Archive | April, 2013

Poetry Review, Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night

29 Apr

Bill Brandt Dylan Thomas, 1941


If Dylan Thomas had only ever written this poem, and nothing else, I highly suspect he would still be just as famous.  Do Not go Gentle… is one of the poems that have become public consciousness, one of a tiny percentage of poems that we cannot see because we think we know it already.

So we start with the title line, seemingly written as a general maxim “Do not go gentle into that good night.”   The structure of this poem (a Villanelle if anybody is paying attention) requires this line to repeat several times over, as well as the third line “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  The reason it works so well, and doesn’t come off as repetitive and stodgy is because the situation, a deathbed, aren’t these the kinds of thoughts (though much more articulate) that would echo in someones head when someone they were close to was dying?  Wouldn’t certain lines just repeat over and over like prayer beads, just going round and round?  That’s the thing when someone close to us dies, we feel so completely helpless.

Then Thomas goes through four types of men: wise men, good men, wild men, and grave men.  Wise men don’t pass away gently, they know death is a good thing, but  “because their words forked no lightning,” or to put it another way that because their words did little to change the natural world.

Good men rage against the dying light–Thomas compares good men to a wave that breaks upon a shore, wishing that they could always remain at sea to do more good things.  However their good deeds are frail, they don’t last either.

Wild men who catch the sun–who rush ahead and do wild things, and in rushing ahead learned they used up all their time–they don’t go gently either.

And finally grave men (yes that’s a pun) who see “blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay.”  When I think of someone who is grave, I think of someone who is very very serious, but at the very last minute they have a flash of light and realize that even in terrible illness there can be joy, so they rage against the dying of the light.

The interesting thing (before swinging into the last stanza) is Thomas showing whatever style of life a person leads, there’s a sense of regret at the chosen path, and also a sense that our stories are never truly finished.   Nobody would ever die on purpose if they knew what they were going to.

And the poem turns–he’s talking to his father, and yes this is a prayer, for the father to curse or bless him with his tears, it doesn’t matter, Thomas wants his father to fight death and not merely succumb to it.  Even though there’s no way of winning, it’s what he’s got.

And while I don’t know what death is entirely, I do know that humanity and every living thing clings to life with a tenacity that is brave in a way–in all the places we don’t even consider worth living in, even with hopeless existences that promise very little change, there is an absolute clinging to life, of not letting go of it no matter what, it’s one of the basic rules of existence.

And I understand that–I understand wanting someone, like a marathon runner to keep pushing on, even though there’s no real finish line, and no reward for doing it, because life is precious, and each living person is precious and individual–every one fighting for the next breath.

Presidential Review: John Tyler

27 Apr



John Tyler was never supposed to be the president–while really nobody knows what William Henry Harrison would have done as president, he was the one who was groomed for the job, he had the political capitol, in fact Harrison was specifically chosen by party leaders to be someone a little more compromising than Jackson or Van Buren.  John Tyler only got on the ticket as a balancer–Harrison was from the north and so Tyler put a southerner on the ticket to get votes.  He was not, however, picked to particularly support Harrison’s political views, a fact that would become increasingly clear when he took over the presidency.

The one huge thing Tyler did that still echoes to this day is nail down the authority that any vice-president has when taking over the presidency.  At the time this role was not well-defined, and so when Tyler took over there was a lot of controversy over whether Tyler was president for good or just until they had an emergency vote or what.    Tyler put his foot down, to him he was every bit a president that Harrison was, and so he ensured a smooth transition for future vice-presidents in the same situation.  Even Ford, who became president under the most questionable circumstances never had to defend his right to lead the country.

However, in doing so, Tyler pretty much made enemies of anybody involved in politics at that time.  He also did not think he had to honor any pre-existing promises that Harrison made, which I guess is fair enough, but at the same time took away any kind of respect he might get from his colleagues.    He became known as “His Accidency” and got a big reputation for being difficult to work with.   After vetoing two bills trying to re-establish the Bank of the United States, his entire cabinet resigned, Congress tried to impeach him, and the Whig party kicked him out.  After this point Tyler vetoed everything having to do with the Whig’s national plan, whether that was raising tariffs, or a bill to give money from the sale of public (former Indian) lands to the states.

In the midst of this, Tyler tried to annex Texas, but congress in the middle of a very confrontational time refused to play.  The problem was that he had placed John Calhoun, one of the most pro-slavery voices at the time, as the appointed representative to broker an agreement between the American and Texan governments.  Mexico threatened war, and between the war drums as well as the slavery issue Congress held off on the issue until it wasn’t really politically useful to Tyler anyway.

As for foreign affairs, Tyler did firm up boundary issues with Britain, ended the second Seminole war, and stopped British colonization of Hawaii.   These are all minor accomplishments though, the boundary issues would have resolved sooner or later anyway, the Seminole War was more of an 8 year pause than a win by anybody’s standards, and the Hawaii issue wouldn’t prove useful for decades to come.

In the end, while Tyler did a good job of representing Virginia’s (and by extension, southern) interests, he really wasn’t able to broaden his scope to include the rest of America, and while he might have gotten away with that a couple of generations before, the United States had grown to a degree where this level of sectionalistic bias proved to be his undoing.  To his credit, that was precisely the reason he had been Vice-President in the first place.

Beyond that, his uncompromising stance made it impossible to do a lot of the deal-making politics requires.

Two weird facts about John Tyler.  First he had 15 children with two wives, his last born when he was in his seventies.  The second fact is that he met his wife during the Princeton disaster–the Princeton was a warship which Tyler had a big public display on after the Texas annexation started.  This boat had two of the biggest cannons in the world, and part of the events of the day including shooting off the cannons.  Unfortunately a cannon backfired, killing 6 and injuring 20.    One who was killed was the father of Tyler’s future wife, Julia Gardiner, who fainted into his arms.  They were married 4 months later.

Unfortunately this explosion also ruined Tyler’s chances for a second term–not being exactly the demonstration of American power that Tyler imagined it to be.

In the end, I’m kind of glad that Tyler did not have the ability to do what he wanted, because he was definitely a pro-slave sort of guy–in the end he gets poor grades though because of his inability to play well enough with others to get anything done.

Well, next week we go to Polk, and if you like strong presidents you’d better enjoy him, because after Polk we kind of lose a little momentum for awhile.

Pop Culture Friday: Narcissist Edition–Mirrors, Entanglement, and Tom Cruise!!!!

26 Apr


1.  Justin Timberlake, Mirrors–Ok, the song is…nice…not great, not pushing limits, but very professionally done and nice.  Ok, so it can be a little sentimental, and verges on being sappy, but it comes off as…nice.    One of the interesting thing about pop songs is that they always profess to be about love, but mostly they’re the fantasy of love.  This song is squarely on the fantasy kind, and it’s kind of strange how the guy begging a girl to come back to him is its own love-song genre.   So as a listener we’re supposed to pretend to be in this situation where some guy has messed up and is telling us how special, how necessary we are to him.  And the weirdest part of this song is how he’s saying we (the love interest) is necessary because we’re just like him.    It would be amazing if they had a video where Justin was singing to himself, but alas, the video is an old couple remembering their relationship.   Because that’s all you do when you’re old is sit and remember things.  The video is ok (well EXTREMELY sappy), until he’s in this mirror tunnel dancing with young women with white hair for no reason.  Oh and the tune?  I dunno, it’s kind of like an adult upgrade of the teen-pop he sang in the 90’s.  Maybe not an adult upgrade, but it’s like we’re at the Senior Prom instead of the Junior prom.

2.   Whiskey Beach By Nora Roberts—Now there’s a beach I could spend some time on.  I’m imagining it’s this beach where everybody kind of burbles about how much they love you and get a little bit weepy, but you’ve got to watch out for the fistfights man.    For more than three hundred years, Bluff House has sat above Whiskey Beach, guarding its shore—and its secrets. But to Eli Landon, it’s home… I find this tagline very weird.  Can a place usually only be considered home or a three hundred year old house watching over a shore?  Does Eli Landon live in a lighthouse?  Are there PIRATE secrets?  H

A Boston lawyer, Eli has weathered an intense year of public scrutiny and police investigations after being accused of—but never arrested for—the murder of his soon-to-be-ex wife.  I would think he can safely consider her his ex-wife now at any rate.     And no alimony!

He finds sanctuary at Bluff House, even though his beloved grandmother is in Boston recuperating from a nasty fall.  Did he push her?   Did she break a hip?  Is she waiting in her living room trying her hardest not to pee, waiting for her grandson to show up and help her get to the bathroom?

 Abra Walsh is always there, though. Whiskey Beach’s resident housekeeper, yoga instructor, jewelry maker, and massage therapist, Abra is a woman of many talents—including helping Eli take control of his life and clear his name.  What kind of woman is named Abra?  Also does she really do these things, or is she just kind of bragging–I mean Whiskey Beach doesn’t really sound like a thriving metropolis here.  I bet you she made one keyring and watched a massage video once.  She sounds really annoying.   I bet you if she marries Eli she’ll call herself Abralandon all one mushed up word, and embroider it on her clothes.  Because it’s her style.

 But as they become entangled in each other, they find themselves caught in a net that stretches back for centuries—one that has ensnared a man intent on reaping the rewards of destroying Eli Landon once and for all…  That’s one huge net.  Also they’re entangled with each other and ensnared with a man who wants to destroy Eli.  That’s one big mess of mixed up twine.   I bet this net was handmade by Abra and it’s made out of old kitty sweaters and cheerleader pom-poms and the only reason that Eli got ensnared at all was because he felt sorry for her.  In fact I bet this little promo was written by none other than ABRA HERSELF!!!!!!

3.  Oblivion–HOLY COW have they been selling the bejeezus out of this one.  Honestly, you can’t even step one foot on the web without seeing Tom Cruise posing in his white suit.  Every so often there’s a film where I’ve seen so many ads for it that I don’t want to watch it anymore, for now, this is it.  It kind of looks like armageddon and really dumb Doctor Who, and a million other things.  I can tell that the story here is going to be TC going to earth, and finding out what really destroyed everything.  He’ll be the hero (Tom Cruise is ALWAYS the hero) and spout out a bunch of catch phrases, and though it doesn’t look bad, it looks old–that’s the word, old in the bad way, like a bad James Bond right before they change the actors around or a television series when they start recycling their own material.   Keep in mind this is coming from someone who LOVES old things–give me a bunch of movies from the thirties or some dusty old book and I’ll go at it until my eyes pop, but this one just looks old like stale bread or yesterday’s pizza.


Art Review: Gordon Cheung, Wreck of Hope

25 Apr



Cheung paints the images of destruction–as we can see in his work Wreck of Hope.  It’s interesting really, thinking about such things, in the past we’ve been worried about the bomb, global warming, terrorism for sure, but really one big contender for the end of civilization as we know it might just be economics.   Meditating on these images of destruction, with stock numbers in the background (the wall behind the front images show stock quotes) and a big rip as if the sky tore open, and ghosts of buildings.  I can see the end looking like this.

It’s sort of like going into a really bad section of a city where half the buildings are empty, and you sort of stand and wonder why on earth would such a thing be, who owns these buidings?  Who lets them just sit and rot?  Are they abandoned or just unused?  I suppose somebody (or some bank) must own them, but wouldn’t it be better for these places to have something going on, however little, rather than nothing?

That’s the problem with economics.  Somehow, in our development as a people, we came to the place where we have learned to abstract things into money, and then to abstract things further, into simple numbers.  The thing I see happen though as we turn more and more things into numbers, is that turning things into abstractions is only useful if you can turn them back into concrete objects.

There’s a dark side of capitalism–one that we don’t talk about so much because capitalism has gotten so deep into American culture that it’s easy to forget that democracy and capitalism aren’t the same things at all.  Capitalism is all about production, but it produces things like sweat-shops, pollution, neglect, illness, addiction.   In fact for some reason once things get turned into columns of numbers stored in some computer a lot of things we would never dream of doing in real life suddenly become tenable.  I mean would you pay somebody across the world, in terrible conditions, not nearly enough money to live off of, to have them make you a shirt?  Of course not.  But we don’t mind paying corporations to do just that.

The other part of the dark side is that there are no stock values in capitalism.  If you think about your life, as an individual, you have a series of subjective worth for things that remain reasonably consistent.  You always like chicken, you always hate broccoli, that sort of thing.  Capitalism can get all excited about something that is unnecessary (Like an iphone) and spend a good amount of money developing that, while ignoring necessities (like affordable medication) because they’re less lucrative.

That’s what I see in these paintings, where everything just kind of rots into rubbish filled with random cultural markers that have lost all meaning.

Sylvia Plath “Daddy”

22 Apr

U1889231Daddy is Plath’s most famous and most difficult work.  The big question is, how autobiographical is it?  Well, it’s the big question for some people–Sylvia Plath is an anomaly in poetry, for she has a big following and since her tragic death she’s become a symbol–bigger than anything that she’s written.

The thing is, I think sometimes when a person becomes a symbol, we are in danger of losing the person completely.  Plath comes up to the level of doomed rock stars, I’m thinking of people like Cobain and Jim Morrison, where there’s a story attached to them and everything gets seen through the lens of that story.  The story is that Sylvia Plath was a talented, intelligent writer who was stifled by living in an era that didn’t have a place like that for women.  The problem I see here is that it vastly simplified, not that the story doesn’t have its merits, but there were times she was able to get beyond these limitations, and her poetry really does deserve a better reading than notes to play pop psychology with.

One thing that Plath states in Daddy is that every woman needs to essentially kill their father before becoming their own person.  I was going to explain how the fifties and the sixties were much more patriarchal and that the father equaled a connection to the world, and training women to need men to protect them–but you know what, I’m not sure that it has gone away completely   I mean look at things like Twilight–the fantasy is having a magical person worth sacrificing yourself to–there’s clearly this protector image still at work when love comes to play.

In this poem she compares the father daughter relationship to the holocaust, where the father would be a nazi-like figure, and the daughter would be the holocaust victim, and the greatest thing about this poem is coming from a place of victimhood to a place of survival (and rage) by the end.  The lines are so strong–“Every woman adores a Fascist/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you,”  “There’s a stake in your fat black heart,”  and “Daddy, I have had to kill you./You died before I had time–”

In this poem, Sylvia starts from a portrait of a father who liked to torture, to saying she had to make a copy and marry him, then kill him, to finally get over it all.  Also, because he died before she was an adult, she never had a chance to “kill” her father, he’s still there, as an invisible influence in her head.  That is what the speaker is talking to, it’s not a real person, it’s an invisible influence that broke her once, and once she was put back together, humpty dumpty like she only knew how to find a person who fit that voice, another vampire.

We all know seemingly smart people who live this pattern, the ones who are abused, get free from the abuse, and become abused again.  It’s a familiar song, it’s what they know how to do–live a life in these strict roles, and in a way this poem is fighting against this, is talking to this internal voice that brings her to these familiar places.   Saying she’s through.

I have to say the poem is more than a little unnerving–it’s so difficult to remove it from Plath’s own life, and just the images of torture mixed with childish humor create a stress that is vivid.  I want it to be an exorcising poem, and I know the writer did too, but it shows such a trap in it, one that is difficult to get out of–those internalized personas that control things from behind the curtain.   How do you get rid of them?  Does Daddy ever leave in the end?

Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons

21 Apr



I’ve been enjoying some Classic Doctor Who, John Pertwee era shows lately.  First they are so extraordinarily seventies–from the cackling Master, to the blue screen special effects, to how people react to things, it’s freakishly entertaining in such a gonzo way, it’s hard not to like it.  Second, I really like Jo Grant.  Sure, she’s  not exactly progressive, being kind of flaky-doofy, but she’s so warm and energetic, and her relationship with the doctor is so fun that I can’t help but love her.  Also, I saw her in her recent interviews and she’s just amazingly well preserved.  I don’t know if this is DNA or really good genes, but all I have to say is you go Jo grant!

Also this episode has chairs that kill, a psychopathic voodoo doll, plastic flowers that smother you, and these creepy big head robots that shoot out of their hands!   My only criticism is that it might be a little too doofy at times–I mean, why does the Master act like a rather stupid James Bond villain if he’s so smart?  I really recommend these older episodes, they are a hoot and a half.

Presidential Review, William Henry Harrison

20 Apr



Well this might be the easiest review in history.  William Henry Harrison was our shortest termed president having served 2 months before his death of pneumonia in 1841.    Also, it was almost as if God had something to do with it, because ironically Harrison has the longest inauguration speech (1 hour 45 minutes) of anybody.    He only has one real official presidential act which was allowing for an emergency session in congress because there was a financial crisis.

The thing is, he’s quite interesting.    He was elected to be more like Jackson in personality, and less like him in policy.  Specifically we’re talking about the economy, which is what was on people’s minds at the time, and not social policy.     Also, it must be noted, that Harrison ushered in an era where the candidate was more involved with the election cycle (before him it was more typical for the candidate to stay out of the limelight as parties maneuvered to get the word out.)  Ironically, the very well-to-do Harrison portrayed himself as a rough cabin-dwelling common man, who knows the good of the people, while rich ol’ Martin Van Ruin, wouldn’t know a regular person if they jumped up and said boo.  Of course this was ridiculous, but it’s politics.  The other thing that came from this election was “Tippacanoe and Tyler too” one of the most famous jingles of all time (I mean, c’mon, what other 19th century jingle can you name at all.)

The other thing Harrison did, by dying, was set a course to have the vice-president take power.  It’s obvious now, but at the time the operating procedure was not so clear, as in, would Tyler be president just until a new election could be set, or for the rest of the term (they chose the latter), and a whole number of other issues.  I’m kind of glad that Harrison died peacefully, rather than of an assassination or something, because, while regrettable, there was  nothing to keep cool heads prevailing.

Other than that, there’s very little to say for or against him.  He gave a big dense speech indicating what he would do, but whether or not he was politically savvy enough to do what he said, nobody knows.

Oh well, next week, Tyler!  The accidental president!

“To Englishmen, life is a topic, not an activity.”  William Henry Harrison

Please Remember…

19 Apr

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”  Martin Luther King

Art Review Matthew Ronay, is the shadow

18 Apr

Matthew ROnay


I really love Matthew Ronay for his ability to make ordinary objects have a totem-like power about them, it’s really hard to describe out of context, and even some image of them doesn’t really pass on that quality.    There’s a carefulness about his pieces–for instance, is the shadow, at first glance just looks like a collection of things, but you really see the care involved in putting them together.  For instance it is not just a bundle of sticks, they’re (probably hand carved) dowels, bunched together on a rug with thin rug, and above it a platter of half circles of wood arranged like some strange housewife appetizer.

That’s the key word here, arranged, in the middle of the floor, looking so susceptible to being disturbed, they remind me of something so easily trampled on by accident, so set against the movements of inertia, there’s a subtle power here, it almost doesn’t matter why these things are assembled in this manner, it’s that they were done so on purpose by some hand and breaking them apart would be like spitting on an altar.

Sometimes the art isn’t about what it’s about–actually it usually isn’t, but it’s about the craft of the piece, sort of like if you were watching dancing and even if you didn’t know the moves, just knowing that they had to work really hard just to stand on their toes like that brings a certain amount of awe.

I didn’t expect to like Matthew Ronay–I didn’t expect to see the human nature drawn out in little piles on tiny rugs, but I did.  I highly recommend his works.

Poetry Review, Robert Hayden, Those Winter Sundays

15 Apr

Those Winter Sundays is one of those poems that I feel like I grew up with.  I read it at least as early as Junior High and I could easily relate to it.  I came from a family that had a woodstove, so it was normal for us to bank the stove and basically have the heat off.  In the morning the heat would be restarted (by my father, or sometimes my mother) and the house would heat up again.

“Sundays too my father got up early–”  so basically the writer’s father never got a day to sleep in, even on Sunday, the traditional day of rest, to “put his clothes on in the blueblack cold.”  I love the word blueblack, because it makes me think of cold so powerful it hurts like a bruise (and honestly, if you’ve ever been in a northern winter it really can), but also gives the sense of the total darkness that the father wakes up in–not an inviting morning.

“then with cracked hands that ached/from labor in the weekday weather made/banked fires blaze.”  I’m imagining the father is a farmer, though he could be anything I suppose–but in any case the father works with his hands, and his aching worn hands are making fire for his family.  “No one ever thanked him.”  That last line has a tinge of regret, but at the time the father probably wasn’t thanked because he always did this–to his children this is part of the order of things.  People usually get thanked for doing something out of the ordinary, not for performing the ordinary—even though the second is much more valuable.

“I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.”  Because the house is getting warm, the sound of chopping wood, but also there’s a splintering and breaking sound to ice melting and falling as well.  To this child, the sound is almost magical.

“When the rooms were warm, he’d call/and slowly I would rise and dress/fearing the chronic angers of that house.”  I think “house” is literal here–so he’s getting out of bed and dressing slowly because he was not wanting to experience the painful cold and discomfort that the house naturally had.  He’s giving time for things to get even warmer.

“Speaking indifferently to him,/who had driven out the cold/and polished my good shoes as well.”  Here’s where there’s a bit of guilt, though there’s no indication that he’s purposely ungrateful.

“What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?”  It’s his ignorance that makes him not see the love he’s surrounded by.   Actually, his father is a symbol of  what love looks like, because the father’s goal is to make the world a little bit warmer for his son, taking away a little of the world’s hardness and cold.  Also it’s clear that the father wasn’t doing this to get any kind of gratitude either, he was doing this selflessly, out of love.

It’s a lovely image, and I wonder–in what ways can we take the cold away for others?  How can we thank those who did the same for us?