Sunday, August 13, 2017

Charlottesville Reaction

            On April 9, 1865, in Virginia, about an hour and a half south of Charlottesville, Robert E. Lee surrendered. Lee was a traitor who violated his oath to the US Constitution and led other traitorous soldiers against the forces of the United States. On June 2, 1865, Edmund Kirby Smith, who also broke faith with his country in violation of oaths he took as an officer in the US Army, surrendered the last of the Confederate armies, and the US Civil War ended. White Nationalism lost. Their attempt to create a white nation failed. And then, because it was politically expedient, and because the United States has a long and difficult past in regards racial harmony, they and their ancestors were allowed to act as though that were not the case. They were allowed to erect statues to traitors who violated their oaths, and who lost the war they fought as a result of those treasonous actions. They were allowed to fly a treasonous flag which symbolized treason and support for racially based slavery. They were allowed to perpetuate their ideas of racial superiority, and the de facto institution of slavery, because the Democrats, and then the Republicans, needed their votes.

            100 years later, in 1965, they lost again. No one needed their votes that much anymore. Their repression of a significant percentage of the Southern population, in terms of social interaction, access to public services, and, significantly, voting rights could no longer be ignored. Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and their allies had made it very very hard to ignore that repression. And so an overwhelmingly white government said, in essence, “Wait a minute. They LOST the war in 1865. Why are we letting them pretend otherwise?” and took some very small steps towards addressing that pretense.

            52 years after that, people in the United States have started to say, “Hey, didn’t they LOSE that war? Why do we have statues of loser traitors who violated their oath to the US Constitution in our public spaces? Why is the losing flag of a treasonous movement devoted to the preservation of racial slavery flying over our public buildings? Shouldn’t we do something about that?” And, for a wonder, government officials in control of those public spaces and buildings are starting to agree, and act accordingly.

            What happened in Charlottesville, and what is probably going to continue happening across the South for a little while, I’m very sorry to say – those are the actions of a group of people who have been allowed to pretend that they won, when, in reality, they did not. For 152 years, they (their ancestors and themselves) have been able to say, sometimes out loud, and sometimes quietly to themselves, “the history books say we lost, but when I go into my public places, I see Robert E. Lee, and Edmund Smith, and all of the other leaders of our briefly glorious white nationalist movement immortalized in statues. I see the symbol of that movement flying over my government buildings. And so I know that, even if people say otherwise, we actually won that war.” Well, they didn’t. And now, as the statues are removed, and the flags come down, and their entire ideology is repudiated, now they are responding. This is not the response of people who are winning – this is the response of people who are losing, and are finally being forced to come to terms with it. Dr. King said that people in power never give up that power without a fight, and make no mistake, the ability to dictate who we memorialize and how we remember events is a pretty potent power. But they’ve lost. They lost in 1865, they lost in 1945, they lost in 1965, and they’re still losing now – torches and Nazi salutes are the actions of losers. They want us to think they aren’t covering their faces now because they’ve won – but really, it’s because they think they have nothing left to lose. Our job now is to show them they are wrong. They should be prosecuted as terrorists, but if not that, they should lose socially. They marched with their faces uncovered; they should lose jobs, social standing, the right to be served in restaurants.

            Additionally, here’s a link to a list of links to a series of Charlottesville charities which are congruent with civil rights/social justice beliefs, and antithetical to the ideology of neo-Nazis, white nationalists and racists.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

7/9/2016 - Collection month, Week 1 - Maggie Stiefvater - The Raven Cycle

Four books: The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves, Lily Blue, Blue Lily, and The Raven King

A friend of my wife recommended these, so she read them, and then handed them to me. She contended that I should review them one at a time, and read them as I reviewed them, but I'm an idiot and didn't do that. Instead, I read them all at once. Well, that's a lie, I read them all in a row, but with other books in between them, and I really shouldn't have done that, because there is a fantastic growth of characters, style, and strength of writing over the course of the series. That's lost, a little (for reviewing purposes) when read all together. So, this is not as good a review as it could be, because I should have spent all month reviewing them one at a time. Oh well.

These books are fantastic. Book one starts slow, with a standard introduction of characters - the Raven boys are attending a private boarding school in rural Virginia (I love boarding school novels, but this isn't really a boarding school novel), the mascot/crest is a raven. Richard Gansey III (Gansey), Adam Parrish, Ronan Lynch - Gansey and Ronan share an apartment off campus, Adam rounds out their Three Musketeers, but refuses to live with them. Blue is a townie, and the child of a family of psychics. She's known since early childhood that when she kisses her true love, he will die. And, at the beginning of this book, we learn that this year will be the year in which that happens. Oh, and Blue is not herself psychic; however, she enhances the abilities of psychics when she's around. She meets the Raven boys when they come for a reading - Gansey is searching for the tomb of a Welsh king he believes was shipped to the New World for a hidden burial - he believes the tomb is nearby, and has something to do with the local ley lines. So, it's a coming of age series (as suggested by the themes of love, and the incidental setting of a boarding school), it's a fantasy series (as suggested by the psychics and the ley lines), it's a mystery/exploration series (as suggested by the lost king's tomb), and it's also shockingly, amazingly deep. Three books in, my wife said to me that she thought it might, for the right sort of reader, be a "warm blanket" series - the sort of books that you return to when everything around you seems confusing and gross. Having read the books, I concur - the characters deal with and resolve mysteries of missing Welsh kings and magic, but also the more mundane mysteries of love, friendship, family, loyalty and making the sort of decisions about life paths that create the sense of confusion and grossness which precipitates the need for such "warm blanket" books. At the end of the series, there is a strong sense that, even if not everything ends happily, everything ends, and sometimes happiness can be wrung, through great effort, from the ending of things. There is a delight and a comfort in watching other people struggle with, and overcome, issues of life.

Oh, but these books are also more than that! I read them in and amidst June's poetry, and Stiefvater has a decidedly poetic style. As the series grows, so too does the style; Stiefvater uses language with a delightful and delicate touch that builds a sense of character, enhances the tension of the novels, and, really, makes these a pure joy to read.

I can't guarantee that they will be "warm blanket" books for you - I don't think they will be for me, because I already have a number of those tucked away as needed - but I can say this: if you like mysteries magical and mundane, books about love, life, and loyalty, strong characters who consistently surprise and delight, and poetic language which does not detract from the solidity of the overall work, then you will almost certainly like these books.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 30, redux, Miriam Dunn, _Who Will Love the Crow

Publishing poetry has become increasingly easy over the past ten years. (Making money publishing poetry - still fiendishly difficult, but a different story). This is a slim volume of poetry and some photographs. Many of the poems were delightful. I especially liked Dunn's quirky rhyme scheme (in the poems that had rhymes) - making poems rhyme is actually really really hard, and making them rhyme is a way that is not ABBA CDDC and such is even harder. Also, Dunn's use of rhythm (in the poems where there was a consistent rhythm) throughout is good, pulling the reader through the poem. A few of the poems felt a little self-indulgent - but then the poem that I find self-indulgent may resonate more fully with you, and vice-versa. There are also some pleasantly silly poems, and a series of haiku.

If that all sounds eclectic - well, it is. My chief criticism is that there is no cohesion here, no theme which pulls the whole book together, just a collection of poems, all (well, mostly) individually excellent, but with very little to suggest why they should be placed next to each other.

There were several poems that I found really really good, but because I posted some Matthew Arnold the other day, this one seems most appropos:

Still, Dover Beach

The ebb and flow of love,
smooth pebbles tossed against the shore,
leaves unbelievers lost,
rough tumbled in its roar.

Pale specter of the world,
its shadows fall on darkling plain;
white cliffs will still loom tall
'ere crumbling once again.

And melancholy night
in timeless paths across the sky,
are stilled by lovers' words,
though long centuries pass them by.

For rivers of our time
still interweave with currents past;
covenants conceived,
collected like sea-glass.

A note hangs in the air;
the channel's cry at end of day,
voluminous with life,
before its sweet decay.

And there still hangs the moon,
on Dover's tide, its plaintive song;
eternal notes abide.
Sea of faith still moves as strong.

Old Sophocles could hear
the voice of time within the spray;
and now the voice is mine,
lest my words be washed way.

The ebb and flow of time,
a love sea-tossed against the strand,
retreat and then return,
back to the moon-blanched land.


That sort of reply/response to other poetry, that's a thing I don't think you see (ever? often?) in any other forms of writing. Maybe in painting? Maybe in music, a little (although, that might result in a lawsuit these days). But the idea that a poet can have a conversation - well, a short one, perhaps - with another poet, although long dead - that's just wonderful.

Poetry Month Day 30

I am sick. I have a (very very mild) fever, and my brain does not work. I really really want to post a coherent review of a collection of poetry here, but I don't trust my ability to type a full review. So you'll just have to wait, and hope that I'm better tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 28, William Blake, "Laughing Song"

There are poems about negative outrageous fortune, many and many. Poetry is really good at expressing dismay at the unpleasant surprises that life affords. There are not so many poems about positive fortune - at least, I could not find any (if you know any, please, share!). Instead, here's a silly little bit by the normally gloomy and serious William Blake:

Laughing Song

When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;
When the air does laugh with our merry wit,
And the green hill laughs with the noise of it;

when the meadows laugh with lively green,
And the grasshopper laughs in the merry scene,
When Mary and Susan and Emily
With their sweet round mouths sing "Ha, ha he!"

When the painted birds laugh in the shade,
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread:
Come live, and be merry, and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of "Ha, ha, he!"

Poetry Day 27 (belated), Computer sonnet

I was going to post this yesterday, I swear! From NPR's All Tech Considered, computer written sonnets.

Quake with true fear of just reproach my shame
while her eyes came to me we sweetly sing
hand clasped in her breast her withered hands fling
yet by and claim loves boon nor let the tame
But this affliction sure thy heart inflame
he in silence come and assistance bring
then comes a small bright spark comes wandering
sorrows for him you gave that love once came.

Of doom lest any see the signal hear
that tremble through their incandescent nights
wave must dare if the while himself he cheers
what sudden bird will bring us any cheer
Fled to that audit by advised respects
a sequent day to your world of gain roars.

So, the idea was to have computers write sonnets in an effort to pass the Turing Test (which is to say, a computer which acts sufficiently like a human to fool another human). Poetry is a big step, since human poetry follows certain rules (as in sonnets - a certain number of lines, a particular number of syllables per line, and a cohesive rhyme scheme, often ABBA CDDC and the like, although there are several versions), which computers are good at, but also contain coherent and consistent images and sustained metaphor, which computers are not good at at all. (Having a computer compose blank verse might be more successful - you could convince the judges that the computer was a moody teenager, perhaps). The above was written by a computer, and it's not the worst poem I've read, but it's clear that the computer is still stringing words together to follow a set of programmed rules instead of crafting metaphors.

A green nub pushes up from moist, dark soil.
Three weeks without stirring, now without strife
From the unknown depths of a thumbpot life
In patient rhythm slides forth without turmoil,
A tiny green thing poking through its sheath.
Shall I see the world? Yes, it is bright.
Silent and slow it stretches for the light
And opens, uncurling, above and beneath.
The sun warms it and with a little time
Another slight leaf joins its neighbor,
They crown slowly and birth without labor
Feeding on the air’s breath like a rhyme.
How can we know with body and with brain,
The force that makes the earth suck up the rain.

By contrast, this is a human written sonnet - note the sustained metaphor; every phrase building to a logical image with a message and meaning. So, in a world run by computers, humans will still write poetry (for now...).

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 26, Matthew Arnold, "Dover Beach"

Today, we are going to the lake, because it is Sunday and it is hot. So, here is a poem about a beach, and also for the Brexit vote, in a certain sort of way.

Dover Beach

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The sea is calm tonight. 
The tide is full, the moon lies fair 
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light 
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, 
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. 
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air! 
Only, from the long line of spray 
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land, 
Listen! you hear the grating roar 
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, 
At their return, up the high strand, 
Begin, and cease, and then again begin, 
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring 
The eternal note of sadness in. 

Sophocles long ago 
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought 
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow 
Of human misery; we 
Find also in the sound a thought, 
Hearing it by this distant northern sea. 

The Sea of Faith 
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore 
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. 
But now I only hear 
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 
Retreating, to the breath 
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear 
And naked shingles of the world. 

Ah, love, let us be true 
To one another! for the world, which seems 
To lie before us like a land of dreams, 
So various, so beautiful, so new, 
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, 
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; 
And we are here as on a darkling plain 
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, 
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Arnold is, of course, one of those poets you read in school. This has a strong rhyme scheme and a compelling rhythm. He addresses universal issues - love, life, disappointment - and uses some fairly obvious images to do so. The last stanza feels a little depressing - the world has no joy or love or light or anything like that - but think of it as Sir Pratchett suggested - if you ground up the universe into tiny dust, and sifted it, would you find any particles of jo, or love, or light or any of that? And yet...