Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Page 6 of 179

Coco Rico, “Te Cantare Mis Recuerdos” (I Will Sing You My Memories)

The best art comes from the heart. Coco isn’t shy about saying “this is what I meant” when talking about her work. It’s not because she has an answer no one else has. Rather, just as books belong to their readers, art belongs to its audience, and she’s more than willing to be part of a larger conversation.

That conversation started in her recent exhibition Te Cantare Mis Recuerdos (I Will Sing You My Memories) a peculiar way. Her works are small, iconic windows into life as remembered. Their miniature size made the gallery’s whiteness, brightness, cleanliness loom large. It was a perfectly appropriate accent for recollections ranging from nostalgic to wistful, centered on family, growth, and loss.

I don’t want to say too much about the religious imagery and quiet spirituality attending these works. After all, Coco has said of Supersticion I that it concerns the idea of getting warts in your eyes if you watch a dog poop:

Supersticion I

Coco Rico, “Supersticion I.” Photo credit: Mark Alonzo.

Supersticion I reminded me of the Masonic imagery on a dollar bill. Something about it is elegant, creepy, fundamental – and yet it focuses on what might be considered silly and childlike. A bit more adolescent is Supersticion III. Yeah, it is inspired by the idea of not cutting a baby’s hair before it ages one year. But it also seems to speak about changing our appearance to fit the time. You can’t really see it below, but some of the hairlike threads are words. It’s like we cut our own thoughts depending on the phases of the moon, all while the clock ticks:

Supersticion III

Coco Rico, “Supersticion III.” Photo credit: Mark Alonzo.

Two works about her mother really hit home, no pun intended. Vestida Por Mi Ama (Getting dressed by Mom) reminded me of my own experiences. Mom wanted to sew everything I wore. I get the feeling that for Coco, every attendance at a school dance felt weighted with the traditions of one’s homeland, the sweat and blood of one’s Mother. Too much to wear, but a beautiful machine:

Coco Rico, "Vestida Por Mi Ama"

Coco Rico, “Vestida Por Mi Ama.” Photo credit: Mark Alonzo.

Finally, a thought on what it means to be a parent, La Independencia De Mi Ama:

Coco Rico, "La Independencia De Mi Ama"

Coco Rico, “La Independencia De Mi Ama.” Photo credit: Mark Alonzo.

The feather and branch are stark; one creates something which has to be let go. All that’s left is debris of a sort, but it is quietly beautiful. Someone else’s potential is your sacrifice; what that means is your imagination.

Sneering at Tourists at the Vatican

is all we are.

Slathered in scent,
covered with cosmetic,
concealed through outfits,
we’re an old bird
with pretty plumage.

At “The School of Athens,”
much gawking and cackling.
Up and down and a train
of figures unknown.
Not one of the many sees
the triangular composition
holding the painting together.

A.E. Stallings, “The Companions of Odysseus in Hades”

The Companions of Odysseus in Hades (from Poetry)
A.E. Stallings

After Seferis

Since we still had a little
Of the rusk left, what fools
To eat, against the rules,
The Sun’s slow-moving cattle,

Each ox huge as a tank —
A wall you’d have to siege
For forty years to reach
A star, a hero’s rank.

We starved on the back of the earth,
But when we’d stuffed ourselves,
We tumbled to these delves,
Numbskulls, fed up with dearth.


It is difficult to pinpoint the nature of even one of the injustices our society features. Inequality is a problem, but it doesn’t always concern wealth. Do we really allow people to have dignity, or give them proper opportunities to earn respect? It feels like we’re always looking to tear down others because of spite, neglect, or the very security of our own standing.

It’s like we’d throw someone onto the high seas and then tell them to prove themselves by rowing back. But some of this problem exists within manliness/nobility/heroism itself. Even with a reputation for heroic deeds, even with the knowledge we are capable of more, we get desperate. You can’t eat a reputation. When left with virtually nothing, “a little of the rusk,” you not only respond to the lack of necessities, but the injustice of the situation. The same thing that marked you as a “better” human turns against you.

It gets worse. As someone who has been honored, who has conquered, you understand the “rules.” You know all about how powerful pride is, how sensitive it makes the most powerful. At one stroke you throw away all your experience established: the preparation, striving, victory as well as the determination, confidence, honors. To destroy one of the “slow-moving cattle” is no less than the war against Troy.

Are the companions heroes? Strictly speaking, not in Homer. But in this poem, very much so. They don’t speak of justice, but of “rules” and “dearth.” Like heroes, having or not-having is the end, and discipline and strength are the means. And yet what they obviously want is justice. They’re fools for killing the Sun’s cattle, but not wrong. They would be completely in the right if the rusk were used up. Justice is always messy. If I told you about all the crap I’m going through, it’s a he-said/she-said type game, except without a “she.” To be completely in the right is impossible. But the injustice is demonstrable though, just as it is above. One claim of right matters more than another.

Only a hero would be obtuse enough to think that the claim of might established right, that their heroism means nothing compared to a god. Through might, through victory, they reason they became stars. Like the light of stars, they “starved on the back of the earth.” It wasn’t good enough to be a star, it wasn’t good enough to be a hero. This is not hubris. This is that life can be hell for anyone. To actually want what you need brings you crashing down to earth and then some. “We tumbled to these delves, / Numbskulls, fed up with dearth.” Again, only a hero would bet on consistently outsmarting necessity, as if this alone was the foundation of the good life.

5 random facts about me, because Tumblr

With thanks to moogernaut & phroggee for tagging me

  1. I really, really hate horror movies. If you’re planning on making me faint, just hint we’re watching one. It isn’t even the movie itself. I’m nervous no matter what, so I just start imagining everything under the sun and then some.
  2. Niagara Falls is incredible. I am still blown away by how much a ton of falling water can impress.
  3. Bars are still weird for me. So I was at two biker bars recently, and I felt out of place. I might have gotten a conversation about tattoos and graphic novels going, but the bartender had to go back to work. At another bar which journalists frequent, my friend hurriedly got me out of there because he could see the contempt I had for every idiot with a Tag Heuer watch.
  4. Other than news and sports, I don’t think I’ve watched any TV in months. This is not snobbery on my part, not at all. I just feel I need to be reading or writing, and I’m pushing myself to do that maybe a bit too much.
  5. I still need to finish “The Fault in Our Stars.”

On the Etruscan Pair of shields with head of Acheloos, on view at the Dallas Museum of Art

Art discussed in this post:

Pair of shields with head of Acheloos. Bronze. Etruscan, 6th c. BC. Lent by the Republic of Italy to the DMA: 135.2012.5-6

You can view the art here: Pair of shields with head of Acheloos

These shields were found in Etruscan tombs. On the one hand, it makes sense that a river god like Acheloos would be invoked in the tomb. As water gives life in this world, it can symbolize whatever life one could have after death. But water also speaks to malleability, change, and terror. Death’s finality is a weird, terrible thing that maybe only a god can truly see.

On that note, I wondered about the story of Hercules and Acheloos, which the curators used to introduce these shields. They fought over a woman; Acheloos, as the river, changed his shape to become a bull. His horn was broken off by Hercules and he was beaten. In order to get it back, he gave Hercules another “magic horn” (the curators’ words). Hercules took that other horn, gave it away, and it became the cornucopia.

I really don’t like that last part, that the magic horn became the cornucopia. That detail, for me, wrecks the story. What I asked myself while looking at these shields: did the story of the fighting inspire piety for Acheloos? It probably did. There should be some connection between the river god, death, and the trading of horns.

My speculation: Heracles should die contesting a river god about to impale him. That he survives means he has temporarily put off perishing and death’s sting. The “magic horn,” then, is knowledge of a sort and a trap. But it also links Acheloos and Hercules. To be an immortal beaten by a mortal is to know death. Acheloos has our pain in some sense. In another sense, he doesn’t, because we don’t understand our own pain. We just broke a horn off once and then mindlessly accepted another horn. Acheloos is present at the tomb because he is sympathetic. That he looks like he might charge on one shield – he won’t, it’s a tomb, after all – speaks to our failure and his.

On a Bell Krater and Oinochoe from the Spina necropolis, seen at the Dallas Museum of Art

Art discussed in this post, on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art:

Red Figure Bell Krater, featuring Theseus and Sinis.
Greek: Attic, 5th c. BC. From the Spina necropolis; attributed to the Sini Ferrara painter. On loan to the DMA from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Ferrara, inv. 3066.

Red Figure Oinochoe, featuring Polynices offering a necklace to Eriphyle.
Greek: Attic, 435-430 BC. From the Spina necropolis; attributed to the Shuvalov painter. On loan to the DMA from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Ferrara, inv. 2509.

Not the best picture, but the Oinochoe is at the extreme left. You can see Eriphyle reclining and some of Polynices. The Krater is central, and Theseus bending the tree, about to execute the naked robber, is pretty clear.

Theseus, about to kill one of the robbers famed for plaguing a road, will earn his initial fame as a hero. This robber, Sinis, either threw unsuspecting victims into the air with a bent pine or tore them in two. Theseus appears a well-dressed man, almost a gentleman. He wears a sun hat and a diadem; the robber is naked. The inscription only calls Theseus kalos, though: noble or beautiful, not a gentleman (also known as kalos kai agathos, noble and good).

Justice might be the outstanding question. Apollo or some kind of established, noble figure crowned with a laurel watches the execution. Even though I didn’t see the other side of the Krater fully (it is turned to the wall), I was told it was two men talking, and I glimpsed that one of them was dressed more like Apollo. I suspect there’s no justice here, just reputation and civilization. Apollo, god of music, gives us stories without which we are frightfully naked. Those stories hide a certain darkness. The expression on Sinis’ face is pained, terrified, human.

What’s on the Krater may make narrative sense and have narrative depth. On the Oinochoe, which pours wine, we could be dealing with one half of a story. Three figures are presented. Polynices, who robbed of his kingship of Thebes by his brother Eteocles, tries to conquer the city with the assistance of six other leaders. He is offering a necklace to a reclining Eriphyle. He does bribe her into goading her husband to war with Thebes, even though she knows her husband will die. And there’s a servant holding an (the?) Oinochoe and a Kylix, a drinking cup. As these objects were found in a tomb, part of a funeral banquet before burial, one wonders several things. First, whether there is a Kylix meant to go with the Oinochoe, giving another story to go along with this one. Second, while the servant holding these objects foreshadows the death of Polynices, Eriphyle’s husband, and Eriphyle herself, it also connects with the burial of whoever was rich enough to have these objects at their funeral. Who on earth wants to be buried with such a morbid, awful story? Polynices is vengeful, unpatriotic, and totally justified in his cause. Eriphyle is greedy, reckless, and hateful. The servant depicted is female, and maybe the two women can tell us about the potential complementary Kylix. A matching Kylix perhaps features Antigone and Ismene, sisters of the feuding brothers. Both would be mourning. One because of crazy, Polynices-like claims about family and the identification of death with justice. The other in mourning simply.

Fifth Reflection: Sappho, “I confess / I love that which caresses me”

I confess / I love that which caresses me
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I confess

I love that
which caresses
me. I believe

Love has his
share in the
Sun’s brilliance
and virtue.


There’s that love which “hard to get” works so well at manipulating. It’s a pious, noble, virtuous love, where objects are kept at a distance and we are reproached for approaching. You don’t become a god by forcibly taking over a temple. Nor do you become a hero by stealing Batman’s costume. And, most of all, you don’t become beloved by forcing your attentions on someone. In each case, what we worship, admire, or adore changes us through the distance it sets. Gods make us reverent and obedient. Heroes embolden us in our everyday lives. And would-be lovers become different things to win the beloved.

I tend to think the heart of Plato is understanding that this noble sort of love is a special case of something more fundamental, namely eros. We should love that which caresses us, not just stays away from us. And that caressing should produce good things for us, just as the Sun does. (Obviously, I am not talking about creepers or stalkers being lovers here.) Its brilliance allows us to see and enjoy the day. And its virtue – is this excellence? or something else? – may be its steadfastness. No changes necessary to it, whereas a beloved must change in some way to accept a lover.

Which brings up this question. Why is this a confession? Why does the speaker believe that Love has only a share in the Sun? We feel guilty in having a love that is good for us and to us; we don’t see the whole of love in being loved well. We want to feel like we’ve learned to love or discovered love. Not the worst feeling, but maybe not always the best.

More on whether Political Philosophy depends on History

Poetry coming soon. I am very grateful for the questions sent and the readership. In what follows, I’ve tried to keep things real. I’m less interested in being right and more on just saying something, continuing the discussion.

I was asked the following question about the Zuckert/Strauss post:

Could you offer an example so that I can better understand what you mean here? “To ask about what is just, all that is required is for one to see or experience some injustice.” I don’t follow how this is sufficient for undertaking the question of justice.

I’ll admit I have a tendency of speeding through points obvious to me and no one else. This is an excellent question about a point that is none too obvious.

Let’s back up a bit. My larger point is that Strauss is not being entirely honest when he says that experience of a variety of regimes, places, and times is necessary for “questions of the nature of political things and of the best, or the just, political order.” My own feeling is that “What is justice?” explodes the whole argument. If one has lived in one regime at one time and is treated unjustly, there is a chance one might question the order she lives in and start imagining different things (cf. Xenophon’s depiction of Socrates and a horse). (To clarify, by “required” I mean “necessary” more than “sufficient.”) Is such questioning as rigorous as that of a political philosopher comparing regimes? Probably not.

Justice speaks to something far more important than intellectual rigor, though. It speaks to actually encountering the question. I love Mansfield’s description of Thrasymachus in his A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy. Thrasymachus is angry because he’s been treated unjustly. Socrates is busy talking about how justice is either “helping friends or harming enemies” or “doing no harm.” The realities of power and control, realities Thrasymachus is very sensitive to, are flat-out ignored. In questioning Socrates, then, Thrasymachus does not merely assert himself and address an injustice. He contributes to the development of the question of justice itself. And maybe he is most sensitive to what Socrates trying to teach in the Republic.

“What is justice?” isn’t some question that people ask because they’re wondering about what the best law. They’re also wondering how they ought to be treated, what justice is for them, what justice means. You can get to these questions that might be dismissed as “existential” from wondering why one was treated unjustly and questioning the law or institutions that allowed it to happen.

Ah! But that’s not political philosophy, you say. Political philosophy is the discussion of the best regime! Of getting a standard of good and bad! Any idiot can whine about being treated badly. That doesn’t even add up to a serious complaint about a legal system, much less the question “What is justice?” Moreover, we don’t consider founders of regimes philosophers, so even though any given constitution posits an answer to questions like “What is man” or “What is virtue,” that does not count either. A real political philosopher, aware of the diversity of peoples, places, times, and institutions, takes all of it into account and attempts a comprehensive, systematic answer.

I’ll just say this: the more we insist on this sort of intellectual rigor, the more we’re making political philosophy something very specific: we’re making it exactly what some Straussians say Socratic political philosophy is. And I don’t know that’s a particularly philosophic thing to do. Something about philosophy must speak to our experience directly, not just our arguments.

Granted, this is a problematic answer. I guess I’m throwing the tradition of political philosophy under the bus in favor of sophists and second-rate thinkers. And I’ve been told there’s something about seeing beyond the limits of one’s time at stake in using and defending the tradition. But then again, my question when approaching “Political Philosophy and History” is why anyone should care for either discipline. If Strauss’ essay fails to speak to anyone but Straussians, well.

There’s a second part to the above question:

Also, is it worth noting that the interlocutors are not, strictly speaking, Athenians in book 1 of the Republic? Thrasymachus was from Chalcedon, Cephalus was from Syracuse, as perhaps was his son, Polemarchus.

Again, an awesome question. This time I need to address history and experience, and how much is needed for the inception of political philosophy.

I say nearly none at all. If one can imagine a change to one’s own regime, a change of any sort, one is well on the path to imagining a number of different societies. If one conceives of political philosophy as the quest for the best regime, one can just think through societies one made-up and work from there. Write a book and pretend your characters exist and you can do political philosophy, too.

Strauss’ essay, for its part, gives an answer that goes two ways, neither way obviously helpful to my take on things. Sure, he starts by saying that some knowledge of history was required for political philosophy in the traditional view. This Zuckert rightly identifies as a surface that can at least rhetorically stand on its own. (The radically imaginative act that political philosophy is – well, you’ll know it when you see it.) And he ends by talking about the “history of political philosophy,” the project that will help us see the foundations of ideas our historicist tendencies are covering up. The specific importance of history is to more fully see the implications of the ideas one works with. Only a special imagination could adequately account for reality in speculation; I don’t even know we’d call that imagination “best” as the best ones reintroduce us to wonder and remake the world in fantastic ways. So it does seem history is a very necessary task, especially as we’ve been given a past to make sense of. Ignoring it makes us prey to some terrible demagoguery.

Yeah, political philosophy is still 99.9% imagination. I’m going to be uncompromising on this. I’ll trade off losing the debate about a tradition and rigor and development of the theme of natural right, and work to see philosophers as actual people.

A Preliminary Response to Catherine Zuckert’s analysis of “Political Philosophy and History”

Thanks to Joe Connole, with whom I am co-authoring a larger article on this topic.

Articles discussed in this post:

Leo Strauss, “Political Philosophy and History” in What is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. 56-77.

Catherine Zuckert, “Political Philosophy and History” in Leo Strauss’ Defense of the Philosophic Life: Reading What Is Political Philosophy?, ed. Rafael Major. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 43-64.

Let’s just be honest. Leo Strauss’ “Political Philosophy and History” (1949) is boring. Initially, one might also consider it tendentious. Once upon a time, philosophers discussed and debated the best regime, the “standard of good and bad in politics” (Zuckert 43). But now a specter called “historicism” haunts academic and popular notions of politics. It is more dangerous to political philosophy than “positivism,” which rejects the human things in favor of scientific certitude, as “science is good” is not a proposition all times and places accept (43). Historicism argues that “good and bad vary according to time and place” (43). That relativism threatens to destroy our ability to seriously debate what is good or what is bad, thus making political philosophy impossible.

That does describe the first few pages of Strauss’ essay, which to be fair becomes more detailed and nuanced later. However, if one feels that one’s own approach to serious questions is in danger of being stereotyped, labeled “political philosophy” or “positivism” or “historicism,” I don’t blame you. It’s easy to talk about how we acquiesce to convention, but the truth is that we sometimes struggle to accept things that are both true and conventionally held. Moreover, the belief in progress underlying historicism isn’t some waste of time. For example, we believe in religious freedom, women having rights, and people not being slaves. Not all times have held that, and they should be looked down upon for those failures. “The modern prejudice in favor of progress” is an important one (58).

Still, there are a number of worthwhile questions in Strauss’ essay. They’re just a bit tricky to find, for while the surface of things is the heart of things, that may not strictly be true in this case. Zuckert performs an admirable service in rigorously working with the surface. She breaks his “Political Philosophy and History” into its various sections, identifying six distinct parts. She does her best to elaborate important references Strauss makes but passes over quickly. And she builds context where it is hard for a more casual reader to imagine what exactly is being addressed. In performing these very necessary tasks, a central theme emerges: Strauss turns out to be very subtle about how history relates to philosophy. Claims by serious practitioners of historicism are understood and accounted for in his understanding of political philosophy. See pages 48-49 of Zuckert’s essay, especially the mentions of Skinner and Pocock.

But that debate is far too technical to be of use to most people, including those who are serious about their studies and much more. Again, to restate the above: whatever views people hold, they don’t hold them because they really enjoy being conformists. To be fair to Zuckert and Strauss, they don’t malign anyone in their articles. They are writing with a view to how political philosophy and history relate in terms of academic theories and disciplines. There just happens to be a lot more at stake, implicit in their arguments. Dodging these issues by sticking to the surface and keeping things narrow is problematic, to say the least. The deep concern is how much we believe in progress and what the limits of that are. Ancient and medieval thinkers, including some of the greatest moral and philosophic minds, did not assume progress and had quite a bit to say that’s important. “Historicism” as discussed in the essay is ultimately trivial. The real question is why we are drawn to something like it – or, as I’m leaving open, why we, even now, are not always drawn.

To be sure, Zuckert structures her analysis the way she does because she sees Strauss’ “Political Philosophy and History” fitting into the volume What Is Political Philosophy? as a whole. This means she has to restate the surface to a large extent so we readers can keep our place in the narrative. This leads, though, to her taking at face value some claims of Strauss that are questionable. In the very first paragraph, Strauss outlines the traditional view of political philosophy and history. They raise distinctly different questions, but “this does not mean that political philosophy is absolutely independent of history.” He continues:

Without the experience of the variety of political institutions and convictions in different countries and at different times, the questions of the nature of political things and of the best, or the just, political order could never have been raised. And after they have been raised, only historical knowledge can prevent one from mistaking the specific features of the political life of one’s time and one’s country for the nature of political things. (Strauss 56-57)

So we need “experience” of different institutions and beliefs in different countries and times to ask about the nature of politics. We need that kind of experience to ask about what is “best” or “just.” These claims are simply not tenable. To ask about what is just, all that is required is for one to see or experience some injustice. From that point, one might find everything about one’s own order questionable. Moreover, books like the Republic don’t treat a number of different institutions and beliefs in different countries and times in order to try to understand the nature of politics. It looks like that if one simply exaggerates the features of one’s own regime, one can easily see what principles it advocates at the expense of others. One can use one’s imagination – I know, shocking. To say Socrates or Glaucon couldn’t have conceived of a guardian class without Sparta is preposterous.

Strauss also claims that “only historical knowledge can prevent one from mistaking the specific features of the political life of one’s time and one’s country for the nature of political things.” It’s actually pretty easy to see that some “specific features” are not quite natural. We start disliking them, we see them as ridiculous. We might specifically attack them as unnatural, not caring a whit about history, but feeling ourselves oppressed or arbitrarily treated.

Zuckert, at least for her essay, takes Strauss literally in the above passage. Her comment pushes an unironic, serious reading of it. This is what she has to say about the very sentences critiqued above:

Contrary to the assertions of many of his critics, we thus see at the outset of this essay, Strauss does not deny the importance of historical knowledge for the study of political philosophy. He merely, if emphatically, insists that historical and philosophical knowledge are not the same. (Zuckert 45)

However, as far as I can tell, Strauss has put these arguments forth to provoke us. This is the “traditional” – i.e. lazy – view of how political philosophy and history relate. It is only the beginning of Strauss’ argument, which may depend on its esoteric elements more than a coherent surface. Zuckert is well aware of this, but she wants the surface to stand on its own. Unfortunately, if one takes the surface too literally, one can’t do basic things for a text like determine an internal speaker or audience. To be too literal is to intentionally blind oneself. It does seem that Strauss is keen on addressing a certain audience in “Political Philosophy and History,” an audience that is more or less anti-communist, traditionalist, prone to thinking that Plato and Locke have more in common than Plato and Rousseau, or especially Plato and Nietzsche. And right now, I’m thinking he wants to teach that audience that the history of political philosophy, his own project, is a philosophic endeavor solely because of “historicism.” This is quite a radical thesis for someone more traditionally minded. I think Zuckert would concur, but what’s funny is that two different things might be meant by the same conclusion. A lot of people – not Catherine Zuckert – seem to think that you need to know the history of political philosophy well in order to say anything wise or thoughtful about our world. I don’t know about that, and I really don’t want to sign off on anything that would suggest it.

Kay Ryan, “Chop”

Chop (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The bird
walks down
the beach along
the glazed edge
the last wave
reached. His
each step makes
a perfect stamp–
smallish, but as
sharp as an
emperor’s chop.
Stride, stride,
goes the emperor
down his wide
mirrored promenade
the sea bows
to repolish.


I was at a sports bar tonight and I couldn’t do a thing there. Everyone came in with their group and no one was particularly prone to saying hi or sharing a conversation with strangers. The bartenders were these gorgeous women with tattoos, and the tattoos were elaborate enough to be conversation starters. Emphasis on “start,” as there wasn’t much of a middle or end.

So let’s talk about our speaker in this poem. She’s watching a bird walk – maybe there’s a bit of a waddle? – down the beach. She gives us three sentences about this. In the first sentence, she mentions “bird” and “beach,” but elaborates that the last wave created a “glazed edge” upon which the bird walks along. In the second sentence, she talks about the footprints this bird makes as he steps. They are perfect stamps, “sharp as an emperor’s chop.” You can read about chops here; they are official stamps that were as good as a signature of the emperor. In the third sentence, she talks as if the bird was the emperor, striding down a “wide mirrored promenade” belonging to him, repolished by an obedient sea.

Okay then! This is already a step up from my bar conversation – the speaker is a crazy person with big ideas. As is always the case with Kay Ryan, her speaker’s imagery is “as sharp as an emperor’s chop.” A lot rests on “the glazed edge the last wave reached;” this is a mirror, sure, but a mirror created by the sea or ocean. It isn’t hard to stretch the idea of water a bit further and assert that no less than time reflects the bird, giving it back a perfect, even idealized image, maybe of itself. Ryan’s speaker does not say “mirror” initially. “A glazed edge” is literally a reflective line, and maybe even not a line. Where the ocean meets the earth is not clearly drawn or given, just like the present is nothing but what has passed turning into the future.

So what does it mean that Nature gives this little bird back a resplendent image of itself? (This has happened: it is origin of the poem.) That’s a bit tricky, but it’s easy to see that our notions of power start looking pretty pathetic. We create all this conventional machinery, rig up entire systems of belief and virtue, to give an Emperor the power he has. All that power, power over life and death, culminates in his stamp. And we go through even more elaborate lengths to make sure that stamp looks perfect, like the power of God has made itself manifest. And here’s a small bird with small steps making footprints that are just as good, if not better.

But the bird is obviously not waddling along the beach because it is powerful. It probably looks free. To be free is to be mirrored by nothing less than time, which stands outside you. The Emperor ultimately was crafted out of necessities to respond to necessities. His stamp leads to a world of even more conventions and all sorts of pointless pettiness. The bird makes stamps as it walks. It seems to do as it will in a world which exists around it. The bird points to the rest of the world, not just what is man-made with singular purpose. We can learn from the bird, maybe be truly governed by it.

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