Saturday, December 31, 2016

Poet Kevin Gallagher: Poet of the Loom and the Lash

Poet Kevin Gallagher: Poet of the Loom and the Lash

with Doug Holder

LOOM is concerned with the history of our divided country, a violent division preceding civil war and by now embedded in our cultural landscape. The non-sentimental poems are cool, clear and literal. They are narrated by white Americans who position themselves in relation to “slave power” and cotton as “lords of the loom” and “lords of the lash”. Boston is central to the story, and the cities of Lawrence and Lowell. It’s a valuable collection, as it puts the focus back on the white male where the distortion of vision begins and is occasionally resolved.
Fanny Howe, winner of the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize and National Book Award Finalist

I spoke with Kevin Gallagher about his new book of poetry “Loom” on my Somerville Community Access TV show “ Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.” Kevin who has roots in Somerville, Mass., was a founding editor of COMPOST magazine, and currently publishes spoKe magazine. He is a professor of Global Development at Boston University.

Doug Holder: Were you spurred on by the context of the times, Black Lives Matter, etc... to write these poems?

KG: Yeah. 100%. But I didn't want to rage about it directly. I didn't want to resort to sloganeering. I was really inspired by the writings of Charles Olsen, Seamus Heaney and others. They were confronted with different issues—but they didn't want to go at it directly—so they went to history. I thought this was the best way was to write about Boston merchants, and industrialists, and how they helped to empower slavery.

DH: I was reading a review of a new collection of letters of T.S. Eliot. Eliot commented about “Boston Society.” He basically wrote that Boston society was very insular—they cared about their own—not others. It seems that in your book the abolitionist North was really interested in cash by cotton to increase their own coffers...the immorality of slave labor be damned.

KG: Charles Sumner branded the North as upholding the unholy alliance between the Boston mercantile class and the Southern cotton interests. Guys like Francis Cabot Lowell, and others of “society” were culprits in slave labor. Their insatiable need for cotton kept slavery going.

DH: But Amos A. Lawrence, a textile manufacturer, had an epiphany—didn't he?

KG: It happened when he witnessed the plight of Anthony Burn—a slave. Burns was from Virginia-- and escaped to the North. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, if a Southern slave owner, etc... captured him—they could bring him back. Burns was captured—abolitionists stood outside the courthouse in Boston demanding his release. They even killed an Irish cop Ultimately they failed and Burns was marched through the streets of Boston by the Southern Cavalry -- back to slavery and the South. Amos A. Lawrence wrote that was the moment he decided he would become a dyed -in- the- wool abolitionist. One of my poems was inspired by this. I used many journals and letters from folks who were involved in all this .I really tried to get inside people's heads.

DH: Where did you get the subtitle “ Lords of the Lash and the Loom?”

KG: Of course Charles Sumner dubbed this unholy alliance between the gentry in the South and North, as such.

Dh; Did Francis Cabot Lowell steal the plans for the Power Loom from the British?

KG: Yes-- this Lowell—related to Amy Lowell, and Robert Lowell—was tarnished forever by his theft. It seems that Lowell was importing textiles from the U.K. but he realized he could make more money if he had the Power Loom in New England. He memorized the plans to the Loom-- much to the chagrin of the British who gave him a look at the new machine, when he was visiting there. Paul Moody ( Moody St. in Waltham is named after him) set up the original factory in Waltham—he recreated the Power Loom.

DH: You were a founding editor of COMPOST magazine in the early 90s. Now you edit s spoKe magazine. How did this new venture come about?

KG: Well I wanted to do another magazine. I was doing editing for the online magazine JACKET—so I kept in the thick of things. I have great resources at Boston University where I teach. I had a lot of help from students from Christopher Rick's Editorial Institute, and elsewher. The theme of sPoKe is much like COMPOST. It is an American-based international magazine. We have a wide variety of local poets, ancient Chinese poetry, etc... Ben Mazer is going to doing a translation of new Romanian poets in the next issue.

The Blood of ’76

Amos A. Lawrence, 1854

Three years ago I offered my support
to protect U.S. Marshals from the mob.

This time I prefer to see the court
razed than see this man’s newfound freedom robbed.

They marched him down State Street in procession.
Cavalry, artillery, and cannon.

U.S. troops before him and behind him.
He held his head up and marched like a man.

The windows on houses were filled with faces,
though the streets and alleys had all been cleared.

We thought Boston the safest of places,
that here freedom could never disappear.

We cannot stand that this was not a crime.
I have to tell you that it is high time.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Sunday Poet: Bridget Galway

Bridget Galway

Bridget Seley- Galway is an artist/poet. Her art has graced several covers of Ibbetson Press, and Bagels with the Bards, as well as Doug Holder’s, “Eating Grief at 3AM”, and Molly Lynn Watts', “On the Wings of Song- A Journey into the Civil Rights Era.” Her poetry was published from 2001-2002 in Provincetown Magazine’s Poetry Corner, 2011-12 Popt Art Magazine, 2009-2014, 2009-2016, Bagel with the Bards, Ibbetson Press #34, 39, and in 2016 Poetry Porch online poetry journal. Her art has been exhibited throughout New England. She was arts editor/curator for Wilderness House Literary Review 2009-2012. In 1990 she co-founded/ directed El Arco Iris, free youth arts center in Holyoke, and in 2014 procured funding to established and facilitated Youth Arts Arise, a free after school program at Arts at the Armory in Somerville. Ma.


New York Tompkins Square 1980  

He disappears between worn out buildings,
Where darken corners supply a needles relief.
He wears me from this moment to a knot.

In my usual taciturn,
Benched under the grand Oak Tree.
Again I feel its reproach,
Rising up from its roots.
Once it was valued for its beauty.
Now it shades the broken and wretched,
Garbage tossed and blown.

And I,  
Still innocent
Molded from this familiar circumstance of
Loving a poet whose damage comes first.

This is the slipknot of my childhood:
A frayed strand woven by hip conversations,
About books and revolution.     

 The brilliant guided me.
 Some drunks and junkies,
Tolerated and adored.
 I harbored by their words,
Tossed and turned in their shifting currents,
 Loss and gain,
  Loss and gain,
 A constant anticipation of better

Scathed again in the waiting. 
 He emerges,
 Moves towards me
In slow stride,
 This lion to his den,
 Pulls me to him,
 Dips me into a kiss.

 I am collected,
As the flower
Archived in a glass paperweight
 That settles on his words.

 He says
     He says 
        He says

You know Geeta,
These are great old buildings.
if I just had some money,
I could get a nice space,
Make it fine and write.”

  And I
 Scribble in my notebook over unfinished poems,
 Advertised phone numbers
Renting Option to Buy”

  In this want I am
Adopted undone!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Gifts from Samarkand By Ed Meek : Review of Twenty-One Ghazals translated by Dennis Daly


Gifts from Samarkand
By Ed Meek

Twenty-One Ghazals by Alisher Navoiy
Translated from Uzbek by Dennis Daly
Cervena Barva Press. $18.00

Poet and translator Dennis Daly combines beautiful middle-eastern illustrations with twenty-one ghazals from a well-known Afghani poet of the 15th century, Alisher Navoiy. Navoiy wrote when the Timurid Empire, begun by Tamerlane, was in control of central Asia including Iran, Afghanistan, India, Southern Russia, and Mesopotamia. Like Chaucer, he is known for combining formal and informal language, in this case, Persian and local dialect. Ghazals are written in metered couplets with refrains; they focus on romance and unrequited love.

For a couple of thousand years, people turned to poetry to express their love. Today, love and romance are areas that still seem to fascinate us. Despite the lamentations of the young that romance has died, we seem to long for it more than ever. Today popular music, movies and television, and Hallmark cards are where people usually find their romance fix, yet poetry remains the best vehicle for the expression of ineffable emotions.

Combining the poems with the images of 15th Century illustrations adds to the reading of Navoiy’s poetry. Navoiy included illustrations in his original books, perhaps because poetry has a close affinity with painting. Take this line: “Sunsets sear across the sky, touch the earth with fire.”

In many ways, poetry is closer to painting and photography than to other written forms with its emphasis on imagery and metaphor. At the same time, ghazals have a post-modern element to them. At the end of each poem, the writer brings himself in. “Navoiy, Navoiy, pour out a glass of wine./The sadness of lovers fill up the night.” As for unrequited love: “Isolation robs me of all true happiness.” Therefore, Navoiy advises us: “Take this lesson, avoid the cruelty of love.” Yet he won’t take his own advice. “But in the feast of life, we intone love’s joys.”

Put Twenty-One Ghazals on your list of books to buy this year, or order a copy as a romantic gift for the love, or unrequited love, in your life.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Interview with Poet Martha Collins: Author of “Admit One...” a lyrical exploration of scientific racism

Martha Collins

Interview with Poet Martha Collins: Author of “Admit One...” a lyrical exploration of scientific racism

With Doug Holder.

Martha Collins is the author, most recently, of Admit One: An American Scrapbook (Pittsburgh, 2016), Day Unto Day (Milkweed, 2014), White Papers (Pitt Poetry Series, 2012), and Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006), a book-length poem based on a lynching her father witnessed when he was five years old. Collins has also published four earlier collections of poems, three books of co-translations from the Vietnamese, and two chapbooks . I spoke with Martha Collins on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer” about her new poetry collection “Admit One...” that deals with the scientific racism of the early twentieth century, including the Eugenics Movement.

Doug Holder: You use as your starting point the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. Why?

Martha Collins: Because it was the starting point. (Laugh) I was thinking of it because it was a family story. My mother's mother went to it when she was pregnant with my mother. My mom talked about it—although not from direct experience. I knew about the story for years. I heard about how the fair illuminated for its audience the wonderful scientific progress that was made at that time—the fake marble palaces, the splendor of it—but I also heard about the human exhibits. There were over 3,000 humans who were exhibited—Native Americans, Filipinos, Japanese, backwater African tribes, on display in their natural habitat. The “civilized” people could view them at a safe remove.

DH: Define scientific racism.

MC: It is a distortion of Darwinism. It became an even greater distortion as things moved to the Eugenics Movement. It is the belief that we (“civilized people”) evolved, and we are quite different  (or superior) to primitive people, and it was “our” responsibility to foster the most “fit” human beings, and let the others not survive.

DH: This sounds like Nazi Germany.

MC: The interactions of Nazis and Eugenicist were many. Madison Grant was a major figure in this movement, with his book “ The Passing of the Great Race.” Hitler owned the book and claimed it was his bible. The Eugenics Movement was very popular at the time of the World Fair. Eugenics courses were taught at over 300 colleges. People from the North-- Nordic countries were considered the best of the white race, all others were inferior. There was a huge amount of anti-immigration sentiment, advocacy for the sterilization of “unfit” people, etc...

DH: Poet Kevin Gallagher—the author of the poetry collection—Loom--wrote about how the Boston elite—empowered slavery for their piece of the cotton trade. He told me he did a lot of research. A lot was from primary sources. Your poetry collection “Blue Front”dealt with the plight of the black man. How much research did you do?

MC: In “Blue Front” research became essential. This book was spurred on by my late father who witnessed a lynching. I had to do a lot of documentary work. I used the internet—and many other sources.

DH: Do you feel that “ Admit One..” is even more important in the context of our times?

MC: I believe we have to understand our history, so we won't repeat it. We need to remember.

Alien, Part Three

Then Madison Grant met with Congressman Albert Johnson
again to devise a formula for the 1924 Immigration Act,

which was based on the earlier census of 1890 (when there
were fewer immigrants from eastern and southern Europe),

thus reducing to 12% the influx of Jews, Italians, etc., from
a pre-World War annual million to (as it turned out) 20,000.

Seven eugenicists testified, including Harry Laughlin,
who in 200 pages of testimony cited analyzed Army IQ tests

with Nordics on top, Jews on the bottom, and said the formula
would favor Nordics over non-essential members of the community.
Grant, too ill to testify, wrote that the scientific and just formula
would keep out lower types who could displace native Americans
and wrote an article targeting immigrants as criminal     insane
while the Saturday Evening Post and NY Times argued for passage.

Suddenly, said an opposing congressman, a new word made its way
into the English language—Nordic, Nordic—everywhere you turned.

But the Eugenicists lobbied congress members, bombarding
them with letters    telegrams    telephone calls    —and after a long

debate on a clause excluding the Japanese (which led a Japanese
publicist to predict eventual collision on the Pacific), the bill passed.

-- From  Admit One /Martha Collins

Somerville Poet Bert Stern to Receive the Ibbetson Street Press Lifetime Achievement Award in April 2017.

Poet Bert Stern

Somerville poet Bert Stern has been selected to be the next recipient of the Ibbetson Street Press Lifetime Achievement Award. The award has been presented to such literary figures as Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart, Afaa Michael Weaver, Harris Gardner , Gloria Mindock, Robert K. Johnson, Louisa Solano, David Godine, Sam Cornish, Jack Powers, to name a few... The award will be presented during Poetry Month at a meeting of the Somerville Bagel Bards at the Au Bon Pain in Davis Square.

Born in Buffalo in 1930, Bert Stern is Milligan Professor of English Emeritus at Wabash College  He taught at the University of Thessaloniki from 1965-67 as Fulbright Professor of English and at Peking University as an exchange professor in 1984-5.  Stern published a pioneer study of Wallace Stevens in 1965 (Wallace Stevens, Art of Uncertainty, University of Michigan).   He has published two poetry collections, ISilk & the Ragpicker’s Grandson (Red Dust, NYC, 1998) and Steerage  Ibbetson Street, Somerville, MA, 2008).   His essays and poems have appeared in journals including Southern Review, Columbia Teacher’s College Record, Sewanee Review, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, and more than a dozen anthologies.  Stern co-founded and co-edited Off the Grid Press.  Now retired, he continues to serve as advisor.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Poetry Matters, A Collection of Essays. R. Ritzema, Ed.

Poetry Matters, A Collection of Essays. R. Ritzema, Ed. Presa Press. 110 pages.
ISBN 978-0-9965026-3-413.95. April 2017

Can We Talk About Poetry?

By Ed Meek

Does poetry matter? Apparently some people don’t think so. Others do.  The New York Times did a “Room for Debate” a couple of years ago asking this question of seven poets who each, in a couple of paragraphs, answer in the affirmative. There was an influential essay that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly way back in 1991 called “Can Poetry Matter?” In it, Dana Gioia discussed the way that poetry had, on the one hand, developed through burgeoning MFA programs and published books, but on the other hand, wasn’t really read by most of us. So this is a question that has been around for a while. Robert Pinsky made an attempt to confront this issue with the “Favorite Poem Project” when he was Poet Laureate of the U.S. He traveled around the country recording ordinary Americans reading and reciting their favorite poems. Although this seemed like a good idea to promote poetry, listening to ordinary Americans recite favorite poems was not exactly inspiring.

For about thirty years I taught English. I taught in colleges and in high schools. At the college level, the number of English majors kept shrinking over those years. Luckily, we discovered that students still needed to learn how to write so we focused on Composition. Now pretty much everyone has to take Composition. Poetry is optional. Yet Creative Writing as an elective remains popular and MFA Programs are growing and thriving.

Teaching high school I was surprised to learn that a number of my colleagues didn’t teach poetry or creative writing. There were state tests to prepare for. “What do you do with poetry, anyway?” one colleague complained. Getting students to read and analyze poetry isn’t easy, but in my experience they love writing it. Maybe this is partly due to their somewhat misguided impression that it is just a way to express your emotions and no can criticize the way you feel. But there has also developed over the past thirty or so years a respect for rhymes and raps and spoken word—an appreciation of wordsmiths. Students, it turns out, enjoy wordplay, clever turns of phrase and heartfelt expression. So poetry does apparently matter.

Roseanne Ritzema, publisher and editor of Presa Press seems to think so. She has put together a collection of essays called Poetry Matters.  It’s a slim volume of thirteen essays by half a dozen poets and publishers of independent poetry. In Poetry Matters, the essays are by Hugh Fox, John Amen, Erix Greinke, Harry Smith, Kirby Congdon and Richard Kostelanetz.  These are not formal essays. They are more like conversations with the reader about what poetry is, what elements it must contain, the role poetry plays. There has existed, for as long as higher education has been around, a division in poetry and probably in other arts as well between academics and those outside of academia. Being on the inside has numerous advantages for writers in terms of publication, reviews and of course, making a living teaching writing. But what happens when we have hundreds of MFA programs? Schools of poetry are developed and that results in poetry being aimed at a rather narrow audience that speaks a certain insider language. When these academic poets become poetry editors, poetry becomes incestuous. Anyone who submits poetry to magazines will see some variation of the following in most guidelines for submission. “Read our magazine so you’ll know what we like before submitting.” The implication is: don’t send us anything original! The problem can be seen and heard in how readers respond to the poems that regularly appear in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Poetry Magazine. They seldom understand them and they don’t often like them.

The poets and publishers in Poetry Matters understand this division. They are writing from the outside. They identify with poets like Whitman, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Bly, Lifshin and, although they don’t mention her, Eileen Myles.  They want the gatekeepers on the inside to open the gates. The best essay in the anthology is by John Amen, the Vice-President of New York Quarterly, the editor of Pedestal Magazine and an established poet and editor. Amen says, “What keeps me engaged in the editorial process…is encountering an example of unconsidered excellence.” As writers, this is all we can hope for in an editor. Poet and publisher Eric Greinke argues for a poetic community that is more inclusive. “If poetry is the highest form of art, as Plato stated, then why aren’t our poets sanctioned with the same artistic freedom as the presumably lower arts.” In other words, if Picasso can experiment with so many different forms and styles, why can’t poets? In “Eight Attributes of Poetry” Harry Smith, poet publisher and literary activist, attempt a definition of poetry by elucidating what he sees as its elements: symbolism, metaphor, prophecy, music, play, experience, emotion and design.” Frost, of course, claimed poetry must move from “delight to wisdom” but wisdom seems in short supply today. Poetry can also be thought of as a mix of metaphor, music and meaning. The best poets, to my way of thinking, combine all three.

 In a recent interview in The Paris Review, Ben Lerner talks about a problem he sees as endemic to poetry.

The main demand associated with lyric poetry is that an individual poet can or must produce both a song that’s irreducibly individual—it’s the expression of their specific humanity, because it’s this intense, internal experience—and that is also shareable by everyone, because it can be intelligible to all social persons, so it can unite a community in its difference. And that demand… is impossible.

Well, it wasn’t impossible for Yeats or Frost or Whitman, but it does seem more difficult today.

Still, when a loved one dies or when we are confronted by momentous events like the recent election, people reach for poems. My friend Steve Wood called me up to talk the day after the election and he started off referring to “The Second Coming.” “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  I mentioned Auden’s line: “We must love one another or die.” For poetry to matter, it must be able to fulfill those kinds of needs. There must be great poems we can reach for when we want to respond to death or to calamity or change.  It’s obvious that journalism and our media cannot play that role. Social media, addictive as it may be, leaves us unfulfilled.

If you write poetry it is a pleasure to read writing about poetry by other people who love poetry. You might not always be on the same page with them but hearing their point of view is still a pleasure.  Apparently, poetry does still matter. I do wish it were a little more significant and that it mattered a little more.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Saturday, December 24, 2016

On Broad Sound: Poems by Rusty Barnes

On Broad Sound: Poems by Rusty Barnes. ( Nixes Mate Books)

Review by Doug Holder

I have read a lot of Revere-inspired writing from the likes of poets Kevin Carey, Jennifer Martelli, the novelist Roland Merullo and such. Revere Beach, Mass. is no Provincetown. It does not have artists and poets living in close proximity, it lacks the unhindered night sky and sunsets, and the ripple of wind-swept sand on pristine beaches. Revere is sort of the ne'er-do-well cousin. Even in spite of gentrification it is still the home of dive bars, old world Italian bakeries, unapologetic greasy spoons, drug dealers, immigrants, nocturnal, preening young men on the make on the boulevard, and the bronze old men offering  their torsos under a baking, summer sun.

I always tell my Creative Writing students at Endicott College to populate their poetry with a lot of “things” and the “ideas” will flow from this. And in Rusty Barnes new collection of poetry, ”On Broad Sound” there is no shortage of “things” and these “things” make so much more than a generic, down-at-the heels seaside city.

In the poem “The Shipwrecked Bar” Barnes populates the poem with telling trappings that shed some light on the patrons of this dive, and their hardscrabble life. Especially arresting is a “draped-eyed girl” who leaves the bar alone to the walk the beach and perhaps seek her form of transcendence from her sorry life,

“and it's all about the draped-eyed girl
leaving the bar alone and walking
on the beach searching for stray kelp,
seeing a stray mutt,
and finding some toy she left behind,
or something burning in the night mist,
something only she can know about,
something the world doesn't want her to have."

Although he hails from the hinterlands of Appalachia, Barnes is a consummate urban poet. One of his poems is situated on the Blue Line, where “an old man asleep nearly topples in place,” and “the Latina lovelies exit/ the train/in high heels and tight jeans...” Barnes, not afraid to show his self- loathing continues, “ and I feel like a horny fool for noticing them, /not much older than my daughter, I immediately curse myself sad... afraid that, like my urges, someday/it will have its way: swallow me whole.”

I was also touched by his poem about the late poet John Wieners 'The Poet John Wieners.” I met Wieners a few times shortly before he collapsed in front of Mass. General Hospital, never to be revived. He looked like the vaudevillian Professor Irwin Corey—a shambles of a man, wild hair-- newspapers springing out from the pockets of his threadbare blazer. As a budding poet, Barnes noticed him at the Harvard Gardens Restaurant reciting poetry and just took him for another crazy stumble-bum reading drunken verse. But years after the fact he realized how callow his judgment actually was...and in Weiners he finds a true poet.

Barnes is a poet who knows solitude, loneliness, and the joy and ache of love. He is enamored with food, a pleasure and a weakness—and knows how food can define the texture of our lives. This is a book to read on a subway, in a hash house, on a bench overlooking the ocean at Revere Beach—simply put—it is a book to be savored and read.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Said Not Said by Fred Marchant

Review by Doug Holder

Said Not Said by Fred Marchant (GRAYWOLF PRESS 2017)—Release Date:  May 2, 2017

Fred Marchant, the author of the poetry collections, “The Looking House” and “Full Moon Boat” among other titles, has released a new collection “Said Not Said” from the Graywolf Press. As the title asserts “Said Not Said”—much is said in this life, but there is even more unsaid—so much subtext, so much nuance, so much subtlety, but Marchant does his part to the fill the void with his new book of evocative verse.

Since I have worked at McLean Hospital for over 34 years, and struggled with the “black dogs” of depression myself-- I was drawn to the poems of Marchant’s late sister— a woman who suffered from mental illness. In his poem “The Unacceptable,” Marchant focuses on her strange cough, and how something as banal as this spurt of air, can signal the turmoil within. Marchant captures this beautifully. I have noticed the abnormalities, the tics, the repetitive body movements, that infest the psychiatric ward. This rings so true:

How do you write about a cough?
How to hint at the sound of it?
A cough that was odd, not from a cold, or something else you catch.
I think now it was the sound of what was eating away my sister’s mind.
I first heard it at our grandfather’s funeral Mass.
I was seven and thought she should just quit it, stop bothering me, and

 “Body Body” is a brutally honest poem about facing our aging bodies, and ourselves. I am sure every man or woman over age 60 can look at themselves and wonder about all the baggage, both physically and mentally they have acquired over the years. I could imagine a modern day Falstaff, in a more sober moment, perhaps waking at 3AM in a cold sweat-- during his dark night of the soul—speak similar words. Marchant speaks to his carcass:

“old trading buddy, fat winter sleeping bag I carry with me
into my dreams, you my ne’er do well pardner on a mule

crossing the desert, old guy who keeps asking for a swig,
who soaks the sheets with worry, turns on me regularly,

remains hard to fathom, easy to ignore, impossible to trust,
years since we met, when first I cut in, and asked for a kiss.”

 And one must not forget that Marchant is a translator as well, and in this translation “The Peach”—well nothing is lost in translation. Marchant, who co-translated this Vietnamese poem, renders a peach, half-eaten by a bat, as a wonderful metaphor of the close habitation of sorrow and happiness. A peach is never just a peach in Marchant’s and the poet Vo Que’s closely observed world.

This just a mere sample of Marchant’s work in this collection. He also writes wonderfully about Vietnam, the Middle East, olive trees, and the sufferings in the lives of people. David Ferry, noted translator and poet said of Marchant’s work   “… the noble generosity of feeling that has characterized his work, (is) here more impressively than before.”

Amen. Highly Recommended.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Low Dishonest Decades by George Scialabba

Low Dishonest Decades
Copyright © 2016 by George Scialabba
ISBN 978-1-940396-22-4
Pressed Wafer
375 Parkside Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11226

I hope Low Dishonest Decades, with its demonstration that sane political discourse is still possible, will improve your morale as it has mine in these weeks following Trump’s election. Cambridge’s George Scialabba is a writer who has mastered that discourse and, now that he has retired from his position as a building manager for Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies, he should have more time to help us think of ways out of our predicament.
Low Dishonest Decades is a collection of 20 book reviews and a few essays; they examine our political, international, economic and ethical plight in lucid prose, and appeared over the last three decades in some 11 periodicals from our Boston Phoenix to the Village Voice and the Nation. His ability to make the arguments of his subjects compact and portable meant that by reading Low Dishonest Decades I gained familiarity with a literature I would otherwise miss, given my preference for fiction and poetry.
The collection opens with a short section containing four reviews called "The Long View." The first “Democracy Proof” is a review of How Democratic Is the American Constitution by Robert Dahl, which makes Trump’s election seem an inevitable result of the anti-democratic biases of this document that we have been taught to worship. The concluding review of this section is of three books by Morris Berman (The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire and Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline) ends with this praise:

There is something immensely refreshing, even cathartic, about Berman’s refusal to hold out any hope of avoiding our civilization's demise. And our reaction goes some way toward proving his point: we are so sick of hucksters, of authors trying – like everyone else on all sides at all times in this pervasively hustling culture – to sell us something, that it is a relief to encounter someone who isn't, who has no designs on our money or votes or hopes, who simply has looked into the depths, into our bleak future, and is compelled to describe it, as Cassandra was. No doubt his efforts will meet with as much success as hers.

While this grim ending to Scialabba's opening section does pose the question “Why continue?” we may take comfort from the fact that, for all of its individual terror, death is the engine that drives all evolution. Our democracy may be failing us but that does not mean that democracy has failed. And in the reviews of the middle section, "Politics," Scialabba makes clear we have a responsibility to learn the lessons of those failings to guide the modes of our governance so that democracy will continue to evolve. And that is one, if not the most important, function of Low Dishonest Decades.
The reviews of this second section, which have titles such as "Do Ideas Matter?" "Where Did Our Wealth Go?" and "The Sorry State of the Union," are divided between critiques of domestic and foreign policies. In “What Is American Foreign Policy About?"  he summarizes those critiques:

Business is not a monolith, of course; sometimes businesses have competing interests. But there is a large area of shared interests, of all things businesses favor. They all want week labor unions or none; they all want lower taxes, especially on the rich; they all want weak or no environmental or consumer safety or occupational safety regulations; they all want no restrictions on foreign investment or resource ownership or capital flows; they all want a minimum of social spending, so that the population will be as insecure as possible; and they all want a political system that can be controlled by money, which is to say controlled by them. This is what they want for the United States, and for most of American history, they'd gotten it, except when they bankrupted the country with the Great Depression and there were a few reforms, called the New Deal. But business never accepted the New Deal. They fought back, in the 1980 they won and now they have all the above once again.

And that's what they want for the rest of the world: no organized labor, low taxes, weak regulation, no restrictions on investment or lending, no social safety net, and no popular sovereignty, that is, no real democracy. To make the world as much like this as possible: that’s the purpose of American foreign policy.

And in "What Is to Be Done?" a review of eight books I think he answers the question of that title well:
To put it non-metaphorically: if we want a durably decent society, we have to improve the quality of political discussion. Yes, we will always need to address people's hearts and imaginations. But in the long run, their ability to think, to see through right-wing (and left-wing) bullshit, is even more important. If voters had even a slightly enhanced tolerance for position papers and policy proposals, the influence of Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, Jerry Falwell, and other right-wing liars, morons, and demagogues would be vastly diminished. Isn't that a worthwhile goal?

In 2007, when he continued with this question, “How to accomplish [that worthwhile goal]?” Scialabba answered, “I don’t know.” And then he put his tongue in his cheek with this proposal: “Perhaps population exchanges between blue and red states. …Perhaps secular liberals should go to church and distribute copies of the Nation to their fellow church goers.”  Then he took his tongue out to conclude the review: "But what's possible is up to us. The main lesson of the right-wing ascendancy is simply: never give up. As Yeats pointed out: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/are full of passionate intensity.’ The best had better get – and stay – off their asses." If that was true eight years ago how much more so today, and fortunately Low Dishonest Decades provides some of the mental exercise we need to rehabilitate the quads and hamstrings of our convictions so we might get off our asses and back on our feet. And Scialabba almost always manages to provide that exercise without ad hominem comments; “other right-wing liars, morons, and demagogues” is the only time in the volume that I recall him weakening an argument by yielding to that temptation.

By the third section “Intellectuals” I was enjoying some satisfaction of my need of food for thought and one essay "A Rake among Radicals" made me feel I would like to read some Alexander Cockburn for desert, because Scialabba’s essay praising him made Cockburn’s writing and personality seem as attractive as his ideas. This extended quote from the beginning of that essay demonstrates Scialabba’s lucidity and range of thought and his ability to comprehend and summarize the thought of others.

On Christmas Eve 2010, Alexander Cockburn began a short column for his newsletter Counterpunch in this fashion: "The prime constant factor in American politics across the last six decades has been …" Let us pause for a moment to conjecture how commentators of diverse political complexion might have completed that sentence. The exercise might give us some sense of Cockburn's place in the culture of late-twentieth-/early-twenty-first-century journalism.

A Tea Partier might say: "… the ever-increasing tyranny of Federal bureaucracies." A paleoconservative might say: "… the expulsion of God from the public square." A neoconservative might say: "… the weakening of American resolve in the global decline of American power." A neoliberal might say: "… increasing recognition that markets work better than government intervention." A feminist or gay activist might say: "…the gradual extension of equal rights." A civil libertarian might say: "… the gradual erosion of civil liberties." An environmentalist might say: "…a blind emphasis on economic growth at all costs." A social Democrat might say: "…the dwindling of social solidarity from its high point just after World War II."

All these perspectives have at least a grain of truth. But Cockburn's answer cuts deepest: "…a counterattack by the rich against the social reforms of the 1930s." Class warfare is not the only kind of social conflict, or always and everywhere the most important kind. But it is the most intractable and invisible kind, and Cockburn was one of the few American journalists who never lost sight of it or failed to rub it in.

When Scialabba retired from his day job at Harvard, John Summers, the editor of the Baffler, organized a Festschrift where George was celebrated by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Thomas Frank and others because he is also an American writer who has never lost sight of it or failed to rub it in. If you want more details about his reputation you might check out this profile from the New Yorker:
or this one from the Nation: And you might also want to check out the other three collections of his work,
that have been published by Pressed Wafer. (What Are Intellectuals Good For? – 2009, The Modern Predicament – 2011, and For the Republic – 2013)

– by Wendell Smith.