Mar 29, 2011

Boehner's Tears

In the last two years or so, Wall Street has flicked off the American people because we on Main St. didn’t pay attention. We assumed there were regulators. We assumed they were not just a different color of fox in the henhouse. We assumed they were doing their job and would be held accountable if Wall Street was not held accountable.

In that vein shall we assume John Boehner's tears are merely quirky, no cause for alarm? Is anyone looking into it? When Ed Muskie broke down, for a reason, he was finished.

How many times have disasters occurred because American citizens did not pay attention to obvious threats? Oh, tsk, tsk, tut, tut, that would be alarmist. Paranoid. Sissified. Odd. That might get us kicked out of the country club or our labor union.

Hitler, institutional racism in the South, de facto racism throughout the nation, the lies and horror involved in the Vietnam War, Watergate, global warming, the WMD issue in Iraq, Enron, Florida election fraud, a Clinton balanced budget brought to ruin in eight years by the George W. Bush administration, while Republicans make hay on the illusion of O.D.I. (Obama did it)—need I go on? One menace after another has become a catastrophe because we were too slow, too embarrassed to act in its early stages.

Our watchdogs were asleep at the wheel, or sleeping with the enemy, or merely castrated. When hints leaked out, we told ourselves it just could not be that bad, that outrageous—you must be on crack. How could a sane person believe the Watergate Wonderland could be true? This centrist, Godly nation could not crown a child as psychologically weird as Richard Nixon, could not write or act in such a bad soap opera. This isn’t Hollywood. This is America, Eisenhower’s America, the America of good haircuts and shined shoes.

Now we have a Speaker of the House who cannot speak about His America or The American Dream without tearing up or actually falling into heaving sobs. Such a recurrent loss of emotional control is not normal, and it is not just quaint. When a dam breaks, some kind of big water has been pushing at its walls. So Boehner's tears are troubling, and yes, Virginia, normality exists, even if its boundaries are cultural and fluid over time and place.

I don't take pleasure in picking on another man's weakness or flaw or neurosis. I start to feel bad for Boehner until I remember how chary he is about charity, how withholding in every commodity but tears. Add to this the power of his position as Speaker, plus of course his potential power as the person third in line for the Presidency, honorifics he has accepted without hesitation as far as I know—unless he stopped to weep for a minute.

I assume that Mr. Boehner will not do the honorable thing, which is to acknowledge that he has acted out the Peter Principle and accepted promotion to a position beyond his level of competency. So why isn’t everyone shouting that he needs constant monitoring by a panel of shrinks until he develops the character, the integrity, and enough true love of his nation to step down. Why do I seem to be the only one seriously worried about the mental health of the Speaker of the House? What if Obama wept? Pelosi? Harry Reid? Joe Biden? Or, speaking of emotional control, what if a Democrat had yelled "Liar" at a Republican President in the midst of a formal address?

But if a Republican weeps often and much, it's all good. That's just who the guy is. I guess it's rugged individualism run amok.

Listen here, I’m all for men weeping; as a Limbophobe, as one whom Big Loud Limbo would label Commie Lib, I’m for crashing through a lot of gender barricades. But if the Righties are going to argue from the self-made man podium, the tough guy on horseback, with a gun, who says screw-the-poor, the let-there-be-rats-at-Walter-Reed-Hospital, the I-never-met-a-war-I-didn’t-like ideology--those Righties . . . then they should turn in their sob buttons and act as if they can muster the self-control to run their new business without breaking down (double or triple entendre intended).

Otherwise, send 'em back to their country clubs. Hand the gavel to those girly, generous, sensitive, labor-respecting Democrats. Get those right-wing, frat-boy fingers off all important buttons before they create another economic or battlefield crisis, to which they, in their halls of privilege, are immune.


Mar 22, 2011

Emily Dickinson, "There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House"

There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Photos: a country graveyard in southern Ohio. These aren't my relatives; it’s just that I was struck by the theme of anonymity on some of the stones.

In my scouting over the last few weeks, I’ve been hitting Emily Dickinson poems that didn’t wow me. Then at a Mom&Pop lunch today (Romira’s, a good sop of chicken stir fry), I once again stumbled onto the well-known “There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House.” I hadn’t read it for years, and it struck me as E.D. at her best.

It also seemed a natural follow-up to Hirsch’s poems about Christopher Smart—that lost, essentially anonymous man, except for his insanity, that man who’s been resurrected by poetry—his own work and that of others who have loved his gentle spirit. Upon his death, surely Christopher Smart’s neighbors might have made some of E.D.’s remarks about him.

Maybe “There’s been a Death” should have depressed me, but I was so dazzled by some of the skill with language that the poem did what poetry is supposed to do: triumph over death, even as it examined death’s aftermath.

I especially like these un-sentimental details:

The speaker would know the decedent’s name in a small town, but E.D. insists upon his anonymity. It’s only a “Death, in the Opposite House.” The distancing from him as a personality begins immediately.

“Such Houses” have a “numb look.” Numbness is important in these situations; it’s a time for vultures, not Hallmark cards.

“A Window opens like a Pod—“ Like a pod it opens. Who else would have seen that?

The pea that falls from the pod is the decedent’s mattress. It is flung out “mechanically,” and children passing by, getting some value-added education, as they “wonder if it died—on that—“

It died on that! Death neuters the corpse, de-humanizes it. The kids’ understanding leads them to impersonal pronouns to portray what they see. The corpse is reduced to an object. Whatever else death does, it reduces; it demands that we see ourselves as matter; even if angels will be swooping in soon, we are, for a time, mere matter, an it.

The speaker, who was a boy once, can speak for the children because “he” remembers noticing and wondering about such things, upon passing such a house. About the gender switch: did little girls in Amherst around 1860 not notice and wonder about such things? Was it just too grisly a matter for girls to speak about? Maybe little girls were too homebound to be out and about and observing death’s aftermath? Whatever the reasons, Dickinson’s sense that she needs to speak as a male is curious.

The minister goes “stiffly” in. Don’t all ministers go stiffly, lest they be perceived as having un-puritan pleasure? And this minister has “owned” both the house and the mourners at such a time; ministers own little boys too.

Death makes good business for the clergy, for milliners and morticians. One has to wonder if such enterprises might like death. In addressing what a society does in the face of death, any writer could have fallen into facile, overwrought social criticism; I find Dickinson’s restraint tough and effective.

“We’re not very good at death,” a friend of mine once said, meaning we don’t know how to deal with it. Without lambasting her culture for its awkwardness concerning death, Dickinson points out deftly and quickly three trades that might be glad we have death for their continued prosperity. It’s just a fact, worth exposing, but not worth a rant.

Also in “just a Country Town’’ one wouldn’t want to lay it on too heavily against some pillars of the community. They might be superiors, or they might be pals; if it were the 1950s, you might have coffee with them tomorrow at Smitty’s Drug Store or run into them at the Little League game Tuesday afternoon.

Finally, let me just quickly mention that Dickinson’s quirky dashes seem unusually effective in “There’s been a Death.” Each pause seems appropriately longer than a comma, even though it’s doubtful that’s what the poet had in mind.

Maybe I’ll find more cheerful topics soon, but it seemed like a sign to stumble onto E.D.’s poem just after a review of Christopher Smart’s portrait of “the country of the mad.”

There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.


Mar 18, 2011

Edward Hirsch, "Wild Gratitude"

I cannot find Edward Hirsch's "Christopher Smart" on line, which is very puzzling. Here instead is "Wild Gratitude," the title work of Hirsch's second collection of poems; it's no paltry thing in its own right, and it sustains Hirsch's interest in the poet Christopher Smart, who struggled with kindness and madness.

Wild Gratitude- - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

And here are a few lines I feel legally entitled to quote from "Christopher Smart," a poem I admire for its images and cadences, its called-for repetitions, its beautiful nightmare music. I find it a convincing portrait of what it must be like to be mentally and physically alone, un-right with the world. From Christopher Smart himself, these lines are the poem's epigraph:
"For they work me with their harping irons,
which is a barbarous instrument, because
I am more unguarded than others."

And from Edward Hirsch, speaking as Christopher Smart, here is the opening:
I am a wild ass galloping through the streets
Trailing the dog star, the mad gull. I am
A white raven spilling light through the skies
Like a colorful beacon, trailing the wild ass,
The laden bull. I am the hooves and the wings

Of the mule clattering through the streets

And here are some additional lines:
. . . There
are buzzards shuddering in the vacant branches.
There is a holy ram swallowing its tongue
At the mirage of a watering hole.

It's snowing. The moon is taking off her garments
Like an unruly queen; the desert prophet
Has swallowed his tongue.

The bull is weeping, and mother,

I am naked now; I am wondrous nude.
And it is still snowing.

The clouds are peeling away like the skin
Of a dead man's body. I am fleeing
Into the desert on a wild ass
Trailing a dog star. And believe me,
The ass is dead.

The night is fierce; the desert winds are
Scraping along the ground. The moon is flecked
With the blood of hooves. And it's snowing.
It is always snowing in the country of the mad.

I hope that's enough at least to suggest, movingly, the pictures and music of Christopher Smart's mind, as filtered by Edward Hirsch in his first book, For the Sleepwalkers.

As always, I'll be interested in responses.


Mar 15, 2011

Christopher Smart, "Jubilate Agno"

The Clown, Georges Rouault, around 1907, D.I.A.

Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]- - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

I'm posting this today only to set up Edward Hirsch's fine poem about Christopher Smart tomorrow or soon. I hope you'll also read or at least skim the biographical note on Smart, as well as the poem.

Remember, Charlie Sheen started all this. It would never be my fault . . . . I do hope some readers admire the sympathetic but candid portrait of madness in Hirsch's "Christopher Smart," coming soon.

Mar 13, 2011

Edward Hirsch, "Edward Hopper and The House by the Railroad"

Hirsch, "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad"

I like Edward Hirsch's poem "The House by the Railroad" because it dares to question the temperament of an artist who creates bleakness, again and again. I also like Edward Hopper, but his view of humanity is no warm fuzzy, and maybe I too wonder how Hopper arrived at it. Of course, one can argue for such a perspective; in fact, it's easier than optimism or faith or joy and such soft notions. But therefore it's also refreshing to hear a poet say, "What entitles you to your grimness? Is there an emptiness in you that you should not presume to govern all of us?"

I wonder why Hirsch specifies Hopper's "underwater," "gawky," "desperate" house as a specifically American construction. And would the painter, the creator, also be reduced to a disappearing late afternoon shadow if he were in Europe or some other part of the world? Don't those places usually produce darker literature than American writers do?

Hirsch, "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad"


Mar 8, 2011

A Lighter "Names of Horses." Charlie Sheen. Madness and the Arts

PA and everyone, you won't want to miss this short clip.

Best horse name ever. [VIDEO]

In case you're new here or have forgotten, here is the dignified, sad alternative, Donald Hall's poem, "Names of Horses." The discussion was posted here on February 22.

Name of Horses - A poem by Donald Hall - American Poems

With little or no segue . . . "That is one delusional, narcissistic, overwrought mess. What's he on?" This sentiment describes which of the following?

Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Prince Hal of Henry IV, Part One, Blanche DuBois, Charlie Sheen, Richard Nixon, Billy Pilgrim, Holden Caulfield, Alan Strang (Alan Strange??) in Peter Shaffer's magnificent play, Equus, plus the celebrated 1970s (cult?) movies King of Hearts or Harold and Maude. And that's an extremely short list of art's celebration of madness, along with a dismissal of conventional, prosaic, pedestrian life.

In books or on stage or on canvas, we like madness in our heroes. They speak for and to whatever psychological upheaval we feel in ourselves. In real life, however, we're skittish about psychiatric conditions; we keep our distance if we can. You might say it's a horse of a different color in real life.

"It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road."

The Catcher in the Rye
Holden Caulfield in Chapter 1


Mar 3, 2011

Gerard Manley Hopkins' "God's Grandeur" and Kay Ryan's "Blandeur"

Given Kay Ryan's coined word "Blandeur" as a title, I strongly suspect that she has in mind Gerard Manley Hopkins' famous sonnet, "God's Grandeur."

God's Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

For comparison, here again is Ryan's "Blandeur" from yesterday:

Blandeur by Kay Ryan : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Ryan seems to say such gifts can be as exhausting as they are stunning, so she playfully asks the deity to tone it down, to inflict upon her a little less drama and splendor in the world. It's too much.

I'm not pushing any religiosity in the two poems, but I have to acknowledge that it's there, albeit in very different ways. Maybe those differences reflect the century of change in sentient witnesses' attitudes upon encountering the divine, or at least the omnipotent. In fact, I wonder if Ryan is speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at modernism's reluctance or inability to accept such displays as manifestations of the divine, while Hopkins is all too happy to say, Bring it on, Lord, and praise be.

The poems provide an awfully good basis for comparison, yet I'm embarrassed to say I didn't even catch the connection between them until after I'd posted "Blandeur" yesterday.


Mar 2, 2011

Kay Ryan, "Blandeur"

Starting with the title's play on "Grandeur," Kay Ryan's "Blandeur" is witty while these photos are sorta postcard-sappy. Also, I don't have a Swiss Alp to offer (like her Eiger). Still, I think she and I share a perspective. I believe someone said the
whole is more than the sum of its
parts . . . .

Blandeur by Kay Ryan : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and
Poets. Discover Poetry.

Milkweed, Michigan's Northern Lower Peninsula

A Rothko Bean Field, near Tuscarawas, Eastern Ohio

Wheatfield before a Storm, Southern Ontario

Sunrise on the Atlantac, Northern Florida

Mountain Farm, Central Pennsylvania

Blandeur by Kay Ryan : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and
Poets. Discover Poetry.

Lovers' Lane