Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Garden of Time: Poetry in the Prose of Banville's "Blue Guitar"

             Superb prose poems crop up in the novels of John Banville.
            In "The Blue Guitar," published in 2015 but which I have just recently got around to reading, Banville's narrator, 
the central figure as is so often the case in Banville's fiction, shares an account of his relational missteps, betrayals and self-deceptions. In a novel in which the narrator's self-analysis -- and self-absorption -- is in reality the work's central concern,  
Banville brings us to a moment of no particular dramatic import in which said narrator reflects:

            I felt tired, immeasurably tired.... The wind keened to itself in a chink in the window frame, a distant, immemorial voice. When the time arrives for me to die I want it to happen as a stilled moment like that, a fermata in the world's melody, when everything comes to a pause, forgetting itself. How gently I should go then, dropping without a murmur into the void. 

            Focusing on the last sentence in this brief meditation we find a cogent response to one of the most famous, and oft-quoted, poems about facing death in modern times, namely (and you should all be shouting aloud where this observation is going by this point) Dylan Thomas's memorable poem about his father:
            "Do not go gentle into that good night."
            Thomas's poem fell, with considerable resonance, into the period of mid-century Western angst I am tempted to call "when everything was existential."
            The word 'existential' was used both to mean that everything that happened in life was meaningless and that any single moment, gesture, decision, or indecision in a human life was of singular, potentially turning-point importance. Absolutely everything: from deciding to join the French Resistance and risk a horrible death at the hands of the homicidal maniacs who have taken over your country, to the praiseworthy gesture of getting out of bed each morning to face another day in a life in which nothing could ever be known, understood, or valued with anything resembling certainty.
            Take a stance, Thomas's great poem urged:
            "Rage, rage, against the dying of the light."
            If the world had no meaning, if the universe might itself be the daydream of some cosmic cobra wrapped around the pachyderm upon which the spinning earth was mounted, if human life itself was a bad joke in which a poor player struts and frets his hour upon the stage before disappearing behind the eternal curtain -- as we must all inevitably do -- then did you not, poor Dylan Thomas's father, have cause enough to rail?
            But in the passage quoted above our hero -- Oliver?; Banville's narrator-protagonists seem to have forgettable names -- asserts that he would take the opposite tack, volunteering, as it were -- if only the universe would stop rumbling about and mumbling pointlessly to itself and achieve a moment of stillness -- to go "gently."
            He's a quitter, this brief soliloquy may suggest. Or a peace-maker. Or, perhaps, a peace-seeker. A figure of resignation, approaching some sort of wisdom, if only of the quietist sort. All he's asking is for the universe to -- 'pause' -- or hold a pause (that's the 'fermata') -- and he would step in to fill the silence with his own freely-accepted extinction.  
            Is this a spiritually advanced attitude? (I ask a second time). A Christian (or even Buddhist) resignation? The acceptance of higher power? The stoicism of the ancient philosophers?
            Is it a breakthrough of sorts for a character who has confessed his faults, both grand and petty, given up a successful career as an artist, and run away from the consequences of an affair with a friend's wife.         
            Or is it meant to be taken -- by the reader -- as yet another self-dramatizing pose. Not a frank self-confession of his life's failure, but a sort of self-ennoblement he wishes others to share.
            Banville's narrator, the lapsed painter, is a familiar type. Someone, generally male, who trades on the appearance of qualities he does not truly possess to get something he desires. So often that something is the favorable opinion of women.
            What sets this character apart from others of his type is that his narration has almost nothing good to say about himself. A central motif, introduced without particular emphasis, is that from boyhood he has been a unapologetic thief. Stolen items of no particular monetary value keep popping up in this story.
            When his partner in adultery, her marriage ruined and her infatuation replaced by the sad slap of reality, accuses him of stealing a book, the reader thinks, 'Oh no! Now he will be falsely accused of the sort of thing he actually did in his boyhood. Ironic!'
            But no -- incredibly -- he has stolen it! 
            We now see (if we haven't before) that 'stealing' in this book is a metaphor for our narrator's theft of another man's wife.
            I wondered whether we should also apply that metaphor to issue of the narrator's successful painting career. Are we to think that he may be 'stealing' from the work of others?
            But no I don't think so. All artists, all writers, necessarily 'steal.' Or borrow, to use a politer term, from the work of others; or 'allude' to creations such as the language of a great poem.
            That 'gently' in the earlier quoted passage about a welcoming of death is a clearly intended allusion to Thomas's canonical poem. Am I stealing, Banville may be asking us in this moment, from a poem many of us know about a subject all of us must someday consider? As readers of what I certainly found to be a beautiful passage in a troubling book, do we need to think about the issue of literary borrowing?
            Not really. At least I didn't. The passage is music. It's beautiful.
            That's the reason the unusual word 'fermeta' rings true in this passage. It's a word taken from music that means holding a pause or note.
            Banville's evocation of our experience of the 'the world,' our human existence, is a kind of music. And at the right moment his narrator is willing to surrender everything to it. Even himself.
            I pause here to point out that I have not even mentioned the act of borrowing contained in the novel's title. The phrase 'blue guitar' is famously associated with Picasso's painting  
"The Old Guitarist," painted during that 20th century artist's ever-popular "blue period." And it is also associated, again no doubt because of the influence of Picasso, with a famous 20th century poem by Wallace Stevens, titled "The Man With the Blue Guitar," in which the poet states (among other things): 
You do not play thing as they are
You play them on your blue guitar.
            I take back my earlier, hasty judgment that narrator-protagonist Oliver, a venial, self-centered, self-confessed evader of responsibility, has nothing good to say about himself. He has one thing. This passage is it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

They Had "A Connection to the Case": Sacco and Vanzetti at 90

            One of his ancestors was called to serve on the jury, a man told me. For one of those trials.
            He was at the gates when the getaway car went through, another man on another night told me of his family member's connection to the case. The words spoken with a rueful laugh. They didn't try to stop them. He told the police what he saw. So did a dozen other guys. "They all said different things."
            Her ancestor, a woman told me after my talk, was "a very well known doctor." At Harvard. "He was involved somehow in the case." She spoke quietly, as others filed out of the room. The name was McGrath.
            "The house was just down this way." He pointed to a part of West Bridgewater where an anarchist lived in 1920. Back then the 'house' was called Puffer's Place. Johnson's garage was still there too when he was growing up, the same person, a knowledgeable senior citizen, told me.Till some time in the Fifties, he thought. You could still see the sign: Johnson's Service Station.
            The woman stopped us as we came out of the Kingston senior center door. Is it over? she asked. She wanted to hear the author speak. I told her, happily, that I was the author. And, yes, the program was over, but I would gladly sell her a book if she had come to buy one. We spoke in the dark and I gave her my email address. Her family was connected to the case, she said. She gave me a name. Gardner. He worked for the Boston Globe too. He also worked for the defense committee, because they needed him when they began to get all that publicity. She told me who he was related to, and what he had done in the rest of his life after the case was over. I recognized the name, though his connection to the case was all I knew about him.

            A member of her family was one of the witnesses. I grew up on the street, she said. The case is special to me.
            I've always been interested in this subject, a man said. I've read about it.
            Anything about this case, another man said. I always want to come.
            I live in the shadow of the Plymouth Cordage Company. And look upon the chimney stack built by an ancestor of mine, daily.
            One of my husband's ancestors was a fish peddler too and told the story of meeting these men in North Plymouth, even on Christmas
            She said her grandmother never believed them. They said they were selling fish on Christmas. "But we never got any fish on Christmas," she said, so that's how she knew they were lying.
            He said they were terrorists. He said anarchists were responsible for bombings and killings all over the world. He said an anarchist even killed an American president. They killed the king of Italy. He said anarchists started World War I. Terrorists! How I could make them out to be victims?
            Later I looked for the name McGrath, which I recalled from my research, and found I was spelling it wrong. It was George Mcgrath. This is what I was trying to remember: The highly regarded medical examiner Dr. George B. Mcgrath performed the autopsy and said the four bullets fired into the body of payroll guard Berardelli were identical, hence fired from the same gun. This was a crucial point because the prosecution claimed that one of the bullets (called bullet number 3) was fired from a gun belonging to Sacco. The defense refuted this claim by pointing out that bullet 3 was a different kind of bullet from the other three, and therefore likely a substitution for the original bullet 3. Mcgrath repeated his testimony: the four bullets in the murdered man's body were of the same kind. This question is discussed at length in the book "Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti" (1985) by William Young and David E. Kaiser. "The custody of evidence was weak."  
            I never found Puffer's Place, where the anarchist Mario Buda was living and from which he fled the local police. Or the house and garage of mechanic Simon Johnson, where Buda had left his car and where Sacco and Vanzetti, joined by Buda and a fourth anarchist, journeyed to pick up Buda's car on the fateful night when they fell into the Bridgewater police trap and were arrested. Held over night. Charged in the morning. Put on trial a year later; convicted. Executed seven years later in one of history's most infamous and long-running criminal cases.
            I found her family name on the witness list for the defense.
            The ancestor who did not receive fish for Christmas perhaps did not order any, since numerous other North Plymouth residents testified in court to receiving eels on Christmas Eve, a crucial piece of Vanzetti's defense in his Plymouth trial.
              The jury -- no immigrants, no people of Italian descent, no intellectuals, and no one who admitted to reading books; no African-Americans, and of course no women -- deliberated for 10 minutes before bringing back a verdict of guilty. The foreman said later that he didn't know if they were guilty of this crime but commented, "We oughta hang the whole lot of them."
            President McKinley was in fact killed by a professed anarchist, born here of Polish parentage. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the proximate cause of World War I, was carried out by Serbian nationalists. Whether you consider it terror or not, political assassination has always been the weapon of the disenfranchised and it almost always backfires. But Sacco and Vanzetti were not on trial for a bombing or an assassination, but for a gangland style robbery of a shoe factory workers' payroll with accompanying murders, an act they would have regarded with horror and which they did not commit.
            The Globe reporter Gardner Jackson was hired by the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee in 1927 to manage publicity as the threat of execution grew near and the whole world was watching. After the executions Jackson gathered "The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti" for publication in 1928, a lasting contribution to the case's history, since the collection still available today as a Penguin classic edition.

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