My lyric essay “Post-War” is up on Eunoia Review:
My lyric essay “Post-War” is up on Eunoia Review:
I’ve been reading a book in which various people write about “the books that changed my life.” Porochista Khakpour, of whom I had not heard, chose Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys, a book that I happened to have just downloaded. Unfortunately, the great thing about the novel, in Khakpour’s account, is that it brought on a nervous breakdown. Here is a typical scene:
Our heroine, Sasha (not her real name, but she decided at some point that a new name would make her less depressed) is looking back on a time when she was working at a swank dressmaker’s in Paris. The new owner, who like Sasha is English, has come to scope things out. She is just the receptionist, so the questions are pretty easy. For example, asked about her French, she first denies that she speaks it, then says she speaks it “sometimes,” and finally admits that she has lived in Paris for eight yers. Then the grilling gets really tough:
What was your last job?”
“I worked at the Maison Chose, in the Place Vendome.”
“Oh really, you worked for Chose, did you? You worked for Chose.” His voice is more respectful.
“Were you receptionist there?”
“No,” I say. “I worked as a mannequin.”
“You worked as a mannequin.” Down and up his eyes go, up and down.
“How long ago was this?” he says.
How long ago was it? Now everything is a blank in my head. Years, days, hourrs…everything is a blank in my head. How long ago was it? I don’t know.
We begin to see why she was working as a mannequin.
Well, I think they must end up firing her, because in the book’s present she’s back in Paris with no job, no apparent purpose, living on borrowed money in a hotel she considers excessively dreary and spending her evenings chatting up strangers in a bar and weeping uncontrollably until they sneak off. And if they did fire her, one can hardly blame them.
I suppose that the book is a portrait of mental illness at a time when treatments, for those who sought them, ranged from ineffective quackery to sadistic quackery. But don’t people usually expect art to transform pain in some way, so that reading about a mental illness isn’t the same as contracting it? If I just wanted to experience hours of abject despair, I would watch Fox News.
I saw this quasi-found poem the other day. It kind of speaks for itself.
“Pawn” by Jenny B. Baker:
Two of my poems are on the blog of the Fine Arts Work Center’s online writing program, 24 Pearl Street.
Bombs Lift Yanks in Blowout
We have nothing to eat but meat itself.
They’ll raise the threat level to lamb shank
and make Mexico pay for it, ride us bareback
out of the international house of bondage
and into the deli of wrath.
I hate waking up in the dark
of a sunny spring morning,
getting mugged in the park
where every faction has an equal and opposite erection.
Move along, nothing to see here,
better to turn a blind eye
into a sow’s ear.
eye the ice-cube map of the world,
mulling over its wise cracks
the stuttering sutures on our lips,
the guttering flame of our flickering wicks.
I hate the whine of a leaf-blower, the spleen of a stone-thrower,
the bony glow of a sleek preacher, a teacher
who tells you one thing one day
and out the other. Straight lines, I’m told,
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I had been gnawing away for about a week at A. J. P. Taylor’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 when I ran across the following, in a NYRB article by Mark Mazower:
When British political warfare specialists were looking in 1942 for a basic handbook to help their servicemen to understand the country and the philosophy they were fighting, there was nothing up to date. A.J.P. Taylor, a young don who would later become one of the first historians to appear regularly on British television, was called in to write a general introduction to Germany. What he produced was so short on information and so full of wisecracks that it was rejected by readers in British intelligence and never distributed…
No-one could accuse the magisterial Struggle of lacking information, but the part about the wisecracks came as no surprise. In his introduction, Taylor describes international relations in his period as the province of cosmopolitan ‘diplomatists’ who shared a class (upper), a language (French, except for some of the Brits), and an ethos, for “all diplomatists were honest, according to their moral code.” The punchline comes in the attached footnote: “It becomes wearisome to add ‘except the Italians’ to every generalization. Henceforth, it may be assumed.” Snap.
Taylor likes to make fun of Italians, but every nation takes some shots. Of Nicholas I he writes: “As usual, the Tsar did not know what was in the treaty that he was seeking to enforce.” And of course there are the Germans: “Like other Germans, Bismarck regarded bullying as the best preliminary to friendship. The French did not.”
That one is almost Steinian. The same pattern of long windup and short delivery is found in the next example, where Taylor mocks the generosity of British overtures to Germany: “The pattern was being set for the following thirty years, in which Germany was repeatedly offered the privilege of defending British interests against Russia, without other reward than a grudgin patronage. Bismarck did not respond to this offer.”
And future generations do not escape his cold eye: “Monarchical solidarity in those days, like democratic principles in ours, was a good way of escaping treaty commitments.”
Sometimes Taylor’s references to ‘our’ time serve as reminders that he is writing in 1954: “Bulgarians and Serbs were far more akin than Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, between whom union has been successfully accomplished.” Or not. Actually, his attitude toward the Serbs, who come across more as the victims than the instigators of the outbreak of World War I, is notably different from that of Christopher Clark in his recent Sleepwalkers, where the Serb nationalists of 100 years ago show some of the same fabricated victimhood and murderous self-pity that we’ve come to know in more recent times.
Taylor also seems to say that the British still dominate the eastern Mediterranean, which brings home how stark the lesson of 1956 must have been. After Britain’s embarrassing failure in the trumped-up Suez crisis, everybody knew the Empire thing had jumped the shark and it was time to focus on making the world’s best pop music and worst sausage.
I’ll leave you with a couple of further gems. Sadly the capsule bio of Rosebury is never elaborated upon:
“The French, however, did not feel that a Russian occupation of Budapest, or even of Vienna, would be any consolation for a German occupation of Paris.”
“Rosebury, the new foreign secretary, meant to maintain the continuity of foreign policy, a doctrine which he had himself invented. His main task was thus to deceive both his chief and his colleagues, a task which he discharged conscientiously, but only at the cost of aggravating his naturally nervous temperament to the point of insanity.”
“France was the rock, somewhat flaky but a rock all the same, on which the German schemes broke.”
My poem “The Mourner’s Song” is in the new issue of Tinderbox Poetry Journal. Many thanks to poetry editor Jennifer Givhan.
I might as well admit that I’ve been on a personal news blackout since Wednesday. I don’t even want to know who’s in Trump’s cabinet, at least not yet. But I can’t help mulling over the results. So here’s what has been racing around in my head.
Remember the 2008 primaries? Hillary Clinton’s base was said to be working-class white voters, and she rode their support to victories in Ohio and Pennsylvania, especially after Obama’s famous gaffe about bitter people resorting to guns and religion. Then Clinton completely annihilated Obama in West Virginia and Kentucky, by margins of something like 45 or 50 points. These states are, of course full of uneducated white people.
I was not a Clinton supporter in 2008. In fact, I had been an admirer of Obama’s since before he won his Senate primary in ’04. But this year, I supported her over Sanders because I thought that she would have a broader appeal, that she would be appeal to the same people who came out for her in ’08 and who would be turned off by a socialist. Something went teribly wrong with that theory, and it turned out that, much as folks in rural Ohio and Pennsylvania and West Virginia didn’t like Obama, in 2016 they had come to hate Clinton even more.
West Virginia was once a Democratic stronghold, and nobody was surprised when Bill Clinton won it twice. By 2012, it had flipped hard, and Obama lost it by about 30 points; this year, Clinton lost it by over 40 points, a mind-boggling margin. I don’t suppose any Democrat is going to win WV or KY or even Missouri for a while, but we’ll need to win more than 30 percent of uneducated white people to survive.
The scariest state for me is Iowa, which went from Obama +5 to Trump +10. How is that even possible? What sort of freak would vote for both Obama and Trump? It’s baffling, but I don’t think that all the people who voted for Trump are truly fans of his. People in the upper Midwest are not that fond of boastful, self-promoting trash-talkers; even our right wingers tend to be sanctimonious and wholesome nuts, not Vegas-style playboys. And indeed, Trump lost the Iowa caucus, finished 3rd in the Minnesota caucus, got whipped in the Wisconsin primary. He’s not beloved around here.
But he got the votes, and part of it is party loyalty, but a lot must be how people feel about Clinton.
So, what’s the deal with Clinton’s unpopularity? The explanation I’ve heard most is misogyny, and that’s clearly present in the way people talk about her, but it feels inadequate to me. Would any other woman have been equally reviled? If so, how have women gotten elected in other countries, including countries that are not famous paragons of gender equality? Right now the leaders of South Korea and Taiwan are women; Michelle (sp?) bachelet has been elected twice in Chile and Djilma Rusef was elected twice in Brazil, though she’s since been deposed. Angela Merkel has been the dominant politician in Europe for about 10 years…I’m just mentioning cases off the top of my head. Not everybody like Margaret Thatcher, but a hell of a lot of them voted for her.
Clinton’s gender was used against her in many shameful ways, and the same weapons will be used against the next woman who runs, but they will not necessarily be as effective, because the next one may not have the same sources of vulnerability. If you want to know how hard it was to be a will-connected career insider from a presidential family in this cycle, you can ask Jeb Bush. Remember that he was once the favorite for the GOP nomination, and look how his candidacy went pear-shaped; Clinton looks pretty successful in comparison. I still don’t entirely understand how she went from veteran pol with too many friends on Wall Street to devious master criminal, and how people could come to think of her as no more trustworthy than Trump. The media didn’t cover itself in glory this year, I know, but…
She is, of course, not as gifted a speaker as the last two Democratic presidents; that is setting the bar rather high, but maybe that’s the only way to win when your opponent is appealing to voters’ reptile brains.
I think most of us could feel the lack of inspiration this year, and some of that just comes from being the incumbent party, running for a third term. Fortunately the incumbent is pretty popular, but for whatever reason, “things are fairly good, let’s stay the course” was not a message that brought people to their feet.
There were some comments on Facebook Wednesday about how the election proved what a racist, misogynist country we are. It certainly showed that there are way way too many racists and misogynists in our country, but it should be borne in mind that it’s the same country that elected Barack Obama twice, and that Trump was not elected by a majority, or even a plurality of Americans. Clinton will end up with more votes than Trump, a million or two more, if California ever counts its effing ballots. The 4 million votes by which she will have won CA (I’m guessing how many are still to be counted) would be enough to flip a bunch of states, from FL to PA to MI, with Georgia and Arizona thrown in. I was as shocked as everyone else at how many Americans were willing to hand their country over to Trump, but it should be within our power to make the faschists an impotent minority.
I’ve seen some references to voters wanting ‘change.’ I don’t think this is a useful characterization of what happened, because the same people who voted for Trump apparently were happy with their incumbent senators and reps, including Rubio in FL, Toomey in PA, Johnson in WI, Burr in NC, Blount in MO, and Portman in OH. The people who wanted one kind of change showed up at the polls; the people who wanted another kind didn’t.
The surge in Latino turnout actually did happen, as predicted, though perhaps not to quite the degreee that some were hoping for. Clinton outperformed the 2012 Obama in several states with large Latin populations,: Texas, Arizona, California. The problem is, of course, that none of these are swing states, so the improvement had no effect.
I don’t see much evidence of the Latino wave in Florida or Nevada; maybe it was there, and was offset by poorer performance with other groups. Nevada has lots of uneducated white people, and a dropoff in the enthusiasm of African-Americans seems indicated by Clinton’s poor performance in North Carolina and Michigan.
The decades-long drift of educated white people toward the Democrats led Clinton to perform well, even compared to Obama, in places like Virginia, Massachusetts, and Washington state. This also probably contributed to her surprising performance in Georgia, which is increasingly educated as well as being the destination of significant reverse migration by black people.