Friday, February 27, 2009

TC: Writing: Dangerous—(1) Curzio Malaparte

Writing: Dangerous

Curzio Malaparte

"As for the political émigrés, one must insist, with all due respect: that a writer doesn't simply break his pen in two in the presence of a tyrant who prohibits him from writing as he pleases, rather he tempers and sharpens it and seeks to write between the lines, saying secretly what he can't say openly; that in a country subjugated by a tyrant, one can't write openly against tyranny; and that, if it is legitimate to flee abroad to free countries to escape persecution, it is neither honest nor fair, from such a distant and safe place of refuge, to reproach those who remained in Italy for not ending the masquerade, as they used to say, and for not facing, openly and unarmed, the very same violence from which they themselves escaped by fleeing."

--Curzio Malaparte, Preface to Don Camaleo (trans. Michael McDonald)

Casa Malaparte, Lipari

Curzio Malaparte

The two great writers who addressed the Second World War from within the belly of the beast were Céline and Malaparte. Of the two, Malaparte is the lesser known. His works are part journalism, part fiction. The subjective center of his works is a Malaparte who calls himself "I" and may or may not be the "real Malaparte". (Curzio Malaparte, of course, was not his real name; he was born as Kurt Eric Suckert.) This "I" mutates and coalesces through what in internet technology might be called "multi-user domains". Indirection and subversion were central to Malaparte's strategy in writing.

As early as the 1920s, in the false springtime of the Mussolini regime, Malaparte was working his arts of contradiction, parable and double-and triple-meaning to undermine the dictator from directly under the dictator's haughty nose. His self-justification for choosing this mode of resistance is stated in the above-quoted Preface to a later reissue of his parabolic anti-Mussolini text Don Camaleo. A similar rationale might be adopted by a present-day blogger who eschews the relative safety of political exile and chooses instead to articulate dissidence by burrowing-from-within.


TC: Writing: Dangerous—(2) Thomas Wyatt

Thomas Wyatt: Dangerous

Sir Thomas Wyatt was born at Allington Castle, Kent, in 1503, the son of Henry Wyatt and Anne Skinner. He was educated at St. John's College Cambridge, became a diplomat in the service of Henry VIII about 1526 and travelled to Italy first in 1527. After a brief imprisonment in 1536 for his affair with Anne Boleyn, the king's second wife who was executed for treason, Wyatt went to Spain as English ambassador to Charles V from 1537 to 1539. In 1541, after the fall of Thomas Cromwell, Wyatt was arrested again and charged with treason but his release followed shortly. He died October 11, 1542, and was buried at Sherborne.

In this letter to Henry VIII (pictured below), conveyed secretly from France via the Tudor spymaster Thomas Cromwell (whose imminent fall would soon once again bring the poet/spy Wyatt into mortal danger), Thomas Wyatt—at this time engaged in the perilous enterprise of crafting to prevent an alliance between France and the Spanish Empire—reports on his adventures in following, intercepting and gaining an interview with the French king Francis I at Blois. It is a matter of fast horses, hard riding, tenuous meta-diplomatic encounters and dangerous conversations-by-indirection: all business-as-usual for Wyatt in his precarious trade as a poet in (and sometimes out of) service to Empire.

Francis I

Thomas Cromwell

In the sonnet below, freely adapted from Petrarch, Wyatt plays dangerously, by subversive indirection through multiple subtexts, upon his dangerous contention with Henry VIII for the affections of Anne Boleyn.

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

TC: Dangerous: Blogging


Egypt's critics have a voice, but never the last word


Diaa Eddin Gad, a blogger, was taken away by the police on Feb. 6.
(Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times)

By Michael Slackman
Published: February 18, 2009
(Herald Tribune)

CAIRO: In Egypt, there is relative freedom to complain about and criticize the government, even the feared security services. Egypt is not Syria in that way, or Saudi Arabia, where public criticism aimed at the state is often dealt with harshly.

But that is where freedom stops.

"I call it the freedom to scream," said Fahmy Howeidy, a writer who has often criticized the government without penalty. "You can say what you want. But you cannot act."

The detention this month of Philip Rizk, an Egyptian-German who organized a peaceful march in support of Palestinians in Gaza, received international attention because of his dual nationality and because he was held incommunicado and without charge.

But what made Rizk's case extraordinary was how routine it actually was, according to political activists, political scientists, bloggers, Islamists, former prisoners and human rights groups here and abroad. It is all too common for the security services to grab citizens, detain them without charge, refuse to release any information concerning their whereabouts and deny them even the minimal protections, under an emergency law passed decades ago to help fight terrorism.

"In Egypt, it's sort of a soft dictatorship," said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information in Cairo. "They want to have a pleasant image. But Egypt is ruled by the security apparatus."

The security services appear to have decided that it is generally acceptable to write for a newspaper. But bloggers are another matter. For some reason, as yet unexplained, blogging seems to cross the line from speaking to acting.

It may be that bloggers, by nature, are less willing to stop at the edge of what criticism is tolerated. Newspaper writers, for example, are cautious about how they deal with the president; bloggers have often attacked him head-on.

Many bloggers have been arrested and beaten and thrown in jail. Eid said his organization was handling more than 100 cases of bloggers facing criminal charges. He keeps on his wall a snapshot of Abdul Kareem Nabeel Suleiman, a young blogger sentenced to four years in prison for criticizing President Hosni Mubarak and the state's religious institutions.

Karim el-Beheiri is a blogger too. He is a nervous wreck. His legs don't stop jumping, his eyes dart around, and he smokes three packs a day. He suffers memory loss and fatigue. He's been that way since he was held without charge for 73 days by state security — even after a judge ordered his release.

Beheiri, 25, wrote about corruption and workers' rights. He worked in a state-owned textile factory where tens of thousands of workers went on strike last April in a dispute with the government over wages. He said he had been beaten, shocked, handcuffed and manacled through much of his ordeal.

"For a second, after the judge said I should be freed, I thought there really were laws in this country," Beheiri said, dragging on a cigarette.

Diaa Eddin Gad, 23, another blogger, was grabbed the same day as Rizk and has not been heard from since.

But there is a gray line through it all. The Muslim Brotherhood — a religious and social movement that wants to see Egypt ruled by Islamic law — is legally banned and its members are often arrested, even tried before military courts. But it has offices around the country and is allowed to operate religious and charitable activities.

There are some critics who say that the government allows the brotherhood to survive so that Egyptian officials can say to the West that they are fighting to keep the Islamists from power.

Still, 740 of its members were arrested because they protested in support of the Palestinians in Gaza.

"There is a red line: don't make a big deal of your ideas," said Nasser Hobshi, 42, an engineer, as he sat with friends at an outdoor café near the stock exchange.

There are laws on the books that provide for some degree of due process. Even the emergency law, which gives the government broad powers to ignore civil protections in the Constitution and to detain citizens without charge, requires the authorities to make public that a person was detained, legal experts here said. But, they say, the rules are often ignored, largely because the security forces operate with impunity.

There is also a belief among some political activists here that Egypt's leaders think the new administration in Washington is too busy with the transition and the economic crisis to think much about repression in Cairo.

"It's an old regime that doesn't have the imagination to find new answers," said Hassan Nafaa, a former political science professor at Cairo University. "This pattern of repression — it is not the result of a political vision; it is the product of a security apparatus."

The government disputes the criticism. General Hamdy Abdel Karim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said: "None of these false allegations on the part of wrongdoers are going to stop me from exercising my authority to enforce stability and order. Anyone in trouble will try to justify his position."

He added: "Your impression is wrong, wrong, wrong, because you're listening to some bloggers. But to get the real general impression, you have to go back to the street and ask the people who deal with the police on a daily basis."

Where better to ask than in bustling Falaki Square, where Sayed Mohammed, 50, had a cigarette in his mouth as he tinkered with the engine of his white Peugeot.

"Of course there are laws," he said with a quick qualification: "Texts."

"They say the people who go to jail are against the government," he said. "But when you look at how the system works here, you see that it's the government who is against the people."

Nadim Audi contributed reporting.

Egypt police beat, detain blogger says rights group


CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian police have beaten and detained a 22-year-old Egyptian blogger and activist who has expressed support for Gaza, an Egyptian human rights group said on Monday.

A statement from the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information said police officers on Friday beat Diaa Eddin Gad in front of his house in the Nile Delta province of Gharbiya, put him in a police car and drove off.

Police gave no reason for the arrest, and have not yet disclosed where Gad is being held, according to the group.

An interior ministry spokesman did not return calls asking for confirmation of the detention.

Gamal Eid, director of the Network, described Gad as a member of the liberal Wafd party and the Kefaya (Enough) protest movement, and said he had attended protests against the recent 22-day Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip.

Gad's website Sawt Ghadib or "An Angry Voice," ( contains pro-Gaza slogans and news and commentary on the Israeli offensive, as well as strident denunciations of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and security services.

"Bloggers have become a major target of the police authorities in Egypt, and all these assaults are committed outside the law or under the cloak of the emergency state," the statement said.

Also on Friday, police detained Egyptian-German political activist and blogger on Gaza Strip issues Philip Rizk.

In a separate release, the Network said that Egyptian police had carried out a raid on Rizk's house early on Monday, searching it and demanding Rizk's father accompany them to his office, which the police said they wanted to search.

The release said police threatened to use force on Rizk's father, also a dual national, if he refused, but were dissuaded by the presence of a lawyer from the Network and an official from the German embassy.

(Writing by Aziz El-Kaissouni; Editing by Giles Elgood).


Egyptian blogger beaten in jail: rights groups


CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian blogger serving a 4-year jail term for insulting Islam and President Hosni Mubarak has been beaten in prison and sent to an isolation cell, rights groups said on Tuesday.

Abdel Karim Suleiman, a former law student convicted in connection with eight articles he wrote since 2004, was the first blogger to stand trial in Egypt for Internet writings.

The February verdict was widely condemned by human rights groups and bloggers as a dangerous precedent that could limit online freedom in the most populous Arab country.

Reporters without Borders said Suleiman, in letters sent from prison, had complained of being handcuffed and beaten then put into an isolation cell where he received very little food or water.

"I have been subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," the Paris-based media watchdog quoted Suleiman as saying. The group urged Egypt to release Suleiman, who also goes by the name Kareem Amer. He is being held in Borg el-Arab prison near the northern port city of Alexandria.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, which represents Suleiman, said in a statement that a prison guard and another prisoner beat him while a prison official looked on. The beating caused one of his teeth to be broken.

Later, the group said, Suleiman was sent to a "disciplinary cell" where he was put in handcuffs and leg shackles and beaten again. The group said the beatings resulted from Suleiman "uncovering an act of corruption in the prison" but gave no further details.

An Interior Ministry spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment. The government says it opposes torture and prosecutes abusers if it has evidence of wrongdoing.

The Internet has emerged as a major forum for critics of the Egyptian government to express their views in a country where the state runs large newspapers and main television stations.

Suleiman, a secular-minded Muslim, has not denied writing the articles for which he was convicted, but said they merely represented his own views.

One of Suleiman's articles said al-Azhar in Cairo, one of the most prominent seats of Sunni Muslim learning, was promoting extreme ideas. Suleiman has also described some of the companions of the Muslim prophet Mohammad as "terrorists" and likened Mubarak to dictatorial pharaohs who ruled ancient Egypt.

(Reporting by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Janet Lawrence).


Egypt: Bloggers beaten, arrested


Two Egyptian bloggers were reportedly arrested and beaten by police yesterday during a demonstration in Cairo.

Reporters Without Borders , which sent out emails about the incident today said, "The eye-witness accounts we have received about the arrests of the bloggers and the attack on the LA Times reporter are very disturbing."

The two bloggers were identified as Mohammed Sharkawy and Karim El-Shaer. The Los Angeles Times correspondent was identified as Hossam El-Hamalwy, who was reportedly tear-gassed while he was covering the demonstration.


An anti government demonstration in Cairo yesterday.

According to an Associated Press report, Sharkawi, 24, was sodomized "using a rolled up piece of cardboard for nearly 15 minutes," his lawyer Gamal Eid told AP.

An Associated Press reporter on Thursday saw more than 15 men in plainclothes grab el-Sharkawi and punch and kick him after he participated in a peaceful protest outside of the Journalists' Syndicate in downtown Cairo.

Sharkawi is also a member of Youth for Change, affiliated with the political opposition movement Kifaya, which means Enough. A statement on Kafiya's web site said El-Shaer had also been tortured.

According to Reporters Without Borders,
The two bloggers are now being held in Tora prison, where they are supposed to remain in detention for at least two weeks. They are accused of "insulting the president" and violating the state of emergency (which bans gatherings of more than five people). They both asked to be examined by an independent doctor to verify the injuries they received, but their requests were rejected.
Egyptian Interior Ministry officials were not available for comment, according to AP.

"The international community should react firmly and condemn such practices on the part of a government that claims to be democratic," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

SF Gate
Posted By: Andrew S Ross (Email) | May 26 2006 at 02:25 PM.



Death pits technology against Chinese control

Chinese Blogger beaten to death 1/12/09

Wei Wenhua Murdered by Cheng Guan

By Jaime FlorCruz

BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Wei Wenhua was a model communist and is now a bloggers' hero -- a "citizen journalist" turned martyr.

The construction company manager was driving his car when he witnessed an ugly scene: a team of about 50 city inspectors beating villagers who tried to block trucks from unloading trash near their homes.

Wei took out his cell phone and began taking pictures. The city inspectors saw Wei and then attacked him in a beating that lasted five minutes. By the time it was over, the 41-year-old Wei was slumped unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital but was dead on arrival.

His death earlier this month continues to stir controversy. In China's mainstream media and in the blogosphere, angry Chinese are demanding action.

After the Web site published news of Wei's beating, readers promptly expressed their outrage. In one day alone, more than 8,000 posted comments. Bloggers inside and outside China bluntly condemned the brutal killing.

"City inspectors are worse than the mafia," wrote one Chinese blogger. "They are violent civil servants acting in the name of law enforcement."

Another blogger asked, "Just who gave these city inspectors such absurd powers?"

Known as "chengguan" in Chinese, city inspectors are auxiliary support for police. They are expected to deal with petty crimes. Their tasks include cracking down on unlicensed trading. They frequently are seen chasing street vendors off the streets and confiscating their goods.

Critics have said they often abuse their authority and prey on the weak. In the central city of Zhengzhou last year, 1,000 college students scuffled with police and overturned cars after city inspectors roughed up a female student who had set up a street stall. These incidents prompted the government to redefine the role of city inspectors.

Still, observed Jeremy Goldkorn, editor in chief of, "Some bloggers [are] saying this whole chengguan system is prone to corruption and abuse and it should be disbanded."

Beijing scholar Xiong Peiyun wrote in Wednesday's Southern Metropolis Daily, "Perhaps no one wishes to face this question. Wei Wenhua's death stands as clear proof of the violent ways of local city inspectors. It's 2008 and another citizen goes down. When will we stand up and restrain the law enforcement violence of this city inspectors system?"

More and more victims of abuse already are standing up. "It's the latest in a series of incidents which have pit provincial government authorities against citizens -- those who are protesting against something who are recording and blogging and writing about something that they consider scandalous," Goldkorn said.

Some journalists and bloggers have even compared Wei's fatal beating to the Rodney King case, when the Los Angeles police repeatedly clubbed him. Others say this is reminiscent of the 2003 death of graphic designer Sun Zhigang in the Chinese city of in Guangzhou. The 27-year-old college graduate was fatally beaten while in detention for not carrying proper identification. The public outcry, amplified in the country's blogosphere, prompted China's premier to restrict police powers of detention.

Years ago, killings such as these would not have received such attention, and victims would have been forgotten, but with modern technology in the hands of ordinary citizens, abusive officials are getting caught in the act.

China's burgeoning economy allows a relatively freer flow of information. In September, China had 172 million Internet users, 10 million more than the last official count was released in July. Officials said about 4 million Chinese go online for the first time every month.

Millions have opened blogs, too. Mobile phone users also reached more than half a billion in September, according to the government.

Even though Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution is supposed to guarantee freedom of speech, China continues to restrict the flow of information. Fearful of the surge in Internet and mobile phone usage -- and the information they are able to transmit -- the Chinese authorities are stepping up efforts to monitor and restrict their use, according to Reporters Without Borders, which fights against censorship and laws that undermine press freedom. A few Internet data centers have been closed down, along with thousands of Web sites.

Controversial blogs are blocked and unblocked multiple times. But silencing these citizen journalists is getting more difficult.

Days after Wei's January 7 death, a government official in Tianmen city, Wei's hometown, was fired, four others detained and more than 100 placed under investigation. Chinese authorities now appear to be taking these cases seriously.

Goldkorn said: "It's the kind of trouble that is very threatening to the party and the government, because it's the kind of trouble that questions their reason d'etre. So when looking at things like this, in the back of their minds, is always, 'Could this develop into a real mass incident that has the power to threaten the stability of China?' "

Meanwhile, bloggers are heaping eulogies for Wei. So far, no one has seen the pictures Wei took that day. It is thought his camera was destroyed in the beating.

"Eternal repose to Citizen Wei Wenhua," wrote blogger Wang Gongquan. "In the face of violence and brute power, he lifted a citizen's rights, conscience, responsibility and courage."

Reporters Without Borders said, "Wei is the first 'citizen journalist' to die in China because of what he was trying to film."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

TC: Earthshine

"the old moon in the new moon's arms."


for Vincent

The waxing crescent moon with furred nimbus
Of a cold milky mouse grave October
Blurring into blue dark Mare Nectaris
Endymion ringed with pearly fog
Mare Crisium and Mare Undarum
Old moon yearning in the new moon's arms
Every loose thread left dangling
At dusk Saturn rises out of the ocean
Heavenly waters so tired of waiting
Aquatic constellations swim into view
Aquarius Capricornus Pisces
Venus ascends four a.m. with the tide
White day opening not that far behind it
Swallows tossed wide around a calm sky

Tom Clark

(Also known as the Moon's "ashen glow" or "the old Moon in the new Moon's arms", Earthshine is Earthlight reflected from the Moon's night side. A description of Earthshine, in terms of sunlight reflected by Earth's oceans in turn illuminating the Moon's dark surface, was written 500 years ago by Leonardo da Vinci.)

TC/VK: The Night of the Life of the Mind 2 / Creeley in Helsinki


Robert Creeley: Autobiography

I can watch, from this window, an insistent height of sky that has been all this past fall and winter a companion to my being here, and a subtle, unaggressive information of where, in fact, it is. It's as if I can't really see ground but, rather, the tops of birches, planted in the back common ground of this large apartment block, which are on ground level. One could reach out, with sufficiently long arms, and pick off twigs from their crowns. Elsewise I look across at other apartment windows, which are of regular dimensions, set and abstracting, in the flat yellowish-brown stucco. Above there are details of brickwork, the point where an edge of roof meets another. There are galvanized tin roofs, one painted a barn red, another black, both common colors of industrial cover paints. And the sky is another thing entirely, persistently, though it is within a set frame, the window, a place, simply up there. It isn't only its being far, or indeterminant, or just this massive, shifting place of light and weather. It is just that it proposes no human convenience, that it isn't simple, that it won't go away... Zukofsky was shy of such writing as this, because it fouls up the gauges, makes them stick. There is a broken-record tone of necessity in it that keeps coming back to the beginning of the proposition, that there was someone to begin with, and that something therefore followed. Wittgenstein proposes that it is the 'I' that is 'deeply mysterious,' not 'you' or 'them.' What cannot be objectified is oneself...

Vincent Katz's photo (below) documents a particular Robert Creeley milieu. RC spent much of the winter of 1988-89 in Helsinki. Away from familiar social settings and thus often alone with himself, he composed the autobiographical memoir which appears toward the back of the book we did together (Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place: New Directions). The Finland essay was written almost exactly twenty years ago, and completed on March 23, 1989. Bob related that it was the extreme isolation of his wintertime stay in Helsinki that made possible the introspection necessary to undertake such an intensive examination of his own life. That sense of isolation, enhancing the memory of distant and departed friends, informs the emotion of the piece. It approaches an ending with references to Creeley's fellow poets Duncan and Olson, then a quote from Ted Berrigan on life's quality of adventure ("I'd like to take the whole trip"), then a lovely passage from Hart Crane:

Distinctly praise the years, whose volatile
Blessed bleeding hands extend and thresh the height

The imagination spans beyond despair,

Outpacing bargain, vocable and prayer.

The bare tops of the birches, the hulking apartment blocks, the snow field in the common ground beyond and the vast pale sky expanding over everything, tinged with rose as the early northern evening comes on--one can imagine the poet dwelling on this view as night falls and he reflects upon his life. And too, seeking an entry to his thoughts, one may follow his reading of the time, in Wittgenstein's Tractatus:

Death is not an event in life; we do not live to experience death.

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.

Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.

Not only is there no guarantee of the temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say of its eternal survival after death; but, in any case, this assumption completely fails to accomplish the purpose for which it has always been intended. Or is some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life as much a riddle as our present life? The solution of the riddle of space and time lies outside space and time...

How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world...

It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.

To view the world sub specie aeterni is to view it as a whole—a limited whole.

When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words.

The riddle does not exist.

Looking through the window of the lit-up computer screen at Vincent's photo, one is reminded that the omnipresent night of the life of the mind contains all that has existed in the luminous darkness of its riddle, which can never be captured in words. One imagines Bob pausing over his nearly-completed text.

And it closes so movingly, bringing us back with the poet to his memory of the human world, that limited whole, that open riddle never to be solved, endless yet coming to an end, mystical yet entirely real and palpable in this suspended moment of his final words:

One had the company.


Helsinki, near The Church of the Rock
photo by Vincent Katz, February 2009

TC: The Night of the Life of the Mind 1 / Georges de La Tour


Little Prince basks serene
As an Egyptian god on his barge
On the green cushion, gently breathing

While in his sleep mouselike plays the mind
With its empty toys less real
Than the large drops of rain the nightwind tosses

The night, dark as the flooding of the Nile
The brain, that clouded crystal ball
Blurry with drowned thoughts—

A waterlogged squirrel that gathers
Its nuts to float this dream of words sub noctis
From magic to error, from aether to terra

On the upriver stream toward morning

"La Tour's various representations of Mary Magdalene
rework the nocturne in the direction of self-scrutiny
and penitence; the candle sits next to a skull, and it is the skull,
not her own beauty, that the saint pensively considers in the mirror.
La Tour exploits to the full the capacity of candlelight
to spirit away the world that lies outside its own bright centre,
and swallow it up in darkness; it is as though nothing exists
beyond the figure's own solitude."

—Norman Bryson

Monday, February 16, 2009

TC: A Meditation Outside The Fertile Grounds Cafe

A Meditation Outside the Fertile Grounds Cafe

Ayman just came back from his family
Home in the West Bank. How's the spirit there?
I asked. "Good. Nobody's giving up."
Ayman paused, wiping down the spotless glass top
Of the pastry case one more careful time
Without looking up. Thinking to himself.
"After all, all they want's a little justice."
On the map of the West Bank, that blank space
Just to the left of the town of Bhiddu
Is the village where Ayman's father, one
Of twenty children, was born and raised.
The name of the village means House of Stones
"Because there's a quarry there," but still
It's too small to rate a spot on the map in
The Economist, alongside this story
On the fresh welling up of blood and anger
In my friend's home land, that blank space
Filled with blood and stones. Ayman loves
His trade; in six years he's built from nothing
The coolest little coffee shop on the street;
People like him, he likes them; he makes
Great coffee, his sandwiches are famed, justly;
It's the old American Horatio
Alger Dream, and America's his country.
Every day he gets hundreds of calls
On his cell phone. "But know how many
Calls from people here I take when I'm back
Home?" he smiles. "None. I talk to people
There." And when he goes back home to Beit
Duqqu, America feels far away.
That's the way it feels to me too, but I have
No other home. The photo of the olive tree,
Its roots exposed from the bulldozer cut,
That was up on Ayman's wall last autumn—
Is that a photo of a broken home
Or is it that one's home's always intact
In one's mind as long as one's heart is
Full? I wouldn't begin to know. Tacked
On a phone pole out front of Fertile Grounds
In drifting night mist, a tattered poster
With a picture of a cat's face on it, lost
Near Delaware and Shattuck. It's Momo.
And what's become of poor Momo, now a week
Gone? Tonight, caning into the fog,
I hallucinated a Momo
Sighting downtown. No, just another feral.
Over ferals few sentimental
Tears are shed. A shelter's not a home.
A sanctuary's what everybody needs
These days—the ferals, the street and doorway
People, the drifters in the mist, the bums.
On my way back, as I passed, I saw that
A young Arab girl in headscarf sat weeping
At a table outside Fertile Grounds. Ayman
In his counterman's apron, spick and span,
And Mohamed stood huddled in conference,
Mo holding a cell phone. "She's just lost
Her family, everything," Mo said softly.
"She doesn't have people here. I am
Going to help her." Ayman was talking
To the girl in Arabic, serious, hushed.
Then too Mo, in Arabic, reassuring.
"Don't worry, it will be okay," said Mo—
Switching back to Shattuck Avenue English
For me, the infidel. God is great. May
God bring Momo home if it is His will,
And everybody else along with him,
Whomever that may include—we, living—
And we'll abide in that, and till then hope
That Momo too, pilfering out of the trash
Bins behind the Shattuck eateries,
Will abide likewise. He'll not lack competition.

Tom Clark

(From The New World, a forthcoming Libellum book)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

TC: The Lonesome Guitarist: What Is The Place Of Poetry On A Blog?

(A Letter to a Blog Administrator)

Dear ----,

Thanks for writing. There are issues in your letter I'd like to address.

To then begin by considering your thoughtful comment:

"[Your poem], I suspect, will have intimidated the [blog readers], it is indeed profound and serious, and has both general and deeply personal meaning. I would imagine that most of them will have read it, felt that it needed them to come back and re-read and make a thoughtful comment, and then other things will have got in the way or they will have felt in the end that they had nothing to offer.

"The [blog readers] as a group are terrified of seeming pretentious and are very modest about their own critical abilities - they're also aware, because they have all put their own pieces on [these blogs], that it takes courage for people to post their own work. So they go in the direction of saying 'That's nice' and then having a chat. While this sometimes makes the writer feel like the guitarist in the corner of a coffee-shop..."

This analogy of the lonesome and disregarded guitarist perhaps comes close to certain issues of mutual concern re. the poet's participation in a blog-chatter site.

You may or may not know I have written many books (and literally many hundreds of essays and reviews) about the art of poetry and its practitioners: critical essays collected in a book called The Poetry Beat, critical biographies of many poets including Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn--perhaps mere vaguely-familiar names to you, but, from what I've seen, luminaries of magnitude, diluted somewhat perhaps by fifth- and sixth-hand transmission, in the Guardian Unlimited poem-of-the-month homework assignments.

But the one book I've written about poets/poetry that maybe speaks most closely to the art itself, as we are discussing it here, is a biography-in-verse of John Keats, Junkets on a Sad Planet: Scenes from the Life of John Keats (Black Sparrow Press, 1994).

In this book a (or the) central motif is suggested in a frontispiece drawing (repeated following the last poem) of an unstrung lyre. This image represents, on a literal and specific level, a gift bestowed upon Keats by Fanny Brawne: a Tassie seal upon which is graven the image of an unstrung lyre. The lyre, in the small world of Keats and his circle, is of course that of Apollo--a lyre whose strings Keats had vowed from early manhood to pluck, and a god whose laurels he intended, above all other things in life, to someday gather.

In some sense my verse biography tells the story of that lovely, lofty aspiration, and of its shattering by life, and of the coming-unstrung of the lyre.

The metaphor is resonant through the book also in images of the constellation Lyra, hanging like a map to Apollo's kingdom above the mean and not-so-mean streets of Regency London. You know of course Keats was an ostler's son born within earshot of Bow Bells (your current neighbourhood, after all!), who determined early on, despite the enormity of this ambition considering his class status, to make a name for himself in time to come as among "the English Poets"--by which he meant no less than Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, all those creators of wonders he'd discovered as a lad at Clarke's school in Enfield. (As of that class status, his friends called JK "Junkets" in a friendly imitation of his Cockney way of saying his name--but of course there were others, like "Z" of Blackwood's, who were far less kind about his unmistakeably evident Cockney origins.)

In the prelude to the book, we hear that Hermes found an empty tortoise shell on the beach and strung seven strings through the holes, and that light shimmered then upon the strings, which when plucked delivered heavenly sounds. Hermes swapped this instrument to Apollo for a magic healing staff entwined with snakes. The staff also possessed the ability to render its owner airborne. But Apollo did not feel cheated in the exchange, for now he possessed the divine power of song.

Apollo passed on the power of song to his son, Orpheus, but not without warning him about the special concealed defect of this wonderful gift. Though it was a very strong power, it left you in many ways defenseless, because you could not do harm with it. And the defect concealed in this gift? You might well die for possessing it.

While staying very close to the period historical grain throughout, in my Junkets I deploy this metaphor as a motif or subtext that tells the life story of Keats at a parabolic level. (The Allegory of a Poet's Life is a title I've also used, in my biography of Olson, there again to refer to Keats' comment that the life of a poet is a Life of Allegory, figurative in so many important respects.) Throughout the book, the poet's lyre appears as a figure of poetic gift, meanwhile beckoning overhead as that remote constellation in the London night sky.

Should you ever look into the book, you'll find the poems that are to some extent pervaded by this motif include The Power of Song, Pegasus Jockey, Yonder's Wall, Cockney Childhood, Sidereal Study, Debut, and Sensitive--

"At their meeting presided over by Haydon
Wordsworth told Keats his Hymn to Pan
was no more than a pretty piece of paganism
and, as Haydon shrewdly noted, Keats
actually trembled, like the string of
a lyre when it has been touched"

-- and Sentiment, spoken by Fanny Brawne--

"Somehow I knew damaged Beauty would be his theme, giving him on the happiest day I had ever then spent the Tassie letter seal of a Greek lyre with half its strings dangling slack and broken--a gift I was right to think might pique his power of song--which was no less than Apollo's--playing with words was then and ever after his chief pastime and pleasure--"

--The Summer Triangle, A Pocket Apollo, and A Warm Situation, spoken by Keats himself--

"My chance of immortality is to learn the tune of nature's quiet power, and take up my lyre, a pocket Apollo as Mrs. Jones teased me once, assimilated completely to that warm song..."

--and then, in his terminal illness, Unstrung--

"His lyre pulled down from the sky, stomped on, broken..."

-- and Sentiment II (Fanny Brawne)--

"...and from Italy he sealed his last letters with that same Tassie seal..."

--and again in the Coda--

"The whole fate drama hoving onto view
Before dawn under the lyric stars--"

"The burden of the mystery producing
A mimetic touching of the strings"

What is it I am struggling to say, by way of this circuitous tour through the course of that Apollonian lyre metaphor in my version of Keats' life, that's relevant to our dialogue about the place of poetry on a blogchatter site?

Perhaps this.

Your line, "While this sometimes makes the writer feel like the guitarist in the corner of a coffee-shop," now helps me to understand that maybe Apollo did indeed get the poor end of that bargain with Hermes. And that the unfortunate fate of Keats is a small parable on the subject. And that in this cold and all-too-real earthly world of ours the lonely guitarist had better find some warming coin--not so much monetary as, dare one say, spiritual reward--in his case at the end of the evening, else all he was doing was hastening his own demise to no discernible end... while the insouciant audience chattered on around him/her. (For all of eternity, as it were.)


And the Blog Administrator replied:

"... while they're a nice, varied and intelligent bunch they don't have much critical apparatus. (Nor do I, for that matter, where poetry's concerned) It'll never be like the audience you might get at a poetry reading who would have the vocabulary to express their reactions to the work, but that doesn't mean they don't take the work in and react in their own way..."

"...But it's a pleasant coffee bar and the guitarist is expected to sit and chat with everyone else, and they'll usually have a kind word to say about the music."

Tom Clark