Tuesday, 23 March 2010

All Opposed

I grew up among in a part of the country where racism and religious fundamentalism were considered normal, and this experience taught me that there are temperaments that do not care about facts, scientific research, logical argument, fair play, and toleration for difference of opinion. It's the nature of this temperament to believe what it believes because it believes it, and the rest of us be damned. I see the same kind of implacability evidenced among right-wing opponents to National Health Care. They are impervious to reason and logical argument. The following comments, even if brought up to them, wouldn’t make the least difference in their views. If I express them, I do so for myself, to discharge the anger and gloom stirred up by what I hear on national media, Limbaugh, Beck, man-in-street interviews, as well as legal initiatives being launched against National Health in several red states. Here goes.

“National Health is Socialism.” If you believe that social programs instituted and administered by Federal and local governments are wrong, you should also devote your energy to repealing Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment benefits. You should also lobby to dismantle free public education. Educating children, in your ideology, should be the financial and personal responsibility of each parent, who should let various privately run schools compete in a free enterprise system, so as to get the best possible deal for you. Come to think of it, law should not compel you to educate your children if you don’t want them to be educated. Big government should not interfere in private life. Furthermore, free school-buses is socialistic, raises taxes, and ought to be abolished. Each family should have the responsibility for transporting its own children to school. Some of us, quite a few of us, do not have children. We are supporting yours by paying tax that goes for education and buses.  And pay up quite cheerfully, because we believe the electorate in a democratic country should be well educated. But it has become clear to us, confronted with so much ignorance, that the schools we support aren't managing to educate the populace--just to judge by the level of discourse we hear, and incidents such as health-care opponents' spitting on African-American legislators.

Furthermore, shouldn’t you also oppose the Pure Food and Drug Administration? Instead of letting Big Government regulate those issues, let free enterprise decide which purveyors of food and drugs are the best, as will soon become apparent as soon as clients either thrive or fall sick and die. Meanwhile, I guess you want to dismantle the Police and Fire departments of your community. Like, let individuals hire bodyguards for their personal protection and arrange for volunteers to put out fires, that is, when the volunteers aren’t out of town or incapacitated by the last fire they were unable to put out.

“I’m in very good health, and I don’t want to be forced by Big Government to buy insurance that I don’t need.” Do you have a car? Then you were forced by government to insure it for liability. Why didn’t you protest when that law went into effect? OK, you don’t have health insurance because you're not sick, I understand that. But, uninsured as you are, is your savings account big enough to pay medical costs that will result when you are injured by (1) hurricane (2) tornado (3) earthquake (4) tsunami (5) a flood (6) a lightning storm (7) a fall downstairs, off a bicycle, or off a mountain trail (8) a hit-and-run accident (9) a sports-related injury (10) when you suddenly without warning develop leukemia and are turned down for insurance as having a pre-existing condition (11) when you are bitten by a poisonous snake or spider or scorpion or infected tick (12) when you get trapped in a snowstorm and suffer severe frostbite (13) when a gas leak in your house results in an explosion and you suffer third-degree burns (14) when you sever a limb with your chainsaw? It might be useful for you to consult statistics about unforeseen accidents in this country, and the people affected by them.

“This bill allows for the murder of babies.” No, it supports termination of pregnancies resulting from incest, rape, or those that threaten the life of the mother. Furthermore, a small piece of tissue with no central nervous system is not a baby, no more than an acorn is an oak tree. Meanwhile, if it is wrong to murder, why must those who don't have the funds for medical insurance or medical treatment be forced to die, when they could be saved? They have fully developed brains and they know what is happening to them, as do their family members and friends. Too bad? Is that what you’re saying? I hope my fate never rests in your hands. You’re aware that the Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. So you are free to follow your religious beliefs, but not to impose them on others who believe differently. And any sect that engages in political lobbying should lose its tax-exempt status, and thereby lower my tax burden. I’m forced to pay more tax because an institution I don’t believe in doesn’t pay up, and, moreover, is promoting policies I abhor.

“This bill is going to raise my taxes. It’s just more Welfare, and I don’t even believe in the Welfare we already have.” But I suppose you are proud to be a United States citizen, right? What exactly is the U.S.A.? Is it the real estate? Is it the GNP? Is it the money in our banks? No, surely the U.S.A. is the collectivity of its people. Proud as you are to be a citizen, you feel no obligation at all to any citizen outside the circle of family and friends, is that it? As far as you’re concerned, if people are ill or dying and don’t have the money to get medical assistance, that’s their little red wagon. You’re just going to take care of number one. You couldn’t care less about saving other lives (except for fetuses’). Your U.S.A. is yourself and the people you know. As far as you’re concerned, the others can just go ahead and croak; because you don't want your taxes raised by so much as one percent. Your U.S.A. is a cruel and heartless country, concerned above all else with self-interest, I see that. Well, it’s not my U.S.A. And by the way some of those people who can’t afford medical care are your coreligionists. I guess your sect doesn’t teach you all to take care of each other. What is it then, just a means of getting a good seat in the afterlife?

“Look at the bill, it’s 2500 pages long!” Yes. In an effort to be bipartisan and accommodate free-enterprise ideologues, the current Administration dropped any hope of having a National Health system in which the Federal government is the insurer, as in advanced European nations. Congress allowed private insurance corporations to continue on in that role. It also had to allot part of the insuring burden to business, even small businesses, because legislators ranted about deficit spending. Inevitably, these extra provisions involve a complex regulatory apparatus, so that burden-sharing is fair. Hence the 2500 pages. As soon as private insurers are removed from the picture, and health care is nationalized, regulation will be vastly simplified. But I know you and your fellow right-wingers will never let that happen. The 2500 pages are likely to grow. As for small businesses, you don't seem to know they are now allowed to opt out of insuring employees and pay a fine, which will cost them much less than insuring does. Their employees hope they won’t do this, naturally. And research suggests in any case that insurance costs for small businesses in most cases will decrease.

“My insurance premiums are going to rise.” You know that for a fact? Where is your proof? Even supposing they did, is it not worth a small rise to have the security of knowing that, in the event you lose the insurance you currently have, no new insurer could deny coverage to you because you already suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, cancer, or heart disease.

“Democrats expand government and spend us into huge deficits, and this health care thing is the latest example of that.” Actually, during the Clinton Administration, we had a budget surplus, have you already forgotten? When the Bush Administration appropriated $750 billion to bail out collapsing financial institutions, it was Big Government interfering with free enterprise. Don’t you believe that the market, not the Bush Administration, should have decided which banks were viable and which not? Are you being inconsistent? Meanwhile, the unprovoked invasion of Iraq insisted on by President Bush has drained our reserves of staggering amounts of capital, more than was spent by any Democratic war president during the last century. Iraq, since 2001 has cost about $713 billion, and there’s no end in sight. I will not mention the cost for Iraq because I know you don’t care what happens to other countries. Nor, out of respect for the dead, will I quote (in this sordid context) the figures for military and civilian casualties on both sides. All this for a threat that never existed. True, it did make corporations like Haliburton and Bechtel (to which the GOP had financial ties) prosper; but it plunged our country into enormous debt and is still doing so. Why didn’t you protest deficit spending during the Bush Administration? In any case, I suppose you’ve decided to ignore the provisions outlined in this new bill for deficit reduction, provisions developed and passed by a Democratic Congress in a Democratic Administration. Though you have no proof, you’re absolutely certain they won’t work because you know they won’t. You are an expert, you don't need to hear the facts and figures. Good bye. I don’t want to know anything more about you, and I certainly don't want to listen to your mean-spirited and mindless ravings any longer.


Wasted breath. Well, not really. I know they’re not listening, but at least I feel better.

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Poet Ai, 1947-2010

Two days ago, my friend the poet Ai died in Stillwater, Oklahoma, of breast cancer. I hadn’t seen Ai since 2002, during the year I taught at Oklahoma State, but we spoke by telephone and exchanged email posts since then, and I would also sometimes get news of her from mutual friends. The last time we exchanged messages was in early January, when she made no mention at all of poor health. She was a very private person, lived alone, didn’t see many people, just taught her classes, gave occasional readings, and wrote her poems. I’m saddened to hear this news and again reminded that breast cancer is a national health problem that seems to be getting more and more serious. I’m not sure enough is being done to promote awareness of it and to fund research. It’s something that has affected the lives of many people close to me, beginning with my mother (legally, my stepmother), whose illness I wrote about in a poem titled “Stepson Elegy” (in Present). But much more to the point are the courageous poems by Marilyn Hacker and Mary Cappello, written from a first-hand perspective.

I met Ai in Tulsa in 2001, when she attended a reading Robert Pinsky gave there at a literary festival sponsored by the English Department at Oklahoma State. Robert introduced us and we exchanged contact information. I was teaching that year at the University of Tulsa and decided not to go back East for the Christmas holiday. Hearing that, Ai invited me to Christmas dinner at her place in Stillwater. I remember an apartment absolutely filled with things, especially wicker furniture, which Ai had a special liking for. As I was to learn the following year, going out to comb the thrift stores was one of her favorite occupations. Ai always had stylish clothes, designer dresses and jackets combined with thrift-store items she had a flair for discovering. I remember once she was contemplating spending a lot of money on a beautiful turquoise and silver necklace, either Zuni or Hopi, I’m not sure. I egged her on because she looked gorgeous in it and because I knew she was proud of her Indian ancestry. Buy it she did, and even now I can see it ornamenting one of her great ensembles. I think she was also pleased to have African ancestry and, besides that, a Japanese father, whose name (Ogawa) she used on official documents, but not when she signed her poems and books. Still, because she grew up in a Native American community, that heritage seemed to be foremost in her consciousness.

I was invited to come teach at Oklahoma State for the following year during Ai’s sabbatical and was pleased to accept. I got to know English Department faculty there very well, in fact, it was one of the friendliest I’d ever worked with. Because we were both single, Ai and I saw each other many times, going out to dinner or making raids on the thrifts, where I found stuff to spruce up my temporary apartment in Stillwater. Like many poets, she didn’t know how to drive, and I was perfectly willing to be the chauffeur. It’s said that some people found her personally difficult, but I never did. We seemed to have the same kind of humor, and she knew I valued her and her work. To her poetry she brought keen novelistic skills and a dramatic instinct that didn’t flinch when faced with the inhuman behavior that characterizes so much of human existence. I read her and think of the great Japanese filmmaker Kurosawa’s statement to the effect that, “The artist does not avert his eyes.”

And yet. For some reason Ai averted her eyes from her own illness and didn’t have a check-up when symptoms appeared. I don’t understand this, and, in my confusion, am posting these reflections in the hope that someone who knew her better than I did can explain what happened. When there is a loss, we try to extract from it something besides sadness. Perhaps that may happen in this case, too. Meanwhile, I will reread Ai’s poems, inevitably from an altered perspective. I asked Ai if she’d adopted her name from the classical Greek, the word that is usually translated as “alas!” or “woe!” She said, “No. In Japanese, “ai” means ‘love.’”

Thursday, 4 March 2010

After Argentina

Maybe now that I’ve left Argentina, I’ll have time to say a little more about my stay.

There were many high spots during my six weeks in Buenos Aires, but a good place to begin is a joint reading with Sam Hamill, a poetry evening arranged by his Argentinian translator Esteban Moore. Esteban is a poet of Irish descent who has published several volumes and is well known in Latin America. The second week in February he invited friends and fellow poets to a bar called La Poesia in San Telmo, the oldest part of the city. We arrived early, so I had time to walk two streets over to the former Biblioteca Nacional, which from 1955 to 1972 had as its director Jorge Luis Borges. It’s now the National Center for Music and Dance, a fact fully evident when you noticed students congregating on the steps outside. A guard allowed me to have a look at the former Reading Room, quite similar to its counterpart in the British Museum in the era when the British Library was housed there: a very high, octagonal room capped by a dome and lined with bookshelves. Remember the opening of Borges’s “The Library of Babel”? “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.” Borges said he conceived of Heaven as a library and cited his father’s library in the family home on calle Serrano as the central, determining fact about his childhood. Borges was an heroic reader, in the same way we say Achilles was an heroic fighter, and he had an Achilles heel as well: the eye defect he inherited from his father, which eventually left them both blind. The convergence of those two facts, directorship of the National Library and his blindness, led to the writing of one of his best-known poems, the “Poem of the Gifts,” pervaded with a calmly tragic sense of humor. Borges fame arose around his fiction writing, but as time has passed I’ve come to prefer his poetry to his short stories, brilliant and original as those are.

Meanwhile, this was to be an evening of the, so to speak, “talking book,” and I made my way back to Bar La Poesia to see if it was time to go on. It was a bilingual evening, given that most of the audience was hispanophone. I read my poems in both languages (using translations made by others or myself, plus two poems that I actually wrote in Spanish first, and later translated into English). Sam read his poems in English, pausing between each so that Esteban could read his very accurate and graceful versions. The picture shown above was taken during the evening, myself on the left and Sam on the right. It was the first time we’d ever read together, and the significance of the occasion wasn’t lost on me.

The person who took the photograph is my friend Mong-Lan, whom I met about ten years ago in Switzerland, during a month’s residency at the Château de Lavigny, in a small village near Lausanne. Even in those days Lan was passionate about tango; in the past decade she has become sufficiently expert to give tango lessons herself. And she recently published a book of poems dealing with the topic, the verses accompanied by her ink-brush drawings. She sees tango as a kind of pain-killer for the underclass of Buenos Aires, a way to forget for a few hours that their lives have strict economic limits and few attractive prospects. Not for most of its dancers a prelude to real physical intimacy, tango is a kind of abstraction of sexuality, allowing equal expression for both genders, though it seems to me that women dancers have a wider repertory of gestures, particularly with the voleos, or whip-lashings of the leg.

One evening Lan and I went to a milonga, a dance hall where people meet to tango. Participants don’t usually arrive as a couple. Instead, men invite women they catch sight of there to dance a number or two, always interspersed with an interval of conversation. That means a dance can be a fleeting encounter or develop into something longer term, depending on circumstances and mutual attraction. The milonga Lan and I went to for some reason is called “Canning” and opens its doors near Palermo Soho around eleven every evening. I have to report I don’t know how to tango and was a fairly resigned wallflower (wallvine?) for the whole evening. But it was impressive to see how well Lan performed, the best dancer on the floor that evening, unmistakably. It was also touching to see older couples dancing, not athletically but slowly and sensitively, some of them upwards of seventy. Granted, the smart youth of Buenos Aires much prefer rock and disco to tango; but it is an old porteño (the adjective used to describe citizens of Buenos Aires) tradition that also draws adepts from all over the world, the poet and painter Mong-Lan included.

During my stay I strolled through the neighborhoods that are most often visited in Buenos Aires—the Palermos (Soho, Chico, and Hollwood), the Centro, La Boca, San Telmo, Recoleta, Retiro, and Belgrano. I visted most of the museums, had good meals in the restaurants, saw my Australian friends Lee Tulloch and Tony Amos at their hotel (the Alvear Palace) and in Palermo, before they went on their cruise to the Malvinas/Falklands, Patagonia, and Chile. Yet it would have been unadventurous to stay in the city for the full six weeks and never visit the other nearby national capital when it is in so easily reached. To get to Montevideo, you either take a ferry there directly or else to Colonia del Sacramento (a shorter ride) and go by bus for the remainder of the trip. I chose the latter route, thinking it would incidentally give me an overland view of the countryside in Argentina’s smaller neighbor to the north. Fairly flat terrain greets you as you leave Colonia, dotted with small houses on a single level, grazing cattle, eucalyptus groves and the occasional palm tree. You see less harvesting machinery than you would in comparable farmlands in the U.S.A., but also a certain appealing simplicity and modesty of aims. Uruguay is the twenty-fourth sovereign nation I’ve visited (twenty-seventh, if you count San Marino, Andorra, and Vatican City). I’ll go on record, too, as having seen all fifty states of the Union, and all but one of its large cities, lest anyone suppose I’m insufficiently interested in my home country.

Montevideo has its own special ambiance, as all national capitals do. Smaller and slower-moving than Buenos Aires, it has only one high-rise building, the Palacio Salvo, but on the other hand that was Latin America’s first such building when it was completed in 1928. It overlooks the Plaza Independencia, which is dominated by the equestrian statue of José Artigas, Uruguay’s liberator and a man with very forward-looking social ideas for his day, ideas that included universal suffrage, not excluding the indigenous peoples and women. The square is at the edge of the Old City, which, though dilapidated in some streets, is now having many of its old buildings renovated and may well end up being an equivalent to Buenos Aires’s Palermo Soho in a few years. I was impressed by the variety of architectural styles (from the 18th,, 19th, and 20th centuries) gathered in this old quarter, as well as by the unhurried and companionable life of the people I saw in the streets.

I also had dinner with a writer friend whom I hadn’t seen since the 1970s. This is Roberto Echavarren, one of the leading poets, novelists, and critics in Uruguay, often a guest at literary festivals throughout Latin America. We met in New York through mutual friends John Ashbery and David Kalstone and then unaccountably fell out of touch, though Roberto taught Comp Lit and Latin American literature for many years at NYU. Anyway, it was a pleasant reunion at his house in Pocitos, where I met his Indonesian-born partner Yudi Yudoyoko, who is a visual artist. We three had a pleasant meal together and caught up a bit. Roberto is often classed with the Neo-barocco poets of Latin America, a description that may or may not apply. He has published a volume of translations of Ashbery’s poetry and could be said to be influenced by that oeuvre, too; though perhaps it makes more sense to say that Ashbery nowadays is a kind of climate of opinion or aesthetics, with an impact on nearly every contemporary poet, as was true with Eliot in the 1920s and Auden in the 1930s. Roberto gave me several of his books, including a theoretical work on the androgyne in literature, which is a timely topic, certainly. I was glad to see Roberto again, and, besides, it always changes the face of an unknown city when you interact with someone who actually lives there.

Next morning I had a meeting with the poet Chip Livingston, whom I know from New York, and his Argentinian partner Gabriel Padilha. They had been living in the attractive Pocitos neighborhood of Montevideo since December but will be returning to the States shortly. We decided to find the monument to Gay Liberation that was set up in Montevideo five years ago—the first in Latin America, but a counterpart to others in New York, Amsterdam, and Germany. It was right at the edge of the Old City, in a little traveled byway called the Pasaje de la Vieja Policia. An upbeat way to conclude my stay in Montevideo.

This blog entry should also conclude, so I will sign off with the observation that my spoken Spanish improved while I was in Argentina, that being one of my reasons for going. Considering that the U.S.A. has a vast Spanish-speaking population, and the role that Spanish-speaking peoples have had in U.S. history, it seems only right that citizens should know Spanish, just as Canadians are expected to speak French even when their mother tongue is English. Besides, knowledge of the language opens the door to a culture and literature of extraordinary richness, as well as to one European country and some two dozen in the Western Hemisphere, where it is the official language.