Ostriker: Still Carried Away by America

Norman Rockwell, Pledge of Allegiance


Here’s an Alicia Ostriker poem that speaks very much to our current times, even though it was written in 2013. We don’t need Donald Trump to reveal our divisions, however. We’ve always had a dark side and a light side.

In Ostriker’s version, the two are characterized by the difference between “The Star Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful.” The first, which started off as a martial drinking song, celebrates how the flag keeps flying despite “bombs bursting in air.” The other is a hymn to the country’s natural beauty. One has its fists up, the other its arms outstretched.

According to Wikipedia, the ghazal—a Middle Eastern form—is comprised of five to fifteen independent couplets that are somehow linked, in this case by the repetition of the word “America.” I find my own heart thrilling as I hear my country named in what functions as a one-word refrain. “School Days,” meanwhile, takes me back to a song I learned in first grade (in 1957), when we were “still hopeful.”

Ghazal: America the Beautiful

Do you remember our earnestness our sincerity
in first grade when we learned to sing America

The Beautiful along with the Star-Spangled Banner
and say the Pledge of Allegiance to America

We put our hands over our first grade hearts
we felt proud to be citizens of America

I said One Nation Invisible until corrected
maybe I was right about America

School days school days dear old Golden Rule Days
when we learned how to behave in America

What to wear, how to smoke, how to despise our parents
who didn’t understand us or America

Only later learning the Banner and the Beautiful
live on opposite sides of the street in America

Only later discovering the Nation is divisible
by money by power by color by gender by sex America

We comprehend it now this land is two lands
one triumphant bully one still hopeful America

Imagining amber waves of grain blowing in the wind
purple mountains and no homeless in America

Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart
somehow or other still carried away by America

I still feel carried away when I say the “Pledge of Allegiance” and imagine an indivisible America.  Such civic rituals have never been so important.

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Parental Despair over Trump’s Orphans

Menageot, Astyanax Torn from His Mother’s Arms

Spiritual Sunday

I don’t throw around the word “evil” lightly, but the Trump administration deliberately and systematically tearing children away from their asylum-seeking parents was evil. Although some of the children were still breastfeeding, Trump and his minions didn’t care enough to ensure the families could be reunited, which means that he may have created as many as 545 permanent orphans. The heart-rending sadness of it all brings to mind the captain in Moby Dick who has lost his son, and the scene itself alludes to the Israelite mothers who lost their children to King Herod’s genocidal policies.

Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson lays out the horror:

[P]erhaps nothing more starkly illustrates the moral dimension of that decision [to be “tough” on immigrants] than the Trump administration’s policy of kidnapping children at the southern U.S. border, ripping them away from their families — and doing so for no reason other than to demonstrate Trump’s warped vision of American strength.

We learned this week that some of those separations will probably be permanent. As NBC News first reported, 545 boys and girls taken as many as three years ago — the children of would-be immigrants and asylum seekers, mostly from Central America — have not been reunited with their parents and may never see their families again.

These are not among the nearly 3,000 families separated at the border in 2018, when children were kept in cages like animals or shipped away to facilities across the country, hundreds or thousands of miles from the border. We now know, thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union and other pro bono lawyers, that an additional 1500 children were torn away from their families beginning in 2017, when the Trump administration conducted a trial run of the separation policy.

In the Bible, administrative brutality comes from a king who fears a new “king of the Jews,” predicted by the wise men. When they don’t reveal identity of the child, he engages in wholesale slaughter. The Rachel in this passage is a stand-in for Jewish mothers:

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”

It’s worth noting that Joseph and Mary save Jesus only by becoming refugees themselves. Fortunately for them, Egypt does not have Trumpian border policies.

In Moby Dick, the captain of the Rachel has lost his 12-year-old son in a whaling incident and asks Captain Ahab that the Pequod “unite with his own [ship] in the search; by sailing over the sea some four or five miles apart, on parallel lines, and so sweeping a double horizon, as it were.” The ship the commands is the Rachel.

“We must save that boy,” exclaims third mate Stubb upon hearing the story. Ahab, however, exhibit a Trumpian “iciness” as he turns down the captain’s request:

Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time. Good-bye, good-bye. God bless ye, man, and may I forgive myself, but I must go. Mr. Starbuck, look at the binnacle watch, and in three minutes from this present instant warn off all strangers: then brace forward again, and let the ship sail as before.”

As the ships go their own ways, the sailors aboard the Pequod watch the Rachel

yaw hither and thither at every dark spot, however small, on the sea. This way and that her yards were swung round; starboard and larboard, she continued to tack; now she beat against a head sea; and again it pushed her before it; while all the while, her masts and yards were thickly clustered with men, as three tall cherry trees, when the boys are cherrying among the boughs.

But by her still halting course and winding, woeful way, you plainly saw that this ship that so wept with spray, still remained without comfort. She was Rachel, weeping for her children, because they were not.

It so happens that one man benefits from the Rachel’s search. Ishmael, kept afloat by Queequeeg’s coffin, becomes the one rescued orphan:

Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

With no help from the Trump administration, the ACLU and other organizations have been tirelessly working to reunite these Trump-created orphans with their families, although the pandemic has interrupted their efforts. At times, the search seems as hopeless as the Rachel’s. We will never be able to undo all the damage that has been done.

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Scott Atlas, a Fieldingesque Quack

James Gillray, Dr. Elisha Perkins using a quack metallic tractor


Given our many advances in medicine since the 18th century, I never would have thought that Henry Fielding’s delicious jabs at doctors in Tom Jones would be relevant again. And yet, here we are, with Donald Trump playing doctor in the face of a raging pandemic while denigrating leading epidemiologists and the Center for Disease Control.

Add in his choice of neuroradiologist Scott Atlas as chief medical consultant—a man who wants the disease to go unchecked in the uncertain hope that Americans will develop herd immunity (those who don’t die, that is)—and Fielding’s satiric pen appears all too necessary.

Actually, there’s one scenario where Fielding might praise Atlas for advocating non-action. That’s only because Fielding was justifiably suspicious of the medicines of his time, however. When they were the equivalent of Trump’s bleach cure, then the maxim that concludes the following passage would indeed be the better course:

There is nothing more unjust than the vulgar opinion, by which physicians are misrepresented, as friends to death. On the contrary, I believe, if the number of those who recover by physic could be opposed to that of the martyrs to it, the former would rather exceed the latter. Nay, some are so cautious on this head, that, to avoid a possibility of killing the patient, they abstain from all methods of curing, and prescribe nothing but what can neither do good nor harm. I have heard some of these, with great gravity, deliver it as a maxim, “That Nature should be left to do her own work, while the physician stands by as it were to clap her on the back, and encourage her when she doth well.”

Atlas, however, is more like the doctor who, upon attending an injured Tom, who lets his personal interests guide his medical practice. In this case, he dances to the tune of Tom’s landlady:

“All I can say at present is, that it is well I was called as I was, and perhaps it would have been better if I had been called sooner. I will see him again early in the morning; and in the meantime let him be kept extremely quiet, and drink liberally of water-gruel.”—“Won’t you allow him sack-whey?” said the landlady.—“Ay, ay, sack-whey,” cries the doctor, “if you will, provided it be very small.”—“And a little chicken broth too?” added she.—“Yes, yes, chicken broth,” said the doctor, “is very good.”—“Mayn’t I make him some jellies too?” said the landlady.—“Ay, ay,” answered the doctor, “jellies are very good for wounds, for they promote cohesion.” And indeed it was lucky she had not named soup or high sauces, for the doctor would have complied, rather than have lost the custom of the house.

The doctor reminds me of those experts who have gone into contortions to accommodate Trump (Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx and CDC Director Robert Redfield, for instance) rather than tell him and us the pure, unvarnished truth. Of course, when Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told America the facts last February, she was promptly sidelined.

Birx and Redfield, however, are souls of integrity compared to Scott Atlas. Other Fielding doctors that he resembles are those who, “at a loss how to apply that portion of time which it is usual and decent to remain for their fee,” engage in pointless medical disputation.

These doctors are attending to the villainous Captain Blifil, who has unexpectedly died. What follows is a blistering attack on the medical profession:

These two doctors, whom, to avoid any malicious applications, we shall distinguish by the names of Dr Y. and Dr Z., having felt his pulse; to wit, Dr Y. his right arm, and Dr Z. his left; both agreed that he was absolutely dead; but as to the distemper, or cause of his death, they differed; Dr Y. holding that he died of an apoplexy, and Dr Z. of an epilepsy.

Hence arose a dispute between the learned men, in which each delivered the reasons of their several opinions. These were of such equal force, that they served both to confirm either doctor in his own sentiments, and made not the least impression on his adversary.

To say the truth, every physician almost hath his favorite disease, to which he ascribes all the victories obtained over human nature. The gout, the rheumatism, the stone, the gravel, and the consumption, have all their several patrons in the faculty; and none more than the nervous fever, or the fever on the spirits. And here we may account for those disagreements in opinion, concerning the cause of a patient’s death, which sometimes occur, between the most learned of the college; and which have greatly surprised that part of the world who have been ignorant of the fact we have above asserted…

Unable to do anything for the captain, they seize instead upon his widow, where they prove equally useless:

This lady was now recovered of her fit, and, to use the common phrase, as well as could be expected for one in her condition. The doctors, therefore, all previous ceremonies being complied with, as this was a new patient, attended, according to desire, and laid hold on each of her hands, as they had before done on those of the corpse.

The case of the lady was in the other extreme from that of her husband: for as he was past all the assistance of physic, so in reality she required none.

So much for most 18th century doctors. Fielding gives us one, however, who provides advice that the United States should have followed:

[S]urely the gentlemen of the Aesculapian art are in the right in advising, that the moment the disease has entered at one door, the physician should be introduced at the other: what else is meant by that old adage, Venienti occurrite morbo? “Oppose a distemper at its first approach.” Thus the doctor and the disease meet in fair and equal conflict; whereas, by giving time to the latter, we often suffer him to fortify and entrench himself, like a French army; so that the learned gentleman finds it very difficult, and sometimes impossible, to come at the enemy. Nay, sometimes by gaining time the disease applies to the French military politics, and corrupts nature over to his side, and then all the powers of physic must arrive too late. Agreeable to these observations was, I remember, the complaint of the great Doctor Misaubin, who used very pathetically to lament the late applications which were made to his skill, saying, “Bygar, me believe my pation take me for de undertaker, for dey never send for me till de physicion have kill dem.”

If we had opposed Covid-19 early instead of allowing it to fortify and entrench itself, millions of sick and dead Americans would have escaped infection. While our doctors may not be mistaken for undertakers, far too many of them have been forced into the role of relatives and priests as patients die in isolation.

Scott Atlas would be the kind of physician Doctor Misaubin has in mind.

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Trump as a Gibbering Ice Giant

Gustave Doré, Nimrod in Dante’s Inferno


I write this not knowing for sure that tonight’s debate will still be held, but my Dante study group has identified an all-too-appropriate passage if the occasion goes forward. Approaching the final circle of hell, which contains those who have betrayed family, country, guests, and lord (including Jesus), Dante encounters a group of ice giants. One of them spiels off an incoherent chant.

The giant, it turns out, is Nimrod, who ordered the construction of the Tower of Babel:

"Rafel mahee amek zabi almit,"
began a bellowed chant from the brute mouth
for which no sweeter psalmody was fit.

And my Guide in his direction: "Babbling fool,
stick to your horn and vent yourself with it
when rage or passion stir your stupid soul.

Feel there around your neck, you muddle-head,
and find the cord; and there's the horn itself,
there on your overgrown chest." To me he said:

"His very babbling testifies the wrong
he did on earth: he is Nimrod, through whose evil
mankind no longer speaks a common tongue.
(trans. John Ciardi)

For Dante, shattering the world’s linguistic unity was an egregious act that led to incessant warfare.  Virgil tells the giant that he might just as well blow his hunting horn as speak, identifying him as a blowhard.

Nimrod, in other words, has betrayed the unified state, which would have insured peace amongst Italy’s warring city states, Dante’s major political concern. By stirring up factionalism, Trump too is betraying America, but let’s return to the debate. As the voice of reason, Virgil counsels Dante as he might counsel one who seeks to argue with the president:

Waste no words on him: it would be foolish.
To him all speech is meaningless; as his own,
which no one understands, is simply gibberish.

Engaging in dialogue with Trump is foolish because he is not interested in dialogue. To him, as we saw in a first debate, speech is designed to bludgeon, not to achieve clarity.

His speech is also gibberish. Consider this response to a question from Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade in June, discussed by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and analyzed by Rolling Stone:

Kilmeade: According to a Axios-Ipsos poll, 70 percent of white Americans say they trust the local police. Only 36 percent of African Americans do. How do you attack that problem? How do you change things?

Trump: Well I think it’s a very sad problem. As you know, as a Republican I’m doing very well with African Americans and with the vote with the — in polls and everything — especially, I mean, I haven’t seen one very recently because you had the plague come in from China.

So that changed things up, but we had the best economy ever. We had the best numbers for African-American on employment and unemployment in history. Best homeownership — best everything. We had the best numbers in everything — not only African-American, but the African-American numbers were great.

And further on:

Kilmeade: How do you handle the law enforcement part of this?

Trump: They have to get better than what they’ve been doing. I mean obviously that was a terrible thing. And I’ve spoken about it numerous times in various speeches. And what’s interesting is I spoke about it when we launched a very successful rocket — a tremendous program that culminated on that day and obviously it goes on from there.

But I then made a speech and it was a speech about the rocket, and I devoted 25 percent of the speech probably to what happened — or more — to what happened with respect to George — George Floyd, and it was — and then you listen to this, he doesn’t talk about George Floyd. The rocket went off, I then I made a speech, and I talked about George Floyd, but they said he didn’t talk about George Floyd.

Half — maybe even almost half of the speech, but a large portion of the speech was devoted exactly to that. And so, you know, with — with the media you basically — and basically no matter what you do, it’s never going to be good enough. But the people understand it.

Kilmeade: Right.

Trump: And that’s one of the beauties of social media. I mean, I would love not to even bother with social media, but I’m able to get my word out beautifully by social media, fortunately. You use social media too.

Kilmeade: Right.

As Virgil would observe, “His very babbling testifies the wrong he did on earth.” Unless Trump fully commits to the Commission’s set of rules, Biden should refuse to debate.

Why waste words on an incoherent giant locked in place?

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Scott Atlas’s Miracle Covid Cure


The Trump administration has descended into ever deeper levels of tragic farce by elevating Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist (specialty: MRI machines) to primary health consultant for dealing with Covid-19. Doctors and medical expert around the nation gape in horror as Atlas recommends a herd immunity approach that could well lead to another million Americans dying and may not work anyway.

I, meanwhile, find myself fixated on the guy’s name, which conjures up the name of Charles Atlas from my childhood. In ads that I remember on the backs of comic books, the Italian weightlifter promised readers that bullies would no longer kick sand into their faces if they bought his shoddy weight-lifting equipment.

The name also conjures up Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In today’s post, I link them all—quack medical solutions, cheap “get strong quick” products, and libertarian Übermensch fantasies.

First, let’s dispense with Scott Atlas’s claims. Tom Frieden, a physician and former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, points out what is wrong with them:

Less than 15 percent of Americans have been infected by the virus that causes covid-19. If immunity among those who have been infected and survived is strong and long-lasting (and it may well be neither), and if herd immunity kicks in at 60 percent infection of the population (and it might be higher), with a fatality rate of 0.5 percent among those infected, then at least another half-million Americans — in addition to the 220,000 who have already died — would have to die for the country to achieve herd immunity. And that’s the best-case scenario. The number of deaths to get there could be twice as high.

The route to herd immunity would run through graveyards filled with Americans who did not have to die, because what starts in young adults doesn’t stay in young adults. “Protecting the vulnerable,” however appealing it may sound, isn’t plausible if the virus is allowed to freely spread among younger people. We’ve seen this in families, communities and entire regions of the country. First come cases in young adults. Then the virus spreads to older adults and medically vulnerable people. Hospitalizations increase. And then deaths increase.

Herd immunity is normally achieved through vaccinations. When enough people are vaccinated against a disease, then those who can’t be vaccinated (say, very young children) are protected because everyone around them is protected. But to simply allow everyone to randomly get Covid means that everyone they come into contact with is a potential victim, either of death or permanent impairment.

The effect might be that only the strong will survive, a fantasy in line with both Charles Atlas and Atlas Shrugged. In Jack Driscoll’s 1987 elegy to Charles Atlas, we see the painful sense of vulnerability that the weightlifter’s comic book ads spoke to:

Elegy: Charles Atlas (1893-1972)

When you died
I remembered myself at fifteen, posing
half naked in the bathroom mirror,
that skinny kid whose body reeked of loneliness.

I never ordered the barbells, the nutrition tips,
never sent you that snapshot my father took of me
beside the public swimming pool, arms crossed and shivering.
But some nights I’d open a comic book
to the back page, try to imagine
how you hauled that train
a hundred yards down those shiny rails,
and how a draft horse strapped later
into the same harness strained and strained,
collapsing finally to its knees to die.

Your heart exploded at seventy-nine.
Weakened by the news
I fell asleep on my son’s weightbench
in our basement. He does not know your name,
though in a dream that afternoon
I saw someone who looks like him
screaming for help, unable
to lift that terrible pain from your chest.

So much for your faith in the flesh,
the decades of bulking-up
after that Coney Island lifeguard kicked sand
in your face. Atlas,
I do not believe any god ever hoisted the world
the way you did the back end of a Chevrolet in 1941.
That was enough,
nearly the impossible as we saw it,
that bunch who one day grabbed a bumper together,
each of us flexing, expand our chests
as if we might call you,
the only witness to our grunts and moans,
the enormity of our growing up.

Driscoll is referring to the mythic Atlas when he notes, “I do not believe any god ever hoisted the world the way you did the back end of a Chevrolet in 1941.” In Ayn Rand’s fantasy, Übermensch capitalist John Galt has so much power and self confidence that he can simply shrug the world from his shoulders. All the lesser people—those who attempt to protect themselves with burdensome regulations and taxes—will perish, at which point the truly strong will emerge from the ruins and remake the world in their own image.

Putting the drama in terms of Covid, the weak and old will be culled from the population, leaving the world to superman Trump and his followers, who imagine themselves endowed with his superpowers when they follow him. Apparently following Trump’s own recovery from the illness (thanks in part to top-flight medical care and a quarter of a million dollars in medical treatment), Trump fantasized ripping off his shirt and revealing a superman logo. In his dreams, he’s the one kicking sand in the face of weaklings.

One of Trump’s more ironic slips occurred several weeks ago when, instead of saying “herd immunity,” he said “herd mentality.” The herd mentality of his cult followers is indeed one of Trump’s sources of power, and that they are all too ready to pass death sentences on potential Covid sufferers (along with children of asylum seekers, black victims of police brutality, and Michigan’s governor) gives us insight into their blind loyalty: he convinces them that they can be as strong as he supposedly is.

As a caution to them, I offer up Ralph Hodgson’s poem “The Bull,” which is about a bull who drew energy from the herd until he didn’t. Once his life looked like this:

Dreaming, this old bull forlorn,
Surely dreaming of the hour
When he came to sultan power,
And they owned him master-horn,
Chiefest bull of all among
Bulls and cows a thousand strong.
And in all the tramping herd
Not a bull that barred his way,
Not a cow that said him nay…

Now, however, he is “sick in soul and body both” and has been “banished from the herd he led.” A prime candidate for an ICU bed as vultures circle overhead, he can only reminisce about the good old days:

And the dreamer turns away
From his visionary herds
And his splendid yesterday,
Turns to meet the loathly birds
Flocking round him from the skies,
Waiting for the flesh that dies.

Does Scott Atlas consider a million extra deaths a necessary price to pay for his promotion? Does he think it’s no big deal if he shrugs the world from his shoulders? Does he imagine that he has a strength comparable to Charles Atlas because they share a name?

And how will he and his boss feel when the loathly birds begin to flock around them?

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Biden-Trump Invites Dickens Comparisons

The sanctimonious Pecksniff from Martin Chuzzlewit


I find myself thinking of America’s current election as a Charles Dickens novel, given that it’s a fairly clear battle between good and evil. Whatever one thinks of Joe Biden’s policies, even Republican opponents have acknowledged he’s a good man, while few would deny Trump’s similarities with various Dickens villains. Here are five Dickens novels that come to mind.

Oliver Twist – Trump in this setting would be Fagan, the evil fence who turns young boys into criminals, essentially living off of “other people’s money” (to use one of Trump’s favorite phrases). Biden would be Mr. Brownlow, the benevolent gentleman who saves Oliver as Biden will strive to save those kids in cages. In the end, Fagan is imprisoned and divisions are healed. While I can’t compare Trump to Jack Dawkins, the “Artful Dodger” moniker fits him.

Martin ChuzzlewitTrump sanctimoniously holding up a Bible after ousting peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square is something Pecksniff would do (see illustration above). Pecksniff is the hypocritical employer in what was one of Dickens’s most popular novels of its day, even though it is less well known today. Martin must go through many travails in the course of the novel but is finally rescued by a benevolent grandfather, from whom he had become estranged. America needs to reunite with such a grandfather at the moment.

Hard TimesIn the past I’ve compared Trump to Bounderby, the heartless industrialist who claims populist roots (he claims to have raised himself up by his own bootstraps) but actually was born to privilege. Biden here might be Stephen Blackpool, a virtuous member of the working class. One difference, however: Biden is a strong supporter of labor unions, which are not portrayed positively by Dickens, who preferred benevolent rich people to collective worker action.

Christmas Carol: I have also compared Trump to Scrooge, who has been relentlessly trying to deprive people of health care and, more recently, food stamps. We can then cast Biden as Bob Cratchett, a man whose moral center never wavers.

Scrooge’s memorable interaction with the gentleman requesting charity donations is always worth revisiting:

“Are there no prisons?”

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again. “And the Union workhouses,” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh. I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,’ returned the gentleman, ‘a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned-they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

David Copperfield – I would cast Trump as Uriah Heep only that character has already been taken by Mike Pence. (See my post on that here.) Let’s say that he’s Mr. Murdstone and that Biden is Betsey Trotwood, who saves David from his wicked stepfather and brings him up right. Under her care, David grows up to be a successful young man, which is what we would like to see in America right now. Also like Biden, David loses a cherished wife but finds another wonderful woman.  

There are other Dickens parallels to be found. With Bleak House, I think of Trump’s incessant lawsuits and with Little Dorritt of his bankruptcies. Please send in your own Dickens comparisons.

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Berryman Predicted Trump’s America

John Berryman, 1914-72


Someone on twitter suggested the following John Berryman dream poem as a lyric that describes our times. I think he or she was spot on:

Dream Song 46

I am, outside. Incredible panic rules.
People are blowing and beating each other without mercy.
Drinks are boiling. Iced
drinks are boiling. The worse anyone feels, the worse
treated he is. Fools elect fools.
A harmless man at an intersection said, under his 
         breath, “Christ!”

That word, so spoken, affected the vision
of, when they trod to work next day, shopkeepers
who went and were fitted for glasses.
Enjoyed they then an appearance of love & law.
Millenia whift & waft—one, one—er, er. . .
Their glasses were taken from them, & they saw.

Man has undertaken the top job of all,
son fin. Good luck.
I myself walked at the funeral of tenderness.
Followed other deaths. Among the last,
like the memory of a lovely fuck,
was: Do, ut des.

I confess to being baffled by many of Berryman’s poems, including this one. But I love the idea of the “harmless man” exclaiming “Christ!” when he sees our situation—and then when others, moved by his response, go out to be fitted with glasses. Presumably they want to see what he is seeing.

What they see is an appearance of love and law, which I’m interpreting as the moral compass that the world has lost. Perhaps this man himself is Christ. (The “I am” that opens the poem, meanwhile, suggests God’s words to Moses from the burning bush: “I am that I am.” Moses represents law, Jesus love.) When the glasses are then taken from the shopkeepers, they see how far the world has fallen from these ideals.

Man taking over the “top job of all” would be humans replacing God. Perhaps “son fin” combines “son at an end”—as in Jesus as the son of God—and the French expression “sans fin,” which means “without end,” the words that conclude the gloria patri: “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” This latter is Jesus’s vision of the kingdom of heaven brought to earth.

Trump, however, has taken the top job and made it all about himself. Trumpism without end. Despite his clearly secular aims, he has become the new messiah for certain Christian fundamentalists and Q-Anon supporters.

In his poem, Berryman sees himself attending the funeral of tenderness, which is certainly what Trump’s America feels like these days. (Latest outrage: Trump directing crowd hatred at Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer only days after we learned she was being targeted by rightwing terrorists.) A couple of stanzas from Don MacLean’s elegiac “American Pie” come to mind:

And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken

And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died

As he remembers lost tenderness, Berry concludes with a Latinism that suggests the golden rule: “do, ut des,” or “I give that you may give.”

We elect people to office that they may serve the common good. When they seek to serve only themselves, incredible panic rules.


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The Soul Longs to Return Whence It Came

Spiritual Sunday

Autumn has returned to Sewanee, chilly and gorgeous, making Richard Eberhart’s poem “The Soul Longs to Return Whence It Came” seasonally appropriate. The poem helped shape the hike that Julia and I took yesterday afternoon.

It also brings to mind Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The medieval author, perhaps thinking of the Black Plague in the not too distant past, grapples with the difference between pagan and Christian notions of death. The Green Knight, as a fertility figure, is so closely aligned with nature’s cycle of life that he cannot permanently die. Do Arthur and his knights have the same confidence in Christ’s promise of resurrection. If so, wouldn’t they be as willing to subject themselves to the axe blow as he is?

For the Green Knight, there is no separation between head and body, which is why he cannot be beheaded. For Gawain, by contrast, the mind intervenes. Or as Eberhardt puts it,

The mind came like a fire, it
Tortured man, I thought of madness.
The mind will not accept the blood.

Before this moment, however, Eberhart’s speaker has experienced a powerful and ecstatic merging with the earth out of which he arose:

I was a being of feeling alone.
I flung myself down on the earth
Full length on the great earth, full length,
I wept out the dark load of human love.
In pagan adoration I adored her.
I felt the actual earth of her.
Victor and victim of humility,
I closed in the wordless ecstasy
Of mystery: where there is no thought
But feeling lost in itself forever,
Profound, remote, immediate, and calm.

I’m not entirely clear if the “her” is someone the poet has lost or the earth, but in some ways it doesn’t matter. After all, if they were once two, they are now merged into oneness.

Following this momentary connection, the speaker returns to himself, in part made self aware by the rustling of the leaves. Such imagery shows up in Odysseus’s journey to the underworld, where the rustling of the dead souls ultimately panics him so that he flees back to the familiar world. Maybe both Odysseus and Eberhart’s speaker fear being swallowed up permanently.

For a brief interval, however, the speaker has had an out-of-body experience. Or perhaps more accurately, an out-of-mind experience.

As the different elements of nature resume “their usual characters,” he walks away feeling he has experienced a mystic revelation. He offers up a prayer in gratitude:

Mother, Great Being, O Source of Life 
To whom in wisdom we return,
Accept this humble servant evermore.

Here’s Eberhart’s poem:

The Soul Longs to Return Whence It Came

I drove up to the graveyard, which
Used to frighten me as a boy,
When I walked down the river past it,
And evening was coming on. I’d make sure
I came home from the woods early enough.
I drove in, I found to the place, I
Left the motor running. My eyes hurried,
To recognize the great oak tree
On the little slope, among the stones.
It was a high day, a crisp day,
The cleanest kind of Autumn day,
With brisk intoxicating air, a
Little wind that frisked, yet there was
Old age in the atmosphere, nostalgia,
The subtle heaviness of the Fall.
I stilled the motor. I walked a few paces;
It was good, the tree; the friendliness of it.
I touched it, I thought of the roots;
They would have pierced her seven years.
O all peoples! O mighty shadows!
My eyes opened along the avenue
Of tombstones, the common land of death.
Humiliation of all loves lost,
That might have had full meaning in any
Plot of ground, come, hear the silence,
See the quivering light. My mind worked
Almost imperceptibly, I
In the command, I the willful ponderer.
I must have stood silent and thoughtful
There. A host of dry leaves
Danced on the ground in the wind.
They startled, they curved up from the ground,
There was a dry rustling, rattling,
The sun was motionless and brittle.
I felt the blood darken in my cheeks
And burn. My eyes
Telescoped on decay, I out of command.
Fear, tenderness, they seized me.
My eyes were hot, I dared not look
At the leaves. A Pagan urge swept me.
Multitudes, O multitudes in one.
The urge of the earth, the titan
Wild and primitive lust, fused
On the ground of her grave.
I was a being of feeling alone.
I flung myself down on the earth
Full length on the great earth, full length,
I wept out the dark load of human love.
In pagan adoration I adored her.
I felt the actual earth of her.
Victor and victim of humility,
I closed in the wordless ecstasy
Of mystery: where there is no thought
But feeling lost in itself forever,
Profound, remote, immediate, and calm.
Frightened, I stood up, I looked about
Suspiciously, hurriedly (a rustling),
As if the sun, the air, the trees
Were human, might not understand.
I drew breath, it made a sound,
I stepped gingerly away. Then
The mind came like a fire, it
Tortured man, I thought of madness.
The mind will not accept the blood.
The sun and sky, the trees and grasses,
And the whispering leaves, took on
Their usual characters. I went away,
Slowly, tingling, elated, saying, saying
Mother, Great Being, O Source of Life
To whom in wisdom we return,
Accept this humble servant evermore.
Posted in Eberhart (Richard) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Glück: Teen Sex, Rape and Persephone

Daniel Gabriel Rossetti, “Prosperpine” (Latin name for Persephone)


I’m falling in love with the Persephone poems of Louise Glück, the recent Nobel literature laureate. “Persephone the Wanderer” is a nuanced exploration of explosive issues regarding teenage sexuality and rape.

In the myth, earth goddess Demeter threatens to kill all vegetation unless Hades returns her daughter, whom he has abducted. (In high school Latin I learned about word “rapere,” meaning “to seize” and the origin of our word rape, in conjunction with this story.) Demeter gets only half of what she wants as Persephone, because she has eaten food in the underworld (six pomegranate seeds), can return for only half the year. Demeter’s mourning during those months explains fall and winter.

The poem begins with the mother’s perspective. Her scorched earth response to Persephone’s abduction hurts everyone. This, the poet explains, is “consistent with what we know of human behavior.” While I’m not sure why Glück calls this “negative creation,” I’ll buy her subsequent observation:

Human beings take profound satisfaction
in doing harm, particularly
unconscious harm

This is our first glimpse into Glück’s readiness to point out unpleasant parts of ourselves, which can be hidden under seemingly virtuous desires. Demeter is right to be upset, but does she relish her anger a bit too much? Does she enjoy lashing out?

The poem moves into an even more controversial female emotion when it raises the possibility of complicity. Did Persephone “cooperate in her rape,” the poet asks before turning to a more acceptable possibility:

[O]r was she drugged, violated against her will,
as happens so often now to modern girls.

While Glück says that scholars debate the issue, her use of the word “pawed” suggests that their motives may be more lascivious and less academic than they would admit:

Persephone's initial
sojourn in hell continues to be
pawed over by scholars who dispute
the sensations of the virgin…

The story doesn’t end when Persephone returns home since, no longer a virgin, she bears a mark of shame. The red juice of the pomegranate seeds reminds the poet of Hawthorne’s scarlet letter:

As is well known, the return of the beloved
does not correct
the loss of the beloved: Persephone

returns home
stained with red juice like
a character in Hawthorne—

That’s not the end of the story, however. Glück is noteworthy for her extended meditations so that one is never sure where her poems are heading. Mentioning the word “home” gets her thinking along Thomas Wolfe lines that one can’t go home again. Persephone’s encounter with Hades means that, henceforth, she will become a wanderer, “at home nowhere”:

I am not certain I will
keep this word [“home”]: is earth
"home" to Persephone? Is she at home, conceivably,
in the bed of the god? Is she
at home nowhere?

Her encounter with Hades has changed everything. Home can no longer be the innocence of childhood, a meadow filled with daisies where she sang “her maidenly songs”:

When death confronts her, she has never seen
the meadow without the daisies.
Suddenly she is no longer
singing her maidenly songs
about her mother's
beauty and fecundity. Where
the rift is, the break is.

To describe Persephone’s encounter with sexuality as “in the bed of the god” raises the issue of sexuality’s power, how it can seem to take over one’s entire being.  That the god’s “rape” might not be entirely objectionable is a possibility raised again by the final stanza, which suggests choice:

What will you do,
when it is your turn in the field with the god?

To move from girlhood into sexuality can feel like something that is beyond mind:

She is lying in the bed of Hades.
What is in her mind?
Is she afraid? Has something
blotted out the idea
of mind?

Although her mother may be devastated, winter is not where Persephone herself is:

Persephone is having sex in hell.
Unlike the rest of us, she doesn’t know
what winter is, only that
she is what causes it.

Put another way, it is snowing in her mother’s world but not in Persephone’s, which is why the poet asks, “Where is it snowing?” While the loss of Persephone may be winter for Demeter, for Persephone winter is more about forgetfulness than desecration. I suppose this could be PTSD trauma, Persephone blotting out what has happened, but other things in the poem suggest that Persephone is moving into an exciting new world.  In any event, the poem moves powerfully between a mother’s and a daughter’s perspective, between desecration and simply forgetting one’s past:

You must ask yourself:
where is it snowing?

White of forgetfulness,
of desecration—

It is snowing on earth; the cold wind says

As it turns out, Persephone’s imprisonment in hell—if imprisonment is what it is—is not that different from her imprisonment in her girlhood:

She does know the earth
is run by mothers, this much
is certain. She also knows
she is not what is called
a girl any longer. Regarding
incarceration, she believes

she has been a prisoner since she has been a daughter.

Sex in hell may represent liberation from one perspective, but from another it’s just exchanging one prison for another. According to the latter, Persephone is just a pawn in a battle between possessive mother and possessive lover. The story “should be read,” Glück writes,

as an argument between the mother and the lover—
the daughter is just meat.

Or as the old folk song puts it, “Controlled by her parents until she a wife,/ A slave to her husband the rest of her life.”

However one reads the abduction that separates Persephone from her mother, it will change their future interactions. Reunions will become emotionally charged affairs as she wanders between earth and death. Will there be guilt at having left that she feels she must expiate? If she is not allowed to entirely leave (for her old self “to die”) and yet feels that she regresses to her girlhood self while in her mother’s home (“you do not live”), then she will in fact drift. Glück startles us with the observation that her two worlds “seem, finally, strangely alike”:

The terrible reunions in store for her
will take up the rest of her life.
When the passion for expiation
is chronic, fierce, you do not choose
the way you live. You do not live;
you are not allowed to die.

You drift between earth and death
which seem, finally,
strangely alike.

At one point in the poem, Glück invokes Freud’s tripartite scheme of the mind—id, ego, and superego—which suggests a battle between forbidden desires (id) and social taboos (super ego). With regard to the sexual taboos, id, illicit desire, and Hades are all bound up together. But Hades is also mythic realm that the poet can go to for inspiration. According to myth scholars, Persephone is associated with the world of spirit and the occult, the archetype that guides mystics and visionaries. In other words, she is fitting subject matter for a poet who looks for the spiritual dimensions of everyday life:

Song of the earth, song
of the mythic vision of eternal life—

My soul
shattered with the strain
of trying to belong to earth…

Although the poem seems to have strayed from the theme of adolescent sexuality at this point—maybe she feels shattered because she keeps search for the mythic ramifications—earth and myth are indeed bound up together. The fascination with sex and death, between the life force and the death force, could be what draws Persephone to Hades and, for that matter, teenagers to risky behavior. In the question that concludes the poem, Glück essentially asks how one could listen to one’s mother when this mysterious, dangerous, and unknown world beckons:

What will you do,
when it is your turn in the field with the god?

I sense that, if you have any spirit and imagination, it will be hard to turn him down—which may go a long way towards explaining why teens so often “get into trouble.”

Here’s the poem:

Persephone the Wanderer

In the first version, Persephone
is taken from her mother
and the goddess of the earth
punishes the earth—this is
consistent with what we know of human behavior,
that human beings take profound satisfaction
in doing harm, particularly
unconscious harm:

we may call this
negative creation.

Persephone’s initial
sojourn in hell continues to be
pawed over by scholars who dispute
the sensations of the virgin:

did she cooperate in her rape,
or was she drugged, violated against her will,
as happens so often now to modern girls.

As is well known, the return of the beloved
does not correct
the loss of the beloved: Persephone

returns home
stained with red juice like
a character in Hawthorne—

I am not certain I will
keep this word: is earth
“home” to Persephone? Is she at home, conceivably,
in the bed of the god? Is she
at home nowhere? Is she a born wanderer, in other words
an existential
replica of her own mother, less
hamstrung by ideas of causality?

You are allowed to like
no one, you know. The characters
are not people.
They are aspects of a dilemma or conflict.

Three parts: just as the soul is divided,
ego, superego, id. Likewise

the three levels of the known world,
a kind of diagram that separates
heaven from earth from hell.

You must ask yourself:
where is it snowing?

White of forgetfulness,
of desecration—

It is snowing on earth; the cold wind says

Persephone is having sex in hell.
Unlike the rest of us, she doesn’t know
what winter is, only that
she is what causes it.

She is lying in the bed of Hades.
What is in her mind?
Is she afraid? Has something
blotted out the idea
of mind?

She does know the earth
is run by mothers, this much
is certain. She also knows
she is not what is called
a girl any longer. Regarding
incarceration, she believes

she has been a prisoner since she has been a daughter.

The terrible reunions in store for her
will take up the rest of her life.
When the passion for expiation
is chronic, fierce, you do not choose
the way you live. You do not live;
you are not allowed to die.

You drift between earth and death
which seem, finally,
strangely alike. Scholars tell us

that there is no point in knowing what you want
when the forces contending over you
could kill you.

White of forgetfulness,
white of safety—

They say
there is a rift in the human soul
which was not constructed to belong
entirely to life. Earth

asks us to deny this rift, a threat
disguised as suggestion—
as we have seen
in the tale of Persephone
which should be read
as an argument between the mother and the lover—
the daughter is just meat.

When death confronts her, she has never seen
the meadow without the daisies.
Suddenly she is no longer
singing her maidenly songs
about her mother’s
beauty and fecundity. Where
the rift is, the break is.

Song of the earth, song
of the mythic vision of eternal life—

My soul
shattered with the strain
of trying to belong to earth—

What will you do,
when it is your turn in the field with the god?

Note on the painting: Rossetti’s “Proserpine,” one of my favorite paintings (it hangs in our bedroom), captures the fascination with sexuality and death that Glück explores. Proserpine is cast as an Eve figure, deliberately and provocatively eating the pomegranate as though she is fully aware of the consequences. The slice taken from the fruit resembles a vaginal opening, further suggesting she has embraced her abduction.

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