vehicles Beyond this Point
Joseph Massey ….. “Spider web”
Murathan Mungan ….. Mask
Peter Newton ….. haiku: “standing in the middle …”
Cathal O’Searcaigh ….. Night
Alicia Suskin Ostriker ….. The Glassblower’s Breath
Alicia Suskin Ostriker ….. from A Birthday Suite for Eve: Hair
Papago Song ….. Song for a Young Girl’s Puberty Ceremony
Alexander Perdomo ….. I’ll Come to You
Phan Nhien Hao ….. Autumn Song
John Phillips ….. Snow Fall in Fog
Juan Pablo Raya ….. Un Dia
Michael Robbins ….. Downward-Facing Dog
Michael Robbins ….. Money Bin
Saniya Salih ….. Exile
Taneda Santoka ….. 24 haiku
Tomas Santos ….. A Wish
Jan Steckel ….. Hard as Nails
John Tranter ….. At Naxos
John Tranter ….. Metro
John Tranter ….. On La Cienega
Julia Vinograd ….. Happiness Is a Mugger
Rod Willmot ….. 2 haiku
Virginia Brady Young ….. haiku: “on the first day of spring”

Thursday, December 19, 2013

O Africa!

I am interested in the rest of the world. I have tried to read widely, especially in poetry, serving myself skinny and fat anthologies of poetry in translation from Europe, from the broad expanse of Asia, from Latin America, and from oral traditions. Some literary traditions stretch back hundreds of years - in the case of China and India one might say thousands. When I’ve read in African poetries, however, I’ve been surprised at how shallow in time the traditions are. Considering that humans originated in Africa and have the most diverse genetic heritage there and its current peoples live in a range of societies and environments, I expected more than the Twentieth Century. But when we’re talking sub-Saharan Africa we are talking primarily about oral literatures, it seems. Publishing African poets didn’t really build literary careers until the last hundred years, the majority in the last fifty. I was also surprised how often the poets I was encountering spoke of “Africa,” as though it were a unity, rather the way poets in the U.S. speak of America. Africa is not a unity. It is huge and various. So why were poets from up and down the continent claiming one identity?

Last year I copied out a poem by Bernard Dadie called “A Wreath for Africa.” Dadie was born in the Ivory Coast (between Ghana and Liberia in West Africa). He wrote in French. Some lines (as translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy):

I shall weave you a wreath
of laurel and hibiscus
set in a butterfly’s wingspan
and the calm of underbrush in blossom.

… from the essence of flowers
with pendants of human life and wisdom.

I shall make you a crown
softly gleaming
with the brilliance of Tropical Venus
and in the orb of the feverishly shimmering
Milky Way.

I shall write
your name
in letters of
O Africa!

The anthology in which I found the poem was The Negritude Poets. Negritude is a francophone way of saying “blackness.” The poets weren’t just extolling Africa’s singular identity, they were self-identifying by the color of their skin. Other literary traditions tend to sort by nation-state and language. Africa encompasses many states, many languages. But the written languages were primarily introduced from Europe. The Negritude poets mostly wrote in French.

The Poetry of Our World: an international anthology of contemporary poetry includes a section of African poets. In his introduction Kwame Anthony Appiah offers his version of why the poets were talking about Africa (not Cote d’Ivoire, say):

It is one of the great ironies of history that the concept … the very idea of Africa - was itself a product of the encounter with European empires. Western-educated intellectuals articulated a resistance to colonialism not in the name of the specific precolonial societies whose heirs they were, but, almost always, in the name of Africa. The many colonial students gathered in London, Paris, and Lisbon in the years after the Second World War were brought together in their common search for political independence from a single metropolitan state. They were brought together too by the fact that their colonial rulers - those who helped as well as those who hindered - saw them all as Africans, first of all, because ‘race’ was central to Europe’s vision of them. But they were able to articulate a common vision of postcolonial Africa through a discourse inherited from prewar Pan-Africanism - a discourse that was the product, largely, of black citizens of the New World. Since what bound these African-American and Afro-Caribbean Pan-Africanists together was the African ancestry they shared, a racial understanding of their solidarity was, perhaps, an inevitable development.

Because the colonial powers were defining Africans by race/color - by “African-ness” - the poets, in order to find strength in solidarity and because they shared a common oppressor/ enlightener, also chose to define themselves by race and to embrace as homeland a unitary Africa. The Africans of the diaspora, “African-American and Afro-Caribbean Pan-Africanists,” had led the way. They already had been writing in European languages so had an older literary tradition. They already defined themselves primarily by color/race and by ancestral origin; because they often had little idea of where exactly in Africa their ancestors had come from these poets didn’t have much choice, it was all Africa. Of course, the Pan-Africanists already defined themselves by race because in the cultures into which they were born their whole lives were defined by race. Sure, you could deny and reject that identity but the larger society - White European Society - would still see you first by your skin. Also, of course, the Pan-Africanists had already produced a literature of resistance to European hegemony and African-born Africanists had a natural sympathy for this tradition.

So I get it a little better. I suspect the paeans to “Africa” will be fewer as time goes by, as national and language-centered native literatures develop, but Africa had a unity imposed upon it, and for the emerging poets of that continent embracing unity proved more useful/fruitful - and in some cases, beautiful - than ignoring it.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

“Sign Language is so beautiful!”

John McWhorter, in discussing the proposition that “language channels thought,” that because some languages seem to be better at expressing certain kinds of thoughts, then the people who speak these languages are able to think thoughts that others, handicapped by less artful languages, cannot, addresses the romanticization of “minority languages.” Some languages are supposedly purer or more spiritual, closer to the authentic, more natural, as though these languages retain the sheen of the Golden Age. This idea can be called “Whorfian” after the linguist Benjamin Whorf who claimed that the Hopi language was especially suited to a healthy Zen attitude because in that language there is no way of talking about time. Everything happens in an eternal now. John McWhorter says Whorf clearly didn’t know Hopi. Hopi marks time all the time.

A speaker of American Sign Language captured the essence of how Whorfianism unintentionally demeans minority languages, mocking outsider fans of Sign. In an interview, the signer feigned ‘a vapid, rapt look on his face. “Sign language is so beautiful,” he signs, in a gushing mockery of the attitude that exoticizes sign and correspondingly reduces deaf people to the status of pets, mascots. “It’s just so wonderful that deaf people can communicate!”’ Or, as I would have it, ‘It’s just so wonderful that people who aren’t like us can think and process reality as richly as we do!’

I think American Sign Language is beautiful. I don’t feel weird about saying so. It’s clear to me as well that Deaf people are people and can think and communicate. I’m glad they can do it in a manner I find transfixingly beautiful. Maybe they don’t care that I find it beautiful. Whatever. I’ve resisted the notion that there are spoken languages that sound lovelier than others. But I’ve come around. I’d rather listen to a Brazilian speaking legalese than a German uttering sweet nothings, a Francophone pontificating over poetry recited in Hebrew, as much as I don’t understand any of it. Once we come to meanings I’m sure my mind would change. Idiosyncratic ear (or eye) aside there is no language that can’t express beautiful thoughts. There is no language that limits the mind it inhabits, making categories of thoughts unthinkable. At least, not according to John McWhorter. I’m inclined to believe him.

source: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: the untold history of English by John McWhorter

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Since English already has an example of a pronoun that is used both as a singular and a plural and used that way in grammar so proper even the snootiest grammargendarme prescribes it (I’m talking about you, of course), I don’t see why we can’t allow that sort of use for another pronoun. Everybody knows that using he or she in order to make sure there is agreement in a sentence feels tiresome and awkward, especially when speaking. Yet it is conventionally considered the best alternative when looking to de-gender the generic. “Everybody loves to kiss his or her lover!” Please. “Everybody loves to kiss their lovers!” Everybody is supposed to be a singular, according to the grammar logic crowd. But everybody knows that in real life, outside the textbooks, it’s a plural. “Everybody get out your textbook.” That’s grammatically acceptable, isn’t it? “I want everybody to get out their textbook.” Not correct! No? Pooh on that. “I asked for a wheat-back penny. Suddenly everybody was looking through their change.” I’m grammar-sensitive enough to wonder if sentences where a “their” sounds natural in speech could or should be rephrased when written. “Suddenly you could hear the jingle of change as every hand dug through their stash.” Oops. Did it again. “Suddenly everyone was looking through his or her coins.” “Suddenly all the kids were digging through their change.” Functionally, “all the kids” and “everybody” are equivalents. We treat them that way in speech. I think we ought to treat them that way in writing. English has a very formal neuter - one. “One ought to know one’s mind.” It sounds a bit off, a bit British, even. And using one that way has its problems, too. “One was standing on the platform when the train arrived.” One was? One what?

In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue John McWhorter looks to see if there’s any their there:

Take the idea that it is wrong to say If a student comes before I get there, they can slip their test under my office door, because student is singular and they ‘is plural.’ Linguists traditionally observe that esteemed writers have been using they as a gender-neutral pronoun for almost a thousand years. As far back as the 1400s, in the Sir Amadace story, one finds the likes of Iche mon in thayre degree (‘Each man in their degree’). … Shakespeare is not assumed to have been in his cups when he wrote in The Comedy of Errors, ‘There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As I were their well-acquainted friend’ … Later, Thackeray in Vanity Fair tosses off ‘A person can’t help their birth.”

McWhorter has been asked, if this use of they/their/them is so appropriate why don’t linguists use it themselves? It’s the copy editors, he says. “[E]ven linguists have to submit to their publishers’ copy editors’ insistence on expunging it … At best I can wangle an exception and get in a singular they or their once or twice a book.”

It may still be that books are copyedited by human beings, but most of the writing on the internet clearly isn’t. No copy editor touched this post, for instance. Other than me, and I don’t claim the title.

source: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: the untold history of English by John McWhorter