Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Garden of History: Eighty-nine Years After the Executions

            Last week's annual commemoration of the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti -- for being anarchists, Italians, for being in the wrong place when the state wanted to make an arrest; for having their names on a government  list of subversives -- seems to me a good occasion for looking backward, and forward, and all around us today for important social and political currents in American society.
            Today many Americans are saying that America is changing too fast. And that people who were born here, who’ve lived here all their lives, who believe that they "built this country," are being left behind. Jobs are being shipped overseas, the industries that made their communities prosperous are drying up. In some parts of our country cities and towns are turning into ghost towns. People like “us” (and when Americans say "us" they most often mean native-born white people) aren’t doing better than previous generations, they’re doing worse, and in some cases they're barely hanging on economically to their place in the social ladder.
            They’re looking for somebody to blame for their declining circumstances. There are some obvious candidates, such as (number one) corporate wealth and domination of government. And, two, closely related, the increasingly steep gap between the super-rich and everybody else.
            Instead, however,we're seeing the rise of demagoguery as a major party candidate seeks to scapegoat immigrants, religious minorities, and nationals from certain countries who seek work and opportunity in the US, some of them without papers.
            That's today. But what were things like back in Bartolomeo Vanzetti's day? Vanzetti came to America in 1908. It was not an unusual choice. Between 1880 and 1920 an estimated 4 million Italians entered the US; many other immigrants, mostly from southern and eastern Europe, came to the US at the same time. Vanzetti left his home in the Piemonte region after the death of his beloved mother; and after nearly dying himself from the effects of over-work in the unhealthy atmosphere of pastry-making factories. 
            What did Vanzetti find in the America, the new world, the land of freedom and opportunity. He found many poor, exploited laboring people. And a few very rich who owned most everything and dominated a government that had no interest in improving the lives of ordinary people. The material well-being of ordinary Americans was not a subject government need concern itself with.           
            Like many others who arrived here without family or friends in this country, Vanzetti found a place at the bottom rungs of the social ladder. He worked at the laboring jobs typically available to immigrants in NYC and surrounding areas for several years, sometimes sleeping in doorways.
            When I began thinking about writing a book about Vanzetti's life in America, I asked myself what kind of man was Vanzetti? Here are some of my answers.
            An exploited child laborer – sent off by his father at age 13 to work in factories as an apprentice pastry maker. A man who loved children, who regarded himself according to Beltrando Brini, a child of five when Vanzetti became a boarder in his family's household, as his "spiritual father." A man who exhibited great kindness and courtesy to women. A man for whom the model human being, the most important person in his life, was his mother, the woman who nursed him back to health when he was sent home from a factory with a lung disease, pleurisy, from which he was not expected to recover.
            And yet this man does not marry, does not court. As Beltrando Brini insisted many years later in a book of oral histories: "Vanzetti did not have affairs." And a man who despite his radical political beliefs was widely respected within a community of socially conservative people, more likely (as daughter Lefevre Brini recalled in the same book) to be observant Catholics than anarchists.
            Yet this is the man who, with his fellow anarchist Nicola Sacco, was charged with the cold-blooded murder of two factory payroll officials in the course of robbing a payroll that the families of hundreds of shoe factory workers depended on. They were convicted by a so-called jury of their peers -- all white men of old New England stock, Protestants, old-fashioned views. A jury systematically purged of any members who were critical of the government, admitted they read books, or in any way struck the prosecution as too "intellectual." People who read books might be sympathetic to some of the criticisms of society made by anarchists.
            As Vanzetti would say to the court before his sentencing. "I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian..."
            Why was being an Italian held against him? Because in an era of heightened fears of social disorder, crime, and unemployment, ordinary unsophisticated Americans had been taught by their leaders, by newspapers, and by the same ownership class that benefited from cheap immigrant labor that Italians belonged to an inferior "race" that could never be trusted to understand democracy or become good citizens. President Calvin Coolidge said as much when he signed a law sharply curtailing immigration from Italy.
            Laughable, ridiculous -- shameful! -- to recall that Americans could believe such scurrilous nonsense.
            But they did. And what does this past say about the future? When we hear whole classes of people -- whole nationalities and religious faiths -- denounced as dangers to our national well being. Called threats to our security, criminals, drug traffickers.
            Might not similar injustices take place in the American future envisioned by the demagogues who seek votes and power by the same old appeal to the lowest emotions -- racial stereotyping, scapegoating, what today we call "profiling"?
            In my novel "Suosso's Lane," a young academic, a history teacher who has yet to find his true subject, moves to North Plymouth, to the street where Bartolomeo Vanzetti found lodging with the Brini family.... and learns to his surprise that a key figure in an internationally famous case in which the bigotry and the shortcomings in American justice scandalized the world, was living in apple-pie, Thanksgiving story, squeaky-WASP Plymouth at the time of his arrest. His story, the internationally infamous Sacco-Vanzetti case, the trial of the century, is a telling chapter in national history that Massachusetts and, I would say, American society as a whole, chose to forget. Why? How? 
            My answer is that the Plutocracy, and the political establishment it controlled, changed the story. The threat to justice and security came not from the abuses and inherent flaws of monopoly capitalism, but from an outside power: international Communism, the Soviet Union, Red China. Just as laws passed during WWI banned criticism of America's participation of the war, the draft; then banned Anarchist literature, or being an anarchist. Or a "radical' such as Vanzetti confessed himself to be in his final speech before the court.
            Wealth and power told the nation to forget. The nation complied.  
            "Suosso's Lane" tells an old story, but also a new immigrant story about a man from Africa who asks himself whether he should go on working for a big-box retailer (situated where Plymouth Cordage factory building once stood), a job he hates, or join the sub-rosa effort to organize a union of retail workers. If he gets caught, he'll be fired; he may be deported.
            And my young historian, after studying the forgotten period of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, concludes that America was in some respects a better and more hopeful place way back then, when ordinary Americans were free to talk about, study, and attend lectures or meetings that offered fundamental critiques of the American system -- its inherently anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian capitalist economic system, paired with its theoretically open  free-election system of choosing leaders. Before the American corporate and political establishment succeeded in demonizing the left.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Garden of the Seasons: Late Summer in Berkshire County

           One thing that western Massachusetts has a lot of, that we don't have so much of in the eastern part of the state, is space. And when that space is covered by hills and trees and bodies of inland water and lots of green growing organic life, the result can be very attractive.
            When we go to the Berkshires we tend to do a lot of walking among the green stuff. Many walking paths thread through the region's forests; many thousands of acres to walk through, many views -- looking up, or looking down -- and many little local mini-ecosystems along the way to keep the experience fresh.
            We have favorite walks that we have traveled time again. But just as the Zen aphorism tells us you cannot step into the same river twice, you can't walk the same trail either. It's always different; or maybe we are. That's probably the point.
            The Beartown State Forest, the state of Massachusetts tells us, offers an extensive trail network ranging over 15,000 acres. I don't think we've seen a high percentage acres. We mostly stick to what the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation describes as the "1.5 mile Benedict Pond Loop Trail, a must in any season."
            We did the loop last week. A ranger took our seven dollar parking fee and advised us that a sign near a bench at scenic point on the lakefront warns people to stay away from the beehive. We found the bench, but saw no bees. Plenty of dragon flies however cruised and darted over the lake surface, including some brightly colored red ones. A number of them had paired up and were clearly quite attached to each other as they cruised about. One of them, still stag, took a breather on my shirt (see second photo) working up the energy to get back into the game.
            We saw evidence of beaver activity, some very gnawed trees, still standing but chewed down to about fifty percent of their diameter at the bite area before, it appeared, the creatures gave up. We saw a beaver lodge built on the lake quite close to the shore. I was puzzled by the location: no place to do any damming and probably too close to the human presence along the trail to be comfortable. Maybe that's why the lodge seemed abandoned.
            We saw a covey of ducks landing with the huge heavy splash and glide that reminds one of a of seaplane landing. Heard occasional bird cries above in the trees, and spied the silhouette of a turtle sunning on a log far out on the pond on the surface of a log (third photo).
            Some fish came close to the shore to loiter beneath logs in the bronze or brownish water. But the most beautiful natural sight was probably the lake surface itself, as it reflected the high clouds and blue sky in a beautiful late summer New England day (top photo).
            We also saw interesting views in the Tyringham Cobble (photos above and at left), a site the Trustees of Reservations (its owner) describes as "one of the few places in New England where you can stand on a major thrust fault." The cobble, a word for a stony formation, is part of one of the oldest geologic formations in New England. The Trustees use words such as "Ordovician marble rocks" and "Precambrian gneisses" to describe its make-up, terms that translate approximately to "really, really old."
            We revisited an incredibly time-sculpted rock whose profile has earned it the name "Rabbit Rock." We call it "Fiver," after one of the principal characters in a family favorite childhood (and adult) fantasy book, "Watership Down."
             You can tell that we think revisiting a loved site is a lot like visiting an old friend. Especially when you have names for the rocks.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Gardens of Verse: Poems about Unspeakable Subjects

            I had a professor, and a very good one, who once spoke about "the poetry of the ineffable."
            That's a word for what's all around us but cannot be easily named or defined, if at all. 
             Common as the air we breathe, but just as hard to see. The feeling of being home again after a period away. Recognizing a voice on the telephone before a single word is understood. The last dribbly bits of consciousness before we sleep. The little twitch of nerves that tells you it's time to get up. Life, love, the universe. 
              The ineffable, by its standard definition, means "incapable of being expressed or described in words."
And yet here they are, poets -- going at it in the August edition of Verse-Virtual.  (
You can say it's part of the job. 

 Tom Montag's poem "Speak, Tree" brings me right up against the moment when I stare at a tree, or a line of them, against a blue sky, something I do a lot, particularly in summer. Is there a term for this activity? I don't think so. The poem begins:

Speak, tree, of all
you've seen, your whole
life holding sky.

 I've never thought of that relationship ("holding sky") between trees and sky, in quite that way. And when we contemplate trees against sky are we doing what this poem suggests: asking the tree to share its wisdom with us? There's no common word or expression for that relationship, either. But now we have a poem for it. 
             Tom's poem "In the Margin" also approaches experience for which we do not commonly have words: The gap, or distance, or connection, between "here" and "there," and between "new, now" and "old." How do we get from one to the other? His poem offers us a way to think about the problem (or is the solution?) in its wonderfully concluding phrase: "this leap between.

            Penny Harter's poem "Deja Vu" seems to me about an equally unknowable quality, the what-ness of existence, to which the poem keeps throwing lifelines of meaning. In a stanza about "the future," already compared to the "neighboring field" or something waiting "around the next bend," she writes :

What has already happened there wraps itself firmly
around our flesh like a rope hauling a climber up
the slippery scrabble of a nameless mountainside.

             The present isn't any easier than the future to grasp in our minds. In what appears to be a related poem about time -- "Just Now," one of those good old ineffables -- the poet depicts some of the sensations of an instant of time as

washing through the wall into a ghostly form
whose half-life I cannot catch in my net.

I don't know how many removes this array of imagery takes us from the 'thing in itself,' but the poem's imagery -- the half-life of a ghostly form washing through a wall -- gives us a good idea of what we're up against when we try to catch hold of the present.

           "The Swimmer" by Donna Hilbert is a vividly poetic reminiscence that mingles some enduring mental snapshots of what sounds to me like early adolescence just the way her characters, after swimming in the rich kids' pools, mix experimental sauces for magical ends:

we dipped crackers
in mustard, Worcestershire,
any liquid found in their kitchen
went into our sauce,
an extra-strength potion.
We dipped, ate, were transformed
into amazing girls...

We have no words, certainly no completely rational explanation, for how we change from what we were to what we have become. Perhaps some little bit of what we were survives the transformation. 

The problematic idea of time runs through David Graham's poem "Most of the Time We Live Through The Night" -- an intriguing title borrowed from Robert Bly.

Most of the time Sunday has
little to tell Saturday night, and almost nothing
Monday morning needs to hear
A second poem, titled "No Recent Activity," suggests that while 'most of the time' we make it through our nights, we won't make it through all of them. This poem addresses another of these hard to put into words subjects, in large measure because we choose not to talk about i... as Keats did in a poem titled "When I have fears that I may cease to be." 
And this poem does to:

It's all air eventually, That's exactly 
what we hate and deny every breathing day.
You don't need to stroll the cemetery
to feel earth's friction rub against you.

Great image. Ah, there's the rub.

The submerged subjects in Robert Wexelblatt's "The Entanglers" appear to me to be love, desire and inspiration. The poem's speakers are the mythical Sirens, who at one point complain about the kind of guy too wrapped up his self-involvement to be allured.             Some guys you just can’t reach; duty hardens
            their souls or music is just a cage to
            them or they can’t get into voices that
            are nude, cool, humid, smooth, round, inveigling
            with words beneath words, sound under sound,
            who never go beyond sandy shallows
            to the bottom of green forgetfulness.
Possibly, their complaining about a bad lyricist. If these guys can't get into voices that are "
nude, cool, humid, smooth, round, inveigling
            with words beneath words," 
I probably wouldn't like their songs either. 
If "Euterpe" (the title of Wex's second poem) is, as I understand, the muse described as "the giver of delight," I definitely want her around. But, once again, where did the time go? The flow and tacking of the poem's final phrases 

...or guess with what
sore regret you would yearn ever after
to behold once more her illegible smile. 
is a fine cruise brought gracefully to shore.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Garden of Seasonal Favorites: 'Twelfth Night' at the Mount

Have you heard you ever heard this favorite quote: “Come and kiss me sweet and twenty/
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”
Have you heard “If music be the food of love/
Play on…” ?
Or: “I will be revenged on the whole pack of you!”
Or: “… and the rain it raineth every day.”
Or: “'Better a witty fool than a foolish wit" 
The first of these is from Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” The second is from “Twelfth Night.” And the third, and the fourth, and … you get the picture.
Or how about:
"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Or, possibly my favorite:
"Dost thou think that because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?'"

All of these are from “Twelfth Night,” possibly the richest of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.
        Seeing the play a week ago performed by a troupe from the Teaching Program of Shakespeare & Company outdoors at the Mount, the company’s former haunt, a sylvan setting on the Edith Wharton estate in the Berkshire woods was like paying a visit to an old friend. A particular companionable and witty friend, who has a good story to tell. Even though it’s the same story each time, you never tire of hearing it. Or in this case, of watching it on the stage played by people who love what they're doing.
            The play is a tale built around a number of Shakespeare’s favorite plot devices. A storm at sea, a case of mistaken identity, twins (justifying the previous as an occasion for comedy), cross-dressing so that the heroine can play a man’s role in her tale, and multiple marriages at the end.
            Its main characters include classic Elizabethan (and Renaissance) types. A ‘cruel mistress’ who refuses the love of a perfectly adequate suitor. A narcissistic, self-involved royal suitor with a grievance – not far, say, from Hamlet – who has the luck to be situated in comedy rather than tragedy. Orsino has woman troubles, but no one has killed his father or polluted his realm. He holds languorous court in the play’s near opening (many productions skip-wreck at the start), indulging his love-sickness with the command to the court musician to feed his languor: “If music be the food of love, play on.” A few more self-referential observations later he’s tired of it.
            Enter Caesario, which is to say the shipwrecked Viola, dressed as a slender young man – “I am all the daughters of my father’s house” he/she will say a few scenes later – to whom Orsino takes an immediate liking. A certain amount of guy-affection takes place between them, shoulder slapping and the like, inherently comic under the circumstances and rather slap-sticked in this one. Orsino dispatches Caesario to be his go-between with the Lady Olivia, who's drowning her own self-indulgent neurosis expressed as prolonged grieving for the death of her brother. We take her widow’s weeds and veiled face as signs of her unwillingness, as we would put it today, to ‘engage’ with the world. Like Orsino she has servants to do her living for her.
            One of these is Malvolio, who will be tricked into believing that he is about to have “greatness thrust upon him.” He does a bit of clich├ęd thrusting to give the audience the point.
            Another is Feste, one of Shakespeare’s most appealing clowns (or court fools), who wittily proves that Olivia in her grief-hangover is more “fool” than he is. So you’re still suffering for your brother? he asks; then asserts “I believe he is hell.”
            “I know he is in heaven!” she retorts angrily.
            Then surely, the fool replies, there is no reason to grieve for a loved one who is now in a better place.
Having scored this unarguable point, Feste triumphantly echoes his lady’s earlier command: “Take away the fool.”
            The licensed fools of Shakespeare’s courts are the voice of the commoner allowed to needle nobility. The role is an egalitarian gesture to the sentiments of ordinary folk, including the groundlings who paid a penny to watch a play standing below the stage in The Globe. The best bargain in popular entertainment ever offered.    
            The fool, in his role as entertainer, is also a musician. The production we saw by the education program actors, some eight or so players who engineered quick-change acts barely off stage so smoothly it took me a while to realize what was going on, gave Feste a guitar, plugged in a mike, and turned him into a popular entertainer offering pop-song versions of the play’s classic ditties.
             Shakespeare’s theater encompassed song and dance. Today’s classic revival theater uses the same devices in contemporary ways to engage the senses enliven the action and allow comedy and enchantment to stretch beyond the spoken word. Shakespeare & Company pioneered this approach 30 years ago. For years we saw the fruits of their labors staged on the lawn and wooded backdrop of the grounds of the Mount, taking full advantage of moonlight and darkness to serve as a fairy-land of Midsummer Night's Dream. When the 'rude mechanicals' convened for rehearsal, they arrived in a contractor's pick-up truck.
            It’s highly satisfying to see how easily these classic works of an Elizabethan theater accommodate modern styles and trickery. The new "Education Program" production at the Mount employed every vaudevillean schtick in the book, sight gags, foolish tumbles and falls from unearned grace. Plugged-in Feste rises above the fray with his sad-happy "so it goes” commentaries in verse-song on the way of the world. He’s not talking about the weather when he sings “Heigh-ho, the wind and the rain… And the rain it raineth every day.”
            Or the across-the-classes wisdom-warning come-on of 
            “Come and kiss me sweet and twenty
            Youth’s a stuff will not endure…”
            The play's social comedy also offers us a war of the lifestyles contest between Olivia’s “be drunken always" frat boy brother Antonio and Shakespeare’s portrait of a Puritan abstainer Malvolio. Malvolio is both the deserved object of his enemies' take-down and the victim of a prank that gets out of hand and goes too far, weaving a thread of darkness into the play's comic resolution.
            Yet most of us take the side of the irresponsible Antonio when he responds to Malvolio's smug preachiness with the rebuttal:
            “Just because thou art virtuous do you think there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
            Almost everybody who hears that exchange is voting for cakes and ales.        
            And I'm voting for "Twelfth Night," a play with more wit than foolishness, where most of those plot twists turn out right in the end.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Garden of Commemoration: Every Year in Boston


            Looking backward, looking forward. Both directions giving the same signals.
            The execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, whose real-life journeys of commitment and tragic ends are the basis for my fictional account in "Suosso's Lane," took place 89 years ago on Aug. 23. Each year The Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society recognizes this date with an event in Boston. This year the group, which defines its goal as the preservation of "the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti's struggle to radically change society," has invited me and the musicians J.P. Provenzano and Jake and the Infernal Machine to take part at a commemorative event held every year on that date.
            "We want to educate our neighbors about Massachusetts' radical history, and draw connections between the struggles of Sacco and Vanzetti and similar struggles today," the Society states on its webpage. "We stand against the death penalty and political persecution as well as the persecution and scapegoating of immigrants."
            For some years the Society has organized marches and outdoor rallies on the date. This year it has chosen to hold an indoor event in downtown Boston, at Encuentro5, a non-governmental organization that describes itself as "a space for progressive movement building in the heart of Boston."
           The address is 9A Hamilton Place; a location close to the Park Street MBTA Station. The event begin at 7 p.m. The group's website is
            Historian Robert D'Atillio will lead off the program by providing some background on the case and an introduction to the program. "We hope that you continue to support this timeless cause for justice and make plans to attend the event and bring friends to it," the Society states.
            A few years back a speaker at this event, Dorotea Manuela, an activist for workers' rights and Boston's immigrant communities, pointedly made the connection between the anti-immigrant background of the Sacco-Vanzetti case and the contemporary uproar and governmental crackdown against so-called "illegal" aliens.
            "(...) How strangely reminiscent are today's events," she said. "Arabs, Latinas, Haitians and Caribbeans are kidnapped from their streets and confined in secret prisons where they rot without hearing or trial. We do not even need the sham trials of Sacco and Vanzetti.
            "In addition, our xenophobes in Congress and the press announce that yesterday's Italians are today's Latino, Haitian and Caribbean immigrants. They come here, we are told, to draw our resources, to burden our schools, to overwhelm our services and to collect welfare. Paradoxically these 'lazy immigrants' are taking all of our jobs."
            I wonder what Ms. Manuela would have to say about the current political climate in this  year of Trumpery and the noxious 2016 election campaign in which the candidate of one of our two 'major' parties spouts ignorant bigotry in lieu of political policy or proposals.
            In fact, I find it hard to see how I can anything that doesn't repeat the burden of Ms. Manuela's pointed comments on the connection between the sham trial in 1921 that condemned two men who held 'dangerous' ideas about social and political change and spoke in heavy accents, the contemporary defamation of 'Mexicans' and Muslims who come from "terrorist nations."
            Perhaps I'll simply give up trying to say anything original and quote the elegant voices on this subject such as Ms. Manuela and New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz, who have made these points already.
            Nah, just fooling. I expect I will try to say a little something about story-telling, as well as the case's continuing relevance.
            But I expect I will refer to the Ms. Schulz's recent piece by "Citizen Khan," which describes how one "enterprising man," an Afghani Muslim, planted an immigrant community in northern Wyoming. She concludes her story this way:
            "Over and over, we forget what being American means. The radical premise of our nation is that one people can be made from many, yet in each new generation we find reasons to limit who those “many” can be—to wall off access to America, literally or figuratively. That impulse usually finds its roots in claims about who we used to be, but nativist nostalgia is a fantasy. We have always been a pluralist nation, with a past far richer and stranger than we choose to recall."
            Hope to see you there.