Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Readings: Kurt Vonnegut's Deadeye Dick

Just now, I read the last page of Kurt Vonnegut’s strange and depressing novel, Deadeye Dick. The characters are all very real, in that not one of them has at his or her core any essentially redeeming quality. Unless, that is, one is able to see a futile and ephemeral existence, in itself, as a redeeming quality. This morning, anyway, I cannot.

I characterize the novel as depressing largely because I recognize myself in it. I am depressing—to me anyway. I noted a couple of passages from the novel which illustrate what I’m talking about here:

p. 208  We all see our lives as stories, it seems to me, and I am convinced that psychologists and sociologists and historians and so on would find it useful to acknowledge that. If a person survives an ordinary span of sixty years or more, there is every chance that his or her life as a shapely story has ended, and all that remains to be experienced is epilogue. Life is not over, but the story is.


p. 209  This could be true of nations, too. Nations might think of themselves as stories, and the stories end, but life goes on. Maybe my own country’s life as a story ended after the Second World War, when it was the richest and most powerful nation on earth, when it was going to ensure peace and justice everywhere, since it alone had the atom bomb.

Deadeye Dick was published in 1982.  And, like Vonnegut’s earlier novels, it treats of shadowy evils that give rise to various national paranoias, which, seemingly, only small clusters of Americans seem to notice or fret about at any given time.

A plot element in Deadeye Dick is that the narrator’s hometown is mysteriously destroyed by a neutron bomb. The official story is that this was an accident that occurred when a bomb being trucked from some unknown Point A to an unnamed Point B was somehow triggered as it passed through the fictional Midland City, Ohio.

This official version of the total destruction of the citizens of Midland City is accepted as gospel by almost everybody. There is a small organization of activist farmers from Southwestern Ohio, who aren’t buying the government’s explanation of the tragedy. This group is passing out leaflets near the perimeter of the blast zone, the gist of the message of which is: 

p. 231  …that the United States of America was now ruled, evidently, by a small clique of power brokers who believed that most Americans were so boring and ungifted and small time that they could be slain by the tens of thousands without inspiring any long-term regrets on the part of anyone.

And there you have Vonnegut’s prescient description of the paranoiac musings of the “Truthers” with regard to the destruction of the World Trade Center and the lives of several thousand Americans working in the buildings that fell.

And there is more: Midland City, the buildings of which are all still standing, for that is how the neutron bomb is designed to work, is now surrounded by barbed wire, mine fields, and fences—a stockade patrolled by the military and off-limits to all citizens, unless accompanied by soldiers. The rumor is that the city will be used as a dwelling place for refugees from Haiti and other such depressed nations. One of the pamphlet-distributing farmers expresses this opinion:

p. 233-234   “They aim to bring slavery back… They never gave up on it… These slaves aren’t going to be Americans. They’re going to come by the boatload from Haiti and Jamaica and places like that… Do you honestly believe that fence is ever coming down?”

These passages immediately brought to my mind currently circulating speculations about the fenced and very hush-hush “FEMA Camps” supposedly being constructed across the U.S.  What also comes to mind is the very obvious militarization of the municipal police forces (think Watertown, MA during the dragnet following the Boston Marathon incident) and the huge amounts of ammunition being bought up by federal authorities, but not being sent to the war zones.

The farmer, when questioned about just who these people are, says that they have no name:

“They don’t want us to know their name, so they don’t have a name. You can’t fight back against something that don’t have a name.”

And so it goes.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Reflections: On the Execution of a Poet

Aliki Barnstone has brought to the attention of her Facebook friends the execution in Iran of poet and activist Hashem Shabbani. Among several posts shared by Aliki is this one.

Also shared by Aliki is a prison letter smuggled out through friends of Shabbani, appealing for help from the international community; help which did not prevail. I now use the following excerpt from that prison letter to preface an older poem that I wrote about our society, some twenty years ago:

“I have tried to remove all the obstacles that divide the street (the public eye) from the truth and make it to live in illusion that formulated by the tyrants to design a life according to their will.”


To glimpse one briefly in the flesh
is an occasion,
a topic
for suppertime conversation,
a chance for the limelight
at the pub.
Prolonged exposure, though, might blind,
could well derange a
vulgar mind
with spiteful dreams,
resentments, green
prerequisites to homicide

and crime.  So they have their hired guns,
high-voltage walls and
vicious dogs,
to buffer piqued humanity—
orchestrate nightly
on TV
(boxed high behind the one-way glass)
their coliseum
passion plays
of man and beast,
of dust and blood—
eyes strain to glimpse their fateful thumbs.

Note: this poem is constructed using a format with which I was experimenting at the time, based on linear syllable counts in repeated patterns.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Rodak's Writings: Boundary Violation

Note: the following poem has been extensively revised from an earlier version, entitled "Down By the River."  The bulk of the revisions were suggested by my Facebook friend, poet and scholar, Aliki Barnstone, who generously took the time to read and make editorial suggestions which she felt would tighten up the piece. I am pleased with the result:

Boundary Violation

I was six, maybe seven,
headed across the broad lawn
beyond the parking lot
from where my father’s sedan
stood witness to my transgression;
the Midwestern morning sun
reflected disapprovingly
from its bisected early post-war windshield.

I stood for a moment on the brink
with its long prospect over the valley,
gazing across to the green hills beyond.
Snug within whose leafy mounds
a lone house gleamed, tiny, white,
nestled deep in mysterious distance.

And then down the long, eroded slope
within whose grainy, rain-riven fissures
could be found fossils, shaken like crumbs
from the bounteous folds of the river’s apron,
more wonderful even than a grandfather’s
gratuitously proffered coin:
the mineralized ghosts of trilobites,
which had waited, dormant in their three dimensions,
beneath these sandy sediments since dinosaurs had grazed,
to be found only now, and held in the palm of my hand.

And at the foot of the slope, a grassless waste,
the sun-baked and redolent plain
adjacent to the university’s landfill,
edged in green, where stood a tangled copse of sumac
with its maroon-colored, lop-headed fruits.

I knew that I mustn’t go down there alone.
There were men who lurked,
who did ‘funny things’ to little boys.
I might lose my way and anxiously wander,
lost and alone in the witchy woods.
I might fall in and be swept downstream
as winter snows are swept away
by the swift campaigns of relentless spring.
I might break my mother’s heart.

The river called, its flavor on the air,
a redolent voice that whispered,
‘Come and see.’
So, through the tangled scruff of brush
that scratched my arms, I fought my way.
And there it was: brown and green and
thick with motion; the channeled mirror
of an awful sky; lazy as a minor god
with no celestial task.

I would have gagged, had I then knowledge
of the source of the stench that engulfed and assailed me.
I suddenly entered an olfactory place,
as into the tent of some hideous sideshow;
a smell that was darkness, that rang like a claxon,
that called out a warning…

By the bank, slowly bobbing, lifted, then dropped,
as if rhythmically forced by the spirit of the river;
black fur soaked in a scum of green algae;
Oh, horrible—a head, with holes full of maggots,
teeming and boiling where eyes had been, feeding;
open muzzle, teeth bared, now long beyond biting.

It’s a dog, I admitted. I had to admit that:
a dog in the river. Or, what had been a dog.
Behind the crooned consolations
of priests and morticians; regardless
of philosophy’s water-tight propositions,
or clinical psychology’s most revered rationales,
still the dog’s story stood as stark fact and portent:

the tale told by that dog, down by the river,
the story that was told there was mine.

It was mine.

Note: the original poem is available for comparison in the left sidebar.