Fanny Howe, “Yellow Goblins”

Yellow Goblins (from Poetry)
Fanny Howe

Yellow goblins
and a god I can swallow:

Eyes in the evergreens
under ice.

Interior monologue
and some voice.

Weary fears, the
usual trials and

a place to surmise


1. At Half Price Books, at a small table littered with books, I struggled for an hour with Fanny Howe’s slim volume Second Childhood. An hour is nothing for serious writing. People ask why I read any poetry at all and I just stare at them blankly. Yeah, there are some bad poets, trivial verses, people looking to make a name rather than truly write. But why wouldn’t you want to read something where a person put everything on the line? Good poems are remembered, and I have to believe that an individual is reconceived along with them.

Howe’s verse is strikingly personal, but my encounter with Second Childhood frustrated me. Far too terse in places, verse connecting to memories I’m struggling to imagine. Name dropping – Dante, etc. – that doesn’t introduce me to what themes or ideas she’s attempting to engage. And then, like a meteor streaking across the sky on an overheated summer night, maybe the most original and well-crafted imagery I’ve ever seen. To wit, from “The Garden:”

Black winter gardens
engraved at night
keep soft frost
on them to read the veins
of our inner illustrator’s
hand internally light
with infant etching.

Most poets would mention with some sort of flair that frost covered the garden at night and move to another image or scene. I don’t think even the best would do what Howe does here. She gives us the whole of a winter garden at night as nothing but an engraving. All is dark; the soft frost are the lines etched into what is otherwise black slate. The frost defines, as it lightens the veins of the branches, leaves, grass, flowers, and stems, letting them be read. Hers is a powerful reflection on art: she sees the art, the etching upon an engraving, in what is already a design. Maybe more importantly, that design, the garden with frost upon them, reads her. It’s an all too subtle encounter with divinity and self-realization, and maybe “our inner illustrator’s hand internally light with infant etching” is overwrought. I don’t think it is, though.

2. This poem, “Yellow Goblins,” introduces Second Childhood. It too seems to be a memory set in winter, as she tells of “eyes in the evergreens under ice.” While she’s peering outdoors, there’s a moment of introspection where fear and trembling resolve into calm:

Interior monologue
and some voice.

Weary fears, the
usual trials and

a place to surmise

And you can throw away all my attempts to demonstrate what the details mean, because the most important ones open the poem, and what on earth:

Yellow goblins
and a god I can swallow:

What do we do with “yellow goblins,” “a god I can swallow?” These sound monstrous, crude, childlike. The completion of this sentence is the setting: “eyes in the evergreens under ice.” It’s not hard to imagine her as a child taking some steps outdoors, loving the snow and ice for a few minutes, then feeling horribly alone, watched only by woodland creatures of all shapes and sizes and dangers. “A god I can swallow” might be rendered thus: fear as a visceral reaction makes one far more receptive to redemption.

3. What does she get from the experience? Instead of a vision of a sacred flame, instead of the miraculous and the imaginative, there’s “interior monologue and some voice.” “Some voice” is so finely understated, as the speaker of the poem confesses to then and there becoming articulate. In a few words, “weary fears, the usual trials and a place to surmise blessedness.” She talks herself into courage, into calm, into life.

On that note, what strikes me most about this poem is its full realization of what exactly a second childhood is. The fragments of a life before are realized as an adult, and it is all too easy to declare that they are transcended to create a new life. That’s not really true: on a vulgar level, most of us haven’t left high school. All my pretensions to maturity haven’t made me more mature. In truth, adulthood is a second childhood. Those fears, real and imagined, are still there, and we still need to find our voice to confront them. The only difference – maybe the reason why kids ever bother looking up to adults – is that we may have some better notion of what “blessedness” is.

Any idiot can be right: Blog in Review, 7/23/16

Too much Trump, too much election nonsense. Still, though we’re weary, there’s incredible writing about the individuals involved. I recommend Julia Ioffe’s depiction of an Indian-American gentleman hyped for the convention & Laurie Penny’s essay about her time with Milo and the “alt-right.” There’s a lot more than these which are worthwhile, but those two pieces got me thinking.

This blog, for what it’s worth, has taken to editorializing of late: witness July 4th, 2016, For Leonard Durso, For Raj Luthra. While I frequently use “we” to refer to more common opinions, reflections, and questions, I’m uncomfortable with being a bullhorn, as if I’m fighting with everyone else to prove myself right once and for all. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s this: any idiot can be right. The biggest idiots want to be right about everything, just for the sake of being “right,” with no concern for how one gets there.

Still, there’s a value to being direct. A few of you asked what I thought about Trump, and I thought I’d write about what I saw: a sad, pathetic, old man with a polite but hopelessly shallow family. I hope I’ve been just as direct in outlining a few of the complications attending any notion of leadership or how many of us have styled ourselves prophets.

Against this, the value of poetry should be clearer. Sappho always provides the challenge of having to imagine an alien scene, explainable only in terms of history almost entirely lost. Rae Armantrout’s “Anti-Short Story” and Kay Ryan’s “Dry Things” also push the use of one’s imagination, but in the service of reconstructing a speaker. Who would speak this way to another person, and why?

I stand proudest of the reflections on Kay Ryan’s “Venice.” I don’t know that I got the wording at the end exactly right. I do know that it is tough to bring together graduate school, the other poems I’ve read, actually visiting Venice, and where I stand in life now. That commentary might be dry or lacking or off in places, but if you see the materials brought to it, you’ll understand why I consider this an achievement of sorts.

Tu Fu & Judah al-Harizi are poets I’ve only discovered recently. If you haven’t seen their poems yet, the ones featured here are short.

As always, please do consider subscribing to Rethink, liking the Facebook page, adding me on Twitter. Feedback is appreciated. Ciao!

For Raj Luthra

Watching Trump bluster about, making America sound like a post-apocalyptic wasteland run by deluded, spineless bureaucrats, evokes something like pity. There’s no doubt his rhetoric is deadly, totalitarian and irresponsible. His whole campaign: America will be better served by insisting on respect first, in any and all situations; free trade is a scam; allies are waste of money; his chief political opponent should be jailed; teeming brown masses, whether in the inner city or streaming across the border, steal jobs and kill innocent people; respect for women is PC garbage; crime is out of control and the police are powerless; the last administration has done nothing but lose.

On the one hand, this is racist, hateful, a complete disregard of the truth, a lack of respect for authority, expertise, competence, divisive to the point of making neo-Nazis a major player in American political life. On the other hand, this is crazy uncle talk, the kind of thing you roll your eyes at, coming from a huckster who would cheat a homeless man out of a dollar. Donald Trump is a pathetic, sad human being, and I’m actually not saying that to be mean. A large part of his appeal is that he’s goofy, unpolished, a loser who has to insist he’s a winner, and for too many of us, seemingly harmless when he’s vindictive. By far his most effective line on the campaign trail was the “greedy” line:

“Now, I’ll tell you, I’m good at that – so, you know, I’ve always taken in money,” he said at a rally in Iowa. “I like money. I’m very greedy. I’m a greedy person. I shouldn’t tell you that, I’m a greedy – I’ve always been greedy. I love money, right?

“But, you know what? I want to be greedy for our country. I want to be greedy. I want to be so greedy for our country. I want to take back money,” he added.

It doesn’t hurt that formally, this sounds like testimony. No wonder evangelicals and the GOP base are flocking towards him. Some people probably think underneath the bluster, he’s asking for redemption. He is natural, all too human; while it’s part of his con, it’s more fundamental than his con.

And then he gets up there with his family, and they’re running the show, and I’ve got to wonder. They’re polished, accomplished, too versed in the family business. They speak like CEO’s, being presidents and vice presidents of various ventures. They make deals: Donald Jr. offered Kasich the chance to be “the most powerful VP in history;” Ivanka was the driving force for getting rid of Lewandowski, his previous campaign manager. They don’t seem like bad people, even though they just engineered the takeover of a major political party and are utterly clueless just how much they’ve bitten off, how much harm this whole undertaking has already caused.

If the Trumps got on a plane and moved to Australia right now, the country is still the mess they helped foment. You’ve got people proudly showing their swastikas to African-Americans; the “alt-right” throws as much hate as they can when they can, knowing activity finds followers; life is being made hell for Muslims, who are being persecuted for their religion; life is being made hell for Latinos, who somehow have to answer for every “crime” Facebook feeds claim an undocumented immigrant did. There’s so much more to add, but I’ll add this. Two years ago, it looked like America was making serious progress on criminal justice reform. It was widely acknowledged that the drug war had failed, that we had the world’s highest incarceration rate because our laws were insane and racism was systematic. Many Americans were correctly worried about police militarization, drones, domestic surveillance. Now you can pass a “Blue Lives Matter” law in a state that is known for overwhelming racism, meet peaceful protestors with full body armor, rifles, and armored trucks, and come out as beyond question for a significant number of people even before a self-proclaimed “Sovereign Citizen” committed a heinous, terrible crime against the police.

Look, I can’t stand the arrogance of liberal elitism. I hate how I get on Twitter and there’s this bubble of opinion within which the professional class dwell. Bush was wrong about everything, guns are always bad, change starts with retweeting this meme, etc. I know better now, though. We know better. We’re watching neighbors turn on neighbors, communities upon communities, the majority claiming the right to be more fearful than anyone else, the creation of a situation where no one can be willing to let go of that “right” for a second. And what’s funny about this, what’s funny about what looks no less than the origins of totalitarianism, is that it isn’t happening because there’s a master manipulator with the demagogic skills of Adolf Hitler. No, there’s a broken, two-bit huckster who can’t get his reality show back, and a family that can only understand the value of their brand, thinking complicated problems can be solved simply by hiring the right people at the right time. I never for once imagined, after years of reading books and writing badly, that I’d be qualified to lead, but in one way I am. I know what not to do, what not to get involved in, because it is far beyond my competence.

Judah al-Harizi, “The Sun”

The Sun (from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Milosz)
Judah al-Harizi (tr. T. Carmi)

Look: the sun has spread its wings
over the earth to dispel the darkness.

Like a great tree, with its roots in heaven,
and its branches reaching down to the earth.


Brevity brings strangeness into immediate confrontation. “Look,” someone tells us. The sun is a bird! The sun has spread its wings over the earth to dispel the darkness.

The same person continues, changing images entirely. Now the sun is likened to a tree, but upside down, branching towards the earth. Like a great tree, with its roots in heaven, and its branches reaching down to the earth.

Milosz cites this as being one of al-Harizi’s “slightly jocular quatrains.” Maybe that’s true, but my interpretation begins from a different place. Both speaker and audience have not been in the best mood, as the earth is covered with darkness. It’s not just night, about to become day. However, the speaker begins the poem thinking he’s found joy, and he’s eager to share.

Hence, the sun is a bird. Not a ball of fire, not a heavenly body that moves in fixed ways, but a free, living creature which has chosen to grace us, giving light. That’s what the sun is, but it is another consideration what it is like. The effect of the sun, that which we experience but is not the thing itself, is like that of a great tree. In heaven, it has roots. Thus, the cause of joy is beyond us, mysterious, remote, glorious, bright. The tree also has “branches reaching down to earth.” The poem could have said that the branches are all across the face of the earth, illuminating it. I suspect “reaching down” reinforces that joy is chosen. The sun is a bird, dispelling darkness. Inasmuch you are a living creature, will you not glorify Creation yourself?

For Leonard Durso

1. Rick Perlstein’s oft-cited “The Long Con” is sobering reading. For years, American conservatism has had parts which are less “ideological” and more concerned with fleecing people. When Perlstein signed up for e-mails from campaigns and conservative publications, he quickly found himself deluged with other e-mails advertising miracle cures for cancer, once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunities, hysterical descriptions of the opposition. Regarding that last statement, Trump is the rule rather than the exception: for a few dollars, you can “indict” Hillary, because losing the election is obviously the same thing as a criminal indictment.

Still, as sharp as Perlstein’s piece is, there’s a problem. You can read his piece, and if you don’t know better, come away with the impression that there is nothing of the sort on the American Left. That there aren’t people preaching “awareness alone can solve all problems” or trying to sell New Age or hemp-based cures. I don’t want to be drawn into the trap of saying there is a perfect balance – right now, one part of America is clearly very problematic – but a little bit of attempted balance in this case opens a larger question. Does political life in general depend on something like conspiracy theory?

2. Blogging is dead, they say. I can’t remember the last time I responded to another blogger; that needs to change. What makes opinions important are their earnestness, their attempt to get at the truth, their articulation of value. When I went looking for that poem of Tu Fu I blogged about yesterday, I stumbled upon a post of Leonard Durso’s, entitled “on leadership” (sic). His thoughts merit a closer look; here’s the excerpt I’d like to focus on:

A true leader is one who is at times self-reflective so that they can see whatever faults they possess that might be the cause of the problems of the people they lead.

To point fingers and blame others is the easiest and least effective way of solving any problem and of leading the people in their care.

A leader “so full of themselves” as my grandmother would say is in fact doing more harm than good for a business, a nation, a religion, a community, an institution, any group of people they are chosen to lead. One needs to look inside first before looking outside because all problems tend to have their roots within.

None of us will disagree with his claims, as we have high expectations for leaders. Let’s list those claims one-by-one:

  • There are times a leader has to be self-reflective and recognize their faults as the problem.
  • Demonizing others is easy, the “least effective” way of solving problems, does not show concern for the ruled.
  • If you’re “full of yourself,” you do more harm than good.

Again, none of us are going to disagree with this; it speaks to our higher aims and can describe some amazing people at particular times. Some of us are going to jump ahead and mount a defense of these claims, knowing full well that it will be said that bad people have been very effective leaders, creating great goods for a people out of great evils. Our defense is going to be that if we don’t set high expectations – if we pretend expectations don’t matter – we won’t get any sort of humane leadership at all. Bad people doing good things, on that note, is the exception rather than the rule.

3. The trouble with this argument is how ridiculously circular it is. We’ve already arrived at the point where expectations are being used to defend other expectations. “If you don’t expect higher, you don’t get better behavior” is an assumption. It’s an assumption to which I’m partial, but it’s still an assumption.

Rule is not about self-reflection, unfortunately. Caesar was probably the greatest general ever. Plutarch depicts this behavior before he crosses the Rubicon:

When he came to the river which separates Cisalpine Gaul from the rest of Italy (it is called the Rubicon), and began to reflect, now that he drew nearer to the fearful step and was agitated by the magnitude of his ventures, he checked his speed. Then, halting in his course, he communed with himself a long time in silence as his resolution wavered back and forth, and his purpose then suffered change after change. For a long time, too, he discussed his perplexities with his friends who were present, among whom was Asinius Pollio, estimating the great evils for all mankind which would follow their passage of the river, and the wide fame of it which they would leave to posterity. But finally, with a sort of passion, as if abandoning calculation and casting himself upon the future, and uttering the phrase with which men usually prelude their plunge into desperate and daring fortunes, “Let the die be cast,” he hastened to cross the river; and going at full speed now for the rest of the time, before daybreak he dashed into Ariminum and took possession of it. It is said, moreover, that on the night before he crossed the river he had an unnatural dream; he thought, namely, that he was having incestuous intercourse with his own mother.

Plutarch has no patience for the mockery Caesar makes of self-reflection. Yes, Caesar “began to reflect,” “communed with himself a long time in silence,” “discussed his perplexities.” But then he said “Let the die be cast,” and invaded his own homeland in order to install himself as tyrant, ending the republic. Hence, Plutarch adds the tasteful detail that Caesar dreamed he had sex with his own mom.

One might say Caesar was a terrible ruler, only concerned with his own fame and aggrandizement. That’s correct. He also pacified Gaul and extended Roman influence into Britain. Only if you are willing to say “good leaders aren’t particularly good at winning wars, in fact, they might lose them” can you argue that self-reflection matters more than sheer ambition. Good leaders are a double-edged sword. In my mind, Lincoln is our greatest President. The pictures of carnage from the Civil War could make anyone nauseous.

4. We Americans are relearning that unity is a virtue and not to be taken for granted. I cannot say I am displeased that unity is taken seriously. But partisanship is not necessarily a vice. In the case of some leaders, the majority has spoken through legitimate party governance. If the whole point of a democratic system is to make sure most people get what they have lawfully affirmed they want, how do we find any sympathy for minorities? It would seem rulers have a moral imperative to cater to their constituency, affirming the sanctity of an election and continuing to reject what the voters rejected.

The case for affirming minority rights depends on pointing out that a majority can be wrong, that those in the majority can be minorities at times too, that partisan politics is not as important as our shared humanity. This is most achievable when the end has already been achieved. If one is struggling to keep power or get one’s agenda passed, one needs to be more saint than leader in order act properly. Fighting for power, it turns out, is what you are obligated to do as a partisan.

5. Recently, a two-bit tyrant who is indeed “full of himself” has become all too visible. The case against him is specific. His larger aims are a disgrace, but we can condemn him based on what we have seen from his tenure so far. Attacking people’s freedoms, attacking his own people as they protest, enriching himself and his party at the expense of everyone else, harassing and marginalizing the political opposition through extra-legal measures.

When speaking generally of leaders, though, they do tend to be full of themselves, partisan to a fault, and not terribly reflective. They have been tasked with getting things done, and the assumption underlying most of their behavior is that they are expressing the values of the system. Caesar’s authoritarianism didn’t emerge in a vacuum: an accomplished general who gave Rome dominance, he appealed to the people for his power. The big lies stem from uncomfortable truths. Our expectations create a need for people to exercise power, and then we wonder why they don’t exercise that power exactly the way we would. The conspiracy theory governing notions of rule is that they’re just as moral as they are useful. On the contrary, our demand for utility is insatiable, showing morality itself a basis for power. The only way to create a genuine space for reflection is to appeal to something beyond politics, beyond the everyday. We need to force ourselves to be better, and I would not underestimate how difficult an undertaking that actually is.