Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Our lives no longer feel ground under them"

Osip Mandelstam was born on January 15, 1891 and died in December, 1938, essentially killed by his satirical poem known as "The Stalin Epigram." Mandelstam defiantly recited it at gatherings where informers were present, which led to his imprisonment, exile, and finally death in a transit camp on the way to serving a five year sentence. Stalin, like most tyrants, did not tolerate mockery.

There are many English translations of "The Stalin Epigram." This one by W.S. Merlin and Clarence Brown is probably the most well known:

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.


There's an interesting article about the context of the poem and the challenge of translating it here, and you can read several more translations here. (The Merwin/Brown translation at that second link is slightly different from the one above, which comes from the Academy of American Poets website.)


This short film is almost too reverent toward Mandelstam, but it's moving nonetheless. It's in Russian, and you might need to take it to full screen to read the subtitles.

*Mandelstam's poetry has appeared several times on the blog, including this post and this one and this one.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

"on a scale of joy I weigh them"

Hey, what do you deal in – sorrow?
What are you selling there – despair?
I’m a buyer and a dealer,
and I’m dealing and I’m wheeling
days and nights, and even moments:
on a scale of joy I weigh them,
buy them up and then resell them,
half are black
and half in blazes,
at fairs, in markets, and on highways
who should happen in my pathway,
in whoever’s path I happen
I count Mammon!…

I’m a buyer and a dealer
and I’m dealing and I’m wheeling…

What are you selling – corpses? Rags?
Or long-since-departed dads?
Hey, a buyer’s slipped a way,
he’s dying but will be reborn.

~ Peretz Markish, 1917

translated by Amelia Glaser

Markish was one of thirteen members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee who were secretly executed on Stalin's orders, August 12, 1952, an event known as The Night of the Murdered Poets. You can read about it here, and you can see a document with more of the work of Markish and others here.  

The Poet, Egon Schiele, 1911

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Fanatics and the sweetness of God

I was at the grocery store this afternoon when my phone rang. It was a woman from the local chapter of Planned Parenthood, calling to tell me the location of a meeting to organize activism and support for the organization. This meeting is open to anyone, and the date and time are publicly announced, but you have to register with your name and contact info before they tell you where it will be held. Security is a constant concern for Planned Parenthood. There's a cadre of people ever eager to harass them and their patients, and of course there's also the occasional lunatic ready to do much worse.

Driving home, it hit me hard, the way it does more and more lately, how bizarre and infuriating it is that the campaign is still going strong against a woman's right to simple autonomy. And it's becoming stronger. A couple of days ago I saw a screed from one of my neighbors on Facebook in which she called Planned Parenthood clinics "wholesale slaughterhouses." This is a woman who has likely never stepped foot in a PP clinic and never would, but in her mind the people who work and get care there (I've been one of those) are the embodiment of evil. We're not people who disagree with her or have different beliefs. We're not innocently misguided or unenlightened. We're cold-blooded murderers and accessories to murder. And I have to wonder — who really benefits from encouraging this woman to believe that? And why does she want to believe it?

Shortly after I got home, the news came on the radio that Dylann Roof has been sentenced to death. He claims he has no remorse, they said. He thinks he had to do it to save the white race. And again I have the same questions: Whose interests are served when he frames the world this way? Why does he choose this story as his own and not a different one? There are plenty of others to pick from.

While reading some online stories about Roof's sentence, I saw a reference to one of his victims, Ethel Lee Lance, that said she was a perfume enthusiast, and naturally I was intrigued. Google led me to a newspaper article that includes a lovely portrait of Ms. Lance and this sentence:

Her daughter, Sharon Risher, recalled that her mother loved fine perfumes. “After putting on the perfume she would always say, ‘God is sweet.’ ” 

I don't know why, but those words just went all over me, as my mom used to say. Lump in my throat. Tears. She was so alive to me in that moment, this woman I would never know existed if not for her terrible death. If not for Roof's inexplicable choice.


The evaluation of the mysteries by the sons of all
experience. All suffering, if we call the light a thing
all men should know. Or find. Where ever, in the dark folds
of the next second, there is some diminishing beauty we might
  one day
understand, and scream to, in some wild fit of acknowledged

~ Amiri Baraka, from "History as Process"

Allegory of the Sense of Smell, Circle of Bartolomeo Pasarotti (?), c.1620s. There's an interesting article about the painting here.

Monday, December 5, 2016


I hardly ever put contemporary art on the blog, but I stumbled across this piece and loved it so much I had to share. It's by an artist named Tom Bagshaw. The title is Inheritance. You can see more of Bagshaw's work at his website, and he's also on Facebook and Instagram.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Once, I knew a white supremacist...

I once knew a budding white supremacist. This was a long time ago — Carter was president, and the internet, at least in its present form, was undreamed of. I've forgotten his name now, but I remember the boy himself pretty well: a tall chubby kid, face of a mean cherub, who always carried a few knives and ninja stars, which he loved to pull out and display, trying to impress me. He seemed to think I was his friend. I believe I qualified for this status because I was the only girl who would talk to him.

I never reacted much when he waved the weapons around or tested out his race rhetoric on me. He was clearly trying to shock, and I knew better than to take that bait. And anyhow, it was more interesting to keep quiet and see what he'd say. He struck me as equal parts creepy, repulsive, and pitiful. Typical teenage girl that I was, it was his pitiful aspect that fascinated me. I felt sorry for him, or at least thought I should. He was evasive when I asked about his home life, but from hints he dropped here and there, I gathered that his mother was absent and his father was a tough guy, a bully. He despised his dad but really wanted to be just like him. I suspect he succeeded.

I've thought about that kid a lot over the years, and recent events, of course, bring him to mind again. I see him in Dylann Roof and in those well-groomed young fascists Sieg Heiling around DC. Bannon actually looks a bit like I imagine my pal would after growing old and seedy. I wish everyone could see the screwed-up 16-year-old behind the cruelty and madness of our current crop of devout racists. It's not that I think we should pity those people. God forbid. I'm not a teenage girl anymore and I spend my pity a little more sensibly now. And I don't mean to downplay the danger they present. But to effectively answer the danger, I do think it's essential to keep in mind how utterly ordinary they are.

There's nothing special about hate mongers. They don't carry any evil gene or suffer from some unique pathology. They're simply people who've made decisions about how to relate to the world. Their decisions make exactly the same sense to them that ours do to us. They don't know their  own corruption. That's why we've got to remember that resistance doesn't just mean outwardly opposing them and their agenda. It means, for some of us, building up an immunity to it within ourselves and among our own. "Nice" white people can believe we're deaf to the siren song of racism, but we never are. And those of us who grew up with hellfire religion know that the first step to conversion — to the con of "salvation" — is fear. Fear makes the mind soft and the heart stupid. It makes us pliant. It makes us doubt ourselves and scramble for what feels like safety without questioning whether that feeling is true. So above all else, we've got to refuse to fear the haters. Don't let them scare you. They're just fucked-up little twerps, desperate for our attention.

Vision, Odilon Redon, 1883

Saturday, December 3, 2016


There are endless ways to get lost in the journey from a principle to an opinion, and it can be so damn hard to find your way home.

The Wanderer by George Grosz, 1943

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Happy birthday (really)

Thanksgiving is just past, and tomorrow is my birthday. Seems like a good moment to survey a few random blessings, large and small:

In (almost) 55 years on the planet, I've never known a single day of genuine want — never spent a night sleeping on the street or been denied anything I really needed because I couldn't pay for it. This alone strikes me as a miracle of good fortune.

After a long history of holiday gatherings marred by political disagreements, this year the Browning kids, conservative and liberal alike, were united in our complete disdain for the president-elect. I love my brothers. (Thanks, little Donnie — you racist, woman-hating, egomaniacal con artist — for bringing my family together. At least you're good for something.)

I own a totally awesome dog because some stupid people threw him away. Luck can sneak up on you when you least expect it.

I had to say goodbye to two beloved dogs, Nio and Porter, in the past year, but thanks to a good vet and the money to pay for his services, I was able to give both of them long lives and easy deaths. Can't ask for more than that.

I have an amazing collection of lively, kind, talented, thoughtful friends. Sometimes I can hardly believe the array of lovely people I'm lucky enough to have in my life.

I own more books than I will ever read and more perfume than I will ever wear. Somehow this never ceases to thrill me.

I have my share of gripes and disappointments, but fundamentally I love my life. Just as it is, I love it. I'm at peace with the past and welcome whatever comes. Today is sufficient.

I have sailed the River of Yellow Flowers, 
Borne by the channel of a green stream, 
Rounding ten thousand turns through the mountains 
On a journey of less than thirty miles.... 
Rapids hum over heaped rocks; 
But where light grows dim in the thick pines, 
The surface of an inlet sways with nut-horns 
And weeds are lush along the banks. 
...Down in my heart I have always been as pure 
As this limpid water is.... 
Oh, to remain on a broad flat rock 
And to cast a fishing-line forever!

~ "A Green Stream" by Wang Wei
translated by Witter Bynner

A Player with a Hermit, Moritz von Schwind, c.1846

Sunday, November 20, 2016

"Most mornings I would be more or less insane"

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

~ "Poem" by Muriel Rukeyser 

Study of a Mourning Woman, Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1493-97

Saturday, November 19, 2016

"love occuring..."

Just as the birds above our heads
are singing,
that, in what lies before them,
the always unknown passage,
wind, water, air,
the failing light
the failing night
the blinding sun
they must get the journey done.
They have wings and voices
are making choices
are using what they have.
They are aware
that, on long journeys,
each bears the other,
love occuring
in the middle of the terrifying air.

From "Munich, Winter 1973 (for Y.S.)" by James Baldwin

Symbolic Dance, Jan Ciągliński, 1897-98

Thursday, November 17, 2016

"A divine nimbus..."

This is the female form,
A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot,
It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction,
I am drawn by its breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor, all falls aside but myself and it,
Books, art, religion, time, the visible and solid earth, and what was expected of heaven or fear’d of hell, are now consumed,
Mad filaments, ungovernable shoots play out of it, the response likewise ungovernable,
Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands all diffused, mine too diffused,
Ebb stung by the flow and flow stung by the ebb, love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching,
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice,
Bridegroom night of love working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn,
Undulating into the willing and yielding day,
Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh’d day.

~ From "I Sing the Body Electric" by Walt Whitman

Nude, Vitaly Gavrilovitch Tikhov, c.1920