Yesterday we celebrated a niece’s birthday. Today our celebration is of the more somber bookend. I wanted to share three thoughts and a few lines of verse—all of which I dedicate to our elder sister:
SUZANNE ELIZABETH GARDNER
We live our lives between the past and the future. Our thought is usually of the one or the other—such thought, along with everything else, takes place in the present. When the past and the future collide, there is nothing to ponder between them—the present has dissolved into what I call a God-moment—the place between birth and death where a life has been gathered in the mind of God.
The second thought is more pedestrian. From an early age we are made and become well aware of the calendar day that marks our birth—our birthday. Significantly Less thought is given to another calendar day, no less significant but rarely conjured in wakeful consciousness. Suzann Elizabeth—the lovely daughter of our memory discovered that fateful day three weeks ago, today. As her birthday will forever remain April 10, 1942–her death-day will forever remain March 3, 2014. So I submit that when we appraise the days of the year—when we note anyone of its familiar 365—that we remember that anyone one of them might be that day the when our past and futures collide—and if we find that any particular day is not that given day then it is given to us to rejoice in the day that it is and rejoice in the day that it’s not. Whitman is instructive:
Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave let him know he has enough.
The third thought concerns the immortality of the written word. In finitude, immortality is, of course, an illusion—words and the books that they contain will one day perish along with all and any of the other products of time. But for the interim they give the impression of longevity—like the God-moment they are sandwiched between two covers—a present moment flowing down a page gathered between a beginning and an end. At the end of a book I finished writing yesterday—I had a melancholy moment. I realized this was a book that Suzanne would never read—and I further reflected that until yesterday that I been too busy living my own life to think very often of hers— so I found myself adding something simple, something suggestive of that melancholy, to the book’s final page–so now that she is gone and the book to press– I think I am destined to contemplate her life more often than I would have otherwise supposed. But before the finitude of that conclusion—the promised lines of verse. The lines are, again, as you might imagine (in this place of endless lawns) from Walt Whitman—They are taken from the beginning and the end of Song of Myself—they bookend his take on life and death as he contemplates a single spear of summer grass:
I celebrate and sing myself
And what I shall assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
A child said what is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it must be the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt.
Bearing the owner’s name in the corner that we may see and remark, and say whose?
And now it seems the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
The scud of (this) day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds
I coaxes me to the vapor and dust.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift (away) in lacy jags,
I bequeath myself to the grass I love,
If you want me look for me under your boot-soles,
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you never the less,
And filter and fiber your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Suzanne awaits me and any others at the end of the book I finished writing yesterday. It quotes Whitman yet once again:
I that was visible am now invisible.
And concludes opposite his line with the collision of a beginning and an end gathering a past and future forever fixed in the mind of God:
Susanne Elizabeth Gardner
“I Accept full responsibility, without exception, without excuse… ” Tony Blair (regarding the Chilcot Inquiry).
Neither Mr. Blair nor Mr. Bush can apologize for the mayhem and death of the modern Levant dropping through the neocon-rabbit hole of a supposed rapid dominance that neither shocked, awed or dominated . The pair is joined at the hip as malevolent Tweedle Dees and Tweedle Dums of an abject moral failure. Afghanistan and Iraq are our longest running theaters of war.
Redemption is only possible if the unforgiveable concludes–if the descent descends no more–if the full measure of the debacle is accessed and bitterly acknowledged.
Harold Pinter’s War was a response to the inaugural Iraqi Wars of the 21st century:
It is the dead of night.
The long dead look out towards
The new dead
Walking towards them
There is a soft heartbeat
As the dead embrace
Those who are long dead
Walking towards them
They cry and they kiss
As they meet again
For the first and last time
Harold Pinter’s Meeting opens a slim volume comprising twelve of his poems. The collection is called War. With the exception of one piece, the poems were published in a variety of periodicals, chronologically from August 2002 to March 2003. They are produced, along with a speech given at the University of Turin , by the publishing house of Faber and Faber.
War is a scream in the night that echoes down corridors of silence. Pinter rages with the futility of a latter day prophet who knows that God is not only dead, but more frightfully, that he is an American who is deaf, as well:
And all the dead air is alive
With the smell of America ‘s God.
Several of the poems are obscene, as befits their subject:
The big pricks are out
They’ll fuck everything in sight.
Perhaps only Bertrand Russell, an English pacifist from early in the 20th century, has fulminated as furiously as the English Pinter does here, early in the 21st.
“… the U.S. administration is a bloodthirsty wild animal.”
One feels in the next breath that Pinter might apologize to bloodthirsty wild animals for making the unseemly comparison.
In the Meeting, half of the poem’s twelve lines contain the word “dead.” There are the long dead and the new dead. The “long dead” is history. We are the “new dead” or, in the least, shall shortly be. Pinter’s anger is directed at a world that has no patience for that inevitability.
His recent brush with mortality has eroded his patience further. He won’t let the horror of 9/11 excuse a doctrine that exploits that tragedy to further its own ends. From his speech at the University of Turin :
“The hypocrisy behind its public declarations and its own actions is almost a joke. America believes that the 3,000 deaths in New York are the only deaths that count, the only deaths that matter. They are American deaths. Other deaths are unreal, abstract, of no consequence… The atrocity in New York was predictable and inevitable. It was an act of retaliation against constant and systematic manifestations of state terrorism on the part of America over many years, in all parts of the world. “
Camus famously said, “At any street corner the feeling of the absurd can strike any man in the face.” Pinter asserts such feeling is not restricted to America ‘s latest belligerence or the 9/11 disasters, which preceded it. T.S. Eliot would agree:
Jerusalem , Athens , Alexandria ,
Vienna , London
Playwright, Donald Freed extends the poet’s list:
“From his earliest writings until his latest plays and poetry, the theme — explicit or implied, verbal or suggested in silences — has never swerved: human beings are so utterly vulnerable, so contingent on powers without pity, so scandalously naked to the techno-chemical fury of the Twentieth Century, that those who have a voice and a language must use it to create the record — by word in combination with unspeakable silence — of Buchenwald, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Chile, and Nicaragua.”
The record of word, and the substance of silence is profoundly at work in his plays and so also here. Of silence Pinter once wrote:
“There are two silences — one when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear… When true silence falls we are still left with the echo but are near nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.”
Out of his anger flows a torrent of jeremiads. America is the new Babylon . Invasions are word games disguised by the appellations Freedom and Shield.
From the end of American Football:
We blew them into fucking shit.
They are eating it.
Praise the Lord for all good things.
We blew their balls into shards of dust.
Into shards of fucking dust.
We did it.
Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth.
The reader will note that the date of the poem corresponds with the end of the first Gulf War. It could just as easily be read to signify the end of the second. In either it is clear the wining is a dubious endeavor. As William Faulkner observed, “… victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
The war goes on whether under the oppression of a dictator or under the pale of the American occupation. In either instance Americans and Iraqis die during the passage of each succeeding week. If a bomb blows off your arms it matters little to which side the ordinance belonged. The liberators are now subject to the same depleted uranium they used in their own weaponry. The weapons of mass destruction are our own. How many of the thousands of remaining troops will add their names to the thousands whose blood we left pooling in the desert?
There is a poignant loneliness to death in Pinter’s poems. Faulkner was right “…Christ was not crucified, he was worn away by a minute clicking of little wheels.” George Bernard Shaw was right. Death is not cumulative. There is only one death and it is our own.
The final poem of the collection is the only one not dated. In it he shows us our future — a bureaucratic voice makes formal inquiries of a deceased’s remains. From the first and last stanzas of Death —
Where was the dead body found?
Who found the dead body?
Was the dead body dead when found?
How was the dead body found?
Did you wash the dead body?
Did you close both its eyes?
Did you bury the body?
Did you leave it abandoned?
Did you kiss the dead body?
The final silence of “Did you kiss the dead body?” is the heartbreaking obverse of the angered irony of the earlier “kiss,” quoted above. When we remember that the first poem of the collection, Meeting, closes with, “They cry and they kiss / As they meet again / For the first and last time,” we hear the faint echo of Rilke. We remember Elegies that sought language where languages end. We sense that Pinter’s rage is book-ended by his humanity.
Those who do not condemn the atrocities wrought in their name are condemned in turn. Pinter’s outrage was the most humane voice to arise from the Iraqi Wars. These poems are an unsettling commentary on the American and British enterprise. Jeremiah knew that Babylon was at the gate. He knew Jerusalem would fall and his people would call him traitor. Victory, defeat, and a prophet’s silence — Pinter wrote Weather Forecast as the first bombs fell:
The day will get off to a cloudy start
It will be quite chilly
But as the day progresses
The sun will come out.
And the Afternoon will be dry and warm.
In the evening the moon will shine
And be quite bright.
There will be, it has to be said,
A brisk wind
But it will die out by midnight .
Nothing further will happen.
This is the last forecast.
19th March 2003
9 MURDERED IN OREGON, 130 MURDERED IN PARIS, 14 MURDERED IN CALIFORNIA
Change a few names and the story’s the same one–my rant was written after Sandy Hook–you will hug your children or your guns–the story’s the same one.
Brett Arends’ Article, which follows my rant, appeared on MSN’s Market Watch website the day after the Oregon Massacre.
THE YEAR OF THE GUN
I am upset. I am likely to be indelicate. I might even appear insensitive to the feelings of half of my fellow countrymen. This is likely a rant. Nonetheless I shall proceed. Continue reading Happiness Is a Warm Gun
The Book of Job is a play removed from the historical agenda of the Jews. Job is not a Jew but rather from the land of Uz. This device allows the author to address the caprices of God and not deprive himself of an audience, or (more to the point) engage one heavy with stones. The prologue acquaints us with Job’s piety, his assets and family. During a sacred oblation the scene shifts to Heaven. Satan drops by for a chat. God sets the plot in motion: “Hath thou considered my servant Job? For there is none like him on the Earth – a perfect and upright man.” Satan takes the bait. He suggests, Job appears saintly because God has put a protective hedge about him. God demurs but allows Satan to take his best shot: “Behold all that he hath is in thy power.” Life becomes more difficult for the unsuspecting Uzzite. Marauding Chaldeans slaughter most of his herds and herdsmen. Job is thankful for the shepherds and sheep that were spared. A fire falls from the sky consuming them each. He takes solace in his family. His sons are killed in the collapse of his brother’s house. Job is stoical: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb and naked shall I return thither: The Lord gave, and the Lord taketh away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Continue reading Pasteboard Masks
“Miracle Child Survives Plane Crash”
This and variations of the same were headlines early in the New Year of our collective consciousness. It was a feel-good story and a welcome antidote to the Syrian civil war’s displaced and dead, Isis be-headings and disappearing passenger jets–to name only a few of the receding year’s dismal news leads.
Even so, I am reminded of a movie moment from my childhood. The film was called “The Big Fishermen.” The anglers in question were soon to become fishers of men. At this juncture in the film the nascent disciples had survived a storm on the Sea of Galilee. One of the sailors (who had been fished out of the water by the burly, no nonsense John) was thanking God for his deliverance. John sagely averred: “You can thank God for the storm–you can thank me for saving your sorry ass!” That was a paraphrase and there have been those who have questioned my memory of at least a portion of the last line. Continue reading “Miracle Child”
Jesus, Joseph and Mary O’Hoolihan — the Figueroa Press has reissued A. J. Langguth’s Jesus Christs!
It has barrel-aged for thirty years and luxuriates the palette as a smoky peat of vapor rising from the crystal of its song. Had the Iceman a sacristy’s Chablis he’d raise a brimming cup to the author’s reverie. This is a novel to savor — saviors to savor! The Word made flesh and the flesh made words. Continue reading Jesus Christs