From the forthcoming film by Bill Hayward, Asphalt, Muscle and Bone, about a man at risk, the persistence of imagination and the impossibility of love. Produced by Bill Hayward and Anna Elman. Follow Bill's blog here.
Although I’ve been urged, now and then, to go there, I’ve never
been to Hell. A good Minnesotan might say, “I hear it’s nice there in the
winter.” They say war is Hell, and I’m pretty sure they’re right about that, so
that means there’s a little Hell here on Earth. Two arid locales come to mind,
and, in case we forget while the “battle” over heath insurance rages, dozens of
other wars churn around the globe today.
Of course, Hell is a state of mind, really, not a place, and
it befalls us all from time to time. And, as is the way with most things, Hell
comes in degrees. There’s the burning, piercing Hell of torture and war, and
then there’s the low-grade fever variety that catches us between what we have
and what we want, leaving us feeling either stuck or adrift.
Thankfully, this is in the province of poetry, and this
week’s poem, “Hell,” by Sarah Manguso, marches in triumphantly. “Hell” first
appeared in our “Dumb Luck” issue (#14). It was then selected for Best American Poetry’s 2005 edition,
edited by Paul Muldoon, before appearing in Ms. Manguso’s Siste Viator.
In this lovely prose poem, full of humanity and humor,
Manguso uses short declarative sentences and longer winding ones that arrive
just where they should to the reader’s great pleasure. Somehow she manages to
say things, wise things, you wish you had. She does this often, yet the poem
doesn’t prescribe a remedy, it is a remedy.
-- William Waltz
The second-hardest thing I have to do is not be longing’s
Hell is that. Hell is that, others, having a job, and not
having a job. Hell is thinking continually of those who were truly great.
Hell is the moment you realize that you were ignorant of the
fact, when it was true, that you were not yet ruined by desire.
The kind of music I want to continue hearing after I am dead
is the kind that makes me think I will be capable of hearing it then.
There is music in Hell. Wind of desolation! It blows past
the egg-eyed statues. The canopic jars are full of secrets.
The wind blows through me. I open my mouth to speak.
I recite the list of people I have copulated with. It does
not take long. I say the names of my imaginary children. I call out
four-syllable words beginning with B. This is how I stay alive.
Beelzebub. Brachiosaur. Bubble-headed. I don’t know how I
stay alive. What I do know is that there is a light, far above us, that goes
out when we die,
and that in Hell there is a gray tulip that grows without
any sun. It reminds me of everything I failed at,
and I water it carefully. It is all I have to remind me of
For I Will Consider Your Dog Molly by David Lehman
For it was the first day of Rosh Ha'shanah, New Year's Day, day of remembrance, of ancient sacrifices and averted calamities. For I started the day by eating an apple dipped in honey, as ritual required. For I went to the local synagogue to listen to the ram's horn blown. For I asked Our Father, Our King, to save us for his sake if not for ours, for the sake of his abundant mercies, for the sake of his right hand, for the sake of those who went through fire and water for the sanctification of his name. For despite the use of a microphone and other gross violations of ceremony, I gave myself up gladly to the synagogue's sensual insatiable vast womb. For what right have I to feel offended? For I communed with my dead father, and a conspicuous tear rolled down my right cheek, and there was loud crying inside me. For I understood how that tear could become an orb. For the Hebrew melodies comforted me. For I lost my voice. For I met a friend who asked "Is this a day of high seriousness," and when I said yes he said "It has taken your voice away." For he was right, for I felt the strong lashes of the wind lashing me by the throat. For I thought there shall come a day that the watchmen upon the hills of Ephraim shall cry, Arise and let us go up to Zion unto the Lord our God. For the virgin shall rejoice in the dance, and the young and old in each other's arms, and their soul shall be as a watered garden, and neither shall they learn war any more. For God shall lower the price of bread and corn and wine and oil, he shall let our cry come up to him. For it is customary on the first day of Rosh Ha'shanah to cast a stone into the depths of the sea, to weep and pray to weep no more. For the stone represents all the sins of the people. For I asked you and Molly to accompany me to Cascadilla Creek, there being no ocean nearby. For we talked about the Psalms of David along the way, and the story of Hannah, mother of Samuel, who sought the most robust bard to remedy her barrenness. For Isaac said "I see the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?" For as soon as I saw the stone, white flat oblong and heavy, I knew that it had summoned me. For I heard the voice locked inside that stone, for I pictured a dry wilderness in which, with a wave of my staff, I could command sweet waters to flow forth from that stone. For I cast the stone into the stream and watched it sink to the bottom where dozens of smaller stones, all of them black, gathered around it. For the waterfall performed the function of the chorus. For after the moment of solemnity dissolved, you playfully tossed Molly into the stream. For you tossed her three times, and three times she swam back for her life. For she shook the water off her body, refreshed. For you removed the leash from her neck and let her roam freely. For she darted off into the brush and speared a small gray moving thing in the neck. For this was the work of an instant. For we looked and behold! the small gray thing was a rat. For Molly had killed the rat with a single efficient bite, in conformance with Jewish law. For I took the rat and cast him into the stream, and both of us congratulated Molly. For now she resumed her noble gait. For she does not lie awake in the dark and weep for her sins, and whine about her condition, and discuss her duty to God. For I'd as lief pray with your dog Molly as with any man. For she knows that God is her savior.
-- 1980 from Operation Memory by David Lehman (Princeton University Press, 1990)
Unstressed syllables in their bucolic straw hats
Lounge on the verandahs of their lines
Unable to govern words but enunciating
Perfect ers and uhs and summer schwas
Toward the bright emphasis from which they’re sheltered,
What seem like tiny unwritten Torah cheroots.
Isaac Rosenberg’s hats in his few self-portraits
Suggest his sense of damaged identity
Somewhere between Jew, Englishman, and rake—
But these Jewish Southerners know how to loll
Unable to distill an Absalom from a Joab
Or to tell who has set fire to whose field.
The sickles and the scythes, the Er’s of labor,
Lying like baubles on the wry l’d porch
Make the sound l’d, l’d, to express their freedom,
They ornament the seasons of summation
With sacred Sabbath chain-link tubs and stubble.
Who knew that Jubilee would so burgeon us?
-- Jim Dolot
[Author's note: The title is the lower case letter l (el) followed by
apostrophe and d.]
Louis Begley writes well and is a good guide to one of modern history's great tragic causes celebres, the court-martial of French artillery Captain Alfred Dreyfus [left] on trumped-up charges of treason in 1894. The evidence was fabricated, the trial closed to the public, and Dreyfus was convicted and imprisoned on devil's island off the coast of French Guiana. His real crime was that he was a Jew and France was embracing anti-Semitism with the lust of a pimp eyeing Catherine Deneuve. Emile Zola (J'Accuse] and others rose to Dreyfus's defense. Nevertheless Dreyfus suffered five years of solitary confinement before the verdict was overturned. In 1906 the French high court exonerated Dreyfus. Despite his mistreatment by the French army, the assassination of his character, and the degradation and suffering he endured in prison, Dreyfus wanted nothing more than to return to active military service. He served at the front in World War I with an artillery command close to Verdun, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and was decorated with the Legion d'honneur.
Begley's Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters is published as part of a "why it matters" series by Yale University Press. it is a cogent little book, certainly worth reading, though my disquietude was awakened by the jacket copy that asked whether the Dreyfus case was "merely another illustration of the rise in France of a virulent form of anti-Semitism." That merely bothered me, and I note that the preface of this brief book, the last eighteen pages of its opening chapter, and its coda strongly imply that the lesson of the affair, the reason it matters to us today, is that it warns us against such "crimes and abuses" committed against "some Guantanamo detainees" in the aftermath of the terrorist atrocities of September 11, 2001. Is that really what makes Dreyfus relevant to us here, now? Or isn't the resurgence of a virulent anti-Semitism -- the demonizing of the Jews and of Israel (Islamic dictatorships and religious authorities make no distinction between them); the chorus of voices calling for the annihilation of Israel; the campaigns of hatred and violence targeting Jews; the re-surfacing of the vicious Protocols of the Elders of Zion; the murders; the beheading of an American journalist after forcing him to tell the camera that he is a Jew and that his mother was a Jew, as if that were a capital offense; -- isn't all that reason enough to recall the Dreyfus Affair in its unhappy detail? Do you mean to tell me that this infamous episode in modern history, this outrageous injustice, is not finally about the Jews and those who would vilify them but about something else entirely, the depredations of the Bush Administration? I fear that this sort of reasoning may itself be evidence of the phenomenon that it evades.
BTW, this is the publisher that has withdrawn, from a book just weeks away from publication, the Danish newspaper cartoons that offended Islamic bigots in 2005. The book, by a Brandeis professor named Jytte Klausen, is called "The Cartoons That Shook the World." Reproduction of the illustrations would seem to be an inevitable and indispensable part of any study of them. To withdraw the pictures is a craven act of self-censorship founded on no principle nobler than the adage to let sleeping dogs lie, especially when they are killers. Let the pictures be published. If enough people make enough of a fuss, maybe Yale University Press will buckle to the pressure. They seem to be good at that.
Like puns, jokes and japes don't get nearly enough respect despite all the evidence Freud presented of their value as sources of knowledge and insight into the human psyche. I think of recent poems by Jennifer Michael Hecht, Andrew Hudgins,and David Kirby, to name just three, that recycle jokes and spin new truths out of them -- as Gordon Lish does also in some of his best stories. Readers are asked to nominate great joke poems for our attention. In the meantime, it is hard to top this sestina by Susan Blakewell Ramsey as a taxonomy of jests. -- DL
Tell Me If You’ve Heard This One
Surprise is what we value in a joke we think, a different reason for the chicken to cross, a deeper basement to the blonde’s bemusement, some new group screwing in a lightbulb, odder animal walks into a bar, the final wise word from the patient rabbi.
A priest, a Baptist minister and a rabbi walk into a bar.Barkeep says “Is this a joke?” Sure, and a good one, a world where every bar is just as apt to host a talking chicken as an ecumenical conference, but no lightbulb ever flashing on above the blonde.
It’s compensation, making fun of blondes, just like giving the punchline to the rabbi. The proud are humbled, the oppressed triumph, the lightbulb goes on – we get it, and laugh.A joke turns power upside down until a chicken can be the hero and walk into a bar.
And everyone seems welcome here, bar none, not just the always-welcome blonde but those who’d be justified in feeling chicken about walking in, the solitary rabbi stranded amid goyim who wouldn’t get the jokes he tells at home, grateful that these lightbulbs
are dim. You’d have to be a pretty dim bulb not to know that everyone in this bar has been the butt of the lowest kind of joke, history’s hotfoot, fate’s yanked-out chair.Blondes took over one dark night and riddled the Polaks, the rabbi, Cletus hazed Rastus, but yo’ mama fried that chicken
so good everybody was happy, even the chicken. It’s verbal potluck: Luigi brings a bulb of garlic, knock-knock the drummer delivers pizza, the rabbi adds a little schmaltz, everyone in the bar is flaunting their roots, eventually even the blonde, The melting pot’s a plate, a glass, a joke.
“Rabbi, how many moths to screw in a lightbulb?” asks the blonde chick at bar, “Only two.” “No joke? “But like us, you’ve got to wonder how they got in there.”
-- Susan Blackwell Ramsey [from Indiana Review, Winter 2004]
Even Eve, the only soul in all of
time to never have to wait for love, must have leaned some sleepless
nights alone against the garden wall and wailed, cold, stupefied, and
wild and wished to trade-in all of Eden to have but been a child.
In fact, I gather that is why she
leapt and fell from grace, that she might have a story of
herself to tell in some other place.
Postings been a bit spotty, but I'm hoping to get back the rhythm. For now, I thought I'd share the poem that is bouncing in my head today. This is from my poetry book The Next Ancient World.