Oct 142011
 

These are End Times—can there be any doubt?—and in this brilliant, dense essay Patrick J. Keane explains how and why Yeats’s prophetic/apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming” has become the byword (and epitaph?) for our world, the modern era, the contemporary predicament. Keane has already published three books on Yeats; he brings an easy erudition and scholarship to the table but also demonstrates a sharp eye for current discourse—wherever an echo of the poem appears, he’s sure to notice and mark it down. We have here also copies of Yeats’s manuscript revisions and Keane’s vivid recreation of the history, influences and states of mind that produced the poem. Yeats was thinking of the slaughter of the Russian Royal Family by the Bolsheviks, but his words reverberate like an ancient premonition.

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007). He is currently trying to puzzle out the pervasive presence of Wordsworth in almost everything he writes, and recording personal and literary reminiscences, one part of which is “Convergences: Memories Related to The Waste Land Manuscript.”

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Eternal Recurrence: The Permanent Relevance

of William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming”

By Patrick J. Keane

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Portrait of Yeats:  photo taken by Pirie MacDonald, New York City, 1932

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The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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On the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, as I was completing the first draft of this attempt to account for the “permanent relevance” of “The Second Coming,” a friend brought to my attention that morning’s New York Times column by liberal economist Paul Krugman. Addressing what he saw as the failure of the Federal Reserve and of most politicians to grasp the “urgency” of the labor-market crisis, Krugman lamented, as “a tragedy and an outrage,” predictable Republican opposition to President Obama’s flawed but promising new jobs plan, or indeed to any plan likely to make a dent in unemployment. “These days,” charged Krugman, “the best—or at any rate the alleged wise men and women who are supposed to be looking after the nation’s welfare—lack all conviction, while the worst, as represented by much of the G.O.P., are filled with a passionate intensity. So the unemployed are being abandoned.” Would Yeats, a man of the Right, disown this liberal appropriation of his words? Perhaps not; in 1936, as we shall see, he, too, quoted from this passage to make a point liberals would applaud.

But Yeats’s lines, open to appropriation on a more bipartisan basis than anything going on in contemporary American politics, are also repaired to by those on the Right. Following the uninspiring September 23 Republican presidential debate, and registering both the on-stage meltdown of front-runner Rick Perry and the continued right-wing lack of enthusiasm for Mitt Romney, conservative commentator Bill Kristol was driven to fire off a Weekly Standard “special editorial,” titled simply “Yikes!” Kristol—who, along with many conservatives, wants New Jersey’s “tough-love” governor, Chris Christie, to get into the race—ends by quoting an e-mail from a fellow-Republican equally dismayed by the quality of the debate and the caliber of his party’s declared candidates. Concurring with the e-mailer’s allusion—“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”—Kristol couldn’t “help wondering if, in the same poem, Yeats didn’t suggest the remedy: ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’ Sounds like Chris Christie.”

Something even larger than Governor Christie seemed headed our way to former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who recently blogged that the U. S. economy was “Slouching toward a Double-Dip.” Even that is part of a wider concern, again reflected in the apparent need to quote “The Second Coming.” The whole of the poem’s opening movement was posted in August on the website Sapere Aude!, singled out as the best description we have, not of the U. S. economy or the lackluster field of Republican presidential hopefuls, but of “the dismal state the world is in right now.” There was also an illustration of “the widening gyre,” all supplied by one Ahmet C. Toker (whose suggestive surname reminded me that the irrepressible Kevin Smith, by his own admission fueled by cannabis, has been busy writing a 12-issue Batman comic-book series under the general rubric, The Widening Gyre). That Europe, and perhaps the U.S., may be slouching towards something more ominous than a double-dip recession—may, indeed, be spiraling out of control in a widening gyre—was made graphic in the banner headline and blood-red cover of the August 22 issue of Time, which projected nothing less than “THE DECLINE AND FALL OF EUROPE (AND MAYBE THE WEST).”


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In addition to those already mentioned in the text, there are many titular allusions to “The Second Coming.” Canadian poet Linda Stitt considered calling her 2003 collection Lacking All Conviction, but chose instead another phrase for her title: Passionate Intensity, from the line of “The Second Coming” that immediately follows. Describing a very different kind of disintegration than that presented by Judge Bork in Slouching Toward Gomorrah, another law professor, Elyn R. Saks, called her 2007 account of a lifelong struggle with schizophrenia The Center Cannot Hold.

Detective novels, crime fiction, and pop culture in general have drawn liberally on the language of “The Second Coming.” The second of Ronnie Airth’s Inspector John Madden novels is The Blood-Dimmed Tide (2007). H. R. Knight has Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle tracking down a demonic monster in Victorian London in his 2005 horror novel, What Rough Beast. Robert B. Parker called the tenth volume in his popular Spenser series The Widening Gyre. I referred in the text to Kevin Smith’s Batman series appearing under that general title.

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Oct 132011
 

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Warning: this video contains suggestive animations of fruit, human sacrifice, and some coarse language. “The Island” is a short film by Trevor Anderson, a filmmaker from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Anderson is a self-taught independent filmmaker who is currently in post-production on his tenth short film. His work has screened at countless film festivals around the world, including Sundance, Berlin and Toronto.

I saw “The Island” accidentally the first time, then realized I knew the filmmaker. Once upon a time, we both lived in the basements of lesbian professors in Edmonton. We were an exclusive subculture immortalized in a line from a non-fiction piece by Janice Williamson: “gay boys who live in the basements of dyke professors and wonder about the status quo.”

“The Island” for me is carnivalesque in that Rabelaisian sense of being both outrageous and intolerant of hypocrisy which means here being intolerant of intolerance. The film begins plainly enough in the hinterlands, one man walking against a blank canvas of snow, the starkness of the landscape emphasizing the stark hatred in the “fan mail” the narrator receives. What follows is simply beauty made from ugliness, a massive flight of fancy that describes a utopia of tolerance and celebration and freedom.

The last line troubles things with one of those perfect tugs on the tablecloth. Like Anderson believes too much in an interdependent and connected humanity, one that even includes the ignorant and intolerant, to move permanently to this Rabelaisian island.

At the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, Anderson won the inaugural Lindalee Tracey Award, presented to “an emerging Canadian filmmaker working with passion, humour, a strong sense of social justice and a personal point of view.”

If you like Anderson’s style of autobiodoc filmmaking (a term I’m trying to put into common usage so please pass it on), then please check out the trailer for his last film, “The High Level Bridge” (and if you’re enticed pay the $1.99 to download the full film and support this indie filmmaker). “The High Level Bridge” is a short meditation on the untold history of suicides off of Edmonton’s High Level bridge and concludes with Anderson dropping his camera off the bridge into the icy water below.

Trailer:

Purchase the film at Trevor Anderson: Dirty City Films.

“The High Level Bridge” was  selected for the Sundance Institute’s Art House Project. From Anderson’s website: “In 2005, the Art House Project was created to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Sundance Institute and pay tribute to art house theatres across the USA. Twelve art house theatres from around the country were designated and united as Sundance Institute Art House Project theatres. In 2006, a Sundance Institute 25th Anniversary retrospective series was made available for each of the theatres to show in their local communities. The Sundance Institute Art House Project has since grown to a total of 17 participating theatres nationwide and continues its commitment to expanding the reach of independent cinema across America.”

—RWGray

Oct 112011
 

The Perplexing Other

A Review of Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men

by A. Anupama

 

The Book of Men
By Dorianne Laux
W. W. Norton
96 pages, $24.95
ISBN 978-0-393-07955-5

“It was the title. I admit, I thought that maybe Dorianne Laux was giving us the answer key right here in her new collection of poetry, The Book of Men. I ran to get a copy. Well, I didn’t actually. I downloaded mine on a reading tablet, I admit, which I don’t like to do with poetry books, but I was in a hurry to take a look. Luckily, Laux’s book isn’t the sort of visual poetry that loses some of its elegance in the tablet. Even so, I dislike the way mine breaks a poem on the screen or shifts to landscape when I shift the tablet to the side, as when I lie on the couch to read. It is different, something to get used to, and it reveals my own expectations of the experience of reading as I adjust settings so that it annoys me less, or contemplate upgrading to a newer model. It just added to my experience of Laux’s theme—the struggle to read our perplexing others, to reveal to ourselves our expectations of love and life.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn’t the “answers” book I had imagined, but rather a place for Laux’s questions to flourish, seeding our own questionings. Some of the poems are personal ones, about past lovers and friends. She also picks out a few of the “gods” of the Sixties, men whose art defined her generation: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Mick Jagger. She takes her attention to them, with questions, requests, awe, and dismay. Her personal reactions and observations are rendered with humor and vulnerable honesty.

In the poem titled “Bob Dylan,” the epigraph is taken from his song “Father of Night,” which is a stark contrast to Laux’s poem. Dylan’s song lyrics are almost hymn-like in their tone of reverence to the Father. Laux’s poem’s Father is asleep on a bench somewhere; he is someone who has abandoned the speaker of the poem, a speaker who says things like “I knew there was no mercy but me.” The image of the ant in the middle of the poem is Laux’s portrait of Dylan:

one, without a leg, limped
in circles, sent two front legs out to stroke
a crooked antenna, a gesture
that looked to me like prayer. I knew
it wasn’t true.

Her doubt sends her “on with my empty plate, / like everyone else, calling, calling.” I considered too, that Laux might have meant the poem to be read as a persona poem, in which case, the ant would be one of the regular folks of Dylan’s songs, and the old man is the Father of that song, but changed into a vagrant “his sack of clothes beneath his matted head.” What a change from the Father in the Dylan song, who builds rainbows, teaches birds to fly. This one is “twitching in dream. One hand clutching / the bald earth, the other waving me down.” It is strange and ambiguous. I wondered when I read this–is this a good thing?  The birds in this poem are not flying. The ants are not praying. But the speaker has gotten down on knees and has noticed the dreaming old man’s waving, beckoning.

The question “is this a good thing?” came up again for me at the end of the poem “The Beatles.” Laux lambasts them with her sarcastic hypothesizing on why the band broke up. Was it love? Was it greed? Was it a damaged sense of reality? Laux’s last stanza suggests an answer:

Maybe they arrived
at a place where nothing seemed real. A field
bigger than love or greed or jealousy.
An open space
where nothing is enough.

If nothing itself could be enough, that’s the answer isn’t it? If nothing is enough, then desire itself is frustrated to the point of annihilating itself—isn’t that a good thing? Or, is desire the only eternal thing for our cultural gods who, by singing from the heart, have gorged themselves with wealth and fame by creating insatiable desire—Beatlemania and the reverence of fans even today? The multiplicity of meanings in Laux’s one-line punch is remarkable for the cascade of new questions it sets off. I found myself examining the post-Beatles activities of its members, mulling over the possibilities of what the answer could be. It brought me up short at the present, with McCartney writing a romantic opera for the New York City Ballet and Starr’s official website displaying a photo of him in a gesture of two fingers up for peace and love. I couldn’t really place a value on the merits or sincerity of these projects. And that seems to be Laux’s brilliant point. Her sarcastic tone evaporates into uncertainty, seeding questions.

The poem “Men” is a deliberately crafted statement, but a statement with subtle lies in it. So the questioning starts again. Laux begins with

It’s tough being a guy, having to be gruff
and buff, the strong silent type, having to laugh
it off—pain, loss, sorrow, betrayal—or leave in a huff

Every line of the poem ends in the “f” sound, except the penultimate line.

Son, brother, husband, lover, father, they are different
from us, except when they fall or stand alone on a wharf.

The word “different” frustrates the pattern of the poem, emphasizing its presence in a way that sets off questions again. There is this doubt. If one were to reverse all the adjectives and metaphors in this poem to make it “easy being a girl,” would the poem say the same thing? And what about the word “lover” in the middle of that same penultimate line? Every other word in the line can only be used to refer to men. The placement makes “they are different” seem ever so slightly like a lie. The final image stating that men and women only seem alike when in suffering or solitude seems ambiguous after that. The question again–is that a good thing?

Interestingly, in the second section of the book, Laux questions her mother, her mother’s friend, her niece, a pregnant mare, Cher, a female neighbor, a female friend, Emily Dickinson–a lot of people who are not men! And there’s a poem about a dog howling at the moon who “has one blind eye, the other one’s looking up.” A poem about gardening, “pulling stones like tumors up,” and another about gold, “Color of JCPenney’s jewelry, trinket / in a Cracker Jack box…” Laux’s collection makes a meandering progress from questioning the gods, to questioning her companions, to questioning the animals and the inanimate objects in our lives. She arrives at the last poem, which is a meditation on trees overlooking water, essentially a nature poem. Here she compacts the questions, so elegantly, in the stark comparison between the pine tree leaning from a cliff over the ocean and the “blossoming cherry growing up over / the shed’s flat roof,” dropping petals into a pond. In this poem, she embraces the passion and desire in human experience at the beginning, and at the end gives us a haunting image of our mortality:

and a few bright petals settle
onto the black pond. They float only a moment
before the moon-colored carp finds them
with his hairy ancient lips, and one by one
carries them down.

The Book of Men as a whole does this, and this final poem mirrors the brilliant movement of the collection from its beginning to end.

Charles Harper Webb’s article about Laux’s poetry in the most recent issue of The Writer’s Chronicle (October/November 2011) focuses of the power of her work. Webb offers some insight into technical elements in her poems, but he concludes that the success of her poetry comes from her willingness to allow her personality to blaze strongly in a way that is accessible to the typical reader. The result is that the enduring quality of human emotions illuminates her poetry. I agree, and I would add that she has let her wisdom blaze here in The Book of Men with her willingness to enter into her own questions unwaveringly.

—A. Anupama

Oct 102011
 

Here’s a poignant, playful little piece, a variation, as it were, in the old sense of the word, a school exercise (think: Bach’s Goldberg Variations) that caught the wind under its wings and took off and now glows with wit, imagination, and feeling. Benjamin Woodard is one of my current MFA students and this story is based on the writing exercise at the end of my essay “Notes on Story Structure” (The New Quarterly, 2003). As such it is genetically related to the two stories by Casper Martin published on Numéro Cinq earlier in the year. All three are based on the same algorithm (form), but all three develop along startlingly divergent lines. There is a lesson here about the zen of form; and my delight is both as a reader and as a teacher—it’s amazingly cheering to see a student suddenly achieve lift-off and create a self-sustaining world. Benjamin Woodard is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His recent work has appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books and Hunger Mountain. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and leads a somewhat Borgesian existence working in a library.

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Shame

By Benjamin Woodard

 

Old boy, I’m certain that you know all, but I need to address you today because I believe I’ve finally gone on and lost the last of my marbles. Have you listened to my thoughts of late? Are you aware that I’ve contemplated murder?

May, May. It’s true.

Well murder may be too strong a word. Of course, I could never kill May. Not with my bare hands or with a weapon. And yet every time we’re parked up on a big hill and I’m helping her into her wheelchair, a piece of me wants to present her with a little push, to watch her roll away.

I know this is wrong, old boy, and I worry I’ll surely go to Hell for such feelings. The truth is, though, my existence crumbled the day May’s hips confined her to that chair. My devotion to her care has rendered me a servant, nothing more. She has grown cruel and demanding, a gray curmudgeon. And, yes, there was a time when I loved my May more than I’ve ever loved anyone else; and, yes, we once shared happiness. But those years have long passed. At eighty-four, old boy, I assure you Joe and May are mainly together out of habit. Two wrinkled roommates. Nothing else.

I think about pushing her, and I say to myself: How much time do I have left on this Earth, anyway?

She zips down that hill, and I think: Now I can live.

At an age when I should be forgetting, why do you, the Almighty, keep my mind nimble?

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