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 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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Touching Matters

We cannot thrive without touch. Of the five senses, it’s the one we can’t do without. And oddly, the most underrated. Through touch we are known and make ourselves known. Without touch, we’d not be here at all.

Recently I viewed a TV episode of long-running Doctor Who (Season 2, Episode 2, “New Earth”), whose eponymous protagonist lands on a remote planet in a distant future. Confined to multi-tiered isolation cells in a hospital setting, underclass humans are reduced to abstract entities, or guinea pigs, serving the health needs of a privileged oligarchy of feline nurses. Doctor Who to their dynamic rescue, their cells spring open, unleashing a meandering human stream.  Bewildered in a strange freedom, they wander into a coterie of fellow feeling and mutual touching, conferring healing.

I knew a family well where touching was remote, not even a hug, and a handshake at best. The children, five of them, turned into adults, responsible, hard-working, charitable—yet each lacking self-regard, competing for love, but never finding enough, questing inevitably for a validity always elusive. The father rebuked me on one occasion: “Don’t talk to me about love. Isn’t it enough that I feed and clothe them and provide a place for them to sleep?”

I came from a working class Irish family, my mother absent; my father, a quick-tempered alcoholic who boozed away income, often leaving us nibbling on tawdry white bread salt and pepper sandwiches. And yet we, four children, found love in each other over the years bonded by childhood memories, visiting, confiding—yes, in that time unlike our own—transcending space, exchanging letters. In person, we greeted each other with hugs, kissed cheeks, slapped backs, conversing into the night’s meandering hours, reechoing childhood venues.

Numberless animal experiments exhibit the dismal results of tactile neglect. In a Duke experiment with rats, neurologist Saul Schanberg found that rat offspring, deprived of maternal licking and grooming, experienced a loss in growth hormones. Even though hormone secretion increased on return to their mothers, an incessant need for stroking to return normalcy was required.

In parallel, we’ve found that neglected children sometimes stop growing and that children not sufficiently touched often grow-up reluctant to touch others, or what I call an inability to show love.

Diane Ackerman reminds us in her voluptuous exploration of our sensory dimension (A Natural History of the Senses) how densely populated our language is with references to touching: “Language is steeped in metaphors of touch. We call our emotions feelings, and we care most deeply when something “touches” us. Problems can be thorny, ticklish, sticky, or need to be handled with kid gloves. Touchy people, especially if they’re coarse, really get on our nerves.”

Similarly, one reason why I find novelist D. H. Lawrence’s work so appealing over a lifetime is its pervasive reiteration of the centrality of touch to our well-being, or at the core of what defines our essence; in Lawrencian parlance, what titillates the solar plexus. It was why art patron Mabel Dodge Sterne invited him to Taos, New Mexico, this artisan sage with “the feel and touch and smell of places.”

I’m point man now, my siblings vanished into that perennial Night all of us must inevitably embrace and yet, as though it were yesterday, they remain presences, gifting me with their palpable love.

–rj

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A Brief Life Lived Well: Kevyn Alcoin’s Testament to Beauty

You probably never heard of Kevyn Aucoin. I hadn’t either till just recently. How many good people we miss in the stream of life, despite the myriad strands of humanity linking all of us.

Kevyn became famous as a celebrity makeup artist to scores of celebrity women like Cher, Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Liza Minnelli. As an artisan, for that’s what he really was, he sought not to hide blemishes, but to put women in touch with their inner beauty, empowering them. As he put it, “Beauty is about perception, not about makeup. I think the beginning of all beauty is knowing and liking oneself. You can’t put on makeup, or dress yourself, or do your hair with any sort of fun or joy if you’re doing it from a position of correction.”

The journey was never easy for Kevyn, who discovered he was gay at age six. Viewed as different by classmates, he was often bullied and sometimes beaten.

In those days, not really so long ago, women felt uncomfortable having a man do their makeup. Ultimately, as happens frequently, his talent made room for him and he became legendary. He would write several salient, greatly in-demand books on makeup, do TV interviews, and make cameo appearances in several TV shows.

Kevyn persevered daily, though suffering chronic back pain from earliest days, and was later diagnosed with a rare pituitary tumor. While the surgery removing the tumor proved successful, Kevyn’s acute pain continued. In 2002, age 40, he passed away, succumbing to liver and kidney failure from acetaminophen toxicity.

You may like viewing a nearly two hour video documentary, Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Alcoin Story or reading Kerry Diamond’s memorial biography, Kevyn Alcoin a Beautiful Life: The Success, Struggles and Beauty Secrets of a Legendary Makeup Artist.

I wanted to share Kevyn with you, as I found him inspiring in his courage and tenacity, often against all odds, and I think you will too. I leave you with his memorable words for living life in every circumstance:

“Today I choose life. Every morning when I wake up I can choose joy, happiness, negativity, pain… To feel the freedom that comes from being able to continue to make mistakes and choices – today I choose to feel life, not to deny my humanity but embrace it.”

–rj

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William Carlos Williams’ “Willow Poem”: Defying Temporality

“Willow Poem”

It is a willow when summer is over,
a willow by the river
from which no leaf has fallen nor
bitten by the sun
turned orange or crimson.
The leaves cling and grow paler,
swing and grow paler
over the swirling waters of the river
as if loath to let go,
they are so cool, so drunk with
the swirl of the wind and of the river—
oblivious to winter,
the last to let go and fall
into the water and on the ground.

ANALYSIS

Here is a poem for our fall season by one of my favorite poets. For me, it speaks ultimately of that tenacious defiance in the context of mortality, “oblivious to winter, “ which should define the way we live our lives up to the very end.

Less robust in tone than Dylan Thomas’ more famous “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night,” it nonetheless succeeds in its implied imperative and proves no less skilled in its artifice. Intriguingly, the persona exhibits empathy for the willow—and why not?—for the tree is like ourselves, fated for that long sleep (note repeated “grow paler”), yet resilient.

Williams had a penchant for writing poems in vernacular language, unlike his fellow modernists such as Eliot and Stevens, rendering his poetry highly accessible by the public. A physician tending to progressive, if not socialist, beliefs, this simple language represented a linguistic practicum of his credo.

Having said this, I would contend Williams remains a sophisticated poet in his subtlety of technique, careful observation of the natural world, and ability to extract human relevance—all of this true of “The Willow Poem.”

Take, for example, its fourteen line construction, usually suggesting the traditional sonnet mode, except it doesn’t conform to the iambic pentameter meter, closed couplet, or sestet formulae. I take this as deliberately mirroring the poem’s theme of resistance, if not rebellion, a tree transcending autumnal demise, or at least holding out amid nature’s seasonal rhythms.

In abandoning typical sonnet protocol, Williams nevertheless manages to maintain unity, implementing language and even occasional meter in an otherwise free verse poem.

Notice the many dictional occurrences of of words ending in er: “over,” “river,” “paler” and “winter. “

Note the heavy spondee element in the poem’s frequent preference for monosyllabic diction: “The leaves cling and grow paler,/swing and grow paler” (ll. 6-7). Not least, there is the word repetition throughout.

Absent of human intrusion, the poem’s sole subject is the tree. And yet human application is suggested in its personification. An imagist poet proclaiming ‘no ideas but in things,” Williams is faithful to his creed. The tree remains a tree, yet emerging from the persona’s non-intrusive observations are potential analogies to the human quest to indulge and survive amid Nature’s ceaseless flow and inevitable sovereignty.

The willow’s river location hints at passage. A “swirling” river, it suggests Nature’s dynamism. The summer has gone. Fall, season of decline, suggests ending. Yet the tree appears impervious to Nature’s laws. Its leaves, “nor/bitten by the sun/turned orange and crimson, “ appear transcendent over temporality.

Continuing personification amplifies an ambience of resistance, its leaves “as loath to let go,” even as incipient change, and the mortality it confers, coalesce here in the increasing pallor of the leaves.

Archetypal elements, e.g., “summer,” “river,” winter,” nuancing generation, decline and death, further foreground the poem’s resonating Nature’s cyclic rhythms, without nullifying what Schopenhauer termed Wille zum Leben, or what I prefer to call “life force, “ or self-preservation instinct present in all Nature.

Simple, yet sublime, the poem validates William’s artistic acumen and esteemed standing among modern American poets.

— rjoly

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Is Anybody Listening? Voter Apathy on Climate Change

American media should be ashamed! Here we are, facing an unparalleled survival crisis, yet the absence of climate change from Thursday’s Democrat debate. (No opportunity for discussing the Green New Deal.) Then there is the apathy of many Americans. Three recent state voter surveys sadly show the absence of climate change as a top five issue for prospective voters. Meanwhile, the Trump assault on environment continues, with the Arctic opened this week to new oil exploitation, even as the world burns and the Arctic melts. I leave you this recent op-ed excerpt from Naomi Klein, one of our foremost writers on the subject: rj

“Wherever in the world they live, this generation has something in common: they are the first for whom climate disruption on a planetary scale is not a future threat, but a lived reality. Oceans are warming 40% faster than the United Nations predicted five years ago. And a sweeping study on the state of the Arctic, published in April 2019 in Environmental Research Letters and led by the renowned glaciologist Jason Box, found that ice in various forms is melting so rapidly that the ‘Arctic biophysical system is now clearly trending away from its 20th-century state and into an unprecedented state, with implications not only within but also beyond the Arctic.’ In May 2019, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services published a report about the startling loss of wildlife around the world, warning that a million species of animals and plants are at risk of extinction. ‘The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,’ said the chair, Robert Watson. ‘We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. We have lost time. We must act now.´”

–rj

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