Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Person's "Things"

Legendary filmmaker and director Ingmar Bergman died in 2007 at the age of 89.  Two days ago, the Buskowski, a Swedish auction house, took in $2.56 million from the sale of items  from his estate including paintings, crystalware, ornaments, lamps, clocks, rugs and beds, cameras, film projectors --even his two Mercedes.[1]

The chess set from the death scene of his film The Seventh Seal sold for $142,000, and his house in Fårö, which housed the possessions, will be auctioned off at Christies in London next Monday.  "That auction, though, will be strictly the preserve of millionaires."[2], [3]

One of the 337 auction items up for bid was Edvard ("The Scream") Munch's lithograph of August Strindberg. I once worked, for three weeks, in the Freia chocolate factory in Oslo, and in their workers' canteen on the wall above our lunch tables hung a 12-painting frieze by Munch, so you could sit and munch on your sandwich and look at Munch.  (munch, moonk, they don't rhyme. So much for wordplay, ha ha).   It was my first introduction to Munch, as background art.

A person's "things" -- things accumulated in one's lifetime that others have to dispose of when one can no longer deal with them, or passes away.  We were sitting there together, the four of us, sorting through her things.  She didn't really know what was happening, which made it easier, but not really. "Who wants the deer head?", that beautiful beautiful animal, shot and taxidermied into posterity whose glassy eyes staring out from the wall kept reminding me that it was once alive. Not I. You take it.  "Are you sure?"  Yes!  

Stuffed animals and embalmed corpses, our attempt to capture and hold onto, as perfectly as possible, life that's gone.  Old scratchy cassettes taped from the radio of sentimental songs that had meaning only for her.  Little ceramic knickknacks and old saved Christmas cards and styrofoam food containers stacked and saved but never used.  The photos, of course we keep the photos.  This was only a temporary, necessary downsizing session--the final sorting would come later.

Artists and poets and filmmakers and singers leave behind not only their "things" but the fruit of their creations, their imagine-"airy" children, which are also things but of a different sort than rugs and candlesticks, and automobiles and houses.  Munch lives on in his paintings, Bergman in his films, those sentimental songs in someone's memory, some poems in print get studied and analyzed and reintroduced to new readers every generation.  Not all of one's things survive or are appreciated and we have no control over that.    Bergman's things brought in millions of dollars from bidders who want to own a piece of him, as it were--have a keepsake of who he was and what he did.  How many people's "things" are fought over, discarded or thrown out because survivors don't want them or don't know what to do with them?

At a lawyer's office where I once worked there came one day the effects of someone's belongings, of no particular value but there was this little notebook in which the owner had pencilled in messages of  importance (at the time):  Cat food for Buster...  Buy Kleenex ... Appt. at 3 o'clock.    etc.    Watches and antique cuff links get kept; one's scribbly personal jottings tossed into the wastebasket.  Who cares.  He was a nobody.  Into the wastebasket with it.  When they had gone I fished it out and took it home.  It was not poetry.  Largely unintelligible, a scribbled rambling, mostly about the cat.  He had no family, no one to get his "things".  Who remembers the people who don't have lasting things to leave, objects that when some years have passed that when you look at them, the person comes alive in your mind again, his or her presence still somehow felt.

Objects and things and words, and legacies, intended or not.  And our attachment (or indifference) to them. $142,000 for a famous person's chess set; a toss in the wastebasket for a not-famous person's important thoughts.  Comparing the worth of things of people who have "done" something, to that of people who have not done something, is an excerise in futility. ("Worth"= desirable, useful, valuable; a thing's value is a matter of judgment)

I'm not sure what I mean by that, but what strikes me here is that in the end, the things we leave behind are just that:  Things.  They serve to remind of our existence, and then one day it's the thing itself that assumes a life of its own--as a cherished kept object, memento, decoration.  I have two Munchs, a Giacometti and a Modigliani in my collection, says an imaginary successful bidder, proudly.  We have a sort of collection, too, not by intention; it just happened.  I sit in my husband's grandmother's rocking chair and wonder what she was like.  I only know her name was Clara and that she had six daughters, died of cancer and that I've inherited her cookware and her recipe for salmon loaf.  There, of course, was more to her than that.  We have three rocking chairs, would she feel slighted if I use the other, more comfortable one, I wonder?

Old houses, full of memories, its occupants long gone.  Photo albums with captured smiles, frozen in time.  Words that live on and on and on ... and on--through oral repetition, in print, in action.  I saw recently mention of a writer who had published 70 books.  Seventy books!!!!  That is no guarantee that they will continue to be read--or even discovered at all by anyone.  And oral stories can die out when the people to whom they have been entrusted die out as a people or don't continue the tradition.  We effectively disappear when we are no longer in anyone's conscious thought.  And yet many of our words, and most of our "things" remain, permanent reminders of the impermanence of life.

Feed the cats.  Do the dishes.  Take a break.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

It's that time again ...

This year is the 25th anniversary of the International Festival of Poetry here in Trois-Rivières.

No, this is not a painted blue metal filing cabinet left abandoned in the library courtyard--it's the Poetry Mailbox, put there intentionally for people to submit their poems.  Just drop them in the slot and someone will read them.  Who knows, you may be invited to read at next year's Poetry Festival.

Side view of the Poetry Mailbox

This is one of many plaques placed all over downtown--in walkways, over doorways, and mounted on the sides of buildings.  This one was affixed to the wooden wall next to the steps climbing up from rue de Forge at Parc-Portuaire, to the Terrasse Turcotte overlooking the harbor.

The above poem, by Bulgarian poet, Miglena Nikolchina, speaks about the language of lovers, a language that doesn't yet exist, but which we immediately comprehend.

This year there will come poets from Denmark, Argentina, Mexico, the Ivory Coast, France, Spain, Turkish Kurdistan,  Uruguay, Columbia, Tibet, Benin, Burkina Faso, Syria, Chili, Australia, La Reunion, Nepal, Russia, Belgium (one each from Brussels and Flanders), the U.S., and Lebanon, as well as Canada (New Brunswick, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and of course, Québec).

For ten days, from October 2 through 11,  these poets will give multiple readings that will take place at various times from morning to night at libraries, bookstores, restaurants, coffeehouses, schools, art galeries, concert halls, cultural centers, at the cinema, in workshops, at jazz sessions, and outdoors in the park.  It's a wonderful opportunity to meet some poets whose work you admire, and discover exciting or interesting poems from poets entirely new to you.

So for nine days, it's all about Poetry.  If you're in town and want to attend some readings, you can pick up the little 103-page pamphlet listing all the poets, the times and place of their readings, complete with map and directions, available free at all the public libraries, hotels and bookstores.  On Friday, October 9th, for example, there will be 38 separate readings happening all over town (some occurring simultaneously). 

The list of poets who will be reading at the Festival this year can be found here, in French.

Friday, September 25, 2009

This Morning at the Port

No one on the bus yet. Driver is outside, taking some air.

Crossing le pont Duplessis

North-West Café au centre ville

At the top level, a view of the port

From the second level, a favorite reading bench

Bottom level, morning shadows

This roadway is made into one long outdoor ice rink in winter.

Seagulls, the port sentinels

Got any crumbs?

Navy Ship, docked and waiting

Getting ready to leave

Curious Bystander.

The Navy ship turning around, heading for Québec City

On its way

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Animated Poem and Ivor Gurney

A litttle 7-minute film produced in 2006 at Saint-Lukas, Brussels, school of arts, as part of the graphic design course, animating  "Of Death", a poem by Ivor Gurney, English composer and war poet who spent the last 15 years of his life in mental hospitals.  He died in 1937 at the age of 47, of tuberculosis.

Ivor Gurney wrote over 100 poems and 300 songs. Some of his letters and poems were written in the trenches of World War I.

Gurney loved to walk, and spent countless hours walking the streets of his city. He had been a night walker since age sixteen. "One comes across the strangest things in walks" he writes in the opening line of his poem "Encounters". An excerpt:

Sheets spread out spotless against the hazel tree.
But toothless old men, bubbling over with jokes
And deadly serious once the speaking finished.
Beauty is less after all than strange comical folks
And the wonder of them never and never can become diminished. 


Little note:  I had never heard of Ivor Gurney before today.  I was googling information on walking, as a form of exercise, which led me to a site that mentioned Gurney's love of walking.  Gurney, the "madman war-time poet", it said--which on further searching led me to the little video posted at the top.  How poetry comes to us sometimes, when we're not even looking for it!

I have looked everywhere and cannot find the text for the Ivor Gurney poem recited in the above video, "Of Death".

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Insidious Agitation of the Ungraspables

When I was sixteen, my best friend and I were working one afternoon in the rectory next door to our school building, sorting files. We started talking, for some reason, about death. Where do you go when you die?  How can one's "soul" live on forever?  I said that I just could not grasp the idea of infinity--that something can have no end--that it could just go on forever and ever and ever and ever and ever. It did not compute, in my sixteen-year-old brain. It still doesn't.

I remember at one point we stopped talking about it, not because we couldn't find a satisfactory answer but because it just got too ... scary.  The more you question one thing, the more you turn and question something else.  It was like unravelling a thread on a tightly stitched garment.  You risked pulling everything apart if you kept going, weakening its very foundation.  In my world then, one didn't question such things; you just believed, as you were told, that some things always were and always will be. Period.

I went home that afternoon and thought about it some more. It totally consumed me. It made my head hurt thinking about it.  I think I even clutched my head and screamed.  It was the mental equivalent of trying to undo a knot closing in around my throat, unable even to begin to know where to look to untangle it. It was that frustrating.

Yesterday I stumbled upon this 2007 BBC documentary by David Malone in which he looks at four brilliant mathematicians –- Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing, suggesting that their mathematical inquires into the ungraspability of infinity drove them all insane, eventually leading them all to commit suicide (Cantor died alone in an insane asylum; Boltzmann hung himself; Gödel starved himself to death; Turin ate an apple poisoned with cyanide). Other, extenuating circumstances may have contributed to their decisions to end their lives (in Alan Turing's case, his having been convicted of the crime of homosexuality and given body-changing hormones, for example, and there's some question as to whether it was, indeed, a suicide), but they all suffered deeply mentally as a result of their attempts to answer some of these difficult questions.

The film is titled "Dark Knowledge" because any attempt to dislodge certainty is usually met with implacable opposition and hostility. These were men out of their time--they did it anyway, and paved the way for a continuation of the inquiry.

Seeing the film brought to the forefront musings I had pushed aside, which never completely subside for me. How is it that I "know" something that I do not actually know? One can intuit something that later proves to be true, and factually verify the truth of the thing intuited--but can anyone prove the origin, mechanical workings or even existence of intuition itself?  And even if this could be proved mathematically, how would one explain it in layman's terms? 

Mathematicians trying to explain intuition and infinity....  I was never very good at math.  Abysmal, in fact.  Ask my former high school Algebra teacher.  I preferred words to numbers.  But I wish I were--good at it-- I wish I could read the Principia Mathematica (or Wittgenstein or Kant or Hegel) with the ease with which I read fiction or poetry.  (They, too, sometimes make my head swim, but for entirely different reasons:  literature and art sometimes bring instant euphoria; math and philosophy's euphoria comes often only after a long, hard road toward comprehension.  At least for me.  Sometimes it has to do with language--the language of math, the language of philosophy.  It doesn't communicate as readily as a story or picture.)

Subjects for another day. It's a very thought-provoking film, though. 

For anyone interested:

David Malone's documentaries:

The Flow of Time (1999), on the problem of explaining time in physics
Testing God (2001), on the clash between science and religion
Soul Searching (2002), on consciousness
Voices In My Head (2005), on how science and religion interpret the phenomenon of people hearing disembodied voices
Dangerous Knowledge (2007), in which he claims that some well-known thinkers have been driven to insanity by mathematical or scientific paradoxes.
High Anxieties: The Mathematics of Chaos (2008), interviews with David Ruelle (chaos theory), Paul Ormerod (economics), James Lovelock (climate change, metaphors of tipping points or slopes)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rest in Peace, Mary Travers (1936-2009)

Mary Travers, of the 1960s folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, died yesterday, in Connecticut.[1]

After successful recovery from leukemia through a bone marrow/stem cell transplant, Mary succumbed to the side effects of one of the chemotherapy treatments. We all loved her deeply and will miss her beyond words. [Peter, Paul and Mary website].

I felt the need to hear her voice again.  To hear them all again, together. 

I never met her but I feel like I've lost a longtime, dear, dear friend. 

Thank you so much, Mary, for the memories:

Blowin' in the Wind
Puff, the Magic Dragon
If I Had a Hammer
Early Mornin' Rain
500 Miles

Rest in Peace, Mary.

You will be missed.

Monday, September 14, 2009

America, I Don't Know You Anymore

My country, ‘tis of thee
Goodbye Tranquility …
So far off track.
No more great pride to flaunt,
Just hateful words that haunt
Oh please can you give me
My country back.

-- An anonymous, disgruntled citizen substitutes his own words for those of the American patriotic song, "My Country Tis of Thee".

Glenn Beck, conservative talk-show host, saying he wanted to bring back a feeling of unity in the nation after 9/11, called for a rally the day after the 8th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Tens of thousands of supporters showed up in Washington, D.C.  wearing T-shirts and carrying signs and placards whose messages implied the emphasis was not on unity but on maintaining Divisiveness.

In America, we have freedom of speech. You can stand in a public place and carry a sign advocating the torture of the President and you won't be put in jail.

When George W.  Bush was president, if you attended one of his public appearances wearing a T-shirt that said "Impeach Bush", you risked being  forcibly removed,  told to go stand in the Free Speech Zone (behind a wire fence or cage), or possibly arrested.  But apparently, people in a public place calling for Obama to be tortured are free to spread this chilling message without interference. 

That may be because the word "waterboard" is perceived by some as somehow in the same category as "surfboard" or "skateboard", which terms evoke images of "sport" and "pleasure".  For some people, the jury's still out on whether waterboarding is actually torture.  Some have gone so far as to hire lawyers to define it to more conveniently fit their moral comfort zone.  But that's neither here nor there.  The point is, this fellow feels Obama deserves to be given the "let's-make-you-think-you're-drowning" treatment.  Then maybe Obama will tell us whatever it is the man doesn't think Obama is telling us--it's not clear what, exactly.  Its meaning eludes me.  I'm not sure the man himself knows.  If he knows, he's not telling.  Maybe he should be waterboarded.  (Words!  See what I mean?)

Obama, to one particular citizen, is an "Oppressive, Bloodsucking, Arrogant, Muslim Alien."  How cute. As opposed to George Bush, I suppose, that Brilliant, Upstanding, Superior Human, who in the course of only eight years got us into a never-ending war, tripled the national debt, illegally spied on the populace, cut taxes for the rich and discontinued programs for the poor, bringing the country closer to ruin.  (Now, now, show some respect for the guy; after all, he was the President.)

These people are said to be here ostensibly to oppose increased taxes, Obama's plan for health reform, and to "feel united."  But mostly they seem to be here to show how much they hate Obama.

Obama's "arrogant."  His middle name is Hussein--he must be a Muslim! He's not White.  
He's not Black, either.  He's of mixed breed (i.e., not PURE-blooded. ) 

Notice no one has called him "stupid" or "inarticulate" or "incompetent".
All the labels focus on attacking his lineage, his suspected religious affiliation and--his Foreignness.  He's "Not Us".


These conservatives are proud of who they are and what they represent. As this man's T-shirt boldly proclaims:

"Any Questions?" 
(Translation:  "You got a problem with that?")
Er.. no, but how is that relevant to "unity", the so-called theme of the gathering?
He equates Fox News with the Freedom Rider, Paul Revere.  Fox News will be the 21st century's mouthpiece for the coming revolution.  Militias are forming as we speak.

Last week scores of American parents refused to let their children attend or listen to the President's speech, in which he encouraged students to finish school and use their knowledge to contribute to their country's future.  The parents termed this message "brainwashing our kids."

Instead they bring their children to rallies such as this one, to advocate a return to McCarthyism, no less, to combat what they see as  "Obama Communism".
They tell their children that Obama is a racist.  This they don't consider brainwashing, though.

One protester wants to do away with the United States Post Office, Am Trac [sic], Medicare and Social Security.
That's because they're all "run by the government."
Anything run by the government is SOCIALISM.
Socialism is ...  COMMUNISM!!
Obama is a COMMUNIST.
This anger seems directed more at who Obama isn't (i.e., "Not-Us"), than anything to do with taxes, health care, or wanting unity.

Calling for your President to be tortured--excuse me, waterboarded--and comparing him to Hitler (implying he's a Fascist) while at the same time expressing a desire for the return of McCarthyism (where you could be rounded up and brought in for questioning based solely on someone's anonymous tip), is ludicrous.  Of course, the fact that we do an enormous amount of business with China--which is Communist, by the way--is irrelevant.  You are allowed to visit China if you're an American citizen.  You can't, however, visit Cuba, because... well, they're Communists. 

It is the absence of real dialogue--a conversation where each side listens to the other and carefully considers both viewpoints, whether the subject is health care reform, one's religious beliefs, or politics in general--the U.S. is becoming more and more a  nation deeply, DEEPLY divided.  It has become a nation now of the Us's and the Thems.  Echoing the former President, "You're either with us or against us."  (The Thems, of course, are all the people who fall into the category of  the "Not-Us's." )

What is evident here, it seems to me, in all these spiteful personal attacks and in some cases, suppressed rage, is lack of either reason or tolerance.  No one is listening, truly listening any more.  One automatically assumes that because a person is a Not-Us, that everything that comes out of his/her mouth must therefore be suspect.  One comes to a discussion, not to seek understanding or to find a solution,  but to bombard the other party with one's arsenal of accumulated diatribes.  "This is who I am," these protesters seem to be saying.  "And Obama is NOT one of Us." 

"He has to be stopped", says the poster at the top of this page.

Stopped how?  In the next election?  By ensuring that his programs never get passed?  By assassinating him?  To me, the words "Stop him before it's too late" sounds urgent.  Like you have to do something NOW.   ("I don't understand why everyone is so upset," said the man outside the ripped off doors of the collapsing movie theatre as scores of ambulances cart away the mangled bodies of the panicked patrons. "All I did was yell FIRE.  I thought I smelled smoke. We could have all been in danger.   What would you have done?")

Do people not realize how powerful certain words and images are?  What they mean, how and when they're said, what they suggest?!

According to an observer at the Glenn Beck rally, there were signs calling Obama "Hitler, Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Stalin, the Anti-Christ, Socialist, Communist, Marxist, Fascist, Nazi, Tyrant, Traitor, Thief, Lier, Racist, Puppet, False Messiah, Proponent of Eugenics, Un-American, Russian, Musslim, Jew, Terrorist."  (Have they left anything out?)  It boggles the mind.

"When we smell the burning flesh from the ovens, it will be to [sic] late for us all, says that poster.   An image of the Joker is superimposed onto Obama's face.  His eyes are blackened, his face suddenly all chaulky white.  The "burning flesh from the ovens" -- I guess that means Obama intends to send "us all" to the gas chambers--why he's just as power-mad as Hitler. You can see the connection, right?  Hitler--ovens--Obama?  See?

The problem with these mixed, hateful messages is they are absorbed, uncritically, lock, stock and barrel by those who have absolutely no idea what the real issue is, or in fact, the meaning of the words they so unconsciously bandy about.  They simply repeat them, for anything that has to do with Obama, on cue.

"Do away with Social Security!  No more government-run programs!" Uh, you sure you got a plan in mind for when your Social Security check stops coming?  How about your Medicare?  

How about your mail?  You sure you want the entire national postal system to dissolve and go to private companies?  No more uniform stamp prices--you'd have to shop around for the one that sells the cheapest stamps and offers the best mail delivery.  Maybe you live in a state where mail would only be delivered twice a week now due to decreasing profits. 

But hey, at least it's not "government run."

To be fair, not everyone who goes to these gatherings or demonstrations is  in an angry, hateful mood.  Some of them are quite festive.  And if you stand politely holding up a sign advocating that someone be waterboarded, or even hung, you're still peacefully protesting.  It's only the printed words, and the meaning they portend, that hint of untapped rage.  

Humor surfaces occasionally, though, to remind us that there are other ways to get one's message across.  Not to be outdone by the hordes of naysayers to Obama's proposed health plan, a small group of Billionaires for Wealthcare, the men dressed in tuxedos, holding glasses of champaigne and smoking Havana cigars; the women dressed fashionably, wearing high heels and pearls, carried signs that said:
"Fight socialism--end Medicare now!" 

"Do no harm to our bottom line"
"Nothing says 'Freedom' like denying claims"
"Warning:  Affordable Healthcare may cause severe loss of profit".
"CIGNA-Palin, 2012"

Satire on a stick.  Obviously from the lunatic frindge, ha ha.
Look at the picture (below).  They're all smiling.

Nobody's advocating torture or calling anyone names.  They have, well, "class."  They actually seem--happy.  This group chose to voice their opinions and stage a counter protest by putting on a one-act, silent comedy.  They were, understandably, in the minority, representing those who believe that the U.S. should at least consider talking seriously about adopting universal health care for its citizens, a benefit enjoyed by countless other countries.  But last I heard, it was actually something like 50-50, in that regard.  Or maybe it was 70-30.  (Or was it 60-40?  It's hard to keep up with all the polls.  But a significant number of the populace want it at least discussed.)

Note, they're not there to scream at, raise their fists or hurl obscenities at the persons holding an opposite view at this demonstration.  They prefer slinging irony.  Contrast that with how Glenn Beck's 9/12 rally supporters treated this lone individual, in the blue cap and white shirt, simply trying to hold up a sign saying "Public Option Now".  He is followed, loudly booed, circled, and surrounded by people shouting with megaphones into his face as five security guards arrive behind, in front and to the side of him, to try to ward off them off. 


 One wonders if those security guards had not shown up to escort him off onto the sidewalk, if he would not have been accosted and trampled, or worseThink about it--all he's doing is holding up a sign saying he's FOR having a public option in the proposed health care reform.  Meaning  the public should have a  choice about what health care program they get.  That's all. That's what public option means.  And for this, he is the object of rudeness and scorn--because his viewpoint is different from theirs.  (Some commenters to the video add that he is "old" and "fat" and just did this for attention, i.e., walking around with his sign "instead of just standing there."  Never a dull moment in Comment Land.)

I happen to think the public option should be included in health care reform discussions as well.  This could be anyone, with a similar sign.  This could be me, had I gone to participate.  I can't even imagine how fearful this would be, to be the brunt of such intolerant reaction simply for expressing an opinion.  What if there were no security guards around to keep the crowd from closing in?  Is this an isolated incident?  Perhaps. But I suspect it may be more common than not. 

It's not about taking sides here.  It's not about Us versus Them.  At least it shouldn't be. But that is the impression I get at seeing photos and videos like this.  (Note the snarky caption for the video above:  "Teabaggers can't handle a little dissent."  Obviously the person captioning this intended irony, but note the generalization re:Teabaggers.  Teabaggers, Birthers, Confederates, Gun-Nuts--they're all just labels.  What would we do without our labels to define ourselves?)

Unfortunately, this (reaction to a Not-Us in the crowd)  is an example of what happens, at certain times and places in the United States today, when you publicly reveal what you believe or how you think.  It happens  in conversations, where you might simply repeat a verifiable fact, only to be met with an instant hostile reaction, and told "If you don't like it here, then get the hell out." This tone and these words seem to crop up regularly as well, in the comment sections appearing under certain news articles, for example where one commenter simply writes, "I agree with this", only to be blasted with the most venomous rebuttals, called obscene, viscious names, and again ... told to leave the country.  "If you're not with us, you're against us."  (Thank you Mr. Bush, for making those words a lasting legacy from your administration.)  These angry, visceral  reactions, to another's merely expressing an opinion, seem to be increasing, and the media stokes the fires by continually showcasing the frenzy.  You're not, you suddenly realize, getting a balanced view of things. 

Playing the devil's advocate:  

"But you're painting a one-sided picture," one might argue.  "You only highlight one side's activities here--the mostly Conservative citizens.  What about the wacky Liberals and all their demonstrations?  Didn't they call George Bush a liar, tyrant, traitor, Hitler, the anti-Christ too?  And you're saying one can't say that about Obama?"  

Well, there's a difference.  In some cases, the accusations leveled against George W. Bush were true. ( Instituting a program to illegally spy on one's own citizens, launching an unnecessary war, come to mind.)  When there were massive demonstrations against the war and Bush's policies, millions took to the streets.  The media yawned. European newspapers carried more coverage than American ones, where protests were consistently underreported, and when they were reported, protesters were often referred to as radicals or anarchists.   Contrast that with the current media mantra that Americans are angry (implying all Americans) at Obama, where the message of only one segment of the population (albeit a large one) is portrayed:  as the man's T-shirt proclaims--they are mostly white, Christian, heterosexual and pro-gun advocates.  It's hard not to draw the conclusion that if your views are liberal, you're a "radical anarchist socialist"; if you're a Conservative, you're a Patriot.  Period.  This is the impression one gets from the way certain news stories are slanted.

It's okay to get angry.  Especially when one feels that nobody in one's government is listening, and not just re: health-care,  education, the economy and the War--but the choice of certain advisors in the President's cabinet.  I, too, am a little disappointed in Obama, for continuing some of the policies he campaigned promising to change, for some of the decisions he's made that seem unwise.  But hate him?  Call for him to be waterboarded?  Come on, people, get real.  Or was that meant as a joke, that sign.  Something tells me the sign-carrier meant it:  Waterboard him. 

My point is that meaningful dialogue seems to have stopped and raw emotions have taken over.  The country seems more and more divided.  We're in another war, but this time the enemy is a domestic one, a war of words, of gestures, ridiculing and threatening being the preferred methods of expression.  This is what Isee, even when I'm not looking.  It just kind of jumps out at me, breaking into my consciousness in the most unlikely instances.  In words and images, a visual and audial cacophany that arrives like an insidious silent siren (and yes, that contradiction is intentional) as if someone snuck up and thrust a needle dispensing the Fear virus into your arm while you were sleeping).

Today words,
tomorrow, guns.

How did we get to this point ... and how can we change it?  CAN we change it? ("Why can't we all just get along?")

I began this posting saying I don't know America anymore.  Maybe it was always like this but I was less aware of it. Or maybe, it's not as pervasive as I perceive it to be and I am succumbing to alarmism.  One can only determine that, I supposed, by examining its history and following its growth and decline, its triumphs and setbacks, its stated purposes and its real actions.  I only know I, personally, am disappointed, distrustful and greatly concerned about what's happening to and in the U.S. these days.  Perhaps my views would alter somewhat were I still living there.  Perhaps, because of that fact, I have no right to speak, that I'm now what one would call an outsider.  But one needn't BE a cucumber to talk credibly about cucumbers, right? 

I love the idea of America.  I hate that in a country that was founded on the principle of equality and freedom that there's so much fear and distrust, so much hatred and intolerance for the views of another. It's become like a schoolyard full of angry children, acting out by bullying and name calling, who have no idea how to manage the chaos their existence has become.

So what is the solution?  Stay out of it and just go about your normal routine and hope it'll all sort itself out eventually. Tend to your garden and focus only on what's positive and shut it all out, because really, what can one person do anyway.  Stand on a soapbox and scream to the heavens about the world's injustice. (Are you upset about what's going on in that one particular country, or the madness in the world in general?)    Put your money where your mouth is and go out and try to DO something about it.  Write your thoughts on your blog in an effort to make more sense of it?  All or none of the above, depending on the day.

If only things were that simple.  But perhaps they are.  Maybe the answer's there and just no one's come up with it yet.  Meanwhile the circus continues.  It would be comical if it weren't so serious.  At least it seems to me, to be rather serious.  Citizens of a country shouldn't be at each others' throats, shouldn't be attacking one other so visciously, verbally or otherwise.  We are not the enemies of each other.  How sad that for some, a feeling of worthiness can only arise when there's an enemy to defeat.  And if none exists, one manufactures one.  What a mindset.

I don't think it manifests only in public demonstrations, though.  That's just the more visible part of it.  It's its subtle permeation in other areas that is disconcerting.  In who we choose to marry, hire, spend time with, confide in, trust with our lives.  First question:  Are they a "Them" or an "Us"?  And if a Not-Us, how do we act towards them?  It is the answer to this question that forms the basis of who we are, I think.  And it can't be neatly lumped into the simple categories of  "Tolerant" and "Intolerant".  Welcome to the Gray Zone.  But we might at least acknowledge who the true enemy is, and what we mean by the word "enemy." 

I remain, unconvincingly, optimistic--that things will somehow sort themselves out and sanity will reign again.  It is so counterproductive to dwell on, highlight, encourage and perpetrate such ... explosive hatred.  For ALL sides.  It sounds so corny, but ...   how about a little peace and love for a change?

Or if not love yet--then just ... peace.
It's time.

Big bunch of words.  I could have just shown the pictures and let them speak for themselves.  
Why didn't I.  Sometimes I talk too much.  
It's a curse.

Photos of the Glenn Beck 9/12 project demonstration in Washington D.C.  can be seen  here, and  here.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Men at Sea, in verse and art

Verdigris —  Man at the Wheel

Blessed by your unwavering gaze
faithful fleets steer a course
long known to the fishermen of Gloucester.

At the helm, bronzed hands grip a spoked wheel,
sou'wester and visage age to a patina.
My father was one who sailed from this harbor

and returned with a trip of fish
all but one voyage, but you take note
of they that go down to the sea in ships.

See, you seek them even now.
Fog horn moans, salt waves sigh.
Light encompasses a churning dark sea.

Steadfast through nor'easters, winter's ice,
you emerge in summer's green, sparkling sky,
flowers at your feet, dedications

ringed around you, children perched
on your shoulder, grandmothers posed for
portraits and fathers making a pilgrimage to recall

fresh sea breezes and spin fishing tales and speak of
those now permanently cast in bronze tablets,
immortalizing the single memory of each man gone.

We say their names knowing but a few of their stories -
their perfect storm of ironies so nearly shared.
Troubles, fate, one last trip on board

an ill-fated vessel. Yet, you glorify them
and we cannot help but look out to sea
following your gaze to herald their safe return.

--- Pamela Mansfield

The above is the winning poem for Quarterdeck's recent civic poetry contest.  The event in question was  Massachusetts's decision to put The Man at the Wheel--the Craske sculpture that centers the Gloucester Fisherman's Memorial--on the next series of twenty-five-cent U.S. State commemorative coins.[1]

John J. Ronan, poet laureate for the city of Gloucester, Massachusetts (pronounced "GLOSS-ter" -- or, if you're from Beantown, "GLOSS-tah"), wonders why civic poetry is not more common.  One reason, he thinks, is that "Too many modern poets look down on civic, occasional poetry." [2]   Perhaps more people who otherwise wouldn't ever pick up a book of poetry, might, after reading or hearing a poem written in a civic context, change their minds about hating poetry.

Maybe it's not the venue or subject matter that invites some poets' disdain for civic poetry so much as the perception that authentic poems cannot be written about a thing unless one has some personal, important connection to it . One might, for example, wax poetic about a lover, favorite place, poignant memory or material object that carries specific relevance, yet balk at the idea of a poem penned for a public event, finding it too pedestrian and unworthy of consideration. (Might the discomfort have anything to do with a poem's being assigned or commissioned--as opposed to writing engendered by a genuine interest in the subject or as an act of spontaneity? Some of the world's greatest masterpieces of art,--for example, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel--were commissioned works.)

A poet need not be limited by a lack of enthusiasm for a particular subject or event to create a meaningful civic poem.  He can suggest parallels to something universal to which everyone can relate.  Last year one of the requirements for the commissioned poem for the opening of the new Leamington Spa Railway Station in Warwick, England was that one out of four submitted entries had to have been inspired by that year's National Poetry Day theme, which was "Dreams." Absent a suggested poetic theme, however, what could one say, poetically, about a railroad station opening?  I believe there are no non-poetic themes, and whether by inspiration or demand, there is Nothing about which one can't write a good poem.

Poet Robert Pinsky believed that poetry didn't just belong to poets, that it is also civic:  "Poetry month and the posting of poems on subway cars may violate some notion of the form's intimate quality. But the civic space is where language and makers live."[3]  At any rate, civic poetry is definitely alive in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Ms. Mansfield addresses her poem to the statue ("Flowers at your feet, dedications ringed around you, children perched over your shoulder..."), a revered public icon and symbolic reminder of the human drawn to, dependent on, and often at the mercy of the mighty sea.  Gloucester's Wheel Man still watches as its fishermen go to sea, immortalizing those who didn't return.

Homage on a bronze tablet for fishermen lost at sea, names on a wall honoring dead soldiers--such carved memorials, chiselled reminders of the absence of the persons honored, bring forth harbored memories of beloved faces, remembered conversations--in the case of the fishermen, of  their love and fear of the sea--reminders of their many journeys out and back with their nets, their endless stories.  These are what people think of when they see this Man at the Wheel sculpture.
John Masefield, poet laureate of the UK from 1930 to his death in 1967, also wrote about men at sea, immortalizing them in verse, as Gloucester's Man at the Wheel immortalizes them in stone:

The sailor, the stoker of steamers, the man with the clout,
The chantyman bent at the halliards putting a tune to the shout,
The drowsy man at the wheel and the tired lookout...
THEIRs be the music, the colour, the glory, the gold;
Mine be a handful of ashes, a mouthful of mould.
Of the maimed, of the halt and the blind in the rain and the cold --
Of these shall my songs be fashioned, my tales be told.[4]

Ah, the many tales of the sea in fiction and poetry and pictures, the exhilaration of being out adrift on the vast ocean, alone with the fish and the white-capped waves and the sky; the terror of an approaching storm, thoughts of loved ones back on shore--a wealth of material for writers and poets and artists to weave into creative outpourings about ordinary individuals battling the elements in an unpredictable universe.

There are countless poems about man and the sea, expressing awe, exhilaration, fear, despair, loneliness, or inner peace. The fisherman's wife will tell you the fish smell in her husband's hands, his hair, and his clothes never leaves no matter how hard she scrubs, and wonders why no one ever writes a poem about THAT.  (Monuments honor those who descend into earth's caverns to mine for coal and never return; why are there not more poems about them, not only the lost, trapped ones but those who return with Death implanted in the black dust in their lungs?  Are they not also brave souls worthy of  civic tribute and immortalization in poetry?)

Men and women of the sea and earth, and those who write about them, sing about them, or paint their images, like ocean waves that never cease, like winds that whisper untold stories--are the threads that form the fabric of the universe. Some live the life; others merely record it, define or magnify it; and some make of it a metaphor for something larger and more compelling--extraordinary, even--enabling others to experience something that transcends their everyday world, in a never-ending flow of ... connection.

It is this connection I feel when I see the boats in the photo above of Gloucester Harbor; when I imagine all men at the wheel; when I read the words of those who also, for whatever reason, find something that resonates with them about the men at sea.

Many thanks to Jonathan, a Massachusetts beekeeper and photoblogger at Beeps and Chirps for his kind permission to post the two photos shown here on my blog today.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Moon on Cedars

If I were a cedar tree
if you were one, too
we might by some enormous
stroke of luck have been planted
side by side
and then one night
when all was still
we'd watch night fall
our limbs intertwined,
an indulgent moon
smiling down,
a gentle wind
nudging your branches
nearer to mine.

-- Annie Wyndham


* Photo I took in my back yard a few years ago

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Potato People

When I was a child my mother showed me how to make a potato animal. It was simple--you lay the potato on its side, insert four toothpicks (for the legs), then stand it upright. Voila, it's now a cow (minus the head and tail of course, but with a child's imagination, it can be any four-legged animal you want it to be.) At the time I thought that potato-toothpick cow was the coollest thing ever.

Lebanese artist Ginou Choueiri has taken it a step farther and concentrated on showing us what can be done creatively to make of common potatoes a very realistic portrait of people's faces.

"Potatoes and human heads are quite similar," she says.

"Not only is their skin porous like ours but they also come in different colors, shapes and sizes. Potato heads grow, sprout, age, and then decay ... but they refuse to go without a trace!"

You can visit Ginou's potato people gallery here.

Oh, and she doesn't just do potato faces--check out her other artwork here, and on her blog here.


*Many thanks for the artist's permission to display her potato people on my blog today.