1. Who you lookin’ at?

I don’t know how it was where you grew up, but among white working class folks in Central Pennsylvania, if you think for yourself and people don’t like you, you’re weird . . . but if they do like or at least respect you, you’re merely “differnt.” As in, “Yeah, you know, Bonta, he’s, well . . . differnt!” It’s kind of like being African American: not necessarily a bad thing, but always worth mentioning. “Yeah, you know, them fellas that came out to replace my water heater was both colored. Nice guys, though.” And ever so slowly, one sees a similar acceptance of gays and lesbians beginning to spread – at least among women and the more emotionally secure among the straight men. Although I kind of doubt that some of the more colorful terminology for people so flagrantry different will go away any time soon.

This contrasts markedly, of course, with the ethos of college-educated WASPs. Sometimes it’s comical the extent to which members of this tribe (in which I include myself) will go to avoid even drawing attention to another’s ethnicity or sexual orientation. We tend to be acutely aware of the fact that such statements as I have quoted above presume stereotyped qualities. And we have a nearly unshakeable belief in the power of correct language to enforce correct thinking.

This view has its blind spots, of course. For some reason, it’s almost always O.K. to make fun of poor or working class white folks – precisely because they are presumed to be uniformly prejudiced toward, um, *cough*, you know . . . People of Color. This supposed failing appears to give carte blanche for their “betters” to ridicule everything about them and their culture – which isn’t even afforded the dignity of authenticity, being viewed instead as a warped or immature version of our own.

This is in fact consistent with the ideology of white supremacy, which is insidious precisely because it is invisible, a blind spot. How many times have you heard folks in the media refer to white people as if they have no ethnicity? And isn’t this how many WASPS view ourselves? “Color” comes from without: poor people are almost by definition colorful, even if they’re white hillbillies or Okies. Good for entertainment. But we – we seem bland, even to ourselves. Here, the Spanish word blanco includes just the right range of meanings: White. Blank. Target: what everyone is after. We are the default setting.

What I’m saying here is that most of us supposedly better educated, middle class white folks are no more enlightened than our working class counterparts. Members of both moieties are capable of tolerance, though almost inevitably they take themselves as standards of normalcy. No, the Ku Klux Klan doesn’t win many converts from among the well-to-do: the language of open hatred and rage is, well, uncultured. Thus, the better educated prefer to talk about “reverse discrimination” (originally a Klan idea, by the way) and “cultures of poverty/dependency” (which never seems to include the imaginatively impoverished and connection-dependent scions of wealthy families, such as our current “president”). The highly educated elites of both major political parties, in a rare display of bipartisanship in the mid-90s, had little trouble convincing themselves and significant portions of their power bases that shredding the social safety net would actually do those lazy people on welfare a huge favor. Aside from then-Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, hardly any voices in mainstream political circles or in the media were willing to confront the obvious fact that very few corporations could survive a minute without massive taxpayer subsidies. That’s good welfare, necessary for the survival of the rich.

Well-educated white folk, no matter how conservative, never speak publicly in racialist terms. But simply changing the language hasn’t changed the reality for poor people in this country and around the world. Nor, I’m afraid, has it altered the fundamental mindframe. While it’s impolite to openly challenge African American claims to Culture (aside from the deformed, immature kind), a mention of “ebonics” at a white cocktail party is almost always a laugh line, except perhaps among confirmed liberals. The huge, unexamined assumption at the heart of white supremacy is that They want/need to be like Us. They are un- or underdeveloped; huge swaths of the planet are viewed as being in desperate need of something called development. (Even many liberal environmentalists, who decry the destruction caused by developers in the U.S., believe this.) Everyone envies and wishes to emulate the American Way of Life, our leaders solemnly atone – and probably sincerely believe, in company with many others.

In Manufacturing Consent and other books, Noam Chomsky has advanced a sort of loose model to try and explain how political indoctrination can happen in a free society. Ever-more-restricted ownership of the mass media is of course one key element. But just as critical, Chomsky finds, is the way the educational system tends to enforce conformity and to weed out those who are too different. For example, much of the workload required to get a PhD is needless and inhuman, unless you assume that a good part of the reason for educational hierarchies in the first place is to serve as social sorting mechanisms. In that case, it makes sense to try and guarantee that the folks at the top of the intellectual pyramid are adept at swallowing their pride, jumping through hoops, and manipulating ideas according to carefully prescribed, peer-reviewed and enforced standards. (That’s not to say this always succeeds, I hasten to point out, given that at least six regular readers, including both my brothers, have PhDs, and none seem all that brainwashed! But in fact my brothers’ descriptions of their fellow grad students and professors were not encouraging, to say the least.)

Even without the class-based analysis, it seems intuitively obvious that academia constitutes a culture largely dominated by white men, and that new aspirants to the fold must adapt themselves to that culture either by internalizing its (white, male) norms, or by finding a way to maintain ideological independence without making too many overt faux pas (at least until they get tenure). And it’s perhaps unavoidable for members of any given culture both to want to enforce such norms, and to regard themselves as the standard against which all others should be measured. In addition, it is generally unthinkable for members of any priviledged class to question the ideological basis of priviledge in the presumption of specialness. The problem becomes particularly acute, however, when that culture holds a near-monopoly on the licensing of thinkable thoughts within a larger society that views itself as egalitarian.

But aside from the egalitarianism, this is nothing new. Ever since the invention of writing systems, the folks who knew how to write made fun of those who didn’t. Humor at the expense of ignorant bumpkins can be found in the earliest cuneiform texts. Walter Ong, whose invaluable Orality and Literacy I quoted from a while back, goes so far as to suggest that much of what we measure as “intelligence” simply reflects the degree to which a given mind has internalized and learned to reproduce uniquely literate thought-patterns.

2. Who you callin’ dumb?

Bigotry can take many forms; the perception of East Asians or Jews as more intelligent can be as damaging as the still-widespread perception among whites that black people (for example) are in some way just not as smart as we are. Again, this is the sort of sentiment one hardly dares to whisper in polite society. But I sort of doubt that the book The Bell Curve became a bestseller on the strength of sales to KKK members alone. And, as I’ve suggested, the willingness of middle-class folks to believe that “poor white trash” are dumb as dirt shows that most people do indeed regard intelligence as inborn and as correlating to some extent with class, if not skin color as well.

Most public school teachers have long ago stopped wondering why so few “good” kids end up in the remedial classes, and why so few kids from poor families ever score high enough in I.Q. tests to make it into gifted or advanced placement classes. It’s easier to believe that we live in a meritocracy, and that social differences reflect measurable genetic differences, than to question the tests themselves.

It was always painfully obvious to me that my good fortune in coming from a highly literate family was the main thing that gave me both the ability and (as time went on) the confidence to ace all manner of standardized tests. But over the years I’ve also come to appreciate the apparent irony that so often those with the least facility for the kind of abstract thinking I excel at possess a superior way with words. I find myself thinking, “If only we could properly educate these people who lard their speech with proverbs and other colorful expressions and who tell stories so expressively – if only we could turn them all into writers!”

Semi-literate people are also, for lack of a better term, semi-oral. Walter Ong showcases a study by the Soviet psychologist A.R. Luria, who “did extensive fieldwork with illiterate (that is, oral) persons and somewhat literate persons in the remoter areas of Uzbekistan . . . and Kirghizia in the Soviet Union during the years 1931-2 . . .

“[Luria] identifies the persons he interviews on a scale ranging from illiteracy to various levels of moderate literacy and his data fall clearly into the classes of orally based versus chirographically based noetic processes. The contrasts that show between illiterates . . . and literates as such are marked and certainly significant . . . and they show what work reported on and cited by [J.C.] Carothers (1959) also shows: it takes only a moderate degree of literacy to make a tremendous difference in thought processes.”

The methodology was informal and relaxed, encouraging subjects to answer questions (or not) as naturally as possible. The subjects were, of course, unfamiliar with standardized tests, but that only makes the conclusions more valuable for the insights they offer into how kids from illiterate or semi-literate backgrounds perform on IQ tests. (Even in my own case, I still recall quite vividly how frightened and disoriented I felt during what I later realized was my first encounter with an intelligence test. I had not yet learned to read. Interestingly, when I took the test again a few years later, after I had become a voracious reader, my score improved by over 25 points. Had it not been for direct pressure from my parents – as intellectuals, honorary members of the local elite – I never would have been given the opportunity for a re-test.)

Ong draws attention to five main conclusions, which I’ll try to do justice to with fairly brief quotes. (For those interested in pursuing this subject, Luria’s own book, Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundation, has apparently been translated into English.)

“(1) Illiterate (oral) subjects identified geometrical figures by assigning them the names of objects, never abstractly as circles, squares, etc. . . . ”

“(2) Subjects were presented with drawings of four objects, three belonging to one category and the fourth to another, and were asked to group together those that were similar or could be placed in one group or designated by one word. One series consisted of drawings of the objects hammer, saw, log, hatchet. Illiterate subjects consistently thought of the group not in categorical terms (three tools, the log not a tool) but in terms of practical situations – ‘situational thinking’ – without adverting at all to the classification ‘tool’ as applying to all but the log. If you are a workman with tools and see a log, you think of applying the tool to it, not of keeping the tool away from it in what it was made for – in some weird intellectual game. A 25-year-old illiterate peasant: ‘They’re all alike. The saw will saw the log and the hatchet will chop it into small pieces. If one of these has to go, I’d throw out the hatchet. It doesn’t do as good a job as the saw.’ Told that the hammer, saw and hatchet are all tools, he discounts the categorical class and persists in situational thinking: ‘Yes, but even if we have tools, we still need wood – otherwise we can’t build anything.’ Asked why another person had rejected one item in another series of four that he felt all belonged together, he replied, ‘Probably that kind of thinking runs in his blood.'”

As expected, subjects with a few years of schooling answered “correctly.” Those who were semi-literate “mingled situational grouping and categorical grouping, though the latter predominated.”

Luria also attempted to teach abstract classification to each of his illiterate subjects, but they invariably resisted learning: “They were convinced that thinking other than operational thinking, that is, categorical thinking, was not important, uninteresting, trivializing.” I have often felt that myself. Much as I love to indulge in it, the invention and proliferation of categories – mental boxes – leads one further away from reality, not closer to it. And I wonder: how does “categorical thinking” differ from what Buddhists, for example, label discriminatory thinking? To what extent might the direct intuitions of artists and mystics represent simply a return to preliteracy, an escape from thought patterns ingrained by “chirographically based noetic processes”?

Finding # 3 in Ong’s summary involves reactions to “formally syllogistic and inferential reasoning,” the alphabetically-enabled invention of the ancient Greeks. In sum: “Syllogisms relate to thought, but in practical matters no one operates in formally stated syllogisms.” Ong cites philosopher James Fernandez, who “has pointed out that a syllogism is self-contained: its conclusions are drawn from its premises only. He notes that persons not academically educated are not acquainted with this special ground rule but tend rather in their interpretation of given statements, in a syllogism as elsewhere, to go beyond the statements themselves, as one does normally in real-life situations or riddles . . . I would add the observation that a syllogism is thus like a text, fixed, boxed-off, isolated. This fact dramatizes the chirographic base of logic. The riddle belongs to the oral world. To solve a riddle, canniness is needed: one draws on knowledge, often deeply subconscious, beyond the words themselves in the riddle.”

And I would add that if in fact the category “intelligence” corresponds to anything in nature, it might well be this very canniness – a great word! A few people are prodigies, simply somehow more swift from birth onward. For most others, canniness – or wisdom – comes, if it comes at all, through life experience and through association with individuals who already possess such wisdom, especially grandparents and other elders. One trains oneself in the value of insight, the development of intuitions and the cultivation of special knacks – none likely to come through schooling as we know it.

Luria’s fourth significant finding was that non-literate people resisted even the logic behind definitions. Rather than describing concrete things, they preferred to give examples, though this didn’t seemed to reflect any lack of facility with description. “‘Say you go to a place where there are no cars. What will you tell people [a car is]?’ ‘If I go, I’ll tell them that buses have four legs, chairs in front for people to sit on, a roof for shade and an engine. But when you get right down to it, I’d say: “If you get in a car and go for a drive, you’ll find out.”‘”

“(5) Luria’s illiterates had difficulty in articulate self-analysis. Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking. It calls for isolation of the self, around which the entire lived world swirls for each individual person, removal of the center of every situation from that situation enough to allow the center, the self, to be examined and described.” One man was asked to describe his shortcomings: “‘This year I sowed one pood of wheat, and we’re gradually fixing the shortcomings.'” (A pood is a Russian unit of weight, equivalent to 36.11 lbs.) Luria asked one of his subjects, “Well, people are different – calm, hot-tempered, or sometimes their memory is poor. What do you think of yourself?” “We behave well – if we were bad people, no one would respect us.” This exemplifies, as Ong notes, “Self-evaluation modulated into group evaluation (‘we’) and then handled in terms of expected reactions from others.

“Another man, a peasant aged 36, asked what sort of person he was, responded with touching and humane directness: ‘What can I say about my own heart? How can I talk about my character? Ask others; they can tell you about me. I myself can’t say anything.'”

Ong concludes: “It is perhaps impossible to devise a test in writing or even an oral test shaped in a literate setting that would assess accurately the native intellectual abilities of persons from a highly oral culture.” The use of examinations to sort people came into use in the West only in recent centuries; the use of written exams to create and maintain the ruling classes in East Asia is much more ancient and contains valuable lessons for those who care to look. But I’ll have to leave that for another post.

I don’t want to minimize the importance and, indeed, the many rewards of mastering what Ong calls the grapholect: the dialect of the ruling class – in our case, standard English – that becomes the repository of written culture and the key to the whole, vast garden of the text. To use an analogy, my belief in the absolutely essential importance of large tracts of wilderness does not diminish my fondness for human society. In fact, in my view, the latter quickly grows sterile and unhealthy without regular infusions from the former realm. In like manner, I see the persistence of folk culture and the oral lifeworld of felt experience as necessary for the continued vitality of literate culture.

We can argue about whether or to what extent ethnocentricity or in-group exclusivity might be “natural” or inevitable. But history and anthropology do offer abundant examples to suggest the power of ameliorating influences. Multiculturalism has been the norm for most peoples throughout history. Monolingualism such as many WASPs experience it seems quite rare – especially if we consider additional competence in a non-standard English dialect to constitute a form of bilingualism. If I’d been a little less “differnt” and a little more social back when I was in public school, I might be able to claim such bilingualism myself.

This month, my plan for full-spectrum dominance of the blogosphere has claimed its first two victims. Alas, poor Tonio, I didn’t know him very well at all! He never gave me a chance. Of course, he didn’t exactly go – this is cyberspace. There’s no elsewhere. You’re either here or you’re not, but most of you who are here are only here for a few minutes each day, so your presence is not merely virtual but suppositional as well. I’m like that cat Schrödinger, ya know?

Ergo, as long as I forebear from gathering site statistics, it’s as easy for me to imagine that I am talking to a large crowd from atop the good soapbox Via Negativa as it is to believe that I am preaching to the choir (& who more worthy of a sermon, after all?) – as it is to acknowledge that I am mainly talking to myself: my most inattentive audience by far! The larger the crowd, I says to myself, the more attention I get. Yes, Master Bates, says my sardonic self back to me.

“Commonbeauty” couldn’t take the heat, the pressure, the constant strain. The blogosphere is a cruel mistress. He had other fish to fry. And unlike me, he always eschewed cliches! What a sap.

Perhaps my most fiendish scheme is to prevent other potential competitors from entering the arena in the first place. I have set up a dozen front companies – venture capitalists and talent scouts – always on the lookout for fresh perspectives and exciting new ideas to smother to death under virtual wheelbarrow loads of money, sex and drugs. Those statistics you’ve seen, about how 90 percent of new blogs fizzle out after just three or four entries? You think that’s an accident? FOOL! Listen: we will bury you.

Needless to say, this is quite an undertaking. “I’ll be the last guy to let you down,” says the undertaker. He doesn’t know that his employees are mounting a union drive that will culminate with the collectivization of the whole enterprise. That’s what you get for hiring Diggers.

I do my own digging with a golden shovel. It works fine as long as I don’t hit a rock. When gold goes up against sandstone, guess who wins? Little grains of quartz, the commonest crystal in the world. Apply heat & pressure over a few million years & boom! you got a mountain. Put gold in it, & you get California. Thus Hollywood. McDonalds. Full-spectrum dominance, babe. Even as you read this, my agents are fanning out across the Internet, launching surfeit-of-service attacks on your blog hosts, distracting the U.S. copyright office’s attention from your numerous & flagrant violations with the fata morgana of file sharing, stuffing your puny comment boxes with fatuous & irrelevant messages.

But I am, as you know, an armchair mystic. As long as my butt is comfortable and my belly is full, I can babble bliss with the best of ’em. The whole purpose of religion, says the Chinese-German philosopher Ni Qi, is to ensure good digestion. So why should I tolerate sedition right in my gut?

I speak, of course, of the not-so-cynical speaker of Diogenese whose tub-thumping act has provided a sort of low amusement in these parts. At first, he was content to quote something and add just a line or two of his own, as we agreed. But then he started to get a little full of himself – that’s my department, says I. So we had a little talk, Mr. Dead Greek Anti-Philosopher Dude & me. I showed him the invisible corpse of the albino elephant, expatiated on the common end of all beauty – he could see what sand trap I was driving at. Is that where he wanted to end up? On the street, right outside the 34th Street Station, with a can full of pencils instead of a modem and a cardboard sign instead of a blog?

Yes, it was.

So today, even as I ease the capacious & distinctly malodorous Tub of Diogenes into an unmarked grave, I play midwife to the bitch called Payback & help whelp a new feature. From an all-but-imaginary post outside the 34th Street Station in Madhatter, New Jerk City, the thinker formerly known as Diogenes will telegraph Words On the Street. No more links to the Internet, no more content-providing safety net. These Words must be brief enough to fit on a cardboard sign – but pithy enough to sell pencils to the dark-suited illuminati of the PDA.

In addition – or rather, in substitution – the non-feature formerly known as Counter will be re-christened the Tomb of the Unknown Reader. I imagine y’all as pilgrims, dontcha know, visiting such holey sites wherever they be found, hither and (mostly) yon. Picture, if you will, a low and humble stone, far from the madhatting crowd at the 34th Street Station, in the middle of a peaceful grove on the great gray green greasy banks of the Limpopo River. Where the statistics go – not to die (for they were hardly ever alive) – but to pray for rebirth as fully sentient beings.

So Reader, beware. Anywhere else, you could become a statistic. Walk carefully. Don’t give out change unless you’re willing to change something of your own: your name, your clothes, your beautiful house, your internet service provider. Don’t give credit where credit isn’t due: “Visa” won’t actually get you across borders; “American Express” is a slow boat to China; “Mastercard” is a slave’s badge. You can go to the gypsy. You can go to the ant. Or you can come here. Don’t settle for anything less.

Up at dawn for some musical multi-tasking: listening to white-throated sparrows through the open window while playing a Leadbelly cassette and flipping through a sheaf of poems by Jack McManis.

Jack was my mentor in poetry, someone who taught largely through silence – he only ever commented on things he liked. He led writing workshops for 25 years at Penn State, but I never actually took a class from him. Instead, we met regularly in his office to exchange poems, starting with once-a-week visits in 1978 when I was in eighth grade, and continuing (with somewhat declining frequency) until Jack’s death in 1989.

Jack McManis was one of the first generation of post-war college poetry teachers. He placed poems often enough in magazines and anthologies, but – much to the distress of his numerous friends and supportive colleagues – never got around to finishing a book-length collection. This omission stemmed partly from the alcoholism that consumed the first half of his life and partly from the altruistic energy that consumed much of the second half. (I didn’t realize until well after his death just how active he had been in Alcoholics Anonymous, helping set up chapters all over the country.)

Jack grew up in southern California, fought in the Pacific in World War II, and was an excellent tennis player – at one time he was the tenth-ranked amateur player in the country. He helped found the poetry magazine Pivot, which still survives, though he was always content to remain Associate Editor. His former students include Diane Ackerman and the late Agha Shahid Ali.

Even after achieving sobriety and becoming a “born-again Anglican,” Jack was no saint in the conventional sense of the term. He office reeked of the snuff he dipped from a silver box, and he loved to try and get others hooked on the stuff. (I always refused it – I’ve never been big on the idea of nasal ingestion.) Although his satires and parodies grew a little less biting after his recovery, he never stopped writing them. Nor were bawdy subjects off-limits: a poem about his neighbor’s wife’s ass was one of his standards at poetry readings.

Jack’s favorite poet was Hart Crane; other favorites included William Carlos Williams, Melvin B. Tolson and Theodore Roethke (who also taught briefly at Penn State). He believed that a poet should be “drenched in words,” as he once wrote me, quoting Hart Crane. He was haunted by Crane’s death – he committed suicide in April 1932 by leaping off a boat in the Caribbean and feeding himself to the sharks. This more than anything seemed to symbolize the end of innocence for Jack, who grew up in the Roaring Twenties. In one satire, he imagined the Statue of Liberty being buried at sea: “slide her down / to the oil shark / republic.” Sharks seemed to possess a kind of limit-value for Jack, as in the following elegy.

MEMORIAL FIN

by the breakwater after the funeral,
Corona del Mar, California

My father, John, a gentle dusty man,
loved the country earth and what it grows.
He most loved lowly and neglected things
we glance at or gaze past but rarely see:
hawberries, snaky wildgrape, wormed crabapples,
swamp shade pools under willow oaks that home
nightsinging whippoorwills and clacking treetoads.
What reliquary for my father’s love
of earth? Wind-driven leaves and locust shells?
Earth crumbled over him, put out his stars
and hushed the cardinal’s clear water-fife
back in his boyhood Indiana woods
still whistling in the now, now lost to him.
My father’s Baptist testimony praised
all these as God’s. He praised the blind fin.

Love as your father loved, the preacher said.
I hear his hands wash now in slap and seethe
of wave on rock and wonder how to love
all this, my father, you its lover gone:
this sky of tearless blue, it’s dead-man’s-float
of the day moon and that lone firefly ghosting
hope, last night flown where in the too-bright noon?
O these feed the blind fin’s tidal appetite –
the sharkfin there by the quay carving its track
straight out, out into the afterbirth grey-green
Pacific and maybe on to infinity
shredding our mirages, love and time,
that fin’s synoptic arrow tugging sun
– to drown the sun? All worship the blind fin.

*
Like many of us, Jack hated to let a poem go. There are no definitive versions, just endless rewrites. The above poem seems to have been his last revision, although I admit I did substitute one line from an earlier version that I liked better – I don’t think Jack would have minded. Now, as I continue to leaf through my folders of his poems, I’m finding so much more that I can’t pass up! How about if I just put a few things down, assemble a brief, fairly random collection of McManis fragments, a la the Greek Anthology?

*
Tin can sacristan,
cling clang buoy!
. . .
I dream and look over
the rail at flaking
light churning,
pouring out
electric tears
as I lose self
in the jewelry
of water.

*
I was born
in a heat wave:
South Chicago.
Headfirst I popped out
crying for a drink . . .

*
And what about sweetsinging Bobby Jones gone paralytic,
Big Bill Tilden humbled in prison and Paavo Nurmi, Finn
ironman, loping off into Arctic twilight, last marathon
against a ghostly polar bear tireless as time?

(“Child of the Twenties in the Eighties”)

*
So the twenties, time of the great gestures! And whose
were greater than yours, St. Slapstick? You who spun truth
in crazy pantomime, though it’s half-past mayhem, time for me
to return to the missing persons bureau of the eighties, before
the onrushing manifest planet spill me in the whistlestop dark,
my keepsakes scattered in cinders, let me spin off the rods
not in mourning but laughing far down in my bones, tickled
by you, old holy pie thrower!

(Ibid.)

*
Let Satch blast out for you, Gabe,
that trumpet note
we’re just dying to hear.

(“Conceit for a Cloudy Halloween ’82”)

*
Finally
The Puerto Rican
counterman comes
and pries
the pair of clowns
out of that
glass coffin.

(“Daily Circus at the Automat / New York City”)

*
A long time ago
(but not so long)
when we pilgrimaged
down to Avenue C
in the cell-block
Lower East Side
to see Leadbelly,
America’s great folk
poet and musicman
(before the polio
things ate his spine),
sitting straight
in a chair in
his walk-up flat
he told us how when
he heard JS Bach
he couldn’t keep
still, but thumped
with his hands
and his feet and
from time to time
broke out into
half-chant and
half-recitativo.
“The beat and the
repeat and the
jubilee,” he said,
“shake the lyrics
out of me like
a hound dog
being gristed
and ground around
in a song mill!”

(“Kin: Remembering Leadbelly,” Prairie Schooner, Summer 1971)

*
I’ll prop the saint erect again come spring
but now his milky eyes feed on the grosbeaks.

(“Letter to a Friend Before the February Thaw”)

*
Inside the crinkled ghost-transparent tent
she’s stretched out gaunt, a green sarcophagus
suspended in seawater, head stuck out
of the bedsheet envelope and pillow-propped,
hawk nose thrust up a wedge to split the air,
to reach, to strain up to the source of it –
that dense life juice she mouths and gums and gulps.
Pinched nostrils labor hard ringed faint with blue-
fadeblue of robin eggshells on cement,
the cheeks caved in to make the forehead loom . . .
All birdmouth gaping she sucks air so hard
I listen for the wind-work hiss of lung,
but stillness hangs a curtain round her mouth
that quivers in and out and seems a stranger
to the frozen skull, the sheeted body mound –
the last sign visible of life the twist
of thin lips flexing their beseeching O.

If I woke where she is in a cloud of green,
what thoughts would consciousness, a broken wing,
flap fluttering against the swoongreen cage?
Or if eyes opened, tried to weave a way
through blear, what make of all the blurring ghosts
beyond the cave and gliding by like fish?
These the loved dead that slip my hands in dreams?

(“Life Mask”)

*
Finally, here’s a Jack McManis poem I couldn’t resist including in its entirety.

ART APPRECIATION CLASS

–Sir, some sacrilegious clown
has gone and dotted
that Tintoretto sunset
with tiny fly specks.
–Where?
–There, there, and there.
–Don’t touch the painting
you fool! Those
aren’t fly specks,
they’re birds.
Tempo giasco
with the Old Master.
The birds
on background of pink sky
are humorous.
–Yeah?
–Yes, the birds are fun.
–Fun?
–Yes, loads of fun.
–Oh, I see what you mean.
Just a minute, Sir.
Let me write that down.
The birds are fun.

***
Last fall my friend Jo, who is in the process of moving very gradually to Arizona, prevailed upon me to take what she calls the Jack McManis tree. This is a handsome, four-foot-tall Norfolk pine that used to belong to Jack. It doesn’t travel very well – the slight bruising and bending necessary to transport it home in the car caused extensive needle loss in the upper branches. But with plenty of light and water it’s growing vigorously now, and if anything has become more attractive as a result of this partial damage to its symmetry. Most of my house is too dark for plants; the only place I could put it was right at the opposite end of the table from where I write.

Thus it happens that when I look up from the screen I find myself staring absent-mindedly into the foliage of the Jack McManis tree. And sometimes then I am transported back to Jack’s “bartelby den of an office,” as he once described it, sitting companionably with sheaves of each other’s recent poems in our laps. I hear Old Main tolling the quarter hour. Then the rattle of a page, and an appreciative grunt gives way to a chuckle, the blowing of a nose. “What a great line,” he enthuses, and I crane my neck, staring with pretended comprehension at another pure accident, learning slowly and without realizing it how to value those moments when the words come mostly on their own.

“Things are getting a bit quiet here because I am happily occupied in the embodied world. There are many felicities, both in the realm of the obvious and in the territory of the secret.

“I have been thinking also about the fate of this blog, the good ship commonbeauty, and about how to give this enjoyable little experiment the graceful and natural death it deserves.

“Two strange thoughts have accompanied this. First, a couple of lines over at Lois’s page (heart@work), in which she talks about the inexpressibility of many of the experiences she’s been having (April 14). Somehow, that touched something very real in me. My blog, which has aided my acts of witness, has also been, in its own way, an impediment to witness. I am curious about the unprinted territory commanded by Socrates and by Gautama and by Yeshua and their many nameless ilk.

“The second is an article at Dave’s page (vianegativa) which, oddly enough, I have not yet read. It is the recent article on poetics (April 13), and I have this instinctive feeling that, when I finally do read it, the attention I will wish to pay its prescriptions will leave me precious little blogging time! So, blame Dave. . . . ”

commonbeauty 18 April 2004

*
“The strangeness happens when Joel (the Carey character) discovers that his unhappy, impulsive girl-friend, Clementine, has had her memories of him erased, so she can move on unencumbered by the past. Distraught, Joel decides to do the same thing. The complication arises when, as his memories of her are being deleted, he changes his mind. The movie surprised me with its somber ending (which, of course, I will not divulge).

“According to Hollywood, if you deliver solid entertainment and viewers enjoy themselves, they won’t care about trivial things like inconsistency, improbability or impossibility. With regard to Jim Carey’s latest movie, I found that to be true. The fact that memory erasure technology is totally inconsistent with current science or any conceivable future science didn’t dampen my enjoyment one bit. . . .

“Memories aren’t like individual data files stored on a computer hard drive. Memories are actually recreated on the fly, much as web pages are recreated new every time they are requested. So you can’t locate them anywhere in the brain for erasure. Also, different parts of the brain are involved in generating these memories. Furthermore, people program their own brains as they grow up, so every human brain is programmed a little differently. So memory generation doesn’t work exactly the same way in every brain. In short, no brain scientist on Earth could even imagine a technology that would permit the erasure of specific memories. It’s one of those things that probably will never happen . . . ”

Book of Life 21 April 2004

“Recently, a friend confessed that her memoirs had replaced her actual memories – her original impressions, images, interpretations, and emotions overwritten by the revisions stored on her laptop hard drive. Notebook scribbles, structured paragraphs, aestheticized dialogue. These are her reality now.

“‘I will be telling a story,’ she said. ‘And my husband will stop me. That is not what happened, he will say. That is what you wrote.’

“This is not to say her memoirs lie. Rather, it points to the ways in which essays are shaped – formally, aesthetically, emotionally, and otherwise. Creative nonfiction writers do not merely retrieve and record the artifacts of their lives, digging them out from the sediment and arranging them for display. They imbue them with meaning. In order to create that meaning, they reshape the emotional, psychological, or temporal contexts. Subtle as this process may be, it is also extremely powerful.

“But something even more fundamental – more powerful – is revealed by my friend’s story. When original memories are replaced by our crafted ones, what does this mean? Just like in archaeology, the site is destroyed by our own digging. Forever altered. . . . ”

evidentiary: alchemy 6 April 2004

We do not go into the desert to escape people but to learn how to find them; we do not leave them to have nothing more to do with them, but to find out the way to do them the most good. . . . The only way to find solitude is by hunger and thirst and sorrow and poverty and desire, and the man who has found solitude is empty, as if he had been emptied by death.

He has advanced beyond all horizons. There are no directions left in which he can travel. This is a country whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. You do not find it by traveling but by standing still.

That’s Thomas Merton, from New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions, 1961), which I’m re-reading for the first time in close to ten years. (As luck would have it, Beth at Cassandra Pages has been reading Merton also.) I remember being impressed before, but this time I am blown away. Merton summarizes and synthesizes the Christian mystical tradition like no other author I’ve read. I like being challenged when I read, and this book constitutes the perfect challenge for me right now.

As delighted as I am by the profundity of his reflections, however, I still cannot (yet) bring myself to accept that there is a permanent escape route from existential sorrow and pain. I hope to convince nobody of my views – please, if you are a person of true faith (as Merton defines it), do not let me dissuade you from your idealism! Here’s a passage that exemplifies some of what I have a problem with. I fancy that many of my readers will, in fact, identify strongly with the sentiments here, and wonder why I do not.

“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls. In His love we posses all things and enjoy fruition of them, finding Him in them all. And thus as we go about the world, everything we meet and everything we see and hear and touch, far from defiling, purifies us and plants in us something more of contemplation and heaven.

“Short of this perfection, created things do not bring us joy but pain. Until we love God perfectly, everything in the world will be able to hurt us. And the greatest misfortune is to be dead to the pain they inflict on us, and not to realize what it is.

“For until we love God perfectly His world is full of contradiction. The things He has created attract us to Him and yet keep us away from Him. They draw us on and they stop us dead. We find Him in them to some extent and then we don’t find Him in them at all.

“Just when we think we have discovered some joy in them, the joy turns to sorrow; and just when they are beginning to please us the pleasure turns to pain . . . ”

Yep. So?

Back in the early 70s, Doonesbury poked fun at the conservative reaction to the “Me generation” in the person of Mark Slackmeyer’s dad, who once memorably opined that “Life is not meant to be enjoyed. It is meant to be gotten on with!” That’s putting rather too strongly a sentiment I do feel a bit myself. The funny thing is, I remain a social and political idealist: there’s nothing inherently difficult about building just, peaceful and ecologically sustainable societies, in my view. This strikes me as being well within our capacities as human beings.

I don’t even have a quarrel with the truth claims in the preceding passage. As regular readers of Via Negativa have probably noticed, I’m simultaneously attracted to and repelled by religious utopianism – the comic worldview. On the other hand, a great deal of existence strikes me as inescapably tragic. On the third hand (oops, shades of Hinduism!) it is barely possible that, in rejecting the appeal of what seems most attractive about religion – joy, freedom from pain, personal salvation – I may be setting myself up for some kind of authentic religious experience. But I doubt it.

More likely I have simply entered what Molly Ivins calls “dour old fartitude” a little prematurely. Alternatively, I may actually be more cheerful than the average person, more easily sustained by whatever scraps of truth and joy happen to come my way.

I mentioned Harry Humes the day before yesterday. Here’s a poem of his that might have some bearing here, I think. This is from his book Butterfly Effect (Milkweed, 1999). My only quibble with it is that he doesn’t make the occasion quite clear enough: is he describing something he saw on TV, read in the papers, or heard from a friend? But I like the way he tries to ground the news in his own experience through synchronicity. This makes the concluding question more personal, more urgent.

GRIZZLY COUNTRY
by Harry Humes

Before she crawled into her sleeping bag,
she ate a cold supper,
had no small fire for comfort,
hoisted her pack into a tree,
did not wash her hands or face,
did not hum or whistle.

The bear found her anyway,
came quietly down some scree,
crossed the stream,
and took her out of the tent.

This evening, only a few hours past
the winter solstice, I wonder
where I was when the bear lifted
its snout into the sky.
Did I look at first snow over Hawk Mountain?
Or at my daughter?
Did I hear something beyond the blue spruce?

What is it goes wrong with our knowing?
What is it we don’t hear right away,
or ever, that comes fully grown,
silver guard hair brilliant on its shoulders,
not clumsy, but stunning
in its moves, so beautiful
one might love its approach?

1.
I said: No earth, no plow.
No beaten sword to sway hip-
deep in some
dark wound. Forget
the slit where the rolling
coulter rides. Surely,
she asked, you will admit
the moon’s disc?
But I was still uneasy,
thinking, only if
the values were reversed.
Shining field, breast
of smooth obsidian.

The common words
are worse than inadequate:
they’re wrong. The male parts
scatter pollen; seeds
are eggs that have been – what?
Not fertilized, but transformed.
Shining field of the body,
opaque mirror in which
both sexes preen.
If you need
a fable, I said,
try this: You are
the storm
my tree bends
against. Graceful
as a twister, moving
ladder to let the fanatic
angels down
& down. Ground
or figure, earth
or firmament?
Each yields to each,
gets stronger by giving
way: we are water, no less.
The words float at first
& then dissolve.
Voices merge,
eddy, plunge, seek
the level. All of it
a prelude to silence,
the tantalizing peaks
suspended upside-down
in – ah – this
clear lake.

2.
We are all next. — Lucille Clifton

The first word reinvents the world – and vice versa.

This never fails to astonish me, how we cannot think apart from the blossoming shadbush & the grouse exploding from cover.

The ancient analogy between word & seed still seems to hold. What happens to turn a cry into a carrier of specific import? An egg gains direction without & differentiation within. To set seed is to gain polarity, to separate up from down & one wing from the other. (You can call them cotyledons if you like.)

Thus, the very first word is next.

He needs walking the way a carpenter needs a hammer and wood, but the walks are growing shorter.
“It’s terribly hard,” his wife Kitty observes.
“So frustrating. He thinks best when his legs are moving. He believes to have an idea, it’s got to come from something tangible, something he is a part of, something he sees.”

Thanks to my brother Steve for alerting me to this great portrait of the Welsh poet Leslie Norris, a long-time resident of Orem, Utah. I’m ashamed to admit I had nothing on my shelf by Norris – had never even read him, in fact. A visit to my favorite local used bookstore yesterday remedied this situation, though the book I picked up – Walking the White Fields: Poems 1967-1980 – is too brief, besides being two decades behind in its selection. Reading through it this morning, I was reminded most strongly of the Pennsylvania poet Harry Humes. There’s the same love of winter themes, the vision of the wild within the pastoral/domestic, the understated sense of dramatic occasion.

So for Earth Day, here’s a Norris poem about megaliths, which I’ll follow with one of Paul Zweig’s deathbed poems (from Selected and Last Poems, Wesleyan, 1989) on a similar theme.

THE TWELVE STONES OF PENTRE IFAN
by Leslie Norris

The wind
Over my shoulder
Blows from the cold of time.

It has
Shaped the hill,
It has honed the rock outcrops

With the
Granules of its
Rasping. When the old ones

Were born
They dropped in dark-
ness, like sheep, and hot animals

Howled for
The afterbirths.
I watched the great stones of

Faith they
Moved in the flickering
Mountains of their nameless

Lives, and
See once more the
Points of adjusted rock, taller

Than any
Man who will ever
Stand where I stand, lifting their hope

In still,
Huge stone, pointed
To the flying wind. The sea ebbs again,

And round
The endless brevity
Of the seasons the old men’s cromlech

Prepares
Its hard shadows.
The four great stones, elate and springing,

And the
Smaller stones, big
As a man, leaning in, supporting.

*

SKYWRITING
by Paul Zweig

White furrow on the sky for the seed that will not grow,
The laborious skywriting, like a child
Tracing his name in stabbing lines of letters:
Graffiti, pyramid, stone cross, footprint, haystack;
Or the farmer wielding the shoulder-bone of an ox,
Who first shoveled up the earth and planted
Barley, half-wild wheat; who let fall the seed
Of his cock, and sucked the black wound
Where the earth bled food. And the shell-heaps;
The fifty-ton stones turned on end;
The mounds to keep the dead from getting loose:
All those acts to keep life from getting out of hand,
The dead shells of deeds forming another kind of life.
The 120-foot-high earthen nipple of Silsbery
Took a hundred years to erect out of chalk blocks,
Rubble, and a fine skin of earth.
What a job for a handful of shepherds
Who also ploughed the soil in their season:
A laborious outcry, meaning here! Or a curse.
Curse the intractable earth, death, blindness, rotten teeth,
Arthritis, dead babies; curse winter, curse summer!
Can you hear me, heaven? Am I making enough noise
For you? Suck on this teat of dust and rock.
I’m dying down here, and I want you to hear
The sound of it. It is called scream in the night,
It is called earth tit and Stone Henge,
It is called language,
It is called the sleeplessness of the gods.

I said to the Yeti, wash yo’ butt! Quit leaping out like that, you’ll scare the children. Second graders by the looks of them, more-or-less absorbed in their crayoning, which I can only imagine features yellow suns in the corner and birds in the shape of the letter m. Motherly letter, how well I remember learning its name! M’s the one that looks like mountains and the birds that circle them, idiotically, in old cracked paintings from the Renaissance – which I still can’t spell without help. Every day is Earth Day, but today is special because my ISP is down and I am forced to go wandering outside, peering closely at the unfamiliar trees and wondering where I left my clothes, all of a sudden, and why I have grown so hairy. I’ve been taking howling lessons from Elvis, listen: [fire alarm]. Then there’s [a train whistle, only it’s nothing like a whistle]. I am walking lightly on the earth, I am stopping to smell the flowers, let me hear you say Hail Yeah. My feet are shaped like large, cracked gourds, my nose drips like a candle. My eyes – Lord knows – are bloodshot from too much peering in peoples’ windows to watch TV. I am registered to vote – no party affiliation. The last time I tried to affiliate, no one was willing to swear in blood. What the hell good was that? You want friendship, you want brotherhood, get out the goddamn knife. Nobody wants to commit anymore: no walking under turf, no trials by ordeal. It’s enough just to enter a couple digits somewhere, move a decimal point and poof! someone’s nonexistent wallet gets heavier, poof! a mountain turns into a valley, poof! mercury is good for us. Easy come, easy go. My friend the coyote stopped by and left his calling card, a pungent remark bristling with the hair of somebody’s dog. It was in fact shaped like the letter C. You can read into that whatever you want. And since today is Earth Day, I expect some fool will try.

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.

BALKANIZATION: PIECING TOGETHER THE NEWS

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.