Helen Bar-Lev: “Two Zinnias”

Two zinnias in a glazed vase
clipped by nuns’ careful scissors,
are the only decoration in this spartan 
in a convent in Jerusalem
but it is clean, the mattresses comfortable
flagstone floors, yellow- and red-ochre,
have been polished to a gleam by 
   passing shoes
these one hundred years, even more

We have returned to Jerusalem
after an absence of some months –
a jittery city, it is more intolerable 
   than ever
horns constantly honk, faces do not 
congestion and pollution, agitation,
congregate in its centre
together with beggars,
street musicians, religious Jews, Arabs
an incongruent conglomeration
which beckons in a manner I cannot 
and repulses with vengeance,
as though one reaction triggers 
   its opposite,
a contradiction of emotions
that is disturbing considering I 
   lived here
for so long and loved it with passion,
wrote love poems in dedication,
painted its landscapes from every angle
until my ability wilted and the brush
could no longer respond to my commands

So that earlier today when I walked
through this city in the heat of its summer
and watched dusk extinguish the gold 
   from its stones,
I noticed a nostalgia for it – for the 
almost expecting the present
to disappear behind a curtain
and lo! enter the Jerusalem of old,
the city I knew and yearned to return to,
smaller, happier, more beautiful

These are my thoughts now, late,
in this sanctuary amidst this city’s insanity,
this secluded quaint convent,
where quail and jay and gay flowers 
whose energies are lovely, light,
a place that does not disturb
nor disappoint my memories

While the two zinnias in the vase
blink red and pink
in the heat of the night
and soothe me

Copies of Helen and Johnmichael Simon’s illustrated poetry book Cyclamens and Swords are still available from Ibbetson Street Press. Order yours today.

Good News for My Imaginary Friends

Various chapters of my novel-in-progress have received honors over the past couple of months. I was waiting to announce them till I had an online publication to link to, but none yet, so here’s the tally so far:

“Pura siccome un angelo” was a runner-up for the Andre Dubus Award in Short Fiction sponsored by Words + Images, the literary journal of the University of Southern Maine, and appears in their beautifully illustrated 2007 issue, available here. This chapter finds my pair of gay lovers facing some bad news for their relationship.

“Julian’s Yearbook,” about one of those characters during his high school years, won an Honorable Mention in the E.M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award from Writecorner Press. It’s been rumored that this story has been/will be broadcast on a radio station in the Berkshires; if I get any more info on that, I’ll post the MP3.

“The Albatross,” in which my sarcastic ten-year-old heroine gets saved and then un-saved by her evangelical BFF, won an Honorable Mention in the spring 2007 Fog City Writers Short Story Contest

“Grateful, Thankful” won second prize in the 2006 Literal Latte Fiction Awards and will be published on their website when its redesign is complete. In this chapter, our girl, growing up in the shadow of her bohemian mother, navigates the conflicting messages of feminism and popular culture en route to her first sexual experience.

This is all very exciting since I had never published any literary fiction before beginning this novel last year. I do recommend sending out stand-alone excerpts while working on a longer project. It can provide encouragement for the long haul, as well as publication credits that make the complete book more marketable. For me, though, the biggest reward is that my characters become just a little more real when other people believe in them too. (Kind of like Tinkerbell.)

Signs of the Apocalypse: Special Family Value Pack

Two items from the Wall Street Journal made me think about how bizarrely commodified our intimate lives have become. Alexandra Alter reports (“The Baby-Name Business“, June 22) on the latest service providers to capitalize on parental anxiety: consultants who, for a fee, will help you name your baby:

Sociologists and name researchers say they are seeing unprecedented levels of angst among parents trying to choose names for their children. As family names and old religious standbys continue to lose favor, parents are spending more time and money on the issue and are increasingly turning to strangers for help.

Some parents are checking Social Security data to make sure their choices aren’t too trendy, while others are fussing over every consonant like corporate branding experts. They’re also pulling ideas from books, Web sites and software programs, and in some cases, hiring professional baby-name consultants who use mathematical formulas….

The chief reason for the paralysis is too much information. About 80 baby-name books have been published in the last three years, according to Bowker, a publishing database — compared with just 50 such titles between 1990 and 1996. More than 100 specialty Web sites have popped up offering everything from searchable databases and online snap polls to private consultations.

One site, BabyNames.com, says it draws about 1.2 million unique visitors a month, a 50% increase in five years — and 3,000 people have used its customized naming service, which provides 12 names for $35. Just this month, the site began offering half-hour phone consulting sessions for $95. “It’s so overwhelming, it’s hard to know where to start,” says Patricia Martin of Williston, Vt., who is expecting a baby in September….

[T]he growing brand consciousness among consumers has made parents more aware of how names can shape perceptions. The result: a child’s name has become an emblem of individual taste more than a reflection of family traditions or cultural values. “We live in a marketing-oriented society,” says Bruce Lansky, a former advertising executive and author of eight books on baby names, including “100,000 + Baby Names.” “People who understand branding know that when you pick the right name, you’re giving your child a head start.”

…Even parents who are professional name consultants say the decision can be wrenching. As one of the founders of Catchword, a corporate naming firm with offices in New York and Oakland, Calif., Burt Alper says he and his wife, Jennifer, who also works in marketing, felt “tons of pressure” to come up with something grabby.

Although Mr. Alper typically gives clients a list of 2,000 names to mull over, he says he kept the list of baby names to 500, for simplicity. In the end, they named their daughter Sheridan, a family name Mr. Alper liked because of its “nice crisp syllables.” They chose Beckett for their six-month-old son, a name the Alpers thought sounded reliable and stable.

“That C-K sound is very well regarded in corporate circles,” Mr. Alper says, giving Kodak and Coca-Cola as examples. “The hard stop forces you to accentuate the syllable in a way that draws attention to it.”

Name choices have long been agonizing for some parents. In Colonial times, it was not uncommon for parents to open the Bible and select a word at random — a practice that created such gems as Notwithstanding Griswold and Maybe Barnes. In some countries, name choices are regulated by the government. France passed a law in the early 1800s that prohibited all names except those on a preapproved list; the last of these laws was repealed in 1993. In Germany, the government still bans invented names and names that don’t clearly designate a child’s sex. Sweden and Denmark forbid names that officials think might subject a child to ridicule. Swedish authorities have rejected such names as Veranda, Ikea and Metallica.
Had I been born in Germany, I suppose I’d be stuck with my birth name, Jennifer, which always felt too 1970s for a neo-Victorian girl like myself. I wasn’t very impressed by the decade I grew up in. “Jendi” is my mother’s invention. It’s also apparently an Australian brand of raincoat, after which this cute little pooch was named. Imagine my surprise when I Googled myself one day and discovered my doggy alter ego: “Jendi, the Bionic Bitch from Down Under”. Yup, sounds like me.

Our other herald of the end times this evening is a billboard ad that Fetman, Garland & Associates, a Chicago matrimonial-law firm, posted in May (since taken down). The slogan “Life’s short. Get a divorce” is flanked by photos of a buffed male nude torso and a similarly cropped buxom woman in skimpy underwear. In defense of the ad, partner and divorcee Corri Fetman said, “Lawyers don’t cause divorces, people cause divorces.” Just as we always suspected: lawyers aren’t people.

Thomas Merton on the Perils of Overachieving

This apt quotation from the great contemplative writer Thomas Merton comes to me by way of Bishop Gordon Scruton’s editorial in the June issue of Pastoral Staff, the newsletter of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts:

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist, fighting for peace by nonviolent means, most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone, is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes their work for peace. It destroys their own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of their work because it kills the inner wisdom which makes their work fruitful.

Elisha Porat: “An Early Call”

      to Aharon Amir

Yes, he recalled also a day of enlightenment:
the imagined skeleton of his future life
suddenly cleaved and he saw
the innards of his life, the innards of his 
   years, the
innards of the innards of himself in a sort 
   of mirror.
Walking in green citrus groves
whistling himself a tune, crying secretly,
remembering words, packing them into 
   his notebook:
collect, compile, convey, repeat. Seeing
his days growing short and his nights 
   becoming petrified.
And from afar, from the hill, a sudden sorrow
pulls him: that time ran out and he did not
finish and did not understand and already 
   he is called.

Read more work by Israeli poet Elisha Porat at Magnapoets.

Poems and Songs by Judith Goldhaber

The sonnet comes as naturally as ordinary speech to poet Judith Goldhaber. I’ve enjoyed her versified retellings of classic fables in the book Sonnets from Aesop, illustrated with charming Chagall-like paintings by her husband Gerson. This YouTube video shows the Oakland Symphony Chorus performing “The Power of Light” from the musical “Falling Through a Hole in the Air: The Incredible Journey of Stephen Hawking” (book and lyrics by Judith Goldhaber, music by Carl Pennypacker). Judith is the lady with dazzling red hair who is standing behind the famous physicist. Here are the lyrics:

The Power of Light

To touch the heart of a star,
To feel the ground of being in the boundless,
The edge of space,
The edge of time,
The edge of eternity…

Feel the power of light
Feel the depth of the night,
Long is the journey to our distant home,
Worlds spin ‘round us but we’re still alone,
Darkness, silence, and the end so far,
Who will speak to us and tell us where we are?
And then…

Comets and candles,
Starlight and diamonds,
Glimmer and glitter and glisten and gleam,
Torches and campfires,
Lanterns and moonlight,
Showery arrows that shine in our dreams —

Moon in a halo
Shedding your luster
Bathing the earth
In your luminous glow…
Carry me
O carry me higher
Carry me,
O carry me further
Carry me upward
Carry me into the light!

Feel the power of light
Feel the depth of the night
Now we’re moving toward that distant star
Towards the mystery of who we are,
When we’ll reach it we can never know
The path is dark but now we see the way to go
Lit by…
Prisms and rainbows
Opals and sunbeams,
Crimson and orange and yellow and green,
Fountains of color,
Flashes of fire,
Indigo, violet, and ultramarine.
Light more radiant than the sun and moon
Grant us now the eyes to see!
Carry us, O carry us homewards,
Carry us, O carry us starwards,
Carry us Godwards,
Into the source of the light!

Read more of Judith’s poetry at WinningWriters.com (here and here).

God’s Wrath, Christ’s Peace, and the Culture Wars

Catholic theologian James Alison’s essay “Wrath and the gay question: on not being afraid, and its ecclesial shape” is not only the best explanation of the Atonement I’ve seen in a long while, but also represents (to my mind) a more helpful direction for gay-affirming Christians than merely hunting for proof-texts that support our position and explaining away those that don’t.

Alison contends that human societies constantly seek self-definition by scapegoating outsiders. When Christ, the only completely innocent person, voluntarily assumed the scapegoat role, he exposed the sinfulness of that entire system. Never again could we in good faith believe that spiritual purity depended on exclusion. If community must be founded on sacrifice, Christ was the sacrificial victim and the entire human race became a single community, united by our responsibility for his death and by his equal love for us all. Yet Alison also finds fault with the liberal “many flavors” approach to gays in the church, saying we need to emphasize not the diversity of human lifestyles but our universal brother- and sisterhood.

Some highlights (boldface emphasis mine):

I want to bring into polite adult discussion something which is not normally allowed there, but is relegated to the backroom of fundamentalist discourse, where its misuse is a mirror image of its exclusion from enlightened discourse.

In enlightened discourse, there is of course, no “wrath” in any theological or anthropological sense. There is progress, and development, and of course, on the way there is conflict. Conflict is shown as something painful, but necessary, steps on the way towards the next phase. No omelettes without breaking eggs, and similar sentiments. In fundamentalist discourse, that conflict and those “steps on the way to the next phase” are personally and cosmically significant, and victory and defeat in them are part of the mysterious workings of a divinity, certainly something far greater and more important than anything the “wise” and “enlightened” of this generation could know about. Part of the attraction of fundamentalist discourse, and this fundamentalism can be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Marxist, or secularist, is the way it allows partially self-selecting “outsiders” from mainstream culture (and we’re all such partially self-selecting “outsiders” now) to see themselves as secret “insiders” with a direct line in to What’s Really Going On.

For the Enlightened, it is perfectly obvious that there is no violence in God, if there is a God at all; while for the fundamentalist, the violence is always associated with God, directly, or through those charged with interpreting “His” (and it usually is His) message. In fact, without the violence there would be no sign of God’s activity in the world, which effectively means, there would be no God. What I would like to do is rescue the notion of wrath by attempting to show how there is indeed no violence in God, but that the phenomenon which religious language has described as “wrath” is very real, and worth taking seriously. Not only that, but it is rather important for our contemporary ability to live the Gospel that we overcome the schism between the enlightened and the fundamentalist, two positions which are, in my view, very much enemy twins, by recovering a sense of the anthropological effect in our midst of the covenant of peace to which the Scriptures refer (Isaiah 54, 10; Ezekiel 34, 25 & 37, 26). By recovering, if you like, the ecclesial shape of Christ making his covenant for us and enabling us not to be afraid.

There seems to be something odd going on when the same person, Jesus, both promises his followers:

      Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. (John 14, 27)

And yet says:

   Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. (Mt 10, 34-36; cf. Luke 12, 51)


Jesus does warn that the effect of his mission is going to be to produce wrath, in the passage I have already quoted to you. And in fact, he then gives himself to the sacrificial mechanism in a way which the Gospel writers point to as being the way proper to the great High Priest, and he becomes the lamb of sacrifice. In fact, he reverses the normal human sacrificial system which started with human sacrifice and then is later modified to work with animal substitutes. Jesus, by contrast, substitutes himself for the lamb, portions of whose body were handed out to the priests; and thus by putting a human back at the centre of the sacrificial system, he reveals it for what it is: a murder.

Now here is the curious thing. It looks for all the world as though Jesus is simply fitting into the ancient world’s views about sacrifice and wrath. But in fact, he is doing exactly the reverse. Because he is giving himself to this being murdered, and he has done nothing wrong, he brings about an entirely new way to be free from wrath. This is not the way we saw with Achan, where the temporary freedom from wrath comes with the outbreak of unanimous violence which creates singleness of heart among the group. What Jesus has done by substituting himself for the victim at the centre of the lynch sacrifice is to make it possible for those who perceive his innocence, to realise what it is in which they have been involved (and agreeing to drink his blood presupposes a recognition of this complicity). These then begin to have their identity given them not by the group over against the victim, but by the self-giving victim who is undoing the unanimity of the group. This means that from then on they never again have to be involved in sacrifices, sacrificial mechanisms and all the games of “wrath” which every culture throws up. They will be learning to walk away from all that, undergoing being given the peace that the world does not give.

So, there is no wrath at all in what Jesus is doing. He understands perfectly well that there is no wrath in the Father, and yet that “wrath” is a very real anthropological reality, whose cup he will drink to its dregs. His Passion consists, in fact, of his moving slowly, obediently, and deliberately into the place of shame, the place of wrath, and doing so freely and without provoking it. However, from the perspective of the wrathful, that is, of all of us run by the mechanisms of identity building, peace building, unanimity building “over against” another, Jesus has done something terrible. Exactly as he warned. He has plunged us into irresoluble wrath. Because he has made it impossible for us ever really to believe in what we are doing when we sacrifice, when we shore up our social belonging against some other. All our desperate attempts to continue doing that are revealed to be what they are: just so much angry frustration, going nowhere at all, spinning the wheels of futility.

The reason is this: the moment we perceive that the one occupying the central space in our system of creating and shoring up meaning is actually innocent, actually gave himself to be in that space, then all our sacred mechanisms for shoring up law and order, sacred differences and so forth, are revealed to be the fruits of an enormous self-deception. The whole world of the sacred totters, tumbles, and falls if we see that this human being is just like us. He came to occupy the place of the sacrificial victim entirely freely, voluntarily, and without any taint of being “run” by, or beholden to, the sacrificial system. That is, he is one who was without sin. This human being was doing something for us even while we were so locked into a sacrificial way of thinking and behaviour that we couldn’t possibly have understood what he was doing for us, let alone asked him to do it. The world of the sacred totters and falls because when we see someone who is like us doing that for us, and realise what has been done, the shape that our realisation takes is our moving away from ever being involved in such things again.

Now what is terrible about this is that it makes it impossible for us really to bring about with a good conscience any of the sacred resolutions, the sacrificial decisions which brought us, and bring all societies, comparative peace and order. The game is up. And so human desire, rivalry, competition, which had previously been kept in some sort of check by a system of prohibitions, rituals, sacrifices and myths, lest human groups collapse in perpetual and irresoluble mutual vengeance, can no longer be controlled in this way. This is the sense in which Jesus’ coming brings not peace to the earth, but a sword and division. All the sacred structures which hold groups together start to collapse, because desire has been unleashed. So the sacred bonds within families are weakened, different generations will be run by different worlds, give their loyalty to different and incompatible causes,
the pattern of desire constantly shifting. All in fact will be afloat on a sea of wrath, because the traditional means to curb wrath, the creation by sacrifice of spaces of temporary peace within the group, has been undone forever. The only alternative is to undergo the forgiveness which comes from the lamb, and start to find oneself recreated from within by a peace which is not from this world, and involves learning how to resist the evil one by not resisting evil. This means: you effectively resist, have no part in, the structures and flows of desire which are synonymous with the prince of this world, that is to say with the world of wrath, only by refusing to acquire an identity over against evil-done-to you.
Read the whole article here.

Would Jesus Discriminate?

The website “Would Jesus Discriminate?” offers a provocative new take on some familiar Bible stories. Using textual and historical analysis of the original Greek text, the authors claim that certain New Testament episodes are really about gay characters, such as the eunuch baptized by Philip in the book of Acts. I’m cautiously enthusiastic about this project. I’d like to believe that there are positive stories about gay people and relationships in the Bible, but there are two things that make me hesitate. First, I don’t have the scholarly background to know how plausible these readings are. Second, it would be a shame if we went overboard and read a sexual component into all stories of intimate friendship (e.g. David and Jonathan), as our pop-Freudian suspicious culture is wont to do. Anyhow, click the billboards on their site and let me know what you think.

Philip Nikolayev: “Ideers”

Bash’um hard with a hunk o’ lard, cowboy,
when they come ‘ere to seduce our sons and daughters,
the only sons and daughters we have,
with their damn ideers. They think ideers
are worth somethin’ like a Bushel O’Pork
per each. Trahahahaha. They eschew
the feelin’s of patriotism, peals of chivalry
‘n’ private property like. So what does we care
to preserve them as a subspecies? Bein’ ourselves
of solid as rock good local stock
‘n’ rooted in these very hills that we cultivate,
bein’ so local that the mind races over
aeons of banjo-tinklin’ memory of roots
like echoes in the prairied valley, being
precisely that kinda stock, honest blue grass treadin’,
we’re buyin’ none of that Uruguay political correctness.
None, I be tellin’ ya m’s’ladies!
We automatic’ly
put that subspecies under suspicion, zitwere.
The shmuck (pardon me, Sir, me
umbilical vernacular) hadta be tryin’ to
spray us around wi’ hi’ curlture.
He said he be a-dribblin’ learnin’ into our heads
wi’ like critical thinkin’ routines.
But without shittn’ y’uns, I muss hereinafter d’claire
his reasonin’ ta be sorely wrong an’ fallaiches.
In fact, it is beyond fallaiches. Whatever.
Y’uns havin’ troubles hearin’ or somethin’? We been
on this land for gwerk knows how many a century,
from eras immemorable, and we know,
havin’ built these here barns and infrastructure,
we know without prejudice
and in good shape ‘n’ hope ‘n’ faith ‘n’ all
of mind and body like, we know
exact what the heck it cost to keep
the streets of our polity clean,
Partridge and Dingleberry Rock Village Plaza,
positively speakin’ straight narrow clean.
I do repeat, straight narrow clean,
of all yum culturevultures with all yum
cloggin’ dog’s doo an’ piece o’shit ideers.

(Philip was my classmate at Harvard in the 1990s, but despite that early disadvantage in life, he is now the proud editor of Fulcrum: An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics and the author of several poetry books including Letters from Aldenderry, from which “Ideers” is reprinted by permission. Visit his MySpace page here.)

Anti-Gay Marriage Amendment Defeated in Massachusetts

This just in from Stanley Rosenberg, our state senator for Northampton:

“Knowing of your interest regarding the proposed Marriage Amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution, I am writing to provide an update on the Constitutional Convention held today, June 14th 2007.

“I am pleased to report that at this the 18th Constitutional Convention meeting on the question of same-sex marriage, the members present and voting defeated the proposed amendment by a vote of 151-45. This means that the amendment will not advance to the November 2008 ballot.

“This is a significant victory for the civil rights of the gay and lesbian community. When the debate began 18 Conventions ago, there were only a couple dozen people in the Legislature that believed that Civil Unions or Same-Sex Marriages should be allowed. Over the years, as a result of the public debate and deep reflection, that number grew to 151. This is truly a reflection of the shifting views not only of the Legislators but also of their constituents. This is a great victory also for the Supreme Judicial Court which had the wisdom and courage to declare that our Constitution requires equal protection for all, for more than a thousand religious leaders who stood with same-sex couples, for the 10s of thousands of constituents across the Commonwealth who spoke out in support of the gay community, and for the more than 9 thousand same-sex couples who have solemnized – through marriage – their commitment and love for each other.”