Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Three Obits: R.I.P.

I want to pay brief tribute to three musicians who have died at the end of this eventful year. The first to die, Odetta, is significant to me in that I saw her perform live at an Ann Arbor venue called Canterbury House (which I was surprised to learn is still in operation) in the late ‘Sixties. This was at the height of both the folk music craze and the civil rights movement. Odetta was significant to both. Canterbury House was important to me not only because I heard a lot of great music there in the ‘Sixties, but also because the minister who ran the place in those days performed my marriage ceremony in the University of Michigan campus chapel in 1969. Odetta sang this song the night I saw her perform.

The next to die was Freddie Hubbard. If you wanted to draw up a list of the top five jazz trumpeters of all time, Hubbard would have to be included. As I rank them you’d have: Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, and the fifth spot would be up for grabs. Lee Morgan? Miles Davis? Clifford Brown? Fats Navarro? Wynton Marsalis? I’m a Chet Baker fan. Over the years, Freddie Hubbard played with everybody. Here he is, playing with one of my favorite tenor sax men, Joe Henderson, and Herbie Hancock.

Finally, Delaney Bramlett. I don’t know that many people will know who he was. Even in the ‘Sixties, of which he was a figure who did not transcend the times, he wasn’t what you’d call a foreground figure. But he was big in the background. Here is Delaney, playing with his then wife, singer Bonnie, and some other guys… This is a nice clip. Give it a listen.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Reflections: Problems with Paradigms

The following little rant was born as a comment to a thread at Ragged Thots in which it was suggested that, while the GOP has been characterized as "the stupid party," the Democrats can be designated as "the evil party." Below, slightly enhanced, is my response:

Actually, as I have tried over time to point out, the GOP, as the incubator of "conservatism" and "free market" piracy, is a coalition of the stupid and the evil, with the evil pounding cadence for the slow. The primary characteristic of Democrats has been futility. They see occasional glimpses of where they need to go, but their attention span fails them. They become distracted like toddlers trying get from one side of a room full of toys to the other.

Our captialist System is built on greed and greed is a poison. Once it builds past a certain tolerance--a tolerance that nobody seems to be much interested in monitoring--the organs of that System begin to break down, to fail.

The Evil Ones say, "So what? I will still get mine." The stupid ones are assured that although they've made irresponsible mistakes up til now, if they just turn their pockets out, take the wise counsel of the Evil Ones, and from this point on do it right! everything will be hunky-dory again soon. The truth is, there is no way to "do it right" for any extended period of time, when the paradigm is built on scheming, lying, and the leveraging of power--all juiced by greed. Yet this is the Republican Way.

The Democrats, by contrast, occasionally show signs of an urge to grope and stumble, feebly, in another direction. But as I say, in the global Round Robin as it currently exists, you have three teams to choose from: Evil, Stupid, or Useless. With which do you identify?

Sign here, kid.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Quotes (within) Quotes du Jour

I have just now finished reading Lewis Hyde’s fascinating study, Trickster Makes This World. Before I put it aside as a blog topic, I’m going to post below a couple of quotes (with emphasis added) embedded within excerpts that I came across toward the end of the book.

The depth and breadth of Simone Weil’s investigations and understanding of the intellectual pursuit of objective Truth is such that it never surprises me to find her cited in any intellectual work, regardless of subject matter. Such is Trickster Makes This World. In a chapter on the rejuvenative effects of the trickster impulse on art, focusing on the French Dada and Surrealist artist, Marcel Duchamp, Hyde quotes Weil on contradiction:

Contradiction is a lever of transcendence,” Simone Weil once wrote, but that lever will not work unless accompanied by some oil to keep it loose, a fluid we call “humor,” the smile of early surrealism… [p.275]

The next excerpt, still focused on Duchamp and “contradiction’, is a bit longer and contains a quote from minimalist, Carl Andre:

Duchamp’s well-oiled contradiction…was a tool not simply for avoiding mundane consumer regret but for avoiding the regret of living a life derived from unexamined language, tradition, and habit. Individuals who never sense the contradictions of their cultural inheritance run the risk of becoming little more than host bodies for stale gestures, metaphors, and received ideas, all the stereotypic likes and dislikes by which cultures perpetuate themselves. As Carl Andre once said, “Culture is something that is done to us. Art is something we do to culture.” When the thing “done to us” ceases to satisfy and empower, it becomes a kind of parasite, an ichneumon fly depositing its eggs in the soft bodies of children learning to behave. Better, then, if one of those children can outwit the parasite; best if he turns out to be an artus-worker, a Hermes of the Hinge, whose mischief keeps the protective barriers surrounding cultural forms porous and open to change. [p.307]

Such is the antidote for the dread toxin that causes terminal Bleating Merinoitis.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Reflections: Steal This Post

Below are two more excerpts from Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World which I found to be particularly thought-provoking. Hyde’s topic here is the Greek god Hermes in his role as trickster, but also as mediator between the world of mortality and change and the Eternity above. I have inserted various bracketed keywords to flag contexts and/or analogies—perfect or imperfect, ancient or contemporary—that came to mind as I was reading:

"For a human community to make its world shapely [orthodox] is one thing; to preserve the shape is quite another, especially if, as is always the case, the shape is to some degree arbitrary [ideological, dogmatic, doctrinal] and if the shaping requires exclusion [xenophobia, sectarianism] and the excluded are hungry [ecumenically inclined]. So along with shapeliness comes a set of rules meant to preserve the design. “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not blaspheme. Do not gamble. Do not pick up things in the street. Behave yourself. You should be ashamed….” Whoever has the wit to break these rules, whoever puts the guards to sleep, slips across the threshold and floods the sacred meadows with contingency, whoever steals the boundary stones [between the Greco-Roman world and Israel] of clean distinction, that person strips design of its protective glamour. Hermes [Jesus] does all this and by it he disenchants the world into which he was born."

But wait—there’s a catch:

... "To have the lying [blaspheming], thieving [Sabbath violating] Hermes [Jesus] spring from Zeus’ loins is to figure Zeus as the ultimate author of hermetic inventions, as if Hermes had never really been an outsider…. To have Zeus [Yahweh] father Hermes [Jesus] is to claim that the changes he brings are a part of the eternal and not contingent, relative, or dependent on historical situations. It draws history back into myth.
XX"Such may be the frequent fate of radical change-agents, to be co-opted, outflanked, and contained by the larger culture [Rome, the Church, Madison Avenue], to be brought up short of a full apocalyptic reallotment. But what exactly are the options? A remark by Claude Lévi-Strauss offers a way to imagine the possible fates of those who threaten a group with fundamental change. Lévi-Strauss contrasts two types of societies: “those which practice cannibalism—that is, which regard the absorption of certain individuals possessing dangerous powers as the only means of neutralizing these powers [Eucharist] and even of turning them to advantage [Constantine]—and those which, like our own…adopt what might be called the practice of anthropemy (from the Greek emein, to vomit).” The latter eject dangerous individuals [Crucifixion]; they leave them in the woods [Gulag], or build special jails [Gitmo] to cut them off from the group and keep them isolated. In short, groups can either expel or ingest their troublemakers. The most successful change-agent avoids either fate and manages to stay on the threshold [Lenny Bruce, Ralph Nader, Bob Dylan, Ayn Rand], neither in nor out, but short of that difficult balance the next best fate may be to be eaten, to be incorporated into the local myth."

Maybe the concept of the internet "troll" needs to be given a second look?


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Readings: A Triptych


The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.

Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart's blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?

~ William Butler Yeats


On the domed ceiling God
is thinking:
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them,
But see what they do!
I know their hearts
and arguments:

"We're descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and rash alike must
come for water?"

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
She curls in a brown pod,
and inside her the mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.

~ Jane Kenyon


his costume is scarlet.
he rides the cold wind.
as he passes through the sky
he blots out the star.

his mask glows with neon
and tinsel.
behind it he laughs.
it is droll how we think him so jolly.

his sustenance--slave labor.
"something for nothing"
is his creed: how we listen with glee
as we macy and gimble one another to death.

his obese, slow thighs don't slow him,
for he rides in style, over our heads:
but always away from bethlehem.
oh no, w.b., it will be no sphinx.

~ Rodak (circa 1965)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Quote(s) du Jour

Below, without editorial comment, are a few pithy excerpts from Trickster Makes This World:

"More conservative minds deprive coincidence of meaning by treating it as background noise or garbage, but the shape-shifting mind pesters the distinction between accident and essence and remakes this world out of whatever happens. " [p.100]

" the economy of categories, whenever the value of accident changes, so, too, does the value of essence." [p.100]

"...accidents happen in time, essences reside in eternity." [p.100]

"In the thirteenth century, the prose Edda was a work of modern art that allowed the 'noise' of Christianity into its frame." [p.105]

Monday, December 22, 2008

Reflections: Truckin' and Scroogin'

Bah. Humbug. I was planning to put up a rant today about how little I am able to get into the Christmas spirit as chaos reigns and the situation careens from bad to worse--with the global economy spearheading the rush. But I have decided against it. I’ll save that for a New Year’s summary of some kind. For the time being, I will just keep on keepin’ on. You won’t, however, be seeing any faux yuletide cheer on Rodak Riffs this year.

Yesterday I started reading a book that I saw mentioned in an article about its author as a title has been widely read among a group of writers whom I admire, and consequently borrowed from the library: Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde.

Trickster is a mythological archetype that plays a role in the story-telling of virtually all polytheistic cultures from the dawn of time. In Greek mythology, for instance, that role is played by the god Hermes. In Native American culture, the trickster is variously called Coyote, or Raven. In some cultures trickster is a god, in others a wily animal, or a tiny human-like character; but in all he plays a similar role.

In his introduction to Trickster Makes This World, Hyde states his central thesis as being the idea that “the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on.” Hyde states that he will essay “to give some sense of how this can be, how social life can depend on treating antisocial characters as part of the sacred.” I find this to be an interesting concept to explore and Hyde’s many supporting examples from world folklore and myth are a delight to anyone interested in the contemplation of those things which are essentially and universally human.

Hyde quotes anthropologist Paul Radin, who provides the following characterization of trickster:

Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes and who is always duped himself…. He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social…yet through his actions all values come into being.

Bugs Bunny comes immediately to mind as a contemporary American trickster.

Trickster Makes This World was published in 1998. But working with Radin’s definition, Hyde makes the following observation on possible manifestations of trickster in the modern world which might well have been inspired by current events:

XX "In America, one likely candidate for the protagonist of a reborn trickster myth is the confidence man, especially as he appears in literature and film (most actual confidence men don’t have the range of imaginary ones, and come to sadder ends). Some have even argued that the confidence man is a covert American hero. We enjoy it when he comes to town, even if a few people get their bank accounts drained, because he embodies things that are actually true about America but cannot be openly declared (as, for example, the degree to which capitalism lets us steal from our neighbors, or the degree to which institutions like the stock market require the same kind of confidence that criminal con men need).
XX "If the confidence man is one of America’s unacknowledged founding fathers, then instead of saying that there are no modern tricksters one could argue the opposite: trickster is everywhere."

Did I hear somebody say “Enron”? Do de name “Bernard Madoff” ring a bell?

Yo! Merry Christmas, suckers!


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Readings: The New Paradigm

In the “Afterword” of her indispensable book, The Dark Side, Jane Mayer reiterates that the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld “new paradigm,” that fully sanctioned the use of torture and dispensed by fiat with both human decency and the rule of law, was not without its critics in both government and the military. She sums up the central message of her study thus:

XX “Instead of heeding this well-intentioned dissent, however, the Bush Administration invoked the fear flowing from the attacks on September 11 to institute a policy of deliberate cruelty that would have been unthinkable on September 10. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and a small handful of trusted advisers sought and obtained dubious legal opinions enabling them to circumvent American laws and traditions. In the name of protecting national security, the executive branch sanctioned coerced confessions, extrajudicial detention, and other violations of individuals’ liberties that had been prohibited since the country’s founding. They turned the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel into a political instrument, which they used to expand their own executive power at the expense of long-standing checks and balances. When warned that these policies were unlawful and counterproductive, they ignored the experts and made decisions outside of ordinary bureaucratic channels, and often outside of the public’s view. Rather than risking the possibility of congressional opposition, they classified vital interpretations of law as top secret. No one knows to this day how many more secret opinions the Bush Justice Department has produced. Far from tempering these policies over time, they marginalized and penalized those who challenged their idées fixes. Because the subject matter was shrouded in claims of national security, however, much of the internal dissent remained hidden.
XX “Throughout this period, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have continued to insist that they never authorized or condoned ‘torture,’ which they acknowledge is criminal under U.S. law. But their semantic parsing of the term began to seem increasingly disingenuous as details from the secret detention and interrogation program surfaced, piece by piece.” [emphasis added]

The above is a brief summary. Mayer provides skeptics with 22 pages of endnotes and a nine-page bibliography citing her sources. The details provided in the body of the text to support these conclusions should turn the stomach of any person of good will and outrage any true patriot. It is disheartening, to say the very least, that these horrors have evoked so very little opposition and dissent.

Consolidation of power in the executive is the primary ingredient of totalitarian government. Integration of that unchecked executive power with what departing President, Dwight D. Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex” is the establishment of a fascist system.

What have we become? Where are we going?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reflections: Hoodat Gonna Bust My Prez?

One does not need to read many more pages into Chapter 7 of The Dark Side to come to the sad realization of how impossible it would be to discuss what our government is doing in its execution of the “War on Terror” without breaking Godwin's Law. First, we are told (p.166) that the systematic torture protocols have been approved directly from the Oval Office:

Accurately or not, Bush Administration officials later described the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as the unauthorized actions of a few ill-trained personnel. By contrast, CIA officials have never denied that the treatment of the high-value detainees was expressly approved by President Bush.

We can’t even lay all the blame at the feet of Dick Cheney. But it is the unavoidable use of words like “mechanized” and “automated” and “systematic” (p.167) which inevitably invite analogies to the techniques employed by Nazi Germany:

The system, which grew to include many more than the top fourteen most prized prisoners, was remarkable for its mechanistic aura. “It’s one of the most sophisticated, refined programs of torture ever,” said an outside expert familiar with the protocol. “At every stage, there was a rigid attention to detail. Procedure was adhered to almost to the letter. There was top-down quality control and such a set routine, you get to the point where you know what each detainee is going to say because you’ve heard it all before. It was almost automated. People were utterly dehumanized. People fell apart. It was the intentional and systematic infliction of great pain, masquerading as a legal process. It was just chilling.”

These are war crimes. The United States has prosecuted and punished responsible authorities of defeated governments for precisely the same kind of torture and inhuman abuse now being perpetrated by Americans “Inside the Black Sites”.

Who will hold the President responsible for his crimes?

And who will see the less obvious, but slowly emerging, analogies between the crimes being committed against detainees in the War on Terror and the economic crimes being committed by the same ruling elite against American working people in the top-down Class War? The mechanism is to inflict pain until resistence is broken. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Readings: Weird Science

Chapter 7 of The Dark Side, Jane Mayer’s study of the growth of the American culture of torture and extra-legal imprisonment, is entitled “Inside the Black Sites”. The following excerpt, which is concerned with the CIA interrogation of al-Qaeda logistics chief Abu Zubayda, is revelatory of the degree of degradation to which our neocon masters have subjected the rule of law and human decency:

XX “AZ,” an informed source said of Zubayda, “was talking a lot.” The FBI agents believed they were getting “phenomenal” information. In a matter of days, a CIA team arrived and took over, freezing out the FBI. The apparent leader of the CIA team was a former military psychologist named James Mitchell, whom the intelligence agency had hired on a contract. Oddly, given the Agency’s own dearth of experience in the area of interrogating Islamic extremists, he had no background in the Middle East or in Islamic terrorism. He spoke no Arabic and he knew next to nothing about the Muslim religion. He was himself a devout Mormon. But others present said he seemed to think he had all the answers about how to deal with Zubayda. Mitchell announced that the suspect had to be treated “like a dog in a cage,” informed sources said. “He said it was like an experiment, when you apply electric shocks to a caged dog, after a while, he’s so diminished, he can’t resist.”
XX The FBI agents, with their traditions of working within the U.S. criminal legal framework, were appalled. They argued that Zubayda was not a dog, he was a human being.
XX Mitchell, according to the informed sources, retorted, “Science is science.”

Could Dr. Mengele have stated the issue any more clearly?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Reflections: X Happens

A regular part of my Saturday morning routine is going online to have a look at the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Don’t ask me why I don’t wait until Sunday to do this, because I have no answer to that sensible question. When I actually lived in New York City, rising early enough to get to the corner candy store and buy the Sunday Times before they were all gone was a must-do task, to be completed regardless of the weather or one’s state of health. So what was a Sunday ritual in New York has become a greatly modified Saturday habit in Ohio.

This past Saturday one of the features in the book section was “The Ten Best Books of 2008”—five fiction and five nonfiction. I hadn’t read any of them, although I remembered having read reviews of several. I had added one or two of them to my “to read at some future time” list.

This past Saturday was also the day of the monthly used book sale at the public library. I didn’t need any books (God knows), but I did need to gas my car; and getting out of the house for awhile seemed like a good plan as well. So off I went to the library.

When I emerged an hour or so later I had in hand one used book that I didn’t need (Deus lo Volt! by Evan S. Connell) and two of the “Top Ten” books from the Times list: 2666 by Roberto Bolano, and The Dark Side by Jane Mayer: one fiction, one nonfiction.

Back home, I started reading The Dark Side. I found the first five chapters to be unexciting. They provided a lot of detail on Cheney and his minions, their thinking, and how they influenced Bush’s decisions vis-à-vis the “War on Terror.” But I didn’t feel that I was learning anything new that wasn’t essentially trivial. Then I got to chapter 6, “Outsourcing Torture”. Sure, I knew about this too; but from this point on, the trivia ceased to be trivial. At least it was not trivial in the moral universe.

The horror begins with the story of a captive known as Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an alleged al-Qaeda commander, who was captured and turned over to the Americans by the Pakistanis. He was being interrogated by two FBI agents and the sessions were going well. But then: “Whatever the motive, several days into what the FBI regarded as winning al-Libi’s trust, a young Arabic speaking CIA officer named “Albert” ...burst into the cell where Fincher was questioning al-Libi and started shouting at the prisoner. “You’re going to Egypt!” he yelled. “And while you’re there, I’m going to find your mother, and fuck her!” It’s all down hill from there:

After the CIA took custody of al-Libi, the FBI lost track of him. There were rumors that he was rendered to Egypt, where he was being tortured. One memorable but unconfirmed detail that made the rounds was that he had been buried alive in the desert, with sand up to his neck. He was said to have lost his mind.

Al-Libi had been cooperating with the FBI, who had been treating him humanely. Al-Libi had a Syrian wife and was lobbying to get the wife and her family into the United States in exchange for information he was willing to provide, even though it resulted in his conviction. Then the CIA took over. My reading has slowed considerably at this point. I’m still stuck on chapter six. A quick glance at the coming attractions reveals that it only gets much worse.

Do you remember that post-9/11 equation that went (with numerous variables): if X, then the terrorists have already won? Well, yeah…

My question to anybody who is not horrified by our programs of rendition and torture is simply: Quo vadis?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Readings: Patriotic Panacea

As I may have previously mentioned, my local public library conducts a monthly book sale to raise funds. I have hauled more books back from those sales than I will ever have time to read; but it’s for a most worthy cause. I often find myself buying books that I read, and perhaps owned, thirty or forty years ago, but which have since passed out of my possession. I am reading such a book now: Them by Joyce Carol Oates.

As the novel begins, a sixteen year-old working-class girl named Loretta, who has dropped out of school to work, and is supporting her drunken father and keeping house for her hoodlum older brother, goes to a party, gets drunk, and brings her boyfriend home with her. She is awakened at dawn by the sound of a single gunshot. Her boyfriend is in the bed next to her, dead, with a hole in his head. She flees the apartment, half naked, and runs down to the street, frantic to decide her next move. Her thinking is typically American:

What she had to do, Loretta thought, was get a gun herself. Get a gun first. Then she could figure out what to do next. First she needed a gun, but to get the gun she needed money. Back in her room she had three dollars saved, which was nothing, and anyway she wasn’t going back up to that room. She would get a gun, she thought, and then she would be safe. It came to her that girls had their faces slashed for all kinds of small mistakes—she’d seen a woman running down the street once with the side of her face streaming blood. ...She thought I have to get a gun, and every part of her body strained forward at this certainty; focused on it. She could understand now why her brother had a gun. Everyone needed a gun; it was crazy not to have one. ...She could almost hear the words...a gun, a the air about her. Once she had a gun, then, then she could take care of herself.

Loretta was a strict constructionist and a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Readings: Homeless

I have finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s excellent novel, Home. I have returned it to the library—gotten it out of the house. It was, to me, a devastatingly sad book. It is hard to write about.

As in her previous novel, Gilead, of which Home is a sequel, various theological threads of Robinson’s Calvinist faith are woven throughout the plot. Of these Protestant doctrines, the question of Predestination figures largely in Home, as do the dynamics of sin vs. grace, justification vs. damnation, and knowledge vs. faith. These questions are largely examined through the tensions of the relationship of Jack Boughton, prodigal son and black sheep, and his moribund father, a retired Presbyterian preacher.

What one first notices in reading Home is Marilynne Robinson’s perfect ear. She knows how a young boy talks; how an old man on the brink of death talks; how a spinster English teacher, and how an American working-class woman in a rural setting talk. We recognize such types, as we have known them, in the words of Home.

The one character who stands out against this perfectly articulated backdrop is the novel’s deeply flawed, perpetually anguished, anti-hero, Jack. His speech is unique, non-typical, out of the ordinary.

Jack is a man with a troubled background, who has lived most of his adult life away from “home.” The mysteries of his past are revealed slowly, bit by bit, in his conversations with his younger sister, Glory, who has also returned home after a less than satisfactory fling at life-in-the-world to care for their aged father, a widower.

Jack is a study in alienation. He is a man who feels himself displaced in any setting. He is an idealist with high principles which he is repeatedly unable to enact; an essentially kind and serious man of learning who self-medicates with alcohol to kill the pain of his inability to be good. For Jack, there is no home.

The last thing we see of Jack in the novel is this:

She went to the porch to watch him walk away down the road. He was too thin and his clothes were weary, weary. There was nothing of youth about him, only the transient vigor of a man acting on a decision he refused to reconsider or regret. No, there might have been some remnant of the old aplomb. Who would bother to be kind to him? A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face. Ah, Jack.

Some of us are, perhaps, unfortunate enough in our own lives also to recognize—even to know—Jack.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Quote du Jour: Class War

Proof that not all Gen-Xers are reactionary:

What we have been living since Reagan is a policy of liberating the forces of greed. I don't think the project has actually been the development of the world and the elimination of poverty. I think this has been a class war waged by the rich against the poor, I think that they won, and I think the poor are fighting back.

The larger context may be found here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Readings: That Small, Quiet Voice

The final piece in the excellent book, Bright Unequivocal Eye, is an essay entitled “Sweetness Preserved” by poet and novelist Wendell Berry. Berry expresses so beautifully what it is that I love about Jane Kenyon’s poetry, and those rare personal qualities possessed by Jane Kenyon that glow behind her words, that I am going to post a long excerpt from that essay here, without additional commentary. Berry says it all.

Berry’s relationship to Kenyon’s husband Donald Hall was established long before he met Jane Kenyon, as he discusses here:

Now the requirement of honesty is going to embarrass me a little, for I have to confess that I didn’t read anything by Jane for a long time after I met her. For one reason, I felt a certain complicated sympathy for her—a poet who had set up shop smack in the middle of another poet’s subject. The other poet’s claim to this subject was well established; the other poet was her husband. It was easy to wish that she might have been, say, a painter. Another reason was that I liked her, and if she was a bad poet I did not want to know.

Berry continues:

… Finally, late in the day [at a poetry reading in Ann Arbor, January 1986, featuring Donald Hall, Seamus Heaney, and Galway Kinnell, but not Jane Kenyon] somebody…said, “Jane, why don’t you read us a poem?” …And then that quiet woman read beautifully her poem “Twilight: After Haying”:

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
reluctant to leave the field,
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed—
XXXXXWhip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will
--sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen…the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses…

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.

I hope I have adequately prepared you to imagine my relief.

…here was a poet present in her work with an authority virtually absolute.

…all her gifts are in it: her quietness, gentleness, compassion, elegance, and clarity, her awareness of mystery, her almost severe good sense. This poem, like just about every one of her poems, is unconditional; it is poetry without qualification. It has no irony, no cynicism, no self-conscious reference to literary history, no anxiety about its place in literary history, no glance at the reader, no anticipation of the critic, no sensationalism, no self-apology or self-indulgence.

… When I read a disparagement of the book Otherwise in The Hudson Review, I was offended, but also puzzled. How could anybody able to read fail to see the quality of that book? But after a while, I believe, I figured it out. Jane Kenyon’s work, in fact, makes an unnegotiable demand upon a reader. It doesn’t demand great intellect or learning or even sympathy; it demands quiet. It demands that in this age of political, economic, educational, and recreational pandemonium, and a concomitant rattling in the literary world, one must somehow become quiet enough to listen. [emphasis added]