Team Trump and Not MY LITTLE PONY: Kidnapping Language

Most Americans get exercised over plagiarism only when one rock band (like Led Zepp) is suing another over lyrics or melody, or when a scolding note comes home from Hunter’s or Kendle’s teacher, and there are as many popular notions and technical definitions of the offense as there are putative authorities.  They almost all seem to have in common intention, some unquestionable textual appropriation and claim of credit by the chronologically second host of the text.  In the literatosphere, plagiarism is viewed as theft, and royalties, penalties, reputations, allegiances – all are on the line.plag

The term is Latin in origin, and its Roman users meant “kidnapped” or “kidnapper” when they said it.  This is not a casual concept, maybe not even a misdemeanor, so it’s no wonder that eyebrows and hackles rose when listeners to First Wife Melania Trump’s carefully calibrated values speech at the RNC heard whole paragraphs that echoed (and to some degree duplicated) Michelle Obama’s speech on just such an occasion eight years before.  And without crediting the current First Lady.  A former Bush speechwriter was quick to say in an interview that, while we want our public figures to be inspired by the speeches of the past, we do not wish that they be dependent upon them.  Ms. Trump’s speech fell, to his ear, clearly into the latter category, though she did omit the phrase about treating adversaries “with dignity.”  So last night’s speech, while derivative, did not follow the Michelle Obama script exactly.  In fact, much of it was less elegant and memorable, but those three passages raise some serious questions.

The gallant Republican defenders said “coincidence, common phrases, accident,” even, “You can find these words in My Little Pony,” while the Democratic kibitzers cried “theft.”  And what a peculiar theft it would be, if in fact Melania were thinking, “Gee, that Muslim Obama woman was so right about our hopes for our children and so on,” since her Donald, with his scary-voiced schoolyard “there’s something going on here,” has all but called Obama a clueless traitor and a devil, maybe the Devil.  But at least the two parties now have something in common, some of the most heartfelt and captivating sentences in a speech.  Is it plagiarism?  If this were an academic context, we have web sites we can employ to measure the closeness of particular passages and parameters, as well as precedents, for the teacher or other adjudicator to apply.

What really interests me here are three questions, the first a frivolous thing but mine own.  In early modern western literature, allusion, appropriation, citation, downright hijacking played a role in the “next-to-newest new” process of constructing a text.  But magpie gathering wasn’t really the invention of Eliot, Joyce and their ilk; the pirated phrases, scenes, character relations in Shakespeare are the subject of a storeroom of dissertations, articles and books, and Melville pillages the Bible and Lear to shore up his whale tale.  But Eliot and Joyce were more concerned that their audience “get it,” that they be able to connect the dots, feel the layering, see the wires jumping from enhanced voltage and follow the electricity back to Dante, Milton, Homer and Chaucer.  It was part of their project, to hitch their wagons to a star or stars, working with the assumption that the rising tide would float all the boats.  Importantly, they ran the old passages of language through the prisms of their imaginations to provide a fresh perspective.  Perhaps that’s what the author(s) of Melania’s speech had in mind.  But I can almost see the furrowed brows and scowls out there in virtual audienceland.  That’s probably not what she was doing, as she (or he or whoever, probably they) provided no apparatus in the text for us to make the link, no pattern of allusion or reference, and instead of refreshment, Ms. Trump’s replication features just a few slips where the power of the rhetoric is diminished by a turn of grammar or an omitted word.

jefferson polygraphSo scrap that.  The other questions I would raise are “Who wrote the speech in question?” and in the context of this election, “How big a deal is it?”  Tempest in a teapot?  Core sample of the campaign, or something in between?


Who?  If a fairly a-political, honest and innocent wife just delivered a professionally constructed speech, then we have no significant quarrel with her.  She’s a victim.  But in an interview the day of the values speech, Ms. Trump told Matt Lauer of CNBC that she wrote the speech herself straight through in one go, read it over and was satisfied that it revealed her life experiences and beliefs.  Yet the next day, when the shouts had hit the fan, Farcebook, Twitter and so on, Paul Manafort said that a team of writers interviewed Ms. T. and then cobbled together the speech.  Later we got so many conflicting stories that they add up to an epic clusteredit with no real author.  Maybe it was a combination, but when I hear two separate explanations so disparate, I suspect one is either mistaken or a lie.  I can’t help wondering if we’ll ever know whose lie.

Anyone who maintains that it was all just a freak coincidence needs to be, what, waterboarded?  Maybe just a good wrist twist will do.  But if (as I suspect) surrogates, mouthpieces, spokesfolk and minions wrote it, they have to be outed and assigned the Walk of Shame.  If Melania wrote the speech flash-bang once and done, then she has to bear the onus of dishonesty, face up to it as Joe Biden and many others of us have done for transgressions written or spoken, no matter how long ago.  But then William Jefferson Clinton never took back that “never inhaled,” and he slept at a posh address for eight years.  So, suppose she shows that she is capable of error and apology, or the ghost writers do, and forgiveness is requested?  It would be embarrassing, but it might reveal the best of the Trump package to be a little more honest, accuracy-driven and fair-minded than they now appear.

And compared to “I know more about Isis than the generals,” I’m worth ten billion dollars,” “Mexico will pay for it” and “I never actually said that, I just retweeted it,” why does it matter if Trump’s high-priced wife or her assistants/minions/cribbers slipped in a few nicely lapidary phrases so  solid in their emotions and thinking that no one would disagree with them and someone might have actually said them before?  Let’s go with the premise that she did not write the speech, which I believe to be the case, though unproven as yet.  That Monday night moment was meant to roll out and substantiate the human, familial, gracious and charming (“spectacular looking,” as one Trump surrogate said in an interview) side of Team Trump, the generous and cultured, eloquent and fine arts-educated face of a hit squad that generally “watches the shows” for information, doesn’t read books, consults with itself and is willing to exclude, expel, bomb, waterboard, snarl at or shoot from 5th Avenue anyone who does not share its agenda and prejudices.  And the softening and smoothing almost worked, until the appropriated sentences revealed just how low the operatives of Team Trump were willing to go in order to score points.  Rhetorically, it was foolish and cheap, morally it was reprehensible.  But these are desperate times, and they call for desperate measures, which everyone in the dirty game understands.  When a member of Congress was allowed to shout out with impunity during the State of the Union Address “you lie” to a sitting president, the civilized code of conduct began to fray faster, and the rules of engagement altered.

conventionSomeone in the Trumperial Guard, perhaps even the C.E.O. himself, needs to apologize and name the guilty parties so we can move on, try to repair our endangered national dialogue and be guided by our ideal mode of conduct, instead of the ruthless language we’ve been using like a blunt instrument.  Forgiveness seems in order, once mistakes are admitted and we know whom to forgive.

But given Trump’s businesslike, bartering mind, perhaps these kidnapped sentiments and sentences will have to be ransomed, as he likes only good deals, fabulous deals you can’t even imagine, the best deals ever, and we have his wife’s (or somebody’s wife’s) word concerning his “word is [his] bond” and of  “the strength of [his] dreams.”  What else can we suppose he wants?  Is it too much for us, to stretch the metaphor to its breaking point sense, like the family of a hostage to ask for a little proof of life?

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Dulcimer Redux

dulcimer 4I was raised a flatlander (“cracker,” we used to say), a mouth-harp wheezer, and did not come to the mountain dulcimer on the porch or in the parlor.  Instead, I read of Coleridge’s “Abyssinian maid” with a dulcimer on Mt. Abora (probably a zither akin to the hammered dulcimer Malcolm Dalglish played so well on Banish Misfortune).  Read it for a college English class, but before I’d reckoned what sort of music the coke-dream damsel strummed, the folk revival flowed over me like a freshet, and I started listening to the Vanguard albums in which Richard and Mimi Farina played and sang his dulcimer tunes like “Dandelion River Run,” “Pack up Your Sorrows,” “The Falcon” and “Reno Nevada,” not at all the traditional highlands dulcimer repertoire.  They employed dulcimers, played with plectrums and fingers, along with guitar and autoharp and backed by a range of sounds from John Hammond’s mouth harp to a celesta and an electric bass.  It was all bluesy and Dylanesque, espresso, lyrical/political and supposedly earthy.


dulcimer 1Well, I was smitten, and Farina became a hero, especially after I’d read his brilliant (I don’t use it lightly) novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.  But by the time I discovered that book, he was already dead.  My dulcimer interest, however, expanded quickly to more traditional players like Jean Ritchie and Oskar Brand, and I was no scholar, so I didn’t pursue much about the construction, origins, tunings and styles of dulcimers and their material.  But I pushed on, and after I moved to the Blue Ridge for the first time in the seventies, dulcimers began to creep into my writing and my life, and I discovered that I had a grandmother who’d had one, no more discussed than the fiddle my father (a barefoot boy and not the F.B.I. agent he became) had played with the Ku Klux Klan dance band.  I bought my first dulcy in 1975 (a three-string Ralph Hodges hourglass model with heart sound holes) and quickly learned to play it badly.  The good news is that I’m not deluded on this matter and have become a front row audience member rather than pursuing stage time, since getting real melody out of me is like trying to milk an owl.


dulcimer 2In grad school at Appalachian State I learned a bit (more dancing than making or playing) from Willard Watson, and dulcimers abounded, but my knowledge remained sketchy, random, information marbled artfully with misinformation, even though I own a couple of good dulcimer primers.  After years of loose ends, what finally set me on the right track was Ralph Lee Smith’s recent The Story of the Dulcimer (U. of TN Press), 2nd edition.  I missed the first one entirely, but edition two has absorbed my attention for the last couple of weeks. Ralph Lee is a scholar, a collector, a devotee and musicological bloodhound, also energetic as a worker bee and smart as a whip.


This book is not for every general reader; sometimes I think it’s not for me.  The abundance and intricacy of the variations in design and tuning, the geographical eccentricities, the incremental evolution – it’s a lot to put together with all the dimensions, statistics and photographs of dulcimers, and though it’s not completely accurate to say so, there are nearly no two alike.  After all, they are not mass produced but handcrafted, and even before you hear one’s voice responding to skillful fingers, it’s easy to see why so many people are eager to say they are not products or merchandise or toys; they are art, with utility.  A hand-hewn cradle can qualify like that, a forged and polished skinning knife.  And yet some people aren’t content without a mitigating adjective – “folk art.”  If the term “folk” diminishes a noun for you, may God have mercy. . . .


I can say that this book delivers what Brother Ralph promises.  It supports claims that the instrument is “a specimen of American folk craftsmanship.”  It elucidates what kind of music the implement is capable of producing and the place of that sound in the spectrum of world music.  It reveals the crucial role the dulcimer played “in the broader history of the Appalachian frontier.”


dulcimer 5So suppose you’re not a player or (not yet) an aficionado?  Here’s what I think you’ll come away appreciating.  The history of the instrument, as it evolved from the German Sheitholt and became an altogether different instrument when it was taken down the Great Wagon Road into Virginia and then west into the frontier, is fascinating.  That history is revealed both in the author’s narrative and in the many photographs of sheitholts and dulcimers throughout the hundred-page volume.  I loved reading how the settlement schools like Hindman (where I briefly taught) served as hotbeds and enclaves for the dulcimer, how (but not why) the Scotch-Irish preferred an instrument with a raised and centered fretboard and tuning pegs that were wood rather than metal, flat rather than vertical.  Both instruments are zithers and can accommodate various numbers of strings.  The possible shapes and materials (from a cardboard box to a wild cherry coffer) are endless.  Who sees one, even in a picture, and doesn’t want to stroke it and strum it and be blessed?


Because the photographs are black and white, I can concentrate on the shapes – pegs, frets, strum hollows, scrolls, the overall contours of the creature – instead of (as is my wont) getting caught up in the various colors and grains of the poplar, cherry, spruce, butternut, rosewood, bloodwood, ash.  And there are plenty of places to see the wood in full splendor.  The B&W images probably help keep the price of the paperback book modest, which I value.


dulcimer 3Whenever the technical threatens to get tedious (usually due to my lack of erudition), I crave an anecdote, a stream of narrative to confer a local habitation and a name.  The Story of . . . offers several of those.  After all, it is a story.  I enjoyed the tale of the transaction that took Granny Lee’s instrument to John Blankenbeckler, the account of traveling luthier Uncle Ed Thomas, whose dulcimers sold for about three and a half bucks and whose knowledge of how to make them was never explained, the chronicle of Jethro Amburgey of Hindman who was written up in The Times in the 30’s and the legacy of collector and preserver Henry Mercer who knew early on to value the dulcimer as more than a quirk or a whim.  Ferrum’s Roddy Moore’s contribution to the lore and preservation also runs throughout the book, but my favorite narrative tells of Betsey Maggard Creech, who lost her husband Gilbert in the Civil War and traveled with her children to Big Leatherwood Creek near Perry, KY to play a tune at Gilbert’s graveside, then returned home to the Cumberland.  Quite a trek, but they say the path shortens when you have a mission.


courtingMy only unfilled wish for the book would be a short section of the courting dulcimer, my favorite kind for its ingenious employment.  Sometimes a young man might come calling to the homeplace of a sweetheart whose family wanted to allow the couple some private time but who were still wary of the mischief that can kindle when romance is in the air.  They might allow the couple to be alone in a room with a courting dulcimer (probably on a table between them).  Instead of relying on steady chatter, which is known to falter amid amorous stares, the parents listened to hear that both sets of strings were singing, all hands busy making the music, no idle ones to become the devil’s workshop.  I’ve seen only five or six of those devices which help delay the honeymoon till after the vows, and I would love to know more about their history and frequency.  Might even derive some satisfaction from knowing if they worked, though I am not choosing sides.


It’s worth noting that Smith makes no claim for The Story of the Dulcimer as definitive.  He suggests it be read along with Allen Smith’s Catalogue of Pre-revival Appalachian Dulcimers (U. of MO Press), and I’d add Jean Ritchie’s classic The Dulcimer Book (Oak Music).  And of course, you’ll want an instrument on hand to give the whole session dimensions (Dr. Google can help you find what you want.), including depth and sound, but the images, anecdotes, explanations and examples of Ralph Smith’s account will likely lure you, so to speak, deep into the wildwood flowers of dulcet lore.  I recommend the enterprise.

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Narration & Invention: THE GOOD LORD BIRD, Part 2

catesbyivoryJames McBride’s GLB is a wild ride, part historical novel, part fantasy, legend, cultural core sample, narrative experiment, part stylistic stunt.  In short, it is not a realistic account or a psychological revelation.  Though it employs facts, often as backdrop, sometimes as touchstones, often as shadows, securing from it a balanced historical truth would be harder than getting milk from an owl.  Such evasiveness and jazzing about is maybe what I want a large portion of the novels I read to achieve.

Here’s McBride’s method of attack.  The prologue is a supposed newspaper article from 1966 claiming that a fireproof box rescued from the ruins of a burned Negro church in Delaware contains some Confederate money, “ a rare feather from an ivory-billed woodpecker” and notebooks of a congregant who recorded the life of former slave and orphan Mr. Henry Shackleford, who lived to be over a hundred.  Shackleford, as a child and under the nom de guerre “the Onion” and the guise of a female, rode and fought with John Brown in his rowdy days, observed him, admired him, feared him but sometimes faced up to him.

The narrator is Henry/Onion from Kansas, and his/her struggles with identity, loyalty, belief and the slings and errors of outrageous fortune drive the narrative of antebellum bellicosity, religion, politics and night riding.

I don’t know if this somewhat picaresque premise is preposterous or postposterous, but it allows for some antic battle scenes, understated violence (and excessive violence), inventively obscene language and nightmare adventures.  At times McBride seems to be channeling Cormac McCarthy or Pinckney Benedict, which may be rich but risky.

enginehouseThe language and dark humor are at the heart of this story, the blood frolic and moral combustion.  Some of the brightest moments occur when the Onion cuts through the tangle of verbiage and employs understatement, and when the book falters, the plot stalls and wheels spin, it’s usually because we’re in the midst of intentional overwriting meant to convey the un-savvy mind of a former slave about twelve or fourteen years old trying to negotiate through questions of sexuality, freedom, righteousness.  The thematic waters are deep, but the characters don’t match up to them.  A comic bent doesn’t always undermine the serious wind, but here it happens more often than I wanted.

Maybe I’m trying too hard here not to be a spoiler.  We know what Brown’s history in the border wars of Kansas was, the hostilities at Pottawatomie and the depredations at Osawatomie, and the Onion is along as a kind of aide-de-camp and sounding board, as well as a pet who has strong feelings about many of the Brown clan and a range of diction that outstrips her/his range of action.  The big figures of history (Frederick Douglass, for one, portrayed as an equivocator, drunk and potential molester) enter and leave obliquely, and Brown is portrayed sometimes as a monster, sometimes as a card-carrying idiot and on other occasions as an terrifying and inspiring leader like the one in John Steuart Curry’s famous painting of a cruciform prophet with outstretched arms, Bible and rifle in hand, tornadoes and flames behind, Negroes, Yanks and Rebs all around.  On occasion, however, Brown seems genuinely reflective and tender, even funny.  His recitations from imagined books of the Bible are slyly ridiculous, and McBride seems engaged in a disclosure of how zealotry can go berserk and burlesque.  It doesn’t hurt that the naïve yet cunning Onion is a sympathetic, resourceful, sometimes hilarious guide.  If only he had more Huck-gumption, but then that may be unfair, as the book I seem to be preferring has already been written and can be read again, if I need to.

Just when I would feel this Gordian knot of the oracular and vernacular less satisfying than frustrating, the author provides a bridge to the history of fiction about slavery, channels Twain a bit (though not as intent of issues of moral gravity and character complexity).  He knows his history, and ingesting it is sometimes nourishing enough to forgive GLB its inconsistencies of  period vernacular (like “a legend in your own mind” in the 1840s?), its easy jokes (like “Judge Fuggett”), anachronisms (like the 1950’s monkey wrench) or its absurdities, such as the capture of “sorghum syrup from sugar maple trees,” which is not presented as the confused boy/girl’s memory but that of the older man narrating his memoir.

JohnBBut then you get the Onion saying Brown was “smooth business in the woods, quiet as a deer,” and it sounds pitch-perfect.  So here’s a large slice of the problem.  We’re expected to sift through the language of the notebooks and sort out  Higgins from the Onion from the mature and reflective Shackleford to the declining Shackleford in his ancient of days manifestation, all in the service of weighing credibility and verisimilitude.  It like to give me the fantods.

Lampoon, folktale, metaphoric history, cartoon?  This is not a book very much about slavery but about a sometimes-addled adolescent crossdresser’s understanding of an enigmatic giant of American history.  Complete with extended digressions and catalogues, several epic gestures.  Perhaps it’s time to say that the phantasmagoria and grand guignol of the volume reflect that volatile period of American history more conventional historians usually shy away from.

Here’s a note of clarity and sanity.  As the book reaches its third and final section (about half the 400-odd pages) it gallops toward more familiar ground for me – the Kennedy House, Harper’s Ferry, the unrealistic strategies and expectations, the intricate unfolding of events – it fairly races, working hard to infuse (stuff, really) the story with the actual names and times, weather, geography of the town and so on.  At first I was relieved to be in this less swampy linguistic ground, to see cause-and-effect running on all four wheels, but after a hundred pages of that, I yearned a bit for the Keystone Cops abolitionists and Jethro Bodine slavers.  I missed the kink and romp of the earlier episodes and the invitation to speculate how the Onion will keep identity secret here or turn a Brown to reason or hornswoggle one of the Madam he serves  in a frontier brothel.  SO I am of two minds (or half a one) on this book.  It offers pleasures and irritations, but it is seldom dull reading or sleepy writing, and I wish I saw its ilk more often. . . if you can get ilk from an owl.

Maybe it’s best to say of Henry Shackleford (got that name, right?), “He had a dream and it shot him.”  Or to accept the judgement of the Mad Hatter: “We are all mad here.”

But no need, as McBride’s dedication of the book reads: “For Ma and Jade,/ who loved a good whopper.”  At least, he’s not trying to pull the sheep over our eyes.

However, since I dealt this hand, I should say something more about the bird, it’s disappearance from nature but occasional flights through the story.  Almost none of this tale unfolds even close to the nineteenth century habitat of the Campephilus principalis, often called the Lord God Bird, Grail Bird or the Good Lord Bird.  But a dead one appears long enough to be, off-stage, disassembled, its feathers distributed as talismans and credentials among the freedom fighters who are also terrorists.  Maybe there’s a systematic metaphorical intent here, but I can’t untangle it.  The bird is still  extant in the middle of the nineteenth century but now extinct (so they say) due to loss of habitat and collectors.  I can’t quite see that parallel as appropriate to develop either Brown or Shackleford, though I will keep looking.

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Of John Brown, the Onion, Woodpeckers and Peckerwoods: McBride’s novel THE GOOD LORD BIRD

I delight in reading about the ivory bill woodpecker and pine to see one in flight or hammering away.  Unfortunately, they’re evidently extinct, according to all but the most optimistic lost-cause birders.  Fortunately, however, a pair of pileated woodpeckers – similar in silhouette but smaller, less musical and different in coloring from their vanished cousins – haunt the woods I live in.  I keep my eye peeled for them and discovered last year that two juveniles were foraging in the area as well. When I want to inquire deeper into matters ornithological, I go to a source like The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose, Tim Gallagher’s The Grail Bird or Michael K. Steinberg’s Stalking the Ghost Bird.  There’s a good but desperately hopeful documentary film about possible Arkansas survivors, too.  (And I wonder why my bookshelves runneth over. . . .)

JohnBThat rarum avis (and zealot and rebel, liberator, charismatic terrorist) John Brown has long fascinated me, as well, and about two decades ago I served for two months as the first (maybe only, as it turns out) writer-in-residence at the Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park.  I read Robert Penn Warren’s John Brown: The Making of a Martyr while I was there, along with Stephen B. Oates’s hagiographic To Purge this Land with Blood (which is more admiring of Brown than I can be) and was on hand to examine (with gloves) a newly-loaned artifact for display, the Sharps carbine Brown probably carried during his quixotic (but in some ways right-minded) raid on the Federal arsenal as HF.  I studied the landscape, the maps, the artifacts, the various accounts in books and on park videos.  I spent afternoons at the Kennedy Farm (nearby lurk headquarters) across the river in MD and even made a cobbler from fruit (both dark purple and white) off the mulberry trees there.  I had already read Russell Banks’ brilliant (and again, admiring of the subject) Cloudsplitter, as powerful a historical novel as I know, and followed the fictional account that presented Brown as a hybrid bred from Moses, Ahab, one dupe and maybe three demons, while still painting him as a real and inevitable, if infuriating, man.  Needless to say, I hated to leave that haunted corner of W. VA. when my time there expired, and I left with all my senses and inquiries sharpened..

Where is this headed?  Oh ye of little faith. . . .

When I saw in 2013 that James McBride had written a novel entitled The Good Lord Bird and that it was about John Brown, I couldn’t believe my luck.  Salt-cured ham and sweet potato on the same plate!  So I ordered a copy and, true to form, swiftly misplaced it.  Well, as Frostian way leads on to way, I followed the distraction trail to dabble in and read other things, while the book received kudos and McBride collected his National Book Award.  My memory serves no master, so the book’s existence melted like ice in July.  But then, serendipity, I stumbled upon another reference to the book and recovered my resolve to read it, despite my commitment to a summer of Patricia Highsmith novels and stories.  And luck was with me: for some reason – probably that NBA – our college library had a copy, which was available.

The timing was right.  Just three years since the acclaimed film of Twelve Years a Slave threw the spotlight on the original (if ghostwritten) book, a year since Tom Piazza’s challenging novel A Free State explored ante-bellum identity through a mixed race runaway eluding capture while masquerading as a very dark African while playing exhilarating banjo in a minstrel show.  And this summer we have a new Roots miniseries.  Add these to Banks’ established and provocative Cloudsplitter and William Styron’s much-debated Confessions of Nat Turner, and you have an exciting and controversial literary landscape of historical novels on similar subjects, many of them thriving under the vast canopy of Huckleberry Finn.  But none of them have the ivory bill.

ibory billNor does McBride’s book very much have the bird, though feathers materialize and are brandished on occasion.  And it’s not likely to become a movie, because it’s a novel about narrative voice as much as anything else, and MacBride gallops in where angels fear to tread on the matter of whether or not to use language that is authentically offensive or offensively authentic.  In the current political/rhetorical climate in which book banners are sour because book BURNING has been given such a bad name, McBride weighs in on the side of offensive language but with a tactical mind.  He out-offends anything Twain’s wife would let him write, but he does it with high and low, outrageous mischief, The Good Lord Bird being a rollicking, twisted discourse on obscenity, grittiness, ultra-violence and insanity, all wrapped in a historical blanket.  I won’t say it makes David Milch’s HBO Deadwood look tame, but that series appears less radical in juxtaposition to McBride’s Brown/bird/cross-dressing (yes, Caitlin’s transformation is almost anticipated) gallimaufry.

So the stage is set, but do I recommend McBride’s novel, which is presented as a long-lost document narrated or written by a former slave who lives to be a hundred (shades of Berger’s Jack Crabbe)?  It’s certainly an ambitious book with pleasures and frustrations to offer, but for my conflicted and enigmatic scorecard will have to wait for the next post.  I’ll try not to be away too long.  Stay tuned.

[P.S. If you want something to do in the meantime, I recommend The Life and Letters of Captain John Brown, edited by Richard Webb and published in London in 1861.  The book was re-issued by Negro Universities Press in 1972, and there’s a copy of the original edition in the Duke University Library.]

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Here a Quack, There a Quack (a whimsy)

The current media blitzkrieg reminds me of a time when the American icon called Donald was a duck.  A Disney character often scolding or combating his cricket-capped nephews Huey, Dewy and Louie or some other zoomorphic nemesis, that Donald wore a sailor suit (though he never seemed to claim a nautical background, even in his romantic life) and seemed pretty middle class.  He was not the best or the greatest at anything, was in fact, a simple enough bird, though one who enjoyed his creature comforts and feathering his nest. He did not savor opposition.  DD was amusing and sometimes admirable, not excessively addicted to the truth.  He is also the most widely broadcast comic character outside the superhero genre.

What I most miss about that Donald is not his huge bill nor his inclination to belittle those not like him or those opposed to him.  Though he didn’t seem to have huge hands, I don’t miss his big feet or his greed.  And this is the moment I experience some passing regrets about copyright protection.  I would love to post right HERE an image of DD displaying the mode which, as a kid, I most enjoyed: the ghost-white duck in mid-tantrum.  Such a posting might be reckless, though.  [I should mention that DD was most famously drawn by the trio of Taliaferro, Banks and Rose.]  I loved those renderings of our hero in full hissy fit, leaping and stomping, spit and pin feathers flying, as if he were scrapping with some invisible force.  His bill might sprout fangs, he might spit lightning, he would squawk and stammer, with squiggles in the air around him to signal that he was employing transgressive and downright unprintable language as he wheezed and yammered like Rumpelstiltskin in full fury or a Celtic war poet screaming his scorn song against an enemy fortification.  He was impressive, and I was enchanted.  Even the other animals like Mickey and DD’s own moneybags-rich Uncle Scrooge McDuck might recoil in awe, though they did not seem smitten by his persona, all that ire and twisted inconsistency, all that verbal shrapnel and dragonfire.  They indulged him or gave him space till the fits passed, the feathers settled, and soon the Peaceable Kingdom would be, for a spell, restored.  He was, after all, a decent fowl at heart and perhaps the founder of Ducks Unlimited.

Much as I delighted in the whirlwind of the Tasmanian devil or the stormy outbursts of Elmer Fudd, it is Donald Duck with that orange-ish broad bill that I wish the satellite TV networks would resurrect more often.  Entertaining as he was, he remained somewhat marginal, as he lacked the good heart of Steamboat Willie (the inevitable M. Mouse), the ingenuity of Tweety-bird, the enterprise of the coyote, the wit and percussion of the woodpecker.  Plunging into my morning Cheerios, I keep wishing he were not disrespected, ignored, short shrifted, wondering if it’s not time for a movement, as the general atmosphere we now swim in suggests that Donald Duck’s hour has come round at last to slouch toward Hollywood or the Beltway to be reborn.  That bat signal good old Commissioner Gordon used to summon his nocturnal hero to Gothem — somebody needs to get to work on a Duck call right away.

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I’m Nobody

frogJune already, moon and croon, the peepers singing their tune in the trees, the understory, the pond, ubiquitous and to my untrained ear, only slightly melodic, but my iota of biological understanding insinuates they’re saying their names, or some version of “me, here, now, wow!”  June, so the miniscule amphibians put me in mind of Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody” poem:

I’m Nobody!  Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s just the pair of us!
Don’t tell!  They’d advertise – you know.

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
(J # 260)

Context aside, sounds to me like she’s warning us about the perils of Facebook posting – maybe she means “admiring Brag” – though I admit to seeing the advantages of social media if you’re trying to sell something, plan a big party, cast a glamour over your readers (“friends” and fiends alike) or overthrow a country.  Her first stanza seems whispered, conspiratorial, and even paranoid.  Or mock-paranoid.  The children’s secret game under the draped dining table, and a search for some small society to select before shutting the door.  Comfort in numbers, if the number is two.  If the anonymous They gets wind of the secret emptiness of being Somebody (as in: “that loud guy with the weird hair, red cap and flashy suit, surely he’s Somebody!) they’ll be eager to handle mad subversives with a chain (and off to the brig).  It’s divine sense to keep such secrets, herkos odonton, as the Greeks put it, figuratively “behind the teeth.”  Silence is golden (but the duct tape is silver).emily


But perhaps worse than being found out to be Nobody is the sentence to be Somebody.  Be and say and yammer-yammer-yellowhammer night and day screaming for attention like the kid doing wheelies in the driveway.  But what’s the penalty for celebrity?  Celebrity.  Pretty (midnight) dreary business, likely to lead to delusion and hubris.  The croaking frogs of Aristophanes find anonymity in their surge, become one entity, the Borg, the Balrog, if not the Bog (or the morphing green being from Steve McQueen’s early film The Blob).  Now I’m aware that Dickinson is usually above naked sarcasm, but that admiring (which might seem the cousin of the advertising in stanza one) bog (or even blog!) is probably sneering and smirking behind the parlor flirt’s lace fan, if only because the grenouille chorus is competing with all the myriad choruses of the other self-namers.  The result is a cacophony of selfies, a clustercroak of memes and memoirs and “je suis-je suis.”  And, admittedly, I have an account (however dormant) and am not qualified to cast the first stone, though I’m not disassembling my cairn, just in case.

Perhaps E.D. has foreheard Steinbeck over half a century later saying, “Writers should be read, not heard.”  Or even herd, I suspect.

KeatsOr perhaps she’s suggesting that she’s not anybody finite and specific, in concord with a practice (and feat) Keats explained in a letter to Ben Bailey (which E.D. could not have read, as it was, well, confidential for decades).  It’s that negative capability business: “. . . if a sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.”  Not just projection or imagination, but something more magical, maybe Kafkaesque.  I’m sure a few have the gift of such radical identification in which moments of transformation occur.  Keats and Dickinson seem candidates who make their art not quite by liking or sharing but by committing a fervent attention to the Other so consuming that those two poets are safe from falling in with the mobile vulgus.  Better a singular startling sparrow fully occupied in survival than a host of frogs at their revival hymning their “come hither” and credentials.

Exhausting, all this psycho-musical analysis and mischief, but fortunately we’re approaching not livelong but liveshort June (just 30 twilights), and by the way, where I live there’s a great shoal of cicadas due to celebrate another seventeenth this year, beginning some night soon.  That should drown out the public frogs, but where does that leave Nobody?  Maybe hidden among the nothing that isn’t there.

[Nota bene: C. Manson also quoted D.’s opening to this poem.  So, the Devil can cite . . . .]




There, I’ve once again said more than I know.

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peregrine book

November 30th. . Two kills by the river: kingfisher and snipe.  The snipe lay half submerged in flooded grass, cryptic even in death.  The kingfisher shone even in mud at the river’s edge, like a brilliant eye.


When Kirk Follo asked me if I’d read J. A. Baker’s book The Peregrine, I first wondered if it was kin to The Maltese Falcon, and my curiosity was piqued.  After five minutes of Kirk’s enthusiastic recommendation, I was sold on the book, but soon learned I was unable to buy it in Tiny Town.  The college library, however, rescued me, as the book was a New York Review classic paperback in ’67, long before I knew what peregrine meant.  And the library had it.  Kirk is a demanding and discerning reader and critic, but I still doubted I’d have the same life-enhancing experience I’d had with Jonathan Maslow’s The Owl Papers on Cumberland Island, GA over two decades ago, one of my two most exciting nature book reads (the other? Barry Lopez’s Of Men and Wolves).  Maybe I was wrong about that.


John Alec Baker has been something of a mystery man, the author of only two books, putatively a longtime librarian (but now Wiki says an auto company employee) born in 1926 and deceased, well, the literary world was unsure about that when the paperback was issued.  His life span dates in the book are listed as (1926-?), which is pretty unusual, since he was still alive and writing in 1967, though his hawk book suggests he had recently received a dire personal prognosis.  Turns out – rheumatoid arthritis, eventually followed by cancer from the arthritis drugs.  But I stray.


For a decade Baker was possessed by the shrinking population of English peregrines, and for almost a year (October to March, a kind of “peregrine year”) Baker traipsed about the fields, marshes and woodlands of a small coastal region in East Anglia, where he “hunted” (with field glasses and a notebook) and documented the local peregrines, a small population likely destined to follow their cousins to the undiscovered country via agricultural chemicals.  The slender volume he left detailing the flights and feedings, matings and general peregrinations [from L for wandering or foreign; I couldn’t resist] of the birds, which are paragons of hunting efficiency and beauty, their in-flight kills elegant, their mantling, plucking and feeding nearly ritualistic, their life force exciting and inspiring.  They have running (soaring) scrimmages with crows, who like to mob them, and seem prone to gambol and play, as well as simply to observe the comings and goings of other avians with British names like godwit, knot, fieldfare, the many plovers, gulls and other fishers that haunt estuarial territories.  Their primary provender is the woodpigeon, and almost without exception these hawks take their prey in flight, often by a steep vertical stoop at about a hundred miles an hour.


Look them up in Sibley or the Audubon guide, and you’ll find some specimen images a gray slate with black highlights, others the colors of a light-phase copperhead, but not until you read Baker describing them will you think that many writers have ever done justice to describing a bird, tweedy in pattern or arrowhead-schemed, moustached, hook-beaked, lethal-taloned.


So who needs to know so much about a bird?  Well, the subject is fascinating, the matter, but that’s almost collateral.  What truly matters is manner, the manner of observation and of rendering.  Both Pound and Stevens insisted that the test of sincerity is craft, Pound adding that absolute attention is prayer.  But Baker is not a snazzy or mandarin stylist, he’s not even aiming for the kind of magical flair Lopez brings to “nature writing.”  He just observes with such a quiet ferocity of spirit and mastery of material that the sentences, which often contain subtle incremental repetitions, spiel out as if they are the beautiful presences, instead of descriptions of those presences.  He’s not particularly clever or ornate, but he observes, describes, juxtaposes and reveals his discoveries in a manner that seldom approaches embellishment.


And he’s not there.  He’s the ghost voice, the transparent eyeball that delivers the is.  Except, perhaps, in the matter of color, all the nuances and overtones, undertones.  His writing has a kind of painter’s pentimento that mixes the colors of marshweeds, mudflats, the chill air across which the tierce (male) or falcon (female) etches its signature and swoops down to snatch the life from its prey.  Reading the descriptions of the raptors’ acts are near rapture, as if this book were the casebook meant to prove the truth of James Dickey’s “The Heaven of Animals,” in which he imagines the predator’s “descent/ Upon the bright backs of their prey// . . . In a sovereign floating of joy.”


Four or five hours’ reading, a penitential act for anyone who suspects he or she has loved and looked too glibly or pretended to master a body of knowledge never truly penetrated to its heartbeat.  But a providential exercise, as well.  The intricate stitchery by which the world has made itself, without flourish or boast, no vita to flaunt, but just the turning ceremony of each successive day seen by the most ravenous eye imaginable and delivered with one of the most earnest and unself-righteous hands conceivable.


There’s not much plot to this story, as Baker resists the temptation to anthropomorphize the creatures that spellbind him (but which he never claims to “love”), but reading it I feel that I have requested, echoing Robert Penn Warren, “Tell me a story of deep delight,” and that I’ve been heard by someone or something actually able to deliver the goods.  Owls, pileateds, and the red kites of Wales have long been my favorite birds, but Baker has offered a new candidate, and I’m all Zeissed-up, wide-eyed and ready to see for myself.  All I need is a map.

peregrine book 2

Here’s the beginning of Baker’s October 39 entry:

The wind-shred banner of the autumn sky spanned the green headland between the two estuaries.   The east wind drove drenching grey and silver showers through the frozen cider sky.  Birds rose from ploughland as a merlin flew above them, small and brown and swift, lifting dark against the sky, dipping and swerving down along the furrows.  All brown or stubbled fields shivered and glittered with larks; all green were plied with plover.  Quiet lanes brindled with drifting leaves.

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Red River: Texas, Massachusetts and Home Again (Part two of a rubicund blog)

(for Part 1, scroll down past part the second))

Stanza the Second

red riverI have not forgotten.  Rubicon.  Here’s the rub.  The Red River, which is also a Texas border and part of the legendary geography of Old West cattle drives, for those trying to follow my digressions as if . . .  never mind.  Red River is a designated cinema treasure, as Robert Osborne tells us, and it’s about betrayal, vengeance, private enterprise and violence, all with requisite dust, livestock and rubes.  Women appear and speak, even dispute.  They do matter, in a Hawksish way, but it’s a man’s man’s movie, a hawks’, not much on the “then the letting go” front.  Caesar deciding to take the reins from the self-satisfied and corrupt magistrates, to trump them, by hook or pilum.  Tough steer magnate Tom (big John) Dunson (do I hear a “dunce” in there?) determined to drive the 10,000 head to Missouri for the big lollapalooza bonanza, instead of the safer, closer Abilene payoff.  Like Austin and Mabel willing to risk all domestic harmony for a whole gaggle of folks (though A. D.’s wife Susan Gilbert Dickinson was already low-dosing on arsenic for some “mysterious illness”) for the pleasures of wrestling out of all that Victorian millinery and making the two-backed beast.  (I remember, much later than these simple discoveries, reading one of Mabel’s letters in which she mentioned the need in Japan for a western lady always to be armed with a button hook, as it was always necessary to remove one’s shoes-of-many-fasteners to visit a temple.  This is before Velcro.  Old fashioned Cupid was a harsh taskmaster, as was Baedeker.)  Hard not to mention in such flights of fancy that A and M called their attempts  to procreate “the experiment.”  Shades of Dr. Frankenstein.

But: Rubicon.  The ancients did have a romantic side.  Maybe the solicitor/accountant/untrustworthy trustee of Amherst College Austin had other powers and resembled more Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Whatsit.  On 9/11, 1882, A escorted M through rain and dusk to the Evergreens, his very own home and hearth, for a perhaps spirited game of whist.  En route, they paused, spoke.  That night he wrote in his diary the players’ names (including “Ms. Todd,” which is right neigh the German for “death”), weather conditions and some cursive scribble that I can only guess is “stranger lights & hound,” but I must be mistaken and wish someone with better eyes would transcribe it.  This I can read: early in the brief entry “not much going on,” but after naming the card party participants, Mabel’s last on the list, a line skipped, and then the single word: Rubicon.  Polly Longsworth, in her books Austin and Mabel and The World of Emily Dickinson interprets this trisyllabic ejaculation to mean that A confessed his dark desires to Mabel.  (Like to ask her about that possible hound, though.)

But there’s a little more, then a lot more.  Mabel also kept a journal, half a page for that day – the weather, the party, a formal reference to Mr. Muttonchops, and then, at the very bottom of the September 11 (-yes-) page, separate, penciled in (probably at a later date, according to Polly, who has seen the genuine article), the word, the red river, the cast die and irreversible decision, if such heart-smitten moments resemble decisions.  Added later to perhaps correct a semantic asymmetry between them.  The couple also created a charm, the code Amuasbteiln.  His name having swallowed hers.  They were busy as May bees and seemed to take to deceit.  THIS was the love that dare not whisper its name.  They were not adequately sly, however, nor could they manage to spring an offspring.austin rubicon

The “lot more” is Longsworth’s excellent 1984 Farrar, Straus, Giroux book Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd, plus the later illustrated biography The World of Emily Dickinson, the latter in this matter especially valuable for the images of AD and MLT, especially those which show her eyes, which are mad as a rabid fox’s, and her parlors, which are more museums than spaces for work or sloth.  She was a natural-born curator, bless her heart.  His story does not end well, by the way, nor does hers.  If you want to know why, visit any cemetery; we all end up pretty much the same.

[Some notes:
*Emily D. was called among the neighbors “the myth.”
*She wrote in a letter, I think to Higginson, that her eyes were the color of sherry.
*Whist is bridge without bidding.  Nothing ventured . . . no dice.
*First name of the previous owner of my second-or-so-hand-copy of Longworth’s study of the correspondence was – and I hope is – Sherry.]

emilyBut there’s yet a brighter side, at least for me, at least for now.  I had made some of these discoveries about the Dickinson family scandal, particularly Longworth’s reprint and discussion of the letters, some time ago, before 1996.  I know this simply because, when I first met my wife (it was September, 1996), I had (Eureka!) been prepped by my adventures in reading: one word hammered its dactyl permanently into my spirit, and neither Marion Montgomery (John Wayne’s real moniker), Jeep products nor Julius Caesar could have been further from my fevered mind.  What I thought was Rubicon.

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Red River (Before the HowardHawksJohnWayne western) in Two Inpertinent Parts


Stanza the First. [rub icon?]

jeep rub

I have discovered that “Rubicon” now names a style of semi-compact faux-rugged soft-top Jeep and yet another failed TV series about espionage, but not many people in my neighborhood still use the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” to designate an irreversible and risky decision.  “The die is cast” is also fading from the popular vocabulary, and alea jacta est is more a ghost phrase than the conversation spice it once was among baby boomers who were herded into Latin classes.  Romans didn’t really use the “J” anyway.  In fact, the River Rubicon in northeastern Italy was never itself important as more than a border, a no trespassing sign, but it did play a major role in Roman law and the limitations placed on Roman generals flushed with victory.  The law forbade commanders to cross that stream at the head of an army, which might in unsteady times resemble a threat.  Their right to command, their imperium, stopped at the border, where the power of the magistrates activated.  To cross and proceed toward the place where all roads lead in full martial strength was a capital offense.  Maybe this kind of tension the historical moment when Truman and McArthur fell into irreversible conflict.  Mac tried to cross it the border, Caesar did.  Maybe the Romans should have built a wall.

Rubicon riverThe stream flowing south of Ravenna is called Rubicon because, as with ruby, the word’s root designates something red, like the clay which forms much of the river’s bed and stains the water reddish (but not radish, not even quite a crimson tide).  Once Julius Caesar defied the Senate and crossed with his soldiers on that cold day in 49 B.C.– with only a legion of three or four thousand, but symbolically a horde – war with Pompey and his cronies was inevitable, and much more than that minor river would run red . . . for three years, very red.

You have to wonder what the Jeep marketing wizards (are they still “Willis”?) were thinking when they chose the name.  It looks like an unsafe rugged vehicle, but overpriced and prone to rolling.  But then we’ve already had the Cressida and the Saturn, so the sky’s the limit.  Name away.  (I want an Orion, for winter driving).  And I guess if I had a Rubicon I might feel more decisive and hardened by frontier campaigns sleeping beside my gladius under the stars and facing the war axe and battle cry of the menacing Gauls.  I’d want my 4-wheel drive Rubicon to be red as a fox.

caesarBut there must be more to the flight of associations than all this fiddle, and there is.  The idea of crossing into dangerous territory, rolling the dice and making a monumental decision will always be part of our lives, and the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” once carried significant gravity and the weight of historical association.  It was useful.  It was cultural and worldly and a pleasure to pronounce.  It could be employed inappropriately by a Woody Allen as self-satire, but it could also suggest the havoc and suffering Caesar’s domestic conquest carried.  Maybe the convenience of that Siri voice can reverse the loss of such pertinent words.

Once upon a time, straying from some rambling research on Emily Dickinson (no stranger to the irrevocable, heart-scouring decisions – the soul selects its own society – then shuts the door), I found myself reading her brother Austin’s letters and some of his journal entries.  And there it was, without the “crossing,” just the simple signature pronouncement rubicon.  Here’s a code to wrinkle the forehead and throw the brain’s electro-chemical switch.  Not to be left behind by the youthful and beautiful, I thought simply “WTF?” (a favorite FM radio station).

old austinI won’t play coy.  Though it was an unopened door for me, I already knew there is an invisible but not completely clandestine portal in the Dickinson family’s Homestead that reads “Her Brother’s Disgraceful Affair.”  I knew this skeleton-not-really-in- the-closet involved Mabel Loomis Todd, editor marquee, illustrator, promoter who played a role (of debatable value, for editorial and litigious reasons) in bringing to light the work of the genius spinster mystery foremother of American poetry.  I also knew that Mabel (whom I can’t stop associating with pancakes or Black Label beer) was married to an Amherst College astronomer, who perhaps should have looked about him through a magnifying glass or his own specs instead of a telescope, but that’s another story.  The outlaw couple conducted their trysts during the period of their “white as the fresh driven snow” (sere and austere Austin’s words, not mine) affaire de coeur in the downstairs parlor under Emily’s chambers – this I didn’t know.  Though Maple and Emily never actually met, the poet admired the future editor’s deftness on the eighty-eights, requested that the tunes continue and on occasion left sherry and even a poem at the bottom of the stairs for the musician and the mutton-chopped Victorian whose 1890 image reminds me of (a)Lizzie Borden’s father, (b)Lawrence Talbot in half-wolf mode and (c)David Selby (who has published two volumes of poetry himself!) as Quentin Collins in TV’s Dark Shadows, and he never looks in those later pictures as if he’s a dormant volcano ready to spew embers like Krakatoa.  In 1854, however, he had the look of a neutered Heathcliff.  SO . . .  hanky-panky, coded rendezvous in the crepuscular world where poems and love are made.

Part two coming soon

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5 Years of Shenandoah Online

Screenshot 2016-04-07 23.37.58


One of the projects I started working on more than five years ago was bringing the Shenandoah Literary Magazine online. I got the gig thanks to the late and very great Claudia Emerson, who I had been working with on a literary journals class at UMW. Many smarter than me can speak to Claudia’s legacy as a poet, but I can and will testify to what an awesome teacher and person she was. I miss her regularly.

Claudia Emerson

Claudia Emerson

In the Summer of 2010 I started working with Rod Smith, the editor of Shenandoah, and he agreed to move the journal to a WordPress multisite instance that Martha Burtis and I designed. Screenshot 2016-04-07 23.15.43

Five years later it’s still going strong, in fact it has steadily been picking up traffic since 2011 when it first took the plunge online. What’s more, I have a very agreeable relationship with Rod. We work pretty well together, and I think we’ve made a fairly good team. I enjoy managing the site so that he can introduce a new cadre of Washington & Lee University students to the journal each semester. These students help bring some excellent writers  to the open web gratis. It also keeps me connected to the work I did with Claudia for the literary journals course. That was the most praxis-oriented course I’d ever been a part of, and I loved it. We had four or five groups of students per class that were tasked with both conceptualizing and creating a full blown literary journal in less than 15 weeks.

My own teaching was greatly influenced by Claudia’s willingness to experiment and explore, and after we ran the Literary Journals course together for a couple of semesters I got the offer to teach CPSC 106 (what would soon after forever be known as ds106!). In a strange convergence, at the same time I was working on Shenandoah’s first online issue, a bunch of us got the idea to bring ds106 to the open web as well. And while my work with ds106 and Shenandoah has been very different, in my mind they are deeply connected. So early this week we pulled the trigger on the tenth online issue signaling the fifth year of Shenandoah online. Time flies when you are populating the internet with both high (Shenandoah) and low (ds106) CULTURE!!!

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