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New Theory about Zombie Stories

May 10, 2018

Part of a conversation I had yesterday, leading to my new theory about zombie stories:

My friend from grad school: As an educator, I’m not as interested in the opinion as I am in how the student came up with their opinion and why they came to the conclusion in the first place. And, for the most part, my students get it. Others, their eyes gloss over and they spout some abbreviated political statement adopted from Fox News. I’ve recently had a woman call me a “radical liberal.” I asked, “What, exactly, does that mean?” She stammered, “Well, I don’t know. I mean, you know what it means. All college professors are liberal; you know what I’m saying.” I said, “I do not know. I do know, however, that I would not use any word that I could not define.”
Fox News Syndrome is a real thing….I don’t believe that many of [the president’s] supporters understand that they ought to be able to make connections among several different acts. We use oil. Iran has oil. We have nuclear weapons. Iran has nuclear weapons.
Wait! What? Iran has nukes? We have to blow them up before they blow us up! (side bar: blowing them up will destroy the oil that we want.)
No foresight, no awareness, no concern for anyone outside of that microcosm. On top of that, the president’s supporters tend to be one issue voters, and emotional ones, at that. Reason does not work on those who do not recognize it.

Me: So what I’m hearing here is that the popularity of zombie stories has been a warning that, after the collapse of any kind of government safety nets, the hordes of diseased and homeless people will realize, too late, that they should have cultivated their own brains and–misled into thinking that eating is the way to absorb brainpower–will come for ours.


Tropic of Squalor

May 8, 2018

Mary Karr has a new volume of poems out today, Tropic of Squalor, and HarperCollins sent me an advance copy. I had read a few of her poems before, but was unacquainted with her memoirs. Now, in the wake of Karr’s weekend Twitter thread and Jezebel’s ensuing article, I know more about her and David Foster Wallace than I ever needed to.

This is to say that I came to her poems about her father (“Illiterate Progenitor”), famous poets she knew (“The Age of Criticism”), and David Foster Wallace (“Read These”) without preconceptions and loved them. Even now I think they stand alone.

The last stanza of “Illiterate Progenitor” reminds me of the two-item list in Stanley Plumly’s “Sonnet,” about his father: “He could lift his own weight above his head/He could run a furrow straight by hand.” Karr’s stanza is about food rather than strength, but it seems similarly arbitrary in its brevity:
“He took his smoke unfiltered, milk unskimmed.
He liked his steaks marbled, fatback on mustard greens,
onions eaten like apples, split turnips dipped
into rock salt, hot pepper vinegar on black beans.”

As any reviewer does, I love poems about criticism, so I was predisposed to enjoy reading “The Age of Criticism” even before I realized that I knew about the poets the speaker is discussing. When I read about “Deborah” who was “slim in oxblood riding boots,/she wore a near see-through black silk blouse/with loose coils of red hair tumbling down the back,” I thought of Deborah Digges, the then-wife of Stanley Plumly who I met at parties at the University of Maryland around 1985. And then I realized that the guy named Franz she had been talking about was someone who once left a nasty comment on this blog, years ago, when the speaker says:
“nobody invited Franz
anywhere for years before cancer took him,
though we often emailed each other his crisp,
venomous posts to reviewers. Everybody
claimed to forgive Franz because his father
bailed and his stepdad beat him. And critics
hoping to stave off one of his nasty, articulate

rants persisted on calling him a genius because, hey,
what if he was? But we all thought him an asshole”

The poem about David Foster Wallace, “Read These,” is elegiac, perhaps not what you’d expect if you came to it after reading the poet’s tweets about how she doesn’t want to be known only for her relationship with him:

The King did say
and his arm sweeps the landscape’s foliage into bloom
where he hath inscribed the secret mysteries of his love
before at last taking himself away. His head away. His
recording hand. So his worshipful subjects must imagine
themselves in his loving fulfillment, who were no more
than instruments of his creation. Pawns.
Apparati. Away, he took himself and left us
studying the smudged sky. Soft pencil lead.

Once he was not a king, only a pale boy staring down
from the high dive. The contest was seriousness
he decided, who shaped himself for genus genius
and nothing less. Among genii, whoever dies first wins.
Or so he thought. He wanted the web browsers to ping
his name in literary mention nonstop on the world wide web.

He wanted relief from his head, which acted as spider
and inner web weaver. The boy was a live thing tumbled in
its thread and tapped and fed off, siphoned from. His head
kecked back and howling from inside the bone castle from
whence he came
to hate the court he held.

His loneliness was an invisible crown
rounding his brow tighter than any turban,
more binding than a wedding band,
and he sat becircled by his tower
on the rounding earth.

Read these,
did say the King, and put down his pen, hearing
himself inwardly holding forth on the dullest
aspects of the tax code
with the sharpest possible wit. Unreadable
as Pound on usury or Aquinas on sex.

I know the noose made an oval portrait frame for his face.
And duct tape around the base of the Ziploc
bag was an air-tight chamber
for the regal head—most serious relic,
breathlessly lecturing in the hall of silence.

Some of the poems in the volume are timely, like her poem about the town near Houston where “the oil barons too smart to live here would/as soon snuff us out as look at us.”

A few sound querulous, as if the world is changing too fast for the speaker, who in “Discomfort Food for the Unwhole” doesn’t like to see people in the check-out line at the grocery store with “each head bent over a shining phone” and in “The Like Button” imagines that “we may evolve/a glow button maybe mid brow,/so as we pass each other we can vote/praise or scorn.”

For the most part, though, this is a brilliant volume, full of images and metaphors as compelling as when, in “Obadiah: A Perfect Mess,” there is an “insignificant miracle: in one instant every black/umbrella in Hell’s Kitchen opened on cue, everyone/still moving. It was a scene from an unwritten opera,/the sails of some vast armada.”

You don’t have to know the characters to enjoy the volume, but it can add a little extra something if you do.



May 6, 2018

It’s been a while since I read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and I didn’t have much to say about it until having read it helped me understand what I was seeing in the African American History museum in Washington, D.C.

We went to D.C. on an overnight trip, flying out of Columbus early Monday morning and returning late Tuesday night. Since the 80’s, when we lived in the Maryland suburbs, I’ve always longed to be downtown at cherry blossom time, and although we just missed it, being there in the spring was still deeply satisfying.

IMG_1462I walked through the garden behind the Smithsonian “castle.”

IMG_1455I visited my favorite sculpture in front of the Hirshhorn.

And I stood in front of my favorite painting in the modern wing of the National Gallery for a while, until a school group came in to see it and the teacher began asking them how many trees are in it and whether the horse is in front of the trees.IMG_1460


It has been pointed out to me that there’s a horse theme to my tour of favorite pieces of art, but I think that’s incidental to the fact that it’s the only Magritte in the permanent collection and the sculpture is full of such pure joy.

I went through the Holocaust museum, which I’d never managed to do when the children were younger. After Ron’s meetings were over, on Tuesday afternoon, he went with me through the African American History museum. It begins with slavery, and there were pictures of castles on the Gold Coast, which wouldn’t have interested me had I not already read Homegoing, in which two sisters from Ghana live briefly in Cape Coast Castle, Effia upstairs with her British husband and Esi downstairs in the dungeons before being shipped off to America and sold.

I found Homegoing a hard book to read, especially the parts about H, who was sentenced to hard labor because “don’t nobody want to see a black man like you walkin’ proud as a peacock. Like you ain’t got a lick of fear in you.” His years in the coal mines were like another story from Doug Blackmon’s nonfiction Slavery By Another Name, with the same conclusion: “what kind of life was this? At least when he was a slave, his master had needed to keep him alive if he wanted to get his money’s worth. Now, if H died, they would just lease the next man.”

The African American museum was also hard to see. There’s a slave shack. I went through the line in the room with Emmett Till’s coffin. To go through the history floors, you begin at the bottom and work your way up, so the process of walking through the museum reminds a person of what Gyasi’s narrator says near the end of Homegoing: “It was the way most people lived their lives, on upper levels, not stopping to peer underneath.”

The African American history museum ended with Obama’s presidency, unlike the American History Museum next door, where the first ladies’ dress exhibit ended with Melania’s. I was trying to frame the experience in terms of thinking about the progress of history as two steps forward and one step back, until I came home and read the prologue to Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which he describes as a new kind of history, one that “does not present a postracial story that ends with the election of Obama. It does not present a story of racial progress, showing how far we have come, and the long way we have to go. It does not even present a story of racial progress of two steps forward—as embodied in Obama—and one step back—as embodied in Trump.”

So I guess I just have to keep reading and going to Washington D.C. to keep walking. I have to hope that as more of us go inside these museums, eventually fewer will be left outside on the mall wearing MAGA caps.


The Power

April 19, 2018

Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power begins with a letter, but most readers will quickly skim through it and start getting caught up in the revenge fantasy. In this fictional world, women have the power to fight back. They can produce an electrical charge with their bare hands.

The possibilities, of course, are many and obvious. No longer do women have to be afraid to walk alone. No longer do they have to put up with obnoxious and threatening behavior. No longer do they have to watch while men are promoted into positions for which they are more qualified.

Bridget Read, writing for Vogue, describes one of these reversals: “In one genius scene, a reversal of the 2016 presidential election debates so delicious it stings, Margot lets herself do what Hillary Clinton never could. Under verbal attack from her unctuous old boss in a gubernatorial race, she reaches out and stuns him in the chest. Instead of being castigated for it, called a bitch, or a harpy, or a ‘nasty woman,’ the unthinkable happens. She wins.”

Women all over the world discover the power and learn how to use it. The novel focuses on four main characters from different walks of life: the heiress to a crime empire based in London, a female politician in the U.S., a sexually abused foster daughter who founds a religion, and a male reporter from Nigeria.

For me, it was extremely satisfying to read the religious proclamations from the abused foster child. She says “you have been taught that you are unclean, that you are not holy, that your body is impure and could never harbor the divine. You have been taught to despise everything you are and to long only to be a man. But you have been taught lies. God lies within you, God has returned to earth to teach you, in the form of this new power.”

The power is quite literal, and in good science fiction style, Alderman provides a mechanism for its development–her story is that towards the end of World War Two humans developed a way to distribute never-ending protection against nerve gas in drinking water, and that in the process of shipping it to friendly nations a tanker was sunk and the treated water entered the earth’s water cycle. In the novel, “research has now established it as the undoubted trigger, once certain concentrations had been reached, for the development of the electrostatic power in women.”

The four main characters interact with people all over the world, and their conversations and travels show how the power affects everyone. In the U.S., women are told to control their power and schools teach classes in abstinence, mentioning a twist on an 80’s anti-drug slogan for satiric effect: “Just Don’t Do It.”

In the second half of the novel, the changes that have been brought about as a result of the power tip the balance until women are in a position to abuse their power, as men are today. Tunde, the Nigerian reporter, finds himself in a country where the Minister for Justice has just begun to institute laws against men, like that “each man in the country must have his passport and other official documents stamped with the name of his female guardian. Her written permission will be needed for any journey he undertakes….Any man who does not have a sister, mother, wife or daughter, or other relative, to register him must report to the police station, where he will be assigned a work detail and shackled to other men for the protection of the public. Any man who breaks these laws will be subject to capital punishment. This applies also to foreign journalists and other workers.”

The reversal is underscored by the reminder that the foreign journalists in the room have “been here since it was a grim staging post in the business of human trafficking. And the reversal is then exaggerated, in good satiric style, by the ensuing conversation the male journalists have, back at their hotel:
“Something’s about to break out in Iran, I’m pretty sure. I’ll go there.”
“And when something breaks out in Iran,” drawls Semple of the BBC, “what do you think will happen to the men?”
Hooper shakes his head. “Not in Iran. Not like this. They’re not going to change their beliefs overnight, cede everything to the women.”
“You do remember,” continues Semple, “that they turned overnight when the Shah fell and the Ayatollah came to power? You do remember that it happens that quickly?”
There’s a moment of quiet.

A series of letters closes the book, supposedly written by “Neil,” a young male writer asking advice about how to get his novel published, and “Naomi,” who offers him advice about his novel—the novel you’ve just finished reading. Perhaps at this point you’ll remember that a letter from Neil appeared at the beginning of the book. Neil’s letters are full of submissive apologies and expressions of thanks, like “Anyway, sorry, I’ll shut up now … Thank you so much for this and I’m so grateful you could spare the time”. Naomi’s letters are full of condescension, and she ends with a rather chilling piece of advice, asking Neil if he has “considered publishing this book under a woman’s name.” Which, evidently, is what has happened. Clever, isn’t it?

This epistolary ending reveals the full extent of the satire on the use and abuse of power. As Bridget Read says, “it does audaciously depict…the most extreme results of a movement that seeks rather than interrogates power.” So yes, this is a feminist work, and timely in terms of the “me too” movement, but it does not argue in favor of simply turning the tables as a way to right any of the wrongs.

In an interview in the New York Times, Alderman says that as a Jew, she has imagined what she would have done, had she lived at the time of the Holocaust, “but for me the larger question about the Holocaust is not, How do you avoid being a victim? It is, How do you avoid being a Nazi?”

That is the big question of this novel.

Getting It Right

April 15, 2018

Several months ago Ron and I went to a big party at the enormous Victorian-style house of some local friends who work at the college. They invited most of the people we work with, so the rooms were crowded. I did what I often do in that kind of situation and spent some time looking at the titles on their bookshelves. They have many, many bookshelves so it took a while, and in one room I noticed that there were several copies of a book. Guessing that it was written by a friend who’d sent them multiple copies, I picked it up and sat down to look at it.

The first chapter, which I read while people circulated around me, was interesting enough that when we sought out the hostess to say goodbye, I asked her about the book. She insisted I take the copy I’d picked up, which was a little embarrassing, but after a couple of reiterations I decided it was a genuine offer and the thing to do would be to finish reading it and give the author some free publicity. And so I give you a few thoughts on Karen E. Osborne’s novel Getting It Right, published in 2017.

The first line of the novel is “Jim Smyth died young but not soon enough.” We meet three people at his funeral—Kara, Flyer, and Tuesday—who have come to find out if seeing their “childhood torturer” in a “deep, dank, and lonely hole” would make them feel safer in the world. We find out that these three have been friends “since Kara was six, Tuesday five, and Flyer four; first in the Smyths’ home in foster care, and then in a group home until Kara aged out at eighteen.” They grew up in the Bronx, and descriptions reveal that Flyer wears his hair in “dreads” and Tuesday has a “dyed-blonde Afro, buzzed close” while Kara has “honey-beige skin.” After reading the first chapter, I was unsurprised to be told that the author has experience working in social services.

Although the first chapter focuses on Kara, the second chapter switches focus to a new character, Alex, whose father is in the hospital, and who asks her to find someone. That person, of course, turns out to be her half-sister, Kara, who still treasures a photo of herself with Alex and their father, taken when they were three years old.

Kara is dating a married man named Zach who shows up late for their dates and leaves early, pausing only to ask her to deliver mysterious envelopes. Although it takes Kara half the novel to figure out that he’s using her, it takes readers about half a page. It turns out that Kara has a mother-substitute landlady and a fellow lodger, Danny, who she thinks of as a brother and who works as a cop. They enjoy cozy late-night snacks together in the kitchen, the description of which irritated me because not only does slender Kara allow herself to eat late at night, but when the food is served she “only nibbled on hers in spite of her earlier hunger.” The author is trying to make a point about Kara’s unbalanced mental state here, but my irritation over what might well be something a thin woman can actually experience took me right out of the fiction.

Another food description, later in the novel, also took me away from the story, when Alex is asked if she likes Japanese food and says yes because “she liked Chinese okay, would it taste the same? It didn’t” and then a page later “their food came and they both dug in,” followed by Alex declaring that her “rad na” is “yummy.” Is this a carelessness about food that I don’t share, or is it the result of trouble with pacing dialogue to correspond to action?

Eventually Zach’s bad treatment triggers Kara’s PTSD from her treatment at the hands of Jim, the abusive foster father, and she realizes she has to leave him because “no one—not Big Jim, not Zach, no one—was going to do this to her again.” Flyer and Tuesday are also struggling with PTSD, which provides a backdrop to Kara’s story.

Before the end, Alex takes Kara to the hospital, where she finally gets to ask their father why he didn’t come for her after her mother died and he admits that he didn’t believe her grandmother’s suspicions about her foster home. Then the shady business dealings Zach has involved her in result in Kara being taken away by the FBI and her former brother-figure Danny, the cop, rescuing her. When Kara and Alex meet again, she says to her “I read somewhere that children either make all of the mistakes of their parents, or they break the cycle,” giving us hope for their future and alluding to the title.

Getting It Right is a quick read and a mostly enjoyable novel, living up to the promise of its first chapter. While suitable for party-time reading, it would also be a good beach or airplane book.

Melian and Spring

April 12, 2018

A little over a month ago, we adopted a six-month-old kitten from a local shelter. We named her Melian, which is from the Silmarillion (and other books about Tolkien’s mythology). When we found her at the shelter she was extremely sick and scared. She’d lived her whole life with little attention from humans, it seems, and then in the space of a week she was spayed and had to get most of her immunizations. We took her home two days after her spaying, and she stayed under the furniture in Eleanor’s room for a week except for a trip to the vet to treat her vomiting and diarrhea, which turned out to be mostly from nerves (we didn’t improve our relationship or her nerves when we tried to give her medicine).

Once she settled down enough to be introduced to Pippin and Tristan and have the run of the house, she had some litter box issues. This was just as Walker was moving out of our house and into an apartment. When most of the stuff was out of his centrally-located bedroom, we put a box at the door of the room with “cat attract” litter, and she began to use it. Then after a few weeks of getting more comfortable in our household routines, she caught a cold that turned into a respiratory infection and had to endure another trip to the vet, an antibiotic shot, and eye medicine before she could get her final immunization, which she had yesterday.

Now she is seven months old, which is kind of like a ten-year-old in human years. She’s had a rough start, but we’re hoping that with time and patience, we can tame her and get her to trust us. I’ve spent most of a month letting Pippin and Tristan in and out of the house, rather than giving them free access to the cat flap, and we’re all a little irritated by that. The next step will be teaching Melian how to go outside with the other two and stay close to home.

Anyone have tips for doing that? Tristan was easy to lure with treats, and he mostly stayed close to us so we could catch him and pick him up. Pippin learned very young, with a halter. Melian is extremely hard to catch and so far can wiggle out of the halter, although I think the offer of treats might work with her if she’s near enough to hear me say the word and rattle the container.

It seems appropriate, in this spring of broken government and broken promises (like “fiscal responsibility” and a “balanced budget”), to be struggling to earn the trust of a half-wild little creature who is too old to be easily malleable and too young to be trusted on her own. The pleasures of a half-grown kitten (and they are many—as I type, I am taking breaks to run the red laser dot around the living room floor for Melian to spring upon) have been mixed with the uncertainty of letting loose in our house a small carnivore who may not have been well-treated and who we don’t yet know very well. The uncertainty verges on recklessness when we think about letting her loose in our yard. Her beauty may not be enough to defend her against the actions of neighbors like the one who just moved in and put up a yard sign in favor of electing the man who spent five months yelling at me through a bullhorn that I was going to hell for holding a sign supporting affordable health care.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

It is not enough. But it is what we have, and at my house we are trying to savor the small pleasures of kittens, flowers, and absurdities from the occasional maggot-eaten brains we meet along the way.

Political Poem

April 3, 2018

I’ve found it difficult to write about poetry here since November 9, 2017. There are a lot of reasons for that. The main ones are that I’ve had to volunteer and organize others at the local political level, so I haven’t made as much time for meditative blog writing, and I’m less willing to say what I think and feel to the world in general. The world is a meaner and more dangerous place than I used to believe.

It’s national poetry month, though, so I thought I’d make an effort. I thought maybe I could start with a political poem, like this one by Jeffrey Harrison that makes me think of George Washington’s song from Hamilton, One Last Time, about wanting to sit under his own vine and fig tree. Fragments of the lyrics from that song float through my mind, with a by-now familiar ironic tinge:
“It outlives me when I’m gone.”  “After 45 years of my life dedicated to its service. ” “No one will make them afraid.”

And then I read Harrison’s poem, from what seems like a better time in history, but still lamenting a lost golden age:

Political Poem

Gone are the days,
are the centuries, even,
when government officials
retired to become
poets in gardens
of their own design,
as here in Suzhou
happened for so long:
a gnarled shaft
of limestone here,
there a willow’s
green locks swaying
above the fishpond,
a zigzag bridge
to a pagoda where,
far from the capital,
one could finally
attend to matters
of real importance:
the moon’s reflection
troubled by a carp.

Matters of real importance. We decide what’s important every moment, by spending our time on it. tumblr_o56anfavUc1qdj8m0o1_1280tumblr_o56anfavUc1qdj8m0o2_1280

Poetry is still important in my life, so I made a halting effort to talk about it today.

And voting is important. If you’re an American, I hope you’ve registered to vote. The deadline for registering in Ohio is April 9, for voting in the May 8 primary.

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