Monday, September 20, 2010


A few paragraphs from Bill Holm

Found a few paragraphs I liked in "The Music of Failure," an essay by Bill Holm in his essay collection The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth (published in 2000 by Milkweed Editions).

The essay is in some respects the cornerstone of the collection; the book title is taken from a sentence in the essay. Holm, who lived 1943 to 2009, was originally from the town of Minneota, Minnesota (in the open prairie country in the southwestern part of the state), and after time away he moved back to the town and lived the later years of his life there. (No typo above -- the name of the town is spelled like the name of the state, but without the "s.") In "The Music of Failure" -- originally published in 1985 -- he explores some of the faulty notions of "success," and what sometimes has passed for failure in (particulary) the mainstream culture of the United States in the past three or four centuries; he poses questions about what kind of life is most worth living.

Near the beginning of the essay, Holm quotes, in full, section 19 of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself":

With strong music I come, with my cornets and my drums,
I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquered and slain persons.

Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.

I beat and pound for the dead,
I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.

Vivas to those who have fail'd!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!

Reading these lines, I wonder what the effect might be, on the individual people and on the society we live in, if the above passage were posted on the wall of every high school team locker room, in every military barracks, every office and factory and used car lot. What if schoolchildren started each day standing as a group and saying these lines?

In his essay, Holm goes on to talk about leaving his home town in the early years of the war in Vietnam; he talks about the peeling open of the underside of U.S. society and culture in those years at the shortcomings of national self-assurance began to reveal themselves: "...a president or two shot, an economy collapsed, a man whom every mother in American warned every child against accepting rides or candy from was in the flesh overwhelmingly elected president [Holm here refers to Richard Nixon], and then drummed into luxurious disgrace for doing the very things those mothers warned against. The water in American turned out to be poisoned. Cities like Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago were invisible under air that necessitated warning notices in the newspaper. [...] Oil gurgled onto gulls' backs north of San Francisco. The war finally ended in disgrace, the secretary of state mired as deep in lies as Iago. America, the realized dream of the eighteenth century European Enlightenment, seemed to have sunk into playing out a Shakespearean tragedy, or perhaps a black comedy."

"Yet," Holm continues, "as history brought us failure, it brought us no wisdom. [...] It was not 'good to fall,' not good to be 'sunk in the sea,' not good to be among the 'numberless unknown heroes.' We elected, in fact, a famous actor to whom failure was incomprehensible as history itself, a man who responded to visible failure around him by ignoring it and cracking hollow jokes."

And then, a few paragraphs further on:

"The first settlers of America imagined paradise, God's city made visible on earth. Grand rhetoric for a pregnancy, it was, like all births, bloodier and messier than anyone imagined at the moment of conception. English Puritans who came to build a just and godly order began by trying to exterminate Indian tribes. They tried to revise the English class system of rich landowners and poor yeomen by sharing a common bounty, but this lasted only until somebody realized that true profit lay in landowning, here as in England. The same settlers who declared with Proudhon that "property is theft" wound up working as real estate agents. Old European habits of success died hard.

"Hypocrisy is not unusual in human history; it is the order of the day. What has always been usual in the United States is the high-toned rhetoric that accompanied our behavior, our fine honing of the art of sweeping contradictions under the rug with our eternal blank optimism. But if we examined, without sentimentality, the failures and contradictions of our own history, it would damage beyond repair the power of that public rhetoric, would remove the arch-brick from the structure of the false self we have built for ourselves, in Minneota as elsewhere.

"I labored under the weight of that rhetoric as a boy, and when I am tired now, I labor under it still. It is the language of football, a successful high school life, and earnest striving and deliberate ignoring, money, false cheerfulness, mumbling about weather. Its music is composed by the radio, commercials for helpful banks and deodorants breathing out at you between stanzas [...] you are serenaded by tiny orchestras hidden hidden in elevators or in rafters above discount stores. It is the music of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. It is not what Whitman had in mind by beating and pounding for the dead. True dead, unlike false dead, hear what we sing to them."


I had known of Bill Holm, and his writing, for many years, though I hadn't read anything of his until this past week. I'll keep reading him.

Bill Holm's website is still available on online, here.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


The other September 11

On this date in 1973 in Chile, a coup began in which the military overthrew the elected government of that country. The Chilean military did so with the military and financial aid of the U.S. government. Acts of terrorism committed that day included the bombing of the Chilean presidential palace by military aircraft, which (among other effects) resulted in the death of President Salvador Allende.

From 2003, an account and analysis of the events of those days by Roger Burbach, in the website of the magazine CounterPunch, here. Burbach was in Santiago, Chile, at the time of the coup, and witnessed many of the events first-hand. As he relates in his article, two of his friends were among the untold thousands who were killed by the military regime that seized power.

When I Googled "september 11, 1973" it brought up links to many other sources of information about the events of that day in Chile. I encourage you to go looking.


On a related topic: I recently read Clandestine in Chile by Gabriel García Márquez (published 2010 by New York Review Books; originally published in Spanish sometime in the late 1980's). The book is an account (non-fiction, not a novel) of the experiences of Chilean documentary filmmaker Miguel Littin, when Littin returned clandestinely to Chile in 1985 (after 12 years in exile in Mexico and Spain) to make a film documenting political and economic conditions in Chile under the Pinochet regime.

García Márquez wrote the book after interviewing Littin about the two months he spent in Chile filming illegally, and the book is written in first-person from Littin's viewpoint. I found the narrative intensely gripping throughout -- it gives a vivid picture of the living conditions and political and psychological atmosphere Littin observed and encountered, and the constant danger he was in while he remained there doing the filming. I also found it useful in the insights it gives into how people will find ways to persist with political resistance even under the most brutally oppressive conditions.

The publisher's webpage for the book is here.


"Bring to the cup of this new life
your old buried sorrows."

-- Pablo Neruda, from "Alturas de Macchu Picchu," my own translation.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


So that they might become flames

A little while back I came across Rain Inside, selected poems by Ibrahim Nasrallah, translated from Arabic by Omnia Amin and Rick London (published 2009 by Curbstone Press). I wasn't familiar with Nasrallah's poetry previously. As I read his poems I found myself moving through a world of startling immediacy, a world in which literature and myth arises from plain speech, and commonplace objects rise toward life.

Nasrallah, who is Palestinian, was born in Amman, Jordan, in 1954. As a result of Israeli occupation, he and his parents were forced to go to the Al Wehdat refugee camp in Jordan, where he grew up; he spent the first 33 years of his life there. Through a United Nations relief agency he attended school, and later a teacher training college, and has worked as a teacher and a journalist. Since 1996 he has worked at Darat Al-Fanoun, an arts and cultural center in Jordan. He has written thirteen books of poems, also novels and literary criticism, and is also a painter and photographer.

Who are these songs for?
When they break the silence of the night
spreading warmth and life over the snow,
when they fall on the jasmine and carry it to water,
when they pass by a dim window, secretly embracing a lover,
when they spread over the grass, wrapped in clouds?
Who are these songs for
when they free the flowers
and the hidden flame of passion in women,
when they come to you with their flowers,
when they come to you with their secrets,
when they embrace the sun or a bouquet of flowers
or anything abandoned on the road?

(From the poem "Our Songs" in Rain Inside, from which all of the quoted passages are taken.)

Nasrallah's poems read as though all of his senses remaining perpetually open to the wonders and sorrow of the greatest and smallest things, the slightest passing moments. A river of humanity, of human experience, seems to flow through his poems, a river in which each of us mingles. The surge and jostle, as in the poems of Whitman, or Neruda, or Nazim Hikmet.

Flowers, songs, chants...
A memory from antiquity...
Saturday's dawning sun...
An orphan is late...
A widow comes by embracing another widow...
A singer...
Verses from the Qur'an...
A flute on the outskirts of a neglected village...
Ancient soldiers...
Battles, defeated ages...
Thirty wars announced by daylight...
Another thirty still hidden in their sheaths...
Little ones dressed up for a feast...
Horses filled with the joy of their riders...
A procession coming from far away...
Ululations reaching the sky, a commotion...
Men emerging from darkness...
from yesterday's newspapers, from the inkwell.

(From the poem "The Celebration." All ellipses are in the original.)

From time to time during the past twenty or thirty year, one poet or another will quote the remark by the twentieth century philsopher Theodor Adorno, to the effect that after the Holocaust lyric poetry is impossible. I haven't read Adorno's original statement, or any of his writings; poet Adrienne Rich (in her essay "Poetry and the Forgotten Future") says, among other things, that Adorno later retracted the statement. Clearly, poets haven't stopped writing; the evidence of history suggests, if anything, that writing poetry has become even more essential in the aftermath of the horrors of the past century; that the greater the struggles and difficulties of life in the world, the greater the need to speak out. Poetry has not (if it were necessary to say so) become impossible.

From the poem "Possibilities":

Maybe silence has grapes for a tongue
and flows inside us
and spreads us out like colored garments.

Maybe the dust under siege
in our flesh is a marble horizon
to which birds have long prayed --
but it has never responded.

Maybe fire's ancient sorrow is ashes
that torture it with our annihilation,
then leave it to moan.

Maybe when water yearned for fire
it invented waves
so one day they might become flames.

Rain Inside includes three sequences of short fragement-like poems, titled "The Chairs," "The Hours," and "Mirrors of Dust." Though it's difficult to convey the movement and interconnections of the poem groups, here are three sections from "The Hours," to give at least a little feel of them:

The hour of arrest

Usually, a solitary gazelle prepares songs for its young
and at dawn lullabies the question's wound.
But suddenly they cross the streets -- in great numbers --
and a woman asks:
What are they doing with those guns?
Have they come to arrest the mountains?


The hour of execution

Silently, soldiers go round in the barracks
and famished dogs rush out.
There are the monotonous sounds of footsteps
in chains
and in darkness.
Silently, a knotted rope swings
in a rush of bullets and death.


The twenty fifth hour

Nothing can catch it,
not advancing time or chains
or the security forces,
as it dwells in us a ravenous spring
in full view
in our light and tender songs.

You wake up in the morning. You walk outside, keeping in mind that walking outside may be illegal today, that waking up may be illegal. Maybe the bus is running today. Maybe the bus will be permitted to pass the police checkpoint. Maybe the people on the bus will be permitted to stay on the bus as it passes the police check point. Maybe the building at the end of the street will explode, maybe because of bombs dropped on it from the air, maybe because of bombs fired at is from the sea. Maybe the knock on the door is your neighbor. Maybe it's the police. You walk along the street. The people you see may be back on the same street tomorrow. Maybe they won't. Maybe they'll be taken away to some place from which they won't return for a very long time. Maybe the people on the street will press on in the face of despair. Maybe they will pull together in an act of open resistance. Maybe you will join them. There are many things to consider, when considering the nature and circumstances of a life.

He silently browses through a book of clouds
and reads the heavy day,
then sears me with his gaze.
I say: life is running across the sky and the pavement,
as he hands me the daily paper.
Water blurs the lines
and burdens sleep.
He whispers: Never mind.
Here one becomes familiar with the look of sorrow on the faces,
the whirl of time,
the incantation of silence,
the closed roads.
When I stretched out my hand to him
he became perplexed.
He shook my hand with his left hand
and hid his tears, his pain,
his wooden arm.

(From the poem "Rain Inside," which includes a sub-title, "(To a man in front of the Scheherazade Cafe: passed by many ... but seen by few).")

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