Archive | May, 2013

Poetry Review: William Blake, Infant Joy

29 May

Sometimes we focus so much on the serious poetry that we have a tendency to ignore the happy stuff, which is really a shame because poetry is one of the best places to celebrate something.  I bet you could find a million articles on “Infant Sorrow” but very few on “Infant Joy.”

“I have no name/I am but two days old.”    We start in a tiny poem in a call and response cycle, the baby speaking–the first is just a statement of fact.  I half think in Blake’s world the response to this statement means everything–the baby is like something extremely soft and fragile and moldable–any response is likely to set them off in their direction.

“What shall I call thee?”  This is a good response to that first statement (as we shall see.)  First, asking someone what they would like to be called (if they were adult) is a form of respect–also the more formal “thee” adds a certain proper formality to bringing a new one in the world.

I happy am/Joy is my name.”  I like the inversion of the first line, it seems like a baby would say it that way.  Also, I have to stress, the very act of giving courtesy is what makes this child joyful–the first line is a statement of fact, but there’s no joy yet, it’s not until the response comes from the very accepting other that Joy can become what she/he is.

“Sweet joy befall thee!”  This is the one odd line in the poem that isn’t immediately understandable–it can be interpreted as Joy’s announcement of being in the family, or the family wishing the baby joy.  The use of the word befall is archaic, and packed with meaning–first befall means as if by an act of fate, though usually it’s used as an act of bad fate–it’s indicating that this child is fated to be joyful however.  The old meaning was also to come, as by right.  So Blake is saying that it is the right of this baby to be joyful, that is its place in this world.  If we take this to be an ideal coming into the world experience, the  baby can take its birthright of joy because the family recognized it in the first place.

“Pretty joy!/Sweet joy, but two days old,/Sweet joy I call thee;/Thou dost smile,/I sing the while/Sweet joy befall thee!”  This is the family’s response, firming up the identity of Joy–the lovely lullaby cadence here opens the poem up into full celebration–the recognition of this baby, and the role he/she will play in the world is an echo and a confirmation.   By being so attentive to this baby the baby can take these traits.  The poem basically moves from a tentative remark to full expression of happiness.  I can’t think of anything cozier or better.

Presidential review–Millard Fillmore

27 May

Millard FIllmore


Good lord, there’s something about Millard Fillmore’s images around the time he was president that always comes off as mildly pissed/constipated.   I can give him some leeway because you can’t exactly be looking cheerful after a President’s death, but all of his pictures are like that, so don’t tell me.

One thing I want to say to America of yesteryear (and now) is make sure that when you have an election to vote in someone as vice-president that you’d like to see the job because though it seems unimaginable the President might eat some tainted milk or something and then you’re stuck with him.  Millard Fillmore was not meant to be president.  The reason he was on the ticket at all was because Boss Weed, a shady proto-gangster in New York at the time, was wanting to move his empire from being just New York city to the whole country, he had one of his guys all tabbed up to be Vice-President, and Fillmore was an effective block on that move, also being from New York.   Unfortunately his politics had nothing to do with any of this set-up and he didn’t have any beliefs that backed his own party.

Yes, Fillmore was from the north, but he was also pro-slavery, and at a time when the compromise of 1850 was the major issue this was a huge setback.  The oddest part is that Zachary Taylor–the last slave-owning president, was against the compromise because he didn’t want slavery to spread into the west, as well as finding the whole compromise thing incredibly divisive.  Fillmore was for it.  His entire cabinet resigned, but he was still for it.

Here’s the down-and-dirty of the compromise–1) California would be admitted as a free state (yay!)  2) Texas would be admitted as a slave state (boo!)  3) The rest of the territories would be able to choose by popular sovereignty when it came the time for them to apply for statehood.  4) Slave trade illegal in Washington DC (yay) 5)A stronger fugitive slave act (triple boo!)  There were a few other bits allowing Utah essential self-rule and defining Texas boundaries, but that’s all chicken scratch compared to these things.

The Fugitive slave act was the worst part of this compromise, because now federal marshals were required to aggressively hunt down and jail anybody even suspected of being a runaway slave.  All it took was any kind of accusation from anybody and the feds were to swoop in, take them, and send them back.  This was in response to a lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court that ruled that states aren’t required to take action to uphold other states laws on a fugitive slave lawsuit.  (Though another effect of this ruling, to the curious, is that is why in movies the cops have to stop at the state line–they have no outside jurisdiction.)  Oh, by the way, this also took the right of any suspected slave to a trial (so the Supreme Court can’t intervene again.)

This was when escaped slaves started having to go to Canada rather than simply above the mason-dixon line to be truly free.  This also started the Underground Railroad and a massive cultural change that sets us in strictly pre-Civil war territory.  This compromise pleased nobody–the North in particular was outraged to have to submit to a system they wanted no part of–abolitionism took off.  Because of this the South got more defensive and unwilling to compromise at all.

Also, a secondary thing this compromise brought in was the idea of popular sovereignty being a good idea for the slavery issue.  For most non-touchy issues I think this is a great idea, but for slavery–no way.  In the territories eventually this would rear its head in bloody Kansas where the territory burst out into a shadow war over the issue a few years later–unrest that would not simmer down until the Civil War was over.

In international affairs Millard Fillmore has a slightly better time–he was the one who sent the great white fleet with Commodore Perry around the world to open trade.  This eventually opened up Japan (among other places) to U.S. trade–a very big accomplishment…but he didn’t arrive in Japan until Fillmore was out of office, so he didn’t really get credit for it.

Outside of that, he had an embarrassing episode in Cuba, where a Venezualan revolutionary tried to invade Cuba to liberate it.   Southerners wanted to get Cuba next after the Spanish American war, as the Caribbean proved ideal for a slavery based economy.  Fillmore tried (unsuccessfully) to block the invasion (twice), the Venezualan did not succeed, and France and Britain sent ships over to “keep an eye on things.”  Fillmore ended up having to apologize to Spain and unable to support independance because if Cuba pushed off Spain (who was not as strong as they used to be) either the United States would have to take it, and then it would cause political upheaval, or some stronger European country would take it.

Fillmore’s actions directly lead to the death of the Whig party–a party that for all its faults had a broad ideology (strong central government, work towards the end of slavery as an institution, national institutions).  Never again would they have the strong national impact they once had.  Also, from Fillmore until the Civil War ended slavery was the issue that mattered–no more philosophic discussions about the role of government or fair leadership.  Unfortunately, until war broke out, we did not have a president capable of leading the slavery issue into a fruitful discussion at all.

Pop Culture Friday Heart Attacks, The Rock, and Dangerous Women.

24 May

1.  Demi Lovato–Heart Attack–Well here’s your plastic soulless pop for you if you want it.  She sings like two notes, talks about if she falls in love she’ll have a heart attack, but I think she’s more likely to clog up her pores with all that ink she spreads all over herself in this song.  Also it’s like autotune ran in and decided she could only yowl like three notes.  Boring.

2.  Fast and Furious 6—Well it’s your average big giant summer movie, though I’m surprised it’s doing so well.  Also can I say this must be an amazing summer for The Rock who is showing up in a bunch of big movies this year.  Good for him.  I’m not really into the movies he’s showing up in, but he’s very likable and doesn’t take himself too seriously.  As for the movie, it looks like it’s squarely in the Die Hard sort of genre–impossible mission, lots of guns and cars, a tank, impossible stuff.  I’m not going to be too hard on this one, it’s exactly the sort of thing people go for around memorial day.  So there.

3.  Silken Prey by John Sandford–Murder, Scandal, Espionage, and an extremely dangerous woman.  Lucas Davenport will be lucky to get out of this one alive.  I’m guessing he doesn’t get out of this alive.  Surprisingly it’s the scandal that does him in.  Very early one morning, a Minnesota political fixer answers his doorbell. The next thing he knows, he’s waking up on the floor of a moving car, lying on a plastic sheet, his body wet with blood. When the car stops, a voice says, “Hey, I think he’s breathing,” and another voice says, “Yeah? Give me the bat.” And that’s the last thing he knows.  The last thing he knows?  Really?  Also they’re in a moving car beating someone with a bat?  I hope they’re in the country–how could you even swing a bat hard enough in a car?    The story seems to wander into generic action territory after the bat beating, oh well, again this is memorial day, so why not read something like this?

America, the things you like this week are big loud and dumb, but it’s Memorial day weekend, so I’ll give you a pass.  Next week, up the brains please?  Thanks!!!!

Art Review, Enrique Castro-Cid, Yellow Contortion

22 May



One of the things that can drive me crazy when I talk to people about art is people who don’t know the difference between pretty things to hang on the wall and capital A Art.  To them a painting like this one would be more than pointless, it’s neither pretty, ignorable, nor meant to be part of a design.  What we get are two figures that look trapped in amber, their bodies all distorted and frozen.  or maybe if you took people and pressed them flat in a book, they’d look like this.

Disjointed, distortion are what Enrique Castro-Cid–and when looking at this, don’t you sometimes feel trapped and stretched out of shape from time to time?  What makes you feel this way?  Well, one explanation would be society, which demands that individuals change their shape to fit its needs.  The two figures seem to take this in different ways–the figure on the left seems to want to beat himself out of the painting, his arms flexed aggressively, the woman on the right looks to heaven in a pleading gesture.  In the meantime the yellow space around them is all scratched on, showing the white background peeking through.  That’s the odd thing about the yellow field–it seems to be the thing that traps them, but it’s also what gives them shape and definition.

In a way that yellow field seems to be shrinking and breaking down, and when that is gone, will the figures show up at all?  After all, they are largely made up of white (though they do have black outlines.)  Will they be less distorted, or more?  Can they function off the yellow field?

A very interesting painting, indeed.

Poetry Review, Julia Alvarez, “Homecoming”

20 May

In “Homecoming” Julia Alvarez talks about her experience at a family wedding in the Dominican Republic.  The whole poem reads like a whirl of magical and disturbing facts–her cousin’s family spent a huge amount of money to do the simplest things, like wade in the river which required an armor truck and the river to have been cleaned (and that’s just the beginning)–she was trying to impress “a bewildered group of sumburnt Minnesotans,”  her husband’s people.  So we’ve got the bizarre huge wedding that is made to impress some Americans run by a group of invisible servants to do the work.

In the meantime she is forced to hang out with her uncle who is disturbingly flirtatious and more than a little tipsy.  He offers her the whole place (I’m guessing in marriage, though who knows.)  She realizes looking back later that she did not notice the servants, that she had to be re-educated to do that, or at least to understand how she is blind to them.  “It was too late, or early, to be wise.”

The whole house is made of sugarcane, cut by the servants–also notably the servants are locked out of the festivities.  They serve, they make it happen, but they sit on the back stairs eating out of their hands.  She has a vision that the fields were burning, though she did not understand it at the time, she saw the possibility of revolt sometime in the future.

The series of images relating to Tio’s wanton spending compared to the poverty of the servants is the biggest tension in this poem–monogrammed wedding bells, a dancefloor covered in talc, chinese lanterns, a marzipan cake that looked exactly like the family ranch, champagne kept semi-cold over blocks of ice, every image of a thing is unnatural and overdone–even the image of the groom melting into the frosting is apt, because this celebration is not really about him (notice how he’s barely mentioned through the whole poem).  At the end, Alverez states that the whole house, and the whole wedding were really from the sweat of the servants who have nothing.

Presidential Review: Zachary Taylor

19 May

Zachary Taylor


Old Rough and Ready–Zachary Taylor, while not serving very long before his untimely death, was the prototype of the fierce independent.   He didn’t even vote until his own election, if that gives you any idea as to how little he thought of politics.  In fact, I’m uncertain why he ran at all.

Taylor was very popular not only because he was a war hero (though that was significant) but also because he seemed to find a way around the sectionalism that had really started creating strain in the country.  After the Mexican American War ended, the United States had suddenly all this land to divvy up, which really started up the whole hornets nest of whether the new states and territories would be slave states or not.  Taylor did not feel like having the eastern states demand the western ones after one side or the other as ludicrous, and wanted each state to decide for itself what it wanted without the national government interfering too much.

In general, Taylor was for letting congress dealing with issues through compromise, the president’s role being to veto laws based on Constitutionality, and to be a steam valve for divisive issues.   While Congress was busy setting up the compromise of 1850 (which Taylor didn’t really have much to do with), Taylor did manage a bit of political maneuvering in setting up the western territories so that they could become part of the country with as little congressional fuss as possible.  His plan was for California to come into the union straight up as a state, so that congress wouldn’t have the chance to get into a frenzy over the slavery issue.  He wanted Texas to enter as a state directly as well, though there was the issue of Oklahoma territory, which Texas claimed.  Taylor denied that, as the territory was very lightly settled and might endanger his direct to statehood clause.  Oklahoma would remain separate  and be set off as a giant reservation for Native Americans (for a little while that is.)    Utah would remain a territory, with some special provisions for the Mormon population who wanted to remain separate from national politics.

Taylor had no real interest in spreading slavery, though he was a slave-owner.  I don’t think it was because he was particularly interested in equality or anything, just that he thought that slaves would not work very well in areas that couldn’t support a plantation system.  Also, he was wanting the new states to have identities that were not aligned with either the North or the South.

Internationally he had one big plum which would pay off years later, he managed to make an agreement about a canal possibly being built in Central America with Britain, where neither country would own or run any canal or railway running over Central America.   This would open up the possibility of the Panama Canal in half a century, and though Britain did try to sidestep this treaty a couple of times, effectively ended Britain’s attempts to settle the Americas beyond Canada.  Britain’s gaze would move to Australia, the Far East, and Africa, but largely left the Americas alone.   This also could be said to mark the start of friendly American/British relations, as Britain did not treat the United States as an inferior, but an equal and separate entity.  These relations would gradually evolve (bypassing certain tensions in the Civil War)  into the informal alliance we have today.

I can’t say much more about Taylor–always suffering from GI problems, he caught a form of cholera and died after serving only 16 months.  Historians tend to stress his outsiderness and how he didn’t tend to get along with prominent politicians very well, however, it did seem like he was able to get things done and be above all the sectionalistic claptrap that was going on at the time.  Also considering he got quite a bit done in a little more than a year, I can say he was a promising president if nothing else.

I would say that I don’t really agree with Taylor philosophically, however I don’t think he was a very philosophic president in the first place.    At any rate, he did what he could.  Next up, Millard Fillmore!

Albums Worth Listening To: The Sticks by Mother Mother

18 May

the sticks


Usually I avoid reviewing albums that are too recent–it’s too easy to get sucked into the zeitgeist rather than looking at what is good and will last.  However I am confident that this little gem has legs under it.

Ryan Guildemond, the lead singer and main music writer for this band is a crazy-smart virtuoso–honestly this album is the sort that a younger me would pore over the lyrics and send little bits of them to people I know.  That’s the other reason this album may last–it’s a true album, with a theme, where the songs–all very good–add up to a whole imagined landscape.  The theme is leaving the modern world behind, going off to the wild–literally and figuratively.

The influence are wide and ranging–you’ll hear some Pixies, Depression music, psycho hillbilly, indie dance, OK Computer era Radiohead, Cole Porter, My Bloody Valentine, Elvis Costello–I could go on forever, the point is this is greater than the sum of influences–they truly make their own world–not always a fun world, mind you, but a real place, and there’s so many times while listening to it where I say to myself yes, yes, this is how it is.

This is the pop-on-the-headphones, just-broke-up-with-your-boyfriend, pace-and-write-bad-poetry album to have on your playlist on repeat.  You’ll memorize the lines which will  pop up in your days as perfect descriptions of many of the ridiculous situations we all get in this plastic modern world.

The reason I can wholeheartedly recommend this is because it isn’t just that it’s musically sophisticated, but that it seems to be about real feelings, thought out–thoughts about significance and clashing values and the anger that lies latent in modern life.  They are so much more than many indie bands which are more about fashion than substance.

Embrace your wild side–not the self destructive one, but the one that does not want to pay attention to everybody’s rules anymore and hide away in some rough section of the forest.  Let the archipalegos take you places.  It’s just the medicine you need, trust me.

Pop Culture Friday: Bland, bland, bland edition

17 May

1.  Iron Man 3–I saw the preview, and while there are certainly impressive special effects, it doesn’t seem that substantial.  It doesn’t look bad per se, it looks standard.   Red Letter Media had a discussion about how the average movie is often the worst movie because it holds no surprises and also it’s not horrible enough to make fun of–that’s what Iron Man looks like to me.  That’s my problem with a “thrill ride” movie–it’s like some producer has timed how long it needs to be between action sequences, and fills the bits in between with completely unchallenging dramatic pieces–it’s boring because it’s so predictable.  I wonder who it is that keeps going to these things.  Also, the movie seems to be bringing up terrorism as a way to make the show relevant, and it sorta makes me cringe, because I doubt that Iron Man is going to look at such a loaded issue with very much verisimilitude at all.

2.  Selena Gomez, Come and Get it–I’m kind of divided on this one.  Selena Gomez is a very beautiful woman, and I really like how pop culture has somebody so non-standard that they’re pushing.  However, this song is kind of flat.  It’s like they took 90’s world music and pasted a very vocodored out voice over the top with the most generic love lyrics ever.  It comes off as sounding like post-toxic Britney Spears.  Don’t get me wrong, Selena Gomez has 1000 times more charisma that Britney ever had, but it’s very much product, as in it comes off that Selena didn’t even know anything about this song before performing it.  Yawn–I’m bored again,  come back again Selena when you’ve got some better material.

3.  Charlaine Harris, Dead Ever After–Ahhhh, a good series long after it’s jumped the shark–I haven’t read this particular book, but I’ve read others so I know what I’m talking about.  The True Blood series were good because they took a different angle on the whole vampire trend, and were head and shoulders above things like Twilight.  However, Harris got a bad case of mystery writer syndrome, where the same situations started happening over and over (how many times can one small group of people be set up for murder?  It’s like in every book, I swear.)  Also the series lost a lot of the risk, and therefore a lot of the interest, and traded it in for frothy soap-opera shenanigans.

So America, you’re kinda being boring, sticking to predictable things that big companies have decided that you would like.  I’d really like it if you thought for yourself more, rather than having it so enormously bland.  Step it up a little.  I know you’ll like it.

Art Review, Guy Allison, Why the Angel Jumps

15 May

why the angel jumps


This wonderful painting is so complex that it’s really hard to talk about.  We have a human figure, with wings and what looks like a string around his neck looking at the sun.  In the corner under the window is a cross.  The rest of the “room” is blocky pink on black, with some lattice in one corner and a little puzzle piece with a white water drop shape on it.

The first thing I see is a sort of Icarus tale–if we want to know why the angel jumps–he wants to reach the sun.  However while Icarus is about pride, this seems to be more about despair.  The wings of this angel are clearly tied on, and they don’t look sturdy enough to fly.  The figure is standing with a bit of a slump–this is not a prideful stance, and he has a cord around his neck.  The little cross in the corner doesn’t seem religious–it reminds me more of a graveyard marker than anything else.    Also, this man might be already hung, we don’t see his feet–you can’t be sure that he’s actually touching the ground.

And then there’s the other signs, the room full of darkness and the window full of light, the lattice almost acting like the world is blocked out, stuck out of reach–the reason this angel might have jumped was over a sense of isolation and trappedness (his space certainly seems like a dark labyrinth.)  I like how his shadow seems to pass beyond the realms of this painting, like it’s trying to reach out into the world you and I are standing in.

The design of this image is top notch–it looks cut out of paper, but sends the perfect image of emptiness and unbalance.  Also mourning, like this painting might have been made in memory of somebody–it certainly is quite sad, and beautiful all at once.

Poetry Review, Yusef Komunyakaa, “Facing It”

13 May

My black face fades,/hiding inside the black granite.   What we are seeing, through the eyes of a vet, is the Vietnam memorial.  What his race is, we don’t know, because his face is black looking into that smooth black mirror of names.

I said  I wouldn’t/dammit:  No tears.   His face fades because he is crying, or at least tearing up.  Such an odd promise, to not cry at a memorial.  I know there’s a fear of losing control, and also of not letting the thing get to you, of not letting it win.  I understand that.  Oh, but tears can be so healing.

I’m stone.  I’m flesh.  This is a marvelous line, because the man is going between stone and flesh, his resolve to not cry vs. his body’s insistence he does so.  Also the memorial is made of stone and flesh–all those names piled on each other, all those people who died, written in stone.

My clouded reflection eyes me/like a bird of prey, the profile of night/slanted against morning.  A veteran would see the world through a parted eye.  That’s the amazing thing about this poem, we are watching a man, look at words, empathizing with the memorial to words.  He’s also facing himself amidst these words, having survivor’s guilt, a living person among the ranks of the dead.

I turn this way–the stone lets me go./I turn that way–I’m inside/the Vietnam Veterans Memorial/again, depending on the light/to make a difference.  Again looking at the memorial in two different ways, he’s in the world and he’s in the wall.  He has a choice.  The names don’t.

I go down the 58,022 names,/half expecting to find/my own in letters like smoke.  His half-expectation is interesting, indicating that he doesn’t think himself better, and maybe not even luckier than those that are written there.  That maybe he kind of died too in that war.  Certainly the title “Facing It” isn’t just talking about the literal facing a wall, but also looking at the reality of the war, and the dead, and taking it in.

I touch the name Andrew Johnson:/ I see the booby trap’s white flash.  He has a memory associated with that name–and also the name is something of a trap, because it brings him back there, makes him remember the losses he had in the war.  I like the touching bringing a vision, like if he touched all these names there would be a flicker of a memory.  Like the names are magic for being written on that wall.

Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse/but when she walks away/the names stay on the wall.  He acknowledges that his experience isn’t the same as others.  To some people the names are just names.  They don’t have stories associated with them.  They remain an abstraction.  Also, he’s noticing what’s going on in the world through the reflective wall–a great metaphor for how a veteran sees the world.

Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s/wings cutting across my stare.  The world still goes on despite this fact.  And that’s what this poem is, a veteran taking the war experience and the losses and tries to make amends with the real world which still goes on happening.   In his mind the real world is almost an interruption.

The sky.  A plane in the sky.  Again seeing the world, this time something completely neutral.  The world still turns.

A white vet’s image floats/closer to me, then his pale eyes /look through mine.  I’m a window.  The eyes glancing at each other through the wall, not acknowledging that they’re looking.  Is it because of the implicit knowledge that both might have on what’s going on in each other’s heads?    He calls himself a window–completely depersonalizing himself, as if he’s still keeping himself from crying.

He’s lost his right arm, inside the stone.   To the Vet the stone is the war itself, and the white man’s arm is in there, because that stone is a testament to what has been taken.

In the black mirror/a woman’s trying to erase names:/no she’s brushing a boy’s hair.   Interesting that her action of brushing hair would seem like erasing names in the window.  In a way, isn’t doing that action, brushing someone’s hair, going on living sort of erasing the names, or at least the meaning behind them?  In the eyes of a vet it might–so while life going on is a great gift, there’s a sense of loss that comes when this list of names moves from being known people to names written in history.  What this man is facing isn’t so much the war, but also that life is moving on, that the world has not ended, and that he needs a way to make his two worlds into one.

Honestly, Komunyakaa’s poem is brilliant–showing the complex feelings of a vet in a world that forgets its wars eventually.