Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Becoming Dr. Seuss by Brian Jay Jones

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This was yet another of those books I picked up randomly off the new books shelf because it looked interesting. It was a good choice. 

Dr. Seuss presumably needs no introduction. Since 1937, his books - for kids but fun for grownups too - have been part of the American canon. I imagine even the most sheltered Fundies are aware of the subversive Cat in the Hat, and probably a few other characters. I would even go so far as to say that we of Gen X had our childhoods shaped by Seuss - and the Beginner Books imprint he pioneered. Although on a different level of reading, Seuss was my generation’s Harry Potter - and I would add that, like Millennials, our generation’s reading is partly responsible for the significant generation gap both generations have with many Boomers. 

Just to give a few examples, I grew up on The Lorax. Which, in a rational world, would be a thoroughly uncontroversial book. After all, natural resources ARE finite, and pollution DOES destroy things, and we should take action to conserve the earth. Except, here in 2019, one entire political party believes conservation is a liberal conspiracy, apparently. I cannot believe I live in such times. 

Likewise, The Sneetches shaped how I saw beliefs in racial and cultural superiority, and The Butter Battle Book brought “mutually assured destruction” to my mind at a young age. Looking back, in many ways, Dr. Seuss was shockingly “progressive” by the standards of our current age. 

This book is a fairly detailed biography, running in excess of 400 pages, plus extensive notes. It isn’t boring by any stretch, however. Brian Jay Jones hits the perfect balance between detail and narrative flow. Because Theodor Seuss Geisel lived a long and eventful life, there is a lot to tell. 

I’m not going to tell much of the story, because that is the point of the book, after all, and Jones is a far better biographer than I would be. There are, however, some interesting details that stood out. 

One is the progression that Geisel (and thus his pseudonym, Dr. Seuss) made over his lifetime. Giesel didn’t really hit it big as an author until the 1950s, when he was in his 40s, so he had quite a bit of a life before that. After a mediocre stint in college (he graduated but dropped out of grad school), he ended up working in advertising, while making a little on the side from his political cartoons. His whimsical drawings and verbal zingers kept him employed. During World War Two, he enlisted, and was paired with Frank Capra (and a few other names that would become big later: P. D. Eastman, Munro Leaf, as well as Chuck Jones and the usual suspects at the Warner Brothers animation studio) to produce propaganda films for the military. These films, the Private SNAFU series, are pretty dang funny, very Loony Tunes, and recognizably Seussian. (They are available on YouTube, if you want to check them out.) Geisel’s work on the documentary, Design For Death, would win him an Oscar. 

All this to get around to my main point on how Giesel changed over time. In his first book (And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street), he would use an unfortunate stereotype - which was also used in the propaganda films. His political cartoons, likewise, from his early era all too often use cheap jokes at the expense of the usual suspects of the time: African Americans, Asians, women, and children. These haven’t worn too well, as he would later admit. However, things started to change noticeably. Recently, one of his best political cartoons has been making the rounds of the internet:

As time went on, Geisel would become more consistently progressive in his politics. Although his books are not often overtly political (and are only “partisan” in an era when the very ideas of conservation or the common good are partisan issues), they do show his concern for the marginalized, for the environment, and for - dare I say it? - common sense. (More on the last one later.) There is a certain irony in the fact that Boomers bought Dr. Seuss’s books in vast numbers for their kids, not anticipating perhaps that they would undermine their own politics a generation later. 

Going back to near the beginning of the book, one interesting fact was that Geisel’s father, T. R., was a bit of an inventor of sorts (in addition to being, pre-Prohibition, a brewer.) He would, as the book puts it, solve simple tasks with “complicated-looking devices that would, to later eyes, appear...well, appropriately Seussian.

Also fun was the parallel between the early 2000s and another time when Americans did stupid stuff in reaction to European events. Anyone remember “Freedom Fries”? From that time when France urged caution in starting a couple of wars? (France was right, in case you hadn’t noticed…) Well, during World War One, the same nativism and xenophobia was turned against the Germans, and we had, rather than hamburgers, “Liberty Sandwiches.” For Geisel, as a German-American, he and his family received a good bit of prejudice during this time. 

Geisel had difficulty selling his first book, for quite a while. One of the common criticisms it received was that it had no moral. Furthermore, the narrator was not punished for making up a tall tale. Geisel complained about this, saying, “What’s wrong with kids having fun reading without being preached at?” This all sounds kind of familiar, from my wife’s Fundie days. And yes, Elsie Dinsmore does get mentioned in this book. 

On a related note, Geisel believed - and advocated for - a then-revolutionary idea: that children were humans, and smarter than they were given credit for. Thus, they hated being talked down to, and saw through stupidity and condescension. In Geisel’s view, children were to be talked to directly, as absolute equals. 

[Side note here: the whole thrust of the Patriarchy and Fundamentalist movements is to restore rigid hierarchies, including that of parents over children. Gothard in particular emphasized that - and it applied to adult children too…]

How about another weird fact? One that I didn’t know, believe it or not. Did you know that Dr. Seuss invented the word “nerd”? It’s true. The word was first used in If I Ran The Zoo. It referred to a grouchy imaginary animal, but the word took on a life of its own, and within a year made a Newsweek article on changing slang. 

There is a lot more in the book that I could have quoted. Dr. Seuss was certainly quotable, despite his shyness on a stage. I referenced The Butter Battle Book above, and there is a quote from him about that which I think bears repeating. There was a surprising amount of controversy over the book, which caught Geisel off guard. He particularly resented the accusation that he was anti-military. 

“I’m not anti-military. I’m just anti-crazy.”

And that is exactly how I feel. Like Geisel, I acknowledge the need in our world for the good guys to have access to force to oppose the Hitlers of the world. And I support our military. But I am anti-crazy, and would like us to use a lot better judgment in how we pick wars. (See “freedom fries” above…) 

One final thing chronologically: near the end of Geisel’s life, the San Diego Museum of Art presented an exhibition of his work, from the cartoons to the illustrations to the more “serious” art he painted. The critics were largely savage, claiming that what Dr. Seuss did was not real art. 

This is, to put it frankly, bullshit. 

It may not be “traditional” art, but it is certainly art. Take a look at any of the books. The drawings are at least as much of the fun as the words - probably more. And they took plenty of work to get right. 

Back in 2015, we took one of our regular vacations to the San Diego area, and went to see an exhibit on Dr. Seuss at the San Diego History Museum (it features local history, and Geisel lived in nearby La Jolla for the second half of his life.) Included were some of his paintings, as well as the whimsical “animal heads” that used real antlers and so on with stuffed versions of his creatures. (He had a collection of these in his home - proof of either weird taste or a good sense of humor.) 

 Wow, the kids are a lot bigger now...

One of the more typically "Seussian" of his works. 

 These two are definitely more unusual - and weren't seen until after Geisel's death. 
I think they are actually not bad - he specifically intended them as tributes to the modern artists they resemble.

Brian Jay Jones has also written biographies of Jim Henson and George Lucas, which I am inclined to read in the future. While this one was a largely positive portrayal, it did include some of the skeletons as well, so it wasn’t a straight-up hagiography. I thought Jones struck good balances throughout, making the book informative and interesting. 

Monday, December 9, 2019

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Source of book: Borrowed from my wife.

My wife discovered the small British book publisher, Persephone Books, a few years back, when she was looking for her own copy of The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, if my memory serves. Although it could have been Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. In any event, the publisher describes its goal as:

Persephone Books reprints forgotten twentieth century novels, short stories, cookery books and memoirs by (mostly) women writers. They appeal to the discerning reader who prefers books that are neither too literary nor too commercial, and are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget. 

From the three I have read so far, I would say this is accurate. These books aren’t in the pantheon of classics, but aren’t exactly fluff either. They are interesting, and represent a different kind of literature than either genre boilerplates or the heavy and turgid literary novels which characterized much of the 20th Century. One might say that they fall in a traditionally disrespected category: women’s literature. For much of history, women were given little shot at literacy - that was for men only. This wasn’t universal, of course, and it started to crack in a serious way with the Feminist movement, which insisted that women were the equals of men - and should be educated accordingly. That said, with the explosion of literate women, the fusty old men who had controlled social standards felt they had to denigrate “novels” as less worthy than the old Greek and Roman “classics” (which, conveniently, were taught only to men.) This prejudice against the things women read - and write - continues into our own time, with “chick lit” incurring particular dismissal, even as male-oriented boilerplate books feature the same (or worse) imaginative and formulaic writing. 

Of the three I have read, I think that this one, a collection of short stories written by Mollie Panter-Downes during World War Two, features the best writing.

Mollie Panter-Downes, despite being British, is actually most associated with American institutions. For decades, Panter-Downes wrote for The New Yorker, in a variety of genres. Much of her writing was regular investigative journalism, reporting from Britain to an upper-middle-class American audience. Other pieces would fall into the category of non-fiction, but not exactly journalism, such as her “Letters from London” series. In addition to this, she occasionally contributed short stories. This particular book collects the 21 stories she wrote during the war, along with one of the Letters from London that serves as an introduction, more or less, to the themes and setting of the stories. (The author didn’t specifically intend that - the letter was written right after Britain declared war on Germany, and before any of the stories were written.) 

The stories are fairly short, and are self-contained. For the most part, they take place in a short period of time, in a single location, and involve a small number of characters - sometimes only one. The stories all focus on the Homefront - the people left behind as the soldiers left to fight in Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and eventually Europe. The characters are, naturally, mostly women - the men went off to fight. There are two exceptions: the retired Major Marriott, desperate to return to battle; and Mark Goring, stuck in a desk job in London. 

For the most part, these are middle to upper-middle-class Brits - the kind that, before the war, had a few servants, but not necessarily a title or an estate. They are kind of the forgotten middle as far as the literature of the time went. The working poor had recently become a trendy topic in literature, while the upper crust retained its fascination. (Escapism has been a goal of literature for a long time - possibly since the dawn of language.) It seems plausible that Panter-Downes picked this slice of British society both because it was her own class, and because it was likely to appeal to the typical New Yorker reader of the time. 

As Panter-Downes notes in a few stories, however, this particular way of life was rapidly changing. After the war, the petit-bourgeoisie largely faded away, with only the wealthy being able to retain servants. 

In general, I found the writing to be good, the human portraits to be well drawn, and the psychological profiles of the effects of war and change and stress to be perceptive. I am an aficionado of the short story, and these were good ones. 

I won’t try to describe all the stories in this post, but figured it would be good to hit a few highlights. 

The first was in the preface, written by Gregory LeStage, and it was a fact I either didn’t know or had forgotten somehow: in the years 1939 through 1941, more British civilians were killed than were soldiers. The Battle of Britain took a heavy toll in lives as well as infrastructure. The homefront was in essence the warfront. It is difficult for an American in the 21st Century to really grasp this. There has been no war on our own soil (excluding Pearl Harbor) in a century and a half - and the mainland of the US hasn’t been under legitimate threat since, well, probably the War of 1812, more than 200 years ago. 

The collection starts off with a bank, with “Date With Romance,” featuring Mrs. Ramsay, a recurring character. Widowed, she meets an old friend for dinner - he apparently was interested in her back in the day. However, he seems to think of her as old now, and we find out eventually that he hopes to marry a far younger woman. Mrs. Ramsay’s poisonous thoughts are rapier sharp during and after the encounter, and make for a witty contrast to the mansplaining guy. 

Also razor sharp is the opening of “In Clover,” about a rather clueless and classist woman who takes in a lower-class family during the Blitz. The woman in charge of farming out the evacuees from London is described thus:

She had smiled as she spoke, the flashing and more than necessarily kind smile that she reserved for the lower orders, who hadn’t, don’t you know, had quite the advantages that we have. 

I also found “As the Fruitful Vine” intriguing. It is essentially a story of two sisters, the elder of which seems to have upstaged the younger. This becomes even more apparent when, with the war raging, the younger sister gets pregnant on her honeymoon, and everyone disapproves. The sibling dynamics are certainly interesting, but it is this passage that really caught my eye:

After a few days’ honeymoon, Philip had to rejoin his ship, and it was with the greatest astonishment that Lucy discovered in due course that she was going to have a baby. It seemed less like a marital than a botanical incident, the result of a chance brush between a bee and a flower: this discovery of motherhood ought to have been stirring, but again a big moment didn’t quite come off. Paternity would catch up with Philip somewhere in the West Indies or the Mediterranean or wherever Lucy’s startled letter reached him; his reply would reach her long after any emotions which she might have been feeling at the moment of writing his letter had passed. To be truthful, those emotions were not overpowering. It was difficult to work up emotion over a tender secret which had to be shouted to a bee who was now winging his way God knows where. Once more, Lucy felt, life had treated her cruelly.

There are several stories featuring the ladies’ sewing circles, all of which are amusing. Panter-Downes pokes gentle fun at the casual prejudices of the members. In one section, a discussion on what sort of pajamas the Greeks might wear, unexpectedly results in some bigotry being aired. 

Mrs. Twistle coughed gently again and remarked with implacable softness that the Greeks were very marvelous, no doubt, but in her opinion it was a pity that England had to have foreign allies monkeying about with her war. 

After it is pointed out to her that allies are, well, by definition, foreign, Mrs. Twistle kind of doubles down. 

“There’s no doubt, Mrs. Peters, that they’re a fine lot of men. It’s only that if I had my way, we’d have nothing to do with foreigners. We’re better off without them, though there are those in high places, I’m well aware, as don’t see eye to eye.” 
Hmm, this sounds more than a little bit like a lot of white Boomers I know. “I’m sure all those [immigrants, foreigners, African Americans, etc.] are fine people, but why can’t they just stay where they are?” For what it is worth, Mrs. Twistle considers Americans to be suspicious foreigners too. As with Americans - and Brits - today, the delusional dream of Empire casts a rosy glow and paints an illusion that things would be better if we could just go back to a day when foreigners knew their place in the hierarchy.

Mrs. Ramsay’s sewing circle reappears in later stories, in one of which, “Mrs. Ramsay felt that she was sitting in at a sewing bee of the Fates, all busy with shears and thread, snipping at a life here, twinning two strands with a knowing cackle there.” That’s a good line right there. 

Perhaps the most poignant story in the bunch is “Good-bye, My Love,” about a young couple. He is on brief leave, but then must leave her again. 

Language was inadequate, after all. One used the same words for a parting which might be fore years, which might end in death, as one did for an overnight business trip. She put her arms tightly round him and said, “Good-bye, my love.” 

The title story is rather interesting. “Mrs. Craven” is never given an actual name, for reasons which appear as the story progresses. The “she” from whose perspective the story is told, is the mistress of Mr. Craven, who is married with children. They go out to shows together, and always eat at Porters, where she is greeted with “Good evening, Mrs. Craven.” 

At first, this amuses them, but eventually, when the war starts, and he is given deployment orders, she realizes that she is, legally speaking, nobody. (Hence why she never gets a name.) He could be killed in battle, and she would have to wait for the official casualty list to find out. And what if he was just injured?

“Don’t think I’m being stupid and morbid,” she said, “but supposing anything happens. I’ve been worrying about that. You might be wounded or ill and I wouldn’t know.” She tried to laugh. “The War Office doesn’t have a service for sending telegrams to mistresses, does it?” 

It is a bit of a haunting story too, because there is no good ending to this relationship, no matter what happens. 

There are two stories that involve an elderly lady and her elderly servant. (Different characters in each.) In one, “This Flower, Safety,” the lady is terrified by any signs of the war, and keeps moving around to try to escape it. (And probably never does.) In the other, “Cut Down the Trees,” the roles are reversed. Mrs. Walsingham adjusts to the changes with aplomb, even hosting a Canadian regiment on her grounds. (The title comes because they cut a couple of trees down to fit their equipment.) Old Dossie, on the other hand, rages and fights against all change, trying to keep her employer from eating in casual clothes, and in the kitchen no less! When Mrs. Walsingham’s son visits, he is struck by both the changes, and the reactions to them. His mother explains:

“She’s an invaluable creature in lots of ways. Her trouble is that she hates adjusting to the war and she doesn’t like me to adjust, either. She has always refused to adjust to anything. I sometimes think that if there’s ever a social revolution in England, they’ll string Dossie up first before they bother about me.”

Speaking of social revolutions, in “Year of Decision,” one of the stories with a male protagonist, the wealthy couple each have difficulty adjusting. With no servants, they both have to learn how to keep a house themselves. The wife works herself into complete exhaustion, while the husband fantasizes about being able to fight in a real war, not just make important plans for it from behind a desk. 

War had differed from peace only in that one worked harder, smoked more, and was progressively more and more uncomfortable at home. But discomfort was hardly danger; except for dodging a few bombs in the blitz, his had been a remarkably safe war. It had taught him none of the stinging, salutary lessons that he had expected. Instead, he had picked up all sorts of curious, unlikely bits of information, such as how to make a bed, scour a greasy saucepan, and lay a breakfast table so that it did not too greatly resemble the haphazard design of the March Hare’s tea party. 

Times have indeed changed more than a bit. But that is part of the fun of this book. By turns humorous and poignant, it captures the ways that war and stress and trauma change us, and shines a light on the fact that those on the homefront experience war too. I rather enjoyed this book, and would like to seek out some of Panter-Downes’ other writings.  

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This is, without a doubt, the most unusual - and dark - book I have read this year. I’m not quite sure how to describe it, but I will give it a shot. 

The central premise is that the protagonist, Ada, is an ogbanje, a “spirit child.” I discovered this concept earlier this year in Chinua Achebe’s book, Things Fall Apart. In the original Igbo mythology, such a child is a spirit, or a god if you will, and comes to the parents for the purpose (more or less) of breaking the birth mother’s heart by dying young. And then repeating the process over and over. It isn’t difficult to figure out the way such a myth would arise: in an era of high infant mortality, weak genes (or maternal malnutrition or whatever) could easily cause a string of infant deaths. Just the stories of Suzanna Wesley or John Donne or Gustave Mahler alone are filled with dead babies. 

In Freshwater’s version of the story, though, the ogbanje is a hybrid: a human child possessed or occupied by spirits/gods. For Ada, the problem is that she didn’t die - she lived, but tormented by the spirits which are part of her, but that she cannot come to peace with. 

The structure of the book is fascinating as well. There are multiple narrators, with distinctive voices. Much of the book is narrated by “we,” the plural voice of the spirits. Occasionally, Ada her self is heard, usually in the form of a diary entry or a poem, until she finds a voice at the end, which combines her with her spirits in style. The third voice is that of one spirit, who Ada names Asughara. This spirit is feral, animalistic, the personification of desire and darkness. The best I can do to describe the voices is that Ada is timid but recognizably human. We is more like a Greek chorus, with figurative, mythical, and serenely confident. Asughara is personal and lets us see more of Ada than even Ada herself, but is so much concentrated energy and malice and exuberance in one, that she seems other than human. (Which is, presumably, the point.)  

Asughara is “born,” in the language of the book, as the result of a trauma. Ada is raped by a boy at college, and Asughara separates from the We at that time. Asughara becomes the way that Ada can function sexually: Asughara is full of violent lust and desire, but uses sex to punish the men who sleep with Ada. (They deserve it, mostly, because Asughara chooses men who are used to using women.) Freud might describe her as the Id - and not a stereotypically feminine one at that. Even Asughara admits that her flaw is that she has no concern for the emotional consequences to others - even to Ada. 

There is one other spirit who separates somehow from the We, and that is the male spirit Ada names Saint Vincent. He is gentle in all the ways that Asughara is not, and presents an alternative to her dysfunctional sexuality. But, as he is male, he drives Ada to hook up with women, which isn’t at all what Asughara wants (although she tolerates it for Ada’s sake.) 

If this sounds a bit complicated and crazy, it is. And even more so as we see the battles raging in Ada. Asughara feels called back to the spirit realm, and the only way she can do this is by killing Ada - so she pushes Ada toward suicide. This part of the book is damn dark, and I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who is already suicidal. It got to me, and I don’t tend toward depression. (I have my other demons, believe me, and have been in some dark places related to circumstances, but suicidal ideation isn’t the direction my brain is wired to seek first.) 

Eventually, Ada has to find equilibrium in her own way, through the understanding of her ogbanje nature. 

In order to gain some understanding of the book, I think it is helpful to understand the author. Emezi identifies as transgender and non-binary...and also as an ogbanje. The book isn’t strictly autobiographical, but it is significantly so. The author has said that they used their life as the skeleton for the story. But even more than this, it is an emotional and psychological autobiography, a look inside the author’s psyche. For Emezi, the ogbanje explanation makes more sense and “works” better than either the Western psychology framework or the Catholic Christianity that they were raised with. I have decidedly mixed feelings about this because of my own background. I was raised in the “nouthetic counseling” subculture, which is similar (but not exactly) to the Catholic approach that Emezi describes in interviews about that book. For me, that approach was borderline abusive, as it ascribes pain and trauma and grief and all dysfunction to specific sin in the life of the one who suffers. It denies any biological or circumstantial basis for mental illness, and blames its victims for their own pain. Particularly as Bill Gothard taught it, it pretty well fucked me up during my late teens. (And that’s before you get to the lasting relationship damage in my extended family, but that’s a different post.) It took a while (and the process is ongoing) to retrain my brain to understand how and why I react - in a way that doesn’t require “spiritualization” of things - or heaping guilt on me for negative feelings.

On the other hand, I do believe in my deepest being that there is more to life and the self and the psyche than chemistry and electricity. I believe in - and have experienced and continue to experience - a spiritual dimension that is as much a part of me as the physical being that science can describe. So, while contemporary Western psychology has been helpful in understanding myself and my reactions, it isn’t all there is. 

Two things tend to make my understanding of Emezi’s experiences difficult. First, I am a Western person, raised in my particular culture. As such, I can only view Igbo mythology from the outside. (I use that word not as a pejorative, but in the same way C. S. Lewis and Joseph Campbell do. Myth isn’t necessarily untrue, it is just true in a way that isn’t necessarily literally, empirically, naturalistically true. Rather, it is true in some combination of psychological, metaphorical, spiritual, and ontological truth.) The second barrier is that I do not share Emezi’s psychological reality. True, I have conversations in my head all the time (my wife teases me because she can tell), and even arguments. But I never feel like someone or something other than “me” is in my head. I don’t even experience the “angel and devil on shoulder” dichotomy. (If I ever do, can I have Crowley and Aziraphale, please? Please?) So, I have never felt like in a way consistent with the experience of being an ogbanje

I couldn't resist.

That said, because of my own experiences, I can see how Emezi could find an Igbo explanation for their experience to be helpful and useful. 

Similarly, I really don’t have a framework to understand Emezi’s other identity experiences. I am strongly cishet, although I don’t fit our culture’s masculine stereotypes particularly well. I feel male...but like a male who loves violin, poetry, nature, suggleing, cooking, and cats. I was mistaken for gay a lot as a kid and young adult for that reason. (I literally laughed out loud when I read Alice Munro’s riff on sexual orientation in one of her stories.) The best I can recommend is the excellent Vox article they wrote about their transition surgeries. It gives an insight in their experience, and the pain and trauma that live in their psyche. 

In that sense, this book was disturbing because it gave a full-on immersion into a psyche which is totally unfamiliar, and occasionally terrifying, to me. I don’t mean that being trans and/or nonbinary is terrifying. I mean seeing into the depths of pain and trauma that leads to self destructive and cruel behavior, and the self-loathing and unwellness that drags one toward suicide. The problem, if it can be called that, is that Emezi writes so very compellingly of this. At several points, I was sure I was absolutely hating the book, and hating what it made me feel, but at the end, after I caught my breath, I had to admit that I admired and respected it. A book that is so real and takes you on that kind of journey cannot be characterized as anything less than outstanding. The writing does what it was intended to do. This is a book that will stay with me. 

In addition to my caution that the book may be a bit much for someone already experiencing suicidal thoughts (although, again, I’m not wired in that direction, so I could be reading this completely wrong), I should also mention that it contains psychologically (not physically) graphic rape and assault. There is a lot of sex in this book, and it can get graphic, although it is all completely necessary, and it is brief. 

The other thing that might be a trigger for those who are connected to the Christian religious description, is that Jesus (as “Yshwa”) is a character. He too occupies Ada’s head, although he is an invited visitor, not part of her, like the spirits. The problem is that Yshwa is a personification of the Problem of Evil. Why wasn’t he there during Ada’s rape - or the sexual assaults we learn she experienced as a young child? Why didn’t he prevent her mother from abandoning the family? Emezi grew up Catholic, so they know the theology and scripture well enough. What is most fascinating is the book’s conclusion about Yshwa: he too was a spirit violently dragged into a fleshly body. He was an ogbanje too. As a result, he knows all too well the pain of being human and being trapped in flesh, and does not want to repeat the experience. I certainly hadn’t thought of that view of things, I suppose. Yshwa is thus not a villain, or even close. He tries, along with Saint Vincent, to encourage Ada to travel a less destructive path. But Ada can never escape the effects of the religion she has imbibed, which taught her that the loss of her virginity made her unacceptable to Yshwa. (Not that Yshwa shares this belief - he may not be able to protect and comfort Ada, but he doesn’t condemn her at all.) I found this perspective on Yshwa to be fascinating. Some of my tradition may freak out, of course. And insist that the book is evil because it doesn’t insist on their preferred theology. I prefer to appreciate the unexpected version of our own mythology, which seems consistent with the mystery of incarnation. 

Because the book is so autobiographical, it is hard to know whether Emezi will be able to write additional books of this quality. I hope they are not a one hit wonder, because they write compellingly. 


Just a note on pronouns: I am using “they,” etcetera, because Emezi uses them on their website. The various articles on them are inconsistent, some using female pronouns rather than neutral. Since many of the sources are ones who do aim to use preferred pronouns, I assume that Emezi made a change fairly recently, and that female pronouns were previously acceptable to them. 

Monday, December 2, 2019

Dramatic Lyrics by Robert Browning

Source of book: I own this.

As part of my poetry project, I am trying to systematically work my way through my increasingly extensive collection. In the case of Robert Browning, I own a Modern Library hardback from 1951. While it does not contain the complete Browning, it checks in at more than 700 pages, and contains pretty much all of his best works. You can read my thoughts on Pippa Passes here. 

Browning is probably best known for a handful of poems, many of which are contained in this collection, entitled Dramatic Lyrics. Most of these are “dramatic monologues,” poems in the first person that tell a story, often lurid or disturbing. This is intentional. Two of the poems were originally grouped as “Madhouse Cells” - that is, the tales told by inmates at an asylum. Others, while not specifically characterized, concern murders, grudges, and military action. 

The most famous, probably, of the poems, is “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” which is a long narrative poem rather than a monologue. I read it with the kids some years ago, having first read it as a kid, and enjoyed re-reading it in this case. It is one of the timeless tales, and Browning’s use of language is delightful. Since I already wrote about it here, I won’t say any more in this most. 

I’ll also briefly mention a few others. “My Last Duchess” is a breezily chilling monologue by the Duke, who has murdered the Duchess and put a painting of her behind a curtain, so that none can see her without his permission. I read this one in high school. It is based on a real life person, which makes it even more chilling. 

Lucrezia di Cosimo de' Medici, probably the "last duchess" of the poem. 
Portrait by Bronzino

Paired with this is “Count Gismond,” a monologue by a lady whose virtue has been questioned, after which a duel is fought over her honor. The strength of that poem is its ambiguity: is the lady being truthful, or is she not as pure as she claims? 

There is the nastiness of “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” another one I read in high school. The unnamed narrator, a monk, pours out his hatred for Brother Lawrence, listing his faults, and plotting his murder - or worse, damnation. Browning definitely paints an interesting and memorable picture. I suspect all of us have felt similar feelings at one time or another - even if we refused to admit it to ourselves. 

Another poem deals with a deeply religious person: “Johannes Agricola in Meditation.” The narrator believes in a particularly unpleasant form of Calvinism. Namely, that he, being one of the elect, can sin with impunity, while the unwashed masses, chosen for damnation, cannot find salvation no matter how they try or how pure their motives. I personally believe Calvinism to be a particularly loathsome form of Christianity, especially in our own times, where it usually comes paired with social darwinist politics and a general arrogance and hatred toward everyone outside the tribe. Browning’s poem definitely captures all of this in an unforgettable form. 

The other “madhouse” poem is “Porphyria’s Lover,” told by a man who murders his lover to preserve her in her perfect state. As with “Count Gismond,” though, there are multiple interpretations. The name itself suggests that the poem may be a metaphorical depiction of a disease which had recently been classified when the poem was written. Browning was known to have a fascination with medicine, and he at minimum drew the name from it. 

I do want to quote a few things that I particularly liked. The first is from the opening poem set, entitled “Cavalier Tunes.” I enjoyed the way Browning makes the words dance when read aloud. Here is a bit:

Boot, saddle, to horse, and away!
Rescue my Castle, before the hot day
Brightens the blue from its silvery grey,

(Chorus) "Boot, saddle, to horse, and away!"

Ride past the suburbs, asleep as you'd say;
Many's the friend there, will listen and pray
"God's luck to gallants that strike up the lay,

(Chorus) "Boot, saddle, to horse, and away!"

Forty miles off, like a roebuck at bay,
Flouts Castle Brancepeth the Roundheads array:
Who laughs, Good fellows ere this, by my fay,

(Chorus) "Boot, saddle, to horse, and away!"

Who? My wife Gertrude; that, honest and gay,
Laughs when you talk of surrendering, "Nay!
I've better counsellors; what counsel they?"

(Chorus) "Boot, saddle, to horse, and away!" 

Possibly my favorite from this collection (at least of the ones I hadn’t read before) is “Artemis Prologizes.” Browning captures a brief moment in the Theseus myth - the revenge of Aphrodite against Hippolytus - through the eyes of Artemis. The opening lines are breathtaking:

I am a goddess of the ambrosia courts,
And save by Here, Queen of Pride, surpassed
By none whose temples whiten this the world.
Through heaven I roll my lucid moon along;
I shed in hell o'er my pale people peace;
On earth I, caring for the creatures, guard
Each pregnant yellow wolf and fox-bitch sleek,
And every feathered mother's callow brood,
And all that love green haunts and loneliness.

Were I an ancient Greek, I might have been a follower of Artemis - I am one who loves “green haunts and loneliness.” The whole poem is worth reading. It is definitely one of my favorite retellings of a myth. 

Another poem which reads as a bit insanely obsessed is “Cristina.” As one of the lesser known poems, I found it memorable. 


She should never have looked at me
If she meant I should not love her!
There are plenty ... men, you call such,
I suppose ... she may discover
All her soul to, if she pleases,
And yet leave much as she found them:
But I'm not so, and she knew it
When she fixed me, glancing round them,


What? To fix me thus meant nothing?
But I can't tell (there's my weakness)
What her look said!---no vile cant, sure,
About ``need to strew the bleakness
“Of some lone shore with its pearl-seed.
“That the sea feels''---no strange yearning
“That such souls have, most to lavish
“Where there's chance of least returning.''


Oh, we're sunk enough here, God knows!
But not quite so sunk that moments,
Sure tho' seldom, are denied us,
When the spirit's true endowments
Stand out plainly from its false ones,
And apprise it if pursuing
Or the right way or the wrong way,
To its triumph or undoing.


There are flashes struck from midnights,
There are fire-flames noondays kindle,
Whereby piled-up honours perish,
Whereby swollen ambitions dwindle,
While just this or that poor impulse,
Which for once had play unstifled,
Seems the sole work of a life-time
That away the rest have trifled.


Doubt you if, in some such moment,
As she fixed me, she felt clearly,
Ages past the soul existed,
Here an age 'tis resting merely,
And hence fleets again for ages,
While the true end, sole and single,
It stops here for is, this love-way,
With some other soul to mingle?


Else it loses what it lived for,
And eternally must lose it;
Better ends may be in prospect,
Deeper blisses (if you choose it),
But this life's end and this love-bliss
Have been lost here. Doubt you whether
This she felt as, looking at me,
Mine and her souls rushed together?


Oh, observe! Of course, next moment,
The world's honours, in derision,
Trampled out the light for ever:
Never fear but there's provision
Of the devil's to quench knowledge
Lest we walk the earth in rapture!
---Making those who catch God's secret
Just so much more prize their capture!


Such am I: the secret's mine now!
She has lost me, I have gained her;
Her soul's mine: and thus, grown perfect,
I shall pass my life's remainder.
Life will just hold out the proving
Both our powers, alone and blended:
And then, come next life quickly!
This world's use will have been ended. 

I’ll end by coming full circle to the beginning. “Through The Metidja To Abd-El-Kadr” is based on the historical Abd-El-Kadr, an Algerian resistance fighter in the early 19th Century. Like the song that opens the collection, this poem demands to be read aloud. The relentless rhyme - and the internal repetitions and rhymes evoke the endless rhythm of the horse as he rides on. It’s a classic example of how a skilled wordsmith can make the very sound of words paint a picture that the meanings themselves cannot fully capture. This is one reason that I love poetry: it is a kin to music, where sound and meaning and rhythm and motion and time all blend into one. 


As I ride, as I ride,
With a full heart for my guide,
So its tide rocks my side,
As I ride, as I ride,
That, as I were double-eyed,
He, in whom our Tribes confide,
Is descried, ways untried
As I ride, as I ride.


As I ride, as I ride
To our Chief and his Allied,
Who dares chide my heart's pride
As I ride, as I ride?
Or are witnesses denied---
Through the desert waste and wide
Do I glide unespied
As I ride, as I ride?


As I ride, as I ride,
When an inner voice has cried,
The sands slide, nor abide
(As I ride, as I ride)
O'er each visioned homicide
That came vaunting (has he lied?)
To reside---where he died,
As I ride, as I ride.


As I ride, as I ride,
Ne'er has spur my swift horse plied,
Yet his hide, streaked and pied,
As I ride, as I ride,
Shows where sweat has sprung and dried,
---Zebra-footed, ostrich-thighed---
How has vied stride with stride
As I ride, as I ride!


As I ride, as I ride,
Could I loose what Fate has tied,
Ere I pried, she should hide
(As I ride, as I ride)
All that's meant me---satisfied
When the Prophet and the Bride
Stop veins I'd have subside
As I ride, as I ride!