Are We Overanalyzing Trump?

David Henry Friston, illus. from Study in Scarlet


My son gave me a tough-love talk about my writing at a wedding reception this past Saturday afternoon. We were in Iowa together for my wife’s nephew and Darien took a few moments to express doubts about book he is helping me self-publish.

While he is a big supporter of the blog, he worries that a collection of past blog essays devoted to Trump and the Trump Resistance turns the president into a bigger-than-life figure. Doesn’t comparing Trump to (among many others) Willie Stark, King Lear, Macbeth, Milton’s Satan, and Melville’s Confidence Man make a boring man interesting? If you want to understand Trump, my businessman son informed me, hang out with a group of “Wall Street bros” and you’ll see that he’s motivated by nothing more complicated than “my steak is bigger than your steak.”

In other words, Trump perpetually engages in primitive dominance rituals and, unlike these literary figures, that’s all that there is to him. We see none of Satan’s expressed doubts and self-loathing, none of Macbeth’s existential despair, none of Lear’s capacity for redemption.

Darien’s point, which I take seriously, reminds me of John Arbuthnot criticizing Alexander Pope for satirizing Lord John Hervey, a scandal-mongering courtier. When Pope declares that he will compare Hervey to Emperor Nero’s eunuch lover Sporus and make him his next target, he imagines Arbuthnot objecting. Pope speaks first, then Arbuthnot:

Sporus tremble—"What? that thing of silk, 
Sporus, that mere white curd of ass's milk? 
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel? 
Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" 
Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings, 
This painted child of dirt that stinks and stings… 

Am I indeed breaking a butterfly on a wheel in my many blog posts about Trump? It’s certainly possible.

Actually, since one of the most powerful men in the world can’t be dismissed as a butterfly, a work that parallels Darien’s criticism more exactly may be a Borges short story in which a detective turns a crime into something much more complicated than it actually is. In “Death and the Compass,” a rabbi poring over ancient texts in a hotel room has been stabbed in what appears to be a random murder. Detective Treviranus, resembling Scotland Yard’s Tobias Gregson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, thinks the murderer blundered into the wrong room since there were jewels to be stolen in the room next door. The Sherlock-like Lonnrot will have none of it:

“There’s no need to look for a Chimera, or a cat with three legs,” Treviranus was saying as he brandished an imperious cigar. “We all know that the Tetrarch of Galilee is the possessor of the finest sapphires in the world. Someone, intending to steal them, came in here by mistake. Yarmolinsky got up; the robber had to kill him. What do you think?”

“It’s possible, but not interesting,” Lonnrot answered. “You will reply that reality hasn’t the slightest need to be of interest. And I’ll answer you that reality may avoid the obligation to be interesting, but that hypotheses may not. In the hypothesis you have postulated, chance intervenes largely. Here lies a dead rabbi; I should prefer a purely rabbinical explanation; not the imaginary mischances of an imaginary robber.”

Something similar could be said about literature, which also has the obligation to be interesting, even if reality doesn’t.

Treviranus is understandably annoyed. “I am not interested in rabbinical explanations,” he says. “I am interested in the capture of the man who stabbed this unknown person.”

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Study in Scarlet, Inspector Gregson sees “Rache” written on the wall next to a murder victim and assumes that a woman named Rachel is involved. The perceptive Holmes, by contrast, figures out that “Rache” is actually the German word for revenge.

In the Borges short story, however, the Gregson figure turns out to be right: the murderer did in fact stumble into the wrong room. In a further twist, the robber chief who ordered the theft sees what Lonrot is up to and feeds him with false clues to encourage him in his elaborate theories. In the end, he lures the detective to an out-of-the-way locale and, after revealing what he has done, shoots him.

I’ll further pursue whether I am a Lonrot when it comes to Trump in a further post. The question is worth exploring since the media too has been accused of something similar, giving so much attention to this “painted child of dirt that stinks and stings” that it helped elevate him. Stay tuned.

Posted in Borges (Jorge Luis), Doyle (Arthur Conan), Pope (Alexander), Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Wine of Love Is Music

Bruegel, The Wedding Dance

Spiritual Sunday

I attended a joyous Des Moines wedding yesterday, one where the bride, an avid runner, wore running shoes. The groom is a runner as well. Things promise well.

Here’s a lovely wedding poem by the 18th century poet James Thomson, author of The Seasons and “Rule, Britannia.” I send it out to all those getting married in the months ahead:

The wine of Love is music, 
   And the feast of Love is song: 
And when Love sits down to the banquet, 
   Love sits long: 
Sits long and ariseth drunken, 
   But not with the feast and the wine; 
He reeleth with his own heart, 
   That great rich Vine.
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Alabama Returning Women to Doll’s House

Jane Fonda as Nora in Ibsen’s Doll’s House


I’m missing much of the news as I travel across country but managed to hear about Alabama threatening doctors who perform abortions with 99-year prison sentences. Here’s a post I wrote four years ago about how state legislatures are infantilizing women. I managed some optimism then but, with Gorsuch and Kavanaugh now on the Supreme Court, I am very pessimistic at the moment.

Republished from September 21, 2015

Just when I thought things couldn’t get crazier, it looks like there is a very good chance we’ll have another government shutdown, this one over continued funding for Planned Parenthood. This in spite of the fact that PP has done nothing illegal and doesn’t receive federal funds for performing abortions. PP is mainly used by poor women for cancer screenings, pap smears and birth control.

I recently reread Ibsen’s Doll’s House to see if I could gain insight into what is going on and have made some connections. Let’s first review recent developments, however.

There have been steady attacks on abortion providers in many states, and it is considerably more difficult for women in these states to get abortions than it was five years ago, even though abortion is technically still legal in this country. Now those attacks have been taken up by the GOP nominees for president, with the result that abortion could well be the main issue in the upcoming GOP primaries. Here’s Paul Waldman in American Prospect:

Abortion has become the dominant issue of the Republican contest, even of Republican politics more generally. Carly Fiorina just shot into second place in the race in at least one poll, based in part on her fervent condemnation of something that wasn’t actually on those Planned Parenthood “sting” videos. Republicans in Congress are getting very close to shutting down the government in order to prevent women from getting non-abortion services like cancer screenings and gynecological exams at Planned Parenthood clinics. A whole series of bills to restrict abortion rights are now getting a prominent hearing in Congress. John Kasich told CNN this weekend that he will sign a bill currently in the Ohio legislature that would outlaw abortions if they are performed because the fetus tests positive for the genetic anomaly that causes Down syndrome, meaning that any woman in Ohio—and wherever else Republicans manage to pass copycat laws—will only be allowed an abortion if the government decides she’s doing it for the right reason.

We could also note that Marco Rubio is against all abortions, even those caused by rape or incest  and Jeb Bush boasts that he cut off funding to Planned Parenthood when he was governor of Florida. (He also doesn’t think we need “half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.”)

Let’s now bring in a real person to make the ongoing debate less of an abstraction. The Washington Post recently ran a woman’s account of her abortion at 21 weeks—which is after the 20-week-limit that Republicans in Congress are calling for. Rebecca Cohen, a health researcher in Washington, discovered that her fetus had two leaks in its brain, destroying it almost entirely. She could either have an abortion or carry the fetus to term and deliver a dead baby. Here’s what she decided:

I had a choice. I could try to live with the husk of a child inside of me for more than 100 days, swallowing tears at every cheery inquiry as I grew bigger. Or I could have an abortion. And the choice wasn’t just about me. I have young children who would have had to see their mother endure this torture and give birth to someone they would never meet. So we made the painful, but I believe merciful, decision to terminate.

Even after we made that decision, it was difficult to find an available provider, even in an area with as many medical providers as the District. The hospitals had weeks-long waits. In the end, we were able to schedule an appointment at a surgical clinic for the following week.

My pregnancy was 21 weeks on the day of my abortion.

I mourn the loss of my baby every day. But I have no doubt that I made the right decision for myself and my family, and I am grateful that it was my choice to make. I am indebted to my medical providers for their compassion and care. They answered my questions, spent hours on the phone to give me as many options as possible and followed my lead.

Cohen then puts her abortion in a larger perspective:

According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, just more than 1 percent of abortions take place at week 21 or later, many because of devastating medical situations like ours. Each of these mothers must battle through her own hell to decide on and find the medical care she needs, gather her friends and family to lean on, and grieve.

Congress should not take this decision away from any woman — any family — who is in need. Banning abortions after 20 weeks would be arbitrary, and its consequences would place an unimaginable burden on women like me.

Medical need is only one reason why women have abortions. Add in all those other decisions, often arrived after similar struggle, and then ask yourself whether rigid laws can do justice to the complexity.

Now to Ibsen. While Doll’s House isn’t about abortion, it is about a man who infantilizes his wife and thinks that she doesn’t have the intelligence to grapple with tough moral decisions. Because he sees her this way, and because she plays along with him out of fear of undermining his masculinity, they have a marriage that can’t face up to the problems confronting them.

If he were not so self righteous and not so worried about being in control, Torvald Helmer would be able to allow Nora to help finance the trip to Italy he needs to regain his health. Instead, knowing that he won’t accept the life-saving measures from her, his wife borrows money behind his back, forges her father’s signature, and then saves money out of her house allowance to pay back the loan. Torvald thinks she’s an irresponsible spendthrift and she allows him to think that of her. After all, she has more important things to worry about.

The GOP, with their legislated ultrasounds, two week waiting periods (for “reflection”), doctor gag orders, and all the rest are infantilizing women, assuming that they are incapable of doing the right thing if the decision is left up to them. There is no acknowledgement of the agonizing that often accompanies a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

In the end, Nora realizes that living under such a regime is no life for her and she leaves her husband. As women have been leaving the GOP.

But the play does hold out one hope, that Torvald and Nora could come back together if he could see her as something other than, to use Nora’s words, “your little skylark, your doll, which you would in future treat with doubly gentle care, because it was so brittle and fragile.”

Imagine if America went at the abortion question in a way that truly looked for solutions. This would have to include truly effective sex education (not abstinence only), full access to free contraceptives, and full social support for children born into poverty. Perhaps pro-choice women could come to understand the sensibilities of those who see the fetus as sacred if they felt that that their own concerns were sufficiently acknowledged. I always thought that Hillary Clinton was trying to find some common ground in her call for abortions to be “safe, legal and rare.” Too many of those against abortion, however, are like Torvald and think only in absolutes.

Will we continue to have non-stop political warfare on this issue? I’m pessimistic but the play ends with a tiny ray of hope. Torvald seems willing to imagine a new way of relating to his wife:

Helmer. Let me help you if you are in want.
Nora. No. I can receive nothing from a stranger.
Helmer. Nora–can I never be anything more than a stranger to you?
Nora [taking her bag]. Ah, Torvald, the most wonderful thing of all would have to happen.
Helmer. Tell me what that would be!
Nora. Both you and I would have to be so changed that–. Oh, Torvald, I don’t believe any longer in wonderful things happening.
Helmer. But I will believe in it. Tell me! So changed that–?
Nora. That our life together would be a real wedlock. Goodbye. [She goes out through the hall.]
Helmer [sinks down on a chair at the door and buries his face in his hands]. Nora! Nora! [Looks round, and rises.]Empty. She is gone. [A hope flashes across his mind.] The most wonderful thing of all–?

So maybe we could have a real social dialogue about women’s reproductive issues where people truly listened to each other. Maybe the most wonderful thing of all could happen. Know hope.

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Music Only Poets Can Hear

Arthur Rackham, Wind in the Willows


As I’m currently traveling, I’m reposting an essay I wrote seven years ago about a poem by Xavier University’s Norman Finkelstein, whom we dined with last night. Norman was my best friend in graduate school and this may be my favorite of his poems, perhaps because I too am in love with Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, especially the Pan episode in “Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”

Reposted from Nov. 18, 2012

Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 classic The Wind in the Willows has one of the most haunting literary episodes I know, an expression of early 20th century pantheism or neopaganism where Rat and Mole come face to face with godhead. The book itself owes its title to a moment in the book when Rat tries to capture on paper a distant voice that he hears. The scene inspired a wonderful poem by my best friend in graduate school, Norman Finkelstein, who gave me permission to share it with you.

In the Grahame episode, Rat and Mole have gotten up before dawn to find an otter child who is missing. Rat, who is a poet, senses the presence of divinity first, but eventually even the more pedestrian Mole picks up on it. Here they are as dawn begins to break:

Fastening their boat to a willow, the friends landed in this silent, silver kingdom, and patiently explored the hedges, the hollow trees, the runnels and their little culverts, the ditches and dry water-ways. Embarking again and crossing over, they worked their way up the stream in this manner, while the moon, serene and detached in a cloudless sky, did what she could, though so far off, to help them in their quest; till her hour came and she sank earthwards reluctantly, and left them, and mystery once more held field and river.

Then a change began slowly to declare itself. The horizon became clearer, field and tree came more into sight, and somehow with a different look; the mystery began to drop away from them. A bird piped suddenly, and was still; and a light breeze sprang up and set the reeds and bulrushes rustling. Rat, who was in the stern of the boat, while Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness. Mole, who with gentle strokes was just keeping the boat moving while he scanned the banks with care, looked at him with curiosity.

`It’s gone!’ sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. `So beautiful and strange and new. Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it for ever. No! There it is again!’ he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound.

`Now it passes on and I begin to lose it,’ he said presently. `O Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.’

The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed. `I hear nothing myself,’ he said, `but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.’

The Rat never answered, if indeed he heard. Rapt, transported, trembling, he was possessed in all his senses by this new divine thing that caught up his helpless soul and swung and dandled it, a powerless but happy infant in a strong sustaining grasp.

Further on Mole tunes in:

Breathless and transfixed the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid run of that glad piping broke on him like a wave, caught him up, and possessed him utterly. He saw the tears on his comrade’s cheeks, and bowed his head and understood. For a space they hung there, brushed by the purple loose-strife that fringed the bank; then the clear imperious summons that marched hand-in-hand with the intoxicating melody imposed its will on Mole, and mechanically he bent to his oars again. And the light grew steadily stronger, but no birds sang as they were wont to do at the approach of dawn; and but for the heavenly music all was marvellously still.

On either side of them, as they glided onwards, the rich meadow-grass seemed that morning of a freshness and a greenness unsurpassable. Never had they noticed the roses so vivid, the willow-herb so riotous, the meadow-sweet so odorous and pervading. Then the murmur of the approaching weir began to hold the air, and they felt a consciousness that they were nearing the end, whatever it might be, that surely awaited their expedition.

A wide half-circle of foam and glinting lights and shining shoulders of green water, the great weir closed the backwater from bank to bank, troubled all the quiet surface with twirling eddies and floating foam-streaks, and deadened all other sounds with its solemn and soothing rumble. In midmost of the stream, embraced in the weir’s shimmering arm-spread, a small island lay anchored, fringed close with willow and silver birch and alder. Reserved, shy, but full of significance, it hid whatever it might hold behind a veil, keeping it till the hour should come, and, with the hour, those who were called and chosen.

Slowly, but with no doubt or hesitation whatever, and in something of a solemn expectancy, the two animals passed through the broken tumultuous water and moored their boat at the flowery margin of the island. In silence they landed, and pushed through the blossom and scented herbage and undergrowth that led up to the level ground, till they stood on a little lawn of a marvellous green, set round with Nature’s own orchard-trees — crab-apple, wild cherry, and sloe.

`This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. `Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror — indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy — but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. `Are you afraid?’

`Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. `Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet — and yet — O, Mole, I am afraid!’

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

After the moment, the vision vanishes. It is this moment, as you will see, that captures my friend’s attention:

Sudden and magnificent, the sun’s broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.

As they stared blankly. in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realised all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed the aspens, shook the dewy roses and blew lightly and caressingly in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demi-god is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.

And now, here’s Norman’s poem, which uses as its epigraph the final line of the passage I just quoted:

Piper at the Gates of Dawn
By Norman Finkelstein
We little animals living by the river banks
burrowers and swimmers by sandy shores:
was there ever a time when the bird’s song,
giving way in evenng to the flight of the bat,
failed to presage a momentary chill,
even on summer days?

Yes, we are full of Panic life;
it flows deep within us, nor are we out of touch
with the powers that watch us survive.
But the banks get crowded
or fall away steeply,
and someone is always getting trampled or drowned.
It’s then that the music, seeming to have gone,
glides through the reeds on its sinuous way.

The warm folds of forgetfulness
are meant to be comforting:
but how soon they cease to soothe us,
haunted as we shall always be
by the absent music, the departing hand.

And though we are not its destination,
neither are we bystanders happening along the path.
We are neither forgotten nor remembered,
but somehow have been included:
we know that for us it always comes to good
and that must be enough. 

At the end of Grahame’s Pan chapter, Rat is trying to articulate what they have sensed and lost. It is a powerful description of the poetic project, which is why the episode is beloved by poets like Norman (and also my father):

`It’s like music — far away music,’ said the Mole nodding drowsily.

`So I was thinking,’ murmured the Rat, dreamful and languid. `Dance-music — the lilting sort that runs on without a stop — but with words in it, too — it passes into words and out of them again — I catch them at intervals — then it is dance-music once more, and then nothing but the reeds’ soft thin whispering.’

`You hear better than I,’ said the Mole sadly. `I cannot catch the words.’

`Let me try and give you them,’ said the Rat softly, his eyes still closed. `Now it is turning into words again — faint but clear — Lest the awe should dwell — And turn your frolic to fret — You shall look on my power at the helping hour — But then you shall forget! Now the reeds take it up — forget, forget, they sigh, and it dies away in a rustle and a whisper. Then the voice returns —

`Lest limbs be reddened and rent — I spring the trap that is set — As I loose the snare you may glimpse me there — For surely you shall forget! Row nearer, Mole, nearer to the reeds! It is hard to catch, and grows each minute fainter.

`Helper and healer, I cheer — Small waifs in the woodland wet — Strays I find in it, wounds I bind in it — Bidding them all forget! Nearer, Mole, nearer! No, it is no good; the song has died away into reed-talk.’

`But what do the words mean?’ asked the wondering Mole.

`That I do not know,’ said the Rat simply. `I passed them on to you as they reached me. Ah! now they return again, and this time full and clear! This time, at last, it is the real, the unmistakable thing, simple — passionate — perfect — — ‘

`Well, let’s have it, then,’ said the Mole, after he had waited patiently for a few minutes, half-dozing in the hot sun.

But no answer came. He looked, and understood the silence. With a smile of much happiness on his face, and something of a listening look still lingering there, the weary Rat was fast asleep.

Poetry strives to express the inexpressible. And while it never entirely gets there, it gets as close as language ever does.

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Swift on the Separation of Powers

Laputa, Swift’s floating island


As Donald Trump seeks to neuter Congress while at the same time welcoming autocrats to the White House, we find ourselves praying that Democrats, NeverTrumpers, and others who love our Constitution can successfully push back. It’s a battle we see dramatized in Gulliver’s account of the flying island.

The executive power in this instance is Laputa’s king. If he sees anything he doesn’t like, he can literally crush the opposition. Note the use of the world “mildest,” language reminiscent of “Modest Proposal”:

If any town should engage in rebellion or mutiny, fall into violent factions, or refuse to pay the usual tribute, the king has two methods of reducing them to obedience.  The first and the mildest course is, by keeping the island hovering over such a town, and the lands about it, whereby he can deprive them of the benefit of the sun and the rain, and consequently afflict the inhabitants with dearth and diseases: and if the crime deserve it, they are at the same time pelted from above with great stones, against which they have no defence but by creeping into cellars or caves, while the roofs of their houses are beaten to pieces.  But if they still continue obstinate, or offer to raise insurrections, he proceeds to the last remedy, by letting the island drop directly upon their heads, which makes a universal destruction both of houses and men. 

Although Gulliver believes that the king’s advisors would not encourage such an action due to its odiousness, he admits that cruelty only becomes a factor when there self-interest is also involved:

However, this is an extremity to which the prince is seldom driven, neither indeed is he willing to put it in execution; nor dare his ministers advise him to an action, which, as it would render them odious to the people, so it would be a great damage to their own estates, which all lie below; for the island is the king’s demesne.

As we have seen with Trump’s immigrant policy, however, odiousness does not deter him, and we have most recently learned that Trump advisor Stephen Miller advocated blitz arrests of thousands of immigrant parents and children. Nor do GOP Congressmen appear to be much concerned about the needs of the states they represent as they let their Trumpist base push them to extreme measures.

More effective than self-checks, Swift contends, is active resistance:

But there is still indeed a more weighty reason, why the kings of this country have been always averse from executing so terrible an action, unless upon the utmost necessity.  For, if the town intended to be destroyed should have in it any tall rocks, as it generally falls out in the larger cities, a situation probably chosen at first with a view to prevent such a catastrophe; or if it abound in high spires, or pillars of stone, a sudden fall might endanger the bottom or under surface of the island, which, although it consist, as I have said, of one entire adamant, two hundred yards thick, might happen to crack by too great a shock, or burst by approaching too near the fires from the houses below, as the backs, both of iron and stone, will often do in our chimneys.

What results, therefore, is a balance of power. Those below know enough not to push their “obstinacy” too far while the king, in turn, knows that he must hold back. This is how the separation of powers is supposed to work:

[The people] understand how far to carry their obstinacy, where their liberty or property is concerned.  And the king, when he is highest provoked, and most determined to press a city to rubbish, orders the island to descend with great gentleness, out of a pretense of tenderness to his people, but, indeed, for fear of breaking the adamantine bottom; in which case, it is the opinion of all their philosophers, that the loadstone could no longer hold it up, and the whole mass would fall to the ground.

The Founding Fathers set up America with just this push and pull in mind, and (with the exception of the Civil War) it has worked fairly well so far. My fear is that Trump disbelieves those philosophers who point out the hazards and will attempt to land on his foes regardless of dangers to the country’s adamantine bottom.

Any damage sustained, as he sees it, is someone else’s problem.

Further thought: The final Game of Thrones episodes have taken up this drama. Fans such as Elizabeth Warren have been hoping that Dany will use her dragons for benign purposes, but it appears increasingly likely that, unchecked, she is as ruthless as any other despot.

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R.I.P. Doris Day, America’s Sweetheart

Doris Day


To honor Doris Day’s memory, who died yesterday at 97, here’s a John Updike poem. When he wrote it at 76, Updike was having a hard time admitting that Day was 86. Our memories of movie stars remain forever young, even though time itself moves on.

Oscar Levant once joked that he knew Day before she was a virgin, and Updike references how 1950’s Hollywood downplayed her sexuality in order to market her as “America’s sweetheart.” The tabloids, always eager to expose the repressed, predictably feasted upon any scraps they could find. Updike admits that his image of her does not match the reality and asks for time to adjust. “Clara” refers to her nickname “Clara Bixby,” used by intimate friends.

The poem’s title may allude to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” where the poet says that he could love his mistress according to her worth if only he had “world enough and time.” As it turns out, Updike and Day have been granted a lot of time. Perhaps his “vegetable love” has grown “vaster than empires.”

Her Coy Lover Sings Out

Doris, ever since 1945,
when I was all of thirteen and you a mere twenty-one,
and “Sentimental Journey” came winging
out of the juke box at the sweet shop,
your voice piercing me like a silver arrow,
I knew you were sexy.

And in 1962, when you
were thirty-eight and I all of thirty
and having a first affair, while you
were co-starring with Cary Grant in That Touch of Mink
and enjoying, according to the Globe,
Doris’ Red-Hot Romp with Mickey Mantle,
I wasn’t surprised.

Now in 2008 (did you ever
think you’d live into such a weird year?)
when you are eighty-four and I am seventy-six,
I still know you’re sexy,
and not just in reruns or on old 45 rpms.
Your four inadequate husbands weren’t the half of it.

Bob Hope called you Jut-Butt, and your breasts
(Molly Haskell reported)
were as big as Monroe’s but swaddled.
Hollywood protected us from you,
they consumed you, what the Globe tastefully terms
the “shocking secret life of America’s Sweetheart.”

Still, I’m not quite ready
for you to breathe the air that I breathe.
I huff going upstairs as it is.
Give me space to get over the idea of you -
the thrilling silver voice,
the gigantic silver screen. Go
easy on me, Clara, let’s take our time.
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Old Friends Recall the Midnight Chimes

Welles as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight


When Julia and I reunited with my senior Carleton roommates recently, I found myself thinking of the reunion that concludes Henry IV, Part II. To be sure, our memories didn’t involve loose women we had encountered in our youth. Nevertheless, there was an elegiac feel to our gathering as there is in the play. We came together after having been bruised by life—two of the three couples have lost oldest sons, one in February—and felt a new sense of closeness as a result.

I was in Washington to lead a film discussion for Paul and Paulette Thompson’s church, and John and Ann Colman traveled down from Concord, Massachusetts to join us. The Colmans and Bateses all got married on graduation day in 1973—they provided breakfast, we provided lunch—and now we were supporting them as they had supported us when we lost Justin. Following the film discussion, we returned to the Thompson house and, over cognac, talked late into the night.

In the Shakespeare scene, Falstaff encounters Master Shallow after a 55-year interval. Shallow immediately recalls late night encounters with one Jane Nightwork. To his inquiry about how she fares, Falstaff replies, “Old, old,” to which Shallow replies,Nay, she must be old; she cannot choose but be old; certain she’s old…”

The following interchange then occurs, with Shallow first turning to his cousin:

Shallow: Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that that this knight and I have seen! Ha, Sir John, said I well?
Falstaff: We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.
Shallow: That we have, that we have, that we have; in faith, Sir John, we have: our watch-word was ‘Hem boys!’ Come, let’s to dinner; come, let’s to dinner: Jesus, the days that we have seen! Come, come.

While hearing the chimes at midnight may refer to no more than staying up late, it has a mystical ring to it. We may all be old now, but those moments of union transcend time.

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To My First Love, My Mother

Frederick Richard Pickersgill, Mother and Child

Spiritual Sunday

Christina Rossetti honors her mother with this unorthodox sonnet that speaks for itself. The “blessed glow” of Mother Love “transcends the laws/ Of time and change and mortal life and death.”

Apparently Rossetti’s mother encouraged her in her sonnet writing, giving the poem additional resonance. Happy Mother’s Day to the many mothers in my life.

Sonnets are full
of love, and this my tome
      Has many sonnets: so here now shall be
   One sonnet more, a love sonnet, from me
To her whose heart is my heart’s quiet home,
   To my first Love, my Mother, on whose knee
I learnt love-lore that is not troublesome;
   Whose service is my special dignity,
And she my loadstar while I go and come.
And so because you love me, and because
   I love you, Mother, I have woven a wreath
      Of rhymes wherewith to crown your honored name:
      In you not fourscore years can dim the flame
Of love, whose blessed glow transcends the laws
   Of time and change and mortal life and death.
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The School Where I Studied as a Boy

Julius Joseph Gaspard Starck, “Mischief In The Schoolyard”


As I will miss my first St. Mary’s commencement in almost four decades tomorrow (excluding sabbatical years), I send out this Yehuda Amichai poem to my former students who will be graduating, as well as to all those others around the world about to matriculate. It’s that time of year when, like the Israeli poet, people look back at their schooling to figure out what it meant.

Amichai recalls what he didn’t learn as well as what he did. It’s a lovely idea. Even conscientious students like myself were unable to do all the reading, and of course we didn’t know the context out of which the works arose or the discipline’s wider discourse. Like Amichai gazing out of his classroom window, we sensed a landscape but didn’t realize that our instruction was kindling a “great love” that would last a lifetime:

The windows of a classroom always open
to the future, but in our innocence we thought
     it was only landscape
we were seeing from the window

When Amichai mentions “the two of us,” I assume he’s talking about the school. “Like everything else in Jerusalem,” it’s a museum containing holy mysteries, but he didn’t know this when he first climbed its rickety steps. I like the contrast between the early uncertain venturing out and the later solid knowledge.

After a lifetime of studying “the tree of knowledge,” he now understands better what his education was all about. He even sees the flaws, the “pests and parasites.” He will “go on studying till the die I die.”

At the moment, however, Amichai looks back, like D. H. Lawrence in “The Piano” or W. B. Yeats in “Among School Children.” Although no longer innocent because he has become “an expert on the botany of good and evil,” he focuses on where it all began. Year after year in the middle of May, I have seen my own students doing the same.

The School Where I Studied
I passed by the school where I studied as a boy
and said in my heart: here I learned certain things
and didn't learn others. All my life I have loved in vain
the things I didn't learn. I am filled with knowledge,
I know all about the flowering of the tree of knowledge,
the shape of its leaves, the function of its root system,
     its pests and parasites.
I'm an expert on the botany of good and evil,
I'm still studying it, I'll go on studying till the day I die.
I stood near the school building and looked in. This is the room
where we sat and learned. The windows of a classroom
     always open
to the future, but in our innocence we thought
     it was only landscape
we were seeing from the window.
The schoolyard was narrow, paved with large stones.
I remember the brief tumult of the two of us
near the rickety steps, the tumult
that was the beginning of a first great love.
Now it outlives us, as if in a museum,
like everything else in Jerusalem.

Previous Commencement Posts

2018 C. P. Cavafy: Sending Students out into the World

2017 Commencement a la Wordsworth

2016 Christopher Smart: My Head with Ample Square Cap Crowned

2015 Toni Morrison: Michelle Obama Tells Black Graduates to Soar

2015 Hamlet Instructs the Class of 2015

2014 Robert Creeley: Rituals of Commencement

2014 Martin Espada: Poetry in the Commencement Ceremony

2014 Derek Walcott: No Calendar Except for This Beautiful Day

2013  Steve Kowit: A Poem for Commencement

2012 Theodore Roethke: A Villanelle for Graduating Seniors

2011 Emily Dickinson: Brains Deeper Than the Sea

2011 Dorothy’s Advice for Lawyers

2010 Lucille Clifton: Children Commence, Parents Let Go

Posted in Amichai (Yehuda) | Tagged | Leave a comment


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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