Sunday, September 30, 2007

September 21st Peace Day?!

Some peacenik I am. I didn't even know there was an International Day of Peace, designated September 21st. When John Carroll student Viriginia Rivera interviewed me about Cleveland-area commemorations, I was caught off-guard. Shouldn't every day be a "peace day"? After all, holidays like Mother's Day were originally conceived as anti-war events. There is the cartoon written by a pacifist--tweaking the popular cartoon trying to get everyone to join a war effort--"Daddy, what did you do to end the war?"

Friday, September 28, 2007

Wallace Stevens in Wartime

My toddler daughter Leila now chooses what books I read; she simply goes over to my shelf and begins pulling them out, one by one. A couple days ago, it was Wallace Stevens' The Necessary Angel, his prose. One of the essays that I've gone back to many times, ever since my college course "Frost, Stevens, Williams" taught by Bob Cording, is "The Noble Rider and the Sounds of Words," written in 1941--just prior to U.S. involvement in World War II.

In it, Stevens meditates on poetry and the role of the imagination given the immensity of violence in the world. Though he does call poetry a fundamentally "escapist" mode, it is an escapism that, for Stevens, is grounded in a humane resistance to what he calls "the pressure of reality." What he fears is what all the modernists feared, to a greater or lesser degree--the ever-diminishing space for the human, amidst what Harvey calls the "space/time compression" that modern technologies provided.

On the one hand, Stevens' lament could be read as nothing but a kind of reflex disgust with globalization--that our lives are ever more proximate to those distant lives in, say, Cairo (one of his examples). So, Stevens as John Bircher.

On the other hand, Stevens' lament is suggestive of the ways in which "fact" has paralyzed imagination, and the claims of the political can so quickly ossify the possibilities of the poetic. It is this Stevens that remains interesting to me, the same Stevens that would write:

Yes: the all-commanding subject-matter of poetry is life, the never-ceasing source. But it is not a social obligation....One goes back out of a suasion not to be denied. Unquestionably if a social movement moved one deeply enough, its moving poems would follow. No politician can command the imagination, directing it to do this or that. (28).

The question then becomes: is our connection to a social movement deep enough, deeply moving enough, to produce the kinds of poems that are beyond the politicians' control, and most truly poems?

Here's another Stevens selection from Opus Posthumous:

Poetry and War

The immense poetry of war and the poetry of a work of the imagination are two different things. In the presence of the violent reality of war, consciousness takes the place of imagination. And consciousness of an immense war is a consciousness of a fact. If that is true, it follows that the poetry of war as a consciousness of the victories and defeats of nations, is a consciousness of fact. If that is true, it follows that the poetry of war as a consciousness of fact, but of heroic fact, of fact on such a scale that the mere consciousness of it affects the scale of one's thinking and constitutes a participating in the heroic.

It has been easy to say in recent times that everything tends to become real, or, rather, that everything moves in the direction of reality, that is to say, in the direction of fact. We leave fact and come back to it, come back to what we wanted fact to be, not to what it was, not to what it has too often remained. The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illuminates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact. It goes on everywhere, even in the periods that we call peace. But in war, the desire to move in the direction of fact as we want it to be and to move quickly is overwhelming.

Nothing will ever appease this desire except a consciousness of fact as everyone is at least satisfied to have it be.

Check out also Kenneth Sherman's meditation on Stevens in a post-9/11 context.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Belle of Amherst Will Kick Your Ass

We've been reading Emily Dickinson in my Major American Writers class, and I always love reading her work; it seems almost endlessly generative, almost infinitely provocative in its layerings and associations. So it's probably not surprising that her poems, in their resistance to easy thinking, have been put to use by dissenters. An article from about the Manchester, Vermont, poetry reading in Febuary 2003 called "A Poetry Reading in Honor of the Right to Protest as a Patriotic and Historical Tradition", quotes the poem by the self-proclaimed Belle of Amherst.

Here's that poem:

Much Madness is divinest Sense--
To a discerning Eye--
Much Sense--the starkest Madness--
'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail--
Assent, and you are sane--
Demur--you're straightway dangerous
And handled with a Chain--

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Wislawa Szymborska's "The End and the Beginning"

I've been doing preparatory research in putting together an anthology of war resistance poems, and I came across this poem again by Wislawa Szymborska, the Nobel-Prize winning Polish poet. I was surprised to see I knew the translator, Joanna Trezeciak, whom I met last year at an ALTA conference. The poem takes the wide-angled view of what happens to places when the roller of "wars wars wars" moves on to destroy someplace else. That post-apocalyptic landscape is, of course, where so many people just keep on living. Vietnam is not a war, but a place, after all.

"The End and the Beginning"
by Wislawa Szymborska (translated by Joanna Trzeciak)

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won't
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it's not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

Again we'll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone listens
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.

From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
rust-eaten arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth,
gazing at the clouds.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Freeway Blogger/"How to Reach 100,000 People for Under $1.00"

Yesterday, and in my book, I mentioned Freeway Blogger as an activist who was bringing pithy language into the public sphere. Since 9/11, he has been active placing signs on freeway overpasses and other very public spaces that attempt to cut through the spin of mainstream media coverage. As you might imagine, many the images and text tend to be blunt to the point of oversimplification and provocation.

But some, such as the one posted above--"if this was our policy/[image of Abu Ghraib man]/then we're losing/a hell of a lot/more than just/a war"--invite a longer look. I love the line breaks, and the colloquial language suddenly weighted with symbolic resonances. "A hell of a lot" means "alot" but it also evokes the hell that torture induces, a "lot" which we condemn ourselves by opening us up to future blowback and attacks. "More than just" both invokes and revokes the notion that torture can somehow be justified--the "just" evoking "not only," but also "justice" itself. What kind of "just war" can be invoked when "this" [torture] becomes part of the policy.

Yet it seems to me that even such language acts as a sign that reads "IMPEACH", however reductive or inflammatory, constitute an essential parallel intervention into the public conversation about this war. Though such signs may not necessarily succeed in "converting the unconverted," they nonetheless act as potential sites of encouragement for those whose voices have been left out of the discussion of this war...nearly all of us.

The short video demo, "How to Reach 100,000 People for Under $1.00," shows him at work.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Banksy in Palestine

Banksy, an anonymous British graffiti artist, took his agit-prop work to the wall that Israel has been building--not on the 1948 or 1967 Green Lines (as suggested by one of the news reports below), but at times cutting Palestinian villages from surrounding communities and even their olive orchards. Thanks to David-Baptiste Chirot for alerting me to these powerful videos of Banksy at work.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The "Sidewalk Blog"/Taking (Language) To the Streets

There's a poet (who has asked to remain anonymous) who recently posted news of her new political work, inspired by the Freeway Blogger (whom I wrote about in Behind the Lines as one who is bringing a poet's sense of brevity to activist signage and an activist's notion of public space as a text to be written into.) I love how she is bringing the disappeared language of the peace movement into public space. You can see her pictures here.

Here is what she wrote about this picture:
9/3: left home just past 3 a.m. last night with the signs. The pedestrian overpass is on Kam Highway between town and the H3 off ramps. (The H3 goes to the Marine Corps Station in one direction, Pearl Harbor in the other.) I put them up, but inside the white bars, because the wires I had were too short. Came home and asked B to cut me longer wires. Went back and moved the signs to the outside of the railing. When I entered my parking lot, just past 4 a.m., the property manager was starting his Ford SUV and when I got out of my car he was trolling the small parking lot. I think he shone his lights at me. (See CPM album.)
When I asked her to write more about her project, this is what she sent me:

My project involves the hanging of signs on chain link fences on the windward side of O`ahu. This side of the island is a suburb to Honolulu; beyond the suburbs is what is left of country. My postal address is Kane`ohe, home of a large Marine Corps base from which many Marines are being shipped to Iraq. Hawai`i has over two dozen military bases in it. The windward side of this island, while its politics are liberal--our congresswoman is Mazie Hirono, the only Buddhist in Congress--is fairly conservative. It's not rare to see cars with yellow ribbons, Standing Tall bumperstickers, and Hope Chapel adverts stuck on them.

The purpose of the sign-hanging is to interrupt what my husband's cousin down the street calls "our communal apathetic hubris." Since most everyone on Oahu drives a car, of necessity, signs are a way to get people's attention. My hero is the freeway blogger ( who does this in California. Different scale. So I call mine the Sidewalk Blog, though recently I've hung signs off pedestrian bridges over main roads. Also put up a roadside memorial to the dead, which is a way to engage the local culture of roadside memorials for car crash victims. And I have a new co-conspirator who is doing her best to put up more signs and memorials.

I have tried to incorporate humor (WAR STINKS(on a sewage plant), but mainly to use the strategy of surprise and to write messages that are clear and short, like IMPEACH or NO WAR or OUT OF IRAQ.

I don't know what change such action effects, but it's all I can think to do. After seeing a young man arrested at a political meeting for asking a question at length, I suspect we need to use our right of free speech in order not to lose it.
Here's another image from the series:

8/28: put up last night outside the old Star Market (soon to be a Walgreen's alas) on Kam Highway in the middle of Kane`ohe Town. My first piggyback sign!!

In a postscript, Schultz writes:

I'm also learning strange things about audience and reception doing this. One of the signs was turned upside down, which took as much effort as taking it down would have. Another was "edited" repeatedly using dead leaves (crossing out the "im" in "impeach"). At one point someone not myself cleaned out the leaves. So these signs have lives of their own. Am also seeing this landscape in an utterly new way, through chain link.

And telephone poles. Have been astonished, so far, at how easy it's been to put them up--usually just after dark, though the memorials are done in the light of day--without interference. I guess everyone's trapped in their cars, which makes them a "captive audience."

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Minutemen's "This Ain't No Picnic"/Class Rage Meets Anti-Reaganism

As I watching the video for "This Ain't No Picnic," I suddenly realized that the bomber pilot depicted strafing the band was, in fact, Ronald F. Reagan. Suddenly, a song about a shitty job and a terrible boss morphed into a protest against one of the most anti-Labor Presidents in our history, the Triple Six, Ronald Wilson Reagan. So I'm going to post the lyrics and the video (again). Shout-out to Aaron Tieger, who apparently is my soldier-brother in things D.I.Y.

"This Ain't No Picnic" by The Minutemen

Working on the edge
losing my self-respect
for a man who presides over me
the principles of his creed
punch in punch out
8 hours 5 days a week
sweat pain and agony
on Friday I'll get paid


Hey mister don't look down on me
(for what I believe in-
I got my bills and the rent)
I should go pitch a tent
but our land is not free
so I'll work my youth away
in the place of a machine


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sergey Gandlevsky's "Hundreds of tons of combat iron..."

Sergey Gandlevsky, voted in a 2001 critics poll as the "most important living Russian poet," always saw poetry as a way to resist the pervasive and invasive politics of the Soviet Union. Most of his poems, collected in A Kindred Orphanhood: Selected Poems of Sergey Gandlevsky, sing underground life in a slangy vernacular melded with a classical Russian poetic formalism. Yet, at least in this poem from 1974, first published in Asheville Review, Gandlevsky confronts directly the massive militarism of the Soviet Union.

"Hundreds of tons of combat iron..."

Hundreds of tons of combat iron
Amassed under Kremlin walls.
Their din had no mercy on silence.
The trembling earth tickled our soles.

That night, on the eve of the parade
It took us an hour to hail a taxi.
On the eve of a strange ceremony,
Not long before private melancholy.

In that distorted silence,
Streets deserted as if at curfew,
Midnight tossed together
Everything strange and dear to me.

Failure often has two faces.
From troubles that make the heart go cold
We leave with a pained smile,
Our eyes as wide as saucers.

But the hellish heat of battle
Leaves so many thousands in coffins,
They return with the taste of ash
On lips constricted with silence.

My mother gave birth to a child,
Not to a puppet in roaring armor.
Don't torment my eardrums.
Let me say just one word.

Asphalt quaking underfoot,
Tanks headed to the Kremlin wall.
Hello, my dear grief,
A handful of life in an iron country!


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Minutemen's "This Ain't No Picnic"/Why D.I.Y. Will Never Die

The Minutemen will always be one of my favorite bands, even just for Double Nickels on the Dime (1984), that classic postpunk double-album with 43 songs in an hour-plus. Apparently, the title was a response to the lame Sammy Hagar song "I Can't Drive 55." In Jim Doppke's words, "punk rokkers drive slow." D. Boon, the lead singer and guitarist, died tragically in a car accident at age 27. They provide the title of Michael Azzerad's book about postpunk and indie, "Our Band Could Be Your Life," a line from "History Lesson Pt. 2," which spells out the Do-It-Yourself (D.I.Y.) ethos of the band--that we all are capable of making art our lives and our lives into art. That kind of Marxist production-side thinking D. inherited from his mom, and made a hell of a lot of people into artists, musicians and writers. So while critics like Brian Phillips in the recent Poetry Magazine are wringing their hands over the hand-wringing about poetry and its readership (who apparently lack taste), everyone who D. Boon inspired is in the bliss of art-making.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Keats on the Petty Emperors of Poetry (& Blogs)/Midland Becomes Mesopotamia

I've been thinking about Keats, struggling with his notion of negative capability and what that might mean for an engaged poetry--a poetry with a vision of the possible, a war resistance poetry or any other poetry whose cultural work isn't simply or simplistically mimetic or interested in self-effacement. In his Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 February 1818, Keats wrote:

“We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.—How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, ‘admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose!" Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this. Each of the moderns like an Elector of Hanover governs his petty state, & knows how many straws are swept daily from the Causeways in all his dominions & has a continual itching that all the Housewives should have their coppers well scoured: the ancients were Emperors of vast Provinces, they had only heard of the remote ones and scarcely cared to visit them..."

This notion of a poetry that "has a palpable design upon us" can be read as a critique of poetry as a kind of rhetoric run amok, of poetry as propaganda; it's trying to convince us of something, and if we cannot agree with the argument, then it withdraws from us somehow. Keats is interested in a poetry that insinuates, that just is, and wants to avoid being the kind of poet who is a governor of a petty state, endlessly and ridiculous concerned with the minutiae of his fiefdom. Sounds a lot like blogging--all of us in our petty fiefdoms. Of course, his answer--to be more like Emperors--doesn't feel terribly politically correct these days, and deeply incurious. I'd rather be curious about my fiefdom than dreadfully ignorant of the outposts of my empire...though even those things tend to go hand in hand. Midland becomes Mesopotamia.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sally Field, Speaking for the Mothers, Against War

Sally Field, you rock.

Fick on Poetry and War

Nathaniel Fick's recent review of war poetry on the Poetry Foundation website features some old chestnuts (Randall Jarrell) as well as the recent poetry on the Iraq War from Kent Johnson (Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz), Iraq War veteran Brian Turner (Here, Bullet), and Iraqis Sinan Antoon and Dunya Mikhail (The War Works Hard).

Fick is a man of great feeling and intelligence, a soldier who reminds us of the humanity of soldiers in spite of what they face and are called upon to do. His words remind me of an old friend, poet and Marine Joel Poudrier. Joel is still (and will always be) Semper Fi...yet my first encounter with him was through his poems. As the editor of the college literary journal, I and my editorial staff were blown away by his real world adventures narrated in his poems. I tracked him down to interview him and ask him for poems.

My only struggle with Fick's review was his rather blithe statement about the egalitarian nature of war in Antoon's verse: "We stood on opposite sides of a chasm: I was a combatant, and he was a civilian. But Antoon understands war’s egalitarian nature: that it often doesn’t matter which end of the gun we’re on." That soldiers (particularly ones of an occupying foreign power) are incredibly vulnerable is very true. But the "often" of Fick's phrase gets larger, the closer you are to actually being on the wrong end of a gun. Having had an Uzi pointed at me, I can say that I felt very little of the egalitarian nature of war.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Hal Johnson's "Sonnet: White Man's Burden"/How Ari Fleischer makes me crazy

I was listening to the npr program "On The Media" yesterday while repairing and attaching a new table leg to my daughter's "special table," when Ari Fleischer was being interviewed by Brooke Gladstone about the Image Wars regarding the Iraq War.

Fleischer pulled out all the typical ad hominems and spins 1) about performed its own ad hominems in their advertisement about General David Petraeus being a "General Betray Us" (a rhyme so pitifully obvious that it made me cringe to see it in print, even though I giggled over it when I thought of it myself), 2) about the peace movement, 3) about the left, 4) about the war in Iraq. Apparently, one ad (which you're welcome to watch and vomit in your mouth over), uses the typical rhetoric that essential blames the left in advance for making a guy feel like he's wasted his sacrifice...and he's lost both his legs in the war. But the sinister aspect of the ad, which Gladstone rightly confronts Fleischer on, is that ugly slippage in the "they" attacked us line. Really, Iraq attacked us?! WTF?!!!! I forgot, all of "them" are alike. Which leads me to Hal Johnson's "White Man's Burden," which is a phrase canonized by imperial poet Rudyard Kipling (who, incidentally, was quoted by General Petraeus in his address to Congress). Here's Kipling's poem, and then Johnson's.

White Man's Burden

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man's burden--
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man's burden--
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper--
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go make them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.

Take up the White Man's burden--
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard--
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:--
"Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?"

Take up the White Man's burden--
Ye dare not stoop to less--
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.

Take up the White Man's burden--
Have done with childish days--
The lightly proferred laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!


We all need to help them ay-rabs get their act together and love freedom, right?


"Sonnet: White Man's Burden" by Halvard Johnson

darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness
darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness
darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness
darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness

darkness darkless darkness darkness darkness darkness
darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness
darkness darkness darkness darkness darkiness darkness
darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness

darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness
darkness darkness darkness darkness darkling darkness
darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness
darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness

darkish darkness darkness darkness darkness darkness
darkness darkness darkness darkness darkest darkness

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Fady Joudah's "The Name of the Place"

Poet and doctor Fady Joudah's essay "The Name of the Place," published in the Poets Against the War Newsletter (November 2006), explores and meditates on the role of the poet in a situation of genocidal conflict. A member of Doctor Without Borders, Joudah, a Palestinian-American, has served in Darfur (the unnamed "name" of the place), and clearly has a tempered view of poetry's power to make social change. In such scenarios, and with such an oblique relationship to a place, I imagine I might feel similiarly:

Much in today's poetry straps itself to the socio-psychologic, inward turning, "I" in privation, under democratic excess. Paradoxically, this heterogeneity, this balkanization of the "I," does not safeguard against homogeneity necessarily. It often slips into a voice box of empire. The self as nation. Aesthetic as talk show screen. A jazzy sketch of sovereignty. Commodity and clone. Shiftless pronoun. A way of life.

True, there's never been a poet who could affect the political climate, or we would have left art to enter history, the mother of all propaganda. Art history, for example, qualifies as such on occasion. A canon firing east or west of the pen, in the name of the place. To write the political is not necessarily to proselytize or to write history. But not to consider the political brings poetry down to aloofness, a pretension of higher morality. The political in poetry today is not faint as much as it is deflected. This repelled presence is often the writer's apprehensive, indoctrinated stance against the "use" of art, opting instead for the subjective as aesthetic, for hermetic humility. And dialogue stagnates into automated, knee-jerk algorithms.

It is not only a matter of how much, but also how our art is a possession of empire. And how is freedom of speech, in American poetry, manipulated under the rule of art, let alone the rule of democratic hegemony? Poetry is a product of its place, of the speech of that place. So what is the name of the place? Is it the global village, an evolutionary step from Marlowe's (Conrad's) childhood love of maps, or is it the ostrich head of the "I," neither, a combination thereof, with or without other intermediate choices on the wild swing of the pendulum?

Yet surely Joudah's translation of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, in the recent book, The Butterfly's Burden, provides a fascinating example of how a poet can play a critical role in narrating the life of a nation. Rather, Joudah seems particularly vexed by what it means to be a poet in empire, and perhaps of empire--what can be written to unwrite the epic poems of war, of imperial adventure, of genocide?

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Clash's "Spanish Bombs"/News from Another Time

It's fair to say that I came to poetry, and a certain kind of poetry, from music. Should I be embarrassed to say that I first learned about Steven Biko from Peter Gabriel's "Biko," Victor Jara from U2's "One Tree Hill," and the Spanish Civil War from The Clash's "Spanish Bombs"--among many other examples? Popular song has long carried the weight of the ballad--conveying the news in ways that makes it more than news, the kind of news that stays news.
Why can't poetry do the same? I once read an anecdote about the Clash that is suggestive of the kind of turn from love songs to punk songs; Mick Jones brought a song to Joe Strummer, called "I'm So Bored With You," an anti-love song, and Joe suggested that they call it "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A.." That's great revision.

In a funny, offbeat interview with Tom Snyder, The Clash don't divulge how they see themselves as a "News Group," as purveyors of the news--doesn't the music speak for itself? Shout-outs to my Clash brothers: Jim Doppke, Paul Scalia, Matt Longo, Brian Cook, Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn, E.J. McAdams, Dan Seltzer, and Tom Pace (who appears to have downloaded "London Calling" on his phone--revolution is just a cell ring away).

"Spanish Bombs" by the Clash

Spanish songs in Andalucia,
the shooting sites in the days of ’39.
Oh, please leave the VENTANA open.
Federico Lorca is dead and gone:
bullet holes in the cemetery walls,
the black cars of the Guardia Civil.
Spanish bombs on the Costa Rica -
I’m flying in a DC-10 tonight.

Spanish bombs; yo te quiero infinito.
Yo te quiero, oh mi corazón.
Spanish bombs; yo te quiero infinito.
Yo te quiero, oh mi corazón.

Spanish weeks in my disco casino;
the freedom fighters died upon the hill.
They sang the red flag,
they wore the black one -
but after they died, it was Mockingbird Hill.
Back home, the buses went up in flashes,
the Irish tomb was drenched in blood.
Spanish bombs shatter the hotels.
My señorita’s rose was nipped in the bud.

Spanish bombs; yo te quiero infinito.
Yo te quiero, oh mi corazón.
Spanish bombs; yo te quiero infinito.
Yo te quiero, oh mi corazón.

The hillsides ring with “free the people”
-or can I hear the echo from the days of ’39
with trenches full of poets,the ragged army,
fixing bayonets to fight the other line?
Spanish bombs rock the province;
I’m hearing music from another time.
Spanish bombs on the Costa Brava;
I’m flying in on a DC-10 tonight.

Spanish bombs; yo te quiero infinito.
Yo te quiero, oh mi corazón.
Spanish bombs; yo te quiero infinito.
Yo te quiero, oh mi corazón,
oh mi corazón,oh mi corazón.
Spanish songs in Andalucia:
mandolina, oh mi corazón.
Spanish songs in Granada, oh mi corazón,
oh mi corazón,
oh mi corazón,
oh mi corazón.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ted Leo's "Since You Been Gone/Maps"/Punk Goes Pop

I've been a fan of Ted Leo's since his days in the Notre Dame college band Chisel, thanks to my buddy Jim Doppke, a friend of Ted's and a Golden Domer himself. Ted Leo melds influences as varied as Fugazi, Irish music, The Clash, and Ska into a pure pop punk. His latest, which I'll write about soon, "Living with the Living," is all about war--and the war in Iraq in particular. But here, he takes two covers ("Since U Been Gone" by Kelly Clarkson, and "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and marries them in falsetto. And, as a special addition, Ted Leo's brilliant exploration of food-obsessed behaviors (anorexia?), "Me and Mia."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Remembering September 11th, 2001/Yehuda Amichai's "The Diameter of the Bomb"

Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai's "The Diameter of the Bomb" speaks for itself. I'm posting it today because I've decided to read it for our September 11th remembrance at John Carroll University. In a sense, it captures that reverberating effect of violence, a violence that leaves almost no one spared; I hope that it will be heard not only as a lament for the terrorist acts, but for all the Terror Wars have come to signify--and the ways in which the dead of 9/11 have been summoned and manipulated for such foreign adventures as the Iraq War, the contorted logic of which goes something like: Country A attacked me, therefore I should attack Country B before Country B attacks me.

"The Diameter of the Bomb" by Yehuda Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making
a circle with no end and no God.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Philip Metres "Inspired by" Interview with Carlye Archibeque on BlogTalk Radio

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of an hour-long interview with poet Carlye Archibeque about Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront, since 1941. It was one of the fastest hours of my life. My only regret is not talking about punk rock. Thanks, Carlye.

Nir Nader's Interview with Israeli Poet Aharon Shabtai

Thanks to James Scully, poet and critic, for sending me this interview with the provocative and prophetic Israeli poet and translator Aharon Shabtai. Shabtai's book, J'Accuse, is drenched in the Hebrew prophetic tradition, but its allegiances are declared doubly with the Jewish tradition of justice and in solidarity with the Palestinians. The book's allegiances are so strongly with Palestinians that, when I teach some of its poems, a few of my students invariably presume he's Arab. It's that sort of cognitive dissonance that makes him worth reading, and makes him more interesting as an Israeli poet. He's one of those poets who refuses to leave poetry alone, in its increasingly professionalized obscurity:

In today's Israel, on the contrary, it is conventional wisdom that items of culture, such as poems, exist for their own sake, in a sphere apart, which has nothing to do with the making of arguments, especially political statements. The political is considered vulgar and unsophisticated. Literature and culture have nothing to do with a civic ethos. It's a culture of idiotai, in which everyone is out for himself, and all problems wind up on the back of the individual, becoming traumas of the inflated, self-involved ego. Privatized art, which deals with the lives of idiotai, becomes a branch of psychology. This has happened in the United States too. Poetry there used to be involved and activist, especially during the Vietnam War. In a few short years, after the Johnson Administration founded the National Endowment for the Arts, it became a poetry of campus writing workshops.

Some may not agree with all of Shabtai's pronouncements, but they are worth wrestling with. In the end, he's a poet of love.

"Better today's cries of defeat than the triumphant exultation of 1967"

Poet Aharon Shabtai discusses the influence of the Occupation on Israeli culture

Interview by Nir Nader


Aharon Shabtai has published 18 books of poetry in Hebrew. His prize-winning Hebrew translations of Greek drama are definitive. Two of his books have appeared in English: Love and Other Poems (New York: the Sheep Meadow Press, 1997), and J’accuse (New York: New Directions, 2003). Echoing the title of Emile Zola's attack on anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus trial, the poems of J'accuse confront Israeli practices during the Occupation. Translations of Shabtai's work have appeared in the leading English-language poetry journals, and he has recently contributed to the Red anthology, Aduma, discussed elsewhere in this issue.
[end box]

How would you describe the relationship between today's Israeli culture and the Occupation?
Shabtai: Israel is a country whose options for change are shutting down one by one. In the past it had the chance to become a healthy nation-state by settling its relationships with the Palestinians and the neighboring countries. Yet the longer it persists with the Occupation, and the more it relies on force, the narrower are its political options. The propaganda used to justify the violence of the Occupation has an Orwellian effect on Israeli mentality. There is a noticeable dulling of moral and ethical sensitivity. Public discourse is cast into molds of mendacity, a kind of "newspeak." This is abundantly so in the cultural sphere.

Israel is turning into a colony under the American aegis, like the former Rhodesia or South Africa under Britain. This colony is ruled by the oligarchs, the army and the Shin Beth. The land is a prison. It contains three and a half million native inmates, who are penned up in territorial cells, in camps and ghettoes, while Israel implements an unequivocally racist demographic policy aimed at ethnic cleansing. The prison also has special facilities for the Israeli jailers. These live in bubbles, cut off from the reality of the inmates. It's like the Green Area in Baghdad. Here, as there, we have golf courses, coffee shops, residences, and cultural institutions for the families of the rulers. In the colony, political conversation is limited to the economy and security, to questions of how to accumulate capital and how to eliminate the natives.

But today's Israel is no monolith. It's a society that has detached itself from its basic Zionist values, distanced itself from social solidarity, and abandoned its own citizens. We saw this in the war of 2006, and before that in the elimination of the social safety net.

Shabtai: Yes, because in a racist colony, the social and state institutions are eroded. Today, in a period of global imperialism, politics is being privatized. The tools of politics—the media, the parties, the unions—whose function is to bring about change, to heal, to repair solidarity, have been emptied of content and sold into private hands. As part of the same trend, culture and higher education are also thought of as things to be privatized. They are supposed to be "free of politics," "objective"—in other words, they're supposed to go along with the consensus. In the Israel of today, politics and politicians are anathema. This is the symptom of a nationalistic mass society whose heroes are the oligarch—such as [Arcadi] Gaydamak— and the general—like [Ariel] Sharon or [Ehud] Barak.

The ancient Greeks had a term for the citizen who cares only for his personal interests and stays out of political life. The term was idiotes. Today it suits Israelis. People here are idiotai, not politai (citizens in the true sense). They have no part in political organization or in political struggles of any importance.

Typical, therefore, is what one scholar wrote against my poem, "No, Sappho." [See box.] He accused me of debasing the great love poet. Sappho wrote that the most beautiful thing is not battalions of soldiers, or cavalries or a navy, but the person one loves. She opposed the dominant ethos of her day—as exemplified in the Spartan poetry of Tyrtaios—and offered the citizens an erotic ethos instead. In my poem I update the theme, offering (with humor) something else, something that suits our time and Israel: to view working-class solidarity and freedom as beautiful. By the way, all ancient Greek poetry is political in essence; it is the poetry of citizens. The first uniquely lyrical poem is Archilochos' "Some Saian mountaineer…," which tells, without a blush, how the poet threw away his shield in the midst of battle when the fighting got hot. This is a poem that defines the ethical and civic function of poetry. The poet overrules accepted heroic values and exemplifies the right to exercise judgment and formulate a new principle (logos); the refusal to die a pointless death is presented as a proper value for a free citizen.

In today's Israel, on the contrary, it is conventional wisdom that items of culture, such as poems, exist for their own sake, in a sphere apart, which has nothing to do with the making of arguments, especially political statements. The political is considered vulgar and unsophisticated. Literature and culture have nothing to do with a civic ethos. It's a culture of idiotai, in which everyone is out for himself, and all problems wind up on the back of the individual, becoming traumas of the inflated, self-involved ego. Privatized art, which deals with the lives of idiotai, becomes a branch of psychology. This has happened in the United States too. Poetry there used to be involved and activist, especially during the Vietnam War. In a few short years, after the Johnson Administration founded the National Endowment for the Arts, it became a poetry of campus writing workshops.

In Israel too, writing workshops are encouraged. They make up a thriving economic nook in art therapy, guiding people to adapt themselves. Psychology has become an ideology. All the traumas of a society characterized by military murder and exploitation are internalized, resurfacing as the problems of the isolated individual in a nationalistic mass. These problems are always private; he becomes a patient. In this way individuals receive their privatization as a gift. They are sunk in an ongoing childhood like the giants of Hesiod's Silver Age, each of whom was "brought up at his good mother's side an hundred years, an utter simpleton, playing childishly in his own home." Everything goes to the clinic. Art as psychotherapy serves an ideology in which all are individuals, without a political space (an agora): without a space where personal problems that are political by nature reach consciousness as such, finding their true solutions. Art without political space is like clay that is given to mental patients and children—because those who have no responsibility in relation to political space are slaves and children. The political belongs to the citizens, that is, to adults. Nowadays art and literature keep those who don't want to grow up, or can't, in kindergarten.

That strikes me, though, as a generalization. After all, the Occupation is recognized as a major issue by the entire Israeli mainstream, including establishment writers.

You're referring to intellectuals and mainstream writers of the sort that a friend of mine, Nimrod Kamer, calls "the soft Left": Amos Oz and David Grossman, for instance. In their case, I would say, the principle of co-option has applied.

The establishment adopts, co-opts them—that's its method. They oppose the Occupation vociferously on a general plane, and this stance gives them credibility when they support the regime on every specific issue of any importance. For example, they backed the Oslo Accords, the Camp David deceit of July 2000, the measures taken against the Intifada, and the second Lebanon War. The writers of the soft Left don't give literature a political content, rather the reverse: instead of pushing for decision or action, they sublimate the political into culture. The Occupation, in their hands, becomes the psychomachy of the beautiful, tormented Israeli soul. They have managed to make it a cliché of Israeli cultural discourse. Even Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert have said they're against the Occupation. It has been normalized. It has become a branch of culture, material for endless narcissistic self-flagellation, for films, readings, doctorates and academic careers. In this way the Occupation has been expropriated from the realm of struggle and squished into a psychotherapeutic kindergarten. We reach a point, finally, where the Occupation becomes graphomania. People are fed up with hearing about it.

For this reason no important literature has developed here since Oslo, rather only mediocre stuff that contributes to a philistine social life, recycling the "Israeli experience," which is stuck in its fixation.

For literature does have an ethical and political task. I use the word political in the classic Greek sense. The test of literature is the extent to which it does or does not cooperate with the regime in forging a consensus. Culture is an ideological laboratory, which uses agreed narratives to create a picture of reality; it invents definitions and partitions (Jewish/Arab, for instance) that supply the individual with an identity. What distinguishes the great writers and poets is the fact that they create resistance and offer an alternative ethos. In times of emergency, such writers relate directly to the political.

Resistance belongs to the essence of life. Everyone feels the force of gravity, inertia and friction when he moves forward or acts as an individual. On the other hand, there is enormous pressure, open and concealed, to be "a good boy," to conform.

A true poet has the courage and judgment to create resistance in the broad ethical sphere, precisely where it presses the individual to adapt to the norm. This puts pressure on his taste, on his standards, on the language he uses. But the topic of the interview is a specific situation. We're not in Holland. Under the present barbaric conditions, which are reminiscent of those that once prevailed in Germany, Russia, France and America, writers are required to open their mouths, take a clear and moral political stance, resist.

Give me examples of some who did this, who used opposition.

Socrates. He stood against his society, ready to die. The dominant ethical commandment in Athens was to harm your enemy and benefit your friend. Socrates doesn't agree. He gives priority to what is right. On this basis he holds that it is better to suffer evil than do it. After the fall of the Athenian democracy, the dictators made it their practice to send citizens to arrest those they identified as opponents or whose property they wanted to confiscate. Socrates and four others got an order to bring them a man named Leon. He refused, endangering his life. He was saved only because of a change in regime. Later he was accused of blasphemy and of corrupting the young, for which he was sentenced to death. His speech at the trial, the so-called Apology, is the basic political text of Europe.

Most of the major writers were oppositionaries in one sense or other. It's no accident that even non-radical writers like Flaubert and Baudelaire were put on trial. There are quiet periods when the opposition is not overt. But in special cases—like oppression, trampling of human rights, Fascism—writers must take their stand.

Yet in Israel, as I said before, they at once toe the line with the regime. Amos Oz, Yehoshua Sobol, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman supported the Lebanon War, in which the air force killed more than a thousand civilians, destroyed villages, destroyed neighborhoods in Beirut. Moments like that test the writer and artist. One can bring many examples of great writers, and not necessarily leftists, who refused to cooperate with their regimes.

At the height of patriotic fervor in Austria, for instance, Stefan Zweig opposed the first World War. He left his country and declared his solidarity with the people of France. Thomas Mann opposed the Nazis well before Auschwitz and went into exile in 1933. After that he wrote and lectured abundantly against the powers in his country. His books were burned in Germany. His Magic Mountain describes how an entire society is transformed into a society of patients, a clinic, as in Israel today.

Can an Israeli Hebrew culture long survive in a region that is Arab, a region so completely different?

That is of course the main problem. The Occupation, the army and capitalism are destroying the country, both the landscape itself and the human landscape, part of which consists of the Palestinians, who are rooted here. The example for Israel should have been countries like Belgium, Switzerland, the US and Canada, states that provide a framework within which various groups can live together.

The monument that best represents Israeli culture today is the separation wall. This is wedged into the nation's consciousness and into Hebrew literature. The wall is the fixation that the literature keeps recycling. This literature does not function as a means for creating opposition, as a means for changing life. And so there is no change in life, rather only in lifestyle.

Among the dark clouds you describe, can you see any light?

If the society has an instinct for self-preservation, then change will take place. There will be revolution. For look, everything today is stacked against the young. They don't have a future. In Jerusalem, in the recent student demonstrations, the young began calling for revolution, and passers-by crossed the street to join them. That's a sign of change. It will happen sooner or later. In this regard, Israel's failure in the second Lebanon War is likewise an encouraging sign. It may sound odd, but the cries of defeat we hear today are preferable to the triumphant exultation of 1967. Israeli militarism is destined to fail in a society of growing exploitation and poverty.

The revolt of today is not yet political, because consciousness and solidarity are limited. A few exceptions exist—for example, the group of young poets who founded the journal Ma'ayan [Wellspring—NN]. Their mode of action reminds one of radical movements in art like the Dadaists. They opposed the Lebanon War, and they show a high regard for both Arabs and Jews. But as of now, most of the young pose no threat at all to the establishment. Chauvinism and hatred for Arabs still make it possible to exploit the young and the poor.

As a writer I see myself as one who works in a system. Poetry is no private correspondence. It is done within a system that relates to other systems. Only in this way does poetry have a function and a place within the public domain. Within these political and cultural systems, a debate is underway, thinking is underway, and a struggle is underway for change and renewal. In the present situation, the political and cultural systems don't function. The gears don't mesh. Their emptiness and triviality push you out. Either you're a good little boy who sits in the clinic with everyone else, or you become a dissident, active from the margins.


Radnoti's "Seventh Eclogue"/Virgil in a Modern Hell

Gábor Fekete sent me a poem by Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, who was martryed during World War II after a force march between Yugoslavia and Hungary, shot and thrown into a mass grave in November 1944. Gabor writes: "This was his first poem written into his 'Camp Notebook' ("Bori notesz")he had been working on his final way to eternity. Probably also a part of a planned ten eclogue series inspired by Vergilius he translated in 1938. The series also started in 1938 and was never completed. 'The Sixth Eclogue' is missing and the 'Eighth Eclogue' was the last written on the 23rd of August, 1944." Thanks, Gabor! This poem was discovered in his pocket on his corpse by his widow. The poem shows how Radnoti brought classical traditions into conversation with the horrific life at war--as if Virgil might bring him some consolation, some liberation from his confinement.

"Seventh Eclogue" by Niklos Radnoti, translated by Ben Turner with with Zsuzsanna Ozsvath, published in Foamy Sky

Dusk; and the barracks, the oak stockade with its hem
of cruel wire, they are floating--see! they melt in the night.
The faltering gaze unlocks our frame of captivity
and only the brain can measure the twist of the wire.
But see too, my love, only thus may the fantasy free itself:
dream the redeemer dissolves the wreck of the body,
and off they go homeward, the whole campful of prisoners.

Snoring they fly, the poor captives, ragged and bald,
from the blind crest of Serbia to the hidden heartland of home!
The hidden heartland.--O home, O can it still be?
with the bombing? and is it as then when they marched us away?
and shall those who moan on my left and my right return?
Say, is there a country where someone still knows the hexameter?

As thus in darkness I feel my way over the poem,
shorn of its crown of accents, even so do I live,
blind, like an inchworm, spanning my hand on the paper;
flashlight, book, the lager guards took away everything,
and the mail doesn't come, and fog descends on the barracks.

Amid rumors and pests live the Frenchman, the Pole, loud Italian,
the Serbian outcast, the musing Jew in the mountains:
one life in all of these tattered and feverish bodies,
waiting for news, for a lovely womanly word,
for freedom--for an end how dark soever--for a miracle.

On boards among vermin I lie, a beast in a cage;
while the flies' armies rest, the fleas renew the assault.
It's night. Confinement's another day shorter, my love;
life, also, is less by a day. The camp is asleep.
The moonlight rekindles the landscape, retightens the wire;
you can watch through the window the shadows of guards with guns,
pacing, cast on the wall in the many voices of night.

The camp is asleep. See their dreams rustle, my love;
he who startled up snores, turns in his narrow confinement,
falls asleep again, face in a shine. Alone, awake,
I sit with the taste of a cigarette-end in my mouth
instead of your kiss, and the melting dream doesn't come, for
I neither can die nor live any more without you.

Lager Heidenau: in the mountains above Zagubica. July 1944.


Here's the original.


Látod-e, esteledik s a szögesdróttal beszegett, vad
tölgykerités, barakk oly lebegő, felszívja az este.
Rabságunk keretét elereszti a lassu tekintet
és csak az ész, csak az ész, az tudja, a drót feszülését.
Látod-e drága, a képzelet itt, az is így szabadul csak,
megtöretett testünket az álom, a szép szabadító
oldja fel és a fogolytábor hazaindul ilyenkor.

Rongyosan és kopaszon, horkolva repülnek a foglyok,
Szerbia vak tetejéről búvó otthoni tájra.
Búvó otthoni táj! Ó, megvan-e még az az otthon?
Bomba sem érte talán? s van, mint amikor bevonultunk?
És aki jobbra nyöszörg, aki balra hever, hazatér-e?
Mondd, van-e ott haza még, ahol értik e hexametert is?

Ékezetek nélkül, csak sort sor alá tapogatva,
úgy irom itt a homályban a verset, mint ahogy élek,
vaksin, hernyóként araszolgatván a papíron;
zseblámpát, könyvet, mindent elvettek a Lager
őrei s posta se jön, köd száll le csupán barakunkra.

Rémhirek és férgek közt él itt francia, lengyel,
hangos olasz, szakadár szerb, méla zsidó a hegyekben,
szétdarabolt lázas test s mégis egy életet él itt, -
jóhírt vár, szép asszonyi szót, szabad emberi sorsot,
s várja a véget, a sűrü homályba bukót, a csodákat.

Fekszem a deszkán, férgek közt fogoly állat, a bolhák
ostroma meg-megujúl, de a légysereg elnyugodott már.
Este van, egy nappal rövidebb, lásd, ujra a fogság
és egy nappal az élet is. Alszik a tábor. A tájra
rásüt a hold s fényében a drótok ujra feszülnek,
s látni az ablakon át, hogy a fegyveres őrszemek árnya
lépdel a falra vetődve az éjszaka hangjai közben.

Alszik a tábor, látod-e drága, suhognak az álmok,
horkan a felriadó, megfordul a szűk helyen és már
ujra elalszik s fénylik az arca. Csak én ülök ébren,
féligszítt cigarettát érzek a számban a csókod
íze helyett és nem jön az álom, az enyhetadó, mert
nem tudok én meghalni se, élni se nélküled immár.

Lager Heidenau, Žagubica fölött a hegyekben,
1944. július

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Suppressing Dissent/The Questions of A.N.S.W.E.R.

CA Conrad recently posted news of an attempt by D.C. police to squelch a press event by A.N.S.W.E.R., an umbrella group active in war resistance. Now, I have to say at the outset that, at times, the strategy of activists to put themselves into situations where they can demonstrate the repressiveness of police sometimes seems...well, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet, it's also painfully clear that every act of dissent is subject to being silenced, and every dissenter subject to intimidation, under the Patriot Act as a security threat.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Edward Dorn's "In the Morning"/The War So Far From the Wars

Famous for his book-length postmodern opus Gunslinger, Ed Dorn's other poems also evoke the West. This poem, "In the Morning," feels like an abandoned ghost town, the likes of which the Slinger would have walked; its desiccation, though, seems part of a larger imperial abandonment of the already-conquered interiors...

"In the Morning" by Edward Dorn

In a forgotten town
grit flies up in circles of morning dirt
and cans lie here and there on the brown earth,
a dog slips between the houses.
The sun rose large and yellow, no warm
until the taste of warmth at noon for which old men
wait, talking low tones by the brown walls
their talk thickening in that brief transport of heat.

We are pained by fetters of wind around our ankles,
yet there are no screams in this mountain town, the knife
goes deeply but cleanly each malcontent is a surgeon.
In this silent rising holocaust of down people
the garbage scrapes along in the drafts of ice
and mingles in collections on the ground, this is

their binding tie, a contribution parallel to all odds,
all eventualities--
what they have left at the end of the day
oh bereft are they
caught between walls of earth plotting

a short nervous trip to the table of another's gossip.
Somewhere near in the drifting air in
the capitol building toiled in by masses
there is a click click and a woman sitting yawns

but never in the same way stares forward
as the man in our dry town
whose wheelbarrow of wood to warn him senselessly
spills, whose wrists twist yielding to the rock
yielding to the mock buzzing of a sound economy

in the wind struggling, clad in ancient army clothes
so far from the wars.

in Hands Up!
[New York: Totem Press/Corinth Books, 1964

Friday, September 7, 2007

W. Scott Howard's "The Danger (Here)"/9/11 and the Crisis of Language

W. Scott Howard's long poem, "Shaping Time," is his response to September 11th. In sections such as "Unfinished Separations," Howard, in his words, reconfigures the linguistic terrain shared by Milton's twin poems, "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," attempting to trace what may be heard and seen through the Moebius-like towers in each text. In "The Danger (Here)," Howard interrogates language's commensurability with such a national trauma.


Of words, the imminent danger
at work in this is precisely that

we might convince ourselves into
believing language is all the evidence

needed—a mere substance visible
of an immanence eluding our highest

windows—some terrible beauty glimpsed
if only through translation. “The north

tower stood for one hundred and two
minutes before crumpling to the ground

in eight seconds.” Such a thing
syntactically aligned belies a boundless

inner-scape. Phrases break
upon their transports where life and death

converge, reconfiguring what may not
or may be impossible. A structure of élan

and enormity, a mountain of sand vitrified,
iron & carbon alloyed—or, as they say,

gratte-ciel—can a sky or cloud scraper
crumple as notebook paper misshapen

from a child’s hand, butterfly wing,
up-side-down tumble? “Crippled

to a greater degree, the south tower
remained for fifty-six minutes,” then

in seconds ten: plunged headlong
from the autumnal skie, flaming,

hurling, hideous combustion and ruin
down & down, over & over—bottomless

tumbling, all into all—as we raged, wept
in luxurious captivity, neither able nor

not wanting to look away. From a stairwell,
many voices: “I started hearing them

coming down individually, the sheer
pounding of one going into the next,

in pancake fashion, louder and louder,
worse and worse. And I’m waiting there

for the one noise to come and end it,
for the something that never happens.”

Another said: the deep roaring was
of the Devil’s throat; the foul wind,

a breath of creation. In fire and ash
for all things an exchange? In the midst

of change, a divine stubbornness perhaps
misdirecting the course? Somewhere

in the vortex dwells an “Appell of Golde
representynge the shape of the worlde”—

Koenig’s Sphere transfigured—everything
into something else, nothing again ever

undone thereby. Near the beginning of
this particular origin of fear, unhinged

by the interruption of pass-times,
dumbfounded by the absence

of jet trails, we brooded over disaster,
raised arms in the Name of names,

twisted shock into awe, exported terror
for the same return. WMDs: HOAXes.

Intelligence reports: oxymora perverse.
Once lost, twice found? Where’s meaning

in this truth-is-where-truth-where-is?
“The towers all fall down—

Daddy crying, why down, all fall down?”
My children look up to their capricious

accomplishments—stacked, strange,
noble efforts of imagination—precarious

and colorful as their rites of possession
and passage. Then, from those heights

of whimsy, the inevitable slow crash—
a scattering of plastics, the ardent search

and rescue. Will they ask about this?
Will they desire explanations, fictions,

or testimonies inadmissible? In matters
as such as these, a story spoken splits

nerves, wrings a winding sheet, raises
flags for burning, hauls buckets,

dispatches a life. “Why shouldest thou
take no knowledge of me, seeing I am

a stranger?” Language in a darkness
blurs, descending in an absence, coils,
tightens, or grows slack. For some

a single word rising limns the world
habitable. Others give their voices

to the wanting ground.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Martha Collins' Blue Front/News That Stays News

Martha Collins, who recently won the prestigious Anisfield-Wolf Prize of 2006, gave a poetry reading at John Carroll University a couple nights ago, and this is from my introduction.

Poet Martha Collins’ recent book, Blue Front, hails from the long tradition of poetry that brings us, in William Carlos Williams' words, "news/of something//that concerns you/and concerns many men." Its news is not the Thoreauvian news as gossip, but the old story of racial hatred and its legacy in our country. In its investigative and ruminative searching, in its worried collage of news stories, postcard image descriptions, museum exhibit language, Blue Front probes the traumatic experience of a lynching of a black man in Cairo, Illinois, an act witnessed by her father, when he was just a five-year-old boy.

Collins provides a kind of autopsy of the town, attempting to uncover what happened, and how it happened, and what sort of legacy has been passed down to her. In such a poetic act, Collins produces a work of ethical depth and aesthetic vividness, of historical questioning and of confessional intimacy. The author of four books of poetry and two volumes of translations from the Vietnamese, Collins has made a life work of making poetry accountable to the other and haunted by the other. With Blue Front, she leads us into the haunting and harrowing past, which is our shared past, and one which we can only be free of when we confront it—despite its seeming unspeakability.

Here are a couple pieces from Blue Front.

From Blue Front

There were trees on those streets that were named
for trees: Sycamore, Cedar, Poplar, Pine,
Elm, where the woman's body was found,
where the man's body was taken and burned—

There must have been trees, there were trees
on Seventh Street, in front of the house that stands
in the picture behind the carriage that holds
the boy's mother, the boy's cousin, the boy—

And of course there were trees on Washington
Avenue, wide boulevard lined with exotic
ginkgoes, stately magnolias, there were trees
on that street that are still on that street,

trees that shaded the fenced-in yards of the large
Victorian houses, the mansion built by the man
who sold flour to Grant for the Union troops,
trees that were known to the crowd that saw

the victim hanged, though not on a tree, this
was not the country, they used a steel arch
with electric lights, and later a lamppost, this
was a modern event, the trees were not involved.



as a mirror on a wall, or the fall
of a dress. a dress, a shirt on a line
to fasten to dry. on the rack, or back
in the closet again, a sweet curse
on it all, sliver of nail, delayed
attack. shamed creature, a curse
on itself, so the act of doing it
changes the verb, tense with not
quite right. with rope, like a swing
from a tree. from a pole, like a flag,
or holidays, from an arch lit bright
with lights. in the night, in the air
like a shirt. without, or with only
a shirt. without, like an empty sleeve.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Robert Bly on "Now"/On Poetry, Rumi, Whitman, Bush, etc.

Robert Bly recently appeared on Bill Moyers' "Now," which my dad, visiting and hanging out late at night in our basement, watched through the snow of a badly wired television. He rushed up to my mother to report of Bly on TV, and wanted to wake me up out of a sound sleep. The miracle of the Internet? I can still see Bly on TV... Apparently, there was much ado in the blogosphere that PBS had censored Bly's criticisms of George W. Bush, where he suggests (via a poem) that Bush is a drunk. Read the transcript here.

August 31, 2007

Bill Moyers talks with Poet Robert Bly

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL. The combined age of the two people you're about to meet is 172 years. They have lived full and original lives. And they're still going trong. The iconoclast H.L. Mencken once said, "I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs." He had nothing on Grace Lee Boggs and Robert Bly.

I first met Robert Bly back in 1979. He was reading from his poetry at Cooper Union here in New York:

ROBERT BLY: POET AT LARGE: A CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BLY: "How amazed I am after working hard in the afternoon that when I sit down at the table with my elbows touching the elbows of my children. So much love flows out and around in circles.

BILL MOYERS: It wasn't hard to figure out why Bly was exerting such influence on aspiring American poets. He already enjoyed a large following — appealing to poetry lovers with powerful images of intimate subjects:

POET AT LARGE: A CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BLY: More of the fathers are dying each day. It's time for the sons and the daughters. Bits of darkness are gathering around them. And the bits of darkness appear as flakes of light.

BILL MOYERS: Bly was daring in word and example, he was also controversial. In 1966 he had co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War, and when he won The National Book Award two years later for THE LIGHT AROUND THE BODY, he contributed the prize money to the resistance.

Over the years Robert Bly has ranged far and wide in his poems, with thirty or more books touching on spiritual insights and deep and dark truths about American culture. His IRON JOHN became an international best seller, and brought untold numbers of men to poetry:

A GATHERING OF MEN: It is a massive masculine shadow, 50 males sitting together in halls or crowded room lifting something indistinct up into the resonating night.

BILL MOYERS: I've encountered Robert Bly again and again at poetry festivals and interviewed him about the passions of his life — including his work as an eminent translator of the Islamic poets Rumi and Hafez.

LANGUAGE OF LIFE: LOVES CONFUSING JOY: ROBERT BLY PERFORMING AND READING HAFEZ AT THE PAUL WINTER CONSORT: My ego is stubborn often drunk, impolite, my loving finely sensitive, impatient, confused. Please take messages from one to the other.

BILL MOYERS: He was in town recently and I invited him over to the studio. He came, bearing as always, a satchel of books and eager to talk, as always, about poets and poetry.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.

ROBERT BLY: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: I love what the English professor said about you last year. He said, "Robert Bly is an important guy. He's important." He said, "Robert Bly is an important guy. He's so famous, I'm sometimes surprised to find he's still alive."

ROBERT BLY: I am surprised, too.

BILL MOYERS: Do you ever wake up surprised that you are still here?

ROBERT BLY: Yes, I do. Very much.

BILL MOYERS: Present company excepted, who do you thinks been the greatest American poet up to now?

ROBERT BLY: Well, Walt Whitman? You have to bring him in immediately.


ROBERT BLY: He does everything. And whenever you have a person in another culture like India who is trying to make us understand what religious life is like in India, they quote they quote Whitman.

When he begins calling out his beautiful list of people that he loves and things that he loves, the divine always comes into it in some way. So you just feel he is pretending to write about human beings. Maybe he's some sort of messenger from god.

BILL MOYERS: You know, when I first met you, you were just barely 50. And you read this little poem. You remember this one?

ROBERT BLY: "I lived my life enjoying orbits. Which move out over the things of the world. I have wandered into space for hours, passing through dark fires. And I have gone to the deserts of the hottest places, to the landscape of zeroes. And I can't tell if this joy is from the body or the soul or a third place."

Well, that's very good you find that because when you say, "What is the divine," it's much simpler to say there is the body, then there's the soul and then there's a third place.

BILL MOYERS: Have you figured out what that third place is 30 years later?

ROBERT BLY: It's a place where all of the geniuses and lovely people and the brilliant women in the-- they all go there. And they watch over us a little bit. Once in awhile, they'll say, "Drop that line. It's no good."

Sometimes when you do poetry, especially if you do translate people like Hafez and Rumi, you go almost immediately to this third world. But we don't go there very often.


ROBERT BLY: Well I suppose it's because we think too much about our houses and our places. Maybe I should read a Kabir poem here.


ROBERT BLY: Kabir is a poet from India. Fourteenth century.

"Friend, hope for the guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you're alive. Think... and think... while you're alive.
What you call salvation, belongs to the time before death.

If you don't break your ropes while you're alive,
you think that
ghosts will do it after? The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body's rotten--
that's all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
And if you find nothing now, you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death."

I was going through Chicago one time with a young poet and we were rewriting this. And he said, "If you find nothing now, you will seemly end up with a suite in the Ramada Inn of death." That's very interesting to see how that thing really comes alive when you bring in terms of your own country. You'll end up with a suite in the Ramada Inn of death. If you make love with the divine now, in the next life, you will have the face of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find out who the teacher is, believe in the great sound. Kabir says this, when the guest is being searched for - see they don't use the word "God". Capital G, "Guest". When the Guest is being searched for, it's the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work. Then he says, "Look at me and you'll see a slave of that intensity." So he's the first one that I ever went into who wrote true religious ones.

BILL MOYERS: You've been working a lot lately in Islamic-- poems of Islam, right?

ROBERT BLY: The Muslims have a great literature and fantastic poets. Rumi and Hafez have been the guiding light, Rumi especially, of American poetry for the last five or ten years. But also it seems to me that if we're doing so much attack upon the Muslim world, criticizing the Muslim world so much, we should be able to give thanks for the genius that is there.

ROBERT BLY: So, this is Persian poetry-14th century.

"The foods turned out by the factors of time and space are not all that great. Bring some wine because good things of this world are not all that great."

"The true kingdom comes to you without any breaking of bones. If that weren't so, achieving the garden through your own neighbors wouldn't be all that great. In the five days remaining to you in this rest stop before you to go to the grave, take it easy, give yourself time, because time is not all that great."

Two more.

"You Puritans on the stone floor, you are not safe from the tricks of God's zeal. The distance between the cloister and the tavern we love is not all that great."

And the last stanza is "The name of Hafez has been well inscribed in the books, but in our clan of disreputables, the difference between profit and loss is not all that great."

You see how he is withdrawing all our obsessions? I've gotta get this done. I don't have much time left. So, he's a tremendous spiritual poet.

BILL MOYERS: Help me understand the popularity of Rumi. The 13th century mystical poet?


ROBERT BLY: I like geniuses. And--

BILL MOYERS: Rumi was a genius?

ROBERT BLY: Yeah, he was. I'm gonna give you one that I did.

BILL MOYERS: Translated?

ROBERT BLY: "I don't like it here. I want to go back. According to the old knowers, if you're absent from the one you love even for one second, that ruins the whole thing. There must be someone, just to find one sign of the other world in this town would be helpful." I feel that in Minneapolis.

"Just to find one sign of the other world in this town would be helpful. You know the great Chinese Saimer bird got caught in this net. What can I do? I'm only a wren. My desire-body, don't come strolling over this way. Sit where you are. It's a good place."

"When you want dessert, you choose something rich. When you choose wine, you look for what's clear and firm. What is the rest?" Talking about-- "What is the rest?" The rest is television. "What is the rest? The rest is mirages and blurry pictures and milk mixed with water. The rest is self-hatred and mocking other people and bombing. So, just be quiet and sit down. The reason is you're drunk. And this is the edge of the roof."

It's a good poem, even for the United States right now.


ROBERT BLY: Um, look for what's clear and firm. "What is the rest? The rest is mirages and blurry pictures and milk mixed with water." That is the way to cheat in the old days. "The rest is self-hatred and mocking other people and bombing. So, just be quiet and sit down." That'd be a good thing to say to Bush. "Just be quiet and sit down. The reason is you're drunk. And this is the edge of the roof."

BILL MOYERS: Your mature life has been bracketed by two wars, two long wars: Vietnam and Iraq. And you wrote poems against Iraq, and you wrote poems against Vietnam. And both of them went on.


BILL MOYERS: Poetry didn't stop the war.

ROBERT BLY: No, it's never been able to do anything of that sort. It merely speaks to the soul, so the soul can remember -- so it's quite proper to have all the poems against the war. And it's proper not to be disappointed if nothing changes. Would you like me to read the poem I have against — this is probably the first poem written against the Iraq War in August of 2002.

BILL MOYERS: This was before the invasion.

ROBERT BLY: Yeah. "Tell me why we don't lift our voices these days and cry over what is happening. Have you noticed the plans are made for Iraq and the ice cap is melting? I say to myself, 'Go on, cry. What's the sense of being an adult and having no voice. Cry out. See who will answer. This is call and answer.' We will have to call especially loud to reach our angels who are hard of hearing. They are hiding in the jugs of silence filled during our wars." I was thinking of Grenada. Remember we invaded Grenada? Why did we do that?

"We'll have to call especially loud to reach our angels who are hard of hearing. They are hiding in the jugs of silence filled during our wars. Have we agreed to so many wars that we can't escape from silence. If we don't lift our voices, we allow others who are ourselves to rob the house."

"How come we listen to the great criers? Neruda, Akhmatova, Thoreau, Frederick Douglas. And now we're silent as sparrows in the little bushes." It's a very bad pun, but I left it in. "We are silent as sparrows in the little bushes. Some masters say our life only lasts seven days. Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet? Hurry. Cry now. Soon Sunday night will come." And Sunday night came when we bombed Baghdad. "Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet? Hurry, cry now. Soon Sunday night will come."

BILL MOYERS: Why isn't there more outcry?

ROBERT BLY: Well, If there were a draft, the outcry would be just as great as it was in the Vietnam War. Many of the people getting killed are the sons of people in Northern Minnesota or somewhere who don't have any access to protest. But it was a disastrous choice like most of the other decisions he made.

BILL MOYERS: I go back to that acceptance speech you made in 1969 when you accepted the National Book Award, but you gave your $1000 prize to the resistance against Vietnam. You said (quote) "As Americans we have all..." Remember this is 1969. "As Americans we have always wanted the life of feeling without the life of suffering. We long for pure life, constant victory. We've always wanted to avoid suffering, and therefore, we are unable to live in the present." Do you think that's still true today?

ROBERT BLY: Yes. Isn't that amazing that it's happening again that the people in Washington are not suffering at all, but the ones who are suffering are those young men who had a bad education and needed to escape somehow from the tramp of American life, and so they go there and get their legs and arms blown off?

BILL MOYERS: You went to Iran a few months ago. Tell me about that.

ROBERT BLY: Yes, they flew us to Shiraz where Hafez's grave is. So, we got up in the morning, and we went to the grave. And about 8:00 in the morning, you know, children started to come. Maybe third grade children. And they stood around the little tomb and sang a poem of Hafez's. Really charming. And then they went away, and now some fifth graders came. And they stood around the tomb and sang a poem of Hafez.

And, of course, every poem of Hafez is connected with a tune, so you teach the children the tune, and then they have the poem. So I said to myself, "Isn't that unbelievable? And why don't we do that? Why don't we go to the grave of Walt Whitman and have children come there?" Do you understand what it is--

BILL MOYERS: I do. I don't have an answer. Why don't we?

ROBERT BLY: Because we don't love-- we don't bring Walt Whitman and love him in the way that the Iranians bring in their poets and love them. So, that'd be great if children could go to Walt Whitman's grave and recite little poems.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think it would mean if we went to the graves of our poets?

ROBERT BLY: You'd bring the poets into the heart, instead of having them in your head in graduate school. And that's what you do with children. You bring children in, and they get associated with the heart when they're very small, and then they can feel it all through their lives.

BILL MOYERS: You've been talking and writing a lot lately about the greedy soul.

ROBERT BLY: I'm glad you caught that. Read this.

ROBERT BLY: "More and more I've learned to respect the power of the phrase, the greedy soul. We all understand what is hinted after that phrase. It's the purpose of the United Nations is to check the greedy soul in nations. It's the purpose of police to check the greedy soul in people. We know our soul has enormous abilities in worship, in intuition, coming to us from a very ancient past. But the greedy part of the soul, what the Muslims call the "nafs," also receives its energy from a very ancient past. The "nafs" is the covetous, desirous, shameless energy that steals food from neighboring tribes, wants what it wants and is willing to destroy to anyone who receives more good things than itself. In the writer, it wants praise."

I wrote these three lines. "I love very close to my greedy soul. When I see a book published 2000 years ago, I check to see if my name is mentioned." This is really true. I've really done that. Yes, I've said that. So, in writers, the "nafs" often enter in the issue of how much-- do people love me? How much people are reading my books? Do people write about me? Do you understand that? It probably affects you too in that way.

BILL MOYERS: Us journalists? Never.

ROBERT BLY: Never. Okay. "If the covetous soul feels that its national sphere of influence is being threatened by another country, it will kill recklessly and brutally, impoverish millions, order thousands of young men in its own country to be killed only to find out 30 years later that the whole thing was a mistake. In politics the fog of war could be called the fog of the greedy soul."

ROBERT BLY: You know, the reason that one says things like the greedy soul psychologically there's no point in this war at all. It's not achieving thing, never would achieve anything. Only something as mad as the greedy soul could want it to begin and continue.

BILL MOYERS: It doesn't make any sense. As you say, the insanity of empire.

You know, Robert, you told me once when we-- you told me once many years ago that you tried to write a poem everyday. You still do that?

ROBERT BLY: Yes. It's a joyful thing. Especially when I'm doing the ghazels, because then I can do a poem and I get a few stanzas done everyday anyway.

BILL MOYERS: Here are a couple of yours that I like. Read both of those.

ROBERT BLY: Yup. "Think in ways you've never thought before. If a phone rings, think of it as carrying a message that's larger than anything you've ever heard, vaster than 100 lines of Yeats. Think that someone may bring a bear to your door. May be wounded or deranged. And think that a moose has risen out of the lake and he is carrying on his antlers a child of your own whom you've never seen. When someone knocks on the door, think that he's about to give you something large, tell you you're forgiven, or that it's not necessary to work all the time, or that it's been decided that if you lie down, no one will die."

And that's for you too, isn't it? "When someone knocks at the door, think that he's about to give you something large." Tell Bill Moyers that you've "been forgiven, that it's not necessary for you to work all the time or that it's been decided that if you lie down, then no one will die." So- well, that's a beautiful quality in you, the feeling that you that it isn't right for you to lie down, and I'm glad you're still working all the time.

BILL MOYERS: What about this one. This is one of your earliest that you read to me many years ago. And I wonder if it still resonates with you.

ROBERT BLY: "For My Son, Noah, Ten Years Old."

Night and day arrive and day after day goes by,
and what is old remains old and what is young
remains young and grows old
The lumber pile does not grow younger,
nor the two-by-four's lose their darkness,
but the old tree goes on, the barn stands without help
so many years;
the advocate of darkness and night is not lost.

The horse steps up, swings on one leg, turns its body,
the chicken flapping claws onto the roof, its wings
whelping and walloping,
but what is primitive is not to be shot out into the
night in the dark.
And slowly the kind man comes closer, loses his rage,
sits down at table.

That's the second stanza. And the end of it, I can feel that when I was about 35 or 40 or so on, and I had children, I realized that what is primitive in me is not to be shot out all the time into the dark. "Slowly the kind man comes closer, loses his rage." Someone that sits down at table.

"So, I am proud only of those days that pass in
undivided tenderness. When you said drawing or making books, stapled
with messages to the world or coloring a man with fire coming out of his hair," (this is for my son, Noah,)
"or we sit at a table with small tea carefully poured.
So we pass our time together calm and collected."

BILL MOYERS: Where do you reconcile that in the end?

ROBERT BLY: Well, what I've learned from the Muslims about the "nafs" helps me to understand that if I am demanding or hopelessly aggressive with my children whenever, that isn't me. It's the "nafs."

BILL MOYERS: The greedy soul.

ROBERT BLY: And that greedy soul is very powerful and doesn't want to be looked at. And my hope is that the greedy soul will hear my words and understand that-- it isn't necessary-- I'm 80 years old. How much more do I need or have to obey the greedy soul? Isn't this enough? Aren't I famous enough? Haven't I published enough books?

BILL MOYERS: I remember the first time I came to see back in the late 70s. You were living in Moose Lake--


BILL MOYERS: Minnesota.


BILL MOYERS: You still there?

ROBERT BLY: I still am. We have a house in Minneapolis, but I sometimes go back up to Moose Lake when I want to be by myself.

BILL MOYERS: Do you have a favorite from up there?

ROBERT BLY: My favorite from Moose Lake?

BILL MOYERS: How about "After Drinking All Night With A Friend?"

ROBERT BLY: Oh, that's good.

BILL MOYERS: That sounds like Moose Lake.

ROBERT BLY: Yes. This is a poem from the '60s really. A friend and I went up to a lake up north and-- "After drinking all night with a friend, we go out in the boat at dawn to see who can write the best poem." This is Bill Duffy.

These pines, these fall oaks, these rocks,
This water, dark and touched by wind —
I am like you, you dark boat,
Drifting over waters fed by cool springs.

Beneath the water since I was a boy,
I have dreamt of strange and dark treasures,
Not of gold or strange stones, but the true
Gift beneath the pale lakes of Minnesota.

This morning also drifting in the dawn wind,
I sense my hands and my shoes and this ink —
Drifting as all of the body drifts above the clouds of the flesh and the stone.

A few friendships, a few dawns, a few glimpses of grass,
A few oars wedded by the snow and the heat,
So we drift towards shore over cold water,
No longer caring if we drift or go straight.

So, the last line is pretty good, 'cause it's got you see something of the hope that my "nafs" will get smaller. I didn't even know the word at that time. But, "so we drift towards shore over cold water, no longer caring if we drift or go straight."

BILL MOYERS: I like these three lines from the poem in your book, MY SENTENCE WAS A THOUSAND YEARS OF JOY. You say, "Robert, those high spirits don't prove you are a close friend of truth, but you have learned to drive your buggy over the prairies of human sorrow."

ROBERT BLY: Oh good, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: You like that one?

ROBERT BLY: Yeah, I do.

BILL MOYERS: So what now for you?

ROBERT BLY: Well, I'm gonna read something else here. I want to read this one poem before we quit.

ROBERT BLY: I want to do one more for you.

ROBERT BLY: I'll do one more here. Stealing sugar from the castle, this has the word joy. We are poor students who stay after school to study joy. We are like those birds in the Indian mountains. I'm a widow whose child is her only joy. The only thing I hold in my ant-like head is the builder's plan on the castle of sugar. Just to steal one grain of sugar is a joy.

Translating great poetry, you know, is a way of stealing sugar. "The only thing I hold in my ant-like head is the builder's plan on the castle of sugar. Just to steal one grain of sugar is a joy." This is from Beowulf. "Like a bird we fly out of darkness into the halls which are lit with singing then fly out again. Being shot out of the warm hall is also a joy. I'm a laggard, a loafer, and an idiot." One of my boys said to me, "Dad, you're not a loafer."

"I'm a laggard, a loafer, and an idiot. But I love to read about those who caught one glimpse of the face and died 20 years later in joy. I don't mind you saying I will die soon, even in the sound of the word soon I hear the word you. Which begins every sentence of joy. You're a thief, the judge said. Let's see your hands.

I showed my calloused hands in court. My sentence was a thousand years of joy."

ROBERT BLY: Are you happy at 80?

ROBERT BLY: Yeah, I'm happy. I'm happy at 80. And-- I can't stand so much happiness as I used to.

BILL MOYERS: You're Lutheran.

ROBERT BLY: And sometimes maybe one day out of the week I'll become depressed. But the rest of the time, especially if I'm writing poetry, I'm never depressed.

BILL MOYERS: What depresses you?

ROBERT BLY: Who knows? Depression comes up from underneath. And it just grabs you. It's an entity on its own. We are built for depression in a way. Because the nafs is so strong in us it doesn't want us to be happy and give away things. It wants us to pull back inside and say, "My mother wasn't good enough to me. My father wasn't good enough to me." You know they-- oh, that whole thing.

BILL MOYERS: Let's bring the circle around. Because when I first met you 30 years ago you told me this was a poem that had marked you. Remember it?


"I live my life in growing orbits which move out over the things in the world perhaps I will never achieve the last. But that'll be my attempt." Well, that's a very-- a '60s, isn't it? "I live my life in growing orbits which move out over the things of the world. Perhaps I can never achieve the last. But that'll be my attempt."

This is Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from the German. "I am circling around God." From the word made him nervous. So he said, "Around the ancient tower." And I have been circling for a thousand years. And I still don't know if I am a falcon or a storm or a great song." Genius poem, isn't it? Genius.


ROBERT BLY: Rilke. I am circling around God-- around the ancient tower. And I have been circling for a thousand years. There's a part of you that has been circling for a thousand years.



BILL MOYERS: And all of us.

ROBERT BLY: Yeah, yeah. And then--

BILL MOYERS: Those echoes we don't know the source of.

ROBERT BLY: That's right. And that wonderful energy that you can see in a human face even when walking down the street. In New York you see this incredible energy that's inside there and is being blocked all the time by family and business and all of that. But it's still there--circling around God, around the ancient tower. And I have been circling for a thousand years. And I still don't know if I am a falcon, which means someone who goes in and grabs things and steals them, or a storm. Storms circle too. Or a great song. Well, we both hope that we're great songs.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I'm glad I've heard some.

ROBERT BLY: Thank you. And it was so wonderful to be with you.

BILL MOYERS: Same here, same here.