Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Beloved - I think it was the name of her horse

I will be putting this link at the top of each of my blog posts for Beloved - as I read this book, I could not get this song out of my head: Sinnerman - Nina Simone

Okay, so after that last bit, I’m going to wrap up these blogs with what I really enjoyed not only about this class but about this book – the everything of it all. When reading Beloved, I was reminded time and again of the themes and aspects of so many of the other authors and poets that we read throughout this course. For example, I felt it necessary when Paul D. was singing to read his words aloud to find the rhythm and pacing of his songs, just as I’d done when reading Howl. Well, I kept finding these themes and I thought that I’d spend this last little time we have together discussing some of them.
The first thing that I happened upon when I began the novel was the role that race played and the conflict between African Americans and whites. This reminded me of the conflict between the classification of Modernist and Harlem Renaissance poets. Both movements of poetry were contemporaries of each other and utilized similar themes and features in their poetry, yet the Harlem Renaissance authors have been systematically excluded from classification in any Modernist anthology due to the role that race played in their poetry. I’m not saying that Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance were identical except for race or that every Harlem Renaissance poet belongs in the Modernist movement, but there are some. I came across this debate in my research on Langston Hughes and recently there has been quite a push to include some of his poetry in the Modernist movement, but its being rejected because of his other poetry that doesn’t really fit. Is that right? Can a poet – or anybody – really be summed up into one thing and not be allowed to straddle between two classifications?
Moving beyond this, what about the discussion we had on the conflicting styles of Hemingway and Faulkner? Aren’t there sections in Beloved when Morrison is intentionally vague and unclear and then others that give gruesome and horrific detail (I’m thinking of Schoolteacher finding Sethe at 124 here). Also, isn’t the novel told in a fashion similar to “A Rose for Emily,” with time switching around and events being told out of any sensible order until you can think back and see how it all fits together? I also saw the anger and abuse of Hurston and the inequity of Wright throughout the novel.
One thing that stood out to me significantly throughout the novel was how Sethe kept making me think of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” The idea of dealing with loss and the past then confronting that notion were so prominent in her character that I had to go back and re-read the poem after the end of the first book of Beloved. Also I thought of Roethke’s “Meditation at Oyster River” in Denver’s boxwood hollow and natural serenity that resided within. I thought of Brooks’ De Witt Williams when Sixo was set afire and Halle went mad, what do we have left of these typical men other than typical memories of slavery?
The novel also presents a startlingly surreal narrative through the ghost story, but I’ve covered that elsewhere, so I’m not going to get into it again. In order to achieve all of these similarities, I found myself thinking of the postmodern and current poets and authors that we read and began thinking about what the novel was trying to express about the world in which it was written. All that I could come up with was a line that I came across in the movie: Magnolia (which happens to have the 2nd greatest script of any film, behind Network (you disagree? I’ll go ten rounds with you on this one)):
And the book says, “We may be through with the past…but the past is not through with us!”
When it comes to Sethe’s committing murder and later attempt to commit murder, I thought of Plath and Sexton and the notion that it be best to abandon a life than face the horrors that have or might be. Also the crazy fits in here juuuust right. Also the title of the book reminded me of “Ariel,” Plath’s horse. Morrison’s book isn’t about the character Beloved, its about the world and lives that she is inserted into. Beyond this, the title is open to so many more interpretations than just that character. It could be Sethe’s growth from self-hatred to mere self-loathing, becoming more beloved of herself. Or it could be the manifest that while Sethe is so full of hate, the rest of her triad holds her beloved. Or it could be about a horse, I’m not ruling anything out.

Beloved - Weak Ass Ghost Story

I will be putting this link at the top of each of my blog posts for Beloved - as I read this book, I could not get this song out of my head: Sinnerman - Nina Simone

So, at its narrative heart, this is a ghost story deeply infused with the history and folklore of the African American people. Yet, Morrison also betrays this folklore by modifying it to meet her own needs of the story. This isn’t done out of malice, yet by altering the traditional folklore of a people in order to present a story about those people really seems similar to casting Burt Lancaster as a Native American in Apache or the Yiddish actor Paul Muni in Scarface. For the most part, though, it works. I’m not fluent in every aspect of African American folklore by any means, however I know enough to know when Morrison is stretching way beyond the basic traditions. That being said, by stretching these traditions, she is able to balance her character of Beloved between the real and ethereal realms of nature.
This ethereal nature of the character is what started this and led me to question how in the hell the Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. don’t get that she’s a ghost and freak out! You know, when I read Huckleberry Finn and read about Jim’s tantrum at the thought of a ghost, I began to learn about the role of mysticism and the supernatural in African American folklore. I later learned that my favorite piece of southern folklore actually came out of the legends and folklore of African American culture: the blue porch ceiling. I’ve heard several stories about this, the most ridiculous being that it looks like the sky, but I’ll tell you what I heard from the deep woods of forgotten lore:
The tale is that the dead live in an upside down world and travel around at night, lost and looking to get home. They will enter and live in any home they find, but especially if they have a history there they will be drawn in and imprisoned. The way to keep ghosts out of a house is to paint the ceiling porch blue (the windows aren’t necessary because ghosts use doors, only dreams and aliens come in through the windows). Anyway, in the small Georgia town that I lived in years ago, there is a large cemetery just off of highway 27 (the Martha Berry Highway) that runs through town a block south of the town square. Half of this cemetery – the older half that dates back to Reconstruction – has a drainage ditch all the way around it. For my summer job, I used to work landscaping, and a fellow I used to install irrigation systems with told me all about it. The thing is, ghosts hate water and won’t cross it. The moat around the cemetery was to keep the ghosts from getting into the city buildings across the road. In early African American folklore, however, the ghosts existed in a topsy-turvy world, though, so by painting the ceiling of your porch blue, it made them think it was water and so would not cross it. I guess they don’t have good eyesight, either.
Anyway, so what I don’t get is that only Paul D. is kind of freaked out by the ghost of the murdered little girl showing up (and he winds up sleeping with her – yuck – he can keep her). But beyond that, she’s all wet, and if there’s anything these characters should’ve known, it’s that ghosts hate water! Witches, too! Throw this lady off a bridge already to see if she floats – Monty Python style!
I also don’t get that Paul D. leaves 124 and can’t find a bed or hospitality for several days (though he rejected it later when offered); but when Crazy-Town shows up sopping wet, sick, thirsty, and reminding everyone of the kid Mom butchered a few years back, she gets a ‘come right in.’ Seriously?
I’ll leave you now with Paul D., probably my favorite character in the book, and here’s why: a fellow I came across a few years ago named Estevanico. I’ll save you from my tedious retelling of his story, because in order to understand Estevanico’s story, I’d have to tell you all about a Spanish conquistador named Cabeza de Vaca; who, together with Estevanico, really shook the pillars of Earth (if you will allow me to interject at least one Big Trouble in Little China comment into this class). Anyway, Paul’s adventures reminded me of Estevanico’s, albeit a bit less fantastic. Take a read of an account of these intrepid explorers that I scanned for you here (it’s worth it, but you’ll have trouble finding much more about him on the internets).

Monday, March 1, 2010

Beloved – by the Numbers

I will be putting this link at the top of each of my blog posts for Beloved - as I read this book, I could not get this song out of my head: Sinnerman - Nina Simone

So, one thing that I noticed as I read through Beloved was the repeated series of numbers “124.” The first direction that I took this was to 3, as 3 can be found in both 2+1 and 4-1, or 4/2+1, or 12/4. At any rate, the number three is featured heavily throughout this story: the three characters through whom the story is told (Sethe, Denver, & Paul D) are also the three members of a family, but there is also the three generations of characters, the three Pauls, the three stages in the lives of Paul and Sethe (slavery, imprisonment, & freedom), Sethe’s three surviving children (Howard, Buglar, and Denver), even the book is broken into three sections. There is also perhaps a holy trinity in here as well, but rather than the father, son, and holy ghost, we have Sethe, Denver, and Beloved.
The trinities created between the characters and representing their unbreakable bonds, however, are ultimately challenged by the presence of Beloved, who acts to erode those bonds between other characters and take over the relationship herself. For example, Beloved attacks the familial relationship (though strained already) among Sethe, Paul D, and Denver. Early on, Beloved rejects Denver, telling her that she needs a mother rather than a sister. Later, Beloved seduces Paul, straining the relationship between him and Sethe. Beloved attempts to destroy the power of the three by overtaking it with the direct and exclusive relationship between only two that she tries to establish with these characters.
Anyway, this was something I found interesting as I read the book.

Beloved – Who’s on First?

I will be putting this link at the top of each of my blog posts for Beloved - as I read this book, I could not get this song out of my head: Sinnerman - Nina Simone

So, my greatest challenge when starting to read this book was with the regular shifting of perspective and time in the novel. This was something that I came to enjoy as I reached further and further into the novel, but as I neared the end of the first book, I noticed that of the four primary characters in the story, the omniscient narrator could only see into the mind of three: Sethe, Denver, & Paul D; not Beloved. Each of these three characters, throughout the story, becomes more and more realistic and human; and the emotional foundations and struggles that they face become concrete. On the other hand, Beloved’s mind is never exposed to the reader, and she becomes more and more of a mystery (so to speak, it’s pretty hard to top the mystery of a crazy wet woman in new shoes that shows up on your doorstep on afternoon). Her motivations are not revealed except through her actions and the perceptions of others, never through her own story.
What I enjoyed about this was that it gave the character an ethereal nature that wasn’t grounded in reality at all. As I read this, I’d really hoped that Beloved was a real person that had experienced some wild story rather than actually being the obvious supernatural manifestation of the ghost. I thought that seeing the other characters realize that Beloved was a ghost would be interesting for their internal struggles, and then Wham! – she was a real person all along running from an abusive white man who invades 124 and really upsets the ghost, who brings down the house on top of him. Luckily for Sethe and her crew, the house was insured for a pile of money that the Bodwins use to build a new house for them to live in, and since the ghost got revenge on the abuse of the white man, it is satisfied and disperses. Now, that would have been pretty cool.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

T.C. Boyle

In his story, “Chixulub,” Boyle presents a fascinating dual narrative, one in which the world ends for the all humanity and another in which a couple’s child is killed in a car wreck. Aside from the narrative aspects of this story, what I find fascinating is in how they are related. Of course there is the idea that your children are your world and their death is the metaphoric death of you, yet I think that there is some further underlying criticism of our modern America in this story.
James Kunstler, in a speech a few years ago, said that the reason that you don’t see windows on the sides of houses in our modern subdivisions is because we don’t want to see each other. I think that this is the point of this story. I feel very lucky to live where I do, where I know my neighbors and in fact almost everyone on my street. A few weeks ago, I was in the back yard of a friend’s house sitting around a fire having a beer. This friend, Shawn, got married in December and he and his wife moved into a nice two-story place in a newer subdivision just outside of town. I was telling him about Mary, the crazy cat-lady that lived across the street from me who’s recently announced that her two furball dogs are going to have puppies. As we were speaking, he asked me a disturbing question: “Do you know your neighbors?” I told him that I do and asked him the same question in return. He said that he didn’t even know the name of the couple living across the street and that he’d only had a couple of casual encounters with the family next door (the lot on the other side of his house is an overgrown field with nothing built on it yet).
This is what this story feels like to me. The loss of a child once affected entire communities because of the bond between the families within them. Today, we only think about ourselves; we don’t want to know our neighbors.

George Saunders

“Sea Oak” is a wonderful little story about the decline of American culture punctuated by zombies. At the core of the story are three young adults and their Aunt Bernie, all of whom have been paralyzed in modern life from seeking success. Aunt Bernie, though, has no regrets for the life she lived until death, or more correctly, she returns to life. In life, Aunt Bernie allowed those around her to dominate her life, and in death she finds the power to return to life and dominate those she left.
Zombie Bernie is truly the Bizarro version of herself, in which she no longer allows those she cares for from leading inconsequential lives. She drives them to achieve more in each of their lives, to reach the goals that the people who care about them wish them to reach. Unfortunately for Zombie Bernie, though, they all rejects her power, and her plans (and body) fall apart until they throw her into a garbage bag and bury her.
What I felt from this story is that it takes a special strength to escape from the paralysis of modern society that is so temptingly easy to live. When Bernie, who lacked that power in life, returns to instill it in her nieces and nephew, they reject her. For the stripper, it is embarrassing, and for the girls it is the difficulty of hard work, but that is what it takes to succeed. More than a condemnation of a society that presents the illusion that success comes from a lottery ticket or easy fame, I feel that the criticism here runs deeper. The true criticism is that the society in which these characters live doesn’t want them to succeed, and all the entertainment, tainted foods, and insecurity in their lives is driven by a society actively working to convince them that they should not try to succeed.

Sherman Alexie & Adrian Louis

The strong contrasts in Louis’ and Alexie’s portrayals of Native Americans are striking. Louis’ poetry focuses on the bleakness and degradation that have been inflicted on the Native American people, yet he does not reflect on the origins of the problem. Louis rather approaches the difficult condition of Native Americans in a contemporary manner in order to address the problems at hand. In doing so, his poetry maintains a bleak atmosphere of hopelessness and forgetfulness. Instead of trying to accomplish things in their lives, the Native Americans in Louis’ poetry are listless and lost in the American experience.
The Native Americans in Alexie’s poems are lost as well, but not listless. Rather than looking at the contemporary Native American experience, Alexie examines the way that Native American culture has been amalgamated into white culture and stolen from the Native Americans. In his excellent poem, “How to write the great American Indian Novel,” he accomplishes this expertly. Throughout the poem, he exposes the American myth of the Indian as hollow yet powerful, and ultimately leads to the culture being entirely absorbed into white culture.
I enjoyed contrasting these poets very much in their drastically different approaches to examining the Native American experience. Louis’ poetry is a call to arms for Native Americans to stand up to their lost culture displayed through his presentation of an abandoned and careless people. Alexie, on the other hand, presents the theft of Native American culture by the white race through humor. Both poets seem to be asking Native Americans to stand up for their own culture, though they also portray that culture as lost or stolen.

Louise Gl...ck

What struck me the most from Gluck’s poetry was the manner in which she is able to progress from a modern revisitation of Homer to a reinvention of Homer. In the first poems we read, the speaker is presenting the poem from an individual modern perspective, through a reference to Maria Callas in “Penelope’s Song” and a walk in the woods in “Quiet Evening.” These bring the reader’s modern experiences into the context of the love between Odysseus and Penelope. As the poetry progresses, however, it seems less and less attached to that individual and becomes more generalized to shared experiences. In “Parable of the Hostages,” the idea of war and battle are addressed in contrasting forms between our modern idea of war and the archaic form experienced in the Odyssey. There is no individuality in that war experience, however, only the notion of the shared war experience. This progression is completed in the final poems of the series, in which the poet returns to the individual experiences not of modern readers, but of Penelope, Circe, and Odysseus.

Martin Espada - Captain Bringdown!

Espada’s poetry is infused with a revisionist historical analysis of great figures that presents the modern disintegration of American idolatry. Specifically, I am referencing “Bully,” a poem detailing the erosion and reversal of Teddy Roosevelt. In the school that Espada presents, a statue of the famous President resides in the school auditorium, emasculated and defaced. Roosevelt was famous, prior to leading the Bull Moose party to the White House, for his Rough Riders’ exploits in Cuba. Being from New York, Roosevelt was honored and idolized, including statues being erected around the city in his honor. The school of this poem was once a symbol of his exploits, though with the rise of diversity and the multicultural infusion of the country, the basic ideas of Roosevelt no longer exist.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

John Ashbery

In his poem, “They Dream Only of America,” Ashbery presents a duality of America throughout to establish a notion of being lost in a country whose meaning has become clouded. In the opening stanza, he seems to reference both Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and Lot’s wife at once. This contrast is further defined by the count of thirteen million. In presenting these three notions together immediately after the title line of the poem, Ashbery has created in the mind of the reader a beautiful America spoiled by the sinfulness of its population. He reinforces this and adds yet another element in the stanza’s closing: the land of milk and honey is now something that burns his throat, as bile. Written while abroad, Ashbery seems to reject the pastoral image of America he sentimentalizes about in favor of a harsher reality of what America actually is.
He furthers this complexity of his vision of America as the stanzas progress. In the second stanza, childhood innocence of hiding from imagined threats gives way to the real and terrible threats of adulthood. He leaves an interesting gap in the revelation of this adult fear until the end of the second stanza, when he again presents the conflict between a pastoral image and the modern world. The “lilac lake,” a beautiful image of a pastoral scene, is skewed in Ashbery’s presentation. The lake is not pure or untarnished, it is lilac – discolored – but also misshapen: a cube.
The next image that Ashbery uses to reinforce this tainted lens through which he sees America is the idea of the field of dandelions. Yet, he does not see the beautiful flowers at all, he drives through the field at night. The driving itself connects the pastoral image of the field to the degradation of modern life, as the country’s beauty no longer matters, only our modern agenda.
The poem approaches its climax as the poet imagines returning home to his “bedroom” of America. The process will be slow, for his distance from it is so great. The image in the final stanza of a broken leg is interestingly sandwiched between the two references to beds. What Ashbery signifies with this is that he cannot be comfortable even at home in America. He now sees the country without the rose-colored glasses and questions the point of returning if he can never truly be “home” again.
Finally, at the end of the poem, Ashbery writes the most interesting lines of the work: “There is nothing to do / For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.” What is the liberation he speaks of? To be free from the conventions of modern life? Death? A return home? What requires him to wait “in” the horror of it? Lastly, though, Ashbery admits that he does wish to be reunited with America, good or ill, for it is his own land.

Adrienne Rich

Rich stands to me a paragon of the women’s liberation movement. Her poems are torn between a rejection of the hierarchical roles imposed by society and an inability to overcome those roles. In “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” she establishes the idea of a woman with the desire to emulate the strength and freedom imbued in the tiger she created, but unable to break free of the oppressive restrictions society has placed upon her for being a woman.
In “Diving into the Wreck,” Rich tells an adventure story of rescuing treasure with a female hero, yet the wreck is a place of death for those preceding her. Rich seems torn, in this poem, between breaking free from a subordinate role and the sacrifices of those who have allowed her to have this option. She ultimately reinforces her desire for strength within women: The woman diver who struggles to walk in her flippers as well with the rest of the diving accoutrement, showing her discomfort in the dominant role. She then descends through the challenges of her ancestors and the damage done to them, but finally realizes strength through a shared consciousness in which she addresses the unrecognized role that women have played throughout history.
Lastly, in “Power,” Rich exposes the notion of failure in strength. In the poem, primarily about Marie Curie, Rich examines the unwillingness to accept that her death was caused by that which made her famous. It almost seems as though Rich presents this as a fable to warn those who come after. The message is not to avoid striving for greatness, but rather to accept that greatness has a great cost.

Raymond Carver

There’s one line in this story that stands out to me as the point, when Terri tells Laura to “Wait awhile” to see if her marriage is happy, and then after a pause says, “I’m only kidding.” She’s not kidding. This story is about love and the things done in its name. From the violence of Ed’s love to the stillness of the old couples’ love, this story is all about what we do for it. The end, though, is that the biggest thing we do for love is to give up ourselves. Mel and Terri aren’t happy, I can’t speak to Nick and Laura’s love. All four, though, have loved and lost in the past and through this story, will in the future.
I think that the critical element of this story is the old couple. The four sitting around the table speak of love in simple terms and simple affections, having been through the routine before. Love and hate intermixed with spite and nagging. It is the old couple, though, who hold the place of what love is for them all. The love in that couple is so strong that they cannot bear not to be able to see each other. Would Mel or Nick or Terri or Laura feel that way about each other.
As we fall in love, we give something of ourselves over, and if the love dies, it is never returned. But as love grows through the years, that thing given over blossoms and is returned greater and greater. I know there have been rough years with my wife and good years, but the longer we’re with each other, the stronger the bond between us grows. I know what the old man felt when he missed just seeing his wife.

Phillip Levine - Cataloguing Life

Levine’s poems at first seem to be catalogues, but in their steadfastness and severity, rise to accomplish much more. In “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives,” Levine is able to show nobility in a pig, an animal so misaligned in life and who in death is horribly slaughtered, disemboweled, and dismembered. The nobility is not in the life or eventual end of the pig, but in its unwillingness to fear that fate. Being familiar with The Jungle and the slaughterhouses in American urban centers at the turn of the century, I was first struck by almost rural nature of this scene. The idea of going to market contrasts so heavily in my mind with the abysmal cruelty of the pork industry not only at the turn of the century, but that which still continues today. The pig never fears this and goes boldly to face his fate.
The same is true of the acid-miner in “Fear and Fame,” in which he catalogues the daily life of a miner working a double shift. Again, Levine itemizes out the menial tasks that consume the worker’s life, and yet finds nobility in them. The miner is drawn to the idea of fame, yet can never achieve it through his hard work. The most interesting moment in this poem, for me, was in line 28, when he references his nickname, yet does not provide it. Levine, in examining this mundane nameless worker, establishes the idea of how the priorities of the modern world are out of line, idolizing those individuals that are less noble than the simple worker that is unwilling to give up.
Finally, Levine universalizes this theme of unwillingness to succumb to the oppression of society in “They Feed They Lion.” In this poem, Levine seems to catalogue myriad forms of societal oppression and how that oppression has led to freedom. Ultimately, Levine appears to me to be a poet concerned with the ways in which society can drive the spirit of the individual down. His poems speak to the pride of hard work and the nobility in toil.

Eudora Welty

So, I read the Eudora Welty story this evening before a friend from work came by to pick up his grill. He’d left it over at my house after a grill-fest we through for another friend’s bachelor party back in December. That night, we had 5 grills and my pig pit heated up and close to 40 pounds of meat to split among only about 10 people; and the guest of honor passed out and then woke up two hours later to urinate on my blueberry bushes, killing one – good times! In reminiscing about this, though, I got onto a kick about “Why I live at the P.O.” and the self-centered nature of Sister. The reason I got onto this was that while both of them were centered on a single individual, the grill-fest was an expression of love towards that person and the Welty story was all about self-serving, self-righteous, self-centered sympathy. I do not feel bad for Sister because she doesn’t tell the whole story.

Am I supposed to pity her, or am I supposed to realize that she really is “one-sided?”
At the start of the story, Stella-Rondo gets just as much grief, if not more, than Sister, but Sister just can’t deal with not being the center of attention, and so inserts herself into every situation. Well, if you’re going to make yourself the center of attention, then expect what you get, good or bad. There’s so much in this story that reflects that Sister’s opinions of Stella-Rondo are really everyone else’s opinions of herself that I cannot describe them all. It is not her family that ultimately rejects Sister, but Sister who ultimately rejects her family. By the time I finished reading this story I just wanted her mother to slap her again.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” put into practice

So, in reading this piece by Margaret Atwood, I realized how much time I’ve wasted reading books when I could have just applied this text to them:

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
On the brink of discovering the true nature of the Knights Templar, Diotallevi discovers that Belbo has been having an affair with the corpse of one of the Templars, his “Object of Desire,” and so they engage in a great swordfight around the Pendulum that ultimately leads to a pistol duel atop a train running through the Swiss Alps in which Belbo revels in his victory until the Templars return to life as zombies and hunt him down for desecrating their bodies. The End.

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Young Lord Greystoke discovers Jane has been running around with D’Arnod and so sets Cheetah on them (yeah, I know Cheetah wasn’t in the book, did you even read my previous entry?) and then escapes back to the jungle to live the rest of his life engaging in his stimulating and challenging hobbies of ant-picking and vine-swinging until he is eventually dethroned by a silverback that crushes his puny human body into the mud.

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
Father and Tateh discover that their Little Rascals kids have gone crazy and intend to cut the purse strings. In a mad rage after a fight, Tateh knocks Father out with a frying pan and then gasses him in the stove. After three days of crying over his body – still head-first stuck in the oven – she begins to realize that Houdini was behind it all and hires Harry K. Thaw, recently released from the mental institution, to kill him. Just as the battle of the Harry’s ends with one of them, I don’t really care which, dying, Tateh is rejected by Emma Goldman from the Communist Party and in despair, she kidnaps the Little Rascals and escapes to a dungeon Father had built years earlier. In the dungeon, she commits suicide, but her death helps provide a food source for the Rascals for several days, until they all asphyxiate and die.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Once Jim is freed, he discovers that Tom and Huck have designed a grand plan to play detective before going abroad in a giant balloon. His feelings devastated, he butchers the children with an axe and a lightning rod before going on the run. He is ultimately found and turned in by the King and the Duke who claim the reward. The sheriff, as he’s giving them the reward, recognizes them as the scoundrels that swindled a nearby town and so arrests them as well. Locked in the same cell, Jim beats the pair to death with a piece of iron yanked from the foot of the bed before being shot through the jail bars by the deputy on guard. And Huck’s dad kills everyone else.

Donald Barthelme

Okay, so some random guy misses his lady-friend and so inconveniences everyone in Manhattan with…a balloon? Alright, I’m not one to be grounded always in reality and love a good prank as much as anyone (short-sheeting the bed is a personal favorite), but this is kind of silly. I did enjoy, however, the idea of some monstrous intrusion into our otherwise steady lives that makes us all think about the world for a moment, and that seemed to be the point, if there was one. As the author says, “we have learned not to insist on meanings.”
What this story reminded me of was a report I came across on the radio a few years ago about the lottery. In the story, some group of statisticians had come up with some method of measuring happiness (I know, seems ridiculous, but bear with me). They found a group of lottery winners and measured their happiness shortly after they won and then at intervals over the next several years. They also measured the happiness of common folk like you and me. What they found was that lottery winners, after one year, were generally no happier than the average person walking down the street. They went further with the study, though, and this was the interesting part (to me, at least): they went into a number of offices and put a dime on the copy machine. Whenever someone used the copy machine, they interviewed the person afterwards and measured their happiness. Turned out that the people who picked up the dime were just about as happy as the lottery winners. I know this experiment is just about as ridiculous as some heart-sick dope inflating a giant balloon over New York City, but it’s the point that matters. Happiness isn’t just there for some people and missing for others, the people that are happy in life are the ones out there looking for the dimes in their daily lives. I think that Special Agent Dale Cooper, FBI, said it the best:
“Harry, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don't plan it. Don't wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men's store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.”

(I’ll give you extra credit if you can tell me what this quote is from)

Robert Lowell

In Lowell’s poem, “For the Union Dead,” he sets out the distinction between the complexities of modern life and the spirits and hopes of the Union soldiers of the 54th Mass. Regiment, the first black regiment to see fighting in the Civil War. I was expecting, when I first read this, for something closer to the only knowledge I have of the regiment, from the movie “Glory.” I was just waiting for Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and Cary Elwes (the famous “Westley”) to explode off the page of this poem; but, alas, this was not to be. Rather, the poem is full of the juxtapositions of time and place that fill our daily lives.
The first phrase that stood out to me was the image of “a Sahara of snow.” Both deserts and snow, for me, immediately bring to mind the idea of loneliness. The next thing that struck me was the “bronze weathervane cod.” The cod was the first symbol of Boston, being the centerpiece on the town seal, and it stood as a mark of great pride for its citizens for many years, until the cod fisheries began to die out, when it became a point of mockery. In presenting these two distinctions, Lowell has established the disjunction between time (how the feelings of Bostonians toward the symbol of the cod have changed over time) and place (the vast dry desert of the Sahara so far removed from the snow covered winter landscape of Boston). These two disjunctions then give note to the poem’s title and purpose, to show what fighting and dying for the Union gave rise to.
What I’d like to discuss here, though, is the image of a fish – a cod – throughout the poem, for that is, to me, the most interesting aspect of this poem. The modern portion of the poem centers around the destruction of the old South Boston Aquarium, and so the symbol of fish is very much an appropriate one in this poem. The only time that Lowell actually identifies the fish as a cod is when describing the weathervane atop the aquarium. In doing this, he gives the building a historic presence and majesty, not found in the people of the modern world, whom he describes throughout the rest of the poem only as fish. The pride and prestige once found in the cod is now gone, and the people are merely schools of “compliant fish,” part of a “vegetating kingdom of the fish.”
Now, it would be easy to say that Lowell, when discussing the modern Bostonians, isn’t speaking of cod, however that’s just not the case. The cod of the North Atlantic was once a prized commodity for its pure white flesh, it was often called just whitefish or even just fish. In fact, if you were to walk into a fast food chain up until the mid 1980s and ordered a fish sandwich or went to the grocery store and bought a box of fishsticks, what you were getting was cod. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, though, the North Atlantic cod fisheries were decimated by over-fishing and they collapsed. The reason that the fish was so easily destroyed by modern net-fishing was that cod are generally a very lazy fish and not strong swimmers. They are often most-easily caught in nets set against the currents. It was this inactivity and stillness that gives cod its white color, unlike the restless and athletic tuna, whose strength as swimmers turns their flesh pink with musculature. So, in describing Bostonians so clearly as being swept around by currents, he is clearly referring to them as cod, but without the historic prestige that once surrounded the cod.
Lowell stages this symbol of the fish against the 54th regiment, in which he doesn’t refer to fish at all. His comparison is that of a people fighting an important struggle by breaking with the common tide and standing up for something greater with the modern people who only accept the current flow of society and are unwilling to challenge it. Lowell’s ultimate outlook is bleak indeed as both the aquarium and the symbol of the cod are demolished, leaving only a school of fish following the norms of society without any thought.

John Berryman

In Berryman’s poem “29,” from The Dream Songs, is an interesting piece. It speaks to the guilt of regrettable acts and the scorn of those admired who realize it. The first stanza of the poem details the persona of Henry, whose heart is heavy and nights sleepless, overwhelmed and haunted by a deed committed. A deed which comes back to him in random ways: a “cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.”
On the other side of this guilt is the scorn of people who Henry respects, detailed in stanza two. His guilt in the matter so fresh still that the stern looks on their faces will be burned in his memory forever. In dealing with his guilt, though, he understands that tears are meaningless and that regret and guilt cannot undo what has been done.
Finally, in the last stanza, Henry ponders the nature of his trespass and the severity of it. He never murdered anybody, after all. But then, why must he count everyone up? Is it perhaps the fear of murdering someone that he is pondering? This brings us to the ultimate question of the poem: what has Henry done?

Personally, I don’t believe that Henry has committed any inhospitable acts in this poem, I believe that this poem is an ethical dilemma in a young man as to whether he has the temerity and personality that could lead to murder. I know that when I was young and foolish, I read those Time-Life serial killer books and watched frightening murder movies and read horrific novels of death and dismemberment. I know that many people did these things and continue to today, as there is such a large market for them. What is so frightening about these things, though, is the idea that someone out there is capable of thinking or doing these things; and this drives the mind to wander into the question of whether you yourself have that in you. Could I kill someone? Would I be overwhelmed by the guilt? And how guilty and exposed do I feel already, admitting that this is even something I’ve allowed myself to ponder? Let’s say that the guilt wouldn’t drive me mad, then would I be able to live a scorned life, ostracized by everyone and everything I’ve ever known? The only way to find out would be to do it, but then it would be too late to decide that it was a poor decision. Ultimately, I know that I could never hurt anyone remotely violently, so why should I feel guilty about questioning my trespasses?
I’m really not a scary person, but this is a thought process most every young boy goes through. I think that this was what Berryman was going through as he wrote this.

Sylvia Plath

Plath’s “Tulips” is a perfectly serviceable poem, I suppose. The poem was written surrounding her stay in a hospital after an appendectomy shortly after a miscarriage. The poem is heavily laced with feelings of impending death and the poet’s own feelings of helplessness. The tulips in the poem are signs of her death, killers waiting for their chance to strike when she is not fully able to defend herself.
The tulips are presented as wild animals that should be caged, as violent and rushing, and as stealing the air she breathes. I don’t think that Plath is looking forward to death in this poem, rather she is fighting to live, which is what makes the tulips predatory nature so despicable. She sees tulips as out of place in winter, just as she is out of place in the hospital. The tulips almost become a symbol for her feelings about being in the hospital itself, a place not of healing and life, but of death (a feeling carried in from her recent miscarriage). She cannot speak of the hospital in a way that reflects death, however, as it has saved her from appendicitis, so she superimposes these feelings onto the flowers in her room.
Just as the hospital should be a place of healing, so should the tulips be symbols of life, but she sees only death in them. This is a perfectly serviceable poem, I suppose.

Anne Sexton

Let me just start by saying how much I love the title of “And One for My Dame.” The title alone speaks to so much of what this poem is about: male/female hierarchical roles in the household. Throughout the poem, men travel and explore, while women have no choice but to sit at a desk and review maps of places they will never see. While men have the authority to leave the household for their business, the women’s business is the household itself, and they are imprisoned within its walls.
This poem, written in 1962, is largely critical of the artificial limitations that society has placed on women and foretells the women’s liberation movement a decade later. What I enjoyed most about this poem, though, was the fact that it didn’t cast judgment on men for the societal norms restricting women. It treated the situation as one in which things were the way they were, but didn’t necessarily present the idea that they had to stay that way. Though the poem didn’t cast dispersions on men, however, it does present a very wide gap between the sexes. The poet never discusses the intimacy of the household and relationship between women and men, it only focuses on the great distance between them. What I felt from this poem was that Sexton wants men to know that until the sexes are equal, there can be no true intimacy and love within a household.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Allen Ginsberg

"Howl" reminds me of another story: a wild night with a crazy old friend and our inebriated adventure that culminated in shooting bottle rockets from the top of a water tower (but I'll save that one for another time).
First, this poetry must be heard, not read, so I'm posting this nifty link for you:

What I love in this poem, and in much of the writings of the beat poets, is that it is inescapable as its rhythms compel you forward through its random imagery and events. As I delved into the poem, pacing my reading on Ginsberg's own, I began not to see each new who, with, to, or Moloch as independent but as a following anti-narrative assemblage of all those formative misadventures and pivotal points making up a life well spent. From one drug-addled hallucination to the tears of regrets to the power of motherhood, I felt more and more disconnected with any message that Ginsberg had intended.
Suddenly, all I had left were individual words, phrases, and images of myriad moments in my life and interpretations of them. I was no longer reading and listening to Ginsberg and trying to get into his mind - he was exploring mine. What power do the stanzas in this poem have? Aside from the opening line, I found none other than the power to continue to the next...and the next...and the next. But I was no longer reading to be reading, I was reading to be thinking. I no longer cared about the context (if you can find any) for the words, but was focused so intently on the words themselves outside of any meaning or context that I had to continue.
William S. Burroughs, in his groundbreaking (and impenetrable) epic poem, "Word," tried to do just what Ginsberg has done with "Howl," but with much less success. But, having read "Word," (or, having tried to), I expected to see this work with the kind of tunnel vision that keeps you looking at the trees and missing the forest. But what if there is no forest? What if there are only trees to see? Or perhaps, what if the forest has been examined so often and so many times, that it is the trees that you should be looking at? (I've gone on with this forest/trees business too long at this point)
I have no desire to understand this poem, only to revel in it. Perhaps that is the point, though, the poem is not titled "Howl at the _____," just "Howl."

Theodore Roethke:

Meditation on the Intercoastal Waterway canal behind my childhood home

This poem brought back the memories of my childhood spent on Jacksonville Beach. We had a dock sitting just off the edge of the back yard where the flat grassy lawn dove down and disappeared into the concrete wall of a man-made canal. The high tide hid the treachery of that canal, and as a child, I was forbidden to play past the ridge. The low tide exposed the hundreds upon hundreds of rotten, slimy, razor-sharp oysters that had made a home for themselves upon the convenient surface. My parents never failed to remind me that they ate the legs of little boys that strayed to close. All my neighbors' parents told them the same thing.
The dock was my sanctuary, though, and it provided safe passage over these canal-daggers, out to the calmness of the water. The hours I spent fishing off that dock turned into days and months and years, with the brackish water staining its bright fresh color while hiding my prey from me. Across the canal from my dock was another dock, but no other home and no other boy. The other dock was gray with age, its boards bowed by the wind and the rain, and its left side sagged in the water. It used to have a rail around the edges, I suppose, but only a few cracked posts remained. This dock was a deathtrap, and all the boys knew it, though we were all drawn to it - maybe the fishing was better over there.
There was no way onto that gray dock without swimming. The boards had long since fallen off the old wooden bridge that led up the far ridge to an unending line of pine trees. The spaces between the trees were filled in with undergrowth taller than my house. It was an impenetrable mystery for us to know what lay beyond them.
I went on an adventure into those woods once, along with a cadre of my best allies from the neighborhood. It was my last summer on the canal, and we knew what we were doing, we were sure of it. Fishing poles and multi-purpose sticks in hand, we set out to explore the wilderness. Swimming across the canal was not an option, for we'd have to climb the ridge to get out; and we'd all found out that spring why our parents had warned us of Oyster Ridge (as we'd begun calling it). A boy a year ahead of me in school, Norman, slipped on the steep slope of the ridge and slid into those jagged razors that lined the tide-line. He couldn't pull himself out of them or find purchase on the slick concrete and had to lay there, calling out for help for an hour. He was taken to the hospital by a neighbor whose children had heard him calling. The next time I saw Norman was in high school, he'd been held back a year in school while he recovered and learned to walk again. He always walked with a limp.
It was a bright and sunny day and we decided to brave the very top edge of Oyster Ridge in order to hike down to the end of the canal and then back up the other side. All of the neighborhood fences ended at the ridge, so we always had something to hold onto when we stepped onto the ridge. When we finally made it around the end of the canal, we climbed up into the trees and through the thicket protecting the mysterious wilderness beyond. As soon as we crossed through, the forest opened up into a lush a shadowy place. We soon found a dirt path and followed it away from civilization.
After a bit of hiking through the woods, we spotted a rope in one of the largest trees. One end was tied to a small tree just a foot or so above our heads, the other was tied far up in that enormous oak (I remember this one). We made our way to the bottom of the oak and found that someone had nailed small boards into the tree, making a ladder for us to climb. At the top of the ladder we found a small deck, big enough for two of us at a time. Hanging from the rope tied just over our heads was a the handle from a waterskiing line with a pulley on it and a smaller rope tied around it and fastened to a hook in the tree.
As we took turns riding this contraption, I felt that the mystery across the canal had been worth the danger. When the last boy who rode the line came down, he let go too early - not much early, but enough to get the attention of the canal's real danger. As he fell, he disturbed a thicket of tall grass, landing just past it. The thicket shook and the boy ran toward us, shocked and startled that this nondescript thicket we'd just spent the past hour playing around and over had just come to life. The grass parted and the long green head of an alligator appeared, moving faster towards us than I thought possible. We thought of the old gray dock no more that day.
Now, every boy who grows up in Florida is warned from an early age about alligators, though they are rarely seen. You cannot outrun an alligator in a straight line, but they can't turn very easily, so you should run in a zigzag pattern to get away. By the time Florida boys make it to middle school, zigzag running has been practiced and perfected in form. That day in the woods, none of us ran in a zigzag pattern, but none of us ran in the same direction, either. I ran down the dirt path back towards the canal, but by the time that I stopped running, I was alone. After awhile, a few of the other boys made it back to where I was, but it was several hours before we were all assembled again. I've never felt so thrilled to see the last of my friends come into view, we'd passed through the greatest danger unscathed.
I made it back to my house just before dusk, as our journey back was delayed by bouts of hilarity and mockery at the alligator race and our abandoned fishing equipment. I never told my parents about my adventure, and as they never asked me about it, none of the other boys must have either. After that day, I never ventured past my dock again, and I never thought about how good the fishing might be from that gray old dock, and I definitely wasn't curious about those woods anymore.

At any rate, sorry to ramble, but Roethke's "Meditation at Oyster River" brought this story back to me...in technicolor.

Elizabeth Bishop: Master of Disaster!

In reading and reflecting upon this poem and the poet's work, I was intrigued by the interplay between the stanzas. It feels to me that this work is in itself her cathartic relief of the grief she had experienced in her life. As the stanzas progress she only exposes herself to the real grief in the final line of the poem, using negatives to negate each other stanza:

-their loss is no disaster (3)
-isn't too hard to master (6)
-None...will bring disaster (9)
-isn't hard to master (12)
-it wasn't a disaster (15)
-it may look like (Write it!) like disaster (18)

In each of these lines, the last from each stanza, she progresses through various losses and in doing so fortifies herself for the greatest loss at the end, the one that will breach her defense to actually affect her. The repetition she uses reinforces the conflict between her loss and ability to cope with that loss, but she grows stronger throughout the poem. At first, it is too hard to control her grief, then it isn't hard at all; however, it ultimately becomes impossible, as she is not facing a false disaster, but a real one. In that final stanza, the conflict implodes in the loss of her love. At first, she uses "the joking voice" to keep the reality of the loss away; yet, when ultimately forced to control and overcome this grief, she has no outlet other than her poetry, and she must write it. Bishop exposes her own conflict between grief and art in this final moment, for if mastering grief is an art, then it is only through her art that she can control it.

Frank O'Hara

Name Dropper

I was invited out that night
to a party as a plus one.

The call came late and the party was near
my house, but what had I to wear?
I threw some clothes on, a disguise of the common man,
and headed to J's Bottle Shop to pick up some Auchentoshan.
I arrived as the invited guest of an invited guest,
but I'd known whiskey sweetened sour feelings best,
and I told the host, Coleman Parks, that I was with Mike Mills
but they'd apparently had a fight, so it was time to head for the hills.

Upon some railroad tracks, I journeyed home, but saw
Heidi there and, not recognizing me, she called the law.
Once I explained myself to the powers that be
I set out again on adventure, this time with Lee
Bowers, who'd seen Kennedy killed,
and with Terry Rowlett, a painter skilled.
We three ran into trouble, to little space here to tell,
but rest assured that we will all go to hell.

And these meaningless words to you I feed,
for I want you to know the socialite life I lead.
Call me a name dropper if you dare,
but I'm not as bad as Frank O'har

John Updike

I have never worked for a grocery store, but I have worked in a number of low-paying, entry level jobs. As I first began to read this story, I was surprised at how fetishistic Sammy becomes over the girls. Updike's vivid descriptions of the physicality of the girls borders on obsessive at times. Yet, when I read that Sammy was only 19, the story came into clearer focus - I was nineteen once, too, you see.
The girls continued to be objects of Sammy's lust throughout the first several pages of the story, until Lengel reprimands them for wearing such revealing bikinis. At that point, they become innocents to Sammy that he must protect. As Sammy quits, his mind is still not made up as the girls are transitioning from objects of lust into objects of innocence, but finally Sammy stands up and speaks for himself.
I enjoyed the way that Updike was able to convey the journey of adolescence in this microcosmic story so effectively. Sammy exhibits the lustful drives of post-puberty madness and the obsessiveness that this can cause, but I also love that he includes Sammy's peer, Stokes. Stokes, a few years older than Sammy, stands throughout the story as the figure Sammy will become: unhappily married, marginally employed, and oogling girls without hope of success. I believe that Stokes actually has more to do with Sammy quitting than anyone else, for he can see in Stokes his own spirit crushed by Lengel's oppressive hand. Yet, to Sammy, Lengel is very patriarchal and gentle, giving him several opportunities to change his mind about quitting. Perhaps Stokes went through this same moment, though rather than standing resolute in his decision, he succumbed to Lengel's soft words.
As Sammy leaves the A & P, Lengel tells Sammy that his world will be more difficult from then on. As Sammy walks into the parking lot, he leaves his adolescence behind and enters into adulthood and repeats Lengel's sentiment that his life will be more difficult from now on. He is right, life is more difficult when you stand for something.

All this being said, it's still a little silly that Sammy quit his job to go chase after some girls.

Tillie Lerner Olsen

Wow, what a heart-breaking yet hopeful story! I was taken aback by the sorrow and regret that filled the lives of this mother and daughter, of wanting and not being able. The parental separation was, for me, very interesting throughout this story, and it made me think of how common this might have been.

I thought of this throughout the story; it's a bit long, but amazing:

Gwendolyn Brooks

In Brooks' "The Boy Died in My Alley," I continually thought about the racial profiling by police and the powerful impacts that it's had throughout the twentieth century. The only race riot that I remember was the 1992 LA riots following the Rodney King verdict that resulted from the same feelings of racial prejudice and police brutality. This reminded me of the Harlem riot of 1935, which began when a child was taken by police and the people assumed that the police had beaten him to death. In actuality, Brooks must have seen many race riots in her time in Chicago, culminating in the riots which overtook several parts of the city in 1968. Beyond this, though, there were several riots throughout the 1970s which surely impacted this poem.
What was so striking about the poem was the loneliness that it conveyed and the loss of the sense of a shared community. The boy dying in the alley felt to me to be the hope of the African American community of reaching the racial solidarity promised by the civil rights movement. The speaker both new the hope that this movement had brought, yet was not a part of it out of fear of reprisal. Oppression was the operative word for my feelings on this poem: police oppression, societal oppression, and self-oppression.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Langston Hughes

So, in reading Hughes and studying the Harlem Renaissance and the African American experience in early part of the 20th century, I couldn't stop thinking of this song, so that's gonna be my post tonight.

Strange Fruit

James Wheldon Johnson

In reading these poems, I was struck by the role of gospel music their structure. The rhythm and scheme, while not beholden to the musical genre, definitely played an influential role. This was reflected, I felt, in both of the poems that I read. The theme of self-pride and racial consciousness runs strong through these poems. I thought that in comparison, the poems were very different, though, with one describing the power of a humble and oppressed people to overcome the obstacles set before them through an internal belief; and the other a warning against succumbing to the temptations of the oppressor. One had positive connotations, the other negative.
I enjoyed seeing the juxtaposition of imagery between the two poems, with the positive reinforcement of ideals in “O Black and Unknown Bard” reversed in “The White Witch.” The idea of weakness is also reversed between the two poems. In the former, the weak are shown to have inner strength which allows them to overcome the evils and perils of their oppressors. The same relationship exists in the latter poem, with the black race subdued and oppressed by whites, though it appears differently. In the first, the enslaver is straightforward and evil, and in the latter is cunning and duplicitous. In the former, the inner strength allows the oppressed to regain their humanity and freedom, and in the latter the only option is to avoid contact and seduction.
In the first of these poems, Johnson seems to say that it doesn’t matter what white society does, that African Americans will be successful because of their inner strength, then undercuts that message in the latter poem by presenting the lures of white women as irresistible and to be avoided. These two poems definitely feel like a mixed message to me, and I look forward to discussing Johnson’s intent in them.

"Angry" Claude McKay

Claude McKay
I really enjoyed reading McKay’s sonnets in these selections on self-empowerment. The thing that I was most taken-aback by in reading these poems was how little the message that I found matched the communist ideology associated with the author. In much of my readings on McKay, it is clearly established that he was an ardent communist (even travelling to the Soviet Union), yet it seems that his message is one of separatism rather than unity.
In “The Negro’s Tragedy,” McKay rejects the idea that a white person could comprehend the plight of the African American people (which I agree with, although it is important to try to understand). He rejects the idea, quite rightly, that white people know best how African Americans should live, act, and be amalgamated into society. This poem is clearly a rejection of hierarchy, but then goes so far as to almost advocate keeping racial matters separate. Wasn’t the communist platform based on equality? Beyond this, the final couplet reduces the political movement, and all political movements towards equality, by dismissing their abilities to achieve results. This poem seems to me more of a criticism of the communist political movement than advocacy of it.
The other poem in the selection is even more severe in its criticism of the white power structure and seems even less like a call for equality. This poem seems to be a wake-up call to African Americans not to be satisfied with what any white person would hand them (which was wise), but rather to find their own expectations and achieve them. A difficult and angry poem, to be sure, and just as unrepresentative of the communist party, and far more dismissive of white attempts to assist with civil rights.
Sorry to keep rambling on about communism in my review, but I really expected communist and socialist themes to be far more prevalent in these poems.

The Ethics of Living Jim Crow – Richard Wright

I thought that this was a thoughtful and provoking piece. As I read through, I thought of how Wright’s perspective both changed and stayed the same. In the first section, I felt the speaker’s innocence and how shocking the brutality of the lesson was; yet later, in the optics lab, he seemed almost prepared for the attack. I enjoyed (not really the right word, is it?) to see Wright’s maturation as he progressed through the lessons. I liked that the lessons became more and more specific throughout the sections, from very general rules to very specific behavioral regulations.

It was also interesting to see the ways in which he never progressed. The most glaring is the fact that he never stopped resenting his treatment by whites any point. He learned to play along, but never buy in to the lie. One manner in which I was surprised to see him never progress was how he never reflected upon the conflicting rules that he faced yet made clear his awareness of this. Such was the case with Morrie and Pease. While he was faced with a Catch-22 situation, he never directly judged the men who forced him into the situation and beat him, yet he never speaks of either of them as “Mr.” in his narrative. Throughout the story, he never gloats on the vileness of the white peoples’ behavior, and rather presents it in a matter-of-fact method, which made it all the crueler to me.

The end of the passage was also very significant to me, as Wright exposes the power which allows for the racism to continue. If it wasn’t for the power structure which allowed this type of behavior to exist, it wouldn’t. It speaks volumes because the civil rights movement finally found success when the government and powers that be finally confronted racism.

Zora Neale Hurston – Sweat!

What I was struck by in this story was the use of the vernacular dialogue juxtaposed with standard language during the narrative. I most enjoyed coming across the large and strange terms that seemed so out of place in the story and trying to determine what they were meant to express. My favorite of these terms was “eppizudicks.” Obviously some sort of heat-borne fatigue, cured only by chilled watermelon in the summer, I believe that I may have had several cases myself…maybe I should see a doctor…or a that guy that sells melons out of his truck in front of Los Compadres.
Another term that I thoroughly enjoyed was “asterperious” which, according to ever-reliable internet is portraying a superior attitude from a subordinate position. This makes sense in the context of the story, but it is still indecipherable that it is Syke who says it. I feel that this one word, as spoken by Syke, really encapsulates the relationship between him and Delia: Syke’s feelings of inferiority as a man trying to overpower his wife by expressing himself in an over-the-top manner.
Aside from the language, I also enjoyed the roles of the characters, with Delia as the strong, independent woman bearing the burden for the family under the oppression of her husband. Reading this story reminded me of an interesting movie I once saw from New Zealand (no…not that one). The film was called Once Were Warriors and was about the family of a woman descended from the Maori and her husband of slave ancestry. The movie was ultimately about redemption through ancestry; however it featured many similarly unpleasant familial strife (and a whole lot more). At any rate, I love stories where people get what they deserve. Delia certainly deserved to be free of that man.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Duality and T.S. Eliot

My current roommate has never read Eliot (much different from my previous roommate, who gave the greatest two-hour drunken lecture on Prufrock ever – seriously, it was pretty amazing), so I decided to read these poems to him. I am a fan of Eliot for a very specific reason: Tiresias, the blind seer of Greek myths. Tiresias is duality incarnate, and it is this idea of duality that pervades Eliot’s work. Though the only mention of him is in section three of “The Waste Lands,” he can be seen as the voice of many of Eliot’s poems, including “The Hollow Men.” But it is the idea of duality that I want to speak of here, as this was what my roommate and I discussed after I read these poems aloud for him, everything from whether he was an English or America poet to, well to whatever...
Prufrock is clearly defined by duality: an urbane man of society realizing the superficiality of his life and desiring a simple, honest life. A man consumed by regret, wishing rather to be the lowliest beast at the bottom of a dead sea than the man he is. A man who comes to terms with his foolishness and the hollowness of his life’s journey. This poem is about failure.
On the other hand, I very much enjoyed reading “Journey of the Magi,” which a much more positive duality of character. Written in the same year that Eliot turned to reflect on more religious themes, such as in his Murder in the Cathedral, this poem examines the duality of a moral life. In this poem, the Magi face great conflict in their journey to Bethlehem to take part in the birth of Christ. Yet, upon returning to their homelands, they find that great conflict still awaits them, as they have been transformed by this event, yet their peoples have not been converted.
It is the duality in self that interests me about these poems: the idea of the self as something in transition. In one case, the opportunity to transition to something else is rejected in favor of outlandish aquatic sentience; in the other, it is embraced. As Prufrock was one of Eliot’s first poems, I am always reminded when reading it of how he must have felt as he wrote, in his Four Quartets, “In my beginning is my end.” This statement stood out to me when first studying Eliot in any depth, and I am reminded of it now fifteen years later, and I can only remember the regrets that I’ve had over those years and how they’ve shaped my life. I wonder, is it ever too late to act upon our long-held regrets and change our lives? Will I, one day, be Prufrock, and hate who I have become? I don’t regret at all who I am today, but before Prufrock was balding, neither did he.

Wallace Stevens

This was the first I’ve read of Stevens, and I have to admit that I’m somewhat baffled by “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The themes that I associate with it now are tied directly with “Study of Two Pears,” in that I feel that the individual’s ideas of reality and perception play a significant role. As a Modernist poet, I understand his idea that a poem should stand for itself rather than the author’s intent to convey a message, yet I had a difficult time understanding it’s significance.
In “Study of Two Pears,” I could clearly see the conflict between reality and perception of reality through his descriptions of the pear, particularly in stanza V, in which he describes the yellow color as made up of many others. This stanza in particular reminded me of a fascinating self-portrait from an artist whose name escapes me but that I spent many hours looking at when I worked as a security guard at the GMOA years ago. I recall so much about the portrait, a gray-haired artist with pale skin against a blue field, yet, when you approached the painting there was no gray in his hair, but rather a spattering of the rainbow that when seen from a distance appeared gray. It was amazing to see blues, yellows, greens – all the colors of the rainbow – ultimately creating gray. The best part of that painting, though, was that the frame – handmade by the artist from some old artifact – was more valuable than the painting itself. For me it encapsulated the conflict between reality and perception of this poem.
When I returned again to “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” my mind was in a different place, and I hoped that would allow my perception of the poem to expand into more, yet I still feel lost when reading it. Perhaps that is the poem’s intent, for in the opening stanzas, I can see the conflict and resolution between the singular, the trinity, and the joined unity. Perhaps it is the mind “whirled in the autumn winds,” but is that a lie, an act, a “pantomime?” Do I prefer the message to be direct or implied? Again, my mind swings “to and fro” in questioning the question. What are the golden birds, a false promise that frees the individual of thought? Could this be the church, the trinity mentioned earlier, as a means of escaping thinking for one’s self? Or is it physical beauty that they seek when only the beauty of the mind is significant? How much of my persona is driven by the questions I have about the questions I have about the questions I have? When I’ve been just out of my head and crazy as can be (as we’ve all been – okay, maybe not you), how close to the edge of my reality did I get? When I realize something new and my perception of past things changes, how does my mind cope? Okay, I just really don’t get the next stanza at all (I’ve actually written this about six times and deleted it every time, but this time, I really don’t get it). Thought is always moving, the mind is always aloft, pondering the reality around it. Finally: conflict…and dissonance… and the reality of the mind.
In closing, after reading back what I’ve just written, how much of this poem is driven by Freud’s theories, popular at the time? So much of this now seems to reflect the conflict between the ego, id, and superego within one mind – the trinity united. I really enjoyed reading these poems and look forward to discussing them with the class, but I really have no foundation yet to comprehend them at the level they deserve.

Passages through Frost

I haven’t read Robert Frost in years, and as I went through these poems, so much came back to me: nature and death. But what really struck me was how, in all of his poems, everything is in transition. Everything is passing through the world, through time, through states of being; and these passages that stood out to me. In “The Gift Outright,” Frost details the passage of the nation into being, into life granted by the land through the will of the people. The passage of the seasons and lives in “Two Tramps in Mud Time” speaks to this as well. The passing of the burning of the house into a ruin in “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” clearly speaks to a symbol of death, as do many of the other poems; and it is this passage, through death and into life, upon which I found Frost to be focused.
This transition into death and back into life can be seen throughout Frost’s poetry, such as in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” in which he meditates his death before continuing on. Frost also meditates on death in nature in “Gathering Leaves,” though he allows the reader to pass through this death in nature in the final stanza, in which he presents a notion that death is necessary for life, symbolized by using the dead leaves to keep the earth fertile for the next harvest. He also references the Myth of Sisyphus in this poem, by referring to the futility and endless nature of his toil. The idea of work comes up again in “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” as the speaker feels that the nobility of his toil is worth more than money, and that the satisfaction he finds is heavenly.
It is ultimately this poem that I found most fascinating, in that it mirrors so closely Bede’s “Account of the Conversion of Edwin.” In this old poem, Edwin’s counselor uses a story of a bird escaping a hailstorm as a symbol of man’s ascent into heaven and thus converts Edwin to Christianity. What is significant about Bede’s tale is that birds in Anglo-Saxon life were seen as the carriers of souls into the afterlife, particularly in battle-poetry, when they are often presented as feasting on the bodies of fallen warriors. This blending of the sacred and profane, of using pagan symbols to reflect holy beliefs, occurs in “Two Tramps in Mud Time” as well.
As the poem begins, Frost is speaking of mundane labor and treats his act of splitting wood as difficult. However, in the third stanza, the poem transitions into something different, as Frost begins speaking of the weather and of the threats of cold and storms (the hail storm). Frost then continues on into the bird symbol, to which he states, “Except in color he isn’t blue,” showing that his expectation is that in death there is happiness. The next stanza speaks to his fear of the moment of death, as the ice forms in the water. Then, as he returns to the wood splitting, he has a revelation of his own self and being and life and what once was a labor becomes a joy. In the final stanzas, Frost seems to debate the meaning of work in life and the redemption of labor and a job well done.
Anyway, I don’t know if any of this holds any water, it’s just what I thought of as I went through these poems.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Hemingway and Faulkner

I appreciate the opportunity to read these two authors in tandem, for rarely do I get to see such dramatically different styles juxtaposed against each other so vibrantly. In Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” short sentences stand out in a staccato back-and-forth pace with no description given by the author. Hemingway leaves the emotion and mood of the scene to be established by the statements of the characters with no stage directions as to how each sounded. The only context he provides to the scene is through the backdrop and landscape of a remote train stop.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this short story surrounds that train stop. While the challenge that the couple in the story faces is never stated, the decision they will eventually reach (outside the confines of the story) will impact their lifestyle in years to come. The choices before them, represented by the two rail lines, are at a head, and they disagree with what path they should take. What I felt was most intriguing about the train station was that it is presented in a very lonesome and isolated manner, imagined alone in a vast empty desert only connected to civilization by those two tracks. Yet upon examination it is clearly a bustling center, including a well stocked bar (complete with liquor company advertising) and it fills up as the train’s arrival time nears. Perhaps this isn’t a bustling station, but it is far from the isolated outpost at the edge of the frontier that it is first presented as. The isolation one feels in the story, then, is between the couple at its heart and the decision between them. Of course, as in so many of Hemingway’s stories, so much is left to the reader that this can only be considered speculation.

It is the minimalism in Hemingway’s tale that makes Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” stand out in comparison. Faulkner has divided this short inspection of the deterioration of a woman’s life and the deviant behavior to which she turns into a collection of anecdotes adding up to a full tale. Faulkner spends much more time examining the nuances and disparities in Emily’s life from the view of her neighbors, judging her from the outside. This external view of the story is far different from the intimacy of Hemingway’s story, in which the topic of discussion is kept private even from the reader. Rather, Faulkner has laid bare all of Emily’s actions and missteps through life and allowed for those through whom he is telling the story to lay judgment on her.

This difference in perspective is perhaps best seen in the fact that Hemingway allows the reader to see very fully one intimate moment in the lives of his couple, in which no past or future can or should be taken into account, and the words and events occur only when they spill from the characters themselves. Faulkner, on the other hand, carefully concocts of Emily’s life events and cleverly plays them out in a disorderly fashion for dramatic effect, each event leading to one earlier, or perhaps later, and ultimately leaving the reader with the emotions that he put into the tale, rather than their own.