Thursday, October 4, 2018

Cheer Up!

Good Books for Hard Times

Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, Volume I (Thinking)

Lester J. Cappon (editor) The Adams-Jefferson Letters

Jim Crace, Being Dead


Don't despair.  Soon it will all be over.

Meanwhile, here is a book for the soul, a book for the mind, one to feed your nostalgia for bygone days, and one to cheer you up--at least you're not a corpse. I've been reading or rereading these books lately--an antidote to the news.

I can't think of a better book to feed one's soul than Huxley's classic collection of quotations, with extensive commentary, from the world's spiritual literature.  Published right after World War II, when, if anything, things were worse than they are now, Huxley's judicious anthology organizes the wisdom of the ages by topic from "That Thou Art" to "Contemplation."  All of the great figures are here, from William Law and Thomas Trahane to St. Catherine of Siena.  The best parts are those that Huxley writes himself, the links that make sense of the quotations, the reflections of a secular man on the world's religious traditions. Huxley, who saw so many things before anyone else (Soma! Mass Stupidity!), finds in the denominational squabbles of religion a great unifying message, the simple truth that if we will  let down our guard we can find meaning in the world. Huxley makes palpable for those of us who are routinely secular a spiritual sensibility that is comforting and non-dogmatic. His own modesty and life-long search for truth, the courage he displayed in looking inward, make Huxley the perfect guide to a philosophy that transcends the turbulence of the moment. Way better than self-help or "mindfulness" [when there's an app for it, it's phony] is the wisdom of genuine seekers and mystics and thinkers.


I have been reading Hannah Arendt steadily, with great pleasure, since the spring. Her prose is lucid (in her third or fifth language, depending on whether or not you count her Latin and Greek), her ideas stimulating, her boldness as a thinker deeply in contrast to the timidity typical of today's "thought leaders." The fact that she read everything and somehow worked into a view of the world that was intensely political while at the same time profoundly philosophical make Arendt the perfect antidote to the mendacious times in which we live.  The Life of the Mind is my favorite of her books. It's informed by her studies with and of Heidegger, Jaspers, and others--Merleau-Ponty, Buber, Husserl--but also by her abiding interest in politics. Arendt's biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, informs us that Arendt, though trained in philosophy, preferred thinking and writing about the vita activa

Reading Arendt, enjoying her seriousness, the clarity of her thought, is like swimming in cool, clear water--revitalizing for the mind and the body.


Though they served on the committee of five that produced the Declaration of Independence and though both were patriots determined to sever America's ties with England, Adams and Jefferson were bitter political rivals for nearly two decades. After the War of 1812 they once again became colleagues (if not exactly friends: their temperaments were too different), and commenced a remarkable correspondence that ended only with their deaths, which famously occurred on the same day, July 4th, 1826.  Adams was a prickly gentleman, prone to express  his New England rectitude with a forcefulness that contrasted with Jefferson's more courtly manners. Adams was pro-British, a republican but not a democrat.  Jefferson, the paradoxical radical and egalitarian, the slave owner who believed passionately in the rights of man, seemed to Adams to be a dangerous leveler, a tool of French extremism and an enemy of rational (that is, Federalist) politics.  They attacked on another mercilessly; when Jefferson became Adams' Vice-President in 1796 he actively plotted an invasion of England with his French colleagues and founded, with James Madison, a newspaper whose specific purpose was the undermining of Federalist policies.  Partisan politics!  

Yet, with their gradual reconciliation--traceable in these remarkable letters--one  finds that the two men had more in common than they supposed, especially during the period after 1814 when America was nominally a one-party nation but, in fact, bitterly divided in terms of both domestic and foreign policy.  While in the 1790's the two quarrelled over the writings of Thomas Paine, in the eighteen-teens they exchange notes on their readings in history, philosophy, and science in the spirit of retired college professors. 

Listen to this: pious John Adams writing to Deist Thomas Jefferson (Nov. 4, 1816): "We now have, it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James's Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better to apply these pious Subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the Corruptions of Christianity than to propagate those Corruptions in Europe Asia, Africa, and America?"

This thick volume, beautifully produced by The University of North Carolina Press, is full of such gems: "I cannot contemplate human Affairs, with laughing or crying. I choose to laugh. When people talk of the freedom of Writing Speaking, or Thinking, I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed." (John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, July 15, 1817).  Reading these letters takes one back, not necessarily to a better time in our history, but to a time when statesmen existed, when enemies could correspond with a sense of common purpose, and when those who led the country actually knew something beyond the limits of their own egos. 


The English author Jim Crace writes poetic novels that aren't like anything else you've ever read. The Gift of Stones, set in the neolithic age,  nonetheless manages to be a novel about storytelling and modernity.  In Quarantine, Crace recasts the story of Jesus's time in the wilderness as a fable about how ordinary life can cross paths with the miraculous and not even blink. And that's what Crace does in Being Dead as well.  Two corpses, husband and wife zoologists, occupy the center of this macabre but moving story of death and bereavement.  Crace works the details of Joseph's and Celice's life into what is primarily a story about being a corpse, a feast for insects and worms. I've read over some of the more forensic scenes several times both to get the willies and also to appreciate Crace's mastery of tone and style. His descriptions of the murdered pair--a long-married couple who go off to have sex in the dunes and are murdered for no good reason--decaying in the sun over the course of an interminable week, are medieval in their intense evocation of our dewy flesh. That writing about something so disturbing could bring so much pleasure proves once again that style and technique and talent can make beauty from any subject, however unlikely.
 

George Ovitt (10/3/2018)






 

Friday, September 28, 2018

Reading the World




New Selected Poems by Les Murray

I tend to read in fits. I find a novel I like written by an author from Spain, for example, and for the next six months I read exclusively Spanish novels, from those of Javier Marías,  Camilo José Cela, Juan Benet, José Luis Olaizola, Quim Monzó, and Carmen Martín Gaite, to those of Juan Goytisolo, Ana Mariá Matute, Max Aub, Manuel Rivas, Mercé Rodoreda, Belén Gopegui, and Enrique Vila-Matas. This is not suggest that I am an expert on the literature of this or any country, far from it, only that I have found this method an intense and engrossing way to read.

Of late, having chanced upon the keenly oblique novels of Gerald Murnane (novels that have redefined the way I think of the form), I have steeped myself in Australian fiction, particularly in the novels of Patrick White, Eleanor Dark, Peter Carey, Richard Flanagan, and Georgia Blain. In the course of this reading I have also delved into the poetry of some of the country’s better known poets, most recently that of the doyen, Les Murray, by way of his New Selected Poems, a collection that provides a generous sampling of the work of a poet described by Meghan O’Rourke in The New York Times as “A sui generis autodidact (he now suspects he has Asperger’s syndrome)  equipped with a fierce moral vision and sensuous musicality, he writes subtly about postcolonialism, urban sprawl and poverty and, in his most intimate poems, reminds us of the power of literature to transubstantiate grievance into insight.”

Here is a poem of his called “The Sleepout”:

Childhood sleeps in a verandah room
in an iron bed close to the wall
where the winter over the railing
swelled the blind on its timber boom

and splinters picked lint off warm linen
and the stars were out over the hill;
then one wall of the room was forest
and all things in there were to come.

Breathings climbed up on the verandah
when dark cattle rubbed at a corner
and sometimes dim towering rain stood
for forest, and the dry cave hunched woolen.

Inside the forest was lamplit
along tracks to a starry creek bed
and beyond lay the never-fenced country,
its full billabongs all surrounded

by animals and birds, in loud crustings,
and something leaping up amongst them.
And out there, to kindle whenever
dark found it, hung the daylight moon.

 
This poem, a favorite of mine for its wonderful strangeness, is called “The Images Alone”:

Scarlet as the cloth draped over a sword,
white as steaming rice, blue as leschenaultia,
old curried towns, the frog in its green human skin;
a ploughman walking his furrow as if in irons, but
as at a whoop of young men running loose
in brick passages, there occurred the thought
like instant stitches through crumpled silk:

as if he’d had to leap to catch the bullet.

A stench like hands out of the ground.
The willows had like beads in their hair, and
Peenemünde, grunted the dentist’s drill, Peenemünde!
Fowls went on typing on every corn key, green
kept crowding the pinks of peach trees into the sky
but used speech balloons were tacky in the river
and waterbirds had liftoff as at a repeal of gravity.

Finally, his poem “Antarctica”:

Beyond the human flat earths
which, policed by warm language, wreathed
in the fog the limits of the world,
far out in space you can breathe

the planet revolves in a cold book.
It turns one numb white page a year.
Round this in shattering billions spread
ruins of a Ptolemaic sphere,

and brittle-beard reciters bore
out time in adamant hoar rods
to freight where it’s growing short,
childless absolutes shrieking the odds.

Most modern of the Great South Lands,
her storm-blown powder whited wigs
as wit of the New Contempt chilled her.
The first spacefarers worked her rope rigs

in horizontal liftoff, when to climb
the high Pole was officer class.
Total prehuman pavement, extending
beyond every roof-brink of crevasse:

Sterility Park, ringed by sheathed animals.
Singing spiritoso their tongueless keens
musselled carolers fly under the world.
Deeper out, out star’s gale folds and greens.

Blue miles above the first flowered hills
towers the true Flood, as it was,
as it is, at the crux of global lattice,
and long-shod humans, risking diamond there,
propitiate with known laws and our wickedness.


Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Life Alone

The Wall (a novel), Marlen Haushofer


It isn't my intention to put you off this remarkable novel, but it is, hands down, the most depressing book I have ever read.  Depressing in a good way.  Haushofer set out to write a novel depicting the end of the world, the effects of debilitating solitude, and the hopelessness of the individual in the face of total meaninglessness--and she did. And what's worse (better) is how effectively Haushofer evoked not so much screaming-banshee terror but quiet despair. What has killed off everyone, and why?  We have as little idea as the nameless narrator.

There's lots of apocalyptic literature around these days.  The little of it that I have read feels either sensationalized and, frankly, disgusting (Cormac McCarthy's The Road), or preposterous (N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season).  The problem isn't plausibility--the world is ending after all. No, the problem with post-disaster books is that they don't take seriously the existential and psychological cost of living in the end-times. The characters in most of these books are victims whose lives are unimaginable struggles for survival. There's no provision made for reflection: around every corner is a cannibal, a carnivorous alien, or a another human who is (naturally) one's enemy.  In Eden there was scope for cooperation; when the Seventh Seal has been broken it's every woman for herself. 

I won't be forgetting The Wall anytime soon.  What happens when one wakes up to a world devoid of other human beings, with a transparent glass wall enclosing one in a valley whose outward prospect suggests that you are the only surviving human being?

Haushofer examines with painstaking care the claustrophobic daily life of an ordinary woman--she has no name--who has survived some kind of global disaster. Haushofer never lets on what has happened--where is everyone? Who built the Wall, and why? Like the woman, we operate wholly in the dark, and if we allow ourselves to fall into the conceit of the Wall a nightmare is opened to us: how does one cope with loneliness, with the daily grinding routine of survival?  The woman has a few companions--a dog, a cat, a cow--and in her ingenuity and sheer will to survive she reminds one of Robinson Crusoe, but without the human companionship of Friday.  There are no voices in the novel but that of the solitary woman, and her voice has the dull cadence and flatness of the dead.

Reading this novel requires one to think about solitude in a way that no other novel does. Hell may be other people, but there surely is a version of hell that is no one, not a human voice anywhere. Our woman survivor is incapable of reading--what's the point of information or art?--or of amusing herself in any way but with Tarot cards (a chilling idea), or of doing anything except sleeping and trying to stay alive. The state of nature so attractive to admirers of Ayn Rand and Rand Paul--well, here it is. Lusty independence, no government regulations, no one else's annoying needs to get in the way of the satisfaction of your own. Madness. I kept thinking of prison, but even in prison someone shoves food in the slot or tries to stab you with a toothbrush--horrible, but better than nothing.  

This is a deeply political book, a feminist meditation.  For what does our protagonist do but rebuild  civilization, remake a tiny world out of remnants of what has been lost. She creates order and routine, does chores, cares for the injured, buries the dead, in just the way that women have always done.  She's so depressed she can barely rise up from her bed, and yet she does so because otherwise the whole rickety edifice of her solitary civilization will fall to pieces.

And men? You'll need to read The Wall to find out about them. 

I understand there's a film. I can't imagine it. If ever there were an unfilmable book, it's this one.

George Ovitt (9/17/2018)

The Wall was published in German in 1968 and released by Cleis Press of Berkeley in 2012. 




Tuesday, September 11, 2018

New Books!



Hello. I am happy to announce the publication of two new books.

The first, What Happens Next, is the latest collection of poems by my friend and fellow writer, George Ovitt.  Here’s the link:




 









The second book is a novel of mine called The Perfection of Things. Here is the link for it:





As ever, thank you for reading our blog.

George Ovitt & Peter Nash

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Devil’s Biographer



One Life by David Lida

In Mexico there is a program called The Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program that helps train, pay, and advise U.S. lawyers in handling the cases of Mexicans nationals facing possible execution in the United States. Specifically, as described on The Marshall Project website: “One of the program’s chief purposes is to help defense attorneys construct a biography of the accused—to humanize them. Poverty, family dysfunction, and developmental disability are frequent themes in their clients’ lives. When presented as  part of a defense, such themes can encourage mercy among jurors and dissuade them from handing down a death sentence.”
 
This, essentially, is the background of David Lida’s remarkable novel, One Life. Lida, himself a mitigation specialist dealing with precisely such cases, tells the bracing, often eloquent story of a disaffected American named Richard, whose job it is to travel to Mexico, to remote, often desolate towns, to uncover the fractured life stories of his clients in the always desperate effort to complicate, if not actually temper, the judgment of prospective American jurors. Of course, humanizing Mexican immigrants—according them the basic dignity of a past, a family, a conscience, a dream—flies directly in the face of much American rhetoric today, a rhetoric fueled daily by our increasingly punitive immigration policies and practices, and by the racist vitriol of the president of himself.    

At the heart of this poignant, complexly wrought novel, is the case of a young woman, a Mexican national named Esperanza, who is due to stand trial in Louisiana for allegedly murdering her baby. Richard, an ex-novelist recovering from a recently failed marriage, has been hired by her lawyers to travel to Mexico to assemble, as best he can, the scattered pieces of her past as a means of rendering her anew—as a human being, as a woman of flesh and blood. This proves no easy task, as the people he meets are not only wary of him, a gringo, but often so taciturn, so beleaguered, so fatalistic in their view of life, that it is everything he can do to get them to speak to him at all. What unfolds is a story as harrowing, as trenchant, as it is hopeful, compassionate, humane. Writes novelist Daniel Alarcón, “David Lida’s One Life is simply revelatory. It’s Juan Rulfo meets Raymond Chandler, Roberto Bolaño meets Chester Himes. It’s the American justice system, exposed, and the inside story of the frenetic, cruel push and pull that lures Mexican migrants from their homes to the U.S.. I’ve never read a book quite like this, and neither have you.”

David Lida has also written a collection of short stories called Travel Advisory and a smart, street-level guide to Mexico City called First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, The Capital of the 21st Century, a city in which he now lives, writes, practices mitigation, and leads tailor-made tours of the various neighborhoods, markets, parks, gardens, restaurants, and museums. If you have never been to Mexico City it’s time to plan a trip there now. 

 

Check out his website:


Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Rural Beauty

Driftless, a novel by David Rhodes

Horse

In its stall stands the 19th century,

its hide a hot shudder of satin,

head stony and willful, 

an eye brown as a river and watchful:

a sentry a long way ahead

of a hard, dirty army of hooves. 

-Ted Kooser-


For many years I spent my summers driving on the blue highway of rural America, sleeping in my bivy sack on the sides of dirt roads, eating in local diners, drinking Old Style and Hamms in downtown taverns.  Each July I'd pick a route that would take me through states I came to love--Wisconsin and Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska, the Dakotas and Montana. I scrupulously avoided interstates and Holiday Inns; if I slept in a bed it was in the Downtown Motel for nineteen dollars a night.  I made a point of driving only a few hundred miles a day, thus leaving many hours to explore every local historical marker, every regional museum, and all of the "sights" suggested by the locals.  If it was America's Biggest, or Oldest, or most remote I would go out of my way to see it: the tallest man-made structure, the last outpost of the pony express, the Kansas Farm Museum, the birthplace of virtually every president.  I did this out of restlessness (since passed) and out of an abiding interest in the lives of my fellow Americans, most of whom live no where in particular--in small villages and dying towns, in farming communities like Wonewoc, Wisconsin, home of David Rhodes, the genius.

I was disheartened, to say the least, when I read Arlie Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land, a very sad book about Louisiana's Tea Party members, men and women filled with hatred for almost everything that feels worthwhile about this country.  My own experience of rural America--limited, of course, but compared to everyone but Charles Kuralt I've seen a fair piece of the country, the entire lower forty-eight, and the sad sacks Hochschild interviews--people who prefer cancer-producing toxic spills to government regulations--seem to me anomalous if not aberrant.  I made a point of having morning coffee in rural towns with the local farmers and (once in a while) their wives, and while I found them conservative compared to my urban neighbors, they were reasonable, thoughtful, and welcoming, truly the salt of the earth.


Rhodes, a prodigy who wrote three wonderful novels during the middle 1970's and then was silenced for three decades after a motorcycle accident, is a deeply compassionate chronicler of the lives of invisible people--farmers and small-town ministers and Amish families and housewives whose greatest concern might well be the state of their housekeeping on the eve of Mother's visit. That is to say, Rhodes writes about us, for this is who we really are, not gun-slinging heroes or angst-ridden intellectuals or cyborgs, we're ordinary folk, overwhelmed by the cost of living, the loss of love, our kids' future, the fear of dying.  It amazes me that Rhodes's critics fault him for the quiet dignity of his characters' lives. Quiet dignity is the entire point, and no one I've read, including Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Richard Russo, does a better job of bringing to life the small town, the destitution (economic and spiritual)  of rural America imposed on us all by the coastal elites. 

Driftless, a novel I read with profound pleasure and admiration, is a richly imagined collection of short stories, of vignettes, linked by common characters and overlapping themes.  July Montgomery, a figure in nearly all of Rhodes's work, settles in Word, Wisconsin and takes up dairy farming after a long life on the road,  Over the course of twenty years he takes on a shamanistic character in the tiny farming town. Folks come to him not only to borrow tools but for his good sense and, as July himself puts it, his love for his neighbors.  There's a lonely widower, a mystical preacher, a young couple bent on justice, an Amish family and their extended clan, a wheel-chair bound young woman who finds love at a dog fight, a cranky retired farmer whose discovered capacity for fellow feeling is one of Rhodes's finest achievements.  Over the course of a year this endlessly interesting cast of characters lives through the kinds of changes that all of us live through.  We search for love and truth and justice; mostly we don't find them, but that doesn't deter us from searching.

Rhodes's style is lyrical, poetic, generous.  I read long passages aloud to my wife, sharing the beauty of language with her but also marveling at the cadences of Rhodes's description, the economy of his character sketches, the visual power of the landscape he describes.  Every set piece has a moment of reflection embedded in it; every character possesses a voice that is his or hers alone, an inner world brought to life with great economy.  You'll find yourself missing July's wisdom, Olive's impetuousness, Jacob's decency.  Not a book to be missed at a time when Americans have been polarized--for nefarious political purposes--into antagonistic tribes. Read Rhodes and discover once again our shared humanity.


 Driftless is published by Milkweed editions.

George Ovitt (8/26/2018)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Ever-Present Fullness of All Treasured Life




Transit by Anna Seghers

Anna Seghers (1900-1983), born Netty Reiling, was a German-Jewish writer whose education in pre-Nazi Germany included studies in Chinese language and culture; German, French, and Russian Literature, as well as sociology and history. She completed her studies at the University of Heidelberg with a dissertation, Jude und Judentum im Werke Rembrandts, in which she examined the role of Jews in Rembrandt’s work. It is believed that she chose her penname, Anna Seghers, after the Dutch painter, Hercules Seghers, a contemporary of Rembrandt.

A lifelong reader, she was especially devoted to literature, to the works of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Kleist, Büchner, and Kafka, Racine and Balzac, and lived her life with a special affection for fairy tales and Jewish and Christian legends, which often play a part in her fiction. 
After the burning of the Reichstag in February of 1933, she—a Jew and member of the Communist Party—was arrested then released, at which point she fled to Switzerland, before continuing on to France, to Paris, where she got involved with the anti-fascist coalition, Volksfront or Popular Front. Yet soon she was forced to flee again, as Hitler’s troops invaded and occupied France, first to the south, to Marseille, “the uterine center of the earth”, from where she and her family finally managed to escape the mounting horrors of Europe aboard a ship to Mexico, a voyage which included the passengers Victor Serge, André Breton, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Such, at heart, is the story of her 1951 novel, Transit. In a description that surely captures her own perilous efforts to evade the steady advance of Hitler’s troops, she writes:

I watched them streaming into Marseille with their tattered banners representing all nations and faith, the advance guard of refugees. They had fled across all of Europe, but now, confronting the glimpses of blue water sparkling innocently between the houses, they were at their wits’ end. For the names of ships written in chalk didn’t mean that there really were ships but only a faint hope that there might be some—the names were constantly being wiped off because some strait was mined or a new coastal port had been fired on. Death was moving ever closer with his swastika banner as yet unscathed. 


Started after she found safety in Mexico, Transit takes “a sadder, longer view of her own experience,” writes Peter Conrad in his helpful introduction. “It observes events from what might be the vantage of the gods, looking down…on the spectacle of human folly, the delusion of human hope, and the alternation of anxiety and ennui that consumes our days.” Indeed, central to the overall force of the novel is the abiding impression that, for all of the apparent progress of the modern age, remarkably little has changed:

It was the age-old harbor gossip, as ancient as the Old Port itself and even older. Wonderful, an ancient harbor twaddle that’s existed as long as there’s been a Mediterranean Sea. Phoenician chit-chat, Cretan and Greek gossip, and that of the Romans. There was never a shortage of gossips who were anxious about their berths aboard a ship and about their money, or who were fleeing from all the real and imagined horrors of the world. Mothers who had lost their children, children who had lost their mothers. The remnants of crushed armies, escaped slaves human hordes who had been chased from all the countries of the earth, and having at last reached the sea, boarded ships in order to discover new lands from which they would again be driven; forever running from one death toward another.


Sengher’s recognition of this was by no means an apology for or capitulation to the apathy and fatalism of the age, let alone to Hitler and his kind. Rather (Why else would she write?), informing it all is the frank and finally hopeful recognition that, as Alan Watts puts it in his book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, “Poverty, disease, war, change, and death are nothing new. In the best of times 'security' has never been more than temporary and apparent". What matters is that we continue to live, to strive, moved—as by some mystery, some magic—by “the ever-present fullness of all treasured life”.


Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Genius of the Islands

Derek Walcott, Selected Poems

 


His best poems have about them a ferocity, an anger or impatience that makes them impossible to ignore. Reading Walcott is a sustained pleasure, but unless you read casually, his poems will make you squirm.  He had no patience for cant or cruelty, no love for the imperialists who had skewed the history of his beloved islands.  Here's a sample, the extraordinary poem "The Sea is History," included in Walcott's 1979 collection, The Star Apple Kingdom.  He's the perfect poet for high summer, for heat and the proliferation of life, for rum and fresh fish, for long days and short nights. 



Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,

the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:

Exodus.
Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mosaics
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,

that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor

the plangent harps of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,

and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages

looking for History.
Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors
who sank without tombs,

brigands who barbecued cattle,
leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore,
then the foaming, rabid maw

of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal,
and that was Jonah,
but where is your Renaissance?

Sir, it is locked in them sea-sands
out there past the reef’s moiling shelf,
where the men-o’-war floated down;

strop on these goggles, I’ll guide you there myself.
It’s all subtle and submarine,
through colonnades of coral,

past the gothic windows of sea-fans
to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed,
blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;

and these groined caves with barnacles
pitted like stone
are our cathedrals,

and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,

and that was Lamentations—
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History;

then came, like scum on the river’s drying lip,
the brown reeds of villages
mantling and congealing into towns,

and at evening, the midges’ choirs,
and above them, the spires
lancing the side of God

as His son set, and that was the New Testament.

Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves’ progress,
and that was Emancipation—

jubilation, O jubilation—
vanishing swiftly
as the sea’s lace dries in the sun,

but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;

then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,

fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,

and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns

and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo

of History, really beginning.
 
 
George Ovitt (7/24/2018) 
 

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Five-Mile Wall

Nothing Ever Dies, Viet Thanh Nguyen (essays)

Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong (poems)


As I write this post, Mr. Trump is meeting in Helsinki with Mr. Putin.  Mr. Pompeo, our latest Secretary of State, has met a few times with Kim Jong-un of North Korea.  My brother-in-law, a businessman, has made many trips to Vietnam, exploring mutually beneficial economic relations with our former enemy.  We briefly forgave Cuba for Fidel, but it didn't stick--too close to home.  Iran remains non grata going on forty years after that country's Islamic Revolution.  We don't care for Venezuela, though this administration doesn't much like Mexico, Canada, or Europe either.

In the peculiar calculus of international relations, friends and foes change places with astonishing rapidity.  That our president admires Putin but despises Theresa May is surely wondrous, a fact not even explicable in reference to national interest. The nexus of corporate capitalism and high-end scheming has created strange bedfellows in the 21st century. Like the stock market, volatility and creative destruction (of companies, or workers, or resources) has replaced the once sacrosanct pursuit of stability. 

Nothing is more mind boggling to me, a college student in the 1960's, then the about-face on the country we invaded and made war on for twenty years, the domino that wasn't to be allowed to fall, the communist state that would infect all of southeast Asia with the contagion of monolithic communism.  But my incredulity stems from my inability to grasp the simple fact that ideology is dead, replaced, worldwide, by the logic, the omnipotence, of capital.  There's a franchise here that I hadn't paid enough attention to: destroy a country, then with multinational investments rebuild it; once rebuilt (more or less after a Westernized model) use the former enemy as a base of operations for the storage of surplus domestic capital, avoiding taxes at home.  Everybody gets rich, except for the people. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the bestselling and remarkable novel The Sympathizer attempts, in his essays Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War to catalogue the ways in which for Vietnamese and Americans alike the war in Vietnam, the war of American aggression (as it is known in Southeast Asia) has been memorialized--in graveyards, formal memorials, novels, and films.  It's a fine book, but for me at least, unconvincing.  As with Drew Gilpin Faust's The Republic of Suffering, the award-winning account of the memorization of the Civil War dead, I came away thinking that the construction of memorials, the dedication of grave sites, the commercialization of war in books or films has nothing to do with remembering.

Viet Thanh Nguyen's academic style--he's a professor of English, and writes like one--obscures the fact that for Americans the war in Vietnam isn't a historical fact, but a mythological tale, a story that has taken its place alongside the vast array of myths that define our national consciousness.  The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, for example, is a powerful reminder of the human cost of the war for the United States. A similar war memorializing Vietnam's dead would stretch five miles, from the Lincoln Memorial well up Capitol Hill.  But what does this reflective wall have to do with remembering?  What does any statue or any field of white crosses have to do with the internalization of a catastrophic historical event?  Remembrance depends upon compassion, empathy and imagination far more than it does on the traditional symbols of death and loss.  A visit to Gettysburg's famed battlefield, with its plinths and equestrian statues, is like an episode on the History Channel unless one is willing to look inward and feel the mayhem and suffering that took place on those pastoral acres on three summer days in 1863.  Americans might be moved by the Wall, but they aren't thinking much about what it really means; if we were, we wouldn't be continuing to behave as we do, creating new memorials to the dead. It's easier to build another Wall than to stop the need for them.

Sorry, I've oversimplified Viet Thanh Nguyen's argument here. He has many subtle and important things to say about the asymmetries of power and the problem (impossibility) of humanizing one's enemies--please do read this book--but I still haven't understood how remembering and memorializing explain America's amnesia or Vietnam's transformation into an "acceptable" communist government. What sleight of hand is at work here? I defer to historians on this question.




If you want to feel things, if you want to know about human beings, it's poetry that is required, not statues. 

The young (he's twenty-nine) Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong has produced a remarkable book of poems about war, isolation, foreignness, loss, and memory.  Particular impressive is the way in which Ocean moves from formal verse to free verse to idiosyncratic styles in order to blend meaning and feeling with form.  There's a violence in the book, a sustained pitch of anger and despair that is inescapable, particularly if one reads straight through in a single sitting. This book is not a sampler but a slap in the face, a call to wake up and share in a stranger's life (and what could be more foreign to us than this young man's life)? 

There isn't an uninteresting poem in the book. Here's one that shows the range of feeling and mastery of tone:

Prayer for the Newly Damned

Dearest Father, forgive me for I have seen.
Behind the wooden fence, a field lit
with summer, a man pressing a shank
to another man’s throat. Steel turning to light
on sweat-slick neck. Forgive me
for not calling Your name. For thinking:
this must be how every prayer
begins—the word Please cleaving
the wind into fragments, into what
a boy hears in his need to know
how pain blesses the body back
to its sinner. The hour suddenly
stilled. The man genuflected, his lips
pressed to black boot as the words spilled
from his mouth like rosaries
shattering from too much
Father. Am I wrong to love
those eyes, to see something so clear
and blue—beg to remain
clear and blue? Did my cheek twitch
when that darkness bloomed from his crotch
and trickled into ochre dirt? Father,
how quickly the blade becomes
You. But let me begin again: There’s a boy
kneeling in a house with every door kicked open
to summer. There’s a question corroding
his tongue. There’s a knife touching
Your name lodged inside the throat.
Dearest Father, what becomes of the boy
no longer a boy? Please
what becomes of the shepherd
when the sheep are cannibals?

Many of the poems in Ocean's collection are memorials to his father, as here. Some are love poems, and some, among the most moving, are reflections on the poet's own identity as a son, a gay man, an American. (See "Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong").  Here's a poem about remembering the war:

Aubade With Burning City

South Vietnam, April 29, 1975: Armed Forces Radio played Irving
Berlin’s “White Christmas” as a code to begin Operation Frequent
Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese
refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon.
           Milkflower petals in the street
                                               like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright…
He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
           Open, he says.
                                       She opens.
                                                           Outside, a soldier spits out
           his cigarette as footsteps fill the square like stones
                                                                         fallen from the sky. May
all your Christmases be white
                                        as the traffic guard unstraps his holster.
                                       His fingers running the hem
of  her white dress. A single candle.
                                       Their shadows: two wicks.
A military truck speeds through the intersection, children
                                     shrieking inside. A bicycle hurled
           through a store window. When the dust rises, a black dog
                           lies panting in the road. Its hind legs
                                                                             crushed into the shine
                                                      of a white Christmas.
On the bed stand, a sprig of magnolia expands like a secret heard
                                                                 for the first time.
The treetops glisten and children listen, the chief of police
                               facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola.
                                            A palm-sized photo of his father soaking
               beside his left ear.
The song moving through the city like a widow.
                A white…A white…I’m dreaming of a curtain of snow
                                              falling from her shoulders.
Snow scraping against the window. Snow shredded
                                      with gunfire. Red sky.
                             Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls.
A helicopter lifting the living just
                                                                               out of reach.
           The city so white it is ready for ink.
                                                    The radio saying run run run.
Milkflower petals on a black dog
                           like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright. She is saying
           something neither of them can hear. The hotel rocks
                       beneath them. The bed a field of ice.
Don’t worry, he says, as the first shell flashes
                            their faces, my brothers have won the war
                                                                 and tomorrow…
                                            The lights go out.
I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming…
                                                           to hear sleigh bells in the snow…
In the square below: a nun, on fire,
                                           runs silently toward her god—
                          Open, he says.
                                                        She opens.






 If you can, get both books and read them together.  Let me know what you think.

George Ovitt (7/16/2018)