Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Garden of History: Sacco and Vanzetti and Democratic Stress Tests in a Dangerous Time

            I'll be speaking on my book "Suosso's Lane" at Duxbury Library on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2 p.m., my first opportunity following the inauguration of a new administration to address the potential lessons for our own time from the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case, in which two Italian immigrants were convicted of murder in 1920 after a biased trial offering absurdly thin evidence of their guilt.  

            When that date arrives we will be a week into the reign of a new president whose election threatens to signal a decline of democratic and egalitarian values, much like the period in which two men were executed because of their beliefs and their ethnicity.      
            A time of "us" and "them."

            Following an election year when voters, given the creakingly vestigial Electoral College system, selected a candidate who proposed building a wall to keep out immigrants, creating a registry of all Americans who practiced a certain religion, and tightening entry rules to deny refuge even to those Muslims fleeing the violence of terrorists in their own countries, it may be wise to remember an earlier time when American democracy society had a nervous breakdown over immigrants. In 1919 and 1920 American democracy buckled under stress, resulting in the period known to history, but largely forgotten by the generations that followed, as the "Red Scare." 
            When, years ago I asked Plymouth town selectman Alba Martinelli Thompson, the town's first female member of its governing select board and a former Air Force officer, what she remembered hearing from family members about the Sacco-Vanzetti case, she replied (in part), “They weren’t at all sure that the facts of the case were being honestly distributed. Also, it was the twenties.  It was the Red Scare.  Anybody with an immigrant name was suspect…”
            The Red Scare came on the heels of a four-decade long period of record immigration, from 1880 to 1920, when 20 million immigrants mostly from southern and eastern Europe -- Italians, Russians, Poles, Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, Serbs, Syrians and others -- transformed the ethnic make-up of America's cities and towns and provided labor for its industrial revolution. The largest national group, more than 4 million, were Italians. Native-born Americans worried that their country was being 'flooded' by immigrants, and the influx was accompanied by so-called 'scientific'
racial theories that teaching that people from those part of the world represented different, and inferior races.
            On top of this growing resentment and fear of these 'new Americans,' two major events transformed the nation's political climate in 1917. The United States entered World War I. And the Russian Revolution created a Communist regime frankly inimical to America's capitalist economic system. Communist parties elsewhere claimed Russia's transformation was the forerunner of a world-wide revolution, making other governments, including ours, nervous.
          America's entry into World War I led to a military draft. In the face of opposition, the government passed laws that criminalized political dissent, making criticism of the draft and the decision to fight the war illegal. 
           These stress points led to open fractures because opposition to the war and draft was fierceist among the radical labor movements led by Socialists and Anarchists, many of whom were foreign nationals. Determining that 'opposition' meant 'subversion,' the federal government created the first true national police -- or spy service -- to investigate war opponents such as prominent Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani, founder of the Italian language newspaper Cronaca Sovversiva. Its subscribers included Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
            Apparently fearful of violent revolution, or widescale draft resistance, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer obtained thousands of warrants to arrest radicals, search their premises, confiscate literature, and destroy presses. Under the influence of the country's new security apparatus he demonized the left-wing opposition to the war, saying: “The Red Movement is not a righteous or honest protest against alleged defects in our present political and economic organization of society… It is a distinctly criminal and dishonest movement in the desire to obtain possession of other people’s property by violence and robbery.” Each radical was therefore “a potential thief.”(25) If you believed that, you could believe that anarchists were likely to rob factory payrolls.
               A later generation would recognize this wholly ignorant smear of radical thought as McCarthyism. While anarchists and some socialists did not believe in private property, they believed property belonged to the whole community; and they did not believe in or practice taking property by theft or violence. 
             When Galleani and other leaders of the Italian anarchist movement were prosecuted under laws banning criticism of the draft -- for comparison, imagine the result of this sort of laws during the Vietnam years -- and deported to Italy, Galleani's supporters struck back. Denied legitimate means of protest, their press shut down, its subscription list confiscated, their freedom of speech, press and assembly criminalized, anarchists turned to the only means they believed available to them: bombs. Bombs were mailed to government and big business targets in April of 1919; and hand-delivered to the homes and offices in June. One of the latter bombs destroyed half of Palmer's house, though no one there was hurt.
            These events were the immediate backdrop to the increased repressions of the Red Scare. Palmer launched two series of raids, in November of 1919 and January of 1920. His agents arrested thousands of 'aliens' without warrants, holding many for deportation often in horrendous conditions and without due process of law.  Ultimately, only 446 were actually deported, once the courts intervened and a reaction against abuses of executive power took place. There were fourteen raids on leftists in Massachusetts, and in Boston five hundred aliens were marched through the streets in chains and taken to the Deer Island House of Correction, where they were isolated "in brutally chaotic conditions,”according to later government reports.
            It was against this backdrop that Sacco and Vanzetti -- two names federal agents knew from the subscription list to the anarchist newspaper "Cronaca Sovversiva" -- were charged with the robbery a Braintree shoe factory payroll and the killing of two payroll officers despite the absence of direct evidence, convicted by a native-born Massachusetts jury that believed foreign anarchists should be 'strung up,' and sentenced to death by judge who bragged to a friend, "Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards?"
            The Sacco-Vanzetti case appears to shine a light on the darker side of American society's historical treatment of immigrants of 'unfamiliar' ethnicities. Periodically -- especially in those periods when a 'new' group of foreign nationals arrives in large numbers -- the so-called 'nation of immigrants' has exhibited a desire to close doors and build walls. Forgetful of their own non-native origins, many Americans are quick to close the borders on the next group of newcomers, whose language or manners, or religion, or skin tone, or potential for economic competition, or imagined demand for public services, appears to threaten the well-being of those already comfortably settled in the United States. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, it was the turn of Italians to be the most numerous and visible of these presumed-to-be-problematic newcomers. 
            The Sacco-Vanzetti case may still hold lessons for the 21st century, especially at a time when many countries in both the new and the old worlds are experiencing crises over the arrival of large numbers of 'others' within settled, comfortable, more ethnically homogeneous borders.
            One such lesson, at least in the US, appears to be that a native-born English-speaking population is disposed to believe that foreign nationals are capable of behaving in a criminal, violent manner and committing all manner of horrendous acts simply because they belong to "races" or "peoples" who are inherently different from themselves. They are foreigners, outsiders, trouble-makers, aliens, "illegals." As immigrants from a body of people inherently "different" from "us," they are more likely to believe in hateful, radical, un-American ideas -- such as Sacco and Vanzetti's anarchism of a century ago, or today's so-called 'Islamic' militancy -- than are those born in this country from "old stock," speaking English and capable of "understanding democracy."          
             It's hard not to conclude that the simple fact that the two men were Italians -- not 'real' Americans -- weighed, perhaps fatally, against Sacco and Vanzetti. As Vanzetti himself put the matter in his last speech to the court:
            "I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I am an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian."

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Garden of Verse Blooms in March: "Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty"

             My first collection of poems, "Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty" is scheduled for release in March. These are poems about plants, gardening, flowers, nature, talking to trees, getting stared at by a hummingbird. Seasons change and so do we. Also poems about family, places near and far, my father's near-fatal in World War II, family secrets, The Sacred Way at Delphi, Greece, Syrian refugees in Beirut, and a tricksy formal poem called The Slow Tritina.
            "Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty" is what's called a 'chapbook,' meaning a half-size volume. This is a common way to publish poetry. I'm not sure I know why, but it gets a bunch of poems between covers, so I'm very happy about it.
            All of the poems in this collection have been published before in journals, many of them in I am contributing editor to that online poetry journal, and my work appears there monthly.
            I asked two of my colleagues from Verse-Virtual to do me the favor of writing recommendations for this book, and their kind words (quoted below) for my efforts will appear on the volume. 

            Robert Knox’s well-tended garden of verses furnishes readers with elegant borders, unexpected vistas, gorgeous blossoms, and insights sharp as thorns. His themes are as local as the backyard and as universal as weather. The poet is tuned into the present, like the journalist he also is; he is as deeply read as a scholar, and the verses he produces simply aren’t biodegradable. Some are annuals, commentaries on the immediate; others are perennials, novel explorations of transcendent themes. No matter his subject, Robert Knox’s writing is never less than rewarding. His work is that of a gifted and generous writer sensitive to all the personal and public events enacted before nature’s scrim of seasons, to all that lives and grows and dies. -- Robert Wexelblatt, poet, scholar, author of the story collection "Heiberg’s Twitch" and other books
            Robert Knox is a brilliant writer whose bountiful work I am privileged to publish. His new collection of poetry, 'Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty,' blossoms with wonder, wisdom, and wit. I highly recommend it. -- Firestone Feinberg, editor of Verse-Virtual

            The publisher, "Finishing Line Press," has put lots of poetry between covers over the last twenty years. There are literally hundreds of items in the company's website bookstore.
            Here's the link for my forthcoming title:
            Any books purchased as pre-order sales will give me an added boost, because the size of my book's print run will be determined by the advanced sales. The more books ordered in advance, that is, the greater the total number of copies the publisher will print. 
            Then it will be my job to find places to read from "Gardeners." Nobody ever begins writing poems because they think it will pay. But it's a great pleasure to connect with an audience.  

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Garden of Verse: Words of Wisdom in January Verse-Virtual

            In this month's edition of "Verse-Virtual," David Graham's marvelously straight-talking essay addresses a subject he tellingly defines as the "most valuable currency in our culture" -- fame. His column "Poetic License" appears regular in the online poetry journal. Entitled "Are You Famous?" Graham's January column considers the slim commerce between fame and contemporary poetry, winding up with this wise and memorable conclusion:
            "Literature grows not from capital H History, but out of the most particular circumstances. So as for the stigma of being merely local poets, as most of us assuredly are, maybe let’s celebrate that instead. Homer wasn’t Homer at first, after all, just your hometown bard singing hometown songs."
            Some of the poems that moved me this month also offered what I might call 'songs of wisdom' on a variety of fundamental questions.
            There's almost too much wisdom in Robert Wexelblatt's "Mortality." Recalling some long-ago 'perfect day' the poem "One Day with Mortality" makes this startlingly true observation:
            We recall, but not the day,
        nor what we did.  Melancholy, to think
        we recall only our recollections.
 So much for preserving our best and happiest memories. 
            What about language? The poet offers us this remarkable image: 
Our words are ... like smoke rings that bluely hover near,
        then slowly swell to fill our solitary
        rooms with insubstantial snakes.
            Taken all in all, then, what we can say of 'ourselves'?
 Compressed like thick springs, our pasts tighten
        inside us.  We are warped and woven with the 
        rubber bands and bits of lint that time stashes
        in a pocket’s bottom.
            Great, inventive writing. 
            Wex's short poem "Falling Leaves" also offers words of wisdom on how we can measure a happy earthly existence.

            Our memories may not be able to restore the thing-in-itself, but the act of recollecting a deeply felt experience may point us to a meaning; and the imagery may even reveal itself as allegory. In Michael Minassian's moving poem "Postcard from Key West" a fraught road trip to a less than ideal sanctuary leads to a personal truth: 
I suddenly realize
that love is like the Overseas Highway:
sometimes the road doesn’t go on anymore – ...
            Wisdom can also consist of lightening up, as the title of Dick Allen's poem "Don’t Tell Me There’s No Hope" suggests. In its allusions to signs and sayings, the poem offers a state of mind that stakes out a liveable distance from the expectations of meaning,
such as that "mysterious Asian saying, “A day without vegetables is like a day without vegetables.”
And the Colorado landscape sign at the end of this list of acceptable outcomes: "Here’s to salt water taffy, power lines, cross-purposes,
that sign by the Colorado meadow:  Wildflowers in Progress,
            The poem is an urbane lyric that suggests a Whitmanic "I Hear America Calling," embrace of experience, but allows for the possibility of a wrong number.

            Then there's the wisdom of making everything kind of fun, or even funny. That seems to be the approach Sonia Greenfield takes in "Nine Limericks," the first one informing us that 
"There was a young woman named Sonia
Who feasted on cake and lasagna."
            These formula-poems are alive to the possibility of word play. So as not to spoil too many, I limit myself to quoting one: 
Labor stories are meant to scare
Though I’m pregnant with nary a care
My water may break
While I’m out having steak
But the chance is medium-rare.
            How brilliant is that last line? And how much fun is rhyming? 

            To read these poems for yourself and all the others, go to: 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Garden of Cinema: Denzel Washington Swings for the 'Fences'

            It's been a while since I've seen a movie with as much language as the new film version of August Wilson's play "Fences."
            Or as much characterization. Or so many characters so easy to identify with because they're so achingly real. The work's tragic hero is Troy Maxson (performed by Denzel Washington in a film he also directs), whose strength is ultimately his weakness and whose heart lies close to his mouth. He speaks his truth on all occasions, whether its end is loving or hurting those forced to listen -- except for a single concealment that will destroy his life's foundation.  
            While we're not likely to love all he does, especially his behavior toward his son, the character is so strong -- so well conceived and written by Wilson and so piercingly
enacted by Washington -- and so sympathetic that when his wife Rose, the other major figure in addition to his son Cory, bruised by Troy's broken strength, defends her husband to Cory, we want him to see it her way.
            You father was so hard on you (and sometimes wrong-headed), she says in effect, because he was trying to make you as strong as he was. He wanted to give you the best of himself. Watching, we want the now grown-up and disaffected Cory to forgive Troy, or at least forgive his intentions. Cory is not having it. In a fine portrayal by Jovan Adepo, the couple's son is now a Marine and appears to  have grown into a bit of a hard case himself. You can see him nearly shudder over his struggle with a conflagration of opposing feelings on the day of his father's funeral after he declares his intention to absent himself because it's his last chance to say no to an overbearing Dad. Doing the right thing doesn't come easy here, just as nothing ever came easy for Troy Maxson.
            The play is set in 1956 in the industrial city of Pittsburgh. Troy works hauling trash for the city's department of public works. That by itself is a step up from the Deep South rural poverty into which he was born, and to which his own father abandoned the family, after demonstrating to his children some home truths of the dog-eat-dog world they were forced to inhabit. Troy is still a boy when he runs away, suffers, turns to crime, and eventually finds his way to a baseball career in the Negro leagues.
            But time, and the love of Rose (Viola Davis), and a decent close-to-the-bone life purchased by his daily grind behind the city's garbage trucks do not mellow Troy. He is painfully aware -- how could he not be? -- of the opportunities open for others that were never open for him.
            "We have Jackie Robinson now," his friends tell him.
            But Troy was judged too old to be given a chance at major league -- i.e. white -- baseball after Robinson broke the color line.
            I've never seen this play on the live stage. Some reviewers say they prefer stage productions to the recent film, but I can only judge by what I saw on the screen and what I saw was more than enough to urge others to see it.
            Wilson, who died in 2005, is arguably the master playwright of his generation. Among his works is a series of plays about African American families set in each decade of the 20th century. Wilson himself wrote the screenplay for a film version of "Fences."
            A fence -- not to mention a wall -- is a powerful symbol for a social drama. In "Fences" Troy demands his son's help to complete the long-delayed project for a garden fence. But harder jobs, the work of human relationship, intervene. Troy's obstinence in refusing his son permission to play high school football, after the boy has attracted the attention of a college scout, brings on a crisis in the father-son relationship.  Incredible as it may seem to a contemporary audience, Troy cannot believe that college will help a black man get ahead.
            "Things are changing," Rose protests.
            But Troy, who argues stubbornly that everything has always been against him, that he "was born with two strikes" -- poverty and race are good guesses -- does not believe in change.
            The year is 1956. Rose, we know, was right, though events both then and now have shown how rocky to the road to a race-blind society remains. But Troy is also right that change, or opportunity, never came for him.
            So the fence we see Troy ultimately laboring to complete can bear various interpretations. For one thing, it appears to be a fence built to withstand a cavalry charge. Made of hardwood and painted white, it's a beautiful physical object, though its rigidity suggests the mindset of its maker. Intended to expand Rose's garden, the fence raises a question posed by one of the film's characters: "Fences can be made to keep things out, or keep things in."
            And the image that lingers in my thoughts after the film's end is Washington's Troy standing stiffly with a cocked baseball bat, declaring his readiness to meet "Mister Death."
            August Wilson's plays about black American life throughout the 20th century demonstrate that while everybody carries some some burdens through life, African-Americans are carrying more than their share of weight. Troy is a tragic figure, like the warrior kings of ancient days who sought to die on a field of blood. And like the kingly heroes of Greek tragedy, the cause of his fall lies in  something he did. Life might not be fair, plays such as "Fences" seem to say, but you are still held to account for your deeds and will pay the price the gods demands.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Garden of History: Viewing Sacco and Vanzetti Through a Lens of Trumpery

It's a New Year. I hope 2017 is not the year in which we say goodbye to the two century-plus long experiment in American democracy. Or, equally as worrying, the beginning of a political breakdown that will lead to social decay and widespread suffering. Unless we already that year in 2016.
            My novel "Suosso's Lane" was begun before a time of Trumpery -- here's an actual dictionary definition: "trumpery: showy but worthless" -- but set in an era with chillingly contemporary resonances.
            Back in 1920, the year the Sacco-Vanzetti case began, the America of almost a century ago was experiencing a period of heavy immigration and growing hostility toward immigrants. What is seldom remembered today is that fear and anger was expressed toward white-skinned people who came to the US from Southern and Eastern Europe -- Italians, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Turks, Portuguese, and others. The single largest immigrant nationality then was Italian.
            It's hard to imagine Americans getting upset over people with Italian ancestry today -- take it up with Andrew Cuomo or Bill DiBlasio -- but prejudice against 'the Italians' was a major reason why a Massachusetts jury convicted two Italian immigrants of murder in 1920 after a bigoted trial offering absurdly thin evidence of their guilt.
            It's worth remembering the term "wop," a pejorative for Italian, stands for "without papers." When the young Joe DiMaggio began playing baseball for the Yankees, the other players commonly referred to him as "the wop."
            The pejorative term presumes a foreign national has not entered the country through legal channels. This was certainly the case for some immigrants during the peak period for European immigration, 1880-1920, though millions entered through legal channels in New York and other ports of entry.
            Today, people are branded "illegal" if they cross the border to enter this country by means that people in trouble or in need have always taken -- any way they can.
            They come in especially large numbers when economics are good here and bad elsewhere -- as was especially true for the Italians of Sacco and Vanzetti's time.
            But people from the rest of the world have always come to this country without legal permission. If those of us born in the United States were to trace our origins, I suspect a great percentage of us would find someone in our line entering the American mix without a stamp from Ellis Island, or its equivalent.
            Let's remember in particular that the USA was born in New England, that New England grew from the Pilgrim and Boston Puritan colonies, and that these English colonists who staked their claim to these new homes sought no permissions from the indigenous population and basically took what they wanted of the land and other resources they found here. An enormous number of Americans claim "Mayflower" or Pilgrim ancestry.
            Good on you. Yes, that means you're Americans. But you were never "legal." We the people of the United States of America were never legal.
            So a political movement whose appeal and power base thrills to the notion of building a wall strikes me as fundamentally hypocritical.
            Our unique history as a people, a citizenry, also means that there has never been any such thing as an American "nationality."
            If you try to picture "an American," what does he or she look like? You can't do it. You can only picture a group. The Americans have always been a picture of diversity.