Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Winter's Garden: Cats and Other Domestic Creatures in December's Verse-Virtual

All of a sudden people are becoming very up front about their cats. In his poem "Litter Box," Jefferson Carter compares his conduct to the self-indulgent behavior of the characters "in the new Italian movie":

I don’t whine
about my latest chore, cleaning
the litter box four or five times
a day.  I can imagine one
of those histrionic Italian husbands
fuming, yearning for his mistress
as he kneels by the reeking box,
scooping cat feces & urinous clots
of litter into a plastic bag.

Oh, those "urinous clots," a detail that surely rings true to cat owners. We have seen those "histrionic" husbands in foreign films as well. Although this poem should probably be seen as a comment on domesticity since it begins with a wife (and an ex-wife, talk about doubling down) asking the litter-box cleaning husband if he has ever been unfaithful, the tone of the whole piece and its knowing, self-mocking imagery leave me positively light-hearted. The language is just so fine.  
            Turns out, as we learn in the final stanza, the poet "loves" the cat: 

Most nights
he snuggles under the comforter,
buzzing between me & my wife like a
space heater I need to repair.

            Comparing the cat at the end with another difficult domestic task which the poet is probably putting off wraps the poem up like a present rediscovered under the tree on a raw, ugly morning three days after Christmas. Worried wives and histrionic husbands are, of course, another story. 
 (You can read the entire poem here:

            The poem "Overgrowth" by Jeffrey Winter also teaches me a lesson about my own world. He writes about the differences between his mother and himself in their approach to gardening. While the poet, "a young man," believes in "discipline and ruthless pruning," his mother, "an old woman"...

longs to see the things
she has loved grow wild out in her yard,
consuming the scenery, obliterating limits,
filling with greedy leaves every spare inch
of what is left of the world.

            Greedy leaves? Chewing the scenery? Established plants pouring over the conventional limits of walkways, sidewalks, patios, and new, young plants struggling for light, water and air beneath their undisciplined, self-indulgent neighbors -- well, I know whose garden that reminds me of. I'm with the poet's mother.
            I think we should note, however, that when a mother longs to see the things "she has loved grow wild," those objects of her nurturing include her son. As a parent as well as a gardener, I'm with Mom here again.
             Ken Slaughter's "tanka" poems intrigue me and make wish to know more about the form. Is the syllable pattern fixed? The orthodox definition of syllables per line I found online ( doesn't apply to this poem ("a backpack") but the poem completely works for me.

a backpack
with my life story inside
the truth
I twist and bend
just to get it in

The poems says so much in its few words. The telling gesture -- that twist and bend -- rings true for any backpacker, but stands for so much more. That's the way we do it on life's journey: we pick up our burden and go. But nobody's "life story" fits that easily in the places where we try to put it. 
                 I find some strong sensual imagery in the poet's other December tanka too. The "smell of dust," for instance when the poet's son looks for his baseball glove

as I search for something
to say to my ex-wife

And this evocation of a universal childhood moment:

my mother’s voice
when the streetlights come on
calling me home

Many more presents under the tree in December's Verse-Virtual. Here are a few:

          Trish Hopkinson's "Memory Therapy" treats a deep subject ("Growing up poor is tough") with spare, unsentimental, convincing language. It feels like an insider's look. I love the concluding image: 
..memories are survival,
the umbrella covering my brain,
an inflatable raft for my soul.
Adults float like fallen limbs.
Kids, they swim.

          In Kenneth Pobo's  "Even in Death," a poem about a gardener saying goodbye to the plants that have companioned his summer (I do that too), the poet sees the vines he's cut down turn into a nest of snakes and then a "hundred wounded clotheslines holding the tears of August." Great multi-layered image: vines, snakes, clotheslines. We can read these changes in our own way.
And the beautiful turn in his poem "Following Directions" from minor shortcomings such as algebra and problems following directions, to the stuff that matters, beautifully expressed here:

You came without directions,
love.  Me too.
Our blossoms always come
as a surprise.

          The six poems from Frederick Pollack's "Untitled," all make demands and reward attention. I found them alternately sad, satirical, wry, reflective, philosophical, abstract, and on the mark. I will say that the poet has a very articulate cat (compare to Jefferson Carter's aging cat above), who is given the whole of poem 7 to sum up the case for the prosecution (or is it defense?):

You too have lived indoors,
for outside there are cancers, dogs, and cars;
have felt, when you allowed yourself to feel,
the love that feeds you, watches while you eat,
cleans up your mess,..." 

           Barbara Crooker's "In Paris" offers a lot of on-the-spot imagery (and a fair amount of French) that suggests the magic so many people, Americans among them, feel for that city of beauty and art. The incantation that breaks out near the end --

Praise the small cage of the elevator
that carries us to our chambre.  Praise my four-
chambered heart, still beating; praise your gall
bladder, unremoved.

-- though it celebrates blessings everywhere, feels particularly fitting here as it covers a lot of ground in a few words. 
(All of these poems and many more are on

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Garden of Song: Christmas in Medieval England

What do we think of celebrating "Christmas in Medieval England"?
          Judged by the concert program of that title performed last weekend by the Boston-based vocal group Blue Heron, it was simply divine. Led Scott Metcalfe the highly-regarded Boston based vocal group performed English church music likely sung in the 14th and 15th centuries. 
        Oh, happy medieval English ears!
        Performing with virtually no instrumental accompaniment -- a very quiet harp is heard (if just) is some of the pieces -- the voices of a small number of singers fill air with the beauty and volume we might have expected from a heavenly choir. After the voices, the significant instrument is the hall itself, given the tremendous acoustic value of old wood and cathedral ceilings. Like its medieval forbears, the First Congregational Church of Cambridge, where concert was held, has both qualities.
            It's hard to get over how much beautiful sound these voices produce. The ensemble in this performance appeared to number about a dozen (eleven were named in the program), and included two female vocalists, only one named in the program. (When we first heard them a few years back, the singers were all men, as if the group was making some sort of point about the range and value of male s voices.) But often the songs were sung by only three or four singers, sometimes a half dozen, and a couple times by the full group. If you closed your eyes you'd swear a whole chorus was filling the cathedral.
          In his notes on this year's program Metcalfe tells us that the medieval period's 'Christmas season' music -- a season consisting of church calendar season Advent, the feasts of Christmas and of Mary, a series of saints days, epiphany, and all the way through to Candlemas (the 40th day after Christmas) on Feb. 2 -- was both liturgical and popular. The official liturgy was "embellished and expanded," Metcalfe writes, and included "carols" that were "popular in character" if not popular music in our sense of the term. 
          Fifteenth century English music, he writes, developed its own repertoire of "carols" outside the liturgy. He puts this number at 130. (Who knew?) We're not of course talking about carols that developed after the middle of that century, and up to the popular music genre of our time: their number is legion. 
          I can't say that many of the "polyphonic carols" (Metcalfe's phrase again) are familiar today. But a few links between the chant-rooted music of the early church, sung entirely in Latin, and the semi-popular carols of this concert's medieval program and the Christmas music heard today are worth noting. The lyrics of some of these carols are a mishmash of Latin, Middle English, and something close to modern English. 
           The most familiar tune to modern ears may be the song that began the concert, its lyrics sung here totally in Latin, its title given as "Veni, Veni, Emanuel!" We know it today as "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." (The Hebrew word is translated as "God is with us" or "with God.") Anne pointed out to me that another Hebrew word survives in the last stanza: "Veni, veni, Adonai." Adonai is a Hebrew word for "the Lord." The song's words as sung in this version also include references to captive Israel, the Rod of Jesse, and the Key of David. 
            Performed in Latin by Blue Heron, the piece was transporting and passionate. Most of us will be happy if we get the opportunity this season to give it a go in English.
            Another song  rendered in early 15th century English here, "There Is No Rose of Swych Vertu" is familiar to our ears because of its appearance in Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols." It's a praise-Mary song. The lyrics as rendered here begin with the first-line title, then"as is the rose that bare Jhesu." This is English with only a few 'ye olde' spellings, the two-line verses followed by a Latin cap: res miranda ('miraculous things,' literally) in the first verse. You can see the language community blending their Latin, Fremch and vernacular English together.
             The third of these generally familiar songs is one made popular by 'ye olde English Christmas' entertainments such as The Christmas Revels and anyone else recording or performing music of this period. It's begins with the chanted refrain "Nowel, Nowel, Nowel!" It's the happy shout-song of the season, sung in an English of common words with old-time spelling. "Deme" for instance instead of "deem" (meaning 'judge').
            So while the Puritans who founded Massachusetts did not celebrate Christmas, as is endlessly pointed out in these parts, in the country they came from it was "one of the most glorious feast days of the Christian year," as Metcalfe tells us. Blue Heron's concerts savor of the old-time


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Garden of History (Once Again): Litltle Sympathy for Immigrant Laborers

            Bill Bryson, one of America's premier nonfiction writers, begins his account of the Sacco-Vanzetti case in his recent book "One Summer: America 1927" (Anchor Books, 2013) by noting the absurd way that the profiling of immigrants with unpopular political opinions resulted in the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti for the payroll robbery of a shoe factory in Braintree and the killing of two men.
            As Bryson tells it, "Chief Michael Stewart of the Bridgewater Police decided, for reasons unattached to the evidence that the culprits were Italian anarchists. He discovered that a man of radical sympathies lived near where the get-away car was found and for that reason made him the chief suspect. As 'The New Yorker' archly noted, Stewart concluded 'that after a hold-up and murder, the murderer would naturally abandon the car practically in his own front yard.'"
            This is a good beginning. But after pointing out the farcical basis for fingering two Italian immigrants with radical political views for a gangland crime most likely the work of professionals, Bryson somehow works himself around to the conclusion that the two men were "probably guilty."
            It's an astonishing misjudgment, given that Bryson also tells his readers that the prosecution's case against Sacco and Vanzetti in their 1921 trial, based on shaky eye-witness testimony and a dearth of physical evidence, "was pretty dubious." Bryson later notes that the celebrated American law professor (and later Supreme Court Justice) Felix Frankfurter "systematically and persuasively demolished" the prosecution's case in a widely read national magazine piece.
            But when he writes about the end of case in 1927 -- now an international cause inspiring massive demonstrations, mountains of petitions, worldwide protests and pleas for clemency by everyone from the Pope to the Harvard Law School faculty -- Bryson seeks to minimize the case's importance while evincing more sympathy for the ordinary American's annoyance at the all international attention given to the case than for immigrant Italian laborers who worked long hours in appalling conditions for miserable wages and yet somehow failed to learn English. In the minds of native speakers, he writes, Sacco and Vanzetti's failure to speak fluent English despite having lived in the US for a decade confirmed the stereotype that Italians were either stupid or lazy. Bryson does not challenge that view.
            And he is guilty of at least one incredible "howler" -- the scholar's term for an egregious error of fact.
            With the execution two weeks away, Bryson writes, Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller granted a brief stay of execution to allow "the condemned men's defense team -- which was essentially the lone, harried lawyer Fred Moore -- twelve days to find a court prepared to grant a retrial to hear new evidence."
            How wrong is this? Fred Moore had officially withdrawn from the case three years before (and ceased acting for the defense the year before that) after Sacco refused to speak to him any longer. In 1927 Sacco and Vanzetti's defense was led by the prestigious William G. Thompson, widely regarded as Boston's top lawyer, a thoroughly Brahmin establishment figure who took Sacco and Vanzetti's case because the obvious flaws in their trial offended his sense of justice (and after the defense committee raised his $25,000 fee).
            And defense counsel Fred Moore was never a "lone" anything. An active Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee raised funds first to hire both Moore (a California labor attorney who proved a poor choice to command respect in a Massachusetts courtroom) and a team of assistant attorneys. The Defense Committee later provided funds for Thompson, his assistants, and other expenses. No "lone, harried" defender, but a team of lawyers chased US Supreme Court justices around the county looking to convince a judge to hear their pleas for a new trial and save their clients' lives. Bryson dismisses this effort as if it were a Keystone Cops episode.
            His ignorance of who was representing Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 is not a minor point.
             The international clamor for "justice for Sacco and Vanzetti" was a top-of-the-page headline story in the summer of 1927, regarded as a moral crusade by millions from Boston society figures (some of whom regularly visited Vanzetti), to well-known writers and intellectuals  (John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, Edna St. Vincent Millay), and worker organizations across the political spectrum. Petitions demanding a new trial were signed by the graduating classes of all the Ivy League universities. Poet Millay carried a sign at the Statehouse and was arrested with hundreds of others on the weekend before the Aug. 22 executions.
            Any source account of the famous case's last year consulted by an author planning to write about it would necessarily include both Thompson's name and the efforts by him and his assistants to convince the governor, the governor's special commission, the state's courts, and eventually federal justices to hear their pleas for a new trial. That Bryson doesn't know who represented the defendants -- and contents himself with a slighting and wholly inaccurate reference to a supposed one-man "defense team" -- undermines the credibility of his account of the final days of Sacco and Vanzetti.
            Further, both the tone and content of his discussion of the end of the case reveals a slapdash approach more interested in siding with the American-born majority's view that the defendants got what they deserved than in historical accuracy or depth.
            In his s account of the case's final months Bryson tells us that Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller, who "appears to have been a thoroughly decent man," sought to grant the defendants clemency but couldn't find a reason to do it. To other commentators, Fuller appears in a considerably different light: a political opportunist who was seeking the Republican nomination for President, tested the wind on which decision would win him more favor, and concluded that most voters wanted to see these Italian radicals dead.
            Bryson tells us that Fuller "read every word of the transcript" and yet failed to find evidence of the prejudice and partiality that Frankfurter and so many other students of the case found there. He tells us that Fuller visited the prisoners and spoke to Sacco for five minutes (another error, since Sacco refused to see him) and to Vanzetti for much longer. As Bryson notes, correctly, Fuller was greatly impressed by Vanzetti; yet somehow that impression did not carry the day once the wealthy governor returned to the company of his own kind. 
            Here's an excerpt from Bruce Watson's book "Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind" (Penguin, 2007). When (Watson writes) attorney Gardner Jackson told Fuller that sixteen witnesses swore that Vanzetti had sold them eels on the date the state accused him of taking part in another crime, "Fuller answered, 'Oh Mr. Jackson, those are Italians. You can't accept any of their words.'"
            So Bryson, who increasingly takes on the role of establishment apologist as his account of the case draws to a close, finds Governor Fuller "a thoroughly decent man." By his own words Fuller shows himself to be, like most of his WASP establishment contemporaries, a man of his times and class: a thoroughly decent bigot.
            Italians, plus some non-Italians, also testified that they saw Vanzetti in Plymouth on the day of the Braintree robbery and murders. Their testimony was discounted. Bryson is apparently all right with that because when he sums up the question of the defendants' innocence of guilt, he reports only views that incline toward their guilt. He writes that Harvard President Lawrence Lowell, the head of the three-man commission appointed by Fuller to review the trial and an open believer in the 'racial' superiority of WASPs to immigrants -- as any serious research into the case would show: he was vice president of the Immigrant Restriction League -- hoped to find the men innocent "but had been persuaded of their guilt by the evidence."
            What evidence was that? The evidence that, as Bryson points out in earlier pages, had been "demolished" by Frankfurter and other critics.
            Speaking in his own voice, Bryson then adds, "A dispassionate examination of the record indicates that the jury [was] not obviously bigoted and that Justice Thayer, whatever his beliefs outside the court, conducted a fair trial." In fact, even a superficial examination of the record indicates that Judge Thayer always ruled in favor of the prosecution, always ruled against Defense, and allowed prosecutor Frederick Katzmann to "badger the witness" (as courtroom dramas have trained us to say) to his heart's content. Thayer's "outside the court" statements include his famous remark to a Dartmouth classmate, "Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards?"
            As for that fair-minded jury, Bryson's own earlier pages on the case include the statement by the jury's foreman in response to a question of the defendant's possible innocence,"Damn them, they ought to hang anyway." This attitude should not be surprising given the government campaign (known to history as "The Red Scare"), backed by big business and their newspapers, to scare Americans into believing that political radicals posed a serious threat to the stability of their country. In truth, it would have been hard to find a jury of native-born citizens who did not harbor prejudice against any defendant who was an immigrant and a radical, especially an Italian one. Sacco and Vanzetti's jury of "peers" included no Italians, no women, no minorities of any sort.
            Bryson follows this judgment with the wholly inaccurate claim that historian Paul Avrich, in his highly regarded 1991 book "Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background," states that Sacco and Vanzetti were "almost certainly involved" in the Braintree robbery-murder. Bryson writes:
            "In his 1991 book, historian Paul Avrich asked rhetorically whether Vanzetti could have been involved in the South Braintree holdup, and wrote: 'Though the evidence is far from satisfactory, the answer almost certainly is yes. The same holds true for Sacco.'"
            The actual quote (page 150) is this:
            "Was Vanzetti himself involved in the conspiracy? Though the evidence is far from satisfactory, the answer almost certainly is yes. The same holds true for Sacco.'"
            The "conspiracy" Avrich refers to is not the Braintree holdup but a series of bombings (mostly in 1918-19) widely attributed to anarchists. Anyone looking at the quote on the page will come to the same conclusion. The sentence that Bryson twists to his own purpose directly follows Avrich's lengthy account of how Italian anarchists turned to the use of bombs to strike back at the government and big business establishment that was persecuting them and, they believed, oppressing the poor. The "conspiracy" included planting a bomb at the home of the US Attorney General, an act that precipitated massive arrests of immigrants and deportations and -- many historians have argued -- the framing of known anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti for the Braintree crime.
            Those bombings, for whom no one was ever put on trial, and the Braintree shoe factory robbery-murder are entirely different cases. The only thing that puts the cases together is the government's improbable theory that anarchists were responsible for both. Avrich may believe that Vanzetti and Sacco were "almost certainly" involved in some unspecified way in an anarchist bombing conspiracy. He clearly does believe that they were members of the same network as the anarchist figures he fingers as the principal conspirators (Carlo Valdinoci and Mario Budo). But when it comes to whether the two bore any guilt for the Braintree crime, Avrich states that his book "makes no pretense of settling the issue of whether Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty of the crimes for which they were executed" (page 5). He explicitly states that the case against them "remains unproved... nor can their innocence be established beyond any shadow of doubt."  
            It's hard for me to believe that an author of Bryson's stature could have bollixed this up so badly unless, perhaps, he was working from notes made by others. The representation of a respected historian's judgment about one matter as his judgment on a distinctly different matter is not merely sloppiness, it's the kind of academic wrongdoing that gets you kicked out of graduate school. In my opinion, it destroys Bryson's credibility as a commentator on the case.
            The bombings Avrich writes about are an indisputably relevant concern for anyone seeking to understand not only the "background" of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, but the tenor of American society and politics in the early decades of the 20th century. Given this atmosphere of fear and loathing, Sacco and Vanzetti's jurors might have reasoned that if you believe the same things as the criminals who planted bombs at people's homes then you deserve to die, whether or not you are guilty of the different crime for which you are now accused.
            But that is not how the American justice system works.
            You are tried for the charge you have been accused of, not for other actions you may have taken or for the company that you kept.  
            The research by Avrich (and others) showing that Sacco and Vanzetti were not as "innocent" as many of their defenders made them out to be -- they were not saints or "pacifists," or merely philosophical anarchists -- has led some commentators such as Bryson to swing the other way and conclude, well if anarchists used bombs, and Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists, they "probably" killed people and robbed a workers' payroll.
            That's not a logical inference. It's a theory for which there is no reliable evidence. It was put to trial and found wanting by any "fair-minded" student of that trial with the possible exception of Bill Bryson.  
            Whether misled by careless research errors or not, Bryson's account puts a sympathetic gloss on nativist American prejudice against foreigners, lynch mob justice, judicial bigotry, a fear-mongering abuse of state power, and a plutocratic defense of the status quo.
            That sympathy for the devils we know may have lead to his errors and omissions. He states that Boston quietly shrugged off the executions ("city life returned to normal"), apparently unaware that the Boston funeral for Sacco and Vanzetti on August 27, 1927 attracted tens of thousands and was probably the biggest public gathering the city had ever seen up to that date. Likely he has never seen the newsreel footage of the funeral march, because the FBI suppressed it, telling theaters not to show it.  
            Other researchers into the case believe that the state's prosecution of Sacco and Vanzetti amounts to exactly that "substantial edifice of conspiracy" -- Bryson's derisive term -- since instances of coerced testimony and suppressed evidence are on record. And to allegations of manufactured evidence explored in books such as "Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti" (1985) by William Young and David E. Kaiser, a book referenced in Bryson's bibliography but not in his account.
            Unfortunately, Bryson's treatment of the Sacco-Vanzetti case does not evince a similar sympathy with the millions of immigrants who "teemed" into the US in the first decades of the 20th century or with the oppressive conditions endured by laborers both foreign and native-born even in "prosperous" 1927. The systematic disregard of the miseries of American workers by the happy few (a theme echoed in our own day) turned Sacco, Vanzetti, and many others into political radicals. And that deep divide between rich and poor explains the passion and energy that transformed two anarchists into international symbols of the tyranny of the strong over the weak.
            Unlike that era's muckrakers who exposed the misery and neglect suffered by the poor, Bryson's judgment on Sacco and Vanzetti comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted.