Monday, March 13, 2017

This Stranger In Our Midst

But how shall we understand this stranger?
And how are we ever to make amends to him?

Surely two of the earliest, best-known depictions of the father-son relationship are in Homer’s The Iliad, with Priam and Hector, and in The Odyssey, with Odysseus and Telemachus. Different as the cases are, what links them is the emotional (even archetypal) distance between these fathers and sons, a divide, a chasm, that fundamentally defines their relationships. It is a distance to which James Joyce, in his 1922 novel Ulysses, gives his own special twist. In his version of The Odyssey, set in modern Dublin in the course of a single day, the young Stephen Daedalus is looking for a father and the rambling humanist Leopold Bloom is searching (blindly, without knowing it) for a son. Thinks Stephen, as he walks along the beach one day: “A lex eterna stays about him. Is that then the divine substance wherein Father and Son are consubstantial?”

Then of course (to name another more recent example) there is Franz Kafka’s heartbreaking, originally 47-page letter to his tyrannical and narcissistic father in which he struggles in vain to bridge the distance between them: The Letter. More recently still is John Cheever's remarkable short story "Reunion," set in New York's Grand Central Station: "He was a stranger to me—my mother had divorced him three years ago and I hadn't seen him since—but as soon as I saw him I felt that he was my father, my flesh and blood, my future and my doom."

Modern poetry too is filled with such confused and painful musings, with the generally futile attempts of sons to reckon with the distance, the mystery, of their fathers. Here first is the poet, Robert Hayden, in his brilliant, finely-chiseled poem, ‘Those Winter Sundays’:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking,
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
And polished by good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Here now (note ‘the controlled grace of movement’) is Theodore Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz’:

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hang on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Now consider the way that Stanley Kunitz describes this yearning, this bewilderment:

Father and Son

Now in the suburbs and the falling light
I followed him, and now down sandy road
Whiter than bone-dust, through the sweet
Curdle of fields, where the plums
Dropped with their load of ripeness, one by one.
Mile after mile I followed, with skimming feet,
After the secret master of my blood,
Him, steeped in the odor of ponds, whose indomitable love
Kept me in chains. Strode years; stretched into bird;
Raced through the sleeping country where I was young,
The silence unrolling before me as I came,
The night nailed like an orange to my brow.

How should I tell him my fable and the fears,
How bridge the chasm in a casual tone,
Saying, “The house, the stucco one you built,
We lost. Sister married and went from home,
And nothing comes back, it’s strange, from where she goes.
I lived on a hill that has too many rooms:
Light we could make, but not enough of warmth,
And when the light failed, I climbed under the hill.
The papers are delivered every day;
I am alone and never shed a tear.”
At the water’s edge, where the smothering ferns lifted
Their arms, “Father!” I cried, “Return! You know
The way. I’ll wipe the mudstains from your clothes;
No trace, I promise, will remain. Instruct
Your son, whirling between two wars,
In the Gemara* of your gentleness,
For I would be a child to those who mourn
And brother to the foundlings of the field
And friend of innocence and all bright eyes.
O teach me how to work and keep me kind.”

Among the turtles and the lilies he turned to me
The white ignorant hollow of his face.

* The second division of the Talmud, a commentary on Jewish civil and religious laws.

Here, now famously, is the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, as he reckons with the same strange relationship in his poem, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old rage should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightening they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Lastly, from a book I found in secondhand bookshop in Bellingham, is the poet Irving Feldman, to whom I will give these final, anguished lines:

Our Father

This stranger whose flesh we never ate,
who, rather, sat at table with us, eating,
who for our sakes clothed himself in pelts like ours
and went away far all times to everywhere until,
clambering down starways into our street,
he stood in the door, the dusk-loaf under his arm,
and unpacked the lamp light of the parlor corner
where he called us to him and told us we were his,
and lost in thought led away our little army
of mimics to parade the deep lanes of silence.
Of our mother we ate always and plentifully,
her body was ours to possess and we did so,
thoughtlessly, yes, and also in adoration.
But how shall we understand this stranger?
And how ever are we to make amends to him?
—who had the power to eat us and didn’t,
who consented to abide in one house with us,
and hailed the sun down to make the dinner hour,
and bid bread to rise daily out of white dust,
peopling it with mysterious vacancies,
and new night after old washed the odd smells
from himself with sleep and forgot his strangeness
and was, one moment at dawn, little again
hungry like us, like us wanting to be fed.
How then can we renew his acquaintance, that boy
lost in the man, this man missing in the world,
walking among all that must be inexplicable?
And how are we to thank him properly?
who salted our cheerful, selfish tongues with farewell,
and gave us his name to ponder, to pass on, to keep.

Peter Adam Nash

* Paintings by Egon Schiele

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Most To Be Dreaded

‘A Distant Episode’ by Paul Bowles

Not all of the ravages caused by our merciless age are tangible ones. The subtler forms of destruction, those involving only the human spirit, are the most to be dreaded.
                                                                                                                                                Paul Bowles 

Sometime just after graduate school in New York, I (like thousands of other young men of my background and temperament) found myself bewitched by the life and work of Paul Bowles. So lost, so aimless, so claustrophobic did I feel in that city, did I feel in my skin, that I all but inhaled his keenly wrought stories of American alienation, psychic disintegration, and exotic (sometimes erotic) encounters with the foreign, the cryptic, the strange. I smoked, I read avidly, I wandered the lonely streets of New York some days, praying for a vision, a sign, some encounter that would open up the world to me, that would force me to commit myself to something significant at last. If that sounds a bit melodramatic it is, I was. ‘Who am I? What am I to the world?’ I wondered daily, a question to which Bowles (at least his fiction) was quick to reply: ‘Not much.’ 

It was the humbling I’d needed. After all I was broke; I wrote poorly, pretentiously; I had no real prospects at all—at least none that beckoned me. At the time I was working fifty-one weeks a year as an assistant editor at a local publishing house. My title, so it turned out, was meaningless: my job had nothing to do with editing, nothing to do with books. I was a factotum, plain and simple, so that most of my days were spent trying to look busy, filing papers, managing correspondence, and paginating by hand the many manuscripts submitted to us by authors who hadn’t bothered to number their pages. Still a change was in the offing; I could feel it. I grew restless, more determined than ever to get out of the country for a while, to test myself, to travel. That was when I met Annie, my wife-to-be, an aspiring printmaker and painter. We became inseparable, when one day she asked me to travel with her to Japan.
There in Japan that summer I read Bowles’ novels, The Sheltering Sky and Let It Come Down, and suddenly my future was plain: I would travel and write. Indeed over the following nine summers, with the money we earned as teachers, we travelled widely—to India (twice), South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Mexico (multiple times), France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Costa Rica, Venezuela, China, Hong Kong, Bali, Ladakh, Nepal, and Thailand, where—more in love than ever—we got married in a civil ceremony in Bangkok, passing the hot summer night with Thai friends aboard one of the popular dinner cruises there, laughing, drinking Thai whiskey, and admiring the ancient temples along the busy Chao Phraya River. 

It was upon our return from that summer in Japan that I resolved to write to Bowles himself. Why not? What did I have to lose? At once I crafted a letter to him and sent it off to his publisher, praising his work and taking the opportunity (in all my youthful presumption) to tell him about a novel of my own, a distinctly Bowlesesque tale involving a disaffected young American couple adrift in Japan, which I’d entitled The Shadow Eaters, after an essay on Buddhism by Lafcadio Hearn. I’d thought he might like it very much.

Many months passed with no reply, so that I soon forgot about the letter. Then one day I received a surprise:

While I had no faith that The Shadow Eaters would ever appear in print, he—Paul Bowles—had written me back! What’s more he had referred to me as a fellow writer. No one had ever called me that. For the first time in my life I felt an urgency, a connection to some greater human project, that compelled me to read and write with an intensity and purpose I had never felt before.

In the ensuing months I read every story of his I could find, only to work my way, with insight and pleasure, while taking copious notes, through his autobiography, his essays, his poems, as well as his translations of the work the Moroccans Mohamed Choukri and Mohammed Mrabet. To top it off I read the singular fiction and letters of his brilliant and ailing wife, Jane Bowles—an adventure, an experience, I would recommend to everyone.

It was Bowles’ short story ‘A Distant Episode’ that really shook me to the core. Recognized widely as his ‘ur-tale’, that work that speaks most directly to his vision of life, it is a chilling story about a European linguist who travels to Morocco in search of new dialects only to be captured by some villagers who—in an act as symbolic as it is brutal—cut out his tongue. “It certainly takes its place,” writes James Lasdun, “as one of our civilizations’ more disturbing premonitions of its own breakdown.” Be sure to brace yourself for this one.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, February 12, 2017

On Beauty

To speak of beauty in this day and age (its significance, its necessity) is to mark oneself a snob. “Beauty,” writes Alexander Nehamas in his recent reflections on the matter, “is the most discredited philosophical notion—so discredited that I could not even find an entry for it in the index of the many books in the philosophy of art I consulted in order to find it discredited. Even if I believe that beauty is more than the charm of a lovely face, the seductive grace of a Mapplethorpe photograph, the symmetry of the sonata form, the tight construction of a sonnet, even if it is, in the most general terms, aesthetic value, I am not spared. For it is the judgment of aesthetic value itself—the judgment of taste—that is embarrassing. It is embarrassing ideologically, if to be able to judge aesthetically you must be educated and learned and if, as Pierre Bourdieu claims, ‘it is linked either to a bourgeois origin or to the most quasi-bourgeois mode of existence presupposed by prolonged schooling, or (most often) to both of these combined…’” To speak of beauty today is also morally embarrassing, as Nehamas is quick to explain: “The aesthetic judgment collapses into an instrument of political oppression or into an implement of moral edification.”

It is a problem with which I myself I have struggled for years. As an ardent admirer of the work of Marcel Proust, of his novel Á la recherche du temps perdu (even citing the French title of which now makes me seem pretentious), I have long felt the truth of what Nehamas says. After all how can I not be an elitist, a snob, if Proust—of all writers (matchless critic of snobbery though he was)—is one of my favorites, a rich, pampered, dandified aesthete?

For me the key to answering the question is this: as much as I admire the work of Marcel Proust (to cite but one example), I do not hold his fiction as the standard of either literature or beauty for you. I am the first to acknowledge that I have led a relatively privileged life and that that has shaped my perceptions, my values, my tastes. I, like you, have been predisposed by my upbringing to see beauty in particular ways, in ways that suit me, feel natural, feel right. Which is not to say that they are natural or right, let alone objective as a measure of things—a point with which some readers are sure to take issue, insisting as they will on a host of time-tested attributes and principles, each exemplified by particular paintings and sculptures, by particular odes and concertos, by particular novels, films, and plays.

While I certainly have my standards (my prejudices) when it comes to literature, when it comes to beauty itself, I make no claim that they are or should be definitive to you. I have read enough, I have travelled enough, to know that the deep appreciation of beauty is hardly just the bailiwick of my kind. Venture anywhere in the world and you will find it, the sort of purposeful, artifactual beauty that is cultivated by men and women of every level of education, of every race and tradition, of every culture, class, and creed. While there is, has been, and always will be widespread disagreement about the ultimate nature of Beauty (what is in fact a largely academic matter, preoccupied as it is with the judgment of taste), it seems plain to me that the only prerequisite for the appreciation of beauty is that of being simply, dreadfully human. 

Still, having said this, I do not believe that beauty is merely a private, subjective, finally solipsistic thing. I am convinced that, for all its variation, beauty is also and essentially communal, collaborative, contingent, a trust we hold in common with others. At the risk of generalizing, what seems to characterize all forms of beauty is their ability to enrich and intensify experience, to lend it depth and dimension, to make resonant, even eternal, the facts of what is otherwise but a bluntly mortal life. We find through beauty that we are capable of more. 

For some time now I have taught (and wrestled with) Alain de Botton’s smart and illuminating book The Architecture of Happiness, a laymen’s introduction to the practical, aesthetic, and philosophical implications of architecture, of the built environment in which we—at least an increasing proportion of us—now live. I say that I have wrestled with the book because, while it is clear that the author’s intention was to help popularize the conversation about beauty, about architectural beauty in particular, at points he does seem to imply (by his allusions, his language, by the very things he takes for granted) that the deep appreciation of beauty does indeed require a level of education and exposure well beyond the reach of most human beings. I think this inadvertent, the perhaps inevitable product of his own vernacular, of his own education and interests. Like Proust, like all authors, De Botton assumes a certain type of reader for his book, a reader who (for a host of different reasons) may or may not be you. No matter. For as with everything in life (love, sexuality, art, music, literature, food, ritual, politics, and faith), we engage with the world in whatever ways, at whatever levels, we find meaningful, true.

Even the Marxist revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, acknowledged the fundamental necessity of beauty and art: 
It is not true that we regard only that art as new and revolutionary which speaks of the worker, and it is nonsense to say that we demand that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital! Of course the new art cannot but place the struggle of the proletariat in the center of its attention. But the plough of the new art is not limited to numbered strips. On the contrary, it must plough the entire field in all directions. Personal lyrics of the very smallest scope have an absolute right to exist within the new art. Moreover the new man cannot be formed without a new lyric poetry.

No wonder he was murdered. 

“It is in a dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value,” suggests De Botton in The Architecture of Happiness. Perhaps that is why the older I get the more I am alert to beauty, to the deft, complex, often fleeting relationship between subject and meaning and form. Nowhere is this truer for me than with literature. When I read I read with beauty in mind—the beauty of an image, a phrase, the beauty of a character, a setting, a scene. Just as beauty can be simple, reassuring, familiar, it can also be complex, horrific, sublime. What seems inarguable to me is that the need for beauty is an innately human thing. It is what moves us to think, to feel. It is what moves us to be.  

Peter Adam Nash  

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Precision Unsurpassed"

Kim Garcia, Drone (Poems)

"I set my alarm by an inner dove / wake to crows." (KG)


"In November, 2002, a Predator drone would loose a Hellfire missile on a car in Yemen, a country with which we weren't at war....these robotic planes, with their young 'pilots' sitting in front of consoles 7,000 miles away from where their missiles and bombs are landing, have become another kind of American fever dream."*


 "Because war deals with prospective concerns, it relies less on exact information and more on probabilities, predictions and guesswork. The military bombs a building when it estimates with varying degrees of certainty that enemy soldiers or munitions are there. It does not wait to attack until it has proof beyond a reasonable doubt or probably [sic] cause." John Yoo


What Anthony Gottlieb has called the Dream of Reason was the fond notion, born in the European seventeenth century, that a set of universal laws, codified in mathematics and physical science, not only infused the universe, but that the mind of Man could perceive and understand this divine language and make it his own. The world was, in other words, perfectible, a reflection of God's omniscient and all-loving plan for us, his apes. Of course there were skeptics--Montaigne and Voltaire are among the better known naysayers--but the faith of the West, the touching notion that goodness and reason runs through the fabric of the world like some beautiful golden thread, lingers with the persistence of a deadly virus.

We could have used our power for anything. Anything.


Simone Weil writes: "But this indefinable influence that the presence of another human being has on us is not exercised by men whom a moment of impatience can deprive of life, who can die before thought even has a chance to pass sentence on them."


I hear the word "drone" and think: sexless bees or ants scurrying about a hive or hill--a sound without pitch or harmony or resolution--bars of color on paper that simply peter out--an oddly-shaped aircraft whirring like a demented bird above the park where my children are playing, a man in khaki staring upward, holding a black box (it's brown), smiling.


A colleague tells me that UAV's (unmanned aerial vehicles) controlled by computers that are themselves "ethically programmed" by other computers will someday insure that wars are both just and, for the victor, bloodless. I say that I prefer wars that are bloody, the siege of Troy for example, since the romance of killing is more likely to fade in presence of bloodshed. He tells me that I am naive, and I feel slightly better.


Kim Garcia's Drone  deploys formal, rhetorical, and existential modes of representation in order to speak coherently and passionately about something that is beyond our--my--ability to comprehend. Could a weapon have mystical properties, exist in a place beyond our ability to speak, to reason, to comprehend? What sorts of people make and deploy a soulless engine, devise weekly "kill lists," (are they typed on fine bond paper and handed to the president? Does he study them over coffee, make checks in red pen? Cross off names, add others?), sit in windowless rooms at Langley pushing buttons before heading out to face rush hour traffic and a late supper? No, I'm not a believer in the banality of evil--far from it. While the perpetrators look like us--how else should they look?--and while it helps to lack imagination when you're killing people long-distance, evil is anything but banal.

[A Madrasa in Pakistan]

 Drone is a brave book. How many truly memorable poems can you recall that deal with a single subject of such unpromising province?  I carried it with me to work for a month and read one or two poems each day during my free time. I memorized several so I could tell them to my wife, including this one:

What Fear Wants

In the early hour dispatches:
scorpion stings, dislocation, a sand-locked wheel
Somehow the wary hours pass, orders fulfilled, burrowers
and scalp suckers, sweat between shoulder blades--fear's
spit, hair prickling under the helmet, neck naked, raw.

What fear wants is to clear the ground bald, to flay
itself with shovels, to blacken with fire, to be Leviathan,
earth-shaker and cleaver, dirt-spitter, disrupter and penetrator
intimate with the tings feared, the cold sword in the ribs--fear's
sorcery like a cloud at sea, drawing up what it rains down.

Perfect. How fear is palpable, how it lives a life separate from us, how being afraid forces us to disdain consequences to others and to ourselves, how fear sucks life out of itself. Garcia does this thing with images that is stunning: fire and rain, the cold sword and the blackened ground, sand and sweat. The sibilants in stanza one sound out the whip of bullets--a terrified Marine at Fallujah--then the (perfectly natural) yearning for fire to pour down on the invisible enemy, on fear itself. The world ending in a conflagration rained down on us by machines that we've programmed to think for themselves. No scare quotes around "think" since words like truth and think and fact have been washed clean of their ordinary associations--all of our words, whether truly spoken or not, exist in quotation marks, so we can leave them out.

We can no longer trust language; the presumed fit with the world has been broken. All that is left of words is what is private: poetry and prayer. I'm not kidding.


In my view, Garcia's style resembles that of the metaphysical poets--Andrew Marvell comes to mind:

"The mind, that ocean where each kind
 Does straight its own resemblance find;
 Yet it creates, transcending these,
 Far other worlds, and other seas;
 Annihilating all that’s made
 To a green thought in a green shade."

The ability to see through the world is, I suppose, the point of Platonism, but in Garcia's poetry this ability suggests not worship of the invisible (that Platonic fallacy: the unseen being "higher" than what is at hand) or impatience with mere appearance, but bafflement with the surfaces of things--this is, I believe, irony of a higher kind, not skepticism about the possibility of meaning, but the acknowledgment that at least two different meanings always coexist, Abelard's Sic et Non.

Let me see if I can illustrate this point with the poem "Augury"

To read the new birds of the air,
a collection of intellectual property,
mapmakers, eyes of glass.

To read the flight paths, solo
and squadron, to observe
all hovering before splash.

To read the tremor between earth
and air, warcraft and godcraft,
and mend with sacrifice the flight-rift.

There is a priestly caste blood-woven
into power, undone by sites as thin
and sharp as a single quick beak.

Black, glass bead of an eye, wing
quiver, early morning song leaking
from beneath any boot made.

The air is still ours to stitch
with winged messengers, living books
not of our making, if we read rightly.

Each stanza has a bird poised next to, or within, a more sinister image (of the "eye" of the drone that sees all, indifferently). Drone is full of birds, the innocence and pleasure of the garden full of songbirds whose charming chirps--as the naturalists never tire of telling us--are not nature's lyrics but aggressive claims to territory and mates. Marvell's garden was not only pastoral, a site of courtship and romance, but the stage on which human failure was first manifest--O felix culpa! Or, unhappily, a fall with little hope of redemption.

Of what on earth can a drone be a symbol? Nothing. A blind, soulless, remotely-guided killing machine embodies "intellectual property" created by a "priestly caste" but to make a bomb or a gun or a drone represent something else isn't like making a garden or the color green into a symbol of fertility and life--"this is this" as Robert De Niro pointed out in Deer Hunter--and that is the problem Garcia has set out to solve in Drone. Each poem peers at the dreadful thing from a slightly different angle, trying to find the words for it, never quite succeeding, not for want of intelligence but for the failure of words. 

"Even now I can feel this poem dragnetting to its conclusion, scraping/ up and destroying what it can't speak..." ("Surveillance: A Screen Life")

Every gift that Garcia possesses--meter, imagery, diction, irony--shows up in one or more poems, but at no point can she (or anyone else) answer the fundamental question, the final question posed by the book:

And what shall we beat you into, little mechanical bird
with the head of a bowling pin, speculum, goose?

How to imagine our way back? Rules help: no weapons
in shared airspace, or in the spaces in between.

Then the dismantling, the tidy buttons
on the computer games that kills, yanked out

harmless like the horn on a Playskool car,
nobody listening, wires dangling and disconnected

from flesh.... ("Drone: Ploughshares")

Into what indeed. Garcia writes that we must throw the demon down to hell, and there are poems with "avenging angels;" dreams of peace; the Holy Ghost as harbinger of Revelation--apocalyptic images prevail in Drone--but these verses are offered (I think) in frustration and futility--"Can hills cover us"? Can clouds protect us from the glassy eye of the speculum, this mirror of our cruelty? No. The drone can't be turned into anything else; nothing hopeful lies behind it. I am reading my own memories into her poems, feeling again as I did when I was a child huddled in the family bomb shelter, practicing for the end of the world.


"All my life I have wanted the bombs to fall / someplace else."

It's not easy to admit that the terrible things that we have visited on other people might now be visited upon us.  I walked into an electronics store over Christmas to purchase a turntable--my analog yearning a joke to the sales clerk--and strolled right into a wall of drones. For a hundred dollars I could buy my own little UAV, attach a camera, and spy on my neighbors. Anyone can do it, and worse. The drone, unlike the F-15 or the ICBM, has the audacity and democratic destructive power of the AK-47, the universal artifact of global mayhem.

Garcia is aware of this, and many of Drone's poems acknowledge the ubiquity of the destructive element. "Surveillance: A Screen Life" examines this fact, and the corresponding paradox that comes when we know too much about our enemy--we might not hate him enough to bomb him..."then we are in danger of tenderness, a knowledge that complicates / where it does not disarm, unmanning in its call to husband life."

I've read many books about bombing campaigns--W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction recently--and reading Garcia I began to wonder if my colleague was correct, if the done was really about saving American lives--do presidents really care about such things--or if it wasn't rather about installing yet another layer of mediation between us and our victims. "Islamic Script," a haunting poem, imagines the Islamic body as an abstraction, "calligraphy--vertebrae / into helix." Spine becomes blood, scholars become smoke, names are  erased: "you've never been." Is our beloved technocratic efficiency ever curtailed by our humanity, by compassion? I'm trying to remember when, and can't. The madmen call it "the fog of war."


There is a sub-text to Drone, the poems' secret life. The story of pregnancy and birth, told in snatches in poems about other things. A tenderness erupting among harsh imagery. The all-seeing eye of God, the gentle spying of a sonogram, the pilot's wife praying that her husband's hand might stop shaking ("Stop turning out the lights and then talking").  A lullaby (as I read it)--as I said, a metaphysical poet:


The hand at work, heart's drone,
map-dance in honeycomb. The path
of flower, clover-song, sweet magnetic
north, nectar cooled in flight. River

rocks' remembered wash, a karst of blue.
A sky mountainous with frowning cloud,

stars slipping the city's hot gaze, fastening
their new eyes over fresh yearnings--home

drawn up along the lines of the old ache
like desert seed, fashioning green tongues.

And I though of my own desert--karst of shaped limestone--blue sky like nothing you have ever seen, nightly stars despite the ambient glow of this unlikely city, a bit of rain and suddenly the brown becomes green. And then I imagine the low hum of a drone, like the honeybees of August multiplied by a thousand, and try to understand what fear is like. I've never known real fear and cannot imagine it.


"We are convicted by the things not seen. / Will this mountain fall on us? Can hills cover us?"
 ("Desert Litany")

"Then they shall begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us, and to the hills, Cover us."
(Luke, 23:30)

Finally, I think of the Jeremiad, as I imagine Kim Garcia has done in writing her remarkable poems. 

Perry Miller (via Sacvan Bercovitch) describes the genre in this way: "The exhortation to a reformation which never materializes serves as a token payment upon the obligation, and so liberates the debtors....Here I suggest that under the guise of this mounting wail of sinfulness, this incessant and never successful cry for repentance, the Puritans launched themselves upon the process of Americanization."

To be an American means to be constantly expiating guilt--there is much in our history for which we must atone. I wondered, finally, if the drone wasn't a way of getting us off the hook once and for all. The gunfighter nation hanging up its six-shooter and replacing it with a machine that, soulless and therefore beyond judgment, embodies out darkest wishes, our fever dreams, our need for unsurpassed precision. Somehow it seems all right if there's no passion in it.

Drone feels especially urgent right now. It's a book that doesn't charm us, or flatter our intelligence. It's a daunting, relentless confrontation with a part of ourselves, with our indifference, or perhaps with our willingness to mistake moral neutrality with goodness. 


Kim Garcia, Drone, The Backwaters Press, 2016.


Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Enlightenment, Liveright, 2016.
Simone Weil, "The Illiad, or The Poem of Force," here
Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt, Terminator Planet, Dispatch Books, 2012
Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1978

George Ovitt (February 5, 2017)


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Wodehouse in Ootacamund

I will always associate the novels of P.G. Wodehouse with the plight of Tibetans in exile. Let me explain.

I have never enjoyed reading merely for the sake of diversion or amusement. This is not a boast; indeed, having never developed an interest in popular fiction—in mysteries, science fiction, detective novels, westerns, adventure or fantasy, not even in the sumptuous, much-celebrated horrors of Michael Creighton and Stephen King—I’ve often felt I’ve missed out on things. For I’ve seen the pleasure my family and friends derive from it.

I believe my lack of interest in popular fiction has much to do with the fact that I came to reading quite late. Not that I couldn’t read or didn’t read when I was younger: like Bartleby, I simply preferred not to. For a host of then largely unexamined reasons, I resisted the act and pastime with an intensity all the more pronounced for the fact that my house, a large old farmhouse on the Susquehanna River, was filled with books (a friend of mine once insisted that we had a larger, more varied collection than the local public library). What’s more, nearly everyone in my family was an avid reader. At any moment, and for no apparent reason, one of my brothers or sisters would take up a book and read! It baffled me why anyone would choose to spend one’s afternoon nose buried in a book, when one could be watching television, riding one’s bike or enjoying oneself with friends. 

Still I was not unaware of the books around me. For years, as I’d watched television in our house, I’d puzzled vaguely over the multicolored spines on the bookshelves all around me, particularly, I recall, over the title of one book that never moved from its place on the shelf directly above the set, a novel called I, Jan Cremer, often playing with the name in my mind without ever actually bothering to see what the book was about. For better or worse, I never went through a Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter-like phase. What I remember is how painful, how fruitless, the act of reading had seemed to me. One particular memory is etched in my brain. I recall spending a long, dreary vacation with my father and sisters on one of the Ocracoke Islands, and slowly forcing my way through Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men, as I’d been required to do, fearing each day, dreading with each page, that the story would never end!   

It wasn’t until my junior year of high school, when I was assigned to a Mr. Kirschner’s class, that something changed in me, that my all but reflexive resistance to reading began to give way. I remember we studied some interesting poetry and short stories, as well as a fairly bleak novella called The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. If I hadn’t loved it, I also hadn’t hated it. Certain scenes in the story remain with me to this day. Yet what made the greatest impression on me that year was my teacher’s habit (in retrospect an affectation) of holding his right hand over his heart when he read aloud to us in class. When one of my classmates asked him about it one day, he replied simply by opening up his tweed jacket and withdrawing from the pocket inside it an old paperback copy of Moby Dick, a book he claimed to have cherished all his life and that he’d read so many times he’d had to bind it together with rubber bands! Eccentric, yes. Mad, surely. Yet there seemed more to it than that. How could a person—and a seemingly intelligent one at that—be so moved by a book? It perplexed me; it intrigued me; I simply couldn’t understand.

The turning point for me came my senior year, when my teacher, Mr. Kerr (to me the spitting image of Ichabod Crane), asked us to read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is no exaggeration to say (as I feel particularly qualified to do, now that I’ve taught the novella to high school seniors for many years) that I’d understood none of it—not a character, a theme, a trope, not a single tangled phrase. What I’d grasped, however, what I’d somehow intuited, was that I was in the presence of something great, something prodigious, momentous, profound—a fact made all the more plain to me, all the more bewitching, by its very elusiveness, by its stubborn impenetrability to me. Suddenly there was a reason to try to find my way in.

And try I did. Once I reached college I tried hard—in course after course, novel after novel, poem after poem after play. I knew that the way I read was different from that of my classmates and professors, surely most of whom had been reading all their lives. Often in the course of my studies I gasped, I floundered. I was staggered by the impossibly long reading assignments, discouraged by the cryptic, often allusive, density of the texts (Clarissa, Tristram Shandy, and Vanity Fair), and often passed my time in the library, there on Washington Square Park, staring vacantly out the large picture window by which I liked to sit. Yet it was there, in time, that my love of reading—of reading literature—took root.

Flash forward eight years to 1988. Inspired by my girlfriend Annie’s grant-writing work for The Office of Tibet, what for all intents and purposes was the exiled Dalai Lama’s embassy in New York, and by our deep association with the Tibetan community there, we made plans one summer to travel to southern India, to Bombay then south to Bangalore and Mysore, and to the Tibetan refugee camp of Bylakuppe, before traveling on to the famous old British hill station of Ootacamund. I remember the bus ride to Ooty best, the almost painful shifting of gears as the ramshackle bus climbed its way up through dazzlingly green tea fields into the Nilgiri Hills, a scene most reminiscent to me (in the rolling softness of the terrain) of the Lake District in England through which the poet Wordsworth once strolled. 

The connection was not so far-fetched. Beginning in 1789, when the region came under the control of the British East India Company, the Nilgiri Hills were cleared and cultivated along distinctly British lines, ultimately serving as an important hill station during the British Raj, when the wealthier, more prominent English fled the burning plains of the Indian summer for the cool respite of these hills. The game of snooker is believed to have originated there.

Ooty, by the time we arrived, more than forty years after the British were driven out, was much the worse for wear. The buildings were ugly or unremarkable. What’s more, it rained incessantly during our nearly three weeks there, so that the streets were thick with garbage and mud. While still lushly green, while still a popular travel destination for Indians and non-Indians alike, the little town had clearly lost its imperial sheen. The notable exception to this were the botanical gardens, laid out by the British in 1847, where, for want of much else to do, we wandered almost daily in the rain.

When not exploring the hillsides, we spent much of our time holed up in our spartan hotel room or sitting convivially in the company of the dozen or so Tibetans we’d met there through a friend of ours in New York, a man named Tinley Nyandak, whose nephew, Tenzing Tsethar, we’d agreed to sponsor so that he could attend a small private school in a town nearby. We’d made the trip partly to meet him. Siting with these Tibetans, day after day, hearty, mountain-eyed refugees from the brutal Chinese takeover of Tibet, it was one of the first occasions in which I’d truly sensed the depth and elasticity of Time. We’d sat for hours on end in a dark and smoky room together, smiling gently at each other, though rarely speaking, sometimes carving bits of meat from a cold lamb shank that was passed around the room, and sipping cup after cup of yak butter tea. In the very air one could sense their resilience, their patient and indomitable strength.   

So how, given the way I opened this post, did I end up reading something as light, as effervescent, as nakedly entertaining as the novels of PG. Wodehouse? Well—as the result of a minor crisis that happened to me just a couple of days after our arrival in Ooty, one that, given the nature of our visit there, barely deserves repeating. Simply put: I ran out of things to read. By accident I had left two of the books I’d packed for the trip in the house in which we’d stayed in Bylakuppe. With all that rain and nothing to read I thought I’d go mad. Fortunately we’d found a small travelers’ bookstore in town, just a short walk from our hotel. While the selection was limited, mostly romance novels, travel guides, and lurid looking mysteries, there on the bottom shelf, near the end of the alphabetical order, I’d discovered what appeared to be nearly a complete set of the funny, what ho! Jeeves novels of P.G. Wodehouse in their familiar Penguin editions. Of course I’d bought them all, every last one of them, crawling into my sleeping bag with the lot of them the moment we got back to our hotel. I’d scarcely even noticed the rain. Starting with My Man Jeeves, The Inimitable Jeeves, and Carry On, Jeeves, I’d read my way (with some lapses, and by the time we reached the  sunny beaches of Kerala) as far The World of Jeeves. Much obliged, Jeeves. It was exactly the diversion I’d needed!

Peter Adam Nash