Category for poets and poetry

“Our reverenced god” — Moloch and The Gun

Four dead in NorCal — at least four. Another deranged gunman, armed for combat, targeting the innocent. This one tried to break into an elementary school and slaughter children but was foiled by a lockdown.

Brian Flint told a group of reporters that a man staying in his house was one of those killed and that some of his neighbors were among those who were shot.

He said that the gunman was a neighbor and said that he had threatened him, and had stabbed another neighbor, a woman, in a dispute earlier this year, and “I believe he was on bond because of that.” The authorities said the woman, whose name has not been released, was among the deceased.

“As far as we know he was, you know, crazy,” Mr. Flint said. “He shoots a lot of gunshots at night, in the morning, like a hundred rounds.”

The word “crazy” is not strong enough. But in an evergreen essay published a few years back, Garry Wills, one of our greatest historians, found language commensurate to this on-going horror. He compared the American faith in the gun to a primitive worship of the cruelest of pagan gods, Moloch, that god that demanded the sacrifice of children.

In the New York Review of Books, Wills poured his molten rage into the forms of scholarship and logic.

He writes:

The fact that the gun is a reverenced god can be seen in its manifold and apparently resistless powers. How do we worship it? Let us count the ways:

1. It has the power to destroy the reasoning process. It forbids making logical connections. We are required to deny that there is any connection between the fact that we have the greatest number of guns in private hands and the greatest number of deaths from them. Denial on this scale always comes from or is protected by religious fundamentalism. Thus do we deny global warming, or evolution, or biblical errancy. Reason is helpless before such abject faith.

2. It has the power to turn all our politicians as a class into invertebrate and mute attendants at the shrine. None dare suggest that Moloch can in any way be reined in without being denounced by the pope of this religion, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, as trying to destroy Moloch, to take away all guns. They whimper and say they never entertained such heresy. Many flourish their guns while campaigning, or boast that they have themselves hunted “varmints.” Better that the children die or their lives be blasted than that a politician should risk an election against the dread sentence of NRA excommunication.

3. It has the power to distort our constitutional thinking. It says that the right to “bear arms,” a military term, gives anyone, anywhere in our country, the power to mow down civilians with military weapons. Even the Supreme Court has been cowed, reversing its own long history of recognizing that the Second Amendment applied to militias. Now the court feels bound to guarantee that any every madman can indulge his “religion” of slaughter. Moloch brooks no dissent, even from the highest court in the land.

He never mentions Allen Ginsberg, but the poet’s bitter Howl of “Moloch! Moloch! Moloch!” haunts this excoriating essay like a ghost. So many of us have had it with the bloody stupidity of American gun worship.

The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.

Bullet emerging from a handgun, on black

Bullet emerging from a handgun, on black

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“Biology we haven’t discovered yet”

Ever stumble across something — even something you’ve not thought much about — and then suddenly see it everywhere around you?

This strange stumbling-into-obsession has caught me in the last couple of weeks with the concept of consciousness. What the hell? What is it? When do we have it? When do we have too much of it, or not enough? All questions I’ve assiduously avoided for god knows how many years.

It all began with a podcast: Sam Harris interviewing genius primatologist/neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky. The Biology of Good and Evil. The conversation can’t be summarized in a sentence or two — it’s too rich — but the quote of the nearly two-hour interview was Sapolsky declaring:

I believe free will is what we call biology we haven’t discovered yet.

If true, of course, this means that we are all fundamentally unconscious. At least in the sense that we do not realize or cannot see how powerfully we are being driven by biology. Driven perhaps even against our own beliefs, or what we think we believe.

How about that? Makes a fellow feel small, and foolish. And maybe that’s why I’ve noticed a few things as of late.

From Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground [part one, chapter nine]:

Suffering — why this is the sole cause of consciousness. 

And from poet W.S. Di Piero‘s lovely little Table Talk essay in the latest Threepenny Review:

In Hardy’s “The Self-Unseeing,” he visits the remains of his childhood home and recalls where the door was, how the floor felt, how his mother sat “staring into the fire” while her fiddler husband “bowed it higher and higher.” The last two bittersweet lines, “Everything glowed with a gleam/Yet we were looking away” remind him that they couldn’t possibly have been aware of the harmonious moment while living it. We’re always late for consciousness, the neuroscientists say.

Does it follow then that happiness requires a kind of un-consciousness? A life inside our biology?

What would Fyodor say?

dostoevskyday

There’s more, but I haven’t found it yet…

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Thoreau: Craving Reality

The New York Review of Books posts in its entirety a spectacular essay from Robert Pogue Harrison, this time on Thoreau on his centennial birthday, and en or so books and exhibits about The True American.

Thoreau (to my blinkered view) is that exceedingly rare writer/philosopher capable of seeing afresh the most fundamental elements of our lives, such as the ground on which we walk and the air we breathe. For example:

Paradise exists all around us, in America’s “wildness,” the natural environment of the continent. In the contact between his own body and America’s forests, meadows, lakes, rivers, mountains, and animals, Thoreau discovered what he called “hard matter in its home.” That home was the “hard bottom” or “reality” that we crave. “I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound,” he wrote in his journal. “Daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!… Contact! Contact!”

That contact between body and wilderness speaks to me, having spent the last week and half on the PCTsleeping on the ground (and sleeping well). I’ll try to post a picture to give some idea. But let me conclude this post with another compelling — even alarming — quote from Mr. Thoreau,

If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter [scimitar], and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.

If only this were true! But from the world I stand in awe of, with him, here’s a sunset at mile 1600 of the PCT.

Sunset at mile 1600

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Dear Sam Shepherd I miss you already

One of the most American of us all died yesterday. Sam Shepherd, I miss you today.

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In tribute, let me quote a short piece from his countless marvelous writings. This one happens to be about his father. It’s just another of his countless little miracles of writing, another “how did he do that?’ But it’s straight from the heart.

From a daybook of sketches and road thoughts called Motel Chronicles, published 1982 by City Lights.

My Dad keeps a record collection in cardboard boxes lined up along his bedroom wall collecting New Mexican dust. His prize is an original Al Jolson 78 with the jacket taped and even the tape is ripped. Last time I saw him he tried to bribe me into taking it back to L.A. and selling it for a bundle. He’s convinced it’s worth at least a grand. Maybe more, depending on the market. He says he’s lost touch with the market these days. 

My Dad has a picture of a Spanish senorita covered in whip cream pinned above the sink to his kitchen wall. My Dad actually does. He walked me over to it and we both stared at it for a while. “She’s supposed to be naked under there, but I’ll bet she’s wearing something,” he said.  

He gave me a tour of all his walls. All his walls are covered with pictures. Wall-to-wall magazine clippings. Each picture is a point of view. Like peering out through different windows into intricate landscapes. I stared at the pictures. A waterfall with real rocks glued onto the foreground. Rocks he’d found to fit the picture. A white dog with a green fish in its mouth. Saguaro Cactus in the setting sun ripped from a 1954 Arizona Highways. An orange Orangutang fiddling with its privates. A flight of B-52 Bombers in Wing Formation. A collage of faces splattered with bacon grease.  

My Dad has a collection of cigarette butts in a Yuban coffee can. I bought him a carton of Old Golds but he wouldn’t touch them. He kept twisting tobacco out of butts and rolling re-makes over a grocery bag so as not to lose the slightest bit. He sneered at my carton of cigarettes, all red and white and ready-rolled. 

He spent all the food money I’d gave him on Bourbon. Filled the ice box with bottles. Had his hair cut short like a World War II fighter pilot. He gleamed every time he ran his hand across the bristles. Said they used to cut it short like so their helmets would fit. Showed me how the shrapnel scars still showed on the nape of his neck.  

My Dad lives alone on the desert. He says he doesn’t fit with people.  

Love that “on the desert.” So precise. So laconic.

In the book, they have some rough black and white pictures of Sam and his father looking at each other. In some of them, his dad is wearing a cowboy hat, a white cowboy hat. In some of the

In one of the pictures, his dad is wearing a cowboy hat, a white cowboy hat. In another of the pictures Sam is wearing the hat.

From today’s New Yorker, a wondrously lyric remembrance of Shepherd by Patti Smith, his one-time lover and lifetime friend. Just a slice of life here, I promise, nothing of its miraculous whole given away.

He sent a message from the mountains of Bolivia, where Mateo Gil was shooting “Blackthorn.” The air was thin up there in the Andes, but he navigated it fine, outlasting, and surely outriding, the younger fellows, saddling up no fewer than five different horses. He said that he would bring me back a serape, a black one with rust-colored stripes. He sang in those mountains by a bonfire, old songs written by broken men in love with their own vanishing nature. Wrapped in blankets, he slept under the stars, adrift on Magellanic Clouds.

Sam liked being on the move. He’d throw a fishing rod or an old acoustic guitar in the back seat of his truck, maybe take a dog, but for sure a notebook, and a pen, and a pile of books. He liked packing up and leaving just like that, going west. He liked getting a role that would take him somewhere he really didn’t want to be, but where he would wind up taking in its strangeness; lonely fodder for future work.

Smith-My-Buddy

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Want success as a writer? Get rejected.

So argues Kim Liao, persuasively,  in Lit Hub. She said she managed 43 rejections last year — a personal best.

Last year, I got rejected 43 times by literary magazines, residencies, and fellowships—my best record since I started shooting for getting 100 rejections per year. It’s harder than it sounds, but also more gratifying.

In late 2011, a writer friend was sharing her experiences of having months of uninterrupted writing time at her residencies at the Millay Colony, Ragdale, and Yaddo. I was staggered by her impressive rates of acceptance. You probably have one of those friends, too—you know the one I’m talking about, that friend who is a beautiful writer, but who also seems to win everything? I could barely believe that she had the balls to apply to—let alone, get accepted to—several residencies, a prestigious fellowship, and publications in journals I had actually heard of.

I asked her what her secret was, and she said something that would change my professional life as a writer: “Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”

This small piece of advice struck a deep chord in my fragile creative ego. My vulnerable ego only wants to be loved and accepted, to have my words ring out from a loudspeaker in Times Square while a neon ticker scrolls the text across a skyscraper, but it’s a big old coward. My ego resists mustering up the courage to submit writing to literary magazines, pitch articles, and apply for grants, residencies, and fellowships. Yet these painful processes are necessary evils if we are ever to climb out of our safe but hermetic cocoons of isolation and share our writing with the world.

Even simpler, of course, 43 rejections mean probably submitting a piece of her work to some journal or other every single week of the year. Impressive! Need to get back to submitting pitches and work on Fridays. Who cares about the irony of the process: get cracking.

rejections

 

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A country Nirvana song via Sturgill Simpson

NPR and Rolling Stone today both note the arrival of new country star Sturgill Simpson’s version of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” The second song on the epochal Nevermind album, universally agreed to be the band’s masterpiece, and as well Country Love’s fave song on the record, Sturgill completely upends it. Sez me.

The Nirvana version is as hard as rock can be; with massively crunchy guitars, Cobain at full yowl, and an abiding sense of discovery and self-loathing — or so it seemed to me. Of course I found out the song was an ode to a close friend of Cobain’s who loved to shoot guns but didn’t seem to understand what that could mean, which in retrospect makes the song darker than its prideful roar might indicate. Perhaps Cobain envied his oblivious friend.

To Sturgill, who was in middle school when the song came out, it sounded much different, as he discussed with Rolling Stone:

The Kentucky singer-songwriter penned every track on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth except one — a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” off Nevermind. The tortured Kurt Cobain, and that seminal 1991 grunge album in particular, were an inspiration to the junior-high Simpson.

“I remember in seventh or eighth grade when that album dropped, it was like a bomb went off in my bedroom. For me, that song has always summed up what it means to be a teenager, and I think it tells a young boy that he can be sensitive and compassionate — he doesn’t have to be tough or cold to be a man,” explains Simpson. “I wanted to make a very beautiful and pure homage to Kurt.”

I love what Simpson has done with this song, even though to me it’s as different as it can be. Adding “love” to the chorus changes everything. Or does it? Love the gentleness, the sorrow, the deep understanding.

Must confess I don’t get the video at all, but oh well — I rarely do understand music videos these days.

More Sturgill? Sure — how about a Tiny Desk Concert? Man can that guy pick a guitar. Jeez.

 

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A prayer for the earth: Pope Francis

On Valentine’s Day, one can’t overlook (well, one can, but shouldn’t) love for the earth from which we came.

From “Praise Be” from Pope Francis, a prayer for the earth [passage 178]:

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.

Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction. Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

h/p: Eric Holthaus

Kennedy Meadows

Kennedy Meadows

 

 

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Woody Guthrie on Trump: “Racial Hate”

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and excellent Facebooker, quotes the fierce American folk singer, poet, and labor activist Woody Guthrie on an important man from the past who is still with us today.

Donald Trump and his father Fred.

Quote of the day:

“I suppose
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project.”

— Folksinger Woody Guthrie, 1953 (in a song about Fred Trump, Donald’s father, who, according to Guthrie, wouldn’t rent to African-Americans).

It’s an incredible story, best heard I think on radio, as in Ari Shapiro’s terrific piece last Friday on NPR: “Ain’t Got No Home”: Why Woody Guthrie Despised Donald Trump’s Father

But Woody’s words on the racism of Trump need seeing, too:

“Beach Haven ain’t my home!
I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain!
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven looks like heaven
Where no black ones come to roam!
No, no, no! Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home.”

— Woody Guthrie, 1959 (in another song referring to Fred Trump)

Robert Reich's photo.

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David Foster Wallace, loneliness, and the confusions of Eros

A poet named Nate Klug strikes to the heart in a recent Poetry Daily entry called Aporia:

Aporia

Not little by little,

as concerto strings
or doctrines like

to disappear,

leaving time
to think. No—skin

pulled taut around

jaw and fierce cheek,
seen from the side

in the sea of the bed:

none now
that was her is there.

Okay — but what does it mean? Ask Wikipedia, and we learn the word Aporia is all but “untranslatable”: derived from two Greek words seemingly in opposition (“without” and “a passage”) and with an astonishingly complex mythological history.

This is the myth from which the word derives, according to an excerpted essay by post-structuralist Sarah Kofman:

Penia, the “child of poverty,” decides to forcefully impregnate herself with the inebriated Poros, the personification of plenty, who is always in opposition with aporia and thus defining aporia. The result of this union is Eros, who inherits the disparate characteristics of his parents (25). The perplexing aspect of the myth is revealed as one realizes that Penia is acting out of resourcefulness, a quality normally attributed to Poros, and Poros’ inaction reveals his own passivity, a poverty of agency or poros. Such a relationship intensely affects not only the context of aporia but its meaning as well.

 

The idea of aporia, the entry argues, a kind of divided self; an opposition to one’s own progress. No wonder the word leaves one at a loss — that’s it’s point!

And no wonder that Eros itself is confusing, with that heritage.

I think of a striking movie about the writer David Foster Wallace, called End of the Tour, and a discussion after a screening featuring actor Jason Segal (who played Wallace). Segal, who clearly had spent months and maybe years thinking about Wallace, said simply that Wallace had to live with the awareness that he was always the smartest guy in the room. Unlike the rest of us, he added, Wallace had the vocabulary to express the loneliness of that, and yet the sensitivity to understand how it felt to others. He knew that his fruitless attempts to heal his own loneliness reached others as well, and yet that wasn’t enough to help him much.

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Have to say, the portrayal, the writer, and the movie, which is essentially one long interview, touched me far far more than I expected it would — but in a good and powerful way.

 

 

 

 

[image from Bright Wall, Dark Room]

 

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Ken Burns on Yosemite

A couple of years ago Ken Burns gave a talk in San Gabriel about one of his favorite subjects, Yosemite, and said I thought many wise things, most especially:

“This couldn’t have happened any place else. It is the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape; the full expression of the democratic experience,” Burns said.

“Up until the Yosemite Grant, all lands were owned by nobleman, kings and the very, very wealthy. Now, suddenly, land was owned in common by everyone in the country,” he explained.

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