Friday, June 16, 2023

"We make our meek adjustments"


by Hart Crane

We make our meek adjustments,

Contented with such random consolations

As the wind deposits

In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find

A famished kitten on the step, and know

Recesses for it from the fury of the street,

Or warm torn elbow coverts.

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk

Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb

That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,

Facing the dull squint with what innocence

And what surprise!

And yet these fine collapses are not lies

More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;

Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.

We can evade you, and all else but the heart:

What blame to us if the heart live on.

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen

The moon in lonely alleys make

A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,

And through all sound of gaiety and quest

Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

"the oblivion born before the flames have died"


Giordano Bruno by Fidus, 1900

Someone will read as moral
that the people of Rome or Warsaw
haggle, laugh, make love
as they pass by the martyrs' pyres.
Someone else will read
of the passing of things human,
of the oblivion
born before the flames have died.

But that day I thought only
of the loneliness of the dying,
of how, when Giordano
climbed to his burning
he could not find
in any human tongue
words for mankind,
mankind who live on.

Giordano Bruno was condemned for heresy and burned at the stake in Rome on February 17, 1600. The precise nature of his heresy is a matter of dispute. In any case, his executioners feared his words enough that they clamped his tongue before burning him alive.  

*An interview with Czeslaw Milosz that includes discussion of "Campo dei Fiori" is here

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

New to Me


Flamenco singers, Sonia Delaunay, 1916

Conventional wisdom says that people past their first youth stop listening to new music, and there's some research to back that up. I have to admit my experience bears this out. I'm far more likely to revisit 50-year-old pop songs or country classics or beloved Beethoven symphonies than go hunting for anything unfamiliar. I probably can't name more than a dozen artists who've come on the scene in the past 5-10 years, and most of the ones I do know are mega-celebrities. I don't think I deserve any culture points for having a favorite track by Lizzo.

That said, I'm not completely stuck in the distant past. Delila Black, for instance, first came on my radar about 10 years ago, and I've been following her ever since. Lately she's been getting some great attention from the music press here (like this and this), and I'm like, where y'all been? Her work has evolved over the years and I love it all, but I'm particularly fond of this track. On the other hand, there's no resisting this lockdown masterpiece:

I like to think I was a little ahead of the curve on Delila Black's music, but I'm way behind the curve in discovering Estrella Morente. She's long been a big star in the flamenco world. Her father, Enrique Morente, was a famous cantaor and Estrella began performing very young, releasing her first record in 2001, when she was 21. I first became aware of her about two weeks ago. I don't know anything about flamenco, but even a naive listener can hear the beauty and passion in her singing:

And while we're on the flamenco theme, here's a lovely performance I happened to come across thanks to the Youtube algorithm:

I think I might make these new (to me) music posts a regular thing. It'll give me a nudge to get out of my comfort zone a little more often — though that is, of course, a fine place to be

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Pandemic dogs and an author interview

I've spent the pandemic year locked down with my 3 dogs, and let's just say it's been a mixed experience. I love my dogs, there's no doubt. It's hard to imagine life without them and even harder to imagine surviving this lonely year in dogless house. But having three hyper canines underfoot all day every day turns out to be ... a bit much. 

I thought my being here all the time might soften Dudley and Katie's velcro tendencies. Surely a human you have access to 24/7 loses some of her novelty, right? But it turns out, no — a round-the-clock human is endlessly fascinating. Even little Pixie, who's always been by far the least people-focused of the three, has decided that she needs to monitor my every move. I can't pour a cup of coffee or empty the dryer or take out the trash without the entire pack's supervision and assistance. Just getting out of bed in the morning spurs a wild doggy orgy of celebration — barking, leaping, dancing. She is risen.

I'm sure this is mostly my fault for handing out too many treats, rewarding their constant attention with attention of my own. Did I mention that it's been a lonely year? And the good news is that for all their overwrought attachment, none shows any sign of developing separation anxiety. On the rare occasions when I leave the house, they just go to their beds and sleep — storing up energy for my return. The welcoming festivities are, needless to say, intense. At least I never feel forgotten.

This year of effectively sharing a cage with dogs has me pondering the human-animal relationship even more than I usually do, so I was eager to dive into Colin Dayan's new book, Animal Quintet, and to ask her a few questions for today's Q&A at Chapter 16.  Relationships — mother/child, human/animal, black/white, living/dead — are at the core of all the pieces in the collection, and Colin Dayan is always unsparing in her depiction of the harm we inflict on the Other. But the stories she tells are also driven by a passion for understanding the wild beauty of experience. (You can read my review of her 2016 book With Dogs at the Edge of Life here.)


*1912 photo from the Library of Congress. From the record: Photo shows Walter W. Johnson, a mining engineer and designer of gold and tin dredges, who traveled around the Seward Peninsula on the family "pupmobile" and on horseback. Johnson wrote on the back of his copy of the photo, "When it was time to coast, the dogs would jump aboard without command."

**Dudley and Katie displaying their constant faith that if you sit, a treat will come. Pixie's more of a skeptic.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

"All who have travelled this perishing life..."

All who have travelled this perishing life,
Let us gather and wait for our healing.
But time is no healer,
And time too will die in the vanishing stars.
Great Rembrandt, the master of light and of shadow,
Of tortuous path, ambiguity,
Come paint our faces,
The dazed lakes of eyes wishing for some
Other life, jowls full with unfinished living,
And brows soft with unceasing hope —
Come paint our faces, the cradles
Of sun through white shutters,
The graveyards of dark afternoons,
Stirrings of tea in a lifetime of mornings,
The touch of the lips kissing skin —
Yes we remember —
The plantings of seed pods that may never bloom,
Visits of uncles, the births of our children:
We've witnessed it all, without knowing why.
Come paint our faces,
The lights and the shadows,
The ends and beginnings,
All lost in the sea of uncertainties.
~ Alan Lightman, from Song of Two Worlds

*Two African Men, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1661. Read observations about this painting here, here, and here.

Monday, February 1, 2021

"You will call this mountain home..."


When my sister died, from the head of my visio came offspring
in the thousands, armed to the teeth, each its own vessel.
My first, their mother, lived on. For itself and its hoard
it found a permanent home in a cave at the bottom of a lake.
And it waited until I was standing on a mountain to sing to me:
You will call this mountain home until I tell you to move again.
There will always be more of it underground than you
will ever see with your eye. And so it turned out to be true.
And so when I stood on the mountain that became my home,
I beheld a dirt sea, and saw our moon, which has two faces.
I learned that one face of our moon is dappled with maria,
and that the sunbeams here are newborns that lie
on each other, purpling into the fog and outstretched pines.

*Kystlandskap i måneskinn ("Coastal Landscape in Moonlight"), Knud Baade, 1808-1879

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Random thoughts inspired by the Capitol riot, pt. 2

The Homecoming, Marianne von Werefkin (1860-1938)

First of all, if you are not up for political discussion, I totally understand. It won't hurt my feelings a bit if you just go check out these fabulous avian guitarists and skip the unpleasantness below. (H/T to my old friend ScentScelf for the video.) 


I thought about never coming back* to comment further on the insurrection. We’re all sick to death of thinking about it, aren't we? When someone like Anne Applebaum suggests that maybe the best course of action would be to change the subject, that's an option worth considering. (I don't share Applebaum's rightwing political bent, but her book Twilight of Democracy is an interesting and insightful — if depressing — read.)

Looking through some old posts on this blog, though, especially from 2008 and 2012, I was struck by the strong continuity between then and now. I was wrong about a lot of things back then. (Me on the Tea Party in 2009: "I think our side should calm down a little and stop worrying that they're going to stage a coup or something.”) But the elements that created January 6 were all in place years ago. And they were not hidden, though most of us couldn't see them with any clarity. This makes me think it’s worth setting down my thoughts now, however incoherent they may be, if only for the sake of revisiting them somewhere down the road, when who knows where we'll have wound up.


In the weeks since the Capitol riot, it's become clear that there were several distinct factions involved: some who showed up with a plan, some who seemed to be there mostly to party, and a large segment of folks who, like Comet Ping Pong dude before them, apparently believed something heinous was going on and they better put a stop to it. And have fun breaking windows and knocking heads in the process, of course. 

It's that third group that interests me because I can most clearly see my own folks in them. Not that I share their delusions or their ideology, but they're the ones who seem the most like the people I grew up around, the people I see around me today. All those aging white men with beards, wearing Walmart jeans and jackets from the army surplus store, with the Confederate flag, Old Glory, and MAGA/Trump gear easily blending as cultural identifiers. They are so familiar. That guy beating the cop with the flagpole — he looks exactly like one of the characters who used to hang out in my dad's favorite tavern. I feel like I know him. I feel like, had my life taken just a slightly different turn early on, I might have wound up married to him.

This feeling of embarrassed kinship with the rioters is something that anywhere-left-of-center white people, especially the ones with rural roots, do not seem to be talking about very much. (I'd like to digress briefly here to say that I will never get used to the way mainstream liberal Democrats are now routinely labeled "the left" by almost everyone, including themselves. Joe Biden, tool of the left. Good lord.) I know for sure I'm not the only one who feels the kinship, thanks to the popularity of the wild rant Corey Forrester tweeted on January 7. Granted, Forrester is a comedian and this kind of thing is his business, but he wouldn't have said it if he wasn't pretty sure there'd be an audience for it, and a lot of that audience is people like me, who watched the riot with a sense of cringing shame, as well as outrage: Oh my god — it's us. (For more from Forrester on the shame of our kind, watch this.) 

I can't decide whether my inability — or unwillingness — to see myself as culturally Other to the insurrectionists is a good thing or a bad thing. It reminds me a lot of the way I felt about my paternal grandmother, who was a second mother to me and my brothers, a good and loving person in many ways, but who was also a confirmed segregationist. However outwardly friendly and kind she was willing to be toward Black people (and she was, in my memory, unfailingly so), she could not/would not let go of the deeply racist, white supremacist view of the world she was raised with. 

I could never disown my grandmother. It would be dishonest. She helped make me who I am, without a doubt. I hate many of the things she believed, but I know there's not a bright line between the parts of our shared culture I love and the parts I hate. And I don't see any reason to believe that I'm a better human than she was. That's the sticky, troubling truth I have lived with forever, and the insanity at the Capitol is a powerful reminder. I honestly don't know what to do with it.

For another lens on this same territory, read Abby Lee Hood's recent piece in the NYT. And for a thought-provoking take on the enduring role of shame in white Southern culture and how it operates among the Trumpian evangelicals, read David French's thoughts at The Dispatch. (French sees the political landscape very differently than I do, and some of the positions he takes — like his signing of the Nashville Statement — are, in my view, deeply destructive, to put it mildly. But he understands the rising Christian nationalism as well as anyone out there, and he unfailingly writes from a thoughtful place, trying to grapple with the larger moral implications of the moment.)


And speaking of nationalism, this weekend I watched Daniel Lombroso's White Noise, a documentary presented by The Atlantic, that follows Lauren Southern, Richard Spencer, and Mike Cernovich as they do their alt-right, white nationalist thing in the period leading up to and after Charlottesville. It's a compelling piece of filmmaking, well worth watching, but I'm still not sure what I think about it. 

The film presents the three main subjects as narcissistic, damaged people, equal parts insufferable and pitiable — a take that is definitely not surprising to anyone who's ever known one of this tribe. But I came away feeling like the film did not go deep enough, that it spent too much time deconstructing the personalities, and none at all deconstructing the ideology. The evil of white nationalism is simply taken as a given, and at no point does anybody actually challenge the substance of what Southern, Spencer, and Cernovich are peddling. They are never asked to defend what they're doing in any meaningful way. I suspect that was a strategic choice on the part of the filmmakers, a way of earning trust by avoiding conflict. And it paid off in terms of letting us see the humans behind the rhetoric, but it fell short in furthering our understanding of the movement they speak to. You can see the trailer at the link above and on Youtube. You can read a profile Lombroso wrote about Southern here.  

*Part 1 of this post is here

Monday, January 25, 2021

"The sky is a black sudden cloud ..."


The Shame

What will

the shame be,


cost to pay.

We are walking

in a wood,

wood of stones,

boulders for trees.

The sky

is a black

sudden cloud,

a sun.


to me, say

what things

were forgotten.

~Robert Creeley

Poetry, February 1966

*I read a wonderful essay today in which shame plays a role, "Parricide Blues" by Aaron Gwyn. You can read it here.

**The painting is "Eternidade" by Ismael Nery, circa 1931. (There's more Nery on the blog here.)

Sunday, January 24, 2021

"One grief there is ..."

The One Grief

One grief there is, the helpmeet of my heart,

That shall not from me till my days be sped,

That walks beside me in sunshine and in shade,

And hath in all my fortunes equal part.

At first I feared it, and would often start

Aghast to find it bending o'er my bed,

Till usage slowly dulled the edge of dread,

And one cold night I cried: How warm thou art!

Since then we two have travelled hand in hand,

And, lo, my grief has been interpreter

For me in many a fierce and alien land

Whose speech young Joy had failed to understand,

Plucking me tribute of red gold and myrrh

From desolate whirlings of the desert sand.

~by Edith Wharton, born January 24, 1862

From Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verses

* "Reflection" by Odilon Redon, circa 1900

Postscript: After I hit "publish" on this post I got to wondering whether I'd ever noted Wharton's birthday in the past. I haven't, but boy, there's quite a bit of Wharton-related musing on this blog. If you're interested, you can find a roundup here

Monday, January 18, 2021

Random thoughts inspired by the Capitol riot, pt.1

According to the listing at Wikimedia Commons, the photo above was made the night before Obama's swearing in on January 20, 2009. Since the riot, one thing I can't stop thinking about is the outpouring of joy 12 years ago — a degree of celebration I had never seen in my lifetime and frankly don't expect to see again. I annoyed a lot of people in my circle back then by not being as happy as they were about Obama's win. I was happy about it, make no mistake — just not ready to jump up and down with joy and let go of my rage at all we'd seen in the decade prior. 

And yes, I'm a little sorry now that I didn't let myself partake of that joy more fully. But I was afraid of our complacency, afraid that we were congratulating ourselves too much and would give Obama a pass on too many things. We did give him a pass on things we shouldn't have, not so much out of smugness as from a sense of being embattled once the rightwing backlash took hold. Now here we are, feeling far more embattled than we could have imagined in 2010 or 2012, and I can't help noticing that one of the effects of our anxiety is intolerance for any criticism of the incoming administration. I have found myself increasingly turning away from dissenting voices on our side, few as they are — not because I disagree with them, usually, but because now is not the time. But when will be the the time? 


"Therefore, however much you exceed in wealth, so much so do you fall short in love." ~ Basil of Caesarea*

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Capitol attackers who shouted, “Whose house? Our house!" They didn’t invent that chant or just borrow it from a football team. It was used not so long ago by people with a very different political agenda.** 

It echoes the civics lessons we all got as kids — “the people’s house," etc. But that notion of a common stake in democratic government is not what the rioters meant. They weren't saying, "This is our government, too." They were saying, "This government is OURS." That is to say, theirs alone — as white people***, as Christians, as so-called "real Americans."

I think this is a nuance that too often gets missed when we talk about white supremacy and nationalism. The ideology of white supremacy isn't fundamentally a belief in racial superiority, although that belief may be present. It's not, at its core, about hatred, although there is plenty of hatred attached to it. White nationalism is really a deep belief in ownership — of the culture and the country.

Whenever I've sparred with hardcore Trump cultists online, I've always been struck by the proprietary way they talk about America and how obsessed they are with rights of ownership. The concept of property is sacred to them. I remember an exchange I had last summer, when stores were being looted, with someone who took real offense at my statement that no decent human being would shoot a person for stealing a TV. It seems self-evident to me that any human life has more value than a material possession, but the cultist felt otherwise: Thieves — at least, some thieves — deserve death. 

The "Stop the Steal" slogan isn't really about the election. It's about what the cult sees as the theft of their country by people who have no rightful claim to it. For several generations now, we've preached to white American children about racial tolerance and equality. We've shamed them for racist language and told them racist is the worst thing they can be. But white folks have had very little to say about this poisonous, anti-democratic ideology of entitlement buried deep in white identity. 

We throw around the word “entitled” as an insult, and if we’re good liberals, we recognize our “privilege,” but we always avoid articulating exactly what that privilege rests on. It is, in fact, this culturally enforced sense of ownership, so ingrained in us that we are — mostly — not even conscious of it. Like the prisoners in the cave or David Foster Wallace's famous fish, we're blind to the full truth of our condition. It's a condition we share with the cult, and I think our reluctance to accept that fact is one reason it's so hard for us to understand what the hell is wrong with them


**In case it's not clear, the song refers to the 2011 protests in Madison, Wisconsin. Video of the demonstration itself here

*** Yeah, I know there were a few people in that mob who weren't white. That's a discussion for another day. And no, I don't think racism is by any means the sole motivating factor for the cult. I'm not even sure it's the primary factor. But if you're thinking the racist aspect of the riot wasn't obvious, this might not be the blog for you.

Images: DoD photo of the Capitol on the eve of Obama's inauguration by Specialist 1st Class Daniel J. Calderon, U.S. Navy

"The Education of the Rich" by Noël Hallé