A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Friday, December 17, 2010

But They Have Questionable Antecedents

From today's San Francisco Chronicle:
When Mike Wood's 3-year-old son was having trouble associating sounds with letters, he built from scratch an interactive "phonics desk." Then he created a company - called LeapFrog - to sell his invention.
Damn! These high-tech entrepreneurs are getting younger all the time.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Today's Shamelessness

Think Progress reports on the latest in blatant, unashamed bigotry:
Last month, several Tea Party activists formed a right-wing coalition to oust Rep. Joe Straus (R) as Texas House Speaker. They began circulating emails with anti-Semitic messages against Straus, who is Jewish. The groups ran robo-calls and sent out e-mails demanding a “true Christian leader,” and calling Straus’ opponent, Rep. Ken Paxton (R), “a Christian Conservative who decided not to be pushed around by the Joe Straus thugs.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thoughts While Showering

I considered giving the title of this post in French, which Google Translate tells me would be pensées sous la douche, but I thought better of it. Never mind why.

I am one of those people who are restless when they don't have something in front of them to read, so this morning I found myself fixating on the label of a bottle in the shower. It belongs to someone else in the household, and is a product called "therapy reconstructor." Since I could do with both therapy and reconstruction, I was intrigued until I realized it was just for hair.

What really caught my eye, though, were the words on it in French. For some reason grooming products always seem to have French on the label. The therapy reconstructor explains that it is pour revitaliser et renforcer les cheveux abîmés, gros ou cassants.

I like a challenge, so I summoned up my college French and read it as: "for revitalizing and reinforcing abysmal, fat or broken hair." I rather like the idea of abysmal hair. We've all had mornings like that. I'm not sure I've ever met anyone with fat hair, but it certainly sounds abysmal. And I guess if you use too much hairspray you could break your hair, though it also seems to me you might run the risk of breaking it if you reinforced it too much.

The English on the label assured me that my translation was faulty: "repairs and strengthens stressed, coarse, brittle hair," it says. I like my version better. I'm sure it would be abysmal to have stressed tresses. And though my French may not be up to the task, I found the translation experience to be both therapeutic and reconstructive.

Monday, November 22, 2010

JFK Without Tears

Forty-seven years ago today, I was walking into Harvard Yard on my way to Widener to work on some paper or other when two undergraduates ran past me and I heard one of them ask, "Is he dead?" An unsettling question to begin with, and I'm convinced that my mind went immediately to President Kennedy, although that may be only a memory tainted by hindsight.

At the entrance to the library, a guard was listening to a transistor radio, and I found out what had happened. But, being the dutiful graduate student that I thought I was, I kept going. At the entrance to the stacks I met two history grad students I knew, who were already talking about the assassination's implications in dry, clinical terms. I remember saying to them, feeling faintly disgusted at the intellectualization of the event, "Just write November 22, 1963, on a note card and file it."

But I couldn't concentrate on what I was supposed to be researching, and I turned and walked back to my dorm room where my roommate and I spent the weekend listening to the radio. (Believe it or not, nobody had a TV in their dorm rooms in those days.)

All of this came back to me only because I was listening to NPR on my way to the grocery store and some announcer was playing a snippet of the funeral march movement of Beethoven's "Eroica" and commenting on the anniversary. Then it was back to news about the North Korean nukes and the TSA patdowns.

I won't say it only feels like yesterday, but it hasn't been so long ago since November 22 was an occasion for memorials of one sort or another. Now it's just another day to mark off the calendar on the way to Thanksgiving and Christmas. And maybe that's the way it ought to be. But those of us who "remember where we were when" can recall November 22, 1963, as vividly as most people now remember September 11, 2001. Those beautiful autumn days when human life and death seemed so out of phase with the weather.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thoughts While Shaving

We seem to be a country incapable of learning from its mistakes. Like never fight a land war in Asia and don't put Republicans in charge of the economy.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Death of Shame

Last night I watched this and was very moved:

Today I read this on Talking Points Memo:

Bryan Fischer, the "Director of Issues Analysis" for the conservative Christian group the American Family Association, was unhappy yesterday that President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to a soldier for saving lives. This, Fischer wrote on his blog, shows that the Medal of Honor has been "feminized" because "we now award it only for preventing casualties, not for inflicting them."

Here's how the AP described Medal of Honor winner Army Sgt. Salvatore Giunta heroics:
Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor winner of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, braved heavy gunfire to pull a fellow soldier to cover and rescued another who was being dragged away by insurgents.
Fischer's take? "So the question is this: when are we going to start awarding the Medal of Honor once again for soldiers who kill people and break things so our families can sleep safely at night?"

"We have feminized the Medal of Honor," Fischer wrote. He also quoted General Patton: "Gen. George Patton once famously said, 'The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other guy die for his.'" (Actually, Patton doesn't say anything about the other guy: "The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.")

Fischer recently argued that it's time to get rid of the "curse" that is the Grizzly Bear because of the number of humans who have been killed by bears: "One human being is worth more than an infinite number of grizzly bears. Another way to put it is that there is no number of live grizzlies worth one dead human being. If it's a choice between grizzlies and humans, the grizzlies have to go. And it's time."

Fischer is a favorite of social conservative Republicans, and spoke at the Values Voter summit this fall alongside Mitt Romney, Jim DeMint, and other big-shot Republicans.

And what I want to know is, when did people lose their sense of shame? At what point did it become acceptable for anyone to make statements like this? Have we become so corrupted by the filth on talk radio that a "favorite of social conservative Republicans" and a professed Christian can write such utterly contemptible stuff?

Doubtless there will be some blowback, and Mr. Fischer will issue one of those "if I offended anybody" non-apologies, but the level of discourse in this country is already damaged beyond repair by crap like this.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ignorance Is Bliss

From Leah Garchik's column in today's San Francisco Chronicle:

Home School Day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium allows kids who are educated at home to have the same visiting privileges as kids who visit as part of school groups. Many of the homeschooled are kept away from schools because their parents are fundamentalists. So it's not surprising that on Home School Day on Nov. 8, George Post overheard a docent telling a group, "This fossilized seashell is around 80 million years old," to which one kid responded, "Excuse me, but how is that even possible, since the Earth itself is only 6,000 years old?"

The aquarium's Ken Peterson says although the aquarium "is a scientific organization," staff members and volunteers do their best to make sure visits are "productive and respectful." That means, he said, that talks to these visitors don't focus on how the Earth came to be but rather how it is now, and the universal obligation to take care of it for future generations. As to creationism versus evolution, "we acknowledge theories exist," but the desired focus, he said, is how "we can all be better stewards."

Post, a photographer, sent some photos of cards homeschooled kids had posted on bulletin boards in the aquarium's learning center. Among them: God "will bring to ruin those who are ruining the earth," a quote from the Bible; "God is grate"; "It's a big hoax you crazy lunatics. Global warming is happening as fast as it was 6,000 years ago."
Something like that happened to me once, many years ago when I was teaching freshman English in Texas. I had assigned a particularly eloquent passage from Darwin's Origin of Species to an honors class, ready to talk about prose style, when one of them raised her hand to advance the proposition that Darwin's theory had been disproved by the second law of thermodynamics. Naturally, like most English teachers, I had forgotten what the second law of thermodynamics was. (Entropy in closed systems, which organic systems aren't, so the second law doesn't apply.) Unprepared to reply, I gulped, muttered something like "perhaps," and forged ahead with whatever I was prepared to say about sentence structure. I heard her whisper to a friend, "Look how red he's turning." 

So Garchik's anecdote leaves me wondering: What was the docent's answer to the question? How do you handle blind ideology "productively and respectfully"?  How, in a "scientific organization," is it possible to reply intelligently to anti-scientific thinking? Why would fundamentalist home-schoolers even let their blinkered darlings loose in a place full of scientists? 

And isn't there a way we can charge these parents with intellectual child abuse?

Friday, October 22, 2010

What I'm Reading: The Passage

The PassageThe Passage by Justin Cronin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't read a lot of bestsellers anymore. I had to, when I was a book section editor, but now I'm surrounded by shelves of books I haven't read and should, or books I've read but don't remember. But when I heard about this novel, it sounded like my kind of book. What that says about me, I leave it to you to surmise.

I can imagine the pitch to the publishers and then to the movie producers: The Hot Zone meets True Blood. And in truth that's what attracted me to it. The idea that vampirism might be a medical condition, even if it's a far-fetched concept, has a lot of appeal to me. If Cronin had stuck more closely to that premise I might have liked the book more, but then it got all muddled up with telepathic communications that don't seem to have much to do with the virus: the whole business of Sister Lacey and her psychic connection with first Amy and then Doyle, for example. I'm willing to admit that a virus might even allow a human being to grow a carapace, to alter its musculature and make it superstrong, maybe even to glow. But the parapsychology is a bit hard to swallow, especially when it's demonstrated by people who aren't even infected.

Still, I'm game for a good yarn, so I stuck with it. And I'll probably be first in line for the sequel, if only because there are so damn many loose ends that I want to see if Cronin ties up. (For example, what about Hastings/Zero, who was infected with the virus in its natural state in Bolivia? Did he become the same kind of Queen Bee that Babcock became? He seems not to have a connection with the Twelve.)

On the whole it's a strong book for what it is: a deft handling of genre conventions, with more than a touch of Tolkien (Peter as Frodo, the virals as orcs). It's more cinematic than literary, but who am I to knock that?

View all my Goodreads reviews

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Refusal to Apologize

Being told that they're sinful and that their love offends God, and being told that their relationships are unworthy of the civil right that is marriage (not the religious rite that some people use to solemnize their civil marriages), can eat away at the souls of gay kids. It makes them feel like they're not valued, that their lives are not worth living. And if one of your children is unlucky enough to be gay, the anti-gay bigotry you espouse makes them doubt that their parents truly love them—to say nothing of the gentle "savior" they've heard so much about, a gentle and loving father who will condemn them to hell for the sin of falling in love with the wrong person.

The children of people who see gay people as sinful or damaged or disordered and unworthy of full civil equality—even if those people strive to express their bigotry in the politest possible way (at least when they happen to be addressing a gay person)—learn to see gay people as sinful, damaged, disordered, and unworthy. And while there may not be any gay adults or couples where you live, or at your church, or at your workplace, I promise you that there are gay and lesbian children in your schools. You may only attack gays and lesbians at the ballot box, nice and impersonally, but your children have the option of attacking actual real gays and lesbians, in person, in real time.

Real gay and lesbian children. Not political abstractions, not "sinners." Real gay and lesbian children.

The dehumanizing bigotries that fall from lips of "faithful Christians," and the lies that spew forth from the pulpit of the churches "faithful Christians" drag their kids to on Sundays, give your straight children a license to verbally abuse, humiliate and condemn the gay children they encounter at school. And many of your straight children—having listened to mom and dad talk about how gay marriage is a threat to the family and how gay sex makes their magic sky friend Jesus cry himself to sleep—feel justified in physically attacking the gay and lesbian children they encounter in their schools. You don't have to explicitly "encourage [your] children to mock, hurt, or intimidate" gay kids. Your encouragement—along with your hatred and fear—is implicit. It's here, it's clear, and we can see the fruits of it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Three Score and Ten

Back when I was in my fifties, a not-that-much-younger person once described me as "spry." I did not take kindly to the description. I guess I would now, though 70 is what I thought 40 would be like when I was 20. A bit frayed at the edges but basically sound.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Monday, August 30, 2010

Monday, August 9, 2010

Keeping It Secular

In a rather obtuse New York Times column today Ross Douthat argues that Judge Walker's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage amounts to the abandonment of
one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit. But based on Judge Walker’s logic — which suggests that any such distinction is bigoted and un-American — I don’t think a society that declares gay marriage to be a fundamental right will be capable of even entertaining this idea.
 But is it the business of the courts to protect one supposed "great idea of Western civilization" over another: namely, equality under the law? I submit that opposition to the latter idea is truly "bigoted and un-American," just like Prop 8. 

Responding to Douthat, Glenn Greenwald observes that
one can emphatically embrace every syllable of Judge Walker's ruling while simultaneously insisting on the moral or spiritual superiority of heterosexual marriage.  There would be nothing inconsistent about that.  That's because Judge Walker's ruling is exclusively about the principles of secular law -- the Constitution -- and the legitimate role of the State. 
Exactly the point: We live under a secular government, despite all the blustering from the right (and sometimes from the left).

There are all sorts of things secular law permits which society nonetheless condemns. Engaging in racist speech is a fundamental right but widely scorned. The State is constitutionally required to maintain full neutrality with regard to the relative merits of the various religious sects (and with regard to the question of religion v. non-religion), but certain religions are nonetheless widely respected while others -- along with atheism -- are stigmatized and marginalized. Numerous behaviors which secular law permits -- excessive drinking, adultery, cigarette smoking, inter-faith and inter-racial marriages, homosexual sex -- are viewed negatively by large portions of the population.
Of course, the wingnut defenders of Western civilization will retort that Greenwald, like Judge Walker, is gay. But for the rest of us, here's a wonderful collection of photographs of recently married couples.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bard Thou Never Wert

The following review ran, a little shortened for space, in today's San Francisco Chronicle:

Let's say you're at a party and you're introduced to a Shakespeare scholar. Please don't ask her or him if Shakespeare really wrote those plays. If you do, you'll get an icy glare, a weary frown, or some other expression that clearly says: Oh, God, not that again.

They've heard it all before, the scholars, and they're sick of it. For them, the matter's settled: William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote “Hamlet” and “The Tempest,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Love's Labour's Lost,” “Macbeth” and “All's Well Than Ends Well,” the two parts of “Henry IV,” the three parts of “Henry VI,” and at least 27 other plays, plus narrative poems, lyrics and sonnets.

But the question just won't go away. It doesn't just get asked of Shakespeare scholars at cocktail parties: In 1987, three United States Supreme Court justices participated in a mock trial to adjudicate the evidence for the authorship of either Shakespeare or Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare won that one, but in 1989 a TV program on the Public Broadcasting System again treated the question as if it were a serious one. The anti-Stratfordians have succeeded in making people think that there is real reason to doubt the authorship.

James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University, firmly believes that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, but his entertainingly combative “Contested Will” is not just a rebuttal to the doubters. It's a cultural history, an examination of why there were doubts in the first place, and why authorship candidates such as Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford attracted such otherwise sensible people as Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James and Sigmund Freud.

Blame it partly on the Germans, who developed the science of textual study. And particularly on Friedrich August Wolf, whose examination of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” challenged the idea that they were written by a single person named Homer. Today it's generally recognized that “Homer” is a legend – a figure who was attached to the oral tradition that handed down the Greek epics. And after Homer's existence was called into question there came the Higher Criticism, the textual analysis of the Bible which determined that the Pentateuch was probably not written by Moses himself, and then called into question the accuracy of the life of Jesus presented in the Gospels. The German scholar David Friedrich Strauss's The Life of Jesus was translated into English by George Eliot in 1846, and, as Shapiro puts it, skepticism about authorship “soon threatened that lesser deity Shakespeare, for his biography too rested precariously on the unstable foundation of posthumous reports and more than a fair share of myths.” 

One problem is that the documentary record of Shakespeare's life is that of a man who was all business: We have lots of documents of his existence: legal papers, real estate records, and the will in which he leaves his estate to his daughter and the “second-best bed” to his wife. But the Shakespeare of the records is bourgeois, provincial and dull. Surely a man who wrote in magnificent language about kings and princes couldn't have come from such a commonplace background. Wouldn't it be more likely that the works were those of a philosopher-statesman like Bacon or a playwright, poet and courtier like the Earl of Oxford? The question has sent people on all sides of the authorship question to scour the plays and poems for evidence about their author's life.

Shapiro is eminently fair in his portrayals of both Baconians and Oxfordians. He even comments that although one of the first Oxfordians was a man unfortunately named John Thomas Looney, the name has been “the subject of much unwarranted abuse” and that it “rhymes with bony.”  And he blames some of his colleagues, who agree that Shakespeare really was “the man from Stratford,” for encouraging the anti-Stratfordians by using the poems and plays as biographical material. Shapiro insists, “The more that Shakespeare scholars encourage autobiographical readings of the poems and plays, the more they legitimate assumptions that underlie the claims of all those who dismiss the idea that Shakespeare wrote the plays.”

Shapiro demonstrates that if you want to believe that that Bacon, Oxford, or anyone other than the man from Stratford wrote the plays you have to ignore copious evidence to the contrary and indulge in intellectual contortions. Moreover, you have to credit the entire Elizabethan and Jacobean cultural establishment with a conspiracy so elaborate and a cover-up so successful it makes Watergate look like hide-and-seek. But in a world in which even the fact of a birth announcement published in a Honolulu newspaper in 1961 won't convince some people that the president of the United States wasn't really born in Kenya, it's not surprising that the “Shakespeare conspiracy” won't disappear.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ain't That a Kick in the Head?

Dear merciful goddess, the right wing hates soccer.

"It doesn't matter how you try to sell it to us," yipped the Prom King of new right, Glenn Beck. "It doesn't matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn't matter how many bars open early, it doesn't matter how many beer commercials they run, we don't want the World Cup, we don't like the World Cup, we don't like soccer, we want nothing to do with it."
And of course, according to G. Gordon Liddy, it's a game of the uncivilized. (G. Gordon Liddy is civilized?) 

It is, according to the right's anti-liberal-media site, NewsBusters (which you can find for yourself because I refuse to link to it), a creation of the liberal media:

The liberal media have always been uncomfortable with "American exceptionalism" - the belief that the United States is unique among nations, a leader and a force for good. And they are no happier with America's rejection of soccer than with its rejection of socialism.
And a game of the left that all true red-blooded, red-stated Americans rightly shun:
Since at least the 1970s, Americans have been told that soccer was the future, and it would soon dominate other sports. But the United States proved pretty resistant to soccer's charms, to the chagrin of its boosters on the left. (And yes, it's [sic] support has mainly come from the left; in 2002 conservative soccer fan Robert Zeigler plaintively asked in National Review, "What is it about soccer that makes it (in America) the nearly exclusive domain of liberal sports fans?")
It is a sport for poor people, especially brown ones, which means that all true Tea Partiers should learn to play polo, I guess.  It's (horror of horrors!) multicultural.

Can the republic survive? 

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Things That Make Me Blow My Top

Rand Paul on mountaintop removal:
PAUL: I think whoever owns the property can do with the property as they wish, and if the coal company buys it from a private property owner and they want to do it, fine. The other thing I think is that I think coal gets a bad name, because I think a lot of the land apparently is quite desirable once it's been flattened out. As I came over here from Harlan, you've got quite a few hills. I don’t think anybody's going to be missing a hill or two here and there.
A few years ago, I reviewed Coal River, a fine book on the subject of mountaintop removal which also featured the egregious Don Blankenship of Massey Energy, the man and the company responsible for that recent and terrible mine disaster. It's an environment and economic blight, and now we have Mr. Tea Party himself opining on the topic. My head hurts. 

Friday, June 11, 2010


I'm going to start a new religion. All the other ones are too sure of themselves for me. (Well, maybe not the Unitarians or the Buddhists, but there's something too starchy about the former and too detached about the latter.) Its symbol (i.e., its cross or crescent or six-pointed star) will be this:

Its god will be the one Rabelais proposed to meet when he spoke his last words: "I go to seek a Great Perhaps."

Its deadly sins will be the same seven:

  1. Pride: the assumption that one has found the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth
  2. Envy: the preoccupation with whether what other people believe makes them better off than you are
  3. Wrath: the willingness to start a fight over beliefs 
  4. Avarice: using a community of belief, like a church, for one's own personal gain (e.g., most politicians)
  5. Sloth: being too lazy to search and question 
  6. Gluttony: pigging out on the perks of being a true believer (e.g., most politicians)
  7. Lechery: using the powers of a priesthood for sexual gratification 

Welcome to Questianity, fellow Questioners.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Catch of the Day

The Fish 

I caught a tremendous fish 
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook 
fast in a corner of his mouth. 
He didn't fight. 
He hadn't fought at all. 
He hung a grunting weight, 
battered and venerable 
and homely. Here and there 
his brown skin hung in strips 
like ancient wallpaper, 
and its pattern of darker brown 
was like wallpaper: 
shapes like full-blown roses 
stained and lost through age. 
He was speckled with barnacles, 
fine rosettes oflime, 
and infested 
with tiny white sea-lice, 
and underneath two or three 
rags of green weed hung down. 
While his gills were breathing in 
the terrible oxygen 
-- the frightening gills, 
fresh and crisp with blood, 
that can cut so badly -- 
I thought of the coarse white flesh 
packed in like feathrs, 
the big bones and the little bones, 
the dramatic reds and blacks 
of his shiny entrails, 
and the pink swim-bladder 
like a big peony. 
I looked into his eyes 
which were far larger than mine 
but shallower, and yellowed, 
the irises backed and packed 
with tarnished tinfoil 
seen through the lenses 
of old scratched isinglass. 
They shifted a little, but not 
to return my stare 
-- It was more like the tipping 
of an object toward the light. 
I admired his sullen face, 
the mechanism of his jaw, 
and then I saw 
that from his lower lip 
-- if you could call it a lip -- 
grim, we, and weaponlike, 
hung five old pieces of fish-line, 
or four and a wire leader 
with the swivel still attached, 
with all their five big hooks 
grown firmly in his mouth. 
A green line, frayed at the end 
where he broke it, two heavier lines, 
and a fine black thread 
still crimped from the strain and snap 
when it broke and he got away. 
Like medals with their ribbons 
frayed and wavering, 
a five-haired beard of wisdom 
trailing from his aching jaw. 
I stared and stared 
and victory filled up 
the little rented boat, 
from the pool of bilge 
where oil had spread a rainbow 
around the rusted engine 
to the bailer rusted orange, 
the sun-cracked thwarts, 
the oarlocks on their strings, 
the gunnels -- until everything 
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! 
And I let the fish go.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Why the GOP Keeps Winning the Blame Game

Blogger Dennis G. at Balloon Juice nails it
Look, I know that we face many difficult challenges. A lot of things have gone wrong and more will go wrong. This is to be expected because Republicans have been in charge for most of the last four decades.
Do you really think that you could have Anti-Government Republicans in charge for 30 plus years and actively working to destroy the infrastructure of government without causing system failures? If you do, then you are living in candy land (or a tea infused lotus dream).
The oil spill in the gulf is is just another result of snorting deregulation fairy dust with a Markets-Are-God hi-ball chaser night after night for decades. When you let industry capture regulators and dismantle effective governance, you guarantee a catastrophic failure. The spill is evidence of this, so was that mining disaster in West Virginia, same thing when it comes to that financial meltdown and the same thing will be true when the next system fails.
And when it does, like idiots, we will not blame the failed philosophy of the modern Conservative movement. Nope, we will blame President Obama, liberals and Democrats—because that is what we are used to doing. More than that, we will ignore facts and worry whether or not the optics of the response are right. We will all ask: is we yelling loud enough yet?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

From Here to Felinity

     Strong and slippery, 
built for the midnight grass-party 
confronted by four cats, he sleeps his time away -- 
the detached first claw on the foreleg corresponding 
to the thumb, retracted to its tip; the small tuft of fronds 
or katydid-legs above each eye numbering all units 
in each group; the shadbones regularly set about the mouth 
to droop or rise in unison like porcupine-quills. 
He lets himself be flattened out by gravity, 
as seaweed is tamed and weakened by the sun, 
compelled when extended, to lie stationary. 
Sleep is the result of his delusion that one must 
do as well as one can for oneself, 
sleep -- epitome of what is to him the end of life. 
Demonstrate on him how the lady placed a forked stick 
on the innocuous neck-sides of the dangerous southern snake. 
One need not try to stir him up; his prune-shaped head 
and alligator-eyes are not party to the joke. 
Lifted and handled, he may be dangled like an eel 
or set up on the forearm like a mouse; 
his eyes bisected by pupils of a pin's width, 
are flickeringly exhibited, then covered up. 
May be? I should have said might have been; 
when he has been got the better of in a dream -- 
as in a fight with nature or with cats, we all know it. 
Profound sleep is not with him a fixed illusion. 
Springing about with froglike accuracy, with jerky cries 
when taken in hand, he is himself again; 
to sit caged by the rungs of a domestic chair 
would be unprofitable -- human. What is the good of hypocrisy? 
It is permissible to choose one's employment, 
to abandon the nail, or roly-poly, 
when it shows signs of being no longer a pleasure, 
to score the nearby magazine with a double line of strokes. 
He can talk but insolently says nothing. What of it? 
When one is frank, one's very presence is a compliment. 
It is clear that he can see the virtue of naturalness, 
that he does not regard the published fact as a surrender. 
As for the disposition invariably to affront, 
an animal with claws should have an opportunity to use them. 
The eel-like extension of trunk into tail is not an accident. 
To leap, to lengthen out, divide the air, to purloin, to pursue. 
To tell the hen: fly over the fence, go in the wrong way 
in your perturbation -- this is life; 
to do less would be nothing but dishonesty.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ukiah Is Haiku Spelled Backward

Four Haiku
     A balmy spring wind 
Reminding me of something 
     I cannot recall. 

     The green cockleburrs 
Caught in the thick wooly hair 
     Of the black boy's head. 

     Standing in the field, 
I hear the whispering of 
     Snowflake to snowflake. 

     It is September 
The month in which I was born, 
     And I have no thoughts. 
--Richard Wright
     Most haiku are just 
Trifling Japonaiserie
     Wright's, however, aren't.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Poem of the Day: Ezra Pound

A Study in Aesthetics 

The very small children in patched clothing,
Being smitten with an unusual wisdom,
Stopped in their play as she passed them
And cried up from their cobbles:
                    Guarda! Ahi, guarda! ch' è be' a!

But three years after this
I heard the young Dante, whose last name I do not know --
For there are in Sirmione, twenty-eight young Dantes
     and thirty-four Catulli;
And there had been a great catch of sardines,
And his elders
Were packing them in the great wooden boxes
For the market in Brescia, and he
Leapt about, snatching at the bright fish
And getting in both of their ways;
And in vain they commanded him to sta fermo!
And when they would not let him arrange
The fish in the boxes
He stroked those which were already arranged,
Murmuring for his own satisfaction
This identical phrase:

                                          Ch' è  be' a.

And at this I was mildly abashed.
--Ezra Pound

I think if Pound had written more poems like this one and fewer Cantos, I'd like him a lot more. The Italian says, "Look! Oh, look! How beautiful she is!" and sta fermo means "stand still."          

Friday, May 21, 2010

Poem of the Day: Louis MacNeice


The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was 
Spawning snow and pink roses against it 
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible: 
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think, 
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion 
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel 
The drunkenness of things being various. 

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world 
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes --- 
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -- 
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses. 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Poem of the Day: D.H. Lawrence

Bavarian Gentians 

Not every man has gentians in his house
in Soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas.

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime, torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto's dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead the way.

Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and dark stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendor of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on the lost bride and her groom.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Poem of the Day: Theodore Roethke

I Knew a Woman 

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones, 
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them; 
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one: 
The shapes a bright container can contain! 
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak, 
Or English poets who grew up on Greek 
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek). 

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin, 
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand; 
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin; 
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand; 
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake, 
Coming behind her for her pretty sake 
(But what prodigious mowing we did make). 

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose: 
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize; 
She played it quick, she played it light and loose; 
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees; 
Her several parts could keep a pure repose, 
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose 
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved). 

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay: 
I'm martyr to a motion not my own; 
What's freedom for? To know eternity. 
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone. 
But who would count eternity in days? 
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways: 
(I measure time by how a body sways).
--Theodore Roethke 
I don't think any twentieth-century poet caught the spirit of Donne or Marvell or Herrick better than Roethke did in this wonderful, sexy poem. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Poem of the Day: William Carlos Williams

As the cat
climbed over
the top of 

the jamcloset
first the right

then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty

Monday, May 17, 2010

Poem of the Day: W.H. Auden

Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong, 
The Old Masters: how well they understood 
Its human position; how it takes place 
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; 
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting 
For the miraculous birth, there always must be 
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating 
On a pond at the edge of the wood: 
They never forgot 
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course 
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot 
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse 
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. 

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away 
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may 
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, 
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone 
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green 
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen 
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, 
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. 
--W.H. Auden 

Auden's wryly observant poem is maybe the most familiar example of poetry as art criticism, and has been widely imitated. Some of the imitations are direct homages to Auden's poem, like Billy Collins's:

Musée des Beaux Arts Revisited 

As far as mental anguish goes, 
the old painters were no fools. 
They understood how the mind, 
the freakiest dungeon in the castle, 
can effortlessly imagine a crab with the face of a priest 
or an end table complete with genitals. 

And they knew that the truly monstrous 
lies not so much in the wildly shocking, 
a skeleton spinning a wheel of fire, say, 
but in the small prosaic touch 
added to a tableau of the hellish, 
the detail at the heart of the horrid.

In Bosch's The Temptation of St. Anthony
for instance, how it is not so much 
the boar-faced man in the pea-green dress 
that frightens, but the white mandolin he carries, 
not the hooded corpse in a basket, 
but the way the basket is rigged to hang from a bare branch; 

how, what must have driven St. Anthony 
to the mossy brink of despair 
was not the big, angry-looking fish 
in the central panel, 
the one with the two mouse-like creatures 
conferring on its tail, 
but rather what the fish is wearing: 

a kind of pale orange officer's cape 
and, over that, 
a metal body-helmet secured by silvery wires, 
a sensible buckled chin strap, 
and, yes, the ultimate test of faith -- 
the tiny sword that hangs from the thing, 
that nightmare carp, 
secure in its brown leather scabbard.
--Billy Collins 

I'm sure William Carlos Williams also knew Auden's poem, but he found a particularly musical way to evoke his chosen painting:

The Dance 

In Breughel's great picture, The Kermess, 
the dancers go round, they go round and 
around, the squeal and the blare and the 
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles 
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound) 
their hips and their bellies off balance 
to turn them. Kicking and rolling about 
the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those 
shanks must be sound to bear up under such 
rollicking measures, prance as they dance 
in Breughel's great picture, The Kermess.
--William Carlos Williams           

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Poem of the Day: Wallace Stevens

The Idea of Order at Key West

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind; 
But it was she and not the sea we heard. 
For she was the maker of the song she sang. 
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea 
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing. 
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew 
It was the spirit that we sought and knew 
That we should ask this often as she sang. 

It if was only the dark voice of the sea 
That rose, or even colored by many waves; 
If it was only the outer voice of sky 
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled, 
However clear, it would have been deep air, 
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound 
Repeated in a summer without end 
And sound alone. But it was more than that, 
More even than her voice, and ours, among 
The meaningless plunges of water and the wind, 
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped 
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres 
Of sky and sea. 
                        It was her voice that made 
The sky acutest at its vanishing. 
She measured to the hour its solitude. 
She was the single artificer of the world 
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea, 
Whatever self it had, became the self 
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we, 
As we beheld her striding there alone, 
Knew that there never was a world for her 
Except the one she sang and, singing, made. 

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know, 
Why, when the singing ended and we turned 
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights, 
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there, 
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea, 
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles, 
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night. 

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon, 
The maker's rage to order words of the sea, 
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred, 
And of ourselves and of our origins, 
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. 
--Wallace Stevens
I guess it's worth noting here that the poem's Ramon Fernandez is not the Philippine basketball player, and that Stevens claimed he wasn't the literary critic of the same name, but just a Hispanic name he picked at random. So that's one enigma in this poem you don't have to deal with.