Rooted Cosmopolitanism and the Emergence of the Poet in Seamus Heaney’s North

The link goes to a short conference paper I’ve prepared for ACTC’s 23rd annual conference in Dallas, TX. I will be presenting the paper shortly at a panel entitled “Recovering from the Past through Poetry and Literature.” If you’re interested in reading, I’ve uploaded it here:

http://www.ashokkarra.com/rooted-cosmopolitanism-and-the-emergence-of-the-poet/

Hope you enjoy. It’s a work in progress, and advice is welcome.

Blog in Review: “I haven’t even been regular about blogging,” 4/11/17

What I want shouldn’t be contradictory, but it feels like a contradiction. I want self-control — far less anxiety, far more purpose. And I want to invest in myself, do the things I know are worth doing. Put that way, there seems to be no problem. Self-control should lead to discipline and I should be doing whatever I like well and reveling in success.

Of course, no such thing is happening: I haven’t even been regular about blogging. Self-control and investment in oneself are not the same thing, and the difference shows a multitude of ways. Give up anxiety, for example, and you might give up the inhibitions which lead to better behavior. Or focus on bettering oneself, and realize that your own priorities are muddled. I should be writing and taking care of my health and applying for jobs and doing coursework and corresponding with scholars in my field and making sure I’m giving friends and family the attention they need — the funny thing is that I’m not half as busy as most others, but sorting out what needs to be done at a given moment can be a nightmare.

Which is why for about a month now I’ve been thinking about the ways we punish ourselves. Issa’s “Even with insects” concerns frustration; “On Anxiety” speaks for itself. The overarching theme is that self-expression, voicing and identifying one’s problems, could bring a sense of relief, but oh, so much resides in that “could.” When writing about Andrew Johnston’s “Boat,” I had the thought that we romanticize the power of thought, seeing ourselves as discovering new continents when we’re actually just figuring out the limits of our own minds and lives.

I then switched, in what little I wrote, from the theme of anxiety to love. I wasn’t thinking about anyone in particular, but I did want to address how I felt at earlier times in my life. Fiona Farrell’s “What It’s Like” and H.W. Gretton’s “Triolet” did not disappoint in helping me clear up attitudes I had that were certainly problematic. Andrew Johnston’s “For Rose” helped me identify what matters above all. I can’t say blogging translates into immediate self-improvement, obviously. But it’s nice to have a record of what I’m trying to work through.

Now what’s on my mind is beginning to shift again. I’m working through Seamus Heaney’s “North” carefully, and that means a lot of thinking about what history means. One of his poems, from the short cycle “Bone Dreams,” I thought worth expanding upon. It felt like there was a whole scholastic sort of debate hiding in that verse. More on Heaney coming soon.

As I introduce this last link, I’m thinking it’s apt for how I started this post. Notions like “self-control” and “investment in oneself” imply that we have a lot more power over our lives than we may have. They imply that we give up power, more often than not. Maybe that’s true, but maybe it’s also the case that we’re all a bit scatterbrained, a bit distracted. I rewatched an Arnold movie I rather liked two days ago, “The Last Stand,” and I used the write-up to comment on contemporary politics and what it means to reflect on one’s own legacy. I don’t know in what I invested, and watching the movie wasn’t a demonstration of self-control on my part. Yet I suspect not a few of you will find my musings about the film pretty damn relevant.

The Last Stand

The Last Stand. Directed by Jee-woon Kim. Written by Andrew Knauer. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, & Johnny Knoxville. Lionsgate, 2013.

Jamelle Bouie once tweeted that The Last Stand was the last great Schwarzenegger movie, and maybe it was April Fools’ Day when he said that, but I concur. The art direction makes every scene a comic book panel come to life. A dusty Western town has cornfields and dirt roads glow with sunshine; a diner’s recognizable decor invites through its brightness; the darker, bluish hues of an FBI unit losing a fugitive capture the stress of the situation. Attention to detail makes the action realistic enough. Police tactical shotguns can penetrate the body armor of hired guns, but stand no chance against their scoped, military grade weaponry in terms of distance and damage. The deaths in the movie are grisly and final, and the wounds make you wince. Still, there’s enough ridiculous, over-the-top sequences that one doesn’t forget why one came to the movies.

Certainly, Arnold himself doesn’t forget why he came to the movies. His sheriff in an Arizona border town is only a stand-in for him, but his performance is the heart of the film. People might make the mistake of saying that playing yourself is easy. It really isn’t, and I’ll prove it this way: when was the last time you genuinely tried to be yourself? Arnold’s sheriff, one Ray Owens, used to work in Los Angeles, with a narcotics unit trained in special tactics. One of his deputies in the sleepy small town of Somerton knows this, and pleads with Ray to help him get a job in the big city for action’s sake. Ray answers that Los Angeles is not all it’s cracked up to be, implying that there’s something genuinely good about a town where nothing happens, maybe one where people don’t even see movies.

It’s tough to believe Ray because Arnold is in front of us, acting in a big-budget film right in front of our eyes. Of course, the disproportion between being a cop who can impose his will on dangerous situations and a jacked-up action star makes his advice somewhat believable. If you want to be a policeman who gets the glory he deserves, you don’t know what you’re asking for only seems to strictly correspond to Ray, the sheriff. It can’t possibly have anything to do with Arnold the action star, can it?

But it has everything to do with Arnold the action star. Why do people want to master dangerous situations in the first place? What glory do they see in winning duels, crushing their enemies, seeing them driven away? Why is everything so violent? The villains in The Last Stand have all the bravado and superhuman feats of 80’s action stars. The mercenaries resemble Arnold’s fellow cast in Commando and Predator; the drug kingpin races cars, does stunts regularly, wears designer suits that stay flawless while performing martial arts, designs devious, outrageous plans. Arnold is at his most believable when he says he’s seen blood and death, that he knows what’s coming when the mercenaries plan to secure his town for their boss’ getaway. I submit the only way he can be so believed is that he’s aware of the responsibility he’s had in glorifying violence. As much as I love those stupid Fast and Furious movies, there’s no doubt they contribute a glamour to street racing that street racing doesn’t deserve. There are impressionable people in the world, and media does its best to prey on impressions, no matter how often we try to create things of value.

Arnold’s performance, though, doesn’t end on a tragic note. Throughout the movie he mentors, teaches, encourages. His hero warns the deputy of his ambition, speaks honestly to another scared deputy about fear, levels with the perfectly reasonable complaint that standing up to the cartels is a suicide mission, asks people to finish what they’ve started. It’s impossible in Trumpland to not see a glaring contrast between what no less than Aristotle would have proclaimed gentlemanly — read: political — virtues and the politics of conspiracy theory we have now. It’s impossible to not think that an actor, of all people, learned something reflecting on his career, wondering about what matters. The other performances in The Last Stand, for the most part, match that gravity. Forest Whitaker’s FBI agent, having what could be the worst day of his life, has it out with Arnold over the phone in an exchange made all the more tense because of each’s restraint. Jaimie Alexander’s deputy shows a vast range of emotion over a series of traumatic events: locking up one’s ex-boyfriend, finding a body, facing machine gun fire, seeing your partner die.

Only two things irritate me about the movie. Firstly, I could have used less of Johnny Knoxville’s Dinkum, a small-town eccentric in love with guns. He, like the diner waitress Christie, is an over-the-top caricature, and I fully understand why they have to be in the movie. I get now, in a way I didn’t before, that even the most serious scripts need secondary characters for whom the gravity of a given situation is almost a joke. Only by seeing a lot more of life did I realize that some people just don’t get what’s going on, or get what’s going on in a way most of us cannot recognize. Secondly, and much more seriously, I wish the good guys in this movie were much more diverse, especially Arnold’s deputies. There’s a lot of diversity in the casting, sure, but it did feel like it fell heavily on the bad guy grunt roles. The movie accidentally indulges the notion that small-town law enforcement, i.e. heartland values, and whiteness go hand-in-hand (to be fair, there is an ethnically Mexican deputy who is a fun character). It’s a dangerous notion to give any credence nowadays, though, and I know Arnold is someone who can see this problem a mile away. I suspect the reason why white nationalism is experiencing a revival in certain Christian circles is the inability to see people who are different as concerned with law, concerned with making a place a real home. Ultimately, “American” becomes confused with “white,” as if Martin Luther King Jr. is less American than Charles Manson. In addition to the small town value of not glorifying violence, not destroying people with style to proclaim one’s mastery, it would have been nice to see another value emphasized, that of welcomeness, of openness, of hospitality.

Seamus Heaney, “Bone Dreams,” III

III (from “Bone Dreams”)
Seamus Heaney

In the coffered
riches of grammar
and declensions
I found ban hus,

its fire, benches,
wattle and rafters,
where the soul
fluttered a while

in the roofspace.
There was a small crock
for the brain,
and a cauldron

of generation
swung at the centre:
love-den, blood-holt,
dream-bower.

Comment:

The raid killed the older monks, leaving only not-quite-teenage youth as the only scribes and scholars in the region. They hotly debated ban hus (“bone house”): were the people right to use the term? One of the more reclusive lashed out in the name of Creation’s majesty. “This does no justice even to concupiscence; it fails to explain why the flesh would even tempt. A bone house is a cage of despair, nothing more.” You could almost detect a hint of tenderness in his argument, if it were not for the fact that he declared everyone else he knew a nihilist, except himself.

Against his sophistication, one had to sound smart, otherwise all the youth would turn on their homeland for a trifle. Literal details and metaphorical meaning mattered less than carving out a space for humility. So another found a story, one resembling the sort told by an elder versed in everything except the Gloss. God — you could almost hear gods — made us as we make, housing our spirit in bones just as we settle our bodies in houses. Our bodies have “fire, benches, wattle and rafters, where the soul flutter[s] a while in the roofspace.” This prompted groans from the other youth. Fire, they said, was certainly lower, reaching to “wattle” and “rafters.” But benches? There were multiple people inside one of us?

He continued as if they had said nothing, quickly speaking to the seat of intelligence — “there was a small crock for the brain” — and then he moved to the mystery, one almost divine for those entering adulthood. “A cauldron of generation swung at the centre: love-den, blood-holt, dream-bower.” No one snickered, as they heard their adolescent longings turned into mystical science. They quietly understood how ban hus sustained their ancestors, how their dreams, rationality’s reaches, were at stake.

Andrew Johnston, “For Rose”

Writing about anxiety and love, as I’ve done recently, feels strange. On the one hand, I’m figuring out what to do with experiences from years past, how I acted rightly or wrongly, how I let certain emotions or ideas govern me. On the other hand, there is no resolution, despite a greater sense of security regarding my own memories. I don’t have answers about how exactly I should have acted except regarding things I was definitely wrong to indulge. All I can do is speak a bit better about what has passed.

Yet there are moments in life which speak their own significance, almost taking away all our words. The birth of a child is one of them:

For Rose
Andrew Johnston

Rosie Marsland b 26/7/94

What does sunlight sound like?
A white flower in darkness knows,

an ear that hears both ways, and sees —
sirens, and silence; laughter, and after;

conversation of insects all over the house
and a steady heart

thinking the the the
and Rose’s ear, born furled, unfolds

that hears these, and those, and knows —
Rose listens to the world, the world listens to Rose.

Comment:

Johnston responds to Robert Frost’s “Design” rather forcefully. “Design” opens with an indirect description of a child: “I found a dimpled spider, fat and white, / On a white heal-all.” That spider, of course, readies himself to eat a captured moth, but other than that, it resembles a baby, “fat,” “white,” “dimpled.” Not much later, the wings of the dead moth are carried “like a paper kite.”

Children are not merely carriers of darkness in this world. “What does sunlight sound like? A white flower in darkness knows:” the beauty of the world makes itself known in how that beauty is responded to. Rose herself, fully animate, precedes and underlies adult rationality. She is “a white flower in darkness,” “an ear that hears both ways, and sees.” The “sirens and the silence” each matter just as much to her. “Laughter” is as pure to her as what comes after.

She participates in “the conversation of insects all over the house,” listening carefully, maintaining “a steady heart.” The conversation of insects thinks, or inspires thinking of, “the the the.” Insects think objects, “I-it” relations. This reminds of Hopkins’ “As kingfishers catch fire” — the relevant lines:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

In crying “what I do is me: for that I came,” all mortal things do one thing and the same. They speak and spell themselves, and the funny thing is that they don’t really speak an “I.” An “I” depends on a “Thou,” another with equal respect. They reduce themselves to objects. “The the the” is mere difference, as one simply wants to be counted among innumerable other objects.

This is not to say insects are awful, selfish souls who are incapable. We know they’re better company than people most times. For that matter, I myself don’t know that “I-it” relations alone mark moral shallowness. I only believe in what is proven. “Rose’s ear, born furled, unfolds / that hears these, and those, and knows.” Rose hears more and reaches beyond herself, beyond objects as “the.” There are “these,” immediate to her, “those,” a bit more remote, and then knowledge, knowledge that all of these and those and things far beyond have value. The value of the world resides in the joy of simply being: “Rose listens to the world, the world listens to Rose.”

References

Andrew Johnston, “For Rose,” from Essential New Zealand Poems: A-Z, ed. Lauris Edmond & Bill Sewell. Auckland: Godwit, 2001. p. 142