The Review of Arts, Literature,
Philosophy and the Humanities
The Best of www.ralphmag.org
Early Summer, 2008
A Celebration of Birds
In Human History
Peter Watkins &
(BlueBridge)There is the Stubble goose, the Lag goose, the Bean goose, the Corn goose and the goose that is "pinching playfully on the behind." The Snow goose migrates 3,000 miles through the Canadian Arctic on its way to its breeding ground north of Baffin Island.
Mother Goose can be traced "back to an eighth-century noblewoman, Bertrade of Laon" of France. She was known as Berte aux grand pieds, "Bigfoot" or "Goosefoot." Konrad Lorenz "observed how easily a goose becomes attached to a human," but obviously he didn't go to that farm in North Carolina near where we grew up where the gander would chase us around the barn, trying to goose us. And not playfully, either.
Then there is the dove, a familiar of peace campaigns. "Dove" is another word for pigeon. Chaucer didn't like them whatever the name. "Pigeons and priests make foul houses," he wrote in the Canterbury Tales, "Priests [he warned] invited into a household to educate the children, seduce and debauch the maids." However, The Song of Solomon declares:
How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves behind your veil.
The last courier pigeon service was to be found in Orissa State, India, but was disbanded in favor of the mobile phone in 2002, and 1,400 pigeons (or doves) were given permanent retirement benefits, being grilled over an open fire and spiced with coriander and clove before being consumed.
The "unique feature" of the pelican is "its huge throat pouch, a membranous distensible bag suspended from the lower mandible of its very large bill." No matter how nice pelicans look floating in formation there above the waves, they are pretty disgusting birds, at least in the child-rearing department, feeding the sprats on throw-up: "It regurgitates great quantities of fish to its young from its throat pouch."
Dixon Lanier Merritt wrote in 1910,
A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I'm damned if I see how the helican.
§ § §
Winged Wonders features sixteen birds, including the swan, the wren, the robin, the eagle and the owl. The book smells heavily of Google, however, a fact-filled something the authors cooked up on a cold winter's evening there in Leeds, just in time for Christmas, in order to attract the birdbrains (like me) in the crowd. It could have used a few more pretty pictures, and often the prose turns clotted, as in
All domestic geese are descended from the European Greylag (Anser anser), except for the Chinese Goose which has evolved from the Swan Goose (Anser cygnoides.) (The "Sea Goose," the Merganser, although containing the word "anser" in its name, is a saw-toothed bird half-duck and half-diver, but no goose.)
We can forgive the authors their foibles because even though they forgot to include Merritt's poem [see above], they did include one of our favorites, Tennyson's fragment,
He clasps the crag with crooked hands,
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls,
He watches from the mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.--- Lolita Lark
The First Total War
Napoleon's Europe and The Birth of
Warfare As We Know It
David A. Bell
(Houghton Mifflin)Metternich claimed that Napoleon told him, "I grew up on the battlefield. A man like me does not give a shit about the lives of a million men." The singular lesson of the Napoleonic Wars --- 1792 - 1815 --- was that soldiers' lives became alarmingly cheap. It was what Bell views as the coming of a new concept: "Total War." It all began in a western district of France called the Vendée, with a rebellion; it ended with scorched earth, villages burned to the ground, crops and livestock destroyed, and 250,000 men, women, and children dead. "What made it total was rather its erasure of any line between combatants and noncombatants and the wanton slaughter of both --- and at the behest of politics more than military necessity. It was
a witches' brew of hatred, fear, fantasy, and pure folly; its execution an unmitigated horror, and counterproductive to the extent that it spurred further resistance.
But then, Bell concludes, "extermination of the enemy, as opposed to disarming it, has hardly ever served a serious military purpose. 'We destroyed the village in order to save it...' It is General Salomon's excuse: to defeat the enemy, we must become him." In La Vendée, the seeds of "the march to the Sea," "the Rape of Belgium," the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were planted.
§ § §
- In 1804, when Pope Pius handed the crown to Napoleon, the "Counsel for Life" placed it on his head, turned to his brother Joseph and murmured si babbù ce vede --- "if only Dad could see us now."
- Napoleon could be a bit lusty in his correspondence with Joséphine. Even in battle, he wrote, was thinking of "your little white breast, springy, so firm ... and the little black forest, I send it a thousand kisses."
- He could also be a bit nippy towards her, too: "I no longer love you at all. To the contrary, I hate you. You are fiendish, awkward, stupid and decrepit ... Beware, Joséphine! One fine night the doors will be smashed in and there I will be in your bed. Remember! Othello's little dagger!"
- In 1790, the French Revolutionary Assembly met in a long and malodorous hall known as The Manège. the conservatives clumped together on the right side of the hall and their opponents on the left. "The very geography of the Manège contributed to the polarization, while also engendering the 'left-right' terminology that the world has known ever since."
- Napoleon's earliest successes had much to do with the fact that he scarcely ever slept, he had a near-photographic memory, and that he had "phenomenal energy and capacity for work." "As proof, one need only consult the nearly two thousand letters he wrote or dictated in the years 1796 and 1797 alone, which take up over a thousand tightly packed pages of his General Correspondence. "In it, we see him taking charge of matters ranging from the number of carts needed to carry a regiment's paperwork to the amount of munitions carried by soldiers to the position of drummer boys in a marching column."
- Another character in the Napoleonic Wars was Major Joseph-Léopold Hugo. His son Victor wrote that he would, in his old age, bore dinner-table companions with the story of the dramatic chase in the Abruzzi. "He would wrinkle up his nose like a rabbit --- a characteristic expression of the Hugos --- wink as though he had a new joke up his sleeve, and then tell us what we had already heard twenty times before."
§ § §The First Total War is concise, explicit, exacting, horrific, and a wonderful piece of writing. We here see war being transformed from a game between gentlemen to a punishment aimed at all: soldiers, generals, adults, children, the old and the young alike. There may have been writers from the 18th Century --- Fénelon, Diderot, and d'Alembert, for example --- who saw war as "violent" and "savage," losing out to peace, Enlightenment and commerce. "War is a convulsive and violent sickness of the body politic; this body is only healthy --- that is to say, in its natural state --- when it is at peace."
The Revolution and its aftermath --- and the likes of Robespierre, Hugo, Napoleon, and Clausewitz --- made a mockery of this dream. The latter wrote presciently, "Formerly ... war was waged in the way that a pair of duellists carried out their pedantic struggle. One battled with moderation and consideration, according to the conventional proprieties."
The war of the present is a war of all against all. It is not the King who wars on a king, not an army which wars on an army, but a people which wars on another, and the king and the army are contained in the people.
The author concludes, "That true and natural course involved the commitment of every possible resource and all possible violence, of the sort France had inflicted on his fatherland [Prussia.] No wonder that he quoted Thomas Hobbes' famous phrase. It felt like a war of all against all, indeed."--- Jean Stockman
Subject: Charles ColsonI cannot believe my eyes. Your review of How Now Shall we Live sounds like good and complete work on the surface. However, your criticism of scripture is rouge and incomplete.
For example, you suggest that Christians should stone people for menial crimes. It does not take a bible scholar to notice the two thousand years worth of prophets between the Levitical Law and Jesus, the fulfillment of the law. It is an abuse of your power to make such absurd statements toward Christianity. If you do not possess a basic understanding of the structure of scripture, you should not publish such foolishness.
Moreover, I have only detailed one example. I could go on with each of your scripture references.--- John Klyder
firstname.lastname@example.orgThe review in question can be found at
Ten Poems to Change
Your Life Again & Again
(Harmony Books)This one, from Harmony Books, carried in the poop sheet the usual encomiums, along with a report, in the introduction, of previous sales of similar titles by author Roger Housden. This is number four (or five or ten) of a series, because, the author explains, Ten Poems to Change Your Life, was first published in 2001. Then Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime, came into the world, and now we have Ten Poems to Change Your Life Again & Again.
The series so far has sold 200,000 copies, he tells us, which doesn't say much for American tastes in poetics, but it has probably set Housden up for a lifetime sinecure ... as long as he keeps coming up with new titles. We were thinking, Ten Poems to Change Your Oil? Ten Poems to Change Global Warming? How about, Ten Poems to Last Until the Boston Red Sox Win Again, Finally, If They Ever Do, That Is.
Despite all the paperwork that came along with Ten Poems, the book suffers from two major flaws. One is that the ten selected poems are hardly of the Life-Changing variety. That old wheeze (and bitter racist) Rilke appears as #1,
Pour yourself like a fountain.
Flow into the knowledge that what you are seeking
finishes often at the start, and, with ending, begins.
and thus beginning (inchoately) ends, "Daphne / becoming a laurel, / dares you to become the wind." Such windiness!
Several other poems, notably by Ellen Bass, David Whyte, and Leonard Cohen are not much better.--- A. W. Allworthy
Romance in the Ivory Tower
The Rights and Liberty of Conscience
Paul R. Abramson
(The MIT Press)Romance in the Ivory Tower details love before, during, or after office hours, away from the lecture-halls: that is, affairs between students and professors.
The author, Professor Paul R. Abramson, claims that to love freely is a First Amendment right, if you will. Universities that choose to ban such affairs, with threat of termination, are violating our basic freedoms, he says. "Romance ... shares many similarities to religion."
For example, romance is no less relevant to one's conscience than religion itself. Romance is also arguably more tempting than religious choices, requiring perhaps more internal debate. Hence the right to think and judge, based on one's conscience, extends to all matters of substance: speech, the press, religion, and romance among them.
These alarmingly fresh thoughts on what heretofore many had thought a closed subject caught our eye. This is a book that will be of interest to those inside and out the academic world. (Professor Abramson explains up front that he is out of the loop on the subject: he is happily married, with children and dog, and therefore is not to be suspected, as it were, of tooting his own horn.)
Absent any publicity information, we opened the book to the "Introduction" and found, first paragraph, a quite funny quote from that pacifist romantic sensualist neo-anarchist Allen Ginsberg: "I believe the best teaching is done in bed. It's healthy and appropriate for the student and teacher to have a love relationship whenever possible."
Obviously the teacher can't have a love relationship with everyone in the class and the student can't have a love relationship with every one of the teachers, because that is strictly human business where some people are attracted to others, but where there is that possibility, I think it should be institutionally encouraged.--- Fran Winters[BOWL]My American pants are hanging over the chair
in the corner with your Korean dress.
Over there they can decide foreign policy.
But here we are like two spoons
you and I
in the same warm bowl,
Buddhas bowl, where we, too
can barely open our eyes
having discovered the sweetness of one tongue,
the curves and folds of the inner walls
we breathe hardly at all.
We're held there in a stillness
We gaze out the window
and then smile in the dark
at discovering a pair of my shorts
hanging on the line
stirred now and then by a little breeze.--- From The Temple on Monday
©2001 Eastern Washington
[The Most Paradoxical Paradoxes]Over the last fourteen years, RALPH has offered up a Paradox of the Month --- statements, questions, bon mots and quips designed to turn our humdrum lives into a moil of doubt if not perplexity. Here are six from past years that continue to receive the most hits from our baffled readers. They are listed in declining order of mystery.The Consequences of WarAsked about the historical effect of the 1789 French Revolution, Chou En-lai replied, "Too soon to tell."--- Quoted in The Los Angeles Times
the day after the fall of Baghdad
Al Qaeda & Norway
Q.Are you worried that we'll invade Iran or Syria?
A.The public thinks we won the war and that it is over. They don't realize we are going to keep more troops in Iraq than we thought. The deficit will grow. We are not going to win the peace. Iraq is so divided internally it makes Afghanistan look like one unified group. Do you think soldiers know how to straighten out a country? They know how to make war. Do you think the State Department has the people and the training to help the country rebuild? Do you think we have anything like that?...
Q. What do you expect to come Fall 2004?
I expect we will be sitting here and having the same interview. I don't see any change in sight. I don't see the Democratic Party trying to revolutionize itself. The Democrats have all become sheep. Young people have the expression about living outside the box. No one is living outside the box here. There is only one great country: Norway. I didn't come from Norway, but I lived there. It is monolithic. There are 3.5 million people. It is the most constructive country in the world. They're for peace and they were just named as part of the enemy by Al Qaeda. If you want a wonderful country, it's Norway. In my next incarnation, I hope to be born a Norwegian.--- From an interview with
89-year-old investment manager
As conducted by Sandra Ward for
June 9, 2003
Ahoy There!The transcript of a radio conversation between a U. S. Naval ship and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland, October 1995Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.
Canadians: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.
Americans: This is a captain of a U. S. Naval ship. I say again, divert your course.
Canadians: No, I say again, you divert your course.
Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Missouri. We are a large warship of the U. S. Navy. Divert your course now.Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.--- As reported in Snowstruck
(Harcourt)The FlagThe wind was flapping a temple flag. Two monks were arguing about it. One said the flag was moving; the other said the wind was moving. Arguing back and forth they could come to no agreement.
The Sixth Patriarch said, "It is neither the wind nor the flag that is moving. It is your mind that is moving."--- From The Gateless Barrier:
Zen Comments on the Mumonkan
The RainmakerThere was a great drought where the missionary Richard Wilhelm lived in China. There had not been a drop of rain and the situation became catastrophic. The Catholics made processions, the Protestants made prayers, and the Chinese burned joss sticks and shot off guns to frighten away the demons of the drought, but with no result. Finally the Chinese said: We will fetch the rain maker.
And from another province, a dried up old man appeared. The only thing he asked for was a quiet little house somewhere, and there he locked himself in for three days. On the fourth day clouds gathered and there was a great snowstorm at the time of the year when no snow was expected, an unusual amount, and the town was so full of rumors about the wonderful rain maker that Wilhelm went to ask the man how he did it.
In true European fashion he said: "They call you the rain maker, will you tell me how you made the snow?" And the little Chinaman said: "I did not make the snow, I am not responsible." "But what have you done these three days?" "Oh, I can explain that. I come from another country where things are in order. Here they are out of order, they are not as they should be by the ordinance of heaven. Therefore the whole country is not in Tao, and I am also not in the natural order of things because I am in a disordered country. So I had to wait three days until I was back in Tao, and then naturally the rain came."--- From The Nature Writings of C. G. Jung
©2002, North Atlantic Books
The Primary Origin of
World War TwoAt the beginning of the War, when I saw the painter Kokoschka again --- two or three years after our first meeting in Prague --- I hadn't been with him for more than half an hour when he made me his monstrous confession. He was to blame for the War, in that Hitler, who had wanted to be a painter, had been driven into politics. Oskar Kokoschka and Hitler were both applying for the same scholarship from the Viennese Academy. Kokoschka was successful, Hitler turned down. If Hitler had been accepted instead of Kokoschka, Hitler would never have wound up in politics, there would have been no National Socialist Party, and no Second World War.
In this way, Kokoschka was to blame for the War. He said it almost beseechingly, with far more emphasis than he usually had, and he repeated it several times, in a conversation that had moved on to other matters, he brought it back, and I had the dismaying impression that he was putting himself in Hitler's place ... It was impossible for him to be implicated in history without having some significance, even if it were guilt, a rather dubious guilt at that.--- From Party in the Blitz
Michael Hofmann, Translator
©2005 New Directions[A Poem Of Hope]The soldiers are still coughing up roses.
There is still no center to the universe.
The dancers are not moving:
The elders know better than to surrender.
The bluebirds (or buzzards) are caught in a frieze;
There is no hope left for the dying.
There is no hope for the wanderer as well:
The President tells us that he is certain he is mad.
Heretofore he has managed (he says)
All the uprisings to protect the children;
He made no concessions whatsoever,
The gods will let us know (he explains),
If the world has gone into remission.
There was no general damage to the treasury;
The masters think the attack was "purely avuncular."
The president's first counselor explained that love
Was neither here nor there. Nor, in his words,
Was it possible to survive life
Without all impossible dreams intact.
The President and his consort (the lovely Esmeralda)
Have, so far, given no audiences;
They've played no favorites with the crowds;
They certainly haven't watched any of the games of courtship
That once made the lives of the rest of us
So very pressing, so very very sad.
Have they buried all the soldiers yet?
Are they still coughing up roses?
Who blesses their graves?
Is there still no center to the universe?
What night looms before us?--- ©1967
The Estate of
P. J. Weise
The Farther Shore
(Milkweed)The four of them are on a mission to hunt down terrorists somewhere, maybe, in an unnamed city, in an unnamed country, somewhere near an unnamed sea. When they get trapped, the American army sends in a helicopter to rescue them but it gets shot down, and they are on their own.
Santiago, Zeller, and Santz fight their way out of their building, shooting at two of the enemy soldiers blocking their exit. Turns out the two they have killed were boys, playing with sticks.
There follows a long, dirty, dusty, hunger-ridden retreat from a city with the three men (Cooper is wounded, dies) knowing no one, trusting no one. They don't even know which way to go, how to get back to their base (which may or may not have been closed down). It's a nightmare.
No, it's worse. It is The Red Badge of Courage as narrated by Kafka, with details supplied by Hunter Thompson. It is a not so much a tale of modern soldiering as a parable of 21st Century warfare, no longer fought in the jungle or the trenches or from above, in the bomber ... but in the mind. What we used to call the American doughboy now finds himself in an unwelcoming environment of dust and unbearable heat, not knowing who is the enemy, who (if any) are those he is supposed to be helping. The enemy is everywhere.
We recall War and Peace, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Naked and the Dead, The Thin Red Line as expansive novels, exhaustingly so. The Farther Shore is so claustrophobic and ingrown that one has, at times, just to lay it down to avoid being suffocated by it. At one point Zeller, Santiago and Stantz find themselves living in a wrecked caboose, on a railroad that seems to lead nowhere. That's where they are: on an end-of-the-line war. Those who could have helped them to freedom somehow end up being shot or killed. It isn't only American soldier against the "terrorists;" it's those you are to be aiding fighting against each other. From a ruined house in a small village, Stantz witnesses the ritual castration of an adulterer, along with a slashing mutilation of the woman supposedly involved. These are the people who we are saving?
The whole brief tale --- 176 pages --- is spare, dry, enveloping, and won't let you be. When the three run across another American patrol they are told that they can be of no help, but then they gleefully report not only wreckage and refugees, but "a number of burnt bodies. Crispy critters, they called them." Later, Zeller comments,
"I bet they'll make a movie about us..." His face was thin and pale by now, and his eyes were sunk deep in their sockets, surrounded by dark shadows. He'd lost a lot of weight. We all had. I wondered what I looked like. Maybe like a hero.
"They'll make a movie about us," said Santiago, "made for TV."
We all laughed.
After a while Santiago said, "I wonder if they'll include the kids we killed?"
Zeller and I were silent.
It is a ghastly story: powerful, ghostly, unrelieved. Even dying offers no freedom. Santiago asks Stantz, "Do you believe in ghosts?" "
"I do," he said. "I think we're given a choice when we die. We can go up or down, or we can stay right here. Those who choose to stay here are usually just too angry to go anywhere else. Or maybe too sad, I guess."--- Christiana Granados
[Foot Orthotics and RALPH]To: email@example.com
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firstname.lastname@example.orgThe review that may be responsible for this letter can be found at
In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus
New and Selected Poems, 1955 - 2007
X. J. Kennedy
(Johns Hopkins)Kennedy has been around a long time, writing verse for over fifty years. Along with content, he worries about meter and rhyme. This would make him a traditionalist in American poetry, but it does not make him stuffy. On the contrary, he is engaging, funny, understated, and --- on occasion --- conveys a brief, brutal snapshot of drugs and skid row murder. There is even a portrait of the sleeping dictator Francisco Franco:
Behind an oak door triple-locked
And those few soldiers he could trust
To stand with firearm hammers cocked
He slept the sweet sleep of the just...
Kennedy is capable of giving us an extended day in the life of the poet ("West Somerville, Mass.") crammed with details that implies anything but calm and perfection, even an epiphany in the bathroom:
Last night in the bathtub, groping for the soap,
I tried a sloppy act of love, felt hope
Batter my heart with vague wings. Pregnant man,
What's eating you?
We suspect that the only poets of politics must be symbolists (Baudelaire or Pound) or willing to die for bitterness and scorn (Celan). Kennedy is too contained to bring off a poem on 9/11 or America's response to terrorism --- even though he tries: "Like kindly lantern lights that sift / Through palm fronds at Guantanamo / On the torture squad's night shift." No, what he is best at is gentle wit (Emily Dickinson's Answering Machine), or calling up images of growing up in America so many years ago,
When every shoe store's miracle machine
X-rayed cramped bones within ill-fitting shoes,
When like a knight in armor Listerine
Slew dragon Halitosis, clear heads chose
Rhyme, perfect end-stopped lines, melancholy: these are Kennedy's strong suits. But also there is a fine translation of Guillaume Apollinaire's Les Cloches.
X. J. Kennedy's --- the "X," he assures us, means nothing, like the "S" in Harry S. Truman --- "Envoi" calls up a whole slew of memories for those who still care for the traditional forms of traditional poetry, starting with Chaucer:
Go, slothful book. Just go.
Fifty years slopping around the house in your sock-feet
Sucking up to a looking-glass
Rehearsing your face. Why
Don't you get a job?
Even his titles are wheezy and memorable: "The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once."
To us, Kennedy is the best of the best, managing to avoid the aridity of those who proclaim themselves "formalists," yet, at the same time, showing an independence of spirit that can call up powerful emotions in his readers. If through some mischance we are forced again to teach what they laughingly call College English, we would do something novel: we would force our students to memorize great passages of great verse from the centuries, Chaucer, Donne, Marvell, Wordsworth and Keats, Tennyson, perhaps a touch of the Edwardians, Kipling for laughs, not forgetting Williams, Fuller and Stein. And the unapologetically contemporary student of the ancients, X. J. Kennedy.
§ § §
In one of the very first editions of "The Review," we cited Kennedy's touching 1960 poem "Little Elegy." It has been, fortunately for all of us, included in Secaucus. It is subtitled "for a child who skipped rope."
Here lies resting, out of breath,
Out of turns, Elizabeth
Whose quicksilver toes not quite
Cleared the whirring edge of night.
Earth whose circles round us skim
Till they catch the lightest limb,
Shelter now Elizabeth
And for her sake trip up death.[Letter]To: email@example.com
Subject: A. W. Allworthy review
Thanks very much for sending Johns Hopkins U. Press a printout of A. W. Allworthy's review of my In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus. The Press has just mailed it to me.
Please convey to A. W. Allworthy my gratitude and appreciation for such a thoughtful, insightful, and generous review. My thanks to you for giving the book space, and for giving the review such smashing illustrations.--- Joe KennedyLes Cloches
Guillaume ApollinaireMon beau tzigane mon amant
Écoute les cloches qui sonnent
Nous nous aimions éperdument
Croyant n'être vus de personne
Mais nous étions bien mal cachés
Toutes les cloches à la ronde
Nous ont vus du haut des clochers
Et le disent à tout le monde
Demain Cyprien et Henri
Marie Ursule et Catherine
La boulangère et son mari
Et puis Gertrude ma cousine
Souriront quand je passerai
Je ne saurai plus où me mettre
Tu seras loin je pleurerai
J'en mourrai peutêtreChurchbells
X. J. Kennedy,
TranslatorGypsy tall dark my lover
Listen the churchbells sound
We loved each other and got lost
Not dreaming we'd be found
But we were badly covered up
Now every bell has spied
Our secret from its steepletop
And spilled it village wide
Tomorrow Cyrien and Henri
Catherine and Marie Ursule
The baker's wife the baker
And Cousin Gertrude all
Will smile at me when I walk by
I won't know where to lay me
You'll be far from my side I'll cry
And that will kill me maybe--- From In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus
© 2007 Johns Hopkins University Press
Flesh TortillasIf there's nothing else to eat here, there are always tortillas. Tortillas! Forty cents a kilo, which contains (I just counted) 53 of them.
Where would we be without tortillas? There is nothing more sensual for us Mexico-philes than the first hot tortilla of the day. Biting into it is not unlike biting into the skin of your sweet young love back 40 years ago when her skin was so succulent, her flesh hot and ever ready to be nibbled on and love was everywhere, floating up before you like a steamy vision, and you could hardly make it through the day without this passionate love of warm flesh rising up on you like a fecund summer storm to sweep you along with the protein-rich smell of it. Eating a hot, just-made tortilla fresh from the hands of the tortilla lady is something like that.
Your average tortilla is fabricated with whitewash -- that stuff we used to use to paint the outhouse walls. (We'd also throw a handful down the hole to make the place a little less stinky.) In English, it's called lime. To make tortillas with it, you mix a pinch or so of the lime with water, and boil the corn in it for a short time. Drain and wash, grind it up and you have tortilla flour. Pat it flat with your hands and heat it on a special round, warm plate called a "comal" until it is cooked through, stack the tortillas on a white cloth with a red flower design, take them home and open up the cloth, wrap one up in what they call a "flauta" and pop it in your mouth. You have the taste and feel of divine flesh, eating the flesh of the gods.
Lime -- known here as "cal" -- turns up everywhere: not only in tortillas but in cement for making buildings and for laying down bricks. It's that white stuff painted around the base of trees -- presumably to keep the ants from carrying off the fruit and leaves. It's also used to make piggy banks -- "figuras" -- for storing change, and to paint lines on soccer fields.
But mostly, it's tortillas. Cal, it turns out, provides just enough minerals to make it possible for people to survive on them alone, which not a few do in this poor area. You can't say the same for Hostess Twinkies and Coca-Cola, the preferred poisons of the poor to the north.
Every time I think of cal, I think of warm, soft yum tortillas -- but I also think of whitewash, and Tom Sawyer, and that great song from World War I, sung by the "limeys" immersed in the gook of the front-line trenches. Can you hear them now, lying in their filthy, rat-infested dugouts, black with mud and ooze, poised for yet another battle of Ypres, singing loud and clear?
"Whiter than the whitewash on the wall,
Whiter than the whitewash on the wall,
Wash me in your water
That you wash your dirty daughter
And I shall be whiter than the whitewash on the wall."--- Carlos Amantea
From Revolutionary to Strongman
(Rutgers University Press)Fulgencio Rubén Batista lived right down the hall from me. He was short, swarthy, very friendly, a stupendous student. Didn't look very much different from the rest of us. I remember his nose, though. Flared nostrils, almost regal. He was going a little paunchy already, at age sixteen. We ignored the accent, called him "ROO-bin."
By the second semester, he had been granted special privileges there in Hamill House. From eight in the evening (post-house meeting) to ten-thirty (lights out) most of us had to study chained to our desks, in our rooms. No gadding about. Rubén, already on his way to a Phi Beta Kappa, could take his books down to the common room, listen to the radio, smoke cigarettes, stay up as late as he wanted.
This was 1949. Most of us knew nothing about the political world out there, especially the tangled world of Cuban politics. We knew nothing of the General Strike, the brutal reign of Gerardo Machado, Joven Cuba, Federico Laredo Brú, Ramón Saint Martín Grau, the "Sargeant's Revolt." Nor did we know anything about the NCL, ABC, PRC, PDR. We certainly didn't hear of the beatings of certain unfriendly journalists, the "castor-oil" cure for those who reported too well, and the occasional body turning up, either in a park or a vacant lot, a reminder to all to mind their P's and Q's.
We may have heard of the United Fruit Co. or Under Secretary of State for Latin Affairs Sumner Welles. We knew, certainly, about the famous Tropicana nightclub and the gambling and the whores of Havana. But we had no idea what these had to do with a young colonel --- also named Fulgencio Rubén Batista. This was the one-time cane-cutter who found himself, in 1933 with astonishing power, backed, ultimately, by the United States.
In return for "stabilizing" the country and protecting American interests, Cuba would get low-interest loans and protections for the all-important export sugar market. It was known as "dollar diplomacy." For Batista himself, there would be security against his enemies, and a growing fortune.
Who would ever guess that my low-key and very friendly hall-mate could be next in line to take over an entire country and would end up, too, being very very rich.
§ § §
This Batista (Senior) was no tinpot dictator. He was born a peasant, worked as a canecutter, left school after the fourth grade ... yet taught himself to read while a railway worker for the omnipresent United Fruit. He dressed impeccably and his apartment in Camagüey "was crammed with newspapers, magazines and books, many of which were highlighted and marked off by Batista, so he could remember particularly cogent points."
He had relatively little money and few connections, but reading and the acquisition of knowledge were ways to level the playing field. The lesson that careful preparation and a thorough understanding could overcome privilege began to resonate, and it drove him to read even more and to educate himself.
He joined the army in 1923, rose slowly through the ranks until, after the Sargeant's Revolt, he designated himself "Colonel Batista." That was when he began to run the whole show ... but always from the far background. As he gained experience and power, some of his programs --- for instance, the "Triennial Plan" (what some came to call the "Cuban-300-year-plan") contained some impressive clauses:
Even more scary to those to the north was the fact that in 1938, when he was planning to run for president, Batista formed an alliance with the Communist Party. Argote-Freyre tells us that "The outline of the deal was as follows: Batista would allow the Communists to establish a legal party and permit them to create a national labor organization. In return, the Communists would back Batista's presidential aspirations."
- Distribution of state lands to the rural poor;
- A credit program to assist workers in building homes;
- Establishment of a school for the fine arts in each of the six provinces;
- Free schooling for the poor;
- A housing program for the elderly poor.
The American ambassador was appalled: "At the same time Batista was supporting the Communists, they were disseminating literature throughout Cuba defending the Soviet Union and attacking U. S. imperialism." The State Department did not like being disabused of the notion that they ultimately ran Cuban politics.
If any of us in this day and age have any doubts that the United States was fiddling in the internal affairs of Cuba. all you have to do, according to Argote-Freyre, is spend a day or so at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, reading the letters, notes, and diaries of the then Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles. According to the author, "The importance of this collection cannot be understated."
Although [Jefferson] Caffery, ambassador from 1933 to 1937, burned all of his important correspondence, Welles never threw any letters away. This voluminous correspondence opens a revealing door onto the period. Many of the letters I have used here have never before appeared in a scholarly work.
Batista's journey is a fascinating one. He was known as "el mulatto lindo," "el literaro," "el Indio," and to some Americans and upper-class Cubans, "the nigger." He came into a government reduced to chaos by poverty, American interference, the Depression, and President Gerardo Machado and his ABC party.
He was masterful at manipulation, backtracking, withholding judgment, and timing his moves. In his later years, he was dictator pure and simple, but in the 1930s, he was forced to build an empire on compromise: compromise with other parties, with the United States ambassador, and, most importantly, his associates in the Cuban military.
§ § §
Our main complaint about this one is that it's too short. A history book that's too short? You gotta be kidding. No: it is that good. Argote-Freyre comes off as a careful, just and scholarly writer, who is able --- unlike most of his peers --- to write a literate sentence. But the book comes to an abrupt halt at the year 1940. It should not do so. The title is Fulgencio Batista. It is not (as it properly should be), Fulgencio Batista, 1901 - 1940.
Despite that, we find ourselves sucked in not only by a careful historical presentation (Batista still evokes passionate feelings in Cuba and various parts of the United States and the world) but by the very improbability of his story. Here is an "Indio" cane-cutter who left school before age ten, who once slept on floors of railway stations, who entered the military as a lowly private, who only became a colonel after a revolt he may have joined uneasily (certainly not foreseeing the dramatic outcome, the upending of an entire political system).
Not knowing I was supposed to stop at 1940, as the author does, I soldiered on, fully planning to be there when Batista (and my old prep school buddy) ran off, on 1 January 1959, to Spain. Alas, Batista's last thirty-five years were not part of the book deal for me or the publisher. I plowed ahead through eighty-five pages of notes, where I ran into another surprise: this upstart dictator had the ability to wield the Spanish language with no small art and verve.
It came in a letter that Batista sent to his friend Enrique Pizzi on 24 March 1967, telling a story from his early childhood,
Para mi mente de entonces, todo resultaba novedoso; la espuma que fomaban las aguas al romper con violencia en los bajios arenosos, el ruido de las olas, murmurantes unas veces, quejumbrosas otras; las mareas, los rompientes, los arrecifes amenzadores ... todo me encantaba, hasta la impreviasta turbonada que nos obligaba a remar con fuerza hacía tierra, y el arcoiris, alredor del cual mi padre cuajaba leyendas. Y en el centro de aquellos fenómenos se destaca en mi memoria la figura menuda, bonita, tierna y bondadosa de mi madre, sus compotas de hicaco, sus guisados a la marinera y la jigüera de campaña en la que daba el café carretero a mi padre.
Allí la veo, jovencita --- joven murió, al cumplir 29 ---- plantada a la orilla, nerviosa y feliz a la vez esperando con ansiedad el arribo del hijo sobre las recias espaldas del papá-nadador, que zambullendo intentaba asustarla al dejar al garete el bote y flotando los remos.
This is translated, by the author, with a few flourishes by me, "To my young mind, everything seemed special; the foam created by the waves as they crashed violently against the sandbars; the sound of the waves, sometimes whispery, sometimes grumbling; the breakers, the reefs ... everything enchanted me, even the unexpected squall that forced us to row quickly back to land, and the rainbow, about which my father would create legends. And in the midst of those memories emerges my mother --- petite, beautiful, tender and caring --- her hicaco preserves, her seafood dishes and a gourd in which she brought coffee to my father ... There I see her, young ---- she died young, just turning 29 --- standing by the edge of the sea, nervous and happy at the same time, anxiously awaiting the arrival of her son on the strong back of the swimming father, who, by diving, leaves the boat adrift, the oars floating, trying to scare her."--- Juan Moreno Rivera
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I couldn't think of an unlikelier pairing: a testy, geezer-filled, off-the-wall, sometimes otiose if not puerile on-line book review magazine ... and a purveyor of sunglasses.
Although sometimes, when I look back at some of the reviews we published in our infancy --- truly puerile --- then I think that many of our editors and writers ought to be wearing sunglasses: not to keep out the light, but to evade the literate public.
Yours in obscurity,--- Carlos Amantea
My Father Says Grace
(Arkansas)Donald Platt's father is in a nursing home in New England. He telephones his son, says, "I've got to get out of here / and start hitchhiking / now ... Wish me luck." He wants to be sure that someone "out there on the road" will tell him how to get home.
The nurse refers to these patients as "sundowners." "They're fine / in the morning. We in the field call it 'sundowning.'"
often go bonkers in the late afternoon. No one knows why.
My Father Says Grace has several different stories to tell. There is a disquisition on Janis Joplin, how she sang "Ball and Chain" so powerfully only a day before she killed herself. There's another on a wind-up phonograph, playing Amelita Galli-Curci and Col pensier il mio desir and an aria by Henry Purcell. There is an episode where Elizabeth Bishop meets the poet de Andrade, and a not unclever take on Orpheus returning,
after Eurydice disappeared
in the subway crowded with shades and took the uptown local back
to her pimp.
But the main emphasis here is Platt's "stroke-struck" father, trying to speak, not being able to, "gelid eyes / or a kind salmon / gutted and sold whole on crushed ice."
The tragedy of late 20th Century / early 21st Century doesn't seem to be wars eating up the young, diseases laying waste to whole cities and cultures, the populace dying of starvation, ignorance and superstition ... but, au contraire, our rapidly aging population ending up in places where they cannot feed themselves, cannot find their way to the bathroom, cannot find their words, can no longer feel joy in their dry memories, cannot escape the stink of urine and Pine-Sol, cannot even enjoy evenings getting blind drunk with old friends and falling down in the streets.
You and I will find ourselves installed by our children in a super-secure nursing home (claiming it is all a matter of love, respect, "caring") where we'll start our own sundowning. They'll keep us drugged up, bound in our wheelchairs, taken off with our sleeping pills to bed at five or six in the afternoon so we won't be a bother to the staff.
I suppose it was inevitable that someone would come along and do a whole poem cycle on this bleak future awaiting us, but some of us might long for the good old days when they wrote lays about flowers in the dale and young milk-maidens in the fields and our first loves in the sweet-smelling haystacks with the cows going on there in the barn down somewhere below.--- Candy MacNeil
[The Prophet of Literature]And the small voice said, Hey, Auxilio, what can you see?
The future, I replied. I can see what the future holds for the books of the twentieth century.
And can you make any prophecies, asked the voice, sounding curious, but not in the least ironic.
I don't know about prophecies as such, but I can make a prediction or two, I replied with a dreamer's syrupy voice.
Go on, go on, said the small voice, with unbridled enthusiasm.
I am in the women's bathroom in the faculty building and I can see the future, I said, in a soprano voice, as if I were being coy.
I know that, said the dream voice, I know that. You start making your prophecies and I'll note them down.
Voices, I said in a baritone voice, don't note things down, they don't even listen. Voices only speak.
You're wrong about that, but it doesn't matter, you say what you have to say, and try to say it loud and clear.
Then I took a deep breath, hesitated, let my mind go blank and finally said: These are my prophecies.
Vladimir Mayakovksy shall come back into fashion around the year 2150. James Joyce shall be reincarnated as a Chinese boy in the year 2124. Thomas Mann shall become an Ecuadorian pharmacist in the year 2101.
For Marcel Proust, a desperate and prolonged period of oblivion shall begin in the year 2033. Ezra Pound shall disappear from certain libraries in the year 2089. Vachel Lindsay shall appeal to the masses in the year 2101.
Cesar Vallejo shall be read underground in the year 2045. Jorge Luis Borges shall be read underground in the year 2045. Vicente Huidobro shall appeal to the masses in the year 2101.
Virginia Woolf shall be reincarnated as an Argentinean fiction writer in the year 2076. Louis Ferdinand Céline shall enter Purgatory in the year 2094. Paul Eluard shall appeal to the masses in the year 2101.
Metempsychosis. Poetry shall not disappear. Its non-power shall manifest itself in a different form.
Cesare Pavese shall become the patron saint of Seers and Lookers in the year 2034. Pier Paolo Pasolini shall become the patron saint of Escapees in the year 2100. Giorgio Bassani shall emerge from his tomb in the year 2167.
Oliverio Girondo shall come into his own as a children's writer in the year 2099. The complete works of Roberto Ark shall be adapted for the screen in 2102. The complete works ofAdolfo Bioy Casares shall be adapted for the screen in 2105.
Arno Schmidt shall rise from his ashes in the year 2085. Franz Kafka shall once again be read underground throughout Latin America in the year 2101. Witold Gombrowicz shall enjoy great prestige in the environs of the Rio de la Plata around the year 2098.
Paul Celan shall rise from his ashes in the year 2113. Andre Breton shall return through mirrors in the year 2071. Max Jacob shall cease to be read, that is to say his last reader shall die, in the year 2059.
Who shall read Jean-Pierre Duprey in the year 2059? Who shall read Gary Snyder? Who shall read Marie Voronca? These are the questions I ask myself.
Who shall read Gilberte Dallas? Who shall read Rodolfo Wilcock? Who shall read Alexandre Unik?
A statue of Nicanor Parra, however, shall stand in a Chilean square in the year 2059. A statue of Octavio Paz shall stand in a Mexican square in the year 2020. A rather small statue of Ernesto Cardenal shall stand in a Nicaraguan square in the year 2018.
But all statues tumble eventually, by divine intervention or the power of dynamite, like the statue of Heine. So let us not place too much trust in statues.
Carson McCullers, however, shall go on being read in the year 2100. Alejandra Pizarnik shall lose her last reader in the year 2100. Alfonsina Storni shall be reincarnated as a cat or a sea-lion, I can't tell which, in the year 2050.
The case of Anton Chekhov shall be slightly different: he shall be reincarnated in the year 2003, in the year 2010, and then in the year 2014. He shall appear once more in the year 2081. And never again after that.
Alice Sheldon shall appeal to the masses in the year 2017. Alfonso Reyes shall be killed once and for all in the year 2058, but in fact it shall be Reyes who kills his killers. Marguerite Duras shall live in the nervous system of thousands of women in the year 2035.
And the little voice said, How strange, how strange, I haven't read some of those authors you mentioned.
Which ones? I asked.
Well, that Alice Sheldon, for example. I have no idea who she is. I laughed. I laughed for quite a while. What's so funny, asked the little voice. Having caught you out, you being so cultured and all, I answered.--- From Amulet
Chris Andrews, Translator
©2006 New DirectionsA review of review Amulet can be found at
[Death and Kings]Eala, hu leas 7 hu unwrest is þysses middaneardes wela! Se þe wæs ærur rice cyng 7 maniges landes hlaford, he næfde þa ealles landes buron seogon fotmæl; 7 se þe wæs hwilon geschrid mid golde 7 mid gimmum, he læg þa oferwrongen mid moldan.Lo, how transitory and insecure is the wealth of the world! He who was once a powerful king and the lord of many lands, received (in death) no other land but seven feet of it; and he who was once clothed in gold and gems lay then covered with earth.--- From The Peterborough Chronicles AD 1087
Quoted in Inventing English
©2007, Columbia University Press
The Queen Is
In the CountinghouseThere is a new blue tinge to the sun
The stockboys line up for their checks:
There's Hans and Wah Lee and Pedro Gaspar,
The stockboys line up for their checks
And the sun is turning ever darker.Last year they asked for drachmas
The year before it was sucres
God knows what it will be tomorrow
And Françoise is demanding a general strike,
A general amnesty for the General's boys.The Queen is looking pale.
She stands in the counting house
Waiting for the sun to die.
But her eye is on the falcons;
Rumor has it she is "embarazada."
The boys laugh at her lisp and she weeps
For the children still unborn.The stockboys line up for their checks.
Next year (perhaps) they'll want
Flowers instead of florins.
In Crematoria Park, they've set up tables
Lunch will be served at noon
The bodies will be shown at one.
There will be paté, fried turnips,
Thyme-baked herring with marshmallows.
They say that the subaltern
Will give a speech on the new order
Of the new economy, or the state
Of the state of the unions
Or the coming of night.
The Queen is displeased.
Rain is general, the rivers have turned
From gold to the color of old blood.
The Queen is displeased
And sad (they say).
She's in the countinghouse
But she is now very sad.
The Queen no longer speaks to the crowds
Nor to her husband Abdulla.
She spends almost all her days
And part of the night
Looking for the lost holy pearls
Of God's Good Grace
Pearls stolen away by the peasants
In the last land war but one.--- ©1957 Leslie L. Seamans
The Last of the Mohicans
James Fenimore Cooper
Robertson Dean, Reader
(Books on Tape)It's north Florida late spring 1945. We're at Fishweir School, sixth grade, over at the tail end of St. John's Avenue. No TV, no guards, no graffiti, no school psychologist. 250 noisy sometimes dirty students who leave their bicycles unlocked just outside the back door of the school.
Our play area is gray hot dirt, shaded by the occasional loblolly pine. Lunch is served at the far end of the hallway. The smell of spaghetti sauce starts up around eleven in the morning. During our play period, most of the children leave the fifteen cents or the quarter they'll need for the meal out on their desks.Mrs. Coody is our teacher: math, spelling, penmanship, Florida history. Mrs. Brown comes in twice a week in the afternoons to teach music. Both Mrs. Coody and Mrs. Brown wear long dresses, proper to the teachers of the day. Mrs. Coody explains to us the first day in class that her name is nearly the same as the "cootie" that bites people. Thus, she successfully wins our hearts and defangs the joke that would otherwise have plagued her all year long.
There is no air conditioning. The ceilings are high, the windows stand tall to catch the occasional breeze and the stench of the mud flats from tiny Fishweir Creek next door. When it's movie-time --- usually Wednesday afternoons --- the folding walls between Mrs. Coody's room and Mrs. Ross's fifth grade room next door are pulled back and we turn our desks to face away from the black-curtained windows.
Mrs. Ross runs the projector which is large and hot and sends a shaft of bright white light onto the ceiling as well as onto the screen. It takes her at least ten minutes to thread the projector and set up the screen. Often during the course of the movie, the film will break, or the sound will turn fuzzy (once a film on Columbus actually crackled and sizzled on the screen right in front of our eyes); but we, the faithful students, will not be deterred, despite the heat and the sweat and that fat Kenny Walsh who always sits in the front row and laughs at the wrong places in the story.
The films are produced by the ERPI film company, which my pal Donald Lamarr immediately labels "Urpy Classroom Films" --- urp being our word for throwup or vomit. I remember some of the movies. There was one on nutrition, showing barrels of wheat and rice and other grains and a doctor in a white coat lecturing the camera about vitamins and minerals with charts and a pointer. There was another on good posture with black lines drawn down the spine. Kenny Walsh giggled at the shot of a naked back.
There was a film on a steel industry, industrially pure and patriotic (we were still at war with the Japanese): great vats of liquid this and that being poured with sparks spilling thrillingly out onto the floor. There was one on Beethoven where he plays the piano and shakes his head then pounds the keyboard with his fists because he cannot hear the music, his face in a rage while we hear the wavery, unsteady notes of the "Moonlight Sonata" in the background.
And then there was "The Last of the Mohicans." I remember it well because it went on endlessly ... some thirteen or fifteen episodes ... but since we didn't have television in those days what better way to spend the hot Florida Wednesday afternoon than in the high-ceilinged room watching men go about half-naked spying out of the branches in the forest, spying on lovely ladies in long dresses ... faces heavy with paint (both ladies and Indians).
The Indians wore buckskin and carried tomahawks. When they were not skulking about the woods they crept up on the palefaces in their large dark forts. All this came to us in black, dark gray, gray, light gray, or white ... for the world, at least the wild world of ERPI Classroom Films, all was but black and white.
We never could figure out where the plot was going, nor why. And now and so it is, I find out, with the book itself. Maybe more so. There are dozens of tribes represented here --- Mohicans, Hurons, Delaware, Lenape, Mingos, Mengwe --- and they are all at war with the French, or the English, or with each other, but never with the forest; only the palefaces have trouble with the forest; they certainly cannot read its signals.
The vocabulary of this novel is the one that built Cowboy-and-Indian of our youth: tomahawks, happy hunting grounds, redskins, pale-faces, hawk-eyes, wampum, forked-tongue, scalping, totems, wigwams. Every wheeze that blew through the lore was engendered by Fenimore Cooper, a man who just couldn't stop cooking up these stories (there are not only the five Leather-Stocking tales but some thirty other books that he spawned in his long, wordy life).
It is 1757. You and I and the characters are scrambled up in the French and Indian Wars of the period. Immediately after the massacre at Fort William Henry, lovely, long-tressed Cora and her lovely sister Alice find themselves kidnapped by a Very Bad Man ... a Huron by the name of Magua. Demon Rum --- supplied by the Dutch --- has made him Bad. And Mad. By hook or by crook, he plans to get Cora into his teepee.
He takes the two of them up somewhere between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains to his tribal home north of Valcour Island. They are being tracked by sharpshooter Hawk-eye and his faithful Delaware Indian companions Chingachgook and Unca, the last being the last of the saintly Mohicans. There is also a not-too-bright English soldier, Duncan Heyward (beloved of Alice), and a bumbling teacher named David who comes along for comic relief and may be Fenimore Cooper's version of a gay, 18th-Century musician.
It is a long, arduous journey, ending up at a huge tribal meeting of the Delawares where the fate of the ladies and their kidnapper will be decided.
Cooper's language can be as long and as arduous as the journey. Here is an example, taken from the council of Indians:
In a collection of so serious savages, there is never to be found any impatient aspirant after premature distinctions, standing ready to move his auditors to some hasty, and, perhaps, injudicious discussion, in order that his own reputation may be the gainer. An act of so much precipitancy and presumption, would seal the oldest and most experienced of the men to lay the subject of the conference before the people. Until such a one chose to make some movement, no deeds in arms, no natural gifts, nor any renown as an orator, would have justified the slightest interruption.
At one point, it is put to Tamenund, the 100-year-old chief, as to whether the villainous Magua will be allowed to take Cora for his squaw-lady. The chief declares, "Girl, what wouldst thou! A great warrior takes thee to wife. Go --- thy race will not end." Saucy Cora shakes her long dark locks, breathes deeply with her lovely white bosom, and lets Tamenund know what she thinks of that idiot idea: "Better, a thousand times, it should," exclaimed the horror-struck Cora, "than meet with such a degradation!"
The old Indian turns to Magua: "Huron, her mind is in the tents of her fathers. An unwilling maiden makes an unhappy wigwam." An unhappy wigwam!
Magua advanced, and seized his captive strongly by the arm; the Delawares fell back, in silence; and Cora, as if conscious that remonstrance would be useless, prepared to submit to her fate without resistance.
"Hold, hold!" cries Duncan, the dullbulb Englishman. Colonialist that he is, he offers "gold, silver, powder, lead --- all that a warrior needs, shall be in thy wigwam. Her ransom shall make thee richer than any of the people were ever yet known to be."
But Magua, knowing a good thing when he has it in hand, can't be bought: "he wants not the beads of the pale-faces." He moves to pull Cora off into the sunset and into his teepee, to whatever ghastly fate awaits her there.
Fortunately, the last of the Mohicans, Unca, declares war on Magua and follows the two into the forest, and before the Huron can force Cora into unspeakable (if not primitive) acts, kills him ... and dies in the process. So much for redskins who want to live above their station.It is, as I say, easy to make fun of Fenimore Cooper. His characters have more names than you might find in a Tolstoi novel. The brave scout Natty Bumppo (sic!) is also known as "Leatherstocking," by the Indians as "the Long Gun," "Pathfinder," "Deerslayer," or "Hawkeye." The characters are forever winding themselves up in speeches that go on to such length that they threaten to disappear in the forest amongst the moss and woodpeckers. (Characters are also, without any shame whatsoever, ejaculating: "'The Lenape are rulers of their own hills,' he ejaculates.")
Still, it is not unpleasant to roam the forests with Hawkeye and Unca, chasing after poor Cora and Alice. The reading we have here is by Robertson Dean, and it is a dilly: measured, well-paced, even regal. The Last of the Mohicans was published in 1826, in the days before books came to be more commonly available. They were written to be read aloud, preferably to the kids, safely under the covers, at bedtime. With this Books on Tape version, you are there, in bed, or driving the car, or, best, in the silent baleful forest, as much a character in this book as Chingachgook and son Unca and the brave, clear-eyed, ringlet-infested Cora, half black, it turns out (she was born on a Caribbean isle to a slave mother). She is certainly no slouch in the stout-heart department: at one point, Leather-stocking ejaculates, "I would I had a thousand men, of brawny limbs and quick eyes, that feared death as little as you!"
I'd send the jabbering Frenchers back into their den again, afore the week was ended, howling like so many fettered hounds, or hungry wolves.--- Marianne Wescott, PhD
--- For Josh Waletzsky1.
I am making chicken soup in the Vilna Ghetto.
You think it's easy? First
you've got to sneak in the chickens
feather by feather bone by bone and then the vegetables
root by root leaf by leaf next, the salt
past the Jewish police at the gate, and the Lithuanians,
the Nazis over their shoulders. You've got to be careful.
I keep the soup pot alive in the Vilna Ghetto
while all around buildings simmer
with meetings: young people, Zionists, leftists, rightists,
Communists, Bundists. My brother
tells me I'm on the wrong track.
He is sneaking guns into the Vilna Ghetto
part by part scrap by scrap and then the explosives.
This isn't easy he says, but it's necessary
Think of the working class, think of the revolution.
Think of the heroes at Warsaw, think of the pits at Ponar.
All we need here is a little solidarity
All we need now is one good uprising.
She is sneaking Jews out of the Vilna Ghetto
into the forest man by man woman by woman
(there are no children left, no Jewish children).
The leader, a Jew with a Russian name, Yurgis,
doesn't like it at all.
But what can he do
She is a hero, I guess. Here she is on TV
on the documentary my daughter watches.
Me? I was somewhat nearby I was making soup in the forest
for the Partisans, the peasants, the Jews, the Russians
(I left my brother, he left me, back in the ghetto )
Here, we trapped some rabbits, dug up a few wild scallions
Yadwiga found us some mushrooms.
(They looked poisonous, but tasted like pine trees.)
I am warming up soup in Brooklyn,
in Brighton Beach, down by the worn-out ocean
Its tomato-egg-drop soup from the Chinese take-out
around the corner, next to the Russian deli
(where the man hums rock n' roll, counts change in Yiddish)
Beside me, my daughter watches the TV program
I watch the tears break out on her face like a rash.
Why is she crying? What can she know of that time
Me, all my tears are locked up behind my eyes
rusted like all the words in the mother language I don't even dream in now
Me, I don't cry.
Me, I survive and survive.
How I survive! I've outlasted Vilna and Ponar
the meetings the sewer the forest
the Judenrat and my family
(except for this one, who came later).
My brother stares at us suddenly out of the screen
out of that photograph I always hated.
He's 20, he's serious, his ears are too big
I can't look. I turn my back. I lower the flame
under the saucepan, the soup shouldn't burn.
You think it's easy to concentrate on details?
Details, let me tell you, keep you alive.
Details, I thank God for them.
My daughter looks ugly and old, her face all muddy
They've got someone else on there now, another story.
I could tell stories too, but I never talked much.
He talked all the time. He scattered his words like salt.
Words, he said, words are important, words can change things.
He sneaked his words in past the guards, he whispered, he
shouted. Think of the Jewish people, he said and he disappeared.
(And the Nazi troop train blew up, and they blamed the Russians.)
She's crying harder, my daughter; sobs choke in her throat like fishbones.
"Mama," she says, "Mama, why didn't you tell me?"
I say "What's to tell? Have some soup."--- From Broken Land
Poems of Brooklyn
Julia Spicher Kasdorf
Michael Tyrell, Editors
(New York University Press)A review of the book in which this poem appears
can be found at
The Orchestral Music
(Amadeus Press)Jean Sibelius was smitten at an early age by the story of Kullervo of Finland. It's an old but universal tale of a simple man whose uncle killed his father and then had the boy raised as a slave. He was sent to tend the cattle with a loaf of bread (a "cheat-cake") made of stone. Angry at such a lunch, he transforms the cows into bears and sends them off. They go back and eat the sandwich-maker.
Meanwhile, Kullervo runs away and meets his sister and he rapes her and she kills herself. He then returns and murders his uncle Untamo.
When he gets back to his childhood home, he finds his mother and all the rest of the family dead. Kullervo then asks his sword if he should hang in there. The sword bursts into song, so he throws himself on it. According to one critic, the tale of Kullervo "is fairly ordinary in Finnish mythology."
Sibelius' other work of note was Opus 22, the "Lemminkäinen," the "Lemonade Sweet" in 9/4 (nine parts sugar, four parts lemon, one part vodka). According to Hurwitz, in 1929 Sibelius got bored and stopped composing and died thirty years later of ennui. This may be a familiar feeling to those who come to know his symphonies. He composed one concerto for violin which was described by a contemporary as "a polonaise for polar bears."
Polar bears, polonaise, and "plönk" --- the national drink --- are about all you can find on the internet about Finland. And "Finlandia." Sibelius composed it in 1898 as a tribute to his country even though his country did not exist until twenty years later (Finland was owned by Russia until 1918 when she was returned to her original owners.) By the time of the nationalization of his country, the composer had run out of plönk and pluck.
§ § §
Dr. Phage, our Arts & Culture correspondent from the northwest tells of one of his own experiences with the composer:
I recently attended a lecture about Sibelius one evening at a nearby Swedish Club, along with a small audience of mostly elderly, rather somnolent Swedish-Americans. One of them roused briefly from his doze and asked: "Didn't Sibelius write anything cheerful?"
The lecturer, a mournful Finnish lady from the University Scandinavian Studies department, replied with some verbiage about the melancholy Finnish soul. Then she played a Sibelius song on a CD player, and began to weep.
I attend these functions partly in order to enjoy the buffet table, and took this opportunity to visit it. On this evening, it was a lot below its usual standard, and I began to weep too.
On another evening, my regular concert date and I went to a local symphony concert featuring Sibelius. She is an enthusiastic but rather ignorant classical music enthusiast. The opening piece was the last movement of Sibelius' "Four Kalevala Legends," which is called "The Return of Lemminkäinen." After its rousing conclusion, she turned to me and said that she could just picture all the lemmings hurtling over a cliff.
I gently explained to her that the hero of the Finnish national folk epic is not usually pictured as a little, four-footed, suicidal mammal. I also suggested that we discuss the subject in whispers, in case there were any Finns seated anywhere near us.
For the rest of the concert, this exchange kept coming back into my mind at inappropriate moments. When a soprano soloist, a massive woman wearing what appeared to be a garage canopy as a dress, waddled onto the stage I fought hard to keep a straight face. Then, when she and the orchestra launched into an absurdly lugubrious orchestral song, I cracked up entirely.
The people sitting all around us looked daggers in my direction. My friend tried to explain apologetically that I was of diminished capacity, and had been let out temporarily on a day pass.--- Diane SingerTeach the Free Man
Peter Nathaniel Malae
(Swallow)Once, long ago, when I was in my save-the-world mode, I volunteered to teach a class in literature at the local reformatory. Every Sunday my friend P. J. and I would commute to Monroe, carrying twenty copies of this or that novel or collection of short stories for the coming week. The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, The Red and the Black, Winesburg, Ohio, or the stories of Crane or Cheever. One week, we even brought in The Thief's Journal. (We were roundly chastised by the authorities for that one: no coals up there in Monroe's Newcastle.)
For two hours, P. J. and I and the students would forage through the prose of Hemingway, Anderson, Stendal, Fitzgerald, Crane, Moravia or Greene. It was a good class. The time would race by. Not only did we have a captive audience, they had plenty of leisure to study their homework. Those who participated, we were told, might gain time off from their sentences. It was strictly books. The students never talked about why they were there, or when --- if ever --- they expected to leave.
I was in school too. I learned some truths of prison life ... or thought I did. One was that the guards as well as the prisoners were "doing time." Another was that there was always a snitch somewhere around (which is how the warden found out about Genet and his three virtues, "thievery, treachery, sodomy.")
And then there was the undertone of violence. Underneath the reserve one could feel something going on. It finally broke out during our class on Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, of all books. There was some dispute as to whether Ida Arnold was a kind-hearted woman or a cold, nosy busybody. Before I knew it, two of my prize students were on their feet, face to face, hands clenched, ready to settle their difference of opinion. They only retreated when I got between them and said "You two are scaring the shit out of me."
I thought I learned something about prison systems and its effects in the three years I was at Monroe, but I think I was still pretty innocent. After all, I was out of there by mid-afternoon. I was finally disabused when I invited a few of them, once released, to come visit me. They did, and some of my prized possessions followed them out the door.
Mark was especially fetching. He came to my place the day he left Monroe. He could sit for hours at the dinner-table, smoking, moveless. I presented him to my friend Pamela and he went off to live with her. They broke up a few weeks later when he offered to murder her if she took up with anyone else. She had to go into hiding. She never forgave me.
§ § §
There's good irony in the title, Teach the Free Man. All of the characters are doing time, whether they are going into prison, living in prison, or getting out. In "Gut and Viscera in the Chicken Farm," the prison farm overseer learns quickly about race, and prison ethics, all "discovered without asking a single question."
He was picking up on the finer nuances of prison life, such as addressing lifers as "'mister," and never approaching a man from the rear.
"He once made the mistake of crossing up on the same assembly line northern and southern Chicanos, but not twice." He read the warden's pamphlet:
1. The lines: Mexicans from Southern California loathe Mexicans from Northern California, and vice versa. 2. The reason: A stolen book back in the '60's. 3. In the event of a riot: Norteños fight with blacks, and sureños with whites.
Two percent of Americans are now going to jail, in jail, or on probation. The figures for Blacks and Chicanos hover between 10% and 20%. Those who should be reading this book will probably never do so: the legislators, the governors, those who lobby for and run the "commercial" prison operations in the name of free enterprise.
A pity. They would learn a great deal. They would learn how to build a shiv with nothing more than a single sheet of paper and the elastic from socks. They would learn that the guards are "the most powerful gang in prison." They would learn about "the baptism of silence" used on newcomers. They would learn how drugs and condoms --- condoms are still illegal --- are distributed in prison, and how to get drunk on "pruneo." They would learn the vocabulary of "tags" (tattoos), or the "car" (the gang), and the name of the one who got them in there, "the public pretender," he or she who works with a gang known as the "DA's and judges."
They would learn the most serious of unwritten rules, that even "the dumbest cat can pick up on in the pen:"
he eats on our side of the chow hall, he showers at our spigot, works out in our little spot at the bars.
And they would learn the saddest of mots: "You can't help a lifer do life."
Most of all, they would learn of the poison that runs everyone: the whites, the homies, the eses. For in a place where there are so few choices, the population is made up mostly of losers: all got tangled in the law. Even if not guilty, they lost.
Prison is many things, after all, but mostly it is the gross simplification of life's complexities.
It is this smoldering bitterness that runs through Teach the Free Man that curses all: Black, white, Chicano ... guards, nurses, staff. With its prisons --- we beat the rest of the world in ratio of inmates to population --- America is breeding a huge underclass of losers, schooling them in a diabolical vision of the rest of humanity, teaching them, as Bo Lozoff has it, We Are All Doing Time. For many, the only way out is the way taught in this enormous university complex --- guile, violence, and bitter bitter racism.
§ § §
Most of these stories are gripping, the tension of unmitigated anger of those inside, the fear that those who finally get out will, as the old saying goes, somehow break back in. Haimona in "Turning Point" is sent by his parole officer to "The Healing Room." Athena runs it, has the psychobabble down pat. "Did you want to share how you feel about it?" is her favorite question.
Haimona's name, says Athena, "sounds maybe Kenyan? Or is it South African. I was once in a loveship with a young Kenyan poet: But he was a projector. He shot at all his problems with life off on me. I'll never date a Kenyan again. Or a poet. Jeff says he wasn't my type anyway. Well, what kinds of a name is that Ma ... su ... i ... su ... i?"
"What's your ethnicity?"
"That's why you're so big," she said. "Well, welcome, Haimona. Did I say it right?"
"Though she hadn't, Haimona was indeed brown, but he wasn't an ese, and he wanted a silent confirmation from Pablo [another member of the class], who'd drawn a race line when Haimona first walked in. In the passing moment, Pablo raised his head back, the same gesture. No bond between them, no sweat or debt, Pablo looked off to another starting point just as hard as Haimona."
The gestures, silent confirmations, the eyes, looking down, or up at the ceiling, out the window. The things most people don't catch. Unless they have been in the pen.
The notes don't tell us whether Malae has been there. If not, he has been studying the prison culture, hard, for a long time. And he has it down perfectly. He knows how to tie you into a story, make you feel trapped, like you are doing time too, with all these cons around you, so pissed off, so liable to explode at any moment.
At least in the penitentiary a man had a little silence to ruminate. To let the anger build and do bad with it, or let the guilt build and try to get out. No good come from the penitentiary, but sometimes you got out.--- L. W. Milam
(Walker)At the beginning, we liked the simple no-nonsense style of the book, liked the wise, tired no-nonsense country-cop narrator, Turner.
His fellow officer Don Lee had stopped a red Mustang for speeding. They jailed the guy, and searching the car, found "A nylon sports bag in the trunk that held two hundred thousand dollars and change." Great start.
Alas, it's downhill from there on. Car wrecks. Drug deaths. And Turner, turned into a counsellor, working with a prison guard who had been caught up in a riot. They cut off his fingers, a day at a time.
After eight days, one of the inmates got picked off by rifle-fire. As the other prisoners "stood staring at Billy's body in the open door, I came up behind him and gouged out his eyes with my thumbs."
He held up his hands. I saw the ragged stumps of what had been fingers. And the thumbs that remained.
We complained, bitterly, in our last issue, in our review of American Skin (at www.ralphmag.org/ET/american-skin.html) about a new pornography appearing in what we once so fondly called "murder mysteries" or "detective stories." Raymond Chandler, for example, would content himself with three or four bodies and a sapping or two per book.
These who now create this lurid stuff with no regard for their readers' sensibilities should be hung by the necks till dead or --- lacking this --- by their thumbs.--- Lolita Lark
Dead Man WalkingIf you think it's a shock reaching thirty,
just wait till you turn eighty.
Eighty, I keep saying to myself,
I'm eighty and life's quite normal ---
still walking around, still jacking off.
Of course, one spill and I could be
in the Village Nursing Home that I pass every day.
We're waiting for you, the attendants' faces say,
as they enjoy their cigarettes on the sidewalk
or chat on their cellphones.
And the wrecks in wheelchairs out front
look at me grimly as I lope by, which I read as,
You think you're so smart, Pops,
you'll soon be right here, with us.
Actually, it's been months since my birthday,
and I'm still taking it in,
and when the crucial event happens
I imagine it will also be awhile
before I wake up and realize where I am ---
in a wheelchair, hospital bed, or coffin.--- From After the Fall
Poems Old and New
©2007 University of Pittsburgh PressA review of Fields' book of poems
can be found at
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