Monthly Archives: January 2012

Bagehot’s namesake

Since this fan site is dedicated to Bagehot, I thought I’d better explain why I named my beagle after a Victorian economist I know chiefly as the author of a rhetoric on the progress of civilizations, which he felt culminated in the selection of the fittest, his own, the British Empire. Why not a Victorian poet, a less bigoted student of natural science, or a progressive political idealist? What made Bagehot’s name a heroic one for me was the boldness of his rhetorical defense of empiricism as the basis of political idealism. Already in Victorian England, on the heels of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, Bagehot’s positivism was on the defensive as a paradigm in which beliefs can be tested against evidence, knowledge is perfectible and decisions can be rational. Instead of abandoning its flag, he strove to carry it forward into the field of political science. Can this be done without his solipsism? In Systems of Survival, a rhetoric on human morality that points toward organizing principles that transcend history and culture, I see reason to believe there is a way. An alternative to the dizzying array of signs without definite referents proposed by postmodern theories of governance.

“Every way of man is right in his own eyes, Byron; the lord ponders the heart. Proverbs: 21.”

If it can be found in the Bible, there is nothing new in postmodernism, and in its earlier incarnations it was trumped by demand for a justice system that serves the community, expressed as a religious doctrine meant to trump diversity in statecraft when the chosen people could not be ruled by one of their own. What is new is the idea that subject communities have rights of self-determination within polities that could overwhelm them but could not rule them humanely. It accommodates social differences that are economically alienating and prevent subject groups from thriving in the political economy of the state. It approaches language barriers in the information economy as having cultural integrity and holds that if these languages were dissolved to facilitate information exchange, identity would be lost and the consequences would be profound for individuals and society. It privileges voice over status, allowing individuals from affected populations to contradict experts who designed public policies and point out that they have created perverse incentives. But these reforms are meaningless without the state’s commitment to protecting the subject groups from the depredations of its own political economy. And for the state’s purposes empiricism is paramount. Postmodern thought in the hands of a criminal defense attorney is as wicked as Ben Wade. And this is only a tantalizing hint at its potential to act as a double-edged sword.

In my experience, relativism is commonly cited as a justification for condoning corrupt practices in health services in developing countries. Perverse incentives are dressed up as cultural imperatives and disinformation is reinforced in the name of protecting access to uninformed patients, even where it threatens public health. In Systems of Survival I have found a theory of corruption that recognizes the importance of identity, diversity and minority rights. Too late to name my beagle after the author, Jane Jacobs, but time to apply her ideas to my own work. Bagehot, by the way, means badger in Old English.

What led me into this apologia for my beagle’s namesake was the centrality of indigenous rights to Q’Orianka Kilcher’s activism in Peru. I’ve been blogging about The New World a lot because it’s my favorite subject for love poetry, and she is one of my favorite actors. So I try to follow her work as an activist as well, mobilizing youth and engaging documentary film makers to empower the defenders of the Amazon who live and die on the front lines. The logging equivalent of poachers murder and terrorize those who live in the rainforest when they threaten new roads across their territories, sometimes with the collusion of a government determined to extract export revenues from the hinterland to finance development in the cities where voters are concentrated. It is a genocidal low-intensity conflict across all the borders of the Amazon, but it is rarely in the news.

Genocide used to give us greater anxiety about our international obligations as members of a global society than it does today. The vitality of video evidence of human rights abuses competes with its viability as a hook for selling newspapers, commercials and emergency relief largesse that can be pilfered by local bandits or kleptocrats for our sense of conscientiousness. Our President had to act almost unilaterally to respond to the threat of genocide in Libya, and only the innovation of drone warfare made doing so politically viable. If the war in Iraq taught us anything, it is that a civilian population cannot be protected from irregular fighters without foot patrols and heavy military casualties. These are sacrifices we are increasingly reluctant to make, particularly when the perpetrators of human rights abuses are not our military adversaries.

Postmodern political science has given us the notion that genocide arises out of human nature under conditions of class conflict along ethnic fault lines. Some ask, why would we sacrifice to fight the law of the jungle? Couldn’t genocides arise in ever increasing numbers around the post-colonial world and render our efforts futile? But a worked example of this theory amounts to rationalizing in the defense of the perpetrators. One war correspondent I’ve read can do better.

In The Warrior’s Honor, Michael Ignatieff links atrocities like genocide to two predictors, use of irregular fighters like militias and the availability of media monopolies to bombard the population with racist propaganda. The formula for racist propaganda is class conscious in the irrational sense of fomenting paranoia about the distribution of wealth, but rather than using evidence of unexplained wealth to target aggression, a ‘predatory’ or ‘parasitic’ class is invented on ethnic distinctions that the militias can ferret out in their neighbors on the basis of their vanity over slight differences in appearance and custom that are considered important to their identities. Indeed he senses from his interviews with fighters in ethnic wars around the world that the slighter the difference, the more preening the distinction and the more pronounced the paranoia and violence, as though tenuous motives corrupt the soul more completely.

These insights are rare even in someone who has seen the face of genocide first hand in many incarnations. The narrative of a career photographing small wars in Africa in The Zanzibar Chest is bewildered, alienated, ironic and traumatized instead. The author lost a friend to the events depicted in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, and I only recommend the book for a different point of view on those events. A more sensitive portrait of the experience of witnessing violence as a civilian is the movie Triage. This poem about it could be read as a spoiler, so if you haven’t seen it you might not read this until you do.

A loss of innocence is inward, pure
in its compass of privacy fulfilled
by the annihilation of a ghost
that crept inside the circle of defense,
the magic outline of the protected
and self-consulting few, body and mind
and fellows whose bodies and minds matter.
The loss is truly invisibly yours,
its witness will not survive left outside.
A ghost is only visible to friends.
The peopled world outside does not look in,
the boundary is as solid as your skin
and as tactile, recoiling from danger
even to a place within your body
if your body comes to harm. Sentient,
the world within has artifacts, culture,
the tools you use to bring to life the sights
that your imagination calls its voice.
When you stand near a wildflower it stands
within the circle and is yours, alive
with meaning and identity and charm.
You move away and see instead a field,
a swath of color, a bright impression.
To leave behind a friend is not the same.
He left an artifact with you, a gift,
a way of answering you, too, you hear
the same inside your head when questions come.
He knows your voice, accompanies you toward
your inspiration, distracts you telling
his own story of your lives, resists you
without resentment, follows after all.
You are unfair to one another, kind
and selfish by turns, you owe each other.
To walk away is never just, alive
or dead, and in the unwhole world between
men hold a great deal over all, a right
to be salvaged from darkness and made well.
Only when death is certain do they fail
to compel every effort from us, then
the struggle is for dignity, not life.
And yet this is a fiction, dignity
is comfort and resilience and defense
from every insult, death can be gentle
only with the greatest of care (or luck).
Perhaps no ghost competes with self-defense,
but when the circle just recoils, like that,
and leaves a friend outside to die, it hurts.
To turn aside a ghost before his time
for fear of being drawn out of the world
he once inhabited with you is hard,
but deep inside the brainstem works a drive
to breathe, to bleed, to work against the dead,
and the reflecting mind is adamant
that life will be preserved. You will endure
and leave behind the defenseless at last.
The question is what you will have to say,
when loved ones crowd the safety of your home,
intruding on the circle, asking why
you find yourself alone, why you don’t fill
the conversation for your friend with shared
memories and the anticipation
of seeing him again as soon as planned.

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Filed under Poetry, Postmodernism, Puppy love

Sadness of a Woman

The Crowe/Doyle Songbook Vol. III is full of reflective love songs that delve into the work of loving in relationships that endure long after attraction has been fulfilled. There’s something exotic about the subject, so much of the way our culture understands love revolves around the problems of attraction, “falling in love” being the story we’re told, ending with a happily ever after announced with wedding bells or a kiss. We are set up by this culture for bittersweet epilogues to that kiss. The New World has a pivotal kiss, but some of its most beautiful moments come earlier, when their marriage approaches estrangement and even the distance within it is an act of commitment. This story of the private lives of John Rolfe and Rebecca is believable because of the tenderness with which he looks on before approaching her in the fort, as she sleepwalks in a sense of damnation, reachable only in irrational ways. Q’Orianka Kilcher’s portrayal of this all-consuming depression is soul searching and speaks to the theme of one of the songs on this album, as if there is an existential “Sadness of a Woman.”

The distance in your gaze speaks to an odyssey
of love and loss as epic as the journey I
have made to join the settlers of this new world,
to found a new economy and raise unfurled
a flag to Christian brotherhood and common law.
You carry water heavily, ignoring straw
still in your hair from where you lay on open ground.
The shelter of our fort means nothing to you, bound
by exile more than by captivity. I watch.
The warmth I feel for you, familiar as the touch
of sunshine or the smell of rain, fills me without
my knowing. I don’t even know your name. I doubt
the world has heard your secrets or consoled your pain,
but you’ve given of yourself and given up, lain
uncovered in the night, and brought the elements
into your heart. You are the sun’s companion, bent
but full of wonderment and gentle impulses
to nourish and sustain. To speak to you now as
your only intimate is to unwork words from
the loom of prized identity, let speech become
less subterfuge than gesture, reflexive, restrained.
You struggle with the thought of me, subdued, constrained
by your experience, and I am at a loss.
But I can teach you, curiosity can cross
the chasm opening between us when your thoughts
return to what you cherished most, the love that brought
you to the inward and unblinking reverie
of absolute defeat, a shattered refugee
abandoned and bereaved. To bring you back to joy
and playfulness, to tease you, every gentle ploy
unbarbed and full of sentiment, only to reach
you in your easy trance, distract your gaze, to breach
your privacy and wind you out from your dark maze,
I’d shelter you through any memory and raise
a lantern to your unrelenting night, as kind
as you could need a man to be and as entwined
with loss as you have been. I want to guide you home.
We still have time to find our place in life and comb
the passing hours for surprises and delights
that visit on the wings of chance, return to flight,
and leave us hungry for enchantment and at peace.
You’ll find your voice and feel your open hands release
the weight of solitude – you have a choice, a life
ahead of you. Come with me now, to be my wife.
The majesty of little moments will consume
our memories of grief and carefully make room
for the discovery of happiness in love,
and nothing in the world I left can rise above
the highness in your tenderness embracing our
small child. I sense the shadow of your darkest hour
inside your stillness, but I know you’ve overcome
an agony that would have killed you to succumb
to had you welcomed the escapist depths of night.
I cannot bring you pain – if you revoke my right
to hold you close, if his survival is the end
of our quiescent passion, then our bond will bend
to give you room to love him as you feel you must.
I will not force or blame you, knowing you were thrust
into this conflict unawares. I have to yield,
I owe you the serenity of heartache healed,
and I will take you to the world that he returned
to having made a name. This is a love unearned
and undeserved but I must honor yours until
you know why I protest you are not married. Still
you have a husband in me if you want me by
your side. To hear you raise your voice again, belie
the hurt and welcome me back to your heart, made free
and unforgotten but unbound to memory,
I fall again into the deep security
of your enchantments and I hear your melody
in this, your kiss, as hopeful as the gentle light
that shows me you can smile again, your soul in flight.

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Filed under Acting, Music, Poetry

Babylon

“Though thy streets be a hundred, thy gates be all brass,
Yet thy proud ones of war shall be wither’d like grass;
Thy gates shall be broken, thy strength be laid low,
And thy streets shall resound to the shouts of the foe!

Though thy chariots of power on thy battlements bound,
And the grandeur of waters encompass thee round;
Yet thy walls shall be shaken, thy waters shall fail,
Thy matrons shall shriek, and thy king shall be pale.” – Tennyson, Babylon

Not Alexander, but Cyrus the Great, the conquering Mede who founded the Persian Empire is invoked in this poem (and in Isaiah, quoted in its epigraph) as the hand of a God who will not rest until the Babylon of sensuous paganism is reduced to dust. The same Israelites would celebrate Alexander’s destruction of Tyre (prophesied in Ezekiel), a Persian ship-building city with a bitter economic and cultural rivalry with Jerusalem, and they honored Alexander for leaving their own holy city unscathed. But for generations the Persians governed Israel, and though reduced by Cyrus, Babylon would thrive in economic importance again under their rule, bringing them to represent its excesses in the Western imagination. Babylon knew how to earn her autonomy under foreign rule, welcoming many conquerors like Alexander with open arms.

True, you entered Babylon perfect and loved by all, crowned
king of the known world, roses spread under your magnificent march
through the blue gates, Bucephalus solemn, crowds in awe, cheering.
Inside, you accepted this, its cost, though power corrupts.
You had the nobility to move beyond dangerous success.
You could want everything and still give away the great wealth you
achieved, even to Persians. You saw their dignity, knowledge,
beauty in perfect strangeness, and you meant to reconcile
Greek and Eastern ways, not penance for bloodshed but duty
toward mankind. This at all costs. No Macedonian king could
dare so much except by blood. First your general’s son, then himself.
Phillip had trusted him most. There was scant evidence. It shook you, cold.
You made yourself more completely alone than a king dare
be, Hephaistion the only one, and you could never survive
without him. I do not know how your dream of him ended, but you reached
for death with this, his gift, in your hand: the great ring, love the last thought.

Who were the Persians? An origin story for the long-running wars between Persia and Greece adds a little color to the archaeological record:

Histiaios, a Persian commander under Darius whose service fighting over a bridge on the Danube had been rewarded with land on the lower Strymon at Myrkinos, founded a city there and settled down. “According to Herodotus the warning that Megabazos gave about the potentialities of the place in timber for ships, silver mining, and the human resources available had caused Darius to change his mind and take Histiaios back to Susa as his advisor; and the story continues that, yearning to get back home, Histiaios sent a message tattooed on a slave’s scalp urging [his son-in-law] Aristagoras to revolt, for he knew that in that case Darius would send him down to the coast to put matters to rights.” The tattoo would allow the message to pass down Persian roads with military checkpoints along their length where travelers were searched for intelligence, to guard against the ever-present threat of intrigue. “Aristagoras was aware that the fleet commanders would not revolt because they depended on Darius for their rule in their cities. So he had them arrested while the fleet was lying in a lagoon near Miletus, proclaimed democracy, and then sailed to Greece hoping to gain support.” – J. M. Cook. Sparta demurred, perhaps because Persia often employed Spartan mercenaries and represented an important source of gold. Athens promised twenty ships and was adeptly drawn into a staged revolt that would inspire a vendetta against the city in the court of Darius, carried out over generations in expeditions of conquest, and fomenting the epic Peloponnesian War between Persia’s Spartan allies and the Athenian Greeks. Herodotus may have drawn liberally on hero stories and legends in his histories of the ancient world, but he was a great traveler and is said to have climbed the tower of Babel himself, and so is an eminent source.

Another Cyrus attracted a Spartan expedition into Persia in an unsuccessful attempt to usurp the Persian throne, chronicled in Xenophon’s Anabasis with admiration for the ambitious younger brother of the king. Xenophon wrote an account of The Education of Cyrus as a model of preparation for leadership. But this expedition was to seal the Persians’ reputation for dishonor with the Greeks, for the Greek commanders were assassinated under a flag of truce when they sought to negotiate safe passage home after Cyrus was killed in battle. Alexander would study Xenophon’s Anabasis for knowledge of the great roads his own army could take, and recited the routes to Persian emissaries with relish as a precocious child.

Alexander, too, would favor Babylon as a city of economic and cultural eminence, and the wars among his successors left Babylonian civilization intact. Only when the Euphrates changed its course and the waterworks irrigating Mesopotamia fell into disrepair would Babylon truly be ruined.

“There the wandering Arab shall ne’er pitch his tent,
But the beasts of the desert shall wail and lament;
In their desolate houses the dragons shall lie,
And the satyrs shall dance, and the bittern shall cry!” – Tennyson, Babylon

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How do lambs become lions?

How can corporations be persons? Public Citizen is one of many grassroots organizations saying they can’t and proposing constitutional amendments to shut down SuperPACs. But their proposed amendments are modest restrictions on corporate speech, with an unmitigated loophole for corporations peddling news or information. Any corporation or political machine with privacy protection for all revenues in and the freedom to spend them on votes by any means, direct on indirect, should logically have a special attraction for the money laundering business, increasing the political clout of organized crime. First amendment protections for cash and corporations respectively invite corruption if they aren’t withdrawn absolutely. So why do constitutional law experts doubt simpler amendments specifying “money is not speech” and “corporations are not people” will work?

Corporations have long-standing rights to enter into legally binding contracts as individuals and bear liabilities as individuals, and the syllogism corporations:individuals :: people:individuals opened the door to First Amendment protections for corporate speech on logical grounds. Word play opened the door to reform of the political economy, but it is shaded. Thus far corporate personhood is due First Amendment rights, but not privacy protections against Freedom of Information Act requests. It is not a literal reversal and a literal reaction would have a muddled future in the courts, because contract law is indispensible and would trump the intent of the reform so completely it could be gutted in the interpretation.

The court’s intentions have hardly been discussed, their actions have so clearly corrupted our politics that popular opinion has no justification for them. Why did the court dare confront us with this unpopular new species of political machine? Perhaps there was more to it than deliberately fomenting SuperPAC politics. Ours is an economy driven by consumerism, and consumers are motivated to spend beyond their needs by aggressive marketing of consumer goods, using disinformation, bombardment, seduction and interactive marketing that relies on corporations’ freedom to gather personal information on consumers. Protecting these tools of the trade keeps our market attractive, and our country trades more on its capacity for consumption than on its capacity for production these days. What seems radical is the notion that corporations have the right to freely influence public policy through spending on political speech, and that this spending need not be reported – not even shareholders have the right to demand information about it. Can these reforms be reversed without bumping up against the economic imperatives of information exchange in the service of consumerism?

On the other hand, I’ve been looking at some textbooks on corruption that favor the conventional wisdom that the court’s attitude is permissive of corruption. Early economic analyses of corrupt practices often harped on this theme: “There are very few things worse for a country than having a corrupt, obtrusive bureaucracy, and one of them is having an honest, obtrusive bureaucracy.” Conservative thinking on economic policy is fairly permissive of corruption per se. Now look at our constitution in this light: “presidential systems are more corrupt, on balance, than parliamentary democracies and that proportional representation systems are more corrupt than first-past-the-post systems. The worst systems combine strong presidents with proportional representation under which a powerful executive can negotiate with a few powerful party leaders to share the spoils of office” (Susan Rose-Ackerman, International Handbook on the Economics of Corruption, 2006).

Steven Rosenfeld has an insightful article on the amendments that have been proposed thus far, their strengths and weaknesses. There is more to this than word play, and as he says, less discussion of ends and means than we will need to have to effectively reverse these reforms.

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Filed under Economics, False controversies, Robin Hood

Horse movies

I’m an animal lover. One of my favorite movies is The Black Stallion, and that movie had everything to do with my wanting to see Alexander despite the reviews. I saw the preview, I knew that horse from the legend, and I had to see the movie. Didn’t concern myself with who was playing Alexander. The last thing I expected was to come out of the movie a Colin Farrell fan.

That horse movie changed my life. I can show you the evidence. This early example of Alexander fan poetry is expressive on the surface, but full of visual descriptions and stage directions, and observations about human feeling and motivation are scant and simplistic. This passage about Bucephalus is the only excerpt from my early attempts that I consider presentable, and it only works because the horse has great physical stage presence and unthought-provoking motivation.

Coursing away from the circling throng to emerge from the slant light
under the shade-threshing cloud, feathered feet in suspension, caught midflight
turning along the arena’s packed earth like the sleek surf on beach sand
smoothly subsiding and rising as though no one wave ever broke and
touched on the shore, the black stallion tore upright and pawed at the bright air
startling even his handlers, giving a storm wind-pitched cry, hair
belling around the abrupt back-flung arc of his neck in a swirling
hurricane scatter of wind-ridden strands, heaven’s banner unfurling.
Philip responded, impressed with the horse’s magnificent challenge,
sending a pair of men straight in to catch the loose reins as the black lunged
violently, tearing his handlers’ hold on the rope tugging backwards.
Passing an expert, appreciative eye over powerful legs, toward
steep sloping shoulders, a beautiful back, the thick curve of compact strength
driving his sun-striking stance on firm hind legs – not braced but stock still – length
giving his massive build elegant height and the promise of great speed,
Philip admired the animal openly, letting his hopes feed
boldly on fury, the heady abandon that burned in the black’s gaze,
pouring in billows of dawn-silvered steam down his thrashing, uncurbed raised
neck and exploding in whistling snorts from his fine, flashing jaws, wide
flaring wet nostrils contracting, releasing, betraying the inside
panic a breaker of horses could calm with a breath-seizing soothe-word.
Here stood a warrior’s companion, a horse to be feared and remembered.

In scenes with more human interaction I tried to describe, the superficiality of my grasp of these dimensions of the film was obvious even to me. I struggled to remember or infer anything about why anyone did what they did as I wrote, and felt that the writing was unacceptably flat where I hadn’t resorted to digressions into still life, political geography or nature imagery as metaphor.

This killed me, because I hadn’t decided to write an Alexander epic in honor of Bonzo the star stud. He seemed too young for the part. It was Colin Farrell who had impressed me, and I wasn’t capturing what mattered about his performance in any way, shape or form.

I got into writing fan poetry about other movies to practice, since apart from Alexander there would be less riding on getting it right in my mind, and ghastly false starts wouldn’t be so devastating. But fighting nerves wasn’t even half the battle. The obstacles were the same for any human subject. I had no insight into where the lines in the dialogue were coming from, what was going unsaid, or what gave the characters unity of personality and defined the actors’ interpretations of the parts. I was starting to ask the questions that would lead me to believe I’m a bit autistic, and have some attentional deficits to work on with respect to human behavior.

Only when I decided to try first person and second person narration and work out the inner life of the characters by putting myself in their shoes did the thoughts begin to flow. I have several poems in Alexander’s voice addressed to Hephaistion in Greek meters like this one, which is much richer in interpretation of the emotional drama.

You never meant to let me win, the only one I knew to trust, and
grappling with you I had to find the grip too
firm to slip, use all my weight and insight – prove that greatness
and power and not the mere words were of my blood, that fear
and failure could not touch my name. To come near in the darkness
and tell me why you know that this myth can come true
stills the doubt inside, because from you belief is a pure gift,
free from the cruel exchange flattery trades on, but strange,
superstitious, a mystical faith. We kept our two heroes
close to our hearts, but the fates they sought were symbolic, hate
and revenge were a pretext for courage, death was an embrace,
we were lovers before we were men and in our war
excellence was the prize. Ideas that moved us were perfect,
unreal, and daunting. Faith in them left us doubting
religion, sense perception, the whole of our bounded, modest world.
We might conquer the earth for them, but they would give birth
and meaning to the beyond even then. You, Roxane, both more
and yet not enough, like no one on earth, who could strike
me to the core with your eyes, you fought but loved above yourselves
and spoke true. What if I failed, fled home, lived out a lie?
You stood to correct me, console me, guard what was mine, and
pledge eternity by me, everything on the line.
I sought in you my last refuge from the words said in my name,
my mother’s hate, sure I had to inherit pure
anger from all her disappointments, trust no one, let my name
be my guide. My wife looked on when we said that life
moved on but we would not part. She gambled her life, let her hate be
known, fought to damn our love, and raged, the bed cursed, but it fanned
flames up in my breaking heart, and I bedded her and prayed.
Holding your head in darkness I know, no one can supplant
you, but her voice, so dark, intimate and yet as stark
and unforgiving as the sky, warns me to give customs
sway and listen to my queen. What can be said, the why
and how of my true destiny, she does not know, but her embrace,
like yours, tells me I’m saved, is a sign it is time.

Making a thing about being a fan has been quite a journey for me. One thing Colin has said more than once is that in his mind, “love is curiosity,” and as incomplete as that sounds, I owe him for instilling greater curiosity in me. Film appreciation is helping me tune in to interactivity, relationship dynamics, and above all perspective taking, something people on the autism spectrum are sometimes told they will never understand. I doubt that, a lot of the obtuseness typical of people with autism has more to do with missing information (not being able to pick out the salient information) than willful disinterest or innate inability to grasp the existence of other minds. Work on attentional deficits with eye contact, and understanding of how to interpret eye contact starts to develop. Should be the same with theory of mind. It’s far less confusing in the abstract than in practice. How can I have perspective in my working vocabulary and be closed out of the world of its understanding? Maybe it should be intuitive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be approached analytically instead. If I can trust my own judgment, I’m making up for lost time now.

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Filed under Acting, Dream Ensemble, Poetry

Colin Farrell

For me being a Colin Farrell fan involved a lot of winking and at times, cognitive dissonance, because bad boys don’t ordinarily impress me, and he played his bad boy reputation up with every move until it was unsustainable. There was a cuteness to his being brazen, partly because his accent softens his profanity and also because he plays the kid in a candy shop card with women, instead of being cool. But that reputation and the decision not to conceal his tattoos in The New World made his performance as Captain Smith especially raw. This poem, originally about Smith, could as easily be about Colin.

How can love of beauty be so wrong, when it brings peace
to the soul like a reconciliation with the world?
Beauty in a man is unlike beauty in a child or in a woman,
men are strangers to the looks of sudden apprehension beauty brings.
Who is this man among his peers, handsome even in extremity?
In a strange land he is accepted as they are not,
but they find him impenetrable.
If he is not cowed by their reserve and has a steady gaze,
they may be led. But if he is a leader of men in his heart,
his dreams must be more beautiful,
as universal as his ideal form.
He could belong to them, and who could keep him?
Dreams change, but not for anyone. They have their own reasons.
Though they answer to the world they do not answer to the dreamer.
A dream may take a man from what he loves.
And of those who love him, dreams will speak to him as though they are still near.
The truth of beauty is an act of repetition.
Again and again and from every quarter it is acknowledged.
To which witness will the beautiful man be true?
The world must be at odds and he must choose.

Why do we love a rebel without a cause, an anarchist striving to be an atheist, a criminal and a rogue? “When religious and ethical formulae become so obsolete that no man of strong mind can believe them, they have also reached the point at which no man of high character will profess them; and from that moment until they are formally disestablished, they stand at the door of every profession and every public office to keep out every able man who is not a sophist or a liar.” – George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

A poem I associate with Colin’s personality is “Growing Strong,” by a classicist poet of Alexandria named Cavafy. E.M. Forster discovered Cavafy in Egypt, but he has always been a fairly well kept secret. The poem, written in 1903, is translated from the Greek by Aliki Barnstone.

He who wishes to strengthen his spirit,
must abandon reverence and submission.
He will honor some laws,
but mostly he will break both law and custom,
and he will stray from the accepted, inadequate straight path.
He will be taught much by sensual pleasures.
He will not fear the destructive act;
half the house must be torn down.
This way he will grow virtuously toward knowledge.

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Filed under Dream Ensemble, Poetry

Sail Those Same Oceans

In Terrence Malick’s Pocahontas movie, The New World, the name Pocahontas is never uttered. Loss of identity and conflict with one’s own name is a theme explored in many scenes and lines in the voice over narration. TOFOG has a song about this, and the life of a sailor far from home.

“There comes a time
When you understand
Falling in love
Is part of the plan

And you can stay awake tonight
Thinking up a dozen names
I can only sleep in your arms
So when I stay awake
I’ll sail those same oceans again.”

Even before I saw The New World, I knew I wanted to know everything about the story, and the story comes to us almost entirely through the writing of Captain John Smith. His history of the Jamestown colony immortalized Pocahontas and gave our country one of its great origin stories. I found a historiography of the Virginia colonies that talked about his writings, how in early editions of his Jamestown history he didn’t disclose the extent of the help Pocahontas provided the colonists, or that she had saved his life, in order to protect her and to protect her honor after she married. The full story only came out after her untimely death.

Smith wrote of his earlier adventures too, as a mercenary in Europe and later a sea captain in the Mediterranean. Amazingly, his life had been saved twice before by princesses enchanted with him in his hour of need. The first was a Turkish princess, who wished to marry her prisoner. He murdered her brother and escaped, but in his defense her brother had been ‘initiating’ him into Turkish male society by torture. The second time I don’t remember as well, he was rescued either from shipwreck or pirates, or as a shipwrecked pirate, off the southern coast of France. Again he left the princess in question despite her affections. This makes me wonder how much Terrence Malick knew about his past when he revised the circumstances of his departure from Jamestown. The Disney movie is correct in having him shipped home with a serious injury, which was from an accidental gunpowder explosion in his lap. Perhaps even if that had not happened, he would have left Pocahontas as well.

Smith (in alexandrines)

The forest bore the light of noon in deep relief,
penetrated by the sultry heat where a leaf
matrix, like a shuttered window, admitted bright
bars of grainy brilliance like sheaves of wheat ground white.
We had found a modest room among the dark trees,
a place where nakedness has twilight’s leave, the breeze
as gentle as a chimney’s sigh to hear the wind,
and in our room we lived like man and wife, who sinned
only in the parting, an unnatural divorce
that only threats of genocidal war could force.
To be undone by you, undressed against my will
without a soldier’s strength to slow your hand or still
my beating breast, as self-betrayed as you
and as afraid to hesitate to look or do
the rest, a soldier as unarmed and gently felled
as any trembling imperfect leaf you held,
convinces me again that I live by your leave,
and face a destiny that I can only grieve.

Pocahontas (in Irish rhyme)

I would stand in the sun to be seen with my hands
just releasing the love that abandons the damned –
I remember the quiet assurance and peace,
the abandon we felt, as though blood feuds would cease.
I imagined I knew empty words from true vows,
that I knew what the passage of seasons allows,
a rebirth, transformation, becoming, a change
that makes space for the new, strange and wonderful flame.

Come again from the distance, be true to your prayer,
take me into the forest to live as we played,
be a father to me and a guardian stone
by the house tree our Mother would give us, a home
far away from the fort and the river, where corn
is a bulb in a meadow, and hazelnuts gold.
Come where birds have devoured the seed beds of stars,
unencumbered by subjects, beyond the white falls.

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Weight of a Man

Ok, this is going to sound strange, but I think Russell Crowe would make an excellent wedding singer. If that sounds like slight praise, it’s not how I mean it. I like his singing voice, and I love the song “Weight of a Man.” I’m not too sure about marriage, maybe not for me, but the wedding would be awesome with that song. I guess I’m more like other girls after all, planning a wedding for which I don’t have a groom in mind.

What’s so special about the song is the way it emphasizes fortitude in a committed relationship as being what you have to look forward to, and not the sort of challenge that’s going to blindside you in the middle of the honeymoon. One of my favorite love stories in a movie shows how love can blossom out of the test of time, and not simply withstand it. The relationship between John Rolfe and Rebecca in The New World is rocky from the start, but they want to support each other and rely on each other in the midst of the hardship of letting love back into their lives after great loss. And only when their marriage has been tested to the utmost do they truly know what they have. Falling in love, in my mind, is a pretty way of describing attraction, pursuit and success. Love itself comes later.

I see a shoreline in the wilderness beyond your gaze,
a refuge for the stranded where the gathering of days
is restful, not depleting, and the eye is rested, too,
a wanderer perceiving home, a welcome that rings true.
The color of this shoreline is covered by a night sky,
but it stops me and steals my breath. I cannot help but try
to reach you in your humane estrangement from language and belief.
I see in you a miraculous joy concealed by grief.
To return you to words, to be believed by you, to hold
you in silence when words are only the beginning, fold
your feelings in with mine, to sustain your gaze and release
your posture toward the world, would bring me back to joy and peace.
You could tell me whether I have found my home, you could wear
a mysterious smile. If in clasping your heavy hair
and drawing you in like a child from the cold I have shown
I am kind, you are also a woman. You are alone.
Your gentleness conceals your depth; passionate, impulsive,
you remade landscapes with a fellowship of your heart, live
above the laws of your people, make gifts of prized secrets,
answer to a nation of ghosts with unspoken regrets.
You are a survivor, but you are a sleepwalker, too.
I see in you a loss that dwarfs my own, and I see you.
No emerald shifts through the embraces the sun throws like coins
with the subtlety of your dark, dazzling eyes, enjoins
a man to leave all else behind with greater clarity,
or fits the hand with a more sculpted surface, parity
in every facet, equally smooth on every side, fluid.
Your smile shines forth like a mountain above the tree line, nude.
I would see your light thrust toward the sky, I would have you bring
life into this world. When I say you will love me come spring,
I do not mean next spring. I mean you will, when your shoreline
sees the dawn of subtle colors where the stars so dimly
showed the earth its bearings in the universe, suddenly
knowing the white flowers of blackberry thickets from pink
trillium, purple wisteria and bright yellow cinque.
Your forest flowers in the overarching night and now
only the bright wood aster shines in its right light. I vow
the sun will find your refuge in my home, and on your lips
my name will not be one of those who came on the war ships.
We will forget our countries and our work will be an act
of mysticism, bringing life to fields to see the sun refract
the dew on bending leaves as sacred as the soil; the plough
will turn the rows as gravely as knives bend to altars, now
an instrument of making, now a weapon toward the earth.
In our green monument to life we will have a rebirth.

I’ll be your confidant, your sheltering shoulder, as true
in the breach, unafraid to die for you, honoring you
for the rest of your life, a husband and passionate friend.
Through every anger and unsleeping night, I will attend
to your conscience, your heart and your soul. They are different,
but I would have all of you satisfied. I would cement
your happiness in your life, guard it from every falsehood.
But in your dear memories there is an anguish I could
not spare you or see you relive in resisting its tide.
Now I must allow you to ask for what you were denied.
I’ve left behind everything I ever knew, I’ve burned up,
consumed in the fever your smiles wring from the soul, my cup
is eternal and I have returned from the dead, but here,
attuned to your language, surrounded by gardens, I fear
for my reverence in a confusion of pain. I knew
you once, beholding our son. Everything inside of you
came alive and to the surface in one quiescent smile.
Do you despise our marriage now? I must stand back, but I’ll
remember what I promised you the day we took our vows.
I’ll hold you tight if you need me, strong as your great tree’s boughs.
If you release me forever, my home is starless night.
Give me a life to live, and I’ll become the man whose right
and place is by your side. I’ll listen for your voice, as soft
as the wind in the forest and as gently borne aloft
on the limbs of the echoing trees, your cathedral, high
as the world daunting sky and as haunted and taunted by
sacrilegious birds full of sentiment and worldliness.
In awe of their noise, you shine in sentience, my goddess,
once a princess, now alive. I’ll keep true to your conscience,
I’ll be kind to your heart. I’ll honor your beautiful, tense
and buoyantly diving soul, bounding and boundless and bright.
Tell me we belong together, that we survived the night.

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Elizabeth Banks

Elizabeth Banks won her role in The Next Three Days by auditioning, and knocked my socks off in the movie. Some critics would say it’s not so easy to hold your own opposite Russell Crowe as the leading lady, but she sold me. She also had a very sweet role in Seabiscuit, playing against what has become her type. But one of my favorite roles for her was on 30 Rock. I was afraid she wouldn’t wink but she did. That was crazy. Still, I think I’d jump out of my skin if I met someone like that. The blond ambition archetype, only with a deadpan sense of humor about the rigors of maintaining the A-list body type. Incredible. Almost as crazy as their kid in The Next Three Days acting like a human child, and not a larger than life ham. But enough, or I might not know when to stop gushing about The Next Three Days. I really love that movie.

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Filed under Roll Credits, The Next Three Days

Astrolabe, almanac, horoscope

Few of our patron constellations are visible from where we live these days, GPS guides our sailors, and farmers’ almanacs are curios, not meteorology on when to expect the last hard frost in the spring. But we still know our horoscopes, and find ourselves identifying with the personae of our star signs. The thing is, we each have two. Maybe you brushed off the 13th zodiac sign when it resurfaced in popular culture a year or so ago, but the 13th lunar month of the occasional solar year has a long history in Oriental astrology, and like a 13th month the alternative zodiac redresses a square peg round hole dilemma our calendars handle with leap years. Indian astrologers use 13 signs to track the movement of the constellations with more accuracy than tropical astrology, which is slowly but inexorably confounded by the precession of the equinoxes. The trade-off is that in Indian astrology, the first sign, Aries, doesn’t coincide perfectly with the vernal equinox. So you could say each system has its strength and weaknesses, giving each of us two destinies to keep in mind.

My signs are surprisingly similar to each other, but Russell Crowe has an interesting pair. Born on April 7, he is both Aries and Pisces, part impetuous leader and part empathic artist. Hence the powers of persuasion that brought Cinderella Man to life on the silver screen, and the gift for interpreting a part that has earned him three Oscar nominations and one win, so far. He can be headstrong on the set, but to me he comes across as a remarkably gentle character despite his physical strength and gusto. Would the picture be complete without both signs? Check out your other sign if you haven’t already.

Trivia questions for fans: What constellations did Nash describe to Alicia in A Beautiful Mind?

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