Apr 072016
 

IMG-20160223-WA0005Photo by Sonia Quiñones

I first came across Óscar Oliva’s work a couple of years ago when Keith Payne came to visit me at my house in Cholula. He spoke of Óscar’s poetry with such enthusiasm that, as soon as he and his partner (the wonderful singer, Su Garrido Pombo—listen to her perform one of the poems below) left, I pulled out the massive anthology of Mexican 20th century poetry that sat guiltily on my shelf and went directly to the entry on Oliva. The first two poems intrigued me—El artista (The Artist) and El sufrimiento armado  (The Armed Suffering). El artista takes its cue from the famous Velazquez painting Las meninas, in which the artist chooses to place himself within the painting. The speaker of the poem states that his intention is similar to that of the Spanish painter, to become one with his art: ‘How to make myself and this book indivisible?/How to make this poem break free from the yoke of paper?’ In El sufrimiento armado Oliva visits the tomb of Marco Antonio Yon Sosa, a Guatemalan guerrillero killed by Mexican armed forces near the border with Chiapas. In the second half of the poem the speaker returns to his home in Mexico City to read about the event in the local papers. He notes how the minister for defense claims that the Guatemalan guerrilleros had fired first and that: ‘In these conditions…our soldiers will not reply with flowers and embraces.’ Oliva would reply with poetry, with music. From these two initial encounters it was clear to me this was a poet who gave equal importance to social matters as he did to ars poetica, singing for the sake of music. It was also clear that I would read more.

Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico and also one of the states with the highest portion of indigenous groups, is an important element of Oliva’s poetry, his love for his native land is palpable. In Keith’s excellent article for the Irish Times (Rebel Hearts Beat with the ‘Poetry of Vitality’) he charts the circumstances that brought Oliva back to Chiapas in the mid nineties: “In 1994 The Zapatista Army of National Liberation had asked Oliva and (Juan) Bañuelos to join its delegation for peace talks with the Mexican government …Hearing the declaration, Oliva returned to his native Chiapas.” But Chiapas, with its stunning natural beauty, armed struggles and social injustices, though a recurring presence, is not the sole location of Oliva’s work. As likely to reference Q’uq’umatz as Juvenal, his wide range of references weave a vast and varied tapestry. Oliva is a troubadour who travels far and wide, crossing spatial and temporal boundaries with ease, though always carrying with him the stones and soil of Chiapas. These four poems are testament to the variety, vitality and integrity of his work. Long may he continue.
— Dylan Brennan
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Óscar Oliva comments on “Behind the wheel of an automobile on the Pan-American Highway from Tuxtla to the City of Mexico”

Writing poetry always constitutes a journey that starts upon the arrival of the first line, which contains within itself the impulse to keep going. Sometimes we travel down these roads in the dark, like St. John of the Cross, and sometimes at great speed like Rimbaud, all in order to remember or imagine we are remembering, different aspects of situations. We were taught all this by the classic Chinese and Japanese poets. Also by Fernando Pessoa and the Provençal troubadours. I have never stopped making that journey, a journey into knowledge, an initiatory journey, one that is never the same—the landscapes change, the towns and cities also change. I and everyone else continue along this wheel that also changes.

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Behind the wheel of an automobile on the Pan-American Highway from Tuxtla to the City of Mexico

for Enrique González Rojo

From Tuxtla to the city of Mexico
is more than a thousand kilometres
more than a million metres
more than a hundred million centimetres

and so many more stones,
so many more trees that

I can neither measure nor count
what I’ve done so many times,
at so many kilometres an hour,
with the hot breath of wind blowing down the Isthmus,
torrential rains barrelling down the Veracruz stretch
that threaten to jack the car and drop it in a ditch,
I’ve picked up the names of all the bridges,
of all the throttled villages
buried in the curves and straights of the road
that I’ve driven down all the days and all the months of the year,
first light, late at night, and at that moment
when the evening is a cicada turning back
into its primitive shell, spinning back to larva,
the exhaustion hooks the mouth,
twists the shoulder and down
into the back of the foot,
and burrows with a spoon
deep into the head;
I still feel when I’m on the go
from one place to another
in this dread between life and death,
when language and anger pushes you on,
and I’m making my way with a pick and a trowel
or when I’m sat in a chair
or laid between the legs of the one I love,
this gearshift, the pulse of the engine
pulling up the mountain, heading up into
the knotty heart of it all
the gentle giddiness on the way back down
and the speed that makes us swallow the landscape
and our words;
the first time I came to Mexico city
I didn’t know which way to turn
which corner to round,
it was like beginning to write,
sat to the white sheet elbows on the table
alone, shoulders hunched forward
waiting for the pistol and the engine rev,
the race to be won
but you’re the only driver,
the page that burned in my hands
like the rubbish tips that burned in Santa Cruz Meyehualco,
and the trucks and trams that burned in the risings,
that screamed hunger,
I came down from the attic to campus,
books under my arm
rolling up spit balls and firing them
out of the bus window
polluting the city with Kant and Antonio Caso,
I dumped my books on the bus and jumped
into one of the greasy spoons on Academía St.
………….or a pub
then dancing all night in La Perla,
later on I’d feel the heat of the woman
who had brought me home,
a moisture spreading like an expanding universe
in a few square metres,
in a few cubic metres of air;
and I wrote across the city roofs,
I spread my reach, my turf
I wandered the hideous streets
where the people crawled
out of work with nothing to eat
gougers or thieves
who raised their eyes to my shirt
and it was like stepping back into the movies
back into Buñuel’s The Forgotten,
and on those ulcerated streets I saw for the first time
carfulls of police, mounted police
pick-ups of riot police
who closed the streets;
the power of the State
who charged full tilt
swinging batons
booting the rubbish bins,
shaking up the neighbourhood
shooting point blank
a blitzkrieg down on our heads,
then the silence of Chaplin’s Easy Street
and I wake up on the path
my eye cut, babbling
like a groggy boxer and they’ve stopped the fight in the third on a technical
and the howls of the crowd not there,
I gathered what was left of my books
without a cent in my pockets,
and back to my room
whistling the tune from The Graduate,
to write the poem I lost
like so many things you lose;
I.D. and women
strikes and chewing gum
faith and socks;
It gets cold in the mountains around Puebla
you have to roll the windows up,
turn on the heat and slow right down
to a regular speed, and later on the sunlight
through my bedroom window,
she’s coming in to wake me
taking off her school uniform
lying down on top of me sliding over me
kissing each other like something out of the movies,
caresses straight out the The tower of lust
Gone with the Wind’s big house,
it’s late, it’s late the sunlight tells us,
they’ve turned up the lights in the cinema,
It was time for a sup and head out across the Zócalo,
kiss her goodbye at the door
then up Guatemala St.,
two blocks take a right,
back into the new poem
back into the dream jaunt,
grab some stuff for the street again
to listen to the jangle and bounce of the trucks
…………loading and unloading,
the travelling salesmen’s banter,
the binmen,
the schoolkids,
hop up on a bus
in with the workers
the driver has the radio full blast,
it’s hard to get to the door, I ring the bell,
a red light flashes on the dash,
I take a wander up by San Lazaro station,
watch a train pass
as it pulls itself across the face of the earth
a letter on each of the six cars
that form the word STRIKE,
I measure these things in my pocket
against what’s on the street,
at the stand I grab an orange juice, the passing
railwaymen lift a finger in salute,
I salute them too, it’s as if we’re saying
reality is in those fingers
this train,
the orange juice lights up my whole body,
I arrive
and the five poets are sat around a table
someone reads a poem, I watch them:
they’re the same age I was when I first met them,
………….I think;
they haven’t moved, still as a photograph
hands in mid air,
pen in the hand,
a glass at their elbows,
they’re as old as our children are now,
it has all passed so fast
just like coming down out of the mountains in Oaxaca,
where it seems that the road breeds another road
where the slightest slip could send me over the edge,
where the brakes don’t seem to work,
where I’ve lost control of the car,
I come back to the photograph and hang it
…………on one of the walls at home,
I arrive for the first time in Mexico City,
I am just one more shoulder in the crowd marching through,
teargas fumes me,
derailed trains burnt out at the terminal
ripped up tracks and the attack
of the police, of the army, of the riot squad
all in battle formation,
the Zócalo is a rifle butt in the face,
there’ll be more battles
José Revueltas tells us,
the railway workers pass by and lift their fists
…………in salute
they walk out of one cell straight into another,
back down to the underworld, into their nooks,
take note, write all this down,
I’m nothing more than a chronicler
who has seen his friends fall,
who has buried his dead,
who has washed in the wind,
full of ghosts and contradictions,
demands and manifestos,
who has patched his back so many times
falling in love again and again, watching the future
so it’s hard to keep an eye on the telescope lens,
denying the future, hating it again,
starting over again, in the end
starting the journey, setting out from the same place,
going the same way,
coming down the highway, braking,
tooting the horn, the lights change,
gearshift, watch the tyres,
flick on the wipers,
and keep an eye on the gas,
barrelling down again till finally I pull in
and here I am writing this
at the end of the journey,
hopeful,
hitting the brakes
so I don’t run over everything I’ve written
or myself.
So I can keep on rising and falling.

Translation by Keith Payne/Audio reading by Ophelia Ellen McCabe

 

Al volante de un automóvil por la carretera panamericana de Tuxtla a la ciudad de México

A Enrique González Rojo

De Tuxtla a la ciudad de México
hay más de mil kilómetros de distancia
más de un millón de metros
más de cien millones de centímetros

mas las piedras,
mas los árboles,

que no se pueden medir, ni contar,
que he recorrido tantas veces,
a tantos kilómetros por hora,
con mucho calor y viento por el Istmo,
con lluvias torrenciales por el tramo de Veracruz
que tratan de detener el carro, derribarlo en un barranco,
que he aprendido los nombres de los puentes,
de los pueblos asfixiados, hundidos
en las curvas y rectas de la carretera;
que he recorrido por distintos días y meses del año,
en la madrugada, en la noche, en el momento
en que la tarde es una cigarra volviendo a su funda
primitiva, saltando al revés, a su condición de ninfa,
sintiendo ese cansancio que nos prende de la boca
………con un anzuelo,
que continúa en un hombro,
baja hasta el calcañar de los pies,
y escarba con una cuchara
el cráneo;
todavía siento, cuando voy caminando
de un lugar a otro, en esa trepidación de vida y muerte
a la que nos empuja la gramática o la cólera,
de regreso a casa, abriéndome paso
con un pico y una pala, o cuando
estoy sentado en una silla
o cuando acostado entre las piernas de la que amo,
ese cambio de velocidades, el esfuerzo del automóvil
al subir una montaña, entrar a ese nudo de raíces,
el leve mareo al descender
y la velocidad que nos hace tragar el paisaje
o nuestras palabras;
la primera vez que llegué a la ciudad de México
no sabía a dónde dirigirme,
qué esquina cruzar,
era como comenzar un escrito,
estar acodado en una mesa frente a un hoja en blanco,
solo, con los hombros colgados hacia adelante
esperando el disparo que inicia el arranque,
la carrera que hay que ganar
y donde se es el único competidor,
una hoja que ardía en mis manos
como a veces arden los tiraderos de basura de Santa Cruz
………Meyehualco,
o como los camiones y tranvías en tiempos de rebelión,
que aullaba, que tenía hambre,
iba de un cuarto de azotea a la ciudad universitaria,
con libros bajo el brazo,
haciéndolos pedacitos y tirándolos

por la ventanilla del camión,
contaminando más la ciudad con Kant y Antonio Caso,
y ya sin ellos me bajaba a la mitad del camino,
entraba en una cocina económica de las calles de Academia,
o a una cervecería
y en la noche a bailar a La Perla,
más tarde sentía la humedad de la muchacha
que se había acostado conmigo,
una humedad que iba creciendo
como un universo en expansión
en unos cuantos metros cuadrados,
en unos cuantos metros cúbicos de aire;

y yo escribía en las bardas de la ciudad,
ampliaba mi territorio, mi radio de acción,
entraba a calles espantosas
donde la gente se arrastraba,
desempleados que no tenías para comer,
rateros, tal vez criminales
que alargaban sus ojos hasta mi camisa,
y era como entrar de nuevo al cine
a ver Los Olvidados de Luis Buñuel,
y en esas calles ulcerosas vi por primera vez
carros llenos de policías, y también policías a caballo,
granaderos en camiones
que cerraban esas calles,
parte del poder del Estado,
que entraban empujando,
golpeando,
entraban a paso de carga
y arremetían contra todos,
tirando los botes de basura,
despertando al vecindario,
disparando a quemarropa,
acometiendo como en un juego de futbol americano
y después era el silencio de La Calle de la Paz de Chaplin
y yo despertaba tirado en la banqueta,
macaneado, con las cejas cortadas,
como un boxeador groggy que le han parado la pelea
por knock out técnico en el tercer asalto,
con la rechifla de un público que no existe,
levantaba los pedazos de libros que me habían quedado,
sin un quinto en los bolsillos,
y regresaba a mi cuarto
silbando el mambo de El Estudiante
a escribir el poema
que se perdió
como se pierden tantas cosas,
credenciales y mujeres,
huelgas y chicles,
buena fe y calcetines;
con mucho frío por la sierra de Puebla,
hay que subir los cristales de las ventanillas,
poner la calefacción, descender a una velocidad regular,
y luego la claridad entrando por la ventada de mi cuarto,
entrando ella a despertarme,
quitándose su uniforme de colegiala,
echándoseme encima, moviéndose,
besándonos como se besan el actor y la actriz en los filmes,
acariciándonos en La Torre de Nesle,
en la mansión de Lo que el Viento se llevó,
ya es tarde, ya es tarde, nos decía la claridad,
se hacía la luz en la sala de cine,
había que ir a cenar y atravesar de nuevo el zócalo,
despedir a la amiga en la puerta de su casa,
después subir a la calle de Guatemala,
a dos cuadras dar vuelta a la derecha,
llegar de nuevo al poema recién comenzando,
entrar de nuevo a la expedición del sueño,
ir recogiendo muestras de distintos materiales,
para bajar de nuevo a la calle
al escuchar el ruido de los camiones
de carga y descarga, las voces de los vendedores ambulantes,
de los recogedores de basura,
de los niños que van a la escuela,
subir a un camión de pasajeros
junto a obreros y obreras,
el chofer lleva el radio encendido a todo volumen,
es difícil llegar hasta la puerta de bajada del camión,
se toca el timbre, se prende un foco rojo al lado del volante,
caminar sin rumbo fijo por la estación San Lázaro,
ver pasar un tren
que a la tierra arrancara su estructura
en seis de sus vagones una letra
que conforman la palabra H U E L G A
esos materiales que llevo en el bolsillo
los comparo con los que voy viendo en la calle,
llego hasta un puesto de jugos y pido uno de naranja,
los ferrocarrileros al pasar levantan el puño y saludan,
yo los saludo,
parecen decirnos
la realidad son estos puños,
este tren,
el jugo de naranja ilumina todo mi cuerpo,
llego al sitio de reunión,
los cinco poetas están sentados alrededor de una mesa
alguien lee un poema, yo los observo:
“tienen la edad que yo tenía cuando los conocí”, pienso;
se han quedado inmóviles fijos como en una fotografía
en actitud de golpear la mesa,
con el lápiz en las manos,
con una copa al lado de cada uno,
tienen la edad de nuestros hijos,
edad que ha pasado vertiginosamente,
tal como el descenso por las montañas de Oaxaca,
donde parece que la carretera engendra otra carretera,
donde el menor descuido puede llevarme al precipicio,
donde parece que los frenos no responden,
se ha perdido el control del auto,
llego hasta la fotografía y la cuelgo en una de las paredes
………de mi casa,
llego por primera vez a la ciudad de México,
soy un hombro más de la multitud al dar un paso,
gases lacrimógenos me hacen rabiar,
trenes descarrilados o incendiados en las terminales,
las vías levantadas, y el ataque
del ejército, policías y granaderos
en formación a paso de batalla,
el zócalo reducido a un culatazo en la frente,
vendrán otras batallas, nos decía José Revueltas,
los ferrocarrileros pasan frente a mí levantan el puño y saludan,
salen de una cárcel para entrar en otra,
pasan a la ilegalidad, a sus escondrijos,
tomo nota, apunto todo esto,
no soy más que un cronista
que ha visto caer a sus amigos,
que ha enterrado a sus muertos,
que se ha bañado de viento,
lleno de contradicciones y fantasmas,
de asperezas y afirmaciones,
con la espalda remendada tantas veces,
de nuevo amando, avizorando el futuro
que es tan difícil retener en el lente del telescopio,
negando ese futuro, de nuevo odiando,
de nuevo comenzando, en fin
iniciando el viaje, partiendo del mismo lugar,
dirigiéndome al mismo lugar,
descendiendo por la carretera, frenando
tocando el claxon, haciendo cambio de luces,
cambiando de velocidades, atento
al deslizamiento de las llantas, poniendo
en acción los limpiadores del parabrisas,
vigilando la aguja que marca el contenido del tanque de gasolina,
bajando a gran velocidad, en fin
hasta llegar al lugar donde estoy sentado escribiendo,
al final de todo,
esperanzado,
frenando bruscamente
para no atropellar todo lo que llevo escrito
y a mí mismo.

Para continuar ascendiendo y descendiendo.

 

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Su Garrido Pombo Sings the Poem

Capture

Su Garrido Pombo via sugarridopombo.com

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Óscar Oliva comments on “For Pope John Paul II on his arrival in Tuxtla Gutiérrez”   

It is a poem of circumstance, one in which I once again proclaim my love for Tuxtla, my hometown. I like to walk around Tuxtla because for walls it has mountains that have hardly moved since I was born. It is also a poem in which I speak of the evil machinations of the State and the Church, how they transform religious faith, with the 30 golden coins from the spotlights of mercenary publicity.

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For Pope John Paul II on his arrival in Tuxtla Gutiérrez

In the water’s flow lies its fall
voices, faces beloved for having
survived rivers upon rivers:
………………………………..Tuxtla
is like amber under pooled waters;
so now, you’ll make it to my hometown,
Pontifex Maximus, and I would have
liked to have seen you with my 1947 eyes.

You will see that sky of almost solid light that there begins,
that continues in Guatemala like a wild boar’s head,
…………………………………carried on a shoulder,
that can be weighed by hands in all of Central America,
so battered by North American imperialism
………………………………..(that’s what we called it),
and on resting your workman’s hands upon my hometown,
you’ll hear the fluttering thoughts of Q’uq’umatz.

I don’t really know what your visit will bring,
under a sky with no eyelids; it will be astonishing,
tongues will mingle, you will stumble,
heads will bash against each other,
and your word will disseminate, your soul torn to shreds,
thousands will photograph you, shoot you in video and film,
and I will watch you so far away so close on the telly.

I would have liked to have been there in my doorway
……………………………….to have seen you pass by,
but, since many years ago,
a child that came running from the backyard,
not yet having received the Eucharist,
upon opening the door to the street, fell down in a faint.
My grandparents, parents, siblings, and I myself, all dead,
buried; all together, all shouting
……………………..Goodbye Holy Father! God Bless You!

Now then, I am writing these words down before
……………………..you arrive in Mexico, from where
news of your visit breaks
……………………………………………from the TV stations,
which we watch between adverts, which dirty
…………your robes upon which they play dice,
between political slogans from George Bush to the world
………………………………from the White House;
before you leave Rome, Sir John, Sir Paul,
before you open one of the gates of the Vatican Palace;
before I can establish that Rome really exists, the Vatican
Palace, Tuxtla,
because you know very well that all that I’m saying
………………………………………………………………..is possible,
especially between two poets who will not see each other, not now, not ever.

Upon arrival, you will see the trees, that cannot grow
………………………………………………………………..any longer.
You will not see the idols—nobody has seen them—that the Indians
…………hide behind the Catholic images.
You will see, just beside the arroyo, Brother Bartolomé de las Casas,
and you will kneel before him; the bishop of Chiapas
……………………………….will not know who you are.

I beg you not to lift the stone that trips you up
………………………………..on your way to Tuxtla,
………………………………..I do not want the wound to open.
In the place from which you’ll speak,
you will be able to see the Cañon del Sumidero
and the Río Grijalva which carries another river in its depths,
and you will feel there are more leaves under the breeze,
more amber under the light.

What word will be gathered by those poor
who will listen to you, who have survived so many stonings
…………………………………………and prisons?

I don’t know. What I do know is that Christ has not died with them,
that he’ll listen to their words, and when you are through,
He will return with them to where they live, and upon opening
……………………………….the door of one of those houses, will fall down in a faint.

……………………………………………………Safe journey home.

—Translation by Dylan Brennan

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Al Papa Juan Pablo II para cuando llegue a Tuxtla Gutiérrez

En el manar del agua está la caída,
algunas voces, rostros amados porque
han sobrevivido ríos sobre ríos:
…………………………………………………..Tuxtla
es como el ámbar bajo el agua empozada;
en fin, llegará usted a mi pueblo,
Sumo Pontífice, y me hubiera
gustado verlo con mis ojos de 1947.

Verá el cielo de luz casi sólida que ahí comienza,
que continúa en Guatemala como una cabeza de jabalí
………………………………….colgada al hombro,
que es una sola pisada de tapir en El Salvador,
que puede sopesarse con las manos en toda Centroamérica
ahora tan golpeada por el imperialismo norteamericano
………………………………….(así se decía antes),
y al posar sus manos de obrero en mi pueblo,
escuchará el aleteo y el pensamiento de Gucumatz.

No sé bien cómo será su visita,
bajo el sol sin párpados; será impresionante,
las lenguas se confundirán, se trastabillará,
las cabezas chocarán unas con otras,
y su voz será propagada, y su espíritu hecho girones.
Miles lo fotografiarán, le tomarán videos y películas.
Yo lo veré tan lejos, tan cerca, desde la TV.

Me hubiera gustado estar en la puerta de mi casa
………………………………..para verlo pasar,
pero desde muchos años atrás,
un niño que llega corriendo desde el traspatio,
que no ha recibido la eucaristía,
y al abrir la puerta de la calle, cae desmayado.
Mis abuelos, padres y hermanos, yo mismo, todos muertos,
enterrados; todos juntos, gritando:
…………………………“¡adiós, Santo Padre!” “¡Dios lo bendiga!”

Ahora bien, estas palabras las estoy escribiendo antes
………………..de que llegue usted a México, de que se desate
………………………………………….por los canales de televisión
………………..información sobre su visita,
de que lo veamos entre anuncios comerciales, de que ensucien
………su túnica y de que jueguen sobre ella a los dados,
entre consignas políticas de George Bush al mundo
……………….desde la Casa Blanca;
antes de que parta de Roma, don Juan, don Pablo,
de que abra una de las puertas del Palacio del Vaticano;
antes de que yo pueda constatar que existe Roma, el Palacio
del Vaticano, Tuxtla,
porque bien sabe usted que así como lo estoy diciendo
……………………………………………………………………es posible,
más entre dos poetas que no se verán ahora, ni nunca.

Al llegar, verá usted los árboles que ya no podrán
………………………..crecer más.
No verá los ídolos —nadie los ha visto— que los indios
………..esconden detrás de las imágenes católicas.
Verá, junto al arroyo, a Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas,
y se arrodillará ante él; el obispo de Chiapas
…………………………………no sabrá quién es usted.

Le ruego no levante la piedra con la que tropezará
……………………….en su camino a Tuxtla,
……………………….no quiero que se le abra la herida.
Desde el lugar donde va a hablar,
podrá ver el Cañón del Sumidero
y al río Grijalva que lleva en sus profundidades a otro río,
y sentirá que hay más hojas bajo el aire,
más ámbar debajo de la luz.

¿Qué palabra será recogida por esos pobres
que lo escucharán, que han sobrevivido a tantas pedradas
…………………………………y cárceles?
No sé. Lo que sé es que Cristo no ha muerto con ellos,
que estará atento a sus palabras, y cuando usted termine,
Él regresará con ellos por donde vinieron, y al abrir
……………………la puerta de cualquier casa, caerá desmayado.
…………………………………………Buen viaje de regreso.

§

Óscar Oliva comments on “Ballad for the Ayotzinapa Boys”

No, I cannot explain what this is about. A warning cry is nothing more than an open throat. Everyone knows about this atrocious crime, I am nothing more than a troubadour in a land where crime reigns supreme. Nobody is obliged to respond with poetry to these nameless occurrences. Poetry must fly with a freedom that is absolute and when it sounds must do so with a beauty with which, and, for which, we breathe. I do not like so-called political poetry, it too has been corrupted by ideologies. I do believe in rage in poetry. Poetry changes nothing, nor is change its function. It is only to be written and, from time to time, sung. For this reason I like for my poems to be sung, in other languages, other intonations, by popular artists.

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Ballad for the Ayotzinapa Boys

There are no limits for this country of crime.
There is no name for this country of crime.
There is no country with names for this crime.
There are no crimes for this country of crime.

Tell me, in what faraway land will they be found?

To Juvenal I’ll add François Villon
to compose this ballad, I’ll ask other troubadours

to lend an interrogative refrain: where, in which
crimeless country are those boys who only just
………….stripped naked for love?

Help me run along a river
that runs with so much strength.

Where are they? Encapsulated in which black house?

You won’t find them in the white house, nobody lives there anymore.
The time of new Sirens will come, of new sorcery,
and the lily whiteness will become a yellow shine

or a black lily at the whims of a new owner, a new Circe
of deceit, amongst lions and wolves of the same woods.

…………Our Lady of the Sorrows, where are they?

Where are the 43 tears of yesterday afternoon?

We won’t find out tomorrow where they are,
nor in the coming mornings or afternoons where they are,
nor in a whole year, in which we cannot but return
………………………………………….right back to this refrain:
Where again are the Ayotzinapa boys!?

There are no limits.
There are no names.
There is no country.
There are no crimes.

They run with so much strength.

………………………………Tuxtla, November, 2014.

Translation by Dylan Brennan

 

Balada por los muchachos de Ayotzinapa

No hay límites para el país del crimen.
No hay nombre para el país del crimen.
No hay país con nombres del crimen.
No hay crímenes para el país del crimen.

¿Díganme, en qué país lejano hallarlos?

A Décimo Junio Juvenal agrego a François Villon
para componer esta balada, y pido a otros cantores
añadan otro estribillo interrogativo: ¿dónde, en qué
país sin crímenes están los muchachos que apenas
……….se habían desnudado al amor?

Ayúdenme a correr junto a un río
que corre con demasiada fuerza.

¿En dónde están, en qué casa negra, encapsulados?

En la casa blanca no están, ahí ya no habita nadie.
Llegará el tiempo de otras sirenas, de otros sortilegios,
y la blancura como lirio será un resplandor amarillo
o un lirio negro al capricho de otra dueña, otra Circe
de engaño, entre leones y lobos del mismo bosque.

………¿Dónde están, Madre Dolorosa?

¿Dónde están las 43 lágrimas de ayer por la tarde?

No vamos a averiguar en esta mañana dónde están,
ni en las siguientes mañanas y tardes dónde están,
ni en todo el año, que a este estribillo no nos lleve:
¡Mas dónde están los muchachos de Ayotzinapa!

No hay límites.
No hay nombres.
No hay país.
No hay crímenes.

Corren con demasiada fuerza.
…………………………………..Noviembre/ 2014

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§

Óscar Oliva comments on “A Ballad for François Hollande”

I did send this poem to Hollande. However, the carrier pigeon never made it to his window. Either that or it was devoured by the waters over which it crossed. Certainly Hollande forgot about Boris Vian’s song, one that he would have listened to with excitement in his youth. That was my reason for paraphrasing him, to remember the poet and his long trek along the paths of the Provençal troubadours.

.

A Ballad for François Hollande

Monsieur le président
take this ballad
as I awaken ‘The Deserter’
………….by Boris Vian

don’t be surprised if a messenger
pigeon arrives at your window
– there’s all sorts falling from the Cloud

I see you’re busy making war
was I born to the world
for no more than this?

as down the French avenues sings Boris Vian
don’t go to war, we didn’t come here to kill

my mother suffered when I left
when they strafed the bus I was on
I was reading Guillaume de Poitiers’ poem
……………………..about I don’t know what about nothing

you and the terrorists you and the terror
………………………………………….let us
dream the three dreams of Decartes

………………………………………….let us
go into the cafes
the arenas
the football stadiums
I’m no member of either
sleeping or active cell

I’m better off in Agnes’ dream
like Guillaume who dreams
as he sleeps
………….on his horse

don’t make war
abroad
don’t make war
at home

I’m a deserter
sings Boris Vian
………….don’t obey them
don’t go to war
tell your police
Mr. President
that I am unarmed
on the road to peace
I’ve slipped off
my electronic tag
Boris Vian recorded ‘The Deserter’
the same day as his country’s
defeat at Diem-Bien-Phu

all down the Aquitaine roads
about I don’t know what about nothing
but early and almost unseen

I slip this ballad through your window.

–Translation by Keith Payne

 

Balada para François Hollande

Monsieur le président
le mando esta balada
paráfrasis de “El desertor”
………….de Boris Vian

no tendría nada de extraño que
una paloma mensajera llegara a su ventana
la nube cibernética da sorpresas

lo veo tan ocupado
en hacer la guerra
¿vino a este mundo
nada más para eso?

por los caminos de Francia Boris Vian canta
no vayan a la guerra no venimos a la vida para matar

mi madre sufrió tanto cuando me fui a otro país
cuando ametrallaron el autobús donde viajaba
leía el poema de Guillermo de Poitiers sobre no
…………………………sé qué sobre nada

usted y los terroristas usted y el terror
…………………………………….déjennos
tener los tres sueños de Descartes

…………………………………….dejénnos
entrar a las cafeterías
a las salas de conciertos
a los estadios de futbol
no pertenezco a ninguna
célula dormida o activa

mejor entro al sueño de Agnes
como Guillermo que la
sueña porque duerme
………sobre su caballo

no haga la guerra
en casa ajena ni
en su propia casa

soy un desertor
Boris Vian canta
……….no obedezcan
no vayan a la guerra
dígale a sus policías
señor presidente
que no llevo armas
camino desarmado
me quito el dispositivo
electrónico el brazalete
de geolocalización
Boris Vian grabó “El desertor”
el mismo día de la derrota
de su país en Diem-Bien-Phu

por los caminos de Aquitania
sobre no sé qué sobre nada
muy temprano casi invisible

dejo esta balada en su ventana

§

Óscar Oliva: Final words

I have not stopped writing. I no longer can stop. I have finished a new book, LASCAS, which is the continuation of this long race in which we all take part. It is also a journey through the mountains of Chiapas, alongside my grandparents and great-grandparents, alongside Li-Po, Rubén Darío, Juan de la Encina and others who have gazed upon the changing skies. Sturdy horsemen under torrential rains.

— Óscar Oliva, Dylan Brennan, & Keith Payne

.
Óscar Oliva was born in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, on 5 January 1937. He belonged to the group of poets known as La Espiga Amotinada, encouraged by the Catalan poet Agustí Bartra. He has published extensively since the appearance of La Voz Desbocada in 1960 and has been widely recognized for his work as a cultural promoter. He has been honoured repeatedly for his work, winning an array of prizes including the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes (1971), Premio de Poesía Ciudad de México (1981), Medalla Rosario Castellanos (1990) and the Premio Internacional de Poesía Ramón López Velarde (2013). In addition to his literary work, Óscar was also a member of the Comisión Nacional de Intermediación (CONAI), between the Ejercito Zapatista de la Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and the Mexican government, eventually leading to the establishment of autonomous, indigenous communities in his home state of Chiapas.

Keith Payne is the Ireland Chair of Poety Bursary Award winner 2015-2016. His collection Broken Hill (Lapwing Publications, 2015) will be followed by Six Galician Poets (Arc Publications) in 2016.

Brennan

Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan

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Apr 062016
 

glo logoClick on the logo to read the article.

Twitter fame (sort of) is the gift that keeps on giving. Russell Smith wrote a piece for the Globe and Mail about my sudden ascension to viral idolatry. I especially like it that NC “is also well-known for being intellectual and deep, in other words obscure.” I can only offer that NC is not so obscure, tweet-resistant, for sure, but not obscure. We hover around the half-million mark on Alexa.com, well ahead of Asymptote, Full-Stop, The White Review, Quill and Quire, Quarterly Conversation, Berfrois, River Teeth, Rain Taxi, and many, many notable sites/magazines. But “intellectual and deep” I’ll take.

He [Glover] himself is amused by this surge. He does, after all, like to say that he is legendary for being unknown. Maclean’s magazine once called him “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive.” Although he has won the Governor-General’s Award (in 2003, for the ambitious and playful novel Elle), his work is a little too elegant and clever for the book-club crowd, or for Canada Reads. He single-handedly created an online literary and philosophical magazine called Numéro Cinq, that is also well-known for being intellectual and deep, in other words obscure. The essays in Numéro Cinq are tweet-resistant: In the latest issue an entire book is posted, a six-chapter tome on contemporary U.S. policies as seen through the poetry of W.B. Yeats.

Read the whole piece at the Globe and Mail — Russell Smith: Easy inspiration in an age when everyone is a storyteller.

Apr 062016
 

Cynthia photo Shawnigan lakePhoto by Dean Sinnett

x

S trong feet stepped into the boy’s dream, came nearer down the hall, and he sat up, but the sounds went past, outside.

Quick, to the window.

Down the dark quiet street came four horses, two by two, with police on top. Streetlights shone on the animals’ rumps, the riders’ yellow vests. Clop clop. Harness glinted, tails waved, manes lifted and subsided. The horses too wore reflective yellow, in bands round their ankles. No heavy traffic here, though, not like the last time he’d seen them, at rush-hour, walking calmly single-file between a moving bus and a line of parked cars.

Hesitation. Bad. His bruises still hurt.

I have to know where you are, she’d said, you cant just wander alone. You dont know this big city. And stay out of the Park! Who knows what’s hiding there?

Also, they’d taken his keys.

He found clothes. As he felt in the “secret” pocket of her rain jacket, from the other bedroom came sounds he disliked. Good, they’d sleep soon. He left the building via the rusty fire escape off the third-floor hall. At the bottom he must swallow, then jump down to damp earth — better than taking the dim stairs to the basement door.

He hurried then. Clop clop, and the horses headed west past shabby low-rises like his, past the corner store with posters stuck on its outer wall. One said Resist! What? Then past the school, the one he went to, with a map of all Canada on the classroom wall. Vancouver, a dot. The town where he’d lived before, not even that. On the bewildering drive to the city, she’d kept saying Look at the map, see where youre going! He didn’t. Hadn’t asked, ever, to make this move. Back there, the cops only had motorcycles.

The boy kept half a block between himself and the clop-clop, scuttling from hedge to street-tree to shrub. Where did they live? He’d seen them often, on busy West End streets or near the big beach. Sometimes the police halted them, so people could ask questions or even pat those enormous heads. He saw the cops’ holsters close up, and the animals’ big nostrils, and their strange eyes, bluish-brown. Soon the horses moved on. Their steady gait — lots of videos showed that, how the animals just kept on coming, calm amidst furious crowds. Did riots happen here?

As the quartet neared the big street he stayed even further back, waiting while the traffic light changed and changed again. On the restaurant at the corner, someone had half-scraped off a Resist! poster. Near this intersection, he did know his way. Homeless men slept in store entrances, their hidden faces probably familiar to him from the network of local alleys, of bins behind cafes and groceries. Once he’d taken home a cold burger, untouched in its box. They’d found it. Bad.

When green shone a third time he sauntered across, then hastened after the lifting hooves. Along these blocks, richer landscaping fronted condos recently built. To hide and move and hide: easy. Ahead waited greater darkness, though moonlight came and went as the clouds moved.

By day he’d wandered this terrain south of Lost Lagoon, grasping at its geography. Some lampposts in the Park and at its edges displayed a map, for tourists, so he’d learned some main routes. In the middle of the map’s big green stood a tiny surprising coyote. He hadn’t known they could live in cities. Mum said You never see whats right under your nose, but that wasn’t true. On his own he’d spotted a real raccoon snoozing in a tree, and a dead bird with a huge long beak, and sleeping bags inside bushes alongside piled bottles and cans.

Once he’d even circled the Lagoon, peering up at the forest north of it, but hadn’t ever entered the Park after sunset. In the small town, he with other kids spent hours nightly in the local park, only vacating when the teenagers took over — but no map was needed. You could see right across. Now he followed the horses into the dark.

Near-silence, but for the stepping animals. One lifted its tail. Plop plop, and that warm smell mixed with the night’s leafy earthiness.

He’d thought they might turn south, past the tennis courts to the Bay. No. A right turn. Where to? At first following the horses, the boy then dared to move sideways into the damp understory of salal, laurel, giant rhodo — and ahead, to crouch and peek as the nodding heads approached. Even when a rare midnight car drove past, the animals didn’t change pace. The videos showed that too, horses proceeding while police trainers waved flags and noisemakers in their faces, fired blanks, came unseen from behind to beat garbage-can lids. Calm.

Next they turned west. On one side of that road, he knew, lay open lawn, on the other just patchy shrubs, quite low. All the way, streetlights. Now what? Could he scrabble downhill, unseen, unheard, to the underpass, and so move roughly northwest? His insides heaved. No, not that tunnel in the dark — nor by day. It curved, so the exit wasn’t visible from the entrance. Im not a little boy any more. Im not! They’d laughed till they cried, though later Mum said Sorry, and then they smoked. Also, the meadow beyond the underpass gave no cover.

He slowed, guessing. Turned away from the horses, south and then west in a long watchful arc through open and wooded areas. Breathed leaves, a trace of skunk, someone’s cigarette. Uphill then, on to the high bank overlooking the ocean. Here he squatted under a shore-pine distorted by wind and weather, smelled algae, watched the incoming tide’s long frills of white collapse on the beach. Soaked runners, cold sock-less feet — he didn’t care, looked north. I was right. Only a hundred metres away the quartet walked towards a concrete ramp that sloped to the sand. Touching it, the lead animals snorted, and the riders spoke gently, stroking.

When hooves met beach the four horses trotted south, almost as far as the point, almost gone from view — then back again, under the boy’s high perch, to and fro, to and fro. The animals’ muscles created light-patterns on their coats while the waves gleamed under the moon, fell into silver marbled froth, and made their hssshing sound.

When the riders headed straight at the water, the boy gasped. He couldn’t swim. Nodding, the horses waded in. They stepped freely, splashed, came back to shore, reversed and went forward again into the waves, whinnying. Theyre happy! The riders got them to turn tightly, splashing through the shallows, as if in an enclosure rather than the Pacific Ocean. Turn, turn — and out of the water they came, dripping, tossing their manes, to shoulder sideways, back and forth, steady pairs dancing while the sand bounced up by their hooves.

Then they stopped.

Within a minute, the horses walked two by two up the ramp and disappeared eastward into treed darkness, trotting. Where?

Clop clop, clop clop, fading. At last the boy felt cold.

Once he slipped on wet leaves, falling, and without the horses ahead in the darkness he got muddled.

Emerging from the Park, he found the street wasn’t his but took it anyway, for traffic lights winked ahead. Resist! was stapled to four street-trees. At the corner he checked a tourist map. Im just two blocks over. By day he’d go in again, figure out the lay of the land. As the signal changed, he noticed at the map’s left side a legend that matched images to numbers dotting the Park’s green expanse. Seven: a tiny horse. Police Stables.

At home, somehow the key’s noise woke them. Bad. His wet dirty clothes enraged his mother. The man never needed a reason, but used that one too.

In bed at last, he did think a bit about how one day he’d shove them off, shove as if they were an enormous ball, six feet in diameter, rolling about a training ring to impede his progress. As horses do when skilled in crowd control, he’d shoulder them. Lean up against them, step sideways, step and step and another patient leaning step, till like him right now they’d have no choice. Steady he’d be, calm.

Mostly he imagined stables. He’d stand close, look up. Touch? Feed? Once he’d seen a girl hold out an apple. Big teeth showed as the hairy lips lifted back, and the horse bit the fruit. The boy raised his hand, held his palm flat.

—Cynthia Flood

x
Cynthia Flood’s fifth collection of short stories, What Can You Do, will appear from Biblioasis in 2017. Her most recent book, Red Girl Rat Boy (Biblioasis 2013) was short-listed for the Ethel Wilson prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor award. Cynthia lives in Vancouver.

 x

x

Apr 052016
 

latino authorsJonathan Marcantoni (center); Clockwise from top left: I. C. Rivera, Ricardo Félix Rodríguez, Nelson Denis, Rich Villar, David Caleb Acevedo, Charlie Vázquez, Chris Campanioni, and Corina Martinez Chaudhry.

 J

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Recently, I assembled seven authors—Charlie Vázquez, author and COO of Editorial Trance; Chris Campanioni, author of Tourist Trap; Isandra Collazo Rivera, author of Across the Border: Interview with a Refugee; David Caleb, author of Cielos Negros; Ricardo Félix Rodriguez; Rich Villar, author of Comprehending Forever; Nelson Denis, author of War Against All Puerto Ricans—and Latino Lit advocate and founder of The Latino Author, Corina Martinez Chaudhry, to discuss the state of Latino lit in the United States, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. We covered issues as far ranging as the exclusion of Latino authors from the greater American literary canon, to identity politics and social limitations inside and outside of the US, to style and approaches to writing, to social media and, finally, the future of Latino literature. While these artists come from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines, the commonality of their struggles demonstrates the universality of art and the collective need for our communities to expand our definition of what we can accomplish through unity and ingenuity. The conversation has been edited for clarity and fluidity.

Jonathan Marcantoni: What are the biggest challenges you face not only as a Latino author, but in regards to the way you write? What kinds of support systems are there for Latino writers where you live?

Charlie Vazquez: The biggest challenge I faced as a Latino writer who began writing daily in the mid-1990s was writing about queer protagonists and writing about them honestly.

David Caleb: I must say that many people have tried to label me as a queer author, regardless of everything else I’ve written and done. It has taken me almost a decade to be recognized as a bona fide fantasy, scifi and horror writer, and not just a queer author.

Charlie Vazquez: I would say that nowadays there seems to be a lot of obstacles in breaking in to better book deals, such as less interested agents than for other folks and genres such as white folks and mystery writers. I think that this is improving, however.

Chris Campanioni: Charlie brings up a good point here: as cultural norms have shifted, it’s gotten easier for me to write about subsets of culture that were not really mainstream or literary, even as recent as 2012. I recall when I began sending out query letters to agents for Going Down, which is a novel about Latino identity but also fashion and commodities and pop culture from the perspective of a male model, probably seventy-five percent of the responses read “Chris” as “Christina” and championed the story about a strong Latina character in the world of modeling or, conversely, loved the idea of re-making The Devil Wears Prada for Latino audiences. No one heard or cared very much about male models, especially Latino ones, especially in the literary world. So the publishing world was reflecting the singular gaze of the fashion world I was responding to. Fast forward to 2015 and I think Latino representation in the fashion industry is much more widespread; literary fiction about the fashion industry seems much more well-received and easier to market today too.

David Caleb: In Puerto Rico, we have quite a predominant literary scene, perhaps stronger than the reading scene. Perhaps. The first decade of the 21st Century saw grand literary efforts in rescuing readers: we have a multidisciplinary BA in Creative Writing from the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, and a Master’s in Literary Creation from the University of the Sacred Heart. Likewise, we have many literary guilds, such as Cofradía de Escritores, the Liga de Poetas del Sur, the group A Voces (a group of queer writers, direct heirs from the former HomoerÓtica collective) and so many others. We are producing a lot of literary work and of the highest quality. We also have many writers of renown who are taking the teaching mantle to show the literary ropes to the new generation of upcoming writers, such as Mayra Santos-Febres, Yolanda Arroyo-Pizarro and Max Chárriez. We even have graduates from the Literary Creation Master’s teaching creative writing in Ireland, such as our own Iva Yates. Finally, we have been getting up to date in literary genres such as detective fiction, fantasy, scifi and horror.

Charlie Vazquez: Latino Rebels founder Julio Ricardo Varela and I discussed this years ago when we first launched Latino Rebels as a blog and Facebook page and coined the #LatinoLit hashtag to group tweets together on Twitter for readers, writers, poets, academics and publishing professionals to locate writers and their works, and it has taken a life of its own. And there’s more coming for that!

Chris Campanioni: I think New York City probably has greater support systems in general, for all sorts of writers, but especially Latino writers and other artists producing art on the fringes. At the same time, it’s kind of a big irony, since New York City is also one of the biggest obstacles for artists who live here, in terms of rent and the cost of living. I think that situation sort of creates a desperation that is actually helpful, or at least that I’ve found helpful, in my work, both as a process and in the content itself. There are a number of Latino-centric bookstores throughout New York City, and Latino reading groups that travel well across the boroughs. Many of the student and faculty-run Latino and literary organizations within the City University of New York’s colleges (Baruch College and John Jay, especially), and Pace University, have been really supportive of my work and of one another’s creative output. If I didn’t teach at these colleges, I would probably feel less inclined to say that support systems for Latino writers are thriving in New York City; but as we all can recognize, “Latino lit” is becoming a thing, even as this thing is hard to define, and I think there will be more humanitarian organizations like PEN America in place, in New York City and elsewhere, by next year or 2017, if only so larger corporate interests can co-opt our literary culture and reap the profits.

Charlie Vazquez: I think that Latinos, like other minority and immigrant groups, have been colonized and taught not to support one another, and this is something that I consciously reject and do the opposite of. If we start sharing resources and introduce the folks who read our work to other writers in our communities, everyone wins! More books read, more books sold, more book deals signed, etc. Period. Publishing is a business. And until we begin increasing awareness of writers and book sales we will all remain right where we’ve been: behind the mainstream.

Corina Martinez Chaudhry: Let me respond as the CEO of the Latino Author and from the perspective of many Latino Authors and their experiences within the writing and publishing industry. There are two huge challenges that many Latino writers face. The first challenge comes from the publishing industry and the second comes from a marketing angle. It appears that the publishing industry overlooks Latino writers because publishing houses are all about the bottom line and they don’t feel that these type of books will sell. There is a myth that Latinos don’t buy books (or enough books to help their bottom line) and the publishing houses tend to lean towards the fact that the overall white American market won’t buy these books. The other challenge in this area is that main publishing houses tend to feel that Latino Authors only write about immigrant stories, which is far from the truth. Sure, many Latino writers do write about this topic; however, there are many Latino writers that write Science Fiction, Murder, Suspense, Romance, etc. This mindset will remain as long as publishing houses continue to mostly publish books from the “white” sector. There are very few Latino writers who have been able to break this myth such as Junot Diaz, Sandra Cisneros, Reyna Grande, etc.

Rich Villar: I’m a poet. In the United States, poetry already fights for space on the shelves of every bookstore from the independent shops to the used bookstores to the giant box stores. So, I suppose that’s a challenge. But there is another sort of conversation and meta-conversation among poets (and writers generally) that bubbles beneath the surface, almost at all times: equity in the literary world. By equity, I mean the notion that a national literature should reflect everyone in that nation, and that means Latin@s should enter the conversation as well. I write about equity. It occupies my thoughts. I’m told all the time it shouldn’t occupy my thoughts. That I should just write, right? Well, of course I should write. But I’m also an activist and an educator. And I am oppositional by nature. So, I think about this stuff anyway.

Nelson Denis: To me, it seems that you write the way you live. In order to write about different topics, just become interested and involved in them. Make them a part of your life.  Make them a part of you. Then start writing about them. I think that writing is like sitting in a storm.  I just sit and sit, and get soaked to the bone, and get sick, but I keep sitting because that’s all I know how to do, and then one day, if I’m fucking lucky, I get hit by lightning. At this point, I just write the thing that makes me sit in this chair, which is getting harder to do.  If I thought about the general public I’d go crazy, which I already am anyway.

Chris Campanioni: I write very fast and like Nelson acknowledges, it is an omnipresent, time-consuming endeavor. I wouldn’t have it any other way and I am often able to write in transit, which frees up my schedule immensely. At the same time, it can feel overwhelming when I find myself in a situation where I have three manuscripts ready to ship off to an agent and I’m already off to the next project. Most writers don’t enjoy the business aspects of writing, what comes after the writing. And I think it’s hard to negotiate the writing schedule around very time-sensitive concerns like agency communications, submissions, and pitch letters. As a rule, at least for literary magazines, I try to set aside one day a week where I take care of submissions for an hour, either before work or after work. That’s the bare minimum: one hour a week. Often, I spend much more time with submissions. These things are important because they build readership and make your work more widely available, but at the same time, they necessarily require so much time, much more time than the actual writing process.

Nelson Denis:  I think it’s important to have as broad a life experience, and as broad a reading experience, as possible. Reading is absolutely critical! I believe five years of directed reading will beat the Iowa Writers Conference any day.  But it must be conscious, cumulative, retentive, and specifically engineered for the type of writing that you are interested in.

Isandra Collazo : I believe there is indeed a strong literary scene on the Island, as well as different study programs and workshops to help aspiring authors shape their work in the best way possible. Our people in Puerto Rico have a drive to write, and not just within the hidden pages of a personal journal. For instance, they witness different social issues unfolding around them and they have an urge to put their thoughts down on paper; as poetry, short stories, and even song lyrics. A few months ago, I received a gift from a friend who is a poet. It was a collection of poems and short stories, written by several authors and students from a creative writing program offered by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, at Museo Casa  Jesús T. Piñero in the town of Canovanas.

I mention this because it shows that our writers are supported and encouraged to carry on with the art, even get their works published and presented to the public. A chance like that might seem minuscule for authors with international representation, but for a young writer it is huge. Still, I find that it is hard for new Latino writers to find representation, especially if you write in English, about subjects that don’t exactly cover Latino issues, and God forbid if your main character is a Hispanic female. Of course, this is very subjective.

 J.M.: What kind of books do you see as essential or as being what is popular today?

Nelson Denis: On reading… this is a completely subjective list.  Also, how do you cut it off… we could all write down 100 books.  Probably tomorrow, I would write a different list!  That’s how subjective it is. I’ll break it up into 22 ”Latino” and 22 “General” books, in no particular order:

Latino

100 Years of Solitude
Don Quijote
Down These Mean Streets
Mendoza’s Dreams
Platero y yo
Open Veins of Latin America
Los de abajo
La guaracha de Macho Camacho
In the Time of the Butterflies
Pedro Albizu Campos. Las llamas de la Aurora
Before Night Falls
Dreaming in Cuban
Our House in the Last World
Pedro Páramo
Don Segundo Sombra
La vida es sueño
La c
asa de Bernarda Alba
Marianela
La charca
Niebla
San Manuel Bueno, Martír
El lazarillo
de Tormes

General

The Bible
Hunger (Knut Hamsun)
Aesop’s Fables
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The Upanishads
Aristotle’s Poetics
Magister Ludi
Invisible Man
The Great Gatsby
Old Man and The Sea
The Sun Also Rises
Germinal
Grapes of Wrath
Tortilla Flat
Collected Stories of Kafka
Collected Stories of Edgar Allan Poe
Crime and Punishment
Chekhov’s Short Stories
Interpretation of Dreams
Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious>
The Art of Dramatic Writing
How to Win Friends and Influence People

Isandra Collazo: So there’s a big community of writers, huge perhaps, as well as readers. But the question is; what do Puerto Rican people like to read about these days? This is taken from Metro PR and IndicePR, last year’s best sellers in the Island:

Bajo la misma estrella, John Green
Four, Verónica Roth
Will Grayson, John Green
Dork Diaries 7, Rachel Renee Russell
An Abundance of Katherines, John Green
Divergent, Verónica Roth
The Death Cure, James Dashner
Yo soy Malala, Malala Yousafzai
Pensar rápido, pensar despacio, Daniel Kahneman.
(And I’m not going to disappoint you,) 50 Shades of Gray, E.L. James

I mean, what is Puerto Rican literature? Books exploring our history, our colonial status, our political circus, and our national identity crisis? Poems about tragic love stories and childhood traumas? What do people want? Or better yet, who’s/what is our target market?

And why are big bookstores closing down? (Bye bye Borders, bye bye Beta Books Cafe).

Personally, I’d love to get to read more Nuyorican literature, and books from Latin authors living abroad, where they share those new experiences and have another perspective. Although there is some support, authors in the Island need to feel free to write about other subjects, for they are afraid. I was afraid. I am still afraid.

J.M.: Isandra, could you elaborate more on the challenges faced by female Puerto Rican authors? And how does everyone feel about being constrained by subject matter that may be “expected” by a Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Brazilian author?

Isandra Collazo: Definitely. I don’t mean to sound like a butthurt female, but it is often expected of me to write of the following genres:

Fiction: YA/Coming of age; Romance (all categories)

Non fiction: How to’s/DIY; Fashion and beauty (mostly articles); Memoirs; Spirituality

And since I am Christian, leader of two ministries, guess what; I am expected to write only about Christian topics, and will be attacked and judged for anything out of the “ordinary.” (Can’t wait for what will happen when they read my novel. *Sigh* bring it… )  In other words, I’m supposed to hold back in many aspects. That said, let’s bring in the fact that I am Latina and my fiction novel (concerning the struggles of expats and refugees) has a Latina main character running around the Netherlands and not the barrio. Sounds a little odd, perhaps?

What’s more common:

In a bold search for new life experiences, the beautiful and ever-independent Isabel Alvarez leaves her cozy American Dream to…

In a bold search for new life experiences, the beautiful and adventurous Katie Smith leaves her American lifestyle to…

See, I felt obligated to say that Isabel was an independent woman who left her American Dream, or basically a woman who left her immigrant success story. Whereas a girl named Katie Smith already gives you the idea that she doesn’t need such adjectives. Am I falling off the point? I feel that my challenge is not because I am Latina, but because of the subject I write about and how I portray my characters. I kind of leave whites in a shadow, except perhaps for one character, throwing all the stereotypes on them while I attempt to bring forth many other cultures and ethnicities.

Chris Campanioni: But you know, as Nelson sort of suggests, this kind of stuff happens all the time and the best thing to do is put your nose in your notebook (or laptop) and keep writing. Writers have egos and they like those egos stroked, even and especially if it’s the other writers doing the stroking. The literary world can often feel like a big dick-swinging contest (and the metaphor is not without its gendered implications: by and large, women are ignored but that, too, is improving) where writers would rather antagonize one another than coordinate, collaborate, and create a meaningful dialogue. The basis of this, I think, is some manufactured idea of “fame” in the world of letters, whereas several others are writing because we have to survive. Write or die.

J.M.: Would you all say the literary world is eating alive it’s most promising writers?

Chris Campanioni: I think the literary world is filled with sociopaths—like any other industry—except in the literary world, it seems somehow worse because this is art that is at stake, not making a profit for some stranger you’ll probably never meet. Anyway, I agree with Charlie’s point here, and Latinos, perhaps more so than other minority groups, tend to polarize one another through various lenses (whether linguistic, thematic, or even appearance: “They don’t look Latino enough to me.”). I mean, in the end it can sound quite funny but of course it is anything but. The issue with “Latino lit” is only that Latino lit as a genre is so sprawling; Latin America is comprised of 21 countries, each with very distinct traditions, interests, histories, slangs and dialects. But readers and writers and editors and agents—some of whom are Latino, too—expect a formula, and very often, ignore or criticize the work if it doesn’t meet these expectations.

Rich Villar: Consider this: every year, institutions purporting to speak as national cultural arbiters spend their time doing things like reviewing books, or having conferences, or doing book clubs. And every year, somehow, they manage to miss Latin@ authors. The New York Times managed to produce an all-Anglo reading list this past summer. So, as writers of color, of course we must push back against it. The internet is good for that. It’s a democratizing space: Charlie brings up Julio Ricardo Varela, the #LatinoLit hashtag, and Latino Rebels. I have been fortunate to be able to champion my causes on high-visibility online spaces like Latino Rebels, George Torres and Sofrito For Your Soul, and Denise Soler Cox and Project Enye. I’ve also worked with Tony Diaz and Librotraficante, in an effort to reverse book bans (yes, we still do that here), as well as the trend against ethnic studies in the United States.

J.M.: What about the content itself? How do we stand out?

Rich Villar: Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics lays out a useful graph documenting the possibilities for visual iconography, from pure text to pure representation to pure abstraction. I read this book in high school, reread it in college, and it changed a lot of how I view my own work as a poet. I started looking to the visual, how lines are shaped, how breath is represented on the page. Which then led me to explore certain poetic theories: William Carlos Williams and the variable foot, E.E. Cummings and Papoleto Melendez and concrete poetry, the idea of poetry being a visual art. Which, in turn, led me into Sekou Sundiata and Tracie Morris and Edwin Torres and the possibilities for spoken sound as poetic line.

In poetry, there is music, there is silence and sound juxtaposed into lines, and of course this translates most easily as theater. There is Shakespeare, of course, but there is also Ntozake Shange and Reg E. Gaines and Lemon Andersen and Rock Wilk and so many theatrical poets doing what they do. And what of prose? Look—if you read Junot Diaz or Ana Castillo or Luis Urrea or Sandra Cisneros, you can literally read color, texture, movement. So it’s no surprise when these books become movies, and poems become plays—the text so naturally lends itself to the visual. (And Shange invented the form to describe it—choreopoem.) And of course, none of this is an accident. We live in a cinematic culture, an eyes-first culture, a culture of instant information, and French New Wave style jump cuts and extended camera shots, and fast pacing and editing. Of course our literature will reflect that. Let’s hope we’re producing a generation of writers who are self-reflective enough to recognize the commonalities in the critical vocabulary among these genres. What to show and what to conceal in service of the narrative. Let’s encourage writers to be brave enough to cross into the visual arts entirely, and visual artists onto the page. It would be a return to the root. Is the Latino community equipped to lead it? Of course they are. But the thing to realize is that text and visuals and sound have always been interrelated. We’re only now reawakening to their existence on the same iconographic plane. And incidentally, Pablo Neruda read to 100,000 people on more than one occasion. Is it too much to ask for a Latino poet to fill a soccer stadium?

J.M.: There are structural challenges as well as internal ones, then? And it sometimes falls into place along tribal lines, no?

Nelson Denis: Latino Lit in the US is in a state of atherosclerosis.  Nothing is moving.  The “icons and shibboleths” are all in place:

Down These Mean Streets

Our House in the Last World 

House on Mango Street 

In the Time of the Butterflies

Dreaming in Cuban

Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Bless Me, Ultima

I see a pattern here. If you break down our Latino rainbow (Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Salvadoran, Dominican, Guatemalan, Colombian, etc.) you’ll note that one and maybe two from each country (only 4 countries) make it into the above group.  The publishing industry is so myopic, they think so categorically, that if a new Latino-American writer offers a story that is deeply-rooted and narratively circumscribed by their country of origin, the junior acquisitions editor says “oh, we already have one of those” and finds an excuse to pass.

Meanwhile the senior acquisitions editors are throwing the big money at Isabel Allende, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Raul Alarcón (U.S. hybrid, but “writing Peru”)—all Latino authors from outside the US, which shows a blatant snobbery and racism: European and South American authors are “high brow,” but US Latino authors are ghetto underlings, and couldn’t possibly have anything to offer.

The same thing is happening with Latino film directors: practically all Mexican, born & bred over there, not here.

Rich Villar: I think this is a destructive mindset that is born from a marginalized, colonized perspective. The Oppression Olympics. The Authenticity Maze. The relative slice of the literary representation pie is not large enough for Latinos to start fighting over. I don’t know which Latino group “dominates” who. (The question makes us sound like we’re all battling for literary supremacy in the octagon.) But, here’s what I do know: Magdalena Gómez and Raúl R. Salinas were friends. Miguel Algarín and Jimmy Santiago Baca as well. Throughout his career, Martín Espada has been allied with and championed by Chican@ writers from Luis Urrea to Gary Soto to Luis Rodríguez to Sandra Cisneros. And Pietri and Papoleto and the Nuyorican poets were honorary members of Jose Montoya’s and Esteban Villa’s Royal Chicano Air Force in California. In other words, we have always been our most successful as a literary movement when we make an inclusive Latinidad, when we seek out comrades and commonalities and write ourselves into a soulful and (yes!) legendary existence. This is why the Acentos Review literary journal does well, not to mention poetry workshop spaces like CantoMundo and La Sopa NYC.

Chris Campanioni: Good writing will always be the writing that has been lived in. Another way of putting this is to admit the obvious: write what you know, but many writers, young and old, forego life experience for an MFA program and crippling loans. In this way, our topics are inevitably Latino because Latino represents multitudes, sort of like my man Martí said:  “Yo vengo de todas partes, y hacia todas partes voy.” Do we follow orders and the rules of academia or the broader literary culture while forgetting our own personal stories? Or do we use the specific pressures and expectations Jonathan suggests are in place for Latino writers as an opportunity to circumvent or re-evaluate them?

Corina Martinez Chaudhry: Unfortunately, Latinos in this country are seen as being at “the bottom of the rung” due to the prejudice and ignorance of decades of stereotyping this group. We are seen mostly as people who clean houses and are only good for gardening, which although it is a hard-working core group, the majority of people look at this as demeaning work. In addition, you see the statistics of Latinos not graduating from high schools and many gangs being associated with Mexicans or Latino groups. Americans, especially white Americans, paint us all with the same brush stroke.

How do we change this? It comes from us continuing to ensure that we as well as our offspring become educated, and we continue to fight to get into the mainstream. This comes from all Latinos working together to make this change because no matter how much infighting there is between our Latino groups because we are from different countries or from different Latino Sectors, the mainstream lumps us all into one. We haven’t yet gotten to the cohesiveness that the blacks have been able to achieve in this country.

J.M. Ricardo, so many of us are Caribeños here, give us the Mexican perspective.

Ricardo Félix Rodriguez: It is characterized by hierarchies, bureaucracy, institutions. Mexico remains a centralized country, therefore resources are concentrated in the capital city. Writers from Mexico City act like if they were the only source of literature. Publishers bet on big names so it is very common for northern writers to seek to write in english. It is also very competitive; there is a belief that only foreign (mainly European) literature has quality and you as a Mexican should not try to be original. I guess you can say it is the culture of “crab” when a crab tries to get out of the bucket and another one pulls him in until it falls.

 J.M.: Is there any government support?

Ricardo Félix Rodriguez: There is support but there are several points against. You have to adapt your writing to a particular literature whether local or regional. Universal themes are rarely allowed. Groups of artists are usually privileged when they have a relation with coordinators. The same writers are competing for the same grants and awards but not able to make a living by selling their books. If Mexico is a country with “poor reading” in the north the crisis deepens. There is a perception that art is an obligation of the government to provide.

J.M.: How is the community of writers though?

Ricardo Félix Rodriguez: There is a community of writers trying to do things differently but writers tend to be competitive here. I would say that the writer here is individualistic, jealous of his work. I think the best talents are not yet known in independent publishing, underground literature, drowning their poetry in a glass of beer.

J.M.: David and Ricardo, what can individuals or local groups do to increase opportunities for up-and-coming authors?

Ricardo Félix Rodriguez: I see it as some kind of reading crisis. People are not used to reading; we need to find the way to promote reading. Through education, raise the cultural background of the average citizen.

David Caleb: In Puerto Rico, in order to increase opportunities for up-and-coming authors, there needs to be an educational revolution starting from the way up and the way down at the same time. First and foremost, the Department of Education must be depolitized. It needs to be flattened and entirely professionalized. There simply is no other way. Teachers need to be sent to reading seminars and there should be a reading course in all grades.

We see close to no state aid whatsoever in our endeavour. Most of our boom has been subsidized by ourselves. Most of the people publishing books are self-managing themselves. It’s a pity, in a way, that such an amazing body of work cannot be entirely supported by the government. However, we have grown used to it. Puerto Rican writers are used to being disenfranchised and orphaned.

That’s as far as the government goes. Now there is a small grassroots movement (everything in PR is small and grassroots) of theatre producers using material from Puerto Rican narrators and poets to make theatre, but this effort needs to be exploited much more. Also the literary scene is too concentrated in San Juan.

J.M. It seems like the problems both inside and outside the US are as much social as they are financial. There is the problem of a lack of interest in reading alongside the problem of marginalization in the media and/or geographically. What solutions might there be?

Corina Martinez Chaudhry: The second biggest challenge that many Latino writers face is marketing their books once they are published. I find that many authors don’t even have webpages or understand much about the internet and how to market their books through this venue which is the greatest tool in this day and age. Many do not understand Search Engine Optimization (SEO), or Google Analytics and how to make these particular tools work for them. By accurately understanding these tools, the way an author writes would not necessarily be a challenge once a writer figures out his or her niche.

Rich Villar: What is it Dead Prez said? “When you bringing it real you don’t get rotation/unless you take over the station.” What’d Jay-Z say? “I’m the new Jean Michel/surrounded by Warhols.” Opportunities exist for writers all over, if you search for them. Grants. Fellowships. Speaking gigs. Freelance writing and editing. That sort of stuff. Here, in the States, that kind of support is not always present, certainly not the same way it’s present in other countries. Here, it’s not an easy life. You have to hold down a 9-to-5 most of the time. At the same time though, I also try to be wary of those places of support that require you to be content inside a particular box, or to be beholden to a particular power structure. That’s why I identify with the hustlers among us poets; yes, we create good textual work, but we also find new ways to express it—on stage, in movement, in visual art, in music, in multiple genres. That’s where my work is taking me. And the freelance life is not easy, but I don’t answer to anybody but my mirror.

I’ve noticed a tendency among younger writers to put the marketing cart before the writing horse. I think the biggest mistake any writer can make is to start thinking about a platform for themselves, or where they’re going to tour, or how much product they’re going to move, before they’ve ever set pen to paper or finished a full poetry manuscript or fleshed out their novel or their memoir. There are so many directions to take within the world of social media, but none of it matters unless you actually have something to say.

These are questions about finding audience, not finding voice. I would tell writers who come into my circle to read and listen and absorb and learn for as long as humanly possible. And then, they should write voraciously and mess things up and take chances. And then, once they have a style they feel their strongest selves in, once they have built a genuine vision for the world, they should write the kinds of prose and poems that scare the shit out of the powerful and thrill the everyday reader. And then they should open up Twitter accounts. It’s needed. This is an age in which Latinos are being banned and deported and threatened and killed off. We need the kind of visibility that changes hearts, not one that simply turns heads. Good literature, followed by good marketing of that literature, will provide that.

 J.M.: In this age of such rampant exposure, where on the one hand, access to millions is at anyone’s finger tips, and on the other, the most important access, the access that helps you make a living are still shut off for the vast majority of people, how do we achieve equity, not just amongst Latinos, but other groups as well?

Rich Villar: The structural battle for cultural equity also leads to some specific artistic battles. Following in the tradition of Sterling Brown and Piri Thomas, I insist upon the truth of vernacular speech and Spanglish in my writing. I follow the transformative prose tradition of James Baldwin, the philosophical underpinnings of Nuyoricanism and the Black Arts Movement, and the truthtelling poetic traditions of Whitman, Neruda, Lorde, and Espada. I believe art is a vehicle for change, and I believe poetry humanizes. I also believe that poetry rooted in those liberatory urges, when taught to teens and young adults as part of a liberational pedagogy, helps form students’ notions of citizenship and citizen action. The cynics will tell you that poetry makes nothing happen. I am telling you, poetry creates possibility out of impossibility. It makes the invisible visible. And it turns cynical people —teens, especially—into leaders. I am eyewitness to that fact.

I’d like to think we’ve gotten better, but we squabble like any other family. My pet peeve among Latino authors is the silencing of others, the shutting down of debate. I think more gets done in any group dynamic when we’re honest about our feelings, no matter how detrimental it may seem at the time. I hate scenes generally. I hate people who think they’re better than others. And I hate grudges. If I have to sit and worry who I might be offending by saying something, or if I have to studiously avoid someone because he or she’s got some beef with me or someone close to me, it just complicates my life unnecessarily. And worse—it has nothing to do with writing. I can name these things honestly because I have also fallen prey to them.

Corina Martinez Chaudhry:  Unfortunately, the main publishing houses are based in New York, so for those authors that live in Mid America or in the West Coast, there are some challenges in getting to know who is who in the industry. The best way of course is to network and make connections within the publishing industry and that can be done by understanding the web and marketing yourself effectively. This is also a way to market yourself in other countries and locations. There are a few support systems that can be used for Latino Authors such as my site, The Latino Author, La bloga, Azul Bookstore in New York, Martinez Book Store at Chapman University in CA, Las Comadres, or the Latino Literacy which assists in giving out awards to Latino Authors in various genres. Connecting with these organizations can provide great support.

Chris Campanioni: Social media is one way in which writers can make these distinctions outside of their work but also adapt their work for new forms. The YouNiversity was originally conceived as a year-long digital mentorship for new era writers, a reaction to the recycled curriculum and check-listed objectives of many MFA programs in the United States and Europe. We’ve been really conscious about devoting a great deal of instruction to the powers—and pitfalls—of curating your digital presence as an author, as well as the work you produce, and finding interesting and exciting ways to present this material in new mediums by really taking advantage of capabilities that certain mediums afford us. The emphasis on several different forms of accessibility, audience contribution, and increased agency is the foundation for the kind of art that will become the eventual norm in the twenty-first century, so it’s not surprising that we urge our students to think about questions of reader inclusion and interaction from the opening weeks of each YouNiversity program. But to really turn social media into a tool for creativity instead of just regurgitation and masturbation, the cultural norms for social media have to change. That kind of work begins with authors like us, who need to start thinking about social media as another mode for creativity, not just for marketing.

J.M.: I have enjoyed this conversation immensely everyone, and to close things out, I want to know what you think is the future of Latino Lit, starting with Nelson.

Nelson Denis: So I see the “future of Latino lit” as one that is highly eclectic: still forcefully Latino, but in surprising, mercurial, even devious ways. We can’t lead with just one punch anymore… We need narrative surprises from multiple tropes, from all directions, and all at once. Latino Kurt Vonneguts and Henry Millers and Hunter Thompsons that defy easy categorization. I’ll offer one example: The Miniature Wife, by Manuel Gonzales. There is a Latino soul in those stories, and it adds to a sense of dread and paranoia… But he uses it like a blackjack. By the time you realize what’s hit you, Gonzalez has made off with your wallet and your pants. That motherfucker can write.

Between the snobbery of the latest Isabel Allende doorstop of a novel, and the mummified ruins of Mango Street, there’s no room left… Unless you make room for yourself, with a punch they never saw coming.

A new genre/sub-genre/hybrid genre or mash-up… A strange dystopian anti-hero… A shocking re-configuration of ancient Latino folk tales… Anything that knocks them off balance.  Anything that makes them suspect, if only subliminally, that they’re abysmally stupid (which they are), and you know something that they don’t—which you do, because you are Latino.

Corina Martinez Chaudhry: The future of Latino Literature, as I see it, is not only in the hands of Latino writers ensuring that good “stuff” is written, but also in being able to work together to change the status quo in this country about how we are perceived. Not to bring politics into the mix, but just look at the temperament of Trump followers and how he has risen in the polls because he began his campaign on bashing immigrants (who we all know means mostly Mexican or those coming from Latin American countries). He was not targeting the Canadians or those coming from “white” nations.

That is why publishers in the industry still have this narrow-minded view that Latinos don’t read or buy books. They think the majority of us aren’t interested in reading or education. Partly, the publishers don’t want to change what has been working for them to make their business successful. It’s not that we don’t buy books, but there are not true statistics of who really buys books. Someone writes about Latinos not buying books and unfortunately people see it as being true. Also, with so many mixed marriages in this country, you don’t even know who has Latino DNA so how would they really know? I was reading an article on PEW Hispanics about how Latinos perceive themselves in this whole mix of nationality and it was very interesting. Some don’t even claim to be Latinos because of how they were brought up although they are very much Latino. So where do these persons fit in those statistics?

There isn’t just one answer to where Latino Literature goes in the future, but I have a feeling that it’s going to be a long climb for most of us. It is a grassroots effort that is needed—beginning with writers such ourselves—to get the masses to change their thinking. How do we do this? First we write good literature, then we support each other to get to the next step whatever that may be, then we become great at spreading the message, and then we put pressure on the main publishing houses to begin promoting some of our great writers or we help other Latinos to start our own publishing houses and support each other. With so many millions of us in this world, we still continue to let “white” Americana tell us who we are.

I am optimistic though. I think that today we have so many Latinos who are successful, and hopefully with that it will cause some “reverse thinking” about who we are as a people overall. It is about not only loving our culture and our language and all that good stuff, but being smart enough to use it to our advantage and work together to get to the mainstream. If we don’t do this, then the future of Latino Lit will remain in the shadows as it does today.

Rich Villar: I would love for Latino Literature not to need to exist. I would love for the United States to begin implementing a pluralistic, multicultural vision of citizenship and for the stories of Latinos to simply take their natural place in the nation’s cultural conversation. Our numbers are, after all, expanding. But realistically, we live in a time when politicians are openly calling for our expulsion and exclusion from the nation. And people are actually taking them seriously. And so, a literature of resistance must emerge. A literature so undeniably good, and human, and innovative, and united, that it would serve as a collective shout and bulwark against our disappearances. If we receive “institutional” support for those efforts, if the mass media chooses to see us and feature us, I think we should welcome it. But if they don’t, or if they compromise us for simple visions of marketing dollars, I think it’s our responsibility to use as many new media and alternative models to support ourselves and demand our places, without permission or translation.

Chris Campanioni: I believe Latino lit—or at least Latino writers—will begin to get more representation, not only in the form of the year-end “best books of …” list, but also on the daily publication level. More editors of more magazines will be looking to publish Latino voices because they don’t have a choice. The quality of our writing, the diversity of our writing, and the sheer amount of Latino writers actively writing today will make the issue of lack of representation seem antiquated in five years. I think we might all agree, Latino writers have much bigger issues to tackle.

David Caleb: I want the literature of my country to head towards uncharted horizons. As a personal project, I am training students in non-fiction queer writing, in order to rescue the history of our island’s queer community, its struggles, its literature, art, music, political activism, and general history and culture. I am also training pansexual and lesbian female writers who will bear the torch in that particular niche. I want a future where every single genre is represented in the island. But more importantly, I want an island of readers. We will rescue and create readership.

Isandra Collazo: This may be a risky answer. But just like Puerto Ricans have been able to stand out worldwide in music, sports, art, cuisine, I guess would also like to see best-selling Puerto Rican authors on the New York Times best-seller list, in genres like fantasy and SciFi, romance, erotica, and fiction in general but perhaps less on the political subject, less colonial status discussion, and less of the past. I want to jump out of la carreta and get on a space ship, looking to the future. I’m not saying those subjects don’t matter, they are our daily bread. But I suppose I want Puerto Rican writers to be known for their creativity and incredible, explosive imagination, fantastic worlds and unforgettable characters, not just deep research.

A friend of mine who is an Assyrian artist told me that cultural or historical pride was meaningless if one didn’t create something. In other words, what’s the point of shouting, “Yo soy boricua, pa’ que tu lo sepas” (I am Puerto Rican, just so you know!) if I can’t add anything else to it? I understand we are on an eternal search for identity (I am, always!) but as a Puerto Rican writer, I want to put my Puerto Ricanness on diverse scenarios and worlds, not leave it in the comfort zone or where it feels at home.

—by Jonathan Marcantoni

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Jonathan Marcantoni

Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican novelist and former Editor in Chief of Aignos Publishing. His books Traveler’s Rest, The Feast of San Sebastian, and Kings of 7th Avenue deal with issues of identity and corruption in both the Puerto Rican diaspora and on the island. Along with his solo novels, he also co-wrote, with Jean Blasiar, the WWII-fantasy Communion. He is co-founder (with Chris Campanioni) of the YouNiversity Project, which mentors new writers. His work has been featured in the magazines Warscapes, Across the Margin, Minor Literature[s], and the news outlet Latino Rebels.  He has been featured in articles in the Huffington Post, El Nuevo Día (Puerto Rico), El Post Antillano, and the Los Angeles Times. He has also appeared in several radio programs, including NPR’s Fronteras series, Show Biz Weekly with Taylor Kelsaw, Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Have Their Say, The Jordan Journal, Boricuas of the World Social Club, and Wordier than Thou. He holds a BA in Spanish Studies from the University of Tampa and an MH in Creative Writing from Tiffin University. He lives in Colorado Springs.


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David Caleb Acevedo
(San Juan, 1980). Writer, painter and translator. His books include Desongberd, Cielos negros, Diario de una puta humilde, and Hustler Rave XXX: Poetry of the Eternal Survivor. He is pansexual and lives with his husband and three adorable cats.

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chrisChris Campanioni‘s “Billboards” poem that responded to Latino stereotypes and mutable—and often muted—identity in the fashion world was awarded the 2013 Academy of American Poets Prize, and his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He edits PANK and lives in Brooklyn. Embrace the Death of Art.

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corina-chaudhryCorina Martinez Chaudhry was born in New Mexico but has lived in California most of her life. She grew up in the San Joaquin Valley throughout her high school years, but then made the transition to Southern California where she now resides. Her maternal grandparents were from Chihuahua, Mexico; however, her grandmother was half Basque (Spanish/French). Her paternal grandparents were of Mexican and Native American descent. She graduated from Vanguard University Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in business and a minor in English. In addition, she has completed a Water program through the California State University of Sacramento, alongside a Management Certification Program through Pepperdine University, and currently manages The Latino Author Website.

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Nelson DenisNelson Denis is the author of War Against All Puerto Ricans (Nation Books, 2015). He served as a New York State Assemblyman, and was the editorial director of El Diario/La Prensa in New York City.  His screenplays have won NYFA and NYSCA awards, and his editorials received the “Best Editorial Writing” Award from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

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isandraI.C. Rivera is an enthusiast of travel, international cuisine and everything exotic. She’s passionate about humanitarian work, and often volunteers at shelters and facilities for asylum seekers. Through her literary work, she aims to raise awareness on different social issues, by writing intriguing and exciting novels with a multicultural flavor.

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ricardoRicardo Félix Rodríguez  (Sonora, México 1975). Writer and psychologyst. His books include The surreal adventures of Dr. Mingus, Asgard: a Saga dos nove reinos, There is No Cholera in Zimbabwe, and The Other Side of the Screen (contemporary writers of Poland).

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charlieCharlie Vázquez is an author and the director of the Bronx Writers Center. He served as New York City coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra for three years and has just completed his third novel.

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richRich Villar is a writer, performer, editor, activist, and educator originally from Paterson, New Jersey. His first collection of poems, Comprehending Forever (Willow Books), was a finalist for the 2015 International Latino Book Award. He maintains his personal blog at literatiboricua.com and is a contributor to Latino Rebels and Sofrito For Your Soul.

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Apr 042016
 

quote2  quote6  quote3  quote5

This has been gathering momentum. I don’t know when the first person tweeted this quote — “A story consists of someone wanting something and having trouble getting it.” A year or so ago. Then it would bubble up occasionally. Some online writing coach would send it to subscribers and students. Then a month or two ago someone made an image out it. And then today some marketing content provider got hold of it, and suddenly it was all over Twitter on health, fitness, and, yes, weight loss Twitter feeds.

Obviously I have missed my calling. But now I see the light and NC is going to turn into a health & fitness advice and product site. We are already in the design phase for a line of clothing, also exercise devices, and sex aids. (The Numéro Cinq Midnight Rider is being tested as I write this. The ad copy will read something like: “Orgasmic bliss with the new Midnight Rider. A story consists of someone wanting something and having trouble getting it — but no more! Also helpful for losing weight and general cardiovascular fitness.”)

I’ve even forgotten where the quote comes from. Either The Enamoured Knight or Attack of the Copula Spiders. So I had to look it up. And there it was on page 11 of The Enamoured Knight, in the section called “Love and Books, an Introduction”. It is possibly the shortest sentence in the book. Here is the whole paragraph so you get a sense of where the quote fits. The paragraph also contains a lovely aphorism on the difference between literature and pornography.

The Greeks called their novels tales of suffering for love. If they weren’t about suffering for love, they wouldn’t be tales. A story consists of someone wanting something and having trouble getting it. There are no stories about people who start out happy and contented, remain happy and contented throughout, and end up happy and contented. Imagine the phrase “tales of not-suffering for love” or “tales of having fun for love” or “tales of finding pleasure for love.” The difference between pornography and literature is that in pornography everyone has orgasms all the time. There is no gap between desire and consummation. In literature there is always an element of frustration, displacement, delay and incompleteness (even if someone does eventually manage to have an orgasm). Don Quixote is the quintessential novel because it’s about a man in love with a woman who doesn’t exist. At the outset, Cervantes invents the limiting case.

There are some long sentences here, not suitable for Twitter. I am going to have work on style.

dg

Apr 042016
 

Donald Trump collage

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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?

— W. B. Yeats

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CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION
The Perennial Relevance of “The Second Coming”

PART ONE
The Poem as Response and Anticipation

I. Vexed to Nightmare: The Financial Crisis; the Iraq War; the Rise of ISIS
II. A Vast Image: From Political Genesis to Archetypal Symbolism

PART TWO
Things Fall Apart, Contemporary Crises, 2003-2016

III. Mere Anarchy: Polarization at Home; the Challenges of ISIS and Syrian Immigration
IV. Things Fall Apart: The American and European Political Center Threatened
V. What Rough Beast?: Can (Should) the American Center Hold?

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INTRODUCTION

In his 2016 foreword to the 20th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest, novelist Tom Bissell asks how it is that, two decades after its publication and almost eight years after its author’s suicide, David Foster Wallace’s complex and groundbreaking fiction, though “very much a novel of its time,…still feels so transcendentally, electrically alive?” Wallace himself, as Bissell notes, “understood the paradox of attempting to write fiction that spoke to posterity and a contemporary audience with equal force.” In a critical essay written while he was at work on Infinite Jest, Wallace referred to the “oracular foresight” of writers such as Don DeLillo, whose best novels address their contemporary audience like “a shouting desert prophet while laying out for posterity the coldly amused analysis of some long-dead professor emeritus.” But in the case of those lacking DeLillo’s observational powers, Wallace continued, the “deployment” of, say, contemporary pop-culture “compromises fiction’s seriousness by dating it out of the Platonic Always where it ought to reside.” This observation demonstrates the usual disconnect between Wallace’s lucid critical prose and the enigmatic, multi-layered, funhouse of his fiction. For ought is not is. As Bissell observes, Infinite Jest “rarely seems as though it resides within this Platonic Always, which Wallace rejected in any event.”

Infinite Jest, as its Shakespearean title confirms, is the work of a modern Yorick, a man acutely aware of the contemporary world, especially of the play-element in culture. And yet it is “infinite,” a novel transcendent both in its linguistic exuberance (language being Wallace’s only religion) and in terms of its ambition to express “everything about everything,” even if we are left, 20 years later, still unable to “agree [as] to what this novel means, or what exactly it was trying to say.”

Unlike Wallace, W. B. Yeats did believe in the “Platonic Always”: in that “Translunar Paradise” to which he had been initiated by his studies in the occult and by his later immersion in the Enneads of the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus. And yet Yeats could, in the same poem (“The Tower,” III) in which he evokes Translunar Paradise, “mock Plotinus’ thought/ And cry in Plato’s teeth.” For the antithetical tension that generated the power of Yeats’s poetry required allegiance as well to the things of this world. Even as he yearned for his heart to be consumed in spiritual fire and gathered “into the artifice of eternity,” he remained “caught in that sensual music,” the very fuel that fed the transcendent flame. These antitheses (cited here from “Sailing to Byzantium”) play out in all those dialectical poems leading up to and away from the central “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” (1927).

In the case of Yeats’s apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” written eight years earlier, the “Platonic Always” is present in the poem’s archetypal symbolism: that of a bestial image rising up in the desert. The vision is at once concrete and sublimely vague: timeless, universal, transcendent. Its genesis, however, was thick with particulars. In the process of revision, Yeats deleted (aside from “Bethlehem”) all specific references; but examination of the poem’s drafts reveals that Yeats’s symbolism and apocalyptic prophecy were rooted in his response to contemporary events. In registering details of the moment in time in which he was writing, the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the drafts reveal a poet looking back, into earlier history, and ahead, to our own time, with what David Foster Wallace called “oracular foresight,” and birthing a beast that, a century later,  “still feels…transcendently, electrically alive.”

Written almost a century ago, “The Second Coming” has emerged as the prophetic text of our time, uncannily and permanently “relevant.” The best-known poem by the major poet of the twentieth century, it has become something of a requiem for that century, now carried over into the first decades of the twenty-first. That “The Second Coming” is the most frequently-quoted of all modern poems testifies to its remarkable applicability to any and all crises—not only to the Communist Revolution to which Yeats was initially responding when he wrote the poem in 1919, and to the rise of Nazism, which, almost twenty years later, prompted Yeats to quote his own poem; but to the domestic and international crises we ourselves face in 2016, a crucial election year.

A decade ago, “The Second Coming” was often cited in connection with the Iraq War. The 2007 Brookings Institute report on Iraq was titled “Things Fall Apart”; the following year, Representative Jim McDermott called his House speech demanding a strategic plan for Iraq “The Center Cannot Hold.” These days, the disintegrating “center” evokes the polarization of American politics, or the European economic and migration crises, while Yeats’s slouching “beast,” its “hour come round at last,” portends current eruptions in the Middle East, especially the specter of ISIS rising up in the desert and its exportation of terror within and beyond the region. In addition to substantial ISIS-claimed or ISIS-inspired attacks in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Turkey, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Lebanon, European jihadists inspired by ISIS have launched large-scale attacks in France and Belgium. At the moment I am writing, March 28, 2016, there are threats of further, and imminent, attacks on European targets. As noted at the end of Chapter I, ISIS jihadists have announced that Paris and Brussels are “just the beginning of your nightmare,” and that networks already positioned in Europe are ready to unleash “a wave of bloodshed.”  Are “Mere anarchy” and Yeats’s “blood-dimmed tide” about to be “loosed”?  And the fearful prospect of radioactive materials in the hands of radical jihadists is now no longer a nightmare but an approaching certainty.

At home, as the survivors of an increasingly sordid and embarrassing primary campaign, the two remaining principal contenders for the Republican presidential nomination out-bellow each other, each boasting, based on zero experience in foreign or military affairs, that he and he alone is the man needed to utterly defeat and destroy ISIS. Listening to simplistic Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, one is reminded of Pauline Kael’s devastating synopsis of John Wayne’s 1955 anti-Communist propaganda movie Blood Alley: “Duke takes on Red China—no contest.” One way or the other, a rough beast is slouching to the Republican convention in Cleveland.

Such Yeatsian allusions have, of course, become commonplace. In accounting for the extraordinary power and perennial relevance of “The Second Coming,” I will illustrate its near-ubiquity and show how Yeats’s revisions of his original (historically-specific) manuscripts universalized the final poem, making it, oracle-like, applicable to all crises, our own included.

 ↑ return to Contents

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PART ONE: THE POEM AS RESPONSE AND ANTICIPATION

I. Vexed to Nightmare: The Financial Crisis; the Iraq War; the Rise of ISIS

The genesis of “The Second Coming” is to be located in Yeats’s troubled response to contemporary history, specifically, the European political and economic crises attending the immediate aftermath of the First World War. As I noted in an essay published four years ago in Numéro Cinq, the genesis of my own thoughts on the poem’s timelessness, as an ode for all seasons, was my observation—nearing the tenth anniversary of 9/11—of the remarkable frequency with which “The Second Coming” was being applied—in magazines, newspapers, and blogs—to almost every contemporary crisis or division, foreign and domestic.  Centers weren’t holding, conviction was lacking, passionate intensity defined the worst, and rough beasts seemed to be slouching in every direction. It was an old story.

Yeats’s poem in general, and its ominous yet expectant final line in particular, provided, back in 1968, the title for Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” and the iconic collection of the same title. The essay describes an outer and inner de-centering: the ’60s druggy counterculture and the author’s own disintegration as a result of her immersion in the ethos initiated by Haight-Ashbury. The collection as a whole dramatizes the breakdown of order and civility when rough beasts slouch to Los Angeles and New York City. That line continues to inspire allusions. While some found comic relief in Slouching Towards Kalamazoo (the ’60s novel by Peter and Derek de Vries), that judgmental judge, conservative legal scholar Robert H. Bork, titled his grim 2003 projection of an America in cultural and moral decline Slouching Towards Gomorrah. The great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, echoing Yeats’s poem (its first four lines appear as the epigraph), titled his 1958 elegy over the breakdown of Igbo culture Things Fall Apart. In our own contemporary Culture Wars, things continue to fall apart, with communal decency ruptured, on both sides, by political ideology.

Surveying the decline in the quality and civility of specifically conservative discourse, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, himself a conservative, alluded to Yeats’s poem in observing: “It’s a climate in which the best often seem to lack a platform commensurate to their gifts, while the passionate intensity of the worst finds a wide and growing audience.” Rush Limbaugh, who repeatedly moralizes, though with none of Judge Bork’s civility, comes to mind. Notable among Limbaugh’s many pontificating violations of taste and decency was his public branding of a Georgetown law student (an advocate for women’s health issues seeking inclusion of contraception in her college’s insurance coverage) as a “slut” and “prostitute.” That was in 2012, three years before Donald Trump, out-Rushing Limbaugh, found his wide and growing audience.

That famous line made even more famous by Achebe—“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”—has also been aptly applied to the European debt crisis, and its threat to the world economy. In 1919, when he wrote the poem, Yeats was looking out at a postwar Europe torn apart by crippled economies and various national revolutions. Though today we have a “European Union,” it is, economically and demographically, gravely imperiled. Complete financial collapse has been averted by cheap loans from the European Central Bank, and the actions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Time Magazine’s 2015 “Person of the Year”). But failure to resolve the underlying problem of the inefficient economic policies of the most indebted nations (Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal) means that we may still face the prospect of what some prominent economists were envisaging—to cite the blood-red cover and banner headline of the August 22, 2011 issue of Time—as nothing less than “THE DECLINE AND FALL OF EUROPE (AND MAYBE THE WEST).”

The cover article itself, titled “The End of Europe,” following in the line of Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart’s 2009 history of sovereign debt, This Time is Different, noted that Europe was not experiencing a typical, correctable recession or even facing “a double-dip Great Recession.” Rather, wrote Rana Foroohar, “the West is going through something more profound: a second [post-1929] Great Contraction of growth,” with investors “suddenly wary that the European center is not going to hold.”  Doubling down on that allusion to Yeats, Foroohar began her lead article in Time’s October 10 “special issue” on the economy: “If there is a poem for this moment, it is surely W. B. Yeats’s dark classic ‘The Second Coming’.” She compared what the poet faced in 1919—“the darkness and uncertainty of Europe in the aftermath of a horrific war”—with the current situation. After quoting the poem’s opening movement, and connecting the “centre cannot  hold” with the “shrinking” of “the middle class,” Forohoor observed of the poem as a whole,  “It’s hard to imagine a more eloquent description of our own bearish age.” Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, saw, even after emergency help, “dark storm clouds looming on the horizon.” The resistance to the austerity pushed by Merkel and the stubborn lack of growth had led to violence in the streets and to the emergence of extremist, fringe parties. Coupled with Muslim immigration and the rise of Islamic extremism, that trend has since continued and intensified: in France, Poland, even in Germany, with the emergence of revanchist and authoritarian parties. Politically as well as economically, it would seem, “the center cannot hold.”

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Shifting from Europe to the Greater Middle East and beyond, the crises have also intensified, with responses to them participating, rhetorically, in the same pattern: the compulsion to return in times of turmoil to the resonant images of “The Second Coming.” Over the past three years, the poem has been repeatedly quoted in regard to the increasing instability of the international order. Though not the first to consider Yeats’s lines uniquely relevant to their own time, we have a better claim than most. The poem’s opening movement, posted on the website Sapere Aude!, was singled out as the “best description” we have of “the dismal state the world is in right now.” Stephen M. Walt, Professor of International Relations at Harvard, responded to the dangerous “crumbling” of the old “international order” by quoting the whole of “The Second Coming,” a poem that “seems uncannily relevant whenever we enter a turbulent period of global politics.” He concluded “A Little Doom and Gloom” (his sweeping survey of crises in Europe, the Middle East, Iran, and Asia) on a note of foreboding: “I hope I’m wrong, but I think I hear Yeats’s ‘rough beast’ slouching our way.”

Walt’s concerns resonate, and Rogoff and Reinhart may have been right; perhaps “this time” (for, as of March 2016, the European economic crisis is hardly resolved) is “different.” Or it may be that such projections as those sensationalized by that blood-dimmed Time cover were alarmist hyperbole—as charged by one sanguine respondent to the Time issue, who thought “our shifting economies” more likely to be “birth pangs of a new day.” Perhaps; indeed, Yeats’s eternal gyre can be read optimistically, though the birth pangs of his annunciatory rough beast suggest otherwise. When we consider the rise of ISIS and the metastasizing international threat presented by jihadist terrorism, along with Europe’s current immigration crisis, we may conclude that there may be even more terrifying doomsday scenarios in the future. Either way, Yeats’s “The Second Coming” will remain in attendance, ready to supply apt metaphors embodying our sense of an ending: the dying of one age, with another, yet unknown, “to be born.”

This talismanic poem’s projection of cyclical and violent rebirth in the form of a sphinx-like beast rising in the desert eerily foreshadows today’s Middle East, most dramatically, the rise of ISIS out of the wreckage of Syria and Iraq. The once hopeful Arab Spring has long since turned autumnal. Caught up in the region’s cross-current of sectarian, ethnic, and tribal tensions, overwhelmed by military elites and by long-suppressed but well-organized Islamists, the young rebels who actually initiated the Arab Awakening quickly became yesterday’s news. Revolutions devour their own children. History “Whirls out new right and wrong,/ Whirls in the old instead,” to quote Yeats’s “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” a poem originally titled “The Things That Come Again.” As two Middle-East experts, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, accurately predicted as early as September 2011: whatever the outcome of this struggle, “victory by the original protesters is almost certainly foreclosed.” And so it has turned out. Optimistic anticipations of beneficial change were shattered by what Agha and Malley called, perhaps echoing the Yeatsian widening gyre, “centrifugal forces” (“The Arab Counterrevolution”). Many in the chaotic Middle East are now, as various Islamic sects vie for power, and ISIS galvanizes jihadists, wondering what comes next—or, in Yeats’s stark image of expectation-reversal, what rough beast is slouching their way.

The long-sustained hostility has also intensified between Israel and the Palestinians, with the elusive two-state solution further away than it was when the UN partitioned Palestine 2/3rds of a century ago. That embittered stalemate is epitomized in the title of a recent book, Side by Side: Parallel Narratives of Israel-Palestine. In lieu of advancing any proposals to resolve the issue, the book offers, on facing pages, differing perspectives on the same events. The “sheer reciprocal incomprehension” in these parallel narratives, with “two sides locked in…a dialogue of the deaf,” reminded British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft of a famous phrase of Yeats (for once, not from “The Second Coming,” but from “Remorse for Intemperate Speech,” a poem written a dozen years later): “Great hatred, little room.”

Like many lines from “The Second Coming,” this phrase, too, applies throughout much of the Greater Middle East. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad, militarily propped up by Vladimir Putin, continues to barrel-bomb his own people, while we puzzle over how, now that one plan to arm the Syrian “moderate” opposition has ignominiously failed, we might prevent further carnage. In Afghanistan, what began as a justified attack on the Taliban sponsoring al Qaeda now seems a futile counter-insurgency: a struggle hampered by our putative “ally” in the region. Playing both sides in its own self-interest, Pakistan covertly supports the resurgent Taliban it originally created and funds extremist madrassas (now over 1,300) intended to displace Afghan state schools, where secular subjects are taught as well as religion. And Pakistan is itself an unstable nation, its nuclear arsenal partially dispersed and therefore vulnerable to seizure by its own Islamist radicals.

And then there is the nuclear game-playing of a truly paranoid regime. North Korea is already in possession of several nuclear weapons, and its erratic dictator, 33-year-old Kim Jong-un, has become increasingly provocative. North Korea’s nuclear bomb test in January was quickly followed by a rocket-launch, part of a project whose goal is to eventually mount a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental missile. The rocket was launched not only in violation of several UN Security Council resolutions, but even in defiance of the Hermit Kingdom’s powerful neighbor, China, the only nation thought to have the leverage to restrain its unpredictable ally. Apparently not; Kim Jong-un is spinning out of control, threatening, in March 2016, to aim nuclear missiles at Seoul and Washington. A propaganda video released the same month depicted a submarine-launched ballistic missile visiting nuclear devastation on the US capital.

There is a double threat involving Iran: the danger of that theocracy violating the recent accord by surreptitiously working to develop a nuclear weapon, and of the predictable and unpredictable ramifications of an Israeli and/or US preemptive strike. Should our policy be to prevent, to contain, or to attempt to destroy? This issue, politicized in this election year, has become as polarized as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And yet, unless the nuclear agreement works, unless reason on both sides prevails and the center holds, we may be careening into yet another, and potentially even more profoundly destabilizing, war in the Middle East.

In Iraq, we have ended our large-scale military presence after a war we should never have started. But in toppling Saddam Hussein, we rid Iraq of a brutal and megalomaniacal dictator whose tyrannical reign had at least one positive aspect: his repression of militant Islamists. As a result we have left behind not only an economically ravished country (35% of those fortunate enough to have survived Operation Iraqi Freedom live in abject poverty), but one divided along predictably sectarian lines. The discrimination against the ousted Sunnis, not yet redressed by Haider al-Abadi, who succeeded Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister in 2014, not only affects every aspect of life, but alienates (since they have little incentive to protect the Shiite government in Baghdad) the very Sunni fighters needed to resist ISIS.

The negative consequences of our misguided disbanding of Saddam’s Sunni army after its defeat in 2003 were compounded by our decision to back Maliki over secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, whose party won the March 2010 parliamentary elections, but fell two seats short of a majority. Maliki, pressured by Shiite Iran, broke his pledge to integrate the government and instead institutionalized the repression of the Sunnis. Obama was urged to cease supporting Maliki by, among others, Ali Khedery, who served as special assistant to five US ambassadors to Iraq and as a senior advisor to three CentCom commanders. Khedery concluded a 2014 opinion piece:

By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated. Iraq is now a failed state, and as countries across the Middle East fracture along ethno-sectarian lines, America is likely to emerge as one of the biggest losers of the new Sunni-Shiite war, with allies collapsing and radicals plotting another 9/11. (Washington Post, 3 July 2014)

Shortly after we initiated the Iraq War, a Syrian businessman, Raja Sidawi, a friend of Washington columnist and writer David Ignatius, offered a prescient observation. Ignatius cited it, somewhat skeptically, in his July 1, 2003 Washington Post column, “The Toll on American Innocence.” A dozen years later, in October, 2015, he reprised it; and its second coming—in a cover-piece in The Atlantic, “How ISIS Spread in the Middle East”—was far more somber. What Raja Sidawi told his American friend in June 2003 was this: “You are stuck. You have become a country of the Middle East. America will never change Iraq, but Iraq will change America.” Given his cultural and practical knowledge of the region, Sidawi’s remark may not quite match the oracular clairvoyance so many of us have found in Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” But it will do. We stormed into Iraq with “shock and awe”; and with hubris, a mixture of political duplicity and the American confidence of Innocents Abroad—“innocence” indistinguishable from ignorance. We changed; the region didn’t. The result: a variation on the old Sunni-Shiite war, “with allies collapsing and radicals plotting another 9/11.”

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Principal among those plotting radicals, their brutal implementation of an apocalyptic theology flourishing in the implosion of Syria and Iraq, is of course the Islamic State: ISIL, or Da’esh, best known as ISIS. Confronted by the spectacle of ISIS, commentators from Left and Right, including experts on Islamist terrorism, turned in 2015 to Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”  In a Huffington Post piece titled “ISIL: The Second Coming,” composer Mohammed Fairouz, whose setting of Yeats’s poem premiered in New York City on March 10, applied his epigraph, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” to President Obama’s failure to confront barbarous ISIS early on. A June 2015 posting on a West Coast socialist website, titled “Iraq: ‘Things Fall Apart’,” cited the opening three lines of the poem, noting that Yeats “might have written today, and nowhere is this more true than in Iraq.” In a blog posted in August, a former liberal turned Neo-conservative announced, “Read this, and think of ISIS.” The “this” was the full text of “The Second Coming.” The poem had been haunting her, she reported, since 9/11, and “these days it seems more than ever that the rough beast is on the march.”

Between these two, in a July Wall Street Journal essay, “A Poet’s Apocalyptic Vision,” David Lehman, himself a poet, described “The Second Coming,” extrapolating from the moral anarchy of 1919, as a fearful pre-vision of our present anarchy. “If our age is apocalyptic in mood—and rife with doomsday scenarios, nuclear nightmares, religious fanatics, and suicidal terrorists—there may be no more chilling statement of our condition than” this poem, in which Yeats envisages no Christian “second coming,” but “a monstrosity, a ‘rough beast’ threatening violence commensurate with the human capacity for bloodletting.” The accompanying color illustration— a slouching leonine creature with light beaming from mouth and eyes—attempts to visually capture that “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” But the image, in this case, is a counter-example to the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words, or even (if they are Yeats’s) seven words.

Lehman WSJ essay photo by Yao XiaoPhoto by Yao Xiao

After sketching its historical, psychological, and occult contexts, Lehman focuses on the text, celebrating the poem’s “metrical music,” “unexpected adjectives,” and such “oddly gripping” verbs as “slouches,” as well as Yeats’s “epigrammatic ability,” best exemplified in the last two lines of the opening stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” The aphorism, says Lehman, retains its authority as both “observation” and “warning.” We may, he suggests (yielding to the irresistible impulse to specify politically), “think of the absence of backbone with which certain right-minded individuals met the threats of National Socialism in the 1930s and of Islamist terrorism in the new century.”  He concludes by recommending that we read the poem aloud to appreciate its “power as oratory,” and then ask ourselves which most “unsettles” us: “the monster slouching towards Bethlehem or the sad truth that the best of us don’t want to get involved, while the worst know no restraint in their pursuit of power?”

Lehman’s question is valid, despite his being unaware that Yeats, interpreting Marxism-Leninism as a second coming of the Jacobin Terror of the French Revolution, initially identified the “worst” with the Bolsheviks, perpetrators of such revolutionary crimes as the slaughter of the Russian royal family; while the putative “best” were vacillating European moderates and liberals who had failed to respond to, much less resist, revolutionary brutality. In its initial drafts, “The Second Coming” reflected Yeats’s response to the violence in Russia in light of the violence in France a dozen decades earlier. But in its final version, the poem also looks, almost clairvoyantly, ahead to the future. And even French and Russian revolutionary brutality can seem tame in comparison with the theologically inspired and politically intimidating barbarism of ISIS, with its mass rape and enslavement, beheadings and crucifixions, and its growing capacity to inspire and ignite terror attacks well beyond the borders of its Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. ISIS is also seeking radioactive materials. As in the past, “The Second Coming” is at hand to supply metaphors. In the final pages of  ISIS: The State of Terror, two noted experts on Islamist jihadism, Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger, quote “The Second Coming,” and then conclude:

It is hard to imagine a terrible avatar of passionate intensity more purified than ISIS. More than even al Qaeda, the first terror of the twenty-first century, ISIS exists as an outlet for the worst—the most base and horrific impulses of humanity, dressed in fanatic pretexts of religiosity that have been gutted of all nuance and complexity. And yet, if we lay claim to the role of “best,” then Yeats condemns us as well, and rightly so. It is difficult to detect a trace of conviction in the world’s attitude toward the Syrian civil war and the events that followed in Iraq….

The double point made by Stern and Berger epitomizes their theme as well as the current crisis, marked by the bloodlust and passionate intensity of the “worst,” and the lack of conviction the civilized world, the “best,” has thus far displayed in fully engaging this religiously inspired death cult. Reviewing this book, and two others on ISIS, Iraq specialist Steve Negus remarks that “only one quotes Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming,’ but the others must have been tempted” (New York Times Book Review, April 1, 2015). Negus was writing before the publication of the latest book-length study, counterterrorist expert Malcolm Nance’s Defeating ISIS: Who They Are, How They Fight, What They Believe (2016). He was also writing five months prior to the publication of perhaps the best of the bunch: The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, by William McCants. His deep knowledge of ISIS’s political strategy and apocalyptic theology reflects McCants’s immersion in primary Arabic sources. His good-news, bad-news conclusion is that ISIS will be defeated, but that its example will inspire future jihadists. McCants does not cite “The Second Coming.” However, given his richly informed apocalyptic emphasis, it seems safe to imagine that he, too, “must have been tempted.”

In the month I am writing, March 2016, US commandos killed the Finance Minister of ISIS, and, as a result of coalition bombing and Iraqi army advances, ISIS is losing some ground in Syria and Iraq. But even as its Caliphate contracts, ISIS is expanding—geographically into Libya and elsewhere, and exporting terror throughout the Middle East and Africa, and into the heart of an under-prepared Europe. Last November’s coordinated attacks in Paris, which took 130 lives, were replicated by members of the same Molenbeek-based Belgian cell in Brussels on March 22, when two brothers and a third suicide bomber slaughtered 31 and wounded almost 300. Hundreds of alienated European Muslims, radicalized and militarily trained by ISIS in Syria, are now back in Europe, organized in operational cadres. In a video released on March 25, two Belgian ISIS fighters warn that “This is just the beginning of your nightmare.” Promising more “dark days” ahead for all who would oppose them, the terrorists in command of ISIS have threatened that jihadists already positioned in Europe are prepared to unleash a “wave of bloodshed.” Once again, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed.…”

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II. A Vast Image: From Political Genesis to Archetypal Symbolism

In accord with the mystery of the Sublime, Yeats’s sphinx-like beast slouching blank-eyed toward Bethlehem is a horror capable of many interpretations but limited to none, and, therefore, all the more terrifying. For that very reason, as I’ve just illustrated, “The Second Coming” is perennially relevant. Almost a century after the poem first appeared, pundits in books and essays, newspapers and magazines, routinely draw upon Yeats’s evocation of cultural disintegration and imminent violence, and lines from the poem (the whole poem, in Joni Mitchell’s 1991 riff) riddle popular culture, as we can see by consulting Nick Tabor’s recent compendium of dozens of pop-culture allusions, itself titled “No Slouch.”[1] More gravely, as part of our common crisis-vocabulary, we intone that “things fall apart”; that “the centre cannot hold”; that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”; that “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”; that we confront forces “blank and pitiless as the sun”; that one era, symbolized by a “widening gyre,” is ending and another imminent, signaled by the loosing of a “blood-dimmed tide” of “mere anarchy,” dreadfully attended by a  “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. How has the poem achieved this Bartlett’s-Familiar status?

sci fi collage

An Endless Source
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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 Towards Gomorrah, another law professor, Elyn R. Saks, called her 2007 account of a lifelong struggle with schizophrenia The Center Cannot Hold.
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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 refer in the first endnote to Kevin Smith’s Batman series appearing under that general title.
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Science fiction writers seem particularly addicted to language from “The Second Coming.” Among the episodes of Andromeda, the 2000-2005 Canadian-American sci-fi TV series, were two titled “The Widening Gyre” and “Its Hour Come Round at Last.” But the prize for multiple allusions goes to a project that originally appeared as a six-part e-book in 2006 (marking the 40th anniversary of the original Star Trek series). An omnibus edition, Star Trek: Mere Anarchy, was published in 2009. This “Complete Six-Part Saga” takes from Yeats more than its main title (also borrowed by Woody Allen for his 2007 collection of comedy pieces). All six of the individual novellas in Mere Anarchy (each by a different author) derive their titles from “The Second Coming”: Things Fall Apart, The Center Cannot Hold, Shadow of the Indignant, The Darkness Drops Again, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and Its Hour Come Round.

A friend, Bill Nack, biographer of the great racehorse Secretariat and an informed reader of Yeats’s poetry, remarked of “The Second Coming” in a letter: “So many lines and images are written indelibly, chipped in stone on that wailing-wall we call the 20th, now the 21st century.” The poem is a mine of incisive and quotable phrases, from the opening movement’s bullet-point declarations (fusing metaphor and abstraction, chaos and order) to that final momentous question. The presentation is cinematic, with the “vast image” looming gradually, and dramatically, into focus:  a mere “shape,” then “lion body,” then “head of a man,” then a zooming in on the creature’s “gaze,” followed by a panning movement back out, since that gaze is “blank and pitiless as the sun.” In addition to the tensile strength of its unforgettable verbs (loosed, troubles, reel, vexed, slouches), the poem’s extraordinary power is attributable to its sources in the occult and the unconscious, its Egyptian and mythological reverberations, and, above all, its alteration of the Bible (Daniel, the gospels, Revelation), culminating in the shock value of the subversion of the Christian interpretation of the “second coming.” “The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out” than the poet envisages, not the return of Christ, but the advent of a sinister rough beast. Apparently moribund for two millennia, it is now, ominously and sexually, “moving its slow thighs,” while “all about it/ Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.” Indignant because those circling scavengers had mistakenly thought the immobile creature mere carrion; but the beast, imperceptibly stirred into antithetical life by the rocking of Jesus’ cradle two thousand years earlier, is alive. Now, initiating a new cycle, it slouches, provocatively and precociously, towards that infant’s birthplace in order itself “to be born.”

But the poem’s universal relevance, its adaptability, is, above all, testimony to the success of Yeats’s method in revising the original manuscripts. Written in January 1919, first printed in The Dial in 1920, and collected the following year in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, “The Second Coming” had its sociopolitical roots, as the poet’s widow confirmed in the 1960s, in Yeats’s troubled response to the political situation in Europe in 1917-19. And the drafts of the poem, some of the pages preserved by his wife, reveal that Yeats’s apprehensions about the socialist revolutions in Germany, Italy, and, above all, Russia, during and immediately after World War I, were associated, as we’ve seen, with his reading of the Romantic poets and of Edmund Burke, and their responses to the French Revolution: what Shelley called “the master theme of the epoch in which we live.”

As earlier noted, Yeats initially identified the “worst” with the Bolsheviks, perpetrators of such revolutionary crimes as the slaughter of the Russian royal family; while the putative “best” were those who had failed to resist, eventually epitomized, for Yeats, by the British King, George V. As it happens, Kerensky’s Russian Provisional Government had initiated an offer of asylum, promising to send the Tsar and Tsarina and their children to England for safety: an offer rejected by the King (fearful of reaction from the British Labor Party), even though he was Nicholas’s cousin. This cowardice and violation of the family bond, not known to Yeats at the time he wrote “The Second Coming,” surfaced two decades later in “Crazy Jane on the Mountain,” where Yeats’s most famous and least inhibited female persona is revived to bitterly decry the fact that

A King had some beautiful cousins
But where are they gone?
Battered to death in a cellar,
And he stuck to his throne.

Family_Nicholas_II_of_Russia_ca._1914Tsar Nicholas II and family, ca. 1914 (via Wikimedia Commons)

But “The Second Coming” resonates far beyond that old atrocity. It looks back from the Bolshevik to the French Revolution, as filtered through Yeats’s reading of Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets.[2]

Yeats’s natural affinities were with his major poetic precursors, those permanent revolutionaries Blake and Shelley. But in his own political response to revolution, Yeats found himself closer to the great Anglo-Irish conservative statesman Burke, the chief intellectual opponent of the French Revolution and chivalric champion of the assaulted Marie Antoinette. He also found himself aligned with a former supporter of the Revolution (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven”): the largely if not completely disenchanted William Wordsworth. At this time, Yeats was reading the French Revolutionary books of Wordsworth’s Prelude as well as Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. His own ambivalent response to catastrophe (horrified and yet strangely exultant), as projected in “The Second Coming,” registers the differing perspectives of Burke and the Romantics on the French Revolution, now refracted through the prism of what Yeats took to be its rebirth in Bolshevism.

An idiosyncratic yet often complex and even profound visionary, Yeats was as much a disciple of Nietzsche as of Blake and Shelley, and an occultist to boot. All of these influences, along with his conservative reverence of Swift, Burke, and of an idealized Anglo-Irish aristocracy, as well as his response to Wordsworth’s Prelude, converge in “The Second Coming,” as in its close relatives, “A Prayer for My Daughter” and the sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” All three reflect, along with the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution, the beginning of the War of Independence in Ireland. And they all recapture Burke’s elegy over the fall of Marie Antoinette, and his premonition of “the glory of Europe…extinguished forever,” of “all…to be changed.” The sequence’s recurrent “nightmares” and the drowning of “the ceremony of  innocence” in “The Second Coming” echo Burke’s “massacre of innocents” (with the palace at Versailles “left swimming in blood”) and Wordsworth’s “ghastly visions” of “tyranny, and implements of death,/ And innocent victims,” in passages of The Prelude dramatizing his reaction to revolutionary massacre. Such echoes confirm Yeats’s juxtaposition of the excesses of the French Revolution with the postwar turmoil in which he was writing in 1919.

Deciphering Yeats’s handwriting and interpreting his associative connections, we can trace in the drafts of “The Second Coming” his linking of Burke’s lamentation over the assaulted Marie Antoinette with the spectacle of the Russian royal family, including the Tsarina Alexandra, “battered to death in a cellar” (as he would have Crazy Jane later put it). Yeats connects Bolshevik brutality with such French atrocities as the September Massacres and the Jacobin Terror—what, annotating Wordsworth, he characterized as “revolutionary crimes.” In the face of “unjust tribunals,” with admitted royalist “tyranny” replaced by “mob-bred anarchy,” Yeats laments that there’s “no Burke to cry aloud, no Pit[t]”—no one, that is, to “arraign revolution,” as Burke had in the Reflections and in later speeches and William Pitt in ministerial policy. In further noting that “the [G]ermans have now to Russia come,” Yeats seems to combine the 1917 military invasion of Russian territories with the decisive German role in spiriting Lenin, and thus Marxian Communism, into Russia. As a result: “There every day some innocent has died” in revolutionary purges epitomized by the Bolsheviks’ July 1918 slaughter of the Tsar, the Romanov children, and the Tsarina Alexandra: “this Marie Antoinette,” who “has more brutally died.” The crucial point is that, as he continued to revise, Yeats stripped “The Second Coming” of all these particularized references. What prompted him to do this? The drafts themselves offer intriguing clues.

Yeats handwriting collagePages from drafts of “The Second Coming”

Deciphering Yeats’s handwriting
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Despite the conjectures necessitated by the rapid scribbling of a man whose handwriting was maddeningly difficult to begin with, most of the specifics and the gist of what Yeats means are clear in this early draft (page 1., image above):
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Ever further h[aw]k flies outward
from the falconer’s hand. Scarcely
is armed tyranny fallen when
when this mob bred anarchy
takes its place. For this
Marie Antoinette has
more brutally died and no
Burke [has shook his] has an[swered]
with his voice, no pit [Pitt]
arraigns revolution. Surely the second
birth comes near—
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……….intellectual gyre is thesis to
The/ gyres grow wider and more wide]
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
The germans have now to Russia come
There every day some innocent has died
The [ ? ] comes to [?fawn]…[?murder]
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In other drafts (all Box 3, Folder 39, W. B. Yeats Collection, SUNY, Stony Brook), Yeats confirms his regret that there’s no Burke or Pitt to arraign Bolshevik crimes as they had French Revolutionary terrorism: “—no stroke upon the clock/ But ceremonious innocence is drowned/ While the mob fawns upon the murderer/ And there’s no Burke…nor Pitt….”; and, again, “there’s no Burke to cry aloud no Pit[t].” Astutely analyzing the drafts in 2001, Simona Vannini had no doubt about the coupling of French and Russian atrocities. But, resisting the “scholarly consensus” (she refers to Donald Torchiana, Jon Stallworthy, and myself), she doubts, based on the drafts alone, that Yeats intended an “explicit correspondence between the murder of the French and the Russian royal families.” But one does not live by the drafts alone.
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Finally, as slowly but surely as the rough beast itself, the poem as we know it begins to emerge (pages 2.-4., image above).

§

In the most dramatic of the visions induced in Yeats during some 1890 symbolic-card experiments with MacGregor Mathers (the head of Yeats’s occult Order, the Golden Dawn), the poet suddenly saw, as he records in an unpublished memoir, “a gigantic Negro raising up his head and shoulders among great stones”—a vision transmogrified, in the published Autobiographies, into “a desert and a Black Titan.” Even in this dramatic instance, Yeats continues, “sight came slowly, there was not that sudden miracle as if the darkness had been cut with a knife.” In the drafts of “The Second Coming,” groping for figurative language to introduce the mysterious moment immediately preceding the vision of the vast image rising up out of “sands of the desert” and “out of Spiritus Mundi,” Yeats first wrote: “Before the dark was cut as with a knife.” Whether examining the finished poem or the drafts, we are surely justified in locating one of the principal origins of the rough beast in Yeats’s occult experiments with MacGregor Mathers.

We may also have, in the cautionary example of Mathers himself, a key to Yeats’s abandonment, in the course of revision, of the historical figures and events specified in the drafts. Yeats found his occult friend’s apocalyptic imagination, “brooding upon war,” impressive when it remained “vague in outline.” It was when Mathers “attempted to make it definite,” that “nations and individuals seemed to change into the arbitrary symbols of his desires and fears.” Yeats was aware of the tendency of literalists and cranks to apply the obscure symbols of Revelation to the world-historical crisis of their own particular moment in time. This is what Mathers was in the habit of doing and what Yeats had initially done, as evidenced by the drafts of “The Second Coming.” Of course, it was what the Apocalyptist himself had done in producing a text that was less an inspired prophecy than a coded account of events happening at the time he was writing. But there was one clear prophecy. John insists, following Paul and Jesus himself, that the promised second coming was imminent. Implicit throughout Revelation, that prophecy is explicit and particularly resonant at the end, where John puts the premature parousia in Christ’s own mouth, “Surely, I am coming soon” (echoed by Yeats: “Surely the Second Coming is at hand…”), and concludes by intensifying the urgency in his own voice: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20)

Less interested in correlating specific events with Revelation or in predicting the future than he was in artistically mining Revelation as a rich source of resonant symbolism, Yeats was particularly fascinated by sublime aspects of the apocalyptic Beast: simultaneously menacing, exciting, destructive, and potentially renovative. (In depicting the first coming of Christ, he had referred, in the turbulently sublime final line of his visionary poem “The Magi,” to “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.”) Above all, Yeats, as visionary, would have had no desire, by binding his prophecy to particular events, to make himself ridiculous—as had many biblical scholars, or MacGregor Mathers. That would be to succumb to what Alfred North Whitehead would later call (in one of Yeats’s favorite books, Science and the Modern World) “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

St. Jerome, aware of the many strained, historically specific misreadings preceding his translation of the Bible, was content to revise previous commentaries on the Book of Revelation rather than venture one of his own. As he observed in a letter, “Revelation has as many mysteries as it does words.” The same might be said of the final version of “The Second Coming,” which retains Yeats’s own “desires and fears” without limiting those generalized (“abstract”) emotions to the specific (“concrete”) historical events that originally provoked them. That the beast slouches, in the single vestige of specificity, towards Bethlehem makes the creature a type of the Antichrist. But Yeats was hardly a conventional Christian pitting sectarian goodness against Satanic and bestial evil. In fact, while the final poem and title refer to Christ’s parousia, the original drafts repeatedly refer, not to the “second coming,” but to the “second birth,” echoing Wordsworth’s “nightmare” premonition in The Prelude that the “lamentable crimes” of the September Massacres were not the end of revolutionary violence in France, but a precursor of the far worse Terror to come: “The fear gone by/ Pressed on me like a fear to come…”

For the spent hurricane the air provides
As fierce a successor; the tide retreats
But to return out of its hiding-place
In the great deep; all things have second birth. (Prelude 10:71-93)

Wordsworth’s image of a malevolent and returning tidal sea may remind us not only of the loosing of “the blood-dimmed tide” in Yeats’s poem of “second birth,” but of another powerful, and no less apocalyptic, prophesy of  “coming” destruction. In Robert Frost’s 1926 couplet-sonnet, “Once By the Pacific,” the water is “shattered,” and “Great waves looked over others coming in,/ And thought of doing something to the shore/ That water never did to land before.” This is an unprecedented rather than repeated act of destruction, but its premeditated “thought” makes Frost’s ocean even worse than Yeats’s “murderous innocence of the sea” (in “A Prayer for My Daughter,” where revolutionary violence takes the form of “sea-wind…/ Bred on the Atlantic”). Though Frost’s shore “was lucky in being backed by cliff,/ The cliff in being backed by continent,” the sea seems backed by God himself, whose creative fiat in Genesis, “Let there be light,” is soon to be superseded by his apocalyptic extinction of light:

It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the Light was spoken.[3]

In that final line, Frost moves from Genesis (1.3) to the Book of Revelation (21:1). In reversing Christian expectation (in Matthew 24 and Revelation), the poet of “The Second Coming” echoes the whole of the Prelude passage, which ends with Wordsworth returning to Paris, scene of the worst atrocities of the September Massacres, to find the place “unfit for the repose of night,/ Defenceless as a wood where tigers roam.”[4] Yeats’s “strong enchanter,” Nietzsche, author of The Antichrist, invoked a Dionysian and eternally recurrent “savage cruel beast”: an eruptive force incapable of being “mortified” by what he called, in Beyond Good and Evil, these “more humane ages.” Unsurprisingly, since Yeats believed that “Nietzsche completes Blake, and has the same roots,” and that “Nietzsche’s thought flows always, though with an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn,” Nietzsche’s beast (first trotted out in Yeats’s 1903 play Where There is Nothing) later resonated in his archetypal mind with Blake’s Tyger and his half-bestial Nebuchadnezzar, slouching on all fours (as in Daniel 4:31-33) on Plate 24 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

William Blake Nebuchadnezzar (Tate copy)Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Rough Beast
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The vast image or animated sphinx “out of Spiritus Mundi” has many “sources.” It can be traced back to the most dramatic of the mental images induced in Yeats during the symbolic-card experiments he conducted in 1890 with MacGregor Mathers, the dominant figure in the occult Order of the Golden Dawn. In his most memorable vision, Yeats saw a “Black Titan” rising up ominously from the desert sands. Other components are drawn from Shelley’s stony pharaoh Ozymandias (his wrecked statue almost lost among the “lone and level sands”) as well as from his Demogorgon (in Prometheus Unbound): a nightmare denizen, along with the “rough beast” of “The Second Coming,” of the mysterious “Thirteenth Cone” in Yeats’s occult book, A Vision.
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Around 1902, Yeats “began to imagine” a brazen winged beast “afterwards described in my poem ‘The Second Coming’.” In that same year, in his uncanonical play Where There is Nothing, he envisaged a laughing, destructive beast resembling the eternally recurrent “savage cruel beast” of Nietzsche: a Dionysian, libidinal, eruptive force incapable of being “mortified” by what Yeats’s “strong enchanter” called (in Beyond Good and Evil) these “more humane ages.”
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In perhaps the most momentous of his imaginative fusions, Yeats believed that “Nietzsche completes Blake and has the same roots,” and that Nietzschean thought “flows always, though with an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn.” The rough beast of “The Second Coming” can be seen as a fusion of Nietzsche’s savage cruel beast with (along with the dragons of Revelation and of comparative mythology) aspects of Blake’s Urizen, his Tyger, and his bestial Nebuchadnezzar, crawling on all fours at the conclusion of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
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In the 1795 color print reproduced here, Blake returned to the image he had engraved on the final plate of The Marriage. In Daniel 4:33, the Babylonian king, cursed and “driven from men,” ate “the grass as oxen”; his hair “grew like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.” Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar, his mind darkened, stares, unseeing, directly at us. Though his “gaze” is as “blank” as that of Yeats’s “rough beast,” Blake’s king is more terrified than terrifying. But his bestiality and slouching posture is likely to have contributed to the composite beast of “The Second Coming.”

All precursors of the “rough beast.”  But Yeats’s response to French revolutionary violence, and its rebirth, was at least as powerfully influenced by the bestial imagery and conservative politics of Edmund Burke. For conservative Yeats, the September Massacres and French Reign of Terror foreshadowed the emergence in Bolshevik Russia of that “Marxian criterion of values” he described in a letter of April 1919 as “in this age the spearhead of materialism and leading to inevitable murder”: the same inevitability Burke had early and uncannily prophesied in 1790. In terms of imagery, attitude, and actual verbal details, “The Second Coming” would be a very different poem if it had not had precisely this twin historical genesis. Finally, however, the poem, in its final, published text, is not “about” either the French or the Russian Revolution.

Nor is it about the National Socialist revolution. Many readers have taken it that way, citing a 1936 letter in which Yeats, refusing to politicize the Nobel Prize by recommending a German dissident writer, also condemned Nazism, quoting the most Burkean line in the poem as evidence that he was not “callous”: “every nerve trembles with horror at what is happening in Europe, ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’.” While Hitler, with the help of Goebbels, read himself positively into the Book of Revelation, as a secular Aryan Messiah and initiator of the thousand-year Third Reich, Yeats, though a man of the Right, saw the Führer as a type of the apocalyptic beast. In applying to Nazism and the threat of a second world war an image he drew from Burke and applied to the First World War and the threat of Jacobinism reborn as Marxist-Leninist Communism, Yeats was being neither hypocritical nor intentionally misleading. Indeed, he was participating in a tradition of allusion that goes on to this day. And justifiably. For if “The Second Coming” were “about” any one of these historical cataclysms, it could hardly accommodate, as it does, all of them.

§

No less a figure than Goethe has said that to be fully understood, works of art must, to some extent, “be caught in their genesis.” The manuscripts of “The Second Coming” serve a legitimate purpose in revealing the original historical counterparts of what became a universalized prophecy of an unleashing upon the world of anarchy and blood-drenched violence. The speaker has had an apocalyptic vision, a “lifting of the veil” (the Greek meaning of Apokalypsis) and the disclosure of something hidden from the rest of us. But when “the darkness drops again” over the manuscripts, as it should, we are left  with what really matters—the public text of the poem, freed of the umbilical cord attaching it to its genesis, and thus  limiting its evocative power.

If, in studying any poem, particularly one responding to contemporary events, we were to focus unduly on generative intention, and on the immediate context of its creation, the poem would inevitably dwindle in meaning and impact as that particular moment receded. Yeats’s realization of this explains his deletion, in revising “The Second Coming,” of specific historical details. In Waiting for Godot, Yeats’s fellow Irishman and fellow Nobel Prize winner, Samuel Beckett, achieved symbolic resonance by avoiding all overt reference to the historical-political matrix of the play: the German Occupation and French Resistance. Similarly, by cancelling allusions to the Irish situation and all specific references to past and contemporary revolutions, to Burke, Marie Antoinette, Pitt, Germany, and Russia, Yeats liberated his poem from those localized events destined to be assimilated like so many grains of sand in the desert of time. As an anti-Marxist, Yeats would have enjoyed the effect, since it is Marxist critics above all who have been disturbed by the autonomy of works of art, by their capacity to outlive their particular hour—what Geoffrey Hartmann has memorably called art’s “aristocratic resistance to the tooth of time.”

Insistent that the power of his images derived in part from their roots, Yeats declared in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” one of his late retrospective poems: “Those masterful images because complete/ Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?” As we’ve seen, “The Second Coming” arose out of two sources, particular and universal. The specific events that provided its initial stimulus helped to shape the final poem. But Yeats, who was, like Carl Jung, fascinated not only by the occult but by alchemy, knew what he was doing when he transmuted the base metals of his historical minute particulars into the poetic gold of universally resonant archetypes. The archetypal symbols he received, or evoked, especially that mysterious and bestial “vast image” taking form “somewhere in sands of the desert,” came, he asserts, “out of Spiritus Mundi”: out of the World Soul that Jung—who reported strange beasts troubling the dreams of his own patients during the First World War—called the Collective Unconscious. That storehouse of archetypes causes universal symbols to arise in individual minds. But if the symbols in “The Second Coming” reflect Yeats’s own immersion in what he called the “Great Memory,” it is also, since each mind is linked to it, our Unconscious as well. In the dialectic of Yeats’s symbolic poems, myth is personal and experience is mythologized. In a similar reciprocity, allusions to “The Second Coming” register individual responses to current crises, contemporary forebodings which, simultaneously, resonate with eternally recurrent archetypes transformed by a great poet into “masterful images.”

“The Second Coming” obviously and dramatically transcends the minutiae of its origins. But it is one thing to simply be general and abstract, quite another to universalize after having delved deeply into, and worked through, materials that are concrete and specific. The method of Yeats—who always insisted that “mythology” be “rooted in the earth,” that we must delve “down, as it were, into some fibrous darkness”—falls into this second category. Influenced, as was Joyce, by the cyclical philosophy of Giambattista Vico, Yeats agreed with Vico that “Metaphysics abstracts the mind from the senses; the poetic faculty must submerge the whole mind in the senses. Metaphysics soars up to the universal; the poetic faculty must plunge deep into particulars” (Scienza Nuova, 1725). Yeats has it both ways in “The Second Coming.” The specific details of the poem’s political genesis have been buried; but the poet’s rooting of his fears and cryptic prophecy in contemporary history—significant soil enriched by the conflicting responses of Burke and Wordsworth, Blake and Shelley, to the great upheaval of their era—surely contributed to the unique power of a disturbing poem whose universalized vision of violent transformation haunted the rest of the twentieth century, and shows every sign of haunting ours. Without that rooting in Viconian and Blakean “particulars,” idiosyncratic theories and his obsession with what Joyce mockingly called Yeats’s “gygantogyres” could easily have produced oracular bombast that would be truly “callous” and shapelessly rather than sublimely vague.

What we have instead is a poem in which Yeats has it several ways at once. The seer casts a cold eye on the whirling of gyres beyond our control, yet seems, at least in part, excited by the rebirth of cyclical energy. But the note of boredom-relieving anticipation detectable in “its hour come round at last” is offset, not only by the elegiac Burkean music of the opening movement, but by the poem’s deepest tonality. For the real surprise, trumping the Nietzschean irony that this “second coming” will take a very different “shape” than that expected by naïve, optimistic Christians, is that Yeats’s own expectation will be exposed as a pipe dream. We must trust the tale and not the teller. For the poem itself, less aloofly visionary than human, suggests that the antithetical era being ushered in will not assume the hopeful form of the Nietzschean-aristocratic civilization welcomed (“Why should we resist?”) in Yeats’s long note to the poem. Instead, the newborn age is likely to take the chaotic shape prefigured by its brutal engendering. With that deeper insight, that peripeteia or sudden plot-change and readjustment of apocalyptic expectation, both the theoretician and the cold-eyed oracle in Yeats yield to the poet and man whose vision of the beast truly “troubles my sight.” This troubled vision is also rooted in apocalyptic literature. Yeats is doubtless recalling the response of the prophet Daniel (two hundred years before an echoing John of Patmos) to the final and most “terrifying and dreadful” of the “four great beasts” he sees in a dream: “my spirit was troubled within me, and the vision in my head terrified me….I was dismayed by the vision and did not understand it” (Daniel 7:19-20, 8:15-27; cf. Revelation 13:7).

Yeats’s dramatic plot-change, foreshadowed in the poem’s drafts, is reflected in his final punctuation. Violating the grammatical logic of its own peroration, “The Second Coming” ends in a question, leaving us with an open, apprehensive, awestruck glimpse of imminent apocalypse, or transformation, or the loosing of a blood-dimmed tide of terror that may constitute (to again quote Shelley on the French Revolution) “the master-theme” of the post-9/11 “epoch in which we live.” Yeats was even more honest when, in the drafts of the poem, he explicitly acknowledged that whatever gnosis was involved was not his, but the beast’s: “And now at last knowing its hour come round/ It has set out for Bethlehem to be born.” In the poem as published, we are left with human uncertainty rather than prophetic certitude. The syntactical and vatic momentum that follows “but now I know…” is retained, and yet the poet ends, as Daniel had, with a cryptic, troubling vision he “did not understand,” and therefore with a genuine question: the mark of interrogation that always, according to the unknown Greek author of the great treatise On the Sublime, attends that mystery.

Peering into the dark forward and abysm of time, their sight “troubled,” readers of Yeats’s poem are easily persuaded that something ominous is afoot. But we are left wondering which of our own current crises might emerge as no less transformative than the events Yeats was responding to in the manuscript-drafts of “The Second Coming,” specifically his connection of 1919 with the bloodshed following 1789. As those drafts reveal, Yeats was paralleling the two most momentous events in the history of the modern Western world: the French Revolution, and its blood-dimmed aftermath, with the First World War and its various sequelae. The consequences of the Great War include the global influenza pandemic that swept away at least 10 million more people than the 37 million fighters and civilians lost in the war itself, as well as the slicing of the modern Middle East out of the rotting carcass of the Ottoman Empire. Before the 1921 Cairo Conference, which created, ex nihilo, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, John Maynard Keynes warned the man who had presided over this division, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill: “If you cut up the map of the Middle East with a pair of scissors you will still be fighting wars there in a hundred years’ time.”  Five years from that centennial, Keynes seems no less prophetic, and rather more specific, than the poet who envisaged anarchic disintegration and a beast rising from “somewhere in sands of the desert.”

Though excised by the poet, and partially erased from our collective memory by a historical flood bringing even greater calamities, those World War I-related events sowed the seeds of much that followed. Even Yeats’s stress, in the manuscripts, on the execution of the French queen and its repetition in the massacre of the Russian royal family, were not idiosyncratic choices. Whatever one thinks of Yeats’s politics or of the hapless Romanov dynasty, Yeats was not simply—in Tom Paine’s trenchant critique of Burke’s tear-stained apostrophe to Marie Antoinette—“pitying the plumage while forgetting the dying bird.” Alexandra (“this Marie Antoinette” who has “more brutally died”) was battered and shot to death with her husband and children in the “House of Special Purpose” in Ekaterinburg. Though there was no signed order, the ultimate decision was Lenin’s. Those murders marked a pivotal moment when—in the summation of historian Richard Pipes in his magisterial The Russian Revolution—history made a turn toward genocide, when human beings were placed on a list of expendables and the world entered “an entirely new moral realm.”

Yeats sensed this seismic change and registered it in the drafts from which “The Second Coming” evolved—though he saw it not as “an entirely new” moral phenomenon but as a “second birth” of revolutionary massacre. The execution of the Russian royal family—the barbarous slaughter, in particular, of the children, shot, clubbed, and stabbed to death by drunken incompetents—was Yeats’s contemporary example of the loosing of a blood-dimmed tide and slaughter of the innocents that, for him, hearkened back to the French Reign of Terror and, for us, as readers of “The Second Coming,” prefigures all the horrors of the twentieth century and beyond: war, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, genocide, famine, economic chaos, ecological degradation, melting ice shelves and rising sea levels, and political anarchy—in the form, in our own country, of an ideological and special-interest polarization so intense that the center can no longer hold.

Yeats’s prophetic poem—as open to interpretation as the Beasts and Dragons and Horsemen of the Biblical Apocalypse—envisages, or, rather, can be made to envisage, any and all of these nightmares. Front and center at the moment is ISIS: the apocalyptic cult of fanatics operating out of their medieval Caliphate and able to ignite or at least inspire terror wherever the Internet and the various forms of social media they have mastered can reach. ISIS does not exhaust the legion of threats our own century of stony sleep has vexed to nightmare.  Like Yeats, we are left wondering “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, /Slouches towards” us?

W.B. YeatsW. B. Yeats, 1932 (photo by Pirie MacDonald)

In Part Two, we will revisit the turmoil of the Middle East and the rise of ISIS. Though both have deep causal roots, both are the immediate result of our 2003 decision to invade Iraq: a disaster exacerbated by its antithesis: President Obama’s understandable but consequential decisions and then indecisions regarding the Syrian civil war. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq are the roots of the tree from which most of the poison fruit has fallen, but the carnage and chaos in Syria not only expedited the rise of ISIS but produced the current immigration crisis. It is a tragic history.

When various moderate factions first rose up against the Alawite tyranny of Bashar al-Assad, it seemed part of the hopeful Arab Spring. Obama, who had been criticized for his alacrity in abandoning President Mubarak in Egypt, was now criticized for his reluctance to urge the ouster of Assad. After several months of calibrated diplomacy and sanctions, Western policy shifted to regime change. In tandem with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Obama announced that, for the good of the Syrian people and before his regime was utterly rejected by them, the time had come for “President Assad to step aside.” The policy became distilled to three fateful words: “Assad must go.”

That was in August, 2011, when perhaps 2,000 had been killed in the conflict. Figures differ, but a consensus estimate is that, in the subsequent five years of civil war, well over 300,000 Syrians and non-Syrian combatants have been killed, while another 70,000 have perished because of lack of water, medicine, and other basic necessities. Assad alone is responsible for the slaughter of 10% of his own people, over 40% of them civilians. In 2013, President Obama, in a decision as fateful as the announcement that Assad must go, drew a red line, threatening to attack Assad if he used chemical weapons against his own people. When the Syrian President crossed that line, twice, Obama, on the verge of ordering airstrikes, reversed himself, for reasons, and with consequences, we’ll revisit. Meanwhile, the slaughter continued. In addition to the deaths, nearly two million people have been wounded in the ongoing conflict, and approximately 120,000 are currently starving and freezing in towns besieged by government or anti-government forces, and subject to bombing—from the air by Assad and (until recently) by his Russian ally, and, on the ground, by the various warring factions, especially ISIS, which recently launched its worst bombing attack of the war, killing at least 130 people.

The continuing horror in Syria has also created a wider humanitarian and political crisis. Millions of refugees have inundated not only the region but a Europe already buckling under the burden of debt and demography, and giving rise to right-wing anti-immigrant movements that are now threatening centrist governments. The primaries leading up to our own 2016 presidential election—driven by populism on the Left and, most dramatically, on the Right—exposed a fragile political center that, here as in Europe, may not hold. Thrilling some, dismaying most, a nativist rough beast, Donald Trump, is slouching towards Cleveland to become the presumptive Republican nominee, or to hurl the convention into anarchy.

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PART TWO: THINGS FALL APART, CONTEMPORARY CRISES, 2003-2016

III. Mere Anarchy: Polarization at Home; the Challenges of ISIS and Syrian Immigration

Its evocation of imminent yet mysterious catastrophe has made “The Second Coming” the swan song of our time. As the 20th century’s preeminent visionary poet, Yeats, alert to the dangers of hubristic Enlightenment faith in reason and the utopian myth of collective moral progress, was also telepathically attuned to the paradoxically related loosing of the tides of irrational fanaticism. Religion obviously plays a role in a cyclical poem in which the Christian era’s twenty centuries of “stony sleep” are said to have been “vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle”:  a nightmare that takes the shape of an apocalyptic beast returning to Bethlehem to be born. But in the twenty-first century, there is an even more terrifying twist on the visionary “nightmares” that rode upon Yeats’s sleep in “The Second Coming” and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” For today, the forces of irrationalism threatening civilization are quintessentially theological and not only committed to terrorism, but, potentially, armed with the most nightmarish, even apocalyptic, weapons.

In part a reaction to Western colonialism and more recent US intervention, militant Islam has deep theological roots in the “sword-passages” of the Quran. Though we have no choice but to confront the threat of jihadist terrorism, our “global war on terror” is both quixotic and often counter-productive. In the Bush-Cheney administration, Neo-conservative hubris joined with the evangelical notion that it is our messianic mission to extend to all cultures, however little we may understand the ethno-sectarian complexities, what President Bush invoked as “the Almighty’s gift of universal freedom.”  The result was the disastrous decision to invade Iraq, worsened when “liberation” became occupation. Worst of all, in the case of such stateless actors as al Qaeda and affiliated jihadists, and now, in the case of ISIS, our global war tends to generate more terrorists than we can kill. We face a metastasizing religious fanaticism impervious to traditional forms of rational or military deterrence and driven by the mad conviction that any and all forms of terror against the infidel West are part of a holy war carried out to avenge past injustices, all under the auspices of their approving God.

President Obama’s anti-terrorist policy, militant but limited, and only partially effective, will doubtless be intensified, whether Hillary Clinton or a Republican is the next President. If the latter, the principal competing visions may once again become apocalyptic, with each side embarked on a sacred mission to eradicate perceived evil. Along with religious-right hawks, we have militants ranging from Rapture-ready End-Timers to apocalyptic Christian Zionists to unreconstructed theoconservatives still clinging to a version of Bush’s Bible-based foreign policy. Despite Ted Cruz’s hyperbolic pledge to make the desert sands “glow,” there is a significant difference between the combatants: a distinction made graphic in the recent nuclear threats by apocalypse-hungry ISIS jihadists, whose suicide belts and Kalashnikovs will seem a quaint memory once they have acquired enough radioactive material to build a divinely sanctioned dirty bomb.

And then there is Iran. Its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, insists that the endlessly reiterated chant, “Death to America,” is aimed, not at the American people, but at the US government and its “arrogant policies.” There is a danger of that distinction blurring should Khameinei—despite the more “moderate” elements in his government and against the majority wishes of the Iranian people, as reflected in the March 2016 elections—choose to resume Iran’s drive to acquire a nuclear weapon. Iran is already defying UN sanctions by testing missiles, tests not covered in the recent US-Iran strictly nuclear agreement. Any cheating on that nuclear accord would invite, well beyond sanctions, harsh retaliation, probably in the form of a massive preventive airstrike on Iran’s nuclear facilities—by the US alone, or in concert with Israel. No one knows what geostrategic repercussions might follow.

A greater nightmare scenario involves actual rather than potential nuclear weapons, with more to come. Pakistan is planning to more than double its arsenal of 100 warheads, including tactical (“battlefield”) weapons, which lower the threshold to nuclear war. And Pakistan, which would then be the fifth-largest nuclear power, is a state (to cite the title of Ahmed Rashid’s recent book) “on the brink” of chaos, perhaps in the form of an Islamist coup. Nine years ago, a matured Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan, determined to resist such militants. “Extremism” can be contained, she said, “if the moderate middle can be mobilized to stand up against fanaticism.” Just before the general election, she was assassinated. No Pakistani since has mobilized any “moderate middle,” and there is no prospect of any “center” likely to “hold.” Even if there is no full-scale coup, Pakistan’s arsenal—widely dispersed to deter the perceived enemy, India—will become still more vulnerable with the addition of those smaller, easier-to-steal “battlefield” nuclear weapons. They, or larger warheads, could be seized by a now more globally oriented Pakistani Taliban or by a post-bin Laden al Qaeda still inspired by 9/11: in both cases, terrorists clearly willing to use even these ultimate weapons in the name of Allah.

Though he admired much in the Islamic and Asian traditions, Yeats, who had read Spengler, feared a decline of the West accompanied by the rise of a barbarous fanaticism threatening all civilization. Europe’s debt crisis has now been compounded by Putin’s actions in Ukraine, and, above all, by the potential of the new migration crisis to destroy the European Union, now “on the verge of collapse,” according to Europe’s central figure, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose policy of  welcoming Syrian refugees has put even her dominant position in jeopardy. Yeats’s history-based vision of impending European disintegration, a centrifugal blowing apart triggering a decline and fall of the West as a whole, has taken a demographic and terror-haunted form. The problem of Europe’s dramatically declining native birthrates, long accompanied by growing Muslim populations, is, in 2016, exacerbated by the flood of refugees. Many Muslim immigrants, old and new, unassimilated and hopeless, are often hostile to the host countries, with some extremists eager to kill in the name of jihad—as demonstrated by various terrorist plots, culminating in the coordinated attacks in Paris and, three months later, in Brussels. Noting, in the aftermath of those attacks, that the EU has a single currency but lacks a common database to screen terrorists, Die Zeit political writer Jochen Bittner wondered (in the Yeatsian title of his March 24 NY Times op-ed): “Can the European Center Hold?”

Confronting crises in the turbulent Greater Middle East itself—the rise of ISIS, as a “state” and as a generator of jihadist attacks beyond the region; the mass migration produced by the ongoing carnage in Syria; and the apparently irresolvable impasse between Israel and the Palestinians (their contested land the setting for the biblical myth of Armageddon)—we have ample reason to fear that some momentous change is “at hand,” attended by anarchy and violence. Even those of us most skeptical of oracular clairvoyance often find ourselves caught up in the mingled terror and apocalyptic shudder of the Yeatsian Sublime. No matter how novel the specific threats that arise, we can’t seem to find better or, it sometimes seems, other words than those Yeats put on paper almost a century ago.

Responding to “The Second Coming” in our own troubled moment of history, we sense—now more than ever—that “the centre cannot hold.” Like the “falcon [that] cannot hear the falconer,” things seem to be whirling giddily out of human control. The centrifugal forces we have ourselves unleashed—sociopolitical, technological, military, economic, ecological—are now in the saddle and ride mankind. Within the long-term impact of the overarching global climate change we have exacerbated, there may be perfect storms combining nature and technology. Full-time teams are still fighting the radioactive tide at Fukushima, the nuclear plant devastated five years ago by earthquake and tsunami. A full clean up may take the rest of this century, and in the meantime, officials acknowledge, Fukushima remains vulnerable, a Japanese disaster threatening to become a wider catastrophe.

We in America gaze out at what, despite (and often because of) free-market globalization, is an increasingly unstable world: overheated and overpopulated, sporadically wealthy but overwhelmingly impoverished, violent, threatened by terrorism, and by both under- and over-reactions to it; and  groaning for a deliverance that seems never to come. The Arab Spring quickly lost its liberating early bloom, and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, and Iraq, far from evolving into even semi-stable states, let alone democracies, are well on their way to falling apart: into mere anarchy, or becoming failed states ripe to be dominated by Islamist extremists. China (Napoleon’s sleeping giant) is awake but stumbling; Russia is once again militant under Putin; Iran and North Korea pose future and, in the case of the latter, a present nuclear threat; jihadism is on the march in the Middle East and Africa, its terror networks threatening to unleash a “wave of bloodshed” in Europe. Fresh crises loom everywhere, none more existential than the challenge to the planet itself presented by global climate change, and the threat to Western civilization posed by the apocalyptic savagery of ISIS.

Looking homeward, we wonder about the state of our own democracy. The Democratic Party offers little to rally around, and President Obama, reluctant to get into the trenches, has had a dismal record of working with Congress.  In fairness, it must be added that this President was resisted from the outset by many who, for political, economic, ideological, or racist reasons, never accepted him;  35% of registered Republican voters remain unreconstructed Birthers, and another quarter are “not sure” he was born in the United States. Even so, Obama has been too aloof to be fully effective.

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But the primary blame is located in the very titles of some recent books: The Disappearing Center; Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy; Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party; and It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. The respected bipartisan authors of the latter, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, formerly critical of both parties, now insist that the core of the current dysfunction and polarization is an inflexible and obstructionist Republican Party. Beginning with the demonization of opponents prescribed by Newt Gingrich, the party’s “center of gravity has shifted far to the right.” Today’s GOP is “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Mann and Ornstein concluded by hoping that voters in 2012 would “punish ideological extremism at the polls and look skeptically upon candidates who profess to reject all dialogue and bargaining with opponents.” Only then will “an insurgent outlier party” have “some impetus to return to the center. Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.” But things have continued to fall apart, with Republicans uninterested in moving toward a “center” that, many clearly believe, should no longer “hold.” The extremism Ornstein and Mann described three years ago is more obvious today. With no sign of getting better, our politics has gotten far “worse,” incarnate in that reductio ad absurdum, Donald Trump.

Even those of us who intend to vote this November have become frustrated by a system not only dysfunctional, but increasingly venal. Mark Twain’s old witticism that “we have the best government money can buy” was never more telling. Our electoral process has been utterly corrupted by “dark money”—to cite the title of Jane Mayer’s brave and brilliant new expose of the Koch Brothers and affiliated billionaires behind the rise of the radical Right. Their flood of filthy lucre was fully unleashed by the Super PAC-producing Citizens United decision—reinforced by the SpeechNow and McCutcheon cases—all thanks to a conservative and “activist” Supreme Court majority. Those decisions have set more beasts a-slouching. In an overheated 2012 essay titled “Beast of Citizens United Slouches Forward,” Charles Pierce described Mitt Romney as “in every way the rough beast” predicted by Justice John Paul Stevens (in his eloquent dissent in Citizens United): a beast “slouching toward Iowa to be born.” (This particular beast in pinstripes would be undone by the secretly taped revelation that he, like the rich donors he was speaking to at the time, believed that 47% of Americans were freeloaders, mooching on government handouts).

Writing in Vanity Fair, Craig Ungar also cited “The Second Coming,” in noting the re-emergence of a discredited Karl Rove, among the quickest to appreciate the SpeechNow decision, which overturned limits on individual contributions to PACs, making it easier for big donors to influence elections. “Proving the Yeatsian verity about the best lacking all conviction and the worst being full of passionate intensity, Rove has created a ruthlessly efficient political operation beholden to no one but himself.” Though dismissed by Donald Trump as a “total moron,” Rove, like Yeats’s irrepressible rough beast, is again heading-up his American Crossroads Super PAC, specifically dedicated to defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The corrupting power of unrestricted money is manifest in the sorry spectacle of politicians pandering to the narrow interests of their party’s base and accommodating an ever-growing army of lobbyists, the most influential representing corporate interests. The result is legalized bribery, and, under the aegis of supply-side economics and an antipathy to government, a breakdown of that balanced public-private partnership epitomizing the genius of the American system at its best. Today, competing in a global market, Western democracies must engage as never before in strategic economic planning. Public investment in jobs, infrastructure, education, and research will be required to restore economic competitiveness. But such federal prescriptions are disdainfully rejected by Republicans, who have turned Ronald Reagan’s mantra about the federal government being the “problem” rather than the “solution” into Ayn-Randian economic dogma, referring to Washington as if it were an enemy capital and indulging the fantasy that the “socialist” federal government, which has supposedly “never created a job,” should just “get out of the way” and let the infallible free market work its trickle-down magic.

In this ideologically polarized context, those of a Keynesian bent, who still wish President Obama’s initial stimulus package back in 2009 had been larger, more innovative, and tied to financial regulation of the bailed-out banks, and who see a positive role for an activist federal government in economic crises, can expect no compromise (now a dirty word) from those committed to the deregulated market forces of the private sector. Hence, the persistent clamor of Republicans, who have virtually all signed on to Grover Norquist’s Pledge, for lower taxes on the most wealthy—the “job creators.” That remains a priority even in the face of an accelerating disparity between the many and the very few: a concentration of private and corporate wealth that translates into political power since laws tend to get written in accord with the interests of those (say, the Koch Brothers) writing the checks. Democrats, when they are not complicit in corporate power, bow to their own special interests, fostering divisiveness in the form of identity politics.

Either way, little constructive gets done. Despite the abysmal approval ratings of Congress, partisan confrontation blocks progress on any measure aimed at healing our economy and repairing our crumbling infrastructure. Three years ago, two liberal commentators drew on Yeats’s “The Second Coming” to deplore the gridlock. Addressing the political “failure” to grasp the “urgency” of the labor-market crisis, economist Paul Krugman decried (in his New York Times column in September 2012) Republican opposition to any plan likely to reduce 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.” Five months earlier, Bill Clinton’s former Labor Secretary announced his fear that the US economy was “Slouching toward a Double-Dip.” Playing a variation as well on “the center cannot hold,” Robert Reich observed that the top percent or two have now accumulated “so much of the nation’s total income and wealth that the middle class no longer has the purchasing power to keep the economy going full speed,” and that Republican resistance to tax increases had drained funds required to finance important public investments depended upon by that collapsing middle class. With Washington paralyzed by the divide between dread of mounting debt and the need to invest in infrastructure, education, and job retraining, our economy is still “slouching toward” potential disaster.

Krugman and Reich (and Bernie Sanders) notwithstanding, debt, deficits, and burgeoning entitlement spending certainly matter, and must be addressed, as fiscal conservatives rightly insist. On the other hand, most Republicans seem ideologically incapable of acknowledging the opposite danger: that deep retrenchment in public spending is likely to have the same effect here as in Europe, where fiscal austerity, even when it has arrested the downward slide, has failed to produce growth. Yet, as Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri has said, “market fundamentalism, radical privatization, and a universal fear of state power are overly simplistic answers to the question of how to sustain a modern, globalized economic order.” His focus is European and global, but Avineri is not forgetting the private-enterprise purists of the Republican Party in the United States.

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Political tension, even partisanship, is not only inevitable but desirable; as William Blake reminds us in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Without Contraries is no progression.” Blake also notes in the same text that “Opposition is true friendship,” that differences can be dialectically fruitful, and need not sour into enmity.  But our current political divide is less dialectical than rancorous; and it transcends “politics as usual” because the widening gap is not only economic and ideological but often cognitive. Senator Moynihan’s reminder that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” has been trumped by political expediency and, often, by actual or willful ignorance. This phenomenon has been exacerbated by a polarized and polarizing media that caters to those who prefer to have their own prejudices confirmed and amplified rather than to actually think. In the cable war, CNN tacks to the center, but the conservative audience addicted to Fox News has little in common with the liberal audience addicted to MSNBC; and in that war, the clear victor has been Fox, the supposedly “fair and balanced” organ of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes.

In the 1960s, historian Richard Hofstadter devoted two books to Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics. One needn’t accept every nuance of what conservatives might consider his “elitist” condescension to conclude that Hofstadter’s fears are, today—when the political spectrum in the United States has shifted dramatically to the right—far more justified than they were when he was writing a half-century ago. What would he make, for example, of venomous, pseudo-populist right-wing radio or of the dominance of the Fox News Network? What of fundamentalist resistance, not just to ACLU excesses, but to the very concept of a constitutional separation of Church and State? Or of the Religious Right’s self-congratulatory challenge to the validity of science; most notably, dismissal of the scientific consensus on a partial but manifest human impact on global climate change and, most mind-boggling to the rational, the faith-based denial of the demonstrable truth of evolutionary biology? What would Hoftadter have to say, if he wasn’t rendered mute, by the spectacle of Ben Carson, a physician who is also an evolution-denying biblical literalist; of Ted Cruz, a sanctimonious, inflexible ideologue who deems everyone who demurs from his religio-political absolutism a far-left extremist; of insult-monger Donald Trump, who is—well—TRUMP.

At times we seem to be re-fighting the Civil War. During that defining national tragedy, both sides, equally immersed in the wrathful sword-and-vintage imagery of Revelation that dominates “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” saw themselves engaged in an apocalyptic struggle, each on God’s side and fighting against perceived evil. The Confederacy may have been defeated by the Union armies, but the old ideological struggle persists between central government and states’ rights, between a concept of the common good and unfettered individualism. And once again, though with considerably less justification, what ought to be a public-private partnership is turned into a conflict hyperbolized and sanctified by conservatives and libertarians as a fight to the death between federal “tyranny” and individual “liberty,” now intensified by the guns-and-God identification of the former with all that is reprehensibly “coercive” and “secular,” the latter with stridently libertarian and evangelical concepts of “freedom of religion.”

Faced with the acrimonious divide in our current religio-political Culture War (another example of a “dialogue of the deaf”) and attuned to the language of Yeats’s apocalyptic poem, we readily concur that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist earlier cited, returning to “The Second Coming” in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, lamented the “disappearance of a Christian center.” This “polarization is a sign of what happens” to a deeply religious country when “its theological center cannot hold.” However persuasive or dubious Douthat’s specific claim, his citation of Yeats’s famous line helps rhetorically by locating his argument within a larger and resonant context.

More than a quarter-century ago, in a 1988 “On Language” column, William Safire noted that Yeats’s line about the “center” failing to hold “is quoted whenever polarization takes place and centrists disappear.” That observation is even more germane today, when most centrists have fled Washington in frustration or been driven out by their own party’s more extreme elements. Six-time Indiana Republican Senator Dick Lugar, a notably civil and nuanced Republican with almost unparalleled expertise in foreign policy, was defeated in the 2012 primary by a Tea-Party challenger funded by massive outside spending.

The House situation worsened with the 2010 mid-term elections, when the Republican State Leadership Committee, deploying over $200 million from Republican-aligned “independent groups,” achieved the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) dream, giving the GOP control of the redistricting process until the new census in 2020. By assuring right-wing Republicans safe seats, gerrymandering underwrites obstinacy, reducing the Congress to a partisan, obstructionist combat zone, with opponents demonized and compromise replaced by mutual contempt and deadlock. When, in December 2015, Donald Trump, touting flexibility, criticized the relentlessly uncooperative Senate behavior of his main rival, Ted Cruz, he was furiously attacked by right-wing bloviators Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin for so much as suggesting he would be willing to work across the aisle. In response, a Cruz spokesperson, back when her man was still relentlessly buttering up The Donald, regretted only that Trump, in accurately noting Cruz’s rejection of any compromise, had resorted to “Democrat talking points”! No wonder centrists leave in frustration. What moderate Republican Olympia Snowe described, in announcing her retirement, as the Senate’s “crumbling center” epitomizes our larger cultural breakdown. When things fall apart, no center, religious or political, can hold.

The 2012 Republican primary debates were filled with fevered, self-righteous, semi-theological rhetoric about “taking our country back,” and “saving the soul of America.” Obama was still elected to a second term, to the dismay of Republicans who, from the outset of his first term, never intended to be a “loyal opposition.” Mitch McConnell flatly stated that the “priority” was to make Obama “a one-term president.” Even now, most Republicans put partisan politics ahead of cooperation, then complain when Obama resorts to executive actions. The old adage that politics ends at the water’s edge is long gone with the wind. Republicans adamantly resist, or ridicule, the nuclear deal with Iran, and would rather criticize a president they despise than find common ground in confronting the danger of ISIS.

Though there are thoughtful individual Republicans, their Party has become ideologically extremist and anti-intellectual, hostile to “elites” and to science. No Republican presidential candidate (even when there were seventeen of them) felt free to publicly accept the fact of biological evolution, let alone acknowledge the crisis of global climate change, resorting to denialism based on reports covertly funded by fossil-fuel interests. In December 2015, the Obama administration helped bring together in Paris 195 nations in an accord committing them, for the first time, to lowering planet-warming carbon emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. The modest reductions are tailored but voluntary, making this an executive agreement, not a treaty, which would have been rejected by the Senate, controlled by Republicans who, beholden to the Kochs and their affiliates, either deny established climate science, pronounce the cost of combating the problem prohibitive, or are simply out to thwart the President’s agenda.

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The 2012 Republican primary was temperate compared to the 2015-16 anti-establishment circus, initially starring a pious, clueless neurosurgeon (who would later flame out and endorse Trump), then dominated by a talented but absentee junior senator; an articulate but hyper-ambitious ideologue loathed on both sides of the aisle; and, above all, by a reality-TV huckster and hyperbolist. After losing to Ted Cruz in Iowa, Donald Trump crushed Cruz and Marco Rubio in the next three primary states, becoming—against all predictions from pundits left and right—the prohibitive frontrunner for the nomination. He has continued to cleverly exploit the national frustration at the polarization and dysfunction of Washington, as well as the growing (and justifiable) annoyance with “political correctness.” But in the process, building on and exacerbating the growing fear of all, not just radicalized, Muslims, the Birther-in-Chief (who later played that card on Canadian-born Cruz) has tapped into the nativist zeitgeist and Know-Nothingism of a substantial slice of the American electorate—whose fears, frustrations, and left-behind fury he adroitly channels and fuels.

Republican leaders, having long ginned up their base but caught off guard by the consequences, are now terrified at the looming prospect of Trump becoming their nominee. But he is the untethered Frankenstein’s monster they created—liberated from the Establishment, from Fox News, even from the Koch Brothers! The GOP’s strongest ticket would include John Kasich. But in an extremist milieu, victors tend to be those who appeal to voters “full of passionate intensity,” rather than to the “best”—the better-informed and less absolutist, who don’t expect simple answers to complex questions. Hoping Trump (and Cruz) would fade, the Establishment sought to anoint, as the Party’s “savior,” the more “electable” Rubio, whose initially upbeat campaign quickly darkened into the same old fear-mongering, religious pandering, and strident hawkishness. Since Bernie Sanders, despite his victories and virtual ties, seems unelectable in a center-right country, the Democratic nominee will be a self-wounded, baggage-laden Hillary Clinton.

We can be sure that both sides will be full of passionate intensity. We can also be sure that the Democratic and Republican candidates will be equally supported by their respective Super PACS. Hillary Clinton is flush in PAC money, Cruz is second only to her, and even Donald Trump (closing in on the nomination) will eventually come to the trough. Before his departure, Rubio’s cash cows included three multi-billionaires, who also happen to be pro-Israeli zealots. Despite differences (especially over the West Bank settlements), Israel is our ally, to whom we are bound by history and culture. But must loyalty be obsequious? The Republican nominees (even Trump, who caught hell for saying he would try to be a “neutral” negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse) are tripping over each other vowing unconditional support of Israel. But 2016 began with primary emphasis on the terrorist and refugee crisis emanating from Syria and Iraq.

This was the subject of President Obama’s rare Oval Office Address in late December (a speech prompting emails from two old Fordham college friends, a Democrat and a Republican, but both foreign-policy hawks). In his Address on the terrorist threat, the President said that we should continue our current policy: working with international partners, using targeted airstrikes and special forces to attack terrorist networks. But he also warned against an expansive ground war in Iraq and Syria, calling for a “sustainable” victory using a minimal number of US ground forces. ISIS (or ISIL, as he prefers) would only grow stronger as an insurgency against an occupying power. “We will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless.” But alliterative rhetoric is no substitute for a specific strategy.

Until recently, almost everyone (aside from John McCain and Lindsay Graham) agreed with the President that substantial (tens of thousands) of American ground forces would be counterproductive. Trump’s characteristically crude and crowd-rousing alternative—to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”—was bested by Cruz’s lunatic and illegal proposal to “carpet-bomb” their “troops,” to make the desert sands “glow,” presumably with radioactivity.  Given the jihadists’ proximity to the civilians they terrorize and use as shields in the places they occupy, how many tens of thousands of innocents would we have to vaporize to destroy the Caliphate? Besides, even as ISIS loses territory in its Syrian-Iraqi base (down by more than a third from its apogee), the cancer metastasizes—to Yemen, Libya, elsewhere in Africa; and it retains the ability to inspire and coordinate terror attacks far beyond.

There was a shift, to include substantial “boots on the ground,” in the March 10 Republican debate. In calling for a large-scale injection of US troops into the region, the Republicans are in ironic accord with ISIS, itself the bitter fruit of our misguided invasion of Iraq and, in particular, of our ill-planned, blundering occupation, whose chaos created al Qaeda in Iraq. We want no more of that carnage. ISIS does, committed as it is to its own chiliastic scenario, its version of Armageddon. Based on ancient myth, revived by Abu Musàb al Zakhari, founder of al Qaeda in Iraq and the godfather of ISIS, and reiterated by the “Caliph” himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS apocalypse calls for a final battle on the plain outside the small village of Dabiq (north of Aleppo, in Syria). This unlikely place has long been prophesied as the site of the ultimate victory of the Islamic Caliphate over the armies of the infidel—nowadays, those of the United States. Much ISIS propaganda is devoted to luring us into that land war.

Dabiq Burns Cursader ArmiesImage from Islamic State video, in Dabiq (issue one) (via Clarion Project)

It is a lure we should resist. We can target, provide intelligence and special ops; but the main anti-ISIS ground force must eventually be made up, as the President says, of other Sunnis. At least for now, those Sunnis are divided among themselves. The Saudis, the promulgators of fundamentalist Wahhabism and funders of radicalizing madrassas throughout the Greater Middle East, continue their long and sordid double-game—though there are recent signs that they may finally be ready to field anti-ISIS troops. In any case, thus far, President Obama has not displayed the leadership skills (given these divisions, perhaps no one can) required to put together a pan-Arab force, let alone helm or guide the alleged coalition of “sixty-five” partners.

I agreed with some of the substance, though not the “anti-academic” tone, of the response to the Oval Office speech by my Republican Fordham friend. Ridiculing the president’s claim that his plan was “working,” he described Obama as “the ultimate college professor,” couching events that

unfold before his eyes as academic exercises requiring intellectual examination. True, there is a scholarly aspect than can be argued long into the night, but what is really needed is a bold, rousing response like that of George W. Bush, with the megaphone atop the rubble. It’s about looking and acting like a leader, despite the fact that it might not go beyond immediate visceral satisfaction.

Obama may indeed be too “professorial,” but I have no nostalgia for the sort of “bold, rousing response” that led us, hard on the heels of the justifiable attack on the Taliban harboring al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to the duplicitous invasion of Iraq. That 2003 invasion and the subsequent violence and chaos of the occupation triggered a massive increase in worldwide terrorism, an increase British Intelligence has aptly dubbed the “Iraq Effect.” It also engendered much of the current crisis in the Middle East—notably including the abrupt turn, in word and deed, to apocalyptism among Sunnis, not only in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, but in the global jihadist movement. This new End Times appetite among Sunnis, hitherto skeptical of apocalyptic thinking, was fueled by Sunni clerics and by the al-Qaeda precursor of ISIS, Zarqawi, who envisaged the new American “Crusaders” as having joined the Shia and the Jews in a triple union to “destroy” true Muslims. Unlike al Qaeda leaders bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, Zarqawi believed “the Final Hour must be approaching, to be heralded by the rebirth of the caliphate, the Islamic empire that had disappeared and whose return was prophesied.”[5] We now know what rough beast, its hour come round at last, has been slouching to be born in the deserts of Iraq: ISIS.

According to unreconstructed foreign policy hawks who still defend the invasion of Iraq and still fail to grasp the historic complexity of the Sunni-Shia division, that monstrous birth is entirely attributable to Obama, who “abandoned” a “liberated” Iraq made “stable” by the “Surge.” In exploiting the Anbar Awakening, General David Petraeus bought the provisional loyalty of Sunnis even more appalled by al Qaeda than by American forces. But while it was a success tactically and as PR, the Surge, elevated to the status of myth by Republicans, barely affected the underlying realities. Yet the President is incessantly condemned by Neocons, the right-wing media, and the current crop of GOP candidates for “squandering” our “gains” in Iraq by withdrawing “precipitously.” Though he is not without fault, this is far too sweeping, and, of course, characteristically partisan.

Like others, the President was slow to realize the gravity of the threat presented by ISIS (far from the “JV-team” of his glib dismissal), and he failed to heed warnings about the double-dealing of Maliki. The President was eager to get out of Iraq, in accord with his promise during the 2008 campaign, and reflecting the consensus of the vast majority of the electorate. But Republicans tend to pass over that other pledge: the one made by us to the Iraqi government, to completely withdraw US troops by 2011, a pledge made by President Bush. Without the Status of Forces agreement rejected by Maliki (at Iran’s behest), were we to leave in place, in violation of our own agreement and against the express disinvitation of the host government, a residual force of, say, 15-20,000 American troops? The President’s critics on the Right blandly assume that such a force would have prevented the rise of ISIS. General Petraeus recently expressed a wish that we had “tried the experiment,” though he is doubtful “it would have made a difference.”

Opportunities were lost, especially in Syria; today, ISIS entrenched and the Internet at its command, there are no longer any routes to a quick victory without considerable risks and downsides. Any plausible, as opposed to preposterous, plan to defeat ISIS, would not be wildly different from what the President seems to think he can wish into existence, and would involve actual rather than half-imaginary coalitions, Arab and European. But our internally-divided NATO and Arab allies lack the capacity to organize and lead an effective counteroffensive on their own. And Obama may not be the leader required to inspire and implement such a strategy. More hawkish Hillary might be up to the task, more so than Trump, Cruz, and the departed Rubio, all of them as inexperienced as they are bellicose. Had he not fallen from grace, the gifted David Petraeus, running as a Republican or a Democrat, might have provided both experience and thoughtfulness.

We should be under no illusion that there is any military silver bullet that could even conceivably resolve a crisis ultimately based on a long-delayed backlash against Western imperialism and economic exploitation, grievances made toxic by the most militant sections of the Quran being fed by radical clerics to alienated young Muslim men, ripe for revenge. But understanding the causes does not eliminate the need to confront the consequences. Given the deep sociopolitical, economic, cultural, and religious context, and the endless supply of hopeless young men susceptible to the siren call to jihad, eager to spill blood for the glory of Allah and to advance the End Times, there may be no way to avoid a protracted struggle. One would be more satisfied with a multi-pronged, gradual degradation of ISIS leading to eventual defeat were it not for the immediate dangers presented by sleeper cells, and by the ultimate nightmare: the acquisition by ISIS or its affiliates of a dirty bomb or, worse yet, a full-fledged nuclear weapon. Time is no more on our side here than in the need to confront the challenge of global climate change. So, what to do?

In Europe, intelligence has to be much better shared and the EU borders made less porous. Thousands of European Muslims have traveled to Syria and back, now thoroughly radicalized, militarily trained, and ready to wage jihad in their home countries. One such man, Salah Abdeslam, who helped orchestrate the attacks in Paris, slipped easily out of France and into Belgium. Four months later, he was found, by sheer luck, hiding out in jihadi central, Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood where he grew up. Though Belgian authorities announced that another attack was “credible and imminent,” Abdeslam’s questioning, apparently perfunctory, yielded no information. Within days of his capture, members of his cell launched their lethal attacks on the Brussels airport and metro station.

In the struggle against ISIS in the Middle East itself, we should counter Iran by pressuring al-Abadi to re-enfranchise the Sunnis, incentivizing the “Iraqi” army to fight, as it has started to do by recapturing Ramadi. We should also inform Turkey that we’re going to intensify our arming of the Kurds—and directly, not through Baghdad. Even then, we can hardly be confident that Sunni forces, themselves radical (foolishly disbanded but left armed by the US in 2003, they became the insurgency against us), would produce eventual stability. And the Kurds, willing and demonstrably able to fight ISIS, are primarily interested in their own independence: understandably, but a further source of regional instability. In fact, in the final week of 2015, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, resumed a fierce battle to “annihilate” the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), militants who have long sought Kurdish autonomy.

In the immediate future, Iran and Russia have to be accepted as in fact what they are: major players in the region. This will outrage most on the Right and, when it comes to our policy in Syria, undermine what’s left of the “Assad-must-go” position of the Administration. The more pragmatic assessment of the President’s own Joint Chiefs is that any vacuum left by the removal of Assad will be filled with Sunni extremists rather than largely non-existent Syrian “moderates.” Even a provisional alignment with the supporters of the murderous Assad regime is repellent. But the principal goal we have in common with Iran and Russia is defeating ISIS. For now, along with preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon (the one other goal we share with Putin), confronting ISIS must be a strategic priority. In December 2015, a UN Resolution, jointly sponsored by the US and Russia, united many nations in an overdue effort to cut off the sources of ISIS funding. But that cooperation was dwarfed by the impact of Russia’s continued and intensified bombing of Syria, little of it targeting ISIS.

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Caught up as we are in the struggle with ISIS in particular and jihadism in general, there is a related tension: between Islamophobia and a realistic assessment of the facts. In the wake of the large-scale Paris attack (preceded by the Charlie Hebdo murders and followed by the events in San Bernardino; Brussels was yet to come), President Obama sought to avoid demonizing Islam, while acknowledging that the Muslim community needs to grapple with the issue of radicalization and political violence. In his Oval Office Address, he urged Americans “to see Muslims as neighbors, friends, and countrymen, and to avoid bigotry and discrimination. If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must,” he said, “enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.” But, the President added, that “doesn’t mean denying the fact that an extreme ideology has spread within some Muslim communities,” a “real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse.”

The latter is a problem that also needs to be confronted by those who, like the President, want to accept, if not the 65,000 recommended by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 10,000 Syrian refugees. Donald Trump’s blatantly unconstitutional proposal that we ban all Muslims until we can figure out “what’s going on” is outrageous, but not, for many, much more so than the Administration’s plan to take in refugees whom even the Director of the FBI acknowledges we cannot properly vet. Tens of thousands of Syrians are starving in besieged towns, and almost all refugees have suffered horribly and deserve compassion. But ISIS would be derelict in its terrorist duty if it didn’t seek to infiltrate and radicalize some of those masses. Syria’s Middle Eastern neighbors—Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan—have taken in almost four million refugees, and Iraq and Egypt between them another 400,000. Even after the Paris attacks, up to the turn into 2016, Sweden and Germany (having already accepted over a million refugees) were absorbing very high numbers per capita. That ended abruptly in the final week of 2015. Since then the sexual attacks in Cologne and elsewhere on New Year’s Eve, by Arab and North African Muslim men, have challenged Merkel’s admirable welcoming policy and fueled legitimate concern, as well as xenophobia, erupting in street violence between right-wing opponents of immigration and leftist advocates of asylum.

Since our own Muslim population is far better assimilated it seems inhumane and craven for us to resist welcoming a mere 10,000 more, two-thirds of them (as referred to us by the UNHCR) women and children. But many Americans of good will, even those aware that the refugee problem has become a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen since World War II, nevertheless fear, when it comes to Syrian war refugees, the radicalizing reach of ISIS. Of course, that is just one more aspect of the ISIS strategy of inculcating fear, turning victims seeking to escape from barbarism and lethal violence into potential security threats. The record suggests otherwise. According to an October 2015 Migration Policy Institute report, of the 784,000 refugees we’ve taken in since 9/11, only three have been arrested on terrorism-related charges. But recent events have intensified our concern. Having accepted fewer than 2,000 Syrian refuges since 2012, and now, with many Americans (and virtually all Republicans) opposed to the President’s plan regarding the 10,000, the United States runs the risk of fueling—across the European continent—the sort of anti-immigrant (and anti-American) far-right populism represented in France by Marine Le Pen and her National Front party, and, in Hungary, by Putin buddy Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Worse yet, our resistance to accepting refugees further destabilizes such frontline states as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and strains relations with Germany, which has borne the brunt of the flood into Europe. We have contributed $450 million to alleviate the crisis in Syria, yet appear to be sitting it out, though we are hardly blameless in terms of responsibility. An increasing number of Germans believe, with good reason, that while they are shouldering the consequences of the collapse of Syria, it is America that bears much of the responsibility for the causes of that collapse.  Even former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Bush’s war partner, though still proud of the ouster of Saddam, admitted (on CNN in October 2015) that “mistakes” were made. Indeed, “the rise of ISIS and the disintegration of Syria figure among the catastrophic consequences of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.”

That accurate conclusion was drawn by Michael Ignatieff, playing off but going beyond Blair’s admission. The Murrow Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School observed in his November New York Review of Books essay “The Refugees & the New War,” that the refugees present not only “a humanitarian crisis,” but “a national security challenge,” though not the one stressed by those unnerved by the possibility of importing terrorists. US strategy in the final year of Obama’s presidency should start, he concludes, from the understanding that helping Europe deal with the refugees is

critical to the battle against jihadi nihilism. If Europe closes its borders, if the frontline states can no longer cope, the US and the West will face millions of stateless people who will never forget that they were denied the right to have rights. In a battle against extremism, giving hope to desperate people is not charity, it is simple prudence….In a war against jihadi nihilism, in a world of collapsing states and civil war, a refugee policy that refuses to capitulate to fear belongs at the center of any American and European strategy.

This openness—at once strategic and in accord with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent confirmations of the rights of stateless refugees—is currently complicated by the sheer scope of the crisis; while hesitance is propagandized by jihadists as anti-Muslim hatred. Trump’s “total ban” feeds that narrative, yet appeals to some annoyed by Obama’s attempt to recognize distinctions. With jihadism expanding and growing more savage and dangerous with the emergence of the apocalyptic and ruthless Islamic State, many have wearied of the President’s nuanced language, especially his apparent inability to utter the phrase “radical Islamist terrorism.”

This semantic sensitivity, though diplomatically defensible and admirably intended to avoid turning combat with jihadist terrorism into a war on Islam itself, nevertheless seems misguided, unnecessary, and patronizing—to the vast majority of Muslims and to those capable of distinguishing between them and jihadists. His stubbornness on this point (adhered to by Hillary) also leaves Obama, once we get beyond the lunatic Right’s delusion that he is himself a covert Muslim, vulnerable to the charge of politically correct reticence—and worse.

In a discussion of foreign policy during the December Republican primary debate, Chris Christie contemptuously dismissed the President as a “feckless weakling.” None of the other Republicans on the stage objected to this depiction of a sitting President, whose reputation affects national security. The prime example of this “weakness” for most of his critics, even for many of his supporters, remains Obama’s pivotal rethinking of his initial decision, in the summer of 2013, to militarily enforce the chemical-weapons “red line” he had drawn in Syria, cancelling the airstrikes intended to punish Assad for crossing that line. While the President should never have laid down that red line, he did have valid reasons, military and political, to rethink the airstrikes. His reversal was influenced by David Cameron’s failure to get parliamentary authorization, Angela Merkel’s reluctance, and Obama’s own second thoughts about the danger, in blowing up chemical depots, of poisoning the very civilians he was trying to save.  But the price was not only a loss of US “credibility,” but a perception of Obama himself as vacillating, indecisive, “weak.”[6]

Though Obama’s reluctance to intervene in the cauldron of the Middle East should be appreciated as wisdom rather than dismissed as weakness, he can also be frustratingly overcautious. He can also appear casual, as in his decision, after Brussels, to continue his visit to Cuba and Argentina rather than rush back to Washington. (Despite the baseball-and-tango “optics,” he was also ordering the commando operation that took out the ISIS Finance Minister.) Better Obama’s cool and restraint than the reckless hubris of Cheney and Bush, whose “bold, rousing response” led to the catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq. Obama’s restraint is also preferable to the macho chest-thumping of Chris Christie, hailed (three years ago by conservative pundit Bill Kristol) as a much-needed incarnation of Yeats’s “rough beast.”[7] This President’s scrupulous deliberation has its own flaws, but it is sober and rational compared to the half-truths and hyperbole that have marked this Trump-dominated Republican primary in general.

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IV. Things Fall Apart: The American and European Center Threatened

In fact, the more one sees and hears Donald Trump, the more one recognizes in him, far more than in Christie (who later hitched on to Trump), the contemporary political incarnation of Yeats’s “rough beast”—boorish, narcissistic, reckless, given to irresponsible hyperbole and ad hominem bullying. In a January 20 New York Daily News op-ed, “Slouching toward Des Moines,” Harry Siegel deplored the inadequacy of the candidates then gathering for the Iowa caucuses. “The people who would be President are lunatics, liars or both,” he opined. Citing Yeats’s poem in its entirety, he synopsized “the Republican view of the world, and America’s place in it,” by directly quoting Trump, and captioning as a symbol of “passionate intensity” a photo of Trump being endorsed by syntax-challenged flamethrower and nitwit, Sarah Palin. “What rough beast?” Siegel wondered, answering himself: “I’m afraid we’re about to find out.” One day earlier, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson noted the intensified conflict between the frontrunners for the Republican nomination: Trump, an “ethno-nationalist wrecking ball,” and Ted Cruz, “more demagogue than ideologue.” Gerson concluded his January 19 Washington Post column: “For Republicans, the only good outcome of Trump vs. Cruz is for both to lose. The future of the party as the carrier of a humane, inclusive conservatism now depends on some viable choice beyond them”—a sentiment echoed by his NY Times counterpart, David Brooks, hoping for Trump and Cruz to kill each other off.

A few days later, National Review, the venerable conservative journal founded by William F. Buckley, weighed in with a special Against Trump issue, featuring twenty-two diatribes denouncing Trump, a “philosophically unmoored opportunist who would trash the conservative ideological consensus.” In varying degrees of panic (the one African-American among them, Thomas Sowell, more exercised by hatred of Obama than fear of The Donald, sounded positively unhinged), the right-wing pundits (plus Glenn Beck) projected the nomination of Trump as a disaster for the Republican Party and a catastrophe for their own “principled,” intellectual conservatism.

Trump characteristically dismissed National Review as a failing, elitist magazine, and announced that his followers’ loyalty was such that if he were to “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue” it would have no effect on his numbers. The outrageous remark was at once offensive and funny. Fears that it might also be accurate were allayed when a suddenly vincible Trump was defeated in evangelical Iowa by a hymn-citing Cruz (“To God be the glory!”), while just edging out a no-less-pious Rubio, praising “Jesus Christ, who came down to earth and died for our sins.”  Better Trump than Cruz, though it’s hard to know which demagogue best embodies the Yeatsian “worst.” As a deal-maker par excellence, Trump seems flexible and pragmatic, but as a candidate on the stump and on TV, he plays a man “all conviction” and “full of passionate intensity,” his certitudes and seemingly spontaneous outbursts cunningly calculated to inflame, while entertaining, the huge crowds he attracts. Media-savvy and freewheeling, a master of the immediacy of reality TV, Trump plays on the frustrations and fears, the anger and alienation, of his core audience: white, non-college-educated, struggling economically—in short, the very “losers” this relentless exponent of “winning” almost certainly despises even as he charms them.

Going into New Hampshire, some attention shifted to Cruz and Rubio, but moderate Kasich beat them both, and all were trounced by Trump, whose decisive victory there, in South Carolina and Nevada (and solid lead in the national polls) left the Republican Establishment reeling. Much of the Religious Right has rallied to Trump, but not Richard D. Land, the former President of the Southern Evangelical Seminary. Dipping into the “maelstrom” of sociopolitical turmoil agitated by the “populist uprising” of 2016, Land, now executive editor of The Christian Post, reported on January 31, that lines of Yeats’s “famous poem” keep “running through my mind.” He quoted a half-dozen lines of “The Second Coming,” beginning, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” and asked, in conclusion: “Can the political-societal center hold, or has it been hollowed out (center, and increasingly the center-right and center-left) to the point that America and her political institutions have devolved into…ethnic, societal, religious, and electronic tribes (Fox, CNN, and MSNBC)?” Has the “tidal wave of intense populism” surfed by Sanders and Trump left us with a “political tsunami” and an anti-centrism “currently beyond rational constructive consensus?”

This imagery, like the loosing of Yeats’s irrational “blood-dimmed tide,” captures the out-of-control aspect of the 2016 election. The populist appeal of Bernie Sanders, focused on inequality of wealth and opportunity, though anti-establishment, is comparatively benign. But just as Yeats tapped into the Collective Unconscious of  Spiritus Mundi for his images in “The Second Coming,” Donald Trump has, alas, tapped into part of the American psyche—not the Emersonian “Oversoul,” but the darker Under-Soul, or “base,” or id, of the contemporary Republican Party. His appeal, populist-nationalist and pseudo-conservative, though based on himself as the latest embodiment of the Great Man theory, feeds on the facile illusion of simple solutions to complex problems and on what Nietzsche called ressentiment.

As E. J. Dionne noted in an August, 2015 Washington Post op-ed titled “When Yeats Comes Knocking,” Trump “is a symptom of a much wider problem.” Citing the “most cited poem in political commentary,” Dionne observed that we are “definitely in for another ‘Second Coming’ revival,” since “the center is under siege all over the democratic world.” Dionne, a liberal, quoted conservative Reihan Salam, also struck by the similarities between Trumpism and rising movements (to the left and right of centrist European parties) that “manage to blend populism and nationalism into a potent anti-establishment brew.” In a February 24 NY Times op-ed, Jacob Weisberg, author of a balanced new study of Ronald Reagan, noted that unless the Republican Party (which venerates Reagan, but more in the breach than the observance of his pragmatism) “repudiates the inflammatory rhetoric of the primary, it will lose Reagan’s claim to the center and become more like one of Europe’s chauvinistic right-wing parties.”

Trump’s wealth allows him to spurn corporate donors and PACs (appealing to his working-class supporters), and to mock (in tweets) his fellow candidates as “puppets” who (aside from Kasich) flock to palatial meetings to “beg for money from the Koch Brothers.” But he is at one with the Republican Right in fomenting hatred of a federal government allegedly out to “take away our guns” and freedom; and no one has matched Trump in manipulating the festering rage and fear over rapid demographic and sociocultural change that the former fringe but now center of the GOP has been scaremongering for years. That witches’ brew culminates in Obamaphobia: a visceral hatred directed at the ultimate “other”: that alien and Constitution-spurning usurper in the White House whose domestic reign Republicans deem “lawless” and “imperial,” even as they pronounce him “weak” in foreign policy. The hatred is most toxic in Cruz and Rubio, who accused the President of deliberately intending to damage the United States.

In dealing with Syria and ISIS, Obama’s characteristic weighing of every alternative can summon up, even among some of his supporters, the most repeated phrase from “The Second Coming.” I would not myself ascribe to the President a “lack of conviction,” let alone the sweeping “all conviction,” applied (by David Lehman and by the authors of ISIS: The State of Terror) to those who have demonstrated insufficient decisiveness in confronting the terrorist challenge. Cool, poised, and aloof amid the fevered atmosphere of polarizing and extremist babble, Obama may see himself (a colleague, historian Ed Judge, suggests) as the “Man” in Kipling’s “If”: “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” Almost congenitally incapable of expressing and evoking that “visceral” response sometimes required of a leader, Obama can vacillate. Again, his pivotal decision/revision not to enforce with air strikes the red line in Syria brings to mind Yeats’s tragic insight, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”

This President may not be the “best,” but he is far better than this year’s Republican alternatives, all (with the only partial exception of John Kasich) critics and haters at once dismissive of Obama’s “weakness” and apoplectic about his exercise of executive power. Finally, however, as it is worth recalling, there are passions even more intense than Obamaphobia. The excellent documentary, “VICE Special Report: Fighting ISIS,” which debuted on HBO on the final day of 2015, ends with Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Baghdad, lamenting the presence in fragmented Iraq of multiple “passionate intensities,” none boding well for the region, or for us.

§

Like the volatile American primary races, the world doesn’t stop turning and churning. 2016 began with the US stock market’s worst-ever start to a new year, a five-day sell-off reflecting international economic and political turmoil. There are two epicenters this time, Europe and China. In China, runaway economic growth has come to a sudden halt, reflected in the plummeting of its financial markets and fostering a cycle of decline and panic throughout the world, especially in South America and in South Africa, whose economies rely on supplying Chinese manufacturing’s insatiable demand for natural resources. These negative repercussions are compounded by the collapse in the price of crude (at its lowest point in a dozen years), which has already had a devastating impact on petro-states, much of whose oil is sent to China. The dramatic slowdown of the long overheated Chinese economy, the second largest in the world and a main driver of international trade, could conceivably trigger a global recession deeper and wider than the US and Europe-centered financial crisis of 2008.

The European situation is more immediate and more dire. Geoffrey Wheatcroft opened a February 18, 2016 essay in The National Interest: “There are times—and the present moment is very much one of them—when certain great poems, minatory and ominous, force their way into the mind.” He cites Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” Auden’s “The Fall of Rome,” Kipling’s “Recessional.” But his title, “Europe’s Political Center Cannot Hold,” confirms that he really has in mind “that extraordinary, oracular work,” Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” The lines about mere anarchy and the blood-dimmed tide being “loosed upon the world” were (notes Wheatcroft, aware of the poem’s original context) “not meant to be a guide to everyday politics.” Yet the words “the center cannot hold” and “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” written in 1919, “seemed all the more forceful with every year over the next decades of totalitarianism, total war, and total murder.”

So they do again today. We have witnessed the explosion of the Levant and the implosion of Europe, the rise of demagogues on both the Left and, more notably, on the Right, on both sides of the Atlantic. The internal atrophy of politics in the United States is another question [and one not limited to “Donald Trump’s vulgarity”]….But we Europeans should hesitate before sneering….What has happened in these recent years is not just the near collapse of the European Union, but the demonstration of its complete inadequacy to deal with present dangers, from the self-inflicted and unresolvable crisis of a single currency…to the awful problem of mass immigration [caused mostly by refugees fleeing the horror in Syria]….Beyond that is the acute threat within Europe to political stability. The [the old center-right and center-left consensus] is now being severely challenged from the outside left and outside right by parties and politicians called “extremist” or, much more revealingly, “populist.”

Hungary, Poland, and other Eastern European countries, only free of Soviet imperialism for a quarter-century and in the European Union for a decade, have shown “alarming signs of sliding back into authoritarianism, nativism, racism and corruption.” Even “more perturbing” are events in the nations of Western Europe, recent experience in the largest of which (France, Germany, and Italy) has been “somber.” Consider France, where the National Front founded by neofascist Jean-Marie Le Pen is now headed by his more adroit daughter, who expelled her father from a party whose tone, however, remains staunchly nativist, “anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim.” Wheatcroft’s survey, brief but ominous, provides sufficient evidence to support his grim Yeatsian thesis: “Europe’s political center cannot hold.”

On the humanitarian and political fronts, 2016 arrived accompanied by an intensification of already bad news. The Syrian refugee nightmare continued to worsen by the day, with tens of thousands of Syrian civilians—cut off in towns besieged by pro- or anti-government forces, and bombed from the air—starving and freezing as a harsh winter set in (an ironic reminder of the antithetical crisis: accelerating global warming). Russian airstrikes, especially in and around the rebel-held city of Aleppo, intensified sharply. The February peace talks in Geneva were suspended before they even started, a “temporary pause” essentially attributable to Putin’s bombing, a strategy popular at home and successful in turning the war in favor of Russia’s ally, Assad. In March, that goal achieved, Putin withdrew.

Putin was always seeking a military rather than a political solution in Syria; while the US negotiated but seemed unable to stop him, debating even about airdrops of food and medicine in areas where Russian planes were operating. The agreement reached in Munich on February 11, between John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, called for a “cessation of hostilities” on the ground in Syria in order to get humanitarian aid to besieged areas. This tentative step toward a true cease-fire depends on its being honored by the various warring parties and by Assad himself. At the very moment when negotiations to that end were underway, ISIS launched its deadliest attacks of the civil war, bombings that took at least 130 lives. Whatever our role or Putin’s, without a genuine cease-fire, the humanitarian crisis will intensify within Syria and continue to expand throughout the Middle East and Europe as desperate refugees flee starvation and carnage.

At the same time, we have an expanded example of the post-World War I European fragmentation that prompted Yeats to conclude in 1919 that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” In 2016, beyond the internal collapse of the European “center,” the transatlantic alliance binding the United States and Europe since the end of World War II and anchoring global stability for seven decades seems no longer able to hold. We are still united by shared values, but there is a growing divergence between European and American priorities. Their militaries underfunded, worried about the potential threat of unassimilated Muslim populations, the nations of Europe (and Turkey, also a NATO member) are too divided among themselves to present much of a united front. Insufficiently full-throated in celebrating American “exceptionalism,” and caricatured by jingoists as “apologizing” for America, Barack Obama has been more justly accused of indecisiveness in his vacillation over the Syrian “red line.” We retain—for good or, as we know all too well, for ill—the option to act unilaterally; but  things have fallen so far apart that, whoever is President, the US may no longer be able to lead a coalition of the unwilling, or unable.

This transatlantic division and consequent diminution of resolve and leadership is especially dangerous at a moment when the West is confronted by so many global challenges. The most urgent emanates from the world’s most volatile region, the Middle East, torn by its own divisions: the old and apparently irresolvable breaches between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Shia and Sunni. After three decades of opining about the Middle East, Tom Friedman, in effect, threw up his hands, admitting in his February 12 NY Times column that none of “the many Mideast solutions” are any longer viable. He concluded that the “real,” as opposed to the “fantasy,” Middle East is “a wholly different beast now slouching towards Bethlehem.”

The intra-Muslim rift has been intensified by the recent rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region’s two most powerful oil-rich states, and the principal defenders, respectively, of the Sunni and Shia branches of schismatic Islam. Triggered by the Saudi execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, and the ransacking and torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the crisis between these regional rivals led, in early January, to a severing of diplomatic relations and to escalating tensions affecting the whole of the Middle East. The breach torpedoed hopes for diplomatically resolving the crises in Syria and Yemen, in which Tehran and Riyadh support opposing sides, and it works to the benefit of ISIS by further destabilizing a region already fractured along ethno-sectarian fault lines. With this Saudi-Iran rupture, we also have the hypocritical spectacle of one barbaric theocracy criticizing the other for behaving—barbarically.[8]

Both autocracies relish the graphic execution of their perceived enemies, and both spread terror: our “ally” through its far-flung madrassas and by permitting its elites to fund jihadists; our opponent, but partner in the nascent nuclear agreement, more directly, and through such proxies as Hamas and Hezbollah. The January 4 New York Times account of the crisis was accompanied by a video of a Tehran mob being whipped into a religio-political frenzy by a cleric ranting that the decapitation of al-Nimr, part of a mass execution (forty-seven in all, mostly by beheading and mostly Sunnis), was carried out at the behest of Islam’s true enemies. According to this turbaned pundit, the Saudis are the “collared dogs” of the Little and Great Satan; thus, the protest climaxed with the usual chants: “Death to Israel,” “Death to America” (even, for good measure, “to England”).

As a fomenter of hatred, unrest, and terror, Iran is second only to ISIS. Offering one glimmer of light, the March 2016 Iranian elections confirmed widespread support for the reformers and those most committed to the nuclear agreement with the US. Whatever the leadership’s internal stresses, and while it remains a theocratic tyranny, Iran seems dynamic compared to its sclerotic regional rival. While revolutionary Iran meddles, propping up the Assad government, bankrolling Israel’s regional opponents, and stirring up Shia minorities in the Sunni-dominated Gulf states, the Kingdom is experiencing its own severe internal tensions. The new dynastic discord within the Saudi royal family has reached the point where open conflict is now a plausible threat, a scenario incomprehensible before the January 2015 ascension of King Salman. Reputedly suffering from dementia, the aging King may have deferred considerable authority to his favorite son, defense minister and Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin-Salman.

Whoever is calling the shots, ailing father or impulsive son, the monarchy’s new and unilateral aggressiveness (pursuing in Yemen a costly, brutal, and indecisive war against the Houthi movement and the Yemeni army, and ordering these recent provocative executions) reflects less strength than fear. Fear of a succession crisis; fear, despite huge cash reserves, of a collapsing oil-based economy; above all, fear of revolutionary Iran and its hegemonic ambitions in the region. The nuclear deal with the US has alarmed not only Israel and Saudi Arabia, but all the Sunni states. Its verification procedures are persistently and deliberately misrepresented by its opponents, but the accord still comes with a cost. Even those of us in favor of the deal— given the unpalatable alternatives—should be as troubled as its opponents are by the prospect of a $100 billion or so windfall attending the unfreezing of Iranian assets in the initial withdrawal of sanctions. Most of that money will be needed to rebuild the sanction-damaged Iranian economy. But some of it will inevitably be used to fund Iran’s proxies. What impact might that influx of cash have on the region?

Bahrain and Sudan joined the Saudis in breaking diplomatic relations with Iran; the Emirates sharply reduced contacts; and Shia militias bombed Sunni mosques in Iraq. Quickly rippling through the Middle East, the decision to behead al-Nimr stirred protests as far away as Pakistan and India. The fact that the United States advised against the execution of al-Nimr and was given no advance notice of the Saudi decision to sever diplomatic relations with Iran suggests that the young Crown Prince may be in charge in Riyadh. With the role of the US diminished, China and Russia both weighed in, urging restraint; Putin even offered to mediate. This political and religious crisis, the most dangerous regional confrontation in decades, threatens, in the language of several Middle-East experts, to “spiral out of control.”  Retired General Mark Hertling, a perceptive CNN military analyst, concerned that a more direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran could erupt, employed the same imagery: “That’s the key issue. This is spiraling very quickly.” It is hard, in pondering the perennial relevance of “The Second Coming” to contemporary crises, not to think of Yeats’s own spiraling imagery: the poem-opening falcon, no longer under the control of the falconer, “turning and turning in the widening gyre,” its spiraling movement replicated by the “desert birds” whose shadows “reel” about the ominous “shape” moving in “sands of the desert.”

This crisis, on hold but potentially explosive, is part of a recurrent centrifugal pattern. Yeats was responding to specific historical events in “The Second Coming.” If readers were bound by the literary equivalent of judicial “originalism,” the theory espoused by the eloquent but reactionary late Justice Antonin Scalia, many or most of them would be guilty, in endlessly citing and alluding to the poem, of misappropriation, quoting Yeats’s words while inadvertently or deliberately misconstruing his original political intentions. But we are not thus bound, as Yeats also intended. For his deepest and most genuine foresight, as we have also seen, was his decision to delete, in the process of composition, virtually all the specific details that would have tethered his poem to the events of 1919 as seen through the perspective of the worst atrocities of the French Revolution. The result is a universal poem that has resonated with every generation of readers, and from every political perspective, for almost a century.

Whether we have in mind international political and economic crises, the coarsening and polarization of American politics, the metastasizing of Islamist terrorism, the fragmentation of the European Union and of the Middle East, the refugee tide inundating Europe and the Levant, the danger of nuclear proliferation and nuclear blackmail, or the interrelated ecological challenges threatening life on the planet itself in our new “Anthropocene Age,” we may be reminded of John Donne’s disoriented cry early in the 17th century. With “new Philosophy” calling “all in doubt,” sun and earth “lost” and the “Firmament”  itself “crumbled out againe” to atoms, the Metaphysical poet summed up the chaos in a single line: “‘Tis all in pieces, all cohaerence gone” (The First Anniversary, 205-13). That lamentation over the loss of wisdom, cohesion, stability and order was surely recalled by an admirer of Donne, W. B. Yeats, when he wrote the line that has become so familiar to those contemplating the world the modern poet prophesied as he brooded, in excited reverie and dread, over European disintegration, and envisioned, “everywhere,” the loosing of an irrational blood-dimmed tide of “anarchy” and varieties of “passionate intensity” erupting in violence and chaos. To quote it once more: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

One recalls that open question from Yeats’s near-parallel poem, the great sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”: given all this, “is there any comfort to be found?” If so, it is unlikely, for most readers of “The Second Coming,” to derive from Yeats’s own Burkean political perspective, in which the sociocultural disintegration threatened by centrifugal forces could be countered only by the values of a hierarchical, aristocratic civilization. What comfort there is, if there is any at all, may be inherent in the symbol of the gyre itself: the eternal cycle which, for Blake, was a dehumanizing nightmare, but, for Yeats’s other great mentor, Nietzsche, an eternal recurrence to be embraced with astringent tragic joy. And there is a variation more comic than tragic. That aspect of the recurrent cycle was caught by an anonymous editorial writer in the Christmas Eve 2015 issue of a newspaper, the Memphis Flyer. “Simultaneously looking back and forward,” and proceeding “ahead into the next turning of the eternal gyre,” the editorialist invoked the locus classicus:

That aspect of the eternal gyre is something we of the Western world owe to William Butler Yeats, whose poem, ‘The Second Coming,’ gave us lines to remember through all the cycles, all the turnings of fate that seem to foreshadow an end but merely invite a new beginning. There are times, as Yeats wrote almost a century ago, when ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.’ A hundred years later, and it’s still true. It will always be still true. And we will survive and scramble to find our place in a brand new cycle, which itself will seem to be heading to an end but will just be the same old adventure in a new cycle….

The phrasing at its most glib—“merely,” “brand new,” “just be the same old adventure”—is in keeping with the purpose of the editorial, which was to wish its readers a “Happy New Year!” But, mutatis mutandis, this  optimism differs only in tone from Yeats’s own pipe dream, as expressed in his lengthy annotation to “The Second Coming.”  I refer to the vision—influenced by Nietzsche but one that would have repelled Blake—of that new and nobler hierarchical civilization Yeats hoped, and apparently believed, would succeed the democratic and Christian age that was dying.

Introducing his play, The Resurrection, Yeats presents a counter-myth to democracy, Christianity, and that linear “progress” Nietzsche dismissed as a “modern theory, and therefore vulgar.” “When I was a boy” Yeats tells us,

everybody talked about progress, and rebellion against my elders took the form of aversion to that myth. I took satisfaction in certain public disasters, felt a sort of ecstasy at the contemplation of ruin. [Around the turn of the century, after reading Nietzsche], I began to imagine, as always at my left side just out of the range of sight, a brazen winged beast that I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction.

Yeats goes on in this paragraph to cite his 1903 uncanonical play Where There is Nothing, featuring a Nietzschean beast with the literally hilarious name, “Laughter, the mightiest of the enemies of God”—a beast (he adds in a footnote) “afterwards described in my poem ‘The Second Coming’.”

But is this assertion, this claimed identity, really accurate? Mythically and politically, the apocalyptic “rough beast” of “The Second Coming,” wingless and certainly not laughing, may represent both the end-product of the vision of the “progressive” Left and the first stirrings, life arising out of death, of an antithetical vision of the aristocratic Right. But however “exciting” it may be, the risen and slouching creature, as actually presented in the poem, is far less promising than sinister, its imminent birth less hopeful than horrifying. In terms of its precursors, Yeats’s rough beast resembles Nietzsche’s beasts, cruel or laughing, only peripherally. And it has less in common with Blake’s prophetic Tyger, terrible but beautiful, than with the slouching, bestial Nebuchadnezzar of Blake’s striking illustration. Indeed, as a creature of “second birth,” the rough beast may most resemble one of those “tigers” Wordsworth imagined prowling the bloodied streets of revolutionary Paris, ready to pounce again in the even worse Terror to come: for all things have second birth.

In short, whatever the poem’s original starting point as a response to his juxtaposed Bolshevik and French Revolutions, and whatever Yeats’s own politics and cyclical counter-myth to the vulgar modern myth of linear progress, “The Second Coming” turned out, as a linguistic work of art, to have a momentum all its own, quite aside from authorial intention. Though the tone of the finished poem mingles dread with a vestigial schadenfreude (“I-told-you-so”) exultation, it ends in human incertitude rather than prophetic certainty.

Other readers may differ, but, aside from that breathless and ambiguous phrase, at once cyclical and terminal, “its hour come round at last,” I find—once we’ve turned from the prose glosses to the actual text of “The Second Coming” itself—little or nothing of the anticipatory optimism attending Yeats’s theoretical celebrations of ecstatically destructive beasts. Nor, I believe, at least as poet rather than prose annotator or apocalyptic theorist, did W. B. Yeats—his sight titillated, but, finally, as “troubled” as ours by what he glimpsed before the darkness dropped again.

↑ return to Contents

V. What Rough Beast?: Can (Should) the American Center Hold?

Re-narrowing the focus, I want to return to the current American political scene, specifically to the 2016 Republican primary race. As mentioned earlier, back in 2012, Bill Kristol, the conservative mastermind who had earlier helped midwife both the Iraq War and the emergence to national prominence of Sarah Palin, welcomed Chris Christie as the “rough beast” the Republican Party needed to win the Presidency. This time around, we have two far more likely Republican contenders for the title of “rough beast”: Donald Trump, obviously, but with Ted Cruz lurking in the wings.

Christie was forced out of the 2016 race after a humiliatingly weak showing in New Hampshire, but not before humiliating Marco Rubio, who, in a campaign-altering meltdown, reiterated a canned accusation that it was Obama’s deliberate intention to damage the US:  “We have to stop saying that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing; he knows exactly what he’s doing….” Rubio kept robotically repeating this charge of presidential treason, even after Christie had twice ridiculed, not the malice or the mendacity, but the verbatim repetition! In a second coming, Christie, out of the running himself, returned as a revenant the day after the Republican debate in Austen, Texas, to repeat his takedown of Rubio. Having finally been put on the defensive in that debate by Rubio, Trump demonstrated his skill in dominating the news cycle. The next day, in a surprise “Big Announcement,” he trotted out Christie to repeat his ridicule of Rubio while effusively endorsing the “one man” able to provide America “the strongest possible leadership” and insure that “Hillary Clinton will never return to the White House.” In one stroke, this tag team of bullies blunted Rubio’s short-lived post-debate “momentum,” taking the wind out of the sails of the Republican Establishment’s preferred last hope to Stop Trump.

Shortly thereafter, with Christie looking less like a formidable surrogate than a flaccid sycophant, Trump managed (after failing, in response to repeated questions from CNN’s Jake Tapper, to definitively repudiate the support of David Duke and the KKK) to reach a new level of vulgarity. Trump turned Rubio’s innuendo-laden taunt about his allegedly “small hands,” and what that “meant,” into a boastful “guarantee,” in the next debate, of his impressive sexual endowment. The “debates” had deteriorated from mere incivility to schoolyard braggadocio, with “he-started-it” silliness to follow. When a lush photo from Melania Trump’s modeling days was distributed by a group unaffiliated with Cruz, Trump tweeted a threat to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, Heidi. At first Cruz responded with an indignant defense of his wife (its sincerity tainted by the fact that it was plagiarized, verbatim, from the 1995 film, The American President), before bellowing, after Trump had posted an unflattering photo of Heidi, that this “sniveling coward” better leave “Heidi the hell alone.”

In the first Super Tuesday round of primaries and caucuses, Ted Cruz, who had not at that point descended into the Trump-Rubio gutter, did well, crucially holding his own state, Texas, and winning several others. Though Rubio, ironically the first “Tea Party” senator, had briefly become the darling of the Establishment, the attempt to slow down Trump by wrestling with him in the mud had backfired and been to no avail. Trump took seven of eleven states on Super Tuesday. Subsequently, and even more ironically, with Rubio fading (he would never get beyond his two minor victories: the Minnesota caucuses and the Puerto Rican primary), and Trump denounced by Mitt Romney as a fraud, Cruz, in whom everything anti-Establishment was concentrated as in a bouillon cube, emerged as that Establishment’s last desperate hope to keep the blond-maned rough beast from slouching to the convention in Cleveland with the required 1,237 delegates, or with so many fired-up acolytes chanting Trump! Trump! Trump! that it would prove difficult if not impossible to broker him out of the nomination.

It would be a battle between egotistical demagogues, equally capable of commanding an audience, though their oratorical styles could hardly be more different. Silver-tongued Cruz, who can’t say “hello” without sounding as if he’s pontificating from a pulpit or from atop a soapbox, deploys the  elaborately-constructed, orotund sentences of a trained debater, skillfully weaving his points into a coherent argument. Rambling and repetitive Trump rallies his rapt audiences in staccato, non-syntactical bursts, hitting the same few points, and often legitimate grievances, but appealing less to reason than to emotion and prejudice. In a March 8 NY Times op-ed, “Only Trump Can Trump Trump,” Tom Friedman noted the folly of rivals trying to rationally convert Trump “fans” who respond to him on a “gut level” impervious to logical argument. Friedman’s conclusion, that “you can’t talk voters out of something that they haven’t been talked into,” aptly reminded my friend Dennis O’Connor of Jonathan Swift’s advice to a young clergyman in 1720: “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired.”  In addition, with his base, Trump assumes the ethnic stereotypes he shares with them, and in which, as a businessman, he has trafficked for years. He also possesses a bully’s ability to size up an opponent and skewer him with an ad hominem epithet. “Little Marco” was left, diminished, on the ropes; a single hyphenated adjective, “low-energy,” from which Jeb Bush never recovered, was enough to demolish a dynasty. “Lyin’ Ted,” puffed up with hubris, proved able to take a punch.

The latest avatar of the Religious Right and a purist ideologue—a contemporary right-wing version of Robespierre, the “Incorruptible” of the French Revolution—Ted Cruz is, for many, more frightening even than Trump. An unctuous, sanctimonious ultra-conservative, Cruz thunders apocalyptically about undoing everything done by his hated predecessor on “my first day in office”—“repealing” Obamacare, “ripping to shreds” the nuclear agreement with Iran, getting rid of regulations on corporations, stringently curtailing a woman’s reproductive rights, rolling back environmental protection measures (indeed, terminating the EPA, along with the Department of Education and the IRS); devoutly committing ourselves to Israel, right or wrong; to judicial originalism; and to the extremist agendas of both the NRA and the Koch Brothers.

Hardline conservatives applaud many of these presidential priorities, but Ted Cruz is a zealot and a singularly unattractive one, loathed from the outset by his Princeton and Harvard classmates and later by his Senate colleagues. It is not necessary to consider him (to cite the paired photo of Cruz and Grandpa Munster that has gone viral) “a blood-sucking vampire from a bygone era,” or as “Satanic” (a televised adjective David Brooks later modified to “Mephistophelian”), in order to be turned off by Cruz’s naked ambition, his self-righteousness, his preening arrogance, and the studied artifice of his oratory, as bombastic as it is demagogic. One can admire his verbal skills, but despise the man himself, to say nothing of the hard-right policies he so apocalyptically and inflexibly espouses.

Ted Cruz Grandpa Munster

To observe that Cruz was cursed with a vampiric and (however appropriately) a Joe McCarthy-like visage is to risk joining Donald Trump in belittling a person’s physical appearance. But it’s his facial expressions I find repellent, wincing every time he punctuates his favorite applause lines by chuckling—silently, creepily, barely moving his lips and without anything resembling actual human mirth. Listening to his speech to his followers on the evening of the third Super Tuesday, the Ides of March, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Cassius, that cunningly ambitious man who thinks too much and has “a lean and hungry look.” As Caesar intuited, “Such men are dangerous.” Though many Republicans, including former rivals Jeb Bush and Lindsay Graham, have now, however half-heartedly, endorsed Cruz as the only way to Stop Trump, others remain no less terrified of the prospect of the reptilian Ted Cruz slouching towards Washington.

Republicans unnerved by Trump and repelled by Cruz are now hoping for an open convention, in which most pledged delegates, committed to the primary and caucus results only through the first ballot, would be free to vote for anyone on a second and subsequent ballots. But that threatened to loose “mere anarchy.” If Cruz or front-runner Trump were to be spurned at a contested convention, their followers might revolt—even, as Trump warned (or threatened), “riot” or launch an independent third party. As March ended, the panicked GOP, having long nurtured its radical right wing, seemed on the verge of disintegration. Party elders feared that neither a detested Cruz nor an unpredictable Trump would be able to defeat a damaged but still formidable Hillary Clinton (they continued to dismiss “that socialist,” Bernie Sanders). In addition to losing the Presidency, with Trump as nominee, Party bosses fretted that some centrist Republicans would either cross over, or not vote at all in November; or that the “Trump Effect” would further radicalize the GOP, strengthening Tea Party challenges to Establishment incumbents, and wrecking what was left of the no longer very grand Grand Old Party.

With no center able to hold, Ayn Randian conservative Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, now seemed like a moderate. But, however respected, even revered he was, Ryan was unable to get hardliners on his right to endorse his budget, while being threatened, from his other flank, by Trump, who rejected cutting Social Security benefits, and informed Ryan who would be “boss.” Even the Republican center-right, the position represented by all three Bushes, had manifestly collapsed, with Trump having achieved the unique feat of unleashing the furies of both the extreme Right and, for Republicans at least, the populist Left. Ryan himself was privately and publicly urged to become the savior at the convention (a role Kasich hoped to play, in the wake of his March 15 victory in Ohio). But any such convention coup, though infinitely preferable to the extremist alternatives, would leave the ultras committed to Cruz and the devotees fanatically loyal to Trump more convinced than ever that they had been betrayed yet again by the Washington elites: insiders represented, on the Democratic side, by Hillary Clinton, a battered but resilient survivor of Bernie Sanders’ valiant and stunningly popular insurgency from the progressive Left.

The division within the parties reflected, but failed to resolve, the massive discontent in the nation: the very frustration and anger—much of it rooted in the slowly, weakly and, above all, unevenly recovering economy—that had fired up the anti-Establishment Sanders and Trump movements in the first place. Some professed themselves perplexed by voters torn between the apparent extremes of Trump and Sanders. That phenomenon can be explained by their overlapping support from blue-collar workers. Those workers, always a low priority for Republicans, were largely abandoned in the 1970s by the Democrats, who have become—as progressive gadfly Tom Frank argues in Listen Liberal, Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016) —more allied with non-union technocrats and other professionals. There are exceptions among individual pundits and politicians (even Hillary Clinton is having second thoughts on trade). But in general, the “party of the people” became less interested in blue-collar workers and thus in economic inequality—which has actually widened under Obama.

Into this vacuum came Sanders and Trump, whose populist blue-collar appeal is based on their protectionist opposition to outsourcing and to international trade agreements that have benefited corporations but taken away thousands of manufacturing jobs, especially in the Midwest rustbelt. American de-industrialization is not attributable to NAFTA, CAFTA and the TPP alone, but unemployed factory workers are understandably less interested in nuanced theoretical discussions of the positive aspects of globalization than in eagerly listening to those who reflect their grievances and promise to redress them. No matter that, as a businessman, Trump does not practice what he preaches when it comes to outsourcing and hiring illegals. No matter, as well, that he (and Bernie) make campaign promises, many of which they would not be able to fulfill as President. Both create hope, much of it false. But the desperation is real, and the appeal powerful.

Though the American economy under Obama has created 4 million private sector jobs since 2010, many without a college education or lacking the skills required in a new economy have been left behind. Unemployed and underemployed whites are at the core of Trump’s constituency. But these painfully real socioeconomic conditions do not fully explain the phenomenon of Trump, who is also, as David Remnick observed in the March 14 New Yorker, “the beneficiary of a long process of Republican intellectual decadence” (the assault on science, the elevation of Sarah Palin, etc.) and years spent “courting the basest impulses in American political culture,” beginning with  Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and including, more lately, “a birther movement and the Obama Derangement Syndrome.” Birther-in-Chief Trump, flaunting endorsements by the barely coherent Palin and the evolution-denying Doctor Carson, occupies a prominent position at the populist epicenter of this intellectual decadence.

Unlike that of Sanders, Trump’s populist insurgency is spiked by a toxic dose of nationalism and xenophobia. Something short of a fascist or a racist himself, Trump assumes and fuels the resentment and racism of many of his followers: a visceral hatred evident in the outbreaks of violence at recent Trump rallies. As usual, there are two, if not quite equivalent, issues in tension. Sarah Palin, eloquent as ever, has dismissed the protests as “punk-ass little thuggery” cheered on by a leftist media. It is true that Black Lives Matter activists intend to disrupt more than protest, undermining the free-speech rights of Trump supporters. What matters is how Trump has responded to this double “tension.” Unsurprisingly, he has not made it a “teachable moment.” While he does “not condone” the violence against the various protestors (some carrying “Sanders” signs), Trump most certainly does not condemn it. Instead, he incites or incentivizes it, announcing from the podium that he himself would like to “punch” protesters, and waxing nostalgic about the days when such dissidents would be “carried out on stretchers.” When one of his fans did in fact sucker-punch a black protestor as he was being led away, Trump offered to pay any legal fees incurred by the assailant—who was immediately afterward taped, not only expressing pleasure at having punched his victim in the face, but adding ominously that he was “not one of us,” and that “next time we may have to kill him.”

Such behavior and such an attitude are obviously extreme even in the most raucous Trump rally. But the “passionate intensity” of the “worst” is often allied with prejudice and ignorance. One is therefore unsurprised by Trump’s professed “love” for the “poorly educated,” and by the enthusiastic willingness of “my people” to follow their Leader. Even Vladamir Putin, that poster boy for virile masculinity, has been impressed by the same quality in Trump—who returned the compliment (“at least,” in contrast to Obama, “he’s a leader”). The exception among foreign heads of state, Putin also pronounced Trump “brilliant and talented,” leading to an official endorsement by the head of Russia’s state-owned news agency.

No Putin, let alone Hitler, Trump has been more engagingly compared to Mussolini. The Donald recently, if unwittingly, re-tweeted a favorite maxim of Mussolini (“It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”), and his neo-fascist tendencies extend beyond the jutting jaw he shares with Il Duce.[9] But even this alignment is overblown. More apt is the comparison with a later Italian leader, plutocrat turned prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, with whom Trump shares a megalomaniacal and vulgarian cult of the Self. Like all his buildings and projects, Trump’s private Boeing 757 airliner, the backdrop at outdoor rallies, is emblazoned with his name in huge letters. Each step of the plane’s airstair has two “TRUMP” signs; every bath-fixture and seat-buckle is 24-karat gold; every leather seat is stamped with the Trump crest. Asked recently who he consults on “policy,” he responded, as a narcissist would, “I talk to myself. I have a great brain.” The machismo and self-aggrandizement are grotesque, but to his fans, such displays project their leader’s confidence, strength, and authority.

Trump Mussolini

Jonathan Weiner, co-author of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (2009), recently described Donald Trump’s core voters as driven by their attraction to authority, to plain-spoken solutions to problems and the promise of decisive action in defense of their traditional values. In “Why Trump?,” an online essay published on March 6, cognitive scientist George Lakoff interpreted the nation’s politics, and Trump’s in particular, “metaphorically,” in familial terms. The “conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country” can be encapsulated in two common but antithetical forms of family life: “The Nurturant Parent Family (progressive) and the Strict Father Family (conservative).” Inculcating “discipline” and “strength,” the Strict Father model produces “winners,” who deserve to win, not only in life, but in electoral contests. Thus, a “formidable candidate’s insults that stick are seen as victories—deserved victories.” For those whose attitudes and prejudices have been deemed outmoded and stigmatized as “politically incorrect,” Trump “expresses out loud everything they feel—with force, aggression, anger, and no shame.” By supporting and voting for Trump, they make him their voice, and their views are made “respectable” by “his victories.” He is “their champion. He gives them a sense of self-respect, authority, and the possibility of power.”

Donald Trump photo by Tony WebsterPhoto by Tony Webster (via Flikr Creative Commons)

Lakoff sketches out a conservative worldview embracing distinctions  Trump adroitly straddles.[10] But it is the distinction between “direct” and “systemic” causation that most illuminates Trump’s appeal to the wide following he has attracted. According to Lakoff, empirical research has shown that conservatives “tend to reason with direct causation,” and to deal with a problem by “direct action,” whereas progressives are more in their element engaging the “complex” interactions involved in “reasoning with systemic causation.” If it sounds like Trump vs. Obama (he of the unenforced “red line”), it is.

“Many of Trump’s policy proposals,” as Lakoff notes, “are framed in terms of direct causation.” Immigrants are flooding in from Mexico: build a wall to stop them. Many have entered illegally: deport them, even if 11 million are working and living throughout the country. Jobs are going to Asia: slap a huge tariff on the goods produced there. ISIS profits from Iraqi oil: send US troops to Iraq to seize it (in fact, coalition bombing is now taking a serious toll on ISIS oil production). Want to defeat ISIS?—“bomb the shit” out of them, and threaten (even if it’s a war crime) to kill the families of jihadists. Seeking information from terrorist suspects?—water-board them, or worse. Afraid a few terrorists might slip in among Syrian refugees?—ban all Muslims from entering the country.  To add the latest: tired of funding NATO and providing a nuclear umbrella in the Far East?—declare NATO defunct and let Japan and South Korea develop their own nuclear capability. “All this makes sense to direct causation thinkers, but not [to] those who see the immense difficulties and dire consequences of such actions due to the complexities of systemic causation.” Trump’s can-do machismo (including his insulting of the way a woman “looks”) will be less effective in a general election than it has been on this rowdy campaign trail.[11]

§

Contemptuous of Trump’s penchant for simplistic solutions to complex problems, and stunned by his colossal egotism, skeptical observers of his campaign were initially incredulous, even amused. But their sides stopped shaking in mirth as he piled up victories. With his near sweep on the third Super Tuesday (March 15), his delegate count became virtually insurmountable. Crushing Rubio in his home-state, winner-take-all Florida, Trump drove the Senator from the race, collecting a bonanza of 99 delegates. Kasich held on in his home-state, denying Trump Ohio’s 66 delegates. Cruz won nowhere, but continued to collect delegates, slouching toward Cleveland with a number sure to be second only to the front-runner,  whom he planned to defeat at a contested convention. Needless to say, if he fails to reach the nomination-clinching 1,237 prior to the convention, Trump will not go gently in any floor fight; there are arms to be twisted, and there’s always that threat of a “riot.” Quite aside from his own fierce will to “win,” The Donald has repeatedly told us that what he is leading is not a mere political campaign, but a “movement.”  He’s right, and he’s not alone.

Such anti-centrist movements, driven by right-wing authoritarianism and galvanized by Europe’s even greater immigration crisis, are proliferating throughout the West. In France, Marine Le Pen has slowed her activities as president of the right-wing National Front, but only because she is preparing to run next year for the Presidency of France. (Her father, the party’s ousted neo-fascist founder, having tweeted in January that if he were an American, he “would vote for Donald Trump,” accurately described Trump in March as “an independent candidate with populist language; this is what has made him successful.”) In Germany, Angela Merkel’s centrist coalition is under threat because of her (no longer welcome) welcoming policy toward migrants. That policy, controversial within her own party, is challenged by right-wing opponents, most prominently by Frauke Petry, the efficient and determined leader of the AfD (Alternative for Germany), a populist, anti-immigration party she led to victory in several mid-March elections. Going beyond even Marine Le Pen, Petry has proposed that police “shoot, if necessary,” at migrants attempting to enter the country illegally.

In impoverished Greece, over 100,000 migrants have arrived since the beginning of the year; in late February, police clashed with asylum seekers at the Macedonian border. Politically, demographically, and economically, the culminating moment came on the night of March 7, when Europe officially closed its borders. The leaders at the summit convened in Brussels, the EU capital (also, ironically, the central nest in Europe of unemployed, unassimilated jihadists in the making), proclaimed the end of “irregular flows of migrants.”[12] Henceforth, refugees fleeing from war-ravaged Syria and Iraq would no longer be able, in the typical scenario, to escape to the Turkish coast, board a raft to Greece, and travel on, seeking refuge in Germany or elsewhere in Western Europe. Instead, the EU pledged billions in aid to Turkey in exchange for a commitment to take the migrants back. It was a drastic step, but the alternative seemed to be the continued fracturing of Europe, with centrist governments, burdened by debt (with the exception of Germany) and besieged by refugees (and here Germany is no exception), battling against “energized movements from right and left.”

I am quoting a February 25 Washington Post column by Fareed Zakaria, repeated three days later on his GPS Sunday-morning television program on CNN. Zakaria’s title and theme are a modestly hopeful variation on Yeats: “In the West, the Political Center Holds—but Barely.” He begins:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” It’s time to quote W. B. Yeats’s famous poem again. But this time, it really does seem that the political center is under intense pressure—from left and right—all over the Western world….Across Europe, governments that occupy the center ground find themselves struggling against [extremist] movements….Centrists are under siege in the United States as well….Why are centrists so vulnerable?

Zakaria notes that moderate politicians and governments have performed rather well in recent decades, steering their countries through many difficult challenges. But while they may be competent, “centrists are dull, practical types,” and “there is always a search for romance in politics.” Even amid centrist success, there are still problems, many of them, often outnumbering the successes, stemming from the same force: globalization. Whatever their ultimate source, there are “enough problems to galvanize the romantics who believe that the answer is a revolution.” And, in contrast to traditional politicians, “outsiders,” a Donald Trump for example, “promise easy answers.” Zakaria turned again to “The Second Coming”:

“The best lack all conviction,” Yeats wrote, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The simple solutions are, of course, non-solutions. And they mostly won’t happen.…But what is happening is political paralysis. The romantics and the radicals might not have the power to overturn the centrist consensus, but they can place it under relentless pressure….In the United States, the country and its political leaders have spent months debating fantasies [building the wall, deporting 11 million people, banning all Muslims]. Meanwhile, there is no discussion of the important issues and the actual, plausible policy options to deal with them—regarding the global economic slowdown, massive infrastructure deficits, growing inequality and climate change, among others.

Yeats was wrong. The center can and does hold, but just barely.

Even that tempered and terminally caveated hopefulness—though a far cry from the optimistic interpretation of the eternal gyre as “just the same old adventure in a new cycle”—may or may not amount to whistling in the dark. Just one day after Zakaria’s reassurance on television, provocative social critic James Howard Kunstler also repaired to “The Second Coming,” painting (in a March 1 blog titled “Yeats’s Widening Gyre is Upon Us”) a dismal picture of the United States as the two parties slouched toward their 2016 conventions. The “sinking global economy,” igniting “cluster-bombs of default through the financial system,” would centrifugally “effloresce,” Kunstler surmised, right around the time of those conventions. He foresaw both front-runners “lumbering inevitably toward their respective nominations,” with the GOP likely to split into “warring factions” in a probably futile attempt to derail Trump at the convention: a split reflecting, and exacerbating, the nation’s economic and cultural fissure. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders’s campaign has sparked a revolt that could spawn a liberal version of the Tea Party, which might, in turn, become a truly revolutionary movement were Trump or Cruz to win the presidency. Kunstler concluded: “Yeats’s widening gyre is upon us, and the second coming will not be the reappearance of the celebrity known as Jesus Christ, but rather of the event called the American Civil War.”

The optimistic God’s-eye interpretation of the eternal gyre seems, in the present circumstances, far too cheery to be persuasive. We may hope that Fareed Zakaria’s less dramatic projection of a threatened “center” holding, “but barely,” proves more accurate than James Kunstler’s vision of a second Civil War.  And yet, the American political “center” richly deserves to be challenged, as it now is—powerfully from the left, even more powerfully from the right. In his 1925 poem “Shine, Perishing Republic,” Robinson Jeffers brooded, “sadly smiling,” as “this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire.” Prophesying coming decay, this austere, almost survivalist poet of rock and hawk held out one Nietzschean-Yeatsian hope. There will always be “noblest spirits,” for whom “corruption/ Never has been compulsory.” When “the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.” So, “shine, perishing republic./ But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center.”

The Jeffers poem, written at the same time as Robert Frost’s earlier-quoted sonnet of impending disaster, “Once by the Pacific,” was only one of three darkly prophetic poems cited by readers responding to a March 2016 essay, “Donald Trump and the Remaking of America.”[13] The essay was by military historian and retired colonel Andrew J. Bacevich, whose critical history, America’s War in the Greater Middle East, would be published in April. He has long condemned the Iraq War as a catastrophic decision—as has Trump, though Bacevich otherwise dismisses The Donald as a reckless celebrity performer who has, dangerously and all-too-effectively, adopted a bellicose “attitude or pose that feeds off, and then reinforces, widespread anger and alienation.” At once less interventionist and more hawkish than Hillary, Trump was aligned by Bacevich with Cruz and Rubio, in that all are “unabashed militarists,” each claiming that, as commander-in-chief, he would take no “guff from Moscow, or Pyongyang or Beijing or Tehran.” Each has asserted that, once in office, he “will eradicate ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ put the Mullahs back in their box, torture terrorists, and give Bibi whatever he wants.” (In this same month, Trump pronounced all of Islam motivated by “hatred of us,” and threatened to kill the families of terrorists—though conceding that if, as president, he could not “expand” the laws, he would, reluctantly, abide by the Constitution and the Geneva Convention.)

Responding to the Bacevich essay online, “John T” summoned up the famous “centre” that “cannot hold” and the loosing of “the blood-dimmed tide,” recalling as well that “the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” and that a “rough beast, its hour come round at last,” is slouching to be born. After quoting eight lines of “The Second Coming, John T observed that the emergence of Donald Trump marks “the fulfillment of a half-century’s considered and deliberate emasculation of the underlying sense of social responsibility that once held this country together in a fragile balance.”  But, as it turns out, John T is no fan of the contemporary American center.

“The centre cannot hold,” as Yeats said long ago, but it is the corporate center itself that created and unleashed the monster of Trumpism that is tearing the Republican Party apart and that, in the end, will put an end to the corporate institutions that… have so successfully controlled and undermined the very social contract that made their dominance possible. Donald Trump and what he so gleefully represents is a cancer metastasizing through the Republican Party, but what the Democratic pundits who are so joyfully pouncing on the wounded beast fail to understand is that it is a cancer that will bring the Democratic Party down in the same manner….[The followers of Bernie Sanders] expect and demand real and fundamental reform. [They are] not going to have it,…and are not going to accept the lies and pretense that Hillary Clinton is attempting to market. Donald Trump may be the rough beast slouching towards Washington, but the coming fragmentation of the two parties quarrelling over the prize he is seeking is the only hope for real long-term reform that we have left—if we can weather the storm.

Responding, “Ikallitres,” a poetry-lover aware of Matthew Arnold as well as of Robinson Jeffers, observed that “quoting Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ has become passé because it can be used to describe any and every one of the disasters that our politics has become.” (From my perspective, the second part of that sentence at once demonstrates and rebuts the first.) The same was true, he continued, of Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (locating us “here as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night”). Though grateful to have been reminded of the finale of “Dover Beach,” John T responded to the criticism of his having cited Yeats in words I’ve been employing throughout this essay, though, unlike Ikallitres, I do not find “The Second Coming” outmoded: “Yeats is so passé precisely because his poem was so very prescient at the time he wrote it and so very relevant today.”

Will the Western “center” hold? Should it? The “centre” celebrated by Yeats (a Romantic drawn to both Burke and Nietzsche) was cultural, steeped in ceremonious tradition: not our moderate political center, which he would have doubtless found as “vulgar” as the “thickening center” deplored by Jeffers, a fellow Nietzschean. And yet Yeats, in revising, purged his poem of particulars that restricted it to his own moment in time and reflected his own political perspective. As I have stressed throughout, in so doing, he universalized the poem, making it perennially relevant, applicable to the crises not only of his time but of ours. Reading “The Second Coming” in 2016, we lament the collapsing of the center and the falling apart of things in our present world of anarchy and blood-dimmed violence. We also dread the emergence—from the chaotic Middle East, from fragmented Europe, from our own polarized politics—of some new incarnation of that rough beast, its hour come round at last, and slouching towards us.

—Patrick J. Keane

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Numéro Cinq Contributing Editor 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 (2008).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “No Slouch” (Paris Review, 7 April 2015). Oddly, Tabor’s otherwise thorough gathering omits Mitchell’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (on the Night Ride Home album, 1991). But he lists innumerable pop-culture references, including many book-titles, especially sci-fi and detective novels. My own favorite examples range from the titles of all six volumes in the recent Star Trek compendium, itself titled Mere Anarchy (also a Woody Allan book title) to the 12-issue Batman series, written by Kevin Smith, and gathered together under the rubric The Widening Gyre.
  2. In fact, those crucial lines, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” echo Shelley and Wordsworth. According to the last Fury in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, the “good” lack “power,” the “powerful” lack “goodness”; and “all best things are thus confused to ill” (1:625-28). But Yeats, who was reading the French Revolutionary Books of The Prelude, is also recalling a phrase he underlined in Book 11 (“I lost/ All feeling of conviction”), and is verbally close to a passage in Book 10 in which, contrasting the moderate Girondins to the murderous Jacobins, a troubled Wordsworth speaks of “The indecision on their part whose aim/ Seemed best, and the straightforward path of those/ Who in attack or in defense were strong” (130-32). And there is a final parallel. In Wordsworth’s Excursion, which Yeats read in 1915, the “bad” earn “victory o’er the weak,/ The vacillating, inconsistent good” (4:298-309).
  3. Frost’s poem is riddled with more-than-biblical echoes, though the poems alluded to all have apocalyptic implications. In “Once by the Pacific,” the “clouds were low and hairy in the skies,/ Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes”: a fusion of the “insolent fiend” who, in the phantasmagoria at the climax of Yeats’s evocation of  “the things that come again” (the original title of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”), “lurches past, his great eyes without thought/ Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,” itself a negative echo of the primary passage Frost has in mind: “the locks of the approaching storm,” in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,”  where the wind-blown clouds are “Like the bright hair uplifted from the head/ Of some fierce Maenad.”
  4. Prelude 10:92-93. Almost eleven hundred victims suspected of Royalist plotting were butchered during the September Massacres. Among those dragged from prison in September, sentenced to death by tribunals, and killed instantly by small squads of executioners was the Princess de Lamballe, maid of honor to Marie Antoinette. Notoriously, her body was mutilated and its sexual parts paraded before the windows of the prison that held the royal family.
  5. McCants, The Isis Apocalypse, 146. For evidence that “most modern Sunni Muslims viewed apocalyptic thinking with suspicion before the United States invaded Iraq,” and on the “triple-union” now helmed by the American “new Crusaders,” McCants (145-46) cites Apocalypse in  Islam (2011), 121-40, by the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu.
  6. For details, see Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic (April 2016), 70-90.
  7. Following a Republican 2012 presidential primary debate and registering both the on-stage verbal meltdown of then front-runner Rick Perry and the continued right-wing lack of enthusiasm for Mitt Romney, Kristol fired off a Weekly Standard “special editorial,” titled simply “Yikes!” Kristol—who then wanted the outspoken New Jersey governor to get into the race—ended by quoting an email from a fellow-Republican equally dismayed by the caliber of his party’s candidates. Concurring with the emailer’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 hadn’t suggested the remedy: ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’ “Sounds,” he concluded, “like Chris Christie!”
  8. Reviewing a study of the Iran-Iraq War in January, 2016, Graeme Wood cited Henry Kissinger’s observation at the time that it was “a pity both sides can’t lose.” Given the horrific death-toll, the remark was (as Wood says) not only “famous” but “fatuous.” Nevertheless, in contemplating the potential of a larger Iran-Saudi conflict, one might be forgiven if, for an irresponsible moment, Kissinger’s realpolitik remark came to mind—along with then-Senator Harry Truman’s observation, in June 1941, when Nazi Germany had invaded the USSR: “If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.” Brutal; but, Truman thought, in the best interest of democracy.
  9. See Fedja Buric’s “Trump’s not Hitler, he’s Mussolini: How GOP anti-intellectualism created a modern fascist movement in America,” Salon (11 March 2016) accessed April 1, 2016.
  10. As in the old Chain of Being (or the Elizabethan World Picture diagrammed decades ago by E. M. W. Tillyard), this conservative worldview is hierarchical, extending from God to man to nature. Conservative “family-based moral worldviews run deep,” and, Lakoff argues, “Conservative policies” are inflected, even shaped, by this Strict Father hierarchy. Your moral worldview defines for you what the world should be like; “when it isn’t that way, one can become frustrated and angry.” Lakoff notes variations and the split among white evangelical Christians, laissez-faire free-marketeers, and pragmatic conservatives bound by no evangelical beliefs. Winning among all three groups, Trump himself is “a pragmatic conservative, par excellence.”
  11. Trump, already opposed by almost three-quarters of women polled, finally suffered what may be genuine damage. On March 30, pressed hard by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on the question of abortion, Trump said, not only that it should be illegal, but that any woman who had an abortion should be subject to criminal “punishment.” Here is the exchange, verbatim:

    Matthews: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?

    Trump: The answer is there has to be some form of punishment.

    Matthews: For the woman?

    Trump: Yes, there has to be some form.

    A more deft politician would never have let himself be cornered by this cable-news version of Socratic dialogue. For Rush Limbaugh, who quickly sped to Trump’s defense, Chris Matthews was no Socrates but a “Democratic Party hack,” whose gotcha question came “out of left field.” Of course, Limbaugh has no problem when the same relentless badgering is employed in the form of questions coming “out of right field,” as they incessantly are in the habitual technique of his fellow right-winger Sean Hannity. In any case, however it was educed, Trump’s astonishing statement, which goes beyond even the extremist anti-abortion positions of Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, was quickly walked back by Team Trump. But the damage was done. The Donald’s freewheeling, unscripted style had finally cost him. How much remains to be seen; but some backlash was quickly evident in his falling well behind Ted Cruz in the polls leading up to the next important primary, in Wisconsin, on April 5.

  12. The Brussels agreement, finalized on March 18, went into effect on March 20. Two days later, three suicide bombers (two of them brothers) killed 31 people and wounded some 300 in Brussels, striking at Zaventerm airport and Maelbeek metro station. A fourth terrorist, whose device remained undetonated, escaped, becoming the subject of a widespread manhunt. Anti-terrorists raids and searches occurred in France and Germany as well as Belgium; and ISIS threatened more “waves of bloodshed,” especially in Europe.
  13. The Jeffers poem has a more direct connection to another poem by Frost. “Our Doom to Bloom,” one of Frost’s late—serious yet light-hearted—assaults on the US welfare state, has as its epigraph Jeffers’s “Shine, perishing republic.”
Apr 032016
 

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The infinite suggestiveness of common things… —Patrick Madden

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Sublime Physick: Essays
Patrick Madden
University of Nebraska Press, 2016
244 pages, $24.95

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In the last sentence of his postscript to “Independent Redundancy,” the mammoth centerpiece essay of his new collection, Patrick Madden quotes Gide: “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” This might be just a bit too morose to serve as an unqualified summation of Madden’s essayistic perspective, but it’s pretty close. To read a Patrick Madden essay is to interface with the mind of an engaged, self-conscious thinker. Actually, that’s not quite right: It is to interface with Madden’s curation of the minds of many thinkers within the expanse of his own.

Madden is not a hoarder of his thoughts or his words, or the words of his many sources, and he frequently seems more interested in exploring mysteries than creating them. In his first collection Quotidiana (2010), Madden declared the essay “an open, leisurely form, somewhat allergic to sensationalism,” and the primary intention of the essayist to “make the mundane resplendent with their meditative thoughts.” In Sublime Physick, his second collection, he continues exploring “the infinite suggestiveness of common things”—spitting hockers, turning 35, being recognized in a public place, temporarily losing his children—while expanding upon a tendency he intimated in Quotidiana of blending his sources into his own thoughts and sentences to the extent that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where his own thoughts begin or end. This will probably be the most divisive element of Sublime Physick’s otherwise gentle, reflective style: Either you are carried away into the free-flowing stream of voices commingling under Madden’s umbrella, or you are confounded by his seeming unwillingness to settle on a central voice or thematic concern.

Madden does his part to prepare the reader in “Fisica Sublime,” the “introduction” which is also the second essay of the collection. After explaining his choice of placing the “introduction” second in the collection, Madden spends most of the essay giving the etymology, metaphorical significance, personal associations, multiple spellings, and binary structure of the essay’s and the book’s title(s), concluding:

Perhaps, I’m beginning to think, everything we think we know is a kind of sublime physic, an abstraction derived from concretion and a double-aspected entity that we think we know in two distinct forms, yet is really a unity: matter-energy, space-time, mind-body, emotion-intellect, self-others, inside-outside, nonfiction-fiction; you could go on and on listing apparently opposed binaries and find, again and again, that where they meet is beauty.

These beautiful binaries comprise the nucleus of the collection’s essays, whose ostensible subjects range from Madden’s travels with recently deceased Uruguayan poet/storyteller Eduardo Galeano, to the brief disappearances of three of his six children, to a midlife non-crisis, numerous meditations on time and its discontents, and the acquisition of a bass guitar.

And that’s just the first half of the book. Much of the second half is taken up with just two essays, the first of which, “Independent Redundancy,” can fairly be called the opus of the collection. In thirty-six sections that seem to be written from at least eighteen points of view, Madden explores the phenomenon of the title, a term Madden coins “to describe the phenomenon of two or more individuals coming up with the same idea without any cross-pollination or shared influence.” The essay trots out a set of cultural referents seemingly impossible for one head to hold, unified mostly by representing different cliques of the same school of thought. Following are some notable juxtapositions and conversations.

Madden opens the essay and comes back numerous times to the phenomenon in popular music of the independently redundant melody, like the one shared by George Harrison in “My Sweet Lord” and the Chiffons in “He’s So Fine,” and by Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” and Joe Satriani’s “If I Could Fly.” He even traces back the latter pair, in a connection one can guess only he has made, to the Argentine band Enanitos Verdes (Little Green Men). At least as interestingly, Madden also addresses the more obvious technique in modern hip-hop and mashup culture of sampling – direct “quotation” of previously recorded material, most times without citation, a technique, interestingly, that Madden consciously practices in his own essaying. As usual, most musical references somehow lead back to Montaigne or the band Rush.

He spends less space but as much energy on the nature of innovation and discovery in the sciences, positing most great advances as the cumulative work of many— “the result of convergences in ideas, materials, and possibilities”—rather than “the result of genius operating in isolation.” He points out that though the discovery of sunspots, the law of conservation of energy, and the invention of the airplane were all products of independent, synchronous work by numerous thinkers, “our mythologies tend to give full credit to a single inventor.” This leads Madden to ponder the place of free will in this process:

It occurs to me that the struggle between models of determinism…applies to invention as much as individual (or group) destiny, invention being a subset of destiny, and that all are opposed, in some way, to any real model of creativity. Rather, if we stipulatively determine (determine!) that invention means an unpredictable, unexpected, not inevitable creation and that discovery, as is binary, is that which—like a rock in the path of a tiller—will inevitably be turned up, then that is the same struggle. And this would mean that those who believe invention inevitable really really mean that there is only discovery, not invention…

Of course, Madden is not afraid to turn the scope inward. He peppers examinations of his own writing style throughout the essay, from examination of influences like Woolf, Borges, Lamb, and Hazlitt, to farcical interactions with various artificial intelligence devices, robots, and computer-generated feedback services, to his surprised reaction and subsequent self-analysis after a friend tells him he’s a postmodern writer. He decides he’s postmodern mostly in that “I am painfully metaliterary in my thinking.” Perhaps the most singular purpose to this self-analysis (or written-self-analysis) is, in his words, “to wave at the attentive reader, calling attention to the artifice, the fact that this is a creation made of language; it is not the thing it describes.”

Each of the 36 parts echoes independently and redundantly, while Madden stops for breath only occasionally to project himself on the reader:

What if we are our book but our book is not us? What if this independent redundancy spins out of control and the inadvertent plagiarism becomes complete? (184)

…whatever we may convince ourselves, we will never know it all, and no matter our cries of originality, we are ever repeating, singing back the melodies we heard somewhere before, whether we remember or not. (222-3)

As if to pull in the reins after the freewheeling “Independent Redundancy,” Madden finishes the collection by meditating in its final essay on fixity. As if in counterpoint to the multitude of voices, influences, and points of view in the previous essay, Madden situates “Fixity” firmly in his own, starting at a centuries-old grave in Greenwich, England and moving outward to the situation of Greenwich as earth’s prime meridian and finally addressing the gathered crowd with “how you necessarily apprehend my essay, dear reader: by depending on my observations as I in turn depend on the observations of others, near and far, here and long gone.”

Which is all fine and would be a fitting theoretical tie-in to, even justification for, the multitude of voices and echoes he invokes through the previous essay. But Madden goes deeper into himself, deeper into his own fixed point in the landscape, or rather a fixed point adjoining his. As he was traipsing through Greenwich, “111 degrees 52 minutes 24.1608 seconds west of me,” Madden’s wife felt the surging limbs of what would be their firstborn son within her and remembered the ghost-child they lost a year and a half earlier, “realiz[ing] with a start that had this lost child come to term, there would have been no time for this new person inside her now, so strikingly active so near to advent; that the loss of one is the profit of another.”

And thus the essay and the book end with a beginning, a birth, that might have been a continuation had circumstances, fate, or whatever shrugged and begun a family a year and a half earlier—the forces that shaped Madden’s life words would have had an entirely different prime meridian, his family started from a different point, the quotidian moments given substantially different context, all built upon “rigid foundations and relative freedom” from which “we flail against nothingness or take stock from temporary origins and movable objects.”

—John Proctor

NC

Proctor

John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. His publications include Atlas & Alice, The Weeklings, Essay Daily, The Normal School, The Austin Review, DIAGRAM, Superstition Review, and Underwater New York. His essay “The Question of Influence” was a recent Notable selection in The Best American Essays 2015, and his essay “The A-Rod of Ballhawking” was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at NotThatJohnProctor.com/.

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Apr 022016
 

Mahtem Shiferraw - Author photo
Fuchsia

It really is a thrill to feature three poems from Mahtem Shiferraw’s debut poetry collection, Fuchsia, here at NC. Longtime readers may remember Mahtem from our production masthead many moons ago, and now she rejoins us having received the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. Fuchsia is a thrilling debut, and, as Yusef Komunyakaa praises, it “captures mysteries of the heart and mind alongside everyday rituals.” Enjoy this small slice of a beautiful book. — Benjamin Woodard

 

Talks about Race

I have dark skin, dark face, and darkened eyes –

the white resides only outside the pupil.

I don’t know how to think of this –
I wasn’t taught to notice one’s colors;

under the sun, everyone’s skin bounces streaks of light.

Which do I claim? It is difficult to explain
the difference between African & African American
the details escape me, thin paper folding the involucre of a burning fire.

I am “other”; it is such
an indistinguishable form, beyond the construct of the proper self.

Sometimes I am asked
if I am Indian, Middle Eastern, or Biracial;

I don’t know what to say to these people
who notice the shape of the eye before its depth
the sound of the tongue before its wisdom
the openness of a palm before its reach.

And what to those who call me, “African”?
Don’t they know I can count the years spent back home
wishing I knew I was “African”?

And how to cradle, and contain the disappointment that is
rekindled whenever someone does NOT know
my Ethiopia, my Eritrea.

I don’t know how to fit, adjust myself within new boundaries –
nomads like me, have no place as home, no way of belonging.

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E is for Eden

It lasts a while. The bitter aftertaste of sorrow
and something sweet. Like honey waves soaked

in lemon juice, it creates hollow spaces between
moments of unabridged whiteness. Glance over

once and the skies have a different story to tell.

You were created with a purpose:

a land of all lands, neither heaven nor earth
suspended between the blue wings of oceans
and their unoccupied gaze.

Once there were creatures here, inhabiting
your luscious corners, and they prodded and swiveled
and flew to please you.

You were made in somebody’s image,
but you have forgotten.

What remains now is the aftermath –
even that stripped of all its glory.

The eyes of men are saddened by the sudden
shadows unveiling in women’s eyes. Your breath

was once dirt, ash, tangible and ugly. Your face
did not exist. The contours that shape your smile,

your hairline, the timid dimple on the left cheek, they
were all ash. Here is what was: only the thought of

being loved and rejected, being loved and birthed,
being loved and destroyed. Your breath does not have

the apple’s acrid taste; it smells of something wild and
unadorned, it says do not fear, it is I, it whispers at night

when you are cold and shivering and alone in this world.

This breath is not yours to take:
mend it and oceans will flow once again.

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Synesthesia

White is a color,
black is art. Nod to those before you.
Brown is a sense of being, and dark hovers
only beneath the shadows of necks –
those who fear it most. Here is to fear.

Red are the tip of shoes of the woman
who waited in the bathroom patiently when I was
only three – to steal my mother’s ruby earrings. White

is the unsafe silence of bathroom walls, and their
morbidly cubic nature. White is water running under
my feet, the innocent screams of school children
at lunch hour.

Brown is the anomalous texture of curtains from my
childhood. Brown is also the parched wood
of a small coffee-grinder my mother used. Brown as in
the intimate angles of sharply cut ambasha my grandmother
made, flour and water, lemon skin and cinnamon shreds, the
dark heads of raisins, while on a cargo plane back to Ethiopia,
the tired eyes of war-victims and their slow recovery. Brown
is also the color of my skin, but I didn’t know it then.

Blue are the waters embedded in my grandmother’s eyes. Blue is
the whisper of the Nile, Abbay. Blue is the color of the brave. Blue
are the walls of empty neighbors houses and the insides of their
living room. Blue is skimmed milk tearing the sky.

White sometimes comes back at odd hours. White are stranger’s eyes
drenched in sadness. White is the uniform of doctors, the smell of
alcohol and something mad. White is absence. Purple comes back

as shoes, American shoes. Sky and blood under a quiet shadow. The
shadow of a young tree planted in memory of a murdered teacher in
high school. And the milky paste of over-ripe figs spurting prematurely,
spiking insides. Purple is warmth in mid-July, when rain hails on corrugated
tin roofs and the leaning green arms of lonely corn plants.

Yellow is crying; it’s a bell, a cathedral in Asmara? A school? Or the
shriek of a mass funeral. Yellow is dead. But listen to black. Listen to
black notes, black heart, listen. Black is art. Not of the artist, the art of
being. The painful art of memory. Here’s to remembering.

— Mahtem Shiferraw

Excerpted from Fuchsia by Mahtem Shiferraw by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2016 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Available wherever books are sold or from the Univ. of Nebraska Press 800.848.6224 and at nebraskapress.unl.edu

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Mahtem Shiferraw
is a poet and visual artist who grew up in Eritrea & Ethiopia. Her work has been published in The 2River ViewCactus Heart PressBlood Lotus Literary JournalLuna Luna MagazineMandala Literary JournalBlackberry: A MagazineDiverse Voices QuarterlyThe Bitter Oleander PressCallaloo Literary Journal and elsewhere. She won the Sillerman Prize for African Poets and her full-length poetry collection, Fuchsia, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. Her poetry chapbook, Behind Walls & Glass, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College.

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Apr 022016
 

Circling Raven Prophecy, Kay O’Rourke

 

This writing project began as a flash of an idea when I first saw artist Kay O’Rourke’s series of thirty paintings, The River Remembers, in Spokane’s Marmot Gallery. I thought how great it might be to have a collection of written somethings to go with these artworks that depict the history of the Spokane River Gorge. My sense was the somethings shouldn’t detract or distract from Kay’s gorgeous paintings. If the writings somehow paid homage to the paintings, I mused—perhaps by taking the same shape (Ah, yes, that magical, sometimes mystical SQUARE!), and if they weren’t too prissy-looking (as regular lineated poems can often appear)—then maybe just maybe the literary enterprise might indeed complement the visual art.

Of course we were talking about an ekphrastic endeavor, and obviously the writings needed to be prose. As in prose poems. Friends at Spark Center, a tutoring center in my neighborhood, helped bring this crazy idea to life. And of course so did the fabulous area writers who threw themselves into this project with such passion. Some of these were novice writers; some were graduates of or students enrolled in Eastern Washington University’s M.F.A. Program. Several were high school students in the Salish Language School, a school that fosters education in traditional tribal language and culture for local Native American young people. This amazing group of area poets and lovers of our river came together, each taking on a painting or two, and “living in it” creatively, roaming imaginatively among its details and history.

Presented here are eight excerpts from the series of twenty paintings and their accompanying prose companions. So many surprising sources of joy fed into this project: the contemplative moments we all spent with the paintings, the intimate engagement of the writers, the stories that poured forth, the prose poems taking shape before us with such gusto, and the history we all learned together of our town and our river. We are grateful to Kay O’Rourke for these marvels of inspiration. I never dreamed all these unexpected sources of delight would, like small feeder streams, enter the great river.

—Nance Van Winckel

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About the Contributors

Kay O'RourkeKay O’Rourke.
Photo Credit: Jon Lepper, Tim Halloran Spokane Creative Life

Artist Kay O’Rourke

I work in oil and mixed media large scale drawings. I also play with found objects, creating artistic narratives. My work is narrative in nature, celebrating moments and memorializing them. The images can be about joy, humour, anger and even sometimes fear. I follow all the rules of good art making but let my inner person take me where I must go.

This last year was spent doing a commission of 30 paintings on the History of the Spokane River Gorge from the beginning of time up to Expo 74. I was commissioned by Jim Frank for Kendall Yards in Spokane these works now hang permanently in the Spark Centre at Kendall Yards. These works still represent my way of using “Majic Realism.” I believe Myth and Folk tales give a better sense of history beyond facts.

I’m drawn to naturalism, lyricism and myth. I consider my work to be “Paw Prints” of my life journey, the creation of myth from the ordinary.

The Writers

Megan Cuilla received her MFA from Eastern Washington University. She lives in Spokane, WA, with her husband and pet rats. Her work has been published in Rock and Sling and Knockout.

Once in a moon Jeffrey Dodd emerges from his bungalow in the foothills of North Spokane, shakes his fist, and returns to prune his shopping list.

Brooke Matson’s first full-length collection of poetry, The Moons, was published by Blue Begonia Press in 2012 and was also included in the 2015 Blue Begonia Press boxed set titled Tell Tall Women. Matson’s poems have appeared in Floating Bridge Review, CALYX, and various issues of RiverLitfor which she was the 2014 Poet in Residence.

Kathryn Smith’s poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Bellingham Review, Mid-American Review, Florida Review, Bluestem, Cleaver Magazine, and Ruminate. She was a 2013 artist resident at Holden Village, and her work has been nominated for Best American Poetry and the Pushcart Prize. She has an MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University and lives in Spokane, WA.

These students from Spokane’s Salish School contributed prose pieces: Ryem Abrahamson, Sierra Bates, Danny Boyd, and Shana Ellingburg.

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Raven Watching

After the painting Circling Raven Prophecy (#4)

#4Circling Raven Prophecy

See the reflection in my eye? That is you. It is sunset, or is it sunrise? Sometime before now, a tree branch snapped. The teal-tinted feather that covers my ear moves gently as you move. Everything cries out:  the scent of the river. My murder in the sky.  The man at the river’s edge. The men who are coming.

We flew from where we rested and now we circle the water, waiting. I used to believe things would be like this, circling and timeless, the banks of the river lush, alive. Things will change, sometimes in an instant, and sometimes forever. My beak is open as I breathe in. Tomorrow, I must remember today. One of my brothers carries a vine.

—Megan Cuilla

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The Flowing Clock

After the painting Spokan Chief Garry (#7)

#7Spokan Chief Garry

As I look down the stream, I see in it the generosity and unconditional love it sheds on my people. As I listen, it whispers along the shore all the uncanny secrets of life. We learn from the river; our way of life is like the river. We appreciate that every deed pours into the vast ocean of unknown; yet we stay as composed as the river floating through the luminous meadow. Giving back to our relations, we exist as the river, the people of this land. But as I look at the clock, I see they’re just like the clock, always ticking, running around in circles, running out of time. I begin to question, what happens to the clock as it drowns into the river? Will it keep ticking? Or muddle in the grasp of the water? The ticking stops, and the water talks. Listen.

*Translation notes: Spokan is Salish spelling of the anglicized Spokane.

— Sierra Bates

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Hope

After the painting The Indian Wars (#8)

#8The Indian Wars

I am a spirit, who was once a little girl. I thought after death would mean that I would be with the spirits, but when the spirit of death chose me, I was in the clouds, watching over my tribe and my family, until I do something good for my tribe. Then the syapé came, killing our horses and our people, and the spirit of death picked the horses’ spirits one by one.

I looked at the sky, which was red from the blood of the horses. I looked at my grandparents, my grandmother, crying, holding onto my grandfather as tight as she could, my grandfather, crying on my grandmother’s shoulder, wishing that hope could be as big as the sun. But at that time, it seemed that hope was smaller than the palm of his hand.

I promise that the next day, I will make hope bigger than the sun, bigger than anything. Not so that I could be with the spirits, but so there will be happiness in my tribe once again.

—Danny Boyd

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Legend

After the painting Indian Canyon Falls (#9)

Indian Canyon Falls

Heron watches the Falls

The secret to stillness is to tell yourself a story. Once upon a time there was a face in the falls. I tilt my head to feel the spray. Once upon a time he saw me. I tilt my tilted head, turn a widened eye. I am wondering, a wonder. Once upon a time he wandered. My face faces its own direction, something to do with motionlessness. Something in the water. In the light. Once upon a time a creature ceased flight. It’s something to do with flying forever. I will not disturb the water.

The Falls watch Heron

I am almost not here—cascade of my arms, the way I wear water and water wears me. One heron tilts its head, one leg raised toward…. The men broke camp; the new camp came. Only the horse gave notice. I thought death would be like floating on the water’s face forever. Then the herons came, their blue-gray feathers like a cloak tipped with light, and now I think it’s something to do with perpetual motion. They embody stillness, my opposite (I am ever moving, never constant, ever present). Part of me is water, part is air. I never grow cold.

—Kathryn Smith

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Only Lies Remain

After the painting The Hanging of Qualchan (#11)

#11The Hanging of Qualchan

Qualchan is my name. I am strong.

I was surrounded, but I was not defeated.

My wife Whistalks, my brother Lotout, and I were trapped by the white man. They didn’t expect me to go in with my head held high. Nor did I expect them to break our treaty. We were supposed to bring the white flags, but instead they brought rope and deceit. Twenty-seven already gone, and the three of us stand strong while they hold my father hostage. They tricked us. They’re liars! My throat may be snaked with the string of the wrong, but the fire in my heart will never die out. Hi čn yoyot. I am strong.

Tomorrow I must warn my people! Tomorrow I must tell them of the “Indian Land For Sale” and the “Have a Home of Your Own” that will appear on paper directed towards the foreigners of this land.

HI ČN YOYOT.  QUALCHAN ŁU I SKWEST

—Ryem Abrahamson

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The Empire Builder’s Lament

After the painting James Jerome Hill (#18)

#18James Jerome Hill

This idle leaves room for the goats to wander and taunt the wiry little dogs whose herding days are short. Not good. And giving the lean-about boys time to relax is not good for their industry or their understanding of provision. Even when we’re still, I’m to keep working out my fear and trembling. This land will never claim its own bounty.

When we move, all dominion moves with us and those boys are lumping coal into the box quicker than my little Lindell runs to fetch his pigs when they get a slop of liberty. We cut through Minnesota and Dakota so fast you could see Providence. Hear His voice calling out from the drive wheels: ta-lith-a cu-mi, ta-lith-a cu-mi, ta-lith-a cu-mi. And the prairie did rise.

Whatever future’s far shore we wash up on, this work multiplies in us like the bunched buffalo grass on the plains. Like Lindell’s little cutlets squeeing all over creation, and the voices boiling up from the steam. The other night, big harvest moon calling us home, I wondered if I’d see them again on this side. Even here, elbows deep in this valve chest, a voice calls cu-mi, and I am yet complete.

—Jeffrey G. Dodd

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Four Faces

After the painting Union Depot Demolished (# 28)

#28Union Depot Demolished

I am the silent observer. The beauty of repetition, a stem of possibilities. I am time. I cannot fall. I have to stay strong even though the walls surrounding me are my prison. Keeping me locked away from the outside world. Allowed to look but not touch. That is my punishment.

As the world around me collapses, I remember the very beginning. The people. The plants. The life. The peace. I remember years later, a happy couple boldly dancing on the dirt, sharing their joy with the world. I remember the freedom, back before I was put in my tower, trapped. Now all I see is broken pavement. I don’t know or understand why the world around me collapses. Beneath my numbers, I see destruction. A crashed train, broken cords, a light holding on to all it has left: its color. Red.

I wish I could leave my prison and bravely help the world pick itself back up. I strive to help but no one opens the door to my eternal cage where I am confined.

Tomorrow I will continue to focus on the beautiful repetition and on the way the wind feels on my 365 stones. But today I mourn and put on four faces: strong, bold, brave and fierce. I will prove to the world that not everything can be demolished.

—Shana Ellingburg

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The New Season

The Herbert H. Hamblin Conservation Area (# 30)

#30The Herbert H. Hamblin Conservation Area

To live in rivers is to live among mirrors. My family—we are grafted from one another, sprouting along the river rock like lichen. I have mistaken their wings for mine, recog­nized their coal-black beaks dipping among the yarrow and felt my own hunger raise its neck. Once I looked into my own eyes and saw a raging falls, a red stream of salmon twisting like a muscle across the land, a fire running with yellow feet across the bodies of trees.

A moment ago, I floated among the sedges—the ones with roots that taste like the caps of mushrooms—the water smelling of rusted steel. Goslings pushed their tiny bodies across the current, following their mother’s wake like beads of dew running across a spider’s thread. Then I tasted the delicate, warm dust, bitter with the sap of unfamiliar trees. It fell around us like a new season.

Maybe it is the sun pausing like a hot ember in the clouds, or maybe it’s the scent of burnt feathers mingled with pine, but my sister says the word first. My call follows hers—like the goslings following their mother—and then we are all calling with our blackened mouths, the memory lifting us like a many-winged river from the earth. I glide higher among the flock, heart pounding, and as I do, the sun itself flies down to rest on the water—fanning its red wings.

—Brooke Matson

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author pic

Nance Van Winckel’s newest book is Ever Yrs, a novel in the form of a scrapbook (Twisted Road, 2014). Book of No Ledge, an altered encyclopedia, will appear with Pleiades Press’s Visual Poetry Series in November 2016. Nance teaches in Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing Program and lives in Spokane, WA.

 

Apr 012016
 
Rick Jackson

Richard Jackson

Robert Vivian

Robert VIvian

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From Traversings, by Richard Jackson and Robert Vivian (Anchor and Plume, New Orleans, publication imminent).

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FINDING PARADISE (RJ)

When Dante finally arrived there he had no words
for it. The frog giggers in the river must think
their spotlight is their way to revelation. The dam’s
been broke for years, the mills broken wheels turn back
to a time before time, if they turn at all. The evening sky
still leans down over the ridge line as if it wanted to be
water. The river rubs against the ledge rock. Here we are
far from beheadings and crucifixions in what was once
the land of paradise, a word that came from the Persian
meaning an enclosed park. They must have had this place
in mind. One trout tries for but misses the Jesus bug
that skates away. At night the bats will take what the fish have
missed. Plato thought we are born with a memory of Paradise.
Imparadise’d in one another’s arms is what Milton said.
I think that owl wants to be the moon. He knows
Paradise is the life you’ve hidden from yourself.

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Frog Light (BV)

I, too, was king of the frogs, king of the night palpitant of shadows and king of the white hot spotlight that kills with its stare in the sweeping net of a searching full moon, myself dazed between water and earth on the brink of paradise as the gigger closed in on me with his bamboo spear and beer brewing alchemy in his veins, and what will do you with your vast immortal longings and amphibious wishes deep in the Ozarks before I am speared and the angels pin back their wings and lean in closer to listen to the murder of my race. They say we taste like chicken but the whole world sings in our swollen throats. Before the light freezes me I tell the river I won’t let a window kill me.

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WINDOWS (RJ)

There’s no telling how many worlds live inside our windows.
Each breath raises that question. Each question is a ladder
that has nothing to lean against. Above it, the full moon reveals
the torn paper edges of clouds it hides behind. Tonight it is
just cool enough to stop the insects’ singing. Look the other way
and a distant storm silhouettes the far hills. We have to live on
the rim of these dreams. We make, from a cluster of stars, shapes
they would never agree to be a part of. No one knows what to make
of the solar dust that may or may not explain our origins. When
you lose your sense of smell, they say, your chances of dying
increase exponentially. Why is another question. We name things
to stop them from changing. These are not windows, but mirrors.
This evening, I swear, I saw a stone learning to become a star.

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When Stones Abandoned The World (BV)

All at once they picked themselves up from the barren fields and started walking toward the horizon, silent, solemn march going to the stars even as they tried to become them and rose the thrust and the warbler and the startled robin and I could see that the stones were naked but unabashed and unashamed wanting only to be rinsed again and rose the wind and the dust and where were the stones going but to another place not of their keening and to watch them go I felt abandoned and I did not ask the stones why they were leaving everything behind and rose other birds and still others, starlings and crows and turkey vultures and smoke from a distant fire and if you could see the stones moving, if you could see them turning away you would wonder if home is a dream we tell ourselves to keep from dying though death is with us always in the smallest things, a moth on the windowsill with its paper wings full of dust, old, faded pictures of loved ones long since gone into the ground, but the stones wouldn’t say for they had lain prostrate long enough and the whole earth seemed to tremble and shimmer in the wake of the their passing rife with jewel fire of beauty—I mean the way the ground burned after them in variegated flames, I mean the heart and quake of it that had its equivalent somewhere inside me as I was left behind and there was nothing I could do but watch the stones go on their steadfast journey and vault of sky above them, changing itself with every passing cloud to show them how it was done.

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NOT THE SAME (RJ)

Sometimes our dreams flutter with the moths against
the window in their desperate attempt to reach the darkness.
I don’t know what drives them. The universe inside us
spins along as if it knew where is was going. It is the same
with our rudderless words. By now the storm that has been
crawling along the mountain tops has begun to show itself.
The sounds of individual drops of rain on the window are
really one sound. The other day an asteroid, a rock from
some world we’ll never see, passed, as the astronomers say,
nearby. Stevens called this the odor of stars that links us to
whatever is beyond us. St Francis knew it and talked to trees
and stones, to birds and stars, to the world he loved because
it was a world inside this world. Tonight the news is enough
to put the heart is a sling. The hands of the rain are empty.
The moth doesn’t know which way to turn. The night sounds are
padlocked in their stalls. In the morning the sunlight will judge
what the night has left. To think of love is not the same as having it.

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Day Is A Word (BV)

How are we to make the shadows whole wherever they fall or the sound of rain that comes sweeping down then timpanies away and the moth trapped in a jar, oh, the holy fluttering like a heart skipping a beat wanting to keep on forever and how is the shadow of a doorway absence unto itself that seeks not its own fulfillment but the vision of a door as a dream the shadow loves more than itself for it carries its darkness as a reckoning and the stillness of an empty church at the foot of a mountain and the devout ear of the teacup whose reign of openness is here to stay and the moth again so light against the glass even its desperation carries a stroke of sweetness into the land of bottled oxygen and because the moth is quiet in its doom somehow the whole world is blessed and the shadows again, partial, shifting and reverent in their silence that belies the night they come from and day is a word, a cry and a candle flame as somewhere else on another page the moth is free and flies imperfectly for all of us in a delirium of loops, writing its impossible verses in the air.

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A DOOR WITHOUT A ROOM (RJ)

Wenceslas Cathedral, Olomouce, Czech Republic

Sometimes our dreams flutter with the moths against
the window in their desperate attempt to reach the darkness.
I don’t know what drives them. The universe inside us
spins along as if it knew where is was going. It is the same
with our rudderless words. By now the storm that has been
crawling along the mountain tops has begun to show itself.
The sounds of individual drops of rain on the window are
really one sound. The other day an asteroid, a rock from
some world we’ll never see, passed, as the astronomers say,
nearby. Stevens called this the odor of stars that links us to
whatever is beyond us. St Francis knew it and talked to trees
and stones, to birds and stars, to the world he loved because
it was a world inside this world. Tonight the news is enough
to put the heart is a sling. The hands of the rain are empty.
The moth doesn’t know which way to turn. The night sounds are
padlocked in their stalls. In the morning the sunlight will judge
what the night has left. To think of love is not the same as having it.
Today it is a Cathedral and its famous carved door for Saints
Cyril and Methodius that has traveled all over Europe looking
for a home. You have to imagine where that door might
lead you. Outside the word for fog creates its own world
as it wraps itself around the campanile. There must be a name
for that empty space between the fog and the ground. A couple
of squirrels disappear down its whitening aisle. Inside, a woman
tapes a prayer to a wall with other prayers, and hopes it will
find its way to a love that lies beyond the wall.

Tomorrow will be
Chattanooga where the gypsy moths, who are never anything
like angels, have left their tattered webs in the trees that, like
so many Sybils, have started to deal out their leaves. A friend
once said the leaves are the souls of everyone who has been
forgotten. They fall to meet their own lost shadows. Who has
an answer we can believe in? We have put so many padlocks on
our dreams. Every word should be a door, though our words
last longer than what they mean. Or, every word should be
a prayer, a kind of love to open again our lost or forgotten loves.

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Dream Book (BV)

The hour just now and the holy stillness in rapt awakening, and see how the chair waits for the body and the table upright for the books and the hand that would turn the pages, fingers on paper, leaf after thoughtful leaf while outside other leaves fall from the book of a tree, each one a poem unto itself and so bright in its glowing as I dream of a book or it dreams me and mysterious words within and here are scales of music and a whole cathedral of choir and the love of pure sound in the valley of throat, that hollow chute where emptiness is fulfilled so the book is also my heart wanting so much it can’t be said, maybe the stars or mice out in the fields, maybe the unplowed furrows, the lonely rows and the train tracks beyond stained with creosote and the long moaning of many miles and the crushing burden of coal cars moving brothers of earth across the earth and away from this moving caravan a butterfly, so light no train could bear it nor any human heart though mine will try by saying simply yes to it, go, my gentle friend who cannot see me.

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Richard Jackson has published over twenty books including thirteen books of poems, most recently Retrievals (C&R Press, 2014), Out of Place (Ashland, 2014), Resonancia (Barcelona, 2014, a translation of Resonance  from Ashland, 2010), Half Lives: Petrarchan Poems (Autumn House, 2004), Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems (Ashland, 2003), and Heartwall (UMass, Juniper Prize 2000), as well as four chapbook adaptations from Pavese and other Italian poets. Traversings (Anchor and Plume), an exchange in poems and lyric prose with Robert Vivian, will appear in April 2016. He has translated a book of poems by Alexsander Persolja (Potvanje Sonca / Journey of the Sun) (Kulturno Drustvo Vilenica: Slovenia, 2007) as well as Last Voyage, a book of translations of the early-20th-century Italian poet, Giovanni Pascoli, (Red Hen, 2010). In addition, he has edited the selected poems of Slovene poet, Iztok Osijnik. He also edited nearly twenty chapobooks of poems from Eastern Europe. His own poems have been translated into seventeen languages including Worlds Apart: Selected Poems in Slovene. He has edited two anthologies of Slovene poetry and Poetry Miscellany, a journal.. He is the author of Dismantling Time in Contemporary American Poetry (Agee Prize), and Acts of Mind: Interviews with Contemporary American Poets (Choice Award). He was awarded the Order of Freedom Medal for literary and humanitarian work in the Balkans by the President of Slovenia for his work with the Slovene-based Peace and Sarajevo Committees of PEN International. He has received Guggenheim, NEA, NEH, and two Witter-Bynner fellowships, a Prairie Schooner Reader’s Choice Award, and the Crazyhorse prize, and he is the winner of five Pushcart Prizes and has appeared in Best American Poems ‘97 as well as many other anthologies. Originator of VCFA’s Slovenia Program, he was a Fulbright Exchange poet to former Yugoslavia and returns to Europe each year with groups of students. He has been teaching at the Iowa Summer Festival, The Prague Summer Workshops, and regularly at UT-Chattanooga (since 1976), where he directs the Meacham Writers’ Conference. He has taught at VCFA since 1987. He has won teaching awards at UT-Chattanooga and VCFA. In 2009 he won the AWP George Garret Award for teaching and writing.

§

Robert Vivian’s most recent collection of prose poems, Mystery My Country, will be published in 2016, along with Traversings, a new book co-written with Richard Jackson. He is the author of The Tall Grass Trilogy—The Mover of Bones, Lamb Bright Saviors, and Another Burning Kingdom, in addition to the novel Water and Abandon. He’s also written two books of meditative essays, Cold Snap as Yearning and The Least Cricket of Evening. Several of his plays have been produced in New York City and his monologues have been published in the Best Monologues series. His essays, poems, and stories have been published in Harper’s, Georgia Review, Creative Nonfiction, Alaska Quarterly, Ecotone, and dozens of other journals. He teaches at Alma College in Michigan and has taught several times at various universities in Turkey, especially in Samsun, Turkey.

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Apr 012016
 

craft drop shadow

For you delectation, incitement, excitement, and improvement, we are featuring selections from the Numéro Cinq Holy Book of Literary Craft in the slider at the top of the page in April. The Holy Book is a growing compendium of craft advice and consolation for those of us who are challenged (impaired) with a desire to write.

The selections, taken more or less at random, include Julie Marden’s essay on the device of thematic passages in Chekhov, Frank Richardson on loooooonnnnngggggg sentences, Nicole Chu on short story plot, Rebecca Martin on techniques writers use to represent emotions, Shambhavi Roy on subplots, and Anna Maria Johnson stunning visual analysis of image patterns in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek.

There are more of these essays in the Holy Book, lots to learn, lots to pick away at. Take this as an invitation and a reminder. It’s there for FREE!

Mar 252016
 

latinoconvopics

It’s the April issue, the vernal surprise, the annual ritual of renewal, the turning of the year, the lengthening of days, mud season in Vermont, moments of  astonishing optimism for no reason, that issue. We have amazing things for you. We’ll knock your socks off. You’ll find it more entertaining than Donald Trump and Ted Cruz (okay, well, maybe not).

We have a couple of group items this issue. The first is a massive nine-person interview/conversation on the subject of Latino writing in the United States, Mexico and Puerto Rico today. Jonathan Marcantoni is the moderator/interlocutor. The conversation is lively, startling. Punches are not pulled. There are also book lists and reading recommendations. This is the state of the art.

I think this is a destructive mindset that is born from a marginalized, colonized perspective. The Oppression Olympics. The Authenticity Maze. The relative slice of the literary representation pie is not large enough for Latinos to start fighting over. I don’t know which Latino group “dominates” who. (The question makes us sound like we’re all battling for literary supremacy in the octagon.) —Rich Villar

  MasandeMasande Ntshanga

 Ben Woodard reviews South African author Masande Ntshanga’s debut novel The Reactive (we also have an excerpt coming).

Masande Ntshanga’s engrossing debut novel, The Reactive, unfolds during the Mbeki presidency. Lindanathi, a young HIV infected man in Cape Town, spends his days huffing industrial glue with his friends Cecelia and Ruan. The trio work together to illegally sell Lindanathi’s extra ARV supply—Cecelia and Ruan are not infected, and Lindanathi is a lucky ARV recipient—to local reactives for quick cash. In lieu of chapters, the novel is broken into five parts, and the first dedicates itself to establishing the relationship between Lindanathi, or Nathi, and his friends, who casually float in and out of day jobs, HI Virus group meetings, parties, and cloudy conversations. Nathi tells his story in first-person POV, and the reader is swiftly immersed into the daily ennui of the gang. In many ways, his life is one of limbo, and death’s inevitability frequently crops up, whether Nathi claims, “It’s still a long stretch of time before I die,” or plays games like Last Life, which “is the name we’ve come up with for what happens to me during my last year on the planet.” —Ben Woodard

Cynthia photo Shawnigan lakeCynthia Flood

We have a brand new story from Cynthia Flood, who has appeared here before and only gets better. This one is weird in the best way, a night wanderer, the clopping of police horses…

Strong feet stepped into the boy’s dream, came nearer down the hall, and he sat up, but the sounds went past, outside.

Quick, to the window.

Down the dark quiet street came four horses, two by two, with police on top. Streetlights shone on the animals’ rumps, the riders’ yellow vests. Clop clop. Harness glinted, tails waved, manes lifted and subsided. The horses too wore reflective yellow, in bands round their ankles. —Cynthia Flood

 

Mahtem Shiferraw - Author photoMahtem Shifferaw

We have poems from Mahtem Shifferaw’s debut colletction:

I wasn’t taught to notice one’s colors;

under the sun, everyone’s skin bounces streaks of light.

Which do I claim? It is difficult to expla
the difference between African & African American
the details escape me, thin paper folding the involucre of a burning fire.

—Mahtem Shifferaw

 

 

Ruth_WebRuth Lepson

And a gorgeous poem from Ruth Lepson on the fascinating American artist Cy Twombly who spent much of his working life in Europe, coming after the Abstract Expressionists and combing their influence with a vast interest in Classical art that surrounded him in Italy.

your chair looks kinda wobbly
cy twombly

I think you’re an anomaly

you’re practically
sliding off the chair
the window’s
broken by lines in a grid
it’s time to stand–
but sit for another minute
give us your specifics
wait — you don’t care
what you get across
or to whom

……………………—Ruth Lepson

Portrait of Cy Twombly by Fielding DawsonPortrait of Cy Twombly, Fielding Dawson

Pierre Joris 2Pierre Joris

Pierre Joris, who also has appeared here before (as a poet, translator and memoirist), returns with a segment of memoir.

Myth, I had learned that very year upon encountering the work and the person of the American poet Robert Duncan — who was to write one of greatest anti-Vietnam war poems the very next year —, the word “myth,” “mythos,” is akin to “mouth,” i.e. myth is the story told, the story that accompanies the ritual action, some action that starts out as, or wants to turn itself into, exemplary ritual. But maybe it is the retelling of the story — whatever it is — that recreates the action that turns the story into ritual and thus self-reflectively creates the myth. —Pierre Joris

Jackson VIvianRichard Jackson & Robert Vivian

Richard Jackson, a poet, and Robert Vivian, in his latest incarnation as an essay writer, have combined their voices to produce a book of poems and essays from which we have a preview excerpt.

All at once they picked themselves up from the barren fields and started walking toward the horizon, silent, solemn march going to the stars even as they tried to become them and rose the thrust and the warbler and the startled robin and I could see that the stones were naked but unabashed and unashamed wanting only to be rinsed again and rose the wind and the dust and where were the stones going but to another place not of their keening and to watch them go I felt abandoned and I did not ask the stones why… —Robert Vivian

Warren Motte 2016Warren Motte

Warren Motte favours us with a really fascinating essay on exoticism and how recent French novelists have used/portrayed America in their work.

I realize, all of a sudden, that my title sounds like the name of a rehab facility in Arizona, a place where “happiness” is very rare indeed and where the “shores” are notional ones, at best. I am quite certain that Baudelaire was not thinking of such a place, as he conjured up a luminous vision of utopia in the first quatrain of his sonnet, “Exotic Perfume”:

When, with both my eyes closed, on a hot autumn night,
I inhale the fragrance of your warm breast
I see happy shores spread out before me,
On which shines a dazzling and monotonous sun.

—Warren Motte

Michelangelo - Daniele da Volterra, 1533, Florence ItalyMichelangelo by Daniele da Volterra, 1533

Julie Larios is back with a new Undersung essay, this time focusing on the sculptor Michelangelo, who also happened to be a surpassing poet. For centuries only a sanitized version of his poetry existed in print…

For more than 200 years, this version of the poems – “discretely doctored” to disguise the homosexual nature of them – was the only one available. By the mid-1800’s scholars began to look back at the originals for comparison; in 1893 the British homosexual activist and poet/critic John Addington Symonds offered a more authentic version, correcting the changed pronouns (from “she” back to “he”) and adding in several of the more explicit poems not included in the 17th-century edition. By 1960 a complete edition was published that included 400 pages of editorial notes referring to the originals. —Julie Larios

Julie LariosJulie Larios

IMG-20160223-WA0005Óscar Oliva

We also have poems from the Mexican poet Óscar Oliva. Yes, yes, we are beginning to tap a steady flow of Mexican lit.

I am just one more shoulder in the crowd marching through,
teargas fumes me,
derailed trains burnt out at the terminal
ripped up tracks and the attack
of the police, of the army, of the riot squad
all in battle formation,
the Zócalo is a rifle butt in the face,
there’ll be more battles… —Óscar Oliva

 

Thomas SimpsonThomas Simpson

 Tom Simpson returns with another essay on his beloved Bosnia-Herzegovina. Once again his guide and inspiration is the wonderful poet Goran Simic (who also has appeared here on NC).

Like an existentialist’s bad joke, Goran’s driveway sits on a dangerous curve. The circular, convex mirror posted across the street, where the sidewalk is, helps only so much. All it tells you is whether a car is bearing down on you, right now, from the left. Once you make your move, all bets are off. The best you can do is utter a prayer, or mutter a curse, before you lurch into the unknown. —Thomas Simpson

Sejla Sehabovic and Goran Simic, Sarajevo 2014Goran Simic

And there is, as I always say, more. John Proctor reviews Patrick Madden’s new book of essays. We have an excerpt from the nonfiction anthology Dirt. There will be something from Ireland and a new NC at the movies. And Nance Van Winckel returns with an ekphrastic extravanganza, a series of creative prose responses to paintings by Kay O’Rourke, many of them by students from the Salish Language School in Spokane, Washington.

There may even be more, or there may be changes, things that surprise even me. There always are.

Mar 242016
 

Click on the image to read the first couple of paragraphs.

Just out, the new Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro (Cambridge University Press, March) with an essay by me. It’s called “The Style of Alice Munro.” Go buy the book and have a look. Just be to clear, this is not the other essay I wrote, “The Mind of Alice Munro,” which is in Attack of the Copula Spiders. That essay deals with Munro’s story “Meneseteung.” This is brand new, never before seen by anyone but the editors and my dog (who really liked it). The stories in reference this time are “Lives of Girls and Women” and “Baptizing,” which appear in Munro’s book Lives of Girls and Women.

Click the image at the top to see a snippet from the opening.

dg

Mar 142016
 

Lina Wolff

The real strength of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs isn’t that it hews closely to this one prescribed theme. In fact, the reason this book haunts and horrifies and challenges us so much is that it strays so widely, and so wildly, from any fixed structure or approach. — Mark  Sampson

Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs
Lina Wolff
Translation by Frank Perry
And Other Stories, 2016
$15.95

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Men are dogs. This is the prevailing theme of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, a debut novel that has already turned Sweden’s Lina Wolff into a literary sensation. Wolff’s project – a text at once fragmented enough to pass for a short story collection and yet untraceably centred on the character of Alba Cambó, a writer of violent, horrifying tales who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer – draws a connection between the canine-like nature of human males and the limitations of revenge against their more animalistic natures by women. Setting Alba’s story mostly in colourful Barcelona, Wolff renders it into a kind of narrative kaleidoscope, told through the eyes of her friends, lovers, and acquaintances.

Wolff’s own life seems as kaleidoscopic as the story she has created. She has done stints in both Spain and Italy, and now lives in southern Sweden. She has published one previous book, a short story collection called Många människor dör som du (Many People Die Like You; Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2009), which was met by strong reviews. She writes with an unmistakable focus on feminism – but it is a peripatetic feminism, one that looks to travel widely across the expanse of gender dynamics, and to hit them from a multitude of angles. Ironically, one of her biggest literary influences appears to be French shit disturber Michel Houellebecq, whose own work makes a deliciously comic appearance in Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs.

Wolff’s novel’s title is explained by the back-cover copy, but readers will be misled if they think the following is a summation of the whole book: “At a run-down brothel in Caudal, Spain, the prostitutes are collecting stray dogs. Each is named after a famous male writer: Dante, Chaucer, Bret Easton Ellis. When a john is cruel, the dogs are fed rotten meat.” In actuality, this sequence comes relatively late in the novel, and yet captures the very essence of book’s theme. Here it is, narrated by character named Rodrigo Auscias, a man who once had a threesome with Alba and one of her casual boyfriends:

We’ve got a kennel and the dogs in it are all named after famous writers, she had said. Whenever some guy pays us a visit and is nasty to us, we give the dogs rotten meat. I couldn’t help laughing at the whole idea at the time. Passive rebellion is what they call that, I informed her. When you’re powerless, passive rebellion is what you come up with. It’s also called projection. You make the dogs suffer for what the men have done to you because the dogs are weaker than you. It’s like a father who abuses his children because the factory owner has forced him to work too hard.

Rodrigo goes on to ask where the women got the idea from, and the say they were once visited by an “intellectual feminist” who planted the seed in their minds. This term, passive rebellion (one might also dub it a kind of low-level terrorism), has, the reader will now realize, played a huge role in the various chapters that have preceded this scene. This idea of punishing an animal for the sins of a person has appeared a couple of times already in the novel, with the murder of a canary in one chapter and the boiling of a cat in the other. With a sharp, unflinching eye, Wolff shows us that revenge can take many strange, off-kilter forms.

Yet the real strength of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs isn’t that it hews closely to this one prescribed theme. In fact, the reason this book haunts and horrifies and challenges us so much is that it strays so widely, and so wildly, from any fixed structure or approach. This lack of a traditional narrative arc allows Wolff’s imagination and talent to sore: there were several points throughout the novel’s episodic approach where I was wowed by her out-of-left-field audacity and the unexpected twists in the turn of events.

A summary of these sequences would prove to be as disjointed as the novel itself. The story begins with an unnamed narrator recounting the time that Alba was spending time with one of her lovers, a man named Valentino, and informed him after a romantic episode together that she was in fact dying from cancer and would not be around for very much longer. The novel then shifts and we soon learn who this narrator is: a young girl named Araceli Villalobos, who lives in the same apartment building in Barcelona as Alba. We learn that Alba is gaining notoriety in the neighbourhood for publishing a series of brutal, feminist-infused short stories in a magazine called Semejanzas (Spanish for “Similarities.”) The most memorable of these pieces involves a man who kills himself after humiliating himself at his own surprise party by farting loudly just before turning on the lights.

The story soon shifts as Araceli learns of a woman from South America named Blosom who is living with Alba. Alba attempts to pawn off Blosom to Araceli and her mother as a kind of live-in housekeeper. After that happens, Wolff takes us on a detailed, first-person tour of Blosom’s life. We learn that she was once married and had a young son who was killed in a traffic accident. We also learn that Blosom began an affair with a married man while working as his housekeeper, right under his wife’s nose. The tension in the household comes to a head during a scene in which Blosom is helping the wife, whose name is Jessica, take a bath. This was one of the most audacious scenes in a novel full of them:

“You’re a pretentious little ignorant cow,” Jessica cried. “Is that what got drilled into you while you were growing up, that there’s nothing more important than giving a man a child? Hah. Along with all those Venezuelan soaps you watch. that’s soft porn for old ladies, all of them thinking the best thing you can do for a man is to give him a child and then the women are left with chains around the ankles and a ring through the nose, stuck with life in a cage. Fortunately, Vicente doesn’t belong to the old school. He doesn’t actually want to have children.”

Our eyes met in the mirror on the other side of the bathtub. I hate you, I thought. I hate you so much it’s killing me.

“You’ve got something in your hair,” she said.

“What?”

“It looks like sperm.”

“Well it’s not that.”

“Would you mind washing it off, please.”

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is full of these kinds of jarring, shocking sequences, and they infuse the novel with an inventiveness rarely seen in contemporary fiction. As we go along, the perspective of the book changes once more. By the time we meet a girl named Muriel, a classmate of Araceli’s at the translation school where she is studying, we get a sense of just how decentralized this book’s structure is.

Eventually we loop around to the story of Rodrigo. He has his threesome with Albo and her casual boyfriend Ilich. Ilich uses his cell phone to film part of the encounter and threatens to reveal the video to Rodrigo’s wife, Encarnación, unless Rodrigo agrees to help him. What does Ilich want? He wants Rodrigo’s help breaking in the Spain’s competitive timber market. It’s actually more compelling than it sounds. Rodrigo does what Ilich wants of him and he comes to think he is now free of the man. But Ilich shows up one day at Rodrigo and Encarnación’s apartment in a scene that is rife with domestic tension. The section concludes with Rodrigo watching as his wife descends into a harrowing alcoholism that he cannot stop.

Themes of cruelty and of vengeance churn through this book at every turn, to the point where such acts feel completely normalized. Yet Rodrigo, in detailing his encounters with Alba and Ilich, offers a powerful counterbalance to the notion “passive rebellion” discussed above:

I have no political convictions. I don’t give a damn about politics. People with political convictions frighten me. People who are willing to sacrifice themselves for an idea are also willing to sacrifice other people for the same idea. That applies to people who have been the victims of injustice as well. They are the most dangerous people of all because they believe themselves entitled to revenge.

This one passage helps to snap so much of this novel into focus. The idea that revenge is an entitlement, even if (or, in the case of passive rebellion, especially if) the victims of that revenge are not the same individuals who victimized you in the first place, feels very much like a contemporary preoccupation. The entire world, this book is seeming to say, is full of randomized violence and cruelty, and ideas of “motive” or “blame” may very well be passé in this new reality. Wolff’s dark vision of how our world now operates is a disturbing, but deeply compelling, one.

— Mark Sampson

NC

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Mar 132016
 

Georgi-Tenev

In Party Headquarters Georgi Tenev reduces the traditional novel with its linear time, clear relationships, memory and complex characters to an indissoluble essence. Characters, for example, are nameless—they are merely bodies or even types. Memory, hallucination and current narrative merge creating a fluid world where time is relative. —Natalia Sarkissian

party headquarters

Party Headquarters
Georgi Tenev
Translation by Angela Rodel
Open Letter, 2016
Paper, 123 pp., $12.95

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Almost thirty years ago, in the early hours of April 26, 1986, at Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4, staff and emergency workers rushed headlong into the exploding core, oblivious to the chunks of smoldering graphite leaching radioactivity. Nearby, the water in the Pripyat River boiled. Fires burned. Ash rained down. Bodies melted, or they sickened, shriveled, died. Evacuation was slow for those living in towns closest to the catastrophe, while for others—for example in Communist Bulgaria—the news was kept from the populace. In fact, in Bulgaria, in the days and months afterward, only the families of elite Communist party officials were tested and cared for. Because Chernobyl had shown that the Soviet atom was unsafe—perhaps the Soviet system itself—the average Borises and Natashas were kept in the dark, their bodies left to soak up iodine-131, caesium-137, strontium-90 and radionuclides. Then, a mere three years later, the Bulgarian Communist Party Boss was deposed; the year after that Communist Party Headquarters in Sofia were torched by demonstrators. A new, transitional era was ushered in.

These historical events—the fallout, both radioactive and political—loom large in Georgi Tenev’s short novel, Party Headquarters. Set during the transition from communism to democracy (1989-1990s), Party Headquarters was first published in 2006, and now, with Angela Rodel’s translation into English, is available for the first time in English from Open Letter books.

An experimental work, organized into three short chapters which are, in turn, divided into non-chronological, discrete sections of memory, fantasy, and thinly disguised historical fact, Party Headquarters tells of tortured relationships and revenge. Gradually the reader pieces together the story. The protagonist, a nameless, ex Pioneer/Comsomol member who is obsessed by the past, must retrieve a suitcase full of money ($1.5 million)—an ill-gotten slush fund—from a Hamburg bank for an old communist party boss, “K-shev”.

 K-shev bears a close resemblance to real-life strongman Todor Zhivkov. Not only does K-shev (like Zhivkov) keep quiet about Chernobyl, but he inflicted “the whole horror of experiencing communism, or socialism—call it what you will” on the country. But unlike Zhivkov, in an ironic twist of fate, K-shev is infected with leukemia and languishes in a Hamburg clinic. This may or may not be the “final proof needed to deify him once and all. [Because he is] A strange sort of god ready to die […] from an illness […] we ourselves all feared becoming infected with.”

 Symbolically, the protagonist is K-shev’s son:

“He, the old man, makes love with the body of the motherland. This love gives birth to thousands of children and he organizes them into Pioneer battalions….”

The protagonist may even be K-shev’s son-in-law; the reader is never quite certain. What is clear is that he dreams of thwarting the old man’s wishes for glory after death by having his body cremated and his ashes scattered in outer space where “everything brought along from earth will lose its significance.” His revenge also includes “collision[s] of love” with a body/the bodies of women who may be either K-shev’s biological daughter or they may be symbolic daughters of the motherland. As the protagonist explains, “she is still a part of his body and he is present in hers…[It would be] the mirror of my masculinity, if it didn’t represent above all the risk of being accused of a crime.”

The novel opens in the middle of one vengeful physical encounter:

Even without the tears I still want to hit her, painfully hard. But when she cries it just gets out of control. The victim’s magnetic attraction inflames the perpetrator. I’m driven to tears myself—out of frustration that I can’t force myself to finish it off, to do absolutely everything I want to her. In exactly the order I would like.

If anyone were to see us at this moment, bawling, locked in this torture chamber at opposite ends of the bed—in the middle the bloody sheets are stained with wet spots, but not from blood, lymph, vaginal secretions, sperm, or who knows what else—could it be that some other beings are copulating here with us?—at that moment the shocked outside observer would think we are crying for each other, for ourselves.

Wrong. An incorrect judgement, a faulty interpretation of ambiguous facts. I’m not sorry. What can I say?

The protagonist’s desire for revenge resides in the exposure—to radiation, to socialism—that he suffered as a child, participating in Communist children’s Pioneer camp activities:

We had no way of knowing […] a few days earlier, a thousand kilometers to the north and east, Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl had exploded, under the watch of the Fifth Shift [….] A strange taste invade[d] my lungs, the scent of ozone—what does ozone smell like anyway?—at least that’s what I tell myself now as I try to grasp something more, a greater meaning and importance held in those last few moments.

And the question I add to all this today: why didn’t anybody call out to us, tell us to come back? So many secrets in such a short time….

Just as under socialism—we do and did everything correctly, yet life, the world, continues to collapse beneath our feet like a reactor that has entered a runaway state of nuclear meltdown. Is there any need to explain what those two great liberating words mean: chain reaction?

A reaction that breaks chains.

With Party Headquarters Georgi Tenev won the 2007 Vick Prize for the Bulgarian novel of the year. A 1994 graduate of Bulgaria’s National Academy of Theater and Film Arts, Tenev (b. Sofia, 1969) studied under experimental Bulgarian artists such as Margarita Mladenova and Ivan Dobchev. A founder of the Triumviratus Art Group, he has written a number of novels, short stories, plays and screenplays that have been performed in Russia, Germany and France. In a recent interview, Tenev says his background in theater has strongly influenced him. “[It] taught me self-discipline: no mercy for the text, no respect for verbal beauty merely for the bon mots.”

It is evident that Tenev also experiments with structure. In Party Headquarters he reduces the traditional novel with its linear time, clear relationships, memory and complex characters to an indissoluble essence. Characters, for example, are nameless—they are merely bodies or even types. Memory, hallucination and current narrative merge creating a fluid world where time is relative. Roland Barthes’ zero point of literature may have been one influence. As the author states through his protagonist: “I had discovered the zero point within the system of coordinates. The place where everything begins and ends.”

The text has been skillfully translated by American Angela Rodel, one of the most prolific translators of Bulgarian literature today. The recipient of a PEN grant for the translation of Tenev’s collection of short stories, Rodel’s collaboration with Tenev here has yielded a book of haunting beauty built upon unexpected imagery. Pared down to the essential, there is no room for sentimentality.

Consider:

She, of course, is a virgin. And I press down on that barrier with the whole weight of my body, as if poured into a funnel. A whirlpool that changes my own anatomy: at the very bottom, in the center, the point that I flow through—this is where my heart is. And my belly button as well, and maybe even some steaming spot on my back has been sucked down into this vortex. While up above, all at once my head, legs, and bangs are the leftover silt in the funnel.

And:

I’m radiating rays, I’m lit up. Glittering nucleotides bursting from my body in all directions. The water tastes unbelievably bitter in my mouth, the stinging air envelops my hands, all the hairs standing on end in my skin shoot out arrows. Butterflies fall all around me, along with stunned spring sparrows, the frogs in the marshes don’t finish their jet-propelled jumps. The water fleas, legs splayed on the surface of the pond scum, lose their electrical footing. The miracle of walking on translucency has broken down.

Populated by bodies—corpses, near corpses, prostitutes, Pioneers, astronauts, lovers grappling with each other—Party Headquarters is a “bodily adventure,” as the protagonist says; fittingly so for survivors of nuclear catastrophe:

“The body, the flesh transforms itself according to its own laws [.…] no connection is more bodily than inheritance, which makes up the whole of you, yet which you also desperately want to get rid of more than anything.”

A disoriented and disorienting world, with bodies shattered or glowing with unnatural light, is Tenev’s dazing yet dazzling result.

—Natalia Sarkissian

NC

Natalia Sarkissian

Natalia Sarkissian holds a BA and MA in art history, an MBA in international finance and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing and photographs have been published in the US and Italy by the University of Texas Press, IPSOA publishers, Corriere della Sera, The Huffington Post, Numéro Cinq and other publications. She divides her time between Italy and the United States.

Mar 122016
 

CaptureSevern Thompson as Elle in the original Theatre Passe Muraille production.

Exciting news about Elle, the play, (um, you know, based in my novel Elle) is beginning to emerge. Even when I was in Toronto for the world premiere in January, there were quiet whispers about taking the play on tour. Very sotto voce because theatres are a difficult market; they schedule far in advance and prefer their own productions (I was told). But Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg just announced their 2016-2017 season and Elle is going to be there. And Severn Thompson tells me other productions are in the conversation stage.

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A historic play set before Canada was a country, Elle (Feb. 22-March 12) is a sesquicentennial-ready adaptation of a novel by Douglas Glover mostly set in the year 1542. It follows an unmanageable French noblewoman named Marguerite de Roberval who’s sent to the wilds of the New World in Jacques Cartier’s time and abandoned on the Isle of Demons (now known as Hospital Island, off the coast of Newfoundland) by her uncle. Actress Severn Thompson both adapted and stars in the play, which played earlier this year at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto.

“It’s a great story of her survival,” says Metcalfe. “In the usual literary Canadian narrative, people come over and the harshness of the land is tamed and the beauty is discovered. But she doesn’t tame the land, she learns to live inside it. It takes the usual Canadian narrative of our colonization of the land and actually flips it on its head.”

Read the rest at the Winnipeg Free Press.

Mar 122016
 

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Ludo’s central role—a forgotten and then unnoticed eye in the sky spying on others, later thought of as an invisible goddess—and her predicament as an outlier figure who is part myth, part creature, and part human (something stemming, perhaps, from Agualusa’s love of South American fiction and its magical realism tradition), affords Agualusa distance from what he want to depict.  —Jeff Bursey

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A General Theory of Oblivion
José Eduardo Agualusa
Trans. Daniel Hahn
Archipelago Books
Paper, 249 pp., $18.00

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I. José Eduardo Agualusa (b. 1960) often treats the troubled past of his native Angola, a former Portuguese colony, in an ostensibly light manner, the hints of violence, treachery, conflicted identity, and desperation communicating the meanness of life during the War of Independence (1961-1974) and, especially, the civil war that followed (1975-2002).

In his International Foreign Fiction Prize-winning novel The Book of Chameleons (2004, English translation published in 2007) Agualusa mixes the tale of a gecko infused with the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges with the daily life of his owner, Félix Ventura, a man who reinvents the histories of clients eager to cover over their civil war activities. Several characters Ventura has dealings with serve to fill in the picture of a country undergoing an uneasy and fragile transition from hostilities to peace. There is menace in this tightly wrapped story to both main parties, from different sources, and without giving anything away, it can be said that the atmosphere around the amusing or profound thoughts of the Borges gecko act like a lantern held up against a darkness that could swallow everything.

My Father’s Wives (2007, English translation published in 2008) examines racial issues and mediums that people choose to share stories: music, oral history, and literature. Agualusa undercuts their truthfulness (emotional and factitious) by mingling the tales of characters who seem real with those we are told, almost assured, are not. Well before the end of this clever, poignant novel we are becalmed in a sea of lies, half-truths, and possible realities, forced, like those we’re reading about, to adapt to ever-changing conditions. Where we land depends on what we choose to believe. Here, as in The Book of Chameleons, there is a fine degree of control over a debilitating existence lived under almost constant strife and mayhem.

II.

Many of the same themes are present in A General Theory of Oblivion (2013; English translation published in 2015), which is set between the mid-1970s and the early 2000s. (It would be wrong to regard or dismiss the persistence of Agualusa’s themes as obsessive or tiresome sifting and resifting of material. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, John Dos Passos, and William Vollmann, along with many more, have rescued important and hidden facts from historical oblivion and worked to keep alive the memory of incidents that plunged entire peoples into despair or periods of ferocious activity, and they have contributed new angles from which to analyze obscure and well-known events. Similarly, Agualusa is mining a rich and deep national memory and has much to tell readers.) The cast recalls those from the previous books: strong women, women praised for their beauty, ignorant men, thick-headed and greedy men, victims of tragedy, and the kind-hearted. Above them all is Ludovica (Ludo) who has accompanied her sister, Odete, and her new brother-in-law, Orlando, from Portugal to Angola just before independence is brought about. She is the figure Agualusa focuses on. Through her, despite her isolation in an apartment building, we are given an overview of Angolan history and society.

Well before leaving for a new life in Africa, Ludo could not stand being outdoors (she “never liked having to face the sky”), which means she is drugged for the flight to Luanda, the Angolan capital. When unrest first breaks out in the city streets, with demonstrations preceding armed warfare, followed by the overthrow of a government, a brief cessation of complete hostilities, and then the decades of factional fighting involving Angolan, Cuban, South African, and other soldiers or insurrectionists, she stays, as she always has, in her missing relatives’ apartment—they attend a party one night and never return—fending off robbers with a pistol before erecting a wall that seals off the apartment entrance from the rest of the building. As conditions throughout the capital and the nation deteriorate and people flee the country, the other tenants vanish until Ludo is, perhaps, the only one remaining. Her company is an albino German shepherd (perhaps a sly allusion to German South-West Africa, an older, colonial name for Namibia, Angola’s southern neighbour) she christens Phantom. She has many books to read and, for a short period, a working telephone, radio, and phonograph. For food she at first relies on a stuffed pantry and crops from seeds Orlando had planted in his terrace. Covered in a cardboard box with eye and armholes to protect her from the sky, she attends to this tiny, life-sustaining garden, catching water from rainfalls when the municipal systems start to fail. But it is often dry, electricity dies, and supplies eventually run out:

The hunger came. For weeks, weeks as long as months, Ludo barely ate. She fed Phantom on a flour porridge. The nights merged into the days. She would wake to find the dog watching over her with a fierce eagerness. She would fall asleep and feel his burning breath. She went to the kitchen to fetch a knife, the one with the longest blade there was, the sharpest one, and took to carrying it around attached to her waist like a sword. She, too, would lean over the animal as he slept. Several times she brought the knife to his throat.

Over the course of the many years spent without other human company that she wishes to contact—for after a while the apartment building attracts new residents—the window is her sole connection with the outside world. It is also a protection against it, and an apparatus to help her eat, for with the appliances long dead Ludo can only cook on sunny days, thanks to Orlando’s magnifying glasses that focus the sun’s heat. When a monkey enters her garden she is ruthless. Eventually the crops she planted assist with her and Phantom’s food needs.

Ludo writes her thoughts down in a series of notebooks, and Agualusa gives us some of those entries, as well as later ones using other surfaces (always presented in italics):

The days slide by as if they were liquid. I have no more notebooks to write in. I have no more pens either. I write on the walls, with pieces of charcoal, brief lines.

I save on food, on water, on fire, and on adjectives.

Further:

I carve out verses
short
as prayers

words are legions
of demons
expelled

I cut adverbs
pronouns

I spare my wrists[1]

Burning furniture, books, and paintings keeps her warm. Her eyesight is going. Life is getting truly desperate, and then a young boy, Sabalu, begins bringing her food, though he starts as a thief entering her apartment through the window while she sleeps and stealing what looks valuable. His own life story changes once they talk. By the time he shows up, well past the halfway mark, we have met others who, while unaware of Ludo, are linked to her and to each other.

Ludo’s central role—a forgotten and then unnoticed eye in the sky spying on others, later thought of as an invisible goddess—and her predicament as an outlier figure who is part myth, part creature, and part human (something stemming, perhaps, from Agualusa’s love of South American fiction and its magical realism tradition), affords Agualusa distance from what he want to depict. Angola’s almost unremittingly traumatic modern history is an immense and complex set of subjects that here is addressed using Ludo’s panoramic view (but a view, as stated, that is decreasing in ability until she has only “peripheral vision”). While her solitary position doesn’t allow her to become involved with anyone but Sabalu, indirectly, through her family and location, she plays a part in the lives of many others as they, in time, come to do in hers. One of the people who, early in the novel, had been after Orlando’s “‘jewels’,” about which Ludo knew nothing at the time, and a Marxist officer he once was in conflict with, meet just outside the apartment on the same day that others, whose lives we have seen in partial ways, also congregate there. Sabalu had broken through the defending wall, with Ludo’s consent. As in a murder mystery—and there are aspects of the detective novel present—the loose threads are tied up, old wounds are given a chance to heal, mysterious sounds explained, a “sea goddess called the Kianda” finally accounted for, and a long-standing absence is revealed at the midway point.

Many of the other characters—Arnaldo Cruz (a sometime political activist turned businessman, more commonly referred to as Little Chief), Magno Moreira Monte (an intelligence officer), Jeremias (a Portuguese soldier), and Daniel Benchimol (a journalist), to name a few—receive time in the narrative for their stories to be fleshed out. Their lives contribute to the seediness and criminality (societal criminality as distinct from crooks) of Angola, as does advocacy journalism, to dovetail with Ludo’s singular story. It’s by design that she is in an equivalent of a Panopticon overlooking a lawless, somewhat formless state where, as Agualusa has shown in earlier novels, no one feels safe, identities and fortunes are fluid, ideologies (Marxism and capitalism) are opportunistic equally, and outside interests (Cold War powers, smaller countries near and far) and factions work to dismember the nation. Splintering the narrative among these assorted characters helps convey their society’s pandemonium and recklessness.

That centre point is also a symbol for something else. Only a boy can break into the apartment, through the window that is Ludo’s eye; that same orphaned boy, who calls Ludo Grandma, breaks down the wall she constructed as a barrier against the world so he and she can emerge. Windows, walls, and doors can be many things, including hymens, and in a metaphorical sense Sebalu and Ludo are reborn when the wall comes down, this time into a changed world, surrounded by those who are not quite family, but close. At the close of the novel what we hear of Ludo’s childhood might make us reconsider what’s gone before, ponder the multiple meanings residing in the imagery, and appreciate the connection of Ludo’s early life to her acceptance of Sabalu.

III.

In addition to what’s been discussed above, there are other significant features about this book: the first concerns the language of the writing itself, the second Angolan history.

As with other books by Agualusa, each translated by Daniel Hahn, there is attention paid to how to phrase characters’ thoughts and on how to squeeze just the right amount from certain conceits. Trapped and cut off from news, Ludo speculates about what is going on, often in language inspired, perhaps, by the many books she has read: “I’m afraid of what’s outside the window, of the air that arrives in bursts, and the noise it brings with it…. I am foreign to everything, like a bird that has fallen into the current of a river.” In order to explain one man’s disappearance another man invents the tale of his being swallowed by the ground, which matches the vanishing of planes and villages. There is a dancing hippo. People are not recognized for who they are: everyone has an opportunity (and a motive) to be new, or at least camouflaged, in this country that’s a work-in-progress. When Ludo has to convert her library into fuel she feels “…as though she was incinerating the whole planet. When she burned Jorge Amado she stopped being able to visit Ilhéus and São Salvador. Burning Ulysses, by Joyce, she had lost Dublin. Getting rid of Three Trapped Tigers, she had incinerated old Havana.” (This reflects Angola’s own hellish environment.) Descriptions of scenery and nature are used sparingly but effectively: “That afternoon they knocked down the fence and crossed to the other side. They found a bit of water. Good pastures. The wind began to blow. The wind carried heavy shadows along with it, as though it were carrying night, in shreds, yanked away from some other, even more distant desert.” Plain speech used by such people as soldiers and Little Chief is as carefully written:

There were guys locked up for diamond trafficking, and others for not having stood to attention during the raising of the flag. Some of the prisoners had been important leaders in the party. They took pride in their friendship with the President.

“Only yesterday the Old Man and I went fishing together,” one of them boasted to Little Chief. “When he finds out what’s happened, he’ll get me out of here and have the morons who did this to me arrested.”

He was shot the following week.

As in The Book of Chameleons and My Father’s Wives, one feels safely guided by Hahn through the multiple voices and tones of this diverse cast.

The second topic arises from Agualusa’s interest in making sure there aren’t any loose ends: Is history over for Angola? What I mean to suggest is not that the history of a nation can be wrapped up once and for all in narratives (there will always be more stories, and then there are the counter-narratives), but that, to my mind, the conclusion of A General Theory of Oblivion unwittingly indicates that events can come to a neat close. Agualusa’s propensity to connect the actions of his characters, and the characters themselves, as attenuated as they might appear, though it functioned well in the earlier novels, comes off here as overtly predetermined. Ludo, for example, has a background that is useful to link her to Sebalu, but since they become family quickly enough as it is, when the narrative provides us with that story it is, by then, unrequired and in any case too familiar. Certain characters glance off each other and are forever paired, and this happens many times, too many when you dwell on the length of time of the action—decades—and the gigantic sprawl of the canvas, thereby provoking a disbelief, and shutting down critical sympathy. Less reliance on clearing up every mystery could have resulted in a more satisfying novel, especially since there is so much that is bloody and messy. The communal and personal histories combine, as they often can, but more disorder and loss—what Ludo described as being swept along by her adopted country in its long state of turmoil—would have removed the feeling that we are reading something that is artistically schematic and contrived to finish in a burst of sentimentality.

Despite that reservation, one that may be chalked up to personal preference, José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion has much to recommend it. This short novel, written with confidence and poise, contains sharply sketched characters, an evolving and engaging main narrative around Ludo, and years of conflict succinctly summarized and easily understandable.

—Jeff Bursey

NC

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His forthcoming book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

 

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. In the acknowledgements Agualusa thanks “the Brazilian poet Christiana Nóvoa, who at my request wrote Ludo’s poems…”
Mar 122016
 

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Present in this excerpt from A General Theory of Oblivion, translated by Daniel Hahn, are some of the recurring themes of the novel: rescue, rebirth, metaphysics, and an example of unexpected kindness alongside violence involving individuals, factions, and nations, as well as the hint of remorse, perhaps on the way to redemption. The language is relaxed and the details vivid. In the last lines those who engage in brutality are said to acknowledge the power of words. Put another way, Agualusa shows that civilization is held in regard even as vengeance, chaos, and an eternal thirst for more, threaten to swallow his country. —Jeff Bursey

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Any one of us, over the course of our lives, can know many different existences. Or occasionally, desistances. Not many, however, are given the opportunity to wear a different skin. Jeremias Carrasco had something very like this happen to him. He awoke, after facing a careless firing squad, in a bed that was too short for his six feet, and so narrow that were he to uncross his arms they would both hang down with their fingers touching the cement floor, one on each side. He had a lot of pain in his mouth, neck, and chest, and terrible trouble breathing. He saw, on opening his eyes, a low ceiling that was discolored and cracked. A small gecko, hanging directly above him, was studying him curiously. The morning was coming in, wavy and scented, through a tiny window high up on the facing wall, just below the ceiling.

“I’ve died,” thought Jeremias. “I’ve died, and that gecko is God.”

Even supposing that the gecko was indeed God, he would appear to be hesitating about what fate to assign to him. To Jeremias this indecision was even stranger than finding himself face-to-face with the Creator and the fact that He had taken on the form of a reptile. Jeremias knew, and had known for quite some time, that he was destined to burn for all eternity in the flames of Hell. He had killed, he had tortured. And if he’d started off doing those things out of duty, obeying orders, he had later acquired a taste for it. He only felt awake, whole, when he was racing through the night, in pursuit of other men.

“Make your mind up,” said Jeremias to the gecko. Or rather, he tried to say, but all that came out of his mouth was a dull, tangled thread of sounds. He made a second attempt, and, as in a nightmare, the dark rush of noise came again.

“Don’t try to talk. Actually, you’re not going to talk ever again.” Jeremias believed, for some moments, that it was God who was condemning him to eternal silence. Then he turned his eyes toward the right and saw a hugely fat woman leaning against the door. Her hands, with tiny, fragile fingers, danced before her as she spoke:

“Yesterday they announced your death in the newspapers. They published a photograph, it was quite an old one, I almost didn’t recognize you. They said you were a devil. You died, you were reborn, and you have another chance. Make the most of it.”

Madalena had been working at the Maria Pia Hospital for five years. Before that she had been a nun. A neighbor had witnessed the shooting of the mercenaries at a distance and had notified her. The nurse drove to the site on her own. One of the men was still alive. A bullet had passed through his chest, on a miraculous, perfect course that hadn’t hit a single vital organ. A second projectile had gone into his mouth, shattering his two upper incisors, then perforating his throat.

“I don’t understand what happened. Were you trying to catch the bullet in your teeth?” She laughed, her body shaking. The light seemed to laugh with her. “Yes, sir, those are some good reflexes. And it wasn’t even such a bad idea, either. If the bullet hadn’t found your teeth, it would have taken a different direction. It would have killed you or left you paralyzed. I thought it best not to take you to the hospital. They would take care of you and then when you were recovered they’d only shoot you again. So be patient, and I’ll look after you myself with what little resources there are. I just have to get you out of Luanda. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hide you. If the comrades find you, they’ll shoot me, too. As soon as possible we’ll travel south.”

She hid him for nearly five months. By listening to the radio, Jeremias was able to follow the difficult progress of the government troops, supported by the Cubans, against the improvised, unstable alliance between the UNITA party, the National Front, the South African army, and mercenaries from Portugal, England, and North America.
Jeremias was dancing on the beach, in Cascais, with a platinum blonde, and he had never been in a war, never killed, never tortured anyone, when Madalena shook him:

“Come on, Captain! We go today or never.”

The mercenary sat up in bed, with some effort. The rain was crackling in the darkness, muffling the noise of what sparse traffic there was at that time. They were to travel in a little old van, a Citroën 2CV, its yellow bodywork badly worn, eaten away by rust, but with its engine in perfect working order. Jeremias was stretched out on the backseat, hidden by various crates of books.

“Books instill respect,” explained the nurse. “If you carry crates full of beer bottles, the soldiers will search every inch of the vehicle. Besides which, you’ll get to Moçâmedes without a single bottle left.”

—José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn

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Mar 112016
 

7

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The Portuguese island of Madeira, a ‘pearl of the Atlantic’ situated 850 kilometres west of Marrakech, is known as a place for people who like to walk. Retired hiker types from northern Europe flock here year-round to trek the levadas – an ancient and seemingly endless network of irrigation channels that criss-cross the island. The levadas flow between high mountain peaks, through banana and eucalyptus groves, and up on the wild north of the island through the primeval, UNESCO-protected laurel forest that at one time covered much of southern Europe. The trails are mostly flat, making them surprisingly easy to walk: they transport water, and water doesn’t like to travel uphill. It’s all so beautiful, beautiful, the visitors say. ‘Come to walk!’ the tourist brochures say. Walk walk walk, levada levada levada. And flowers.

That’s all fine, but it’s not my Madeira. I’m a dedicated pedestrian and academic (possibly in that order), and I’ve lived on this island for the past three years. I don’t do a lot of levada walks unless friends are visiting, but I get my share of exercise. I move around almost exclusively on foot, except when I buy groceries and take a taxi home. What I mostly see of Madeira are the streets of the capital, Funchal. To walk in Funchal is to walk almost constantly at a slant, on a near-vertical slope. Since settlement in the fifteenth century, the city has gradually climbed up the side of the steep volcano whence Madeira was born. Nearly every house, including mine, enjoys stunning views across the Bay of Funchal. This distinct and dramatic urban landscape, seen from street level at walking pace, is the Madeira I inhabit.

Madeira streets

Taxis have trouble reaching my house. When I tell them the name of my street, they mutter under their breath and slap the dashboard of their ancient canary-yellow Mercedes-Benzes. Most drivers already know me: I’m the tall estrangeiro, the One Who Walks, the non-tourist who cabs it. Funchal is a small city; I think a lot of people know me this way. My boss told me that his father once pulled him aside and asked, ‘Nuno, are you paying the new estrangeiros enough? I often see the tall one in glasses walking by the side of the road – like a stray dog!’ My boss explained that the foreigner liked to walk, though I’m not sure he understands it either. When I walk home from work, the last stretch up to my street has me bent so far forward that I can reach out and touch the ground in front of me. People driving past eye me with a blend of suspicion and pity; a couple of the friendlier ones have stopped to offer me a lift.

It’s a typical weekday morning and I’m standing in a ditch by the roadside. I’m thinking of Samuel Beckett, whose characters I remember were always hanging out in ditches – just hanging out, their lot being simply to represent our debased state as human beings. I can relate to this. I lean back and press myself against the dirty wall, my feet deep in cast-off drink containers, as a bus passes inches from my face. There is a blast of exhaust-filled wind and a deafening noise as the bus shifts up to the next gear, then silence. The sky is a high, hazy blue and I’m on my way to work. I step out of the ditch and continue along the single-lane bidirectional road with houses like walls, no sidewalks or trees or grassy boulevards. If I reach out with my broad wingspan I can almost reach both sides.

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Parked cars are a huge pain in the arse. I’m tempted to key the car blocking my path, a BMW that’s far too big for such a small island. I even fantasize about walking right over the top of it – I could do it! But instead I wait for a break in the morning rush hour traffic, the cars taking turns to go around it. Even on roads with sidewalks it is difficult and dangerous to be a pedestrian. Cars use the sidewalks as parking spots; somehow they’re immune to ticketing, it’s a populist government and everyone drives. So pedestrians – me, the One Who Walks – are forced to walk on the road. Sometimes I squeeze my passive-aggressive body between the parked car and the wall, snapping in the wing mirror as I pass. Often there are people sitting in these parked cars, why I’ll never know. They’re always playing Candy Crush. My defiant mirror-folding gesture is lost on them. They either ignore completely my body squeezing past their window, refusing to look up, or they act like I’m crazy, like I’m in their space. Hey pal, careful with that wing mirror!

I’ve had some minor altercations. Once I broke the wing mirror off a parked car – it was already taped up, I hardly touched it – and the woman yelled at me as she opened her door a crack to snatch the mirror back from the ground where it lay. Another time it was more serious. I was waiting to cross a busy road, and people kept driving through the zebra crossing. One, two, three cars. When the fourth car approached I started to step out, to signal that it was, in all fairness, my turn to cross. The guy kept driving through at high speed, nearly hitting me. As he drove past me I lifted my leather satchel in a way that was half defensive, half threatening. He was so close that it made contact and clipped the wing mirror – oh those wing mirrors! The mirror came right off. (The satchel was full of books.) There was a loud crack and it went sailing through the air and landed with a tumble, skidding briefly along the road. The Fiat Panda screeched to a halt. The guy was nineteen or twenty, wearing cut-offs and a Cristiano Ronaldo haircut, and he jumped out and started cursing me in Portuguese, calling me the son of a whore. If we had been in North America I might have been worried, like afraid he’d pull out a gun or a bat. But I was twice as big as the guy, if rather willowy and professorial looking, and when I swore back at him in English and shook my satchel full of books he jumped in the Panda and drove off, waving his fist in retreat. I crossed the road.

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Every morning I start my commute walking straight downhill. I often break into a run because the incline is so steep. Suddenly I’ll hear a car and flatten my body against the wall as the driver passes with a blank stare or an absentminded wave. After fifteen minutes downhill it levels out for a bit and then I usually put in my earbuds and start back up another hill to get to the university. It’s great exercise – so much that I crave it restlessly when I work from home. But I also go through a lot of shoes, stripping the soles right down to my socks every few months.

Being a pedestrian in Madeira is all about humiliation. It’s impossible to ignore, a nagging voice you can’t drown out with the loudest music or the most engrossing podcast. I remember spotting a fellow academic once when I was walking home from the university, a visiting lecturer from MIT. He wore a thick red beard and spectacles and earbuds like me, and he was walking in the opposite direction. I gave him a hail-fellow-well-met but he didn’t notice. He was evidently deep in thought, taking long strides, and he paused to step into the ditch when a bus drove past. Here was my doppelganger; my own humiliation externalized.

So why do I walk? I’m a grown man, with a decent job, and yet just the other day some moron in a Peugeot sprayed me with wiper fluid. Why do I spend my mornings and evenings walking along the gutter – breathing diesel exhaust, dodging dog shit, stepping over abandoned pairs of underpants – instead of cruising the winding roads in a climate-controlled Audi A3 like my colleagues? I’m not cheap; I’m not particularly sporty either. I don’t climb mountains and I’ve never kayaked. What’s wrong with me? Am I afraid to drive? Am I a masochist with psychogeographic tendencies?

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For a while, until I thought better of it, I had considered calling this essay ‘Foreigners, Deficients, Dogs’ – in the end I worried it might be taken the wrong way. I was riffing on the infamous ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ sign that used to hang in lodging house windows in Britain. (I happen to be Irish as well as Canadian.) The use of the offensive-sounding term ‘deficient’ was meant to be an ironic commentary on the Portuguese word deficient that is still used to label people with various mental or physical challenges. Although I see almost no other pedestrians on my morning commute, every morning I walk past two guys with Down’s Syndrome at different points in the journey. They both look about my age, and they possess the same determined, slightly harried look of the pedestrian in a hostile landscape that I must also wear as I walk along the ditch. This being southern Europe, one guy is always smoking; the other guy shouts a loud ‘Bom dia!’ just at the moment he passes me, and I shout back to him over my shoulder. The ‘dogs’ in the hypothetical title were a reference to the packs of stray dogs that I pass every day: usually six or eight in a gang, oddly laid-back and unintimidating despite their size and number, some of them limping after run-ins with cars. The foreigner, of course, is me – and the visiting lecturers who don’t know that nobody walks in Madeira. On this island, we are on the margins – quite literally – while drivers occupy the central space.

There are really two questions I ask myself most days: ‘Why do I walk?’ and ‘Why do I live in Madeira?’. Sure it’s sunny here, but so is San Francisco. After years of living in Madeira my Portuguese is still pretty terrible. Am I afraid to compete in the great northern cities of industry? Perhaps, although I’m fairly certain I could get a job elsewhere. There must be more to it.

If I dig deep, I think it’s that I love the contrast – between the breathtaking beauty, the tropical flowers and sun and sea on one hand; and the plague of traffic and stupidity and all kinds of human failings, which are universal failings, on the other. Anyone who has travelled in southern European cities like Athens or Barcelona or Naples, not to mention the cities of the global south, knows this contrast and its peculiar frisson. Something about the ugliness and beauty of human life, the union of pain and pleasure, is ultimately why I live here and why I walk. I like things to be difficult. I don’t want to be insulated from the pain any more than I already am; I don’t want a life of easy pleasures. Before I moved here I lived in Vancouver and found it depressingly dull, so polished and sensible and fit. I don’t want to give up the hard pleasures that you earn by seeing the world at street level: I want to see what people in cars never see, and breathe the air they don’t have to breathe – even if it kills me.

— by Julian Hanna

(Photos by Simone Ashby. To see more, visit Instagram @tar_island.)

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Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals; his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Flash, Minor Literature[s], Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @julianisland.

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Mar 102016
 

Jenny Erpenbeck

The End of Days explores allegiance to family, to friends, to ideology. It is a story of Jewish identity, and of persecution. It is a story about boundaries and the borders between nations, between people, between ideas, between faiths. It is about the divisions we create within ourselves and the horizon where life meets death. Here is a novel that seeks no less than “the weave of life in its entirety.” — Frank Richardson

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End of Days
Jenny Erpenbeck
New Directions, 2016
Paperback $15.95, 240 pages

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When I discovered Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, I remember how disappointed I was that I would never get to review this remarkable novel. Susan Bernofsky’s translation of Aller Tage Abend had been published in 2014 by New Directions, had won major literary awards, and had received a plethora of accolades from critics across the globe. Damn it, I thought—how often does one get the opportunity to write about such a gem? But, it’d been done and done well, and I had a thesis to write anyway. Six months later, while trolling publishers’ websites, I was delighted to see the novel was being released as a New Directions paperback. Fate and a generous editor would grant me a second chance. Erpenbeck has penned a novel of rare excellence and beauty, a novel of questions that lets you swim in possibility, and it’s all about second chances.

Born in 1967 in East Berlin, Jenny Erpenbeck studied theater directing with Heiner Müller, has worked with Werner Herzog, and has had a distinguished career directing in opera houses in Germany and Austria. In 1999, she published her first prose fiction—the eerie, fable-like novella The Old Child—which quickly garnered international attention. For her first novel, Visitation, she won the Hertha König Prize 2008, and for The End of Days she won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2015) and the Hans Fallada Prize (2014). Her most recent novel—Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (Knaus, 2015)—was short-listed for the 2015 German Book Prize. An English translation from Erpenbeck’s long-time collaborator Susan Bernofsky is, hopefully, forthcoming. The End of Days is the fourth of Erpenbeck’s books translated by multi-award-winning Bernofsky, noted for her translations of Robert Walser, Hermann Hess, and Franz Kafka. Her translations of Erpenbeck’s fiction have won numerous prizes including the 2005 PEN Translation Fund Award (The Old Child), and for The End of Days she won the 2015 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize and the 2015 Ungar German Translation Award.

The End of Days explores allegiance to family, to friends, to ideology. It is a story of Jewish identity, and of persecution. It is a story about boundaries and the borders between nations, between people, between ideas, between faiths. It is about the divisions we create within ourselves and the horizon where life meets death. Here is a novel that seeks no less than “the weave of life in its entirety.”

Possibilities

It is the year 1902 in a small provincial town in Galicia, present day Ukraine, near the border with Poland. A mother drops handfuls of dirt into the open grave of her baby girl who died mysteriously, her breathing simply stopped. She will not be consoled and imagines her daughter’s life—her playing the piano, her coppery hair, her aiding her mother in old age. She thinks about the mound of earth that tops all fresh graves, that for her child’s it should be as “huge as the Alps,” symbolic of the potential her daughter has lost. The eighteen-month old girl is, however, the protagonist of this story, and she will be resurrected and die four more times.

The 240-page novel is organized as a series of five numbered books of roughly equal length. Each book explores a possible life for the central character, unnamed until book three. The books are separated by short (three-to-eight page) “intermezzos” that serve as segues; here especially the narrator explores what might have been. The concept of a multiverse—that all possible lives are lived in all possible universes—isn’t new, and many authors have used the conceit of parallel universes, but The End of Days isn’t that kind of novel. Not really. The main plot, loosely based on Erpenbeck’s family, follows a single character (let’s call her H.) from her birth in Brody to her life in post WWI Vienna, her joining the Communist Party and emigration to the Soviet Union, and her career as a writer in the German Democratic Republic. Periodically, throughout the course of this plot arc, Erpenbeck’s narrator presents a scenario where H. dies. She then presents a contrary scenario in an intermezzo and subtly opens a new, yet linked narrative. The resulting effect suggests multiple lives, and while her solution looks straightforward and easy, it is a testament to Erpenbeck’s artistry that she can shift the direction of her narrative so effortlessly.

Great characters ground great books, and H.’s diverse histories reflect her complex character. She is courageous, stubborn, willful, loving and loyal, but capable of spite. She is an artist, a writer of novels, stories, and radio plays, who writes “in defense of the beautiful and true.” With each book, her desires shift with her fortunes: in Vienna she falls in love with her best friend’s fiancé while struggling to avoid starvation; in Moscow she must literally write for her life, either to succeed and become a Soviet citizen, or fail and die in a gulag; and in East Berlin, at the height of a brilliant literary career, when faced with losing all she has ever known, she longs most for contact with her son. In an interview Erpenbeck said she wanted “to look at the question of how present death is in our lives, and how our paths change when people close to us remain or leave.” And so, while H. is the focal point, the subplots of richly imagined secondary characters swirl around her. Here, Erpenbeck doesn’t waste a word showing us the regret of H.’s grandmother:

That morning, for the sake of her daughter’s happiness, she had sold her daughter’s happiness. Sometimes the price one pays for something continues to grow after the fact, becoming too expensive long after it has been paid.

Each book comprises numerous short chapters (many only a paragraph long). A third-person omniscient narrator limits herself to a single character in each chapter and shifts focalization with chapter breaks. After some focalization shifts Erpenbeck uses pronouns without antecedents, deliberately blurring the point of view, asking us to acknowledge that all her characters could share the life she describes. This can be slightly confusing, but the character’s identity becomes clear from the context before confusion turns to frustration and rereading. Few characters have proper names, one of the author’s trademarks. Although the linear chronology begins in 1902 and ends ninety years later, in some books Erpenbeck employs nonlinear time as she shifts character focalization, e.g. in the fourth book, while days pass for one character, for another character time is suspended in an instant. Despite multiple books and chapters, changes in character focalization, and use of nonlinear time, the narrative is a harmonious, resonant whole, a vision of the ramification of our lives and the consequences of our choices.

Forking Paths

Borderlands

Erpenbeck leaves no detail unexamined in her intricately interwoven patterns of images, metaphors, and symbolic associations. Given that she grew up in East Berlin, perhaps it is not a coincidence that the primary images of The End of Days are borders, although she writes (Paris Review) and speaks fondly of her childhood and adolescence.

First, there are the geographic borders: H. is born in a border town, and after both World Wars, the borders of Europe are redrawn; Germany is divided. There are subtler borders of place, and propriety—for example, a friend must drop a letter across the threshold of a window since to hand it to the receiver would constitute working on the Sabbath. Then there is the border between faiths: after marrying a Christian, H.’s Jewish mother is left “hanging between two worlds.” While trying to reconcile her imminent death in the Soviet Union with her decision to join the Communist Party, H. questions the “irreversibility of good and evil” and “whether hope had boundaries or not.” And, at the end of her life, ninety years old and slipping into dementia, H. confronts the border between memory and oblivion. As in reality, the link to the ultimate border, death, comes in many forms. Sometimes it is the vagaries of nature—a cold front results in a frozen puddle that turns one’s course toward a deadly encounter. Sometimes the cause is a conscious decision, suicide the only answer. Sometimes the whim of a petty bureaucrat sends you to Siberia, and sometimes it is just the inexplicable, absurd folly of falling down the stairs.

While this strong pattern of boundaries serves as the backbone of her novel, Erpenbeck uses a myriad of other recurring, interconnected images. To cite just one example, H.’s heirloom collection of Goethe’s complete works appears throughout the course of the novel. The books figure prominently during the episode when H.’s grandparents are attacked; the scene is replete with border imagery, including: the boundary between inside and outside their home; the threshold of an opening onto the roof and the violent tug of war between the mob and those who are trying to flee; and the boundary of life itself. Each time the books appear, including volume nine with its scraped spine from where a rock hit it during the attack, we are brought back to this scene. Sometimes specific poem titles or lines of Goethe’s poetry are used to tie the associated images together. Of course, books are made of words, and language becomes a fixation of H.’s father, who concludes we each have our own vocabulary for the “constant translation between far outside and deep within.” The books accumulate various associations as the story progresses and become, in the end, a focal point of sublime reminiscence.

 

Berlinermauer

On Style

Jenny Erpenbeck’s style of prose and her choices for the novel’s organization demonstrate a deep sensitivity to language. The intermezzos serve as borders between possible lives, stylistically mimicking the imagery of boundaries. The last chapter of the first book is an amalgamation of points of view from all the characters up to that moment. From one sentence to the next, then within a sentence, then from word to word, Erpenbeck tells us what the characters are doing (she shifts to the present tense) and what their lives have become in a montage that culminates with the single question that plagues the father, the mother, and the grandmother: why did the baby die? After the reader turns the page, the next logical thought is “But if . . .” and the baby is saved from its mysterious loss of breath by a handful of snow rubbed against her chest. She is revived, and in the first intermezzo we are asked to imagine an alternate life for the young family, the parents never having been burdened with a devastating loss, and the daughter who becomes a young woman. The intermezzo provides an opportunity for reflection, for imagining multiple scenarios beyond the one continued in the narrative.

While it may be imprudent to address prose style in a translated work—after all, isn’t so much of style untranslatable?—nevertheless, Bernofsky’s translation is so expert, so pitch-perfect, it is worth the risk. Regarding the translation, Erpenbeck said in an interview:

I did feel that it was really my book. It was perfectly done. Sometimes her translation is so perfect that I don’t even know the vocabulary she has used.

Erpenbeck’s prose swings between the concise precision of a proverb: “The forest provides the wood for the axe that will chop it down” to the lyrical sinuosity of memory:

For one brief, sharp, clear moment, he understands what it would be like if he could arrive there along with her: The wheat field would be there right from the start, just like the rustling of the leaves at his back, the silence would be filled to the brim—that deafening crack living only in his memory, absent now—and the memory that filled out this silence would be just as real as the footsteps of all the human beings walking upon the earth at this moment, along with their falling down, their jumping, crawling, and sleeping at this very moment, just as real as all that mutely lay or flowered within the earth . . .

Erpenbeck’s longer sentences are not inchoate stream of consciousness demonstrations. They serve, beautifully, the needs of her scenes, her characters, and her themes. When immigrants wait at Ellis Island (a border, intermezzo place), pensive about their admittance into America, the anaphora and rhythm of the sentence becomes the tolling of Donne’s bell:

The people squat, lie on the ground, or sit on benches: people with bundles, bedding, and crates, with samovars, people without any baggage at all, children running about . . . people who are filled with hope, with despair, people who are homesick, frightened, people who don’t know what’s in store for them, people who are wondering where they’ll find the twenty-five dollars for their immigration fee, people who suddenly want to go back . . .

And it’s not an accident that this scene, which occurs in the first book, is echoed in a memory only a few pages from the end of the novel.

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The End of Days, a book of elegant style and penetrating insight, filled with arresting characters and provocative questions, is a book to come back to a second time, and a third, and . . . who knows how many times? Erpenbeck writes with a gentle intensity—a feeling light as a dream yet so grounded in the moment that if a grenade exploded outside your window, you wouldn’t jump. Although death frames the novel, The End of Days celebrates the beginning of days, for it affirms life’s multiplicity and the potential of every human life. Erpenbeck quotes W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz in an epigraph; in part, he asks—“where will we be going now?” This question vibrates throughout her novel and remains with us as we move on from this book, and this life, to the next.

— Frank Richardson

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Frank Richardson lives in Houston and received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.

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