“America I Saw You” by Bridget Meeds

When I taught Leaves of Grass a few years ago the students just didn’t buy it, though they loved Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Their rejection of Whitman’s grand American hope comes back to me every now and then. Was it the poetic claim to omnipresence that irritated them, or did Whitman’s egalitarian vision of hope seem like nothing but hype to young readers in a post-9/11 world, where climate has become a threat and employment prospects are grim at best?

This reaction was all the more striking when they embraced Edward Albee’s anxiety-ridden world of illusion and rage in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, so wonderfully captured onscreen by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.That world made perfect sense to them, and they loved it on paper and on film.

I thought of those students again when I recently read Bridget Meeds’ stunning Whitmanian poem, “America I Saw You.” Meeds brings the maker of American Religion into the 21st century, and I have a feeling my students would have loved it:

America, I Saw You

America, I saw you leaping from the burning skyscraper, believing in your urgency that you
would survive,
America, I saw you on the on-ramp, smiling with meth-brown teeth, holding a sign that said
“homeless and pregnant please help,”
America, I saw you huddled in the belly of a Chinook, earbudded and solitary,
America, I saw you up at four a.m., ironing your blouse for work,
America, I saw you punching a stop sign, screaming in Chinese,
America, I saw you looking straight with seventeen pounds of pot hidden in your spare tire,
America, I saw you texting while driving,
America, I saw you bite your father in a fury,
America, I saw you put on ten pounds,
America, I saw you walk the winning run,
America, I saw you asking for an epidural,
America, I saw you raise your hand to strike your child,
America, I saw you eating roadkill woodchuck.
America, I saw you drinking a kamikaze by the hotel pool,
America, I saw you at the Super Great Wall buffet with blue swastikas tattooed on your neck and
knuckles,
America, I saw you in your 87 Oldsmobile, wearing your best wig and sunglasses, God radio
blaring,
America, I saw you in your private helicopter above Manhattan, doing mental arithmetic,
America, I saw you walking a dog who was wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt,
America, I saw you waving a white linen napkin from a broken window in the burning
skyscraper,
America, I saw you fall.

To get in touch with Bridget and find out more about her fabulous work, click here.

Narcissism and Culture

We often think of narcissism as a maladaptive personality trait, but what if the culture of neoliberal capitalism makes narcissism increasingly necessary? Here is Sarah Burnside’s review of Anne Manne’s book The Life of I, which offers a new look at narcissism as a cultural phenomenon, rather than simply as a personality flaw.

Should We Need to “Relate” to Art?

In this article New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead rejects “relatability” as a cultural “scourge,” as she comments on popular radio host Ira Glass’s tweeted response to a performance of King Lear: “Shakespeare sucks…No stakes, not relatable.”

Mead provides a quick survey of the rise of the use of “relatable” as a cultural demand vis-a-vis art, and she explains why it’s such a problem:

Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends. The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.

But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Read this fine piece here. Then go read, watch, experience some art form that feels totally “unrelatable,” and see what happens.

Rereading Susan Faludi’s Backlash

This is a cool idea. If you’ve never read Susan Faludi’s bestseller Backlash, published in 1991, now’s a good time to do it. The book was groundbreaking because it documents the backlash against feminism that began in the 1980s and continues today, especially in terms of reproductive rights, but also in other ways.

Matter has started a summer book club, where different writers talk about each chapter of Backlash, and readers are invited to join the conversation, of course. Irin Carmon kicked off Chapter 1, and Donna Shalala, Roxanne Gay, and Rebecca Traister discuss Chapter 2 here. New responses to subsequent chapters will be released each week until the end of the summer. Have fun with this classic!

On Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle”

Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s has written a six-volume autobiography called My Struggle, the first part of which was published in 2009 in Norwegian, with the first three books published in English translation in the past several years. The first book received a glowing review in The New Yorker and books two and three were likewise praised in The New York Times.

All these reviews have noted the minute detail with which the author chronicles his everyday life, and in the Times’ review of book three, Rivka Galchen raises the issue of gender:

If “My Struggle” — which is arguably most engrossing when it describes the care of children in what feels like minute-to-minute detail — were written from the point of view of a woman, would it be the literary sensation it is?

She answers “I don’t think it would be,” but for her, the more important gender difference is actually part of the story itself:

That cultural norms are obtuse about men and women in such different ways is an essential part of Knausgaard’s predicament; he changes diapers, he cooks dinner, he is said to be pretty good-looking, he doesn’t talk about sex all that much — he often feels perceived as too feminine.

In contrast, Katie Roiphe’s commentary, published yesterday in Slate, takes the view that the cultural discrimination outside the book does matter. She, too, wonders

what would happen if the literary sensation were written not by the handsome Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard but by Carla Olivia Krauss of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

Her answer is that readers and critics would find the author “narcissistic, well-traveled, self-indulgent.” But, refreshingly, she doesn’t use this as an excuse to reject Knausgaard’s work, in part because it’s more complicated than a simple male-female divide:

I am not trying to make the point that male readers and critics would dismiss Carla, which they would, but that female readers and critics would as well. I mention this because of the enduring fantasy of a shadowy male literary establishment that discriminates against women writers, when in fact the discrimination is much trickier and more pervasive than that.

Well, I would hardly call the male literary establishment shadowy; it is, in fact, rather blatant, but Roiphe’s point that both men and women enact discrimination against women is also valid. Read her full commentary here.

The key point is that debates like these inspire me to read Knausgaard’s work––and to encourage the Carla Krausses of the world.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: Impediment Removed

Have you ever read something for years and felt like you never quite got it and then one day it finally clicked? This has happened to me with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. It’s the one that insists on love as constant and (by implication) true lovers as faithful until the “edge of doom”:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments; love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no, it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his heighth be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The meaning is clear enough, but I’ve always felt a little cool toward this poem, admiring its virtuosity but not really loving it for some reason. The language has always seemed a bit oddly formal compared to many of the other sonnets, with their precise but colloquial language. Like those brilliant lines in Sonnet 130 (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun): “I grant I never saw a goddess go – / My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.”

The other thing is that this sonnet doesn’t seem to be addressing anyone in particular, unlike so many others in its group, the first 126 sonnets dedicated to the young man. By comparison, this poem can read like a boring and not especially convincing PSA. Thank you mom for telling me about true love. Can I have the car keys now?

But 116 comes alive if we read it not as a declaration but as a rebuttal, as the lover talking directly back to the young man, despite the lack of obvious direct address. A few clues invite this reading: The sonnet comes toward the end of those addressed to the young man; many of these later poems, especially 87-90, but others too, chronicle the failure of a love relationship. The young man has evidently moved on to greener pastures.

The poem is also full of “not,” “no,” and “never” (lines 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 14), a hint that the lover is not just making some noble claim about true love; he is arguing against something and responding to someone.

What’s the situation and the argument he rejects? The language of 116 suggests it is something like this: In the process of dumping him, the young man claims, “Things have changed (altered)… I need space…new impediments have arisen.” All the dull standbys when somebody is lame and just wants out.

The lover savagely calls him on it. Well, you can run that crap if you want, but “let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” You can say things have changed, but I say that true love is an “ever-fixed mark.” Love is not this; it is that; x, y, and z don’t matter; what matters is faith and constancy.

The lover also implies that the real issue is the young man’s superficial attachment to beauty, and he attacks this by saying love is stronger than the passing of time and the rosy lips and cheeks that time will eventually ravage.

The idea of a rebuttal makes this poem comprehensible, and makes perfect sense coming from Shakespeare the playwright. And I love this reading, which I learned from Stephen Burt’s and David Mikics’s The Art of the Sonnet and Helen Vendler’s classic, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, because it reminds us not only of what good poetry is but what it does.

The best lyric engages some real person, thing, or situation. It can be a lover, or death, or birth, or something far more ordinary but still profound in its way, like the shock of fresh cream, an afternoon flower, the weird shadow behind the door, the annoying socks you keep having to pick up.

For me, imagining a context for 116 doesn’t just bring the poem to life; it makes it burst into life, reminding us that poetry–all art–is part of life, not some frivolous decoration of it.

Both writing and reading a good poem means there is something at stake. Find it and prosper.

 

 

 

Primo Levi Brings Light

Winter in the West has been harsh and endless but today there is light and warmth. About a week ago I caught a glimpse of hope to come, not in the weather but in the words of Primo Levi. I’m finally reading The Periodic Table, one of Levi’s best-known collections. An Italian chemist, Levi survived Auschwitz and subsequently wrote about his experiences, eventually becoming a world-renowned writer.

The Periodic Table is a group of stories, with each chapter named for an element, like gold, iron, uranium, etc., and offering a story about Levi’s life that relates in some way to the element. “Argon” is the first story; describing it as an inert gas, Levi likens it to the spiritual essence of his ancestors:

But there is no doubt that they were inert in their inner spirits, inclined to disinterested speculation, witty discourses, elegant, sophisticated, and gratuitous discussion. It can hardly be by chance that all the deeds attributed to them, though quite various, have in common a touch of the static, an attitude of dignified abstention, of voluntary (or accepted) relegation to the margins of the great river of life.

How is this hopeful?  For me, with endless rounds of “polar vortexes,” three illnesses in six weeks, and life as a parent in a place that can often feel rather inert, Levi’s words were a faint beam of light, a golden thread to hang onto. He reminded me that there are spirits who care about more than amusement, about more than getting through the day and maintaining the ever-important disinterested stance, who understand not just the difference but the deep chasm between witty conversation and real ideas.

Occasionally we find these spirits in life. More often in books. Either way we are lucky when we do. This is the magic of the best writers. Their words can jolt us out of despair, off the margins and into the center of life’s great river, to find other like-minded spirits.

Read Primo Levi if you haven’t yet. He is wonderfully gifted. Sun or no sun, his words cut through the dense ice that seems to keep everything so very still.

Betty Fokker’s New Book

One of my fav bloggers is Betty Fokker, and she has a new book out! Betty is totally relentless against the forces of injustice. She blogs about all manner of feminist stuff, including body issues, racial justice, the class war being waged on the poor, and whatever else needs a fierce striking down. And she does it all with great humor and, I must say, a formidable arsenal of creative insults reserved for the worst offenders. Check out the book and her blog. Oh and wish her a happy birthday, too!

Review: The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman

Road trips in the U.S. are always more exotic in theory. The real thing generally means bad radio and fake food for three-hundred miles. In my view, any deliberate trip longer than two hours with small children is a concerning sign of masochism.

That’s why the best road trips are in stories. And the best story for kids (but really any age) I found this year is by Darcy Pattison, who gives us a trip that is wild and sweet and strangely haunting.

The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman starts out with young Tameka writing to her favorite uncle, Raymond Johnson, begging him to visit her in California. Ray would love to, but he’s swamped with his carpentry work in South Carolina.

But Ray, it turns out, is no ordinary carpenter: Since he can’t visit in person, he builds a wooden man, Oliver, fits him with a backpack, and sends him off to “hitchhike” out west. Inside the pack he places a note ostensibly written by Oliver, asking whoever finds him on the highway to take him to Tameka’s house and to “drop a note to my friend Raymond Johnson… He wants to keep up with my travels.”

And so begins Oliver’s adventure from Rock Hill to Redcrest. Does he make it in one piece? And will Tameka ever get to see her uncle?

No spoilers here, but while the ending matters, it’s not what really matters in this book. What’s amazing are the people Oliver meets, the letters they write to Ray, and what the journey starts to mean.

Oliver’s rides go from ordinary to the right kind of kooky. We meet Jackson McCavish, a kind farmer who transports Oliver along with a bull named Bert, an amiable trucker headed through Texas, Miss Utah, whose grandfather discovers a lonely Oliver deserted on an Indian reservation, three retired sisters from Kokomo who have decided to blow their inheritance in Reno, and more.

In giving Oliver a lift, they all prove to be good Samaritans, but even better are the ways they adopt the wooden man as their traveling companion. In his note to Ray, trucker Bobbi Jo reports that he likes Oliver because “He never needs bathroom stops. He doesn’t care where we eat. And he stays awake with me all night.”

As the Kokomo sisters cross the Mississippi River for the first time in their lives, they relish their afternoon tea with “Mr. Oliver,” they write, who “has the loveliest manners.”

These characters have imaginations. They don’t just do Ray a favor by transporting a neat gift to his beloved niece; they all need in some way or other to make Oliver a part of their own stories, their own histories, however briefly.

And they all have totally distinct voices. A chaotic, fun brood in Arkansas tells Ray that “Mr. OK is OK.” Oliver “hung out with us for a couple of days, and all the girls liked him better than Quinn. So when Quinn’s cousin’s boyfriend’s aunt was leaving to visit her sick grandfather in Fort Smith, the guys loaded Mr. OK into the aunt’s station wagon and sent him on his way.”

After Oliver’s shadow scares away bears and saves a family camping in the Redwood Forest, the dad reports his discovery of Oliver in lawyerish prose: “Our family, currently on vacation, picked up the above-named person in what I thought was a misguided goodwill gesture. Little did I know how lucky that gesture would be.”

Pattison’s rhetoric is brilliant in another way too: the adventure is so absorbing that we hardly notice she has just slipped an epistolary tale under the noses of her elementary audience; the entire book is a series of letters, many exchanged by people who never meet in person.

The book is great for teaching everything from writing and rhetoric, to character analysis, to geography (there’s a cool map in the back showing Oliver’s cross-country route).

Sure, the book is idealistic and a little naïve. Oliver isn’t real, so we’re not really sending the message that hitchhiking is safe, kids! No worries here about meeting the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer with his freezer and vat of acid along your highway travels.

And the story assumes people are not just good and helpful but blessed with resources. These days, it’s more likely that Oliver would end up as fuel for an out-of-work family whose heat has been cut off.

But somehow the story doesn’t come off as entirely nostalgic or unrealistic, maybe because the characters seem real in other ways. The trucker Bobbi Jo could really use some company on late-night hauls; Miss Utah seems sort of bored smiling in parades; the Kokomo sisters have never traveled beyond the Mississippi River before. Now they get to gamble a little out west and they’re going to have fun, dammit.

These details make this road trip story feel both classic and hopeful, totally American in a way that seems familiar and comforting but – sadly – just out of reach.

This unassuming story, rooted in the sweet bond between a girl and her uncle, reaches far beyond the personal to imagine the whole country as a community. It’s about celebrating the best of who we might be in the U.S., people who make cool things for others and write letters and take brave trips and want to talk to (and even help) strangers. It sparked a little hope in me about a place I sort of recognize but can’t quite find these days.

Sort of like a lost key, inside the house. Maybe it’s here somewhere. It has to be, right? We used it to get in, didn’t we?