Saturday, June 30, 2007

Poetry, June 2007

(reflections on the June 2007 issue of the journal POETRY)

Following an issue that apologized for being mostly commentary with little poetry, this one is all poetry. But the number of poems that tickled me is about the same as usual.

The issue begins with several pages of something by Frank Bidart that looks like a poem - consistent with a pattern of two lines, space, one line, space, repeat... interrupted from time to time with prose paragraphs. It's an exploration of an anecdote: as a young man, the poet saw a film of aging dancer Ulanova performing a role that she could no longer sustain in performance straight through. Is it a poem? An essay? An anecdote? The story of "Giselle" itself? A poem can be all of these things, and that's okay with me. At the end, there's a note about how this film, in 1952, taught the author about art. There's a lot here to appreciate and think about .

Much of what follows is crude, or crudeness gussied up. Some of it is posing -- attitude, scorn, ugly. The "f" word appears in five or so consecutive poems, and I just skipped those. Such a word is a sign of laziness. (An exception: it's the key to Harold Pinter's wonderful, creepy play BETRAYAL, carefully placed midway). There's another thing that annoys me in a lot of the poems I read in this journal, poems that fall into lists of proper nouns. Here poems listing flowers by name, or ancient poets.

A poem by John Koethe called "Chester" conjures thoughts of waking with pet at the end of the bed, and that fantasy of "the half-concealed life that lies beneath / The ordinary one, made up of ordinary mornings." A. E. Stallings' poem, "Misspent," touches on the same fear, that days are being mislaid the way bright shiny coins picked up and put in the pocket are spent on trifles one doesn't even recall.

David Yezzi's poem "The Good News" seemed to be a reflection on my own recent experience of meeting an old friend 30 years later. Like the other poems I've mentioned here, it strikes me as being like my own experience. I guess this means that these experiences are pretty universal, and discovering that is one of the pleasures in reading poetry.

A very short poem called "Scree" deftly makes a point about suffering, that it's not a stop, but a misstep from which we recover our footing, unsteadily.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Krista Tippett's Speaking of Faith: I Choose It

(reflection on SPEAKING OF FAITH, radio program and book by Krista Tippett.)

With a new feature called "Beliefwatch," Newsweek is a sign of religion's ever-increasing prominence in our culture, fifty years after Time asked if God is dead. The latest issue of Newsweek questions conventional (liberal) wisdom: "All religions are basically the same: True or False?" Their answer is "false." As a longtime connoisseur of religions, I'd agree.

Still, I'm grateful to Krista Tippett and her weekly talk program SPEAKING OF FAITH for presenting a wide variety of believers of many faiths and non-believers who still have in common certain traits. Her book of the same name is a printing of highlights from that program, framed as a kind of autobiography. Tippett dwells lovingly on her grandfather, an evangelist whom she obviously adored. She grew disenchanted with religion and more enchanted with politics and journalism, and spent her early adulthood working as a "hawk" within the diplomatic corps in divided Germany of the 1980s. The rest of the book, and her program, often bounce between these two poles of ways to face life's challenges, faith or political action. She often implies that they are both faiths of a kind, and power is the one that's illusory.

(She observes that powerful people she knew in her Berlin days, brilliant in speaking on foreign policy, were petty and adolescent in their private lives -- cf. Kissinger in Dallek's book, which I blogged earlier today. The powerless people she met in East Germany, trapped there, were attentive to others and serious and grown up by comparison.)

What happens after Berlin is less clearly defined: some religious re-awakening and study at Yale divinity school, some work among needy inner-city youth, a failed marriage, and battle with clinical depression. But what comes through more clearly than her own story is the one she's more interested in telling, and that's the threads she finds in her wide-ranging on-air discussions with people. The way she was trained as a journalist to ferret out vice in public figures, she is attempting to ask questions that get her guests beyond their public selves to expose their private virtues.

What are the common traits of these guests -- besides articulateness?

First, her guests fall into the first of two categories that long-respected church historian Martin Marty uses instead of liberal and conservative. These are, that religious people are either kind or not:
The context of all virtue in the great religious traditions is relationship -- relationship with God, practical love in families and communities, care for the "other." They insist on reverent attention to the outcast and the suffering and the stranger beyond the bounds of one's own identity [or tribe, or nation - Smoot]. Christianity puts an extreme fine point on this, calling also for love of enemies. (p. 12)
Second, her guests would all agree with with Khaled Abou El Fadl, author of a book called Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. The more important category, they would agree, is not right and wrong but beauty and its absence. El Fadl said that the "underpinning theme" of the Qur'an is that God created male and female, diverse peoples and tribes, "So that you may come to know one another." Tippett interviewed him at a Jewish cultural center, sharing the stage with Rabbi Harold Shulweiss, who agreed with the Muslim. Thinking of actions done in the name of religion, rather than starting with doctrine, the Rabbi postulated that one could ask instead, "Does this action reveal a delight in this creation and in the image of a creative, merciful God who could have made it?" (p. 202-203)

Third, her guests would all agree with the distinction that one of them drew between religion and spirituality. Rabbi Sandy Sasso told her that Moses had a direct encounter with God on Mt. Sinai. Later, he formalized what he'd experienced in the ten commandments. The encounter was the spiritual experience from God; the religion is its man-made container. (p. 180)

Tippett is great at pressing her guests for clarifications and examples to support their generalizations, but it's rare that she really puts her foot down. In this book, she does one time. She's describing the essential idea that she and her guests all live by . . .
. . . that each person's presence, action, and words in the world matter, however inconsequential they may seem against the backdrop of this evening's news. Religions remind us of this fact, this faith. Like any political or economic theory, this is empirically unverifiable. I choose it. (p. 162-163)

How Little We Knew How Little They Knew: Nixon and Kissinger

(reflections on Robert Dallek, Partners in Power: Nixon and Kissinger)
Richard Nixon was "a man of strong convictions, who came up through adversity; at his best in a crisis, cool, unflappable; a tough, bold, strong leader... never being concerned about tomorrow's headlines; ...steely . . . subtle and almost gentle." That's Nixon, in his own words, in a memo to Henry Kissinger dictating what to say about his boss. It was the occasion of announcing the diplomatic breakthrough to China. Nixon wanted Kissinger also to stress how much the President had in common with Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai. (Dallek, p. 299).

What I've learned from Robert Dallek's big book about Nixon and Kissinger is mostly this: When Nixon's "Silent Majority" and even his enemies respected Nixon and Kissinger for their competence in foreign affairs, we were giving them too much credit.

Dallek often reviews the events of Nixon's tumultuous Presidency through the memoirs and public pronouncements of Nixon and Kissinger themselves. But Dallek has also had access to written memos, Nixon's diary, and of course, to those infamous tapes, and he shows that, from the very first, Nixon and Kissinger projected confidence, balance, and reasonableness that they did not possess in private. On top of that, we learn how they sniped at each other. Kissinger called Nixon "meatball mind" and more often "maniac" in off-the-record interviews that ingratiated him to news reporters, while Nixon called Kissinger "Jew boy" behind his back "and sometimes to his face, as a way to . . . keep him in his place" (p. 93).

Above all, Dallek drives home the point again and again that Nixon's trumpeted foreign policy was trumped up to win praise "in tomorrow's headlines." He'd planned his entire Presidency, from his near miss in the (stolen?) election of 1960 onward, to focus on foreign policy, the one area of Presidential responsibility where he could hope to have control. But events seemed to spin out of control all over, as Nixon had to deal with war in Vietnam, India's near-war with Pakistan, Israel's ongoing war with Egypt and Syria, Salvador Allende's socialist government in Chile, involvement of the Soviet Union in all of those places, and China's competition with the Soviets. Dallek shows again and again how, behind the doors of the White House, Nixon and Kissinger came to decisions based on how they would look to the public. Dallek also shows that these two men, apart, made decisions to enhance each man's prestige vis-a-vis the other. Time and again, Nixon writes memos to Kissinger and to his staff to make sure that the President got the credit for anything Kissinger did.

I already knew a lot about Nixon. I've read Nixon's autobiography, and Stephen Ambrose's biography. I'd read Nixon's self-justifications in NO MORE VIETNAMS, and Barbara Tuchman's scornful dissection of his Vietnam policy in MARCH OF FOLLY. I'd already heard some behind-the-scenes stories -- the night late in Watergate when Nixon called Kissinger into his office to kneel in tearful prayer; how he discussed his proposed appointee to the Supreme Court William Rehnquist as "Renchler, that Bozo"; and the evening when chief of staff Alexander Haig called Kissinger because England's Prime Minister Heath was waiting on the phone to talk to the President and "the boss is pretty sloshed" -- not an unusual event, judging from the matter-of-fact way the two men discuss how to put off the P.M. I knew how, even late in life, Nixon was still worked up by (I'm quoting him from memory) "the slights, the insults you get early on, around age six, while you're working to make something of yourself, by all those people who just sit around on their fat butts."

Here are a few items that stood out for me:

  • During the 1968 campaign, when Nixon was promising "peace with honor" in Vietnam, LBJ announced new peace talks in Paris just before the election. . . and Nixon countered by making secret contacts with South Vietnam's President Thieu to encourage him to boycott peace talks in Paris before the election. LBJ knew of those secret contacts, but couldn't reveal them without revealing his source of information, through illegal wiretapping. Dallek comments that Nixon was thereafter "beholden to Thieu" p. 78.

  • After appearing calm, reasonable, and effective in his "Silent Majority" speech on November 3, 1969, Nixon phoned Kissinger three times and chief of staff HR Haldeman fifteen times between 10:20 and midnight to get "therapy," as Kissinger recalls and reassurances, and to give orders to "get 100 vicious dirty calls to New York Times and Washington Posts about their editorials." p. 166

  • Nixon to Kissinger, note of November 24, 1969: "I get the rather uneasy impression that the military are still thinking in terms of ... an eventual military solution [in Vietnam]. I also have the impression that deep down they realize the war can't be won militariliy, even over the long haul." Yet he continued to try increasing bombing alternating with periods of asking for guarantees of independence for South Vietnam, four more years, while the North simply waited. p. 183

  • Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman (who was 42 years old when he started at the White House) was known as "the Berlin Wall" for keeping people out of Nixon's presence, and keeping the boss's tirades and tantrums and foul language out of public hearing. More to the point, Haldeman decided which of Nixon's non-stop orders were truly to be implemented, and which ones were just "ramblings." (p.98) Frequently, we read of memos that Nixon wrote to Kissinger that Kissinger simply disregarded.

  • During the Watergate crisis, especially during Nixon's last year in office, Dallek shows again and again that Kissinger purposefully kept Nixon out of involvements with world leaders, because Nixon was not playing with a full deck (chapter 16, "The Nixon-Kissinger Presidency"). RN tells HK to remind Congress of the President's "indispensable" role in managing the mideast crisis (in which the Soviet Union was threatening to involve its own forces) while RN at the same time was saying that his enemies in Congress were trying to kill him: "I may physically die," he said. In a late night White House meeting, while Nixon was asleep (sedated?), Kissinger, Haig, and others decided how to deal with the crisis, and raised troops world-wide to Def Con 3. The threat worked; the Soviets backed down, and Nixon was on the news proclaiming his toughness. The liberal media were right to be suspicious. p. 531

  • The bitterness, the paranoia, the failure to connect personally -- I knew about all that. But I've always believed that these were the dark side of a man who fit his self-description of having "strong convictions," ability, and coolness in a crisis. The Nixon I believed in appears in Dallek's book only during a few public appearances and once in private with Kissinger. That time was in Nixon's White House office when he proposed a toast "not to ourselves personally or to our success [but] to generations to come who may have a better chance to live in peace because of what we have done [i.e., in China]" (p. 290).

Nixon was my first President. I remember JFK's assassination, and I remember LBJ's image on TV. But I recall Nixon's campaign -- and his guest appearance saying "Sock it to me" on LAUGH IN -- and the suspense of election night when racist George Wallace surged and V-P Hubert Humphrey ran close second to Nixon. I saw Nixon's inauguration during class in Mrs. Finkle's fourth grade at Churchill School in Homewood, Illinois. I saw his daughter's marriage. And I accepted his word for truth when he protested that he was not a crook. I felt personally betrayed when the truth came out, and he resigned.

My great aunt Ellen cornered me in my parents' kitchen when I happened to mention that my history students got a view of Richard Nixon that balanced the bad with the good. "I never found any good in him," she said with vehemance. She went on to tell how she had campaigned for a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1970 whose campaign fell apart because of allegations of illegal activity in the news. A couple weeks after the candidate lost, the newspaper admitted that the story of illegality was baseless, and it had come from an unnamed White House source.

Another personal acquaintance of mine involved with Mississippi's Republican Party told of meeting Nixon, who immediately followed up on his greeting with a racist joke, assuming that any white men in Mississippi must enjoy that sort of thing. My former friend was disgusted and embarrassed.

I'm afraid that's my reaction to Nixon, now, too.

Read "Nixon's Voice," my reflection on Nixon in works of opera and fiction

Thursday, June 21, 2007

New Iraq Strategy Under Ten Words

(responding to an interview with Washington Post Pentagon reporter Thomas Ricks, author of FIASCO, on NPR's "Fresh Air" two days ago; plus Robert Dallek's book NIXON AND KISSINGER; with additional info from Lawrence Kaplan's editorial in THE NEW REPUBLIC ON LINE and an article posted November 30, 2006, by UPI news analyst Martin Sieff.)

"Bottom line: Right people, right strategy, too little, too late."

That's what an American general in Iraq told Thomas Ricks during his latest visit there.

The new strategy, called a "surge" in the media, might better be called "swimming with the people." That's a quote from Chairman Mao's book on how to be an insurgent -- "Insurgents swim with the people," blending in, giving them what they need, making alliances. With additional troop force deployed there, General Petraeus has enacted on a large scale that same strategy, which served him well in the areas he commanded in Iraq in 2005. Troops are stationed in neighborhoods instead of on far bases. While this increases their vulnerability in the short run, they learn quickly "what normal looks like" according to Ricks, and they share the neighbors' interest in stability and safety, and can get the cooperation of the people 24/7 in a way they could not when they sped in from afar and patrolled behind armor a couple hours a day.

It's working. According to Lawrence Kaplan in The New Republic (on line), "Already, attacks and executions in the capital have (depending on the source) declined by one-half to one-third." I've read in other sources that our troops are also getting cooperation with tribal leaders sick of Al Qaeda outsiders.

But Ricks, speaking in the interview aired Tuesday, saw clouds in these silver linings. The Sunni tribal leaders who have opposed our forces may be cooperating because they see that as a way to get some of the training and weapons that we've been giving their Shiite adversaries. In other words, they're gearing up for the all-out civil war that will follow if US soldiers withdraw immediately.

Ricks points out, by the way, that, if we began to pull out now, running convoys to waiting ships and bases in Kuwait at a rate of 30 convoys a day, our forces would still be in Iraq ten months from now -- that's how much equipment, etc. we have there. "And who's going to protect those convoys when it becomes clear to our enemies that we're leaving?" Aside from that, Ricks imagines Iraq's territory hardening into three armed camps (Kurds, Shiia, Sunnis) fighting each other as proxies for Saudis, Syrians, and Iranians -- with Turkey having its own interest in putting down Kurds. Democratic Presidential hopeful Bill Richardson scored points against Hillary by promising to get our boys out immediately, while she anticipates troops being stationed in Iraq for at least another ten years. She's reasonable; he's pandering. But even she said, "We've kicked out Saddam, we've given them a constitution, and they" can't get their act together - so we should get out.

While all this is happening, I've been reading Robert Dallek's book NIXON AND KISSINGER, and Nixon's struggle to make "Vietnamization" work seems so familiar. What is our policy now, except a long-drawn-out version of our helicopter taking off from the rooftop of our embassy in Saigon? "So long! Take care!" In Nixon's many attempts to get North Vietnam's agreement to withdraw -- later settling for a promise to stop attacking -- he knew (tapes and transcripts show him saying as early as 1968, during his campaign) that the enemy had already won and had no incentive to make any concessions. They had only to outlast America's will to keep troops there. Within days of the final peace agreement in January 1973, North Vietnamese forces were attacking our "Vietnamized" defenses all across South Vietnam.

Kaplan compares Petraeus to Creighton Abrams ( a name that has not popped up in Dallek's book, yet - I've never heard of Abrams). Kaplan quotes a recent article about Abrams by retired colonel Stuart Herrington,
"having wasted more than three years (until 1968) pursuing a flawed strategy, the Pentagon lost the support of the American population, and was not given the time to get it right, even when it was clear that General Creighton Abrams' pacification and Vietnamization approach might have worked."

Success is even less likely in Iraq. Kaplan point outs that South Vietnam at least had an army and a functioning government. Sieff's UPI analysis of the President's new strategy document back in November includes facetious admiration of the President's stated long - term goal of an Iraq
"peaceful, united, stable, and secure, well integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the global war on terrorism." Sieff comments:

That goal is an exceptionally ambitious one, especially as even in the 36 years of Iraqi national independence before Saddam Hussein and his fellow Baathists established the second Baathist Republic in 1968, Iraq was never "peaceful, united, stable and secure."

His article also includes a handy summary of Iraq's history in the 20th century, pre-Saddam:

The British Empire ran Iraq directly as a Mandate of the League of Nations for 14 years, after World War I until 1932, and painstakingly built up and trained the Iraqi army during that time. But within nine years of independence, this same army had rebelled against both the democratically elected government and the British interest in Iraq twice, in 1936 and 1941, successfully toppling the government in both cases.

On the second occasion, in 1941, the Iraqi army sought immediately to join Britain's mortal enemy, Nazi Germany, and was only preventing from doing so by a hastily organized British military invasion and re-conquest of the country launched, ironically enough, from Jerusalem in Palestine, which was then still under British control.

Eventually in 1958, the Iraqi Army succeeded in toppling the British-supported constitutional government and slaughtered the entire Hashemite royal family of Iraq. Both moves proved immensely popular among the Iraqi people at the time.

So when General Petraeus testifies to Congress in September, will he say that the new strategy is working, or not? Ricks says the top brass are sick of arguing over whether the war should have started in the first place, and sick of all discussions of the war being framed as a referendum on President Bush. Rather, Petraeus will lay out what has been achieved, what leaving would look like, and will ask, "Now, you tell us what you want us to do."

The best option of all is somehow to achieve what Bush had in mind from the first, and the best strategy seems to be in place now. But, so long as all our efforts are seen to be cover for our exit - as Nixon's elusive "peace with honor" was (Dallek quotes him saying, as early as 1969, "But what the hell does that mean? It doesn't mean anything!") - it really is too little, too late.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Happy Bloom's Day, June 16

Somehow everything went wrong today. A fat guy passed me on the bike trail; my internet connection failed; articles that caught my eye in a journal were all gloomy ones about the coming Islamic takeover of the world -- somehow related to Hillary's health care plan; and after three days' biking and swimming both, I've gained a pound a day. Then I was reminded, today is Bloom's Day, celebrated by fans of Joyce's ULYSSES world wide. The novel follows friends of Leopold Bloom around Dublin, from waking to sleeping, on the day June 16 in the year 1904. (Info, please)

On this day three years ago, I ran out and bought a copy for myself and resolved to read it through. It was a struggle, but I enjoyed each succeeding chapter more and more, until I hit a wall, in the middle of chapter nine. I think it was taking place in a library. I gave it up and went on to Raymond Chandler, a great new pleasure.

But I decided to try again, and, before I'd reached the end of the first page, all was right with the world. "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" steps out on the deck of a stone tower in a dressing gown "sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air" and raises his bowl of shaving lather and intones "Introibo ad altare Dei" and calls down the stairs to wake up his pal Stephen Dedalus. If the sheer sound of the first lines don't make you smile, then Mulligan's playfulness does.

And if that doesn't, then there's the playfulness of the author, tossing around much of western civilization by free association: liturgy, Greek lit, Shakespeare, folk songs (and a satire called "Song of the Joking Jesus" that's fun), and Ireland's long sad history.

On another level, we're watching a scene in a play -- in the manner of Wilde, who's mentioned two or three times -- the plump clown, the thin self-conscious poet, and the pompous straight man (Haines, an Oxford man studying quaint Irish ways for his research) whom they mock freely without his ever guessing. Stage business of shaving, dressing, fixing and consuming breakfast, leaving for work, all continue through the banter. There's also a bit of old-fashioned exposition: Stephen's mother has died, he feels guilty about it because he didn't kneel and pray at her death bed when she asked for him to, and he's dressed for the funeral. And they plan to meet later at The Ship.

As I read, the concentration it takes to follow it drew me in to Joyce's world. It's a world without God, his characters say, but not without significance. The criss-crossing of references underlays that world, connecting the physical to the moral (imagination, history, philosophy, emotion). Somehow the same trees that tower over my house began to look to me like a benevolent circle of old friends, and the sun was golden, and the trusty old ceiling fan was bathing me in the same gentle breeze that pervades the opening scene on the tower.

I may never finish the book, but I've already internalized its attitude towards life expressed in the last word: Yes!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Free Markets and Democracy: What Would Buddha Do?

(reflections on ideas heard on a broadcast of SPEAKING OF FAITH. Excerpts are taken from transcripts available at the show's web site. See LINKS in the right hand column of this blog.)

In a recent broadcast of the radio show SPEAKING OF FAITH, host Krista Tippett interviewed journalist Pankaj Mishra, author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World. In his conversation with host Krista Tippett, Mishra lumps Marx and Adam Smith together for their grand schemes to change society, and he contrasts them with the Buddha's program for changing society through individuals' responses to the worlds around them:

Mr. Mishra: The pursuit of these utopias in the last sort of 200, 300 years — and they've been pursued most, I think, fanatically in the last 200 years than at any other time, whether, you know, it's the sort of Nazi utopia, the Thousand Year Reich, which was the most sort of disreputable of them all, but also the communist utopia. And now, of course, you see the pursuit of another kind of utopia, the idea of individual happiness through consumption, through desire, and a kind of individual desire which, in the end, really does not respect any limits. It can go to any lengths to fulfill itself. So it is actually, in the end, a recipe for war and violence because you are going to need…

Ms. Tippett: And even just plain old unhappiness.

Mr. Mishra: Plain old unhappiness. Exactly. Because, you know, once again, the whole idea of the person who's desiring something yesterday is not the same person today. And when he gets the thing he desires, he'll have already moved on, so he'll be unhappy again.

I'm not used to lumping Adam Smith and the free market with those evil utopians, because communists and fascists speak of subsuming individuals in the Party, while Smith imagines the collective effect of individuals' own decisions day to day. Without denying that free markets give free rein to individual choice, Mishra has made an observation that rings true. Most interesting to me is his excerpt from Adam Smith's other book that preceded Wealth of Nations, the Theory of Moral Sentiments of 1759:

The poor man's son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, admires the condition of the rich. It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself forever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness. Through the whole of his life, he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose, which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age, he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it. Power and riches appear, then, to be what they are, enormous machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniences to the body. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labor of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which, while they stand, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow, to diseases, to danger and to death.

In choosing to compare "power and riches" to "enormous machines," Smith seconds Mishra's thought that free enterprise also constitutes an over-arching utopian program. Of course, a favorite author of mine, business historian John Steele Gordon, would point out that the free market system nullified half of Smith's paragraph above within 150 years of his writing it, as it produced answers to winter storms, diseases, danger, and anxiety.

Another interesting portion of the discussion followed Krista Tippett's "devil's advocate" question. Mishra had just contrasted the Alexander / Napoleon / Hitler model of leadership to that of Indian prince Ashoka, whose conquest and massacres left him suddenly sick at heart, and he managed his empire for years after with sharp limits on state violence. But he's not remembered. She asks:

Ms. Tippett: [A]n American, a modern American, might look at this history you tell and might still compare someone like Alexander and Ashoka, or 21st-century America and India, and say it's clear which version of reality, which ethos is on the winning side. Right? They would say simply this ethos of acquisition and building and progress and power is what, in fact, works in this world we inhabit. Now, how would you respond to that?

Mr. Mishra: Well, I'd very quickly challenge the notion that it works. Where is the evidence that it works? I mean, the 21st century has not started off very well. What I do see is a whole lot of confusion, a whole lot of bewilderment and a whole lot of hatred, a whole lot of violence out there. And, you know, even people, even societies that are supposedly doing extremely well, such as China or India, when you actually start thinking about 20, even 20, 30 years in the future, you wonder about their big populations, you wonder about their great needs. What will these societies need once they come into their own as middle class consumers of the kind people in America are? The amount of oil they would need, amount of energy resources they will have to find to sustain their populations at the standard of living they will have arrived at at that point, if they do arrive at that standard of living. And where is that oil going to come from? You know, I think it's unsustainable, and that's why we're heading towards, and we already have, we already live in such, sort of, violent times. So I'm completely unpersuaded by the notion that the systems we have are working. The fact of power obscures the failures, but the fact that you have to use violence all the time, you know, really points to the failure of all these systems in many ways.

When Tippett asks what Buddha might say about contemporary America and the problems we face with Islamist terrorists, Mishra's responses were not so earth-shattering. He points to the growth (in size, in resources, in intrusivenss) of federal government, and its distance from the decisions of ordinary Americans. He thinks the Buddha's approach would "devolve" decision-making to more local bodies -- and that sounds very Constitutional to me. About the Islamists, Mishra shows no sympathy to the terrorist organizations or leaders, and he decries what they've done in places where he grew up, Kashmir and India (where he speaks of Hindu Nationalists as well as the Islamists), but he offers an understanding of how the cynical leaders gain control of their young recruits:

I knew about the corruptions of jihad, of the leaders grown fat on generous donations from foreign and local patrons, sending young men to poorly paid martyrdoms in Kashmir and Afghanistan. But I hadn't expected to be moved by the casual sight in one madrasa of six young men sleeping on tattered sheets on the floor. I hadn't thought I would be saddened to think of the human waste they represented, the young men whose ancestors had once built one of the greatest civilizations of the world and who now lived in dysfunctional societies beholden to or in fear of America.

The other kind of future once laid out for them had failed. This was the future in which everyone in the world would wear a tie, work in an office or factory, practice birth control, raise a nuclear family, drive a car and pay taxes. There were not nearly enough secular schools to educate these young men in the ways of the modern world, and few jobs awaited those who had been educated.

But the fantasy of modernity, held up by their state and supported by the international political and economic system, had been powerful enough to expel and uproot them from their native villages. Having lost the protection of their old moral order, their particular bonds and forms of authority, they hoped to stave off chaos and degeneration by joining such authoritarian movements as Hindu nationalism and radical Islam, by surrendering their dreams to demagogues like Bin Laden.

It's a book I'm now interested in reading.

Also interesting: I paraphrased a portion of another broadcast of the show. While I didn't like the guest I was hearing that time -- (a first!) -- I liked this quotation from Diedrich Bonhoeffer: "People who love the community that they create will cause it to fail; people who love those around them will create a community wherever they go." Immediately, this calls to mind my boy John Winthrop, whose efforts to create a loving Christian community, a "City on a Hill" in 1630s New England, unravelled one disaffected group at a time as he tried with increasing desperation to make them fit his plan.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

May Poetry: Parents and Grandparents

(reflections on poems in the journal POETRY, May 2007)

Writing a poem about writing poems is so cliche, but sometimes it works. The May issue of POETRY opens with Bob Hicok's poem "O my pa-pa" (a cutesy title unlike anything in the poem itself), and it opens with the conceit, "Our fathers have formed a poetry workshop." Much of what follows is funny, at the expense of the sons who write from "the revenge school of poetry." Then he imagines how the father - poets would struggle to get past the common elements in their stories (esp., long days at the office), and he writes how hard it is to write about his own father "whose absence / was his presence" in terms of how he worked "with seven kids and a house to feed." Building things must be feeding the house, and the poet remembers the father's building a grandfather clock with the son who learned from it "that time is a constructed thing, a passing ticking, fancy." He returns to that circle of father - poets and their poems' "reciprocal dwelling on absence," wondering "why we disappeared as soon as we got our licenses." It's a poem of around sixty lines that link one association to the next, from the fanciful start through the particular experience, to tell a universal story.

Hicok's "For those whose reflex was yes" follows, and it, too, passes through a comical scene to something that stirs us. After a peculiar first few words (more about those, later), it launches into a familiar anecdote, how a mother and son fall "into the river's million hands" that pull them down. A man jumps in to save them. So far, so realistic. But shortly volunteers leap in left and right to save everyone else. It's like a slapstick comedy (along the lines of the Tar-Baby), then a kind of nightmare, as their bodies make a "river within the river." It becomes beautiful as the poet imagines this happening for the rest of the "dying day." Now I return to the first words, "Nobody I know is a god," and wonder if this is to say that none of us can know what the consequences will be if our "reflex is yes." Again, this reminds me of my own father, whose words and example have told me, "In situations like that, if you don't act, you'll regret it the rest of your life." The poem's final image seems to bless the making of the choice.

Anne Stevenson, whose work I've enjoyed in previous issues, writes "Inheriting my Grandmother's Nightmare." There's an anecdote behind this, the persona's spilling out the contents of her grandmother's silverware drawer. Contemplating the "lavender world" of the grandmother "turned upside down" as each succeeding generation grows louder and ruder was enough poem for me, a meditation on "the adhesiveness of things / to the ghosts that prized them" as the ghost of the grandmother clings to her spoons decades later. Somehow, the poem moves on to the grandmother's experience of the Holocaust, and that adds a different flavor that overpowers the rest.

Geoffrey Brock's poem "Homeland Security" begins as an infant son's cries "worm" through the poet's ear plugs and sleep at 4 A.M. The poem takes place in the time it takes the poet to decide not to go to the child just yet -- and his mind wanders to the defenses he's laid out to stop insects' assaults on his homeland. The political allusion in the title pops up in a reference to the "patriot ants" from "republics / endlessly perishing." This is political without being polemical, a reminder that, as my grandmother Thelma taught me, no matter what we do to prepare, "there's always something."

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Foreigner: Actor's Play makes an Actors' Play

(reflections after seeing a production of Larry Shue's comedy THE FOREIGNER at Pope High School in Marietta, GA)

To the ranks of great actors-turned-playwrights David Mamet, Harold Pinter, and William Shakespeare, add Larry Shue.

I met the actor Shue during his stint as a leading member of the Harlequin Dinner Theatre, a company that produced musicals in Atlanta and DC, running them a month and then trading them. He was particularly memorable in the title role of WHERE'S CHARLEY? I met him after a performance of I DO, I DO, in which he starred with Dorothy Collins. Gaga over her status as alumna of Sondheim's original cast of FOLLIES, I got her autograph, but just shook his hand.

During that period of his life, Shue was drafting the play that gives him his claim to immortality, THE FOREIGNER. Set in a small bed-and-breakfast near Atlanta in the late 70s, it tells the story of Charlie, a shy Englishman seeking a quiet retreat. His friend Froggy Le Seur concocts a fool-proof plan to allow Charlie to keep to himself: let it be known that Charlie is really Cha-oo-lee, a foreigner who speaks no English. But the plan backfires, as all the inhabitants of the bed-and-breakfast find it therapeutic or fun to speak their deepest secrets to him.

The show had a couple years' run off-Broadway in the early 80s. Shue starred first as "Froggy," then as "Charlie." Then a plane crash killed Shue en route to Hollywood with the screenplay for the movie version around 1984. The play has been in constant production ever since, and I've directed it with middle schoolers twice, most recently four years ago with a cast of devoted and gifted eighth graders.

Now, Chase McCallum, who played Froggy in eighth grade, grown up and graduating from high school, has on his own produced and directed a superb staging of the show, playing Charlie. He drafted Carrie Stallings, another veteran of that fabled staging of four years ago, to reprise her role as the older woman "Betty." Reed McCallum, who followed Chase in my drama program, portrayed the duplicitous Reverend David Lee with subtlety and relish.

Chase chose to seat the audience on stage, closing the curtains behind us, to create an intimate "black box" feel in the large auditorium. His actors inhabited that little bed-and-breakfast for real, ignoring the chatty couple and the rude high schoolers and the video cameras.

As I say whenever some snob claims that Shakespeare was a front man for some aristocrat, only an experienced actor could write this way. Shue generously gives every actor great chances to show off with set pieces and moments of transformation that delight the audience. While words are the source of great fun throughout the play, it's a play about characters, not their lines. Charlie gets huge laughs simply by reacting silently, and he gets to perform a virtuosic story in mime and double-talk (an actor's exercise used in drama class -- to create stories from nonsense lines) . One stretch of the script that makes an audience breathless features the young woman in the play reading aloud from a newspaper to mute Charlie, gradually breaking down from sarcastic debutante to a child bride, vulnerable and scared. The emblematic moment of the play, often photographed, is the mute breakfast scene in which Charlie draws out a sullen boy who is supposed to be mentally deficient. He does it by simply imitating the boy's movements -- another actor's game that any drama student would know. The boy, finding himself in the role of teacher, grows in self-confidence.

In a way, the whole play is about what acting teaches. Charlie tells Froggy (I paraphrase), "I'm acquiring a personality. People hand me pieces of it." The actor always works to assemble the personality of his role, and the good actor finds pieces in his own real life and experience to make the role real. A good actor reaches a better understanding of himself and others in the process.

The play makes reference to THE WIZARD OF OZ in several subtle ways, and spectacularly so in the finale. It's no casual connection. The inhabitants of the bed-and-breakfast are as different and lost as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Dorothy. Through the agency of the imaginary foreigner, each discovers inner resources in time to defeat the forces of evil, and we feel great affection for the characters by the end.

A couple of personal notes, here. First, having seen the play in a professional production, and having spent literally hundreds of hours of my life in rehearsals for equally professional student productions, I had the odd and pleasurable sensation of coming home when I saw the set for Chase's production. The same thing happens when I see a production of SWEENEY TODD or any other familiar musical or opera. Seeing such a play, so familiar, and so rich in feeling, is a bit like participating in a religious ritual -- engendering the same feelings, no matter the size of the church or the characteristics of the priest. No wonder the ancient Greeks worshipped through theatre: these characters are spirits that possesses the actors who play them, and I know them and love them, no matter who embodies them.

Second, we who saw the play Friday night shared the unique and bittersweet experience of being forced to leave at the end of act one. A passing storm blew out the electricity early in the act, and emergency generators provided some fluorescent light for the remainder. Fire regulations required us to leave as soon as possible. Chase, having planned this production for years, remained in character as all of us, audience, actors, crew, filed out in darkness into the parking lot, all disappointed. Impromptu, Chase presented Charlie's "story" for us, with the dumpster as his backdrop - a strange and memorable moment of theatre.