Category Archives: Puppy love

The New World

Although the Terrence Malick film originally titled Pocahontas takes a settler’s perspective on the conquest of Virginia, it has at least a subtext about resistance and negotiation. Qorianka Kilcher delivers a powerhouse performance in her big screen debut. Still, the lives of the First Nations that the Jamestown colony turned upside down come across mainly in pantomime, in this visually stunning epic about the rape of a native princess.

Historiography tells a rather different story.

When Captain Smith’s life was spared in a peacebuilding ritual involving the chief’s young daughter, the Captain took the role playing rather literally, and believed himself to be the object of her affections. His natural reaction? To run away – as he always did under such circumstances, in his long career of mercenary work and piracy on the borders of the Turkish empire and along the Mediterranean, before it occurred to him to sign up for a colonial adventure. This was only the third time in his life he’d been rescued by a princess, and the satirists of his day would never let him forget it, writing ditties about his amorous adventures in the popular press.

This poem, based on the 80th Psalm, tells the story of her people’s glory days and their hopes of repelling the first settlers, before the outcome of the war was decided.

Spirit, lift the welk to your ear,
mother of rivers our ancestors crossed,
distant enchantress of starlight, bend near.
Before Wehunsenacawh
stir your sandbar-twisting sinews from rest,
and help your peoples repel this new threat.
Sister of the west wind, return our land,
and smile again on the Algonquin tribes.
Fathomless child of all rivers, what have you brought us?
We receive from you our own tears,
and the tears you bring threaten to drown us.
Our trust is betrayed by our guests from the sky,
and behind their hands they mock our compacts.
Sister of the knife’s edge wind, retake our homes,
and grace our displaced peoples with your smile.
You who led by the hand our ancestors,
you routed whole nations that we might grow.
You spread the topsoil above the marshes
and protected all our streams and gardens,
and our alliance spanned great watersheds.
Ancient mountain passes bowed to our laws,
and densely we built among the great pines.
You gathered our strength all the way to the sea,
and up every river and stream to their roots.
Why have yo sundered Powhatan’s royal line
so that these passers-by pluck his daughter’s skirts?
The wild deer have stripped our homes of bark,
the wild rabbits and squirrels eat our stores.
Sister of the harrowing cold, come back,
turn your gaze from the scooting clouds and look,
if you even recognize your people,
the chieftans you once gave your blessing –
their holy places are burned down and wrecked,
and naked, their children perish at your touch.
Stretch your swift wings out to our refugees,
shelter the people you once called your own.
And we will not falter, drawing your breath.
Return to us all that we held in your name.
Sister of the raven’s wind, take us home.
Break open your secret smile between us.

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Phantom of the Opera

Though I’m not normally one for musicals, I thoroughly enjoyed Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s masterpiece, The Phantom of the Opera, starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum. I cringe at Gerard Butler’s signature move in shoot-em-up’s of shooting his adversaries dead when they’re already down, but this role won me over to his fandom. Emmy’s turn as Christine is angelic, and I would definitely go to see another musical adaptation if she were in it – fans should check out her YouTube channel for original music videos, including Christmas music!

This poem, inspired by the 75th Psalm, is in Madame Giry’s voice, an almost omniscient narrator of the story of the cursed Parisian opera house and its melodramatic demise.

We sing for you, the Phantom – we take heed,
and know your voice, who summoned us, comes near.
The people are enthralled, and doubt you not.
“The point of no return is now at hand,
and I shall cast the lots – who lives, who dies.
This Opera house would fade from memory,
if I had not raised up its brightest star.
I warned the circus dancers, brutes and clowns,
and their inflated diva, not to sing.
Seek not to rob my prottégé of rank.
Your blithe disdain for art does not daunt me.
For nowhere else will you obtain the means
to move the soul – my music is the key.
The Phantom you abhor will have his due,
for only he can make or mar on cue.
At his fingertips the music sheaves,
mute with possibility – his dreams.
He will break his silence, and in song,
unwind his fell designs for the pompous throng,
and all will come to ruin at one blow.”
And I, though I keep faith, will always know
whose music moved the firmament that night.
“And all the fools who hunted me recoiled.
Christine alone held fast, and met my eyes.”

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Filed under Acting, Directing, Music, Poetry, Puppy love

ZZ Packer – a riff on a short story

This gem of a short story in ZZ Packer’s eponymous collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, really took me back to freshman year in college, and all the tensions I felt among my new college ‘friends’. The poem I wrote in response doesn’t do the story justice, but I couldn’t resist trying.

Against Yale’s brick and mortar edifice,
our question marks about ourselves wore thin,
a trying-on, a test that’s hit-or-miss,
the sort of test we’d skipped, to not fit in.
The shabby drills of funerals caught out
the repartee we lived for – cryptic, crabbed
and always quick to hang its hat on doubt –
the rules of death, for us, no less exact.
In the event, one dreams of Istanbul,
of coffee on the Bosporus, away
from childhood’s traps – al through the strain a full
day of mourning puts on you – just to stay
lucid and connected with the future
you still had the day before: you daydream
and you try not to remember her.
I couldn’t say that, without starting to seem
like the sort of person who holds you,
when all you want is to cry and be held.
Nothing I said would have made that sound true,
no matter how reflexively my heart swelled.

This book of short stories is for people who don’t normally go in for literary short stories. Beautiful, compelling, deeply personal and utterly refreshing writing that speaks to the here and now with real scope and clout.

No time for a new book? For a quickie from ZZ, check out her Trump-era essay for NYT Magazine on civility and civil society in an age of polarized politics. Reading this essay alongside descriptions of entire factories of professional internet trolls clocking in to send hatespeech from work in Peter Pomerantsev’s book This is Not Propaganda is really frustrating.

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A Jonah

(Production still courtesy of the wonderful fansite, The Dear Surprise, which I highly recommend.)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is one of the most beautiful, captivating epic adventure movies ever made, with gorgeous cinematography and production design, an unforgettable score, and one of the most charismatic leading man duos ever to grace the silver screen.

But at the heart of the action is the story of a small ship’s crew living in close quarters at sea, trying to do a tough job while living with each other cheek-on-jowl. When the inevitable scapegoating behaviors that arise in such claustrophobic quarters take hold of the crew, even the captain is drawn into the hysteria – Jack Aubrey becomes a passive spectator on the ritual purging of the crew’s projected unconscious in the story of the Jonah.

This poem, inspired by the 56th Psalm, is in that Jonah’s voice, in a moment of desperate resignation – unwilling to flout the crew’s superstitions, even though they may cost him his own life.

Grant me grace, dear God,
when this man tramples my rights,
for all day long he presses me.
The ship’s crew mocks me day and night,
salutes like daggers flout my rank.
When in danger, I trust in God,
the Almighty – His word I praise,
and in His hands, I have no fear.
What can hardship cost my soul?
My men conspire, distort my words,
and turn all hearts against mine.
Their hatred never gives me rest,
but dogs my shadow hungrily,
and I sense they want my life.
Free me from these brutal schemers.
Bring down what wrath You may.
My shame-faced days You’ve numbered –
take my tears as well.
Count them towards the salt sea’s.
Then my detractors will cease
with a hush, the day their wind calls.
That God will claim me, I know.
In the God who called Jonah
and summoned the whale, in the Lord
I place my trust and shall not fear.
What can this ship’s crew do to me then?
I take upon myself their prayers in this.
And add to these my thanks to You.
For You preserved me on the mast,
and kept my grip from slipping,
to walk in enigmatic grace,
and feel the light a few days more.

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The Soloist

Attachment disorders are an underexplored aspect of managing schizophrenia in the community – most people just aren’t willing to let a schizophrenic develop an attachment to them in the first place. But when they do, the intensity of the emotions involved can be scary.

The friendship story at the heart of The Soloist, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, really digs into this theme to explore what can go wrong when people reach out to the most vulnerable among us, and how social isolation itself can exacerbate psychotic symptoms in people with a serious mental illness, making living independently especially problematic for them.

The Soloist is the story of Nathaniel Ayers, a talented cellist who left Julliard because of his psychotic symptoms and eventually ended up homeless in Los Angeles, serenading passers-by on a beaten-up violin. A lifelong Beethoven fan, he frequents a park statue of the composer, and there encounters a friend who will change his life.

This poem, based on the lovely 42nd Psalm, is about fangirling over Beethoven, and being torn between the immediacy and terror of isolation in a new living situation, and an abiding sense of gratitude that one has a friend of sorts, even if that friend isn’t often reachable, reliable, or willing to negotiate on emotional ties.

Because his real friend is harder to trust than music itself, Nathaniel practices a kind of transference onto Beethoven, shifting his emotional baggage from a real, unreliable friend to a more perfect, imaginary one, through the channel of his art.

As a deer bends her neck toward streams of water,
so I yearn for Beethoven to visit here.
My whole being vibrates with the thirst for grace,
for the spectral lives of soundscapes in L.A.
When shall I come and listen to the echoes
and the sympathetic chords that answer here?
My tears became my bread inside these four walls.
All day long I heard voices: “where is your God?”
These thoughts race through my head – I pour out my heart
when I would give up all to join the strings
in the orchestra pit for a symphony
to lift the hearts of the music-lovers’ throng.
How bent, my body – my soul moans for release!
I still court Beethoven; I will acclaim him
for his transformative presence in my life.
Forgive me – my feelings were bent for my plight.
Remember instead all you’ve done for me, please,
remember how far we’ve come together, friend.
The depths of your heart answered the depths of mine
and the sound of music carves these channels deep.
Passionate breakers and waves overwhelmed me.
By day this city smiles on me while I play
and by night I cling to the echoes, afraid –
music is my prayer to the God of my life.
I should have said to you, as a friend can say,
“Why have you forgotten and rejected me?
Why do I rack my soul alone in this gloom?”
The threat of murder animates my bones, hate
fills my ears all day long, saying “where is your God?”
How bent, my soul, and how low my body moans!
Hope remains, and Beethoven is never far,
I turn to him for rescue and redemption.

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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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Two of us

If you’re reading this blog from its beginning, you must think I’d do anything for my dog. But I’ve found something I like here, too. There’s a rugged sweetness to his romantic leads, and his sense of humor really appeals to me. I even like his music, which I didn’t expect. Russell Crowe is a gifted songwriter and performer, with lyrics that fill an unoccupied niche in my music library for adult themes and gentle handling of social tensions, showing that low-key emotional reasoning can explore a subject with more sensitivity than unsentimental anger or septic irony. So far I have Gaslight, Bastard Life or Clarity, and The Crowe/Doyle Songbook Vol. III. Some of the songs are just good, clean fun. One of my favorites is Circus. Testify is a rollicking good story with foot-tapping rhythm and spot-on rhyme. The music video of Testify on the DVD of A Good Year got Bagehot on her feet, too. And I don’t get angry when he puns. That’s smooth.

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Bagehot ♥ Russell Crowe

So, this might seem like a late start for a Russell Crowe fan setting up a blog for news on movies and Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts, but it’s for my beagle. I realized it was time to start collecting his movies when I noticed that she only joins me for movies if he’s the star. I would have thought she was reading an unconscious preference of mine, but for at least one of them her feelings are her own. She just melts for Cinderella Man.

I think I can explain that one. Dogs understand a lot of what we say by interpreting our tone of voice. Because it’s a period piece set in the 1930s, it has a very special tone to both the writing and the delivery. The theme song “Cheer Up, Smile, Nerz” comments on the way good cheer was militated during the Great Depression, at least in movies, musicals and radio. But the actors make a blessing of the convention, bringing the bravery necessary to survive those times to life with all the sweetness of a family love story with a hard-to-believe but true-to-life fairytale ending. Bagehot has always been the one member of our household who knows how to bring a smile to anyone’s face, at a moment’s notice.

Freckles (left) and Bagehot on the beach. Freckles, the oldest, likes Colin Farrell movies (but not The Recruit), chasing squirrels and Hammers Over the Anvil.

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