Two Poems from Garret Keizer’s “The World Pushes Back”

Garret Keizer is a widely published essayist, former Episcopal priest and English teacher, and the author of eight books. His nonfiction works Help: The Original Human Dilemma (HarperOne, 2004) and The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin (Jossey-Bass, 2004) were both transformative and comforting for me during a fraught period in my life. His nuanced meditations on what we owe each other gave me permission to feel all my feelings about a family situation that in the end, I could not resolve, only walk away from. Now, at age 65, he has released his debut poetry collection, The World Pushes Back (Texas Review Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 X.J. Kennedy Award.

Critics often compliment a book by calling it “ambitious”, but such an ego-driven word would be untrue to the spirit of this collection–audacious as it is to be a progressive Christian moralist in a culture where hard-hearted reactionaries claim a monopoly on faith. As he says in the closing poem, “The Last Man Who Knew Everything”:

In the best world every man
would know everything
that was worth knowing
and would know that others knew
as well as he, and would also know
that things worth knowing are few.

Keizer gently but pointedly warns his fellow American bourgeoisie not to mistake the contentment of privilege for true happiness, the latter requiring the soul-searching and pain of being born again into a humbler interconnectedness to others. This vision is embodied in “Cousin Rick”, a real-life example of Henri Nouwen’s ideal of “downward mobility”. Not spoiling the tale with any heavy-handed “Go and do likewise,” Keizer recounts the bare facts of his cousin’s life and death as a missionary in New Guinea, with affection and quiet bewilderment at the saints hidden among us.

Since reading this book, I’ve been conducting an argument in my mind with the poem “For Those Who Talk of Growth”. The speaker, at the start of spring, is clearing his lawn of the sand that the snowplow threw there in the winter, and a perhaps-too-facile metaphor comes to him:

The sand is what served me
for a time, some friend, some
creed that gave me traction
once, but now only burdens
the life I must rake free of it.

However, he immediately corrects himself. Snow will inevitably come again “and I shall go/nowhere without the sand.”

Certainly there are many who worship modernity for its own sake and think themselves clever for upgrading their creeds like new iPhones. I’ve confronted this bias in liberal Christians’ dismissal of the supernatural. But this poem rubbed me the wrong way, because it echoes a common threat leveled against us former Christians: “just you wait, when things get tough, you’ll come crawling back.” For some of us, the sand became quicksand. We didn’t leave because we thought life was easy, we left (or were kicked out) because the old answers were inadequate to meet the revelatory crisis that split our lives into before and after. It actually takes a lot of maturity to look back and admit that the sand did serve us for a time, and be grateful rather than bitter as we say goodbye.

The rabbis say that a person should carry two notes in their pockets: one, “The world was created for me,” and the other, “I am dust and ashes.” A similar balance is at play in the poem “Divine Comedy” (below), which expresses the exquisite difficulty of creating art with a mindset of gratitude rather than scarcity. Transcending praise and blame is a daily spiritual discipline where I often fall short.

The poems below are reproduced with permission from Texas Review Press (Huntsville, TX), copyright Garret Keizer.

THE STARS ARE NEAR

The stars are near,
and it struck me how near
tonight, how superstitious I have been
to take their exponential distances on faith,
like a man dubious about driving a nail
because he’s heard of empty space
between the molecules
in the hammer’s head.
They are near, the stars.
They will always be
near. I have neighbors
whose porch lights are more distant.
A man who believes himself estranged
from his father, because they quarreled
when he was young,
sees the day when he is no longer
young, and no longer estranged,
and no more distant from the nearest star
than from his final breath.
He vows, as I do,
that he will not have his distances
dictated to him any more.

****

DIVINE COMEDY

1.

Hell is eternal publication.
The damned never write a word
except their names at book signings,
never read anything but reviews
of books they can’t remember writing.

They are stuck on the radio for ages,
talking about their goddamn books—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
They call themselves on the call-in line
and ask, “So how did you get published?”

2.

Heaven is eternal publication.
The redeemed never write a word
not quickened by their inscribing:
“For Jane Doe, who graced this event,
and is the truth I sought by writing.”

They are guests on the radio for ages,
talking to God, who just loved the book—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
Again they drift to ground and find
their first acceptance, too good to be true.

January Links Roundup: No White Knights

Welcome to 2019! Will this be the year I finish the Endless Sequel? Somewhere between crushing my son at Pokémon and looking at medieval dildos on Twitter, I am determined to GET ‘ER DONE.

Lest you think social media is a waste of time, though, I have discovered some spiritual wisdom therein. Jessica Dore, a teacher of “Tarot for mental health”, shares daily card draws with profound insights about working with our shadow parts and difficult feelings. On the Death card, for instance, she muses: “Because death is not deterred by ego attachments, it’s in some ways deeply trustworthy. We can cope w/ loss by meaning-making or finding silver linings, but it will likely still hurt. Death requires that we be OK w/ hurting. & With going where we least want to go.”

It takes a lot to give me a new perspective on trauma. By this point I’ve read, written, and held space for more tales of psychological wounding than perhaps I should. But I learned something new from Dore’s latest blog post: we make ourselves susceptible to predators by seeking someone to rescue us from the hard work of personal growth. Trauma disrupts our intuition; that gut feeling of rightness about a new person or situation could just be re-enactment of familiar wounded patterns. Our unhappy ego, like the Knight of Swords, is always in a hurry for the quick fix, so we ignore the red flags and hidden conditions on love.

It is this aspect of the human psyche that gave birth to the mythic knight in shining armor; a rescue fantasy so embedded in the collective consciousness that none among us are immune to projecting it onto any person, place or thing. It is a part in all of us that is ever lurking, waiting for that fast ride out of what a meaningful and fulfilling life requires: work, comfort, pain, change, repeat...

The ego may rush to say “yes!” to that thing, eager to relinquish the steadfast and true to be relieved at last from the burden of saving one’s own life. It is the part that so badly wants the predator to be a permanent waiver from doing the work, that it is willing to believe just about anything.

Defending the Soul from predators and traps (Seven of Wands) is a dirty job, but those who want a life of meaning must do it. It takes a certain tenacity to commit to the long game instead of doing the quick back alley deal where too much is given for too little.

Fruits torn from a tree before the branch is ready to release them never taste as sweet. Fruits hurried are downright sour. Do not give up on your slow route to success so quickly. If you have been doing the long, honest work, if you have felt the promise of things taking shape (Ace of Pentacles), try to trust it for one more day. And then another, and another.

I’ve been thinking about making The Devil the centerpiece card of my Wheel of the Year spread for 2019. I feel that I’ve been in self-created bondage to my fear of the unknown. The Devil speaks to me of the vitality of the Id, a force of untamed creativity, like Orc in William Blake’s mythology.

Gay spirituality blogger Stephen Bradford Long is a former evangelical whose journey to accept his sexuality brought about a deep crisis and ongoing reformation of his faith. He has also written about the healing power of Tarot and its compatibility with Christianity. In this post from November, “I Have Always Been an Abomination: On Homosexuality, Satan, and the Church,” he speaks frankly about the trauma of being brought up to believe that his basic nature was broken, and why that now leads him to identify with the rebel in the Biblical drama of good and evil:

No matter how kind, generous, or welcoming my Christian friends were, that never erased the horrific consequences of their theology.

In other words, my deep sexual desires and impulses were in themselves profane, blasphemous, and contrary to God. I have always been an abomination, no matter how hard I worked to be otherwise. Is it any wonder, then, that Satan is the more appealing figure to me, now? The father of all abominations and outsiders, the father of those who dare to challenge, question, and rebel?

In popular culture children of Satan are often portrayed as having a deep, self-destroying hatred of holy objects. Crucifixes, churches, bibles and priests all send the infernal into a triggered conniption. That’s true, but not true for the reasons popular mythology put forth.

The damned are eviscerated by religious symbolism because it was under that symbolism that we were raped, abused, tortured into another orientation, scalded by good intentions. Those of us outside the traditional kingdom of God are tortured by the presence of holy icons and talismans not because we are so very evil, but because the religious systems of abuse are. I still love church, Christianity, and the Bible, but too many of the Church’s symbols and practices send me into a tailspin. They just hurt too much.

I therefore claim blasphemy and Satan, not as the icon for all that is evil, but as an unapologetic embrace of being outsider. It’s the acknowledgement that it isn’t I who was wrong, but the Church.

Over at Brain Pickings, a literary newsletter/blog by Maria Popova that can happily occupy hours of your time, she reviews philosopher Adam Phillips’ essay collection Unforbidden Pleasures, which challenges us to stop the addictive cycle of criticizing ourselves and others. In her 2016 post “Against Self-Criticism: Adam Phillips on How Our Internal Critics Enslave Us, the Stockholm Syndrome of the Superego, and the Power of Multiple Interpretations”, she lays out his contention that we are in a kind of trauma-bonded relationship with our inner critic (or superego). We’re fused with it, to the extent that we can hardly know ourselves; the judgment comes before the perception. But if we met this carping critic, as a person outside ourselves, we’d actually think his monomania was ridiculous and tragic. “The tyranny of the superego, Phillips argues, lies in its tendency to reduce the complexity of our conscience to a single, limiting interpretation, and to convincingly sell us on that interpretation as an accurate and complete representation of reality.” By cultivating skepticism about any totalizing dogma, we can develop a more spacious, accurate, and compassionate mind.

At The Guardian Online, check out this witty and hard-hitting conversation between two queer feminist icons, bestselling author Roxane Gay and Australian stand-up comedian Hannah Gadsby. Among other topics, they cover fat stigma and the hard work of holding space for traumatic stories, both their own and those of their fans.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the 12th-century mystic, artist, and playwright Hildegard of Bingen, but did you know she painted a map of the universe based on the vulva? Dr. Eleanor Janega at the fascinating blog Going Medieval will tell you all about it. See, you can learn a lot from medieval dildo Twitter.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2018

2018 was an eventful year for me as a creative artist. Behold, my debut short story collection from Sunshot Press/New Millennium Writings:

I successfully avoided finishing my second novel by writing a poetry chapbook instead. American Eclipse, currently making the rounds of contests, was composed during this year’s “30 Poems in November” fundraiser for the Center for New Americans, Northampton’s immigrant services and advocacy organization. You can still donate here. American Eclipse was inspired by the confluence of last year’s solar eclipse, the NecronomiCon conference, and the dystopian forces of climate change and resurgent right-wing hate groups. It also includes amusing and inappropriate poems about gender transition, amusement parks, Pokémon, and New Jersey Turnpike bathrooms. Read a sample poem, “Of Mice and Women”, at Poetry Hotel.

The Young Master started first grade, where he is learning to read, memorize poems, distinguish fiction from nonfiction, and study the great cosmic story from the Big Bang to human evolution. Pokémon battles help him channel his aggression at the tyranny of his parents.

A surprise Xmas present from Mommy: a fleece Pikachu bathrobe!

Adam and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary with a trip to NYC, the place where it all began.

I attended one day of my 25th college reunion at Harvard, which was quite enough to remind me how this dazzling, heartless place can make the most privileged people feel poor and insecure. But I bought the souvenir baseball cap because I’ve decided to be proud that I survived the experience, instead of dwelling on everything that was going nuclear in my life at that time.

I read a lot more comics and graphic novels this year, by myself and with Shane. Hat tip to Forbes Library for maintaining an excellent collection for children and young adults. Some new releases in this genre that I’m looking forward to reading in 2019 include Jarrett K. Krosoczka’s memoir Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction (Graphix/Scholastic) and We’re Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology edited by Tara Avery and Jeanne Thornton (Stacked Deck Press).

Favorite Posts of 2018:

Problems of Lineage and Magic

…[I] feel long-suppressed grief that our family story is so full of gaps, or worse. I’ve been running away from the pain by declaring that these people are nothing to me. But really, is there anything more Jewish than a legacy of lacunae? I am part of a long tradition of diaspora, fragmentation, and self-reinvention.

The Binding of Isaac and the Sacrifice of the False Child

…What if the son that Abraham has to kill is not his real son? What if he’s being asked to kill his agenda for Isaac–the mindset in which Abraham values his child not because of who Isaac is, but because of the role he’s expected to play in securing Abraham’s worldly importance? Narcissistic parenting is the idol that Abraham lays on the altar.

Daily Bible Study Is My Problematic Fave

…Perhaps it’s trite to snark at the suppressed homoeroticism of prayers like “invade me with your burning fire”, but heteronormative evangelicalism’s refusal to admit the pleasures of abjection leaves no other way for this imagery to be read except as rapey. It’s as though, like chaste ladies in an old-fashioned romance novel, they can only allow themselves to bottom for Jehovah if it’s cast as a painful punishment against their will.

Could We Be God’s Alternate Personalities?

…I wonder if the entire way that Western philosophy privileges monism is bound up with our besetting sins of imperialism, exclusionary religion, and totalitarian ideology. All these failures of empathy share the presumption that singularity is saner, purer, and holier than diversity.

“Le Génie du Mal” pin via Kate Sheridan Art

Emo Lucifer wishes you a hot 2019!

Erasure and Swag: My Life in Pins

I could depict the timeline of my passions in swag. Pins, keychains, and pendants that proclaimed my shifting special interests, my fervent niche identities, to a world that usually ignored or mocked but occasionally extended the brief warmth of tribal recognition.

And just recently I asked myself, as I picked out more queer nerd tank tops on Redbubble: What have I been driving at, in my lifelong quest for visibility–or more often, my battle against a crushing feeling of erasure? What deeper wounds are reopened when, for example, someone refuses to make waves in a conservative environment by using my nonbinary pronouns–or when I make the same pragmatic choice myself? Why, as an adolescent, did I feel compelled to add to my social awkwardness by literally wearing my heart on my sleeve?

I had a thing for tragically murderous dudes.

When I was 13, for example, I read British mystery novelist Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, in which her series detective re-examines the historical evidence for King Richard III’s alleged murder of his young nephews who stood in his path to the throne. The conclusion: He wuz framed, yer Honor. No topic is too obscure to inspire a fan club somewhere in the world, so (impressively in the pre-Internet 1980s) I connected with the Richard III Society in England and bought this lovely pin (figure left) that I wore every day in 9th grade, to the ridicule of my classmates. Yes, my main political activity during the era of AIDS and apartheid divestment was lobbying to reopen a 500-year-old cold case.

In college, I saw the musical “The Phantom of the Opera” and, like many a lonely young woman-adjacent person who liked black capes, fell in love with the title character. This pin (figure right) was my lucky amulet through the ill-advised adventure of law school. Perhaps all that Erik needed was a good real estate lawyer to help him claim title to his underground lair via adverse possession.

At right: St. Dymphna, patron saint of mental illness.

My late 20s-early 30s was my peak Christian phase, so I bought keychains like this one saying “YIELD your heart to Jesus” and wore a little diamond cross pendant on the commuter train in hopes that cute guys would strike up a conversation with me about the Trinity. (Reader, they did not. But if you begin an M/M romance that way, I will buy it.)

I don’t have any relevant swag from my “trauma theory explains everything” period, 2008-2015. You mean there’s no market for “emotional incest survivor” keychains? What a surprise!

This just screams “Etsy shop”, no?

I rediscovered H.P. Lovecraft around the time that I was becoming disillusioned with Christianity’s abuse apologism. The Elder Gods “religion” is great for mystically-minded cynics because it is simultaneously a genuine apophatic theology and a light-hearted parody of church ritual. We can get our Monty Python kicks from dressing up in tentacled headgear, but we’re also bracing ourselves to confront the cold reality of a non-human-centered cosmos–a bittersweet passage out of father-idealizing religion, into spiritual adulthood.

Central pendant and pin courtesy of NecronomiCon Providence 2017.

Which brings us into the wonderful world of queer signifying apparel. In case the boy-band haircut, Eddie Bauer fleece vest, and dozen slightly different blue pin-striped button-down shirts don’t give me away, I have begun collecting pronoun pins, necklaces, and tank tops with Pokemon characters in the colors of the trans flag.

So what does all this mean? Apart from the observation, so routine and widespread as to be cliché (but like many clichés, also true), that Americans are groomed to create brand identities for ourselves through consumption?

A thread that runs throughout my life is the need to struggle against misinterpretation. But it is interwoven with the contradictory thread of ceaselessly seeking an identity that resists definition. Show me what’s the opposite of who I am, and I will try to include it. And then I’ll complain that I’m still being mistaken for another, easier-to-understand category–as though it wasn’t my own choice to become something that has no name.

Dr. Freud, up there, would say this is about my engulfment trauma from being raised by a narcissist. Wherever I am, I have to carry some pocket talisman of resistance, an assertion (even if only secretly to myself) that a piece of me remains outside the agenda of the people around me. A crucifix at a radical feminist conference, a Cthulhu necklace in church.

When I was That Kind of Christian, I wore swag to evangelize. I wasn’t concerned with saving people from Hell; I agreed with C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle that all good and loving deeds were counted as worship of the true God, whatever you called your religion. I was desperate to rescue people from shame, perfectionism, and codependence in this life. Because a certain rather idiosyncratic brand of Christianity had done that for me, at that point in time, I hoped it would do the same for everyone. In my non-Christian family and my secular big-city workplaces, and in progressive churches where we glossed over theology instead of wrestling with its historical difficulties, I felt a similar burden of erasure as a conservative Christian in America that I now feel as a genuine sexual minority. Which is why I asked the question that led to this post: is this my psychological pattern, regardless of content?

If so, I am optimistic that the pattern is shifting. At NecronomiCon and Flame Con (the LGBTQ comics convention), I wore my rainbow octopus gear to signal membership in the tribe, to ask for welcome, not to undermine it. And it really worked. I felt energized, relaxed, and appreciated as the current version of my true self–however long a shelf-life it may have.

This nonbinary Russian Blue is one of many cute color-coded animals available from @GayBreakfast on Storenvy. 

Comics Review Roundup: Telgemeier, Burns, Adventure Time and More

The Young Master and I have been bonding over our love of comics and graphic novels since I returned from Flame Con with Warrior Cats manga and Lumberjanes. I read them aloud to him, and he re-reads them for the pictures and action, sounding out the simple words he knows. Every day for weeks after we finished Graystripe’s Adventure, he asked me to make-believe we were Graystripe and Firestar, feline best friends who lead a noble clan of feral cats in the forest. This full-color manga has a positive environmentalist message, as the cats’ home has been destroyed by human development. We also enjoyed the manga trilogy collected in Ravenpaw’s Path, where Graystripe’s friend Ravenpaw turns away from his warrior heritage to live in a barn with his male friend Barley. I appreciated the covert queer rep (though nothing romantic is shown on-page, Barley is essentially his life partner) and the storyline about the limits of loyalty to toxic family members. Although Graystripe is too tough to consider this a compliment, the cats as drawn by James L. Barry are awfully cute and have realistic body language–they’re genuine cats, not Disney plushies.

Some Flame Con panelists name-dropped the cartoon series Adventure Time, so I picked up Volume 5 of the comic book spin-off at the library to field-test with Shane. It’s a surreal, self-referential farce about a boy, his dog friend who has Plastic-Man-like abilities to reshape his body, and Princess Bubblegum of the candy kingdom of Ooo. The princess is a high-femme mad scientist with a rock star vampire girlfriend. It was bizarre and random in the way that I like, but judging from Shane’s reaction, the humor was possibly too wordy and subtle for a 6-year-old. Even so, we’ll give it another shot. (Thank you, Forbes Library, for having the most excellent comics collection for kids and adults.)

Since the Young Master is a fan of the movie “Coco”, and I bawl sappy tears every time we read the picture book version, I guessed correctly that we’d like Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts, a kid-friendly but serious graphic novel about a Mexican-American family whose younger daughter has cystic fibrosis. In the days leading up to Día de los Muertos, the sick girl and her older sister cope with impending mortality through encounters with friendly spirits. Folks, I broke down crying on the last two pages and could hardly read them aloud. But they were happy tears. Have your tissues ready. Shane loved this one too. At his request, we borrowed Claudia and Mean Janine, a book in Telgemeier’s “Baby-Sitters Club” series, though tween girl friendship drama did not hold his interest. I think the issue is genre, not gender; he shows a strong preference for non-human protagonists and fantasy settings. Unlike Claudia’s Type-A parents, I will never police his choices as “not great literature”.

His latest make-believe scenarios come from Dragons Beware!, the second volume in the Chronicles of Claudette, by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado. (I hope the library has the first book, now!) Claudette is a fearless, flame-haired, tomboyish child in a medieval French village. With the help of her kid brother Gaston, who’d rather be a pastry chef than a fighter, and their friend Marie, a nobleman’s daughter who believes all problems can be solved by diplomacy and good hair, Claudette challenges mythical beasts and defeats an evil wizard. Her father is also a formidable warrior and blacksmith, despite being legless in a wheelchair. Limited dialogue and action-packed panels make this book a great read-aloud for the first-grade set.

Definitely not for kids: Charles Burns’ body-horror trilogy of graphic novels, X’ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull (now collected in a single volume, Last Look, from Pantheon Graphic Library). Imagine that Samuel Beckett and Hieronymus Bosch dropped acid together and wrote a Tintin comic. I read an excerpt of The Hive in one of the annual Best American Comics anthologies some years ago and vowed to find the whole series so I could figure out WTF was going on. (Thanks again, Forbes Library!)

Mild spoilers ahead. The books braid the real-world story of Doug, a photographer and failed performance artist obsessed with his lost love Sarah, with the nightmare visions of his alter ego, Johnny 23, a low-level functionary in a breeding factory where woman-like creatures produce monstrous eggs. The features of his grotesque dream world make no sense in the first volume, but gradually reveal parallels to the themes around which Doug’s mind circles endlessly: the death of his depressed father, the work of avant-garde artists that Doug and Sarah imitate in a shallow way, and Sarah’s ritualized guilt and masochism. Why is Doug’s alter ego an invalid with a bandaged head, in a landscape of insanity? Did Sarah succumb to her abusive ex-boyfriend or self-harm? We are led to expect a dramatic resolution to their story, a big reveal worthy of the post-apocalyptic menace of its fantasy double. The ending of both narratives is banal and anticlimactic, which at first left me feeling cheated, till I realized this was the book’s brilliant objective all along.

The real tragedy of Doug’s life is that there is no tragedy; like his father before him, he falls victim to a self-aggrandizing narrative that the reader is at first seduced into accepting, too. Do the peculiar features of his nightmare world have any symbolic meaning, in the end, or is the message that “there’s no there there,” no substance behind the Burroughs-style cut-up performance poetry that Doug thinks is so profound? Sarah starts out as whatever the Goth equivalent of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, but she outgrows it and he doesn’t.

To the extent that there’s any logic to his fantasy of angry lizard-headed factory managers and egg-laying girls, I interpret it as Doug’s horror of adulthood. It’s the world of the suburban heterosexual salaryman, the Willy Loman figure that his dad became. The monster that looms invisibly over this world is the mother archetype. The real female body, representing the cycle of birth and death, ruins his idealized image of his lover and the Tintin-like eternal adolescence that he desires with her. Doug’s mother is never seen on-page, though she supposedly lives in the same house where Doug convalesces and Dad mopes in the basement with a photo of his old girlfriend. Johnny 23 brings 1960s romance comics to the breeder girls, the same comics that real-life Sarah loved and Doug disdained. The most grotesque moment, in a book that’s full of them, comes when Johnny’s favorite girl unveils her giant dripping ovipositor from beneath the blankets, begging him to catch the egg that he can’t bring himself to touch. The woman that Doug is married to, in the last book, doesn’t seem quite real: she is impossibly understanding of his Sarah obsession and occasional tumbles off the wagon of sobriety, and her helmet hairdo belongs to the previous generation. She is a sexless fantasy mother, Wendy to his Peter Pan.

I wondered about the Asian flavor of the nightmare realm. His sometime guide is a sort of midget sumo wrestler, and the monstrous characters at the unhygienic outdoor market speak a language speech-bubbled in kanji (probably not real but I can’t tell). Was this a nod to the ethnocentrism of the original Tintin comics? A clue comes in the final pages of Sugar Skull, when Johnny 23 encounters a Buddhist-looking shrine just before his aimless journey starts all over again. I think Doug is trapped on the wheel of samsara. The extreme manifestations of bodily excess in his dream world (culverts pouring blood, maggots with human faces, the fetus in the breeder girl’s dropped egg) are analogous to Siddhartha’s encounters with aging, sickness, and death (the Four Sights), but he has not yet taken the opportunity to seek an end to anyone’s suffering, not even his own. Perhaps the spirit of Inky the Cat will lead him out of the Hungry Ghost realm eventually? We can only hope.

October Links Roundup: Mx. Personality

October…my favorite season. The days turn cold and dark, the leaves change color, and Mr. Tech Support and I will be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. I am filled with an unusual sense of wellbeing because I sold three copies of my story collection at a Straw Dog Writers Guild reading last night and now have enough money to buy a new trans boi shirt from Androgynous Fox. (Speaking of which, this Dapper Boi button-down is the best. Make more colors!)

My forced exposure to psychological tests a decade ago convinced me that “personality” is a contestable concept. (A belief which, needless to say, did not improve my score.) The self is situational, changing over time, and wearing different personae depending on the norms and trust level in a given social setting. Attempting to quantify it as a fixed trait, like eye color, can erase the impact of interpersonal stressors and make the subject feel powerless to change.

Such caveats are thoroughly considered in “Who’s Got Personality?”, Deborah Chasman’s Boston Review interview with Merve Emre about her new book, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing (Penguin Random House). Their dialogue explores reasons for the continued popularity of these unscientific metrics, the test creators’ struggles with women’s changing roles in the mid-20th century, and the gender and class hierarchies that the test perpetuates:

If you look at the statistics around the [thinking vs. feeling] indicator, it is true that women tend have a stronger preference for feeling than men. But what I think is so dangerous about MBTI is that it claims that those personality traits are innate; it naturalizes the feeling-work that women do when really it is often a function of much larger structural dynamics. That women were often tasked with doing the affective labor of social reproduction has very little to do with biology and everything to do with the way that the household has been set up and theorized as a private space—where feelings are managed—as opposed to the public space of material labor and of work…

…Not everybody gets the privilege of thinking of oneself as a unique individual, somebody who has a rich inner life or even a highly differentiated set of preferences that are worth talking about and classifying. Even before you get to typing people using the indicator, a type system has already sorted them—there are those who get to have access to personalities and those who don’t.

Today, still, by the logic of this particular indicator, people who are white and wealthy and powerful and male get to think of themselves as personalities. The indicator really works to perpetuate that. When I went to the reeducation program, one participant was this wonderful man, a college counselor from a small, Midwestern school, who was telling us that 70 percent of his students were first-generation immigrants, they were the first people in their families to go to college, they were overwhelmingly from lower-income households, many of them were women and students of color. He was telling the talent coach that for many of these students the questions on the test are simply inscrutable—they ask you to imagine these scenarios where, say, you are planning a vacation and you have to figure out whether you plan everything ahead of time or you just go spontaneously. Or at work, you have this huge project and your boss is a thinker and you are a feeler, so how do you go about making decisions. His students found the minds of those decision-makers impenetrably bourgeois. He asked the talent coach what he should tell them when they say they have never gone on vacation, never been able to afford to go on vacation, or that in their workplaces people don’t cooperate—they are just told what to do and to punch in and out. Her response was striking: well, this is the pool of success, and if they want to swim in it they just have to learn, they just have to acclimate themselves to this language, to these ideas. MBTI continues to be classed and raced and biased in all sorts of implicit ways. It was explicit in the ’40s. It is more implicit now.

For a more contrarian take on self-help, life coach Pace Smith recently blogged about a dangerous omission in spiritual talk about the virtue of love. In “Why I Hate Compassion”, she writes:

If you hang out with spiritual people (and you do), you’ll hear a lot of talk about compassion. Supposedly, it’s pretty awesome. If we can just practice infinite compassion for all beings at all times, we’ll reach enlightenment and all dance around as joyful radiant beings of light.

Take this Dalai Lama quote, for example:

“We must each lead a way of life with self-awareness and compassion, to do as much as we can. Then, whatever happens we will have no regrets.”

Does that make you feel peaceful? If so, you can stop reading now, and pass this article along to a friend who suffers from Infinite Compassion Syndrome.

If the quote makes you feel anxious, and makes you question whether you’re truly doing as much as you can, then I’m talking to you.

“Judge nothing, you will be happy. Forgive everything, you will be happier. Love everything, you will be happiest.” – Sri Chinmoy

Sounds great in theory, right?

But would you give this advice to a woman in an abusive relationship?

Would you tell her to forgive, to let go of judgment, and to love no matter what?

Yes, I know, I post a lot of links on this topic… If I have any consistent “personality”, it’s this: I can’t avoid probing for the weak spot, the thing that is left out, in any belief system. Is deconstruction a wounded trauma response? Was the neo-conservative phase of my teens and 20s an attempt to shore up fragments of absolutism against the inevitable ruins of whatever I trusted?

Back in those days, I was pro-life–largely because it scared me to think that my mother, or any mother, should have the power to decide whether I was a “person” or not. (Heck, she was never convinced of that after I was born.) But when I realized I didn’t trust the religious conservatives who shared my views, nor agreed with them on anything else, it caused me to question my position. Gabrielle Blair, who blogs at Design Mom, recently posted this Twitter thread (unrolled on her blog) with a convincing argument that the most ethical way to reduce unwanted pregnancies is to hold men responsible, commensurate with their real biological role in the problem. Excerpts:

Did you know that a man CAN’T get a woman pregnant without having an orgasm? Which means that we can conclude getting a woman pregnant is a pleasurable act for men.

But did you further know that men CAN get a woman pregnant without HER feeling any pleasure at all? In fact, it’s totally possible for a man to impregnate a woman even while causing her excruciating pain, trauma or horror.

In contrast, a woman can have non-stop orgasms with or without a partner and never once get herself pregnant. A woman’s orgasm has literally nothing to do with pregnancy or fertility — her clitoris exists not for creating new babies, but simply for pleasure.

No matter how many orgasms she has, they won’t make her pregnant. Pregnancies can only happen when men have an orgasm. Unwanted pregnancies can only happen when men orgasm irresponsibly.

What this means is a women can be the sluttliest slut in the entire world who loves having orgasms all day long and all night long and she will never find herself with an unwanted pregnancy unless a man shows up and ejaculates irresponsibly.

Women enjoying sex does not equal unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Men enjoying sex and having irresponsible ejaculations is what causes unwanted pregnancies and abortion…

…Stop protesting at clinics. Stop shaming women. Stop trying to overturn abortion laws. If you actually care about reducing or eliminating the number of abortions in our country, simply HOLD MEN RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS.

What would that look like? What if there was a real and immediate consequence for men who cause an unwanted pregnancy? What kind of consequence would make sense? Should it be as harsh, painful, nauseating, scarring, expensive, risky, and life-altering…

… as forcing a woman to go through a 9-month unwanted pregnancy?

In my experience, men really like their testicles. If irresponsible ejaculations were putting their balls at risk, they would stop being irresponsible. Does castration seem like a cruel and unusual punishment? Definitely.

But is it worse than forcing 500,000 women a year to puke daily for months, gain 40 pounds, and then rip their bodies apart in childbirth? Is a handful of castrations worse than women dying during forced pregnancy & childbirth?

Put a castration law on the books, implement the law, let the media tell the story, and in 3 months or less, tada! abortions will have virtually disappeared. Can you picture it? No more abortions in less than 3 months, without ever trying to outlaw them. Amazing.

For those of you who consider abortion to be murder, wouldn’t you be on board with having a handful of men castrated, if it prevented 500,000 murders each year?

And if not, is that because you actually care more about policing women’s bodies, morality, and sexuality, than you do about reducing or eliminating abortions? (That’s a rhetorical question.)

At the cultural webzine Popula, Sarah Miller reflects on the dangers of going along to get along, in “The Movie Assassin: How ‘The English Patient’ almost ruined my life”. As a young film critic at a Philadelphia newspaper, Miller thought the much-hyped movie was pretentious and dull (I agree), but her mentors insisted that any smart person should love it, and leaned on her to write a positive review. She did, and moved on to a successful freelance career writing things she didn’t really care about, until one day the money dried up and she had an epiphany:

I thought a lot about my lying review of that racist, boring, laughable, pseudo-intellectual movie. I thought about how at the time, I was proud of myself for having the courage to make shit up because I was afraid to disagree with someone I wanted to impress, and also afraid of not making money. That one decision had led to a lot of other similar ones and had eventually ended up as an agreement with myself to spend over 10 years of my life being a different person than the one I had planned on being and feeling smug about being good at writing crap and then even actually starting to think the crap was good because of the money I was given to produce it. I look at all the people in tech who are convinced they are saving the world, that what they do matters. When the money goes, and it will, that feeling will go with it.

If you write thousands of sentences that have absolutely nothing to do with what you think or feel those sentences are still what you will become. You can turn yourself into another person. I turned myself into another person…

…It often strikes me that it is considered immature to be unable to believe bullshit. Think about the word globalization. It doesn’t mean cultures mixing, fusion cuisine, or a fun wedding of a rich Sri Lankan to a poor Swede. It doesn’t even mean free markets. It means access to new markets and especially access to cheap labor so rich people can make more money. That is all it means. If you happen to gain from side effects (see fusion cuisine, above) you might want to notice what everyone else, including you, is losing. But try saying that at a dinner party. Everyone would just feel sorry for you.

I just can’t stop thinking of—hmmm—The English Patient. This was a movie about good looking mostly white people talking complete rubbish to each other, the end. But it was based on a LITERARY NOVEL with LONG SENTENCES using BIG WORDS. It had RESPECTED ACTORS. PEOPLE DIED in it. Also, WORLD WAR II WAS THERE. Everyone had agreed to care about this thing, to call it good, to give it nine Academy Awards. But it was just a piece of shit sprinkled with glitter that everyone, including me, agreed to call gold.

Everyone talks about the country falling apart in November 2016, but maybe it fell apart in November 1996, when America went to see The English Patient. What if we had all turned to each other and said, “This garbage is our idea of rave-worthy cinema? Anyone else see a big problem here?”, and then there had been a massive riot?

Becoming poor was such a small price to pay to stop being so fucking dumb. I used to hear the saying “Politics is the art of the possible” as benignly self-evident. Now I know it is chastising, smug, and cruel. It’s not about cooperation. It is about agreeing that some people’s lives don’t matter. If you hear anything else in that saying, you’ve never wished you could just die because you couldn’t figure out how to make money.

Want to discover two great poets who understand why writing matters? Check out this conversation betwen Kaveh Akbar and Danez Smith in Granta. At the time, both were shortlisted for Britain’s prestigious Forward Prize, which Smith won. Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017) is a lyrical meditation on recovery from alcoholism, in dialogue with the Persian mystical tradition of his ancestors. Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf, 2017), a fierce and tender book on being black and HIV+ in America, combines the energetic rhythms of performance poetry with the complexity of literature on the page. As the editor of Divedapper, Akbar is also an extremely generous promoter of other contemporary poets. Follow him on Twitter to find your next favorite poem. In the Granta piece, I especially loved Smith’s discussion of the challenges of writing a joyful book (his forthcoming collection Homie):

I turned to my favorite writers of joy: Ross Gay, Lucille Clifton, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Angel Nafis, Pablo Neruda, Toni Morrison. I turned to Marvin Gaye and Patti LaBelle and all the folks I dance and sing too. I learned two things I think. One was to allow some more grief into the poems, not to sully the joy, but for the grief to be comforted. I think in my two previous collections grief led while joy attempted to triumph. I think that is surely a fine way to write joy. We all love an anthem and anthems require a little blood. With this collection, I think joy is the center and grief seeks out joy as a place of respite. Some of the drafts at some point felt a little cheesy, so I had to dig a little deeper into that brightness I distrusted and find what was being confessed. I think poems confess something. The second thing I learned was to surrender to ecstasy.

May we all write in such a way that our grief can be comforted.

Revealing Self: Tom Taylor/The Poet Spiel’s Multimedia Memoir

Visual artist Tom Taylor, a/k/a The Poet Spiel, is a creator of varied personae, with a 66-year career spanning genres from graphic design to mixed-media collage and installation art, poetry, and now memoir. His new book, Revealing Self in Pictures and Words, is an impressionistic retrospective of his personal journey and the dramatic shifts in his style and materials over the decades.

Boldly colored reproductions of his artwork are interspersed with vignettes, aphorisms, dreamlike or nightmarish memories, and previously published poems reformatted as prose paragraphs. These written sections are set off in quotation marks, like tantalizing snippets of an overheard conversation, and formatted in a multi-hued script that creates the impression of an artist’s journal. (This font was admittedly a challenge to read in large amounts, but the necessity of slowing down may have helped me absorb more of the meaning.) Instead of traditional narrative transitions, third-person summaries of the action, in a more businesslike sans-serif font, serve as occasional signposts to situate the samples of his creative work within the chronology of his life and travels.

And what a life: Born in 1941, Spiel was a maverick from the start. He grew up on a Colorado farm on the Great Plains, a repressive environment for a gay artistic boy with migraines and manic-depressive tendencies. The early pages of his book speak candidly, in intense and hallucinatory flashbacks seared with humor, about the burden of his mother’s mental illness and her violation of his intimate boundaries. His bond with animals and nature kept his soul alive, a connection he would later channel into successful commercial posters and landscape paintings of wildlife, inspired by his travels in Zambia. In the 1990s his work took a surreal and expressionist turn, protesting social conformity and war. His life as a gay man in America has given him an outsider perspective on the hypocrisy of conventional mores, and a rage against the stifling of his authentic life force. These themes show up in his raw, satirical, unpretentious poems. Revealing Self invites the reader to experience Rimbaud’s maxim that “A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses.”

Spiel has kindly permitted me to reprint this poem, first published in his chapbook Human (Pudding House Press, 2003).

July Bonus Links: Open Borders Edition

Hello again, fans. The fascist nightmare engulfing our country merited its own links post, so here you go. At the risk of putting myself on a government watchlist, I must say, never have I felt less enthusiastic about the patriotic celebrations of July 4th. I believe in what America ought to be, but am realizing that–structurally, intentionally–that is not what America is. (White person discovers the obvious, Episode N+1.)

My readers probably don’t know that “Jendi” was not my legal name–until last month, when the Hampshire County Court made my 40-year-long dream a reality. (Long story, of course having to do with my mother, not the point.) Now I am in the middle of the arduous process of changing all my official documents, which must be done at various far-flung government offices in a particular order and sometimes at ridiculous expense. Folks, I am shitting bricks till my expedited passport comes back from the State Department. Not because I plan to go anywhere, but because it’s suddenly occurred to me how creepy it is, that we are all technically imprisoned within the borders of the nation-state where we happen to be born.

George Mason University economics professor Alex Tabarrok makes “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders–Completely” in a 2015 article in The Atlantic. After citing statistics that immigration raises GDP, Tabarrok adds:

Immigration unleashes economic forces that raise real wages throughout an economy. New immigrants possess skills different from those of their hosts, and these differences enable workers in both groups to better exploit their special talents and leverage their comparative advantages. The effect is to improve the welfare of newcomers and natives alike. The immigrant who mows the lawn of the nuclear physicist indirectly helps to unlock the secrets of the universe.

What moral theory justifies using wire, wall, and weapon to prevent people from moving to opportunity? What moral theory justifies using tools of exclusion to prevent people from exercising their right to vote with their feet?

No standard moral framework, be it utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, Rawlsian, Christian, or any other well-developed perspective, regards people from foreign lands as less entitled to exercise their rights—or as inherently possessing less moral worth—than people lucky to have been born in the right place at the right time. Nationalism, of course, discounts the rights, interests, and moral value of “the Other, but this disposition is inconsistent with our fundamental moral teachings and beliefs.

Economic data is easy to massage to fit one’s political views, certainly, but it’s worth questioning why conventional wisdom and government policy currently encourage the free movement of capital but not the free movement of workers.

At the leftist political journal Jacobin, Domenic Powell lays out a program for the Democrats to implement meaningful immigration reform in his article “How to Abolish ICE”. The piece suggests strategies we can try at the local level, such as pressuring our law enforcement agencies to stop sharing data with ICE and to end agreements whereby ICE rents space to detain immigrants in our jails. The article also recommends that Congress set up an immigration court system that is independent of the Justice Department, to stop treating all undocumented people as presumptive criminals.

If you’re in Massachusetts, call your state representatives and Governor Charlie Baker to pass the Safe Communities Act, which cleared the Senate in May. Also see this article from Colorlines about “How You Can Support Detained Immigrant Families”. From protesting to donating to making phone calls, there’s something for nearly everyone to do. I’m hosting a birthday fundraiser through Facebook for the National Immigration Law Center.

Meanwhile, white evangelical Trump supporters are doing their best to destroy what’s left of Christianity’s reputation. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions justified tearing immigrant children from their parents by citing Romans 13, saying that everyone must obey the laws because “God has ordained the government for his purposes.” Progressive Christian blogger Fred Clark, a/k/a Slacktivist, deconstructs this interpretation in “Romans 13 and the Gettysburg Address”:

[N]ote the full enormity of what Sessions is doing there. He’s not just invoking the Bible to justify this one policy, but to justify — as beyond question and beyond criticism — any and every policy. Yes, specifically he’s claiming the divine right to put children in cages, but more than that he’s claiming to be an agent of God and therefore that whatever he does is divine, and that we mere mortals have no choice but to submit and obey…

…The idea of “the government” that Sessions is asserting — and attempting to sanction with scripture — is not compatible with the idea stated by our greatest Founding Father, Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Slacktivist remarks that most Christian political philosophy, be it liberal or conservative, makes the mistake of treating “the government” as an entity separate from “the people”, something that was true in St. Paul’s time but not in our modern democracies. (As humorist P.J. O’Rourke wrote at the end of his political satire Parliament of Whores, “In a democracy, the whores are us.”)

We don’t have a king or a Caesar, we have usWe are, in this time and place and in this system — however imperfectly realized — the authorities appointed as servants of God to do good.

We must not irresponsibly reject that appointment by reading Romans 13 as though we were first-century subjects of an all-powerful emperor. We shouldn’t be reading that passage for wisdom about our accountability to government, but for wisdom about our accountability as government.

Otherwise we’re conceding the argument to Jeff Sessions and other would-be rulers claiming a divine right to demand our submission. That will make us accountable to him to obey whatever he tells us about children in cages. We need to turn that around. We need to demand that he be accountable to us, and that if what he does is wrong he should fear us, for we have authority and we do not bear it in vain.

It’s been a disappointing year for progressives at the Supreme Court. I’m especially worried about how the Court has been chipping away at the Voting Rights Act, because the Republicans have been trying for decades to rig the system by disenfranchising poor and nonwhite voters. In the Husted case, decided last month, the Court narrowly upheld Ohio’s shady plan to purge voters from the rolls based on their lack of response to an easy-to-miss mass mailing. Over at Slate, commentator Mark Joseph Stern describes the battling jurisprudential philosophies of Justices Sotomayor and Alito in “Sam vs. Sonia”. He thinks the conservatives are winning:

In the legal battles between state officials and Americans who believe their suffrage is under siege, whose voices matter most? Those of lawmakers complaining about the difficulty of performing their duties, or those of minorities who feel their most fundamental right has been suppressed? Which side deserves the Supreme Court’s empathy? Through Alito, this court has clearly picked a side, elevating the voices of state officials who insist that their purges and gerrymanders do not block equal access to the ballot. Its favoritism will have dire consequences for decades to come.

Poor judicial decision-making comes as no surprise to the folks at the socialist journal Current Affairs, such as writers Brianna Rennix and Oren Nimni, who explore the quirky and arbitrary power of individual bench-sitters in their article “Judging the Judges”:

Knowledge of the individual personalities of judges is such an important feature of the legal system that it operates as a skill in a lawyer’s toolkit, one that can be paid for. Supreme Court clerks who choose to go to big law firms after clerking on the court receive massive bonuses, often hundreds of thousands of dollars. The main asset they bring to their new firms is their firsthand knowledge of the intricacies of a particular Supreme Court justice’s mind. Large firms understand the strategic value of knowing a judge personally—what they like, what they dislike, what considerations will make them most likely to agree with you.

With judges wielding such concentrated and individualized power over cases, courtrooms quickly become stages for bizarre legal farces. Lawyers make arguments they don’t believe, that the judges know the lawyers don’t believe, but everyone has to play along. Only the judge has the power to decide when the game will end, and how. Let’s say, for example, that your client lost a case because they didn’t show up for a previous hearing. They likely missed that hearing for some reason that a normal person would find totally understandable: They didn’t have a lawyer at the time, they don’t speak English that well and didn’t understand what the hearing was for, they couldn’t get time off work, the bus got stuck in traffic on the way to the courthouse. But under the applicable statute, it’s likely that none of these perfectly rational and comprehensible explanations are admissible. In this situation, you know, and the judge knows, the real reasons the client missed the hearing. But you’ll have to try to make an argument about something totally different, something that this particular judge might choose to accept, even though they know that your argument has little to nothing to do with the reality of the situation.

At times, this peculiar trade in niche arguments feels thoroughly demented. If the judge wanted a bribe, that would at least feel normal. Everyone wants money. But what judges want is some strange intellectual product. Maybe they want you to cleverly contort the facts into some tiny legal box. Maybe they want to be convinced that doing whatever you’re asking them to do will quickly vanish the case from their docket and free the judge up to go to lunch. Or maybe the judge made up their mind about the case the second they glanced down at the paperwork, and is now simply idly watching you dance.

The fact that legal arguments are usually completely divorced from reality is partially a function of the law itself, and not solely the judges. That said, nothing prevents judges from acting like rational, normal people instead of playing games with people’s lives and making lawyers jump through hoops.

What, then, is the answer? Not “impartiality”, which the authors believe is an impossible ideal. They argue that Americans on both sides of the political spectrum should put less faith in the judiciary to drive social change:

If we aspire to a form of democracy where there is an actual connection between the organizing efforts of the general public and the subsequent behavior of our elected officials, pushing for reforms to make our elected government more responsive to popular concerns is a better route than relying on distant elites to undo the mistakes of other elites. When you put power in the hands of unaccountable elites, you never know what they will do with it.

While it’s not a cure-all, it would also help to reform and diversify legal education, so that judges are not so out of touch with the real lives of the ordinary people before them:

Part of the problem, of course, is that judges are separated from poor litigants by class and, often, race. If we want more judges to exercise discretion in an empathetic direction, it seems crucial to diversify the pool of judges, perhaps directly through quotas, or indirectly by reducing social and financial barriers to entry in the legal profession. Also important is changing the dominant ethos of legal education, which overwhelmingly privileges the pet concerns of legal academics and corporate clients over the kinds of issues that affect the vast majority of the people caught up in our courts.

I second that remark about legal education. Personally, my journey from young libertarian to armchair radical began 21 years ago when I started a clerkship with a New York State appeals judge. He happened to be a progressive, which made my transformation smoother, but what really opened my eyes was the case summaries themselves. Our staff attorneys would write summaries of the legal briefs and the trial record, so we could quickly handle the cases that didn’t present any important legal issue and focus on the knottier ones. For the first time, I was reading true stories of what it was like to live in dangerous public housing, or be sentenced to 5-10 years for selling $10 worth of crack. Relative to my peers in elite schools, I’d felt underprivileged; now I saw how privileged I was compared to other people in my neighborhood, let alone the city. We never read those kinds of stories in law school. That’s outrageous. I do think we brought about some positive changes and did justice in our limited way during my 3-year tenure. The courts alone won’t save us, but wherever you are, do what you can.

The Poet Spiel: “queers for dinner”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, is a writer and painter whose work is passionate, countercultural, and sardonic about the absurdities and hypocrisies of American life. I was corresponding with him this week about subscriber news for Winning Writers (read his latest prizewinning poem here) and mentioned that I still laugh when I remember this poem from his book Barely Breathing. He’s kindly allowed me to reprint it below.

queers for dinner

seemed like my uptown art dealer’d never
invite me and paul to check out the hi-falutin new
six thousand square foot pad he was bragging
he’d just built on top a hill with a 360º view
of anything anybody’d ever wish to see

but then he was a republican and us being just
a couple of lowly dudes maybe he didn’t want
our queer tootsies on his marble floors and i’d
pissed him off one time when i told him
he looked cute in cowboy boots
so anyway i finally asked aren’t you gonna
ask us over to see yer hotshit pad?
odd, how he acted like it’d never occurred to him
well he finally phoned and wanted to know
if we had any food preferences cuz he &
his old lady’d decided to try out their flashy
new stainless-steel kitchen on us
cook up something special and said we’d be
a kind of test run for when they had
real dinner guests

well yeah, i said, if yer doin something special
we do have preferences:
we don’t eat skunk & we don’t eat pussy

Spiel (R) and Paul, his partner of 33 years.

Murder Ballad Monday: Hurray for the Riff Raff

In the category of problematic faves, murder ballads shine an ambiguous light on intimate partner violence. The best songs honestly mirror this reality more than they glorify it, but the artist can never control how the listener receives the message. Is Johnny Cash repentant or bragging in “Delia’s Gone”? What is the nature of my enjoyment of the stone-cold amorality of Lyle Lovett’s “Lights of L.A. County”? I can participate in the man’s revenge fantasy, and somehow at the same time feel relief, from a female perspective, that the artist has acknowledged the constant danger under which we live. The song does not force me to choose.

Modern country-western divas have started talking back to the genre by writing murder ballads about battered women’s revenge. The Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” are the comedy and tragedy masks hanging over this theater. However, flipping the gender of songs like “Banks of the Ohio” is an individual solution to a collective problem. Male-on-female murder ballads take place in the context of men’s violent entitlement to women’s bodies and attention. It’ll take more than a girl with a gun to even things out.

This week at the entertainment website A Beautiful Perspective, Noah Berlatsky, one of my favorite pop-culture columnists, profiled singer-songwriter Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Her innovative songs draw on on her Puerto Rican roots and the populist political tradition of folk music. In 2014’s “The Body Electric”, Segarra responds directly to “Delia” and “Banks of the Ohio”, not with a revenge fantasy of her own, but with a new narrative of female solidarity and survival. The gorgeous video shows a woman of color resurrected from the drowning river like Botticelli’s Venus, and a time-reversed sequence of a shower of bullets being gathered up and transformed into a baby in her arms.