Reflections from a Culture-Shocked American

by Arlette Hernandez

I had always heard tales about the Promised Land called “college.” Growing up with Cuban immigrant parents, college was little more than a goal I needed to meet so I could earn a degree and break the cycle of poverty. It was not until I got into high school when that changed. All my teachers would sit back in their cushioned office chairs, staring off into the distance, eyes glazing over as they talked about college. About pulling all-nighters and roaming through city streets at two in the morning. Or for some, about meeting their husbands and wives, their partners for the past however many million years. College became a place for adventure, not just a place to get a degree. Despite all these different views, everyone always seemed to arrive at the same order: study abroad if you can.

Now flash-forward to five months ago when I found myself walking around Heathrow International Airport, eyes shifting between my phone screen and the semi-friendly faces scurrying past me as I waited to connect to the Wi-Fi. I had waited for twenty minutes, but my neon purple suitcase never made an appearance on the carousel. After filing a report with British Airways, I was tasked with the mission of transporting myself and my backpack—filled with nothing but a MacBook and a copy of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves—to Bath, a town in the southwest of England, located about an hour and a half (by train) from London. My next three months in the country would be filled with weekend trips, classes on Shakespeare and Chaucer, and an internship at a local bookshop.

My first day on the job was overwhelming. The bookshop may have been small, but every inch was stuffed. Walking through, you would see books scattered shelves and tables, even a cement filled bathtub with books littered on its surface. Yet, the biggest shock came to me when I walked past a shelf curated with some of the staff’s favorite books. As my eyes trailed over the covers, I noticed a familiar title. It was the same book I had brought with me from house—House of Leaves—but the design on the cover was wildly different.

2000 US Pantheon cover           2000 UK Doubleday cover

England is close enough to the US, that the culture shock doesn’t grab you immediately. Instead, it builds up slowly like the suspense in a good thriller novel. I expected the culture shock; I expect all the differences. But for some reason, it never occurred to me that I’d spot those differences in something as simple as a book cover.

As a part of the internship, I had to write a 30-page research paper inspired by my experiences. I followed this theme of book cover designs, mixing it with my own interest in divisions between genre and “literary” fiction. Really, I wanted to demonstrate that books are not neutral objects. Rather, book covers are incredibly meaningful. They are surfaces constructed by marketing strategies, aimed or targeted at certain groups. Nevertheless, I find the differences between covers in the US and UK fascinating.

Here’s another example:

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

2015 UK Hodder &                 2015 US Harper Voyager                           Stroughton cover                                                       cover

The difference is pretty striking, right? When I look at the UK cover, I think “sophistication.” It looks like something that would be read by my forty-year-old neighbor who works at a private school twenty minutes away. It’s radically different from the US cover.

The UK cover shows the silhouette of a girl standing atop a grassy hill, in front of a nighttime sky. It looks like we start on the ground, on earth, but presumably end up somewhere in a faraway galaxy. The image of the sky takes of the majority of the cover’s space, and the girl’s body covers perhaps a sixth of the area. She seems to be lost in the stars. While the space theme on the UK cover is realistic, the US cover appears cartoonish in comparison. The US cover features a black background with bold and blocky green letters coated in a gradient theme. Surrounding the letters is an image of a moon and a spaceship. I immediately stereotyped this novel as sci-fi. The spaceship, the lettering, they all scream Star Wars and Star Trek. We look at the cover and think adventure and plot, not “what is the meaning of life?”

You can look at these differences in a few different ways. In terms of age, I get the sense that the UK cover is trying to appeal to an older audience. Because of the contrast between the girl’s body and the stars, the cover suggests that the novel is concerned with man’s search for meaning, something that would likely be of more concern to an older audience. Yet, the US cover, knee-deep in genre tropes, would probably appeal toward a younger audience that cares more about story than commentary. The issue of genre v. literary fiction also plays a role. Traditionally, sci-fi is seen as lowbrow literature, or genre fiction, so a cover that makes direct appeals toward that genre is also targeting its readership. Meanwhile, the UK cover, which evokes some heavy existential questions, targets a more literary crowd.

Sometimes the differences between covers speak more to the author or the novel’s reputation.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

2007 UK Vintage cover             2007 US Vintage cover

When I look at the US cover, it’s like it’s saying, “Yes, this is THE Beloved by THE Toni Morrison. Enough said.” Meanwhile, the UK cover gives a little bit more about the novel’s plot. This is understandable considering the fact that Beloved is a uniquely (African) American novel that is taught in a number of US classrooms. It is undoubtedly a part of the American canon, so a publisher working in 2007—thirty years after the novel was first published—does not have to work quite as hard to sell it.

The differences in cover design make sense. When you change the audience, you also have to change the strategies you use to market a book toward them. Still, I wonder if we can draw any cultural conclusions based on these differences. Does the US prefer more concrete imagery and the UK something more abstract? In the case of Chambers’ novel, does the cover more clearly evoke the sci-fi genre because science fiction novels are more popular in the US than in the UK? I have no idea, but it’s questions like these that keep me up at night.

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Defining Poetry: Anne Sexton’s “Transformations”

by Laurel Myers

I must admit before getting into this essay that I had never read a full book of poetry before university. Like my fellow classmate, Hannah Denham, I picked up Leaves of Grass with the intention to read every page. Holding a book of poetry in and of itself felt extremely scholarly and, dare I say it, snooty, that I worried the entire time I had the book people would think I was pretentious. Only a couple pages in, I got lost in the metaphors and otherworldliness of Whitman’s verse. I felt as if I had failed the literary world by not understanding the twists and convolutions of language. Because of this, I never attempted another book of poetry and only read the infamously famous poems passed out by my English teachers and wrote half-hearted stanzas about my trip to Cambodia or how much I love clouds. (I really love clouds.) In those moments of putting words on notebook paper and forcing out iambic pentameter and choosing rhymes from nowhere, poetry was just another homework assignment, a nuisance keeping me from the stacks of science fiction and fantasy novels that said what they meant and meant what they said. At the time, I simply did not understand the purpose of poetry.

That is, until I read Anne Sexton’s Transformations.

When I start a book, I read the foreword (if there is one) and then the last page first. I have received confused stares, angry outbursts, and sheer exasperation for this unconventional practice, which is understandable, but I am set in my ways. Beginning Transformations in this fashion prepared me for the dark humor and surprising intimacy of Sexton’s writing. I was delighted that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had written the foreword, knowing that if my favorite satirist liked this book enough to write about it, I was in for something good. What struck me in his couple of pages was not something he said, but rather a quote from a friend: “I asked a poet friend one time what it was that poets did, and he thought awhile and then he told me, ‘They extend the language.’” This response partially answered my question of why someone would want to rewrite the Grimm fairy tales. We have the originals, we were read them at bedtime before slipping into dreams, and Disney has animated its fair share. However, there is always more to a story when an author as astonishing and introspective as Anne Sexton reimagines them while still staying true to the earliest versions of the tales. The forward, then, extended my expectations.

The last stanza of the last poem of her collection deserves the coveted spot, because the words linger long after the book is closed. They are the last impression, but just as important (if not more) as the first. Sexton ends “Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)” with these lines:

     What voyage this, little girl?

     This coming out of prison?

     God help—

     This life after death? 

After reading this, I knew an entire journey occurs, but was it through all of the poems or just this one? Is this what the transformation is about? Do the characters go on physical journeys or is the book itself a journey? Why were there so many questions at the end? Does Anne Sexton not even know how the story is supposed to end? Why did I have to read the end first again?

Questions make you look for their answers, and in poetry, the answers are usually found in the patterns. Or are they found when the pattern is broken? Professor Wheeler, who teaches Transformations in her class about speculative fiction in poetry, would propose that poetry is patterned language, and therefore both the existence of a pattern and then deliberately ignoring the pattern are goldmines for analysis. Reading any type of work for the purpose of writing a paper on it changes how you approach the text, and this is more than true when close reading and annotating a poem. Close reading can sometimes make me see the trees for the forest. I get stuck on a color that keeps popping up or the number of times a name appears in one poem. This can cause you to wonder if this was the reason for poetry, to write in the margins and circle motifs and draw arrows connecting ideas or images. Thankfully, discussing my findings during class and listening to my classmates helped me understand why the patterns that stood out to me were important in the big picture and teased the underlying meanings to the surface.

While reading Transformations, you do not have to look very hard to see that metaphors are everywhere. Sexton’s predilection for metaphors extends throughout the book, diving into her dark humor and curiously personal perspectives. Her use of this literary device causes the world of fairy tales and World War II to collide. Her lush comparisons sculpted scenes full of obsession and bizarrerie while constantly juxtaposing characters with delicious food and nature’s foliage. Because Sexton wrote this collection before my time, she also forced me to look up references to Thorazine, Limoges, and the Bobbsey Twins.

But poems are more than structure and what rhetorical devices are used. They are a conversation, an observation, a call for empathy. They are statements about something, be it political, religious, or simply what it means to be human. Poems are examinations of ourselves and of our world, of desires and losses. As Allison Curseen, a visiting professor, put forth with conviction, “Poetry is bodies talking.” Poetry is extended language, is patterned language, is all of these cursory definitions. But Anne Sexton’s poetry transcends all of these descriptions and stands as a stoic and stark reminder that the world may be a messy place, but you can make something worthwhile out of it. You may not get a happy ending—in fact, your ending may by full of question marks—but you are fully capable of creating a fairy tale journey along the way.

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Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: American Individualism Then and Now By Hannah Denham

 

Nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman is heralded as one of the first truly American poets, but for me, he was my first. I’m a little sheepish to admit this, but I discovered Whitman during my middle school days of obsession with Nicholas Sparks novels: in The Notebook, Noah always read his poetry to Allie. In ninth grade, I transferred schools and one of the highlights was a new library to explore. I found an 1890 copy of Leaves of Grass. It smelled old and musky and like America. I checked it out every two weeks for the rest of the school year.

Known as a literary trailblazer, Whitman “broke the new wood,” as Ezra Pound phrases it, of stylistic technique. His lack of conformation reflects the greater inclusiveness of the content of his writing. I found this to be especially evident in his poem “Song of Myself,” first published in 1855 and later under this title in 1881. Its fifty-two sections delve into life during the era between the War of 1812 and the 1850s, known as the antebellum period. Whitman accomplishes this by elevating the sense of self through the speaker of the poem’s first-person narration and by providing a “poetic identity” for American culture.

This level of explicit boldness is a call to action for the modern American. Whitman connects himself to reality — the actual and the potential — through an indirect, biographical statement that expresses his speaker, “I,” does not direct his energies toward superficiality but toward the truth of existence. Its urgent tension provides a foundation of friction upon which the society can progress forward. The all-inclusive “I” relates the speaker’s narration to all Americans and serves as the personification of America as a nation during an era of social, political and economic growth, then and now.

Victorian-era values infiltrated American etiquette and social interaction during this time period. The merit placed on this social impression was often denounced by critics who claimed its superficiality over its value. Whitman delves into this influence on social status in the first stanza of the fourth section. “Trippers and askers surround me, / The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new, / My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues /… But they are not the Me myself.” The speaker’s recognition of the social ladder and its classist implications provides the opportunity as a spokesperson for the American voice: one that views certain values that still exist as inhibitors of the American ideal of leveled equality. Furthermore, a deeper analysis of the speaker’s voice shows that the antagonist of this section is not wealth but a unified goal for the social status that comes with it. His argument here is that those who romanticize the latest and greatest trends due to a desire for status will be swept up by a collective loss of identity. After establishing this foundation, the speaker expresses his own individuality by keeping his own values intact. The second stanza of the fourth section concludes with, “Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.” An omnipresent critic, the speaker acknowledges the importance of developing understanding through immersing himself in the culture without compromising his own individuality. His distance communicates the standard by which he regards the American people: the individuals who can claim the benchmark identity of “Me myself” are able to do so by employing a wider perspective.

Immigration in America steadily increased during the 1850s as the country gained popularity as a destination for people from all over the world seeking opportunity. A common mindset during this time was the strength in numbers: success measured by reproducing and expanding towards the brim. Whitman reflects this growing sense of urgency for growth as a nation with the speaker’s commentary in the third stanza of the third section: “Always the procreant urge of the world /…Always a knit of identity.” Here, Whitman uses anaphora by repeating, and subsequently emphasizing, the word “always.” This enables the speaker to express the exponential nature of American population growth during this time period. Furthermore, the speaker provides an ironic connection between these two actions: in an ever-expanding nation with increasing numbers, its people are united as one by their individualism as a whole. In the fifth stanza of the third section, Whitman elaborates on this irony by using deliberate diction by referring to it as a “mystery,” one that the speaker stands alongside, blindly confident in the effect it projects to have on the future of the nation. Furthermore, Whitman personifies this relationship between the speaker and the subject of the mystery as one that rests “in the beams” of the institution, and the word “braced” hints at the lack of clarity of what will ensue. This relationship serves as supporting evidence for the speaker’s ability to mold himself to unify himself with the cultural applications of America during this period. Today, in an age of xenophobia, bans on certain religions and threats to build a wall, I think we could all learn a little from Whitman’s idea that it is our diversity as Americans that makes us strong.

Sixty years before Walt Whitman wrote “Song of Myself,” the constitutional rights to freedom of speech were established. In the fourth stanza of the first section of the poem, the speaker asserts this right: “I permit to speak at every hazard.” While legal boundaries were set to prevent these potential hazards, the speaker acknowledges the cultural ramifications that could ensue. Whitman symbolizes the speaker as an orator “without check with original energy,” a comparison that reflects a metaphorical thunderstorm that has no agenda but to exist as it is. This comparison of the speaker’s sense of self establishes the expectation for American individuals to use their own voice. This ultimately asserts the true nature of individualism: not just without external consequences, but more importantly one that exists without self-imposed constraint.

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The Madness of Art: Gothicism in my Short Stories

by Caroline Sanders

I tend to be unabashedly optimistic and cheerful. I wake up early every weekday morning to do work on my closed-in front porch with my favorite, bright yellow coffee mug in hand that reads: “You Are My Sunshine” (disclaimer: if it’s dirty, I drink out of a white one that reads “SMILE, SMILE, SMILE”). It’s annoying—I know—but I like it nonetheless. It’s interesting, therefore, that my favorite genre of literature is Southern Gothic, a genre known for its grotesque imagery and its emphasis on darkness, especially the darkness found within deeply flawed characters, ultimately revealing problems in southern society and the human consciousness. I’m not sure how it happened. All I know is that one day my high school English teacher introduced Faulkner and the next day I was hooked. The questions Faulkner and other writers like him deal with in their stories are the questions that draw me in inexplicably and make me question my own existence.

And so, I, like any bright-eyed, self-discovering student, decided to pursue my interests in this topic through researching and eventually producing my own work that I will compile into a senior thesis. Drawing inspiration from great writers is easy. Flannery O’Connor, for instance, inspires me to no end. I read her work and am floored by her brilliance time and again. I thought about the ending of Wise Blood for weeks after finishing the novel, walking around in circles on campus as I pondered the implications of “the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind.” The final image in “Parker’s Back,” the one of Parker “leaning against the tree, crying like a baby,” had me crying as if I, myself, had seen and lost my first glimpse of faith.

Gaining inspiration is easy. Emulating O’Connor and her contemporaries is a whole ’nother story.

At first, I hesitated to try to write a gothic story. After all, I instinctively look on the bright side of things and had never attempted to write like my literary heroes before. I don’t tend to have neurotic tendencies or gothic fantasies, which puts me at a slight disadvantage. As I’ve written more and more stories, however, I’ve noticed gothic elements slipping in. In my latest story, tentatively titled “The Best We Can,” I decided to lean a bit more heavily on gothic themes and ideas. Some of these themes are confusion, darkness, figurative ghosts, and family secrets. In fact, the title and inspiration for the story came from a quote by Southern Gothic writer, Truman Capote.

Capote’s early works are written in the Southern Gothic vein. In a 1973 interview with Andy Warhol that was published in Rolling Stone, Capote said, “For me, every act of art is the act of solving a mystery…You know what Henry James says…let me see…it was one of the short stories of his…It says, ‘We live in the dark, we do the best we can, and the rest is the madness of art.’ To me, that’s always been my motto.” This is a paraphrase of James’ quote, but the essence of it lies in a kind of optimistic Gothicism—a kind of Gothicism that I believe O’Connor uses as well through her underlying themes of faith as a constant despite the darkness of the human heart. This is the kind of Gothicism I seek to employ in my own work.

I have encountered some problems with writing my own Southern Gothic stories. Perhaps the biggest roadblock I’ve run into is the great depth and breadth of things I want to say. Because I want my story to deal with concepts like dark family secrets, the pride and shame wrapped up in one’s past, mental illness, and race, I’ve become a little overwhelmed in telling it succinctly. What I intended to be a shorter story has turned into an epic of sorts and the organization and execution are proving difficult. I want the storyline to be confusing to the reader at first, but illuminated as one reads on. I want the themes to be accessible to all.

Now, after beginning to add gothic elements to my stories, I want to do more. I toyed with the idea of Gus McNeese, my protagonist in an earlier story entitled “Radio Man,” being a grotesque character, but now I’d like to emphasize that even further in my revisions. “John, the Baptist” has many gothic qualities as well that can be intensified. In doing this, I want to show characters who are grotesque projections of themselves, deeply hurting and deeply flawed. Penuel, the setting of my stories’ namesake, after all, is the place in the Old Testament where Jacob wrestled with God. In the end, my characters do the best they can and leave the rest up to “the madness of art.”

posted by R. T. Smith

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John Montague: A Memorial Sampler

[This is the second of a pair of posts celebrating the life and work of Irish poet John Montague.  The first can be found immediately below this one, and I recommend reading them in sequence.]
Like many Americans, I encountered Yeats for the first time in a “British Literature” survey and found him both mystifying and mesmerizing.  The Byzantium poems, “The Second Coming,” “Lapis Lazuli,” “Among School Children,” “Leda and the Swan,” the standard anthology pieces, which my professor explained in scrupulous detail, formed my private syllabus, but Yeats’ poems were examined more for their high modernist method than for their Irish political and cultural context and implications.

Even in graduate school, where Yeats was one of four modernists I studied in a seminar, I was never encouraged to much consider his national identity or ask if there were Irish poets after Yeats.  Clearly the misleading “English Lit” concept was too broad and robust, but about 1978 Kay Byer started telling me about Heaney, whose close connection to the work of the earth and the vernacular echoed with my studies of the poetry of the American South and who was suddenly well on the way to becoming my favorite poet.

I eventually managed to discover County Monaghan’s Patrick Kavanagh, author of The Great Hunger in the early forties, a poet whose harrows and horses, country dances and sexual repression balanced Yeats’ myths and intricacy in their contribution to the rough rural and yet cosmopolitan poems of Heaney.  What I didn’t discover for another dozen years was the exciting work of John Montague, both lyrics and sequences like The Rough Field, which Heaney knew intimately and admired.  It took me a trip to Ireland in the late eighties to understand how fundamental Montague’s work had been to the formation of Heaney’s aesthetic, and probably Michael Longley’s, as well.

Born in the U. S. of Irish Catholic parents but sent back to Northern Ireland as a child, then fostered away from his brothers, Montague began his life as a divided person, an explorer of thresholds and liminal emotions.  Catholic in a protestant plantation, Irish speaker in a landscape of imposed English, he displayed deep Irish roots even as he cultivated an international perspective.  His wives were French and then American, his voice was prominent in the Irish traditional music revival, yet he taught for much of his life at SUNY-Albany, as well as University College Cork, somewhat mirroring his own education at University College and the University of Iowa,  Deeply private in many of his poems, he unleashed Irish history and myth to intensify and complicate his verses.  Also at home in Paris and Nice (where he died), he was appointed Ireland’s first national Chair of Poetry, comparable to a poet laureate position.

One hears two primary camps, not always at odds, in the discussions of Montague’s poetry.  Some celebrate his lyric gift, especially as it explores the nuances of romantic love and of romantic and family loss.  The other voice brings forth “the authenticity of his anger” over sectarian and brotherly conflict, and that faction is divided over the question of how hope and sorrow interact.  Glimmers of the former and shadows of the latter strive and interlock in his poems.  One need only scan the titles of his books (The Rough Field, The Great Cloak, The Dead Kingdom, Poisoned Lands, Forms of Exile, but also and always A Chosen Light) to realize that subjects of such great pitch and moment, no matter how locally and personally they are addressed, are his obsession, and the bone of Irish animosity draws him away from the shuddered satisfactions of passion long after the marrow is gone from the bone.

Christopher Ricks wrote of The Rough Field in The New York Times Book Review, “In Mr. Montague’s fine, firm poems . . . loving force is always made real by being threatened by the angers of Ireland.”  Heaney called it “an utterance from the underworld of love and bitterness.”  Of Collected Poems Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin said, “John Montague’s poetic gift is for elegance and clarity; his voice is austere and musical, his vision is of sharp gleaming perspectives, his mentality international and modern.”

Although I enthusiastically recommend his book-length sequences where the personal and the political braid and snake and shimmer, I offer here just a sample of the shorter pieces with the urging that readers acquire the American version of John’s 1995 Collected Poems (Wake Forest, from the Gallery Press edition) and consume them till they return the favor.

I have heard many interpretations of this poem: it’s about sexual predation; about masturbation, about composition of a poem, about satisfaction and guilt; about two dozen lines, about seizing the ineffable, about being fishers of men.  Maybe all of them, but for me it is about wildness and capture, beauty and the desire to touch it.  It’s a species of early catch-and-release, but it is the prey that will not release, the angler (or guddler) who cannot shake free.  Kidding aside, it is terse and precise and radiant, from “tendril-light” to “lightly pulsing gills.”  It is a fine, firm poem.

THE TROUT
for Barrie Cooke

Flat on the bank I parted
Rushes to ease my hands
In the water without a ripple
And tilt them slowly downstream
To where he lay, tendril-light,
In his fluid sensual dream.

Bodiless lord of creation,
I hung briefly above him
Savouring my own absence,
Senses expanding in the slow
Motion, the photographic calm
That grows before action.

As the curve of my hands
Swung under his body
He surged, with visible pleasure.
I was so preternaturally close
I could count every stipple
But still cast no shadow, until

The two palms crossed in a cage
Under the lightly pulsing gills.
Then (entering my own enlarged
Shape, which rode on the water)
I gripped.  To this day I can
Taste his terror on my hands.
(CP)

This next poem is child-delicate, but also a testament to the indelible nature of love.

CHILD
for Una

A firefly gleams, then
fades upon your cheek.
Now you hide beneath
everything I write:
love’s invisible ink,
heart’s watermark.
(CP)

And then there is the sorrow when loves fails, regret sets in, the pain is not distributed equally.  One reviewer has suggested that the signature of Montague’s love poetry is that he does not protect himself, which is a rare stance.

SEPARATION

Two fish float:

one slowly downstream
into the warm
currents of the known,

the other tugging
against the stream,
disconsolate twin,

the golden
marriage hook
tearing its throat.
(CP)

Anticipation of nostalgia and an attempt to remember one of the monumental small moments appear in the following poem.  It should be no surprise that a poet of Montague’s stripe would eventually sour on love, only to be rejuvenated later in life.  This poem echoes Pound and his sources a little, but the narrator’s vulnerability makes it a more valuable poem to me than the elder poet’s famous Metro poem.  The address, without the source of the speaker’s hypersensitive state kept far in the distant shadows of the poem, resonates with the early photographic process but makes it livelier than any one sense can.

A CHOSEN LIGHT

  1. 11 rue Daguerre

At night, sometimes, when I cannot sleep
I go to the atelier door
And smell the earth of the garden.

It exhales softly,
Especially now, approaching springtime,
When tendrils of green are plaited

Across the humus, desperately frail
In their passage against
The dark, unredeemed parcels of earth.

There is white light on the cobblestones
And in the apartment house opposite –
All four floors – silence.

At that stillness – soft but luminously exact,
A chosen light – I notice that
The tips of the lately grafted cherry-tree

Are a firm and lacquered black.
(CP)

“A Grafted Tongue” is a small narrative with a large wallop.  An Irish-speaking boy in an English-speaking school is humiliated when he says a word in Irish.  The impact continues for generations.  This is surely an easy poem for Americans to grasp, now that children whose cultural identities don’t fit the “norm” are suffering so much in the current wave of bullying.

A GRAFTED TONGUE

(Dumb,
bloodied, the severed
head now chokes to
speak another tongue –

As in
a long suppressed dream,
some stuttering garb-
led ordeal of my own)

An Irish
child weeps at school
repeating its English.
After each mistake

The master
gouges another mark
on the tally stick
hung about its neck

Like a bell
on a cow, a hobble
on a straying goat.
To slur and stumble

In shame
the altered syllables
of your own name;
to stray sadly home

And find
the turf-cured width
of your parent’s hearth
growing slowly alien:

In cabin
and field, they still
speak the old tongue.
You may greet no one.

To grow
a second tongue, as
harsh a humiliation
as twice to be born.

Decades later
that child’s grandchild’s
speech stumbles over lost
syllables of an old order.

Finally, I recommend to American readers the body (and the blood and spirit) of Montague’s work, among others of his countrymen, because the United States is, quite astonishingly, now divided in a way reminiscent of the times of the Troubles in Ireland, a division that is revealing us to be as parochial and bitter as we once feared the Irish were.  Seeing such animosity through the prism of Montague’s wounded, wounding poetry may bring clarity and recommend charity to us in a time when we so desperately need it.  I close with John’s poem on the 1998 car bombing in Omagh, County Tyrone (29 fatalities, hundreds of injuries] which I can testify nearly rent his spirit in two.  It is not a poem to be memorized, but to be learned by heart.

A Response to Omagh

All I can do is curse, complain.
Who can endorse such violent men?
As history creaks its bloody hinge
and the unspeakable is done again.

With no peace after the deluge,
no ease after the storm,
we learn to live inside ruin
like a second home.

What we, too, can find in Montague’s poems over and over is simply to “learn to live.”  Not a small thing.

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John Montague: Bris-Mo-Croi

Last Saturday I had been in the woodlot quartering a shagbark brought down last year because –  long assailed, perhaps even “farmed” for beetles, by pileateds – it was riddled with impressive holes.  Air cold, wood old and mazed – I had anticipated pleasant work.  But the tree still had heart and vigor in sections, and I tired quickly.  Indoors, I found a message noting the death of Irish poet John Montague, with whom I spent much time in the 90’s and at the beginning of this century.  He was about sixty when I met him and 87 when he passed, but his energy and curiosity, capacity for hard work and zest for life prevented me from ever seeing him as older than when I met him.  He was a man who had struggled with himself as much as external forces;  I admired his work and loved his company.

Bris-mo-croi, as they say in the Irish: “It breaks my heart.”

I’m going to post two blog posts about John, this first one more personal, anecdotal, the second celebrating his substantial achievements as a poet, though he was also a writer of stories, novels, reviews, guide books, manifestos, all manner of literary journalism.  Still, in the marrow, he was a poet, oft overlooked as the bridge between Patrick Kavanagh and Heaney, a rustic who could turn a sonnet silver, a Jungian who spoke the idiolect of Ulster turf cutters.

A voice soft as a summer mist in Galway, a shambling gait, a smile quick but a touch restrained, a high sense of irony, devotion to his wife, novelist Elizabeth Wassell, a badger tenacity when questions were raised – John was at once worldly and homely, stellar and earthy, quick and deliberate, equally a lover of a clever makeshift stile and a connoisseur of Parisian rose windows.  He was sensual and randy, but he would have me turn the car toward a pub as the hour of six approached, as he did not wish to miss hearing the angelus rung on the radio.  He knew his haute cuisine but also declared, “The potato is your man.  He’ll not let you down,” as he pocketed leftover spuds from our table in a pricey Breton restaurant.  He was great craic.

On two occasions I spent a couple of weeks with John and Elizabeth in Letter Cottage, Ballydehob, West Cork.  We strolled together, sampled lamb (“almost delectable, even this far from spring”), sang ballads (our voices “tractor axles in want of oil”), and I drove them hither and yon.  Neither could operate a car back then, and they often made it the three miles to the village on shank’s mare.  Once I drove them to Dublin for an award ceremony and fund raising launch for a new magazine.  It would have been enough to hear his stories of the locals like Declan Handbag and Declan Wildlife (two locals, one a gay bon vivant, the other a forest ranger), but John had written the first comprehensive tourist guide of Ireland, and he was forever directing me to turn left at those beeches or reverse a hundred meters to a near-invisible stone.  He must have known every rath and tower, holy well and abbey ruin in the country, and I saw many of them.

I should say that the pilgrimage to Dublin engraved John and Eliza in my mind because I came down with a monstrous sinus infection just as we reached the Black Pool, early seat of Viking trespassers.  They housed me in the holy Arts Club and tended me while I produced enough mucous to make Joyce’s “snotgreen sea” seem a commonplace.  I survived to attend both a wild pub argument between Derek Mahon and some other poets, my first real taste of Irish wit and enmity loosed at gale force, and an elegant cocktail party with celebrities and outlaws mingling in fierce competition to become “the most interesting man in the world.”  (I believe the victor was Michael D. Higgins, poet and socialist pol then, President of Ireland today.)  But throughout the adventure and misadventure, Liz and John ministered unto me, introduced me around and insisted upon my brilliance as a poet.  John had been a great carouse mate with Beckett (whose birthday I share, along with Heaney), and said in French and with a twist of mischief, he wished I had known “Sam.”  What’s not to love there?

By the way, at that gala John read his newest poem, a lament for the town of Omagh, where sectarian militants had recently slain about three dozen with a car bomb.  Direct and sorrowful, broken-hearted, this small poem looms large in my mind, representing a significant portion of what John Montague was and is to me.

A Response to Omagh

All I can do is curse, complain.
Who can endorse such violent men?
As history creaks its bloody hinge
and the unspeakable is done again.

With no peace after the deluge,
no ease after the storm,
we learn to live inside ruin
like a second home.

The diction, tightness of meter and rhyme, economy, gravity of the indictment and bridge from human atrocity to Biblical-sounding disasters of weather – well, the room was a held breath before the sorrowful applause began.  Some few (I trust an Irish audience) would have recognized the opening line from the beginning of John’s “Cassandra’s Answer,” written in the eighties and published in Mount Eagle.  The new poem was a more nuanced, less myth-cloaked version, and it cut deeper while resurrecting the older poem’s Homeric resonance.

Once John, Elizabeth and I traveled to the Wicklow Mountains to visit Guinness heir Gareth Browne on his vast estate, which was also a game preserve with red deer vaulting about, hares quivered in their meaze, ravens, badger, peacocks and foxes, grouse a-plenty, a partridge striding right through the door of the gamekeeper’s lodge where we were housed and cocking its head, as if to investigate what I was doing with my stick pencil scratching on paper at the trestle table.  What I learned in the long late-night discussions, besides the volatile politics of Irish literature, included the history of the traditional Irish music, spearheaded by the Chieftains, who were conjured backed (with the other artists of Claddagh Records) by Gareth himself.  The big house was under renovation, so Gareth occupied the servants’ house, the servants the gatehouse, John, Liz and I the pristinely luxurious two-bedroom cottage a mile or so of twisty mountain road from the main compound.  There, as at home and everywhere I ever traveled with them, John and Elizabeth rose fairly early and sat silently across a table from each other to write.  It was high discipline and deeply rooted harmony, and I have more than once seen each raise eyes to glimpse the other, smile then return to work, recharged.  I had not seen love like that before.  I remember that sojourn well for those mornings and the music and poetry of the evenings, but also because a certain actress invited Gareth and Company up to the Sally Gap, where she was filming Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa.  Later, the magnificent raconteur Michael Lindsay-Hogg (director and Orson Welles’ son) took us out to dinner, and on Sunday we learned of the death of Princess Diana, which put the whole cadre into a dark place, John especially.  He kept shaking his head and mumbling about how hard she tried to be both regal and natural, and how the effort tore her asunder.

I’m aware of the halo effect and how it can creep in, but John could be persnickety and combative, too, rantish and sly, stubborn, bitter over his position on the bardic totem pole (like nearly every poet I have ever met, Mirror Man included), but these were not the modes I most knew him in.  He was generous, courtly (approaching condescension on occasion), witty, mischievous, inquisitive, resourceful, erudite.  His daughter Oonah said of him: “He was a country boy, and mother put the manners on him.”  So, a culchie trafficking among the city mice, the cosmopolitans, the cognoscenti, the opulent and silver-spooned.  I have often seen him in the role of peacemaker and messenger, and a couple of the poets in their obituaries said that, in his last decade, he had reconciled with the higher esteem of his younger friend Heaney enjoyed and praised his Ulster countryman with no sign of irony or puckishness.

To the point of his graciousness: when I first met John, I knew little of his poetry but had read Bitter Harvest: An Anthology of Contemporary Irish Verse from Scribners.  Of course, it contains many splendid poems by poets from Heaney, Longley, Boland, McGuckian and Muldoon.  Montague as well, but 90% were men, and I had fallen into step with some of the omitted Galway women I knew and had cultivated an unearned partisan stance.  After his presentation and reading, he came over and asked me if he could sign a copy of the book for me, but I was quippish and rude, saying something about gender and how it was a wonder the Irish even managed to reproduce with such odds.  Awful, I know.

Later, in the pub, I was sitting alone, rehearsing my feeble wit and lack of tact, when he came to my table and asked, “So who are you yourself, anyway?”

“I’m nobody, who are you?’” I Dickinsoned him.

“Ah,” he replied, “and where are you from, Nobody?”

“Georgia, Carolina, Alabama.”

“The South.  I see.  Well, I’m John from County Tyrone, the North, but also from right here and right now.”  He extended his hand.  “Can I stand you a pint?”

I was ashamed, but that was not his aim.  Though we often disagreed and jousted, never again – in Albany or Rockbridge County, in Allihees or Ballydehob or Youghal or Dublin – did a hard word between us manage to outlive the sentence that followed it.

A prodigious lover of spirits, John once in Roundstone asked the woman behind the bar for a whisky.  “Large or small,” she inquired.  “My dear lady,” he responded, “There is no such thing as a large whisky.”  On another occasion, as we sat in his kitchen garden in the late summer twilight, John opened a fresh bottle of Bushmills.  It was just dark enough for the odor of the basil in the mozzarella and the olive oil scent to eclipse the work of the eyes, but I heard the snap of the separating rings on the bottle neck and smiled.  My expression must have altered a fair amount when John tossed the cap over his shoulder into the weeds.  I knew it would be a long night and a hard morning, but we did take a walk down the boreen, and atop a signpost saw a female white owl.  It was a small snowy, whose ilk I was never going to see in the wild in my life if not right then and right there.  I stared like a child, and John whispered, “Bride of the dead, if she speaks, don’t answer.”  I can close my eyes and see it still.

This was the Montague I knew, who always wrote brief occasional poems on the flyleaf or title page of the volumes he autographed for me.  I suppose my favorite is in The Rough Field, which is English for his true hometown, Garvaghey, garbh achaidh.

For Rod Smith,
Mac Gobhann.
the poet himself,
this long song
of wrong,
from the Bard of Tyrone!
Mac Taidgh,
Still sailing on – Letter College, Ballydehob, Autumn ‘97

Like the shagbark in the woods, he had heart and vigor, and now he has fallen.  As I said, Bris-Mo-Croi.

[Next week’s blog will display a few of John Montague’s poems and a brief introduction to the nature and force of his poetry.]

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Slipstream: Making the Familiar Strange (Part 2 of 2)

by Dana Schultz

A few weeks ago I posted Part 1 of the Slipstream blog. In it I discussed the concept and fundamental problem of Slipstream, namely that it is a shorthand term for “slipping genre fiction into the mainstream” and that it lacks a concrete definition. Currently Slipstream is not a genre, rather a feeling of strangeness – i.e. cognitive dissonance – that some argue resembles the feelings one experiences from “living in the 21st century.” My research question over the past few weeks was whether Slipstream as a writing style is relevant enough to become accepted as a genre. Or, to put in less grandiose terms, if I could at least make an argument that it should be.

And now I would like to make a few disclaimers. The first is that I study Creative Writing and I have enormous respect for the Slipstream style and even attempt to model it in my own work. The second is that my two primary sources for this article are Lesley Wheeler and Chris Gavaler, two Washington and Lee professors that are well researched in speculative fiction and also happen to be married to each other. I am very thankful for their contribution of time and ideas towards this blog post. The worlds of speculative fiction and Slipstream are big seas to navigate, and they lent me a much needed oar.
Onward to my argument. The first topic to cover is whether Slipstream as a writing style is especially relevant to the 21st century. Some may argue, due to the political climate and information age, yes. The Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” the word of the year. Today big data blurs the boundaries of truth because there is no longer a consensus on the facts. Confidence in the general existence of facts – i.e. absolute truths – is falling away… doesn’t that make you feel strange? This stretching of boundaries in the political world does seem to parallel the current challenging of boundaries in literary culture. For me to link cause to causation at the moment would be taking it too far, but I do believe that both represent a cultural trend of rethinking our assumptions. Bob Dylan’s award for the Nobel Prize in Literature is one example of a large trend of award organizations, the Pushcart Prize included, broadening the scope of literature they recognize.bob-dylan
lady-churchills-rosebud-wristletTherefore Slipstream is a timely development because the current literary judges are receptive to boundary crossing. There is also a large domain of literary magazines – online and in print – where Slipstream style writers can take flight. This domain includes, among many others, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Phantom Drift, and Structo. However we are still faced with a fundamental problem. What does Slipstream do that speculative fiction does not? If Slipstream is simply a euphemism for “good speculative fiction,” that is not enough. However in my search to find a common thread in all the Slipstream works I’ve read, the euphemism seems to be it.

structo16Which takes us to our second topic, should Slipstream be accepted as a genre? My answer, in spite of my appreciation for writers that fall – voluntarily or not – under the Slipstream umbrella, is currently no. These writers already have their own umbrellas, and to shove them under a second, bigger umbrella is simply redundant. There need to be stylistic elements of Slipstream that sets it clearly apart from speculative fiction before the term can gain traction. For example, do the majority of Slipstream works play with reader expectations by consciously presenting and then subverting genre tropes? Some do, but not all of them. With all of the journals and websites noticing Slipstream, the Writer’s Chronicle and Wall Street Journal among them, it is difficult to argue that Slipstream is not a movement. However it is undetermined whether this movement has a direction. For Slipstream to become a credible genre, the judges simply have to get more specific about what they claim to be Slipstream. Until then we can only speculate whether Slipstream is “real or unreal,” and we already have speculative fiction for that.

Sources

http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2016/07/politics-in-a-post-truth-age/

http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2014/12/is-and-isnt-literary-upheavals-in-the-post-real-landscape/

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/13/bob-dylan-wins-2016-nobel-prize-in-literature

http://thereviewreview.net/publishing-tips/seeking-slipstream-list-resources

http://www.wsj.com/articles/slipstream-fiction-goes-mainstream-1423072888

Wheeler, Lesley. “Verse and the Multiverse.” Poet Lore 110.1-2 (Spring/ Summer 2015): 113-124.

 

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Thomas McGuane’s Canny CROW FAIR (Stories)

mcguane-picMost of the stories in Thomas McGuane’s collection Crow Fair (Vintage, 2015; paperback, 2016) originally appeared in The New Yorker, but don’t hold that against the author; his narratives are not about or addressed to Martians.  In fact, McGuane and Annie Proulx seem to be holding onto some rich fictive Rocky Mountain territory somewhere on a holodeck connected to the offices of that esteemed magazine.

I was, initially, ambivalent about the early McGuane of Ninety-two in the Shade and Panama.  The books were pyrotechnically impressive, wild accounts of wild men driven by pharmacology, concupiscence and violence.  But I was also irritated at the exhibitionism, the coked-up style I could neither write nor live not quite understand.  Neither did I quite register the desperation of the characters.  But I jumped on board the wagon with the novels Nobody’s Angel and Something to Be Desired, which followed, best I can tell, the author’s relocation from the Keys to the high country of Montana.

What McGuane has discovered and explored is that, contrary to my own unschooled opinion, the vast big sky cowboy country can be claustrophobic, both emotionally and logistically, and when you make a misstep or suffer disappointment, the ghosts of these occurrences will stalk you over ridges, along gullies and through various social clusters.  For a few decades now McGuane has written about the inhabitants of the west – ranchers, entrepreneurs, cowhands, desperate folk living along the thread lines of that one turn of the screw which James reminds us separates good from evil.  McGuane’s people may be sulkers, whisperers, boasters, whistlers, self-destructive pilgrims, sneaks and masqueraders, but nearly all his protagonists are constructed like good sisal rope, prickly and braided tight.  Those who don’t yet know they are involved in moral dilemmas are about to find out, and McGuane seems to work at confirming this old adage:  “All men are fools, but those who know they are fools are not great fools.”  Much of the beauty of his writing – aside from swift, earthy, compelling metaphors and the imagery that comes only to an expert but mystified eye – lies in the fact that folly does not disqualify these rough customers, lost souls and puzzled pilgrims from empathy.  McGuane feels their pain and respects it.

McGuane writes about people he knows, whether from the neighborhood of Livingston or the steeps and washes of his imagination.  Some of these characters know about and love the things their author is somehow elegantly informed about: baseball, alcohol, real estate, the penal system, animal husbandry, marital discord, professional inertia, dementia, good luck and bad.  In the seventeen stories of Crow Fair he offers up a serious festival of the spiritual in which temptations are offered, embraced or not.  And McGuane knows that the damage his lonely folks have suffered does not make them noble, which does not mean that many of them are not noble.

In places like Skunk Creek, Greycliff, the Medicine Bow River and Snob Hollow, the residents of Crow Fair may build houses, inseminate cattle, sell property, while they cope with aging parents, as well as wayward spouses and offspring.  They’re often witty or erudite, combatting “clodhopper philosophy,” but their timing is often off, their wit and knowledge almost useless as survival tools, “his previous sarcasm no more than a wistful perimeter of defense.”

One story that begs to be read aloud is “A Long View to the West,” which features an exciting round-up of wild horses who “advanced his way like a bright cyclone.”  Another involves a truck jacking with suspense and promise, including the attentions of a gap-toothed bundle of female terror named Morsel.  And where else but “McGuane Country” will you encounter a brothel called the Butt Hut or the hay baling art thief of “Good Samaritan”?

However obliquely or bassackwardly (good old Polonian “by indirections find directions out”) he comes at it, McGuane is always attuned to matters of the heart and the unfortunate and graceless ways human folk have of performing their dismount when love has broken or just seeped away, leaving room for “complete ossification.”

“Telling people to relax is not as aggressive as shooting them,” writes McGuane, “but it’s up there.”  In Crow Fair he tries neither to convince his readers to chill nor to shoot them.  At least, not directly.  Instead, he reveals hope and disappointment, energy and lethargy locked in a hard sorrow dance, and many of his protagonists have “sunk into depression crow-fairand discovered that there was no other illness so brutal, so profound, so inescapable, that made an enemy of consciousness itself.”  But consciousness, McGuane suggests in these sad and yet vigorous stories proves to have its own tactics and hidden reserves which may remind earthlings and Martians alike of Beckett’s, “I can’t go on; I’ll go on.”

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“Look like the innocent flower but be the serpent beneath.”

By Maddie Schaffer

With 2016 being the 75th anniversary of the Curious George series, I decided to delve into some of the history surrounding what has become a multi-mullion dollar franchise of a rambunctious monkey and his keeper who not so ironically looks like a banana. Upon doing so, I got sucked into a sad, dark vortex of conspiracies, alternative interpretations, and dark thoughts about not only this fluffy little monkey, but also other fictional characters that had once been cheery friends of my childhood. Apparently monkey business is not just fun and games to some people. Perhaps though, some of these stories and their political interpretations- nay, their deemed political agendas- will lend to some insight into what is being considered the worst election in history.

If you are unaware of the wild history surrounding the birth of the Curious George series, curiousghere is a brief recap:  It started with Fifi, the original primate for which George would be modeled, who was created by a husband and wife team Hans Augusto and Margret Rey. They were German-born Jews living in Paris in 1939, a combination that was less than ideal. When the Nazi’s invaded, their only way of escape was building two bikes from spare parts and peddling away, manuscripts in hand. Some say their own escape influenced the escapades and antics of the monkey, and that the political turmoil is reflected in the scenes. However much I would like to believe these children’s stories are simply that, innocent tales to entertain young minds, some of the interpretations make valid points that are hard to ignore.

The notorious Man in the Yellow Hat takes Curious George from his home in Africa because he fancies him and thinks he would make a nice pet. Thrown into a bag and shipped over seas, to a foreign city with foreign people… is this a jab at western imperialism? Did Hans and Rey create an entire book series off of the idea of early settlers travelling to Africa and displacing the natives for their personal agendas? With both authors no longer with us, it may never be known, but those with strong ties to animal rights and those still fighting for inequality today may be urging people not to allow their children to indulge in these books for moral reasons.

The classic tale of Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm, brother and sister lured to the woods and stumble upon the candy house of children’s (read: everyone’s) fantasies, is hanselsupposedly a classic representation of the disparity between classes in a feudal system. Who knew! The evil witch (but actually how evil can someone with that much candy be) represents the aristocracy and their greed and brutality in exploiting the lower class. The actions committed by the woodcutter and his wife to attempt to rid themselves of the financial burden of their children are supposed to represent the hardships and struggles that the lower class goes through, and stress the imbalance in quality of life in the feudal system. Reading this as a kid, I was more focused on the fact that the siblings got to hangout in a sweet (literally) house, and not on the fairness between the lives of the woodcutter and his family verse the witch.

“A person is a person, no matter how small.” Even if you have never read Horton Hears a hortonhearsWho!, you may be able to guess from the deep meaning and rhyme of this line (unintentional pun), that it comes from the illustrious Dr. Seuss. This famous line has been used by pro-life organizations, which did cause legal issues, for obvious reasons: the book stresses equality, specifically in our political system today. Never directly stated that the purpose of the book was to point out political inequality, it is thought that the “black-bottomed birdie” that is dropped is meant to symbolize Hiroshima bombing. Dark stuff for a supposedly innocent children’s book.

Even the simplistic nature of If You Give A Mouse A Cookie by Laura Numeroff, is giveamouseapparently teaching young children about the ins and outs of the welfare system. It’s certainly necessary a five-year old understand about tax allocation, right? The endless cycle depicted in the book is a warning of the consequences of excessive altruism, which some conservatives may apply to the structure of our welfare system. The book poses the question “when does it stop?,” because in the book, the cycle continues even after the last page. In fact, in continues for seven more “If you give a _____ a _____.”

With the holiday season now embarking and the current concerns with markets, why not read children the classic Christmas tale about the Federal Reserve? Oh, you’re not familiar with that one? Me either. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, another story by Dr. Seuss, according to some, is a representation of the Federal Reserve, the Government, the grinchAmerican people, and their labor outputs. The idea suggested is that the Grinch (Federal Reserve) steals (devaluation through inflation) the presents (labor outputs) from the people of Whoville (American people) as the dog (Government) is just there. Order and harmony is restored when the presents are returned and The Grinch is no longer stealing from the people of Whoville. To say that the only way to restore harmony is to do away with the central baking system is a stretch, as is this interpretation, though, when argued correctly, I may be convinced.

Take these interpretations as you will: with a grain of salt or the whole shaker. It is interesting how stories have different meanings at different stages in our lives. Who knew my whole childhood my parents were just trying to impart political thoughts and philosophies into my unmolded mind.

Sites for reference:

http://www.pbs.org/parents/curiousgeorge/program/reys.html

http://southdakotapolitics.blogs.com/south_dakota_politics/2006/02/curious_george_.html

http://www.hsebnotes.com/2012/08/hansel-and-gretel-grimm-brothers-and.html

http://www.vocativ.com/215813/the-political-message-hidden-within-dr-seuss-new-book/

http://bestofbothpoliticalworlds.blogspot.com/2012/12/political-symbolism-in-how-grinch-stole_26.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/if-you-give-a-mouse-a-cookie-childrens-book-has-a-secret-political-message-about-helping-yourself-a6782616.html

 

 

posted by R. T. Smith

 

 

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Son of Blade

by Chris Gavaler
tim-s

Tim Seibles cuts straight to the heart. When I met him at his hotel to walk him over to my wife’s poetry class, conversation leapt from “nice weather” to “parents with Alzheimer’s” in a single bound. He was giving a reading that night and—because his most recent book, Fast Animal, includes five poems about Blade the Vampire-Hunter—visiting my Superheroes class the next morning.

Seibles was in high school when Marvel launched the character in 1973. He’s not the first black superhero—Black Panther debuted in Fantastic Four in 1966 , the Falcon in Captain America in 1969, and Luke Cage in his own title in 1972—but he beat Brother Voodoo to newsstands by two months. The comic book market was slumping, so Marvel was desperately mixing its superhero formula with blaxploitation and horror. Shaft hit theaters in 1971, Super Fly and Blacula in 1972. Hammer Films had been pounding out low budget Dracula and Frankenstein flicks for over a decade, but the Comics Code prohibited “walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism” until 1971, provided the horror was “handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high caliber literary works.”

Marvel pounced with Werewolf by Night, Tomb of Dracula, The Monster of Frankenstein, and a half dozen other horror-tinged titles. He sounds like a pseudonym, but flesh-and-blood writer Marv Wolfman moved to Marvel at the same moment, and soon he and artist Gene Colan were adding a black “vampire killer” to their Dracula cast.  I’ll let Seibles introduce him:

Years ago, a pregnant woman was bitten by a vampire and turned. Her son was born with the thirst but, being half-human, he could walk in sunlight unharmed. Though vampires quietly dominate the world, he fights them—in part to prove his allegiance to humanity, in part to avenge his long isolation, being neither human, nor vampire. Because of his deadly expertise and weapon of choice, they call him: BLADE, THE DAYWALKER”

It’s hard not to read the character as a racial metaphor. Barack Obama turned thirteen when the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade that year, and though President Nixon made no public comment, White House tapes reveal his opposition to abortion, except when “necessary,” as “when you have a black and a white. Or a rape.” I read all vampires as rapists, so it follows the horror of our cultural logic that the first black half-vampire would have to take a vow of blood celibacy. Note all those unconscious blonde women draped in Dracula’s arms too. Blade’s skin makes explicit more than one coded fear.

Seibles told my class that he saw the character as an “emblem of alienation,” a metaphor for what it feels like to be black in the U.S., to feel “both American and not.” The night before they heard him read his poem “Allison Wolff,” set in 1972 when “Race was the elephant / sitting on everybody.” Seibles was born in 1955, the year Emmett Till was lynched, and that horror haunts the teenaged Tim the first time he kisses a white girl.

Fast Animal includes a high school photo of Seibles, “circa 1971,” long before he met Blade. The half-vampire lurked around Marvel’s black and white magazines for a few years, vanished for a decade or so, then reawakened in the 90s.  I showed my class the 1998 film, which opens with Blade’s vampire-assaulted mother bleeding out on a delivery room table. David S. Goyer penned the screenplay, which also explains Goyer’s rise to dominance in the DC film universe since both his Batman Begins and Man of Steel screenplays open with the bloody deaths of their heroes’ mothers. Seibles said the two sequels weren’t as good, and both the Spike TV and anime series were news to him.

Apparently Wesley Snipes has spent the last three years in prison for tax evasion. He last played Blade in 2004, about when Seibles started using the character in his poetry. Seibles said it was George Bush who turned him, that feeling of “a deep trouble taking over the country,” or, as his Blade explains: “it’s almost like I can’t / wake up, like I’m living // in a movie, a kind of dream: / action-packed thriller.”

Political essayist Jonathan Schell drew the same conclusion in 2004. Since 9/11 and the War on Terror, it seemed to Schell “history was being authored by a third-rate writer” compelled “to follow the plot of a bad comic book,” with the President turning “himself into a sort of real life action figure.”

The vampires in Fast Animal do have a Wolfowitz-neocon vibe: “the ones / who look in the mirror / and find nothing // but innocence   though they stand / in blood up to their knees.” But Seibles-Blade addresses a much larger audience, everyone watching “the war on TV” while not wanting “to see / what’s // really happening,” all of us living “in / the blood,” fighting for “The right to live / without memory,” to ignore “So many / centuries, so much / death.” Slavery, Seibles reminded my class, is a kind of vampirism too, one of many ways America has exploited the world. Of course Blade longs for “this country / before it was bitten,” even as he mourns: “I don’t know how // to save anybody from this.”

Seibles called Blade his “mask,” a perfect term for my Superheroes class. He used Blade to channel his rage, he said, likening the character’s name to a pencil: “Some days // I think, with the singing / of my blade, I can fix / everything.” That’s a poet’s superpower, to reveal through language, since “evil thrives best in the dark.” He even gave us his mission statement: to fight “inattentive dumbassery.”

Seibles also has a pair of poems in the new anthology Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books (where my wife, Lesley Wheeler, and I do too). Swapping his vampire superhero mask for Natasha and Boris of the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, Seibles playfully critiques American capitalism, a theme one of my students asked him to expand on. Another asked how, if our leaders are as stupid as Seibles suggests, were they smart enough to come to power? But my favorite question came at the end of class: What would Blade do if there weren’t any more vampires to fight?

Superhero missions, like Batman’s quixotic “war on criminals,” guarantee never-ending battles. You never run out of bad guys. You never get to walk away. But instead of talking vampires, Seibles talked about his father. The idea of sitting in a room of white people and discussing race, his father couldn’t imagine such a thing. His father can’t believe there are white people who aren’t racists. Sure, at an intellectual level, of course he can, but the idea is meaningless at any emotional level.

I’m guess his father was born somewhere around 1930—a moment my class understands well in terms of American eugenics. We read excerpts of a standard high school biology textbook that explained the hierarchy of white supremacy and advocated the extermination of unfit gene pools. That’s not something you walk away from. That’s not a world that ever runs out of bad guys. Seibles described Blade’s life as a psychological and spiritual war—one his parents’ generation can never stop fighting.

The only hope, he said, is for Blade’s children.

fast-animal

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Tags: Blade, David S. Goyer, Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, Fast Animal, Jonathan Schell, Marv Wolfman, Tim Seibles

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