Thursday, 14 January 2010

Haiti Then and Now

Like most of us, I've been saddened by the aftermath of Haiti's earthquake, as recorded in pictures on TV and the online New York Times, yet still trying to avoid the pitfalls Susan Sontag  analyzes in Regarding the Pain of Others.  Casting around for consoling perspectives (none of which quite work), I thought of Hurricane Katrina. Terrible as it was, the disaster at least served as a wake-up call to that part of the U.S. public ignorant of the difficulties faced by citizens living below the poverty line.  Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Not, as Bible-thumping Pat Robertson believes, because it has a "pact with the devil."  The legacy of colonialism, including a crippling indemnity imposed by France after Toussaint L'Ouverture won independence for this population of former slaves; U.S. military occupation from around 1914 to the mid-30s; and a succession of dictators concerned with lining their pockets at the expense of the people. These, impoverished, resorted to cutting down trees to make charcoal, the only source of fuel available; and so the country became deforested, its soil eroded, and the acreage of arable land reduced. Which only deepened the problem.

When international aid came to Haiti, corrupt officials raked off the better part of it to enrich themselves. Efforts weren't coordinated between competing organizations, and the potential benefit seriously hindered. Just possibly the disaster will be the stimulus that unites Haiti and the international community in a really effective array of programs to put this extraordinary country back on its feet.

I spent January of 1970 in Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien.  Forty years ago Haiti was in a little better shape than it is now.  It had for some time been a destination for world travelers. One of Graham Greene's novels, The Comedians, was set there. Though not his best, it was even so made into a film of some interest.  During our time in Port-au-Prince, Ann and I stayed in the Hotel Oloffson, mainly because Greene's novel had made it famous, an attractive old place with lacy Caribbean Gothic ornament that reminded me of New Orleans.  We instantly became enthusiasts of the city and its inhabitants. The Haitian people, intelligent and energetic as few nations are, combine cultural influences from Africa, France, and Latin America. Haitian visual art, as made by untrained painters, is world famous, vibrant, brilliant in color, arresting in design, and a potent depiction of the life of the Kreol populace.  The religion, which incorporates elements of West African polytheism and Roman Catholicism, is probably the main sustaining force in a land where purely material comforts are scarce.  Anywhere you go in the African diaspora the music is amazing, and Haiti is no exception. Also, it had at that time the best cooking to be found in the Caribbean, a combination of French and African taste and inventiveness. 

While we were there, a regime change occurred. "Papa Doc" Duvalier had died, and so his son, often called "Baby Doc" assumed the dynastic title of "President for Life."  (Do I need to say that the Duvalier regime enjoyed the protection and support of the U.S.? Anything to prevent intervention from Moscow.)  To mark the event, there was a celebratory parade, passing near the National Palace, which looked like a big white wedding cake.  One element of the parade was a flatbed truck bearing the privileged youth of the capital, who appeared to have only a small part of Haiti's African genetic heritage; in fact, most of the kids had curly blond hair and green eyes.  Following international youth fashions of the day, they were dressed in torn jeans and berets, played rock music, and held up posters bearing the image of Che Guevara. This in a celebration of Haiti's incoming dictator/exploiter. The mind reels.  (I was also stunned yesterday when I saw the National Palace a crumpled ruin in the aftermath of the quake.)

I had read Haitian history, so I wanted to go north to Cap Haitien and see the fort that was Toussaint L'Ouverture's stronghold--La Ferroniere, they called it, because it was shaped like an antique flatiron.  Northern Haiti has a pleasanter climate than Port-au-Prince's, but Cap Haitien is quite isolated. There were no usable roads, so we flew north seated on metal benches in a commercial prop plane.  Once there, getting to the top of the mountain where the fort stands was no easy task, involving several hours on the back of a donkey, which quickly became unbearable.  I walked more than half the distance beside my pleasantly surprised beast of burden. And then it began to rain, so the fort was only partly visible, lost in clouds and mist.  It was an eerie experience, standing in the lush tropical vegetation, gazing up at the old stone structure where an unrecorded number of Haitian freedom-fighters died.  In fact, it made so strong an impression that I later on worked out a Haitian setting for several chapters of a novel I wrote in the early 70s.  It was never published, but I think there is a copy of it somewhere, I'll have to look.

Port-au-Prince must be rebuilt. And the whole country must be put on a sound footing, a concerted relief effort that eradicates the poverty that has for two centuries made life difficult for Haitians, and yet meanwhile never destroyed them or undermined their creative energy. Vive l'Haiti et le peuple haitien.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

New York to Buenos Aires

I spent the last week of 2009 in New York, mainly seeing friends--Paula Deitz, to begin with, who suggested meeting at the Met Museum on a late Saturday afternoon. I got to know Paula in the late 1970s, not long after she and Fred Morgan married and began sharing editorial tasks for The Hudson Review, which Fred founded with Joseph Bennett in the 1940s. In the summer of 1980, during a month spent in the town of Brooklin, Maine, I remember coming to dinner with Paula and Fred at their handsomely sited house outside Blue Hill. Over the decades since, there have been many occasions to meet, often at HR events, including a day at Princeton a couple of years ago, when the Princeton Library acquired the Hudson Review archive. Fred has since died, and for some time now Paula has edited the magazine alone, which she does very well. I admire Paula, among other reasons, for her quick intelligence and readiness to engage in the demanding work of editorship, while managing to do her own writing at the same time. There's the fact, too, that she and I both did graduate work at Columbia in French literature, one of our shared passions. In fact, my current assignment for the magazine is to write a review essay about a new book surveying the history of Paris in painting.
     Obviously our meeting-place was no accident, and it seemed natural, after our tea and cakes, to have a look at the special exhibition of Japanese works from the Packard collection. Paula told me she at one point made a study of the significance of the plum blossom in Japanese culture, which differs in several respects from the cherry blossom theme. For one thing, plum blossoms last longer, so the aspect of transience isn’t foregrounded as in so many Japanese poems about the “loveliest of trees” (Housman’s description of it). For me any hour with Japanese art is well spent, a chance to discern visual expressions of Buddhist philosophy/religion. I won’t attempt to catalogue all the tranquil and profound works we saw; but let me mention at least one large screen, depicting a bent and gnarled plum tree starred with perhaps two dozen of the emblematic blossoms, all this against a soft gold background. (Is there something to be made of the fact that early Italian Renaissance painting used a similar fondo d’oro for its religious icons and even the occasional cityscape?) Anyway, my view of the plum is from now on forever altered.
       I saw two films that week, one, Up in the Air (based on my friend Walter Kirn's tragicomic novel), the other, Tom Ford’s cinematic debut as director of A Single Man. I’ve always liked Isherwood in general and this novel in particular, despite its reliance on a standard feature for gay fiction, i.e., that the main character dies at the end or at least comes to no good. Still, the characters are credible, and we don’t get the expected panoply of bar flies, transvestites, sadists, serial killers, convicted felons, furtive married men, or bitchily affected snobs that the popular imagination seems to regard as typical of contemporary gay experience. True, there is a student seduction of his teacher (the “single man” of the title), which doesn’t appeal to the ethicist in us, no matter how warmly depicted. But the flashback scenes in which the protagonist recalls his life with his late partner were unmelodramatic and touching. (Novelists and film-makers, take note.) It’s a problem that every “minority” faces, and I well understand African-Americans’ dislike of unvarying depictions of their experience in the guise of maids, stepinfetchits, thugs, prostitutes, addicts, convicted felons, hammed-up clowns, homewreckers and what not.
      A blog post here back in October mentioned an evening spent with a group of young New York poets called “the Wilde Boys.” Since then I’ve begun to know several of the participants, including Alex Dimitrov and Zach Pace, both now completing their MFA’s at Sarah Lawrence, and Adam Fitzgerald doing the same at Columbia. Alex came by for coffee one afternoon during the week, I had lunch with Zach in the East Village, and then there was an invitation from Adam to attend his birthday party at the Café Loup. The party turned out to do double duty as a celebration of a new magazine Adam and two friends have launched. Maggy, it's called, and Adam had the inaugural issue in hand at the long table where he and friends were making birthday toasts. I met his co-editors, the poets Alison Power and Alina Gregorian, and several other friends. The history of poetry since the late 19th century is closely associated with little magazines;  this one seems to be well on its way to becoming a bright light on the scene.

     The change in title and URL of my blog makes for a real or only apparent coincidence with the arrival of the new year and my first trip to the Southern Hemisphere. I’m writing this in Buenos Aires, in high summer. I’ll be here for seven weeks, staying in the old neighborhood called Palermo, where Jorge Luis Borges spent part of his childhood and youth. Apart from the fact that I revere Borges, the idea of making the trip probably originated when Sam Hamill told me a while back that he’d begun coming down every year. He says that what he saves on heating costs for his house in Port Townsend, Washington, subsidizes the annual trip to relatively inexpensive Argentina. And, needless to say, avoiding cold weather is a health boost for anyone over sixty-five. He and Gray were waiting for me when I arrived, both looking well and content, Gray’s hair cut shorter now than the way she used to wear it, and attractive in her summer cottons. There have been several leisurely meals together, and it’s a stroke of luck that these friendly guides can make suggestions and issue words of caution about a city entirely new to me. In the coming days I’ll begin to talk about the sights and sounds I encounter, and thoughts about Argentine literature and art, or about “la vida de los porteños” [the life of the people of Buenos Aires].

Friday, 8 January 2010

Next Blog

I won't say much now, beyond announcing a new blog with a new URL.

To see the earlier blog, go to: I think traffic will be moving both ways for a while, as readers are referred from the first blog to this one.

Thanks for checking in.