Sunday, January 29, 2017

A rambling proposal

I was born in November 1961, so some of my earliest impressions of the world beyond my little hometown were shaped by the tumult of the late 60s/early 70s. The war in Vietnam, the King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, the Kent State shootings, Watergate — I was very aware of all those things as they were happening. Our TV was always on, and in between the soap operas, variety shows, and sitcoms came regular doses of real-world political upheaval. Those reports scared me pretty badly, though I don’t think I ever said so to my parents. I had a strong sense that the country I lived in was in crisis. It seemed as if we were on the verge of catastrophe, and my comfy existence might change for the worse at any moment.

By the time I was into my teens, those deep fears had fallen away. I was fully aware that bad things still went on, of course, but I had moved quite unconsciously into the psychic bubble of safety most white Americans inhabit. I stopped thinking catastrophe was imminent. My grandmother had insisted I watch the Watergate hearings with her, and the outcome of that scandal seemed to me to offer proof that we had a kind of bedrock stability in this country that almost nothing — certainly no sorry-ass politician or political dispute — could destroy. Not that I trusted or admired the government. No, my default position was always distrust, leaning toward outright opposition, and there’ve been plenty of things worth opposing in every political era in my lifetime. But no matter how much ugliness invaded Washington, a better day seemed eternally possible, even likely.

How incredibly stupid and naive that idea seems now.

These days I’m back to being that kid glued to the TV, watching the news footage from Vietnam and envisioning the end of the United States as I know it. This mindset has been slowly overtaking me since the election, but the news this weekend of Bannon’s appointment to the NSC erased all lingering hope that we might get through this without irreparable damage to the country and the world. That sounds overwrought even to me, but my heart and head tell me it’s true.

Which brings me to my proposal: I’ve decided to keep a private record of my impressions and experiences in this new, unlovely political era, and I hope some of you will do the same. Essays, op-eds, blog posts, Facebook rants, and Twitter zingers are all great, but I want the freedom to write words that are safe from the eyes of strangers, at least for now. I don’t want to debate my thoughts away or tweak them to attract a wider audience. I want to be both thoughtful and unfiltered. Most of us do very little writing of that sort anymore. We no longer write long, reflective letters to each other, since it’s so easy to pick up the phone or get the instant gratification of texting. The few people I know who keep journals write about themselves, not the world. I suspect most people feel they haven’t anything important to say, but I believe just the opposite is true. The more powerless and insignificant you feel yourself to be, the more we need a record of how this time looks to you. History is what happens to ordinary people. History is happening to us, right now, and we will do the future a favor if we keep a record of it.

One more thing: I’m writing my record by hand in a simple bound notebook. For now, I won’t digitize it in any way. I encourage you to do likewise. That’s partly paranoia. No electronic medium seems safe to me these days. But it’s also a practical, cheap hedge against changing technology, and there’s something mood- and mind-altering about the physical process of putting pen to paper. It’s calming, and it makes me feel focused and fully human in a way I never do before a keyboard.

Mary Magdalene writingMaster of the Female Half-Lengths, c.1520

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.