so great when

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Ode to the Republic
Tony Hoagland
It’s going to be so great when America is just a second fiddle
and we stand on the sidelines and watch the big boys slug it out.
Old men reading the Times on benches in Central Park
will smile and say, “Let Brazil take care of it.”
Farmers in South Carolina will have bumper stickers that read
“One nation, with vegetables for all” and “USA:
Numero Uno for grade A tomatoes!”
America, you big scary baby, didn’t you know
when you pounded your chest like that in public
it just embarrassed us?
When you lied to yourself on television,
we looked down at our feet;
When your left hand turned into a claw,
when you hammered the little country down
and chanted the pledge of allegiance,
I put on my new sunglasses
and stared at the church across the street.
I thought I had to go down with you,
hating myself in red white and blue
learning to say “I’m sorry,” in more and more foreign languages.
But now at last the end of our dynasty has arrived,
and I feel humble and calm and curiously free.
It’s so good to be unimportant.
It’s so nice to sit on the shore of the Potomac
and watch Time take back half of everything.
It’s a relief to take the dog for a walk
without body armor and stun guns, without frightening the neighbors.
My country, ‘tis of thee I sing:
There are worse things than being
second burrito,
minor player, ex-bigshot, former VIP, drinking decaf
in the nursing home for downsized superpowers.

Like a Navajo wearing a cowboy hat, may you learn
to handle history ironically.
May you look into the mirror and see your doubleness—old blue eyes
in a brown face.
May your women finally lay down
the law: No more war on a school night.
May your shame at failing be cushioned by the oldest kind of chemotherapy:
stage after stage of acceptance.
May someone learn to love you again.
May you sit on the porch with the other countries
in the late afternoon,
and talk about chickens and rain.

Photo (c) S Donaghy

in an airport

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Coming and Going
Tony Hoagland
My marriage ended in an airport long ago.
I was not wise enough to cry while looking for my car,

walking through the underground garage;
jets were roaring overhead, and if I had been wise

I would have looked up at those heavy-bellied cylinders
and seen the wheelchairs and the frightened dogs inside;

the kidneys bedded in dry ice and Styrofoam containers.
I would have known that in synagogues and churches all over town

couples were gathering like flocks of geese
getting ready to take off, while here the jets were putting down

their gear, getting ready for the jolt, the giant tires
shrieking and scraping off two

long streaks of rubber molecules,
that might have been my wife and I, screaming in our fear.

It is a matter of amusement to me now,
me staggering around that underground garage,

trying to remember the color of my vehicle,
unable to recall that I had come by cab—

eventually gathering myself and going back inside,
quite matter-of-fact,

to get the luggage
I would be carrying for the rest of my life.

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

 

proof of life

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Proof of Life
Tony Hoagland
Those small cuts and infections on my hands
from splinters and thorns
that show I have been working out of doors this week.

The maddening peculiar purgatory
of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band
playing “Against the Wind”
continuously for three days inside my head
until on the fourth day it finally stops.

The sound of clothes going around in the dryer
at the other end of the house.

Wanting from a very young age
not to be a zombie sleepwalking through time.

Leaving people, and being left by them.
This catch-and-release version of life.

The kidnappers send out a photograph of the
hostage, grimacing,
holding up a newspaper from yesterday.
They call this “proof of life.”

It means the captive is still alive.

The day is blue with one high white cloud
like a pilgrim going to Canterbury.

There is a bird half-hidden in the shrub outside.
Something he has eaten has made his
chest feathers red.

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

ten reasons

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Ten Reasons Why We Cannot Seem to Make Progress
Tony Hoagland
As long as the cheerleader keeps watching the movie about cheerleaders
and the businessman keeps a copy of The Art of War in his attaché case.

As long as the money retains no memory of where it has been
but keeps on running like a river

Until going to war is explained in terms of child development

Until the man is shown licking his fingertips
and reaching down to brush the woman’s cunt,

until her wetness wakes and matches his.
Until every candidate for Congress is required

to work for a year in the military,
rubbing lotion onto the stumps of the amputees,

which will be so frightening to most on a sexual level,
that soon only women will run for the Senate.

As long as meaning is pursued and captured
and placed on display like a trophy or a piece of meat

As long as shoppers continue
to enter the heaven of the shopping mall

like ants climbing in a long line
into the nozzle of the plastic honey container

to die in a golden profusion
of what they planned to bring home—

As long as there are these things
that we are not allowed to think or say out loud.

Until we can speak them out loud,
we will be trapped inside the dream.

Photo by Johnny McClung on Unsplash

marriage song

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Marriage Song
Tony Hoagland
God said (and already you can tell
I’m making this up),

Let this woman and this man
Be joined together

In front of the sea and the grass
And the trees who don’t care

He said, Let them make
A gate in themselves

Through which the other can pass
And may the gate never be closed

So they can feel the truth of being entered

And the loneliness of being
Imperfectly misunderstood —

Now go, God said,
Into the country of love

Change it with your experiments
Don’t be intimidated Enjoy your skin

Impress me
Make something grow

For your bravery merely in undertaking
This impossible task

I make you a special loan called Time
No, don’t bother to thank me now —

You can pay me back as you go

Photo by Guillaume LORAIN on Unsplash

special problems

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Special Problems in Vocabulary
Tony Hoagland
There is no single particular noun
for the way a friendship,
stretched over time, grows thin,
then one day snaps with a popping sound.

No verb for accidentally
breaking a thing
while trying to get it open
—a marriage, for example.

No particular phrase for
losing a book
in the middle of reading it,
and therefore never learning the end.

There is no expression, in English, at least,
for avoiding the sight
of your own body in the mirror,
for disliking the touch

of the afternoon sun,
for walking into the flatlands and dust
that stretch out before you
after your adventures are done.

No adjective for gradually speaking less and less,
because you have stopped being able
to say the one thing that would
break your life loose from its grip.

Certainly no name that one can imagine
for the aspen tree outside the kitchen window,
in spade-shaped leaves

spinning on their stems,
working themselves into
a pale-green, vegetable blur.

No word for waking up one morning
and looking around,
because the mysterious spirit

that drives all things
seems to have returned,
and is on your side again.

Photo by Andrew Preble on Unsplash

Said and read – November 2018

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“I love the idea of reading books as a brotherly, sisterly moral obligation to one’s people.” – Flights, Olga Tokarczuk 

Has November spawned a monster? I’m at the threshold of two major submission deadlines (and several smaller ones) in one study program (by the time I publish, all of this will be submitted) and should be polishing off a master’s thesis in another study program – both of which, it should go without saying, have required time, thought and a lot of reading. I will get through all of this but wonder at my own motivations. Why would I believe this was a good idea?

I am tired, possibly dispirited (which I know is temporary and largely tied to the moment in which I write this… update, yes, in fact, it was temporary… by the time I started to finish this, my mindset was completely different), and even though a couple of things will end in December, new things will start. I will not take the luxury of resting. I feel a certain dread about that. (Tomorrow I will probably feel elated about that.) The momentary dread arises because it’s all quite unknown, less because I don’t get a break. It’s still reading I turn to for “breaks”.

I don’t always read something ‘easy’ – in fact, I rarely do. But it makes me happy, regardless of the subject matter. I don’t think it’s the topic that is uplifting necessarily. And I stumbled across an article from 2015 that nods along with this assertion: reading may contribute to your happiness (I had no idea but apparently there’s something called bibliotherapy, but it’s a fascinating discovery for someone who is delving into psychology and therapeutic approaches to mental health. It’s an awful play on words perhaps to say that I found this particular approach novel).

If you find yourself curious about what I was reading, liking, thinking, hating and all the rest throughout 2018… here’s your chance to find out: October, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for November:

In November I found that I read much more than expected, perhaps something like 50 books. A couple of months ago one of my university classmates got in touch to discuss my blog posts on reading/literature and share his thoughts on reading Russian literature (we were in Russian studies courses together), and this brought many memories of that period in my life flooding back. Actually, it’s truer to say that being back at a university and interacting with people who are young (as I was then) started me on this trajectory, but that ended up being the first of the nostalgia triggers that led me to some unsettling news as November ends.

In September after I’d begun studying, a young woman asked me if I am still in touch with friends from my undergraduate years. I don’t think she realized that my undergrad years are almost as far away from us in years as her entire lifespan so far. It dawned on me that, no, in fact, I am friends now with only one woman from college. I formed a few very close but very brief friendships during that time, which, if I am honest, were, in the sum of it all, painful. One such friendship developed during the same time as/in the course of the Russian studies, and it ended with what I can only now call “ghosting” even if I could see the ways she backed off from me.

When I exchanged a few messages with the guy from the class, it opened the door to this distant past. It made me think of the Russian class, of very detailed memories of that whole period – the foods, the characters, the schedules, particular moments and vignettes, and most powerfully, I remember the fragile, vulnerable nature of a classmate/woman/friend, K, who hid beneath her retiring exterior a fierce intellect and emotional abundance. I wrote a few years ago about a few very specific memories – a day that our very small Russian class took a field trip together to Victoria, BC, Canada – and as those flooded back to me, I found myself revisiting some of the Russian readings, the music from our field trip day (Cowboy Junkies), and finally, today I thought that I’d look K up. I had tried once or twice to find her online in the past, but it seems all the friends from my past who disappear tend to be the types who have absolutely no online presence. As such, I never found K in my previous searches.

Until last night when I did just a small amount of digging and found…

She died two years ago.

And I was, to borrow a word from someone with whom I shared this, “floored”.

Worse yet, as I was processing this information, I happened to learn that someone else I had just been talking about had recently passed away. Learning about this kind of death – something about someone who is now distant but who was once a vital, important, daily fixture, someone who was once so meaningful – is like immersing one’s entire head in ice water. I am awake, so aware of my limitations and the limitations of time. But is it changing how I do things? Is it making me any less selfish?

Living’s mostly wasting time/and I waste my share of mine/But it never feels too good/ so let’s not take too long…/I’m soft as glass/and you’re a gentle man/we’ve got the sky to talk about/and the world to lie upon/days up and down they come/like rain on a conga drum/forget most/remember some/but don’t turn none away/everything is not enough/nothing is too much to bear/where you’ve been is good and gone/all you keep’s the getting there” – Cowboy Junkies (covering the late, great Townes van Zandt)… a song that will always make me think of K (1974-2016).

Highly recommended

*Application for Release from DeathTony Hoagland 

I started reading Hoagland last month (and loved that book also). It turns out that I started reading around the same time that he died (October 2018). I’m going to read the rest of his work in in December. Poetry, of course.

*Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World – Suzy Hansen

I can’t say enough about how good this book is for challenging American blindness and brainwashing about the world and the American(‘s) place in it.

*Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs – Johann Hari 

I’d intended to read Chasing the Scream for over a year; I was going through a phase of reading books on addiction and new takes (scientific and otherwise) on the nature of addiction. Somehow I never quite got to this one until now. It’s extraordinarily well-written in a gripping narrative form, and it ties, strangely, to one of the books I read this month and hated (The Culture of Narcissism – see below). I am not drawing a parallel between addicts and narcissists, if that’s what you’re imagining. No, instead, I think of some points Lasch made in The Culture of Narcissism and see their applicability.

From Hari’s book:

Bruce came to believe, as he put it, that “today’s flood of addiction is occurring because our hyperindividualistic, frantic, crisis-ridden society makes most people feel social[ly] or culturally isolated. Chronic isolation causes people to look for relief. They find temporary relief in addiction . . . because [it] allows them to escape their feelings, to deaden their senses—and to experience an addictive lifestyle as a substitute for a full life.”

and

Bruce says that at the moment, when we think about recovery from addiction, we see it through only one lens—the individual. We believe the problem is in the addict and she has to sort it out for herself, or in a circle of her fellow addicts. But this is, he believes, like looking at the rats in the isolated cages and seeing them as morally flawed: it misses the point. He argues we need to refocus our eyes, as if staring at a Magic Eye picture, to see that the problem isn’t in them, it’s in the culture.” 

and

If we think like this, the question we need to answer with our drug policy shifts. It is no longer: How do we stop addiction through threats and force, and scare people away from drugs in the first place? It becomes: How do we start to rebuild a society where we don’t feel so alone and afraid, and where we can form healthier bonds? How do we build a society where we look for happiness in one another rather than in consumption?” 

* Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book – Susan M. Love

I wish I had been able to read this book a long time ago. Detailed but simplified for the layperson. It is also sad to see the part on practical considerations, e.g., about American health insurance and financial constraints. That is, can you afford your treatment, and whether you can or not, are you one day away from being unscrupulously discriminated against for having cancer? Ugh.

*Le sanglot de l’homme noirAlain Mabanckou

A series of essays/reflections on being black, on prejudice, on colonialism.

Tu es né ici, ton destin est ici, et tu ne devras pas le perdre de vue. Demande-toi ce que tu apportes à cette patrie sans pour autant attendre d’elle une quelconque récompense. Parce que le monde est ainsi fait : il y a plus de héros dans l’ombre que dans la lumière.

Good – really good

*Sarajevo MarlboroMiljenko Jergović

There’s no point in not letting a fire swallow up things that human indifference has already destroyed.

Stories of Sarajevo and the diversity of life found there.

Life is only valuable because you know you have it. Death always finds you unprepared, without tangible proof that you ever lived.”

*The Panther and the LashLangston Hughes

*HumJamaal May

*HiveChristina Stoddard

I loved all the references to the Pacific Northwest (Tacoma and surrounding environs!)

*Search Party: Collected PoemsWilliam Matthews

Because poetry, as always. It doesn’t really need much more explanation than that (particularly if you read this blog; I rarely post my own writing on a regular basis, but I post a poem daily).

*This Boy’s Life: A MemoirTobias Wolff

I can’t really say why I read this or why it makes my list of something I really enjoyed. It probably comes down to how characters and scenes are described, which is the only way a piece of writing comes alive.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Flow: The Cultural Story of MenstruationElissa Stein

*New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of MenstruationChris Bobel

Technically I finished both of these right at the end of October, so they didn’t make it into my October write-up. These are not necessarily books suited to everyone but they formed part of my thesis research on period poverty and thus were informative and might be useful for people (particularly men) who have no clue about menstruation and the unequal economic (and other) burdens it places on women. Most surprising to me is how many women know so very little about their own bodies and the economic situations of others (i.e., period products are taxed in many countries as non-essential luxury items, meaning that a lot of women struggle to afford them and are often making choices between tampons or food).

*Communication and Social Change: A Citizen PerspectiveThomas Tufte

This was something that informed my thesis work, but as someone interested in how we communicate about and for social change and justice, this is an essential volume.

*Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be StoppedGarry Kasparov

Kasparov’s work really speaks for itself. The only issue I had was minor and factual; the book made the mistake of confusing Slovakia and Slovenia, which had nothing to do with the overall content of the book. But a basic fact check or proofread should have caught this.

And there are valid, timely warnings for what we’re going through now.

“Despite the attempt to rebrand the method as “engagement,” the smell of appeasement is impossible to mask. The fundamental lesson of Chamberlain and Daladier going to see Hitler in Munich in 1938 is valid today: giving a dictator what he wants never stops him from wanting more; it convinces him you aren’t strong enough to stop him from taking what he wants. Otherwise, goes the dictator’s thought process, you would stand up to him from the start.”

When I am asked if Putin was inevitable, this is why I say you have to start ten years before anyone knew his name. By the time Yeltsin made Putin the heir apparent, Russians were demanding stability and looking for a tough guy to stand up to the criminals and to the Western influences they’d been told were damaging the country and their pensions. To prevent Putin, or a Putin, from coming to power, the 1990s would have required a very different script with less appeasement of Yeltsin and his entourage and stronger support for democratic institutions.”

*BecomingMichelle Obama

I had seen all the publicity around this book and had no intention of reading it. But one Saturday or Sunday morning, tired of reading social psychology papers and even more tired of the embarrassing, frightening circus that is the contemporary political landscape,  I decided to latch onto the bittersweet nostalgia of the Obamas via the former First Lady’s autobio. While it mostly read as expected, the moments around the first Obama presidential victory re-awakened the emotion I felt on election day 2008. I want to scream about our current dilemma/disaster, “How did we get here?” except that I know the answer: we were always here.

Coincidences

*The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic OrderJoseph R. Gusfield

This is not exactly a coincidence, but more of a “crossover”. I suppose it’s inevitable that if you’re doing two study programs simultaneously, even if they are in entirely different disciplines, you will stumble across topics and theories that have some applicability (even possibly novel applicability) in the other. I have to say that the vague, esoteric nature of one of my fields has made it more difficult to engage fully with and apply theory adequately, but the much more grounded and detailed nature of psychology studies (and research methods) has helped. I came across Gusfield in some of my psych readings and realized that there are aspects of his work on making private/individual problems public that could be an interesting angle for my other line of inquiry…

I had never really thought about drinking-driving, as he refers to it, in the way he frames it. While I certainly do believe that the individual does have responsibility for drinking-driving as a choice, I can appreciate Gusfield’s analysis that the rest of society has been built in a way that doesn’t offer many choices. (It’s more complex than this, of course, but that’s why the book was worth reading.)

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

I read quite a few independently published books of poetry this month, and most of them were pretty disappointing. I won’t call any of them out because they all offered something worthwhile even if, on the whole, I wouldn’t buy these books again.

Also, I was writing a paper about narcissism and democracy, and found a book that seemed like it might be interesting as background information:

*The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing ExpectationsChristopher Lasch

The narcissist has no interest in the future because, in part, he has so little interest in the past. He finds it difficult to internalize happy associations or to create a store of loving memories with which to face the latter part of his life, which under the best of conditions always brings sadness and pain. In a narcissistic society—a society that gives increasing prominence and encouragement to narcissistic traits—the cultural devaluation of the past reflects not only the poverty of the prevailing ideologies, which have lost their grip on reality and abandoned the attempt to master it, but the poverty of the narcissist’s inner life. A society that has made “nostalgia” a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange quickly repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today. Having trivialized the past by equating it with outmoded styles of consumption, discarded fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present.”

I was wrong. It had interesting parts but I suppose I had bigger expectations for it than it could have lived up to and had no applicability to the paper I was trying to write. To find the good points, you’d have to read very carefully and ignore a lot of unsavory moralizing.

It’s my own fault for not looking at anything about Lasch before reading it – he leans heavily conservative on social issues, and many good points are masked by this moralistic tone. For example, he argued that the unshakeable and often unrealistic American clinging to the idea of “Progress” (and its inevitability) makes Americans deaf and resistant to (his) warnings or ideas – but frankly, it, by extension, makes Americans deaf and resistant to all ideas that don’t fit in with this uniquely American and blind construction of the world.

A denial of the past, superficially progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future.”