Our Inner Divinity

Mother Teresa swears in the bathroom.

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Sven(!) asked me to read the poem I wrote in class today. No, wait. I didn’t write a poem in class today. I wrote a poem last week, and turned it in as an addition to an assignment. Today, in class, Sven(!) asked me to read it. I posted it, but don’t remember if I mentioned anything more about it in the previous post, so I’ll mention it here: this was for philosophy class:

(The False Sartre)

I can point my hands at numbered things
and I can perch upon the wall.
I can wear a face you see right through
and I can speed or I can stall.

But I cannot be the time I tell
nor the alarm you’ve come to hate.
I can only be what I am not yet
and wake you up with your bad faith.

There is no concise way to describe why that poem makes (some small) sense for Sartre, so take my word for it. But I read the poem out loud for my class, and felt surprisingly calm and secure about doing it. Last quarter at South Seattle College, my creative writing teacher set up a poetry reading for us in the auditorium on campus. There were forty-ish people in the audience (including my class), and I was miserable reading up there like that, but I hadn’t presented anything for anyone since an OPORD or two in the Army fifteen years ago. It went well. During this current quarter at Seattle University I’ve done two presentations in my Natural Hazards class, and now today, the impromptu poem reading. I think it’s all starting to feel a little more normal. Which will help when I read my poem at the release party for Fragments Magazine. It’s not that poem up there. We’ve been over this.

Major subject change, but something happened today while I was studying in Starbucks that made me think for a while. Made me wonder about myself and my reactions to things: A girl dropped an F-bomb, and it bothered me. What I am wondering is whether it is fair that I know it wouldn’t have bothered me if it was a man. Well, wait – that’s not actually true. It would still have bothered me, but differently. So that’s the fairness I’m wondering about, and here’s the difference: a man swears needlessly in public and I think “what a jerk.” A woman swears needlessly in public and I think “you’re better than that.” I become disappointed. Context matters, of course. My wife can swear around the house (THOUGH SHE NEVER HAS.) and it’s no big deal (IT WOULDN’T BE A BIG DEAL IF SHE EVER DID IT. WHICH SHE HASN’T. EVER). It’s private and domestic. Our standards don’t lower because we’re home, but our expectations do shift with the intimacy of naked tooth brushings and handling dirty underwear. If Mother Teresa swore in a flower shop I’d feel The Apocalypse bearing down. If she swore in the bathroom I’d tell her to light a match.

The public sphere is different. We need to represent, to some extent, our higher selves. Not through any overt displays, and I’m not expecting rampant sainthood, but looking closely enough at someone should reveal a glimpse of some faint tether to inner divinity. Especially in women. Men, however, I have mostly given up on. We are hopelessly vulgar and mundane. Clever and powerful and packed with potential that is often realized, yes. We heave our creations out of the muck for general consumption, but we never come clean ourselves. We are rotten and banal and probably beyond redemption. We can be good people who do good things, but to hear a prim and proper, well-dressed sort of man walk down the church steps after mass and say “Now where’d I park that fucking car” would give me no pause for disappointment. No feeling of letdown. I expect this expulsion of discernment, because we lost our claim to the throne probably as far back as Cain. A man displaying social and cultural impiety has all the meaning of an off-leash dog shitting on a pool deck. You’d rather not see it, but it’s exactly as much as you can hope for.

When, on the other hand, I see (as I did today), a similarly prim and proper woman, with hair and boots and everything done up “just so” and exemplifying all the wonder and elevated being that men have lost completely, say “some fucking freshman,” I am sharply disappointed. It comes out as a spurned deification from someone who had a chance, man. Another fallen angel.

Now don’t get me wrong, if she has facial piercings and neck tattoos and is standing behind protest signs, I don’t expect anything more from her than I do from a man. She’s made her move, and it is a permanent diminution. But to have, as women do, a GPS with the route to The Kingdom in its presets, and then to follow HBO into an underground cockfight instead, well, it’s just kind of a blow to any general sense of optimism I might be carrying around.

Not a very big blow, though. My inner divinity knows where it’s at and what it’s not. And I still get to read poems out loud to my philosophy class.

Transgressions

Still going this morning…

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“Transgress.” Because you have to have that edgy, sometimes-crime-is-right vibe going on. But of course, it’s college after all. They aren’t going to say “Uphold Current Social Norms.” Imagine how hosed college would be if things were generally ok. What would people at colleges do if they weren’t moved to transgress all the time? (Please, by the way, nobody tell them that the current social norms are them. They’ll get too boring.)

I can’t remember the last time I transgressed,  – wait, I can. I remember sitting in my first back-to-college class, a week or two in. We’d been split into small groups, and as I sat there with four kids in their late teens and early twenties, I had cause to say “Are you asking who cares about it? I do. I am one. I care a great deal about what happens to white males.” While caring about my future is a rather perfunctory and mundane thing to me, it’s what transgression is in 21st century America.

Clearly, at 41 years old, I still cannot help myself from showing gratitude through insult and cynicism. “Fragments” is the literary magazine at Seattle University, and they’ve selected one of my poems for publication. But you know this. I was able to  get hold of last year’s edition, with a bonus 2013 copy thrown in for free. The worries that I had about being the only submission, or in some other way seeing my elation diminished, are put to rest. It’s a good, heady collection of very high quality work. I am in good company, and in every way justified in feeling just tickled as hell to be a part of it. Though in honesty, if I was the only submission, I would still consider myself poet laureate of at least my home, and present my work as enthusiastically as ever.

Somebody commented on one of my Facebook posts “So you’re a poetry guy. Cool.” I find it odd, first, that he is just now seeing that. But I don’t usually put my poetry on FB, I put links to my poetry there. I know that people don’t look closely at everything. They don’t click through. And this is not a reactionary lamentation. We can’t look closely at everything. We choose, mostly unconsciously, what sorts of things to plaster onto our days.  To choose everything would crush us, then turn us inside out. Parenting, for instance, is often an involuntary capitulation brought on by too many things choosing you. And if you haven’t felt crushed and inside out after mad morning with kids, fights over toothbrushings and HURRY UP WE’RE LATE, feed the dog and no, the dishwasher still needs to be unloaded, and SERIOUSLY NO SOCKS, then you don’t have kids. It’s the closest to lost you’ll ever feel. Helpless. The parent knows it. The crime victim knows it. The soldier knows it. And it’s all because, as I said already, too many things have chosen you. We are limited, but discerning. The world is neither.

But yes, to end it quickly and get off to school, I am a poetry guy. I need to put it to good use. I am not a crusader, not a protester, not a fighter. But if anything needs a transgressor right now, it is poetry. Not as the boring “voice” against the world’s evils. That anyone is still writing about oppression or bad presidents is depressingly unhelpful. Poetry itself needs to be transgressed against. To have it dragged up from its self-obsession, pulled by its collar from the cave, subsumed, ultimately, by its own protests. And to start celebrating knowledge again. I promise to make it fun.

(The False Sartre)

Clocking in with a playful one.

I can point my hands at numbered things
and I can perch upon the wall.
I can wear a face you see right through
and I can speed or I can stall.

But I cannot be the time I tell
nor the alarm you’ve come to hate.
I can only be the thing I am
and wake you up with your bad faith.

What Just Happened?

How does one go about celebrating one’s first publication? I say, I do it with lofty, rather British sounding English. I’m quite chuffed, and all that, even if it makes me sound a bit toff.

Dear Andy Havens,

Thank you for submitting to Fragments. We have decided to publish The Whole Sky, All at Once in this year’s edition. You will be invited to read/present your piece at a later date, this May. We look forward to seeing you there.

I’ve already made the obviously poor decision of wondering whether mine was the only submission, and that took some of the wind out of my sails (or took the piss, if I’m to stay on the British thing). But it’s an annual publication, so I have to believe that at least a few poems were dropped in the queue over the course of the submission period. I don’t know how long that period was, as I saw a notification for it just 2 days before it closed.

They have given me email addresses to contact concerning this whole thing, and I certainly will, what with that whole part about “read/present your piece.” Maybe I’ll do the ugly thing and ask how many other submissions there were. Maybe I’ll save myself the disappointment. I don’t know.

Here’s the big winner. It’s not the first time I’ve posted it here:

The Whole Sky, All at Once

You can’t look for the lightning
Dad said
or you’ll never see the flash.
He would pull the Buick out to the street
and we sat like crooked teeth
in the yawning maw of the garage.
A storm coming deliberately at us
and the tornado siren
wailing with a bored urgency
like the ambulance of the great plains.
We pulled over.

You can’t look for the lightning
Dad said
or you’ll always just miss it.
He would talk about seeing the whole sky
and we sat like crooked teeth
in the yawning maw of the garage.
We tried to look at nothing and everything
while the old corn across the street
whispered with a quickened urgency
like the dying secrets of the great plains.
We closed our ears.

You can’t look for the lightning
Dad said
or someone else will see it.

Careful With That Analysis, Eugene

And then one of their sons grew dreadlocks and opened a bar selling jerk chicken or fried conch or something.

Dry Foot Bwoy

“By writing this in rhymed iambic pentameter, Louise Bennett has sort of shoe-horned her Colonial Jamaican language into a traditional, white, almost entirely male literary form, and made it hers. It’s very impressive, and a powerful message.”

“Ummm…”

“Oh dear God what now, Andy?”

“So is it because it’s Thursday, or for some other reason that now we’re celebrating cultural appropriation instead of condemning it?”

No, I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that because you can’t. I didn’t say that because it is the “other reason” for which we were celebrating this kind of cultural appropriation. Literary analysis is frequently suffocatingly mono-directional. There are simply some analyses that are not allowed. I did say this:

“The family moved to England. They live in England. One of them got out of the house and learned to be English, and his whole family has shunned and ridiculed him for it. Haven’t we anything to say about them?”

We had nothing to say about them, except “bravo.” And so I didn’t say anything else.

Bt it’s all so obvious and so easy. Imagine, for a moment, if a white family moved from Texas to Jamaica and refused to pick up any of the dialect. Refused to sound in any way Jamaican. Refused any level of assimilation. The Republic of Friggin Texas was gonna stand tall and wave its Lone Star flag in a suburb of Kingston. And then one of their sons grew dreadlocks and opened a bar selling jerk chicken or fried conch or something, came home saying shit was all irie, mon, in his best Jamaican Patois, and then the Texas family wrote a reggae song full of “ya’ll” and “ain’t” to celebrate the fact that they kicked him out for being too black. And then Jamaicans in Jamaican colleges applauded them for it.

Small wonder I am feeling less and less capable of succeeding in there. I’m going to have to limit the depth of my interrogations if I want to finish as strongly as I started.

I have a different kind of problem with Philosophy. If I worry at all about my success in that class, it is because it is hard.  Thank God for the A on my most recent paper. The one about a foundational human principle. My thesis statement went like this:

The first principle of the human person is that we bond to things that are not ourselves, and we have no meaningful existence until we do that bonding.

Not world-shaking stuff, and not necessarily what I would say to the question next week. Turned out to be fairly prescient when we began studying Sartre, who is a big fan of consciousness needing something to be conscious of. I developed it well and impressed my professor, so mission accomplished. Have an excerpt:

This is sticky, but if my theory does not eliminate god (and it does not), then it also does not eliminate permanence or ubiquity. The bonds of art with audience are downstream bonds, subject to the bonds that came before, and move beyond what we’ve already discussed, into the realm of social relevance. They are not foundational bonds. They supplement or reinforce our existence, without being responsible for it. Therefore the bonds of meaning that the arts offer to us are sharable and broadly applicable across humanity. Interpretations can be common and shared, because the found meaning is the permanent thread. The social implications of “The Lady of Shalott” do not infiltrate the world as the isolated reactions of its readers, rather as the communal discovery of moral truths. Namely that, in her case as in ours, we are meaningless as long as we remain separated and unbonded from reality. That breaking out of confinement in order to bond with Truth is a permanent expression of The Good, and worth dying for.

It’s interesting, in light of that sample, that I am struggling with wrapping up a paper analyzing the Lady of Shalott for British Literature. Literary analysis has a restriction that philosophy does not, which is that in literature it can be bad to get too philosophical. In philosophy there is no such penalty for being too literary.

Thanks for being here lately.

Get Bothered

It ain’t nothing unless it isn’t.

Every time I’m all “maybe I’ll major in Philosophy,” something like this happens. The one-pager I am turning in today, after having Sartre forced upon me:

Readings from Group 2. Also Not-Group-Two. Also The Nihilating Interrogation of Both Group to and Not-Group-Too. Also Peter Wears Skis to the Café. Also My Mother Would Be So Confused.

I get Peter and the café. I get the nothingness of the café, the nihilation of its parts and sounds and smells into a ground that exists only to serve as a backdrop against which I get to know whether Peter is there or not. And I get why Peter not being there is a persistent nothingness – the café simply cannot help itself from showing me Peter’s absence absolutely everywhere in it:

“Look! There’s not Peter!”
“Thank you, café!”

Wellington and Valery don’t matter, and that’s cool, too. I have no expectation, and therefore have not initiated any nihilation to ground, and they remain unrelated to the café.

But WHAT IS GOING ON after this? I am the questioner, and I want to know whether Peter is at the café. My question supposes both Peter-at and Peter-not-at-the-café. My question creates the possibility of the non-being of Peter, because that’s what all questions do. My question supposes Peter, not-Peter, the café, and my question instantiates the nihilating withdrawal (to nothingness?) of the café. But why do I need to “wrench” myself “away from being” in order to make this possible? Is it because if the question originates from me, is connected innately to my being (“determined in the questioner”), then it no longer has any necessary tether to Peter or the café or their negations and nihilations at all?

It would definitely be easy to do the old “why bother” in a case like this. But I’m not a 41 year old Junior in college for “why bother.” I’m gonna bother, until it bothers everyone how much I’m bothering.

Sincerely, My Unnui

…so I know she isn’t just Piss-Christ all the way down.

No doubt even Richard Petty woke up every now and again and said “The next asshole who even says the word ‘car’ is getting demoted to lug nut sorting.” In other words, that we love something, and that we are fulfilled by it, and that we are happy because of it, does not preclude occasional, immense frustrations with it. Indeed, it would be hard to have had a day as poor as yesterday without being so terribly in love with every part of it. But it’s (current year), man, and no one wants to hear about love.

Well, that’s why I asked my British Lit professor “is there any kind of movement afoot to counter the shallow relativism of post-modernism?”

“OH ABSOLUTELY.” She lit up for a moment, which was very reassuring. But she studies the crusty, lovey old brits for her scratch, so I already know she isn’t just Piss-Christ all the way down. In fact, if she is anything, I would have to say she is fair. I think she sees good and bad – or at least is willing to look equally for them – in just about any period. She likes Virginia Woolf, yet bristled at Woolf’s notion that she had no grandmothers in literature to draw upon. No female role models from the past, as it were. Who, she wondered, are Austen, Browning, Bronte, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, Christina Rosetti, and on and on?

I digress…

“Oh, absolutely,” she answered. “There’s a thing called neo-sincerity, for instance.” And last night, needing something to deform my ennui – no, not ennui. Ennui implies a lack of engagement. It is engagement specifically – too damned much engagement – that was my problem. So whatever unnui it was or wanted to be, it needed rescuing. (Again, all apologies to post-modernists, I’m perfectly happy noting out loud that I could use a little rescuing now and then.) I looked up neo-sincerity. I saw New Sincerity and David Foster Wallace. I am neither intellectually dead nor particularly brilliant, so I have heard of David Foster Wallace, but know nothing about him. I know very little more about him after a browse of the Wiki, but there were useful inflations in there. Things that could fill me out a little bit before going to bed like a cold sausage casing in a hard puddle of grease. For instance:

“Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal”. To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.”

“To risk the yawn.” I don’t mind risking the yawn. I’ll be happy to be called banal. If the Russel Brands and Lena Dunhams of the world are going to call me boring, well, I’ll gladly take it down a notch. I’m a sober, faithful husband and father who believes in God and permanent truths. I’ll be here when you wake up.

In other words: Look upon my works, ye mighty, and swipe left.

Everybody Must Be Stoned

I can get excited about Picasso and Duchamp and Braque for about 5 or 10 minutes, because for a while they actually look good.

You won’t know it, because I’ve already changed it, but that header image was far too dark. There’s an enlivening brightness out there today, the clouds having disappeared for now, and I logged in here to see a dreary picture from our snow day, all filtered down to mute sadness because I thought it made a point or something. No, no, not that. Never that. Never making a point. I rarely use art, especially photos, to make a point. I take pictures recreationally, and if I enhance them in any way, it is literally ONLY because I think they look better that way.

This is not a thing a modernist would admit to. Indeed, a modernist would actually have to negate it first, and then deny it. In other words, she would have to say “No, I swear I didn’t change that image ONLY because I think it looks worse that way.” Modernists are boring, though the early ones manage alright. I can get excited about Picasso and Duchamp and Braque for about 5 or 10 minutes, because for a while they actually look good. 

But then the messes and bicycle wheels just start looking like themselves again, and its not because I don’t get it. It’s because they just didn’t do it. And who could blame them? The impressionists beat them to the treasure, and put together the last beautiful moment in the visual arts. What could Picasso do after Monet vacated the stage for him, except to barely hold it together?

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As for the writing. Gerard Manley Hopkins, technically a Victorian, wrote some invigorating poetry and left it trailing behind him while fled apace from the Victorians and the Romantics:

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

How fun is that? And so far Virginia Woolf is also a good time. A small departure from the rigid, staid structure of earlier periods. She flows and rambles and loves the words, but never forgets to say what she has to say. The modernist period, as it moves forward from there, gets so much more enraptured with itself at the expense of the meaning that they simply give in and say, as if in coy secret knowledge, “You find the meaning, reader.” But not because the meaning is in there, rather, because the writer couldn’t be bothered. I read as much of “Ulysses” as I thought I was obligated to do, then recognized that I was no longer willing to give Joyce the satisfaction of my attention. There’s the sense, at least, that Joyce put his back into it a little bit. The painter just sought the easy path – the Pollock and the Rothko – and found it cleared of obstacles by a public who was tired of things being important. The public could form no bond with the important, and so they asked for, and received, something that looked as messy and meaningless as they felt. “We are not permanent. Please do not speak to us of permanent things.”

But they’re up against it from the start. If you’re a modernist, or a post-modernist, or doing anything which rests its meaning in negation, then it’s only useful once. By 1920 it was pretty much spent, and after that it was all just one kind of pooping in cans or another. Beauty is permanent. Reaction decays.

I don’t hate modern art. I hate that we give it space. But by its nature, modern art chased off everyone that wasn’t willing to clean up after it, and so it gained total control of its own momentum. And now there’s a huge rock in Los Angeles that we’re supposed to “appreciate,” once we’re properly told how to look at it.

 

 

Please Don’t Put Nuts in the Banana Bread

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There was a poem in my head
that dragged me from bed
and asked a few little things of me.
“Leave off the lights”
and
“Hold on to last night”
and
“Put me down here while you start the tea.”

So it sprawled on the table
while I lived in a fable
where my morning was mine at last.
But before the hot water,
came
“Good morning, Father!”
and
the kids ate my poem for breakfast.