One hundred days

If everyone else jumped off a cliff, yes,
you’d get in line. That’s how it was.
The national radio said they would kill us all
if we let them live.

We are not barbarians — we are no different from you —
but this is a poor country.
We couldn’t afford 800,000 bullets,
much less the guns to fire them,
so most of the work had to be done
with ten-cent machetes
made in China.

It helped to be a little crazy: the cockroaches
looked so much like neighbors,
like friends from childhood, even
your own wife.
At first they screamed, but then
they’d grow silent, waiting for the end,
already frozen inside.

It wasn’t always pleasant, but we worked
together, in friendly competition
to see who could land the first blow
or do the most killing.
We chanted songs & slogans from the radio.

Some people did not even find someone to kill
because there were more killers than victims.
I saw people whose hands had been amputated,
those with no legs, and others with no heads.
I saw everything.

It went on for a hundred days, until the rebels came.
Afterwards, we burned our clothes
& buried the machetes in the backyard,
using the blades to dig the holes —
there was a nationwide shortage of shovels —
& firming with a foot that rich volcanic soil
where anything will grow.

Written in reaction to the movie Hotel Rwanda, which I saw on Monday night as part of a History Film Series at Penn State Altoona. It’s an amazing film, in part because it portrays one man who did not jump off the cliff — a true hero. The portion in italics above is taken from the testimony of one of the killers, a man named Gitera Rwamuhuzi, courtesy of the BBC.

The opposite of loneliness

Movie review: Everything is Illuminated


The men in whose name the communists ruled stand in the earth up their waists, installing what looks like a sewer line. They’ve all taken their shirts off, and you can see at a glance what age and a heavy diet have done to them. Hot sun above, mud below, and at the edge of the pit two young men in city clothes, nervous, asking directions to a village that vanished along with its inhabitants sixty years before.

For the wrong words, a beating. For the right words at the wrong time, a beating. For hitting the dog, a beating. Every hint of unreserved affection ringed by profanities — backfires set to ensure that the conflagration doesn’t spread. “Is the war over?” the Holocaust survivor wants to know. The grandfather replies tenderly, for once — and that’s the end of him.

We for whom this movie was made become foreigners to ourselves, amused and baffled. The narration is in a form of English invented for the occasion:

This is Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. She is Grandfather’s seeing eye bitch. Father purchased her for him not because he believes Grandfather is blind, but because a seeing eye bitch is also a good thing for people who pine for the opposite of loneliness. In truth, Father did not purchase her at all, but merely retrieved her from the home for forgetful dogs. Because of this, she is not a real seeing eye bitch, and is also mentally deranged.

Much of the movie appears to be shot on location in the Ukraine. Except for the nearly deserted roads, it could be Iowa. Little is actually illuminated, but everything is collectable: potato and ticket stub, hand soap and soil. At one point, the car passes a radiation warning sign and cuts through the edge of a deserted town — empty Soviet-style apartment buildings, weeds growing through the pavement.

Grasshopper in the sunflowers, soon you too will have a non-speaking role.

End of the rifle

The plane banked and swung low over the treetops — so low, we all dove for cover, thinking the pilot must be suicidal. (Has Al Qaeda begun hijacking Piper Cubs?) Its engine roared and sputtered like a teenager’s badly tuned GTO, and we held our breaths as it banked again and went into a steep climb. Maybe this is some kind of mating flight, I thought, peering at the cockpit through the scope of my .338 Winchester.

The plane leveled off at about five hundred feet above the forest canopy and began to circle. I think we were all getting a little peeved — we’d paid $8,000 a head for a quality, wilderness hunting experience, and goddamn it, we wanted some peace and quiet! But the next thing we knew, four parachutes were opening in the sky above us.

“You’re not going to believe this, guys,” I said, still looking through the Trijicon AccuPoint. Jim grabbed his .30-06 and followed suit. Four chairs were floating down toward us. “What the hell?”

As the engine’s roar died away into the distance, three of the parachutes lodged in the treetops around the camp, dangling their strange cargo just out of reach. I headed for where I thought the fourth had come down, forgetting about grizzlies for the moment as I smashed through the alder.

There it was, sitting slightly askew in the middle of the thicket. It was a camp chair, all right, with a light wood frame supporting long strips of some kind of leaf. Additional items were tied across its arms: a rolled-up hammock, a long, bamboo tube and a bundle of dart-like things. A blowgun?

When I unrolled the hammock — cunningly constructed of vines and plant fibers — a piece of paper fell out. The message looked as if it had been typed on an actual typewriter.

“Dear Friends,” it read, “We send you these gifts as tokens of our goodwill. We bring good news about the grace of God and his victory over the giant anaconda, which will bring peace and love to your war-torn lands at last. Welcome to civilization!” It was signed simply, “The Waorani.”

Someone had added a postscript in pen at the bottom of the page. “P.S. Awfully sorry to inform you that the subsurface rights to the forest in which you have been hunting belong to Shell Oil, who will begin bulldozing for an oil sands mine on Monday. Peace.”

Based on a real dream, after seeing the movie End of the Spear (official website with trailers and merchandiseRotten Tomatoes). For a series of articles exploding the myth of the pacified Waorani, see here.

Tags: End of the Spear, Waorani, Waodani, Huaorani

The love that dare not speak

Brokeback Mountain‘s financial and critical success may well mark some sort of societal progress toward greater tolerance for sexual nonconformists. But does it really represent progress in our understanding of what true love might consist of – or does it simply reinforce widespread, materialistic views? I have yet to see the movie – and being a contrary sort, the more I hear how important it is, the more resistant I become. But I must admit I’m curious about whether it offers any real challenge to the popular dogmas about love, i.e.:

1. Love is a feeling of strong attraction toward someone or something.

2. The quintessential expression of love is in romance, which derives from the desire for sexual union between two individuals.

3. Sex is a pleasurable form of self-indulgence whereby we seek gratification through mutual possession. Unless directed toward procreation or sublimated in romance, it tends to become anti-social and/or debased.

4. The highest form of love involves self-sacrifice.

It probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that, though my opinions about non-standard expressions of sexuality are thoroughly mainstream,* I’m an arch traditionalist on the subject of love itself. Which is to say, I cling to what had been more or less the consensus view in the pre-modern period, at least among mystics, believing that:

1. Love is the practice of uncalculating generosity, thoughtfulness, and respect for the integrity of others.

2. The quintessential expression of love is in the friendship of equals, and derives from the impulse to learn, to give, and to share.

3. Sex in the context of love can be a joyful form of self-transcendence in which bodies are continually re-discovered and re-created.

4. The highest form of love involves immersion in timeless, selfless Presence.**

Once upon a time in America, homosexuality was “the love that dare not speak its name.” If those days are finally coming to an end, I’m glad. I don’t believe that sex and spirituality are as antithetical as many traditional religious teachers assume; I’m cynical enough to suspect that the main reason for organized religion’s hostility toward sex is the desire of religious authorities to maintain a monopoly on self-transcending experiences. (How else to explain blanket prohibitions against alcohol and drugs?) But I worry that an excessive focus on sex, whether by religious people or by secular humanists, simply reinforces reductionist views about love and sex, and plays into the hands of those who seek to profit through the trade in bodies. We must beware the advertiser’s shell game: Are you lonely and insecure? You need more/better sex! And here’s a short cut. Buy this product.

In place of the pre-modern mysteries of soul, spirit and original sin, we are now taught to believe in such abstractions as personality, intelligence and sexuality. I’m not sure this represents a step forward. In either case, we are made to feel helpless without the intercession of experts. To my way of thinking, “soul” and “sexuality” are equally vapid concepts, the only difference being that “sexuality” is even less poetic. The ideologues of the market are all too happy to have everyone buy into the idea of self as bundle of desires. You are what you want. If you’re not in tune with your sexuality, you must be unhappy and repressed.

Well, fuck that! I’m less interested in the love that dare not speak its name than the love that dare not speak at all. True communion is always wordless, is it not? Past a certain point, language becomes not merely extraneous, but downright obscene.

*I.e. that homosexual behavior is natural for those with that orientation; that pedophilia is as inexcusable as rape; and that bondage/discipline and sadomasochism, while acceptable between consenting adults, is awfully silly and somewhat repellant in its celebration of power and humiliation.

**It may be unclear from the way I set this up that I don’t intend the two definitions of love presented here to be mutually exclusive. Obviously, the fact that we have one word to encompass so many different things can both help and hinder clear thinking. It can help to remember that what the Greek Bible calls agape and caritas are not as separate from eros as we like to imagine, and that eros in turn may often be difficult to disentangle from caritas, etc. It reminds us to keep the passion in compassion, so to speak. But obviously this multiplicity of meanings leads to confusion if we forget to distinguish between them, and allow the eros component to overwhelm the others.

Poems about movies

I’ve never understood why summer is officially Dumb Movie Season. In fact, given that most of us do suffer a decline in creativity due to heat, humidity, beer drinking and babes (or guys) in form-revealing outfits, I should think that would make intellectually challenging movies all the more essential. The brain is like a muscle, folks; trite but true.

But then here comes this summer, with the unprecedented box-office success of a nonfiction film, Fahrenheit 9/11, and with others in the offing (I’m especially eager to see The Corporation). The Day After Tomorrow, silly as it seemed from the reviews, evidently got audiences thinking about serious issues (global climate change, corruption in the government). I gather even Spiderman II was unexpectedly engaging. Whatever happened to movies about alien invaders and giant meteors?

So anyway, since Friday is movie night for a lot of folks, and since I don’t have time this morning for an original post, I thought I’d reproduce a couple of old poems relating to the movies. The first describes three shots from an imaginary film noir. This is one of my oldest successful poems; the germ of it is at least twenty years old. Despite the reference to a corrido (Sonoran folk ballad), the piece I have in mind for the soundtrack is modern classical: a tone-poem called Song of Love and Death (Canto de Amor e de Mort) by the Portuguese composer Fernando Lopes-Graca.

The second poem combines two real, public school experiences, so I guess it would fit in the category of “almost nonfiction.” Off-hand, I can’t think of any other movie poems I might’ve written. Does anyone else have any?

I apologize to anyone who has already read these poems (both are included in the manuscript Capturing the Hive, available in PDF form at my personal website). I promise some original content tomorrow, even if it’s just that doggerel I mentioned yesterday. Until then, TGIF y’all.


her jailed lover’s image in the mirror
slowly loses color
like tea poured again & again
from the same leaves
or a cloud of cigarette smoke mixing with the air


beneath the mirror’s mercury lies
the captain lost at sea in some
interminable corrido
his waterproof watch still ticks inside his slicker


it’s past 3:00
light from the street lamp
filters through the slats of the blind
outshines the moon:
two sets of stripes that cross at
an oblique angle on the walls & the bed
where she lies staring into the one dark corner


Twelve hundred kids packed the auditorium
for a high school assembly: a road show
on the history of animation, brought to us
by Pepsi. The punishment for skipping
such mandatory fun was an extra hour
of school. But some wise-ass
Spoiled It For Everybody with
a little
laughing box.
In the middle of the presenter’s
introductory talk, a sudden
outburst of demented giggles
followed by rapid-fire hos & haws,
squeals & peals, belly laughs
going off like depth charges.
The thing about
a laughing box is, once
you get one started, you can’t
shut it up. Propelled
by apprehensive kicks,
it ricocheted from row
to row beneath the seats,
its laugh track whipping around
like a sperm cell’s flagellum
in a Sex Ed film. As the shock
wore off we watched the three
or four minor führers on stage
shrinking into their scowls.
Finally it flew
out–a bright blue
plastic cube–struck the baseboard
with considerable force & died
in mid-guffaw.
A long moment of silence.
Then the clapping started, spreading
throughout the hall. Cheers,
whistles. The assistant principal
on his feet, waving his arms
as the applause went on & on.

The bloody sire

On Sunday night I finally got a chance to see Bowling for Columbine. I was extremely impressed. As a gun-toting freedom-lover, I was especially pleased that Moore did not simply blame the surfeit of easily available weaponry for the astonishing levels of gun violence in this country. He went to Canada to find out why its similarly well armed citizens manage to avoid shooting each other, and discovered an astonishing fact: Canadians don’t live in fear of their neighbors. He couldn’t find anyone in Ottawa or Toronto who admitted to locking their doors – “It makes us feel like we’re imprisoning ourselves,” one explained. They were also proud of the fact that their government shies away from violence as a tool of first resort in international diplomacy. Their nightly news features long, boring analyses of tedious issues such as health care and the environment, rather than hysterical reports about the latest threats to civilization and decency. About 11 percent of Canadians belong to ethnic minorities, yet white-skinned inhabitants of the suburbs seem to lack their U.S. counterparts’ obsession with looming invasions by armies of the less-fortunate. Moore interviews some African American men from Detroit who love to spend their weekends in Windsor – “I can RELAX here. People treat me like I’m just a normal person!” My father points out that Canadians won their independence as a result of an act of the British parliament – not from a revolution.

The same thing that bothered me at the time of the Columbine shootings four years ago had also stuck in Michael Moore’s craw. Here you had the president making strong statements about the need to lessen the appeal of violence among our nation’s youth, at the same time that he was sending young people in uniform to Serbia to bomb schools, bridges and power plants. What makes the U.S. different from Great Britain, Canada and Australia? Simply put: we have a unique and unshakeable belief in the redemptive power of violence. Hollywood movies are popular everywhere, but only in the U.S.A. are we so unsophisticated to think that John Wayne and Dirty Harry have the right approach. A lone ranger, armed with a six-shooter and his own moral rectitude, can make everything right again. Call it naivete or call it idealism: over 80 percent of USians tell pollsters they believe in angels and in heaven – but not in hell. Hell is for other people.

Watching Bowling for Columbine reminded me that I too had made a collage of sorts – though my results weren’t nearly as effective as Moore’s. I stitched together sentences and phrases from issues of The Christian Science Monitor from March-April 1999. (Why not The New York Times? The Monitor is the only daily newspaper I read. Plus, it features much better writing than the Times.) I discovered a curious symmetry in descriptions of and statements from the two presidents, Milosovic and Clinton. See if you can match the phrase with the administration.


Will this be the end of Mortal Kombat & Street Fighter? Peace in the Balkans, says Henry Kissinger, has existed only when a superior force has imposed it from above. Public opinion is very volatile. The two sides are increasingly locked in a contest to influence what plays on television. Their instructions: create & execute a marketing campaign that will get people thinking about God. Who’s in charge of watching the watchman? The images are so overwhelming.

The Serbs are unable to compete with the slick production of Western companies & TV stations. Boy Scouts have been going into the inner cities–U.S. protectorates where peace depends on F-15Es and Humvees. It worked well, but they were always being watched by the secret police. They’ve built war rooms & use sophisticated computer programs to look for crime patterns.

Police with pistols drawn jumped the car of two foreign journalists for no apparent reason. Many minority youths complain that they are routinely frisked. When it comes to going to a concert or dance, they are afraid of getting pulled over or arrested & beaten. Many of the worst atrocities are believed to have been carried out by paramilitary groups. Men & women, including the elderly, nurse wounds from batons or rifle butts. What researchers have documented is that prolonged consumption of this kind of stuff cultivates scripts in people’s heads.

I don’t think anyone knows the endgame. The situation has simply become too polarized by bullets & bombs. Even the waiter in the only hotel packs a .45. Drivers don’t stop at red lights any more. One of the state-controlled television stations showed hard-core pornography in the middle of the day. Body parts could be seen sticking out of a massive pile of bricks & twisted metal that was littered with plastic decorative flowers, old shoes & a Rubik’s Cube. Even “good” kids were potential victims of un-structured spare time–hanging out, boredom, lack of direction & cynicism. Budget restraints & a Republican Congress forced a mini-agenda of school uniforms and V-chips.

Now we’re one, like a fist. We are at war & this is propaganda. It shows the world that we are capable of doing something generous. The administration, with public opinion on its side, seems to want the bombing to continue. Airstrikes are helping the president. Touted as a test case for the “New World Order,” it was a diabolical extension of what he’s done before. The media’s depiction of violence as a means of resolving conflict & a national culture which tends to glorify violence further condoned his thinking. And in the macho warrior culture of the Balkans, to the victor goes not only the glory & spoils but also leadership & authority.

At stake now is the administration’s credibility in the eyes of its enemy. The worst thing you can have is people standing & shooting at each other in the White House. They were given a few minutes to leave their homes, which were looted & then burned, some with the infirm left inside. The president succeeded because he understood the power of fear & knew how to use it for his own purposes. The decibel level of the debate & its content, rich with mixed messages, made it especially dangerous. He will live in a bunker & take as many people with him as he can.

The jets are a kind of high-tech insurance. The squadron cancelled a war-game exercise in Las Vegas to head to the bombings. One by one, pilots balled their fists & pumped them in a “Rocky” pose, completing a familiar air warrior salute. Gambling is exhausting, so nothing less than the best will do for the tired gambler. General Electric’s chairman John Welch Jr. pocketed $52.6 million, while Viacom head Sumner Redstone got options worth $50.5 million. “Our demands are clear & he has to accept them. If not, the bridges keep coming down, the factories keep coming down, & hunger is just over the horizon.”

Such images play to a common weakness of democracies: a reluctance to sustain a long war. The Clinton administration is famous for being “on message,” with everyone singing the same policy chorus. “We love your music, your television, everything. We hope we can work with American companies when the war is over. The video games numb our youth to the issue of violence or violent acts, like trying to hit a puddle of mercury with a hammer.” And few can remember the last time any warrior took scissors in hand, signalling that something was being built & not being destroyed.