Botero and Abu Ghraib

This weekend I listened to an interesting conversation between Fernando Botero and former poet laureate Robert Hass. The occasion was Botero's series on Abu Ghraib, done in 2006. The drawings and paintings have been donated to the UC Berkely Art Museum, after Berkely, in 2007, became the first public institution in the US willing to show the paintings. Botero had previously been turned down by many museums. The paintings are quite powerful, and a powerful reminder of a shameful episode in American history. Some of the paintings can be seen at Slate.com. Why do so many people put blidners on? There is no hope for human dignity when you torture.
Dignity. Yesterday I went to visit a friend, an older woman who is living her last days. A very aggressive lung cancer is fast ravishing her body. She's in an out. But such dignity. Thank you Madelyn, for this beautiful lesson!


Youth, Divine Treasure

So begins Rubén Darío's wonderful poem, "Song of Spring in Autumn" ("Canción de primavera en otoño", published in 1905 in one of the XX century's greatest volumes of poetry, Cantos de vida y esperanza). But, ah, the second line: "you're already leaving, never to return!" Thankfully, there are always young people around, and that's the great advantage of my work: always being surrounded by youth. Like a bottomless treasure pit.
And it's certainly not just the poets celebrating youth: last night we watched the new film version of Jerome Robbins' 1958 masterpiece, "Export NY: Opus Jazz." The film was a project conceived by young New York City Ballet dancers Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, and featured Carlisle-area native and CPYB alum Adam Hendrickson. A great creative triumph for youth! Even the film directors are very young and I thought they did superb work. The film was presented on PBS as part of their Dance in America series. See this film!
So newness is on my mind this early spring morning. Newness and optimism, even as the drumbeat of violence continues unabated: today it's news of children (children!) in Philadelphia assaulting homeless people. The first stanza of Darío's beautiful poem:

¡Juventud, divino tesoro,
ya te vas para no volver!
Cuando quiero llorar, no lloro,
y a veces lloro sin querer...

In the photo, Jerome Robbins, young at heart.


Anne Sexton's Daughters

This weekend I read Linda Gray Sexton's memoir: Searching For Mercy Street, published in 1996. Linda Gray Sexton is the older daughter of poet Anne Sexton, who committed suicide in 1974. It's a very depressing read, and as I finished the last page I found myself questioning the wisdom of its publication. The story is fascinating, there's no doubt about that. But I can't help thinking that some things that are intensely private should stay private. In at least one sense it's impossible to blame Gray Sexton: her mother wrote extensively about Linda in her poetry. More importantly, Sexton was a thoroughly horrible mother and Linda and younger sister Joy suffered greatly. It's all in the book. It's also true that before publication of this memoir, Gray Sexton had herself already played a major role in expanding the public's knowledge of one family's dysfunction through the publication of the Sexton biography written by Dianne Middlebrook in 1991, and the volume of Sexton's letters published back in 1977. (Gray Sexton is her mother's literary executor and her collaboration with Middlebrook was essential to her biography.) Writing as therapy might be great, though ultimately it didn't help Anne Sexton, but publishing those writings can get very complicated when the subject matter is intensely private. We have choices about what we reveal. Sometimes those choices involve serious ethical considerations.
Close to a year ago, when Nicholas Hughes, Sylvia Plath's son, tragically put an end to his life, Linda Gray Sexton wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times. She makes connections between her own situation and that of Plath's two children. I read the article and found myself asking: what purpose does this serve? Yes, suicide is a terrible health problem. Our society does not seem to have figured out depression. But the article offers no advice, doesn't suggest what to do, what signals to watch out for. We do learn that Gray Sexton's son also struggles with depression. Was it wise to reveal that detail? Who does it serve? I also learned from the article that Gray Sexton has tried to take her own life three times, all of them after the publication of her memoir. I think I admire more the other sister, Joy, who has published not a line about all of this.



As I write these lines we are just minutes from some very beautiful words: "Senyor Pirotecnic! Pot començar la mascletá!" March 19th! The last Mascletá!!! It fills me with tremendous sadness not to be in Valencia right now. Fallas! I just watched the video of yesterday's Mascletá by Ricardo Caballer. Thunderous! Last year I described the event in some detail, so I won't repeat myself. Now it's 2010 and here I am in Carlisle. It's a beautiful morning, very quiet, and strange to think that thousands of miles away a hundred thousand people are jumping with excitement, waiting to get their ears blasted with celestial music. Waldo seems to be reading my mind at this very moment. He's staring me down, even whining a little: celestial music? Are you kidding! Waldo does not appreciate fireworks. In fact, it seems to be the one thing in this world that can send him into a state of high anxiety. Joe's of the world: happy saint's day!


Poetry, and essential

Recently I've been listening to a good amount of poetry on my iPod. Most of the audio has come from the "Essential American Poets" series, created by the Poetry Foundation and available on iTunes. It's an interesting way to experience poetry and not having the text in front of you forces you to rely on your ear. How differently these poets read! I've listened to Anne Sexton, John Ashbery, William Stafford, Weldon Keyes, Philip Levine, Louise Bogan, Gerald Stern, Robert Hass, and Amy Clampitt, among others. Stafford has been a wonderful surprise, and so has, to a lesser extent, Gerald Stern. And how Amy Clampitt's voice has colored my impression of that poet. Nervous, nervous! And it's funny, I always pronounced her name clam - pitt, but in the introduction here it sounded more like clamp - it. Yes, clamp it, Amy. Or at least, slow down a little. Relax! That said, I do like her poetry. Her poems are like very well thought out essays, presented in a quirky, stammering manner. A real thinking poet; that is, a poet who delights in sharing with the reader the peculiar beauty of her own thought processes. She's also clearly a poet of place.
Well, poetry seems to be ever more essential to me. What wonderful conversations! They're going in all directions, all the time. Here are the last three lines of Amy Clampitt's poem "Nothing Stays Put":

Nothing stays put. The world is a wheel.
All that we know, that we're
made of, is motion.

Suicide as Failure

St. Augustine is credited with giving clear expression to the Christian prohibition of suicide. He saw this prohibition as a logical extension of the fifth command- ment: "thou shalt not kill". St. Thomas Aquinas later elaborated on Augustine, and I believe the basic idea so many of us learn as children–that suicide is contrary to God's will, is taken from Aquinas. (In reviewing thinking on suicide I've referred to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) The ethics of suicide is a fascinating topic in some ways, and it's something I've been grappling with in the context of the recent death of Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata. And it continues to concern me as I read about the fate of dissident Guillermo Fariñas, who was hospitalized the other day.
But today I am much more concerned and troubled by the spate of suicides at Cornell. Two students jumped to their deaths on consecutive days this past week. It's been three in the past month, and at least four this academic year. Something is going terribly wrong. Yesterday I was thinking about this, trying to reflect on my own role as a teacher, to re-identify my obligations to young people.
I have not read a lot about suicide, but enough to know that individuals struggling with depression are at much greater risk. According to Gayla Martindale, the number one cause of suicide is untreated depression. I wonder: does academic stress and/or failure aggravate depression? Common sense suggests that it would. (I can envision the terrible circle: stress itself can lead to poor academic performance, which in turn leads to more stress, thus poorer performance, and around and around...) Of more interest to me however is this question: is academic failure really a failure?* And if so, whose failure is it? I was trying to see things through the lens of priorities. Students get stressed because they want to succeed, and they fear the consequences of not succeeding. This is simplifying things some, no doubt, but that scenario is lived out again and again. We all go through it, of course, not just students. Fortunately, the great majority of us have a sufficiently healthy perspective so that the stresses we go through do not overwhelm us completely. It's very difficult to imagine, for example, that someone could take their own life simply because they had failed an exam or feared they were about to fail an exam. But I'm not a mind reader. I suspect those individuals who do take their lives are deeply troubled, sometimes struggling with debilitating mental illness. (That's a hard one: it seems to me that suicide is in itself, a symptom of severe mental illness, because a mentally healthy person could not, by definition, kill oneself.) In any case, I keep coming back to the same thought: an act of suicide represents a profound failure. A failure, ultimately, to connect, to communicate. Something I try to communicate is: so you failed an exam. And...? What does it mean? It probably suggests that you didn't prepare well. And if you didn't prepare well, it might suggest that you're not really that interested in the topic. And if you don't feel passionate about the topic, maybe we should think about finding other topics, or looking at the topic in question in a different way. Whatever the failed exam means, it certainy does not mean failure. So, *, no, academic failure is not really a failure. Failure, for me, is when the very idea of learning is seen as fruitless, as unworthy of time and attention. Don't we want to learn about ourselves? In my case, it sometimes seems hopeless, (Knock, knock, anyone home?), but I'm determined to keep trying. It's fun! And I'm definitely interested in fun. (In the image, Thomas Aquinas, by Francesco Solimena.)


Censorship and Intimidation

This morning there is lots of bad news. There always is! In Washington a Google executive has put Spain in horrendous company in testimony before Congress: Spain as a country that exercises censorship by blocking certain blogger.com ip addresses. In 2007 a Spanish judge ordered blocked two blogs that were calling for a boycott of Catalan products, and in particular Cava, Cataluña's most famous export. I thought, wait, surely they got it wrong. How could they possibly lump Spain with China and Iran? A Google representative in Spain clarified that it was an isolated incident and that they have "no issue" with freedom of expression in Spain. (Then why include Spain on that list??!!!) But the damage is done, it's on the record, and someone in the Spanish Foreign Ministry didn't do their job. I'll get back to this case, which goes back to 2007, soon, because I still don't understand the details. (If it's as straight forward as it seems to be, and the judicial order is still active, then Spain has a BIG problem.)
Also in Spain: the little village of Zalamea, famous for being the locale of one of the most famous plays of Spain's Golden Age theatre, The Mayor of Zalamea, has refused to pay copyright for its annual festival in which over 500 (Five hundred!!!) locals perform the play in village's main square. Coyright on a 17th century text? Of course not. The author's rights go to poet Francisco Brines (the great writer who is the subject of my doctoral thesis), who back in the early nineties adapted the text for the national theater company. In spite of Brines ceding the rights gratis, Spain's authors' and artistic creators' association (SGAE) continued demanding their canon. They say they have no documentation of Brines' concession. The SGAE is, of course, being made to look quite ridiculous, and it's funny how this dispute mirrors wonderfully the very theme of the play: popular revolt against an abusive authority. More interesting, and uncommented in the press, is the question of copyright in artistic adaptations. I'm familiar with the text and Brines' adaptation is quite subtle. It's limited to isolated lexical changes that modernize the Spanish and "lessen" the consonant end rhymes so that the dialogue is easier for a modern ear. Does Brines have a legitimate copyright? Perhaps yes, but I would argue that by undoing just a handful of Brines' changes the work would revert to the public domain. How few? There the question becomes quite interesting. I don't have the answer.
Intimidation is bad behavior, but sometimes we have to put up with it. The trick is to put up with it while not giving in to it. Never give in. And intimidation won't work if we don't give in. The more we resist the more it goes away. And that's the story of Zalamea. (Above, a scene from the village's production of "their" play.


A March Morning

This morning's words are here mainly for the sake of my memory, so that some day in the future I can read them and think... well, maybe they won't provoke thoughts of any interest whatsoever, but with a little luck they'll fire some neurons such that I will maintain the illusion of a life lived with narrative coherence. OK, so yesterday we had some good timing: the checking account was in the red (not a novelty!), but then the tax refund came to the rescue. Good news. And bad news: there are already commitments and bills that more than double the available funds, easily. Someday this cycle will get better. No, no complaining, we've got it good, as they say.
It's practically mid-March and there are some signs of Spring. The days are longer, for one, and today the morning light has a promising quality to it. So, future reader: in March, 2010, on a Saturday morning, there was a sense of moving forward. There is much fun to be had without spending money. Travel will have to wait.
(Right now on the radio they are talking about trying terrorist suspects in military tribunals vs. civilian courts. The White House is going to reverse course. Big mistake! I thing about the Spanish example and the fight against ETA. Spanish democracy, with some stumbles along the way, has ultimately been greatly strengthened by treating ETA militants as the criminals they are. It's a very imperfect analogy, but there are good lessons to be learned. More another day...) In the photo, LeTort Spring Run.


Charles Simic

This morning I was listening to a reading Charles Simic gave at Cornell in 2008. (I dowloaded it from iTunes onto the shuffle and listened as I walked with Waldo.) Listening I was reminded me of the time I met him way back in the early 90s when he gave a reading at Gettysburg College. I don't remember the year, but I think it was 1993 or maybe 1994. It was great to get reconnected with a poet I admire greatly and who I have translated to Spanish. In fact, we had some brief correspondence when I was translating some of his poems and he was very gracious. Simic was the US poet laureate for 2007-08. He is a wonderful poet and has a wonderful sense of humor. From his book The World Doesn't End is a prose poem that begins, "We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap." Fantastic! It gets better. The mouse tells him, as he nibbles on the boy's ears: "These are dark and evil days." So, thanks, Charles, for sharing your imagination! Yesterday I was listening to John Ashbery, a very different kind of poet. Ashbery's narrative sensibility seems to me to be oriented towards larger gaps and the reader/listener has to make connections. The rewards can be great, but sometimes one pays the price of being made to feel tired and uninterested.