Friday, April 20, 2018

The Garden of History: Why "The Post" Tells Us What We Still Need To Know

             When the release of the Pentagon Papers made the headlines in 1971, people like me were still 'the kids,' and the people who ran the ran the important news media such as the New York Times were the wholly unreliable 'grownups.'
            The grownups, who also ran the government, the TV networks, the corporations, and the domestic households, and the opinion polls, were shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that the American government had been lying to them about the Vietnam War. Lying about the reason we got into it, the phony Tonkin Gulf provocation, the justifications offered by successive administrations -- Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon -- not only to continue an evilly stupid war but double down on the failed policy by sending more and more troops, bombing more and more roads and cities in both Vietnams and neighboring countries. And to offer dangerously paranoid and self-defeating myths like "the domino theory" to justify a vast expansion of death and destruction.
            JFK knew that an American military intervention in Vietnam was a poor military gamble, but decided it was politically impossible to admit the truth publicly in an election year. His party could not afford to appear 'weak' in the face of Communism.  
            That is, in order to maintain an appearance -- the illusion that 'anti-Communism' justified any sacrifice -- more American soldiers -- not to mention Vietnamese -- would have to die.
            This was the same choice, made on purely partisan political grounds by LBJ and Nixon: to preserve a politically convenient illusion -- and evade an inconvenient truth -- human beings must die in great numbers and countries far from America must be destroyed.
            I can see why anyone, for whom this revelation was news, would be disturbed to learn it.
            But for people like me, the 'kids' of the anti-Vietnam War protests -- however strange it is to recall that angry youthful perspective -- what the "grown-ups" were doing or thinking had long ceased to matter.
            Of course -- we knew -- the war was unwinnable, undertaken on a fraudulent basis, and wholly immoral. Of course the idea of trying to impose our ideas on a country and people we knew nothing about "in the name of anti-Communism" was both wrong and stupid.
            Of course the North Vietnamese 'enemy' we slandered as 'Communist' was seen primarily as a 'nationalist' and anti-imperialist force for freedom and self-determination by the majority of the Vietnamese people.
            And of course the Vietnamese people would go on resisting our attacks, no matter how costly we made the war for them, just as patriotic Americans had resisted the overpowering might of the British Empire in the determination to be free of foreign domination. In all likelihood North Vietnam was likely to outlast us, just as our determined Patriots of the 18th century had outlasted the domineering British Empire.
            And -- most certain of all -- of course the political leaders of the corrupt older generation -- our presidents, our generals; our perfidious FBI director -- have all along been lying to the American public about the nature and conduct of the war, and why more and more Americans had been sent there to kill and die.
            I never glanced at the Pentagon Papers when revealing portions of them were published by newspapers in 1971. Never read the New York Times' initial story on their existence after someone handed this heavily "classified document" over to that paper.
            Didn't follow the story when the government got a court injunction to prevent the Times from publishing any further parts or information from the infamously long-concealed analysis of a failed American policy. Or pay attention when the Washington Post, having been given another copy of the hijacked Pentagon Papers, began publishing them --
            ... and when Nixon's government took the Post to court for publishing "important government secrets" as well -- succeeded in winning a Supreme Court judgment in favor of the right of a free press to publish the truth despite the government's desire to suppress its dirty secrets.
            Unimportant to me then. Because, as I said, these facts were what we protestors believed (knew) all along.
            But both astonishing -- and wholly moving -- to me now.
            Being now, of course, and for a very long time, one of the 'grown-ups.' And grown-ups need their illusions; or, you might call them, their 'stories.'
            Which made Spielberg's recent movie about the release of the Pentagon Papers, "The Post," which Anne and I finally got around to seeing, so much fun.
            The high points: Meryl Streep's portrayal of Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, as she hesitantly seats herself in a conference room with 25 men in identical black suits as they discuss taking her company public. This is the 'grown-up' world of 1971: We had such a long way to go. How far have we come?
            Reporters working from pay phones trying to write down a crucial phone number while stuffing more quarters into the phone. (It's still hard to write down all the info while talking on the phone.)
            Tom Hank's Ben Bradlee, the Post's editor, lounging in his glass office while he worries aloud to reporters that New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan has "got something."
            What Sheehan 'got' was a copy of a multi-volume study commissioned by the Defense Department back in 1968 to analyze the decision-making process that led to massive US troop commitments to a disastrous military adventure in Vietnam.
            The expression on Matthew Rhys's face (the lead in "The Americans"), playing Daniel Ellsburg when he realizes that Defense secretary Robert McNamara, who knows the war is a disaster, is saying exactly the opposite to a group of American reporters. Ellsburg then decides to steal bound copies of the highly-secret study and copy them, eventually leaking them to the Times.
            The Post reporter played by Bob Odenkirk ("Better Call Saul") being chased down by a Post company lawyer and forced to admit that his copy of the Pentagon Papers may have come from the same source that leaked them to the Times. If so, that would make the Post vulnerable to a charge of "violating the government secrets act."
            And of course, Graham's courageous decision to allow Bradlee to begin releasing the papers in her newspaper at great legal and financial risk to the future of a newspaper founded by her father -- because the American people needed to know the truth about what their government's leaders (including her close personal friend McNamara) had done and the self-serving, spectacularly immoral reasons for doing it.
            And -- what I can only appreciate now and was unable to appreciate back then -- the Suprem Court's decision to reject the government's pleas to keep the Pentagon Papers secret because the U.S. Constitution guarantees to the American people the right of the free press.
            That decision came too late to save all the lives wasted by the political crimes committed by America's leaders.
            But it cemented the press's right to try to prevent similar ones.
            Which is where we are now, when a current pretender to the office of POTUS threatens to start a nuclear war to distract people from paying attention to his other corrupt acts.
            Leading to a few questions:
            Why are there still so many government secrets? (What I really feel is 'why are there any?')
            Why, after the "lessons of Vietnam" did America's government get away with starting another absurdly unnecessary war in Iraq, displacing a million Iraqis, killing, arresting and injuring them by the hundreds of thousands, and killing and maiming thousands of American troops?
            Where are the Pentagon Papers for that atrociously costly disaster?
            Why do America's laws still protect the policy-makers of torture and death in the Middle East -- some of whom were recently appointed to high positions by the current maggot in the White House?
            Why do our laws still prosecute those who bring the truth to light by making public certain perfidious "classified secrets"?
            Why does the American public not have a right to know everything done by government officials in our name?
            And when the current scumbag-in-chief continues to go after newspapers, or TV stations, or websites that expose his lies and crimes, in an attempt to silence them...
            will American courts still be willing to protect a free press in the service of the public good?

Thursday, April 19, 2018

April's Poems: The Seven Ages of Delay, 'Jerusalem' Turned Upside Down, and Some Anecdotal Evidence

April keeps moving along. We have no choice but to go with it. Three more days of National Poetry Writing Month, with three more poems.
4.19 The Pitch: Today we challenge you to write a paragraph that briefly recounts a story, describes the scene outside your window, or even gives directions from your house to the grocery store. Now try erasing words from this paragraph to create a poem or, alternatively, use the words of your paragraph to build a new poem.
            My response: These prompts get more and more baroque. Here's my story.

Obstacles Everywhere

            It's not easy to get from my house to the grocery store. First there's the cat, prowling and mewling with a perennial air of cruel neglect. What are you doing for me? she whines. Don't forget my bag of treats. Then there are the birds, queuing up beneath the feeder. You think it's easy? the blackbird squawks, to find another seed in the this pecked-over feeder? That's black oil sunflower, got-it? Got-it? Got-it? I turn away to face to face with the neighborhood urchin, with his bowl-cut hair and his heavy eyes, kicking a stone down the gutter on his daily slog unwillingly to school. He glares at me: why do I have to walk while the likes of you get to ride? The lover is next, gazing longingly into the trees, his lips moving no doubt in some complaint of the coolness of his beloved's glance -- er, actually, is that some kind of wire planted into his ears.
            I back the car slowly from the drive, but am compelled to brake as the warrior roars in to the curb-cut on his unmuffled scooter and lets the engine throb in passion of enmity for the unseen foe. Old Natter, the councilor at extra-large, catches me then, unpacking his bag of wise saws on the sins of municipal spending, until the letter-carrier snags his attention. I button up the window swift, but a rap on the passenger side glass delivers me to the presence of Mistress Godzip, who opines on the recent goings-on in the halfway house, sprinkled with a few choice requests: just ice, just tea, just everything... Breaking away, at last, free at last, only to find the power grid people in their silly orange hats laying cones across the road while the time-and-a-half detail cop inspects his phone: No Exit today!
Here's the poem:

The Seven Stages of Delay

Prowling and mewling, the cat bars my way
'What are you getting for me?' she whines
'I'm due another treat today'
Birds queue up at the feeder, syncopating beaks:
'Got-it?' 'Got-it?' 'Got-it?' sparrow squawks and mousie squeaks
The put-upon urchin dragging his frown unwillingly to school
The lover croons with soundless lips, plugged into his heart's device and reads a text from Lady Cruel

The warrior in leathered black racing the engine of his self-esteem
in defiance of a world not what it seems
The local expert, a talking head, judges and begrudges
what is wrong and what is right
expounds all-a-day and sometimes night
Old Mother Godzip, out of all but breath,
needs a few things at the store:
just ice, just tea -- just wait a tick --  
I'm sure I'll think of something more
Till I break free and corner round, to find my egress blocked
by mocking orange cones freely strewn:
I'm going home to sleep till noon.

4.18 The Pitch: "Find a poem.... Use a piece of paper to cover over everything but the last line. Now write a line of your own that completes the thought of that single line you can see, or otherwise responds to it. Now move your piece of paper up to uncover the second-to-last line of your source poem, and write the second line of your new poem to complete/respond to this second-to-last line. Keep going, uncovering and writing, until you get to the first line of your source poem, which you will complete/respond to as the last line of your new poem. It might not be a finished draft, but hopefully it at least contains the seeds of one."
            My response: This one was impossible. I chose a poem I have long loved, so dismembering it to infiltrate into its bones a wholly contrary message was pure poetic sacrifice. William Blake's famous widely loved poem "Jerusalem" has become a kind of an unofficial national anthem in England, particularly the England of old institutions such as the Church of England and, apparently, the army. In addition to re-ordering his poem from last line to first, the only change I made was to add the word "New" before the word "England" wherever it appeared.
            Here's the poem.

Upside Down in New 'Jerusalem'

In New England's green & pleasant land
Wood chippers grind and whine all day
Till we have built our new Jerusalem
in Amazonian Mammon by the Sea
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have turned our fruit to rind
Nor will I ease from Mental Fight
While birds still flutter in my mind
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
Bring me my gardener's unwieldy hoe
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me the fool who sooth-sayed so
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Let my rich branch and brand aspire
Among these dark Satanic Mills
Men man machines, their secret thrills
And was Jerusalem builded here
Beyond the ocean, let new fear
Shine forth upon our clouded hills
And in our heart dark secrets trill
And did the Countenance Divine
Rejoice on deserts, no more to smile
On New England's pleasant pastures seen!
Where ax and saw become the style
And was the Holy Lamb of God
That now doth scream, once free to
Walk upon New England's mountains green:
And frolic in the fresh spring stream
And did those feet in ancient time
Pace through death's universal dream?

4. 17 The Prompt: "...Write a poem re-telling a family anecdote that has stuck with you over time. It could be the story of the time your Uncle Louis caught a home run ball, the time your Cousin May accidentally brought home a coyote and gave it a bath, thinking it was a stray dog, or something darker (or even sillier)."
            Response: I couldn't think of anything silly. The poem:

A Family Anecdote

My father had no anecdotes
He folded wrapping paper carefully
after opening each present
upon our Christmas times

My father had no wish for gifts
Don't buy me anything, he'd say
Better keep your money
I responded childishly, what would I keep it for?

My father had no money
He had simple tastes in food
He shared no childhood memories
of what life was like at home

My father had no home
His parents had to sell
Depression prices at their ebb
Where was he to go?

My father had no parents
when I was very small
He never spoke of his own father,
not that I recall 

My father's father left no tracks,
not that I can see
My father's father had no name,
the name he gave to me

To check out the full spiel at National Poetry Writing Month for yourself, here's the link:


Monday, April 16, 2018

April Poetry Month: The Ides of April -- A Kiss-ing Game, A Dream Vocabulary, And Every Villain to His Island

We're halfway through National Poetry Writing Month's challenge to write a new poem every day of the month. I think I'd rather play outdoors today in this first full month of spring, but, oh yeah, it's storming. So here goes. 

4.16 The Prompt: "...write a poem that prominently features the idea of play. It could be a poem about a sport or game, a poem about people who play (or are playing a game), or even a poem in the form of the rules for a sport or game that you’ve just made up (sort of like Calvinball)."
            [The Rules of My Game: The players, at least four, form a diamond in an open space. Depending on how vigorously you're willing to play, you need a large room or, better, an outdoor space that accommodates a fair amount of jumping about. Supply a large bag of a favorite candy that comes in small, discrete pieces like M&Ms, Reese's Pieces, or Kisses. Actually the large Kisses make an easier, less challenging game than the double M's. Stand about four feet from the player on your left or right. Toss a candy toward that player's mouth. If nay (or 'he or she') catches it, the thrower gets one point and the catcher gets two.
Eat the candy unless you're on intimate terms with the next player in which case you may choose to take it out of your mouth and throw it to that person. The players take a step backwards after each round of play, so the game gets harder.]
         Catch the Candy: A Kiss-ing Game  

I throw you a Kiss
You catch it between your sweet lips, good lass.
Who am I? The phys ed teacher?
Not the health teacher, who teaches 'healthy eating,' given all this candy.
The Lit Teacher, then, in which case I accompany the throw with a light quotation, say,
"Had we but world enough and time..."

You, two points up, face the player on your right, Jock,
likely lad, but a soft round nose
not quite the face for.
You throw -- not badly --
but jub-a-bub, tongue-flicking, Jock dropping the ball --
I mean Kiss; er, well, 'attempt.'
"Needs a bigger mouth!" someone calls out.
"Nose got in the way!" Laughter.

Jock picks damn spot off the ground,
prepares to toss, but nay squeals -- that's Gigli --
"It's dirty! 'smatter you? Get a new one!"
New Kiss procured. Old one cast off to Jock's dog
Rowdy, who's in like Flynn, executing the terrier's aerial flip'n'grab.
"Two points for Rowdy!"
Irked, upstaged by his mutt,
"Tut-tut, Jock," Teach nags, as Jock flips off
a high one at poor eager Gigli,
who backs quick, nearly stumbles,
caught and righted by a coupla' bywatchers,
gigglies all around!, as the Kiss bounces off her curly mop.

"One more toss to complete the round," scorekeeper calls,
snotty little Rego, track manager, good at figgers.
"Only points so far to Teach and You --
and You're head." You nod indifference.
Gigli airs an easy toss -- only four feet off, remember --
but Teach muffs it: "To err is human..." No one completes.

All commanded to take 'a good step' back.
"They that have power to hurt and will do none,"
Teach pontificates, and tosses, underhand, a softball pitch
as to a girl.
And You, best athlete in the bunch,
adjust the angle of your pretty mug and snatch it fair:
between the teeth! -- "Bonus points awarded!" --

Best person too,
closing the distance between nay and lit'ul Jock
impresses face sideway against his mouth
(watch out for the nose when you come in for the snog!)
and plants the Kiss between his teeth.

Full marks all around!  

4.15 The prompt: "...[write] a poem in which a villain faces an unfortunate situation, and is revealed to be human (but still evil). Perhaps this could mean the witch from Hansel & Gretel has lost her beloved cat, and is going about the neighborhood sticking up heart-wrenching “Lost Cat” signs, but still finds human children delicious. Maybe Blackbeard the Pirate is lost at sea in an open boat, remembering how much he loved his grandmother (although he will still kill the first person dumb enough to scoop him from the waves)."

My response: Sounds like more of a story-telling prompt, than a poetry assignment. Many poets (including Napowrimo, at times) apparently believe poems can simply be very short stories. I may be one of them.

Crimes Against the People

For his crimes against the people of a bizarre continental nation
called The USer, Ichibod Malheur Naxon was sentenced to permanent exile
on the otherwise unpopulated island of Salterrior
He soon shaped things up...
Drew a flag on a rag
and upped it on a dying palm
all the while playing 'Hail to the Jefe'
on his phone until the battery wore out,
then condemned to humming with what was left of his voice
after the operation in which the box was removed.
If only he had been 'left to his own devices,'
but they took his devices way: his Xbox, his IPad, his computer wristwatch, the famous tape-reorder, his automatic
wind-up nightingale, his life-sized plastic doll with voice-control droid features, his house-alarm
with two-way radio ('I see you there hiding in the bushes'),
his wall-monitor consisting of 32 individual screens,
on which appeared images of former acquaintances, colleagues, guard dogs, downtrodden enemies, and other people's children
dispatched to the Wart House to cheerfully greet the then-great man...
who, collectively, long provided a satisfying peer milieu,

and whose absence reduced the one-time Thirty-Seven to a bracing solitude
in which the former headman of his nation sought the company of stray birds,
limping to a spot of land in the measureless sea, exhausted, off-course,
bereft of their own winged family and friends.
The chastened Ichabod kept them alive, spooning drops of his own limited water ration
with razor-clam shells into their beaks,
these herringbones, goolibles, fortress-birds, and ambi-tossers
swept by stray gales, those rogue waves of the atmosphere,
that poisoned their innate direction-finders
and wore them out in endless holding patterns
He comforted those who would not recover,
nursed others back to health on a diet of well-masticated jellied shrimp,
waved goodbye to them (with soupcon of self-maculated salt)
when they took up once more the winged burden of circumpolar flight,
asking of fate only the gift of a more permanent companion,
however limited in the arts of empathy

Ichabod knew his days were numbered,
Even the gentle waves of his respectful ocean rose higher up on the shelf
each full moon,
and the island's single spring was developing a salty tang
Then one day a message was dropped by a flyover from what looked more like
a mechanical bird than a product of the USer AirForce
A para-shot tube! A message! A mercy!
Yet on opening, the worst
of all possible fates:
"Prepare to Welcome Forty-Five!"

Energized to a fury of his old self,
a sharpening of clam shells,
cutting stakes of bamboo,
gathering a load of driftwood for the fire...
Aged and weakened, grief-ravaged to a splinter of humanity,
Ichibod Malheur Naxon still knew how best to serve
a rival.

4.14 The prompt: "...Write entries for an imaginary dream dictionary. Pick one (or more) of the following words, and write about what it means to dream of these things: Teacup, Hammer, Seagull, Ballet slipper, Shark, Wobbly table, Dentist, Rowboat..."
For my effort, I chose 'wobbly table.'

Everyone Is Having Those Dreams

I know I'm in a bad way when I have the
Wobbly table dream
Four is the stable number
Tables, chairs, beds, portable heaters
and useful creatures like horses, cows, sheep and (the marginally useful) dogs and cats
all have four legs.
Human beings by comparison are inherently unstable, tipsy, unreasonably vertical, 
arrogant, supercilious, always getting above themselves.
Let's put our cards on the table.
Whoops... they slid right off: Must be a wobbly table
Last night I dreamed
that a stranger moved in and began complaining about the town,
the color scheme was unattractive.
I protested. Told him how much planting I have done to brighten up the scene
He pointed to a dense collection of juxtaposed yards and square little houses
and said "There should be a road through that."
I felt the table begin to wobble beneath me
That's what you get, I scolded myself, for sleeping on a table.
It exposes you to criticism
Carve me up, I thought, and let everyone get a big hunk
I felt the ground shift under my feet
Then I was in the heart of town
(same town? who knows)
trying to find the stores or cafes that used to be there
The carpet too was moving under me

Those four legs need to be level,
as in the four pillars of -- what? -- I don't know, you make the call
Consult your own tabla rasa, as I consider mine
An even keel?
A solid foundation ?
I guess not.
In this house everything rolls slowly from the from the front door to the back,
the kitchen to the bedroom
I too sometimes find myself sliding toward the backyard
My big toe and half an ankle protruding through a window
That's what happens when you have a wobbly table
You stay up too late
... and have the weirdest dreams.

Here's what NaPoWriMo has to say for itself: