Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My mother's supplementary remarks on Shulamith Firestone

I have a short piece on Shulamith Firestone in the current FEMSPEC.

My mother remembered some details l about her encounter with Firestone which lends a variant perspective to what I was able to say. Herewith her remarks:

The first time I met Shulamith Firestone, in the Xerox place, she was fussing about what she needed done to such an extent, that I was kept waiting longer than usual. As a result, I glanced at the work she was Xeroxing and realized that she was Shulamith Firestone. Shulamith Firestone had no idea who I was—I had bought one of her books many years ago in the seventies, and had read about her, so of course I knew who she was.   About a year later, I went to do my laundry at the laundromat across the street, and came across Shulamith again, who had evidently been in the laundromat some time before I arrived.  I was sitting on the bench in front of her, waiting for my my laundry to finish in the dryer.  She was standing in front of me. She evidently had found something on the bulletin board that interested her, and wanted to copy it down, but had no pencil.  She asked me if I had a pencil.  I did not.  She then proceeded to look in her entire backpack for a pencil, look in her wallet, look in her jacket, look in all the pockets of her jeans, look in her shirt pockets.  When she did not find a pencil in any of those places, she proceeded to search again in an increasingly anxious and apprehensive and agitated way, a way that was dead serious—in her backpack, in her wallet, in her jacket, in her jeans, in her shirt pockets.  She did this many, many, many times.  She was not kidding around. Backpack, wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets, backpack, wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets, backpack, wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets, backpack, wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets, backpack wallet, jacket, jeans shirt pockets, backpack wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets.  To the point that I felt like shouting, in utter desperation,  “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD SHULAMITH GO HOME AND GET A  PENCIL!  But I did nothing.  Maybe I should have.  Backpack, wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets, backpack, wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets, backpack, wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets, backpack, wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets, backpack wallet, jacket, jeans shirt pockets, backpack wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets. 

       Although she had no pencil, she was pencil-thin, and possessed by an idee fixe about pencil she did not possess. Backpack, wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets, backpack, wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets, backpack, wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets, backpack, wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets, backpack wallet, jacket, jeans shirt pockets, backpack wallet, jacket, jeans, shirt pockets.  To her eternal credit, she was still obviously interested in something that struck her as important on the bulletin board; her need for a pencil was from her perspective dire.  This was true to the spirit of the Laundromat. Everyone was in a state of existential despair.   Nobody was really in their right mind, and I would include myself in that category. In that regard, Shulamith Firestone’s episode-with-the-pencil should be appreciated as part of the legend of what was once the East Village.  She was true to herself.  She may have been  in a tragic condition,  yes—but there was nothing about her that was a lie. 
--Margaret Boe Birns 

(Again my thanks to my mother for contributing her perspective) 

Wine and Grape Juice

Wine AND grape juice! Two chalices, two stations! A historic prayer book's time-honored rhythms heard again! And free pizza (and good pizza, as I will be in charge of buying it...)

These are but some of the delights which await you at the  interim Shared Eucharist on March 3 at 5:30 pm between the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church under the TEC-UMC Common Guidelines for Interim Eucharist Sharing. These are exciting times for Anglican-Methodist cooperation worldwide, as recently in Ireland several Methodist consecrators joined in Canon Kenneth Kearon's consecration as Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe in the Church of Ireland. 
A team of clergy and laity from both denominations in the New York area has been attempting to walk along the same paths. and the service is the fruition of this. United Methodist New York Annual Conference Resident Bishop Jane Allen Middleton will preside, while Bishop Stacy F. Sauls, the Chief Operating Officer of the national Episcopal Church, will preach. Informal fellowship and free pizza will follow. The John Street parish started out as a prayer circle of Methodists who would also attend formal services at Trinity Church. After American independence, and the consequent formal break between Methodists and Episcopalians, these ties were severed; this service is a small step in reconnecting them. March 3 has been chosen as being the day the Episcopal Church celebrates the lives of John and Charles Wesley on the Calendar of Saints.

As per the requirements of the shared Eucharist agreement, both wine and grape juice will be available. The liturgy used will be that of the 1662 Prayer Book, the last prayer service the two churches had in common. I went to a church in Canberra last summer that used this service and I found it both humbling, and, to use a Methodist word, sanctifying. 

I have been working on this for a number of years and am thrilled to finally see it bear fruit. Working with me have been Bill Parnell, the Episcopal Diocese of New York's Archdeacon for Mission; Joe Campo, the chair of the Diocesan Commission on Ecumenical and Intereligious Relations, and Bob Walker, assistant to the UMC New York Annual Conference bishop. We will also have lots of support from General Theological Seminary whose Dean and President has been a strong back rod the event. 

Why is this important to me? 1)  it is something my crutch has asked me to do and entrusted me with the responsibility for, and I am honored and humbled by this trust 2) As someone whose ancestors came from virtually every religious background conceivable, there is a natural affinity on my part for religious traditions coning together 3) as a literature professor, and especially as someone who does scholarship and teaches courses in the long eighteenth and long nineteenth centuries, it often seems to me that we act as if there wasp n egret age of religious poetry in English-the seventeenth century, with Herbert, Milton, Vaughan, Crashaw, Edward Taylor, and so on -and another--the nineteenth century, with the later Wordsworth, Coleridge,  and Oxford Movement, followed by Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson. We forgot the incredible body of Methodist hymnody and sermons that provides a catalyzing link between them and rebuts idea sod the rationalism and secularism of the long eighteenth century.4) Because an ongoing unity of the Church brings us all closer to God. 

So, guys, my heart is in this on all levels and I would really be thrilled if you could come. 

The John Street Church is in downtown Manhattan, south of City Hall, accessible from he Fulton St. stations on the A, C, 2, 3, 4, and 5 trains. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

David Slavitt's new novel, Walloomsac

   David Slavitt is the most wide-ranging man of letters of our time. Any of his careers—as novelist, poet, and critic—would be more than enough for one person to have as their life’s work. That he has fully established himself in all the above categories as well as being our era’s most skilled and curious translator is truly stunning. This may indeed by a great age of translation; but it is often translations of already-established classics: Don Quixote, Dante, Dostoevsky. While not neglecting the obvious masterworks—his Aeschylus, from which I have taught many times, is especially outstanding--Slavitt’s true merit ahas been translating obscure works from the medieval and early modern period, which have either not been rendered into English at all or have only received dry, scholarly translations Sometimes one feels as if the few in these writers resent any potential broadening of interest. In a particularly scabrous  review, Laurance Wieder presumably not (a relation of Carlos Wieder in Roberto Bolaño), writing for the ultraconservative journal First Things, says of Slavitt’s Prudentius translation  “The urbane surface of his introductory prose can’t hide the vacancy of his aesthetic pose.” Even if true, )which it is not), why not applaud the fact that this important fourth century Christian poet, a pivotal figure in the transformation of  the Roman world from classicism through  late antiquity to the medieval, has been translated? Why not hail Slavitt for not being intimidated by repeated assurances in literary history, that Prudentius is dry as dust and only for scholastics and that the true, well-rounded reader should be content with the list of Great Books given them by the likes of Mortimer Adler, never to rove into obscure crevices frequented by true scholars such as Gibbon and Huysmans and Curtius? He should be so hailed.
  The remarkable achievement,though, of Slavitt's work is that this erudition is organized and controlled by classicism in another sense-the sense of  the writer knowing his limits, of preferring concision to verbosity, of keeping their knowledge all under control. Slavitt, though far more wide-ranging than previous American classicists such as Rolfe Humphries or Dudley Fitts or Stark Young, has their willingness to harness their creativity (which one must have creativity in the first place to do). Postmodernism and magical realism have made it easy to be erudite and swath one;s knowledge in a mantle of allegedly transgressive form, but Slavitt takes the harder task of writing a wild, prodigious, extravagant work which still possesses a sense of self-possession—decorum and equipoise are not quite the right words-amidst all its intellectual richness. Of major writers, the one most comparable is Borges: not that Slavitt is on this level, nor has particular Borgesian idiosyncrasies, but the mixture of erudition and discipline is analogous. The much duscussed brogue genre of  "Menippean satire"--something that is a bit of a mixture of everything, and is self-ironizing--is also pertinent, 
   Walloomsac, Slavitt's latest work, may well be his bravest and most  idiosyncratic. It is subtitled a roman fleuve, a river-novel, and its course indeed delightfully eddies from subject to subject, from the curiosity that Sir John Harington, the acclaimed Elizabethan translator of Ariosto, also invented the water-closet, to the history of syphilis and the Wasserman test (I am a bit surprised that Slavitt does not mention Fracastoro, the great poet of syphilis), to the novels of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, novelists whom Slavitt’s novel does not resemble in the least but who he respects for their ability to meld fact and fiction and their knowing sense of what they were trying to do as writers. Literary strains that Waloomsac does evoke more concertedly are the deeply felt opulence of the George Garrett of The Succession (Garrett was a good friend and literary sparring partner of Slavitt’s), the wry self-discernment of an Italo Svevo, the mania and inventiveness of Thomas Pynchon with far more serenity and control, and, given that the Walloomsac, and the other river mentioned, the Hoosic, are in the Taconic Hills just across the border from the Berkshires of Meivlle’s Pierre, and Walloomsac emulates that bitter attempt of the great American writer to be as misunderstood as possible. (The third section is called “Tomahanack,” which is a slight misspelling of a reservoir near Troy ,but is probably just  meant to be fictive and to burst the frame a bit). We learn about disease, the relations between men and woman, Shakespeare, disappointment, fonts and their origin, and the perils of misunderstanding. We are exasperated, dazzled, and confused, but always sure of our guide: our most underrated major American writer, and someone who combines learning with a sensibility truly—for once---conscientious.

George Dickerson 1933-2015

    I met George Dickerson in early 2003, at a reception at the old Poets House on Prince St. It was thronged with literary names and wannabees, insiders and outsiders. I noticed George standing slightly aloof, as I certainly was at such an occasion, and began a conversation with him. I had not known his cinematic work (I had seen Blue Velvet and other stuff that he was in, but did not remember him being in those works) so came to him though his poetry. He told a moving story of having started out impressively as a writer, with the support of Robert Penn Warren at Yale, having two stories in The Best American Short Stories, writing regularly for Time as a book reviewer, but then being traumatized after working for the UN in Lebanon in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the civil war, and not being able to express himself in writing for many years In the early 1990s, though the Muse returned, and touched him in a genre in which he had previously dabbled but never centered himself: poetry.

       George’s poetry is one of pure brilliance and pure romanticism. His poems capture beauty, love, and those moments where we represent ourselves at our best. The villanelle can be cloying and overused as a form, but Dickerson comes to it with astonishing freshness:

A Mist of White Horses

Tell me you have not forgotten the rain, 

Close by the Mediterranean Sea,
Promise a mist of white horses again!

In the marshy sedge of the delta’s plain

Where the white horses of Camargue run free,

Tell me you have not forgotten the rain!

The rest of the poem repeat and alternates the closing lines of each stanza above as a refrain, sounding a note of plangent appeal, remembrance, but allowing the beauty of both what is pictured and how it is described to supersede any merely personal emotion for nostalgia. The one place-specific of “Camargue” both located the poem geographically but also tonally in a mood of gossamer Provençal lyricism.   If this poem is a case of braving the full expression of high lyricism in a natural mode now grown somewhat ashamed of it, ‘The Book Of The Dead” sees regret in the anecdotal, sweetness in the unfulfilled, as the speaker meets a former wife or girlfriend of his on the street:

She said my name as a convert might speak
The forbidden name of a toppled god,
With a slight derision and some regret.
I gave her a wink. She offered a nod.

We chattered like palms in a desert breeze,
Uttering some putative pleasantries:
"The Sphinx lost his nose." "Claudius is dead."
"Whatever happened to that awful Fred?"

        The mixture of the archetypal and the banal, utterances the man and woman might have actually said to each other and utterances that are temporally possible: the awful Fred whom we can well picture as much as the Claudius and sphinx that are not there to give the poem mythic depth but to point to how the particulars do not matter, only the ideas of the particulars: and that to these two people their past experience is mythic even if it is not to anyone else. . The rhyme is tight and totally inhabiting the meter, but Dickerson is never a by-the book formalist; when he uses rhyme, it is because rhyme is the only way for the poem to be as intense as it is, the only way the poet and reader can be totally committed to it.
    My favorite poem of George’s—and one which I delighted hearing him read as we chatted over coffee at Camaje or Caffe Vivaldi-is “badinage for Pepper.” Thomas Catterson, nicknamed “Pepper,” was a Vietnam veteran and a poet George met in the 1990s, when, as founder of Rattapallax Press, he scoured New York City for poets of any age of background of verve and lyricism, passion and conviction. This, to my mind, is one of the great elegies of our time, precisely because it does not try to be that: and does not try to sentimentalize Catterson himself, the death that overcome him, or the loss felt by the mourner.

So you've finally gone to seek your severed leg

And end your body's antic quarrel with time.

Terrific!  What's left behind?  Here.  At the still point.

Where the mirthless clowns of midnight
Snicker: "Hoo ha!  Hoo ha!  Sweet Pepper's dead,

With Eastern metrics dancing in his head."

This is not so fine, my friend...this hapless end.

      As C. S. Lewis argued in Studies in Words, adjectives like “terrific” and "terrible” have lost their force, gravitated opposite ways so that “terrific: means the equivalent of ‘great!” and “terrible” means the equivalent of “horrible.” Dickerson sue of terrific is an act of what Coleridge termed “desynonimzation,” where words regain their meaning, become redifferentiated, as the sarcasm of “Terrific!” reveals the underlying terror is shares with terrible. If the poet is sarcastic in one way giving a snide “terrific” when he means to express loss—death is even more sarcastic, snickering, without pity, unable to laugh even at its cruel jokes.

You know how absence aches....

You knew before you quit

Your walker's intricate pirouette

The recklessness of wishes and want...

The cost...the haunt... ("Jig! Jig!" the jongleur said.
From his busted bed.)  But to stop short

The syllables of your heart's fierce muttering

So soon is beyond my knack to grieve.

    Alliteration is a powerful tool in English: indeed an atavistic one, hearkening back to Beowulf or Sir Gawain. When it is used strategically, in conjuncture with swings between diction (the Latinate “intricate.” the French “pirouette,” the Germanic: wish,” the Scandinavian ‘want”) and, of course conviction of sentiment is power is heightened until the switch’s setting is on ‘stun.” The internal rhyme between “want” and “haunt,” with the t sound taken up again by ‘short”, can only come from the patient interface of a master of craft, as do the five s words in the stanza’s last three lines which we probably only notice on second or third reading so fluid is the way the language and emotion forge us into understanding the poet’s loss. . The archaism of “jongleur” joins in with the banality of ‘busted bed”; everything is tied, is hammered together in “heart’s fierce muttering.”

Hey! Let's take a jaunty, jocular leave

And screw the wizard of finality.

We'll have another cigarette.  You bet!

And watch the lovely ladies' last late pass,

Then listen for God's gruff guffaw

As you humpety-bump your raggedy ass

Up the steps of heaven.  "Hoo haw!"

     The risk in the last stanza is the pairing of “jaunty” and “jocular” which are potentially too much like, Dickerson gets away with it—and we discussed this many times—because he is deliberately trying to establish a mood, and because the potential prosiness of such international” adjective-s-ones that may try to telegraph the envisioned emotion too broadly too readers—is offset by the colloquialism of ‘screw” and ‘raggedy ass.” The male camaraderie hat evokes affection in jocularity and gruffness (one cannot improve on the poet’s own words here) counters death in its own sentimental idiom, not yielding an inch.
       Though Dickerson had fifteen years to live when he wrote this poem, and did not intend it as an elegy for himself (I never met Thomas Catterson, but I felt I knew him very well through George’s intense conviction that the poem was totally about his friend “Pepper”), his own death inevitably makes me read this poem in a different light. George was a good friend to me: having reviewed black writers in the 1960s for TIME, he read over the first two section of the African-American chapter of my book Theory After Theory and supplied insightful commentary and feedback. Though he was disappointed by the books generally negative take on the New Critics—some of whom, such as Penn Warren, had been among his teachers at Yale—he was always a generous and supportive reader and I was touched when he, at age 77, walked across Greenwich Village to be at my book party for that volume. (Incidentally, George was right I should have been more positive about the New Critics having an axe to grind is not the same as seeing things sub specie aeternitatis). In turn, I read George’s work, particularly his various attempts to tell the story of his years in Lebanon that had been the crucible, breaking point, and in an odd way turning point of his life. Short story, play, screenplay of “The Man Who Loved Butterflies", I read them all, and vicariously lived through a terrifying experience conveyed in taut and unyielding prose.
       George told wonderful stories about famous people he had known: Leonard Cohen, Roscoe Lee Browne, and Arthur Miller. He came to my class at the New School in October 2006, to speak about his friendship with Miller, and one of my students remembering that occasion, wrote to me recently: “He was such an interesting speaker and seemed like a really great man.” I could not agree more. George did not choose the vocation of teaching; but he would have been a superb teacher. When he spoke of acting, and cinematic technique, and the choices of art, he was my teacher. 
   George spoke often of his love for his wife Suzanne and his daughter Erin, and his pride in his Finnish son, Dome Karukoski, whose superb film at the Tribeca Film Festival he encouraged his friends to see. I am really privileged to have known him and to call him a friend. I wish I had been more in touch with him recently, but I always got distracted and thought a phone call and coffee with George would be just around the corner. Last Friday, I saw his book of poetry noon my shelf and thought, I should contact him soon. The next day Suzanne called to tell me of his passing.