Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Garden of History: What if Your Heritage Is Hate?

The first time my wife and I drove through Virginia we could not help noticing and being a little shocked by all the Confederate paraphernalia for sale in local roadside markets. Confederate flags. Statues and statuettes of all sizes. Bumper stickers.
The sign outside one such emporium established the rationale for all this merchandise to memorialize a failed secessionist rebellion: “Heritage, not Hate.”
You can try to convince yourself this is the case, but it’s just not true.
The Confederacy of the 11 Southern states that sought to secede from the Union and set up their own slave-happy nation was based, by its own account, on the belief in the racial superiority of white people to those of African ancestry; or, for that matter, to any people who did not appear ‘white’ to ‘us.’
True, this was a widespread belief back in 1861, not only in the American South but throughout North America, Europe and other places where Europeans ruled the roost.
It was also a glaring contradiction to the philosophical basis for an independent United States of America, as declared clearly, and for the ages, in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
This was not a factual claim, as it is sometimes misconstrued to be.
It was a philosophical claim; what the study of logic calls a “major premise.” When a proponent claims some point to be “self-evident,” he is not arguing for it, he is drawing conclusions and implications from it.
In terms of political philosophy, the statement “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is, again, not offered as a factual, scientific, or legal claim that is open to dispute.
It is the basis for a social contract.
Why are the English ‘colonies’ of North America entitled to declare their independence from the British crown and the British empire? Because, just like their English cousins, with whom they are ‘created equal,’ they have certain ‘inalienable’ rights — including liberty. ‘Unalienable’ means you can’t take them from us.
We Americans can either choose to surrender our ‘liberty’ to you — the British king — or we can take it back and keep it for ourselves as the basis for a new social contract. Jefferson and the other signatories to the Declaration chose the latter.
This reasoning, of course, creates a glaring contradiction when the status of African Americans held in slavery is considered.
The only way to escape the logic of the Declaration of Independence is to contend that your slaves are not ‘really’ human beings. If they’re not included in the phrase ‘all men’ (‘men’ in the 18th century meaning human beings), they they don’t have a right to their liberty.
However, no one knew better than slave owners themselves how undeniably and fully human their slaves were. If one population can mate successfully with another population, then they’re all the same animal.
Ask Thomas Jefferson for the answer to that question. Ask Sally Hemings.
Ask Barack Obama’s parents.
So when certain slave-owning states declared their independence from the USA, their political theorists declared their own, quite different philosophical basis for creating a social union that was fundamentally different from the one they were leaving.
Confederacy Vice President Alexander Stephens made this point very clear, right at the start in 1861. The United States, he said, had been founded in 1776 on “the false idea that all men are created equal.” The Confederacy, by contrast, “is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
There you have it, from the horse’s mouth. Or, actually, from the guys riding those horses in all the recently disputed monuments.
The inescapable conclusion is that whatever Lee, Jackson and various other Southern “heroes” thought they were fighting for, they were in fact fighting for a bad cause. The preservation of slavery, and (a major argument for secession), its expansion throughout North America and the world. 
Another term for this idea is white supremacy.
That’s the “heritage” of the Confederate States of America, a mistaken (and despicable) idea now widely and accurately called “racism.”
So is that ‘heritage’ in fact significantly different from ‘hate’?
Let’s understand when and why those statues that so may white people who today live in those formerly confederated states (and elsewhere) are so fond of were erected.
It was around the turn of the 20th century (the 1890s and following decades) — the same time the former Confederate states began to enact so-called Jim Crow laws designed to deprive the Constitutionally freed population of former slaves and their descendants of equal rights — that these monuments to the region’s Confederate, slave-owning heritage began to go up in public spaces.
Jim Crow is the name given to the legal codification of segregation — separate white and black facilities. Separate schools, accommodations, bathrooms, water fountains. The formally legalized, institutionally superiority of white people: Blacks go to the back of the bus.
It happened when it did, more than a generation after the Civil War and two decades after the removal of the last US soldiers from the South, marking the end of Reconstruction, because Southern state governments recognized that Northern politicians were no longer interested in protecting the rights of black American citizens. Issues of class and money, unions, monopolies, Progressive legislation versus the oligarchic right to amass huge personal fortunes, now occupied the political parties who dominated the federal government. In the void created by the withdrawal of the federal government from their region, Southern states were given a free hand to segregate African Americans and deny them basic civil rights and political rights such as the right to vote.
A second wave of statues to the ‘heroes of the Confederacy’ went up during the Civil Rights era when state governments in the South were resisting pressures to desegregate schools and public facilities.
To quote the Southern Poverty Law Center, which documents the activities of hate groups and civil rights movements, “The civil rights movement led to a backlash among segregationists.” (
This is putting the case very mildly. The visceral hatred shown by many white people to Civil Rights activists and demonstrators has been pretty well and extensively documented. Anyone unclear about the blunt expression of hatred by whites in the South (and elsewhere) for Civil Rights advocates and integrationists is advised to view any of the many documentaries on the period, including the recent film about Black author James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro.”
 (see )
If the determination to maintain legal superiority and social and economic power of one group of citizens over another — to maintain the fiction we call “race,” not to mention the persistent belief in the innate superiority of one group over another based on the criterion of skin color — is not a matter of “hate,” what term would you prefer?
What if your ‘heritage’ is hate?
But, ah, those beautiful statues created as monuments to a noble race of traitors. It would be such a shame, the ignoramus in the White House laments, to tear them down. How can we bear to give them up?
Third Reich architecture in Germany was also judged pretty impressive.
And how about all those statues of Lenin and Stalin the Soviets planted all over their conquered domains in Europe and Central Asia? Should we have worried about preserving them as well? And what piece of Iraqi history did we foolishly destroy by toppling the icons of Saddam?
No statues yet to POTUS 45.
I’d settle for consigning the thing itself to the dung heap of history, where he may join the images of his favorite white supremacists.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Garden of Verse: Singing the Catastrophic Climate Change Blues

 It's still inconvenient. It's still the truth. If anything, more studies, more data, and more direct observation of the polar ice caps have only caused climate scientists to fast-forward their predictions of the catastrophic dislocations and probably disasters that rapid climate change will bring to human societies. Particularly crucial is the pace of sea-level rise. 
            Most of us, on encountering well-founded discussions of sea-level rise and other environmental impacts of climate change, 
say, 'Wow, that's really true. That's really intense.' And go on living the way we've been living. 
             But how much accelerated coastal flooding will it take before those of us who live -- not simply on the seashore -- but somewhere near the coast... a category of the world's, and the USA's population, that proves to be a strikingly large percentage.... begin to realize that our governments will soon no longer be able to offer flood insurance at reasonable rates? When that recognition starts to settle in, that's the moment when either life styles start to change significantly; or humanity gives a colossal shrug and sighs, "Well, I guess it's really too late to do anything about it now."
            Here's my shrug, written below in the form of a traditional blues song.
            The poem appears in the August edition of You can find some other poems by me and many poems by many other poets at

Ice Cap Blues

O, my temperature's rising
The kitchen fan's on the blink
My equanimity's oozing
I don't know what to think
If things don't get no cooler...
Gonna drown myself in the sink
Yeah the ice sheet is melting
And the temperature's zoomed,
But tell me, brother --
How does it help us if we know we're doomed?

O, the government's planning
They're gonna burn up some coal
They don't care if Paris is burning
Chill politics is the goal
Mister President don't know 'bout learning
He's got ice for his soul
Sure I know the ice sheet's melting
And the temperature's zoomed,
But tell me, brother --
How does it help me just to know we're doomed?
I'm going up to that Arctic
Where the weather is cool
Gonna find me a seal skin
Gonna chill in a pool
Don't sign me no more petitions
...Solo survival's the rule
Yeah I know the ice sheet's melting
And the temperature's zoomed,
But tell me, brother --
How does it help us just to we know we're doomed?

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Garden of Verse: Seeing Things Fresh in the August 2017 Verse-Virtual

            "I Could Write a Sonnet" Edmund Conti proposes in the August issue of Verse-Virtual, a phrase that sounds to me like a casual suggestion on the order of "I could run to the store" or "I could check the TV listings." But then his poem demonstrates that he not only 'could,' but in fact did in a poem that makes solid use of the given structure and delivers clever rhymes:
"The  waking  up. (We thank the Lord for that!)
The breakfast on the table.  All non-fat."
             The poem pursues a theme that's both timeless and of moment: stay North or go South?

            In his August group of poems Tom Montag offers reflections on seeing, and experiencing, what we always see, but seeing it new and living it fresh. Light and darkness are partners and intimates, his poem "How the Light" points out. It begins with these lovely lines " How the light
takes shadow
and lays it
down gently" 
            The poem concludes with a surprising and marvelous simile. Read it and see for yourself.

            Ken Craft's vividly descriptive poem "Barnstorming the Universe" directs our attention to a familiar figure of the rural landscape and configures it anew with a fine image:
"The white
paint, curly from reentry, looks
foolish as a washed cat." 
I don't know the last time I've thought about a washed cat. Yes, it looks foolish.
            In his poem "Provide, Provide," a farmer busy with his splitter reveals "the striated blond bellies of halved maple logs." One way or another I've seen a lot of split wood, but now I'll look again. A good poem always shows you something new.

            Zen poetry-master Dick Allen shares a poem titled "Old Zen Master" in which the title figure reflects on the near invisibility of egg shells only to question what other unremarked wonders of the material universe he might easily have been blind to
"like the tea-kettle whistle
at the end of the sound of 'Yes.'"
            I know I've missed that. Now I'll listen for it.

            Joan Mazza's "Buzz" -- a title that offers the kind of buzzword the poem warns us against -- is a perfect storm of timely polemic. The poem contrasts the themes and terminology offered to us by the media 'buzz,' that nooz-room term for what commentators believe people are talking about (well, at least the people they talk to are) with subjects their time and attention would be better spent on:
"​Don’t say moving forward
Don’t say pivot, fake news,
false flag. Don’t say migrants.
Don’t say, whatever, awesome.

Say Philandro Castile, Tamir Rice,
Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin.
Say bees, bats, and butterflies.
Say clean water, clear skies."

            I know I'm too predisposed to agree with the values inherent in this grouping of do's and don'ts to be an objective judge of how others may respond to this poem, but I would back any candidate whose platform includes the promise to "say bees, bats, and butterflies."

            Firestone Feinberg's thoughtful and effective use of the extended metaphor in "Threads" results in a poem that addresses the fabric of ordinary life -- those "garments made of days/
Seemingly so comfortable and warm."
            The poem's arresting first line "The seams of life are not so tightly sewn" is likely to stay with all who read it.

            Another poem brilliantly studded with arresting phrases takes up that subject the continuities of  everyday life. David  Graham's poem "My Monogamous Voice" draws its title from the "found phrase" of a student's malapropism. The student was apparently searching for the word "monotonous" but had misplaced it.
            "I am married to my mailbox,
toaster, windowscreens, and extra pillow," the poem's speaker tells us in his
'monogamous' voice. In a work dense with inventive phrasing, here's another wonderful example:
"I am still/
on my first marriage to the music of what happens, and to grass, and pulling ticks from my hair,
and tiptoeing up a creaky set of stairs, careful
not to wake her." Just marvelous writing.
            Graham's short poem "My Hand" is an affecting evocation of a universal theme: our parents/ ourselves.
            A different sort of parental memory turns up in Donna Hilbert's concisely intense meditation "Friday Nights." The poet finds just the right words for a lasting depiction of a certain kind of human disaster in a memorable simile:
"My father sat in his chair
like a storm sits on the horizon,
gathering flash and clap
to slam across the prairie."
            I love the awful flat monosyllabic intensity of that "flash and clap" 
            Find all these poems and others in

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Shakespeare's Garden: Romance is when everything comes out right at the end, however unlikely

             The interesting thing about "romances" -- the term used to describe the late phase of Shakespeare's dramatic creations -- is how regularly they build around relationships between fathers and daughters.

            "In his later plays Shakespeare keeps returning to the theme of the daughter," Charles Nicholl writes in "The Lodger Shakespeare." "More precisely the daughter lost or banished, then arduously found: a rhythm of breakdown and reconciliation, expressed in the magico-mystical imagery which is the language of the late plays or 'romances.'"
            These plays that don't seem to fit the genre categories of Shakespeare's earlier works -- histories, comedies, tragedies -- involve some of the same themes and structural characteristics of the earlier genres, but add other, sometimes disconcerting touches. Highly unrealistic plot devices. Statues come to life. Gods appear on stage. Lost children are found. Old enemies reconcile.
            The term romance was not used for theater pieces in Shakespeare's own time. It was invented in the latter 19th century by a critic who saw a resemblance between their "tall tale" character and stories told in the late Middle Ages and again in his own times.
            'Realism' is conquered by devices found in fairy tales or wonder tales. Stories are set across long stretches of time and action takes places at distantly removed sites -- grotesque violations of classic literature's insistence on the three unities, time, space, and completed action adduced by Aristotle from the drama invented in his own time.
            Deities may appear on stage -- pagan ones -- as they did in Greek and Latin drama, but certainly did not in the Elizabethan theater Shakespreare broke into. The vogue for spectacle called the theatrical "masque," in which actors and titled aristocrats portrayed figures from mythology, the pantheon of Greek gods or other story forms, and danced or, paced, or simply showed off glamorous costumes in expensive, special-effect settings may also have influenced this genre of Jacobean theater (as English theater during the reign of King James I is called).
            Gods may also serve the goal of seeing that plots move toward required resolutions: the good are recognized, or returned to their rightful place; the evil are defeated, their machinations exposed.
            The final, moral quality that makes for satisfying conclusions from the wide confusions and evil deeds of the tall-tale "romance" plot is reconciliation.
            And here we are back to fathers and daughters.
            In "Cymbeline," one of those late romances performed for the first time by Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. -- where I saw the play last weekend for my first time anywhere -- the essential character is the not the title character, a British king in Roman times, from whom it takes its name, but his daughter, Imogen. She is not witty and complex, like the heroines of the earlier comedies, she's simply a lovable, lively force for good. Bad things happen to her, but -- in conformity with the structure of the romance-genre plots -- in the end everything works out for the best. As director Tina Packer points out (staging this play is also a first for this masterly Shakespeare specialist), everybody loves her. "She stands up to her father, is not deceived by her wicked step-mother... resists the seducer's charms, and does her sex proud!"
            How's that for a moral center?
            An array of other characters serve the good, some with nobility of character, but none is really a "hero." Their human 'character' is not the center of interest. Saving Imogen will do -- and her reconciliation with her bamboozled father is part of a general unveiling of secrets, along with a rediscovery of a pair of long-lost princes, is part of a hilariously dizzying sequence of stage business of the sort in which Packer and Shakespeare & Company are the world class front-runners.
            Audiences, in my opinion, need not bother themselves with the question of what this play is supposedly "about" or what it is "trying to say." Many other plays invite that kind of attention. "Cymbeline" is probably the purest bit of fairy tale in the romance genre. "The Tempest" written a year later or so is far deeper, subtler, and more challenging.
            The simplicity of "Cymbeline's" moral universe is the characteristic that enables Shakespeare & Company to have so much fun with it. The foolish, easily manipulated Cymbeline holds our attention because Jonathan Epstein plays the part, and Epstein could command an audience even if he were asked to sell toothpaste. The self-love of the fantastically, stupidly ill-intended Cloten -- from whose clutches Imogen must evade -- reaches heights that can only be described as Trumpian. (No explicit comparisons are made, but this is my own evil mind at work.)
            The other characters, some solid-good, a few all-bad, with a couple of late-stage conversions affirming the reconciliation and goodness theme can all be played as seriously committed to their own nature role, but also self-parodied in their categorical lack of self-awareness.
            And this is exactly how this production plays. The entire cast embraces the straightforward cast of mind and action required of them by Shakespeare's splendid honey-tongued dialogue, but all these deft players also leap over the top into comic exaggeration, and parody whenever director or actor finds a handy seam in the dramatic or linguistic web to exploit.
            And the show plays fast with speeches, argument, and repartee delivered with flawless audibility. I think that's what local theater reviewers mean by comments such as "intoxicatingly funny... non-stop action" (CurtainUp, an online theater magazine) and "the must-see play of the Berkshire season" (Berkshire Fine Arts, a Berkshire County website).
             We're not meant to confront the complexity of the mortal universe as we are in the tragedies.
            Instead we are assured that even though life appears to be a confused mess, and terrible things do in fact happen in the course of our lives, in the end life is triumphant.  
            Sometimes, maybe, that's what we want to hear.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Nature's Garden: Is Your Yard a "Certified Wildlife Habitat"? Maybe Not.

         An organization called the National Wildlife Federation, whose aims I suspect I would wholly agree with, if I knew what they were, each year contacts me and no doubt many others with a request that I "certify" my "yard" as a Certified Wildlife Habitat.  
            It does get 'wild' back there at times (generally because I've fallen behind on weeding and trimming), but each year when I consider the criteria required for said certification, I find that my humble little patch of earth fails on almost every single score.
            For instance, this year we unlisted gardeners were offered tips on "a few night loving wildlife to look for in your yard and garden." Fireflies, we are told, "are a sign that summer has arrived."   
            Did somebody forget to send out the newsletter last month?
            Summer has not only arrived -- in fact it arrived more than a month ago according to the solar calendar -- it is already showing signs of passing. And fireflies, at least in their happy flashing-lantern stage, the only phase in which we find it easy to identify them, have long gone dark for next piece of business.
            I did enjoy seeing fireflies this summer. In the first days of July Anne and I walked along a darkening landscape and every handful of steps a new cluster of the flashing beetles would float up from the wild grass and blink on and off. On and off. With the rapidity of beginners playing with a brand-new toy.
            This close encounter with fireflies, that sure token of early summer, took place of course not in our yard/garden or anywhere near it, but along the road to Tanglewood in the Berkshires. No fireflies here this year. We have occasionally seen them in Quincy, but only radiating from the only wild spot nearby, a fenced-in no-entry 'preserve' known as 'the bog.'   
            "Moths," we are then told, are as "beautiful as their daytime cousins, the butterfly, and they help pollinate night blooming plants."
            Moths, we have; check that one off. On occasion one of them bumbles into my screen at night when I am typing words such as these. We are all of us occupying habitat for moths. Leave you outdoor light on after dark and you'll see them. 
            Butterflies, though less evident, have a higher profile because we like their color.
            We have butterflies in our garden because we have flowers. Those I have seen here this year have been cruising at rapid speed, flitting about, then racing off, as if hungry for what we don't have. Other years butterflies have occasionally slowed down and passed some time on a flower, allowing me to photograph them.
            "Listen for frogs and toads calling on summer nights looking for mates," we are told by the garden certifiers. "You can attract them to your garden with a backyard pond."
            Sorry. No pond. I have, very rarely, seen a toad in our yard. One of them camped out for a while on the front walk. Not a safe choice, but I believe he survived an afternoon of sun-bathing there.
            But one of the standard certification criteria for "wildlife habitat" is the presence of a "water feature." How about those little pools that form in the basins I occasionally strew all over the place when I'm trying to find the right-sized basin for a particular pot? I don't these pass muster except as mosquito breeders.
            And then -- in summer? --- "no animal symbolizes nighttime wildlife more than the owl." I have never seen an owl here. Unlike many other birds, owls do not often frequent residential neighborhoods. I did however hear one during a very cold mid-winter night a few years ago. It was loud and chilling; a screech owl. I cannot say that it was in this yard, but it was close.
            In summary, here's the message from the National Wildlife Center: "If you provide the four basic elements—food, water, cover, and a place to raise their young—while using sustainable gardening practices, you will give wildlife the safe haven they need." If you meet these criteria, you can get certified.
            Here's a link to the criteria:|SLLAct           

            I think I'm all right with not being certified.
            Birds feed here and build nests close by. Butterflies flit through, and we always have the little white "cabbage flies." We see hummingbirds occasionally. Bees positively swarm some of the flowering plants, especially in late summer. I have seen skunk, and raccoon here, and hope not to see them again. I also very much hope never to see wild turkeys troop through here, unless it's mid-winter.
            As for plants, bring them on. Whatever wildlife they can sustain is good with me as well.