The practice of frame-shifts, as embodied in poetry, blogs, stories, music, reviews, performances, and other speculative fictions. Also a Net Galley Reviewer. To sign up for the newsletter, paste & link to http://eepurl.com/blVuIH. For author landing page and shop, paste & link to https://formsofresistance.com/
The French film title could also be translated, “Mona—no roof, no law.” The young vagabond, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, refers to herself as a “camper” in her encounters with farmers, goatherds, academics, housekeepers, nurses, and young men on the make. Her corpse is discovered in the first scene; the remainder of the film traces her story to that discovery. It is an unpleasant story about a rather unpleasant character. Certainly, she shows no gratitude to anyone who helps her. Most people ignore her or give just enough to send her away. She is raped several times, almost dies in a fire, and is nearly forced to work as a prostitute. Vardas clearly wanted her to visit all sectors of society—the sympathetic biologist who feels guilty for not doing more, the philosopher-turned-goat-keeper who, with questionable bona fides, chides her for allowing the trash she has read to create a world-view that holds her hostage; the nurse who thinks of Mona’s life as romantic until Mona gets drunk with the nurse’s elderly patient.
Mona is a person without worth, either invisible or seen as an opportunity, source of guilt, or recipient of appropriately measured concern. Her careless encounters with men present a discouraging portrait of the possibility of any human engagement without some level of aggression. Perhaps this is what Vardas intended.
Three species of aggression are particularly noteworthy: unpredictable aggression, predictable aggression, and sanctioned aggression.
The young toughs looking for hits, lays, highs, and something to steal represent unpredictable aggression. Employers, parents, and caregivers who take it upon themselves to berate, threaten, and punish are predictable aggressors: they have power over their charges and use it in predictable ways. Sanctioned aggressors are those sanctioned by the community to compel others to do something for the good of the community. Here find zealous schoolteachers, like Samuel Butler, Sr., headmaster over Charles Darwin, who later said that Butler’s school did nothing for his mind. Here also are police, judges, pastors, militias, and rulers. Merchants who have amassed enough wealth to become corpocrats also seek to be considered sanctioned in their aggression because such classification would show that paying no taxes and meeting no regulations on their exploitations of labor and habitats are for the good of the community—making them ”job-creators,” perhaps.
The dynamic is worth consideration: humanity divided into the camps of aggressors and vagabonds of no worth. Another depressing French film—one wants a bouncy American-style ending; one gets a corpse.
Speaking of the body politic, perhaps Vardas had one other thing in mind.
Thinking back over the film, and the last year or so, it is the women that one notices. Sorry guys, but we seem to be stuck in the three species of aggression. The women in the film—and in the street over the last few years, perhaps even beginning with that first rally in D.C. in 2016—are the ones who notice the invisible people in pain, like George Floyd. The women are the ones who give Mona help—even when she doesn’t congratulate them for doing it.
Surely The Poor should be grateful for SNAP or Tax Legislation or Low Rent. But if they don’t show gratitude or congratulate us, why, we should back off. Yes?
Again, over the last months, it is the women who have said “me too” in empathy and justice, who have helped the helpless to vote, or to get PPEs—some of them dying as they do so. Men expect you to meet conditions—the honor culture, don’t you know—but women seem to give without conditions. And those who make it into legislatures try to make laws that do the same. Something about mercy and justice, perhaps.
Did I mention that I’m fed up with honor culture, racism, and the three species of aggression? After millennia, let’s turn to the original caregivers for less aggressive solutions to problems created by a long history of violations. Men can learn to follow. We could do worse.
Scenes From A Writing Class (Actually, All The Participants May Be Me)
And suddenly I’m thrashing, doomed and desperate, in its mouth.
Too many trees!
A tale shifts with its telling. It becomes the teller.
In this photograph, a cormorant, fleeing, has caught a fish, which a second cormorant, looming, threatens to seize. It’s not a tale yet, but it’s the cusp of one. “Look, characters! Look, they’re having a dramatic moment!” So we look. We reach in, we begin imagining. But to write what we imagine, to craft a tale, we must push beyond the threshold, and advance into the dark of it. With intent, and with a methodology.
With our first steps, we shape a stance. Where do we place ourselves? Whose skin do we wear? Whose voice suits the telling?
The strongest choices tend to be the simplest ones. “Look, characters!” Who are they?
(1) The fisher cormorant…
(2) The thief cormorant… And thirdly?
(3) The fish.
Yes. There’s a certain reluctance to empathize with the fish, which is what a point of view character demands of us. We would rather not be this fish.
Good. Any other possibilities?
(4) The lake? Well, if you must. A bit contrived, perhaps? Too gimmicky a narrator for most tastes, as with any inanimate tale-teller. But give it a try, if you must. Animate it!
(5) The artist? Which artist? The photographer? Yes, very good: someone has chosen to observe, and capture, and display this image. Who, and why?
(6) The teacher, who has chosen to share it? Yes. What fun! Why not me? Go for it!
(7) The viewer. Of the photograph? Yes, we’ve spoken about this: all art, even casual or private art, aspires to affect an audience. Beginning with its own creator! And after that, whoever else sees it. We can write from that audience’s perspective.
(8) The writer him or herself! Splendid! Or yourself—or I!A photograph suggests, but what it shows is static. It says, “Peek in my window!” Whereas a tale is progressive—it travels—it says, “Ride with me!” It acquires a landscape—with glimpsed distances—even as it insists, “No, look over here!” Our tale reveals what we order and disorder it to reveal.
What can be scary is that it reveals us too—and not just to our readers! An honest writer will reflect from its every shard. It can be a useful trick to acknowledge this fact—that we stand, furtively stripping, in a hall of mirrors—and to speak from that pose.
(9) The reader. Yes. There are Venn overlaps here, of course, but yes.
(10) God? God as imagined by the characters? Or by who? Or some kind of authentic, above us all God? Yes, I accept that a range of options is possible, but which did you intend? Ah. Again, please, for the whiteboard? “The God who created a world in which cormorants have to kill to survive…and fish have to die…and thieves prosper while others go hungry.” Well, your third contention is debatable, and there are other conceivable and inconceivable Gods who might have some part to play in this drama—but for our #10, let there be God! And we’ll call it a list.
Now. Pick one of these ten. Open your soul to them; find their voice; be them. Write!
The beak unclenches—flips—clasps harder.
Gut-speared—then clamped, and flapped—I flounder
and lunge—a low, slapped froth of water
flails me—I flail—am plunged back under.
Keelhauled up out, hoist at the sky,
I twist one rivuletting eye
to where the lake churns below, and die—
leaving, on its quicksilvering skin,
my shape, in glints of scale and fin,
to spall through trawled mirrors of trees.
Do fish feel pain? Science suggests that they do. This is an inconvenient finding, so it tends to be labeled (see Wikipedia) as “contentious”. We can’t really know what another human feels, let alone some other species! And anyway, fish surely can’t feel emotional pain, as we do.
I write my fish as articulate, self-aware, and even desperate, and yet I distance myself. My language is pretty and my tone measured. There’s death here, sure, but it’s a little jaunty.
Be them? Well, there are degrees of empathy. One can aspire.
Ultimately, there is just one honest teller of a tale, and that’s the writer. Our characters, 1-7 and 9-10—but most especially 1-4, who are wholly Other, and 10, who is Inconceivable—are an illusion; their voices are inflections of our own.
Imagine that for some reason I am broken. The long pandemic. The hard winter, with its ice storms and its power outages. The political climate. Personal troubles. The usual brokenness: Thoreau’s quiet desperation; Baudelaire’s ennui. Its particulars I’ll exclude, of course, from my story, but can I, and should I, exclude my brokenness? The fisher cormorant, if I place it at the tale’s center, will battle its own brokenness. Or the thief cormorant will master, but not quite, its brokenness, which, say, drives it to greater ruthlessness. Or the fish, dying (but what do fish have of memory, and know of loss?) will struggle to rescue some bright, less broken fragment from the tear of beak and gullet. Or rage in a squirm of silver against death.
And so on. The lake may rail at or revel in its jungle laws; the observer, whether the photographer, the teacher, or God herself, will bare her poor lost soul.
Imagine, too, that for months now, I’ve been unable to write. I’m grumpy because my pharynx is bad. In January, to confront the malady, I start a prose essay about self-talk: the exclamations—jubilant, or startled, or broken—which escape the confines of one’s inner colloquy, and erupt into the air. I tell of my college roommate’s favorite snarls, which were “Puke!” “Spew!” and “Fester!” To which I would mockingly retort, “Chair leg!”—as if my own mutterings—”Look, you can work till you’re grey!” “Dead soldiers in the rain!”—were any less weird. I rouse my rumpled thoughts into language. They sag back into toss and mumble. I roll over and let the thing lie.
More recently, I’ve begun to exclaim, “Too many trees!” I conversed, once, with a Japanese visitor to Richmond, who didn’t have much English, but who kept this phrase at the ready. When one of us asked him what he thought of our city, he cried out, with a kind of indignant, astonished, excoriating glee, “Too many trees!” Richmond, and we hadn’t known it, was infested with trees? Was such a thing even possible? How different must a perspective be from my own to arrive at such a judgment! Yet now I come out with this phrase at the oddest moments! Rarely in incomprehension at the world; sometimes in incomprehension at myself; occasionally to fix myself with its mantra; but mostly for the strange tickle of its noise. It is, I believe, a sort of mildly terrible sneeze. A sneeze (God bless, God break me) of absurdist, self-ridiculing woe.
Today, I confess, exasperated with my tale of two cormorants and a fish, I’ve been inviting each narrator in turn to chorus the phrase with me. A dumb whim, but a stubborn one. As I flee with my catch, or pursue with my wings outspread, or look down, as the God who God knows why has made the world this way, I blurt, Too many trees! Too many trees!
Until over me the dapple of a sunlit surface dims—as a great swift shadow hardens in the water weeds—and violently I am yanked into a beak—and up—out into sky, and a wheel of trees—gasping and thrashing in its maw.
I’ve always preferred to write when I feel whole rather than when I feel broken. It’s not that I flinch from betraying some secret shame, it’s that, in a funk, I write worse. What shame can there be in one’s ordinary nakedness? What beauty might I find, rather, in vulnerability, in our need for touch? And yet I struggle to. I think that I find such states, in me, at least, a bit pitiful, a bit excessive. I’ve known too much good fortune, and am certainly not, not yet, this fish! My world is sweet, even if lately it has seemed more dangerous, and far too savagely divided. (Can we know any other perspective than our own? Can we wish to, at least, try? Even if only for the duration of a writing exercise?) The life of anything that feels—that relishes and takes for granted, that suffers and that dies—may be both terrible beyond all understanding, and wild and lovely beyond all understanding. It may hurt to feel we are preyed on, or to be so small in the world’s immensity—to be just another fish. Yet when we have, or make, the time to look, and to wonder, what an astonishment it remains: this great untamable forest that we swim in, with its terrible birds, its too many trees.
My new poetry collection, PUSHBACK was released yesterday. As a single-minded promoter, I have shortcomings and misgivings—somewhat reflected in the pseudonymous guest-blogs for this issue–and remain up in the air although I now have an author landing site
If you have a moment and the inclination, please consider posting about PushBack on social media today. Each post has a cumulative effect and can really make an impact. (And thank you if you’ve already been doing this!) You can also help spread the word by giving the book a star rating on Goodreads or a starred review on Amazon. If you’d like to buy a copy, it’s available everywhere books are sold. You can order directly from your local bookstore or reach your local bookstore through Indiebound. In Richmond, BookPeople (https://www.bookpeoplerichmond.com/) has signed copies
More purchase links: Amazon , Barnes & Noble , Indiebound . And then there’s this: From the Review by Book Life: “Rose’s eloquent collection, subtitled ‘Selected Poems of Resistance,’ touches on a wide sweep of topics with a singular sense of rhythm and musicality that enriches even some of the book’s most inaccessible pieces . . . “
G U E S T B L O G S
Having a Goal
A recent post on the Minimalist website* called attention to Instagram’s friendly message to users that they are “all caught up” with scrolling. Obviously, given millions of images to scroll, this is impossible, but the insertion of the message gives the user a goal for scrolling. Giving customers a reason to return habitually to a product is fundamental to advertising. Customers come to believe that they are achieving personal goals by using a promoted product or idea. They have identified with the product. The Franklin Mint encourages them to make their collections complete. The NYT Best Seller list encourages them not to miss what Everyone Else is now reading. Hundreds of other promoters warn their potential customers that Everyone Else is also making the best investment, buying the perfect sofa, sleeping on the best bed, eating at the best restaurant, and going on the most fabulous cruise. Buckets fill with lists of goals to achieve because customers OWE IT TO THEMSELVES to match Everyone Else. Houses fill with commemorative dishes, figurines, gold medallions, pedigreed pooches, and gun racks. Heads fill with cute pooch videos and countless posts by strangers that must be passed on to other strangers so that Everyone Else will know about three-in-one tools for washing, whisking, and wiping, or where to buy enough cartridges and salt pork to outlast the Dark Times that are coming according to Everyone Else. Certainly, this is the time to buy gear, extra firearms, and cartons of ready-to-eat meals. Only add water. But it may be hard to catch up to Everyone Else as they burst through the Capitol doors wielding bats. —Andante
There is a kind of parasitic worm, the Acanthocephala, or spiny-headed worms, which live in the intestines of vertebrates. These worms do not really have spiny heads; they possess a muscular anterior proboscis supplied with hooks for fastening into the intestinal wall of their host. The length of spiny-headed worms ranges from a sixteenth of an inch to a foot. They have no digestive systems, relying entirely on the host. The nervous system comprises an anterior cluster of nerve cells and patches of light sensitive retinacula—brain and eyes. Most other body systems are absent or rudimentary, except for the reproductive system. Like the proboscis, the reproductive organs are well developed. Accessory structures, the cement glands and copulatory bursa, ensure attachment during mating. Central to the acanthocephalan way of life, these structures have evolved with maximum quality assurance. Reproducing in large numbers guarantees the survival of a few. As with many other species, this strategy of high biotic potential has proved tremendously successful for the spiny-heads.
Suited as they are for intestinal living, spiny-heads are presented with a wide array of benefits in their tubular habitat, including a ready source of predigested food, excellent climate-control, a short commute and excellent public transportation system. Passing through the gut, the young acanthors ultimately exit the host on their vision quests to new territories, often assisted by the wings of insect vectors in whose body cavities they develop into new forms, the transitional acanthella and the invasive cystacanth. Occasionally, however, the host may provide such an inviting setting that hundreds of acanthors remain close to home in large subdivisions that cause the intestine to come apart. Such unintended consequences are obviously dangerous externalities, but with their small patches of neural tissue, spiny-heads are not given to forethought.
I once worked for a man who studied acanthocephalans. He was particularly suited to the work—inquisitive, knowledgeable, admired, and aided with a large federal grant to continue his investigations and pay my salary for many years. His interest was so keen that any time not devoted to spiny-heads—attending faculty meetings, giving lectures on general biology, picking up his mail, travel out of town, eating, talking to his wife—he regarded with good-natured disinterest, provided he could soon return to the laboratory, where he inoculated doves, goldfish, and turtles with thousands of cystacanths and wrote a hundred pounds of monographs.
Similar in some ways to the spiny-heads he studied, Professor Austin was peculiarly suited for his peculiar interest. Just as the worm could exist within the intestine without being digested or expelled—its flexible proboscis retracting or fastening as needed—so Austin, within a narrow range, avoided absorption or expulsion by probing or withdrawing as the situation demanded.
Presumably there was a time when most acanthocephalans did not have hooks on their proboscis but did have a digestive system. A minority, with a poor digestive system but stubby hooks, let us say, existed at that time as poor relations on the scraps of detritus siphoned by some unobservant clams. Perhaps a seabird carried one of these clams inland to drop it on a rock and feast. Suddenly released into the bird’s gut, the poor relations with their stubby spines could hold on as their betters perished. Many generations later, their gutless descendants had glorious grappling hooks, in much the same way that other gutless beings often find ways to hang on and hang around.
Of course, millions of worms died initially for lack of a spiny proboscis and, as time went on, millions more died because their probosces were inadequate. Although their evolved way of life was less independent and their way of getting about was clumsy and uncertain, the benefits outweighed the losses. The fact that they were committed to their way of life, totally dependent on their hosts, and lacking the capability to escape it, would not occur to spiny-heads because they were not given to reflection.
What about Professor Desmond Austin, who was in a situation with a comparable degree of dependency? His laboratory was designed around the acanthocephalan life-cycle. In the Cuticle Division, where I worked, cubicles were devoted to Extracuticular Substances, Protein or NonProtein, Excreted or Secreted, Functional or Nonfunctional. Each cubicle was inhabited by a graduate student or technician. Working under Protein, a team specialized in Quantification and Identification, Crystallography, Electron Microscopy, Artificial Synthesis, Deprivation Studies, Extra-vital Uses, and Cost-Analysis and Feasibility of Processing. The Cuticle Division was one of thirty units devoted to the body systems of spiny-heads. The mental territory of Professor Austin had become the host for an enterprise employing almost a thousand researchers. The thirty-first unit, called the NonEssential Division, was managed by Mr. Greth, who was also the only employee in the unit.
The NonEssential Division provided for the nourishment, security, relaxation, medical and mental services of the laboratory’s staff and their families, all of whom lived on site. Mr. Greth was a stooped, balding man who looked like someone assigned to manage nonessential matters. No documents, books, or files were in his office, which was furnished only with a few chairs, a small table, and a recliner, where he was lying on the first day I reported for work—and where he was every time I had to see him over the decade remaining to Professor Austin before his health, marriage, and federal grant simultaneously collapsed. Without getting up, Mr. Greth handed me the keys to my apartment and cubicle and warned me to avoid the construction area for the new division on the Circulatory Disorders of Alternative Hosts, the one extra block in Austin’s teetering project that finally brought it down. As I left, Greth said, as he always did, Flow through but hang on.
Now that it’s all over, specialization is worth thinking about. I mean, there’s obviously adaptive value to a hooked proboscis if you’re an intestinal worm without much else going for you. And any specialist in a cubicle is dependent upon the kind of information that seems relevant to the investigation. So if you’re studying a worm, you’re dependent upon what he wants to tell you. The worm is like your teacher:
I am to teach. You are to learn. I am to cover the course. You are to take it—take it all. I am to grade. You are to pass. I submit your grades. You receive the credit. I permit. You commit. I admonish. You can vanish—if you’re not careful. I teach. You learn. I decide. You concede. I assign. You read. Careful now! I ask and answer. You answer. I must teach. You must learn. I’m not a tutor. I must teach everyone in the class. All of you must be led out, induced, inducted, seduced. Don’t ask me to personalize instruction.
Group work is best. That’s the way we do it in the gut. Don’t ask me how this prepares you for later life. Get with the program. It’s all about hanging on or going with the flow. One of you asked about getting a general education. Well, we don’t live generally, do we? It’s personal and specialized down there in the gut—no generalists need apply. I’m not here to broaden your experience. I’m the proprietor: I’ve got the goods. You’re the customer. But I don’t customize anything. You get what I have to give you. But even though I do the same for everyone, what is received is not the same for all. Every one of you will come out of this course differently educated.
I don’t have to customize anything because you will customize it on the uptake. Some of you will come out sharp and critical, others limp as an empty egg sac. Some of you will come away with a sense of direction—even a specialty—but most of you will drift back in the dark lumen and let the current decide. I only answer for what I have to deliver. My probings have led to certain preoccupations. You will hear all about them. I get to make the syllabus, after all.
It’s your route out of here. It will be logical and thorough. Oh, I may sometimes distort logic for special effect or clarity. Or I may be thorough to the point of giving an impenetrable answer instead of clarifying a question. I may indeed be logical in broad designs, but sparing in the explanations of disarticulated details. (One of my academic achievements, in fact, is to have speculatively constructed the nature of an articulated existence. Quite an achievement for a boneless scholar, they say.)
And yes, I am aware of the abuses arising from the kind of unwonted consistency-of-thought characteristic of preoccupied scholars. Many dismal periods of our history are not so much examples of failed understanding as of chance variations in the strengths of various habitual preconditions, preconceptions, and preoccupations. As consistency-of-thought usually wins out, however, perhaps it has adaptive value. I leave that to your hooks. Oh, you have none. Distortions of all kinds occur in the degenerated forms of humans, owing to the poor quality of their ability to allow life to pass through them and to know when to engage and when to release. But not all of us can be spiny-heads. —Con Moto
The blog for the snowy end of an incredible month is three very short stories by authors who want to remain anonymous for the time being. To honor their wishes, I have arranged the stories like a musical offering.
Guilt and shame are not the same at all. Bright blue light comes through the windows from an early morning snow and you look out at it. You’re in the dark house looking out at it, watching it cover everything. That’s guilt. Somebody switches on all the lights in the house and a crowd in the street sees you staring out the window. That’s shame.
You do something, you want to leave the lights off. The favorable court of your mind will find a hundred ways to let you off. I call it à la carte rationality. You let the lights come on; you can forget about explaining how what you did was justified. Saying under the circumstances won’t matter outside the court of your mind where you can take turns pleading, prosecuting, judging, and voting for acquittal under the circumstances, given it was a snowy day when it happened, for instance.
Saying it happened rather than you made it happen is acceptable in à la carte reasoning. Nothing has a fixed price. You get to choose.
Weather is different. The ground conditions set the rules. Light snow in the morning with a thin warm layer a hundred feet above the ground, then the snow turns to sleet pellets ricocheting off the roof of the lean-to in the woods. With a thick warm layer, the snow melts but the rain freezes on the ground. It glazes the roof, the pipe lying inches from the body; it even glazes the fingers, and fissures of the face.
Someone coming upon the scene by the woodpile may think it’s obvious what happened, but that’s because the ground conditions have glazed over everything. Under the circumstances, anyone would understand—anyone who had to listen to the old man ranting so much about your whole generation dragging his patriot dreams to hell that he hit his head on the pipe you were holding.
Shh. Don’t tell
The sun leapt out at me today. It warmed my skin as I lay on a railing, legs dangling like a child. Seagulls teeming the joint. Down by the river where you can still share a rare but secret smile with a maskless stranger. Shh. Don’t tell.
My feet held a rhythm and had a step in it. I used to dance on the street where I was from. Riding my bike with no hands. The night air leaving me breathless with hope. That little flame in your belly. The Aurora Borealis trailing me like a persistent nerd in the schoolyard. Holding my babies with locked eyes and love eternal, milk spilling from my breasts. Hot chocolate and wagons, little bodies draped over mine, snow in their boots and shrieks of laughter. Intense conversations for hours. Fires and music.
What happened to us? To our hands interlocking, the whispers of sweet consolation. The warmth, the love, the pain, the giddy apprehension? Bangles jangling in the green grass and brown skin beading with dew. Hot days in lakes so cold, your pelvis burned and then the warmth of sun kissed wood? Children running, matted hair, tattooed and sunburnt. Hope and love growing distant. Longing to be held. Longing for your touch. For a cold day in a warm bed, naked and free. I am mute. My words and body hold no power. They are used against me.
A man paused briefly enough to take a photo of the sunset. Roaring engines and sirens punctuate the air and murderous tension lies bloated, thick in it. A young woman cackles garishly. A stark contrast to her youth and beauty.
My little girl, all blue eyes and heart, cupping my face with her grubby little hands “You need to listen Mummy.” The flowers poured out this summer, knocking heads in the breeze. The church bells clanged all day long but suddenly stopped. Did you notice?
It needs something
Drifting across the sky at sunset over the domestic temple of the Daily Tongue were three clouds like three scratches made by some girl trying to hang onto the day before she dropped below the horizon.
Mimi packed her bag, locked the door, and walked down the stairwell to the parking lot. So much for the day’s dilemmas in the outrage industry. What she did had always been needed. Some paleolithic stringer had been tasked to rub the stones daily. After years of wear, the tiny abrasions inevitably made a polish. Maybe she had admired her reflection before the rock was launched at a hyena, or its human equivalent. Maybe her peers had praised her life’s work.
Impatience didn’t help, whether you were rubbing a rock, waiting for a microwaved dinner, trying to fire up opinion by rubbing sticks—or to make a story stick by setting a fire. Maybe slackers, like the skateboarders in the parking lot, had the right idea, but Mimi had never tried to pretend that nothing mattered.
Then the daydream again: Something on the roof looked into the office rooms. Perched like a grotesque wearing high-heels, she throws hot water through the windows, scratches “Ha!” on the perfect penthouse panes of the media empire. Maybe too much pepper brought it on. But who could eat this so-called empanada as it is? Who was watching? She added more pepper.
AND NOW A WORD FROM THE SPONSOR:
ON FEBRUARY 15, 2021 MY NEW BOOK OF POEMS, PUSHBACK, WILL BE RELEASED BY ATMOSPHERE PRESS.
I’m a pushover for psychobabble, searches for meaning, and fiction about psychological pilgrimages, like Scott D. Carpenter’s Theory of Remainders, about a psychiatrist who returns to the scene of his daughter’s murder in Normandy fifteen years earlier in order to find her body and find personal peace. Working as a detective with the tools of psychiatry, he discovers much more. In Collette Shedd’s Facing Lillia, recently published by BairInk (https://www.bairink.com/ ), the pilgrimage is shown through the struggling language of a combative psychiatric patient, an indigenous woman who attempts suicide and sometimes spends days at a time watching herself walk in a dream beset by demons and compulsive, suicidal thoughts.
In a period of mass hysteria, it seems glib to say, “walk it out.” Surely, I should at least offer an explication of groupthink or sociopathy. Instead, I take a walk and invite you to come along. No phone or earplugs, please. Listen to the noise, the screeches of machines, the squawk of Amazon vans turning around, the chatter of squirrels. Look at the sky. The moon has not yet disappeared. Look at other walkers—all ages, all colors, all taking their own steps. Swing your arms. Feel your heart beating. Sniff the camellias, the diesel exhaust, the black compost being raked by a Guatemalan couple into the flower beds of the shopping mall. Breathe it all in. Hold the breath. Process it. Squeeze the energy from the oxygen to release clarity of mind, sustained attention, focus on the moment. Slowly release the breath. Make it into something—a thought, a purpose, a meaning, a poem, or a better story. —Richard Rose
Henry, the oldest, had failed to launch. He lived with his family in a house built in 1738 that stood in the middle of twenty acres of corn field in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. George Washington used it as an infirmary for his troops during the Revolutionary War and their blood stains remain in the wide plank floors today. Sometimes, as he fell asleep at night, the worn floorboards, loose on their hobnails, rattled. He would turn the night table lamp on, get up and set the lock on the door latch, then return to bed to wait for sleep with the light on.
The hand-fitted Pennsylvania blue-gray fieldstone walls were two feet thick, but not thick enough to keep out the world’s contumely. The airwaves carried in news of the assassination of Dr. King, American war crimes in Vietnam, and the violent 1968 Democratic National Convention protests. Yet life was still pleasant in the old stone house and Henry did nothing to change the world but grow his hair long and sew paisley patches into the legs of his jeans to widen them into bell bottoms.
He dubbed 1968 as The Year of St. Elmo, the patron saint of sailors and those with stomach ailments, whose intestines were wound on a windlass to torture the saint into praying to pagan gods. One sultry evening in early fall he bought a nickel bag of grass from a classmate at a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg. He returned home afterward and smoked a joint of it in his bedroom. It was so potent the plumed birds on the antique wallpaper came to life and flew around the room. He opened the window to let the smoke out. It was a clammy night with heat lightning flashing. The smell of rain was in the air.
That is when the St. Elmo’s Fire came. His sister, Julia, was in the kitchen with a friend. They both saw it and started yelling. An undulating blue light drifted through the screen door and floated into the dining room, gathered itself into a ball and rolled down the hall. At the sound of their shouting, Henry ran down the stairs and into the family room in time to see it pass through the side entrance door. He followed it outside and stood by his car parked at the side of the house. It climbed the copper lightning rod that ran up the stones from the ground up to the rooftop. The fire perched on the spire, hissing. Blue snakes writhed from its rim and a violet glow spread over the roof. The rain gushed at once and plastered his shirt to his skin. He stared until lightning flashed upward from the spire into a cloud overhead and it extinguished.
A week after the visitation of the Corpus Sancti, Henry moved into an apartment in New Hope with a friend. It is said that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, but he knew that was not true.
Linda Sechrist’s article, “A new story for the world” (Natural Awakenings, January/February 2021) was a prompt for the following essay, I have invited her to write a guest blog. The prompt for posting this essay at this time, however, is the insurrection that occurred yesterday. A house divided cannot stand, as Jesus explained long ago; as Lincoln reminded the nation during an earlier insurrection, and as Howard Thurman wrote in Jesus and the Disinherited (1949). He went on to say, “If a man calls a lie the truth, he tampers dangerously with his own value judgments.” The insurrection is the consequence of the president and his allies telling lies and boosting them for personal profit. But it is also a consequence of many leaders trying to function with divided minds and now discovering that self deception has harsh consequences. Hate cannot be compartmentalized. I post this portrait, one of my favorites in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, because it is a reminder of the power of singular individuals like Marian Anderson to embody wholeness and healing. In a time of division, one wishes that, like Dr. King, more of our leaders were reading Thurman’s book and carrying it in their pockets as they decide what to do next.
The Fellowship of the Attentive
Imagining the future. Human diversity is infinite. By this, I mean that it is immeasurably vast, varied, and surprising. This may inspire the “awe of its limitlessness” (Felicia Zamora, I always carry my bones) or of community—”all are part of the procession” (Walt Whitman)—or of terror, like that underlying the claims of QAnon. The literature of futurism, prospectivism (Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted), and speculative fiction—the respectable name for sci-fi—offers visions of community but fails to account for human diversity and the emotions it elicits.
As Marie Louise Berneri demonstrated long ago in Journey through Utopia, all of the utopian plans offered as critiques of existing social structures devolved into systems of dominance, however communitarian their assumptions. Perhaps William Morris’s News from Nowhere best describes the kind of community in which creative work, personal freedom, private ownership, community spirit, and minimal impositions coexist in a balanced relationship between human beings and habitat. Based on an idealized view of medieval society, Morris’s suggestions were only intended to sharpen criticism of industrialism and to contrast with the top-heavy ideal society described by Bellamy in Looking Backward. Of course, communes based on Morris’s ideas have been no more persistent than those based on other utopian and religious plans, most of which begin with a culling:
“Therefore come out from them and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean . . .” (2 Cor. 6:17).
That is, those who disagree with the community’s assumptions are excluded. Presumably, this assures a pure stock for the unfolding of the Grand Plan, but human diversity is infinite. As agronomists learned while breeding corn to produce excess oil, tremendous diversity for the trait existed even within the pure strains of high-oil producers. In another example, even the tiny population of cheetahs seems to have sufficient genetic diversity to survive for many more generations. Purity has a way of breaking down quickly, not only within unmanaged monoclonal crops but within ideologically pure societies. It almost seems that the idea of purity may be exaggerated. Do you think?
So, whether the Emerald City planner is Thomas More or Señor Campanella, the Admissions Policy is an inescapable problem. Other plans of eco-gurus are untrustworthy in the same way. Because the plans arise from social criticism, they are remedies to avoid making the errors of the past, somewhat as prescriptions are written to treat a patient’s symptoms, not cure the disease. This leaves the plans open to assault from anomalies, unfixable situations, and random walks. Most anomalies derive from socio-ethnic oversights—such as being blindsided by the planner’s assumptions. Discovery of such oversights, if acknowledged, usually links to another discovery: the situation is not fixable. Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter once put it this way:
Even the idea of “fixing” is called into question. Finally, the plans of eco-gurus are open to assault by evolutionary random walks. In a population, the frequency of a rare gene, accidentally favored, may suddenly increase dramatically. In the infomercial world, a cat video promoting toilet paper may go viral, or a hateful unsocial media assault may be boosted by millions of click-happy fans thanks to the convoluted morality of Silly Valley. In the realm of Great Plans, the eco-guru, so certain that she has identified the drivers of social change, is suddenly T-boned by such an unlikely factor as the aforementioned QAnon.
The human project. But here is a simple summary: The desirable way to conduct our human project—dropping all the decorations (https://frameshifts.com/2020/12/18/decorations-displays-and-forms-of-resistance/ )—is to scale it down, reduce population growth, eliminate poverty, reduce wanting and consumption, promote education, imaginative creative engagement and collaboration, extend and protect wild habitats and biodiversity, put the energy-recruiting energy of religion to use in reinterpreting texts and traditions to widen the circle of compassion, bring about justice, and center attention on such matters as our interdependence with each other and other living beings. Easy peasy.
Except it isn’t. Why? Well, start with this list: sociocultural blindsiding, grievances, distrust, vested hierarchical and commercial interests, global corpocracies, information management and violence by bad actors, and legal proceedings that maintain injustice.
Noam Chomsky recommends more anarchy, by which he means not careless terrorism but the destruction of illegitimate power structures. A good start, but risky. Like the Chinese gentleman in Charles Lamb’s Dissertation on Roast Pig, you may pay for your tasty meal by burning down your house. Jefferson and Madison, of course, had other ideas. A majority of Americans are still trying to make sense and justice out of them. Critical factors to manage include population, topography (currently jig-sawed in a thousand ways), water, waste, poisons, nutrition, energy—the usual suspects. Of course, big ideas lead to simple solutions.
But most human problems are complex issues, not experimental designs subject to t-tests of statistical significance. They require individual treatment; they are case studies with their own smells, flavors, and their own—you guessed it—infinite variety, which, with an apology to Shakespeare, all humans possess. And what a problem for planners and eco-gurus it is! Perhaps that is why, as Berneri showed, most planners drift toward totalitarianism. Benevolent or full-strength, it really doesn’t matter. What to do? What to do?
The Wound Treatment Center. Well, since each case requires special handling—as you would care for a wound—perhaps we do not so much need a grand plan as a tradition of care. Although I’ve tried out the eco-guru role from time to time (see below), I have come to believe that the current approach to moving toward a more just and sustainable future must be decentralized, local, personal, immediate, and focused on four kinds of care: policy, polity, poetry, and policing. The Wound Treatment Center that I have in mind would be staffed by practitioners of peace, conflict resolution, guided learning, reasoning, and compassion. I call them the Fellowship of the Attentive, and first wrote about them in the book Frameshifts. First responders would render first-aid to the confused, mistaken, misguided, grieving, and aggrieved. Long term care would be provided to heal such wounds as injustice, violence, and inequity from the inside out. Attention must be given not only to what we do—policy—and to our societal rules of engagement—polity—but also to language. Poets are caretakers of language. They must offset the perversions of communication made by advertising, social media, and government. Finally, human violence is undeniable. Caretakers who deal with this wound must understand its root structure within the public body. To care for such wounds is to care for the public good, to build and renew community.
So, before moving on to the bright sustainable future, let’s train some first responders.
Some links to some of my eco-guru gigs—————————————————-
Continuing to do what is right—and other forms of persistence
“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” —St. Paul, The Letter to the Galatians, 6:9
Sustained attention on creative engagement with a personal or collaborative project is a satisfying and fulfilling experience. We aspire to move from one peak experience to another, even when the project has ended or our persistence has degenerated into mere obsessive energy or perseveration. Maybe we even turn our persistence into other paths—eating, smoking, alcoholism, taking uppers or downers, shopping, gambling, doom-scrolling, or gaming. Psychologist William Glasser spoke to addicts about the untapped power of addiction. Certainly they knew the power of addiction—the power of impairment. But Glasser spoke of using this power in a positive way—of doing what was right for their lives—that is, finding behavior that did not disable them or diminish their options but instead led to growth and self-reinforcing achievements. Of course, describing personal care as “positive addiction” is like defining song as refined noise. Addiction, obsession, and perseveration are the unbalanced extremes of diligence and persistence. The mental noises of compulsions or flickering attention are distortions of the gentler sound of routines attending to the self. Filtering out distortions is no easy matter.
Any set of regularly repeated behaviors deserves periodic review. We may ask, “Why am I still doing this?” Or, “Why do I persist in doing this even though I’d rather not?” Presumably, New Year’s is the time to change habits—and this New Year will change national routines of government, to widespread grief and relief. But personal changes in diet, décor, exercise, spending, and taste are usually postponed after the first rush of determined enthusiasm. Here’s a thought: pick one routine.
Study it. Watch how it behaves. Describe it. Get to know it as an outside observer—or at least as what anthropologists call a “participant observer.” Notice when it happens. Describe the context of its appearance. Take your time to understand it. When you have elevated it to “a thing you notice,” rather than only a “thing you just do,” have a discussion with it.
In order to have a good critical discussion, you need to know the criteria that you value. What are your aspirations? What is the kind of behavior that most suits you? What is a productive behavior that you want to sustain because such persistence fulfills your aspiration? In Glasser’s terms, it is a behavior that makes a bigger you. It does not diminish or disable you but instead leads to growth. Compare the routine you have studied with your values. How may the routine be altered to strengthen your aspirations?
Sometimes we run on automatic but believe that we are persisting in well-doing. As the New Year drags behind it the unsettled turmoil, hatreds, biases, controversies, and sickness of the Old Year, we could do worse than to study and alter a few routines. Dr. King’s comment is often quoted: ”It is always the right time to do the right thing.” Perhaps we can improve at discovering the right thing by studying what we already do routinely.
FRAMESHIFTS IN 2021
The new year begins with the promotion of a new book, PushBack: Selected Poems of Resistance, with three sections: I. Instruct the Grieving Heart, II. Equalize Mental Static, and III. PushBack. A new author landing site describes this work and other new work, such as a series of FlipBooks. See https://formsofresistance.com/
Guests have been invited to write blogs on this site. No better way to shift your frame of reference than to listen carefully to another human being.
More book reviews of upcoming poetry collections will appear on this site. Two have already been posted. Changes to the website’s format and newsletter are underway. Newsletters will come more frequently. By the way, the allied site, marginalnotesinwordsandmusic.org, is currently down for repairs.
A few sermons, or sermonettes, as my army chaplain used to call them, will appear as blogs from time to time. I do not apologize for slipping occasionally into this form. Whether poems, stories, reviews, operas, essays, songs, or sermons, all are forms of resistance offered for your consideration and use. Resisting what? The answers are in the many forms. Happy New Year!
I always carry my bones by Felicia Zamora, University of Iowa Press, 2021.
Insistence is not confirmation. Whatever one insists that poetry is, a poet like Felicia Zamora readily disconfirms. Like Dr. Joanna Lee, another poet of the body (in Dissections, 2017), who says that “poetry/ is always barefoot, even / over broken glass,” Zamora breaks into definitions. She “breaches etiquette” meant to keep her out. Like Dr. Williams, laying out the great body of Paterson before dissecting it, she shows us her body, which is our body, which is our country: “heart of reeds, lung/ of dew, stomach of grasses, what dwells/ in land dwells in you,” a well-known country—Whitman territory, where “all are part of the procession.” But even language conspires to keep migrants out: “the oppressor’s language has been pre-configured to defeat you—a language which does not give you the right to speak—certainly not to make poems.” The Church Ladies do their good deeds with circumspection, looking for “something worthy to give/ a kid like me. Something almost broken / almost breathing.” With Blakean leaps from sharp images of weathered bones, or the chrysalis of a migrant Monarch butterfly who wears “a belt of earthly stars in ornament,” or the razors handed out “for one more go home wetback” to prophetic social criticism, Zamora insists on her own definitions. The exclusive constructs of language, the certainties of pseudoscience like craniometry, and the skeletal remains of careless research beneath the parking lots of Lee’s medical school are “wounds of bodies made inferior with labels,” whereas those very bodies proclaim how “our organs in skeletal structures connect us beyond your labels.” A personal story and a national story, told in a rushing, fragmented style with words like expose, stun, sever, and relinquish suddenly becoming nouns in the way that countless daily cuts and gestures continually bring the migrant or outsider up short, this collection is also a celebration of a different kind of body politic—and of how to grow into it. “We all grow out of something,” she says, thinking of doors slamming shut behind her; “thinking I had done something wrong to never warrant celebration,” but confident that human beings can “unlearn rules, draw a map that starts in fluid of your lungs,” and, instead of fearing all the other kinds of bodies, discover “awe in the limitlessness” of diversity. . #I always carry my bones #NetGalley
Uncomfortable with their intimate dependence upon plants, human beings have asserted dominion over their lowly green companions. For generations, from Gilgamesh’s whacking at the holy Cedar Forest, to the expulsion from Eden, to medieval botanists collecting herbs for their signatures to healing, to Charlotte de la Tour’s explication of flower dialects, to Luther Burbank’s seed catalog, and Monsanto’s genetic insertions into corn and soybeans, humans have considered plants as cultivars and instruments, like pebble-tools, fire, querns, or rototillers. Uncomfortable with the thought that plants might be transcendent beings with long-term strategies of their own, most humans maintain a strictly I-It relationship—except for poets. Decorous in the best sense of a well-matched counterpoint of the verbal and visual, the Royal Horticultural Society Book of Garden Verse, published by Quarto in the Frances Lincoln collection of illustrated gardening books, is a splendid addition to the long tradition of miscellanies and anthologies of horticultural verse. Happily neither comprehensive nor predictable, but concise and surprising, it is like a country walk, welcoming inquiry at every turn. The expected favorites make an appearance—Kilmer’s Trees, Herrick’s Cherry-Ripe, Housman’s Loveliest of Trees. But all is not cowslips and golden daffodils. Here also find Sharon Olds’ lowly slug with its gelatinous trail, Sylvia Plath’s mushrooms who “shoulder through holes”, and the weedy patch that will not yield, no matter how much Housman “hoed and trenched and weeded.” The prints are as dramatic as they are apposite to the text. With no sign of desiccated, flattened specimens or botanical preciosity, the roses and marigolds float from page to page like greetings from a country walk to Colley Hill or Banstead Heath. Like Edwin Morgan’s “strawberries/ like the ones we had/ that sultry afternoon/ sitting on the step,” these prints and poems make a sweet gift for the gardener with muddy knees and for the wintry-minded bookish naturalist who takes her greens in water-colors, in this garden of diction, you will find palms with island dialects and low plants with American vowels, mingling with the verbal cataracts of English Romantics, and the word-intoxicated intensity of Elizabethans. References to other works, like the poem, “April,” from Vita Sackville-West’s The Garden, will lead, like the “couch-grass throwing shoots at every node” into the larger company of green beings with lives and minds of their own. #TheRHSBookofGardenVerse #NetGalley