Oct 24, 2013

Brian Teare's "Separation is the necessary condition for light": New Light on Old Fathers


In Brian Teare’s “Separation is the necessary condition for light,” the central idea and almost all the imagery and phrasing strike me as precise, original, and strong. I like them a lot. The dead father’s empty mattress and hat, the "generic" fathers fathers grouped like unnamed, undifferentiated trees (what an exceptional word “generic” is in this context), the sunset lighting them up and making them "blonde"  (why have I never thought of autumn trees as blonde? Shame on me), and the fatherless adult child as a drifting sail . . .  all of that seems precisely right. (As a temporary survivor, I don’t see myself as a sailboat-survivor gliding over treetops, but it’s a flattering image that makes a lyrical kind of sense).

I’m not sure what I think and feel about Teare's allergy to commas and other punctuation. Also, I wonder what he’s seeing that I’m missing in the alternating left and right stanzas. However, I’m open to the argument that the lack of punctuation and the staggered placement of stanzas suggest the motions of leaves in wind as well as sails gliding dreamily along, where any pause looks and feels nothing like a punctuation mark. Maybe that’s a stretch, but I can live with it.

I struggle harder with "roots / that rise to stem that rise.”  At first I heard it as the trees having flipped, their tops becoming their roots, which I was hearing as an image of death. But that doesn't help me understand the fact that the roots rise in order to "stem"—as in, prevent—another rise, maybe adult children rising toward death.
Or maybe upright trees have risen above the ground—a kind of levitation. Is that an image of immortality? When those roots "stem [squelch] that rise," are they holding the survivors in the ground as they try to rise into the air, as immortal spirits traditionally do?

In "stem," I appreciate the word play on aspects of trees and other plants. Again, we can have “stem” as squelch, as “stem the tide,” or we might hear a newer, fresher sense of “stem” as a verb—the leaves or trees are not only leaving, but also growing new stems, or “stemming.” That makes a better fit for what follows, where the autumn trees are apparently dropping leaves: “rise // to leaf his door and cornices.” To “leaf” is an exquisite image of fallen autumn foliage piling up, but I’d like to know how it develops from the two lines that precede it.

In all, however, the new and lovely features in Brian Teare’s poem more than compensate for the single speed bump caused by “rise” and “rise” and “stem.” Of the several things that draw me to the poem, the foremost might be the notion of fathers' being “generic” in the way trees in a field are generic. I've certainly seen my friends' fathers as a blurry cluster of vaguely appealing yet ordinary, un-special beings. They might be the fathers of students as they gather awkwardly but importantly in school lobbies and hallways on parents' visiting days.

Until Brian Teare's elegy, however, I failed to notice just how generic and autumnly blonde they were, even those who were important, or tried to fake importance, and how their future absence, in death, might be visualized as the empty mattress where they had lain or their now empty felt hats. 
I suspect that from here on, I’ll never see or imagine fathers in the same way, at least not as a group. And maybe the yellow-leaved woods in the fall will always be fathers as well as trees, whether I want them to or not. There’s a lot more gift than burden in that, which is what good poems give us. So in spite of one line that’s bumpy for me, I am grateful for Brian Teare’s “Separation is the necessary condition for light,” and I won’t soon forget it.

See also Bob Hicok’s masterful father poem, “O my pa-pa.”  http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/179572

I discussed it here January 2, 2010:   http://banjo52.blogspot.com/search?q=o+my+pa-pa


Oct 17, 2013

Shelley, Painted Veils, and Politics 2013

In the midst of our current political debacle, there's a tenuous pause in the government-shutdown danse macabre, but the best news is that most American citizens are finally getting disgusted. As I look back at our 1960s Civil Rights movement and the protests about the American war in Vietnam, I’m still bewildered at how long it took the general public to feel sickened by burning crosses and lynchings at home and body bags abroad, which is our home away from home.

I’m still not sure Main Street worries enough about racial injustice, or class warfare, or the irrational features of every clergicalized religion, or the human fondness for war (while we make Christian or Buddhist noise about abhorring war, turning cheeks, and judging not lest we be judged). But every once in awhile Main Street just says No to mindless meanness, or it behaves in an utterly compassionate way toward another human or animal, and I just can’t quite give up on us. So, with continued embarrassment, I offer more words, words, words and ignore the fact that less is more.  
Something in all the current political idiocy made me think of Shelley’s seemingly apolitical sonnet, “Lift Not the Painted Veil.”

            Lift not the painted veil which those who live
            Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
            And it but mimic all we would believe
            With colours idly spread,--behind, lurk Fear
            And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
            Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.
            I knew one who had lifted it--he sought,
            For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
            But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
            The world contains, the which he could approve.
            Through the unheeding many he did move,
            A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
            Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
            For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

I’m not wild about the poem except for its opening and closing two lines, which I’ve remembered since college. Shelley seems to be distinguishing between the material (matter-ial) world—the painted veil—and something like a Platonic ideal or spiritual world behind and beyond the veil.

As human matter—atomic particles and whatnot—driven by appetite, we naturally care about alluring, sexy, tangible veils. (I've sometimes wondered what Shelley would think of Las Vegas). We don’t know what’s behind them, but the little philosopher or theologian in us “would believe” there is something bigger, better, less concrete and crass than gaudy physicality, with its “colours idly spread.” To be idly spread suggests randomness and chaos, so the visual surface would be fetching but ultimately pointless.

Shelley’s sparkly veil is what we call life; we’re satisfied with the surfaces of things. Like crows drawn to shiny baubles, we like a casino on our river. We are drawn to painted masks—unless we are that other kind of seeker, wannabe mystics, oddballs hoping to find a larger truth beyond the appearances of things, beyond matter, like Shelley’s “one who had lifted it” in his search for “things to love.” That guy fails. That “one” ends up wandering in “this gloomy scene” where there was nothing “which he could approve,” as he traveled among the “unheeding many.” It's the thinkers who are likely to end up in this state--only briefly and from time to time, one hopes. 

Sidebar One:  The title character of Hawthorne’s short story, “Ethan Brand,” has a similar problem. He sets out to find “the Unpardonable Sin” and in so doing, he commits the Unpardonable Sin, which consists of setting himself above the masses, even though the masses are a sorry crowd, drunk, disorderly and aggressively stupid. But the story seems to say those are our choices:  be a seeker, which causes the heart to turn to stone, or humbly accept our lot as just one more among the miserable, mindless many.

Sidebar Two: Although Shelley and Hawthorne are concerned with philosophical and theological issues, I’m feeling a parallel in politics. If there’s a star in that sordid arena, “A splendour among shadows” as Shelley labels him, as well as Shelley’s oxymoronic “bright blot,” how is that hero to proceed among the “unheeding many”? 

Politics is a painted veil in the sense that it’s a dance of psychopaths, liars and thieves who are concerned only with matter, not self-examination, or transcendence, or love, kindness and compassion. What conservative ideologues in particular care about, when you strip away the rhetoric, is protecting their pile. I wonder if anyone noticed the way knee-jerk Republicans went like jackals for Obama’s throat when he said, a few months ago, that none of us get what we have entirely on our own. We all have had luck and help from someone along the way.
That statement is self-explanatory and valid to people of good will. However, the president should have padded his point with more context and explanation—a rhetorical diaper for all those infantile foot-stompers at the peak of an orgasmic tantrum.

But humans of good will and adequate intelligence knew what he was saying. For example, in America a white male, like me, is given extra help from his culture the moment he emerges from the womb. No matter what his hardships have been, they’ve been less challenging than they would have been for a woman or a minority. Yes, that is changing, but anyone who denies that as our history, so far, is being willfully stupid or deceitful.

Yes, some people work a lot harder than others to achieve their pile, but no one got his pile without luck and help from others. Anyone who denies that is undeserving of the benefits of American democracy and capitalism.

Most of the people crowing about creating their own pile and defending it with many guns are Christians—you know, the religion that says the meek are blessed. It’s the religion whose hero was a hippie born in a manger and hanged with two thieves.  Between the manger and the cross was a lot of wandering, like Shelley’s “one,” and meditating, and praying, and talk of turning the other cheek, and forgiveness, and care for the poor. Christianity is anything but the religion of the rich. I was taught Jesus showed anger only once—when the money lenders (hear, bankers) entered the temple. Oh, and there’s that business about the camel—it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  How many Christians work on Wall Street? How many are totin' steel in the NRA? No, I mean real Christians. How many conservatives call themselves Christian? Do you see how all that oddness adds up to a painted veil? A theater—devoid of fact and truth?

It’s a “miracle of rare device” that conservatives have turned the essence of Christian self-effacement into the politics of greed, guns, and deception. It’s a miracle of absurdity that politicians now paint the average citizen as a white guy sitting at the kitchen table, paying the bills and feeling victimized by Commie-liberals and people of color.
An even greater miracle is the way Democrats have permitted it, have passively held open the door and failed to demand better behavior and consistent logic. Extremist conservatives love the constitution and the Bible only when it helps them hoard, pile up their pile, stuff upon stuff, and keep undesirables away from their golf sanctuaries (their gulf clubs). 

So, yes, politics is a painted veil. Is Shelley right? It’s “Fear/And Hope, twin Destinies” back there behind the veil--something darker and more absurd even than the veil itself? We might do well to settle for surfaces, if the scene behind the curtain consists of ersatz Christians stroking their guns and raiding Grandma’s retirement funds, while Democrats, the party of godless Commie Libs, are pushing for compassion and being ignored.

And, Percy Bysshe Shelley, when the images on the painted veil can be so gorgeous, maybe we ought to settle for what's there instead of groping for more. And more.

Oct 10, 2013

e.e. cummings, Robert Frost's "Design" and Politics 2013

Design by Robert Frost        

Robert Frost’s Italian sonnet, “Design” is somewhat similar to e.e. cummings' English sonnet, “When Serpents Bargain”   (when serpents bargain for the right to squirm... (22) - Poem By E. E. Cummings - Read Classic Poetry Online) in asking questions about the nature of animals, humans, and the possibility of order in the universe. “Design” tends toward philosophy while “When Serpents Bargain” is a satire on the legal and commercial dealings of humans.

Strangulation in High Places
But both poems convey dark themes softened by lightness, innocence, playfulness in language and tone—more so in “When Serpents Bargain” than the grimmer study of animal behavior and the possibility of cosmic chaos in “Design.”

In my October 2 post on cummings’ “When Serpents Bargain,” I mentioned that I’d been a little cantankerous about the poem back on April 7, 2011.  (No pressure, but it’s here if you’re interested: 


Although I share cummings’ dim view of human wheeling and dealing, in which every serpent-of-a-person is trying to sell a used car in bad repair, it might be childishly romantic (reverse narcissism?) to think we’re crazier than critters in nature. 
We might be trying and failing to deal with complex matters of morality and law (witness our present situation in the U.S. Congress), 
but animals solve their diplomatic problems by eating each other. 
Gunboat Diplomacy

Also, when an animal fails, he dies alone in the field for lack of medical care or food. Birds fall out of the sky. The philosophizing, lawyer-izing verbiage that cummings mocks in “When Serpents Bargain” is our spastic effort to avoid eating each other or dying alone in a field. 

Maybe the animals’ free-market way is good for Republicans, Libertarians and anarchists, but me, I’ll take the modified welfare state, yes, the Nanny state. What’s wrong with nannies? They’re paid to like us when our parents are too busy or too mean for liking. They're paid to be kind. When we get a haircut, we don’t bellow about The Barber State, do we?

I prefer the limited version of Nanny State that encourages earning our victuals and our pleasure, but let’s not go all Tea Party and dump people on the curb to bleed out if they fail or get sick. Alone. Except for the Tea Partier, who is the stranger standing over the fallen man and chanting Bible verses or Christian rock music. The guy on the curb needs macaroni, not a parable. 

Maybe the heroic cardinals have it right. A couple of years ago I mentioned here my cardinal couple, who, for about a week, adopted and fed, beak to beak, an orphaned white-crowned sparrow chick, in my back yard.
Steadfast but Pondering

Tom, my most hard-core evolutionist friend, thinks I’m lying about that. He said, “But John, I don’t see the evolutionary advantage in [the cardinals’] behavior.” As gently as possible, I said, “That’s the point, Dumbass!”

I restrained myself from going all Hamlet-and-Horatio on him, but I was on the verge of reminding Tom that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Tom, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Everyone should have a friend named Horatio. Look what he did for Miami forensic investigations). 

By the way, my friends and I regularly refer to each other as Dumbasses or worse. That’s one thing I like about us. We tell the Truth on those rare occasions when we can find it. On the other hand, each of us thinks he’s found Truth way more often than he has. I suppose that makes us pretty Tea Party-ish. Once again, irony thrives, even in a world full of blinders and misguided faux earnestness.

The fact remains, I witnessed those cardinals for several days as they fed the Other, the alien, who might grow up to compete with them for food. I called the local Audubon Society, which confirmed that such charity happens in the animal kingdom, and yes, cardinals are among the chief do-gooders. Nanny Cardinals. Baby sparrows.


Oct 4, 2013

Movie Review: Short Term 12 and Robert Frost's "Bereft"

For the old e.e. cummings post, how’s this link? (Please feel no pressure to read it).   http://banjo52.blogspot.com/search?q=when+serpents+bargain

Yesterday I saw an awfully good movie about foster teens, which is related to the government shutdown. That is, how does our society treat its neediest humans?  

Short Term 12 was in one of the art theaters here and left today after stay of about three weeks. But maybe you can get access to it where you are, or online, or through Netflix, etc. It stars Brie Larson and John Gallagher, Jr. (he’s Jim on The Network), who play counselor-caretakers in a group home. They are very convincing. There’s enough humor and romance to balance—but surely not to cancel out—the gritty social and personal issues for the caretakers and foster kids alike. This is a first-rate, low-budget indie movie that makes us know and care about the characters. 


I've been looking for an appropriate time to post Robert Frost's very big little poem, "Bereft," and now, as I think about that movie's teens and their dark nights (and days) of the soul, maybe "Bereft" is just right. Troubled, abandoned fifteen-year-olds, lonely old men living alone, and all those in-between probably have similar feelings and thoughts at times. I wonder if they--no, we--can be of any comfort to each other.

Oct 1, 2013

e.e. cummings, "when serpents bargain." A Little Drummer Girl.

Some politicians are at it again. I'm baffled.

The video below is a partial antidote for me, even better than poetry. Maybe it will be for some of you too. If you're short on time, be sure to skip ahead to the two-minute mark to hear the kid take off in a kind of pleasure (rapture?) that's rare. Watch her face. Even her old man on piano has an oddly winning way about him.

I was going to say you should not play this at a funeral or a library, but it might be just the thing:


If, in the privacy of your rooms,  that father and daughter are no help, I wonder if something big is wrong at your place. 

Or maybe I'm just your poetry-shoeshine boy, in which case here's an e.e. cummings that might be relevant.

e. e. cummings
"when serpents bargain for the right to squirm"

when serpents bargain for the right to squirm
and the sun strikes to gain a living wage--
when thorns regard their roses with alarm
and rainbows are insured against old age

when every thrush may sing no new moon in
if all screech-owls have not okayed his voice
--and any wave signs on the dotted line
or else an ocean is compelled to close

when the oak begs permission of the birch
to make an acorn-valleys accuse their
mountains of having altitude-and march
denounces april as a saboteur

then we'll believe in that incredible
unanimal mankind(and not until)


If you'd like some commentary, I wrote about the poem in April of 2011. My post is a little cantakerous, but its point of view is worth keeping in mind as we tend to romanticize about the romanticizing e.e.  He has a way with words and feelings, but his thinking can be a little . . .  loosey-goosey?


Lovers' Lane