Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"Lying Face Down in a Pool of Aesthetics"/Daniel Bourne's Where No One Spoke the Language

Last year, I had the pleasure of inviting Daniel Bourne, poet, translator and editor of Artful Dodge, to give a reading at John Carroll University. His recent book, Where No One Spoke the Language, felt like reading a doppleganger--since his poems are suffused with the bitter and fragrant tea of his years living in another Eastern European country (Poland) in the last throes of communist rule. Of his book, William Heyen wrote:
The desire to buy a birthday card for a dead father. Our life on Doberman streets. Gas hogs stuck in the hot tar of used car lots. Our hope to protect the carp between our legs. Kites in anemic wind. A sense that we are all already dead. 'A bouquet of matches / black on their greasy stalks.' Blood on our door post. Sensing 'the swarm of hands inside / a Holocaust monument." The son of man drunk and stumbling home. Our words unable to clear customs. Hearing the vowels of ghosts. Not the cocoon, but the shroud. Dead languages seeming more moral than living ones. The Vistula's last perch. Wallpaper dark from the leak upstairs. 'A music dwindling, / disappearing for always.' What Daniel Bourne has done here is something I haven’t heard done yet—-Charles Simic’s surreal mode grounded, but with his knowledge of Eastern Europe. Remarkable and relentless, Where No One Spoke the Language achieves a voice of exile deeper than any I've heard from an American Poet since The Waste Land, but I am comforted that Bourne knows, and is among us. And as for the snob who sniffs 'oh--a political poem': the poet says, 'I'm sure some dawn his body / will be discovered lying face down / in a spreading pool of aesthetics. ...'"--William Heyen

Bourne's poems travel many landscapes, but as Heyen suggests, they are neither touristic nor at home in any of them. He's restless but not ungrounded, doggedly incapable of the flights of fancy that other poets allow themselves. It's almost as if he's seen too much not to stay with and state the world as he's witnessed it. Those final lines that Heyen quotes are from "In Cambodia We're Already Dead":
I once knew a man who sniffed
"oh--a political poem" as it had a terminal disease
or something equally common and disgusting but we all
have a hidden talent for dying and I'm sure some dawn his body
will be discovered lying face down
in a pool of aesthetics

In a time when it's au courant to dismiss the political, or to avoid it as aesthetic messiness, Bourne confronts himself and this fussy poet with the darker aspects of political life.
Small Arms

Another patrol
sidewinding the desert,
the small gravel

kicked up by their feet,
the dust in their noses
as the young men

shoulder their weapons
so light
they do not think of the village

before them, the women
besieged by small children
as they draw water from a well—

the goat
working its busy lips
behind one rock and another—

until one piece of dirt
is kicked up. And then
another. The small

mark of each bullet
on the first woman’s arm.
Her small mouth.

Its even
smaller cry.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Matthea Harvey's Modern Life and "The Future of Terror"

Matthea Harvey's latest book, the subtly titled Modern Life, is a bizarrerie of poems that evoke not only the surreal poetries of Charles Simic, Russell Edson, Nin Andrews, and David Berman, but also the host of fabular and visual arts of Rene Magritte, Joseph Cornell, and others. Comic-melancholic, stranger than fiction, Harvey's Modern Life feels like a post 9/11 book; all of its landscapes, however fabular and cartoonish, invite all-to-real pressures of the "terror years." The two largest sequences, "The Future of Terror," and "The Terror of the Future," in fact, act as political and personal excavations of love in a time of uncertainty and dread. Both fragmented and incomplete abecedarians, these sequences confront our own subjective worry and inability to act. Consider the opening to "The Future of Terror (3)":
We wore gasmasks to cross the gap.
Goodnight, said the gravediggers, goodnight.
We looked heavenward but kept our hand
down when they asked for volunteers
so they simply helped themselves.
Our protestations sounded like herons
on the hi fi...

The poem, with all its g's and h's here, has a loony quality that initially masks the sense of guilt about our own fears and inaction in the face of what has happened. Whether we are failing to volunteer either for war, or failing to protest, there are others who "help themselves." Thank you, Halliburton. (Last night, I was thinking again of Dick Cheney. Is it too ad hominem to suggest that a man who donates almost nothing of his immense personal fortune to charity is someone who does not believe in the common good, and should never be in elective office?)

Here's another poem, published in Tarpaulin Sky:
The Future of Terror / 3 by Matthea Harvey

The generalissimo's glands directed him
to and fro. Geronimo! said the über-goon
we called God, and we were off to the races.
Never mind that we could only grow
grey things, that inspecting the horses' gums
in the gymnasium predicted a jagged
road ahead. We were tired of hard news—
it helped to turn down our hearing aids.
We could already all do impeccable imitations
of the idiot, his insistent incisors working on
a steak as he said there's an intimacy to invasion.
That much was true. When we got jaded
about joyrides, we could always play games
in the kitchen garden with the prisoners.
Jump the Gun, Fine Kettle of Fish and Kick
the Kidney were our favorites. The laws
the linguists thought up were particularly
lissome, full of magical loopholes that
spit out medals. When we ran out of room
on our uniforms, we pinned them to
our mourning bands, to our mops.
We had made the big time, but night nipped
at our heels. The navigator's needle swung
strangely, oscillating between the oilwells
and ask again later. We tried to pull ourselves
together by practicing quarterback sneaks
along the pylons, but the race to the ravine
was starting to feel as real as the R.I.P.'s
and roses carved into rock. Suddenly the sight
of a schoolbag could send us scrambling.

Finally, from her interview in Tarpaulin Sky:
SS: In looking into the history of the word "terror"—at least as it is recorded in various etymological dictionaries—it is interesting to see that it seems to make linguistic history only when in reference to war atrocities or very naughty children. What does "terror" mean to you, and in what ways does it relate to the process of making poems?

MH: I think my initial response to the government's way of talking about terrorism was like that of a child. Even though intellectually I knew that the word "terrorism" was a label designed to inspire fear, nevertheless I still felt heart-stoppingly afraid whenever I heard phrases like "the future of terror" on the radio (which I've listened to every morning since 9/11). One day I decided to write a poem that would turn this vague phrase into something more specific. So I made a list of the words that appear in the dictionary between “future” and “terror” and from that list I wrote a poem called “The Future of Terror.” I had no idea when I wrote this poem that it would turn into a series, but after writing one I clearly had more to discover. I then thought of writing the “Terror of the Future” poems, which take the same terms but in reverse order. I didn’t set out to write political poems—it seems like I must have, but truthfully I felt I was following the words. When I look back on the list that sparked “The Future of Terror /3,” I can see that I unconsciously gravitated towards words like “generalissimo” and “mourning bands” and rejected some other delightful candidates like “outfox,” “pilaf,” and “palanquin.” The formal strategy allowed me to address things that I hadn’t found a way to express previously. That’s how the world of these poems—an apocalyptic future in which absolutely everyone is fucked, civilians and soldiers alike—came into being. The process was a strange one—I wouldn’t say it was imbued with terror exactly—more a mixture of adrenaline, sadness and dread. I cried when the “you” who appears as a lover in the “Terror of the Future” poems died, even though I was the one killing her. I really felt the words were leading me, and that gave the process an electrical charge. Like tangoing blindfolded amongst landmines.

Monday, January 28, 2008

"Artists Against the War" Online Exhibit

The Society of Illustrators, in connection with The Nation, has produced an online exhibition of "Artists Against the War," which can be viewed here.

Here are some samples from the show (all credits can be found online):

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Paula McLain's A Ticket to Ride Release Party (and the Cleveland Small Press Bookfair)

On Friday, we noshed and celebrated the release of Paula McLain's debut novel, A Ticket to Ride, with a cast of characters from the literary scene. Good chats with Paula, Sarah Gridley, Steve Hayward, Maryclaire Moroney, Anna and Greg Hocevar, among others--and some of Paula's former and current writing students (Tammy Layton, Joan Peterson, Nate Krieger, Kate Hudson and Ryan--whom I only know by first name). A review forthcoming....

Then yesterday it was the Cleveland small press fair at the new Lit Center, where chats were had with Michael Dumanis (Cleveland State UP), Larry Smith (Bottom Dog Press), Marcus Bales, Bree (Green Panda Press), and John Stohrm, Ron Antonucci, Judith Mansour-Thomas, Suzanne DeGaetano, Mark Kuhar, and Mary Weems, among a host of others. It felt good to see so much life in the Cleveland literary scene, so much goodwill, so few "reindeer games," just enthusiasts of the word sharing their wares. I came out of there having spent nary a dime but loaded with books--which speaks to the generosity of my dear literary Clevelanders.

Student Poetry Reading November 27, 2007 at John Carroll

On November 27th, 2007, students from my EN401 class delivered a poetry reading in Rodman Hall at John Carroll University.

One promotional account of the event, written by Tammy Layton, went like this: "You'll laugh; you'll cry. You may wonder what the hell the poems mean--but you won't be bored. Topics not limited to: Polish sausages; family; death; sex; SoCal culture; friends; desire; war and peace; homelessness; art; Tremont; dead ends; and vaginas." It was, of course, so much more.

Pictured (left-right): Betsy Coleman, Katie Arthurs, Brendan McLaughlin, Jess Morris, Meredith Snow, Marygrace Hemme, Philip Metres, A.J. Dibbin, Christina Pottmeyer, Daniel Garbes, Katie Sedon, Heather Cigoi, Tammy Layton, Joe McNair, and John Filkorn.

Dr. Philip Metres, introducing the event.

Katie Sedon, talking Miro and pyromania.

A.J. Dibbin, pondering art and its narcissitudes.

Tammy Layton, shout-outs to Tremont, Huck Finn, and No-na.

John Filkorn, looking for America in tourist traps.

Jessica Morris, waiting on a friend and red sweater elegizing.

Joe McNair, working through his own stations of the cross.

Meredith Snow, dissin' Christmas and praising arm hair.

Brendan McLaughlin, preaching Labre project and homeless adventurers.

Katie Arthurs, protesting cigarettes and other public nuisances.

Daniel Garbes, trying to find himself at the bottom of a shower.

Christina Pottmeyer, drawing word portraits of family.

Heather Cigoi, drawing Hopper-esque landscapes of loss.


Thanks to everyone who came! Dr. Metres

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Sami Rasouli, Iraqi-American, the Founder of the Muslim Peacemakers Team, on Iraq

The new narrative is that we're winning the Iraq War. Or we're winning the peace. I don't have enough information to confirm or deny this latest spin, but I have an allergy to accepting things too quickly; Listen to Iraqi-American Sami Rasouli on Democracy Now for a second opinion. Here's something from the transcript, in which Rasouli talks about forming the first "Muslim Peacemakers Team," based on the CPT model which involves people wearing CPT uniforms and offering nonviolent witness by trying to eliminate violence in conflict zones such as in Hebron (Palestine):

But I wanted to do something, how much this thing I can offer, less or more, it might be make little change, so I headed there, but I was surprised to meet members of the Christian Peacemakers Teams in Karbala, working with the Karbala Human Rights Watch center, where I met with them. And it was, for me, like something I found to shape up my mission. And we were all, the Iraqi, at that center, impressed with the work of Christian Peacemakers Team. So that's why we decided to form the Muslim Peacemakers Team.

And since then, the MPT was involved with joint efforts and projects in Iraq, mainly was the clean-up project in the city of Fallujah, where eighteen delegates -- three were Christian, and fifteen Shiites Muslim men and women from Najaf -- who committed themselves to go offer the troubled city that faced destruction twice, in April 2004 and November 2004. So we were there and announced help to pick up rubbles, garbage, knocking the doors of the residents to ask for taking away refuse and waste. And the people there were touched. They actually haven't seen any garbage collectors for the previous two years, since the war started. So they invited us to pray with them. And we went, and we did. We prayed in the Al Furqan Mosque in the area of Saba Nissan. There were close to 2,000 worshippers, where the Sheikh change his sermon to a unity. People learned about us, that we were among them, Sunni and Shiites worshipping together, same God, having the same holy book, Koran.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Kristen Baumlier is a Petroleum Pop Princess

I met Kristen Baumlier, a Cleveland-based artist, either at a party held by the fabulous Kate Kerwin, or through artist Nathaniel Parsons (who definitely was at that party, and with whom I was lucky to meet and share art and words). I can't remember now, but when I learned she was doing a project called "Oh Petroleum!," my ears perked up, since I'd been in the early stages of conceiving a long poem called "Ode to Oil." Her photo-images of oil in its various manifestations became fuel for pieces of "Ode to Oil," which will be published this spring (along with the images) in the journal Artful Dodge. I discovered that her performances now have invaded YouTube, and she has transformed herself into a pop diva, spreading the oleaginous word. I have a feeling that "Ode to Oil" is going to get more oily and more kitschily epic before it's done...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Anna Baltzer, Martin Luther King Jr. and Israel/Palestine

This is a recent letter from Anna Baltzer, a Jewish-American activist for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine, whose voice and rhetoric are prophetic--bound to prod, challenge, and provoke those of us who have not seen ourselves to the sort of clarity and purposefulness with which she lives:

Dear friends,

Here are some excerpts from a sermon I delivered in Minneapolis last Sunday, combined with some recent events:

This week, our country celebrated Martin Luther King Day and the official end to segregation and racial discrimination in this country. As we celebrate certain historic advances, we mustn't forget that these policies are far from over in this country, and that as we struggle against one injustice we are perpetuating another system of discrimination and segregation on the other side of the world in Occupied Palestine, a land where there are separate roads, schools, hospitals, neighborhoods, and legal systems, access to which depends on one's ethnicity or religion.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King "wept" from disappointment with the laxity of the church and its leaders in taking action against the status quo for fear of being considered "nonconformist." I recently met a young Palestinian Christian dancer (one of those censored in New England last December) who echoed similar frustration with churches around the world who are doing nothing to ease the suffering of Christians and others in the Holy Land. She spoke to a group of church-goers in Old Lyme, Connecticut:

"My name is Mary Qumsiyeh. I am an English teacher from the little town of Bethlehem. My husband works in tourism and I have met many groups that said `We are here to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.' But are they acting the way that Jesus did?

"Our churches are now like museums. Tourists visit, take pictures, and leave. What about the living stories? Jesus in his time was living under the Roman occupation. Today, after 2000 years, we are still living under occupation—now the Israeli occupation that has confiscated 88% of Bethlehem's land. If Jesus were alive today, would he permit this to happen? Jesus helped the oppressed and the ones in need. He made the blind see.

"I ask you all to see how many times in the Bible the word justice is mentioned. And remember that Jesus did not avoid politics. Please spread our message, a message of joy, happiness, and justice, a message from youth full of life, willing to live and die in the little town of Bethlehem."

Thankfully, churches eventually stepped up to play a large and historic role in the civil rights movement, and it's worth remembering how: It was not simply by hoping for change, or by praying for change,or even by voting for change. It was by making change happen, by Christians stepping out of their comfort zones and challenging the status quo even if it meant going to jail or being ostracized.

Making change happen is never comfortable. It's what Dr. King called "tension." He confessed, "I am not afraid of the word `tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth."

Notice the word "necessary." This necessity is often hard for people of privilege to grasp. We think, "if only we educate our leadership,or the Israeli government, they'll come to their senses..." How much more comfortable it would be if it were just a matter of waiting, and listening, and sharing! But we forget Dr. King's clear wisdom:

"We have not made a single gain without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges [until they have to]... Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

Today in Gaza, Palestinians demanded freedom from the Israeli siege that has endured for years since the so-called "disengagement" and before. After several days under even tighter isolation by Israel,which had sealed the borders of the small strip and cut off electricity, food, medical supplies, and other lifelines, Palestinians
blasted through a wall of their collective prison and flooded into Egypt in search of medicine, soap, fuel, cement, and other desperately needed supplies.

Some might call blowing up a wall "extreme." In fact, just about any action taken unilaterally for Palestinian liberation is portrayed as such. Martin Luther King was also called an "extremist," and eventually embraced the word, calling on others to join him in creative extremism. Criticism of the status quo will always be dismissed as ideological or extreme, and that's what makes challenging power structures so uncomfortable. We would prefer to affect change through consensus and the blessing of communities that have traditionally supported the status quo, like mainstream Jewish temples and US legislators. But, my friends, this is unrealistic; these groups will hopefully become a part of the movement someday, but they will not lead the movement today. And while it would be nice to wait until a day when it feels more convenient, remember that change will never be convenient for those who are profiting off of the way things are.

Let us not forget that Palestinians, like people of color in Dr King's time (and still today), have not had the luxury waiting and choosing a convenient time... Indeed, there is no convenient time. But inconvenience and discomfort are a small price to pay for justice.

Remember that prophets have always been scorned in their own time.

In Palestine, that inevitable discomfort—or tension, as Dr King calls it—has taken the form of popular nonviolent resistance met with army brutality, checkpoints, roadblocks, invasions, curfews, house demolitions, and mass imprisonment. In this country, that inevitable tension has taken the comparatively mild—but admittedly
unpleasant—form of moral blackmail: anyone who dares criticize Israel's violations of human rights and international law is labeled anti-Semitic. But this is absurd. Occupation, oppression—these things have nothing to do with Judaism, and to oppose them in Israel,Palestine, or anywhere else in the world is simply not anti-Semitic. On the contrary, it is in line with the Jewish tradition of critical thinking, open debate, and social justice, which have been a source of pride for Jews through history.

The Israel/Palestine struggle is portrayed in our media and elsewhere as an endless religious rivalry, but it is no more a war between Jews and Muslims than the civil rights struggle was one between African-Americans and Whites. This is a struggle for justice, one that affects us all and in which we all play a part. In the words of Dr.
King, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

This mutuality is clear in the collaboration today between Palestinians and the Israelis who support their struggle, working together towards an end to discrimination and the Occupation, towards a common future of integration and coexistence. In the United States, churches are once again taking the lead. The United Methodists, the Presbyterians, and others have started campaigns calling for boycott,divestment, and sanctions against the Israeli government until it complies with international law. This is a crucial campaign not only because it has the potential to be successful in conjunction with Palestinian resistance (after all, it was Black South African resistance supported by international solidarity and divestment that ultimately contributed to the end of Apartheid there), but also
because it was called for by Palestinian civil society. This is a Palestinian struggle, and we need to be taking our lead from Palestinians. They have been reaching out for support through the years, particularly this week in Gaza as they were cut off even further from the world. We need to reach back.

Is Disjunctiveness in Poetry Necessarily an Act of Political Resistance?

"Is Disjunctiveness in Poetry Necessarily an Act of Political Resistance?" (a short shot by Philip Metres)

One of the difficulties of contemporary poetry is its varying degrees of difficulty--and how to talk about the origins, intentions, and effects of difficulty.

There has been, of course, the avant-garde argument that "the poetics of disruption" is itself an act of poetic resistance, propounded not only by poets but scholars themselves (including me). But the question lingers, whether the politics of form, so eloquently articulated by language poetry, still succeeds to be radical, in light of the "scary ideograms" performed/written by the Bush administration. In other words, the disjunctiveness and suggestiveness of the ideogram can be seen, from a certain point of view, as an extension of the kind of elliptical insinuations performed by our political officials. The current administration can thus forward unsubstantiated assertion without being held accountable for their language, because we have narrated the gap between disparate utterances.

In a sense, this argument rhymes with Fredric Jameson's (oft-pilloried) reading of Bob Perelman's "China" in *Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism*. Jameson argues that this sort of writing is, in fact, not a resistance to late capitalism but a manifestation of it, a reflection of it. Jameson can only argue this because he neglects the supplement, the theoretical apparatus in which this poem (and the whole movement of language writing) exists. But the question remains whether we can ever necessarily control how the poem is read!

In a sense, we need critics who perform cognitive mapping (a la Jameson), and who articulate how a disjunctive poetry might participate in cognitive mapping, for making explicit political connections. That is why, in the end, I believe that scholars and critics invested in resistance need to interrogate the supposed border between avant-garde poetry and other poetries, and begin to admit and highlight the kind of writing (and, indeed, that kind of symbolic actions and material practices that move us beyond the page) that might enable making those sorts of connections

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

On Scheerbart's The Development of Aerial Militarism and the Demobilization of European Ground Forces, Fortresses, and Naval Fleets

Ugly Duckling Presse has recently re-published, as part of its Lost Literature series, this quizzical and provocative "flyer" (itself an intentional pun) by German writer Paul Scheerbart, The Development of Aerial Militarism and the Demobilization of European Ground Forces, Fortresses, and Naval Fleets (1909, and ably translated by Michael Kasper, published in 2007). One is tempted to read this quasi-Swiftian pamphlet alongside the sundry modernist manifestoes of the time, which proclaim (a la Marinetti) the triumph of technology for modern man, yet Scheerbart appears to have been parodying such triumphalist gestures.

The flyer's tones range from the bombastic to the tragicomic; note the opening: "We're on the brink of a tragedy. The magnificent military culture of the nineteenth century will soon be 'demobbed' would as soon assume the world was ending" (1). Scheerbart's "argument" is clear from the title: air power will end war culture as we know it.

Though clearly, prior to World War I, glorification of the military and European power was very much in evidence, countervailing views also existed, and it is probable that Scheerbart enlists himself in that latter category. But such is the Swiftian cleverness of the flyer that he never completely reveals himself and his own opinions. Does he believe air power will make armies obsolete, or is he just miming the gestures of the triumphalists?

That ambiguity is precisely what makes this flyer such a discomfiting, and critical, read, for those of us interested in war resistance texts. Does the text merely perform a Swiftian "Modest Proposal" for the armed forces? Absolutely not. After all, every new military technology that was created has been heralded as the end of warfare (Nobel's dynamite, the nuclear bomb, etc.), and yet immediately has become yet another weapon in the arsenal of potential or actuated threats.

In fact, perusing a list of contemporary "non-lethal" weaponry researched by the Pentagon is to enter into a horror movie without end. Every human sense is threatened with ray guns, acoustic sonic blasts, malodorants, rubber and plastic projectiles, etc. (a list shortly forthcoming). The military admits that such "non-lethal" weaponry is, of course, not an attempt to make war less lethal, but to supplement its lethality regimes and to lessen protest. In Department of Defense Directive 3000.3 (July 19, 1996), the (heavily-Latinate) language goes: "Nonlethal weapons should not be required to have a zero probability of producing fatalities or permanent injuries."

The Development of Aerial Militarism and the Demobilization of European Ground Forces, Fortresses, and Naval Fleets is an essential read for helping us think about how literature might intervene in questioning our ongoing celebration of technology. At the same time, it offers a sobering picture of how imagination itself is harnessed to violent ends, in the weapons industries of our time. "Use your imagination," as Military Intelligence exhorted the soldiers at Abu Ghraib.

Finally, it is suggestive of the contradictions of the avant-garde project: how satiric and parodic gestures can become so easily co-opted, commodified and domesticated, and how all attempts at resistance come to resemble the object of critique; from Dada to Beat, from Pop Art to Punk, from Language Poetry to Flarf, avant-garde texts and practices often dwell on the liminal space between resistance and complicity, between oppositionality and top of the pops.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

James Wood on Tolstoy

James Wood's recent review of the new translation of War and Peace touched upon that book's vision of war (one which, arguably, grew to cause Tolstoy's conversion to a nonviolent form of Christianity and to abandon the novel as a form for many years, almost until his death). Tolstoy's rejection of the great man theory of history, and his refusal to glorify (or even make sense of war), is underscored by Wood's reading:
Tolstoy is never greater in this novel than when, like Natasha at the opera, he refuses to make sense of warfare. Again and again, he reverses the martial tapestry and shoves the clumsy, illegible tufts of thread at us. Nikolai Rostov, standing on a wooden bridge in Enns, hears a rattling “as if someone had spilled nuts,” and a man falls beside him. A bullet sounds as if it were “complaining about something.” In one of the most beautiful of the novel’s scenes, Nikolai’s younger brother, Petya, riding with his comrades Denisov and Dolokhov, and some Cossack soldiers, foolishly gallops into a storm of French fire and is felled. His dying is described as if by his comrades, who cannot make sense of what is happening: “Petya galloped on his horse across the manor courtyard, and, instead of holding the reins, waved both arms somehow strangely and quickly, and kept sliding further and further to one side in his saddle.” Eventually, he falls heavily onto the wet ground. Denisov—he of the short, hairy fingers—approaches the body and, as he looks at Petya, “irrelevantly” recalls him once saying, “I’m used to something sweet. Excellent raisins, take them all.” There follows this extraordinarily moving sentence: “And the Cossacks glanced around in surprise at the sounds, similar to a dog’s barking, with which Denisov quickly turned away, went to the wattle fence, and caught hold of it.”

It is a very modern piece of writing and a very ancient one, as is so often the case with Tolstoy. Stephen Crane learned a great deal from Tolstoy about this kind of writing; in “The Red Badge of Courage,” a man with a shoeful of blood “hopped like a schoolboy in a game.” Ian McEwan uses a similar technique in the Dunkirk section of “Atonement.” But, if the hacking lament that sounds oddly like the barking of a dog is an example of modern estrangement, that young man gripping the wattle fence in grief and those startled Cossacks—especially the transfer of the emotion from the mourner to the Cossacks, from the involved audience to a less involved audience—seem almost Biblical. (In Genesis, when Joseph, in disguise, meets his brothers, “he wept aloud: and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.”)

Though it has been said that the title War and Peace could also be translated as War and World (since the Russian word мир means both "peace" and "world"), that slippage is suggestive of the ways in which, for Tolstoy, the world always contains within it the possibilities of peace:
But the novel argues that no one understands war—indeed, that no one understands history. Napoleon says, on the eve of the battle of Borodino, “The chessmen are set up,” but a few pages earlier Pierre has likened war to a game of chess, only to earn Andrei’s scorn: “Yes . . . only with this small difference, that in chess you can think over each move as long as you like, you’re outside the conditions of time.” It is not, of course, a small difference; it is everything. If no one can understand war, then simply to fear for one’s brother, and to be horrified, is precisely to understand what can be understood of war. It is the right response, within the possible “conditions of time.” War has its “conditions of time,” and peace does, too.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Diane DiPrima's "Rant"/and a Riposte called "Cant"

I've been thinking about the imagination lately. Apparently, the C.I.A./M.I. guys told the yokel M.P.s at Abu Ghraib to "use your imagination." That terrifies me, to think that the imagination can be harnessed as a force for absolute evil. In this poem, "Rant," DiPrima evokes William Blake's notion that all war is a failure of the imagination. Is imagination a "daimon," a power without necessarily being good or bad? Or is the imagination always a creative force, the opposite of war's decreations?

"Rant" by Diane DiPrima

You cannot write a single line w/out a cosmology
a cosmogony
laid out, before all eyes

there is no part of yourself you can separate out
saying, this is memory, this is sensation
this is the work I care about, this is how I***
make a living

it is whole, it is a whole, it always was whole
you do not "make" it so
there is nothing to integrate, you are a presence
you are an appendage of the work, the work stems from***
hangs from the heaven you create

every man / every woman carries a firmament inside
& the stars in it are not the stars in the sky

w/out imagination there is no memory
w/out imagination there is no sensation
w/out imagination there is no will, desire

history is a living weapon in yr hand
& you have imagined it, it is thus that you
"find out for yourself"
history is the dream of what can be, it is
the relation between things in a continuum

of imagination
what you find out for yourself is what you select
out of an infinite sea of possibility
no one can inhabit yr world

yet it is not lonely,
the ground of imagination is fearlessness
discourse is video tape of a movie of a shadow play
but the puppets are in yr hand
your counters in a multidimensional chess
which is divination
& strategy

the war that matters is the war against the imagination
all other wars are subsumed in it.

the ultimate famine is the starvation
of the imagination

it is death to be sure, but the undead
seek to inhabit someone else's world

the ultimate claustrophobia is the syllogism
the ultimate claustrophobia is "it all adds up"
nothing adds up & nothing stands in for***
anything else


There is no way out of a spiritual battle
There is no way you can avoid taking sides
There is no way you can not have a poetics
no matter what you do: plumber, baker, teacher

you do it in the consciousness of making
or not making yr world
you have a poetics: you step into the world
like a suit of readymade clothes

or you etch in light
your firmament spills into the shape of your room
the shape of the poem, of yr body, of yr loves

A woman's life / a man's life is an allegory

Dig it

There is no way out of the spiritual battle
the war is the war against the imagination
you can't sign up as a conscientious objector

the war of the worlds hangs here, right now, in the balance
it is a war for this world, to keep it
a vale of soul-making

the taste in all our mouths is the taste of power
and it is bitter as death

bring yr self home to yrself, enter the garden
the guy at the gate w/ the flaming sword is yrself

the war is the war for the human imagination
and no one can fight it but you/ & no one can fight it for you

The imagination is not only holy, it is precise
it is not only fierce, it is practical
men die everyday for the lack of it,
it is vast & elegant

intellectus means "light of the mind"
it is not discourse it is not even language
the inner sun

the polis is constellated around the sun
the fire is central

And what follows is a screed some crazy guy online named Dan Schneider who appears to love William F. Buckley, Jr., and his revision of the poem:

So, we see more needless repetition, your elided to yr without reason, poor line breaks, use of Latinisms to show off her smarts, etc. & so on, clichés aplenty, a dearth of music of any sort- this is really just a prose screed broken wantonly in to lines. Even worse is the capitalized section of this ‘Rant’- the idea & line are good & interesting- used once, in a sly way, at the end of a well-structured poem. But, beating you to death with the idea robs its power, &- as nothing comes of the idea- the reader is left hanging. Also DDP’s line ‘men die everyday for the lack of it’ is an unacknowledged crib & knock off of William Carlos Williams’ better line, ‘yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.’ from Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, mainly because WCW’s line sticks out as a philosophic gem in a non-philosophic poem.

So, to improve the poem let’s 1st change 1 letter in the title- R to C, ‘Rant’ to ‘Cant’- which is a jargon, or the repetition of banalities- from which the poem- much trimmed- could play off of:


there is no part of yourself you can separate out

it is whole, it is a whole, it always was a presence
& you have imagined it, out of an infinite fearlessness

the war that matters is the war against the imagination
all other wars are subsumed in it. the ultimate claustrophobia

is the syllogism in the consciousness of making

you etch in light your firmament
the shape of the poem, an allegory

you can't sign up as a conscientious objector

intellectus means "light of the mind"
it is not discourse it is not even language
constellated around the sun that is central

12 lines & the poem- while not really good- is worlds better than what preceded it. It is now an internal monologue of struggle with the self- not a new topic but the phrasing is what is key. This rewrite is wholly shrunken, save for a that I added to the last line. This version is passably interesting. But, DDP has only 5-10 poems in her career that are as good as this rewrite. She is a testament to the power of cronyism & the grant-giving gravy train. Ain’t art wonderful?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Holzer's Projections of Poetry/Dreamscapes as Big as Our Molochs

Jenny Holzer's latest projections of poems by Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish bring what I'm calling "lang/scape" poetry into the officially sanctioned realm of legitimate art; if the Freeway Blogger and Sidewalk Blogger--not to mention the hosts of anonymous graffiti artists and activists--work with fugitive palettes and under cover of night, Holzer's projections are stable, known art installations, though they share with these more transient art actions a transience and vulnerability to the conditions of their projection. Holzer has chosen a number of starkly beautiful political poems whose language has a kind of relative transparency that invites a common reader, yet the page for these readers is against a great building.

Here's one of the Szymborska poems and projections:

"The Joy of Writing"

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence - this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word "woods."

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they'll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what's here isn't life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof's full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

By Wislawa Szymborska
From "No End of Fun", 1967

And here is one of the Darwish poems, "He Embraced His Murderer."

"He Embraced His Murderer"

He embraces his murderer. May he win his heart: Do you feel angrier if I survive?
Brother...My brother! What did I do to make you destroy me?
Two birds fly overhead. Why don't you shoot upwards? What do you say?
You grew tired of my embrace and my smell. Aren't you just as tired of the fear within me?
Then throw your gun in the river! What do you say?
The enemy on the riverbank aim his machine gun at an embrace? Shoot the enemy!
Thus we avoid the enemy's bullets and keep from falling into sin.
What do you say? You'll kill me so the enemy can go to our home
and descend again into the law of the jungle?
What did you do with my mother's coffee, with your mother's coffee?
What crime did I commit to make your destroy me?
I will never cease embracing you.
And I will never release you.

Darwish's poem evokes the mythic moment of Jacob wrestling the angel--that archetypal struggle between man and god, between self and other, brother and brother--as a way of writing about the inextricable relationship between Palestinians and Israelis.

Holzer's project of projections is, on some level, the poet's dream--the fantasy that his inner/outerscapes of language could find themselves manifested concretely in the world. But the evanescence of them, their anti-monumentality, suggests dreams themselves; such projections are only possible at night, or by dint of electronic lights (another of Holzer's models). So unlike the Molochs of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, in external renditions and black sites and invisible prisons, these lightmoths (not butterflies, really) presage their own mortality.

Would that we could drag them into day.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Voices in Wartime: First War Resistance Poem, "Lament to the Spirit of War"

Though Thersites in The Iliad is probably the first Western war protestor, Enheduanna, a Sumerian princess, might rank as the oldest in history. This is from Voices in Wartime:

Enheduanna was an ancient Sumerian priestess, from a part of the world now known as Iraq. Her father, Sargon, is credited with uniting the Central and Southern regions of Mesopotamia into a highly prosperous empire. Sargon is often referred to as the world’s first emperor, reigning from 2334-2279 BCE. Enheduanna was appointed priestess of the temple at Ur. In this position she consolidated the worship of a myriad of local goddesses into the worship of Inanna, a Sumerian goddess. Enheduanna is believed to be the world’s oldest writer. She wrote what may be the first recorded poem in response to war, in approximately 2300 BCE.

“Lament to the Spirit of War”

You hack everything down in battle....
God of War, with your fierce wings
you slice away the land and charge
disguised as a raging storm,
growl as a roaring hurricane,
yell like a tempest yells,
thunder, rage, roar, and drum,
expel evil winds!
Your feet are filled with anxiety!

On your lyre of moans
I hear your loud dirge scream.
Like a fiery monster you fill the land with poison.
As thunder you growl over the earth,
trees and bushes collapse before you.

You are blood rushing down a mountain,
Spirit of hate, greed and anger,
dominator of heaven and earth!
Your fire wafts over our land,
riding on a beast,
with indomitable commands,
you decide all fate.
You triumph over all our rites.
Who can explain why you go on so?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Khalil Gibran in The New Yorker

The recent New Yorker has a piece on a new biography of poet Khalil Gibran. Khalil Gibran was a revered name in my household, and in my father's childhood home, not only because he was a Lebanese poet who wrote the ubiquitous The Prophet, but also because he hailed from the hometown of my father's mother, Bsharri, Lebanon. He came to stay at their home in Brooklyn Heights (290 Hicks Street), and according to family legend, wrote some of his Prophet while there. That legend I can't confirm exactly, but I have in my possession the letter of thanks that he wrote to my great-grandmother, for their generosity in having him stay with them. Whatever else you want to say about Gibran (and poets are relentless in their mockery of him, placing him somewhere around Jewel and Jimmy Carter in their pantheon), he was a local boy made good. And, in the process of blazing his trail from Bsharri, gave Arab Americans and Arab American poets a figure of their own possible success in translating ineffable Bsharri's into poetic Brooklyns.

Eisenhower's Grandfather Moment

President Dwight D. Eisenhower's parting shot, so to speak, warned of the military-industrial complex and its deleterious effects on American society in 1953, in the waning months of his time in office. Cynics will say it was already long past established, and that Eisenhower not only benefited from said complex, but also perpetuated its development. And yet, it's hard not to read these words and be struck by the force of their absolute moral panic. It's as if, as his public life comes to a close, he's looking back at the whole of his service and is terrified about what he's leaving us, his grandchildren, the world:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hope of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
(Speech delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Washington, D.C. April 16, 1953)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Spinanes' "Lines and Lines"/Imagery Warmups

Teaching an introduction to creative writing class, I wanted to try to get my students to begin probing their sensory worlds, to get a scent for the unsaid, for how much of our experience defies words, and how writing is (at least in part) the hunt for those ineffables (Eliot called it raiding the unspeakable). To coax the real into language...

Anyway, I asked them to write down the first smell that induced a memory for them. I asked them to write down a tactile experience that was memorable to them. I asked them to name a certain object that someone was wearing (it was a "zipper pull") and then we talked about how many things and events that surround us for which we don't know the words. I asked them to write an experience that they would advise someone not to try. Later, we played with those experiences as definitions of Poetry: "Poetry is not being the first one to fall asleep at a party," was one of them.

When I introduced the idea of tactile experiences, a line came to me from The Spinanes' song, "Lines and Lines"--"feel the stick of/legs leaving vinyl." All those "l's" sticking on our tongue! Thank you, Rebecca Gates.

"Lines and Lines" by The Spinanes

Listen closely for tires in the driveway
The voice in the stairwell, the steps in the hallway
Feel the warming come up through the floor
The click as the tape flips it`s intrinsic how he feels sick
Tell you I love you there`s no one else I`m thinking of
And all the hands that clasp mine are no match for your burning touch

Now I`m out back praying
Movement paved with me
A taste of me not on my knees
Fevered pitch that`s rising
From somewhere deep inside
It has a name I cannot place
All the time I waste
New mistakes I`ve made

Feel the stick of legs leaving vinyl
The sweat of closeness, the waves of nausea
Tell you I miss you there`s no one else I`m dreaming of
And all the lips that kiss me are no match for your fever touch

Now alone outside
The peace that comes with quiet
Blur lines of wires black in twilight
All the threats I take
And friends that I evade
Are penned up and in stillness wait
The ache is this my close
In ways he`ll never know

All your lines

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Stanley Fish, on "The Uses of the Humanities"

Stanley Fish, from "The Uses of the Humanities"

"The funding of the humanities in colleges and universities cannot be justified by pointing to the fact that poems and philosophical arguments have changed lives and started movements. (I was surprised that no one mentioned “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a book Lincoln is said to have credited with the starting of the Civil War.) The pertinent question is, Do humanities courses change lives and start movements? Does one teach with that purpose, and if one did could it be realized? If the answers to these questions are (as I contend) “no” – one teaches the subject matter and any delayed effect of what happens in a classroom is contingent and cannot be aimed at – then the route of external justification of the humanities, of a justification that depends on the calculation of measurable results, is closed down."

And what if humanities courses *do* change lives and start movements?

Confronting Orientalism and Anti-Semitism: Salloum's "Planet of the Arabs" and Two Videos on Anti-Semitism

For my Israeli and Palestinian Literatures class, I begin with eliciting anonymously the various images and stereotypes that float around in our culture about Jews and Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis. The list is always interesting, and sometimes downright shocking. This video is one of the bruising inoculations that we take in order to confront our culture's relentlessly Orientalist representations.

This video deals with historical anti-Semitism:

And present-day anti-Semitism:

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sunday, January 13, 2008

What does this noise have to do with revolution?/When the Sandinistas Heard "Sandinista"

When my brother was in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, he befriended a family in his village (El Jicaral) that he lovingly called "the Sandinistas" for their partisan love of the revolution, Daniel Ortega, etc. I got a chance to meet them a couple years ago when visiting my brother, and was treated to Coca Cola (?!) and crackers. Inspired, I sent Dave a copy of "Sandinista" by The Clash, which he promptly brought over for the family. The father's reply: "What does this noise have to do with revolution?" Here's "Washington Bullets" (about U.S. and C.I.A. involvement in Chile and the Nicaraguan revolution), "Koka-Kola," (from "London Calling"), "Somebody Got Murdered," and an interview with Tom Snyder, in which the Clash call themselves a "news-giving" band.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Li-Young Lee's "After the Pyre" (from Poetry Daily)

After the Pyre

It turns out, what keeps you alive
as a child at mid-century
following your parents from burning
village to cities on fire to a country at war
with itself and anyone
who looks like you,

what allows you to pass through smoke,
through armed mobs singing the merits of a new regime, tooth for a tooth,
liberation by purification, and global
dissemination of the love of jealous gods,
coup d'etat, coup de grace, and the cooing of mothers
and doves and screaming men
and children caught in the pyre's updraft,

what keeps you safe even among your own,
the numb, the haunted, the maimed, the barely alive,

tricks you learned to become invisible,
escapes you perfected, playing dead, playing
stupid, playing blind, deaf, weak, strong,
playing girl, playing boy, playing native, foreign,
in love, out of love, playing crazy, sane, holy, debauched,

playing scared, playing brave, happy, sad, asleep, awake,
playing interested, playing bored, playing broken,
playing "Fine, I'm just fine," it turns out,

. .

now that you're older
at the beginning of a new century,
what kept you alive
all those years keeps you from living.

Li-Young Lee

Behind My Eyes
W. W. Norton & Company

The Political Crisis in Kenya

This email is from the Summer Literary Seminar's Mikhail Iossel, who runs a great set of writing programs in Russia and Kenya (the Russia one, I can say from personal experience, is highly recommended). Iossel here reflects on the political crisis in Kenya and offers some resources to begin to understand what's going on.

Dear Friends of the Summer Literary Seminars Programs in Russia and Kenya, Friends of Kenya and Russia, Friends in Literature,

This is not one of our usual SLS program updates. But it is about Kenya, and these certainly are not the ordinary times in that glorious land.

All last week, along with the rest of the world, we watched the macabre crisis unfolding there, the grisly internicine strife, with great sorrow and deepening sense of dismay. As someone for whom Kenya is not a mere sun-kissed spot on world's map or fascinating tourist destination full of gorgeous vistas and exotic wild animals, but rather an integral part of our very beings, the country we know in the all-embracing totality of her aspects and love ever-stronger every time we get to set our feet on her red earth – the place where many of our close friends live or hail from – we feel as though, with each succedent day that passes without offering a glimpse of hope for the end of the impasse, there's another small dying of that Dylan Thomasian light within us. Simply put, we are saddened beyond words.

What's to be done? More to the point, what can we do? Hardly anything at all. Nothing of any measure of consequence, to be sure. We realize, with helpless self-directed anger, how vast is the sheer degree of our impotence to help ameliorate the situation, lessen the lurid chaos. Yet still, we are people of letters – and, perhaps over-enthusiastically at times, we view our literary program, SLS, as a multi-tributary conduit for writerly communication – and after all, even the smallest drop in the ocean is infinitely larger than an infinity of nothings. So we send you this letter – or rather, we're attaching this brief note to the texts and links you'll find below.

The texts are essays written by some of the most talented, and already accomplished, among young Kenyan writers; we're honored to count them as our friends, friends of the SLS program. These are powerful, poignant, profoundly thoughtful pieces on Kenya's past, tenuous present and difficult future. They have been compiled and kindly forwarded to us by the great (we wish there had been a way for us to make this hopelessly hackneyed adjective sound a little fresher, in this particular instance) writer and literary force on the first order of magnitude, Binyavanga Wainaina – the permanent SLS faculty member.

The first link will lead you to the highly informative site of The Red Rose Nursery and Children's Centre in Kibera, Nairobi. It is a terrifically praiseworthy project of the Washington, DC-based Ken Okoth, the Kibera-born young Kenyan native, Georgetown graduate and, at present, high-school history teacher. Among the site's contents -- the great many photographs, by turns amusing and heart-breaking, taken by the children of Kibera: one of the largest slum areas in Kenya – and indeed, all of Africa – where much of the conflagration in Nairobi originated and recent bloody clashes have taken place: contains a comprehensive, and ever-growing, compendium of articles and news items dedicated to the events unfolding in Kenya.

Please, read the essays, visit the sites – we would encourage you to circulate the attached among your friends. It is important for as many people as possible to know what's happening in Kenya now. Circles on the water, if they're persistent enough, do end up crashing on shore – and, however slightly and incrementally, changing the latter's configuration.

That's it, friends. Our next update – the regular one – is to follow in a couple of days. It will contain some exciting news concerning SLS/St. Petersburg-08 program, our literary contest, et al.

Belatedly – Happy New Year to all of you! Much perseverance and luck in your literary endeavors.

All the best,


Friday, January 11, 2008

Desire is Desire: Joe Strummer's "Redemption Song" and "Coma Girl"

Joe Strummer has long been one of my heroes, and though he proved the Husker Du axiom that "heroes always die," his last years were something of a return to old form--a much mellower form, with the Mescaleros, but a lot of the soul, passion, and lyrical inventiveness, that marked his best work with the Clash.

The first I heard the Clash was probably on popular/rock radio, in the early 1980s, with "Rock the Casbah," (a song whose politics, to this day, I'm still puzzling over) and "Should I Stay or Should I Go." Those two songs mark the shift of the Clash from a straight-ahead punk band who said piss off to love songs (see my earlier post on Strummer's revision of "I'm So Bored with You" to "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A.") to a much wider palette that would include love (lust?) songs.

Actually, to me, Strummer was the kind of guy who could see that desire is desire, whether manifested in political love or romantic hankerings. These two videos of the late Strummer, in some sense, bring us to those polarities embodied by Strummer and by rock and roll.

The first is a cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," and it nearly brought me to tears when I heard it after he died. "The Future is Unwritten," indeed.

Though I'm a little queasy about the MTV-ism of the second video (which does its typical eroticizing of the body without much soul), the song is pop bliss.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

David-Baptiste Chirot's latest ("The Teller Alone Among the Missing")

I've been thinking and writing about Abu Ghraib, which inevitably leads me to the courage of Joseph Darby, the whistle-blower who exposed the torture at the Iraqi prison. When he returned home, he was ostracized from his community and was forced to move. Meanwhile, Donald Rumsfeld somehow took credit for this man's exposure of what Rumsfeld himself signed off on. Darby was a "teller" even though his fellow soldiers were among the missing.

Acceptance Speech by Sergeant Joseph Darby

Sgt. Joseph Darby delivers acceptance speech, May 16, 2005.

I’m a soldier in the United States Army, and it’s not common for me to attend a ceremony of this kind, let alone be onstage. When I was in Iraq, I had a very difficult decision to make. And I could not have imagined that I would receive an award for those actions. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

I’d like to tell you a small story. When we first entered the country of Iraq, crossing from Kuwait to Iraq, there’s a half mile of no man’s land, a barren desert with no moving vehicles, no people, no life. As we crossed that, I can honestly tell you today that I could not remember why I had left my wife and my family. And I did not know what waited for me on the other side.

But a few weeks later in Hillah, I had an experience that changed that. Our patrol was approached by a small group of children. And a small, unbathed girl around seven in a one-piece dress came and tugged on my uniform and said, “Mister, give me food.”

As I looked into her eyes, my doubt evaporated. I knew why we were there and I knew that we had to be there. And I knew that while we were there, we represented something larger than ourselves. We represented our country, its values, its principles, its morals.

Six months later, I was faced with the toughest decision. On one hand, I had my morals and the morals of my country. On the other, I had my comrades, my brothers in arms.

Today, for the first time since I’ve returned home, I am able to stand here publicly and be proud of my decisions to put the values of my country and its reputation ahead of everything else.

I would like to thank my loving wife and family for never doubting my reasons and for enduring the hardships that unfortunately have come our way as a result of my decision. I’d like to thank the Kennedy Foundation, Senator and Caroline Kennedy for bestowing this award upon me.

I would like to thank General Carol Kennedy for the support and compassion that she’s offered me and my family in this time. And finally, I would like to thank Lieutenant Colonel Jim Richmond and Major Stephen Chung for the support and protection they offered my family in the hardest ordeal of our lives. You gentleman are the two finest officers I have ever served with.

And lastly, I’d like to thank God for giving me strength in my time of need. Thank you.

Remarks made by Sergeant Joseph Darby on accepting the 2005 Profile in Courage Award, May 16

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Chalmers Johnson Bares All (of Charlie Wilson's War)

This was forwarded to me from Tim Musser, an active nonviolent presence in Cleveland. Thanks, Tim. When we're watching the hanky-panky of Tommy Hanks, we'll need to take this inoculation against the STDs that come with imperial fantasies.

Imperialist Propaganda
Second Thoughts on Charlie Wilson's War
By Chalmers Johnson

I have some personal knowledge of Congressmen like Charlie Wilson (D-2nd District, Texas, 1973-1996) because, for close to twenty years, my representative in the 50th Congressional District of California was Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham, now serving an eight-and-a-half year prison sentence for soliciting and receiving bribes from defense contractors. Wilson and Cunningham held exactly the same plummy committee assignments in the House of Representatives -- the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee plus the Intelligence Oversight Committee -- from which they could dole out large sums of public money with little or no input from their colleagues or constituents.

Both men flagrantly abused their positions -- but with radically different consequences. Cunningham went to jail because he was too stupid to know how to game the system -- retire and become a lobbyist -- whereas Wilson received the Central Intelligence Agency Clandestine Service's first "honored colleague" award ever given to an outsider and went on to become a $360,000 per annum lobbyist for Pakistan.

In a secret ceremony at CIA headquarters on June 9, 1993, James Woolsey, Bill Clinton's first Director of Central Intelligence and one of the agency's least competent chiefs in its checkered history, said: "The defeat and breakup of the Soviet empire is one of the great events of world history. There were many heroes in this battle, but to Charlie Wilson must go a special recognition." One important part of that recognition, studiously avoided by the CIA and most subsequent American writers on the subject, is that Wilson's activities in Afghanistan led directly to a chain of blowback that culminated in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and led to the United States' current status as the most hated nation on Earth.

On May 25, 2003, (the same month George W. Bush stood on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln under a White-House-prepared "Mission Accomplished" banner and proclaimed "major combat operations" at an end in Iraq), I published a review in the Los Angeles Times of the book that provides the data for the film Charlie Wilson's War. The original edition of the book carried the subtitle, "The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History -- the Arming of the Mujahideen." The 2007 paperbound edition was subtitled, "The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times." Neither the claim that the Afghan operations were covert nor that they changed history is precisely true.

In my review of the book, I wrote,
"The Central Intelligence Agency has an almost unblemished record of screwing up every 'secret' armed intervention it ever undertook. From the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953 through the rape of Guatemala in 1954, the Bay of Pigs, the failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro of Cuba and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, the 'secret war' in Laos, aid to the Greek Colonels who seized power in 1967, the 1973 killing of President Allende in Chile, and Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra war against Nicaragua, there is not a single instance in which the Agency's activities did not prove acutely embarrassing to the United States and devastating to the people being 'liberated.' The CIA continues to get away with this bungling primarily because its budget and operations have always been secret and Congress is normally too indifferent to its Constitutional functions to rein in a rogue bureaucracy. Therefore the tale of a purported CIA success story should be of some interest.

"According to the author of Charlie Wilson's War, the exception to CIA incompetence was the arming between 1979 and 1988 of thousands of Afghan mujahideen ("freedom fighters"). The Agency flooded Afghanistan with an incredible array of extremely dangerous weapons and 'unapologetically mov[ed] to equip and train cadres of high tech holy warriors in the art of waging a war of urban terror against a modern superpower [in this case, the USSR].'

"The author of this glowing account, [the late] George Crile, was a veteran producer for the CBS television news show '60 Minutes' and an exuberant Tom Clancy-type enthusiast for the Afghan caper. He argues that the U.S.'s clandestine involvement in Afghanistan was 'the largest and most successful CIA operation in history,' 'the one morally unambiguous crusade of our time,' and that 'there was nothing so romantic and exciting as this war against the Evil Empire.' Crile's sole measure of success is killed Soviet soldiers (about 15,000), which undermined Soviet morale and contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the period 1989 to 1991. That's the successful part.

"However, he never once mentions that the 'tens of thousands of fanatical Muslim fundamentalists' the CIA armed are the same people who in 1996 killed nineteen American airmen at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, bombed our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, blew a hole in the side of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden Harbor in 2000, and on September 11, 2001, flew hijacked airliners into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon."

Where Did the "Freedom Fighters" Go?
When I wrote those words I did not know (and could not have imagined) that the actor Tom Hanks had already purchased the rights to the book to make into a film in which he would star as Charlie Wilson, with Julia Roberts as his right-wing Texas girlfriend Joanne Herring, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos, the thuggish CIA operative who helped pull off this caper.

What to make of the film (which I found rather boring and old-fashioned)? It makes the U.S. government look like it is populated by a bunch of whoring, drunken sleazebags, so in that sense it's accurate enough. But there are a number of things both the book and the film are suppressing. As I noted in 2003,

"For the CIA legally to carry out a covert action, the president must sign off on -- that is, authorize -- a document called a 'finding.' Crile repeatedly says that President Carter signed such a finding ordering the CIA to provide covert backing to the mujahideen after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. The truth of the matter is that Carter signed the finding on July 3, 1979, six months before the Soviet invasion, and he did so on the advice of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in order to try to provoke a Russian incursion. Brzezinski has confirmed this sequence of events in an interview with a French newspaper, and former CIA Director [today Secretary of Defense] Robert Gates says so explicitly in his 1996 memoirs. It may surprise Charlie Wilson to learn that his heroic mujahideen were manipulated by Washington like so much cannon fodder in order to give the USSR its own Vietnam. The mujahideen did the job but as subsequent events have made clear, they may not be all that grateful to the United States."

In the bound galleys of Crile's book, which his publisher sent to reviewers before publication, there was no mention of any qualifications to his portrait of Wilson as a hero and a patriot. Only in an "epilogue" added to the printed book did Crile quote Wilson as saying, "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And the people who deserved the credit are the ones who made the sacrifice. And then we fucked up the endgame." That's it. Full stop. Director Mike Nichols, too, ends his movie with Wilson's final sentence emblazoned across the screen. And then the credits roll.

Neither a reader of Crile, nor a viewer of the film based on his book would know that, in talking about the Afghan freedom fighters of the 1980s, we are also talking about the militants of al Qaeda and the Taliban of the 1990s and 2000s. Amid all the hoopla about Wilson's going out of channels to engineer secret appropriations of millions of dollars to the guerrillas, the reader or viewer would never suspect that, when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, President George H.W. Bush promptly lost interest in the place and simply walked away, leaving it to descend into one of the most horrific civil wars of modern times.

Among those supporting the Afghans (in addition to the U.S.) was the rich, pious Saudi Arabian economist and civil engineer, Osama bin Laden, whom we helped by building up his al Qaeda base at Khost. When bin Laden and his colleagues decided to get even with us for having been used, he had the support of much of the Islamic world. This disaster was brought about by Wilson's and the CIA's incompetence as well as their subversion of all the normal channels of political oversight and democratic accountability within the U.S. government. Charlie Wilson's war thus turned out to have been just another bloody skirmish in the expansion and consolidation of the American empire -- and an imperial presidency. The victors were the military-industrial complex and our massive standing armies. The billion dollars' worth of weapons Wilson secretly supplied to the guerrillas ended up being turned on ourselves.

An Imperialist Comedy
Which brings us back to the movie and its reception here. (It has been banned in Afghanistan.) One of the severe side effects of imperialism in its advanced stages seems to be that it rots the brains of the imperialists. They start believing that they are the bearers of civilization, the bringers of light to "primitives" and "savages" (largely so identified because of their resistance to being "liberated" by us), the carriers of science and modernity to backward peoples, beacons and guides for citizens of the "underdeveloped world."

Such attitudes are normally accompanied by a racist ideology that proclaims the intrinsic superiority and right to rule of "white" Caucasians. Innumerable European colonialists saw the hand of God in Darwin's discovery of evolution, so long as it was understood that He had programmed the outcome of evolution in favor of late Victorian Englishmen. (For an excellent short book on this subject, check out Sven Lindquist's "Exterminate All the Brutes.")

When imperialist activities produce unmentionable outcomes, such as those well known to anyone paying attention to Afghanistan since about 1990, then ideological thinking kicks in. The horror story is suppressed, or reinterpreted as something benign or ridiculous (a "comedy"), or simply curtailed before the denouement becomes obvious. Thus, for example, Melissa Roddy, a Los Angeles film-maker with inside information from the Charlie Wilson production team, notes that the film's happy ending came about because Tom Hanks, a co-producer as well as the leading actor, "just can't deal with this 9/11 thing."

Similarly, we are told by another insider reviewer, James Rocchi, that the scenario, as originally written by Aaron Sorkin of "West Wing" fame, included the following line for Avrakotos: "Remember I said this: There's going to be a day when we're gonna look back and say 'I'd give anything if [Afghanistan] were overrun with Godless communists'." This line is nowhere to be found in the final film.
Today there is ample evidence that, when it comes to the freedom of women, education levels, governmental services, relations among different ethnic groups, and quality of life -- all were infinitely better under the Afghan communists than under the Taliban or the present government of President Hamid Karzai, which evidently controls little beyond the country's capital, Kabul. But Americans don't want to know that -- and certainly they get no indication of it from Charlie Wilson's War, either the book or the film.

The tendency of imperialism to rot the brains of imperialists is particularly on display in the recent spate of articles and reviews in mainstream American newspapers about the film. For reasons not entirely clear, an overwhelming majority of reviewers concluded that Charlie Wilson's War is a "feel-good comedy" (Lou Lumenick in the New York Post), a "high-living, hard-partying jihad" (A.O. Scott in the New York Times), "a sharp-edged, wickedly funny comedy" (Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times). Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post wrote of "Mike Nichols's laff-a-minute chronicle of the congressman's crusade to ram funding through the House Appropriations Committee to supply arms to the Afghan mujahideen"; while, in a piece entitled "Sex! Drugs! (and Maybe a Little War)," Richard L. Berke in the New York Times offered this stamp of approval: "You can make a movie that is relevant and intelligent -- and palatable to a mass audience -- if its political pills are sugar-coated."

When I saw the film, there was only a guffaw or two from the audience over the raunchy sex and sexism of "good-time Charlie," but certainly no laff-a-minute. The root of this approach to the film probably lies with Tom Hanks himself, who, according to Berke, called it "a serious comedy." A few reviews qualified their endorsement of Charlie Wilson's War, but still came down on the side of good old American fun. Rick Groen in the Toronto Globe and Mail, for instance, thought that it was "best to enjoy Charlie Wilson's War as a thoroughly engaging comedy. Just don't think about it too much or you may choke on your popcorn." Peter Rainer noted in the Christian Science Monitor that the "Comedic Charlie Wilson's War has a tragic punch line." These reviewers were thundering along with the herd while still trying to maintain a bit of self-respect.

The handful of truly critical reviews have come mostly from blogs and little-known Hollywood fanzines -- with one major exception, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. In an essay subtitled "'Charlie Wilson's War' celebrates events that came back to haunt Americans," Turan called the film "an unintentionally sobering narrative of American shouldn't-have" and added that it was "glib rather than witty, one of those films that comes off as being more pleased with itself than it has a right to be."

My own view is that if Charlie Wilson's War is a comedy, it's the kind that goes over well with a roomful of louts in a college fraternity house. Simply put, it is imperialist propaganda and the tragedy is that four-and-a-half years after we invaded Iraq and destroyed it, such dangerously misleading nonsense is still being offered to a gullible public. The most accurate review so far is James Rocchi's summing-up for Cinematical: "Charlie Wilson's War isn't just bad history; it feels even more malign, like a conscious attempt to induce amnesia."

Chalmers Johnson is the author of the Blowback Trilogy -- Blowback (2000), The Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (paperbound edition, January 2008).

Copyright 2008 Chalmers Johnson