Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Garcia Marquez conference at the New School


Mary McCarthy's review of the Handmaid's Tale

http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/03/26/specials/mccarthy-atwood.html amazing how unperceptive  Mary McCarthy's  review of The Handmaid's Tale was. I think there are three reasons for this: 1) she was too old to see the Right as a real threat; to her they were bumpkins and yahoos who might temporarily attain power but could not alter the course of history; also, she could not see how the new Right was more like the totalitarian Left in the way it looked at things. 2) she was just too insulated from the life of her time; she could disdain credit cards because she never had to pay for something she couldn't immediately afford, which was not true of most Americans in 1986 3) she was determined to be 'tough' and to not particularly read or write 'as a woman' which I think hurt her in reading Atwood's novel.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Dear Illusive Dream: Jennifer Firestone’s Gates & Fields

 The Dear Illusive Dream: Jennifer Firestone’s Gates & Fields

By Nicholas Birns

    In its oracular tone, sparsity yet pertinacity of diction, and gnomic emotionalism about experience, Jennifer Firestone’s Gates & Fields (published by Belladonna and featuring a ravishingly arxhaic book design) recalls Emily Dickinson. It is one of many instances where contemporary American women poets are using Dickinson as a source for a poetic at once experimental and felt. Yet this relation is made less homey and ancestry than might seem because of Dickinson’s pessimism and  her own poetry’s resistance to being thematized:


Heaven is so far of the mind
That was the mind dissolved
The site of it—by architect—
Could not again be proved

         What cannot be articulated is so unable to be formulated that we cannot even discern its frame; and thus not just Dickinson’s incantatory austerity but an underlying elusiveness is there in Firestone’s work as well as generational peers of hers such as Katy Lederer and Lisa Jarnot.
    But, on this particular day that I sat down to write this post, the anterior American female poet in my mind was not Dickinson, but an even earlier figure, Annis Boudinot Stockton, who may well be to the late eighteenth century what Dickinson was to the mid-nineteenth or Anne Bradstreet was to the seventeenth:


And is it thus the dear illusive dream
Of social bliss and happiness serene
Must vanish quite—dissolved in empty air
And leave my heart a prey to pangs severe….


Importantly, Stockton is not just writing an elegy for another woman, Ann Meredith Hill, itself rare at a time when the elegy form was dominated by young men mourning their young male peers—Edward King; Keats; Hallam—but an elegy for Mrs. Hill spoken in the voice of her sister, Mrs. Clymer. Stockton, like Dickinson, is always personal, yet not always autobiographical. This totally fortuitous juxtaposition enhanced my sense of the dramatic tectonics of Firestone’s book, in which so often a female persona is evoked, who is observed or watched or commented upon a first-person plural chorus:

As in yesteryears days seemed long
A ball upon her very neck
We were there saying come what you are
We were there saying


   The ‘we’ could be the mourners, and the ‘her’ the mourned object; but the “her” could just as well be the speaker of the poems, and the “we” the audience. This indeterminacy about who is speaking and who is echoing, who is acting and who is contemplating:

She authenticates herself unknowingly
She has laid her vision bare
We collaborate our chorusing
She has laid her vision bare

There is also a constant alteration between past and present tense, which further ramifies the state of the action: at one minute we are face to face with the “she,”, or, alternately, the speaker is face to face with the observed or mourned object; at another, we are commenting, or the speaker is noting, a recorded past, perhaps more a near past than a deep past, but a time sufficiently lapsed so as to have its consequences recognized.

Yes you just say it  She is just one body   Hardly there.
We can say field and feel it because we did not designate
The sky turned pages and the language rained. We do not hesitate.


   We did not designate, but do not hesitate. Why is one verb in the past, and one the present? Does it have something to do with the "she” being incarnate and yet also evanescent? Yet the non-designation is presented as enabling: because we did not designate the field we can say the word ‘field’ and feel it, entering into a surreal release of signification where we do not hesitate. Breakdown, dissolution, can liberate:

The latch of this is broken the latch of this is open

In other words something done in the past has enabled something done in the present. Elsewhere, though, the event in the past seems to have been tragic, catastrophic, or at least precipitating a diminution, as seen near the end of the volume:


We are in this time     All has been done


And then, on the next page of poetry:

There is she who is here in our space so near
There is she who is here in our space so near
Her work may or may not have gone to waste
Her waste is re-defining as this night star sun.

The easiest way to read this is as about a person who has died, with the ‘we’ are the mourners. But this is not exclusive, or denotatively confining, because the “she” is so elusive, and her presence, even if altered or re-formed, still so felt. Again, we see the alternation between the present and past tense. There is a possibility of seeing the past tense as the 'gate’ and the present as the ‘field’. Certainly gates are closed and fields are open, gates material and fields ideal—as a field is really a human perception of space on a natural tableau—gates fixed and fields fluid. The late Japanese-American artist Minoru Kawabata had a similar dichotomy in his images of gates and robes, which for him were tantamount to objective and subjective. But Firestone’s dichotomy of gates and fields is a bit more elusive. Both pertain to death: the gates to hell, but also the Elysian Fields. If fields are the afterlife, gates, as the transition-point to the afterlife, at least have the tangible link to life of marking life’s ending, the proximity of a portal.

The various shapes are we collecting down the trees
We will come from the leaves down the trees
We are more confident in this space than she
We impress ourselves this way
Our perception is the light, the light


   In almost any other context, the last line would be a visionary affirmation, and the words shine with a spiritual intensity. But here it is a sign of a diminution or perhaps more a substitution. Our perception must needs be the light that the ‘she’ has once been; or more convincingly our perception was once the ‘she', but is now reduced to the light, as a stand-in, a vicarious absence. Also notable is the inverted syntax of “various shapes are we collecting down the trees,” where conventionally it should be ‘We are collecting the various shapes”, though it would typically be not ‘down the trees’ but ‘from the trees.’ The inversion diminishes our agency, makes us random vagabonds among the trees rather than exercising dominion or decision in them. There is determination in ‘our’ stance here, but also some presumptuousness. ‘Our’ confidence and love of impressing ourselves makes us almost blunderers; we are more confident in this space than she, but not more dignified or more present. And, if the ‘she’ is indeed dead, that we are ‘more confident in this space than she’ is not so much an inability to admit her passing but a tender acknowledgment that at once she is still there, perceptually, and that her absence means so much that we cannot say it other than decorously, timorously.
       For all the abstract musings the reader must make about tone, stance and address it is very important to note that Gates & Fields is a narrative, a story. It is a story without names or characters or places, a story without context, but nonetheless a story, a chronicle of what has happened, with a gap between past and present that complicates the translucency and intuitiveness of the pure lyric utterance. The English language (as contrasted especially to French) has had trouble establishing genres that are in-between fiction and poetry. Yet, for all this book’s homage to Dickinson, and genuine lineage in her vein, Firestone’s work inhabits this expansive and elusive middle realm between lyric and narrative:

Presently attend to this whole space     not a designated marker
























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Friday, February 24, 2017

Ernest Chanes 1923-2017

Regarding our friend, ErnestChanes

“Ernie” (or Ernest, as he was known to his adoring wife) had a number of friends that he fervently admired, but he always turned to his beloved wifeJosely before he made any big decisions.Josely was a gifted artist with an international following as well as a highly sought-after chatelaine, gracing many wonderful warm-hearted gatherings. Ernie also loved the devotion of his affable stepson Emiliano Saxe, who came into his life decades ago and gave Ernie another figure to cherish.
Among Ernie’s primary relationships was that of his devoted Irish  Setter, Mitzu, who historically was devoted to Ernie and loved to range mountain peaks on weekends. While Mitzu was given the decision to periodically crash in and out of our weekend home, only to drift off on an overnight sojourn through the woods, throughout all of this, the dog saw to it that Ernie never left her side.  When a man and his dog would afterward return home, it was to heal their wounds after a blissful romp across in the countryside.
And then there was the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA)-- our organization which focuses on progressive human rights and policy issues throughout Latin America. Ernie was involved with COHA almost from the beginning, since the first faltering steps that the organization managed to take starting in the early 1970s. At the time of his death, he was serving as COHA’s Secretary as well as a member of its executive committee.
Ernie was also a well seasoned chef, a spectacular sailor, a resolute hiker, and a devoted Brazilianist. A convivial host, he presided over a table that hosted a variety of interests. Meanwhile, Josely was pugnacious in her determination not to be lead astray as she resolutely pursued her art, her career, her marriage, her family and her culture. She had talked about her art long before anyone knew precisely what she was talking about. Through all of her crusades, Ernie was always by her side, dutifully toting around her illustrations for the many shows in which she participated.
Ernest Chanes was a person whom I lived in close quarters with for decades. At these distances, his importance to COHA went far beyond his role as one of its ranking officials and a critical funder. He was at the core of the organization’s soul. With passion, he monitored events circulating around Cuba, was a lion for insisting that COHA beErnest was a proudly generous person who welcomed perplexing moments that would eventually be reconciled by his immense intellectual hunger for new ideas. In almost every facet of his star-studded life, he was on the right side of history every time and brought a barrel of creative ideas for policy initiatives to the table at any particular time. But somehow, he added much more to the organization than had just been suggested by these bits and strands of endless recollections. He was committed to fighting battles that he instinctively knew represented the right side of the “good fight.” For Ernie, there was a series of grandiose struggles that would help define, and even consume his imagination.

He was willing to embrace COHA’s mettle on all occasions and to give voice to the worthiness of the organization that at times stood empty-handed before the media, on whatever issue revealed its sense of moral value. In addition to joining in the war of ideas that colored Allende’s struggle in Chile against Pinochet, Ernest fought with passion against Argentina’s General Videla and the military regime that repressed the likes of Allende’s dignity and prevented the dousing of the constitutional veneer which was ripped away from the Bolivarians who temporarily lay decimated throughout a battered Latin America.

But everything was in place with Ernie who we so greatly loved and admired, and who revered everyone in return.Ernie was a giver who always opted for life. He grew up in a depression-era culture where funds always fell short, but that was more than compensated by the beautiful life and people with whom he surrounded himself. Ernie was known as a man who could unite others by invoking rational solutions in favor of peace and humanity. He was determined to keep the torch of progressivism be held aloft a mile high, and to be thrust even further into the open hands of another human being. Ernie will not allow any of us to forget our duties. Of course, he never did, and we hope that Brazil proves to be worthy enough to share custody of part of his being.

 
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From the Chanes/Carvalho Household:
 
Ernest Chanes, activist, included in the Nixon`s enemy list, dies at 93 in Rio de Janeiro.
 
Ernest Chanes passed away at home in Leblon, Rio de Janeiro on February 8, 2017. He will be remembered for his ethics, compassion, intelligence and memorable beard Lincoln style, unforgettable laugh, and a list of causes and endeavors that could fill several lifetimes.
 
Born on June 13, 1923 to Russian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in the Bronx during the depression. After the early loss of his father, he helped his mother and sister by fishing and selling fish from door to door. He graduated from City College of New York with a degree in mechanical engineering. During World War II he helped design rockets in the organization that later become NASA. He started three successful businesses, including Consolidated Water Conditioning and ChemTech, an environmental water laboratory.
His activism ranged from voter registration in Mississippi to progressive causes in Cuba. He participated in Freedom Summer in 1964, joining hunger strikes and creating a bond Project to liberate imprisoned Young African Americans.

As civic leader in his local progressive Democratic club, the Village Independent Democrats, during Vietnam War, he won a coveted spot on President Nixon`s enemies list in 1973.

As a board member of the Center for Cuban Studies, he went to Cuba in 1972 to assist the government with a clean water project at the invitation of Fidel Castro`s brother; organized a conference in the U.S. Congress to encourage relations between Cuba and U.S.
He was on executive committee of the National Emergency Civil Liberties and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
In 1975, Chanes provided assistance to Larry Birns in founding the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), an independent research and information organization established for human rights in Latin America, a more US attitude towards the region. Chanes remained on the board of COHA until his death.
A swimmer, a foodie, a traveler, and a dog lover – most recently best friend to a black standard poodle named Xica.
In his later years he divided his time between New York City and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, his wife`s birth country. He is survived by his great love companion of 41 years, the artist Josely Carvalho of New York and Rio; by his son, Emiliano Saxe & his wife Irma; his grandchildren, Ibrahim and Elias of California; his niece Ilene Price, and her three children Adam, Alexis and Amanda.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Manchester by the Sea and Jaroslav Halák


Saw Manchester by the Sea. A moving, engrossing film, full of trauma and sorrow. Casey Affleck did a great job of acting affectless and Matthew Broderick had a hilarious bit part as an evangelical Christian. Well-acted, well-directed, well-scored.  I do hear the critics who thought it universalized while male experience a bit too much. The funny thing is, though, the movie, set in 2015, featured an old clip of hockey goaltender Jaroslav Halák, a star when the clip was filmed, now a failed and humiliated figure. I noticed this, and then after the movie two guys behind me could only talk about Halák, and I turned around and said I had noticed it to: two hours of moving story and all three men in a well-heeled, culturally sophisticated part of Manhattan could talk about was this odd hockey detail! In a way the hockey issue brings up the problem of normed white masculinity that Alciia Christoff brings up in her essay  from the other end, that perhaps the film so assumes a model of white maleness that it does not bother to get right just the details that actual working class white men, who would be likelier than average to know who Jaroslav Halák is and appreciate the declivity of his career,  would notice and respond to…it's an eco of Trump, that their stereotypes are being addressed,but not their real needs...

Saturday, December 31, 2016

My 2017 MLA paper

Jeanine Leane unfortunately will have to miss our teaching Australian Literature panel at the Philadelphia MLA but I am doing a short paper instead, the first two paragraphs of which are below.

Reading Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby in the Age of Trump

On November 5, 2008, I taught Aimé Césaire’s Miraculous Weapons as part of the New School's then-current literary foundations course. The poem was on the standard syllabus, but I deliberately assigned that day’s class to this African diaspora text as likely to mark the election of the first African American President the day before. And so, bleary eyed but quietly celebratory, we convened and, after I acknowledged the previous day’s events, had an attentive and involved discussion of the Martinican poet.
     Eight years later, I was teaching in New York University’s School of Professional Studies and was finally getting to give a course in one of my specialties, Australian literature. For November 9, 2016, I assigned Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby. This was not directly to honor the prospective first woman President, though I certainly wanted a female writer on that day. But I wanted to gesture towards a society where multiple racial, religious, sexual, and gender identities were celebrated, and dispossessed and under-recognized  groups such as Indigenous Australians were achieving acknowledgment and redress for the land that had been stolen from them by white settlers.
       My aspirations for this day were, alas, trumped.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

From 2015--my take on the "class struggle vs identity politics" meme

"Here, I would differ from Walter Benn Michaels’ analysis of recent American literature in The Shape of the Signifier, in that from my perspective cultural diversity is not, as Michaels argues, simply an illusion proffered by a protean and transmogrifying capitalism, but an ideal genuinely to be honored. Racial justice, if it had occurred, would justify any extreme of capitalism or inequality. But is there racial justice....today?" Nicholas Birns, Contemporary Australian Literature, published December 2015. And still relevant to "what should the Democratic party do?" debates today, Nicholas Kristof's op-ed in todays TIMES made me think of this passage.