Saturday, January 29, 2011

For Peace

Last night we finished the three-part HBO film on John Adams. Props to Paul Giamatti for his portrayal of Adams, which is more mealy-mouthed and complex than the grandstanding version of "1776." The Founding Fathers are making another appearance in contemporary politics, and it seems timely to thank John Adams for his willingness to be a one-term president in exchange for brokering peace with France. While I'm not in favor of avoiding war at any cost, I believe the price of war is worth almost no reason. Today in Writer's Almanac, I was heartened to read William McKinley's words: "Let us ever remember that our interest is in concord, not in conflict; and that our real eminence rests in the victories of peace, not those of war."
It made me go searching for this poem of William Stafford.

At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed - or were killed - on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate by forgetting its name.

The strange thing is, after war, after all the horror - fear, death, destruction, the sound and smoke, dead kids and fathers, schools, farms, houses all rubble - some soliders limp home, others stay, the burns scar, the nightmares and suicides calm down, and after a generation, our governments are trading partners. Why aren't we all yelling, there is no other way to get to the future?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Nonfiction interrupted

It's not my m.o. to put down a book halfway through, but I've got my reasons. I can finally go to a book discussion group, after ten years of schedule conflicts. The book arrived yesterday -Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves. It disrupts my first ever book pile. You know, the stack by the bed: the new slips in underneath and hoists all the others up. I pull them like a card draw. It's my first, since I've been in school for so long, and read what others asked me too - also a luxurious pleasure. But now I'm choosing my own books. After Chris Hedges's serious and intense Empire of Illusion (5 stars), I'm halfway through Lynn Powell's thoughtful and disquieting Framing Innocence (5 stars), so it's a pleasure to put down the sorrows of the unimagined world to be quickly pulled into the lush and luscious language and landscape of Erdrich. I find myself reading passages out loud, because they are so good in the mouth: "murmurous susurration" and "crisscrossed racks of sticks." I so look forward to discussing this book with this group of readers I admire.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

New chapbook

I am thrilled to learn that Kattywompus Press in Cleveland will publish my new chapbook, Bring Down the Sky.
It's a collection that interweaves poems about the life and work of James Turrell and Larry Towell. I first saw Larry Towell's intimate and haunting images at Youngstown State. He photographs people living through war and other horror. James Turrell's installations work with perception, light and space. I saw a few at The Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh and The Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. They are beautiful meditative spaces.
I am moved by the art, but more - Towell and Turrell are eloquent and wise, and I was engaged by their books and interviews, and talking with Towell at a reception. I would not love their work less if they were... yes, I would. But I would still love it.

Toward a more perfect union

I love my country. Like other Americans who feel this way, I also carry around an idealized America. Mine would be more richly tapestried - here we are, this nation of immigrants, in this processed, white-bread cultural landscape. My America would be shore-to-shore Manhattan - every kind of food, festival, language, literature, music. We would all have fruit trees and pots of herbs on the sunny side of the house. My neighbors would tell me of their African ancestors and let me taste their harvest festival food. The Department of Ancestry would assist the descendants of slaves in finding their ancestral regions. I would know all about Hanukkah and Eid, because we would grow up hearing the parables, taking the wise lessons from all traditions. In my made up America, we would be multi-lingual; more than 10% of us would have passports; we would be knowledgeable about the history, music, poetry and wine of our fellow travelers, and that would lead to less fear and war. And less of that swaggering 'we're number one' talk that is like vomit in the throat to me. Even in the areas where we lead the world (fewer than we think), this is arrogant and rude, and lacks the knowledge and respect we should have for other nations who also get it right. The national conversation I'd like to be in is about how we can't feed our sense of the other, since, here more than anywhere, there is no other. Only us.
One thing I'd take from this America to the imagined America is Netflix. All the choices! - many foreign films, and directors with other perspectives. One recent gem I saw is "The Agronomist," about Haitian journalist Jean Dominique. We know so little about even our closest neighbors, particularly about how American foreign policy plays out in sometimes devastating ways.
Another terrific film is "Not One Less," about a young teacher in rural China; "We Loved Each Other So Much," about Lebanese singer Fairuz; "Heavy Metal in Baghdad," about a band of young musicians navigating their terrifying political world under, first, Saddam Hussein, and then the American-led war.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Lately my thoughts keep circling back to the film Restrepo. One thing that struck me is the way many (not all) of the soldiers seem limited in their vocabulary and metaphor to describe or process their experience or thoughts. They stay focused on their tasks with a kind of slogany, black-and-white thinking. It's understandable on an individual level - how else to go through the motions in a situation of terror, danger and nightmarish destruction? Yet set against the stunning landscape of Afghanistan's Korengal valley, and the weathered tribal leaders the soldiers meet with, the soldiers seem naive, but more - undeveloped - both to do their assigned work effectively, and to understand what they are doing. I wonder how much the missing language will hinder their healing. I long for a more enlightened American policy.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sigur Ros

I find this band's music haunting and holy, somehow, and intense, as are the videos and film of their Icelandic tour. I've heard many say that Iceland is beautiful, and the cinematography is skillful and gorgeous. I'm typically more enchanted with music whose lyrics drive the piece, but this music is so beautiful and evocative, even though the vocals are in both Icelandic and a created language of sounds.