Monday, March 22, 2010

it's been a long, long journey... way to go, bill

After more than a half-century of similar proposals and efforts, healthcare reform is one signature away from being, finally, the law of the land. Far from ideal in its current manifestation, the bill is a vast improvement that will have profound benefits in the real lives of so many people who haven't seen much go their way in this society that has, over the last three decades, become increasingly good at kicking people when they're down. We're a long way from being the relatively civilized society that the world's other industrialized democracies are, at least in terms of guaranteeing their citizens care when they get sick but, albeit in the slow pace in which all evolution proceeds, we're on our way. The law is not what I, and many other liberals, wanted. The law is not what makes most sense for most Americans. But it has been kicked around, poked and prodded, grossly misrepresented, used as a proxy for genuinely vile sentiments, and generally mistreated and maligned by the likes of the noisy and obtuse "Tea Partiers," Fox News, the skilled and disturbingly carefree Frank Luntz, the small army of rabid radio and tv personalities on the right, the obscenely powerful insurance companies and their not-so-small army of well-paid lobbyists, and indeed the considerable, and considerably adroit, Republican political machine. And despite the short-sightedness of many, and its own long odds, what only weeks ago looked like a doomed bill, is now just a tiny, and certain, step away from being a law. And a law that would be almost impossible for the right wing to dismantle. Being mishandled, dirtied, and vilified seems to have fortified what looked like a pretty weak contender.

This whole process has reminded me of the Schoolhouse Rock episode, "I'm just a bill...," and this bill was certainly treated at least as badly as the humble little personification in the cartoon. And yet, it made it all the way to becoming, late last night, a soon-and-certain-to-be law, and as imperfect as it is, it has my affection. May it find love and produce single-payer offspring.


Friday, March 05, 2010

Book Review: Blue on Blue Ground

Aaron Smith's Blue on Blue Ground was published a few years ago, but I just read it for the first time in the past few weeks, and over on Goodreads I joined a great new group started by Sarah Sloat, in which the members review a certain number of books in a year. So this review isn't very timely, but my enthusiasm for this book is such that I thought I'd post it here...

I think Anne Sexton and Frank O’Hara had a child and his name is Aaron Smith, and his Blue on Blue Ground is perhaps the bravest collection of poems since Sharon Olds gave us sacraments such as Satan Says and The Gold Cell. Aaron Smith’s courage is on par with that of revolutionary writers like Sexton, O’Hara, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks. It is unapologetically confessional, and both defiantly confrontational and defiantly vulnerable. His emotional honesty and authenticity are disarming and refreshing, especially in today’s poetic culture of guarded wit, artful dodging, and pretense, where emotional searching and self reference are often deemed pathetic and passe. He reminds us of some of the highest callings of poetry, and of the power of art to do what no other noble pursuit can do nearly as well. This book succeeds in the highest aims of art: like science that adheres to its principles, it seeks the truth, without regard to what one might like the truth to be; like the best of law and politics it compels us toward the “better angels of our nature;” like uncorrupted journalism it tells what isn’t being told, despite efforts of powers-that-be to keep it hidden, despite our own wishes to look away; like responsible education it challenges us to question, reconsider, and grow; like medicine not adulterated by motives of profit, its purpose is healing, even if that means doing some painful vivisection first.

Chosen by Denise Duhamel for the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, this book contains gems such as “The Signs of Choking” (to be a bruise spit out/ from the mouth of last night’s/ undressed stranger), “Story” (How quickly I am made strange), the “Dr. Engels” poems (swollen and exaggerated/ like the heads of the baby mice/ Roger squashed in the garage), and “Then,” from which the following is an excerpt:

Of course, there was a tragedy, the way

the beautiful are given back

to the stories that made them, quick

and perfect like a flash of his hair in the wind. And it’s stupid,

predictable - the car, the drunk star athlete

dead, leaving

his exhausted mother

to wander the house at night

calling his name

Far greater than the sum of its considerably impressive parts, however, is its power as a collection. It is not only startlingly honest, it also reminds us of two buried anthropological artifacts: that meaningful honesty is not a rigid and easily drawn code concerned with the arrangement of clean facts, and that the liberations such honesty brings, although ultimately dazzling, are sometimes as heavy as its burdens.

The first two poems of Smith’s I ever read, long before I read his book, left me thinking I would not like his work much. I’m usually drawn to more colorful language: a lot of simile, lines dense with bold and inventive imagery, where associations are drawn between the concrete that would otherwise seem unimaginable. Larissa Szporluk’s work comes to mind. That’s not to say my tastes don’t range far from that example, but for reasons that also include factors I haven’t yet identified, I just wasn’t enthusiastic about my first sampling of Smith’s work. The moral of this story is never rule out a poet after one reading, especially when that reading includes only a few poems. I’m more excited about this collection than I have been about anything I’ve read in maybe as long as two or three years, and I’m someone who is thrilled almost daily by something I read.

Blue on Blue Ground makes me want to buy Aaron Smith dinner and spend all night talking with him; it makes me want to be “made strange” to myself; it makes me want to find the bullies of his schooldays and give them bloody noses; it makes me want to get my “hairbrush microphone” and dance around and sing to Blondie and The Bangles; it makes me want to trade my frequent acts of cowardice for treks into my personal wildernesses. This book makes me want to be a better writer. This book, and I say this without the embarrassment it challenges us to defy, makes me want to be a better person. Fulfilling one of art’s most important functions, this book makes me want.


anti doctors and poetry

Actually, I'm no such thing -- poetry of course is like manna from heaven, and I'm quite fond of most doctors, especially after the past few years in which a few of their finest took on my medical Goliaths and gave this David the stone to bring at least one of the giants to their deaths, and the others to their knees. But the fifth issue of Anti-, the excellent literary journal, includes a poem of mine with the ironic title, "The Good Doctor," and my little "anti thesis." If you're not yet familiar with Anti-, the editor has all the poets provide statements of what they're against in poetry, and besides the consistently fine poetry, it is the magazine's best feature. And if you haven't read Issue 5 yet, definitely check it out: it includes a lot of great work, including poems by two of my favorite poets, Lisa Lewis and Nick Courtright.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Of bees, deer, and people

I've been so busy with other things the past few months that I almost forgot about my blog. That would be no tragedy. Much stranger and more surprising is how I could have forgotten, in the past few years, about two poems that had been among my favorites for several years: "A Story About the Body," by Robert Hass, and "Traveling Through the Dark," by William Stafford. How great it was when about a month ago, just out of the blue when I was washing my hair, the two poems re-entered my consciousness. It was like remembering those pink-frosted cookies in the shapes of animals from childhood, or just how fun it is to run through sprinklers in the summertime. But cookies and sprinklers are just pure fun. What's amazing is how artists can make such sad and disturbing things simultaneously so wonderful and lovely.

Robert Hass, A Story About the Body

The young composer, working that summer at an artist's colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, "I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy," and when he didn't understand, "I've lost both my breasts." The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity -- like music -- withered very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, "I'm sorry. I don't think I could." He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl -- she must have swept them from the corners of her studio -- was full of dead bees.

William Stafford, Traveling Through the Dark

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason--
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all--my only swerving--,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

22nd Annual World AIDS Day

Approximately 35 million people have died from AIDS-related illness since 1981. Most have been children and adults under the age of fifty. 

ACT-UP        UNAIDS       The Global Fund     All4Good      Angels in America     

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Pushcart and Best of the Web Nominations

Congratulations to the following poets whose poems I nominated for the Pushcart Prize, as well as the 2010 Best of the Web anthology published by Dzanc Books:

Natasha K. Moni, "Letter to a Lover Whose Name Spells Dark Bird"

The above work appears in the sixth issue of Siren, along with several other deserving poems (and great art, not eligible for either honor), a few of which made this decision difficult. Bravos all around.

excerpts from the nominated poems:

That took her voice in half. She dipped it in a pan

of dead lilacs and licked the inner thigh seams.

I turned around on rotary machines.

The best of us plunge cultural defectors that crow

a weaker side for the salt of tides ripping our childhoods out.

- Amy King


A cubic inch of Texas tumbled to the bed

My eyes were still swollen from dusting

Just then, I pinched the blue

bonnet cat-claw of what could be my future, entire

- Karyna McGlynn


...our limbs liquid

our eyes opening like lilies. Meet me and we will

forget our bodies were ever anything but

a little salt, water

waiting to be stirred.

- Natasha K. Moni


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

we move

To Merce Cunningham, one of the 20th century's greatest dancers and choreographers, this simple fact was cause for celebration, reflection, and his life's work. He died on Sunday at the age of ninety, still dancing into his 70's and still active in the dance world until his death, choreographing work that will long outlive him. His enduring legacy will mostly be defined by his insistence that movement, in and of itself, is enough to justify the art of dance. This was a revolutionary idea when he entered the dance world in 1939, when conventional wisdom held that dance needed to follow and depict a narrative. (Just as today few in our culture, perhaps poets alone, it sometimes seems, and perhaps not even all poets, understand that poetry can be experienced primarily through sound, and even if there is no clear, easily deciphered, or linear narrative or "meaning," a good poem always offers something to savor: the sound of words.) Cunningham's was a sensual world and to enter it was to be elevated into a closer relationship with one's own body and senses.

His impact also includes his frequent collaborations with artists of other genres, including musicians, visual artists, poets, and architects. Again, this was a new idea when Cunningham was discovered by the modern dance pioneer, Martha Graham in the 1940's. Still today such collaborations are rare. Below is a video of his work with the artist with whom he created dozens of collaborations, the musician John Cage, who was also his life partner for five decades until Cage's death in 1992. Their work together included the innovative practice of Cage composing music and Cunningham choreographing dance independently of each other and then performing the two simultaneously on stage.  


(Also see Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Mr. Cunningham's essay, "Space, Time, and Dance.")

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

speak OUT

Possibly the best of all slogans or battle cries used by a movement, or an organization as part of a movement, is ACT-UP's "Silence=Death." And it's true and wise beyond the scope of AIDS, when applied to so many things. Art is perhaps the embodiment of the axiom as it, by definition, speaks, and often speaks "truth to power." Likewise, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is not just an oppressive military policy, but a dictum reflecting and endorsing a larger and dangerous worldview that gains support from the policy for its application in all spheres of life. It is in direct opposition to Silence Equals Death

To help extinguish the policy, and hopefully the larger belief system, make a brief visit to the Courage Campaign and sign a petition to do just that.