Our far-flung reporter in Jaffa (Israel) notes a boom in ancient history. Licensed agent Archie Allergy, an American-born Stanford PhD who made aliyah in 1998, tells us it's his dream job, "and the price is right.". Photo credit: Donna Somma.
At the AWP conference in Chicago, I attended a panel--the first panel of the first morning--on contemporary Jewish poetry. There was a lot of genius at that table, and an adorable baby in the audience about whom the moderator said, "Don't be angry at that baby. We like that baby." A very happy little panel. Of all the things in that room I found to like, I left there utterly taken with the work of young Hasidic poet, Yehoshua November.
Here is the poem he read that morning, from his first book, God's Optimism (Main Street Rag, 2010).
The case against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. ObamaCare, is not nearly as fun as an Imperial Fizz, though it's definitely fizzy. All of the law's ingredients, the whiskey, rum, lemon juice and sweet, sweet sugar of insurance policy arcana--all except the sparkling water of a mandate--have already been mixed and are being shaken as we speak. They can’t be taken apart at this point without dumping the whole shebang down the drain, which is not to say that the Supreme Court won’t do exactly that. And the glacial pace of the Affordable Healthcare Act's implementation, like the slow-motion process of its enactment, gives opponents plenty of time to whip up a frenzy of anti-Imperialism, before this drink ever hits the coaster.
I, ______________, should not be forced to pay for health insurance. Fill in the blank with “taxpayer,” “small business,” “Utah” or “Catholic bishop,” and you’ve got the argument against ObamaCare. All of its critics base their opposition on that word forced, raising issues of liberty. Certainly, the recent contraceptive flap was initially introduced—by Republicans, not the media—and framed as a question of religious liberty. But if we’ve discovered anything from that debate, it’s that liberty is not the only value Americans hold dear. Liberty’s not the only value enshrined in the Constitution, either. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the big three, and it wasn’t long before the national conversation morphed against Republicans’ will into one about a different set of values: whether women deserve to pursue the kind of happiness that comes from choosing when they have children, and to have the kind of life that comes from preventing pregnancy when it poses a health risk. Guess which two values trumped the third in a contest between the religious liberty of bishops (total of 195 in the U.S.) and the life and happiness of women (more than 150,000,000 in the U.S.)?
Not only are bishops a tiny group, they don’t use contraceptives and nothing in the health care law is making them do so. But when they act as employers, rather than as leaders of spiritual flocks, they have to follow the same rules as secular hospital or university administrators. As employers, they can’t dictate the health care decisions of their employees. They are not Imperial, though they do have nifty regalia.
Leaving the contraception coverage rule aside, I look at the broader debate over health insurance and find it odd that so much resistance to ObamaCare has come from the religious community, particularly fundamentalist Christians. Jesus had a lot to say about taking care of each other, from loving thy neighbor to all those blessings on the poor and vulnerable in the Beatitudes. He spent quite a bit of His time healing people and feeding them, and none of it lobbying. While He never ran for office, it’s easy to imagine Him favoring universal access to health care. On this specific topic, He said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.”
Here’s what the emphasis in the New Testament is not on: taxes, small business, states’ rights or, frankly, political liberty. What little Jesus said about taxes, “render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s,” seems to argue in favor of paying them. He never mentioned small business, unless you count the enterprising moneychangers and dove-sellers in the temple, whom He whipped. Judging from that rare example of holy rage, His policy was not pro-business. The Chamber of Commerce would have despised Him. Jesus talked more about divorce than taxes. Where is the fundamentalist Christian groundswell to make divorce illegal? And how do the 1 in 3 divorced Evangelicals—Evangelicals defined as Christians who attend church weekly, take the Bible literally, and proselytize—reconcile their own failure to stay married with Jesus, their Lord and Savior?
But on caring for others, Jesus had a lot to say. He was inclusive, embracing tax payers, tax collectors, Samaritans, women, and other “others”—one might almost describe Him as a single payer plan. ObamaCare, emphasis on “care,” is inclusive, too. Embrace that moniker, Mr. President. It’s the Christian thing to do.
Not really. I wouldn’t presume, not while Rick Santorum’s on the case. He’s like Santa, knowing whether your theology is naughty or nice. Or phony. If your “worldview” is one that “elevates the Earth above man,” for example, it’s phony. Never mind that no one on earth actually has such a “worldview,” or can figure out what it is. Is it a pre-Copernican understanding of cosmology? Could Santorum draw a little diagram, please?
Most of us value Earth selfishly, as the planet upon which we selfishly live. Though we acknowledge the solar system in a superficial way, we really believe the sun revolves around us. To lay waste to Earth would threaten us, the center of it, and so we try not to. This human-centric “worldview” is not one that “elevates the Earth above man.” A few of us are selfless enough to view Earth as a gift from God, and therefore something to which, out of reverence, we should not lay waste. Is that what Santorum means? If so, it’s “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible,” as Psalm 24 so clearly states: "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it." Or maybe he’s thinking of Leviticus 25: "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants." Either way, it’s clear that the Bible agrees with Rick Santorum about how unimportant Earth is, and how important is alien, rent-paying man. The Bible’s right in line with Santorum’s free-market, property-rights, capitalistic theology, and the anti-immigration stance he so Biblically takes. What else could “The land must not be sold permanently” and “you are but aliens” mean?
And even though the Constitution is a political document, not a theological one, if you are “trampling on a constitutional right” as Rick Santorum reads it, your theology is bad. To wit, don’t let individuals make their own decisions about contraception, because that would be to impose “ideology on a group of people expressing their theology, their moral code." Where to begin with this convoluted thinking? Santorum can impose his “ideology on a group of people,” but if “people” have other ideas, they are “phony”? And possibly, as one of his aides suggested of President Obama, Muslim? What if the pesky ideology being imposed is enshrined in the Constitution?
As lazy thought and self-defeating rhetoric, Santorum’s statements taste a lot like a Maiden’s Prayer. I say this for two reasons: first, this cocktail has serious varieties of religious experience. Secondly, its recipe is lower-case catholic—i.e., you can put whatever gets you elected in there and still call it a Maiden’s Prayer.
To the first point, like a “worldview that elevates the Earth above man,” we must ask, what is it? What is the Maiden Praying? Turns out, the Maiden is Praying to get laid. Consider two of the alternate names by which this cocktail goes: Leg Spreader and Between the Sheets. According to research by Esquire’s Resident Cocktail historian, the wondrous David Wondrich, a Maiden’s Prayer “exists to assist a young gentleman in convincing a young lady that he has something to offer the gene pool. That's right, a date-peeler.” To be accurate, the Maiden isn’t Praying to get laid, her boyfriend is. But that just goes to show that the Bible is right: Adam did the naming, not Eve.
To the second point, like Santorum’s argument, a Maiden’s Prayer is what the deconstructionists in my undergrad English department would call an indeterminacy. Nothing in the recipe seems to be verifiable through testing and experiment; the whole is both remedy and poison. I did a quick survey of my recipe books and found, to my surprise, that even the base liquor of a Maiden’s Prayer varies from source to source. In some it is gin-based, in others rum- and/or brandy-based. There was only the fuzziest of consistency with what else goes in the drink, aside from lemon juice, which occurred in all of them. Some had orange juice, some Cointreau, others Triple Sec, and a few Curacao. The oldest version had champagne. One had cream. Wondrich moans that these days the recipe includes “pretty much anything the sexually insecure undergrad finds lying around.”
Which brings us right back to Rick Santorum. He alone knows what’s phony and what’s Biblical. He alone determines meet and proper theology, no matter how flimsy his argument. He is Adam—a sexually insecure, yet-to-graduate, presumptuous Adam, but Adam nonetheless. He knows the Maiden’s Prayer: spread your legs, ladies, while the men get busy outlawing contraception. Pick a photo, any photo (and yes, all of these photos claim to be of the same drink). The Maiden's Prayer is whatever RIck Santorum says it is. We’re in great hands with this potential leader of the free world.
Bill Hayward brings to our attention a compelling sequence of blog posts about Genesis from the redoubtable Walter Kirn. Here's a link to the first in the series, which argues that "the Eden story in Genesis is about a drug bust and its aftermath. It begins by discussing the prohibition of a potent psychedelic substance: a plant or a fruit that grants those who ingest it personal access to divine capacities." Eden allegorized as a drug bust is an awesome idea that Kirn handles like a parable in the Kafka manner.
To Kirn's account I (who often think of Genesis in relation to The Odyssey as allegories of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman cultures) would add the reminder that Odysseus's men are tempted by drugs in the Lotos Eaters episode and, one could argue, in that of the Sirens, though Circe, to whom many succumb, represents the sin of sex not of dope. Hard to improve on Joyce's vision of Circe as a brothel madame. But speaking of sex, what do you -- if you are Walter -- make of the fact that fucking is the first thing Adam and Eve do after enjoying the fruit? How are knowledge and carnal knowledge related?
If you're wondering why there's a picture of Soren Kierkegaard in this blog post, it's just to add his name to Kafka's as among the most imaginative of bible interpreters -- a wonderful tradition worth keeping alive. A toast to you, Walter Kirn. -- DL
I wanted to make you a Thesaurus. Feed you words He defined, and make synonyms fall from your mouth.
and be options. Remember, Queen Anne’s Lace was royalty but now are weeds. On walks through Eden you would grasp handfuls and place them in your
hair; as though already you knew what it was like to be dethroned.
Not an exegesis. Not a manifesto. Not a new notion.
This is a thank you note.
I met Andrew Hughes in January 2002, during my final residency at the Bennington College Writing Seminars. Andy was the first editor outside of a school literary journal to accept a poem of mine for publication. He and Whit Griffin started Tight in 2001 while undergraduates at Bennington. I was fortunate enough to be included in the second issue, which also features work from Jonathan Williams, John Coletti, Russell Dillon, Stephen Sandy, Anselm Berrigan, Amy Gerstler, Pierre Joris, Thomas Sayers Ellis, and Jackson Mac Low. If you happen to find a copy, you really should buy it.
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)
My bedside clock reads 1:58AM and sure enough: down in the moonlight stands my inner poet, drunk with dreams, lightly knocking at my outer door, his gardening duds on. I put coffee on for him, and we will sit together in silence awhile…
I’m thinking how richly comic it is that in the Genesis poem, God stocks the earth with biology on Day 3, then plants the sun, moon, and stars on Day 4.
The sun, moon, and stars are “to mark days, seasons, and years,” and yet haven’t we been marking days since Day 1 (Chapter 1, verse 1)?