Emily Brontë’s Faith Poem: “No Coward Soul is Mine”

I’ve always admired Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as a supreme literary achievement. In teaching it over the years, its structural complexity, thematic depth, and passionate intensity never failed to astound me. Putting it another way, Wuthering Heights has haunted me, much like Catherine’s ghost at Heathcliff’s window.

Years ago, I had the good fortune to visit the parsonage where she lived out her brief life in Hayworth, Yorkshire. (Her father was a clergyman with Methodist leanings.) A cramped, but lovingly preserved house, eerily next door to the church cemetery, you could easily surmise the Brontë children were temporarily out and be back shortly and we could settle down to robust conversation over a pot of tea.

While we remember Brontë for her novel, she also wrote poetry, 200 poems in fact. Sadly, her sister Charlotte, renowned for Jane Eyre, subsequently revised many of them, adding whole lines, rewording others, attempting to widen their public appeal. Scholars, trying to recover Emily’s probable texts, have found her cramped script difficult to decipher.

Of her poems, “No Coward Soul Is Mine” is well-known and my favorite. Brontë wrote it in the context of her fateful illness from tuberculosis. I’m so fond of this poem that I’ve been tempted to memorize it. I could almost think I was reading Emily Dickinson with its dismissal of religious orthodoxy and affinity for nature. That same fierce voice element of Wuthering Heights, perhaps a Wesleyan revivalism influence, you’ll find here, carried out by its heavy trochees as in the poem’s initial two lines or lines one and three of stanza five with their opening trochee feet.

You can be a non-believer and still appreciate the poem, for good poetry offers reading variance, or to borrow from medicine, “referral” nuance through well-crafted interweave of image, structure and diction. Our mortality spells change, not ending; a return to Nature’s genesis, or to what was, and is, and will always be.

No Coward Soul of Mine

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

The poem’s imagery, drawn from nature, supports the poem’s theme of Deity’s abiding presence. Composed of seven quatrains, reminiscent of Methodist hymnody, in alternating tetrameter/pentameter meter, rime occurs consistently throughout, lines one with three, and two with four, including the fourth stanza with its near rime, suggesting a purposive, or teleological, cosmos.

Brontë effectively softens “the world’s wind-troubled sphere” in line two of the initial stanza with alliteration, suggesting tranquility in context of storm.

Each sentence is declarative, resonating conviction. Unlike Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” there is absence of tension, no struggle with doubt in the persona’s resolute faith, “So surely anchored on/The steadfast rock of immortality” ( Stz. 4).

Emily’s God isn’t Dickinson’s transcendent, mysterious, removed deity or Blake’s “No bods’ daddy.” Refulgent in his creation, He lives in our hearts, canceling any fear we might otherwise have, given the “world’s storm-troubled sphere” (Stz. 2). A poem of faith, it finds its affirmation not through anthropomorphic rendering, but in a pantheistic vision of Deity’s universal immanence.

Stanzas 3 and 4 logically follow in their rejection of creedal orthodoxies that are but worthless speculations, promoting anxiety, not peace. The repeated use of “vain” proves double entendre, human speculations fruitless and conceited, or of no more significance than the “idlest foam” of an infinite ocean:

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

The stanzas that conclude the poem reiterate the persona’s vibrant faith in a deity who transcends the temporal, “Thy spirit animates eternal years,” and for all the volatile elements of impermanence, remains its arbiter, Who maternally “sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.”

Were the very cosmos to disappear, He would remain, for He is creation’s essence. The plural “universes” of the penultimate stanza intrigues. Did Emily believe in the modern concept of multiple universes? Whatever, God is infinite, boundless, present always:

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee.

How then can there be any cowering at death’s door? A deity synonymous with Nature, He is what has been, is now, and will be, the effulgence of it all:

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

Brontë dated her poems and wrote “No Coward Soul of Mine” on January 2, 1846. It would be her last poem (she passed two years later at age 30). At the time of the poem’s composition, she’d been completing Wuthering Heights. Emily Dickinson came upon this poem and loved it. She asked it be read at her funeral, her wish fulfilled by her friend and later editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, at the funeral’s conclusion.

As for Brontë, following several labored days, she slipped into eternity on December 19, 1848, unafraid, and deeply mourned by her sisters, Anne and Charlotte, and canine friend, Keeper. As with Keats, a young talent struck down early by the same illness, her posthumous fame has restored her to us, though not without conjecture of future talent lost.

As I said at the outset, the poem endures as a favorite of mine, one I’d take gladly to a desert isle, or read repeatedly when my last day summons. It accompanies me, too, when I engage Nature in the present, the sense of a hovering spirituality, that everything is linked, and means, and infinitely bigger and grander than ourselves.

–rj

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The Fate of our Animal Friends in Pandemic Times

The untold suffering of our animal friends, victims of collapsing slaughter houses in the wake of mass worker viral infections, is so manifest it shouldn’t be ignored. It isn’t just Asian wet markets that need closing, though China bristles in denial, but industrial farming here at home, latent with cruelty, harbinger of disease, pervasive in despoiling the earth and advancing climate change. We rightly become angry at those who selfishly resist public safeguards like wearing masks and practicing social distancing yet, hypocritically, continue to crave meat that perpetuates such wrongs. I’m not asking you to become vegan, but at least reduce your intake of meat. Let’s get rid of this institutionalized mass cruelty. There are better ways.

This morning’s Guardian informs us that “at least two million animals have already reportedly been culled on farms, and that number is expected to rise. Approved methods for slaughtering poultry include slow suffocation by covering them with foam, or by shutting off the ventilation into the barns.” I’ll not even tell you about the plight of pigs, those most remarkably sentient animals.

Peter Singer, the world’s renowned ethicist, makes good sense to me and, hopefully, to you:

“It is tragic that countries such as China and India, as they become more prosperous, are copying western methods and putting animals in huge industrial farms. If this continues, the result will be animal suffering on an even greater scale than now exists in the west, as well as more environmental damage and a rise in heart disease and cancers of the digestive system. It will also be grossly inefficient. As consumers, we have the power – and the moral obligation – to refuse to support farming methods that are cruel to animals and bad for us.”

—rj

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Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: An Earth Day Tribute

 

I’ve just finished reading Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, written back in 1962, but still timely. President Kennedy read it eagerly, followed by Nixon in a time when presidents read books. (President Obama is another omnivorous reader in our own time.) Nixon was so deeply affected, that he founded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a safeguard.

I first became aware of the book in teaching college English composition classes where it appeared as an anthology excerpt, modeling sound expository writing. While Carson had written a thoroughly researched book steeped in chemical analysis, she did so in a way that rendered science transparent to the public, fostering its appeal, unlike a rival text written on the same topic that virtually no one read outside the science community.

Carson’s work models not only coherent analysis at its best, but delivers its thesis with a lyrical beauty underscoring its urgency and moving readers to call for policy change. In a letter to her close friend, Dorothy Freeman, she would write, “Once the emotions have been aroused—a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration and love—then we wish for the knowledge of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning.”

A perfectionist, she researched exhaustively and revised continually, concerned not only with message, but delivery. She had begun her college days as an English major before switching to biology. Carson composed Silent Spring while battling aggressive breast cancer, initially misdiagnosed. She had planned to write four other science books. The miracle is that she produced anything at all.

Since those days of teaching writing and my growing commitment to the green movement and awareness of the existential, exponential threat of climate change, I have wanted to return to her foundational work. I’m not sure how many of us are into eco-literature and Silent Spring or her other noted works, The Sea Around Us (National Book Award Winner) and best selling, The Edge of the Sea, but I knew reading it fully was something I just had to do to do, not least, to honor her—she passed so quickly from us after Silent Spring—but also as a means to gauging our progress in addressing her concerns.

Silent Spring deals with the havoc waged by land, sea, and air to the environment through indiscriminate use of pesticides by federal, state and local communities in support of economic interests, e.g., logging, agriculture, community agendas, heedless of consequences, repeatedly so, even when evidence of harmful repercussions had proven pervasive. An act of willful hubris, a genocide against nature, it resembles our own era when fossil fuels, primary contributors to a changing climate, continue as principal sources of energy reliance.

Silent Spring can be painful reading in its strident account of corporate interests in liaison with government, pillaging our environment and disregarding human welfare. Today, nearly every plant, and animal, including ourselves, even where spraying has ceased, show chemical residue. Species have been sharply reduced, disturbing a complex ecology, while augmenting pest resistance and promoting cancer proliferation.

There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example—where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

All of this fallout unnecessary, for safer biological tools had proven successful, yet still, the spraying continued. The corporate sector, spending $250,000, a huge sum at the time, resisted Carson’s assault, much like today’s Monsanto, arguing correlation not establishing causality, and disparaging Carson’s credentials: no Ph. D, no standing in the science community, no academic affiliation, a “bird lover,” her followers, “health quacks.” Shockingly, the American Entomological Society listed Velsicol, Monsanto, Shell Chemical Company, and other chemical corporations among their “sustaining associates.” One major pesticide firm threatened her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, with a lawsuit if the book were published without changes.

Carson was understandably surprised by the book’s smashing success, selling 65,000 copies in its first two weeks and its subsequent Book of the Month Club selection.

Against all odds, Silent Spring had found its way into the public’s consciousness. DDT was halted, though hypocritically allowed for export, much like cigarettes later on. As noted, the EPA came into being as the book’s consequence. In 1981, years after her passing in 1964, Carson was posthumously awarded our nation’s highest civilian honor, The Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sadly, Carson’s critics have continued their assaults, covertly changing their tactics and employing political correctness. The late science fiction novelist, Michael Crichton, for example, a vociferous climate change denier, branded her “a mass murderess” for the ultimate banning of DDT and deaths of millions of African children from malaria, while others have dismissed her as a white elitist. They ignore that DDT was actually banned only domestically, subsequently proven ineffectual against increasing mosquito resistance abroad, and replaced by newer, more effectual pesticides and innovative pharmaceuticals to contain malaria. Ironically, Carson hadn’t actually called for its banishment, but for its judicial use along with other pesticides.

Among poisonous chemical substances Carson addressed in Silent Spring, herbicides continue as a primary public menace, particularly for gardeners using the ubiquitous box store Roundup. There have been three trials involving pesticide giant Monsanto, two in state courts and the other in federal court, with up to 100,000 plaintiffs, alleging resulting non-Hodgkin lymphoma and consistent Monsanto coverup. Significantly, on March 19, 2018, a unanimous jury found Monsanto culpable and $25 million was awarded to plaintiff Edwin Hardeman.

Dismayingly, Trump’s EPA has currently sanctioned Monsanto’s employment of a new crop herbicide, dicamba, resulting in widespread crop damage, and Monsanto’s presently facing legal intervention by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. As with the frequent scenario Carson underscored in Silent Spring, corporate priorities like those of Monsanto have plunged headlong into pressing economic gains, even when their own studies revealed imminent liabilities, conspiring with the EPA to soft-pedal the herbicide’s dangers:

Documents filed in court show Monsanto met multiple times with EPA officials about the concerns, even editing EPA language about certain steps Monsanto should take in communications with retailers. In an October 2017 email, an EPA official forwarded a Monsanto official comment from the agency regarding the company’s product label, writing: “Like I said, no surprises.” (Carey Gillam, The Guardian, April 2, 2020).

After so many years, Carson’s legacy continues. The Sea Around US (1951) and Silent Spring have been translated into more than forty languages, with the latter averaging 25,000 sales annually. A collection of Carson’s unpublished work appears in Lost Words: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson., ed. Linda Lear (1998). For a biography, and there are several, I would begin with M. H. Lytle’s thorough and cogent, The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement (2007).

I’m glad to have read Silent Spring, which launched the modern day environmental movement, and unhesitatingly regard her as one of the foremost women of the last one-hundred years, unflinching, passionate, yet empirically based in her environmental witness. I end with the final paragraph of Silent Spring:

The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth. 

–rj

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Sally Rooney: Up to the Hype?

I took up reading Irish literary sensation Sally Rooney to find out what the fuss was all about. After all, she’s only twenty-eight and has written two novels that have rocked the literary world, Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), dubbing her the gatekeeper of the millennial generation. Saying you’ve read Rooney is the new chic.

Where does such youthful sagacity come from, that sureness of stroke distilled in cerebral awareness of the ambiguity, especially defining relationships, of society’s cultural constructs, social, political, and economic? Adding to the enigma, why attempt sorting out others, when we’re a mystery to ourselves as her characters abundantly demonstrate?

Rooney is a graduate of prestigious Trinity College, which becomes the principal foreground of Normal People. Its graduates include luminaries like Bram Stoker, George Berkeley, Edmund Burke, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, William Trevor and Mary Robinson. Rooney received a master’s degree from Trinity in American literature.

She has the smarts. No one doubts that. As for her two novels, if you’re into politics, especially the progressive kind, you’ll rollick to their beat, both novels pounding the political turf with trendy leftisms, fashioned in the aftermath of the market collapse of the Celtic tiger economy in 2008 and Rooney’s own upbringing in a Marxist household. Good novelists are inevitably iconoclasts and Rooney’s two novels, love stories, don’t disappoint in this regard. The question is how well she succeeds.

Conversations with Friends is narrated in first person by Frances, a bisexual communist in love with a married man, Nick, in a dysfunctional marriage. Her political sentiments come early and uncompromisingly when confessing to Nick that she had sex recently with a guy she met on Tinder, an admirer of Yeats, whom she earlier dismisses as fascist: “No one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy.”

Wage inequity arises in Conversations and discourages Frances from seeking work, a sentiment shared by many unemployed or under-emplored millennials these days:

I had no plans as to my future financial sustainability: I never wanted to earn money for doing anything. […] I’d felt that my disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy. I’d checked what the average yearly income would be if the gross world product were evenly divided among everyone, and according to Wikipedia it would be $16,100. I saw no reason, political or financial, ever to make more money than that.

In Normal People, both Connell and Marianne worry about employment, even though they’re academically achieving university students. Marianne is unfailing in dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in her ripostes of leftist student platitudes.

Marianne comes from a well-situated family; Connell, from a working class, single mother household. Class dialectic underlines a fundamental tension between the two, save there’s no genuine synthesis, despite their mutual love.

Connell’s mother is a housecleaner in Marianne’s parents’ upscale home. Ironically, she’s a disillusioned socialist, who undermines with laughter Connell’s recent enthusiasm for a local communist candidate:

Come on now, comrade, she said. I was the one who raised you with your good socialist values, remember?

Connell texts the disappointing election results of Fine Gael’s victory to Marianne who replies, “The Party of Franco,” alluding to the sending of a brigade of 700 combatants supporting the Nationalists in Spain’s civil war, despite the party’s official neutrality status. Connell has to look up the history. Rooney has a history of never letting her Leftist orthodoxy tolerate perceived apostasy.

Although sex is paramount in both novels, replete with minutiae and underscore’s women’s sexuality and love, it pervasively mutates into pathology, or power constructs, contributing little to promoting where the narratives should be headed—the social interchanges with others that comprise our identities and potential for self-realization. In relationships of disparity, subordinates, like Frances or Marianne, may utilize sex to approximate getting what they want, but cannot have. So much of this comes down to, Am I worthy of love? Replete with self-analysis as provender of self-mastery, it sputters into repetitive ineffectuality.

If anything, sex in these novels mirrors momentary catharsis, not sequels of emancipation from social, or class, determinants. Except for Bonni, in Conversations with Friends, the characters would do well with a bit of professional counseling. Supposedly in love but enmeshed in self-interest, characters in both novels emotionally engage in mutual tug of war.

Psychologically, Conversations with Friends and Normal People exhibit all the trademarks of co-dependency. Nick and wife, Melissa, for all their mutual infidelity, will not abandon their marriage. Nick, not incidentally, suffers from chronic depression and has been an in-patient at a psychiatric hospital. Marianne engages in self-injury behavior, symptomatic of deep-seated anxiety and self-loathing. Similarly, she hooks-up with a BDSM artist while a student in Sweden. In one scene, she wants Connell to throw her out of bed. Connell lacks self-confidence and resembles Nick in his depression. Rooney foreshadows in Conversations the self-inflicted masochism we see in Normal People, Frances ruminating about Nick, “I wanted him to be cruel now, because I deserved it. I wanted him to say the most vicious things he could think of, or shake me until I couldn’t breathe.”

But let’s talk about the writing itself. Both novels are like Twitter exchanges rather than vibrant telling. Language seems almost an intrusion in the short, blunt dialogue that frequently consists of text messaging and emails absent of punctuation and capitalization, not atypical of millennials. Quotation marks never occur in these novels to demarcate speakers, a mannerism serving no purposeful function other than an underlying contrariness that earmarks her essays and interviews. Normal People meanders into cliches, and not very good ones at that.

Absent of artifice, devoid of symbol or pattern, these novels read more more like sociology texts, laconic and, worse, so continuous, they provide no real climax or meaningful denouement leading to resolution. Despite the politics, there’s no genuine revolt and we end in stasis, or where we began. At Normal People’s end, Connell still waxes control, with Marianne’s validation dependent on his acceptance in what seems a rushed ending. You’ve got oppression without liberation. Sadly, both Frances and Marianne are non-assertive women in symbiotic relationships. There are no breakthroughs.

Whether these two novels merit their accolades, they do mirror the lifestyle of many millennials today, less sure of their futures than their parents were, rebellious against traditional mores, steeped in social media, while religiously and politically cynical. Both novels are trendy, but is this enough?

Out of curiosity, I wandered over to Goodreads to view reader reactions. While Rooney has her coterie of enthusiasts, a fair number complained of a dullness in plot and characters fundamentally unhinged who you’d not like rubbing shoulders with in everyday life.

Having read both novels, I’ve gone on to reading Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, a Booker Prize winning novel. No contest with lines such as “That sun, that light had faded, and she had faded with them. Now she was as grey as the season itself.” For me, Brookner wins hands down for insight, delivery, and relevance in depicting women’s efforts at finding emancipation in a patriarchal culture. Or as one critic put it long ago, “She makes some writers look a bit unsheveled and a little vulgar” (Rosemary Dinnage).

I think, too, of Edna O’Brien, Ireland’s preeminent feminist novelist hailing, like Rooney, from west Ireland and still writing at nearly ninety on similar themes of women’s internal lives, meriting a comparison to gain Rooney’s full measure, despite the generational divide. Like Rooney, she captured the essence of a new generation of women. In her formulae for writing, O’Brien comments, “Everything is very important – the landscape, the story, the character – but the rhythm and musicality and the spell of language, that’s what it is. Otherwise you’d put it on a postcard” (Irish Times, Nov. 7, 2015). I wish Rooney had taken note.

I like to think we really need something like fifty years to objectively validate a novel and, say, judge it a classic. Will posterity still read Hotel du Lac come fifty years? I’d wager yes. Not so for Conversations With Friends or Normal People.

We’d do better to heed critic Harold Rosenberg’s observation about generational thinking: “Except as a primitive means of telling time, generations are not a serious category. The opinions of a generation never amount to more than fashion. In any case, belonging to a generation is one of the lowest forms of solidarity.”

–rj

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Morning Routine Wins the Day

Yes, I admit to following a daily regimen that some may call being in a rut; but I much prefer its discipline, the empowerment it confers over my many infirmities and the peace it affords in keeping chaos at bay and getting things done. I believe the passions must be made obedient to the mind. Or as Epictetus put it, “One person likes tending to his farm, another to his horse; I like to daily monitor my self-improvement.” Virtue doesn’t fall upon us out of the blue. We must toil at it.

Since I’m writing about routine, Amy Landino has written a wonderful book on its potential for transformation, Good Life: 5 Simple Habits to Master Your Day and Upgrade Your Life. Her thesis is that a good morning creates a good life; in brief, beginning your day with a sound routine can promote well-being.

Movement: Do something to move your body. You can be ambitious and hit the gym right away. I prefer just a few simple stretches and massaging the muscles on my face. When you move your body a little, you wake up.

Mindfulness: It’s too easy to pick up the phone or turn the TV on when you don’t have anything else to do. Instead of resorting to those things, start with a practice that helps you generate your own original thoughts or ideas. Meditation works for some people.

Mastery: Focus on something that you’ve been meaning to get around to or that you’re passionate about. Have you been wanting to learn a foreign language? Start the day going through flashcards or using a training app. When you make time to master something, you aren’t allowing yourself to stay stuck on the hamster wheel of the everyday.

That’s it, a simple routine with large dividends. Allons-y! Go for it!

–rj

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Review: Paul Collier, Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World

Not long ago, Hillary Clinton controversially summed up Britain’s Brexit morass as essentially about immigration: “Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame.” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/22/hillary-clinton-europe-must-curb-immigration-stop-populists-trump-brexit

A way of saying that only then can Europe tame the groundswell of white, nativist resentment that has given rise to Donald Trump and Britain’s now confirmed exit from the European Union, January 31, 2020.

Surprisingly, you would think the port city of Dover, robust shipping hub just twenty miles across the Channel from France, would smell a threat to what’s generated its prosperity but, no, it wanted Brexit, voting 62% in favor in 2016’s national referendum.

Except for Britain’s urban centers with their strong diaspora presence, Northern and rural Britain voted decisively in December’s parliamentary election for Boris Johnson’s Tories.

Before the referendum, Britain had seen its Eastern European born population increase four fold between 2004 and 2016. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of migrants born in Eastern Europe employed in Britain rose by 49,000 between July and September, 2016, to 1,077,000.

Immigration continues as well from former Commonwealth nations in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. East Asian immigrants alone constituted nearly 4 million in the 2011 census. That same census showed a Black population of 1.9 million.

Some younger movie-goers of Dunkirk ludicrously complained of the film’s lack of diversity, having grown-up in today’s Britain. Britain has vastly changed in its demographics. Like its American cousin, it’s now multicultural.

Obviously, this isn’t without its consequences, the immigration surge sparking widespread indigenous resentment as newcomers, not all of them legal, compete for jobs, housing, and social services. Along with the Netherlands, Britain is already the most densely populated nation in Europe.

Against this backdrop comes Sir Paul Collier’s Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World (2013). Collier is a well-seasoned, highly regarded Oxford development economist, who has written a number of influential books, including his recent The Future of Capitalism (2018), which Bill Gates included among his five recommended summer reads (2019). Collier, a former World Bank economist, frequently advises government leaders.

This past year, Collier’s book was one of several I pursued on immigration, which Collier argues is analogous to climate change in its centrality and effects, demanding scrupulous and immediate reappraisal.

What’s refreshing is his painstaking, fair-minded, low-key analysis, employing a wide-ranging empirical modality that includes graphs and salient research sources applied to a complex, often emotionally charged issue. He’s unafraid to confront both conservatives and progressives when facts merit frankness or confessing limitation when knowledge forbears on solutions. Migration has both pluses and minuses. Collier appraises both.

For the positive, immigration ameliorates poverty in third world countries, allowing for a diaspora abroad that sends back remittances averaging $1000 annually to families in their former countries.

It rewards young people for their education and skills that contribute to their new homelands.

Host societies garner a steady revenue flow in taxes in a return on education it didn’t have to pay for. (Collier suggests host countries pay back the countries of origin.)

Nationalism needn’t be made synonymous with racism. As Collier sees it, “identifying with a nation has proved to be an extremely powerful way in which people bond.” You might think of it as the family writ large.

This becomes nearly a refrain in the book, the assertion that without the goodwill of the host society, immigration can flounder. Multiculturalism, while conferring stimulating variation, can foster resentment of the outsider who prefers not to assimilate while competing for employment, housing, and social benefits. On the other hand, seeing others as members of the same community fosters acceptance of social and economic equality.

Ironically, it’s the failure of clans in many African nations to integrate into the national fabric that’s played havoc with social stability and economic progress, with local loyalty prioritized over national welfare:

A standard characterization of African political economy is that each clan regards the public purse as a common pool resource to be looted on behalf of the clan.

Migrants from developing nations are largely escaping from dysfunctional social models. That they are poor countries is the net result of that dysfunction:

Functional social models are decisive, but they do not just happen: they are built as a result of decades, and sometimes centuries, of social progress.

Collier cautions that immigration requires continual monitoring. If a diaspora grows disproportionately large, it can deter integration and exacerbate public sentiment.

Large diasporas can even offset point admission criteria in countries like Canada and Australia by way of chain immigration, ultimately leading to less educated and skilled immigrants that may become public charges and increase crime.

While Collier doesn’t advocate discriminatory immigration on the basis of race, he notes that the more culturally distant the immigrants are from the host population, the less likely assimilation will occur. Some may even bring with them the dysfunction of their homeland. Conversely, America’s large Latinx influx has assimilated fairly well, perhaps largely as a result of cultural similarity.

Point systems, in any event, accelerate the flight of those vitally needed to build capital investment and stability that can potentially help developing nations achieve a reasonable prosperity for their people. When the educated and skilled emigrants leave, pervasive incompetence, disregard for rules, and corruption occur, setting in motion imitative behavior.

Nations like Haiti can never catch up. With a 10 million population, it has lost 85% of its educated people. While taking-in large numbers of a poor nation’s intelligentsia may benefit prosperous nations, it has tragic fallout for nations like Haiti.

Meanwhile, many in the West fear not only competition from immigrants, but replacement. As Hillary Clinton astutely observed, “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message – ‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ – because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”

Collier’s answer is that “for assimilation and fusion to work, there is a need for controls on the rate of migration that are fine-tuned to take into account its composition.” Government policy needs to assess both domestic and homeland impact.

Without monitoring, immigration is likely to rapidly increase with potentially harmful results for both host nations and those left behind in impoverished countries. (In the U. S., low wage undocumented immigrants compete with unskilled indigenous workers, frequently people of color.)

Not everyone will find Collier’s conclusions palatable; for example, his view that educated immigrants might possibly be granted guest worker status, then returned to their homeland as nation builders.

As for “brain drain,” they may argue that Collier exaggerates, with Haiti an isolated example. According to The Guardian, two thirds of government officials in developing countries have studied abroad. Still, how many others leave, never to return? Critics seem to forget that Collier knows his turf as a World Bank economist with expertise in development economics and lived several years in Africa.

Enthusiasts for immigration may find Collier’s analysis rather pessimistic. But this isn’t really the narrative Collier delivers. He attempts a balanced assessment of immigration’s effects on migrants, their host nation, and on those left behind. Who does immigration help? Who does it hurt?

Critics alleging the success of immigrants in Britain curiously ignore Britain and the Continent’s growing unease and incipient popular front resistance to immigrants in France, Germany, Italy and, especially, Hungary and Poland, menacing the European Union. As I suggested at the outset, Brexit resonates Britain’s desire to recover its identity and control its destiny.

I’ve learned so much from Collier’s painstaking analysis of a controversial issue, likely to accelerate like climate change in its immediacy, the latter propelling mind-boggling numbers of climate refugees, particularly from Africa, by century end.

Presently, the U. S. takes-in more than two million immigrants annually, not including millions more through chain immigration and asylum seekers. And then there are the undocumented, now grown to 12 million.

The U. S. also conducts an annual lottery for 55,000 immigrant visas for applicants from countries with low immigration rates to assure diversity. In 2018, 23 million applied.

None of this occurs in a vacuum. Immigration is a complicated issue and done a grave disservice by xenophobic, even racist, conservatives and naive progressives advocating virtually open borders and tax payer supported social benefits for the undocumented.

Collier doesn’t propose he has all the answers and often tells readers when the evidence proves lacking or ambiguous. But I respect his acumen and, even more, his honesty.

As Collier rightly puts it, “The angry debate between xenophobes and “progressives” addresses the wrong question: is migration good or bad? The relevant question for policy is not whether migration has been good or bad overall. Rather, it is the likely effects at the margin should migration continue to accelerate.”
–rj

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2020 Draw-Bag Reading List

I can’t believe it! Another year has passed. Last year, I drew up my first annual Draw-Bag Reading List (2019). Happy to say, I’m glad I did it, as it structured my reading. While I didn’t get to read every book, I did read many and the plan kept me motivated. This year I’ve had better sense to list authors alphabetically, along with annotated commentary to remind myself just why I should read a particular book. There are so many wonderful books out there that I had difficulty choosing which ones should make my list.

I can’t say when I learned to read, but it was early, nor who my teachers were that taught me how, but I’m grateful. I am so much an offspring of the books I’ve read that I can’t fathom a life without them. In the witness of others, we find community and with it, both solace and wisdom.

A Happy New Year to all of you, filled with many hours of good reading.

FICTION:

Aciman, André. Call me by Your Name. (Coming of age novel by famed Egyptian writer)

Adiche, Chimanda Ngozi. Americanah. (Prize-winning novel by a Nigerian immigrant to U. S., who discovers what it means to be Black in America.)

Akhmatova, Anna. You Will Hear the Thunder. (Shafak says this is a book that makes her wish she could speak Russian.)

Alameddine, Rabih. An Unnecessary Woman. (Nominated for National Book Award, tells story of a 72 year old divorced woman who translates literature in her Beirut apartment.)

Atwood, Margaret. The Testaments. (The sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.)

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. (You’ll never see an urban landscape the same way again. Written by a superb intellect and rebel.)

Brookner, Anita. Hotel du Lac. ( Brookner’s novels center on intelligent, marginalized women attempting to find themselves in a society where the greedy and shallow often win out over the kind and generous.)

Choi, Susan. Trust Exercise. (Love between teens at a performance school meets teacher intervention. Pulitzer nominated.}

Clegg, Bill. Did You Ever Have a Family? (Nominated for Booker Prize, what happens when life throws you a curve.)

Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. (One of the most beautifully told family sagas treating issues of identity.)

Ishiguro, Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. (About aging, memory, solitude, loss, and art set in post war Japan.)

Johnson, Denis. Twain Dreams. (A novella of the American West that captures the ending of a way of life and the unfolding of a new America.)

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. (The classic novel that propelled Kafka to fame.)

Lerner, Ben. 10:04. (“Lerner captures what it’s like to be alive now, during the twilight of an empire, when the difficulty of imagining a future is changing our relationship to both the present and the past,” —Publisher)

Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno. (Poet Gary J. Whitehead wrote a screenplay adaptation.)

Mitford, Nancy. In Pursuit of Love. (Sardonic portraitures of upper class English life, mirrored on her own.)

Obreht, Téa. The Tiger’s Life. (Set in an unnamed Balkan country, a story of love, loss, and legend and novel debut by a Serbian-American novelist recognized as one of our most talented young writers.)

O’Brien, Edna. Country Girl. (Her debut novel that shocked Ireland with its sexual frankness. O’Brien considered one of the greatest living Irish authors.)

Robinson, Marilynne. Lila. (Girlhood lived on the fringes of society by one of our finest contemporary novelists,)

Rooney, Sallie. Conversations. (Remarkable debut novel by an Irish 26-year old that has rocked the literary world.)

Rooney, Sallie. Normal People. (Rooney’s most recent second novel many say is even better than Conversations. On Obama’s 2019 reading list.)

Rushdie, Salmon. Quichotte: A Novel. (Rushdie delivers with wit and humor reminiscent of Don Quixote}.

Shafak, Elif. The Bastard of Istanbul. (Good intro to Shafak, in my view, one of our foremost women authors.)

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. (Perhaps America’s best female novelist, Wharton’s 1905 portrayal of upper class mores remains timely and brilliant.)

NON-FICTION

Ackerman, Diane. One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing. (Ackerman endures as one of my favorites. This book narrates what happens in a loving marriage when your spouse undergoes a devastating illness.)

A
manat, Abbas. A History of Modern Iran. (One of the best places to begin.)

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. (Baldwin’s first book (1955), a collection of ten riveting essays still relevant by a remarkable writer.)

Boska, Bianca. Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste. (Sensory, fascinating exploration of wine aficionado expertise.)

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. (The early classic that would initiate environmental consciousness.)

Epictetus. The Enchiridion. (Stoicism, with its philosophy of rational living and quest of virtue, begins with this ancient work.)

Goldstein, Joshua S. and Steffan A. Qvist. A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow. (Some countries have replaced fossil fuels. We can do the same by mid-century if we have the courage.)

McKibben, Bill. Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (“As climate change shrinks the space where our civilization can exist, new technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics threaten to bleach away the variety of human experience.”)

Montgomery, Sy. How to be a Good Creature. (National Book Award finalist. Book features 13 animals from whom author has x learned life lessons.)

Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. (Ground-breaking history and analysis of capitalism and its contemporary contribution to rising inequality.)

Rich, Nathaniel. Losing Ground: A Recent History. (In 1979, we knew about global warming and how to stop it. This book tells of those who risked their careers to convince the world to take action before it was too late.)

Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide to Getting Lost. (Essays in Wanderlust, or of wandering, getting lost, and exploring new vistas and relationships.)

Stein, Murray. Map of the Soul—Persona: Our Many Faces. ((I knew Murray and his family well in my early youth. Murray went on to become a leading Jungian, the famed Swiss psychiatrist who influenced me profoundly.)

Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth: New A Story of the Future. (The consequence in our near future of our not taking action to mitigate climate change.)

Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees. What They Feel and How They Communicate. (The title says it all. You’ll never look at a tree the same way again.)

–rj

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Rupi Kaur: Pop Poetry Phenom

Just read New Republic’s glowing assessment of Canadian Instapoet Rupi Kaur, reflected in its swollen title, “Rupi Kaur is the Writer of the Decade.” (New Republic) Not even thirty, she’s published two poetry volumes, Milk and Honey (2015) and The Sun and Her Flowers (2017). Poet luminary of Instagram, she’s gathered 3.8 million followers. Milk and Honey, translated into 25 languages, has sold 1.4 million copies and made the NYT best seller list for 77 weeks. Her public readings are sold out. Exotic in appearance, along with a mesmerizing delivery, she just maybe has rescued poetry from slipping into oblivion in our STEM era.

But is it really poetry?

I think not.

That said, I always suspicion poetry, or a great many other things for that matter, that suddenly takes off. Popularity isn’t a criterion of excellence, given the brevity of social clamor.

I suspect three elements behind her popularity:

Accessibility:

Her “verse,” a term I prefer to use in gauging her work, is easy to understand, unlike so much of modern poetry that leaves readers stranded in a context void.

Brevity:

Social Media, that Internet darling, thrives on brevity. Say it quickly and get out. More than five lines, look out! Add a photo or two, you’re in. It’s Life magazine gone digital.

Relevance:

Give her credit. Her plaintive verse centers, like country music, in everyday happening—life’s tears, jerks and twists. It fingers loneliness, embraces assertion for the many lacking self-esteem, reaches past gender, creed and race. As a Punjabi Sikh immigrant, she speaks poignantly to the vulnerable and marginalized and that includes women. What’s more compelling than

if you were born with the weakness to fall you were born with the strength to rise (Milk and Honey).

or

how you love yourself is
how you teach others
to love you (Milk and Honey)

You’ve got sentiment, but it doesn’t make for poetry. It’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s good.

Poetry centers in artifice—form, metaphor and even in a time of free verse, a latent rhythm. It probes deeply. Sensory, it shows, not tells, or like a good recipe, is the sum of all its ingredients that artists call “unity.”

Poetry exhibits pattern.

It has a grammar.

To paraphrase Frost, Kaur’s miniscule verse is like playing tennis with the nets down.

She’s been accused of plagiarism by Nayyirah Waheed, another popular Instapoet, who pointed out similarities in Kaur’s verse, only to have Kaur ignore her messages.

Whatever the story here, there’s a plethora of poets who write like Kaur in what’s taken-on a fast food likeness for success. Take Warsan Shire, for example, another exemplar of the new idiom and quite possibly the better artist in her sophistication.

Kaur’s supporters are quick to invoke the identity politics fallback in countering critics. She’s a feminist of color who dares to speak out in an artisan world dominated by white men. She’s also hugely popular, makes a lot of money, and circuits the world. Artist rivalry kindled by jealousy is legendary.

But that’s not where the argument lies. We must judge Kaur by her work, not our politics. I find it cliche, platitude riddled, and banal:

i do not like the kind of love
that is draining
i want someone who energizes me.

Putting it out front, her verse resembles scribblings in book margins, succinct, but little more. The labored craft which Dylan Thomas rendered so movingly in “In My Craft Or Sullen Art” is sorely lacking,

Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms.

The New Republic suggesting her verse heralds an artistic revival akin to the New Harlem Renaissance or Bloomsbury Group that includes Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster requires a considerable stretch.

Kaur writes verse fitted to the Instagram. It fits well on your cell phone. But it’s prose, cleverly packaged for commercial success in line breaks to suggest profundity, often accompanied by line-drawings to augment the effect. (Sorry, she’s no e. e. cummings.)

At best, it’s aphorism. At worst, it’s exploitive prose.

It’s not poetry.

–rj

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Dawn Light: Dancing with Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day: A Review

I’ve always had an affair with nature, relishing its solitude away from the human world. I’ve loved nature even in its changing moods that can be intolerant of human frailty and frequent arrogance. With every dawn, I relish the birth of a new day and miracle of life, the weaving of elements into chance molecules over vast stretches of time. I am sensitive to the many wounds we inflict upon her, not without consequences that now imperil us.

I like keeping company with those who cherish nature. Frequently, they’ve been writers like Thoreau, Muir, Carson, and Leopold, but sometimes contemporaries too like Diane Ackerman, whose delightful Dawn Light: Dancing with Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day (2009) I recently finished. Like her A History of the Senses (1990), Dawn Light offers readers a sumptuous prose cadenced in chiseled syntax, metaphor, and sensory indulgence, served up in nearly poetic guise, rendering palpable nature’s miraculous redolence. (Yes, she really does write poetry as well as books steeped in nature.)

Take, for example, her fondness for Monet, who appears often in the book beginning with its Prologue, serving as a template for detailed focus on nature’s minutiae we’re likely to miss, surprising us with her eclectic acumen that gathers in history, literature, and art, as well as botany, physiology and psychology.

Ackerman, who can fly a plane, has traversed the Amazonian jungle, herded horses on a New Mexico ranch, fast walks fifty minutes daily, come hell or high water. She’s super woman with a Cornell Ph. D. and twenty books under her belt, one of them, The Zookeeper’s Wife, turned into a successful movie.

A scientist by training, she typically resorts to a schema, or categorization, to organize and develop a singular subject. In her acclaimed, A History of the Senses, each of the senses is treated separately. So here, the seasons at dawn serve as spinal artifice.

Dawn is the wellspring of more light, the origin of our first to last days as we roll in space, over 6.684 billion of us in one global petri dish, shot through with sunlight, in our cells, in our minds, in our myriad metaphors of rebirth, in all the extensions to our senses that we create to enlighten our days and navigate our nights.

I’m in awe of everything she writes in Dawn Light, not only by what she says, but how well she says it, putting readers in touch with nature’s visible and vaster invisible realm of teeming minutiae, helping us recover what we took for granted or never knew, while unfailingly demonstrating the intersection of ourselves with Nature’s stratagem to which we owe our being.

Take, for example the Spring season, with which she begins her narrative and its association with rain:

But no rain is ever peaceful, since raindrops are changing shape violently as they fall, colliding with dust and one another, pulsing at 300 times per second through a tirade of forms: domed, flat-bottomed, elongated, egg, fat, skinny, flat, pill-like, tall. Even the gentlest rain is a sea of furious crack-ups and mutations. Similarly, we appear to be whole, even serene in our abundantly calm moments, but like the shape of rain, we are a deluge of But no rain is ever peaceful, since raindrops are changing shape violently as they fall, colliding with dust and one another, pulsing at 300 times per second through a tirade of forms: domed, flat-bottomed, elongated, egg, fat, skinny, flat, pill-like, tall. Even the gentlest rain is a sea of furious crack-ups and mutations. Similarly, we appear to be whole, even serene in our abundantly calm moments, but like the shape of rain, we are a deluge of small processes, interactions, and relations, changing by the nanosecond, yet somehow holding a fragile sense of self intact.

When I read Ackerman, I feel impoverished and the fault is mine, so much unseeing, so much missed, the miracle of it all and only one life to bear it witness. Ackerman helps me recapture nature’s wonder and its joy, if not sacredness. I want not only to relish it, but fight for it in a monetary world of greed and indulgence that frequently bulldozes its verdure, eliminates its creatures, never to be passed on to our children, evolution’s creations through aeons of time, of which we are not even a wink:

It is said that Audubon once killed seven whooping cranes with a single buckshot blast. In the 1940s only 15 whooping cranes survived in all of America, and their future seemed grim; by the 1990s, the wild flock had grown to only 133.

And again, that interconnection:

The lost cranes join a list that forms automatically in my mind, where many calibers of loss are stored: things once here but now gone, things in the process of vanishing, things that have mutated, things that exist but are unrecognizable, mythic things which never existed, people or animals who have died, bygone periods of one’s life. All rankle, and yet a sense of loss and forgetting unifies my life, and so do the many things that surprise me by being resistant to loss, such as a college friendship renewing itself and thriving thirty years later, while others may gently decay like old driftwood.

To read Ackerman appreciably requires an a priori passion for nature and quiet, if not reflective mood, for in reality, Dawn Light consists of meditative essays, mindful of nature’s extraordinary acumen for adaptation and survival.  Impatient readers are likely to find Ackerman’s writing, in general, not suited to their palette, its lengthy sentences, entangling, its subject matter, at times, digressive.  Others, like myself, will relish its indulgence as emblematic of sincere passion for both nature and language.  Ackerman asks, “How do you explore the texture of being alive?” Dawn Light shows how.

It’s clear that Ackerman is word conscious, adept at metaphor and, yes, a sensitivity to the yielding possibility of every sentence for rhythm and resonance.  While all of her books are worth a read, Dawn Light may be her most breathtakingly beautiful.

–rj

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